To Time

Sylvia Plath

‘To Time’ by Sylvia Plath explores the meaning of time. It depicts time as a machine that moves through history, depleting it of all purpose.


Sylvia Plath

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 delves into themes of time, life, death, and human existence. ‘To Time’ is structured in the tradition of Shakespeare. It taps into content that is relatable to any reader while also commenting on the vast history of humankind. 

To Time by Sylvia Plath


Summary of To Time

To Time’ by Sylvia Plath depicts time as a great machine that moves through history confining and draining all life of its essence and matter. 

The poem takes the reader through a series of images that allude to the fate that all human beings, and all living creatures, have to face. It does not matter if one is a king or a pagan girl. Additionally, it doesn’t matter what one does doing their life. Hiding in the light will not stop the darkness of death and time from reaching you. 

You can read the full poem here and poetry from Sylvia Plath here.


Structure of To Time

‘To Time’ by Sylvia Plath is a fourteen-line sonnet that conforms to the pattern made famous by William Shakespeare. It made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. 

As is common in the poetry of Shakespeare, and which occurs here as well, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to change speakers, answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, or shift the perspective in some crucial way.


Poetic Techniques in To Time

Plath makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘To Time’. These include but are not limited to personification, juxtaposition, and metaphor. Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It can be seen in the third line of the poem when death is described as arriving “in a casual steel car”. Reminiscent of Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for death,’ Death in this poem turns up similarly. There is another example in the second quatrain when the wind is described as “Raving in the gutter”. It is described with the pronoun “he” and has the ability to cry in the speaker’s ear. 

Juxtaposition is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. For example, the contrast between the “neon” that humans seek in life and the darkness that comes along with death.

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. The last two lines present the reader with a powerful metaphor that compares time to a “great machine”.


Analysis of To Time 

Lines 1-4

Today we move in jade and cease with garnet
Amid the ticking jeweled clocks that mark
Our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet
We vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark.

In the first lines of ‘To Time’ the speaker begins by describing one’s progression through life on the face of a jeweled clock. “We,” she says, “move in jade and cease with garnet”. These jewels mark the years on the “clocks”. In contrast to the beauty of this image, and of the jewels themselves, the poet presents the image of Death. Time comes, personified as is often the case in poetry, “in a casual steel car”. It does not arrive in luxury. Death’s mode of transport is simple, getting the job done. 

She juxtaposes the simplicity and inevitability of death against the “neon” with which “we vaunt our days”. This alludes to the human need to seek out light for as long as possible while scorning the dark. We stay away from the dark as best we can as it reminds us of our own deaths. 


Lines 5-8

But outside the diabolic steel of this
Voice crying exclusion in my ear.

In the second quatrain of ‘To Time’ the speaker alludes to the eventuality that all human beings have to contend with. Outside the “diabolic steel” of the world, she lives in, she can “hear / the lone wind raving in the gutter”. There is a rawness to this image. It is undeniable and powerful in a way that humans cannot control. Her fate is her own, but it’s also that of everyone else on earth. The time comes for each person even when we do our best to ignore it. 


Lines 9-12

So cry for the pagan girl left picking olives
Sorrow; weep for the legendary dragon.

The third and final quatrain speaks to the past. These things have been eaten by time and exist only in memory and story. It does not matter who one is, the “pagan girl” or the “thousand kings” all meet their death. She asks the listener, the reader, or all of humankind to “cry for the pagan girl” who has long since been lost. They should “weep for the legendary dragon” who also met his fate at the hands of time and death. 


Lines 13-14

Time is a great machine of iron bars
That drains eternally the milk of stars.

In the last two lines of ‘To Time,’ the true power of time is outlined. She describes it as a “great machine of iron bars”. It is a prison, but it is a functioning one. It does what it was made to do and “drains eternally the milk of the stars”. The use of the word “milk” speaks to sustenance and warmth. Time takes and takes and has no limits to what it won’t strip of its goodness. 

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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