Sylvia Plath’s Trauma

Studying the life and work of Sylvia Plath leads the student down a path littered with the dangers of hasty conclusions.

Poet Sylvia Plath, 1933-63, is often lauded as the guide-on bearer of the feminist movement, but after my recent short study of her life and some of her work, I think she truly only represents herself as a traumatized woman for whom psychiatric treatment was not successful.

Apparently much of her pain originated from her relationship with her father who died when Plath was ten. The year was 1943, the middle of World War II. He was Austrian, and much of Plath’s2 work is a pastiche of references to the war and the Holocaust.

Plath’s mother was no help. She seemed cold and uncommunicative to me, a woman who was more concerned with what others would think of her and her daughter. She did seek psychiatric help for Plath, but she continued to want Plath to be a good girl and not embarrass her.

Nothing seemed to bring balance to Plath’s life even though she was an outstanding student, earning a scholarship to Smith College and later a scholarship to study in England where she met and married Ted Hughes who would become the Poet Laureate of England.

The plan was to retreat to a home outside of London, Court Green, to live as working poets, raising vegetables and kids, not succumbing to the glare of London literary life.

But the life of the secluded poet did not continue. After seven years of marriage Plath surely found out about Hughes’ adulterous relationship with another poet’s wife, Assia Wevill, who became pregnant. Plath moved back to London with her two children, Frieda, age four, and Nicholas, age one, and suffered through most of an extremely cold winter. It was in her London flat that Plath committed suicide in 1963.

Would she have become the literary figure she wanted to be if she had lived? Her poetry would certainly have sustained her reputation, but all of the attention paid her over the years has been because of her early death. Most of her poems and her novel The Bell Jar were published posthumously. The Collected Poems edited by Ted Hughes won the Pulitzer Prize 19 years after her death.

Because of all the secondary information about Plath which has become an industry in itself, one must read Plath’s journals, her poetry, and The Bell Jar for himself to understand her and not her analysts.


First I draw my impression of Plath from her novel The Bell Jar, a story about her alter ego Esther Greenwood who spends a summer as an intern for a women’s magazine in New York City. The novel was published under a pseudonym in England first and was later published in the United States 1971 by Ted Hughes and typically under the protest of Plath’s mother. One biographer recorded Hughes published the book to fund the purchase of a third home. Ted is most often seen as the evil doer in Plath’s life, to use an expression au courant.

The title of the book is a reference to the oppression Esther feels. She feels showcased in a glass jar, her behavior restricted and watched constantly by her neighbors, her teachers, doctors, her mother.

Esther/Sylvia is a bright college student who “ knew something was wrong with me that summer...” In what seems like a giant leap to treatment, Esther is sent for electroshock therapy after a few visits to a psychiatrist. She spends much of her time in the rings of a mental hospital, moving from one level of confinement to another, until eventually she is released. The restrictions and confinement of the hospital mirror the restrictions and expectations of society in general. So many rules applied upon the person. There is also a second attempt at suicide.

Then there is sex. Esther is expected to marry a med student, Buddy Willard, who has been sent to a sanitarium for tuberculosis. He also confesses that he has had sex while Esther remains a virgin. Esther is devastated by this inequity and searches for someone, not Buddy, to claim her virginity. Armed with birth control pills, she sleeps with Irwin, a stranger who has asked her for the time of day. After intercourse, Esther hemorrhages and must be treated at a hospital. The episode is another example of an action that should be liberating and fulfilling which instead makes Esther a victim.

Mothers always play major roles in autobiographies. Mrs. Greenwood means well, but throughout the novel she is much more concerned with appearances than with real help for her daughter Esther. Mr. Greenwood has died, leaving the family without insurance, and Mrs. Greenwood must work hard to support herself and Esther. Mrs. Greenwood wants Esther to learn shorthand so she will always be employable, but Esther resists, knowing the life of a stenographer is not for her. Fortunately, there is a scholarship to college, an absolute financial necessity which Esther must not lose, and Esther feels the pressure to do well academically, take the right classes, achieve scholastic success. Achieve, achieve, achieve--what is the question. Her ambition and desire for career is explained in the metaphor of a fig tree--so many figs/careers to choose from; knowing which to pick is the frustration.

