Like many of her poems, including her mature poems from her late period, ‘Elm’ is an obscure Sylvia Plath poem which resists straightforward analysis. Plath’s complex and ambiguous use of symbolism renders ‘Elm’, if not impenetrable, then at the very least, challenging. You can read ‘Elm’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
The elm tree is a tree associated with rebirth. Unlike the yew tree – which, in Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’, is associated with masculinity, Christianity, and death – the elm tree offers hope of revival and resurrection. Like another Sylvia Plath poem which has attracted a good deal of analysis and commentary, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Elm’ is about rebirth, but with the knowledge that in order to be reborn there must first be death.
‘Elm’, in summary, is a sort of dramatic monologue, but a monologue in which the elm tree does not always speak directly to the reader, but instead has its voice mediated through that of the poet. The personal note of the Confessional poets (with whom Sylvia Plath is often identified) thus merges with the impersonal approach to poetry associated with high modernists like T. S. Eliot (for instance, in his dramatic monologue ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’).
In ‘Elm’, the tree offers a number of cryptic comments about ‘the bottom’ and ‘fear’. The elm implies that the listener can hear the sea within it (like a seashell held to the ear?), or, alternatively, the ‘voice of nothing’ (i.e. the listener, possibly Plath herself, is ‘hearing voices’ in her head, because of her madness). Love is then likened to a horse, galloping away (and prefiguring a similar image from the slightly later poem ‘Words’); the elm identifies itself with this galloping.
It then says it can bring to us the ‘sound of poisons’: not the taste or smell or even sight, but the sound, perhaps the sense least equipped to identify poison. Then comes the life-giving and renewing rain, but the fruit that it inspires the elm to bring forth is ‘tin-white, like arsenic’ (poison again). There’s a suggestion here of pollution and acid rain, foreshadowing the poem’s later referencing to ‘snaky acids’ that ‘hiss’.
The elm tells us it has ‘suffered the atrocity of sunsets’, perhaps hinting at the bloodshed we associate with terrible atrocities, but also perhaps calling to mind the nuclear bomb: the reference to the elm being ‘scorched to the root’ certainly suggests as much. The elm then breaks up, as if the scorching sunlight (or nuclear explosion) has dried it out and destroyed it, and the tree shrieks in response. The moon offers no help either: jealous of the elm’s ability to bear fruit (when the moon itself is ‘barren’), it ‘drags’ the elm ‘cruelly’. Although there seems to be some ambiguity over who is winning this tussle: ‘perhaps I have caught her.’
The elm lets the moon go ‘as after radical surgery’: we can perhaps detect a picking up of the etymology (or, if you will, the root) of the word ‘radical’, from the Latin radix, ‘root’. This is tree surgery, but with the tree as the surgeon rather than the patient. From this point on, with the elm’s reference to the ‘bad dreams’ of the listener possessing and endowing her, critics tend to see the voice of the elm and the voice of the female speaker (most probably Plath herself) as combining to form a single, unified voice. A ‘cry’ has inhabited the elm, but whose it is remains uncertain.
But whatever ‘dark thing’ it is that ‘sleeps’ in the elm also sleeps in Plath: it is malign, yet it feels soft and feathery. As if inspiring this image, such soft feathers turn to clouds that ‘pass and disperse’, much as the elm had earlier broken apart. Even the elm, or Plath, doesn’t appear to know what to think: ‘I am incapable of more knowledge.’ A face can be detected in the branches of the tree: the face of the Gorgon, Medusa, with snakes for hair and an ability to turn people who stared at her into stone (‘petrifies the will’).
The poem’s final line, with its triple repetition of ‘kill’ – made all the more unsettling because it is a transitive verb being employed intransitively (you kill something, you don’t just kill) – ends the poem on a note of death and destruction rather than rebirth and renewal.
Plath was heavily influenced by The White Goddess, the 1948 ‘grammar’ of poetic myth written by Robert Graves, which argued that all Western poetry was inspired by the figure of the Triple Goddess, a female deity associated with the moon.
For Graves, comparing different religious and mythical structures from around Europe and Asia, this White Goddess figure is tripartite: she is the maiden (the virgin huntress associated with the colour white); the mother (the pregnant woman associated with the colour red, for the body and especially menstruation; linked to the full moon), and the old hag (associated with the colour black, and linked to the waning moon).
We can see these three phases of the White Goddess reflected in ‘Elm’, in the movement from the ‘tin-white’ fruit of the tree to its ‘red filaments’ to that reference to the ‘dark thing’ later in the poem: white-red-black (almost). In the last analysis, the elm is a version of the Triple Goddess from Graves’s book, as interpreted by Plath.
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.