‘Elm’ by Sylvia Plath, like many of her poems is incomprehensible due to the rich use of symbolism. It is one of the best philosophical poems that deal with the loss of love. Though the beginning of the poem sounds like a protest against the male for abandoning the female counterpart, it ends as a self-mockery on the female self. Like Robert Lowell, Plath turns external and internal chaos into artistic irony. The “Elm tree” is a tree associated with rebirth, as “the yew tree” in Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree,’ is associated with death.
Summary of the Poem Elm
Sylvia Plath’s ‘Elm’ starts with the image of the elm tree as a woman who knows the nature of truth through personal experience. This knowledge gives her the voice unfolding her bitter experience. The love is described as a shadow, and irretrievable as the sound of the hooves of a horse running away. The loss of love and its suffering alludes to sunset and the gravitation power of the moon. The impact of lost love over a woman is like a violent storm, it not only affects her but those who are closely related too. The female love victim carries in her a small bird, which still cries for love. However, by this time, the speaker has got an understanding of love’s ephemeral nature. Finally, she understands from her reasons for suffering, it is herself, her lost will, that kills from within.
Read the full poem of Sylvia Plath’s Elm here
Form and Structure of Elm
The poem “Elm,” is written in free verse, structured like a dramatic monologue, also indicated by the title of the collection “The Elm Speaks.” In contrast to the regular dramatic monologue that has a sole speaker, here the elm tree has its voice mediated through the poet. It has fourteen stanzas of three lines each. The first seven stanzas depict the deceitful nature of love and loss of love. It could transform a woman into a violent and revengeful person, who is dreaded by herself. In the last seven stanzas, Plath introspects and finds that it is not the loss of love that kills, but the fissures in the woman’s mind.
“Elm” shows the influence of Theodore Roethke, drawing the connection between nature and humankind. In reality, the elm in the poem refers to an enormous tree that stood by her house in Devon, England. The shifting image of the tree through seasons is associated with the mental turmoil of a suffering woman.
Theme of Elm
Plath’s ‘Elm’ could be superficially considered as a poem that demonstrates her observation of natural objects. For “Elm” could be enjoyed as a portrait of a tree from root to branches, all day and all seasons. When thinking of the time, in April 1962, when Plath’s first surge of fury, self-pity, and despair at her husband’s infidelity was widespread, it is a transformation of a woman of lost love. She has employed an objective view in the poem to examine the roots of her pain.
Imagery in the Elm
Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Elm’ has abundant images. The controlling image is of the elm tree, described from its root to the branches along with its transpiring image across the day and season. The poem has other images such as “the sea”, “the moon”, and “the snake.” The sea represents the inner distress and desperation. The moon is pictured as an imposing authority, an outside force. Eventually, she lets it go. The image of the snake, given in the phrases “sound of poisons” and “snaky acids kiss,” evokes the malignity of lost love. All the images are closely knit with the image of the elm tree, which embodies a female who experiences the loss of love.
Analysis of Elm
I know the bottom, she says.
( . . . )
I do not fear it: I have been there.
The first stanza of the ‘Elm’ begins in an appropriate form for a confessional poem, for the “I know”, is repeated twice to confess some knowledge that the tree has. The words “she says” engenders the tree as a female that gives an alternative voice to the tree in the poem. She knows the bottom of the knowledge with her “great tap root”. But the contrast here is that the readers “you” fear that knowledge which the tree doesn’t. This knowledge is a trope that establishes the root of the Western Canon since Genesis, and the same is revisited by the poet in this poem.
Is it the sea you hear in me,
( . . . )
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?
The second stanza of the ‘Elm’ establishes the reader’s misunderstandings of the Elm tree. It questions, whether they heard the restlessness of sea, its dissatisfaction, or just the “voice of nothing.” The final phrase “was that your madness?” clarifies that the tree has a voice, neither as boisterous like the sea or as quite as nothingness. This fullness of voice is further expressed as the poem progresses.
Love is a shadow.
( . . . )
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.
The third stanza of the ‘Elm’ is a direct metaphor. It compares “love” to a “Shadow.” One can simply see a shadow but not feel it. Moreover, it’s a mere trace of objects, it resembles. Similarly, crying and lying are the futile things according to the pot that expresses love. Further, love, like a horse runs off, what remains is just the mark left by its hooves.
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
( . . . )
The stanza four of the ‘Elm’ talks further about the metaphor of love being a horse. But, the voice of the poem becomes that of the horse itself. Like the horse that gallops impetuously, love could drive till “your head is a stone” and “your pillow a little turf,” giving the image of the grave. The last line “echoing, echoing” projects the word echoing echoes itself, upon the futility of love.
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
( . . . )
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.
The stanza five of the ‘Elm’ begins with “I”, the tree offering of the sound of poison. The line evokes the disassociation between the senses ‘sound’ and ‘sense of seeing or feeling. Line two clarifies, the question of how to hear the sound through the image of rain, and its “big hush” as the rain falls on the tree. The last line paints the rain (could tears) as a fruit of love that is “tin-white, like arsenic.” It also makes a perfect transition line for the next stanza which focuses on sights rather than sounds.
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
( . . . )
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
This stanza six employs color oriented imagery or symbols. The first line invokes colors associated with “sunsets”. Sunsets, symbolically associated with endings, depicts the loss of love. This day by day occurrence gives weight and understanding to the gloom of depression and the intensity of the suffering, “scorched to the root.” The last line speaks of the Elm’s filaments, burnt by the sun, symbolically referring to how love could drain one of all their energy.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
( . . . )
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
The stanza seven indicates transformation. “Now I break up in pieces” symbolizes emotional and mental break down caused by the lost love. The Elm speaking of the danger posed when the parts of her fly apart. The danger is not only to herself but for anyone or thing unfortunate to be close enough at that moment. The “wind of such violence” acknowledges the ferocity of the process and the outburst that follows in “I must shriek”. The tree undergoing the pain alludes to a woman suffering from depression.
The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
( . . . )
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
The stanza eight comments on the lack of support received from her surroundings. Even the “moon” often in contrast to the sun, express warmth, here seems as merciless on this occasion. The first line reiterates the gravitational effect of the moon that feels like trying to pull off the tree from the earth. The moon too is gendered as a female. Even the moon’s radiance is harming for the tree is standing without its leaves, indicates being guardless. Further, the tree gives a sly satisfaction when she says “perhaps I have caught her,” which gives an image of the leafless elm holding the moon in its branches.
I let her go. I let her go
( . . . )
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
The stanza nine of the ‘Elm’ deliberates the necessity of letting the moon go. The cyclic appearance of the Sun and Moon is inevitable, therefore Elm releases her. In addition, it talks of the deleterious effect the moon has on everything around her. The last line introduces both a sense of menace and pleasure, at being an object of attention.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
I am inhabited by a cry.
( . . . )
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
Stanza ten and eleven presents the image of a bird living within the Elm. It again characterizes the nature of love in dark and predatory terms. The little bit of love within her is waiting with its hooks for something to love. After all the pain endured, this remaining of this love terrifies the elm. It resides within her and passive all day. She feels it as soft and feathery, yet she finds these characteristics malign, because of its claws.
Clouds pass and disperse.
( . . . )
Is it for such I agitate my heart?
The stanza twelve of the ‘Elm’ begins with a more pensive attitude. She introspects her emotions as “Clouds pass and disperse,” meaning the subdued pain and sufferings. As she examines the transience and unsatisfactory nature of love, and realize them to be “irretrievables”. The stanza employs passive tone, compared to the preceding stanzas, to bring forth her detached observations. From the desperation, a sense of surrender transpires the stanza and the mood of the poem. The stanza concludes with an unequivocal note on ‘love’ being just another thing that does not require to be agitated over.
I am incapable of more knowledge.
( . . . )
So murderous in its strangle of branches?——
In the stanza thirteen of ‘Elm,’ the tree speaks of its incapability for more knowledge. It makes an allegorical reference to the tree of wisdom in the Garden of Eden. The Elm also speaks of a face that seems capable of murder hidden in branches separate from its owner. The Elm finds itself incapable of identifying the face as it is incapable of more knowledge.
Its snaky acids hiss.
( . . . )
That kill, that kill, that kill.
The final stanza of the ‘Elm’ returns to the Garden of Eden’s snake motif. The pain of the love with the snaky hiss that threatens the will. Ultimately in the final line, the poet isolates the reasons that from within a person kill than the outer force. The pain allowed to remain inside is the “slow faults” that kills.
Similar to the “Elm,” there are a number of poems in the literature that use vivid imagery and haunting words to convey the theme of rebirth or resurrection, especially mental evolution. Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees,” T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ also portrays a similar theme and writing style.