Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In the opening stanza, the speaker shows her contempt for the great statue she is trying to repair, stating:

Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles

Proceed from your great lips.

It’s worse than a barnyard.

The speaker has contempt for the figure; what comes from the lips of this great statue is animal sounds that have no beauty or meaning. Though she tries to pry an understanding from it, all the figure produces is confusion. In the next two stanzas, she addresses the figure directly, asking if he considers himself an "oracle," a dispenser of wisdom, but saying that after thirty years of dredging nothing but wet dirt from it, she is no wiser. She also likens herself to an ant, having taken on the role of endless drudgery in trying to maintain, clean, and repair the statue. She struggles with her identity and sees herself as small for having spent so much time focused on making sense of their relationship and thinking there would be some benefit to her work.

The fourth stanza alludes to ancient mythology:

A blue sky out of the Oresteia

Arches above us. O father, all by yourself

You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.

I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.

Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered.

In Agamemnon, the first play in the Oresteia, Aeschylus's trilogy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods. Agamemnon is late killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, as vengeance. Electra, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's other daughter, is left to mourn her father, despite the complicated relationship and legacy that he left behind. The poem's speaker sacrifices herself, as the women of this ancient myth were sacrificed, to the identity and legacy of her father.

The black cypress tree symbolizes death in the classical tradition, and it represented mourning in ancient times as well as in the Victorian era. The imagery of death continues in the fluted bones and acanthine (leaflike hair) of broken Roman statues. This parallels the death of Plath's own father when she was only eight years old, and it illustrates the metaphorical ruins left in the wake of a parent's death. In the last stanza, she states she has given up hope—she no longer waits for the "keel," or ship of return that will save her.

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