The Moon and the Yew Tree by Sylvia Plath

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.

Summary and Analysis

The title of the poem raises two expectations from the poem,

  1. A dialogue between the moon which poets have used as a symbol, and a trope for various kinds of exploration) and the Yew Tree (which is a tree with small evergreen leaves and red berries believed to be poisonous)
  2. A description of a scene with Gothic dimensions.

But the poem structured around seven-lined closed stanzas opens with three short sentences – a subjective vision of the moon comparable with the mind, followed by a curious shift to an association with “black”, and then “blue”. The reference to “trees” of the mind is a reference to the dark thoughts which grow in the mind. Blue implies a sense of loneliness. Each of the colours asserts the identity of the narrator in various complex ways. If this is a dialogue between the moon and the yew tree, then the narrator is a woman who lives a cyclic life like that of the moon, and like the moon a woman in a patriarchal society, acquires an identity which is like borrowed light. The “trees” of the mind, i.e. the potential of the mind is always shrouded, and eclipsed by the assertive figure presumably of an authoritative male “The light is blue”, i.e. the state of mind is a state of loneliness. But the narrator rises above this state into a God like self esteem over and above the immediate open space which defines a sense of worth in the narrator. But the next part of the stanza strikes a note of gloom again, with the “fumey mists” that engulf the experience of self- worth surrounded by a history of gravestones bearing the names of those buried. The seventh line conveys the final despair of a woman’s life plunged in utter depression. The narrator’s life is best represented by the wild shriek of anguish caught in Edward Munch’s painting. The cry, symbolizes the meaninglessness of existence. The Sunday Christian rituals offer the hope of salvation through resurrection, but death must come first. The seventh line sums up the promising hope of transcendence over agonized existence.

The third stanza spells out the death-wish. The yew tree with its evergreen leaves and poisonous berries “points up” towards an escape from life in an unnatural way. “Gothic” conjures the images of something bizarre and disturbing. The symbol of death draws the narrator’s attention to the moon which emerges as the female principle – the association of the cyclic pattern with the process of birth. The symbolic mother “the moon” is more real than Mary, mother of God, because she has brought into the world creatures of dark – “bats and owls”. The reality of the narrator’s existence is too harsh to have faith in tenderness and love – the kind that is radiated from the figure of mother Mary’s son, Christ. The seventh line, like previous end lines conveys a specific experience, hope or longing – in this line a longing for true and tender love.

The last stanza conveys the extent of the narrator’s depression. The colour “blue” is re-created to bring out the loneliness which fails to be relieved despite access to the Church. The narrator’s experience of the religious alternative only satirises bitterly the institutionalization of love for God through its range of colours and positions. Sacrifices expected of all good people, could not amount to anything but agony. The moon symbol of the female principle is caught in a compulsive design of re-generation. The seventh line offers the way out – an embrace with death which becomes the constant lover, to whom the narrator can turn whenever the wishes to.

The moon and the Yew Tree is one of the death-oriented poems written shortly before plath committed suicide. According to her husband, Ted Hughes, the poem was written as a verse exercise he ‘assigned’ to her when, just before dawn, the full moon was setting behind the Yew. On a descriptive level, the poem tells us that though the grass around her ankles is murmuring humbly as if she were God, and though the Gothic-shaped tree is pointing upwards, she simply can’t see where there is to get to. She needs to feel she’s going somewhere, needs comfort, needs to believe in tenderness, but far from being a door, and far from being sweet like Mary, the moon is a face, “white and desperate”, “bald and wild”, while the comfortless message of the yew is blackness and silence.

The consciously closed stanzas are structural devices enhancing the theme of trapped existence from which escape is possible only through death.

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