The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Elm,” a poem in free verse, has fourteen stanzas of three lines each. The title under which it was first published, “The Elm Speaks,” indicates that it is a dramatic monologue. Yet “Elm” seems to be a more suitable title for the poem, because Sylvia Plath uses three pronouns—“she,” “I,” and “you”—which can be read as the divided selves of one identity as well as three separate roles. “She” not only engenders the elm tree but also signifies an artistic detachment of the poet from both “I” and “you.” “I”—the elm—both distances herself from and merges with “you” to create the double voices inside the poet’s psyche. What weaves the poem together is the powerful image of an elm tree with a protean identity.

The poem starts with the image of the elm as a woman who knows “the bottom”—the essential nature of truth—through personal experience. Inside her, this knowledge boils like a sea of dissatisfaction. The phrase “the voice of nothing” reminds the reader of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous lines from Macbeth (1606): “sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” The poet successfully creates an atmosphere of maddened sound and fury for unfolding a bitter experience.

The tree speaker, assuming the role of a woman, tries to impart the truth she knows about love to the innocent “you.” She declares love “a shadow” and depicts its irretrievability as the sound of...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Elm” shows the influence of Theodore Roethke. In the poem, Plath develops the Roethkean system of correspondence between nature and humankind. She makes the elm, in reality an enormous tree that stood by her house in Devon, England, speak in a human voice, and she follows the shifting images of the tree through different circumstances to portray the mental turmoil of a suffering woman.

The poem demonstrates Plath’s accurate observation of natural objects. Even if the reader were to read the poem superficially, without thinking about any deep interpretation, “Elm” could still be enjoyed as a portrait of a tree from root to branches, from day to night, and in all weather. Onomatopoeic expressions, such as the galloping sound of the tree’s leaves in the wind, the hissing sound of poisons at the time of pesticide spraying, and the shrieking of the tree in storms, combined with precise physical pictures such as “a hand of wires,” flying “clubs,” and “tin-white” fruit, animate the tree throughout while catching and maintaining the peculiar features of an elm.

Apart from the controlling image of the elm, other images, both bold and subtle, are abundant in the poem. The sea represents the inner world of disturbance, conflict, and distress. The moon, as in Plath’s other poems, represents hateful barrenness. For all of its purity and radiance, it “scathes” the elm and scours the sea. The moon can be an imposing authority,...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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