Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

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“Elm” is one of the great poems dealing with the loss of love. Unlike Emily Dickinson, who went through painful ambivalence and eventually rejected love to preserve her independence as a woman, Plath accepted love as an anchor for a woman’s feelings and as a prerequisite for her personal and artistic integrity. To her, loss of love was the most horrible figure of torture and deprivation, which could fragment a woman and leave her a helpless victim of cruel abandonment. The elm tree, nature’s witness to such atrocity, shrieks and cries for the inarticulate woman.

Although “Elm” does not link a woman’s suffering with a particular historical atrocity of political and social impact, as Plath’s “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” do, it transcends the agony of the female sex to reflect an acute sense of fragmentation and depersonalization.

“Elm” is also one of Plath’s best philosophical poems. Her philosophical vision of the interconnection among love, death, and truth is achieved not by traditional meditation in solitude but by a brainstorm of hallucinations. Both the elm speaker and the trapped victim have experienced love and the loss of love. At first disillusionment, the poet defines love as a shadow. With the emotional torture of abandonment, the poet further realizes its fluctuation. “The faces of love” are in fact the changing phases of love. Instead of lamenting the irretrievability of those phases, the poet sees through the disguised hideous face of love, which suffocates a woman, deadens her sensitivity, and fragments her body. The redefinition of love enables one to regain the strength to survive in the loveless world.

“Elm” was written in April, 1962, a time when Plath’s first surge of fury, self-pity, and despair at her husband’s infidelity had abated. She turned to examine the roots of her pain with an involved passion but a detached eye. The first seven stanzas depict how deceitful love and loss of love can turn a woman into a violent and revengeful angel. In the last seven stanzas, however, Plath turns to scrutinize her own psyche. Part of her rejects the lovelessness associated with barrenness; part of her still clings to the desire to love. Part of her seeks malignant revenge, and part of her is agitated by the irretrievability of love.

In the end, however, it is not loss of love that kills, but the fissures in the woman’s psyche. With the final line’s cathartic shriek (“That kill, that kill, that kill”), the poet seems to have achieved an emotional transformation, if only momentarily. If the poem starts with a protest against male atrocity in abandoning the female, it ends in self-mockery. Like Robert Lowell, Plath turns external and internal chaos into artistic irony.