BY SYLVIA PLATH
For Ruth FainlightI 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.IIIs it the sea you hear in me,Its dissatisfactions?Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness.IIILove is a shadow.How you lie and cry after itListen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.IVAll night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,Echoing, echoing.VOr 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.VII have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.Scorched to the rootMy red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.VIINow I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.A wind of such violenceWill tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.VIIIThe moon, also, is merciless: she would drag meCruelly, being barren.Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.VIIIII let her go. I let her goDiminished and flat, as after radical surgery.How your bad dreams possess and endow me.XI am inhabited by a cry.Nightly it flaps outLooking, with its hooks, for something to love.XII am terrified by this dark thingThat sleeps in me;All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.XIIClouds pass and disperse.Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?Is it for such I agitate my heart?XIIII am incapable of more knowledge.What is this, this faceSo murderous in its strangle of branches?——XIIIIIts snaky acids kiss.It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faultsThat 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.”Read more herePlath 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.