Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)