The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

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“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 the hooves of a horse running away. She also acts as the agent of sexual seduction. The “sound of poisons,” “rain,” and “hush” are sexual allusions, but this love bears only a fruit “tin-white, like arsenic.”

In stanza 6, the elm takes over the role of “you” and suffers the loss of love (“sunsets”); her lifeblood (“red filaments”) is reduced to broken nerves (“a hand of wires”). Then, the elm, a tree battered in a violent storm, assumes the part of a revengeful woman. Yet she is horrified by her own capacity for violence.

Stanzas 8 and 9 shift to the moon, an image of the barren female. The moon is portrayed as an external power that can harm the female tree, as well as its internal alien force. The female tree removes its barrenness symbolized by the moon and becomes pregnant with the dreams of the victimized woman, merging with her spirit. What she carries in her womb, however, is not a physical child but an artistic cry for love as well as a phobia about the ephemeral nature of love.

The final two stanzas, the first of which begins with the declaration “I am incapable of more knowledge,” correspond to the beginning of the poem (“I know the bottom”). These stanzas carry this finality of truth to a climactic intensity. Now, the image of a contorted elm tree mirrors the ugly face of love, which is murderous because it truncates a woman’s growth (in its stranglehold of branches), turns a woman’s will into stone, and kills a woman by penetrating her female body, causing fissures as faults do in the body of a rock or wearing her away as acid does. The phrases “snaky acids kiss” and “the isolate, slow faults/ That kill” represent more grim allusions to sexual love. Nevertheless, comparing the beginning and the ending of the poem carefully reveals that the poet affirms love instead of rejecting it: The slow killing by love is the way to tap the bottom, to gain ultimate knowledge.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

“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, such as the speaker’s mother, or an alien force inside herself. Plath uses the phrase “radical surgery” to suggest her resolute separation from the moon’s influence either on her or inside her. The image of the snake is developed with the phrases “sound of poisons” and “snaky acids kiss,” which also strongly evoke the image of the Gorgon. The poet’s experience of pregnancy is implied in “this dark thing/ That sleeps in me;/ All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings.” No matter what images Plath employs, she molds each one into a precise association with the elm tree to present a female’s experience of the loss of love.

Although its psychological landscape is fragmented, the structure of the poem is highly coherent. Its movements are chain reactions of imagery or verbal associations: “Horse” in stanza 3 can be paired with “gallop” in stanza 4; “sound of poisons” and “arsenic” are both found in stanza 5; “atrocity of sunsets,” “scorched,” and “red filaments” are all together in stanza 6; “sunsets” in stanza 6 can be paired with “moon” in stanza 8; and “shriek” in stanza 7 can be linked with “cry” in stanza 10.

As an adolescent, Plath wrote, “I write only because/ There is a voice within me/ That will not be still.” That voice, in “Elm” as in her later poems, became a scream of consciousness, with painful and outrageous passions.

Bibliography

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

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

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