‘Nick and the Candlestick’ is a wonderful example of Plath’s style as a confessional poet. It is a creative poem that takes the nursery rhyme “Jack Be Nimble” as part of its inspiration. The poem was written shortly after Plath’s son, Nicholas was born. In the lines, she describes what early motherhood is like and uses figurative language to make the experience more vivid. This poem was published posthumously in 1965 in Ariel, along with many others that are considered to be Plath’s best.
Explore Nick and the Candlestick
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by comparing herself to a miner who is being guided by a dying flame. She’s metaphorically moving around in a cave and spends time describing what it’s like there. It’s old and filled with minerals, water, and child air.
The atmosphere is compared to both a womb and death. In the next lines, the poet addresses her child, asking him how he came to find himself in this place. He is the gem that she’s been searching for and she tries to reassure him about the world he’s being born into. The speaker describes her son as the only real anchor point in her life. Everything in her world is centered around this new child.
You can read the full poem here.
Plath explores a couple of interesting themes in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’. She speaks about motherhood and the purpose of life. These two things are tied together in this poem. This becomes quite clear towards the end in which Plath states that her child is her reason for being. He makes sense of the world for her. Although these days of early motherhood are difficult for her, she is trying to navigate them to the best of her ability even when the process exhausts her. Throughout the poem, there are images of depletion, exhaustion, and allusions to a transformation of a woman’s body. She has been consumed by this child and not every image she creates of this process is a positive one.
‘Nick and the Candlestick’ by Sylvia Plath is a fourteen stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. This poem does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are written in what is known as free verse. This style of writing allows poets to move from line to line without the impediment of strict rhymes or the need to conform to iambic pentameter or another metrical pattern. Even though there is no requirement for rhyme, there is rhyme present in the poem, just as there are examples of rhythm.
Plath makes use of several literary devices in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’. These include but are not limited to allusion, apostrophe, and enjambment. The first, allusion, appears before the first line in the poem. The title ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ is an allusion to the nursery rhyme which uses the same words in its verses. In the song “Jack Be Nimble,” the singer sings the lines “Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the Candlestick”. Rather than use the name Jack, Plath went with Nick, the name of her son.
An apostrophe is an interesting technique in which the speaker addresses someone or something which either is not there or cannot hear or understand the words. In this piece, Plath’s speaker, who is likely Plath herself, talks to her unborn child as if they can hear her.
Enjambment is an important commonly used technique that appears throughout this poem. Readers can look at the transitions between line three of the first stanza and line four of the second stanza as an example.
Stanzas One and Two
I am a miner. The light burns blue.(…)Drip and thicken, tears
The earthen womb(…)Black bat airs
In the first lines of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, the speaker begins by comparing herself to a miner. As a new mother, she navigates unknown lands and digging deep inside herself, trying to find the right path forward. She’s following a “light” that “burns blue” and is surrounded by “Waxy stalactites”. They’re like the tears of the earth and “Drip and thicken”. So far, the atmosphere is not very pleasant. The speaker is in a cold, dark, perhaps even sorrowful place. The light might be dying but she has to move forward. She’s on her way to her son’s room to nurse him but its not an easy process.
Stanzas Three and Four
Wrap me, raggy shawls,(…)They weld to me like plums.
Old cave of calcium(…)Even the newts are white,
The third stanza of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ describes the “raggy shawls” that the speaker is wrapped in. These small pieces of clothing are supposed to keep her warm but they’re falling apart. They get worse and worse the further along she goes. The cave, the speaker says, is freezing cold and filled with echoes. She can find white newts in it, turned white as if they were religious men.
Stanzas Five, Six, and Seven
Those holy Joes.And the fish, the fish—
(…)The candleGulps and recovers its small altitude
She goes on to describe the fish around her which are in “panes of ice”. This is something that shocks her, as seen through the exclamation “Christ!” and the repetition of the word “fish” in the second line of the fifth stanza. The ice is a “vice of knives”. It’s treacherous and ready to take and strangle her at a moment’s notice. Around her, the frozen fish drink from her toes as if they’re taking communion for the first time. This is not the first or last time that religion is mentioned in this poem.
Stanzas Eight, Nine, and Ten
Its yellows hearten.O love, how did you get here?(…)
(…)The painYou wake to is not yours.
In the eighth stanza of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, Plath makes use of a literary device known as an apostrophe. The speaker addresses someone who is not really there/who cannot hear her, her “embryo”. She asks her child how he came to be here in this cave, in this desperate and painful situation with her. She tries to comfort her child while also reminding him “even in sleep” to remain safe and “crossed” in position. His purity, like that of the white newts, is clear. He is the gem that any miner would be happy to find.
In the second and third lines of the tenth stanza, she tells her child that when he’s born he’ll enter into a world that’s filled with pain and anger but none of it is directed at him or his fault. He is innocent in everything.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
Love, love,(…)With soft rugs—
The last of Victoriana.(…)Plummet to their dark address,
Although the speaker, Plath, has struggled with motherhood, she has done her best to make that struggle as easy on the child as possible. She’s covered their cave in “roses” and with “soft rugs”. These simple additions make her think of the past, the “last of Victoriana”. There is something comforting about those familiar sights and feelings.
The poet goes on to say that she’d be happy to watch the world fall apart if only she could stay with her son. The stars could “Plummet to their dark address” and she’d be fulfilled.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
Let the mercuric(…)Into the terrible well,
You are the one(…)You are the baby in the barn.
She adds to this in the last lines of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, saying that the toxic mercury atoms could drip into the world’s water supply, poisoning everyone and everything and she’d still be happy. Her son is the only one, the “Solid” force that she so desperately needed. He represents even more than that though. He’s a force that other parts of the world rely on as well. He’s like Christ, the “baby in the barn”. His purity and goodness is a shining light in the darkness of the cave and the salvation that she and the rest of the world so desperately needs.
Plath’s poetry is tough for even the most skilled readers. This is in part because her images are so raw and interconnected. She moves from one metaphor to the next, making allusions and references to the imagery that is meaningful to her. These techniques, along with the subject matter in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ is not confined to this poem. Plath often wrote about herself and her desire for a child, worries about being a mother, miscarriages, and her perception of herself as a woman. Other poems of interest include Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and ‘You’re’.
Other poets have also delved into various depictions of what it means to be a mother or various perceptions of mothering. Some of the best include: ‘Mother’ by Lola Ridge, ‘Mother, Any Distance’ by Simon Armitage and ‘Warning to Parents’ by Elizabeth Jennings.