Sylvia Plath Forum

Poetry Analysis/ Discussion

The Moon And The Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky --
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness -
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness - blackness and silence.

Sylvia is really using her intuition and higher sense of self here in this poem. She takes inventory of her surroundings at Court Green and soon begins to notice the symbolic impact her environment has on her entire mood and state of mind. In essence, what she sees outwardly is a manifestation of what is occuring on the inside of her being. It's a message to her personally and it's also a Universal truth in a way. The subjective and objective collide and reveal a message to her. One would wish it was something comforting and helpful (blessed guidance), but Sylvia sees nothing of this and interprets the entire situation in desolate, grief-stricken terms.

It's an estoteric cryptic poem. It unviels that the Divine Masculine and Feminine co-exist tangibly in her physical reality, the Moon and the Yew tree. The energies of God/Goddess and Mother/Father permeate and reveal themselves. There is Holiness and divinity here whether it's more pagan or orthodox both are represented. An opportunity for a Resurrection and purification is presented, but Sylvia cannot bring herself to cleanse and purify. She's "fallen a long way."

The fact that these two elements of nature make their presence known to her on religious grounds (the church) truly solidifies the presence of a miraculous event in her mist. She takes advantage of the situation with the outpouring of this mystical spiritual poem, but then cannot go the entire way with a shift or change in perspective or mood.

I think this poem is beautiful yet tragic. It's truly an example of Sylvia's depth and extraordinary soul, but she is also still so sad. I wish she had the chance to experience a relief of her sorrow in her life. All of that depression and woe is really taxing!

Charlottesville, VA , USA
Tuesday, April 5, 2006

It's my understanding that the yew tree represents death, rebirth and resurrection, but it also has ties to Persephone who waits by the Yew tree by the River Styx to lure unsuspecting travellers. Also, the sap from the yew is poisonous, so it could have a number of interpretations.

Red Deer , Canada
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The surrealistic tendencies in Plath's poems have been no doubt identified, but this particular poem offers two interesting comparisons "With the o gape of complete despair" can be identified with Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and with Goya's picture of "Saturn Devouring His Offspring".

Debayan Basu
Kolkatta , India
Monday, December 19, 2005

This poem is so beautiful. I find it heartbreaking that Plath was looking at something so romantic and seeing something so desolate.

The moon is her mother, and the yew tree is her father. In the moon she sees a coldness, and finds that it is without tenderness, as a mother should be, as Mary was. Plath was fascinated by the classical concept of the moon as a feminine metaphor; indeed, early on her journals she recalls waking in the night and trying to get some fresh air on the porch outside. She tries the door handle and it is locked. Looking through the pane glass at the sky, she sees the moon. She suddenly feels trapped and panicked, and still cannot open the door. In the end, she capitulates and goes back to bed. If the moon represents her mother, and her mother represents the sexist atmosphere of the 1950s, this incident is highly relevant and enlightening on her representation of her mother in her work.

The yew tree to me is less clear...I have a vague memory of a mystic belief that the yew is the tree that represents masculinity, and both Plath and Hughes were interested by mysticism, experimenting with Ouija boards and the like. In the yew tree Plath sees 'blackness and silence'...her own father died of diabetes when she was eight. It's also possible that she was referring to her husband, whom she was having problems with at the time of writing. And, of course, it's always plausible that she was referring to both. Plath drew strong psychoanalytic parallels between Ted Hughes and her father, most notably so in her poem, 'Daddy'.

London , UK
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Besides the belief that the Moon represents Sylvia's mom. Does anyone know what is the connection between the Moon and the Yew tree?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

In reply to P. Ness, yes I noticed also quite early on in the poem that the moon and the yew tree represent Plath's parents. The words: "The moon is my mother", simply verified my initial thoughts.

Great Yarmouth , UK
Saturday, August 28, 2004

Am I the only person who has realised that the moon and the yew tree represent her mother and father?

Scunthorpe , UK
Sunday, April 18, 2004

My favourite poem. The power of her introspective imagery is overwhelming. It seems as though the intangible mind is yearning for tangible comfort - which never arrived. Poor Sylvia. She laments how far she has fallen and the blackness and silence she finds there.

My favourite image is the grass around the ankles and my favourite line is the one "fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place". It reminds me of a house I used to live in where dark shadows seemed to lurk in every bright corner.

The wordsmith genius of this poem is luminescent. It shines off the page. It makes one wonder how such brightness was overshadowed so completely by Hughes...