Marriage and motherhood offer no pleasant anticipation either. Esther watches in horror her neighbor with six children.

Even though the novel achieved no great literary acclaim, The Bell Jar became a manual for the feminist movement, denoting what awful things American society did to their precocious girls in the 50s an 60s.

My impression is Plath saw herself as a victim too much of the time, no matter what opportunity for success and happiness she was given. She came from a middle class family in which her father was a college professor who had a reputation for his knowledge of bees. His death was traumatic, and she hung on to her conflict over his death, writing about her relationship with him in her poem ‘Daddy.”

DADDY

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy , a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend


Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you .
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I ws ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Se ven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.


The theme of confinement presents itself again in the poem “Daddy.” a “black shoe” becomes the metaphor for her dad under his influence she has “lived like a foot...Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.”

The poem expresses not only her conflict with her father but also a commentary of what must have been some serious turmoil over having an Austrian father who spoke German, “the language obscene,” while the United States was at war with Germany. Plath thinks she “may well be a Jew” “scared of her dad" “With your Luftwaffe...neat mustache...Aryan eye...Panzer-man, panzer-man...”

But the next stanza she writes “Every woman adores a Fascist,” an expression of the attraction she feels for a man she is also very afraid of. He is a devil with “A cleft in your chin instead of your foot.”

He has “Bit my pretty red heart in two...At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do...a man in black with a Meinkampf look.”

The final three stanzas alert the reader that for Plath there is even more than fear and hatred of her dead father. Another issue is she feels she killed her father, and now after marrying, she is in the process of killing a second man, her husband, Ted Hughes whom she sees as a replica of her father. “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two--...The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now.” Plath must have known of Hughes adultery when she wrote this poem. Often wives feel responsible for their husband’s infidelity.

There is no resolution of her father’s death early in her life; her idealized marriage has become torture. Husband Ted Hughes was often unfaithful to her and some biographers blame him for Plath’s suicide. To compound the negative feelings Plath readers feel toward Hughes is the fact six years after Plath committed suicide his mistress, Assia Wevill, also killed herself and their four year old daughter, Shura. Ted Hughes married a second time and continued his affairs with other women. He died in 1998.

Psychiatrists need to explore Plath’s relationships with men probably repeated over and over based on her first relationship with her father. My reaction is daddies need to be very careful with their daughters to avoid causing the trauma Plath suffered and had the talent to write about and the misfortune to repeat in her choice of a husband.

The second poem most often referenced as most representative of Plath is “Lady Lazarus,” which deals with her third attempt at suicide, also published in 1962.

LADY LAZARUS

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it--

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?--

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

So on, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot--The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

“A miracle!”
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart--It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash--You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--

A cake of soap, A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Plath would be successful in the fourth suicide attempt as she left her two children in her London flat, closed the door to the kitchen and stuck her head in the gas oven.

She again uses references to the Nazis, the horrors of the Holocaust. She sees herself awakening as “A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade...My face a featureless, fine Jew linen.”

She has not died this time. “And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die.” Readers can sense that this was not going to be the last of the suicide attempts. Plath saw she was talented in attempting death. “Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well...I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

Her talent for death needs to be rewarded and she wants to charge observers who speak to her, touch her, want a “piece of my hair or my clothes” when she is revived. Here again is her expression she is always being observed.

In stanza 22 she addresses her doctor as “Herr Doktor, ...Herr Enemy.” She has become his “opus”, his success, and she does not “underestimate your great concern.” But she has a warning for the men who bring her back to life. “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware.” The references to the concentration camps and the burning of the Jews continues. God and Lucifer are referred to with German addresses.

The last line is chilling. No one would want to know the agony of a woman who has just attempted suicide and sees herself not as a victim but as a force that destroys men. ”And I eat men like air.”

