What are the poetic devices in Sylvia Plath's poem "Metaphors"?

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The speaker is pregnant and feels like she cannot go back to her previous existence.

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Sylvia Plath's poem "Metaphors" is full of imagery and poetic devices. One of the first things you see is the immediate use of metaphor, as the speaker refers to herself as "a riddle," "an elephant," and more.

The entire poem is metaphorical, not using a single straightforward line in its entirety but choosing instead to employ various metaphors throughout. The speaker is discussing her pregnancy, and she makes it clear through her imagery that she is full to the bursting and that she feels like a bearer only. Her imagery shows her in various states bearing a child—acting as a house, a purse full of money, and simply "a means." She ends the poem with a final metaphor, stating that she has boarded a train and can't turn back now—implying that she's pregnant and now must carry out the act of becoming a mother.

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In the poem "Metaphors," Sylvia Plath writes a witty poem about pregnancy in the form of a riddle.  The poem itself begins with the riddle:  

"I'm a riddle in nine syllables."

Since the poem is about pregnancy, then naturally it would consist of nine lines, signifying the nine months of gestation. The speaker is the pregnant lady. After the initial riddle, the rest of the poem consists of clues to answer it. As the poem proceeds, it becomes obvious that the lady is not really enthusiastic about her pregnancy. 

What literary devices does the poet use?


The entire poem is a metaphor used to represent the woman who is pregnant.  The other lines are short metaphors comparing the gestating mother to various things:

elephant, melon, house, tendrils, fat purse

The fetus/baby is also compared---a calf, loaf of bread, newly minted coin.


The poet also uses imagery with descriptive words to visualize aspects of the nine months. 

The woman with a melon in her tummy walking on tendrils or twisted branches...

The fat purse opening up to find the baby

The loaf of bread with the yeast making the tummy grow

Many of the images are humorous; however, to the woman who is experiencing the changes, it may not be so funny.


Irony is another device that the poet uses: when the train leaves the station, the verbal irony brings to mind:

  • The trip beginning with the fertilization of the egg
  • the trip is the gestation period
  • with the station the place where the baby is born

Her vocabulary choices are also ironic: the ivory representing the sacrifice that the mother makes for the child to be born:

I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

When the mother thinks of herself as just a means or a cow, it is probably time for the child to be born. Ironically the mother thinks of herself only in terms of the baby... she is no longer just herself.


Another device that is used is an allusion to the Biblical story of the forbidden fruit.  When Eve ate the apple and then lured Adam to eat as well, she broke God's rules.  Everything changes and woman is forever punished by having to endure the pains of childbirth. 

There is more than one apple that is eaten which implies that the woman may have to endure this discomfort more than once.

The green apples are sour and unripe.  This may also represent the nausea and heartburn which occur during a pregnancy. 

Plath herself was pregnant about the time the poem was written.  Although she loved her children, Plath had many demons to fight.  This experience may have added to her unhappy outlook on life.

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Which figures of speech are used in Sylvia Plath's "Metaphors"?

A figure of speech is defined as any use of language where the words have a non-literal meaning. In literature, therefore, there are a number of different examples of figures of speech, such as similes, personification, metaphors and hyperbole to name a few. In this poem, Plath, as the title suggests, makes extensive use of metaphors to present herself and her pregnancy and her feelings about her new state, which, it could be argued, are profoundly ambivalent, as the following lines suggest:

This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Plath here uses stereotypical metaphors associated with pregnancy to explore the way that society views pregnant women not as separate individuals but as mere vehicles for the birth of new life. This is suggested through metaphors such as "I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf." Each metaphor arguably distances the speaker's sense of self from her own identity. The final metaphor used in the closing line of poem, where pregnancy is compared to a train ride from which there is "no getting off" until birth, strongly suggests that pregnancy is viewed, at least in part, as something that mothers are not able to escape or run away from. The suppression of self that is referred to through the use of metaphors and the way that the focus of others is not on the mother but on the baby she carries creates a critical mix of emotions in the speaker, suggested through the lack of escape and possibilities in this closing metaphor.

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