Images of Fertility, Pregnancy, and Motherhood in Sylvia Plath’s “Elm”

Sylvia Plath, Image Source: Poetry Foundation

Sylvia Plath, one of the most regarded poets of the Confessional school of poetry was certainly no stranger to baring her emotions on the page. Indeed, a hallmark of the confessional school is, as Deborah Nelson points out, is the “urgency and ‘rawness’ of the revelations” being put forth (34). Plath often grapples with the expected role of women in her contemporary society in her work. This examination on the role of women can be seen in “Elm,” an emotionally charged poem that, in part, explores the notion of fertility and pregnancy. The poem itself is told through the personification of a tree which, as the title suggests, is probably an elm tree. The choice of tree is significant when considering the question of fertility as Slippery Elm has strong associations with female reproduction. 

Slippery Elm, Image Source: Healthline

While some sources point out it’s associations with increasing female fertility, others point to evidence that slippery elm can be detrimental to pregnancy. Plath possibly alludes to this second association when she writes: “Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?/ This is rain now, this big hush./ And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic” (13-15). She moves from this image of poison before alluding to the notion of endings — “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets” (16) — before moving to an emotionally charged scene in which the speaker says: “Now I break up into pieces that fly about like clubs./ A wind of such violence/ Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek” (19-21). It seems that this scene is grappling with the complicated feelings around the notion of motherhood and fertility. The raw emotion coming from the speaker becomes clearer with the introduction of the image of the moon in the next line.

Full Moon, Image Source: Wikipedia

The moon, like elm, has strong associations with reproduction in that it is historically closely tied with mensuration and fertility. The speaker states: “The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me/ Cruelly, being barren./ Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.” (22-24). Here, it is possible that “barren” is alluding to the notion of fertility. The word choice, which often has negative connotations, here seems to be working as more of a commentary on the bitterness the speaker feels she ought to feel (based on societal norms) around infertility more than anything else. This is especially interesting when read in juxtaposition to the image presented when the speaker says “[…] I let her go/ Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery” (25-26). This seems to be an allusion to a cesarean section but the word “diminished,” while again typically negative, seems here to be more ironic, in that the speaker chooses to “let her go,” the action which leads to this “diminished” state.

This is again further complicated in the lines that follow where the speaker is “inhabited by a cry” (28) and that they are “terrified by this dark thing/ That sleeps in me;/All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity” (31-33). The language choice in these few lines is occasionally at odds, illustrating the speaker’s complicated feelings, specifically the stark contrast between words like “soft” and “feathery” being put in the same category as “malignity.” It seems like the gentler words are again working to show societal expectation in this description versus the speaker’s own , more negative, feelings. The speaker goes on to ask “What is this, this face/ So murderous in its strangle of branches? —“ (38-39). Here branches might be a reference to the placenta, whose vascular structure often resembles a tree.

Throughout the poem, there is a sense that the speaker is grappling with the idea of fertility and childbirth. Some of the gentler words seem to be included only as commentary on the socio-historical role for women at the time— their purpose as a vehicle for childbirth. The speaker’s apparent anguish at the prospect of fulfilling this role is at odds with the prevailing notion that motherhood is the expectation for women at the time when this poem was written. Plath’s use of word choice and image work to create an emotionally charged poem. With the speaker’s emotional struggle against societal expectations, especially with topics as intimate and visceral as fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth, “Elm” serves as a prime example for the fierce display of emotion that is so characteristic of the Confessional School.

Is “Elm” commenting on the societal expectations surrounding female reproduction?

 

Works Cited:

Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry.”

Plath, Sylvia. “Elm.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49003/elm.

 

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