Published in 1957, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ discusses the topics of relationships and emotional abuse from the point of view of the female speaker, presumably the poet herself. The raw discussion of emotions such as but not limited to frustration, anger, disappointment, and betrayal is incredibly authentic and, combined with the confessional genre and blank verse form, makes the poem critically relatable.
Explore The Snowman on the Moor
Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ discusses the emotional toll that an abusive relationship takes on the victim.
‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ follows Plath’s perspective on emotional abuse within a seemingly perfect relationship and discusses the perpetuated cycle of abuse and internal struggle that the female victim faces within herself. By incorporating her own experiences and personal pronouns, the poet makes the content of the poem relatable to every sufferer of abuse within romantic relationships.
Structure and Rhyme Scheme
‘The Snowman on the Moor’ is a seventeen-stanza poem, separated into tercets, making the entire work fifty-one lines in total. Plath’s habitual use of free verse is also present in this poem, meaning the poem lacks rhyme, meter, or any particular lyricism. This is done intentionally – the poet intended for the poem to reflect the negative themes discussed.
Literary Devices and Punctuation
- A metaphor is a poetic device that creates a comparison without prepositions. Plath uses metaphors throughout the poem to reference her feelings, as well as the physical manifestation of the abuse as the Giant.
- Parataxis is a literary device that favors short, simple sentences without conjunctions. Plath uses parataxes throughout the poem for emphasis. Parataxis may be used interchangeably with asyndeton, a literary technique that omits conjunctions in a phrase or sentence.
- An allusion is a poetic technique that refers to an object without direct mention. Plath uses allusions in combination with metaphors to describe her feelings and experiences.
- Enjambment is the continuation of a phrase or sentence across multiple lines or stanzas, done through lack of punctuation. This can be seen throughout the poem in the way the poet transitions from line to line.
- Caesura is the use of punctuation in the middle of the line for purposes of repetition, emphasis, or rhythm break. There are several examples in this poem, including “Stalemated their armies stood, with tottering banners.”
Stalemated their armies stood, with tottering banners:
She flung from a room
Still ringing with bruit of insults and dishonors
The first stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ begins with striking, rough imagery: Plath effectively brings to mind the unbearable tension of two armies. The imagery, aside from being easily recognizable considering that the poem was written in 1957, a little over a decade after the ending of World War II, is also symbolic: soldiers have no choice but to fight, which effectively begins to describe the relationship between Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes.
Despite the couple being married only a year before the poem was written, the resentment is evident from the first stanza. Although it was published in July of 1957, the poem is titled ‘The Snowman on the Moor,’ which is a subtle yet effective use of pathetic fallacy to demonstrate the figurative coldness of the relationship between the poets.
The poem was published in the summer, the season of enjoyment and ease, symbolizing the beginning of marriage wherein the couple is still childless. Still, the atmosphere of winter, as well as the title, suggests coldness and distance between the partners.
Banners and Flags
The armies, supposedly the opposing speakers that represent Plath and Hughes, stand across from each other, unable to resolve an argument; their banners (that symbolize their viewpoints) are visible yet mean nothing except showcasing the differing mindsets. Just as in a physical battle, flags are intended to announce an army’s arrival, so do the banners figuratively reveal the presence of misaligned ideas.
Plath singles out the female speaker: she writes from a female perspective. The woman is “flung” from the room: a sudden, violent action suggesting that her male counterpart threw her out of the room they shared. This reflects the unstable and uneven power dynamic that the couple shares: despite both armies being in a figurative “stalemate,” one ends up being “flung” out.
The army, now turned into a woman, promptly leaves the room: the insults can still be heard; whether they are being spoken aloud or repeated in the mind of the female is unclear. This may be an allusion to Plath’s mental health issues, as well as the contrast between the perceived marital happiness of the speaker and the unfortunate reality; the “insults and dishonors” still ring in the speaker’s head, even as she leaves the shared space.
And in fury left him
The second stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is a continuation of the first with the conjunction “and” effectively transferring the meaning. The difference in line lengths throughout the poem, but especially between the stanzas, is a compelling visualization of the irregularity and chaos of the relationship; moreover, Plath’s typical lack of consistent meter and rhyme is especially important in this poem.
The female speaker, after being flung out of the room, leaves, furious. The phrasing is significant: she is the one to leave the man while “taunting” him to come and find her. The taunt directed at the man to go and find her is her “last,” a representation of lost temper and exhausted patience. Despite forcibly leaving, does the speaker secretly hope that the man will find her?
