The Moon and the Yew Tree

Sylvia Plath

‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ by Sylvia Plath defines the poet’s relationship with her parents. It’s a poem that’s just as beautiful as it is complicated.

Sylvia Plath

Nationality: American

Although Sylvia Plath was succeeding poetically, she was still deeply unhappy.

She tried to kill herself a number of times throughout the early 60s and in February of 1963, she succeeded.

This poem speaks on themes of parent/child relationships, the meaning, or lack thereof, of life, and depression. The poet uses natural imagery throughout this piece. It is combined with that representing religion, allowing her to comment on how these two elements relate to one another and to her experience with her parents. Imagery, along with metaphor, is the two most powerful techniques at work in this text.

Plath weaves a complicated, and emotionally taxing landscape within the lines of ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’. It depicts a life that is devoid of the comfort and love parents are supposed to give their children. The mood of this poem is consistently bleak and dreary. Despite Plath’s searching for some kind of meaning and light in nature’s metaphors, there is none to be found. 

The Moon and the Yew Tree by Sylvia Plath

Summary of The Moon and the Yew Tree

‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ by Sylvia Plath is a complex and autobiographical poem that describes the poet’s relationship with her parents. 

The poem takes the reader through a series of images that outline her other as the moon and her father as a yew tree. Neither of these forces did Plath any good in her life. The poet begins the poem by speaking about her mind and the coldness and darkness she can find within it. There is grief that is thrust upon her and no access to the world of warmth that should await her at home. 

When talking about her mother, the poet describes the moon. It has a “face in its own right” and no interest in providing Plath with a “door” to reach love, home, or happiness. The yew tree has a “Gothic shape” and is nothing more than “blackness and silence”. These are the two main images of her parents which are included alongside a cold and distant relationship with religion. 

Structure of The Moon and the Yew Tree 

The Moon and the Yew Tree’ by Sylvia Plath is a four-stanza poem that is divided, unusually, into seven lines each. The lines in this piece are longer than those in most of Plath’s poems. The majority are more than ten words long. Plath did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme in this poem, nor is there is a single metrical pattern. 

Poetic Techniques in The Moon and the Yew Tree

Plath makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’. These include but are not limited to metaphor, anaphora, and personification. The first, 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. This can be seen in the extended metaphor comparing Plath’s mother to the cold and distant moon and her father to the black and silent yew tree.

Plath also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For instance, the lines that begin with “The,” such as the first three lines of the third stanza.

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, the moon in the second stanza when it is described as dragging “the sea after it like a dark crime”

Analysis of The Moon and the Yew Tree 

Stanza One

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

In the first seven-line stanza the speaker begins by speaking about her mind. She describes it in a detached way, as though it does not really belong to her. There is a “light” there, but it’s not a warm one. It is “cold and planetary,” as if distant from her. From just this first line a reader should already be settling in for the bleak mood this text presents and the drear of the poet’s mental state. 

She also talks about the “trees of the mind”. They are “black,” as if they have no life. The darkness is another foreboding symbol, one that will later connect with her descriptions of her father. 

Her mind, which continues to be described as a natural landscape, also have grasses that “prick” her ankles and “murmur…of their humility”. They speak of their own humble nature, a strange and unusual meaner that also makes use of personification. The grass has within it “grief”. The grief is transferred over to her as if she were God in this world.

She also speaks to the “Funny, spiritous mists” that also fill her mind. These mists are just as dangerous and foreboding as everything else. There is something wrong about them, as though they might contain something deadly. They have a “spirit” to them as well, as if acting with agency. 

A very real image makes up the last two lines of this stanza. There is a “row of headstones” that separates the poet from her home. Home is not somewhere warm and filled with bright light as it should be. It is wrapped in death and darkness as is her mind. Plus, she can’t even get there, or anywhere. She is lost, listless, and unsure of how to proceed.  

Stanza Two 

Lines 1-2

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.

The moon, which is commonly associated with women, is in this poem a symbol for Plath’s mother. She is to  Plath, “no door”. Her mother does not provide an access point for the “home” that she mentioned in the first stanza, nor does her mother allow her access to anything else. With just this simple line a reader can find much to explore in the relationship. 

She describes the moon, as it often is, as a face. In this case, she speaks of it as a “face in its own right”. This creates a separation, as if the moon does not need humans to imbue it with a face, but instead it is already a face on its own. 

The face is not a happy one either. It is white, like a “knuckle” and “terribly upset”. These two descriptions are added in, alluding to Plath’s experience of her mother. A reader might also connect the phrase “terribly upset” to the death of Plath’s father. Was the mother truly upset? Does this phrase contain genuine grief or something less real? 

Lines 3-7

It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The poet describes the moon’s ability to control the tides as overpowering and negative. It drags the sea “after it like a dark crime”. Its controlling nature is over the top and to be avoided. The “O-gape” in this line is in reference to the facial expression one might see when they look at the moon. The “despair” here feels real. It is where the poet lives, it defines her life. 

In the next lines of ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree,’ the poet describes the ringing of bells on Sunday, representing church and religion. The “startle the sky” as if the ringing came out of nowhere, hadn’t happened in a long time, or was shocking in some way. The religion that these bells imply doesn’t feel real, helpful, or warm. The speaker does not seem to have taken any comfort in it. It feels more habitual than spiritually moving. The bells “bong out their names” as if their ringing, in reality, has no meaning. 

Stanza Three

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

The second half of the poem begins with a reference to the yew tree. The tree, which is generally considered to be a representative for Plath’s father, is “a Gothic shape”. It is powerful, dark, and perhaps even dangerous. When one looks for it, and they find it, they follow it up and can find the moon in the sky.

The poet states clearly in the third line that the moon is her mother. She is not the ever-present, kind sort of mother. She is not, the poet says “sweet like Mary,” the mother of Christ in the Christian tradition. Her “blue garments,” (the colour associated with Mary) carry within them “bats and owls”. These are the creatures of the night, commonly associated with darkness and coolness. They connect well with the image of the gothic yew tree. 

The poet’s yearning for a real, tender, and loving mother can be seen clearly in the last three lines of this stanza. She states that she wants to “believe in tenderness” and a caring figure who has “mild eyes”. But this isn’t possible. 

Stanza Four

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness — blackness and silence

In the final lines of ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree,’ the poet explains that she has “fallen a long way”.She details the sky in a beautiful, yet still distant way. The clouds are “flowering / Blue and mystical over the face of the stars”. They block the light. 

The colour blue comes up yet again in the third line of this stanza. The saints are also “blue” as they float over the pews of the church They appear dead, lifeless, and powerless. They do not provide the poet with any kind of outlet for her grief and fear. These menace “stiff with holiness”. 

The moon, her mother, does not see the way that her daughter moves through the world. She also does not see the coldness and helplessness of religion. The woman is separated from her daughter. Plath’s father provides no comfort in these moments. He is “blackness and silence”. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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