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Use of Common Words and Short Lines by Plath

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In this essay I will be analyzing the poem “Mary’s Song” by Sylvia Plath, discussing the figurative dimensions of the text. “Mary’s Song” was published posthumously in 1965 in the collection Ariel. The themes of burning and sacrifice are seen throughout the poem, with Plath using them to connect mundane and domestic activities to horrific atrocities throughout history. To Plath, the atrocities of the world are not abstract or removed from her life; she knows she does not live in a world removed from suffering and refuses to pretend otherwise. Plath expertly uses figurative language to bridge the gap between the mundane and the horrific, suggesting that domesticity and atrocity go hand in hand.

Plath opens the poem with the image of a lamb. The onomatopoeia used in the first line grounds us in the reality and literal meaning of the words, as we can hear and therefore picture the lamb as it “cracks in its fat”. Apart from the literal meaning, lambs are associated both with innocence and rebirth, as well as being heavily connected with Christianity. Lambs can also represent a childlike naivety, from which the phrase “like a lamb to the slaughter” derives. Plath later references the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis, many of whom walked to the gas chambers completely unaware that those would be their last steps.

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When the fat cracks open it “sacrifices its opacity” and becomes transparent. This allows us to see what is inside the lamb in a figurative sense and Plath uses “a window” to show us the intricacies of the metaphor of the lamb. The fire that cooks the lamb is said to make it “precious” as fire is purifying, and Plath quickly reminds the reader that the purifying association of fire has been corrupted and used to melt “the tallow heretics” and was used in “ousting the Jews”. Very clearly Plath is referencing the burning of Jewish people by the Nazis. The increasing popularity of Christianity throughout the world resulted in the decline of Judaism and marginalization which led to widespread persecution and anti-Semitism. The very sacrifice which Plath is referring to earlier in the poem, which was meant to purify the world, led the Jewish people to persecution throughout history.

The “thick palls” of smoke that came from the ovens that were used by the Nazis hang over the “cicatrix of Poland” and “burnt-out Germany”. While the Holocaust is over and Poland has begun to heal from this wound, the weight of the atrocities there still hangs in the air and a scar or “cicatrix” remains. Plath claims “they do not die” not only because the memory of the horrific event is still fresh, but also because the ashes of the dead settle on the countries, resulting in even the birds turning the color of ash.

Plath later compares the ovens in the concentration camp with “heavens, incandescent”. Plath does this presumably to show us that heaven is potentially a fallacy, as we seem to be living in a world in which God has abandoned us. The poem presents the idea of heaven as grotesque, as the world seems to be stuck in a cycle of sacrifice and destruction that will never be broken. Plath, in her belief that those burned here “do not die”, must also believe that they will not reach heaven. The juxtaposition of the image of heaven and the image of the ovens is used to emphasize the atrocity. The use of sibilance at the beginning of the poem with the words “Sunday” and “sacrifice” is used to emphasize the harshness of the rest of the poem also.

The “holocaust I walk in” in the last stanza reiterates Plath’s extremely negative worldview. While Plath has been referencing the Holocaust throughout the poem, she does not use a capital letter when she uses the word. The word “holocaust”, in Ancient Greece, referred to a burnt offering to the Gods. Here Plath is referring to the world itself as a burnt sacrifice, a heart burnt and offered up to some unseen deity.

In the last line of the poem Plath refers to a “golden child” that the “world will kill and eat”. This child can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, most likely being a reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It’s a very clear reference to the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice to atone for our sins. The Eucharist is being compared to something as simple as the Sunday dinner.

Referring back to the first stanza, the theme of innocence and children can be seen overarching the poem. Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for the world, but Plath is not looking at this from a religious perspective solely. It is clear from the title “Mary’s Song” that she is looking at this from a mother’s perspective. A world built on the sacrifice of a child is condemned from the beginning. As a mother, Plath cannot condone the death of a child for the good of humanity. Plath cannot imagine heaven to be a wondrous place if God would offer up his son as a sacrifice.

I also believe that Plath is referring to her own children in the last line of the poem. She can’t protect them from a world that is cannibalizing itself, where sacrifice is commonplace and death and destruction are a never-ending cycle. The horrors of the world were predestined by decisions made thousands of years ago, and there’s nothing that Plath can do to stop the cycle.

Plath does an excellent job of using figurative language to hide an underlying message in the poem. The figurative language of the text allows Plath to convey so much with the few words she uses, presenting us not only with a poem relaying the awful state of the world and humanity as she sees it but also giving us a damning criticism of the hypocrisy of God and religion throughout history.  

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