The Moon and the Yew Tree – Sylvia Path – Comments

The Moon and The Yew Tree
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary 
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky --
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness -
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness - blackness and silence.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

This poem was composed in October 1961 when SP was living at ‘Court Green’ cottage North Tawton, Devon. At that stage her marriage with Ted Hughes was still intact. The cottage was close to St Peter’s Church which was visible when she was writing. And at some stage she would have ventured inside.

A carefully designed poem of four seven-line stanzas with distinct sentence punctuation.

S1 … Clearly written at nighttime where SP invokes a ghostly graveyard presence. And there was a mist evident to add to such a scene. The moon has that association with the mind and lunacy. The griefs being the gravestones in rows. As if I was God – well, SP is not God and cannot perform miracles on the dead. The trees stand out black and the light from the moon blue. She cannot see the path through to the Church

S2 … This stanza has two distinct parts. SP personifies her emotional state on to the moon – white as a knuckle and terribly upset. I like the image of the moon dragging or sucking up the sea like a thief. It conjures up a rain squall coming off the sea. SP says this is where she lives, and she knows the sound the church bells make every Sunday morning.

Christianity and resurrection then come to mind in relation to the dead and the gravestones. But the bells only bong out their names – the names on the gravestones. SP is clearly dead to the thoughts of any resurrection to an afterlife.

S3 … The yew tree points up. Gothic shape implying dark and morbid.  It is worth considering the symbolic representation of the yew tree –

Christian stories of resurrection led the tree to become a symbol of eternal life. As the trunk of the tree begins to decay, a new tree can form. This represents the cycle of life that makes Yew trees a symbol of rebirth as well.

But there is no tenderness, sadly only a Mother Moon image associated with a wild nature represented by seeing bats and owls fly up unleashed against the ghostly blue light.

How SP would like it to be otherwise.

S4 … It looks like clouds are causing the firmaments to be seen and not seen. The inside of the church is the scene of fixed figures and maybe the stained-glass windows can record saints seen above the pews. Again, a cold dead image of being stiff with holiness as in no resurrection. The moon is wild and full of life unknowing of such human quandaries concerning death. The message of the Yew tree is black. SP is displaying her view on religion and the resurrection. The poem ends with a dark depressive feeling.

See this link for a video of Court Green and the Church – Sylvia Plath Video & Picture Post: Court Green ( … and courtesy of this Site –

Court Green – from the Church of St Peter’s
at North Tawton, Devon

Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows – Sylvia Plath – comments

Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows

There, spring lambs jam the sheepfold. In air
Stilled, silvered as water in a glass
Nothing is big or far.
The small shrew chitters from its wilderness
Of grassheads and is heard.
Each thumb-sized bird
Fits nimble-winged in thickets, and of good colour.

Cloudrack and owl-hollowed willows slanting over
The bland Granta double their white and green
World under the sheer water
And ride that flux at anchor, upside down.
The punter sinks his pole.
In Byron’s pool
Cattails part where the tame cygnets steer.

It is a country on a nursery plate.
Spotted cows revolve their jaws and crop
Red clover or gnaw beetroot
Bellied on a nimbus of sun-glazed buttercup.
Hedging meadows of benign
Arcadian green
The blood-berried hawthorn hides its spines with white.

Droll, vegetarian, the water rat
Saws down a reed and swims from his limber grove,
While the students stroll or sit,
Hands laced, in a moony indolence of love —
Black-gowned, but unaware
How in such mild air
The owl shall stoop from his turret, the rat cry out.

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

King’s College Cambridge owns Grantchester Meadows, a riverside beauty spot south of Cambridge. This area would be familiar to SP when at Cambridge. There may have been a Watercolour at the University. Apparently, it was written when she was in America in 1959 after returning there with Ted Hughes after their marriage.

The Granta is a tributary of the Cam.

Byron’s Pool is a well-known beauty spot where Byron used to bathe.

It is an ekphrastic poem before that word had poetic coinage. According to the Poetry Foundation, “an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.”. You can appreciate the text without needing a sighting of the Watercolour. And it is an SP poem which is easy to understand.

Students would be familiar with punting on the Cam. It is a nursery plate image; a quintessential image associated with England by those overseas.

Nimbus – a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere about a god or goddess when on earth. I do like that line – bellied on a nimbus of sun-glazed buttercup – it conjures up bright summer meadow flower sunshine relevant to my England heritage.

