The Poem

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“Words” is a short poem in four stanzas of five lines each. It is written in an open form with irregular meter and only occasional rhyme. Because the poem is written entirely in metaphor, the title serves as an important clue to meaning. For the reader, the knowledge that the poem is about “words” (and by inference, poetry) becomes a fixed star in the journey through the poem’s metaphoric landscape.

Because the landscape of “Words” is mental rather than physical, its effect on the reader can be disorienting. There is no hand on the axe that strikes, no riders on the horses, no eyes behind the welling tears. One does not encounter the narrator until near the end of the third stanza. At this point, one sees that the poem is written in the first person, and it becomes clearer that preceding stanzas are the thoughts of the poet as she meditates on her subject, words.

“Words” is structured as a series of stanza-paragraphs, each exploring a different aspect of the subject. Distinct but interlocking images unify the ideas and reveal a progression of perceptions about the nature of the poetic utterance. The dominant image pattern of movement radiating from a center is established immediately. The juxtaposition of the title and the one-word first line, “Axes,” links the two ideas. Words set to paper ring out like an ax set to wood. The lack of a discernible narrator here allows the reader to enter the poem and feel the physical sensation of impact. (This is a particularly apt image for Sylvia Plath’s poetic style, which is frequently sharp and biting.)

The almost physical sense of vibration coupled with the repetition of the word “echoes” links the ax image to that of horses galloping. Plath often uses horse imagery to denote creative energy. In an earlier poem, “Elm,” she says, “All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,” and in “Years,” “What I love is/ The piston in motion—// And the hooves of the horses,/ Their merciless churn.” Similarly, “Words” begins with a vibrant sense of purpose, of statements made and messages sent.

In the second stanza, the mood changes, becoming quieter. Welling sap ties this stanza to the preceding ax imagery, and likening sap to tears places the imagery in a human context. Poets, particularly those of the confessional school to which Plath belongs, often use their work as catharsis, as a way of healing. Certainly there is a sense of attempted healing in the sap that tries to seal the wounded flesh of the tree and tears that can release psychic pain. Paradoxically, however, healing occurs only after a wound has been opened.

In the middle of the second stanza, the imagery changes to water into which a stone has been dropped. Because of the similarity of the images, one expects a continuation of the healing idea. The implication here shifts subtly from healing to concealing, however; the stone that caused the disturbance has submerged, and the breach is being sheeted over; that which lies beneath is covered up.

Up to this point, the language of the poem, though metaphoric, has been grounded in concrete easily identifiable imagery. As one moves into the third stanza, the poetic landscape changes almost imperceptibly from the real to the surreal. As the stone sinks beneath the surface of the water, it drops and turns, changing to a skull. One has seen that echoes from ax strokes, galloping horses, and ripples represent words. Like the “axe,” the “rock” is the initiator of echoes, but the mood has shifted. The ringing power of the “axe”...

(This entire section contains 758 words.)

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has given way to the inertness of the “rock,” which in its tumbling, changes into a macabre remnant of creative energy, a bleached skull.

The idea of lifelessness is reinforced by the next lines. The reader is jerked back to the surface world, but the boundaries of reality are still blurred. In a reversal of the usual metaphoric technique in the first stanza where horses represented words, words are now spoken of as if they were horses. The power and purpose behind the words is gone, however; they are “dry and riderless.” The words seem to have taken on a power of their own, outside the control of their creator. They have become as strangers one might meet on the road.

Finally, as if to escape those “indefatigable hoof-taps,” the poem, like the skull, sinks to the bottom of the pool, away from the energy, the pain, and the nightmarish confusion, to a place of certainty.

Forms and Devices

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Metaphor is the overriding device of “Words.” Because there is no narrative framework, even a superficial reading requires some interpretation of its metaphor. Plath does not make the reader’s task easy, but she does supply the clues. The interlocking nature of the metaphors unifies the poem and leads the reader to understanding. In the first stanza, Plath links two seemingly disparate images, axes and horses. By emphasizing the common ground of echoing sound, movement out from the center, and energy, these images restate the central image. When, in the third stanza, words are spoken of specifically as horses, one understands “words” also to be the referent of the earlier metaphors. Because Plath is a poet and this is a poem, words imply poetry.

Plath uses metaphor as more than a device for seeing experience in a new light. In this poem, she uses progressive linking of subtly changing imagery to mirror a changing mental state. Ax strokes are an image of power and controlled force. Galloping horses are exhilarating but imply the potential for loss of control. In stanza 2, the welling sap and tears suggest a reaction to the preceding violent energy, a wounded state. In stanza 3, the descent of the rock into the pool mirrors a mental descent into a nightmarish world where stones become skulls and the creative mind is a dead and empty shell. Using similar imagery in “Paralytic,” which was written only a few days before “Words,” Plath says, “My mind a rock,/ No fingers to grip, no tongue.” The imagery of “Words” lets the reader into the trapped nightmare world of that mind, a world unseen by the outside observer because the water has smoothed over and is now a mirror that hides the depths.

In the last two lines of the third stanza and the first two of the last, the poet rises briefly from the depths and sees her past work. Now, “years later,” her words seem meaningless. “Dry and riderless,” they have lost the urgency of their creation. Finally, the effort of creativity seems too much. The exhilaration has given way to the relentless demands of the “indefatigable hoof-taps,” and the mood is of surrender to inevitability.

The metaphoric movement is from energy to stasis, from manic creative energy to pain, to madness, to brief barren lucidity, and finally to quiescence, the still certainty of the bottom of the pool. The ultimate quiescence is death. The movement toward death is a pervasive theme in Plath’s poetry, and she has used similar imagery elsewhere. For example, in “Getting There,” she speaks of the longing for death: “Is there no still place/ Turning and turning in the middle air.” At the end of “Words,” the poet has surrendered to the “fixed star” of death that has pervaded her life and her work. There is no escaping this inference, given the fact that “Words” was written only ten days before Sylvia Plath’s death by suicide.


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