‘November Graveyard’ by Sylvia Plath is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sestets. Plath has not chosen to structure this piece with a standard pattern of rhyme, much like some of her other poetry. Instead, there is a great deal of repetition in the imagery and consistency in the tone. The speaker presents dreary, but engaging images of a graveyard in November. She works her way through the “stubborn” nature of the trees unwilling to give up their leaves to the fantasies one might have about the nature of death.
The entire poem maintains a dreary tone and feeling of desperation. This can be seen through the plant life and through the perspective a reader brings to the piece. Plath’s speaker almost immediately dismisses humanity’s need to find meaning in life by bringing attention to its existence. At the same time, the landscape itself is doing everything it can to hang onto summer for as long as possible.
As a reader makes their way through this piece, the initial lines bring out one’s rational side. One might respect the desire of the plants to maintain a certain abundant state but also know that it is impossible. This all leads up to the speaker’s determined portrayal of the cemetery as containing nothing but death. By the time one reaches these lines they should be more willing to accept this portrayal.
Summary of November Graveyard
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the cemetery is full of trees and grasses which are unwilling to shed their summer leaves and colours. They cling desperately and uselessly to their foliage. Just as the plants attempt to maintain life into the winter, so too does humanity seek something after death.
The next two stanzas are used to explain, in impassioned detail, that there is nothing magical about the cemetery. It is clear by the end of the poem that the speaker is set in her opinion about the land. She feels it is only relevant for its physical and “essential “parts.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of November Graveyard
The scene stands stubborn: skinflint trees
Hoard last year’s leaves, won’t mourn, wear sackcloth, or turn
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. No dead men’s cries
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by utilizing a word that might be unfamiliar, “skinflint.” This is a reference to one who chooses to spend as little money as possible. This person might also be called a miser. In the text of this piece “skinflint” does not refer to a human being though. It is instead used to describe trees in a graveyard in November.
From the first lines, it is clear the speaker is very familiar with this place. She speaks of it as being “stubborn.” This is seen through its unwillingness to give up the remnants of the year’s seasons. The leftovers of the previous season include the “leaves” and the “grass.”
In the second line the speaker says the trees will not “mourn.” They are unwilling to submit to the progression of time and accept the loss of the leaves. This personification continues into the next two phrases in which the trees are said to refuse the “sackcloth,” or act humbly before God. They are also unwilling to,
To elegiac dryads
This is a reference to tree spirits, or nymphs, who sing elegies or songs for the dead. In addition to the trees, there is the stubborn and “dour,” or gloomy, grass. It protects its own dying “grassiness.” The last remnants of the “emerald” green are under a hopeful, but ultimately doomed, guard.
In the final two lines of this section, the speaker goes on to use the word “grandiloquent,” meaning pompous or extravagant. This is in reference to the “mind” of one who does not understand the true nature of the graveyard.
Flower forget-me-nots between the stones
Flies watch no resurrections in the sun.
The first stanza leads seamlessly into the second with the negation of a “dead men’s cries” being able to “flower forget-me-nots.” These lines, and those which follow, are spoken with one specific perspective in mind. The speaker is seeing the graveyard from a fundamental, surface-level position. She is not interpreting its flowers or other small elements of beauty as being anything other than what they seem.
The speaker sees the ground as containing “honest rot” and nothing more. There is death, decay, and “pare” or the bare minimum, of “bone.” Everything present in the graveyard is “free” of pretense or feeling. There is no “fictive vein” or imaginative, story-like qualities to the bones.
The final lines of this section speak on the “Flies,” which are ever-present in the graveyard, and benefit from death. They are always there, yet they see no “resurrections in the sun” These lines seek to explain that there is nothing magical or beautiful occurring in this place. If there was, the flies would’ve seen it.
At the essential landscape stare, stare
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.
In the final lines, the speaker asks that her listener really “stare” at the landscape. One must focus only on the grounds of the graveyard until their,
Eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Though the final lines of this text the speaker seems to walk back some of the determined realism of the second stanza. It is as if she is willing the listener to look even deeper than she did and see what else is present. One might come upon a striking vision which is carried on the wind, or perhaps not.
She continues on to say that what one sees in these moments of deep contemplation comes from the “starving mind.” Humanity is so willing to see something meaningful, that visions will be placed where they do not belong. If one sees “lost” seemingly “Damned” ghosts “flare” they should know these images are only within the mind. They are attached, as if by a “leash,” to one’s own subconscious. It is not just the listener to whom she refers, but to all those who might look for something more in the landscape.
The room that is inhabited by the “starving mind” is not empty. There are many others seeking out meaning in the “blank, untenanted air.” This final word, “untenanted” makes sure the reader is aware, for the last time, that there is nothing supernatural, spiritual, or transcendent about the graveyard.