And we learn that water rats are vegetarians. I am always impressed by SP in how she uses her wide vocabulary in the choice of appropriate words. In the case of the water rat the verb saws = rapid two and throw motion, and the adjective limber = lithe. Implying skill in movement in the water.

Students and tourists often travel from Cambridge by punt to picnic in the meadows or take tea at The Orchard tea-rooms. But do the students really listen to the environment; especially when minds are locked in thought or otherwise engaged in romancing with a lover. And today locked in mobile use while walking.

Sylvia Plath on Wikipedia.

Stillborn – Sylvia Plath – Analysis


These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.

O I cannot understand what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
They smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.

They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy and a fishy air –
It would be better if they were alive, and that’s what they were.
But they are not dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,
And they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her.

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

This is an appropriate poem on her birthday seeing most remember her death day more than her birthday; and nice to be on the brighter side of life.

This is a poem all about the creation process, the giving of birth to a poem. For SP her poems were always her special babies. This is in contrast to Ted Hughes who regarded his poems as animals.

A poem has to live and the irony is that this is a poem that actually lives. We must assume she is talking about all her other poems, all those poems that never quite made it to her own requirement. Interestingly, at least according to TH, she never threw anything away so she would have had a workshop of pickled poems so in that sense they are not dead. They are still alive within the poet even if not breathing.

She does state there was a birth but perhaps it only lived in her mind. The thing is, it is all to do with the transfer of mind thought to actual physical words. Quite often the poet has a marvellous Aha at night but when recalled in the hard light of day finds it is not quite right and it goes in the waste paper bin.

Poems always say something about the poet, just as a child carries DNA from parents. The strong link between mother and baby or poet and poem is emphasised by the repetition of ‘smile’ in the line ‘they smile and smile and smile at me’. This may indicate that the poem is near completion. And the last line is quite appropriate as SP is left frustrated and unsung – they do not speak. A strong sense of wanting to achieve and be recognised as a poet and be heard.

So what makes a good birth … maybe assistance is needed … a midwife perhaps … or a nurse to bring the baby to the breathing state. It is important to share poetry before finalisation, but to what extent and who to share with?

Anyway SP babies live on in abundance breathing their existence, even if some have a depressive tint.

To end on a bright note here is a link to her poem ‘Morning Song, the first poem of her Ariel collection – a different birth!

Lady Lazarus – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Lay Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

The title Lady Lazarus rolls off the tongue with alliteration and assonance. She uses interior rhyme. Colloquial expression gives emphasis to the passion of her delivery –
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
She mentions her age of 30 years … I am only thirty … she turned 30 on the 27th October 1962 … so this dates the poem … her most productive time as a poet.

There are 28 three line stanzas involving reference to –
SP’s previous suicide attempts – with personal details … like her scars
The Holocaust … she identifies her ‘death and resurrection’ in terms of those that died in the gas chambers. In her final attempt she dies with her head in an oven.
Religion – Lazarus – resurrection – She details what her ‘resurrection’ signifies.
Her life … she sees herself as an artist …
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

It is a very strong stand-up ‘I’ poem declared in strong passionate terms. And rallying against those guilty of inhumanity. A confrontation with Herr God, Herr Doktor, Herr Lucifer.

SP was only nine years old when her father died and this caused an anger against death in taking him away, he had a German heritage … she became aware of the holocaust and the terrors of death in the camps when a child being born in 1932 … again angry with such death … caused by man … and at the time of writing this poem, in October 1962, Ted Hughes had left her and perhaps an ’emotional death’ and distrust created similar anger against man. This poem is often seen as a statement for female emancipation.

SP identifies with those who died in the Holocaust … she herself as of lampshade skin … and the picture of body decay presents distastful morbid imagery to the reader as …
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
(note the internal structure to the middle line)

SP sees herself as an expert at attempted suicide and returning … and she considers her skill as a theatrical performance … before the peanut-crunchers … performing a miracle for all to see. She did get much recognition in regard to her suicide attempts and there is always a certain context shadow when reading some of her poetry.

