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Poetry, like mythology, dares to take it's reader on a journey into places they may not otherwise be willing to explore. Good poetry, does that, anyway. It is subjective, universal (yet highly personal). In honor of April's National Poetry Month, I wanted to read one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Sylvia Plath. It is a personal glimpse into the world of the Poet, and using themes that resonate on the collective, she has written a masterpiece that becomes subjective to the reader as well.
by Sylvia Plath
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
There is no denying that Sylvia Plath's work was heavy. She battled depression for most of her life and used this as inspiration in her writing. She was a pioneer in the genre of "confessional poetry," encouraged by her contemporaries to use her craft as a way to cope with her darkness.
"Edge" was written only one week before she took her life, and Plath scholars have pondered whether the poem was, in fact, a final suicide note. The themes of death by suicide and infanticide in this masterpiece seem to suggest that Plath had intended to take her own children’s lives, too.
After all, she was a woman scorned, having recently left her husband for having an affair, living in a run down apartment in a foreign country in the coldest winter on record, she was depressed and isolated, and it seems logical that a woman in this state would be capable of making such rash choices.
But I don’t believe this at all.
For one, Plath (who took her life by carbon monoxide poisoning) took great care to place wet towels and blankets around the cracks in the kitchen doors before sticking her head in the oven and turning on the gas. Even in the depths of her despair, she cared for her children, however morbid this final act of motherly compassion may seem to the world.
Though she may have been depressed for most of her life (all of her life?), Plath was a creative familiar with the cycles of light and dark. She often spoke on the struggles of modern women (who just so happen to be indoctrinated to deny their truth in order to be accepted in a society that hates women.) A perfect woman, she tells us in this poem, is a dead woman, smiling and virginal in her white toga and bare feet...
I believe "Edge" is a poem about the cycles of womanhood, and the cycles of the creative process, arguably one and the same. Just mention either of these cycles in any woman's or creative circle and we'd all agree they are indeed the cycles of life/death/ life. In ten short stanzas, Plath has articulated the very suppression of women's mysteries.
In “Edge" Sylvia Plath invokes the holy trinity of the Maiden, Mother and Crone Goddess. In the first stanza, we discover that our subject, the "woman perfected," is dead. Plath guides our eyes downward, (suggestive of the shy gaze of modesty, another trait that is "becoming" of women), and we see that not only is she wearing a smile (compliance and acceptance…), but also a white toga evocative of the classical Greek Virginal Goddesses. This observation adds tension to our notion of a "woman perfected." It is so in our modern culture that Virgins are sexually pure. But this, we know, is a fallacy because in ancient Greece, the Virgin was "whole unto herself" and not necessarily chaste. Finally, we descend upon her tired bare feet which don't want to walk anymore on this journey.
The next few stanzas move us from Maiden to Mother, as we now see the woman's poisoned children lying in repose next to her own body. Plath uses the imagery of the serpent and the rose, both symbols of the Goddess. The milk, we understand, has been poisoned. If we take this literally, we are shocked at how this mother breached her role.
These children are not literal, but symbolic of the artist's creation. Creatives and The Dark Mother knows that not all who are born get to live. Sometimes, we sacrifice the weaker "children" in order that others may grow strong and thrive. And sometimes, we give no rhyme or reason behind the sacrifices. Some works must be put to final rest for reasons known only to the heart.
The poison milk is an act of compassionate sacrifice — milk being a symbol of nurturing and sustenance. Though she recognized that "the children" must die, she still "nurtures" them to the end, killing them off with care. These "children" never see it coming, and for that, feel no fear. She pulls them in close to her body, like "petals of a rose close” as it sleeps, imagery of a the mother soothing her babies in a tender and gentle way.
Here we transition into the literal blackness in these final two stanzas, an interpretation of the Crone Goddess. Plath writes about the moon in many of her poems, another clue that she was infinitely aware of the moon's symbolic reflection of these feminine cycles of life/death/life. In "Edge," Plath describes the moon as wearing a “hood of bone” -- the Crone moon, mostly black with a sliver of bone colored luminescence topping it off. Of course, like all good poetry does, this description dredges up visions of another sort. The "hood of bone" and " her blacks" that "crackle and drag" describe clothing suitable for a woman near the end of her life cycle.
In ancient Goddess culture, Crones wore black robes, a stark contrast against their white hair. It was a way to communicate Her place between the physical realm and that of the spirit world. She walked the edge between these two worlds, and could easily be identified in this way. The uniform has a more modern representation in the nun's habit, of old women resting at the monastery, live out her final years as a nun, in service to the Divine.
Plath infers the Crone's indifference to the plight of the woman perfected. And from societies perspective, this seems a harsh truth of the Crone. From where she sits, she's seen it all, she knows the pain and the struggle. Yet, what can she do? She knows everyone must walk their own path, and when they come to the end, who is she to say those tired bare feet should keep walking?
And yet, is it the indifference of the Crone we experience? Or another act of compassion? She simply sees it for what it is -- another turning of the wheel -- and knows better than to waste her energies on fixing anything. Instead, she shows compassion in the simple act of bearing witness.
It is here that we first experience the literal transition from white to black. Where before, Plath's word choice evoked images of white on white (and in the process creating a visceral tension between light and dark) she takes us over the edge in this final stanza and pushes us into the abyss, which is actually the life affirming darkness of the Crone Goddess.
And this is the thing about the dark Goddess, and the creative, feminine cycles of life/death/life--it is only when we can surrender to it that we experience the true magic of transformation.
Leading up to this point, the movement we experienced was external, an observational scan of events past, and we witnessed the stillness of the aftermath in the image of a dead woman and babies pulled in close to her in final repose. But in the last sentence, Plath turns us inward, to the darkness of the Void and in doing so gives us hope of life again, suggesting movement in the way "her blacks crackle and drag." Here, we are free to lie in repose close to her darkness, her robes. Or, we are free to go and pick up and create again.
This is the mysterious cycle of transformation.
And the reader is compelled to take the journey again, re-reading the poem and thereby returning to the perpetual cycle of creativity.
"She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag."
If we read the final stanza as a stand-alone statement, we return our focus to the virgin suicide, the “woman perfected.” As creatives, we know that Life is a dance with the Universe, a process, and we (mere mortal women) are participants in this cosmic cycle. The woman perfected, the “creative” woman has become used to the indifference of the world. In the "real" world, no one really gives two shits about her or her creative works and she best be self-sufficient, work, forget about bringing any kind of beauty into this world, because it will tear it up and spit it out...
Indifference is the real death. Every creative knows this.
And I feel Sylvia knew this all too well, too. Unfortunately for her (and us,) Sylvia did not go into the blackness of the edge, where her own struggles could be put to death and she the woman could, in fact, rise again. Instead, she succumbed to her own indifference.
The Edge is a a peek into Plath's world and how she channeled her creativity. The themes of light and dark, life and death, creation, womanhood, motherhood, etc... describe a woman who knew the liminal space of transformation all too well, and a creative who became fearful of falling into that abyss.
For this reason, I do not believe Plath's final poem was a suicide note, but a masterful instruction to creatives everywhere on how to navigate that precarious space found at that Edge.
The thing about good poetry is that it takes you into your own uncharted terrain, and is a wonderful tool of self discovery.
If you are interested in writing your own poetry, Google #NaPoWriMo for some tips on how to get started. Read poetry this month by checking out www.poetryfoundation.org.
Or, take a poetry class on Udemy. There are some great courses to get you started!
What is your favorite poem? Tell us about it in the comments below!
My name is Dawn Champine and I am the Creatrix of The Goddess Diaries. I am very passionate about helping women remember their REAL GODDESS selves.