These 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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Sylvia Plath's poem Stillborn


  1. adrienne says:

    she never had a still born baby but did have a miscarriage in 1961. this poem was written before that, so it is more of a metaphor for the way she feels about her poetry.

  2. abubakar says:

    i really appreciated the stillborn of miss Zainab, i am not criticizing but supporting the novel, my question to our famous writer is that, we didn’t see another novel of her we have being expecting to see, bye

  3. nicolaaaa :) says:

    it is easy to perceive the poem to be about a stillborn child, however plath uses the metaphor of a stillborn child to portray her distress over her, apparently, lifeless poetry.
    the extended metaphor is introduced in beginning of the first stanza “these poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.” plath then continues to describe the intricacies of the poems, and how, technicaly, they were flawless. “they grew their toes and fingers well enough… and still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start”
    upon reading the poem, the viewer is somewhat taken aback by the truculence and rawness of the language However upon another reading, it is the ambiguity and repugnance that help us to fully comprehend the emotional distress these defective poems were causing plath. “they are not pigs, they are not even fish Though they have a piggy and a fishy air.”
    the change in persona also shows plaths’ changing views on her poetry.
    the poem commences in the first person ” O I cannot understand what happened to them!” in the third stanza, however, there is a shift to the third person. “but they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction.” this shows her extrication from her poetry.
    I hope that was helpful in interpreting the poem.

  4. Mell says:

    this poem is just amazing.. the way sylvia works with her language.. and the dead poems and grotesque imagery such as the pickling fluid or the piggy and fishy air… the title stillborn could be for the stillborn children of any woman or sylvias poem which is dead from the beginning, because such a horrible experience, giving birth to a dead child, cannot be explained with words.

  5. Morgan says:

    I don’t know how you could write something so cold! I recently lost my daughter who was stillborn. this poem is sad in a disgusting way.

  6. emma says:

    i think stillborn is an excellent example of the rawness of pure emotion that is not done better by anyone. Reading plaths poems evokes emotions on so many levels, i feel it is like reading someones innermost thoughts she seemed to get personal comfort of some sort by writing her feelings in the form of a poem. Lady Lazurus and Daddy are excellent examples. This is no different writing this appears to be Plaths way of dealing with her dissatisfaction with her full life, her envy of her husbands sucess is apparent and we can see she is not at all staisfied with her life, poetry, marriage or anything. This is earlier than most of the poems which are graphically suicidal but the unhappiness shines through in the same way.

  7. Pip says:

    In any act of creativity, whether it be growing a baby or “birthing” a poem or painting a picture, there comes a moment of realization that the “creation” has taken on a separate and distinct life from it’s creator, that it has somehow miraculously come into being in it’s own right, and although it bares traces and roots it’s creator, the genetic imprint perhaps, somehow it has become more than the sum of the literal bones, words, or artistic medium. That moment, when it occurs, is an epiphany, a kana moment, when one sighs and says ‘Aha’. Once experienced, that point of recognition when the baby’s independent movement is felt for the first time, or the character in the story comes to life and is not who the author thought they would be, speaking in a different voice: that feeling is unmistakable, as is it’s lack. Stillborn is a poem of mourning, a lament, at the missing element in the poems that would turn lifeless words into ‘living’ creations. Stillbirth is very effective imagery for the process of a poem not coming ‘to life’.

  8. Emily says:

    Quick clarification on Jessica’s comment… Sylvia Plath does not have “a history of giving birth to stillborn children.” She did, however, have one miscarriage in 1961, after the birth of her daughter and before the birth of her son. This poem expresses her anxieties about childbirth and her feelings of inadequacy. But it also extends that metaphor to the creation of poetry. Her experience is not actually giving birth to stillborn children, but stillborn poems. The poems “do not live” as she desires them to. She admits the effort she has put into them, but mourns her inability to create lively poems.

  9. Kara-15 says:

    I believe that this poem goes deeper than Plath’s stillborn experience. I think that it talks about thoughts and goals that can just die. When you first conceive thoughts, before you put forth any action, sometimes they seem so beautiful, but then when it is all done you look back and it wasn’t quite like you imagined.

    I think it’s great that so many young people, like myself, are interested in Plath’s work. I personally never heard of her until I was assigned a project for school, ever since I’ve been in love with reading and interpreting her writing.

  10. Jenifer says:

    This poem seems to be about Silva Plath’s discontentment with herself as a poet and as a person. Though she acheived many great things in her lifetime, she continuously felt inadequate, like no matter how well she did, It could never be good enough. she could never live up to her own standards. This pom partly deals with that. She felt that her poems could never breathe any life.

  11. Heather says:

    The first time I read this poem, I thought it was referring to Sylvia Plath’s stillborn daughter. But after seeing the comments from the Australian girl Jenny, I interpreted the poem to being talking about the poem itself. As a writer, I often times am frustrated about one thing, and will sit down to write about it. Most of the time, the poem that comes out has nothing to do with what’s bothering me… perhaps Sylvia was looking at the poem, with it’s 3 stanzas with five lines each. It looks like a poem, with all of the things a poem is supposed to have, but since it isn’t about what is bothering her, it holds no life, no relief for whatever emotion she is trying to convey. She could’ve been frustrated that she spent time on a poem that does nothing for her, just stares back stupidly from the page she wrote it on…. I’ve been there with some of my poems… I’m not saying this is right… it’s just my opinion and a possibility.

  12. Connie - 40 says:

    I know very little about Sylvia Plath. Something sparked my curiosity about her work. It was shocking to realize the title perfectly described the content. Many of us well know what Sylvia describes. For myself, I could not have expressed our common experience as effectivly. This poem is of great comfort to me. I feel by sharing it with those whom I love (and who loved my son)they may gain more understanding. I only pray more woman may find this poem and the comfort it has given me. Most only dream of angles but we have held them in our arms.

  13. Alanna says:

    Wow a 14 year old male likes Sylvia Plath? None of my male friends have even heard of her, and they’re a good deal older than you.

    This is the sort of poem that makes my stomach swim. It could be analyzed but I’d rather feel it than think it.

  14. Jessica 15 says:

    this is a depressing poem about sylvia’s experience with stillborns. she has a history of giving birth to stillborn children and is tking out her grief in this poem. the hwhole meaning of this poem is that she cannot understand why they wont move- since they are full and perfect “And still the lungs wont fill and the heart wont start”. she is saying that she loved them before they were born and that they are not dead from lack of motherly love. Read on and analyse this poem line by line. the interesting part is the hidden meanings in each of the lines. the part -> “They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid” you may say EEEEWWWW when you first see that line but if you read through the poem alot and find the hidden meanings, you will find that she actullary means that the fluid is her memmory. that whole verse is describing the baby not as she sees them, but how she remembers them. I could go on for hours about the meanings of each line but i do have an assignment to do on this poem! thanks. have fun extracting the meanings of the words. if you are doing an assignment on this poem and need some tips email me.

  15. Jacob says:

    This is one of my favorite poems. This poem, not like others, speak to you in a way that nobody else could. Like the feeling you get when it’s just you walking on the warm sandy beach, just thinking. Like the feeling you get when you get to hold a young innocent baby. This is the kind of poem that a 14 year old, like myself, enjoys.

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