Analysis of the Poem "You're" by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath and "You're"
You're is a poem Sylvia Plath wrote in 1960, the year she gave birth to Frieda, her first child with poet Ted Hughes. In the poem the speaker is addressing the as yet unborn child.
It is a relatively accessible poem and is packed with dense, powerful imagery that takes the reader on a visual journey into the womb and out to the cosmos via Mexico and Australia.
Sylvia Plath had a love-hate relationship with the idea of childbirth. In her journals there are several entries that point to her being physically frightened. For example she wrote:
'Sometimes I shiver in a preview of the pain and the terror of childbirth, but it will come and I live through it.'
Yet, she did think that pregnancy and the act of giving birth a necessary thing for a woman to go through in order to be fully alive, to live a full and meaningful life. This short poem seems to be life affirming and captures the joy and anticipation of having a living being growing inside.
This is in stark contrast to the darker poems Sylvia Plath produced in the final months of her short life and gives a sense of a more playful, painterly wordsmith, keen to add another fresh experience to her curriculum vitae.
- You're captures the positive emotional energy that only a pregnant woman can truly understand and a pregnant poet express in such vivid and unusual ways, to present and share to the wider world. Much like a mother does her new born.
Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.
Line By Line Analysis of You're
Sylvia Plath's You're is all about the mother addressing her unborn child. The whole poem is dedicated to pregnancy - even the title is a contraction of you are - and the form of the poem, two 9 line stanzas, reflects the gestation time of 9 months, despite the fact that the word baby or foetus is never mentioned.
The short title can be applied to each line, almost as if it is an invisible repeated word, there but hidden, like the growing child inside.
Here is the baby in the womb as imagined by an excited if slightly apprehensive mother. It is seen as clownlike, that is, innocent, but it will bring both tears of joy and sadness into the world. It's upside down, standing on its hands.
Because the speaker begins on a positive note, using clownlike and happiest, this sets the tone for the rest of the first stanza, for the whole poem. With the foetus upside down, its feet are pointing to the sky and beyond, out into the cosmos. Its round head is like the moon. The speaker is broadening the scope, beginning to layer image upon image.
Each line is a kind of emotional response to motherhood made visual through simile and metaphor. Her baby is going through evolutionary stages, is breathing inside her womb through gills, like a fish. As the line splits - quite puzzlingly at first - the speaker sees the foetus fully in the context of evolution and science, hence the common-sense, which flows into the next line via enjambment.
Her unborn child is the opposite to the now extinct dodo, that unfortunate bird wiped off the face of the earth. The thumbs are down, not up, the opposable thumbs that in evolution, correspond to parts of the bird wing. The speaker is contrasting two states of helplessness, that of her child and that of the dodo - the former new life, the latter defunct.
Note how the speaker makes things personal from time to time by using your and yourself. She sees her baby as a self-contained, useful little thing full of potential, full of thread (a spool is a cylinder for wound thread, cotton, wire and so on).
Trawling is an unusual verb to use in this context. It is usually associated with deep-sea fishing, the use of nets to catch fish but can also mean to search thoroughly, which perhaps is the meaning intended here. The introduction of the owl, another bird, adds an extra layer of imagery, and reinforces the idea of the unborn child searching for meaning in the darkness of the mother's womb.
To compare a baby to a turnip is funny. No foetus is like a root vegetable unless it's a swede. The speaker here is referring to the nine month gestation period, July-April, with the unborn child rooted, muted. Note the second use of enjambment, carrying the sense into the next line.
As if to make up for the unlikely lowly turnip, the speaker sees her child as just the opposite: a rising loaf of bread. This is a play on the idiomatic bun in the oven which is a phrase used to describe a pregnant woman. Oven is the womb, bun is the baby.
You're - Line By Line Analysis
Nowadays pregnant women are routinely scanned by ultrasound at various stages to determine whether or not the baby is healthy. Ultrasound has been around for decades but back in 1960 there was no ultrasound available, only X rays were used, but rarely.
So it is fascinating to look at this line because it conjures up exactly that - an X ray image of the baby in the womb. Sylvia Plath perhaps had seen photographs of such babies, those early primitive, blurry monochrome X rays.
When the mail comes through the letter box (in the UK most mail is delivered through a small slit in the door, the letter box, and drops to the floor) a person has to sometimes look for it, because it might not be there!
Australia to most people in the UK and Europe is 'down under', way down below the feet, somewhere far away. It is a continent. The speaker is suggesting that the baby in the womb is like a continent, will be as big as in the life of, and hugely significant, but it also seems a long way away, so distant, near yet far.
