In this article, I will examine Metaphors by Sylvia Plath. I will begin by discussing the poem’s general meaning, move onto a line-by-line analysis, and finish a note about the structure and historical context of the poem.
What is Metaphors about?
This poem is about pregnancy. Plath’s work is largely autobiographical, and this piece was written during her first pregnancy. It examines the aesthetics, effects, and implications of motherhood. On close examination, it implies that Plath was at least somewhat ambivalent about giving birth.
Line One: I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
In the first line of the poem, Plath sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Playfully, the reader is informed that the speaker (Plath) is a riddle. As implied by the piece’s title, this is first of many puckish metaphors. The poet challenges her readers to find the correct answer.
The first line offers at least two clues. First, is the reference to the number of syllables. Looking closely, the first line does in fact contain nine syllables (each line does in fact). Second is the number nine itself as pregnancy is typically expected to last nine months. The fact that “nine” is mentioned explicitly and that the number syllables per line is nine emphasizes the numbers importance to the overall meaning of the poem.
The two images, of an elephant and a ponderous house, contained in the second line of Metaphors both refer to form. Plath, somewhat self deprecatingly, refers to herself as “an elephant.” The pachyderm is, of course, a huge animal, but less obvious is the maternal nature of the beast. Elephants live in herds of mothers and children, led by an older matron. Male elephants are driven away at adulthood and live largely solitary existences, save for mating. It’s possible that Plath admired this aspect of elephant society.
The second metaphor in this line, “a ponderous house,” refers to something large, sheltering. The allusion to pregnancy is more obvious here pregnant woman could reasonably be said to house her child, after all.
Line Three: A melon strolling on two tendrils.
Here the imagery is slightly more comical, as Plath calls to mind an overripe piece of fruit meandering down the street on leg-like vines. Again, this line is drawing attention to the aesthetics of pregnancy. The swollen belly becomes an oversized melon, with slender, twig like legs holding up the added baby weight.
On a deeper level, fruit is the by-product of reproduction. The tree is pollinated; its buds swell into juicy fruit, full of its young, in the form of seeds.
Line Four: O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
Here the metaphor from the previous line is continued and expanded on. The “red fruit” likely refers to Plath’s daughter, growing, ripening by the minute in the red flesh of her mothers womb.
“Ivory” could be a reference to Plath’s skin, and the “fine timbers” would be her legs. The poet was known, in part, for being beautiful, after all. In this line, I imagine Plath looking down, skin stretched tightly over her belly like a melon’s rind, her legs dwarfed, twig like. Perhaps the poet felt like the trunk of a tree weighed down with fruit.
In line 5, Plath refers to herself to a loaf of bread, growing larger by the moment. This metaphor is particularly apt for a couple of reasons. First, like bread, pregnant women, and their fetuses, undergo a number of changes. They grow, change shape, and become more complex on a cellular level.
The second reason this is an appropriate metaphor is the yeast. An integral part of the bread making process, yeast is, in fact, alive. It is a living thing suspended inside the bread making it grow, transforming it from the inside out, just as a woman is transformed by the life growing inside of her.
Line Six: Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
Plath continues to poke fun at herself in this line by referring to herself as a “fat purse.” She probably did feel a bit overstuffed, but what is somewhat troubling is how she refers to her unborn child: “money’s new-minted.”
Did the poet see her daughter as a commodity? Or did she fear that the child would be exploited somehow? The latter seems more likely given her tumultuous relationship with the child’s father, but it’s unclear to what extent this preyed on Plath’s mind.
Line Seven: I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
The poet begins to explore some her more ambivalent feelings toward pregnancy in this line. She feels like “a means,” something that is used to achieve someone else’s goal. She is “a stage,” a place for other lives to play out, and “a cow in calf,” a beast of burden used to produce meat and milk.
This line implies a couple of things. First, that Plath feels used. Perhaps she feels that the baby was not her idea, that she was forced into pregnancy situation somehow. It could also be that the feels used by her unborn child itself.
The second implication of this line comes from the “cow in calf” metaphor. What is the destiny of a calf? Calves are, at best, routinely taken from their mothers’ teats and sold. At worst, they are eaten. Plath clearly had some anxiety about her child’s fate.
In line 8, Plath describes herself as being full of fruit, possibly unripe fruit. Anyone who ate a bag full of apples would undoubtedly find themselves bloated and uncomfortable. Again, the fruit is a metaphor for her unborn child. Plath is uncomfortably full of her unripe fruit at this point.
In the final metaphor of the piece on the last line (line 9), Plath describes a feeling of helplessness. She is bound for an unknown destination and unable to stop. She undoubtedly felt powerless, waiting for her child to be born, not knowing when it would happen, what the consequences would be, or what would become of the child. This somewhat bleak conclusion further implies the anxiety felt by Plath during her pregnancy.
As aforementioned, Metaphors was written while Plath was pregnant with her first child and published in 1959. Freida Rebecca Hughes, daughter of Plath and her then husband Ted Hughes, was born April 1, 1960. Plath’s relationships with her children are generally regarded as her happiest and healthiest, despite the ambivalence displayed in this particular piece.
It’s also worth noting that apportion was more or less illegal in the US until 1973. The FDA didn’t approve the first oral contraceptive for women until 1960 (after the publication of this poem). It’s possible that these factors contributed to the lack of control Plath expressed in the final lines.
While this poem is written in free verse, it is nonetheless highly structured. It is nine lines long, each line containing nine syllables. As the title implies, it consists of a list of several seemingly unconnected metaphors. Taken as a whole, these metaphors paint a picture of how Plath felt and viewed herself during her pregnancy.