… which UD, marooned on the east coast, will not be able to see (she saw one last December), Sylvia Plath’s The Moon and the Yew Tree. Since I’m interrupting the poem with commentary, you might want to read it first unmolested, at the link in the sentence before this one.

The Moon and the Yew Tree

[OO. Moon and yew will propel the poetry of this piece from the very start with their shared long vowel. The title perhaps announces some sort of relationship throughout the poem between these two objects: moon, tree. Yew tree — poisonous, slow-growing, planted in cemeteries because it symbolizes in some cultures – despite its toxicity – the transcendence of death. Moon — for centuries a symbol of (among other things) a cold enigmatic staring lifelessness that haunts the earth.]

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

[The poet looks up at the moon’s white cold light and compares it to the state of her consciousness, the actions of her mind. The mind is lit up with thoughts, but the thoughts are disconnected from the world, and from other people, moving in an orbit all their own. The actual content of the mind, the nature of the mind- is melancholy: pure black.

Calling the light of the mind blue not only links it to the frigid light of the moon, but also starts to suggest turning blue in death, or, less dire than this, the blue mood of the psychic death which is depression.

Note the delicacy of Plath’s music in these opening bars: All those liquid Ls lull us into a fugue or trance state.]

The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.

[The poet walks barefoot at night under the moon – a surreal, dreamy scene. The wet grass weeps its water onto her feet in some sort of gesture of cosmic propitiation — The earth, like the moon, is all despair. It depends upon humanity, with its vital, redemptive energies, to make it live.]

Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

[Notice the consistency of the moon’s long oo – humility, fumy. Also the oddly obsolete or unreal or Macbethy feel of words like fumy and spiritous, a feel that sustains the surreal, dislocated mood of the poem.

Maybe a principle opposite to the moon’s morbidness and the earth’s despair can be found here, in the cemetery to which the poet’s night walk has brought her. Maybe here, among the spirits of the dead, we can, paradoxically, sense some life.

But the word headstones, in a poem which has already described the mind as well as the moon as literal head-stones, stony heads, deadheads, doesn’t inspire confidence.]

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.

[One of the things that gives poems like this power is that it doesn’t insist on I, me, my presence. It will certainly invoke the subjectivity of the poet, but that will not dominate. Instead, the main deal here feels like a series of authoritative, objective-feeling statements about the world. This I think accounts for the credibility of this poem. Somehow it makes us receptive to its nihilistic philosophy, even though with other sorts of writing arguing the same thing we might be inclined to resist. Its psychic power resides in its having found in us our own nihilistic latency.

But anyway here is a very simple first-person statement: I can’t see where there is to get to. That’s partly about the mist, the night, but mainly about a conviction that we inhabit a world of no openings onto enlightenment or salvation.

So the moon, part of this nihilistic cosmos, finds its tidal life-powers as humiliating as the grass finds its capacity to “feed” life. It’s merely a perversion, a dark behavior the moon can’t help, that it sets going a life-force on the earth. The cosmic reality is death.]

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.

[Her home adjacent to the churchyard, the poet has a ringside seat for churchly reassurance, for the tolling that disturbs the sky’s sleep with the good news of life now and in the world to come.]

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.

[Hokay. Finally we get the yew tree. Poem’s almost over.

Why do so many poets like the yew?

Well, first of all, they probably like the fact that it sounds exactly like you. The you tree. I mean, just as we’re probably not consciously taking in all the connotations of headstones, so we’re unlikely to say Yew! Right – you. But much of the point of poetry involves the poet’s sly diligent verbal building toward greater and greater implication, echo, effect, significance. The world and its possibilities are made bigger by great poems like this one. Words take on multiple, fumy, maybe disturbing meanings, and as they do we perceive existence’s deeper backgrounds.

But Plath presumably also likes the yew’s ambiguous, at-odd, values – literal poison, figurative transcendence… So the yew’s stiff branches point up, toward the transcendent realm, as in the architecture of a gothic church. Let us say – recalling the poem’s title – that they point toward the moon, suggesting a relationship between the earth (nature) and the cosmos (the moon). Rather than feeling upset and humiliated by its relationship to the earth, the moon, in this gothic pointing up business, beams godly radiance down upon us.]

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.

[So the poet looks up toward the moon, at which the yew branches point, and enters into a concluding lunar meditation. She pauses in her walk and really looks.

The moon is a kind of mother, but she is not the mother of God. There is nothing benevolent or transcendent about her frigidity, which is entirely a phenomenon of the night, and the creatures of the night (bats, owls).

Moon/blue/unloose — see how she brings her words moon and blue back to the poem again and again, not only heightening, in this way, her poem’s hypnotic effect, but with each invocation broadening the range of meanings these words contain.]

How I would like to believe in tenderness——
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

[Is the world hard or soft? Is the moon an icon of love, placidity, the kind all-seeing eye of Mary? Or is it a mere chunk of matter in a harsh and unforthcoming universe? Why not try to see its face as the face of a saint, its light not harsh but soft, like the light of candles? Why not see its canyons as compassionate profundities?]

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 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.

[The poet, directly under the moon’s complete despair, is able to take the measure of her own depression’s depth. She tries, one last time, to animate the earth and the heavens with beauty and ultimate meaning: Clouds are like blue flowers softening the sharp harsh points of the stars, making the cosmos not cold and empty but mystically abundant… But no. Inside the church, the statues of saints come to life and drift, as the poet has been drifting, not among the yews, but among the pews, prayer seats formed from the trees, human objects derived from nature and fashioned into locations of rest and repair from our cold journeys outside under the moon.

No sanctuary here, though. The saints are blue, cold and stiff — dead as doornails — and their dead drift is the poet’s own depressive, deathward movement.

And the moon couldn’t give a shit. She sees nothing of this – the poet’s anguish, the world’s efforts to warm itself by a god… The yew tree points upward at the moon to make a statement: This is your reality, both earthly and cosmic: A vast, empty blur, inside of which the mind moves with its empty, anguishing, meaningless thoughts.]

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One Response to “In honor of the lunar eclipse…”

  1. University Diaries » My latest lecture on poetry… Says:

    […] … can be found here (you need to register for the course). It’s about Sylvia Plath’s poem, The Moon and the Yew Tree. I wrote about it earlier on this blog, here. […]

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