Atlas was a greek Titan who had to hold up the sky for eternity, a huge responsibility. He is often depicted carrying the earth on his shoulders. In psychology Atlas is a metaphor for the personality of a child who has excessive responsibilities in life.
Coupled with this image is that of the prawn, again a strange combination but one which likens the baby to a creature, water born and oddly shaped. The fact that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had travelled in the USA in late 1959 seems to be relevant.
The only time in the poem that the speaker hints at a partner - with the use of our travelled prawn.
The next two lines are mostly single syllable and jump off the tongue with energy and fun. There is an English saying 'to be as snug as a bug in a rug' which means, well, to be cosy and secure domestically and in the right place. Plath changes bug to bud to signify new growth, fresh life.
Again, the reference to all things fishy. A sprat is a small silvery fish found in huge shoals. It is the sprat that is used to catch the mackerel, which means you take a small risk but get a greater gain.
To pickle is to preserve. The speaker is implying that the womb is the preserver.
Stands by itself, like several lines in this second stanza. The fishy, watery, seasidey - the marine - associations continue. This time a creel (a wicker basket) is full of eels and they are writhing, or rippling, like water itself.
This image must be based on the feelings of the mother as the baby moves and writhes inside. All kinds of reactions are going on internally as the baby grows and the speaker's vivid imagination once again entertains the reader in unique fashion.
Likewise, a baby sometimes 'kicks' as it moves around in the mother's womb at random. This is a fun line and worth looking at for the rhythm:
- Jumpy / as a Mex / ican bean.
It is an anapestic trimeter line. It has a trochee as first foot and two anapests. Rollercoaster.
The shortest line. We are back to the rational, as in line 3 with common-sense. But is the speaker ticking the well-done sum, as a teacher might, or simpy stating that a mathematical sum done correctly feels right, can't be anything other than spot on?
Gestation is nearly over, this is it. A clean slate is a new beginning - what has gone on in the past is of no importance - because the present is what counts. And that present will have a unique portrait on it. Again, a direct personal association.
More Analysis of You're
You're has a fascinating variety of rhythms within its 18 lines.
It starts abruptly, moves on with an uncertain flow, stumbles, picks up a heartbeat, loses it - and throughout the whole poem the syntax reflects this hesitancy - it never quite gets going, never reaches a steady famliar beat.
Even if the thoughtful speaker, whilst thinking up all sorts of descriptive similes and metaphors, is full of positive energy, the syntax won't allow that energy to flow for any length of time.
- Nearly half of the 18 lines have some form of punctuation halfway, or near the start, causing the reader to pause. And eleven lines are fully end stopped. This tends to separate sense and temporarily alter any rhythm.
Meter (metre in British English)
A study of the syllables per line results in:
Stanza 1: 878787878
Stanza 2: 888787868
Let's take a close look at line 1:
- Clownlike, / happi / est on / your hands,
The 8 syllables split into four feet, the two opening trochees followed by two iambs. Trochees tend to liven things up, they bring optimism and momentum going forward. Iambs steady things down.
This pattern is found throughout the poem, trochees dominating, iambs smoothing things down in either tetrameter or trimeter lines.
But there are a number of exceptional lines, including line 7:
- Mute as / a tur / nip from / the Fourth
A trochee opens, and iambs follow. Line 8 brings:
- Of Ju / ly to / All Fool's / Day.
Opening here is a pyrrhic, then comes a trochee, a spondee and extra stressed beat.
This pattern of ending lines with three stressed words continues in the second stanza, with the last two lines:
- Right, like / a well / done sum.
- A clean / slate, with / your own / face on.
More Analysis of You're
You're is a free verse poem with no regular end rhyme and a varying meter (metre in British English). There are two stanzas, each 9 lines long, reflecting the gestation period for a pregnant woman, which is 9 months.
Certain literary devices help bring texture and interest to the sounds, as well as acting like connecting tissue throughout the poem.
Alliteration (repeat of same close consonants in any line)
Note the use of alliteration in lines:
- 1 - happiest/hands
- 9 - little loaf.
- 12 - Bent-backed.
Assonance (repeat of same close vowels in any line)
Occurs in lines:
- 3 - Gilled/fish
- 4 - dodo's mode
- 9 - high-riser
- 12 - -backed Atlas
- 13 - Snug/bud
- 14 - in/pickle
- 15 - creel/eels
- 18 - slate/face.
Note the poet's use of internal rhyme, introducing subtle (and not so subtle) echoes and resonance:
- dodo's mode/loaf/home/own.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, 2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey