As the first line indicates, “Metaphors” is a riddle for the reader to solve. Fortunately, the metaphors provide enough clues to give the reader confidence in the solution: the speaker is a pregnant woman, and the images she selects suggest how she feels about her condition.
The first line tells us the speaker is not only a riddle for readers to decode, but one in "nine syllables." This refers to the nine months of gestation; it is less obvious whether she has in mind a specific nine-syllable phrase, but the word "metaphors" itself contains nine letters, and each of the nine lines of the poem contains nine syllables.
The second line gives us two figures: "an elephant" exaggerates the sensation of vast bulk as the speaker’s body grows out of its usual proportions and feels almost foreign to herself. An elephant is one of the most intelligent animals on earth, yet it can seem (to us as outside observers) clumsily huge. As a "ponderous house," the speaker reveals that she has become like an inanimate object, not aesthetically graceful, that exists not for her own sake but to shelter another.
The third line reinforces the sense of physical awkwardness: "melon" is a visually obvious image for the mother’s belly (suggesting fruitfulness) and the "two tendrils" on which she is "strolling" are her legs, again suggesting that her proportions make her feel ill at ease. "Tendrils" sounds too delicate to support something as massive as a "melon."
Line 4 adds some complexity. Framed by the "O" and exclamation mark that indicate admiration from the Psalms through much traditional English-language verse, the line seems to celebrate the wonder of pregnancy and the beauty of the growing child. "Red fruit" connects us archetypally to Eve, the first mother, as well as the color of blood. "Ivory" suggests the rare value of the bones being formed in the womb, as does "fine timbers." However, even here, the poet suggests that the woman is being plundered for the child: a fruit is harvested and the plant dies, the rind of the melon discarded; likewise, an elephant is killed to take the ivory. Even the "fine timbers" may grow up just to be another "ponderous house" for the next generation.
Line 5 compares the mother’s belly to a rising loaf of bread, another domestic reference full of mystery: no matter how many times one makes dough, the process of fermentation remains a wonder that takes on a life of its own. The "fat purse" of line 5 is a humorous spondee (two accented syllables in a row), colliding our culture’s usual disdain for "fat" bodies with the wealth suggested by a "purse" full of coins. The "new-minted" coins are bright and unspoiled, a treasure to be enjoyed. Again we see a paradox of pregnancy: the discomfort, self-effacement, and pain a mother experiences during gestation and birth right alongside the appreciation and anticipation of the intangible riches a new life may bring.
The poem’s darkest line includes three images. First, the mother feels used as "a means" as opposed to an end; she is not a person of value herself but a conduit for the child. The term "stage" could mean she is a mere step in the child’s development, or that she is simply the set on which the child’s life will play out. Either way, "stage" casts the mother in a supporting role for the child’s life rather than as the main character of her own story. "A cow in calf" reinforces the notion that she is more like livestock than human; she is a source...
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of wealth and life but not worthy of intelligent conversation.
In the last two lines the speaker reflects that her pregnancy is irreversible. To eat "a bag of green (unripe) apples" is to ensure a major belly-ache; the apples will come out, one way or another, after some physical hurt. This comparison is painfully obvious and raw, especially given the pre-Roe v. Wade context (Plath wrote the poem in 1960, the year her first daughter was born). The train metaphor is less physical, but perhaps more fatalistic. The mother is stuck on two rails with someone else controlling the speed.
Some critics see these mixed feelings about becoming a mother as a reflection of Plath’s bipolar disorder, and that may be so. Plath is known as one of the great confessional poets of the twentieth century. Her marriage was not a happy one, and one might reasonably surmise that her first pregnancy in that context did not always fill her with joy.
However, that interpretation seems to cheapen both the poet and the poem. Any woman might feel some tension between the anticipated joys of parenthood and the actual and foreseen suffering of pregnancy. The poem voices this ambivalence strongly, though it is weighted heavily with negative connotations. Plath was clearly a troubled soul, but she was also a masterful poet, and in these few lines she captures a universal tension that few women at the time felt free to name in public.