Merewyn Stainforth
Newcastle, UK
Monday, December 8, 2003

This is possibly my favourite poem by Plath. The first verse in particular seems to me to symbolise how she felt at that point. Personally I can relate to it as I've been battling panic disorder for over the last year.

'Separated from my house by a row of headstones. I simply cannot see where there is to get to. '

I like these lines in particular as they echo the hopelessness you can feel when you are at the bottom through mental health problems - they also mean something to me as they made me realise I wasn't alone in feeling the way I did when my condition was at its worse. That was some time ago and I'm on the road to recovery. I wish Sylvia could have received the same help for her illness that people in the same situation today get.

MJ Todd
Glasgow, Scotland
Monday February 17th. 2003

It's lovely to know so many people are thinking about this stunning poem.

Maryland, USA
Thursday, October 11, 2001

This poem fundamentally details how PLath sees her life, through the metaphors and images she was so fond of. By using the word "planetary" in the first line, I think you gain a sense of how she saw her role in the world - still part of the solar system, but living in her own world, disconnected and distanced from everyone else.

Many critics have said, and I agree with them, that the point of the poem is to illustrate the differentn relationships SP had with the three most important and influential people in her life; her dead father, her mother who offered her little, if any support, and the elusive Hughues. By deliberatly identifiying throughout the negative ( "She is not sweet like Mary") Plath subtly portrays herself as a victim, not accusing her mother of neglecting her, just suggesting and implying that one of the reasons for her "complete despair" is this women - "Medusa."

Her parents never saw her depression, and Hughes was - seemingly - oblivious to her neediness, and she could not turn to religion for hope and comfort, finding blind faith to be restrictive. It is a desolate poem, haunting in its imagery and the empathy it inspires.

Lincs, UK
Wednesday, December 19, 2001

I think the poem is so beautiful. It marks a time in her life when she felt nothing but sorrow which is why this poem is so deep. The moon her mother is darkness and holds no way out.The Yew tree is a symbol a sign pointing to her mother the moon. She feels un comfortable here, the sprit of the dead all around herquilting her like a blanket.She moves steadfastly out of the graveyard, the moon, and the church teeming with spirts. She moves to her home, which is her safty and sheild from the darkness.

Buffalo, USA
Friday, April 27, 2001

What do you think of the O-gape of despair in terms of love; AGAPE?

Mary De Filippis
Chicago, USA

Monday, February 5, 2001

I wrote these following notes in my copy of Collected Poems just a couple of months ago; here they are unedited.(I began w/ a hunch, a feeling, and worked my way toward a semblance of meaning.)-- The moon: no door, a face, bald, wild, upset, dispairing, not sweet ... the moon is made complicit in her fall. The gentle, elemental scene makes her want to believe in otherness. She holds, one could think, a Gnostic view; that the fall of man is one w/ and reflected in creation, and its fallen state. The moon and tree her meditative representation of that creation, a creation alien to humanity and human innerness. Also Gnostic-like, the moon as a representation of a remote God, though most of her descriptions of the moon don't, (imho), fit this.

"It drags the sea after it like a dark crime", pertaining to creation there is quilt, ("its" crime or God's crime), else there is fear, dismay, injury, (another's crime). For her seems the wish for otherness made the moon stand-in as would-be God. But it is God as nihlist, the dimiurge. ... One could read it PURELY Gnostically,(if we didn't know better), w/ descriptions of the moon as the poet's projections, of anger, dismay, etc., allowing this to be one of the poet's 'pre-gnosis' pieces. The idea of earth as prison seems certainly to pervade the poem's mood.

Mark Sink
Thursday, May 20, 1999

this poem is pure empty
but filled with images that are so full
of death, but life in death
i dig it.
i liked reading the comments.
i'm just discovering plath, and the input has catalyzed me.

christie scott
los angeles, USA
Saturday, March 13, 1999

With the imagery Plath could use, she almost leaves most of it behind, and out and out tells us what we need to know. Most people see the moon as an amourus sight, yet she sees it as a dark force working against her, her mother. The statement seems clouded in mystery, but you can take this for what it is "the moon is my mother". Her colors add to the poem, sending raw emotion at us. The Blacks, blues, and whites depict different images such as a sky on a clear day, and the sky black as a moonless night. Many things are refered to as cold, which can be said to be lacking in all emotion or warmth.

