Get Your Premium Membership

Sylvia Plath's Poem "Metaphors"


As a figure of speech and a literary device, metaphors compare one, usually trivial thing (e.g., a classroom) to another, usually more abstract thing (e.g., a school/college/university, learning experience, or even a prison stay). By comparing two things that are not alike but do have something in common, a metaphor provides a vivid picture of how we are experiencing daily life or works of art, among other things. We use metaphors regularly, usually without even thinking about it. In consequence, they are abundant in almost all types of texts, literary or otherwise. Metaphor analysis enables the reader to better understand and interpret literary texts by identifying and analyzing their metaphors. We use metaphor analysis to gain keener comprehension and deeper insights, as well as to better appreciate uniquely talented poetic works.
The so-called idiographic approach inductively analyzes metaphors that occur naturally and organically in the text. It is the best way to analyze metaphors in literature and especially in poetry. This inductive approach to metaphor analysis originates from the linguistic analysis of literary works, including the metaphors found within them. It uses the reader’s intuition as a means of identifying and interpreting hidden metaphors, even within inscrutable and opaque texts such as Sylvia Plath's autobiographical poem “Metaphors” (I reprint her nine-line poem at the end of this very brief essay). At first glance, her cryptic verse penned in 1959 is about nothing much in particular. Or almost nothing. Most first-time readers fail to realize that Plath (1932-1963) is using metaphorical imagery to describe her own pregnancy. The “riddle in nine syllables” she refers to in the first line of the poem is an ironic metaphor for the nine months of pregnancy. The young American poet, novelist and short-story writer humorously compares her fast expanding body to an “elephant,” a “ponderous house,” a “melon,” a “yeasty” “loaf” of bread, and even to a “fat purse.” Plath satirically adds that she looks like she has just “eaten a bag of green apples.” She uses yet another striking metaphor, alluding mockingly to the “red fruit” of her pregnancy. But beginning with the seventh line, Plath describes herself more ominously as a “means,” “a stage” and “a cow in calf.” In other words, she is just another pregger with no control over her own body. And with no worth other than being a mother's womb for her husband's children.
Her ambivalence culminates with the last line, in which the reader can sense the deep undercurrent of the poet's stress, anxiety and depression. Plath realizes that her life will be forever transformed by childbirth. For her, this is the beginning of a long “train” trip of no return. She was probably not ready for motherhood given her fickle husband, Britian's poet-laureate Ted Hughes, who was notorious for his philandering after their marriage in 1956. The live metaphor she uses as a title probably refers to the fact that this most poetic of all literary devices appears on each and every line of her very short poem which explores her confusing and agitated mental and physical state at that troubled time in her life. A divorced Plath committed suicide in February 1963 at the age of only 30, leaving two infant children behind. I believe that a literary metaphor analysis like the present one provides one more opportunity to fondly remember her and appreciate her great poetic genius.
“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.