Analysis of Poem "Metaphors" by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath and Metaphors
Metaphors was written in March 1959 when Sylvia Plath mistakenly believed she might be pregnant.
In her journal of 20th March the original title was Metaphors for a Pregnant Woman but this was shortened for publication, which came a year later.
So the poem kind of looks forward - Sylvia Plath anticipates through the use of metaphor what she will be feeling like when she really is with child. And just to confirm, she did become pregnant a few months later, with her first child to fellow poet Ted Hughes.
From a poetic angle Metaphors is fascinating. In nine lines, each with nine syllables, the poet creates numerous images that bring to the reader's mind a variation on a theme of a swollen mother-to-be.
The poem was included in a slim volume The Colossus, published in the UK by William Heinemann in 1960.
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
Analysis of Metaphors
Metaphors is a single stanza poem of nine lines. Each line has nine syllables in it, to coincide with the nine months of gestation of a human pregnancy. For example:
I'm/ a/ rid/dle/ in/ nine/ syll/a/bles,
An/ el/e/phant/, a/ pond/er/ous/ house,
A/ mel/on stro/lling/ on/ two/ ten/drils.
This is the poet playing with language, building up a series of verbal pictures to reflect the nine months of pregancy.
There is no set rhyme scheme but note the imperfect rhymes of certain lines - syllables/tendrils/apples...house/purse...calf/off. The poem is free verse, with a metaphor or more in each line. And look out for alliteration - two tendrils/money new-minted/cow in calf - and some near internal rhyme and assonance such as riddle/syllables/melon strolling on/eaten a bag of green apples.
The word metaphor means carrying across, something the umbilical chord does when the embryo is growing in the womb. Sylvia Plath uses this most poetic of devices to explore her future pregnant state.
In effect she is saying that she will be equal to a riddle, an elephant, a house, a melon, red fruit, ivory, fine timbers, a yeasty loaf, a fat purse, a means(to an end), a stage, a cow, a bag of green apples and a train.
Metaphors can be seen as a way into what is unknown, a vehicle for exploration. They are also a magical device for creating imagery which can help the mind in its understanding of the world. In this particular poem each metaphor becomes the poet's physical body, helping release feelings of happiness, tension and fear.
Ambiguity in Metaphors
A riddle might be said to be ambiguous in itself. Plath's poem certainly can take the reader one way, then the other. Is the speaker happy to be with child, or unhappy? Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal - "I do not primarily want to be a mother." But then, at a different date, writes - "A woman has 9 months of becoming something other than herself, of separating from this otherness,of feeding it and being a source of milk and honey to it.To be deprived of this is a death indeed."
Line by Line Analysis of Metaphors
Line 1 I'm a riddle in nine syllables
First line, first metaphor. This person is a riddle, an enigma, something to be puzzled over and worked out, the answer containing nine syllables only. Riddles often involve the ingenious use of wordplay, imagery and lateral thinking, left brain versus right brain, before the definitive conclusion is arrived at.
The speaker is giving the reader a hint - in this first line and every other line that follows - this is a nine-fold riddle made up of metaphorical images.
Line 2 An elephant, a ponderous house
A fully pregnant woman might well feel that she is too heavy, having to carry all that extra weight around. Elephants are generally slow to move, deliberate in their action and could be described as bulky.
Here is the mother-to-be experiencing herself as a potential matriarch, having to make decisions with the baby in mind, having to reduce movement, to take things at a slower pace.
The word ponderous reinforces the feeling of slowness, of dull plodding existence. The house introduces the idea of safety, of domestic space, the cosy home.
Line 3 A melon strolling on two tendrils
This is a bizarre and comical image, conjuring up vivid pictures of a rounded, swollen stomach casually strolling along on two thin leg-like appendages. Plant tendrils often grow in spiral form, climbing up and clinging on; and the fruit carries the seed (like the ovary), so the whole sentence is full of natural fertility so to speak.
Line 4 O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
The first three lines are summed up in melodramatic fashion - the melon is a water melon (echoes of waters breaking at the end of pregnancy), red just like blood; the ivory relates to the elephant, being of high value and only available when the elephant has died; fine timbers are what hold up the roof of well built houses, the strongest wood being oak.
The speaker is in near disbelief, as proven by the exclamation mark.
Line 5 This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
When the dough is kneaded and ready for prooving it's left to one side in a warm place to rise. Often this means a doubling in size of the dough. Then of course the final baking takes place in the oven. Colloquially (in the UK) having a 'bun in the oven' means that someone is with child.
This metaphor is more traditional and wholesome and has no comical side-effect, unlike the melon in line three.
Line 6 Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
The child is the new money, the mother's large stomach the purse, holding the precious currency of life. Having a full purse means that there's sufficient wealth held so it's of great value.
Line 7 I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
The last of four lines with end stop punctuation, suggesting a completeness. The speaker refers to being a means, a means to an end; something done to produce a result. And that result will be the birth of a child. Hopefully the mother will keep her inherent value and not feel as if she were simply a carrier, a vessel - once the child is born the mother won't feel empty or worthless.
A stage - a part in a process or a stage on which to perform? Probably the former. The speaker is in the early stages of pregnancy, as the saying goes, and is therefore an integral part of the process of growth.
Again, the speaker sees herself as an animal, a large one, a cow. Pregnant cows are particularly heavy, with swollen stomach, udders and wide strange gait. This mother feels that she is a cow in calf.
Line 8 I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Why green apples? Does that mean they're unripe, unlike red apples? So many apples would cause stomach ache and severe discomfort. Did she eat them all at once? That would be obscene.
Perhaps the green apples reflect the popular but misplaced idea that Eve gave Adam an apple to eat in the Garden of Eden (although in Genesis apple isn't mentioned, only fruit) - from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As punishment God banished them both, saying that women would have to endure the pain of childbirth.
Line 9 Boarded the train there's no getting off.
These last two lines bring a little uncertainty to the poem. Gone is the comical sense of the heavy, slow moving caricatured mother, with swollen belly and thin legs. Now the speaker leaves the reader with the idea that this situation is somewhat serious, the child-carrying female must stay on to the end of the line, come what may.
Baby and mother are heading off into the future, the wheels are turning and both will have to wait until the train reaches the terminus.
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey