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.