Melissa Dinnel
Grand Island, USA
Saturday, January 30, 1999

Stewart Clarke recommends asking; "in which other poem does the yew tree appear?". It appears in Little Fugue, and also in Daddy in a number of guises.

Amongst other things, 'fugue' is a psychoanalytic term for an inability to remember, or to 'hear' a memory. The yew, in Plath's mythology stands for Otto Plath. Elaine O'Connell points out the importance of Robert Graves' The White Goddess to both Plath and Hughes and Ibelieve the legend of the churchyard yews spreading a root to the mouth of each corpse is firmly implanted in Plath's iconography of her father and her loss of his voice. "I see your voice/Black and leafy, as in my childhood,/A yew hedge of orders" and further "Death opened like a black tree, blackly" from Little Fugue. Compare this with lines from 'Daddy' - "I never could talk to you./The tongue stuck in my jaw./ It stuck in a barb wire snare./ Ich, ich, ich, ich,/I could hardly speak. She compares the language of her father to a 'barb wire snare' or a 'yew hedge of orders'.

The sort of narcissistic love that Plath exhibits for her father througout her poetry becomes apparent in the ambivalence of her stance. She wants to BE him and she wants to KILL him. Eric Santner in "The Postmodern Condition" describes narcissistic love as being that which 'plays itself out in (non-) space where 'you' and 'I' are not perceived as having hard edges'.

There is a resonance set up in 'Daddy' between 'I' and 'eye' (or 'ich') and 'you' and 'yew' and 'Jew'. She is playing with English and German and double meanings. Look at these lines of Daddy:

I read the black telephone as the yew tree, the voice of the dead father. The final line "Daddy, daddy you bastard, I'm through' is impressive in its apparent finality - until you realise that 'through' might have two meanings, if you're talking about telephones! (There is also a double meaning in "there is a stake in your fat, black heart" - a stake is also an investment!

In The Moon and the Yew Tree Plath is writing about her relationship with her parents and about her psychic state. The moon surfaces again and again as her mother - tragically in 'Edge', her last poem, written just before her suicide and clearly referring to it.

Plath frequently equated her father to The Father in her poetry (and she just as readily equated him with the Devil). "Marble heavy, a bag full of God" and his absence drains all meaning out of life. In "For a Fatherless Son" she writes:

I think she is describing here, in balder language, what she is describing in the Moon and the Yew Tree. The tree has changed in appearance. It is not her death tree, it is (her son's?) She has invented one especially for him.

It was Plath's attitude to The Father/the father/The Fuhrer that fascinated me enough to write my final year project on the subject - it was only 10,000 words - not nearly enough to cover the ground!

I entitled it Mourning the No Longer Possibles - Sylvia Plath and the Postmodern Condition. What I attempted to do was to show how her work embodies the layering of two forms of grieving (melancholy and mourning), and how she merges the personal, social, historical and political. In her poetry these are not parallel planes, they are the warp and weft of subjectivity. What she was trying to do has relevance on another level to what we are trying, or should be trying to do in "postmodernity" (whatever that is!) the relinquishment of past heroes, ideals and attitudes.

I see her as struggling with an attempt to break her identification with her father, with patriarchal institutions, with her mother as a source of weakness derived from those institutions (try reading the Three Muses like that) and with a desire to have motherhood herself without the oppressions implicit in that state within patriarchal institutions (I don't believe that she would have articulated it in that way, although I may be wrong - think of Dodo Conway's pram wheels!) Anyhow, I don't believe that the poetry is a conscious attempt at these aims, rather an expression of the bewilderment, anger and frustration that was a result of those challenges.

Plath seems ultimately to have been unable to come to terms with the "blackness and silence" and the "utter lack of attention" whether she alludes to The Father or her father or something compounded of the two. An inability to mourn and let go.

Kate Haines
Wednesday, November 18, 1998

"Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit THIS PLACE.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones."

She is not at her house, which would be the salvation. The only way of getting back to her house goes through the graveyard, and the graveyard is not the place she wants to go to. The churchyard's yew points her the moon, but "The moon is no door", so it offers no escape, there is no Mr Tambourine Man (as Bob Dylan might have said) singing. I dont think it means any kind of "obsession with death", as Stewart Clarke (2nd April) suggested, she just "simply cannot see where there is to get to". Thats all.

