Sylvia Plath successfully uses metaphor to lead her readers to form whole pictures from the fragmentary images that she presents in her poetry. She rarely names the actual subjects of her poems, instead presenting a series of clues that lead us to discover them for ourselves. Metaphor evokes an image by representing one thing with another thing that is not really like it. In examining the comparison of two things that are not alike, we can find meaningful similarities under the surface.
For example, a pregnant woman is not really as big as an elephant, and she has not made her belly big by eating green apples, but Plath uses these familiar metaphors to convey the idea of pregnancy in "Metaphors". When we study writing, we learn to avoid worn-out cliches, but Plath has made creative use of them to make them new again. She never names the actual subject of the poem, but pregnancy is implied by the figures of speech that she employs. This poem presents a series of clichs about pregnancy that lead up to the final thought of giving birth in the last line, "Boarding the train there's no getting off". She shows us a belly as round as a melon, a loaf of bread in the oven and other images that conjure up the literal idea of pregnancy. The first line gives us the number nine, and the poem has nine lines, implying the nine months of pregnancy.
I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils,
O red fruit, ivory, fine timers!
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.
You might not recognize every metaphor in the poem, but once you understand the meaning of at least one of them, you can guess what the poem is about. When you gain the insight that it is about pregnancy, the meaning of each metaphor falls into place, even if you have never heard it before. By hinting at a larger picture, she leads readers to build up a series of mental images until they form a coherent whole.
Plath uses metaphor differently and more sparingly in some of her other poems. For example, in "Mirror" she speaks from the viewpoint of the mirror, describing how it sees the world. The mirror tells us with its own voice that it shows us exactly what it sees, without prejudice: "I am not cruel, only truthful " (line 4). This personification of an inanimate object progresses to a description of the mirror-like surface of a lake. The lake and the mirror are not really alike, but both do cast reflections. The second line of the poem, "Whatever I see I swallow immediately" conveys a double meaning. The mirror both accepts what it sees without question and devours the images that it reflects, since the same person will never cast the same reflection twice. The lake devours in a more literal sense, when a young girl drowns in the water. The poem shows us that the lake is like the mirror, but it is more substantial because is has depth, whereas the mirror is a flat surface. Rather than telling us with mere words, Plath uses metaphor to lead us to that conclusion. However, the mirror and the lake are not what they appear to be on the surface.
The first stanza implies that the mirror is actually the eyes of other people who look at the woman, and it implies that, like the mirror, she spends most of her time looking at the wall because she does not want other people to see her. Although the mirror is speaking, the subject is really the woman who looks into the mirror. She sees herself as she really is, an old woman, because the mirror shows her the truth. She rarely looks at the mirror, and she rarely lets other people look at her. .
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow it immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful
The eye of a little god, four-cornered
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully,
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
The second stanza shows the woman looking at her reflection and seeing the truth that she is old. She searches "for what she really is" (line 11) in the lake, but "Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon" (line 12), which show her a more acceptable picture of herself. Their soft light from hides her age and softens the appearance of her wrinkles. The young girl that she has drowned in the lake is not literally a young girl. This is a metaphor for her own youth, which she used to see in her reflection when she was younger. The title is "Mirror", but the poem is about more than an object that we look into when we groom ourselves. It is about our thought processes when we reflect upon our youth and struggle with old age. Finally, the lake represents the depths of our souls, where we might find truth if we did not turn away and reach out for illusions that are less terrible if less accurate.
Metaphor also plays a powerful role in Plath's description of the elderly women in "Old Ladies' Home", which compares them to beetles and fragile antique pottery. These similes lead up to the metaphor "Needles knit in a bird-beaked / Counterpoint to their voices" (lines 10 and 11). The old ladies spend their time knitting because they are lonely and bored, and the knitting needles are compared to bird beaks, two things that are not alike. However, the image of bird beaks conjures up the idea of the knitting needles making chirping sounds as they clack together. Their loneliness is conveyed by the image of photographs of grandchildren that they do not know.
"Old Ladies' Home"
Sharded in black, like beetles,
Frail as antique earthenware
One breath might shiver to bits,
The old women creep out here
To sun on the rocks or prop
Themselves up against the wall
Whose stories keep a little heat.
Needles knit in a bird-beaked
Counterpart to their voices:
Sons, daughters, daughters and sons,
Distant and cold as photos,
Grandchildren nobody knows.
Age wears the best black fabric
Rust-red or green as lichens.
At owl-call the old ghosts flock
To hustle them off the lawn.
From beds boxed-in like coffins
The bonneted ladies grin.
And Death, that bald-head buzzard,
Stalls in halls where the lamp wick
Shortens with each breath drawn.
The black dresses that the old ladies wear imply that they are widows, so they seek the warmth of the sun on rocks and walls because they have lost the warmth of human companionship. We know that they are close to drawing heir last breath because of the "earthenware / One breath might shiver to bits" (lines 2 and 3), and because of the closing lines, "where the lamp wick / Shortens with each breath drawn". Plath avoids the clich of drawing one's last breath, but she evokes it in the minds of her readers with the metaphors that she chooses.
The conclusion of the poem admits the truth that women go to the old ladies' home to die: "And Death, that bald-head buzzard, / Stalls in halls" (lines 18 and 19). Death is not a buzzard, but we often call old people buzzards, and they are often bald. Thus, the metaphor implies the fact that people die in the old ladies' home. Death also does not walk down the halls, but this metaphor helps us to picture old ladies stopping to rest when they walk down the halls of their final home, and we can picture Death stopping their movement forever when they go to their final rest.
Plath successfully uses metaphor to lead readers into a mystery, a puzzle which they must solve in order to understand the meaning of the poem. Her use of metaphor is most copious in her poem "Metaphors", whereas "Mirror" and "Old Ladies' Home" sprinkle metaphors like the pepper on top of a salad, adding spice to a plate of nutritious edibles. Both strategies are successful.