But she will survive like Lazarus … the great miracle … and when she is ‘unwrapped’ it will be the big strip tease … regarding her revival as exciting entertainment … to see what’s underneath … to see her new born again body (peel off my napkin)

Her second attempt nearly took her life … she was discovered just ‘as the worms were setting in’
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

And there she is in the Holocaust as just ash … the Holocaust being defined by …
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

And there is nothing there … but there is a charge for the rebirth … a restitution for the unjust dead? … and she will rise out of this …out of the ashes … representing all those that died … she will arise and give rebirth … new life … a little far-fetched but perhaps she imagined herself as some sort of warped female Christ
Herr God, Herr Lucifer

And SP states that this is for you … for humanity … with a hatred for man
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
(opus – creative piece of work … pure gold)

In summary … this is clearly a personal poem of anger … defining herself in strong Ok terms … about death (and unjust death) … about her challenge of defying death … and beating death and those that have caused terrible death … laughing back at them … returning to life with fire and energy as a female … and devouring terrible MAN … clearly seen by the last stanza …
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Sylvia Plath on Wikipedia


Wintering -Sylvia Plath


This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife’s extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,

Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam
and the bottles of empty glitters —-
Sir So-and-so’s gin.

This is the room I have never been in
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
No light
But the torch and its faint

Chinese yellow on appalling objects —-
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,

Only ignorant.
This is the time of hanging on for the bees–the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin

To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.

Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,

Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women —-
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanis walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

Sylvia Path (1932 -1963) 9 October 1962

This is the last poem in the SP ‘Ariel’ sequence of poems. It was written in October 1962 a most productive time of writing for SP and while she was living in a flat in London after the breakup of her marriage with Ted Hughes and moving from Devon. SP had been involved in bee keeping in Devon. The following comments look behind the literal to the symbolism and in relation to the personal life of SP.

S1 … well now that SP has finished the ‘Ariel’ poems maybe it is a season of ease and just as the bees are hibernating so perhaps SP has alloted poetry-space before new writing. The bees have produced honey just as she has produced poems. She has referred to her poems as her babies so the midwife extraction could be seen in this light. But we do know she had been involved in bees at the cottage in Devon and so she is actually referring to the six jars in the cellar the liquid gold radiating like ‘cat’s eyes’. but more than that she has been married for six years, so this can be seen as the product – the precious store, from her marriage life which of course included poems.

S2 … The details of the cellar are described in relation to what has happened to other people’s projects. SP may be contemplating what will happen to her work. Of course her work has not been lost over the years and is very much alive today!

S3, S4 … The cellar is a very emotive object in the life of SP for it is the place associated with her attempted suicide when she spent three days in a cellar before being discovered. But in this instant I think she is using the cellar to represent herself – she has never been there – never quite found who she is and felt a stranger to life. The Chinese yellow implying that her insight to herself is from a foreign light. The cellar is dark damp and foreboding akin to her depressive nature. It is as though these appalling cellar objects have taken possession of her – as though she has no control – no control over her depressive state.

S5, S6 … It is the season of hibernation and the bees are given sugar so that they survive … she does not recognise them … they are not in worker mode … just as she is not in worker mode, in transition. She is not really living … not creating poems … so she has to exist on other means of keeping alive just as the bees have to live on the sugar from ‘Tate and Lyle’.

S7, S8 …The bees congregate in mass in order to survive the cold conditions. They are the survivors seen in the sugar like Meissen – porcelain, precious. SP identifies with survival like the bees. Only the women survive the men hopeless, identifying with the liberating force of femininity much needed in her days. Her father died at the age of eight and she showed her angst against him for such an act in her poem ‘Daddy’. Ted Hughes has left her so it is all up to her now a survivor and a woman.

S9 … Winter is associated with women because it is the death time. Women live in the male dominant culture of 1963, and perhaps she is slating those around her who are just content to knit rather than being proactive for change. Such women are seen as being more interested in their appearance than dealing with the ‘cold’ of their every-day life. The body is shown as a bulb showing the warmth the body generates and the link to the joy of birth that only a woman can know – so at least women can get joy this way.

S10 … Will the bees survive? Will SP survive? Will there be something at Christmas to give help? Will there be an inbuilt feeling for the future, for the spring? The last line gives that great positive statement of hope – ‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring’.

Unfortunately SP did not taste the spring – she commited suicide on 11 February 1963. Today (27/9/2018) is the day of her birthday and she would have been 86 years old.

SP on Wikipedia

Wuthering Heights – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Wuthering Heights

The horizons ring me like faggots,
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
Touched by a match, they might warm me,
And their fine lines singe
The air to orange
Before the distances they pin evaporate,
Weighting the pale sky with a soldier color.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Gray as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
All wig curls and yellow teeth
And hard, marbly baas.

I come to wheel ruts, and water
Limpid as the solitudes
That flee through my fingers.
Hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass;
Lintel and sill have unhinged themselves.
Of people and the air only
Remembers a few odd syllables.
It rehearses them moaningly:
Black stone, black stone.