It is instead the opposite: she is taunting him because she knows he will remain stationary. He will not leave the room that the woman was flung out of; he will not chase her. The final line of the second stanza is another use of ambiguity; it is unclear whether the man is too prideful to pursue the woman or lacks any and all desire to do so.
Her winter-beheaded daisies, marrowless, gaunt,
The third stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is a continuation of the second: it is revealed that the man did not follow the angered woman; instead, he sat, “guarding” the “battlement.” Plath’s use of metaphors is effective in giving an insight into the relationship: there is, if one of the “armies” leaves, nothing to protect, yet the man does not make an effort to remedy the situation or mend the relationship with the woman: he remains still, unwilling to let go of the frustration, hence the adjective “grim.”
It is important to note that the battlement is no longer a common, stalemate ground; it now belongs to the man, which is evident from the use of the possessive “his.” By incorporating specific vocabulary into the stanza, Plath effectively alludes to the fact that the battle was lost before ever beginning, there was no resolution, yet both parties feel defeat, albeit dealing with it differently.
The second and third lines of the third stanza talk about the dead daisy flowers on the doorstep of what the reader can assume to be the couple’s home. The man’s location is significant: although he does not chase after the woman, he is thoroughly convinced that she is coming back, hence waiting for her at the place she cannot avoid when she decides to return.
Plath’s choice of words is incredibly important: daisies typically symbolize innocence; hence are used to represent the honeymoon stage of relationships, one wherein the couple has not encountered any serious marital problems. Moreover, the use of daisies is appropriate for the season, as the poem was written in the summer. The flowers, however, have been beheaded by the winter, yet another allusion not only to the title of the poem but the coldness of the relationship. The sudden onset of the cold season has left the flowers “marrowless”: entirely without defense.
The final word of the stanza is “gaunt,”: an adjective describing an object that has been heavily affected by suffering, making it appear weathered and tattered. This is not only an allusion to the relationship between the poem’s couple but to Plath herself. Plath is commonly known as the 20th-century pioneer of confessional poetry, frequently drawing inspiration from her experiences.
During the time period that the poem was written, Plath and Hughes moved from the UK to the United States, with Plath pursuing a career in pedagogy in her Alma Mater, Smith College in Massachusetts. Balancing professional work and personal poetry proved difficult for her, sending her into depressive, unproductive episodes. Just like the snow-covered daisies, she, too, has succumbed to darkness and cold.
Warned her to keep
The fourth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is a continuation of the third. Still, Plath personifies the beheaded flowers, effectively creating an interpersonal connection between her emotions and experiences. Plath’s self-referential style of writing made her the female face of the post-modernist literary movement of the late 1950s.
The innocent flowers of a blooming relationship have been destroyed by winter, not dissimilar to Plath’s own relationship and the creative burnout she felt while struggling to balance employment and personal writing. The dead flowers are warning her to remain cordial – to suppress her feelings for the proverbial “greater good.” The beheaded plants are urging her to keep up the “politic goodwill” – are they trying to protect the female speaker from the same fate that they have faced?
The phrase is arguably the most important of all of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ as it highlights the forced nature of the affection within the relationship. “Politic” implies the distanced, almost professional relationship between the couple, further emphasizing interpersonal coldness.
The couple interacts with each other as though they are politicians, perhaps even on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Although politicians are involved in the same area of work, they often have personal motives in mind, as well as differing general agendas; hence Plath’s analogy is extremely suitable to the situation.
“Goodwill” is a noun depicting an amicable attitude and willingness to cooperate. Although having positive connotations, goodwill is not a description of a healthy, loving relationship. Albeit reporting cordial connections, a certain coldness and distance are clearly implied.
The second half of the fourth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ describes the flowers urging the female speaker to maintain household peace rather than leave. This is an effective allusion to the all-time marriage high that was occurring in the United States at the time that the poem was published. In the 1950s, over 66 percent of women above the age of 14 were married. It was generally understood that finding a husband should be a priority over higher education, hence the normalization of marriage immediately after school.
Plath, compared to an average woman, was incredibly fortunate to finish university before committing to Hughes, as the concept of a ‘happy homemaker’ was so mainstream that any woman who chose to pursue additional education or employment without the financial need was considered selfish.
The female speaker is warned against leaving the all-too-familiar environment of her house, garden, and relationship for the unknown, unchartered landscape. The woman remains unnamed throughout the entire poem, which is done deliberately, as Plath writes not only about her personal experience but the universal, shared experience of women alike.
