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...

(The entire section is 577 words.)