By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Words’ was one of the last poems Sylvia Plath wrote before her tragic suicide in February 1963. (Plath would kill herself on 11 February 1963, in a London apartment she had decided to rent because W. B. Yeats had once lived there; ‘Words’ was written on 1 February.) You can read Plath’s poem ‘Words’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
As the poem’s title implies, ‘Words’ is a meditation on the very stuff of poetry, although it is neither wholly favourable nor wholly damning about the power of words. We begin, in summary, with a single word: ‘Axes’. Its plural picking up on the poem’s plural title, ‘Axes’ immediately invites us to draw a link between title and opening line: words are axes, in that they are cutting, powerful, but also potentially deadly. After one has struck the wood of the tree or log with an axe, the wood ‘rings’. (There’s a nice suggestion of the lineage and history of words here, in that ‘wood rings’ punningly summons the idea of telling the age of a tree by counting its number of rings. Words, too, come with a history of their own: as Dennis Potter once said, the problem with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in.) Like that axe felling a tree or slicing a log, words echo, and the echoes travel away from the ‘center’ (the one who has spoken or written those ‘words’?), galloping away like horses.
The horses image is another one which signals Plath’s ambivalence: horses are associated closely with people, and a horse is an animal that has largely been brought under man’s control. We can train horses, use them for travel, and so forth. But they can also be worried or frightened and revert to their wild, ‘fight or flight’ state, in which case they might veer off course, out of control, galloping away from the one who should have them under control.
Is this what words are like: when we write them we believe we have mastered them, but they have a life of their own and quickly move out and away from us?
Indeed, there is another buried pun in Plath’s fifth line, since ‘off from the center’ is the literal origin of the word ‘eccentric’ (i.e. ex-centric). And eccentricity and madness are associated with a loss of control over one’s words, among other things.
The tree image is continued in the second stanza, with the idea of the tree’s sap as tears, a fluid that weeps from the tree much as our words are wrought out of our own misery and pain (as was certainly the case with Sylvia Plath). But there is a search for order and control again here, because the sap/tears are like water flowing in a river or ocean, seeking to calm itself so it can become a mirror, a still pool that reflects the world back in a way that makes sense. (This is a rather complex and clever image, almost metaphysical in its ingenuity: the tears we cry end up on the page like water flowing, but we try to bring our pain under control and turn it into something orderly, like art, which – like the still waters of a pool or river – can ‘hold the mirror up to nature’, as Hamlet puts it.)
As we move from the second into the third stanza, the rock under those wild waters becomes a skull, decaying (it is being consumed by algae or ‘weedy greens’ growing upon it). A macabre metaphor for the way the living ‘feed’ off the words of the dead, much as we readers of Plath gain sustenance from reading the work of a poet who died in 1963? Perhaps. Here there is a parallel with Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘The Death of the Author’, but also with W. H. Auden’s elegy for W. B. Yeats, in which Auden declares that the words of the dead poet are ‘modified in the guts of the living’: the living keep the dead poet’s words alive, even if they modify their meaning.
And then, to conclude this summary, we find ourselves sliding from the third into the fourth and final stanza, with Plath encountering her words ‘on the road’: they have gone out there into the world, and are now ‘dry and riderless’. Picking up on the horse-image from the first stanza, these words are wild and free, like a horse without a rider, much as the poet’s words float free of the poet’s control once she has sent her poem out into the world.
Is Plath here anticipating the way these poems will be received after her death? She may have known, so near to her suicide, that she would never see them in print, but that they may well see the light of day after her death. Plath ends ‘Words’ with another reprise, this time of the image of the water providing a reflection – in this case, a reflection of the ‘fixed stars’ which govern the life of the poet. Words may be free, but the poet who creates them is not (there’s a suggestion of astrology in this reference to fixed stars: both Plath and Hughes were into their horoscopes).
If this final image of the pool suggests that the poem – now completed both in metaphor and reality as we reach the final lines – has settled down, like those wild flowing waters, in order to reflect the truth of the world, then what the poem reflects, like the pool, is the feeling of being trapped, doomed, fated, which Plath herself is trying to reflect in her late poems in particular. ‘Words’ is a tragic acknowledgment of the fact that, whilst the poetry may escape, the poet may not.
‘Words’ is, in a sense, an analysis of the ways in which a poet’s words take on a life of their own once they leave the poet who wrote them. This is a liberating thing – the horse-image chimes with ‘Ariel’, Sylvia Plath’s poem recalling her youthful horse-rides when she felt free and could escape, like T. S. Eliot’s Cousin Nancy, the constraints of twentieth-century society – but it also represents a loss of control.
About Sylvia Plath
The life – and death – of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) can sometimes appear to eclipse her poetic achievement, as well as her achievement in fiction (she wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, as well as a collection of short stories). But this is partly because so much of her work drew on her life for its subject-matter, especially her unflinching analysis of her own struggles with her mental health.
Born in the United States, Plath moved to England in the 1950s, where she met fellow aspiring poet Ted Hughes, whom she quickly married. (They chose the date of their wedding in 1956 – 16th June – in honour of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which takes place on that day in 1904.) Just one collection of Plath’s poetry, The Colossus (1960), appeared in her lifetime before she tragically took her own life in February 1963, during one of the coldest English winters on record. It was the publication of a posthumous collection, Ariel, in 1965 (edited by her widower, Ted Hughes) which really helped to ensure she was regarded as one of the greatest and most original voices in Anglophone poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Two further posthumous collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, followed in 1971.
Plath is often grouped with the ‘Confessional poets’ – a group of (mostly American) mid-twentieth-century poets whose work engages with the darker aspects of their own lives, with the focus frequently on the poet’s own struggles with mental health issues. Plath attended a creative writing class led by the poet who helped to initiate the Confessional movement, Robert Lowell, in the late 1950s. But it’s important not to overlook Plath’s affinities with earlier female poets, especially modernists like H. D. and Mina Loy, who often used mythical personae to write about their own lives.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.