She stalked intractable as a driven ghost
The fifth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is a continuation of the fourth, wherein the female speaker is warned against disturbing the feeble perception of peace for her own wellbeing. Although the landscape described is hardly appealing, the effect is immediately noticeable: the speaker would rather face the win-weathered hills of the unknown than stay with her grim partner and winter-killed flowers.
Out vs. In
Albeit the outside is rough and unwelcoming, the woman is drawn to it nevertheless. She is said to “stalk,” meaning obsess over something typically unreachable, the hills from her house. Remembering the first and third stanzas wherein the house is said to be a “grim battlement” that the speaker felt obliged to return to, it is understandable that the woman found the thoughts of escaping to the unknown was infinitely more appealing than coming back and perpetuating the cycle of passive aggression and abuse.
The adjective “intractable” refers to stubbornness and the unyielding hope that one day the speaker will be able to leave the toxic atmosphere of her household and relationship.
Plath uses a simile to compare the speaker to a “driven ghost”, which is symbolic of the missed past opportunities, dead flowers, and the dying relationship. The poet’s use of “ghost” instead of other synonyms of the same word is significant: “ghost” comes from Old English “gast”, meaning spirit or soul, which is quite literally an allusion to the ghost of her past, as it was around to time that the poem was published that Plath and Hughes moved from the United Kingdom to the US.
A ghost is typically an entity that has been denied eternal rest and is condemned to exist in the realm between life and death without the corporeal benefits of the former and idle reveling of the latter.
Additionally, in folklore, ghosts are often said to remain “undead” until they achieve the vengeance that they seek. Considering the heated argument between the speaker and her partner in the first two stanzas, it can be assumed that the woman might want revenge of some kind.
Across moor snows
The sixth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ includes more natural imagery describing the landscaping of the moor. The first line of the stanza explicitly mentions both the snow and the moor, effectively connecting to the title of the poem. Plath was frequently inspired by nature, which can be seen especially well in poems such as ‘Ariel,’ ‘The Night Dances‘ and ‘Sheep in Fog.’
The second line of the stanza further describes the moor that has been “pocked” – meaning marked with “rock-claw” and “rabbit-track.” “Rock-claw” is a flowering plant that grows between rocks or in similar crevices; Plath’s inclusion of it in the landscape is an allusion to the hardship felt by not only the speaker and poet but by all women. It is during moments of extreme hardship that one experiences the biggest amount of personal growth, similar to the flower being able to grow in the roughest of environments.
The second half of the second line continues onto the third through the use of enjambment. Plath effectively connects the first and sixth stanzas through the use of competitive language: the armies are no longer stalemated – a clear power imbalance has been shown in the previous stanzas. The woman must now bring the man to his knees.
These lines demonstrate a shift in mindset and attitude: while before, the woman was advised to keep up “politic goodwill” and peace to appease her partner, she is now determined to win.
Bringing the man to his knees could be interpreted both metaphorically and literally; the key idea tying the two together is the same: to come out on ‘top.’
The stanza finishes with an em dash, which is typically used to prolong the line and increase the tension. The character’s change of mindset, combined with the buildup of tension via punctuation, is effective in urging the reader to continue reading.
Let him send police and hounds to bring her in.
The seventh stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ further demonstrates the shift of mindset of the female: she is no longer running from the man but expecting him to put in the effort to pursue her – a clear contrast to the second and third stanzas.
The use of “let him” as an opening for the stanza is incredibly effective: the woman is not afraid of the man. Instead of considering herself to be a meek and submissive individual, she is now expecting law enforcement and trained canines to chase and reel her in.
The use of “hounds” rather than ‘dogs’ is compelling. The connotation of the word is much more aggressive: a hound is a dog bred specifically for hunting, especially by smell. Moreover, “hound” as a verb means to relentlessly persecute, pursue, or harass. The turbulent nature of the relationship not only between the male and female characters in the poem but Hughes and the poet as well points to the fact that the choice of “hound” is deliberate.
The woman no longer runs from the man, just as she doesn’t run from her emotions – she is going to “nurse” her rage, akin to a mother nursing her child. Plath wrote the poem in 1957 before she had either one of her children, but her journals and letter show that Hughes was highly insistent on it.
To a nurse is to provide nourishment, typically used when referring to a mother breastfeeding her child. Akin to the incredible act of breastfeeding, Plath is nursing her rage. Just as a child is a byproduct of a physical relationship between a man and a woman, so is the relationship’s rage and emotional offspring.
The woman must “nurse her rage” through the “bare whistling heather,” which at first appears to be additional natural imagery, but the symbolism of the flower can be a critical addition to the understanding of the stanza.
