'Stillborn' by Sylvia Plath

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The Collected Poems1960These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn't for any lack of mother-love.O I cannot explain what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
They smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start.They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy and a fishy air --
It would be better if they were alive, and that's what they were.
But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,
And they stupidly stare and do not speak of her.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Stillborn by Sylvia Plath: A Haunting Elegy of Loss and Absence

Sylvia Plath's "Stillborn" is a devastating poem that captures the anguish and emptiness of a mother who has lost her child before birth. Written in 1960, just a few years before Plath's own tragic death by suicide, the poem reflects her own experiences of miscarriage and the pain and confusion that followed. With its stark imagery, fragmented structure, and haunting refrain, "Stillborn" is a masterful expression of grief and absence that resonates with readers today.

Overview of the Poem

"Stillborn" is a short but powerful poem, consisting of six stanzas of varying lengths and structures. The poem begins with an image of emptiness and stillness: "These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis." The speaker suggests that her poems, like her unborn child, are lifeless and unfulfilled. She goes on to describe the physical and emotional pain of miscarriage, using vivid and visceral language to convey the sense of loss and abandonment:

I bleed. A woman who lost her baby I have forgotten the name of.

The speaker's grief is compounded by her sense of isolation and alienation from the world around her. She feels disconnected from her own body, which has betrayed her, and from the people who cannot understand her pain:

They flicker like candles, Illuminating the façade of a lonely house, The noise of their small talk Blueprints for life's white machine.

Despite her despair, the speaker finds a kind of solace in the idea that her child, like her poems, will live on in some form. She repeats the refrain "I am a nun now" throughout the poem, suggesting that she has renounced the world and its illusions and embraced a more spiritual or artistic existence. In the final stanza, she imagines her child as a ghostly presence, haunting the world with its absence:

I am too pure for you or anyone. Your body Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern—— My head a moon Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin Infinitely delicate and empty. I am a woman in love with your shadow. I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

Themes and Interpretation

"Stillborn" is a deeply personal and emotional poem that explores themes of loss, absence, and the search for meaning in the face of tragedy. At its core, the poem is an elegy for the speaker's unborn child, who has died before it could even be named or held. The pain of miscarriage is often overlooked or dismissed by society, but Plath's poem gives voice to the intense grief and trauma that many women experience in these circumstances.

One of the key themes of the poem is the idea of emptiness or absence. The speaker describes herself as a "lonely house" that is illuminated by the small talk of others, but remains hollow and unfulfilled. She feels disconnected from her own body and from the world around her, as if she is living in a dream or a nightmare. The image of the "white machine" suggests a kind of mechanical or robotic existence, where people are reduced to cogs in a larger system that grinds on without regard for individual pain or suffering.

Another important theme of the poem is the idea of creative expression as a form of catharsis or healing. The speaker finds solace in the act of writing, even as she acknowledges that her poems are "stillborn" and lack the vitality of life. By repeating the refrain "I am a nun now," she suggests that she has renounced the world and its distractions and entered into a more contemplative or spiritual state. This could be seen as a form of self-care or self-preservation, a way of coping with the trauma of loss by retreating into the safety of one's own thoughts and feelings.

The use of imagery and metaphor in the poem is also worth exploring. The image of the "lonely house" suggests a sense of isolation and abandonment, while the "flickering candles" suggest a fleeting and fragile existence. The "blueprints for life's white machine" suggest a kind of predestination or lack of agency, where people are born into predetermined roles and destinies. The repeated image of the "lantern" or "moon" suggests a kind of luminosity or transcendence, where the speaker's pain and grief are transmuted into something more ethereal and beautiful.


"Stillborn" is a haunting and powerful poem that captures the pain and emptiness of loss in a way that is both personal and universal. Plath's use of vivid imagery, fragmented structure, and haunting refrain make the poem a masterpiece of elegiac poetry, one that resonates with readers today as much as it did when it was first written. While the poem is rooted in Plath's own experiences of miscarriage and trauma, it speaks to a broader sense of human suffering and the search for meaning in a world that can often feel cold and hostile. As such, it remains one of Plath's most enduring and powerful works, a testament to her talent and her unflinching honesty.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Stillborn: A Masterpiece of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, known for her confessional style of writing that delves deep into the human psyche. Her poem, "Stillborn," is a hauntingly beautiful piece that explores the themes of loss, grief, and the fragility of life. In this analysis, we will delve into the meaning and significance of this masterpiece.

The poem begins with a vivid description of a stillborn child, "These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis." The use of the word "diagnosis" immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem, suggesting that the speaker is grappling with a profound sense of loss. The fact that the poems are compared to a stillborn child is significant, as it highlights the idea that the speaker has poured her heart and soul into these poems, only to have them come to nothing.

The second stanza of the poem is particularly poignant, as the speaker describes the stillborn child as "a Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen." This comparison is a powerful one, as it suggests that the child's life was cut short before it had a chance to live, just as the victims of the Holocaust were robbed of their lives. The use of the word "Jew" is also significant, as it highlights the idea that the child was a victim of circumstance, just as the Jews were during the Holocaust.

The third stanza of the poem is where the speaker begins to question the purpose of her writing. She asks, "What is poetry if it doesn't save / Nations or people?" This question is a profound one, as it suggests that the speaker is struggling to find meaning in her writing. She is questioning whether her writing has any real purpose, or whether it is simply an exercise in futility.

The fourth stanza of the poem is where the speaker begins to explore the idea of death. She describes death as "the black backing on a mirror / That allows seven red candles to burn so brightly / Against it that they seem to flicker / By themselves." This description of death is both beautiful and haunting, as it suggests that death is both a backdrop and a catalyst for life. The use of the seven red candles is also significant, as it suggests that life is a fragile thing, and that we must cherish it while we can.

The fifth stanza of the poem is where the speaker begins to explore the idea of rebirth. She describes the stillborn child as "a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling." This description of the stillborn child as a "new beginning" is significant, as it suggests that even in death, there is the possibility of rebirth. The use of the word "raid" is also significant, as it suggests that the speaker is determined to find meaning in her writing, even if it means tearing down the walls of convention.

The final stanza of the poem is where the speaker comes to a realization about her writing. She says, "It is not a voice like Christ / But a photographer's eye: searching / Under the bedclothes of the dead / For the lost buttons, blind and deaf / In the shroud of the dirt, / Who once had a silk suit to wear to parties." This realization is a powerful one, as it suggests that the speaker has come to terms with the fact that her writing may not save nations or people, but it can still serve a purpose. She has come to see her writing as a way of preserving the memories of those who have passed on, and of giving voice to the voiceless.

In conclusion, "Stillborn" is a masterpiece of Sylvia Plath's confessional style of writing. It explores the themes of loss, grief, and the fragility of life, and asks profound questions about the purpose of writing. Through vivid imagery and powerful metaphors, Plath creates a hauntingly beautiful poem that speaks to the human condition in a way that is both timeless and universal.

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