Sylvia Plath

‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath is one of the poet’s most famous poems. It details an incident in which she almost cut off her own thumb.

Sylvia Plath

Although Sylvia Plath was succeeding poetically, she was still deeply unhappy.

She tried to kill herself a number of times throughout the early 60s and in February of 1963, she succeeded.

This poem was completed in October of 1962 around the time that Plath was writing some of her other most important poems, include Lady Lazarus’. In ‘Cut,’ Plath explores themes of separation, loss, and alienation. The tone is direct as the speaker addresses her injury and everything it reminds her of.

Cut by Sylvia Plath

Summary of Cut 

Cut’ by Sylvia Plath is a powerful poem, and one of Plath’s best-loved. It addresses an accident where she almost cut off her thumb. 

The poem uses a series of images to describe what happened and what it made the poet think of afterward. Plath compares her thumb to a scalped pilgrim, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a dirty girl, a stump, and a trepanned veteran. These disparate images come together to create a very unusual poem that creates a clear picture of the injury and alludes to the speaker’s mental and emotional state. 

Structure of Cut

‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath is a ten-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, this is a technique known as free verse.. The lines are all quite short, ranging from two words up to seven. 

Throughout, Plath makes use of unusual and surprising language. Her metaphors are complex and on the surface, strange. But, with analysis they all make sense. Plath is often considered to be the speaker of the poem as it is recorded that at one point she almost cut her own thumb off just like the speaker in ‘Cut’.

A reader should also take note of the dedication that appears before the first stanza of ‘Cut’. It reads “For Susan O’Neill Roe”. A friend of Plath’s, Roe is known to have helped her after her divorce from Ted Hughes. 

Poetic Techniques in Cut 

Plath makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Cut’. These include, but are not limited to, metaphors, similes, and imagery. The first, metaphor, is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. This is perhaps the most important technique at work in ‘Cut’. 

Metaphors can be seen throughout as the speaker addresses her thumb and everything it makes her think of. For example, these lines from the eighth stanza: “The stain on your / Gauze Ku Klux Klan / Babushka”.Here, she is comparing the gauze on her recently cut thumb to a white Ku Klux Klan hood and to the wrap a babushka, or Russian grandmother, would wear. 

A simile is similar to a metaphor as it deals with comparisons. But, similes always use “like” or “as” between the two things being juxtaposed. For example, in the second stanza where the speaker describes the skin hanging off her thumb: “Of skin, / A flap like a hat”. 

Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. This point is packed full of important images. Some of the best include the fizzing pink of her thumb and its blood, the “turkey wattle” she uses to compare the dripping blood to, and that of the darkening and tarnishing bandage. 

Analysis of Cut

Stanza One

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

In the first stanza of ‘Cut’ the speaker notes, very bluntly, that cutting the top of her thumb was “a thrill”. It was a shock in amongst the mundanity of everyday life. She cut it rather than the onion she was supposed to be chopping. The poet does not address how painful this accident was or if she was scared, instead, she delves right into a series of metaphors and similes to describe what it looked like.

The first of these is a “hinge”. Her skin is rocking back and forth, barely holding on where she cut it. This gruesome image is only the first in a series of very clear and evocative depictions of the injury.

Stanza Two

Of skin,
Then that red plush.

The skin also appears to the poet as a “hat,” as if the flap can be taken off and put back on again. It is “Dead white”. The use of the word “dead” in the third line is shocking. The hard “d” syllable contributes to the solidity of the line, as does the use of end-punctuation. Under the “hat” of her skin is the “red plush” of her blood.

Stanzas Three and Four

Little pilgrim,
The Indian’s axed your scalp.
Clutching my bottle
Of pink fizz.

The next metaphor is one of the most creative. She continues to consider colors and decides that it looks like a little pilgrim that’s been scalped by an “Indian”. The top of its head has come right off. In contrast to this image, which is dark and disturbing, is the lighter one of the “turkey wattle”. This is used to speak on the drips of blood that are running down her hand onto the carpet. 

The fourth stanza depicts Plath as stepping on the blood on the carpet, likely making it a permanent stain. She clutches at her hand, referring to her thumb as a “bottle / Of pink fizz”. 

Stanzas Five and Six

A celebration, this is.
Out of a gap
Homunculus, I am ill.
I have taken a pill to kill

At the halfway point of ‘Cut’ Plath reasserts the thrilling nature of this accident. It is “A celebration”. The next metaphor she uses to describe her thumb is that of “Redcoats” running out of a gap. They’re fleeing, millions of them. This is of course a reference to the blood that’s running down her hand. 

In the sixth stanza, some readers have taken as a reference to Ted Hughes, Plath’s ex-husband who had recently been publicly revealed as cheating on her. She calls him a “homunculus” or a little man, something she’d done before in other writings. These lines address her injury on the surface, but they are deeper than that. They allude to larger personal and mental problems with phrases like “I have taken a pill” and “I am ill”. 

Stanzas Seven and Eight

The thin
Papery feeling.
Darkens and tarnishes and when

She took her pills in an attempt to fend off the pain, which is really described as a thin “Papery feeling,” as if one could blow away. Things seem to be changing at this point, the thumb is more dangerous than it was in the previous lines. Now it is a “Saboteur” and a “Kamikaze man” as if it is trying to create death or is headed for death itself.

This darkness is continued in the next lines with the reference to the “Ku Klux Klan”. She has wrapped her thumb up and the white bandage makes her think of these foreboding and distasteful figures. But, at the same time, she thinks of a babushka, or a Russian grandmother. These juxtaposed images are powerful and strange. The bandage gets darker as her thoughts do.

Stanzas Nine and Ten

The balled
Pulp of your heart
Dirty girl,
Thumb stump.

In the second to last stanza of ‘Cut’ the speaker addresses her thumb and the “pulp” of its heart. These lines are less clear, but they continue the feeling of alienation that has spanned the entire poem. Plath continues to address her hand as if it is not her own. 

The final lines reference the act of trepanning in which a hole is drilled in one’s head in order to relieve pressure and as a very violent and unnecessary “cure” for a variety of remedies. In this case, the procedure is done to a “veteran,” someone who has been brave, suffered, and is now suffering more. The last phrase used is “Thumb stump”. These half-rhymed words conclude the poem and once more set the poet’s hand as separate from her. It is simply something she is addressing. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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