A moor is known as a boggy land primarily covered in grasses, but heather is one of the flowers that dominate the Yorkshire region of the United Kingdom. In 1956, the year that the poem was written, Plath and Hughes traveled to Yorkshire together, hence the inclusion of location-specific flora.
Additionally, the heather is symbolically relevant – the flower signifies good luck, protection, and admiration. In the context of the poem, the meaning of the flower becomes bitterly ironic: it is clear that there is no protection or admiration of the woman by the man; the former has long let the idea of ‘good luck’ go.
The heather is said to be whistling – a sound that can be analyzed differently depending on one’s interpretation of the poem. On the one hand, the whistling can be construed as a mocking sound – the heather is clearly establishing its dominance as the one that is free to exist, to be without constraint and worry. On the other hand, the whistling can be a continuation of the natural personification theme that is present throughout the poem: the flowers are calling the woman to them, just as previously the daisies warned the woman to keep calm.
To the world’s white edge
The eighth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ follows the path of the woman nursing her rage – her emotional journey materializes into physical environments.
The woman has traveled to the “world’s white edge,” which, while metaphorically meaning almost for an eternity, contextually connects the eighth stanza to the title of the poem. The woman seems to have traveled until winter, wherein the world’s edge has turned “white.” Taking into consideration the title of the poem, it is reasonable to assume that white is significant symbolism. White is typically known as the color of purity and innocence, something yet untainted.
The world’s edge, then, is a place that has not yet been exposed to the dark toxicity of the woman’s relationship; however, it also is the only place where the woman can reach hell. Is hell, then, objectively better than being in a relationship with a man? The woman would rather travel to the ends of the world than submit to the man, which is a distinct contrast to the first few stanzas wherein she is urged to bow down to the man.
Additionally, there is a contrast between the ways of controlling the man and woman: while the woman needed to be pursued by “hounds” and the police, only hell can “subdue an unruly man.” The context of the lines is eerily ominous, considering the limited rights of women at the time that the poem was written. It is reasonable to assume that only in hell can an “unruly” man be judged for his actions; only in hell will he receive the proper punishment.
The adjective “unruly” originates from late Middle English wherein the affix ‘un’, meaning ‘not’, is combined with the root ‘ruly’ (from ‘rule’), meaning ‘amenable to discipline or order’. The man, then, is not only held to a higher standard of punishment but is also capable of committing worse crimes, as he is not malleable to the laws ad rules around him. It is reasonable to assume that the punishment is proportional to the crime.
The last line of the stanza connects the woman to hell, which is a crucial image considering the aforementioned context. To beat the man who is worse than hell, the woman must ask hell to “join her siege.” Hell can be interpreted in a physical sense, hence furthering the materialization of the woman’s emotions, or it can be the evolution of the woman’s rage. In the case of the latter, it can be construed that the only thing that can beat the “unruly man” is the rage that the man himself caused.
From marble snow-heap of moor to ride that woman
The ninth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ is a continuation of the eighth – Plath effectively continues the woman’s journey through the introduction of additional imagery.
Descriptive language from the ninth stanza answers the inherent questions that the reader poses in the previous stanza – hell does not necessarily imply the devil, hence the rejection of the supposed demon in the first line. The woman does turn to the devil for help; she does not need a “fire-blurting fork-tailed demon” to join her siege. The two descriptions are maximally distant from the description of a human: the creature that the reader creates in their mind would potentially spew fire and have a forked tail.
The inclusion of a volcano effectively juxtaposes the color white in the second line of the eighth stanza. A volcano is a critical image that symbolizes the unstable and, at times, dangerous nature of the relationship. A volcano formed by natural geological processes has the potential to erupt at any given moment, bringing destruction to both the anthropological and natural ecosystems alike. Additionally, volcano-fed soil is incredibly fertile, often being ideal for agricultural activities. The dual potential for both life and death of a volcano is a perfect symbol for a relationship.
The last line of the ninth stanza is one of the most significant in the entirety of ‘The Snowman on the Moor.’ Plath juxtaposes the image of the volcano with a snow-covered moor. By including the description at the end of the stanza, Plath effectively connects the stanza to the title, creating a well-rounded and cohesive storyline.
As mentioned above, Plath and Hughes visited the Yorkshire Moors in the winter of 1956. The parallel between the frozen fields as a metaphor for the coldness in the relationship is directly juxtaposed with the burning anger the woman feels towards the man.
Where does, then, the snowman from the title come in? A snowman is typically associated with childhood fun during wintertime – children often build the spherical creature together, treating it as a friend or companion. At the time that the poem was written, the poet did not yet have children, so the symbol of wintertime childhood is an effective allusion and melancholic metaphor for the interpersonal tension between the couple.
