Elm – by Sylvia Plath



For Ruth Fainlight

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness.
Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Echoing, echoing.
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?
I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?——
Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.

Sylvia Plath, “Elm” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Editorial matter copyright © 1981 by Ted Hughes. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992.

“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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Plath suffered a nervous breakdown in Smith College, Boston, after intense overwork in 1953. She was given bi-polar electro-convulsive shock treatments; a horror alluded to in the poem ‘Elm’ of 1962. This treatment further damaged her sanity, and she attempted suicide. Six months in a private hospital set her on her feet again, but she never fully recovered. Depression and the threat of insanity remained a problem.

Marie-Thérèse O’Loughlin

Photo: Marie-Thérèse O’Loughlin. Clonskeagh Park, Dublin, Aug. ’12

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  1. Pingback: Elm – by Sylvia Plath | Marie-Thérèse O’Loughlin

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