Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

There is a certain cleanness about Sylvia Plath's frequently anthologized poem "Edge" which seems to stand at odds with its subject matter. This cleanness, or sterility, is borne out in words like "perfected" and indeed in the one-word title itself—an "edge" is a precipice, or a dividing line, something that neatly splits one thing into two. Here, the edge is seemingly the line between this woman's life, now over, and the death which has "perfected," or completed, her.

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Although the poem is in free verse, there is a sort of regularity to it in the way Plath divides it into two-line stanzas. This adds to the sense that we are here dispassionate observers viewing an unmoving tableau as the dead woman, unnamed, lies almost in state. She is pleased with herself, wearing a "smile," and sure that she is presenting an "illusion" of "Greek necessity"—the suggestion here is that she has killed herself, a sort of honor killing, and hopes that others will view it as her only choice. By dying, she has become perfect—but there is also the sense that there is no other thing she could have done in life that would be considered perfect. She is only perfect because she has removed herself from the world altogether, a world which was not made for women to live in as themselves.

The woman has not left her life alone—on the contrary, she has taken her children with her, each a "white serpent" in front of a "pitcher of milk." They are dead, and she has taken them back into herself. The description of the children as serpents is interesting, suggesting something poisonous about them, as if they are alien to their mother and also damaging to her own wholeness. The pitchers of milk might be literal poisoned bowls of milk, but they might also represent the mother's own milk produced for them, but which in the end has killed them—a suggestion that purely by virtue of being her children, her nature has poisoned them and led them to this still and deathlike scene. Unable to cope with the children as separate "serpent" beings from her, the mother has therefore taken them back.

The imagery toward the end of the poem is vaguely suggestive of menstruation and physical womanhood: "bleeds," "odors," and flowers, connected then to the appearance of the moon, a traditionally female-associated body which is also bound up with menstruation and the cycle of womanhood. Here, too, the moon is observing a cycle she has seen many times before: that of women struggling, and ultimately able to be "perfected" only by death.

There is a lot of pain in this poem—the woman, of whom we know very little, can see herself happy only in her death. Given that Plath wrote this poem shortly before her own suicide, it can be inferred that this was a thought Plath had about herself, too.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795

“Edge” is a short poem in free verse; its twenty lines are divided into ten couplet stanzas. The title suggests a border, perhaps between life and death. One of the last two poems written by Sylvia Plath before her suicide, “Edge” is a meditation on the death of a woman.

Written in the third person, the poem may give the impression of offering a detached judgment of the dead woman. This point of view usually suggests a less subjective perspective than the first person. The apparently objective imagery of the poem, however, disguises a high degree of subjectivity on the part of the poet.

“Edge” begins with an implied thesis: A woman is “perfected” by death. It is not difficult to see at least three ways in which the woman has been “perfected.” To “perfect” means to complete, to master, or to make flawless. While literally true that the woman has completed her life, “perfected” also suggests that the woman has mastered womanhood and has been made flawless through her death. These notions of completion, mastery, and achieved excellence are linked to death in the brief second line, “Her dead,” which provides an approximate rhyme with the first line.

The second stanza notes “the smile of accomplishment” that adorns the dead body, suggesting that the woman is pleased by the perfection she has achieved. The poet then hints that the woman has achieved death through suicide. The “Greek necessity” that one imagines flowing “in the scrolls of her toga” strongly suggests the ritual suicides demanded of disgraced individuals in the classical world. Although most readers are familiar with the self-inflicted death by hemlock of the Greek philosopher Socrates, ritual suicide (like the toga) is actually associated with imperial Rome. Nevertheless, Plath is able to allude to her own writing through the clever description of the folds of the toga as “scrolls.” The third and fourth stanzas explain the meaning of the woman’s bare feet. They have taken her the length of her life with all its obstacles, but now “it is over.” The sense of relief at journey’s end is apparent.

A new and ominous element is introduced in the fifth stanza. Dead children, presumably the woman’s own children, are described as white serpents. Each is coiled before a small “pitcher of milk,” which is “now empty.” Apparently, the children have each drunk the milk and coiled, fetuslike, at each pitcher; they are pale, or white, with death. One must consider the possibility that the children have been poisoned by their mother.