Additionally, a snowman will eventually melt, carrying with it the pleasant memories of winter, leaving behind whatever accessories were put onto it: buttons, twigs, perhaps a carrot. The normally meaningless objects are significant in the context of the snowman but become redundant after the snowman is gone. An identical parallel can be drawn, including the relationship: with the inevitable passage of time, the beauty disappears, leaving behind the ugly, useless parts.
The tenth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is a continuation of the ninth – Plath’s deliberate use of enjambment allows the stanzas to interconnect, creating cohesion.
The woman will ride, with her by her side, with “spur and knout.” To spur something, usually an equine, is to apply painful pressure with metal spikes known as spurs; and a knout is a whip typically used for punishment. It is, perhaps, in this stanza that the speaker transforms from a scared victim to a powerful character whose main objective is revenge rather than salvage from the abuse.
The personification of emotions acts as not only a connecting factor between the stanzas, namely the seventh and tenth stanzas, but also an effective way for the female character to analyze what she is feeling and channel those feelings into proactive actions instead of drawing on them, or, like in the first three stanzas, running away from them.
The second line of the stanza effectively furthers the woman’s development: she no longer wishes to win out of pride but for others, deeper reasons. The graphic visual descriptions in the second half of the second and third lines demonstrate the internal struggle within the woman. It can be construed that the emotions are both metaphorical representations of her companions, creatures she raised and “nursed,” and a clear pathway of her emotional development.
“Grisly-thewed” is an interesting analogy, effectively relating to the development of the woman’s psyche. To be “thewed” is to have a large muscle mass or show a lot of strength, whereas “grisly” relates to the evoked feelings of horror or disgust. Combining the two together effectively translates the melancholic feel of the woman: although she is now strong, she had to go through unimaginable pain to get to that point. Hence the strength being bittersweet.
Moreover, she is no longer meek and feeble; like the winter-killed daisies, she is ‘austere’, meaning strict in attitude or cold-hearted. Instead of being the flowers destroyed by winter, she is winter herself.
The addition of the “corpse-white” description at the end of the stanza effectively connects it to the fifth stanza through the mention of the ghost. Even that connection, however, shows development, as she is now a sentient being rather than a phantom.
Giant heaved into the distance, stone-hatcheted,
The eleventh stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is a continuation of the tenth. Plath reveals an additional character whose description skillfully coincides with the emotional state of the woman. Both the woman and the giant have a dangerous power, and once united, they move as a single unit with the same goal: to bring the man to his knees. To heave is to carry something with a lot of effort – just as the giant has to apply a lot of effort to heave himself, so too does the woman have to be strong to be able to carry the trauma and anger.
Plath’s use of descriptive language results in the creation of an overall foreboding atmosphere: the ambiguity in the second half of the first line is effective. The giant is said to have been “hatcheted” out of snow and stone, hence making him the snowman on the moor. As previously analyzed, a snowman is a common symbol of childhood fun during winter, but Plath twists that narrative around, instead making the creature her protector and companion.
The physical descriptions of the giant in the second and third lines of the stanza are effective in furthering the narrative of a protective figure: the addition of the beard has connotations of wisdom and strength, unfazed by snow and rough conditions.
Ambushed birds by
No love in his eye,
In her poetry, Plath frequently included creatures that she found free. She would idolize and experience jealousy over the untroubled animals that could leave whenever they wanted, which she juxtaposed with her own feelings of entrapment. The birds have been ambushed, creating an ominous atmosphere. Considering the fact that birds are able to fly away at any moment, the inevitability of their demise is effective at creating tension. Not only did the giant ambush the birds, but he also did it relentlessly, racking up “dozens.”
A bird is a well-known symbol of innocence and childhood, which effectively links them to the snowman, heather, and the woman’s own vulnerability in the previous stanzas. Those carefree feelings of purity and innocence, however, have been “ambushed” by the giant and killed, unable to escape. To ambush something or someone is to attack them without warning or reconciliation, with the power dynamic unbalanced from the get-go. Just as the birds have been ambushed by the giant, so too has the woman been ambushed by the man, unable to escape no matter how hard she tried.
The second line of the stanza reveals that the giant needn’t kill the birds; he saw no practical value in the murder, making the action that much more violent. The senseless act of murder is akin to that of the man needlessly abusing the woman that seemingly wanted nothing but the best for him.
The third line of the stanza clearly depicts the giant as a metaphor for her damaged relationship: she “felt no love in his eye,” instead witnessing him killing the innocent burds purely for the act of killing.
