By Dr Oliver Tearle
Written in October 1961 as she was beginning to find her own distinctive poetic voice, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ is one of the most widely discussed and analysed of Sylvia Plath’s poems. This is perhaps inevitable, in a poem which is so loaded with symbols; our instinct as readers, and as literary critics, is to decode the symbol or discover what the poem really ‘means’. You can read ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
Sylvia Plath wrote ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ in 1961 while she was suffering from writer’s block. Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, suggested that she write a poem about the view outside their bedroom window. Hughes later recalled that, from the window of their house in Devon, they could see a yew tree in the churchyard to the west of their house. On the morning in question, the full moon was visible just behind the yew tree, and Hughes gave Plath the idea of writing about the scene.
Plath was no stranger to such writing exercises: one of the reasons she was so prolific was that she would write poems on set themes – something she had learnt to do while studying in Robert Lowell’s creative writing class at Boston in 1958 – when she felt she had ‘nothing else’ to write about on a given day. (Interestingly, one of Robert Browning’s most symbolic and enigmatic poems, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, was also the result of a ‘write a poem a day’ resolution.) Plath apparently worked on the poem all morning and had completed it by midday.
What is ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ about? In summary, the poem is a meditation on these two objects, viewed from Plath’s bedroom window, and what they represent. The moon is often feminine in poetry: it is connected with menstrual cycles, the sea (another feminine symbol), and motherhood. This is especially true of Plath’s poetry, since 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).
This moon-mythology clearly underpins ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’. But there is also a personal connection, since Plath identifies the moon as a mother figure, who is ‘not sweet like [the Virgin] Mary’, that mother of Christianity. (Christianity, partly by virtue of being patriarchal, is often at odds with the matriarchal paganism in Graves’s book.)
The yew tree, meanwhile, represents the masculine, the father figure, and death. The yew is, after all, a tree often found in churchyards, as was the case with the one that inspired the poem. But the question is: how much of what is being described in these clipped, matter-of-fact sentences reflects what Plath is visually observing, and how much represents her inner imagination? How much is landscape, and how much is mindscape, in other words?
This is something that Tim Kendall, in one of the best studies of Plath’s work to revolve around close analysis of the poems, explores in Sylvia Plath: A Critical Guide: A Critical Study. The boundary between outside and inside has been collapsed. As Kendall points out, statements like ‘I have fallen a long way’ sound more like spiritual than physical reflections.
Indeed, on one level ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ is about spiritual belief, or rather a lack thereof: that third stanza which rejects the Marian associations of the moon also appears to reject the Church, represented by those effigies and headstones found in the churchyard, as too ‘mild’, ‘delicate, even ‘stiff’, as the final stanza has it. If Plath does find anything in the landscape (or mindscape) to believe in, it is the ‘cold and planetary’ forces of the natural world rather than the man-made (with perhaps the emphasis here on man) construct of Christianity.
‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ ends by denying that there is any affirmative ‘message’ to be found in the yew tree – and therefore, perhaps, by extension, in Christian teaching. It offers only ‘blackness and silence’. The moon, by contrast, is ‘bald and wild’ – but in the wildness of nature there is true power, not the stiffness or mildness of organised religion.
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.