Sylvia Plath's "Metaphors"
The Collected Poems
This collection includes "Metaphors."
Introduction: The Pregnancy Puzzle
Sylvia Plath's "Metaphors" dramatizes the ambivalence, disgust, and horror of experiencing pregnancy. The speaker in this poem is a character, who is obsessed with body image, and likely is looking ahead with dread to the caring for the baby she is carrying.
This poem about pregnancy consists of one versagraph with nine lines. Each line has nine syllables. This emphasis on the number nine obviously corresponds to the nine months of gestation.
At first blush, this little poem may seem quite innocently playful, but looking closer, one finds a truly disturbing line of thought. The choices of metaphors reveal a common theme with Plath, that of ambivalence, at best, and horror at worst, toward motherhood.
Line 1: "I'm a riddle in nine syllables"
The first line of "Metaphors" implies that the speaker's hormones are out of whack, making her behave unpredictably, even quizzically; thus she has become a "riddle" that is displayed in only "nine syllables."
Stereotypically, husbands often complain that they have trouble understanding the mood swings of their pregnant wives, and many comedy sketches have dramatized that complaint.
Line 2: "An elephant, a ponderous house"
Of course, one of the difficulties of pregnancy is the growing abdominal size of the mother-to-be, and the speaker points to that predicament when she describes herself as "An elephant, a ponderous house." She feels as big as a huge animal. The awkwardness makes her feel like a big bulky building.
By choosing to describe the house as "ponderous," the speaker is not only calling the "house" awkward, but using a clever pun to reveal that she is over-thinking or pondering about her present predicament. And her thoughts lead her to certain conclusions about her condition that do not please her.
Line 3: "A melon strolling on two tendrils"
The speaker's unbalanced size is highlighted when she insists that she looks like a "melon strolling on two tendrils." The huge round belly supported by the legs, which do not change size proportionally, makes her look off balance.
This line knocks out an image that blasts surreality in its grossness. It would likely frighten a small child to encounter such an image in a story book or a video.
Line 4: "O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!"
The speaker then pays homage to the little person whom she is carrying by exclaiming to the child, "O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!" The growing baby is delicate with tender limbs and newly forming flesh. She envisions the skin as smooth as ivory.
Yet, by addressing the baby as "fruit," she places its evolutionary value much lower than the mammal it is.
Line 5: "This loaf's big with its yeasty rising"
The speaker continues to mention the growing baby, likening it to a loaf of bread rising in the oven, playing on the slang expression of having bun in the oven, but this time she again shows her preoccupation with her own size.
The baby as a loaf of bread has now lost even more evolutionary status. "Fruit" is a result of being part of a living thing at least, while a loaf of bread has value only because it can be eaten by beings far above its own evolutionary stage.
Line 6: "Money's new-minted in this fat purse"
The speaker then refers to the baby as money being new-minted in this fat purse. This line is silly; it is not in a purse but a government building that money is minted. Even though it is a baby growing that causes her swollen appearance, she remains more concerned about her own appearance than with the baby's status.
And now the baby has devolved into an actual "thing"—money. It has lost all claim to personhood, or even the status of a living entity.
As this speaker becomes more concerned about her own body image, the lower the child within her devolves.
Line 7: " I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf "
As she did in the opening by comparing her body to that of an elephant, the speaker now again belittles her own humanity as she likens her body to "a means, a stage, a cow in calf."
She regards her status is simply a conduit through which this new human being will come into the world. She deems herself lower in evolutionary development than other human mammals in their gestating period: she has now become a cow.
Line 8: "I've eaten a bag of green apples"
Eating a bag of green apples dramatizes the nausea and bloated sensations that accompany pregnancy. Often, the pregnant woman will feel as though she has eaten too much, even when she has not, because the growing child is crowding the mothers internal organs, and the sensation becomes very uncomfortable.
Once again, focusing only on herself, the speaker likens her status to the overeating of a sour fruit. The green, unripe apple's sourness again shows the sourness of the speaker toward her own body and toward the life that is growing inside that body.
Line 9: "Boarded the train there's no getting off"
The speaker then says she "has boarded the train there's no getting off." This pregnancy was pre-Roe v Wade, but the speaker would have known that abortions were, nevertheless, attainable; therefore, the speaker's final metaphoric declaration avows that she has chosen life, despite the bodily discomforts of being pregnant.
While choosing to give birth to the baby rather than aborting it might put off radical feminists, who identify wholly with the message of these monstrous metaphors, the speaker has recovered a modicum of dignity.
Despite the hardship of pregnancy, the damage it does to the female physique, the burden it will cause raising the child, the speaker chooses to stay on that "train."
One might still wonder if that child would have been allowed to be born, if the time of the writing of this poem had been post Roe v Wade.
Reading of Plath's "Metaphors"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes