Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to post a poem yesterday, so here is one for Friday. I will post Saturday’s later.
Sylvia Plath – “The Moon and the Yew Tree”
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 at 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 be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over 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.
22 October 1961
This is not the kind of poem that, when I’m finished, I say, “Wow, I really liked that poem.” Or think, “Wow, the poet uses those images really well.” No, as with many Plath poems, I just sit there, startled into silence. I guess the first thought that probably comes into my mind is a type of envy: “How the hell does she make every freaking line sound like it could be a profound poem of its own?”
Since Plath is one of my favorite poets, I had trouble selecting which of her poems to use. I didn’t want to do one that is heavily anthologized, nor anything overly obscure. Also, I think her early poems are unfairly ignored, and thought of exploring one of those. While much of them may not have the same “umph” as her later work, her language and vocabulary seems more diverse, more strange in the early poems, as opposed to ones like this, in which the language is fairly simple. Yet that makes the power of “The Moon and the Yew Tree” all the more amazing.
While Plath has vivid descriptions of the physical world – I can clearly see the moon, the yew tree, the night sky, the saints in the church – there is a mythic quality to her writing as well. The moon’s eerie glow isn’t just light, it is “the light of the mind.” It isn’t just white, it is “cold and planetary.” Grasses become humble believers. The speaker becomes godlike, even though we end up learning she has “fallen a long way.” Hers is an earthly, perhaps Pagan divinity, powerful but full of the same flaws and sorrows of humans. She wishes she could believe in tenderness, but cannot escape her essential being: “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.”
Yet, while there is apparent contrast between the Christian and natural images here, in the last stanza, the saints will be blue, just as the sky. the pews cold. And their virtue isn’t without cost, as their bodies are “stiff with holiness.” The yew tree seems to be a sort of muse, lacking a judgment towards either the Christian or Pagan outlooks, but simply offering a message of “blackness and silence.” This is no nihilism; it is mythic and descriptive rather than judgmental or didactic, and it straddles the line between human and divine where art transforms.
My favorite part of this poem: “It drags the sea after it like a dark crime….” Despite the mythic quality, it is not abstract or removed, but very involved with emotion. Like the speaker, the moon is haunted by its past, pulling the darkness of the sea after it, and “it is quiet / With the O-gape of complete despair.” Plath, knowing when to be blunt, reminds us she’s not just talking about the moon as if it were some distant, epic object: “I live here.” We all have lived in such a place, in the cold, embraceless air of the moon, of the still, black solemnity of the yew. We hear bells signaling resurrection in the distance, but grow stiff with holiness.