Worse—saw dangling from that spike-studded belt
The thirteenth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ further describes the results of the giant’s murderous rampage. The giant progressed from needlessly killing birds to women – their “sheaved skulls” are “dangling from [his] spike-studded belt.” The gory imagery is incredibly effective in furthering the ominous tone present in the previous stanzas.
“Dangling” is an effective description of the skulls – to dangle is to hang loosely, which is appropriate when talking about lifeless objects. Furthermore, ‘dangling’ is both an adjective and a verb, which is significant when further semantically analyzed. The use of the verbal adjective reflects the central theme of women’s issues; just as “dangling” is both a description and an action, so too are women expected to be equal, if not more, to men, but also an accessory, something to enhance a man’s life.
In the second line of the stanza, the women’s “sheaved” skulls are said to be dangling from the giant’s belt. The description is an effective allusion to the aforementioned theme of women’s rights, or, in this case, lack thereof. A “sheave,” or sheaf, is a bundle of stalks of grain bundled together once ripe and awaiting harvest. The allusion to women being viewed as trophies are clear and effective, but there is additional underlying biblical context to the phrase – in the Bible, a sheaf of grain has connotations of abundance and prosperity.
The implication is not only effective but ironic. Exactly those connotations can be observed through another symbol in the poem – the heather flower. By incorporating biblical symbolism, Plath ensures that the issue transcends the purely physical, personal issues that she faced in her relationship. It is known that Plath, raised Unitarian, has lost her connection to religion after the passing of her father Otto in 1940, but the deliberate inclusion of the metaphor of abundance and prosperity effectively ties in the religious themes of heaven and hell that are present in the stanzas above.
Skulls vs. Heads
The image of the “ladies’ sheaved skulls” is, although grotesque, incredibly effective in not only its symbolism but implication. Instead of saying that the giant collected the heads of the women he has killed, Plath deliberately mentions the skulls. While a beheaded woman still maintains her facial features and/or hair, the skulls are nothing but a symbol of power, an intimidating demonstration of the brute force used against women.
The dissonance, however, is obvious in the last line of the stanza: the skulls have the tongues still attached, and while anatomically impossible, the implication is clear: their tongues hang out of what used to be their mouths in “guilt.” The decision to leave their tongues is a clear allusion to the lack of freedom of speech that females had. The women were brutally murdered for speaking out against their oppressors, and their dry tongues now clack their guilt, a constant reminder of the maltreatment. Plath was constantly berated by not only her colleagues but Hughes himself for being successful in academia and literature at a time when women’s rights were limited.
‘Our wit made fools
The fourteenth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ opens up a more personal connection between the speaker and reader and, if looked at more broadly, the poet, speaker, and reader.
The fourteenth stanza of the poem very clearly references the fight for women’s rights at the time of gender power imbalance. Although the 1950s and 60s, the time that Plath published the majority of her work, have experienced major developments in the gender equality movement, the sexes were far from equal.
Despite practically carrying the American workforce during World War II, most women returned to the domestic way of life after the war ended in 1945, which led to the social phenomenon known as “the baby boom.” There has been a significant decline in the number of women attending university in favor of focusing on marriage and motherhood.
Royalty and Entitlement
The first line of the stanza addresses the erasure of women from scientific fields, wherein men made “fools” out of the women’s “wit.” Men have historically been credited for female-made discoveries, which leaves women sorely lacking in the receiving end of grants, prizes, and recognition. Furthermore, Plath’s portrayal of women as ‘fools’ and men as ‘kings’ may actually have Shakespearean roots.
A Shakespearean fool is a character, usually speaking in prose, or the ‘everyday’ language, who plays a clever peasant. In his 1913 analysis, Frederick described the fools as clever commoners who use their wits to outsmart those with higher social standing. Plath employs that narrative and applies it to the struggle of women in the mid-twentieth century.
Furthermore, it is fitting to explore the implication of “kings” and monarchy in general in the stanza. A monarch is a leader that either inherits or wins over a portion of land and its people and is able to make large-scale decisions that will affect every person that falls under their rule.
The parallel is apparent in the context of gender equality, or, in this case, lack thereof. As previously mentioned, despite significant contributions to the American economy and workforce in general throughout WW2, upon the return of soldiers, women largely went back to being housewives.
The men, therefore, inherently inherit the power and social status; and actively punished the women that refused to conform to the patriarchal way of life. During Plath’s lifetime (especially during the 1940s), there were hundreds of cases of women being hospitalized, or worse – lobotomized for speaking out against societal standards and labeled as hysterical, manic, or delusional.