12th April 1998

Like an onion, this poem begins to reveal its layers. Elaine, your posting was quite informative, and I think the Crone was definitely on SP's mind, as the next poem she wrote was "Mirror" in which the poet sees a murderous old woman rising up at her "like a terrible fish." (Again, the sea imagery --- Freud would have a field day with SP). Melissa, I wonder if the sense of "dominion" you see in the poem is connected to the voice of black humor I detect. At the risk of using another simile, I would say that this poem is like a piece of sharkskin. Rubbed one way, it is smooth and lovely (if frighteningly so). Rubbed another, it bristles with tiny teeth.

In a recent e-mail, Elaine, you mentioned Coleridge's Christabel as a possible analogous persona for SP. You certainly set some bells ringing in my head, as I had been uncannily put in mind of "Christabel" while thinking about the "Moon and the Yew Tree." However, the more I look, the more I am convinced that wandering around this churchyard, lounging under its yew, is not Christabel, but the vampire Geraldine! Or Geraldine "posing" as Christabel, the rusing Geraldine, seducing the reader with her tale of woe:

This Geraldine I detect, of course, is the burgeoning "Ariel" voice. At the "Birthday Letters" symposium in New York earlier this year, A. Alvarez used "The Moon and the Yew Tree" as an example of Plath's old voice and her new voice, her "Ariel" voice, struggling with each other for dominance. On close examination, I would have to agree, and I connect this emerging Ariel voice with the almost sadistic pleasure she takes in overturning, in this poem, the reader's assumptions of faith and hope, and the venerable institution of Christianity, one of Western civilization's supreme emblems of a "door": ("I am the Way, etc.")

After presenting us with her nightmarish inner landscape, the Fatherless, hopeless underworld with "no door," note the subtly ironic diction with which Plath introduces the nearby church into this landscape: the bells "bong out their names," "affirming the Resurrection," they "startle the sky." (A marvelous image that works on two distinct levels. First, we can imagine the Hugheses each Sunday morning comically jolted from their breakfasts by these alarming bells; on the second level, however, the sky, Nature itself, is jolted, giving us the sense of an artificial instrusion upon the natural order --- Christianity as an affront, almost, to the amoral reality of pagan Nature.)

This ironic tone increases as we are at last introduced to the yew tree (located exactly at the center of this four stanza poem, an important point, I think, and one I might address at some point in the future). The yew "points up", directing the poet's attention from the church back to the moon. Here, black humor kicks in with full force as the poet's voice, batting its eyes, becomes almost childlike: "The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary." Plath then gives us one of the most brilliant images in all of her poetry, a shockingly macabre, blasphemous moment: "Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls." Reading this line, I cannot help but visualize a traditional Roman Catholic Madonna, Rome's sanitized Mother Goddess, slowly parting her robes to unveil herself as the famously grotesque Ephesian Artemis, covered from head to toe with breasts, at which this swarm of bats and owls have been clustered, "sucking at the paps of darkness." ("The Stones"). As these nocturnal predators fly off in a swarm of shrieks, Plath has, with one line, toppled two thousand years of Christianity and reinstated daimonic pagan Nature. After this horrific scenario, she then turns her attention coyly back to the church and muses, "How I would like to believe in tenderness./ The face of the effigy . .. bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes." A shocking, brutal, and sadistic moment, yet with a subversive humor ("stiff with holiness") that prefigures and points toward the later, gleefully sadistic voice of the "Ariel" poems.

At this point in her development, Plath imagines the yew tree's message to be "blackness and silence." Yet I wonder if this yew, "pointing" mutely at the moon " (cf. "Little Fugue": "The yew's black fingers wag . . . So the deaf and dumb/ signal the blind, and are ignored."), is trying to send the poet's consciousness a very strong message indeed, and one which she will later hear loud and clear as her true voice triumphantly emerges: that the "door" Plath seeks so desperately IS, in fact, through that daimonic female moon, "bald and wild."

Stewart Clarke
New York, USA
6th April 1998

I interpret this poem as representing Plath's spiritual identification with the mythos of the Goddess and its stress on the cyclicity, rather than the stasis of human existence - it's a preoccupation which is apparent throughout most of the 1961/2 poems. According to Robert Graves, who was a major influence on both Plath and Hughes, the yew tree is: "the death tree in all European countries sacred to Hecate...The yew tree beside which Epiminodas found the bronze urn ... containing on a tin scroll the secret mysteries of the Earth Goddess..... In Brittany it is said that the churchyard yews will spread a root to the mouth of each corpse."

