Here is an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s poem Mad Girl’s Love Song, which is a fairly short poem with many layers to it. In typical Plath fashion, this poem is packed with poetic devices. It also presents a theme that is common in Plath’s poetry: unrequited, or failed, love. This is one of Plath’s earlier poems.
She wrote ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ when she was just twenty years old and a student at Smith College, an all-women’s school located in Northampton, Massachusetts. Plath’s poem reveals an almost obsessive view of love, and it seems that the speaker of this is perplexed and mystified about what happened with her former lover, who has seemingly lost interest in her.
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Summary of Mad Girl’s Love Song
The speaker in this poem, most likely Plath, is speaking directly to her former lover about their relationship. She is wondering if their love every really existed, or whether it was just a figment of her imagination. The speaker also tells her lover that when she closes her eyes, death and destruction loom, but when she opens them, all has been reborn.
She goes on to tell her lover that she thought he would return to her since he told her he would, but it has been so long that she knows he is not coming back. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ ends with Plath telling her former lover that she should have loved something like a thunderbird because it at least comes back after the winter—her lover, however, is gone, never to return.
Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ can be read in full here.
Themes in Mad Girl’s Love Song
Within ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ Plath explores a number of important themes. These include sanity/madness, relationships, and religion. The first is the most obvious. It permeates every line of the poem. The speaker, who is a “mad girl” delves into the complexities of her of own life and how her mental state makes navigating that life all the more difficult.
There are a few important questions that are left hanging in this piece in relation to the theme. For instance, is she really mad? Was she born “mad,” or did the alluded to events of her relationship cause her to have a breakdown?
In regards to religion, there are a few lines in the middle of this piece in which the speaker tackles God, Heaven, Hell and their influence, or lack of influence on her. She is God-like in her ability to open and close her eyes, creating and destroying as if in possession of divine ability.
Structure of Mad Girl’s Love Song
Plath wrote this poem in the form of a villanelle. A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem that has five tercets (a stanza consisting of three lines) and one quatrain (a stanza with four lines). A villanelle typically has a very basic rhyme scheme, with only two rhymes in the entire poem, although Plath takes several liberties with this. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ also repeats several lines, which is another characteristic of a villanelle.
Poetic Techniques in Mad Girl’s Love Song
Plath makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’. These include alliteration, enjambment, repetition, and anaphora. The latter, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. Almost every line, twelve out of a total of nineteen, starts with the pronoun “I”. Plus, the vast majority of these extend out into “I think I”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “drops dead” in the first line of the first stanza (appearing again at the end of four other lines) or “fires fade” in line one of the fourth stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the third stanza.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In the case of ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song,’ Plath repeats certain phrases, such as “drop dead” and “I think I” numerous times. She also uses parenthesis at the end of four stanzas.
Analysis of Mad Girl’s Love Song
The first interesting thing to note about this poem is that it’s in quotation marks as if it truly is a girl’s love song. A second reading could also infer that the speaker of the poem, presumably Plath, was speaking directly to the lover who has spurned her. She does use the familiar pronoun “you” throughout the poem, which lends itself nicely to this theory.
Another noteworthy aspect of Mad Girl’s Love Song is the cause-and-effect relationship that is found throughout. In the first stanza, for instance, Plath describes what happens when she closes her eyes, and then she describes what happens when she opens them.
Moving on, there is also an undeniable psychological aspect to this poem, which is present from the very first stanza, and Plath seems to be writing about perception versus reality. She is also exploring here the heartache that comes with being rejected by one’s lover. Anyone who has ever suffered heartache knows that when one closes one’s eyes at night, sleep is elusive and one gets caught up in worries and thoughts.
When one opens his or her eyes, however, all is just as it was, which makes the speaker wonder if she and her lover were every really together in the first place. Plath also uses consonance in this first stanza, often repeating the “d” sound in her words, as in the first line: “…all the world drops dead.”
Here, Plath plays with the concepts of light and dark. At the beginning of the stanza, the stars are dancing in blue and red, but then the blackness comes. What makes this stanza even more interesting is Plath’s use of personification, giving stars the ability to dance and darkness comes galloping in.
It can be inferred in this stanza that Plath is also commenting on how difficult it can be to see the beauty in the world when one is so depressed and distraught over something such as lost love. Yes, the stars twinkle and shine, but it is hard to enjoy them when everything seems so bleak and dark. The final line in this stanza is, of course, an example of repetition. It is also the line that begins Mad Girl’s Love Song.
The third stanza is different from the first two because she once again speaks directly to and about her lover. The reader cannot be sure that this is a dream. It is quite possible that the speaker’s lover did actually convince her to fall into bed with him. One could also read this stanza literally.
Perhaps the speaker is simply sharing a dream she had about her lover to him. Plath’s diction here is also worth mentioning. She uses the word “insane,” and a “mad girl” has apparently written the poem. Many believe Plath is writing about her own battle with depression in this poem. Perhaps the title is simply referring to the madness that takes over once love—and lost love—have settled in.
Destruction returns in the fourth stanza. This stanza seems to insinuate that all is completely lost. Reality has set in, and the speaker has realized that her lover is never coming back.
This thought leads directly to the fifth stanza. Essentially, the speaker is telling her former lover that she imagined he would come back because he said he would. But, so much time has passed that she realizes he will not be returning. She is again forced to wonder if their love ever really existed in the first place. Perhaps she had felt more in their relationship than what had really been there.
Plath ends ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ with a final insult. It is interesting that Plath chose a mythological bird for this final stanza. Perhaps so as to prove her point even more strongly than she already has. A bird that does not really exist is more likely to come back sooner than her former lover will. The poem ends with the two repeated lines. Once again, the speaker is left to wonder if she and her lover were every really together at all.
Many readers see this poem as Plath grappling with her depression, and just two years after writing this piece, Plath attempted suicide for the first time. She took her mother’s sleeping pills and hid in a crawl space, where she lay for three days. Plath seemed to have no respite from her depression. She attempted suicide several times before successfully ending her life on February 11, 1963. As stated earlier, however, Plath was very much a typical college girl who was obsessed with finding love. Many choose to see this poem as something not so dark and psychological. Rather, as what happens when the one they love does not love them in return.