The Poem

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

“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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1239 words.)

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