Hecate, symbolised by the Moon is the aspect of the Triple Goddess who represents the Crone, age and death. Although she is frightening and changeable: "It is quiet with the O-gape of complete despair." Plath identifies with Hecate because she present an image of activity, strength and power: "The moon is my mother./She is not sweet like Mary" rather than the patient , passivity of the receptacle of God.

The Christian religion clearly still holds attractions "How I would like to believe in tenderness" and she is aware of the traditional Christian interpretation of her plight: "I have fallen a long way" as a descent into a form of devil worship. However, in imagistic terms it is forcefully rejected. All the Christian images are associated with darkness, damp and boredom whilst the images of the Goddess are invigorating and inspiring.

For example, the bells which affirm the Resurrection are described as "sober", the Virgin is a mere "effigy" while the Christian saints look down on "cold pews" and have "hands and faces stiff with holiness." For all the terror which Hecate can evoke, she is far more exciting and powerful than the Christian virgin: "Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls." and "she is bald and wild". As a deity who is in harmony with, rather than above Nature, she also offers Plath tremendous creative powers for under her influence: 'The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God."

Elaine Connell
Hebden Bridge, UK
5th April 1998

In "The Moon and the Yew Tree," I would suggest that the poet begins from an objective rather than a subjective vantage point: this is an interior landscape, no doubt, but one that the poet is "viewing"; it is therefore externalized; this is not, after all, "the light of MY mind," it is "the light of THE mind" -- a crucial difference. This "light of the mind" is suggestive of the hypothetical tabula rasa. I think what the poet is presenting us with from the outset is the need to make something out of, to assign meaning or form to, that which is initially perceived as indeterminate; initially, the landscape is amenable only to the simplest physical description: "the trees . . . are black. . . . The light is blue." She begins in this place of indeterminacy: "I simply cannot see where there is to get to," implying that movement beyond this place is desired, expected, required; the question is not THAT one should move, but WHERE TO. Her surroundings will give her no assistance. God and the Moon are faulty vehicles; they take her nowhere. It is God's absence that is a factor here, and the moon is "no door." The environment impinges on her individual self but does not subsume her: "I live here" merely. The speaker offers a very particular voice that, it can be argued, in objectifying the landscape, in "naming" it, as Adam was empowered by God to name the creatures of Eden, claims dominion over it, even over that which is ostensibly more powerful than it (the mother moon), which threatens its very existence. The poem is thus an acknowledgment of separateness and of the threat posed by a desacralized universe. The task for the poet is to find "where there is to get to" in a place that seems to admit to no way out. It is ultimately the speaker's claim of dominion, through language, that will achieve for her this necessary transport. I think Jack Folsom is right to call this poem a "manifesto." It is the credo out of which the Ariel poems are written.

Melissa Dobson
Newport RI, USA
3rd April 1998

Like Peter, I read it biographically as well, but a bit differently. First, Peter, I understand how you can interpret "I simply cannot see where there is to get to," as a confession or statement to Hughes, since he "assigned" or suggested the idea for the poem to her. This implies some sort of "showing" the finished product to him; however, since practically everything she ever wrote was slated in her mind for publication, I think it likely that this statement is intended for the reader more than Hughes. (Gertrude Stein once said, " I write for myself and for strangers.")

If we follow this thread, the statement becomes much deeper, a baring of the soul, rather than an accusation. This is, as she states openly in the first line, a poem about her "mind." It is a subjective landscape of her psyche. What can we determine about the poet's "mind," as she interprets it, as she presents it to us?

First, it is "cold and planetary" - No warmth. No bloom. No fertility. Almost a moonscape. Bathed in an unearthly "blue" light. I see it almost as "black light," as I've said elsewhere - a photographic negative image. The only vegetation (besides the yew, which doesn't really exist for us, it hasn't appeared yet) are those "grasses," which are strangely alive, clutching at her, weeping, "unloading their griefs," begging her, like God, for mercy- "murmuring of their humility." In other words, the grasses think she is God - because they've never seen Him, He is absent. This is a godless universe in which she wanders. Around her swarm ghosts, the "fumy, spiritous mists." Where are we? We are in Hades, Hell, the land of the dead (the yew tree, in fact, as Hughes has pointed out elsewhere, stood in the west, the traditional entrance to the Underworld). This is further supported by the sudden revelation of the "headstones," graves - we are literally in the land of the dead. Sylvia is in Hell, where God is absent, or dead

Notice that the graves, the dead, separate the poet from "my house." In other words, she is in this graveyard, this underworld, and sees, off in the distance, her house, perhaps with its lights twinkling, where her husband, child, and her life, reside. It is just here that she chooses to say, "I simply cannot see where there is to get to./ The moon is no door." In other words, we have the speaker wandering in the land of the dead, where the very grasses are in a torrent of grief, surrouded by spirits and a wall of graves, her home (a symbol of her positive life, of salvation) is unreachable, and she is looking desperately for a door that will allow her to get to that "house," that life. But there is no door, literally No Exit (to get Sartrean).