The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
Among all horizontals.
The grass is beating its head distractedly.
It is too delicate
For a life in such company;
Darkness terrifies it.
Now, in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

Sylvia Plath (1930 – 1963)

This is a poem of place and SP lived in Yorkshire with Ted Hughes for a time and must have gone walking on the moors. I lived in Ilkley Yorkshire while studying so I can identify with these words as they convey the nature of the windswept moors.

Mention the word ‘wuthering’ and you immediately think of blustery winds, Yorkshire moors and Emily Bronte. And the title takes the mind to that most well-known of books ‘Wuthering Heights’. See this review.

S1 – Faggots and peat are a feature of moorland and were used as fuel, a faggot being defined as a bundle of sticks. The imagery is about sunset likened to the glow and death of singeing faggots. The sun catching the edges of cloud as it lowers in the sky. The moors are vast open expanses and the horizon features in all directions. Distances evaporate with the changing light like promises. SP touches an air of disappointment.

S2 – There is no life higher than the bending grasses and the odd sheep. The wind hurries with unending force bending nature in the prevailing direction. It hurries like destiny. SP stands out like a lone tree and must confront the onslaught as it continually chills. She wouldn’t want to stumble and join the white sheep-bones seen along the way in the heather. From my own experience there are vast tracks of land with little opportunity of shelter.

S3 – A very apt description of the moorland sheep. They do match the bleakness of the moors with their dirty wool-clouds – an appropriate combination of nouns. And of course they are used to the terrain. Grandmotherly disguise belies their more timid nature. And when alone on the moors you are in another world with only the sheep for company.

S4 – The track, ruts and grass clumps are likened to fallen architecture imagined as homes with hollow doorsteps the lintels and stills unhinged of people. The only conversation is from the wind which makes a few odd moaning syllables. The loneliness or solitude is reinforced. The repetition of black adds to the mood as well as implying it is now dark.

S5 – SP has sympathy for the grass terrified by the wind and the dark how can it survive. But SP is approaching the homeward descent and the lights of homes in the distance give anticipation of warmth and company in contrast to the moorland. The lights are likened to loose change. Indicating something personal that will give comfort when she returns. Something perhaps she has had with her all the time in her pocket which she now values very much.

Not that long later Sylvia plath had her final resting place in West Yorkshire for her grave is at St Thomas’ churhyard in the village of Heptonstall.

Sylvia Plath on Wikipedia. 


Remembering Sylvia … ‘Poppies in October’ …

Remembering Sylvia Plath who would have been 85 today …


Poppies in October

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly –

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frosts, in a dawn of cornflowers.

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

Analysis …

Nothing in sun and sky can match the poppy skirts (petals) in their colour … nor the woman (reference to herself) in the ambulance whose red heart is amazingly kept alive … the woman close to death … others not so lucky … she has been rescued and will survive.

This late showing is out of context with the season … and is a gift unasked for …and in this regard, SP could be talking about her astoundingly good luck in surviving her earlier suicide attempt … her red heart did bloom … how come she was saved? … how come she was given a second chance? … SP did not ask for this … to be re-born … at least she acknowledges this gift as a ‘love-gift’ … even if she is not thankful.

… the action of the heart – ‘igniting its carbon monoxides’ (carbon monoxide has a stronger bind to haemoglobin than oxygen) … igniting – coming alive again … the medicos that saved her did not know her … see her red passion, her emotional state … how could they … they wear bowler hats … head-centric on their work

… and then the lament of not knowing who she is … the poppy in October … out of context … but still alive … she cries aloud for some understanding … why should she be alive in a ‘forest of frosts’ (in a deep tangle where growth is unlikely – how she saw her life) and in a ‘dawn of cornflowers’ (emerging against the bland mass of the common … a little arrogance perhaps)

… this poem was written on SP’s last birthday (27 Oct 1962) … her 30th birthday … at a time when she was living by herself (with the two children) in London – separated from Ted Hughes … she also wrote another poem ‘Ariel’ on the same day … so she had time to herself on this day to devote to poetry … and to question her existence … to question why she has survived out of season (like the poppy) … and to ask why she is still alive … and inferred – why is live so hard … it is a cry for an explanation from the deep intensity of her being for a meaning in her troubled world … questioned in a state of mental unrest..

… and whether any physical poppies were around on this her birthday is open to question … they could be mind-poppies … (refer also to a previous poem ‘Poppies in July’ written in Devon in the summer … when times were different.)

