‘Mushrooms’ was published in Plath’s first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems. It is a wonderful example of how figurative language, in this case, an extended metaphor, can be used effectively. The poem explores themes of community, equal rights, and societal norms as Plath depicts the struggle for women’s rights.
Summary of Mushrooms
The poem slowly but steadily reveals to the reader that the “us” mentioned in the second stanza is a collection of mushrooms and that those mushrooms represent women. They are pushing their way, nudging and shoving, up through the loam to the air. The speaker declares that this marks a change. From now on they aren’t going to be “shelves” and “tables”. They’ll get a foot in the door and take control back from men.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Mushrooms
‘Mushrooms’ by Sylvia Plath is an eleven stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets are all quite similar in length. There are five syllables per line but there is no single rhyme scheme that unites the entire poem. There are various different examples of rhyme throughout though. For instance, the exact rhyme at the ends of lines one and two of the third stanza with “us”. The same pairing appears at the ends of lines two and three of stanza eight.
There are also examples of half-rhyme in this piece. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “very” and “discreetly” in lines one and two of the first stanza. Or, another example,
Literary Devices in Mushrooms
Plath makes use of several literary devices in ‘Mushrooms’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Even” and “earless” in stanza five. Enjambment is one of the most important and most obvious poems at work in ‘Mushrooms’. It can be seen in the transition between lines. When one line ends before the conclusion of the phrase, forcing the reader to the next in order to finish a thought, it is an example of enjambment. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as line three of the sixth stanza and the line one of the seventh stanza.
A 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. In this case, the entire poem is an example of an extended metaphor. The poet uses the mushroom, what it looks like, how it grows, and where it grows to represent women and their struggle for equal rights in a world where they are silenced by men.
Analysis of Mushrooms
Stanzas One and Two
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
In the first stanzas of the poem, the speaker begins by describing, slowly, how the mushrooms make their way from within the soil out into the air. She uses alliteration and assonance in order to create a feeling of rhythm from line to line. This also benefits the overall calm tone of the poem. The words “toes” and “noses” are used to describe the shape of the mushroom caps. They’re rounded and white, just like some skin would be.
The “loam” is the soil that “Our toes,” the mushroom’s heads, are poking through. They seek out “air” as if they’ve been devoid of it for some time.
Stanzas Three and Four
Nobody sees us,
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
The mushrooms are out of sight. No one is there to “betray” them or to “Stop” them from rising. By this point it is quite clear that these mushrooms are meant to represent someone or group of people. It is a solid guess to consider that the mushrooms are women. The largest segment of the population held down and stopped during Plath’s time.
Alternatively, the mushrooms might represent minority populations. Anyone who is held back by something that is integral to their being. Such as skin color, origin, or sex.
Now the imagery grows strong. They aren’t toes and noses anymore they are “fists” that “insist” on moving the pine needles out of the way and rising up from the “leafy bedding”.
Stanzas Five and Six
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Shoulder through holes. We
The strong imagery continues into the fifth stanza with reference to “hammers” and “rams”. The language feels more revolutionary as if the speaker is describing an uprising.
The next lines come together, between the stanzas, to depict the way that women were expected to act during Plath’s time. They “should” be “Earless and eyeless” and without voices. They are shouldering their way through the holes.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
So many of us!
There are “So many of us!” The speaker exclaims in the eighth stanza. The women are rising up and as 51% of the population, there is more than enough of them to push out of the ground and take on voices of their own. They won’t be pushed to the side any longer and forced to be satisfied with the “crumbs” of what male society leaves behind.
Stanzas Nine, Ten, and Eleven
We are shelves, we are
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our foot’s in the door.
In the ninth stanza of ‘Mushrooms,’ the speaker uses several methods to compare women/mushrooms to various things. She mentions shelves and tables while also suggesting that they are “edible”. She is still talking about the tops of the mushrooms. They are off in the corner, simple pieces of furniture that shouldn’t really be noticed in a household. Just as women were meant to be. They are eaten, consumed, by men at their pleasure.
The women are and will continue to “Nudge” and “shove” their way through the ground. But, this speaker alludes, this might not be enough. They are “meek” “In spite of ourselves”. Luckily, there are so many of them that they shall “Inherit the earth” and get their “foot…in the door”.