“Edge” was written six days before Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11th 1963 and it is supposedly her last piece. The form already bears an interesting aspect: It consists of ten stanzas, which each only contain two lines, which are held in an enjambment. The second line of each stanza is always half of the construction and meaning of the first line of the following stanza. So this break of verse is also an edge between the stanzas, which builds another parallel between form and content of the poem. The sentences are only completed if they cross this edge between the two stanzas, and the person in the poem only seems to find tranquility and “accomplishment” when crossing an edge. This edge is, in the most frequent interpretations, considered as the edge between life and death. The poem does not follow a certain rhyme scheme, but it contains various impressive internal rhymes or assonant constructions, e.g. sweet-bleed, rose-close, child-coiled, flows-scrolls, toga-over. These words do not necessarily rhyme in the strict sense but they contribute to the calm tone of the poem and intensify the abundant images given.
Plath distances herself from the poetic “I” as she speaks of “the woman” or “her”. So whoever speaks in the poem takes up the same perspective as the reader can do. This creates a distances or detachedness between speaker and object of the poem, which will later on be elucidated. The entire lines present a sense of calm, imbued with drama. The tone is not hysterical or unsettling but rather tranquil and relaxed. This effect is especially assured in the choice of rhythm. The poem has a floating stream of words and this adds to a balanced and serene atmosphere within the poem.
The opening line refers to the air of finality with which this person is presented: “The woman is perfected”. This could either mean the aspect of her time being over, i.e. in the perfect, but also the woman’s final completion in crossing this edge. It seems obvious that the woman is not perfect in the sense of consummate, otherwise she probably would not choose death to finish her life, but the choice of words nevertheless has a positive effect. This is due to expressions like “smile of accomplishment”, “perfected”, “rose” or “sweet” which are placed in an unusual environment next to rather disconcerting expressions. The following lines convey the feeling that she already has a prophetic vision of the impact of her death. “Her dead body/ wears the smile of accomplishment” is often interpreted in the way that Plath was almost sure of her posthumous success. This withholds a strong parallel to her own life, since most of her works were only paid attention to after her death, but I doubt that it was actually meant that way, as I will explain later on. What does seem clear, is the fact that the woman is secure of the upcoming relief that goes along with the self-chosen death.
The visual image of tranquil joy of these words cannot be ignored either. What seems ostentatious is the calm and serene tone of the poem, which is unusual for a desperate woman, who is fed up with life. With “The illusion of a Greek necessity/ flows in the scrolls of her toga”, Plath explains that she does not regard the act of suicide as heroic, whereas the Greeks considered it natural. The woman has another reason for ending her own life, which can be interpreted in the following stanzas. There she says “her bare/ feet seem to be saying/ We have come so far it is over”, which could be decoded as the refusing attitude to keep on struggling and enduring this painful life. Her experiences have led to her final exhaustion and she now seeks repose in death, however she does not sense it as something heroic or honorable.
The next four stanzas are dedicated to her children, which she figuratively wants to fold “back into her body”, afraid that someone might not treat them properly during her absence. It is her sign of maternal tenderness seeking to protect her descendants. She is also visually compared to a Cleopatra-like figure with white serpents at each breast, the color white standing on the one hand for innocence, cleanliness and virginity but on the other hand being connected with emptiness, absence, coldness and privation. The lines “One at each little/ Pitcher of milk, now empty” show that she has nurtured them with affection, but due to her long strain she has nothing more to give and her source of giving is empty.
Some critics have also introduced a parallel to the classical heroine Medea, who “on being deserted by Jason, slew her children for fear that a more merciless hand may slaughter them”. As we know, Plath did not involve her children in her suicide, but kept them away from this act. However, we do not know how long she could have gone on in this situation as a poor and depressed single-mother, and maybe she would have harmed them if she still were alive. Therefore, the threatening power might as well be the person closest to them, their own mother. The “serpent” also brings in an
element of sin and when adding the word “garden” it evokes the image of a
The following lines contain a very complex phrase and the image of a garden, which is depicted in a dangerous sense as well. One could draw the parallel to the garden of Eden, where Eve crossed an edge, too, and committed a sinful act. However it is not clear, that the woman in the poem has really crossed the “Edge” or of she only came close to it. However Eve wasn’t granted to go back to paradise after she had eaten from the forbidden fruit, and this might be a hint for the woman, who, after having taken the path of suicide, will not get the chance to return to life.
As we read the woman is compared to a rose, which closes her petals, because the upcoming night harbors danger for them: “when the garden/ Stiffens and odors bleed/ From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower”. The woman has been hurt and tries to prevent her children from this experience. This is especially expressed in the contradictory image of the words “bleed” and “odor”: Bleed in this case reminds of a wound, blood usually runs down, whereas odor evaporates into the air, it goes up. Again, we have a biblical element. Odor alludes to the breathing of the first human beings given to by god, and this instantly refers to life. These two adverse images unite in one sentence and might reflect the inner conflicts of the woman with being alive, but maybe at the gate of choosing to die. The poem ends with the insight that her self-destruction is a universal matter. Even the moon, which belongs to the realm of night and death, watches the cycle of all women with a dispassionate and indifferent attitude towards the woman’s self-chosen death. The ancient goddess and muse keeps on rising in her regular manner: “Her blacks crackle and drag”. Moreover she has seen things like that before as she is “staring from her hood of bone”, when a woman gives up the struggle to juggle the many facets of her life. Here a confusion appears when trying to figure out who is meant by she: it could either be the moon or the woman, whose “blacks crackle and drag”.
An earlier draft of “Edge” was called “Nuns in snow” and the observers were nuns travelling on a pilgrimage to watch the dead body of a woman. What remains unclear is the identity of the speaker and its relation to the addressee. Concluding from the third person narration, we could characterize the speaker as some kind of bystander, people who witnessed the death or maybe even a god-like figure who observes the act of dying. What strongly drew my attention were the adverse images that are given in the poem: Next to the contradictory meaning of “odor” and “bleed”, several other thoughts seemed oppositional. For instance, “Child” and “dead” are so rarely used together, as well as “sweet” and “bleed” or the rose that usually symbolizes love or the soul, is this time in a harmed state. This evokes an ambiguity of life and death itself, which I will later on refer to again.
Altogether, the poem presents a mood of resignation but the sincerity of having escaped from the struggle of life is not depicted as heroic but rather as a long awaited relief. In the literary world, “Edge” is considered as Plath’s poetic suicide note to the world in simple language with strong visual support.
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