Here is a link to a recommended Site with 10 years of discussion material on the work of Sylvia Plath …

Here is the text of the interview with Sylvia Plath by Peter Orr (of the British Council) – recorded on 30 October 1962 (just after her 30th birthday) … Interview Sylvia Plath 30 Oct 1962 …


… during the Autumn of 1962 SP was at a poetic high producing some of her best work … the irony of the situation that although given a second life after her first suicide attempt and although adjusting to her new life without TH it would not be that long before she would succumb to sever depression and a fatal suicide. There would be no second ‘Lazarus‘.

… the poppy image was from the Australian spring taken at an open garden.

Cut – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

For Susan O’Neill Roe

What a thrill —-
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of a hinge

Of skin,
A flap like a hat,
Dead white.
Then that red plush.

Little pilgrim,
The Indian’s axed your scalp.
Your turkey wattle
Carpet rolls

Straight from the heart.
I step on it,
Clutching my bottle
Of pink fizz.

A celebration, this is.
Out of a gap
A million soldiers run,
Redcoats, every one.

Whose side are they on?
O my
Homunculus, I am ill.
I have taken a pill to kill

The thin
Papery feeling.
Kamikaze man —

The stain on your
Gauze Ku Klux Klan
Darkens and tarnishes and when

The balled
Pulp of your heart
Confronts its small
Mill of silence

How you jump —
Trepanned veteran,
Dirty girl,
Thumb stump.

Sylvia Plath  – 24 October 1962
(1932 – 1963)

Short sharp snappy words cut to a core … appropriate construction considering the event being described … there is no time for long deliberation. She would not have had time to compose the poem at the time of the incident but it certainly provided material for her to write a poem. It was dedicated to her nanny Susan O’Neill Roe who looked after her two young children and perhaps provided the time for her to write this work.

‘Cut’ was one of many productive poems generated in October 1962 when SP lived in London after the separation with Ted Hughes and is included in her Ariel collection.

S1 … it looks like an accident when cutting an onion … but it comes as a thrill as though something exciting has happened in a dull life … or, knowing SP’s history, during a depressive state … so instead of looking on the initial experience with horror SP steps back and lets the cut open a window for exploration … the hinge indicating an escape

S2 … this is what happens as she views the cut as the first pulse of blood comes into the dead white skin … flap like a hat – nice one syllable internal rhyme

S3 … the thumb is a little pilgrim (re: American history and the scalping of missionaries by Indians) … the thumb takes on personification … a drop of blood falls on the carpet into wool and a very apt description of the red flow into wool – like a turkey wattle

S4 … perhaps SP inadvertently treads on the blood on the carpet … she might at this stage try to stop the bleeding too … her thumb becomes a bottle of ‘pink fizz’ … so there might have been quite an initial squirt … to die out as she deals with the flow by clutching on to her thumb perhaps with her other hand

S5 … SP likens the blood flow to the Redcoats (British) in the American Civil War escaping through a gap as her blood is escaping through the cut … and as she is now escaping from the drudgery of life by this event that has given her such an unexpected thrill

S6 … well, which side is the blood on … it is her blood and escaping from her … she now realises that all is not well and she has started to feel pain so takes a pill … the thumb now becomes a little man (homunculus) … some commentators have equated this reference to Ted Hughes as he has been cut-off … but like her thumb SP cannot completely cut-off TH or the flap of skin.

S7 … a thin papery feeling – apt description of the sensation as she touches the thmb … and again the male reference to a saboteur and more extreme a kamikaze – a suicide … again thoughts go to TH … whether she would like to remove TH is this fashion or alternatively whether TH has caused the cut himself by leaving her … part of her missing

S8 … it seems she has now put a gauze dressing on the thumb to stem the bleeding and that it soaked and stained the material … another male reference this time to the exclusive group the Ku Klux Klan (an extreme group that advocated white supremacy) and the gauze takes on a Russian flavour – babushka (a headscarf tied under the chin, typical of those traditionally worn by Russian women) … the thumb becomes a head wound

S9 … the flow of blood … the heart pulp … is eventually contained … the blood mill is silenced, the fizz gone … the heart equated to a mill continually circulating … and the bandage, or babushka, dirtied … and like the first stanza there is strong emotion in a jump … a jump in her thought …

S10 … the trepanned veteran (trepan – to ensnarl) … and, following my poetic fancy, – she has been caught by the TH /Assia Wevill adultery and is now a dirty girl … SP is soiled by this experience, part of herself left hanging … and then the last line – the thumb reverts to just a stump rather than any implied poetic considerations of earlier stanzas – something she just has to live with – just as she has to live with the broken relationship with TH.