Suddenly, a new presence appears: the moon. She thinks at first it might offer hope, a "door," a way out. But no door is available. The poet will tell us a few lines later that "The moon is my mother." Mother Goddess of chthonian nature (which devours us all), but also, transformed, Aurelia Plath herself!. So, enter "MOM." (See my posting on the main page). The moon, the Mother, is "terribly upset.. white as a knuckle" (clenched fists). It "drags the sea after it like a dark crime." Aurelia will appear most notoriously in connection with the sea in "Medusa." The sea is Female, a fluid realm, the site of our origin, the waters of the womb, etc. but, in another sense, the sea literally functions as SP's only physical barrier against her mother, who is across the Atlantic. Here, suddenly, horrifyingly, Mom appears, dragging the sea after her, like a "placenta - ("Medusa") - and a "dark crime." The sea could not keep this nightmare away. I'm reminded of Coleridge's Nightmare-Life-in-Death arriving on her barge of skeletal bones, another symbol of daimonic Female Nature, and who manifested as the result of another "dark crime," the killing of the Albatross. In SP's poem, we discover that this Mother is also in grief, to such an extent that the sound is literally choked in her throat --- "quiet, with the O-gape of complete despair." So, there's been a dark crime of some sort, and forgive me for immediately thinking of another dark crime - the death of Hamlet's father. A bit of a leap, perhaps, but perhaps not.

Boom: "I live here."

Aside from the literal truth of that statement, since we are also in a churchyard next to a house in Devon, SP is telling us point-blank, "This is where I live day to day , my inner world!" An Underworld in complete and utter grief and despair for, at the very least, the "absence" of God (who we haven't quite gotten to the bottom of yet in the poem - all will be revealed in "Little Fugue"), prevented from any real positive participation in her own life (represented by the house) by a wall of headstones"(obsession with death), and presided over by the Terrible, Grieving Mother. This is a horriying glimpse. And yet, do I detect just a subtle hint of irony, of black humor, in that "I live here?" A wry awareness of itself? Perhaps, perhaps not. But I don't think we should rule out the possibility that sardonic Sylvia, as she bleeds out her soul's nightmare, take some sort of Dickinsion-like pleasure in it as well.

Part Two: Anon

Stewart Clarke
New York, USA
2nd April 1998

I like to read this poem with what they call biographical criticism. As for most of Plath's works, reading it confessionally I think lends meaning...

The first stanza is very traditional Smith College Plath, and even Colossus Plath. And then the line 'I simply cannot see where there is to get to.' I think this line is written directly to Hughes. She's clearly saying, 'what do you mean write about the Yew tree and the church?'

Then she tries the moon, and discovers it is 'no door.' It is another unrelated thing. It is so far away, etc.It lives it's own life, 'dragging' the sea. then the church, I like to think, began ringing, and then the poem took off, as though the bells ringing awakened what was to come.

Then there was this yew tree pointing up. gothic, just like the church must be. She realises that the moon will let her into it's world, like a mother, only giving with it experience--the despair O-gape like astonishment, unlike the Virgin Mary.

Then the last stanza I feel is her comment on Religion--'stiff' everything about the inside of the church is ordered, something I think Plath might have disagreed with. She takes sides then with both the moon and the yew tree, she sees nothing of it, the moon is free of Religion and the yew remains silent.

I may be reading this poem and many of her others as a bit of a purist would read a poem.. But I like this poem so very much, as i like equally Sheep in Fog.

Peter Steinberg
Alexandria, USA
2nd April 1998

In 'The Moon and Yew Tree,' a woman observes two Disquieting Muses, dimensioned both externally (in the sky, in the churchyard) and internally (in the conscious mind, in the dreaming mind). These Muses are disquieting because, like their predecessors, the ladies with the darning-egg heads, they inhabit a wasteland of virtual blankness. They offer no enlightenment but the light of the mind, which the woman declares is cold and planetary, and the tree of the mind, which she declares is black and Gothic-shaped. Mothered by the moon's 'O-gape of complete despair,' the woman recognizes the falseness of belief in the sweet-Mary effigy and the promise of resurrection. Instead, says the woman, blackness and silence are the eternal message.