So my conclusion on Sylvia Plath. Read her journals. Read The Bell Jar and her poetry. Read Janet Malcolm’s analysis of the analyses of Plath entitled The Silent Woman. Another choice would be Sylvia and Ted written by Emma Tennant who also had an affair with Ted Hughes. Visit PlathOnline.com. Most of all, keep this in mind: here was a woman who was bright, talented, afforded opportunity for education and success. She desired the life of a renowned poet, keeping a salon for other creative souls. In fact she married a renowned poet. She must have laughed, acted silly, dressed up, but her perception of life too often casts her in the role of victim, experiencing devastating disappointments which she could not overcome.

Diane McCormick

The Awful Din Within

The eerie silence and isolation that permeates many of Sylvia Plath’s poems in Ariel are suddenly broken by the unbearable din of bees with “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” The number of poems in Ariel devoted to the bees and their sharp contrast with other poems makes it clear they were an important symbol to Plath. I’m not sure I entirely understand the symbolism of the bees,but if I only dealt with what I understood in life, life would be a lot duller than it is.

The bees that Plath introduces in “The Bee Meeting” are a fascinating, rich symbol. Though must people think of bees as benevolent producers of honey, they are anything but benevolent in Plath’s poems. Futhermore, they seem linked to specific kinds of people:
Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers

The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

It’s a rather ordinary group she meets here, one that seem to represent traditional roles of power in society with their “veils tacked to ancient hats.” A rector is the traditional head of a Catholic or Episcopal religious community, overseeing the religious life of the community, while the midwife and the sexton seem to represent the beginning and ending of life. The narrator, though, is apprehensive about these people, feeling “naked” before them. Perversely, they try to make her one of them: “Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat/ And a black veil that moulds to my face, they are making me one of them.” It almost seems like a scene out of The Stepford Wives. The narrator desperately seems to wants to avoid this conversion, but she says, “I could not run without having to run forever.” In the end of the poem it almost seems as if the poet has been buried alive by the villagers: “The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands./ Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold?”

In other poems Plath sheds further light on the symbolism behind the bees. In “Stings” she says, “I stand in a column/ Of winged, unmiraculous women,/ Honey-drudgers. I am no drudge / Though for years I have eaten dust/And dried plates with my dense hair./ And seen my strangeness evaporate,/ Blue dew from dangerous skin.” Apparently, Plath identifies with their “drudgery” , perhaps the drudgery of being a housewife, though later in the poem she says, “I Have a self to recover, a queen,” not a royal queen, but, rather, a frayed bee queen who lasts but one season.

To me, the critical poem in the sequence is “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” though that may be because it’s my favorite poem in the sequence, the one I most identify with.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE BEE BOX

I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can't keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can't see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary

Why order a box of bees when it reminds you of “the coffin of a midget/ Or a square baby?” What is there that fascinates her with the bees? Is it simply that the hive “is dangerous” and she “can't keep away from it?” When directly confronted with the hive, though, she seems terrified, unable to deal with it. [Though anyone who has taught five periods a day of freshman English would certainly understand this fear J]:

It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

Perhaps you don’t even have to have been a teacher. Perhaps all you need to identify with these lines is to have heard multiple voices inside your head telling you what to do or telling you that you’re nobody. One person’s advice or criticism may be welcome. When everyone tells you what to think or how to behave it becomes unbearable. It’s even more intolerable if all those voices are trapped inside your head.

Does Plath really think the noise will stop if she sets the bees free? Or does she feel they will free her by killing her? Isn’t that why she is wearing a “moon suit and funeral veil?” Does she really think that they’ll ignore her because her life is so bitter, “I am no source of honey?”

For me, though, the line “The box is only temporary” is the most emphatic line in the poem. It alludes to the same “long white box” at the end of “The Bee Meeting”. Frighteningly, it either implies that Plath feels that the grave is only “temporary” or that no matter what she does the bees will descend on her.

Sylvia Plath’s Chilling Experience

Although Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are often linked together, I personally respond to them very differently. I much prefer Sylvia Plath’s poems, perhaps because her experiences seem much closer to my own experiences. If I were to go over the edge, God forbid, I suspect I would go as Plath has gone. Her feelings, or, perhaps, lack of feelings, seem frighteningly similar to experiences I’ve had, though she seems to lack the cold rage I often felt at such moments. Maybe that’s a major reason she is no longer here and I am, because it seems she desperately needs feelings, even a good honest anger, to draw her back to people, back to this plane of existence. Feelings are what seem to most draw us to others, yet they are precisely what Plath seems to try to avoid.