Kings, Princes, Sons
The second line of the stanza is an effective continuation of the first – through the use of enjambment, Plath has been able to create lines that have fluid flow and are easy to read, despite the somewhat disturbing content.
The women’s “wit” is said to have “unmanned” the kings’ “sons,” which is effective in exploring the theme of entitlement that Plath has been delving into for the past several stanzas. As previously discussed, kings usually inherit their kingdoms, which are passed down through generations. Without any external input from the people that the king rules over, he becomes responsible for their well-being simply by being entitled. The kings’ “sons,” then, will inevitably become kings themselves, lest they be “unmanned.”
To unman, if taking the verb at face value, is to make one look or feel less masculine through the elimination of stereotypical qualities associated with the male gender. It is reasonable to look at the issue through the lens of the widely pushed policy of domestic containment in an attempt to create the ideal post-war ‘nuclear family.’
With the introduction of women into the workforce and education sectors of the economy during WW2, the returning men thought they might have been replaced and hence might have felt emasculated, which is exactly the topic that Plath addresses in the second line of the stanza. By “unmanning” the kings and their sons with not sheer brute strength but their “wits,” women would have left men feeling vulnerable and subdued regarding their self-image. The issue of emasculation anxiety arises from the inherent belief that men are entitled to the societal and socioeconomic benefits that they have inherited.
Their = Our
The second half of the second line and the entirety of the third line further develop the issues of the power imbalance between the genders, but Plath delves deeper into the topic by introducing the possessive pronoun “our” instead of the more neutral “their” and “women(’s).” By re-introducing herself into the poem, Plath makes the poem increasingly more personal and emphasizes the feeling of common sorrow that is felt by all women when faced with injustice at the hands of the ‘more dominant’ sex.
Plath points out the unfair attribution of women’s work to their male counterparts, as previously discussed. The juxtaposition of “masteries,” meaning deep knowledge or outstanding action regarding a certain subject, and “amuse[ment]” is effective in highlighting the discrepancies that women faced in all fields of education, science, and arts.
For that brag, we barnacle these iron thighs.
The fifteenth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ is a continuation of the fourteenth – Plath explores the theme of gender inequality further and re-introduces the character of the giant that was present throughout the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth stanzas.
Plath further develops the act of persecution and berating of women when they emasculate men – when the women “brag,” they will have their “iron thighs” barnacled. The image is extremely effective in conveying the policing of women’s bodies that is so prominent not only in literature and media but in the larger society. Should women metaphorically step out of their lane and appear as something more than homemakers, they will be forcibly returned to the docile state that benefitted the men.
Women needed to be humble and overall submissive, and “bragging” was unacceptable; women’s “masteries” were belittled, if not discredited completely. In ‘The Snowman on the Moor,’ Plath’s choice of punishment for bragging is to “barnacle these iron thighs.” A barnacle is typically a small, sea-dwelling animal that sticks to hard surfaces very tightly to resist current and being eaten. Despite the word being a noun, its use as a verb is incredibly effective in creating an ominous atmosphere through the insertion of natural imagery.
To “barnacle” the women’s thighs, then, is to close them up. Plath’s allusion to the policing of women’s bodies is incredibly effective in portraying the multifaceted issue of gender inequality from a new angle – while the previous stanza focused on the emotional and intellectual depreciation, this stanza focuses on the control of the physical aspects of the female.
The use of the adjective “iron” to describe the women’s thighs is effective – the mention of a hard, unyielding metal is not only the symbol of how men actually view women but also a sign of resistance by the women themselves. Instead of soft, supple flesh, their bodies are represented as being made of metal.
Moreover, the use of metal in place of a malleable material symbolizes not only the strength that the women carry with them but the essential core of the economy and workforce during the Second World War.
Us vs. Them
Furthermore, it is important to note the use of “we.” The potentially dual meaning of the pronoun is effective – while on the one hand, Plath could be using “we” to address and connect herself with the women; on the other, she could use “we” to switch between narratives and speak from the male perspective.
Back to the Giant
The second and third lines of the stanza bring back the character of the Giant that has been introduced in the previous stanzas. The Giant, who is clearly meant to be a man, is said to be “throned” in the “thick of a blizzard,” which effectively connects the themes of winter and power imbalance that have been developed beforehand.
The use of “throned” is effective as it portrays the Giant as another “king” and alludes to his violent actions against women. The character is, at this point of the poem, undefeated; his brute strength and grotesque affinity for murder are apparent. It is a natural conclusion that he would abuse his power and exercise his savage will against women, just as kings exercise theirs over those less powerful than them.