The sixth through eighth stanzas confirm this suspicion. The woman has “folded/ them back into her body.” She is their mother, and she has taken her children with her into death. The first line of the poem, “The woman is perfected,” now takes on yet another meaning: She becomes whole or complete as all the life that went forth from her is returned to her in death. The poet defends the murder of the children as the mere closing of a flower at the approach of night. The rose draws in its petals (as the mother draws in her children) when the chill of the evening (or, in the case of the woman, death) descends upon the garden. The sensual but ghastly image of the night as a many-throated flower that “bleeds” its odors transforms the traditional literary meaning of flowers and gardens as emblems of love into omens of death.

From the lush imagery of the garden at nightfall, the ninth stanza turns to the stark moon of the night sky. The poet imagines the moon’s view of the grisly tableau of the dead bodies of mother and children. Like a nun in a white cowl, the moon in “her hood of bone” surveys the scene without sadness.

The final stanza of the poem explains the moon’s indifference: “She is used to this sort of thing.” The dead woman has reenacted an ancient tragedy that the moon has witnessed over and over again. Further, the poem concludes with the hint that the moon bears some responsibility for the deaths. The moon’s “blacks crackle and drag.” The effect of the moon on the earth (dragging the oceans back and forth across the planet in tides) and on the menses of women account for the final verb. “Crackle,” however, suggests something more like sunspots, casting interference and static into the atmosphere and, perhaps, troubling individuals. Such a relationship between the moon and human behavior is acknowledged in folklore (the werewolf is transformed under the light of a full moon) and even in our vocabulary (“lunatic” derives from the same root as “lunar”). The moon, it is implied, may have influenced the terrible events that “she” then observes impassively.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

As Linda Wagner-Martin points out in Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), “Edge” was drawn together from previous drafts of poems. The poem’s title and some of its most important images first appeared in a draft of “Mystic,” a poem that includes images of the demanding life of nuns. Coincidentally, “Nuns in Snow” was the working title of “Edge.” The image of the moon with “her hood of bone” (suggesting the cowl of a nun’s habit) seems the only trace of this religious motif in the final version of the poem.

The moon’s hood is not the only image of clothing in the poem. The dead body of the woman “wears” a smile; she is clothed, first of all, by her sense of satisfaction in her suicide. More graphically, her blood flows down her “toga.” As one descends from her lips to her body, one comes to her feet, which are bare. She wears no more than a nightgown.

The shocking image of her dead children coiled like white serpents before little pitchers that had held poisoned milk reveals the troubled mind that describes the scene. (The fragmentary couplets and unexpected enjambments heighten this impression of a disordered and unbalanced narrator.) This highly subjective imagery conveys repugnance for the children. It may also allude to the whitish umbilical cords that linked them to their mother.

Their fetal posture in death seems to return the children to their mother, who “has folded/ them back into her body.” The image of a body closing in on itself is developed through the image of the rose drawing its petals shut against the night. The garden “stiffens,” and odors “bleed,” as does the corpse, when the flower of night (traditionally symbolic of death) opens. Poets have employed the flower and the garden as images of sexual love as long as poetry has been written. The floral imagery here, however, suggests another tradition: death as an alluring and intoxicating temptation. This depiction of death through erotic imagery also has a long history. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” by John Keats, is one of the most famous examples of this tradition.

The most powerful “beautiful lady without mercy” in Greek mythology (the fourth line of the poem alludes to the Greeks) is Artemis, whose attribute is the moon. This virgin goddess, unconquered by love, slew those who attacked her chastity. Sudden deaths of all sorts, but especially among women, were blamed on her arrows. The description of the moon in the virginal habit of a nun modernizes the myth, but the implication of the lines that the moon is responsible, in some fashion, for the woman’s death harks back to the implacable Artemis herself.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 193

Anderson, Robert. Little Fugue. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001.

Bundtzen, Lynda. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition, by Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

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