Questions about The Moon and the Yew Tree

October 28, 2010

So I’ve been reading Plath’s poem, The Moon and the Yew Tree, and I wanted to do a short analysis of it. Problem is, the poem’s downright tricky, and I have many many many more questions than I have analytical thoughts about it. But I’ll give it a shot anyway. The first thing I did was look up pictures of yew trees on Google images. Surprisingly, nearly half of the first fifteen-to-twenty pictures of yew trees were photos of them in graveyards. This seemed odd; I mean, are graveyards their natural habitat or something?

This prompted some quick Wikipedia research, where I found out in fact they are very commonly found in graveyards and near churches, and that in some ancient traditions, they represent life transcending death. I just picture Plath hanging out around this old church and graveyard at  night, looking up at the yew tree and further to the moon. creepy.

Anyway, so right off the bat it seems there’s a distinct separation made between “the light of the mind” and the “black trees of  the mind.” Plath says “this” (it’s the very first word of the poem), and I think the light she is referring to is the moonlight. But what are we to make of the “blackness and light?” I thought that maybe the “blackness/black” trees might signify the unconscious or unknown part of our minds, whereas the light might signify our conscious minds. But when I get later in the poem, I’m not so sure.

What is clear in the poem, is that there are several religious references made. In the first stanza Plath says “The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God.” So here, Plath compares the grass–almost in a Whitman-esque sense–to people, and that she is God. Maybe she was thinking about the dead who lie underneath the grass and their “griefs” when she said this. In the last line of the first stanza, Plath says that she doesn’t think there is anywhere to get to; maybe this is a reference to the yew tree being a passageway for the souls to transcend to heaven. This would also make sense then with the first line of the next stanza “The moon is no door,” in that Plath is perhaps looking at the yew tree as a sort of passageway, and then she looks higher to the destination of the moon.

The lines in the next stanza about religion concern Christianity and the specific church in the scene. Plath writes “Twice, on a Sunday, the bells startle the sky/–eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection./At the end they soberly bong out their names.” At first, I thought the tongues might be some kind of religious prophets or disciples, probably because of the “names” at the end of the third line; but when i read it again, i changed my mind and i think the tongues are the bells. I really don’t know what to make of the bells having names though, so if anyone has any ideas about that feel free to share.

In the next stanza, the speaker (presumably Plath) is associating her mother with the moon, in addition to the moon being compared to a face. However, the mother “is not like Mary.” I took this to be a comparison to one of  the important Mary’s of Christianity, Mary the mother of Jesus.  Also there is a constant contrast between the colors black and blue in the poem, and the moon and moonlight is consistently associated with blue. The yew tree is mentioned again, and it is associated with the word “gothic.” I decided to see if there were any alternative definitions to the word by looking it up–turns out “gothic” can mean many different things; but regardless of which one of these meanings one chooses, it seems the tree is separated from religion. Later in the Stanza the moonlight shines into the church windows, and either the saints are blue apparitions floating around, or they are the projections of the stain glass windows from the blue light. Again, they are separate from the yew trees, because “the message of the yew trees is blackness–blackness and silence.” SO…

I don’t really know where to go from here. I think there is a portrayal of the yew tree (which was supposed to represent life transcending death) as a silent black entity that perhaps doesn’t fulfill its supposed role as a passageway to heaven. But what about the blue moon? It seems that Plath is both connecting the blue moonlight to the saints (when she describes them as “blue”), but also distancing the moon from the saints when she says “the moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.” We have the moon being personified as a face, and also the stars as having a “face” too. So, maybe she believes the natural world is associated more with humanity than religion? After all the Christian bells “startle the sky.” Yet, they seem to fail “at the end” of their bonging by only saying that they are bells and this is the sound of bells, not of the transcendence of Christianity and the resurrection of the souls. There seems to be this interconnectedness between the landscape, the natural world, and Religion, but yet the moon doesn’t see the rigidness of Christianity because she is wild, and the message of the trees is blackness–that they aren’t this passageway or a transceding image.

Of course,  I keep forgetting that one reading of this could be that this is all an image in Plath’s mind. And in one sense, it is only an image in Plath’s mind.  I think that perhaps what she sees in this landscape reveals to her how she feels inwardly, if that makes any sense. I hesitate to say that Plath has a negative view of religion in this poem, because I don’t think that’s entirely true. But the last image–of the yew trees sending us the message of blackness and silence–suggests that in her mind, religion (or at least Christianty) doesn’t form a spiritual connection to the natural world and perhaps not to Plath’s own inner world either. Does anyone else have any thoughts on the poem?

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