The mention of the blizzard is fitting as it re-introduces the themes of snow and winter, which are not only central to the poem itself but to its title. Could the Giant potentially be the “snowman”? If one disregards the concept of a snowman as an already existing object and just considers the linguistic blending, or portmanteau, of the words “snow” and “man”, the parallel is apparent. The Giant is, first and foremost, a man that rules over the winter blizzard, dominating the snowy hills and instilling fear into those that come across him.
Although a hyperbole, it is an incredibly effective one as it considers the fear that not only powerful men instill in women but those close to them as well, those that they consider closest – like the main female speaker’s partner.
The last line of the fifteenth stanza is arguably the most important – the Giant is said to walk through the blizzard, carrying along his “trophies.” The trophies in question are, of course, the skulls of beheaded women.
Plath’s choice of description is incredibly effective as it subtly highlights the every day, almost habitual, misogyny that most women are faced with. The term ‘trophy wife,’ for example, stems from derogatory ways in which women are viewed in society – a trophy wife is, usually, a younger woman, lacking in both education and financial stability, that is romantically or sexually acquainted with an older man, who uses her as a status symbol.
The cycle is self-perpetuating: the man, looking to impress those like him, chooses a younger, often more gullible and inexperienced, woman as a partner not because he finds her particularly interesting but because he uses her as a possession.
From brunt of axe-crack
Crumbled to smoke.
The sixteenth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ is the culmination of the poem – the female speaker defeats the killer Giant.
The woman, eluding the “brunt” of the Giant’s “axe,” has managed to finally “win” and come out on top, just as she intended to do in stanza six. The numbering of the stanzas is significant as it allows for the proper development of the plot and characters.
Plath’s use of onomatopoeia in the stanza is effective – from the “crack” of the axe to the “fizz” of the falling Giant, the poet creates an engaging atmosphere in the final two stanzas of the poem to immerse the reader in the remainder of the story fully.
The use of “shied” is incredibly powerful – timidity is a characteristic that historically made men question women’s credentials and achievements. It is a trait that allowed men to not only morally but physically dominate over women for centuries, and Plath crucially changes that narrative in the span of just a few words – it is precisely by “shying” sideways, away from the wrath of the Giant, that the woman was able to defeat him.
Humbled then, and crying,
The sixteenth stanza of ‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ is the final stanza of the poem. Plath concludes the poem in a somewhat anticlimactic manner, yet the ending is incredibly effective.
The woman, having defeated the Giant, is “humbled” and starts crying. Having built up the suspense and tension throughout the previous stanzas, the reader expects the speaker to feel triumph at the victory, yet she is clearly in distress over the action. The use of caesura throughout the line furthers the negative tone of the stanza – Plath aims to create a stuttering effect to convey the shock of the woman.
The second line of the stanza (and semifinal line of the poem) is a clear sign of defeat – the speaker is no longer a woman but a “girl,”; which shows vulnerability and enhances the feeling of defenselessness that has been established. The speaker is full to the “brim” with “gentle talk” – all the flame and anger that was present in her at the beginning of the poem is gone. Plath demonstrates a stark contrast between the determined, rebellious woman that was introduced in the first stanzas and the obedient, docile girl.
The final line of the poem is full of hopelessness – all of the fire and determination that was evident in the woman is now gone, and all that remains is a defeated girl that is reverted back to her “obeying.”
‘The Snowman on the Moor‘ was published in July 1957, a year after Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes got married. The poem draws inspiration from the couple’s trip to the Yorkshire moors.
The couple’s relationship was turbulent and often quite unfulfilling for Plath. It is additionally rumored that Plath’s miscarriage in 1961 was a result of Hughes’ physically abusive behavior. Moreover, Hughes’ infidelity resulted in the couple’s separation (but not divorce) in 1962.
Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February 1963 at the age of thirty. Following several unsuccessful attempts, the poet died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The combination of confessional genre, blank verse, and discussion of emotional themes of relationships, motherhood, and depression all made Plath one of the most famous poets not only of the twentieth century but in literary history.
Sylvia Plath had manic depression, which is currently known as bipolar disorder.
If you enjoyed ‘The Snowman on the Moor,’ consider exploring more Sylvia Plath poems:
- ‘Daddy‘ – explores the poet’s tragic relationship with her father.
- ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree‘ – explores the poet’s relationship with her parents.
- ‘Sheep in Fog‘ – explores the poet’s feelings of depression, helplessness, and anxiety.