This short poem is spoken from a mother to her child.
In the first stanza, the mother describes the child's "clear eye" as the one completely beautiful and perfect thing she knows. She wants to fill the eye with colors, ducks, and "the zoo of the new."
In the second stanza, she mentions two sweet, white flowers – “April snowdrop, Indian pipe." In the third stanza, she meditates on her child's perfection, which she likens to a “Little / Stalk without wrinkle.” She hopes that everything her child sees will be “grand and classical," as opposed to the anxious hand ringing and darkness like a ceiling "without a star," which she describes in the fourth stanza.
Although a short poem, “Child” looms large in Plath’s oeuvre as an example of her unequivocal love for her children, and an expression of her stress over being unable to provide for them as she would like to. The poem was written about two weeks before she committed suicide, and is most likely about her son Nicholas, who was just under one year old at the time.
Many of Plath's poems deal with pregnancy and motherhood. Her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, believed that maternity inspired her tremendous development as a poet, especially as seen in the growth from The Colossus to Ariel. His statement accompanying the latter work said as much: "...while she was almost fully occupied with children and house-keeping, she underwent a poetic development that has hardly any equal on record...the birth of her first child seemed to start the process...her second child brought things a giant step forward. All the various voices of her gift came together..." If we stipulate this interpretation as accurate, then this poem's competing feelings - love and hope for the child, contrasted with her own anxiety - grows even more profound.
The first three stanzas outline how Plath cherishes her child and views him as a perfect creature, uncorrupted by society and civilization. She hopes to expand her child’s horizons by revealing to him the mysteries and magic of the world, a veritable “zoo of the new.” She imagines her young son learning the names of tiny white flowers, and hopes that what he sees through his “clear eye” is always “grand and classical.” Together, the first three stanzas are unambiguous expressions of her love, and unfiltered optimism for his future. When she imagines the world outside of him, she sees it as a cornucopia of lovely, pastoral experiences.
In the fourth stanza, however, the tone abruptly shifts. She suddenly suggests that the world also carries with it "this troublous / Wringing of hands, this dark / Ceiling without a star." The first three stanzas detail the world as she imagines it for her child. The fourth stanza presents reality as Plath knows it - an upsetting, anxious, and bleak existence. It is almost as though, in imagining a lovely life for him, she suddenly recalled that life is not limitless, but rather defined by limits (a "ceiling") and pain. Further, there is an implication that she herself could be the cause of the pain, as though her own emotional instability might inspire him towards his own anxiety. The contrast is harsh and unambiguous, as threatening as the first stanzas are promising.
In her influential book A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, feminist scholar Pamela J. Annas looks at Plath's poetry in relation to the repeating image of the mirror, and to her multiple evocations of self. Annas briefly addresses "Child" from this perspective, noting that while Plath's other late work seemed to have entirely rejected love and beauty as possibilities in life (as exemplified in poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," as well as in her great prose work The Bell Jar), she did believe "the one potentially uncorrupted and wholly positive love seems to be that between herself and her children, for at least in that relationship one person's perception is as yet unspoiled by a knowledge of the world it must live in." Plath hopes she can fill her child's life with positivity, but "this is an embattled love and beauty, hemmed in and threatened on all sides." In other words, the most painful feeling is the possibility of positivity, since it brings the strongest reminder of the pain she was feeling. Considering the poem from this angle, it holds an impressively profound set of emotions, especially considering its brevity.