It’s obvious from her poetry that Plath is an introvert, just as I am, and that she has, accidentally or purposely, cut herself off from others, another feeling I have too often experienced. In fact, the very act of writing, and poetry seems like the most difficult kind of writing, can at times isolate the writer by its very demands. It is this sense of isolation, accompanied by a frightening lack of feelings that haunts Ariel.

“Tulips” with it’s contrast between the colorful flowers and white, sterile hospital setting seems representative of many of Plath’s poems. Most people would immediately identify with the tulips, those tokens of friendship or love, rather than with the hospital setting itself, but not Plath:

TULIPS

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me
sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage-
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear-of my loving associations
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my tea-set, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, - you have no idea how free--
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

As in many of the poems in this volume, Plath seems to identify colorful flowers with passion as she does when she says “tulips are too excitable” contrasted with the “peacefulness” she is learning. Of course, one must wonder if she hasn’t also given up the passion of “two lips,” and the “explosions” of emotion that must inevitably follow.

The second stanza almost suggests that the narrator is in a trance, an eyeball between two eyelids that will not shut, but all she sees are their white caps, never quite distinguishing one from the other as they administer sedatives to her. Frighteningly, the narrator seems to crave these sedatives while resisting the many things that remind her of her family, going so far as to compare the families’ smiles to “smiling hooks” that catch on to her skin. Instead of pulling her back to this world, they seem to drive her further into the unconscious world. The third stanza develops this idea further suggesting that the narrator has been cleansed of her “loving associations.” As a result, she feels like a nun, “pure,” instead of lost and isolated.

The next stanza might almost reminds me of meditation, even a zen-like moment of calm reflection, with “hands turned up” and feeling “utterly empty.” The peacefulness of meditation can be “so big it dazes you.” But this moment of peacefulness is transformed into a very different moment by the phrase “it is what the dead close on.” That’s a little too peaceful for my taste.

The fifth stanza connects these red tulips to the “wound” she has suffered in life, even suggesting that they are related to an “awful baby” in the third line. They are like a “dozen red sinkers round my neck” dragging her down, drowning her. The next two stanzas suggest that they “eat” her oxygen, disturbing her breath, concentrating her attention when she was happier “playing and resting without committing” herself.

Finally, the poem closes with the flat statement that: “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals.” They are dangerous because they make her aware of her heart, which “opens and closes/It’s bowl of red blooms out of sheer love” of her. This final identification makes it clear that it’s not the tulips but her heart, the seat of passion, Plath is really resisting. I’m reminded of Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls us to the Things of this Earth.”

Although these themes are repeated in a number of poems, particularly motifs of whiteness, blueness, and coldness, “The Moon and the Yew Tree” is one of my favorites because it seems to add the idea of creativity to the mix:

THE MOON AND THE YEW TREE
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Is this the Tree of Life or the Tree of Death that Plath is describing here? Whichever it is, she sees it through a cold, blue, planetary light. It’s obvious because of the headstones and “spirituous mists” that the narrator is standing in a graveyard looking up at the Yew tree and the moon. Standing there, the narrator “simply cannot see where there is to get to.”

It almost seems that she has lost her inspiration. The moon, the symbol of both inspiration and insanity, is “no door,” it provides no ideas of “where there is to get to.” Instead, it is a source of despair, reminding me of Van Gough’s famous painting of despair and insanity. To make matters worse, even the church bells’ ringing reminder of Christ’s Resurrection cannot help redeem the narrator from this despair. It’s almost as if the poet has given herself to the moon, for “the moon is my mother,” and, because she has done so, she is unable to believe in Mary. “How I would like to believe in tenderness/The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,/Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.”

The poet’s muse, the moon, is unforgiving. “She is bald and wild.” And, seen in this light, the “yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.” The despair of a life that is uninspired, lifeless, and alone.