Women during the late 1950’s, early 1960’s seemed to be drawn to the idea of becoming mothers, and motherhood. It was considered the most beautiful, and most natural profession for a woman to attain. Motherhood could be described as a women’s basic mission, profession and inseparable part of her nature. Due to these perspectives society, at the time, often equated motherhood with femininity. It was against this cultural background in 1959, while pregnant with her her first child, that Sylvia Plath wrote her short poem “Metaphors”. “Metaphors” is written as a riddle, in which Plath uses a multitude of unrelated metaphors to describe herself, and current condition. In “Metaphors” Plath expresses her ambivalence about becoming a mother and her internal struggle over losing her individuality to motherhood through the poems structure, word choice, rich imagery, and the overall sound of the poem.
“Metaphors” begins: “I’m a riddle in nine syllables,” (1) establishing that the poem, or perhaps the speaker herself is a riddle to be solved. A riddle is not easily figured out and often times needs to be carefully considered to find its meaning. Fortunately for the readers of Plath’s poem she gives a major clue about the topic of the riddle by structure of her poem. “Metaphors” is written as a single stanza consisting of nine lines; each of those lines contains exactly nine syllables. Every line is a metaphor for the speaker’s feelings about her current state. Given this clever structure it is not a stretch to assume the subject of Plath’s poem is pregnancy.
The first line also gives the reader a clue to how Plath feels about her own pregnancy. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines riddle as “something or someone difficult to understand” (Riddle). This definition of the word riddle, and the fact that Plath uses this word to define herself gives the reader more evidence of the underlying meaning of her poem, and her feelings about pregnancy, and motherhood. Plath undoubtedly is conflicted between how society expects her to feel about pregnancy, and how she truly feels. She may feel publicly voicing her true feelings during this time would be taboo, and difficult for most to understand, so in order to express herself she uses witty metaphors. While some of the poem’s images are rather humorous – she describes herself as “a melon strolling on two tendrils,”(3) for instance – the overall depiction of pregnancy is not very heartening. Plath is clearly discouraged by her physical appearance. She feels large and cumbersome, comparing herself to “An elephant, a ponderous house,” (2) an image that is in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of the glowing, exuberant pregnant woman. She expresses no joy with her increasing size, instead, she is too well-aware of how she has lost control of her body. This is a very strong metaphor. Not only is she expressing her unhappiness with her changing body, she is also introducing the reader to her more complex emotions on the loss of her self identity. An elephant is prized for its ivory tusks which are valued, and used for many other things. The elephant however, is not so fortunate, and is often times killed for its ivory. By comparing herself to the elephant, because she is the carrier of the precious and prized ivory, she feels her fate, under appreciation, and the loss of her own self worth, is like death.
Upon closer analysis, Plath’s choice of imagery and metaphors reinforce her belief that she is simply a carrier. “..a means, a stage…” (7). The timber of a house she compares herself to in line 2 is valuable only for the purpose of protecting, and sheltering what it contains – a family – and not in itself. She goes on with to describe herself and child as “Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.” (6) comparing herself to a fat purse, and her child as newly minted money. She alludes to the fact that she, the purse, is insignificant by itself, and the value lies in the money, the child, which has meaning beyond itself. Through these comparisons the speaker is not only highlighting the change of her appearance, but also that she now lacks value, and everything happening to her is for someone else, not herself.
Additionally, Plath uses the overall sound of the poem to convey her true feeling about pregnancy. “Metaphors” begins sounding mostly pleasing; like most riddles. The musical quality of the poem is interrupted by words that are awkward, such as “…ponderous…” (2), or abrupt such as “…fat…”(6). These word choices weigh heavy on the readers tongue, and slow the meter of the poem. Plath intentionally inserts these words within her poem to produce a sound that is overall jerky and awkward as she believes a pregnant’s movements are. The words, and final sound of “Metaphors” are supposed to make the reader ponder the heavy burden the speaker is bearing.
The bleakness of Plath’s thoughts on her situation take shape in the last line of the poem “Boarded the train there’s no getting off.”(9) Plath ponders what the future holds for her. She realizes that she has “boarded” the motherhood train, and there is no turning back. Plath realizes that becoming a mother is not only about having a child grow inside and be born; it is continued until the child is fully grown (and sometimes beyond). She is voicing her despair about losing her individuality, and being forever connected, and at the mercy, of another.
Overall tone of the “Metaphors” is pessimistic, and highlights the extent of the poet’s self-loathing and depression about motherhood however, she also places great value on her unborn child’s life. Throughout the poem while poking fun at, her own grotesque image, she is at the same time comparing her unborn child to many beautiful and valuable objects. “O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!” (4). She clearly has great love for her unborn child regardless of her distorted self-image, identity, and uncertainty of what the future may hold.
The poem reveals the attitude that many (but certainly not all) women may have about childbirth, and motherhood. It is not surprising that Plath was so ambivalent about motherhood. As a young academic woman with high hopes for her future; society’s views on the role of mothers during the 1960’s certainly placed limitations on her literary career. In “Metaphors”, Plath creates a speaker that is deeply distressed, robbed of her significance, unhappy, and frightened of what is to come. Plath’s deep emotions on motherhood in combination with her rich imagery, honest, yet witty metaphors, word choice, structure, and sound produce a poem that engages the readers into her deepest thoughts and feelings making, what some may consider, taboo feelings on motherhood more relatable, and approachable.
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