But wait! To be sure the woman feels trapped in a static state between the dynamic opposing forces of her inner self and the external world, but even in this static state she has a sensory awareness that is godlike. The grasses know that, and they worship her, weeping their dews on her feet and ankles. By a row of headstones, 'fumy, spiritous mists' swirl around her, separated from her house (soul?), as if she were God, or a witch (or both?). As Hecate, that 'close contriver of all harms' declares of Macbeth,

As Plath's speaker declares, the moon is no door; it sees nothing of what she sees with her transforming vision: clouds, flowering blue and mystical over the face of the stars -- saints in the church, floating over the pews. The 'light' of her mind has given features to the moon-muse: 'white as a knuckle' and later, 'bald and wild.'

All right, then. So the moon sees nothing, and the message of the yew tree is blackness and silence, but the message of the woman in the poem is neither black nor silent. The witch-artist can play God and create 'artificial sprites,' animating the inanimate. As long as the artist's eyes can see, imagination continues to flourish. We know from her own journals and other sources that Sylvia feared the death of her imagination more than anything else. The locus of her true belief, therefore, is in the power of imagination, either to transform or to destroy. To paraphrase Milton's Satan, the mind of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. One could say that this poem is a manifesto of sorts -- a gauntlet thrown down before some blank-eyed statue or other.

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont, US
1st April 1998

I would agree with Rick that, on one level, the poem is addressing the issue of God's death, absence, silence, though I think it goes much deeper, much more personally than that. I would completely disagree that this poem is intended as some kind of shocking message to Hughes --- in his poetic at least, he is as "bald and wild," as pagan as they come. I don't think Hughes enters into this poem at all.

There is so much wealth under the surface of this horrifying, wonderful poem, completely in the heritage of Coleridgean Romanticism (one cannot help but think of Emily Bronte while reading it) and yet managing to use mythic code to write a Confessional poem as well --- I will try to keep myself BRIEF for once (although it is sooo hard). Clue to "Moon and Yew Tree": which other poem does the yew tree appear? Perhaps examination of that poem will lead us to exactly which dead God the universe of "Moon and Yew Tree" is in such complete despair over, such utter mourning for. Another clue: "The moon is my mother." Mythically, the Moon in this poem is the daimonic Mother Goddess, "bald and wild," (Venus Calva -- Bald Venus) but perhaps we can also take SP at her word. I must stop myself right now or I'll be on for pages.

I suggest that what shocked Hughes about this poem was this: for the first time (soon after completing "The Bell Jar", which I'm sure intensified much buried negativity regardless of its structure as a rebirth story), SP has absolutely nailed on the page her personal mythology, "the light of (her) mind." I think he must have cheered, perhaps a bit nervously, but cheered nonetheless.

Stewart Clarke
New York, USA
1st April 1998

Sylvia is telling us what many of her poems tell us: She'd love to believe that there is a diety that watches over us and that we'll all meet our dead relatives and pets again in a harp-plucking paradise, but folks, deep down, we all know the reality. That seems to me to be the message to us and to Ted, who I've read assigned her this poem. Did she not attend services in the church near the yew tree? I believe so, and it's clear she also dabbled in the occult, but this poem says clearly that she could not bring the wool over her own eyes. "I simply cannot see where there is to go to". The moon is the blind eye of the universe here, looking down but not seeing. The yew tree may represent humankind reaching up toward the blackness like a desperate hand. She would like to believe, but admits "I have fallen a long way" . That line suggests that she knows too much to ever return to life as a "believer". Presumably, Ted was shocked by The Moon and the Yew Tree because it spoke too clearly the truth he would turn away from. "The message of the yew tree is blackness _ blackness and silence".

Rick Callahan
Indianapolis, IN, USA
1st April 1998 1998

I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
I live here.
How I would like to believe in tenderness.
I have fallen a long way.

Ideas? Where was she going with this? Where did she come from? This poem can lead to a discussion of Hughes as Teacher, Plath as student and then, at the end, Plath as Teacher, Hughes as Silent...

Peter Steinberg
Alexandria, USA
31st March 1998

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