‘The moon and the yew tree’ by Sylvia Plath

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.

I find most of Sylvia Plath’s poems difficult. I’m not ashamed to say that; it’s actually part of why I love her work so much. I read The Bell Jar (her only novel) when I was 18. It is a ‘coming of age’ novel, sort of like The Catcher in the Rye, but from a female perspective. It spoke to me so much at that time and I read it and read it again, astounded to hear such an honest, accessible voice. So I then started on her poetry — firstly whichever ones I managed to find online — but now I have read both The Colossus and Ariel. This poem is from the Ariel collection.

I adore the feeling when I look at a new Plath poem and read it to myself, relishing the sound of it, the feel of it, the unexpectedness of the words, and then try to figure it out. Her poems can often seem cryptic but are always engaging, and I don’t see why this kind of poetry should be scary. Surely there’s no right way to read a poem. Whatever comes out of it for you is valuable. All I’m trying to do on this blog is tell you what it says to me.

This poem gives me a few different ideas. I get a strong sense of conflict between the masculine and the feminine, symbolised by the moon (a traditional feminine symbol) and the yew tree. This could be to do with Sylvia’s mother and father (her father died when she was 10 and a lot of her poetry is about him), or perhaps it is about herself and her husband Ted Hughes. For me, this poem also communicates despair, suicidal thoughts, as well as a detachment from and disillusionment with religion.

So, the poem starts out by talking about the “light of the mind” and the “trees of the mind”. The light, which you would expect to be warm and illuminating, is described as “cold and planetary”. The trees are “black”. The trees — I read the trees here as a masculine symbol — seem very portentous, ominous; instead of bearing fruit they are black, haunting Plath’s mind. The light — which, as you may have guessed, I read as a feminine symbol — is blue. There is an absence of warmth coming from this feminine light; it is not motherly or loving. The legacy Plath’s father has left her is despair, a dreadful blackness; her mother’s legacy is sadness and cold.

This opening stanza is so sad. I think my favourite line of the poem is, “The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God”. As she walks in her garden, you can feel the unbearable weight pressing down on the poet. There is this sense of inadequacy that I think runs through the whole poem; she is not God, she does not live up to the world’s (and her own?) expectations. This line might have something to do with her feeling inadequate as a mother; perhaps she feels her own light is “cold and planetary” when it is expected to be warm and maternal. Plath lives next to a church (she wrote this at the house she and Ted Hughes lived in for a time in Devon). The “spiritous mists” are “Separated from my house by a row of headstones”, she tells us. Plath cannot see the beauty or find any spirituality or romance in the place where she is living, because of the graveyard. The row of headstones is a blockage in her mind. Death is preoccupying her, perhaps thoughts of suicide. Thoughts of death are preventing her from knowing God, from seeing beauty, and seem to be sabotaging her whole existence. “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”, she says. This is so bleak and heartbreaking. Plath has come to a dead end, she no longer sees her own future, her purpose.

The second verse describes the moon. It is “no door”, Plath tells us. The moon is not a guide or a help or an inspiration. You can sense a detachment in Plath from it — and from her mother? From her own feminine identity? I love her description of the moon as “white as a knuckle”. There is an anger there, a clenched fist. The moon is upset; it drags “the sea after is like a dark crime”. There is a feeling of guilt here, of shame; I wonder if Sylvia Plath felt shame at not being what she perceived a ‘perfect mother’ or a ‘perfect wife’. But this is not any guilt — it has the weight of all the oceans. The moon is also “quiet/ with the O-gape of complete despair”. This is a very telling image. It is a perfect feminine picture but it is making this silent scream of despair. The silent “O-gape” reminds me of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. “I live here”, says Plath. There is no doubt, the poet is telling us, ‘this is my reality’. This is how she lives — in unvoiced despair. This is so sad because Plath ended up committing suicide, and these words make me feel that she suffered in complete silence.

In the third verse we get a description of the yew tree. It is not as lengthy a description as that of the moon. All we are told is that it “points up”, and has a “Gothic shape”. It is an obvious phallic shape symbolising the male, and the word Gothic evokes the idea of tradition, of religion and, for me, it also has an ominous feeling, a sort of foreboding. It is interesting to me that there is such a short description of the yew tree in this poem. All we get is a “blackness”, a mere silhouette; perhaps it is because Plath’s father died when she was so young that the yew tree — the male, the father — remains unfathomable. If you follow the yew tree with your eyes you find the moon; the moon is the target, the victim. Plath then continues to describe the moon. “The moon is my mother” she says, not sweet “like Mary”; there is so much disappointment in this poem. The mother, the feminine, never lives up to what we expect.”How I would like to believe in tenderness”, the beautiful image of the Virgin Mary bending her gaze on “me in particular”, says Plath. This to me reveals a total disillusionment with God. For the poet there is no benevolent God watching over her — there is no tenderness — her world is cold and sad and without purpose.

The final stanza begins “I have fallen a long way.” That word ‘fallen’ makes me think of a ‘fallen woman’. It is funny how we often judge ourselves by standards and traditions we do not believe in; our deepest hearts are often still ruled by them. This verse makes me feel that the poet judged herself through the stern eyes of a religion in which she no longer believed; those feminine ideals of the mother in the image of Mary are very ingrained in us. She talks about what is inside the church, the saints, “floating” over the pews, their hands and feet “stiff with holiness”. But the moon “sees nothing of this” — she is “bald and wild”. This is such a fascinating image to me because the feminine symbol is given traits of insanity. The baldness is unnatural for a woman; it is not pretty, it is not coy or flirtatious. The moon is ripped bare, vulnerable, and its madness is exposed for all to see. And the poem leaves us with “the message of the yew tree” (of course, the male will have the final word) which is “blackness — blackness and silence”. Death is the message of the yew tree, and it overrides everything else, just as Plath’s depression eventually won the battle for her soul.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

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