Sylvia Plath’s ‘Metaphors’ is about pregnancy. This poem is largely autobiographical, and it 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. The poem has been examined and analyzed in this article. This includes a discussion of the general meaning, structure, a detailed line-by-line analysis, and finishing on a note about the historical context of the poem.
This poem begins in the form of a riddle. According to the speaker, she is “a riddle in nine syllables”. It provides the first clue to the readers regarding the main idea of the poem. In the following lines, she describes how she feels being pregnant. She uses the metaphors of an elephant, ponderous house, melon, loaf of bread, fat purse, and cow. The description of the images as well as her thoughts revolving around pregnancy make it clear that she is tensed up about her future.
You can read the poem here.
The title of the poem is about a figurative device that is used to compare two distinct ideas implicitly. Likewise, in this poem, readers can find that Plath is comparing her speaker’s pregnant state to different objects. The way of objectifying a biological state (pregnancy) that is important in a woman’s life, seems to be signaling the feministic mindset of the writer. Like Plath, her speaker is not happy with the nine-month-long journey only to serve as a “means” to help one reach his or her goal. This “one” can be the husband of the speaker or the baby growing her womb. Besides, she doesn’t feel like talking about pregnancy directly. That’s why she chooses a metaphorical way of describing this thing, a burden or hindrance in her life.
While this poem is written in free verse, it is nonetheless highly structured. It is nine lines long, each line containing nine syllables. There is not any specific rhyme scheme in this piece. Readers can only find a slant rhyme in the first few lines.
In most cases, the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot (a set of two feet). Each of the lines contains more or less four iambs. The overall meter of this poem is iambic tetrameter with a few variations. For example, the third line has a hypermetrical ending and it contains a spondee just before it. Some lines begin with a trochaic foot. For example, the first foot of the last line is trochaic.
Figures of Speech
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. To begin with, the speaker compares herself to a riddle. This riddle is made up of nine syllables, a metaphorical reference to the nine months of pregnancy.
In the following lines, readers can find that she is comparing herself to a melon strolling on “two tendrils” or two legs. The fourth line contains three distinct metaphors that do not refer to the speaker anymore. Rather these words are metaphorically hinting at the baby growing inside her. Like the “ivory”, a baby is valued over the body from which it gets nourishment.
Apart from that, there is asyndeton in the first three lines. The third line contains a personification and the following line contains an apostrophe. Readers can find alliteration in the phrase, “Money’s new-minted”. They come across a biblical allusion in the eighth line. The last line contains an epigram.
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 the first of many puckish metaphors. The poet challenges her readers to find the correct answer. So, what is the answer to the riddle in ‘Metaphors’?
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 of syllables per line is nine emphasizes the importance of numbers 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 a largely solitary existence, 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. A pregnant woman could reasonably be said to house her child, after all.
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, the 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.
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 mother’s 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, Plath is looking down. Her skin is stretched tightly over her belly like a melon’s rind, and her legs are dwarfed, twig-like. Perhaps the poet felt like the trunk of a tree weighed down with fruit.
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
In this line, Plath refers to herself as 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.
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.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
The poet begins to explore some of 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 a pregnancy situation somehow. It could also be that she feels being 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 this line, 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, “a bag of green apples” is a metaphor for her unborn child. Plath is uncomfortably full of her unripe fruit at this point. As the baby has not fully matured yet, she refers to it as an unripe fruit or “green apple”. After nine months of nourishment, it will become ripe and come out of her womb to see the lights of tomorrow.
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
The final metaphor of this piece is present in the last line. Through this metaphor, 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.
The main theme of this poem is pregnancy and motherhood. Plath describes the state of pregnancy from a feministic perspective. For her speaker, being a mother is like a train journey and there’s no getting off from the ride. It is a long journey of a woman that lasts till her child’s maturity. In the first few lines, the speaker talks about what it feels like to be pregnant. It occurs to her the process is somehow making her worthless both physically and mentally. Besides, she feels her baby is much valued than the pain she is bearing. Readers can also find the themes of womanhood, individualism, worthlessness, and regret in this poem.
The tone of ‘Metaphors’ is direct, ironic, humorous, and regretful. The first few lines feature a humorous speaker who is describing her pregnancy with the help of a few images. According to her, her belly appears to her as a big melon. When she walks, it feels like the melon is walking on its tendrils. Such a beginning engages the readers with the text. But, this engagement proves to be a rather heart-wrenching journey in the following lines. There, readers can find that the speaker is not happy with what is happening to her. She is just mocking herself for forgetting the mental pain she suffered. Her regretful tone becomes audible when she says, “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,/ Boarded the train there’s no getting off.”
As aforementioned, ‘Metaphors’ was written while Sylvia 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.
The answer to the riddle in Plath’s poem ‘Metaphors’ is pregnancy. The speaker of this poem describes her pregnant state.
In the second line, “a ponderous house” is an implicit reference to the speaker’s body. For her pregnancy, she feels slow and clumsy because of the weight of her baby. That’s why she compares herself to a house that has become ponderous. It can be also a reference to her laborious life due to pregnancy.
This line is an example of personification. Here, Plath invests the idea of walking to melon and compares its tendrils to legs. This line also contains a metaphor and a repetition of the “t” sound (alliteration) as well.
This line contains an allusion to the apple eaten by Eve. Even ate only a single one, Plath’s speaker has eaten a bug full of “green apples.” Apart from that, the word “green” is a symbol of immaturity. According to the speaker, her body is not ready to bear a child, implying that the intercourse was not intended.
The final image implies the speaker’s helplessness. Though she is not ready for the ride at an early age, she must endure the journey until the end. This journey is a metaphorical reference to motherhood.
This poem is highly structured. It contains nine lines and interestingly each line consists of nine syllables. The form strictly adheres to the number nine that signifies the nine months of pregnancy. Hence, the structure also relates to the poem’s content which is spoken from the perspective of a pregnant woman.
What does the line, “I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf”?
This line explicitly states how Plath feels like. She is a means to an end. Like the stage is used for a theatrical performance, her body is used to stage the child. Moreover, when a cow gives birth to a calf, the latter is valued over the former. The speaker also feels like the cow which is valued until the calf’s birth.
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