Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath's Poem "You’re"


To give the background of this poem, Edward Butscher, a self-indulgently passionate biographer, says, “When they actually moved into the Chalcot Square flat, however, on February 1, they had to confront the familiar tedious chores of transforming an empty apartment into a home. This time they had the additional problem of doing so under siege in a structure which was not yet finished. Various workmen were constantly hammering away inside and outside, erecting scaffolds, discovering flaws in the walls, fixing pipes, and in general interrupting their sleep and work patterns day and night. P
hysically exhausted from their search and the whole bother of moving, the Hugheses were too tired to do anything the first few days but rest and reflect upon their good fortune, go out to eat, and take long walks in the park. When they did begin fixing up the flat, the first thing Ted and Sylvia did was to cover the ugly floorboards in the kitchen, bathroom, and hallway with marble-black linoleum. It was easy to wash and kept out some of the many drafts that entered the flat despite the new walls and window frames. The floorboards in the bedroom and parlor, which were badly scratched, were covered with three layers of paint.

Other improvements included painting the walls white and buying a big double bed, a gas stove, and a refrigerator. The Merwins kindly loaned them tables, chairs, and some china from their attic until Ted and Sylvia could buy their own in secondhand shops; and Ted put two huge bookcases in the alcove off the parlor. He also made two chairs for himself and Sylvia, which they frequently had to carry around as the stream of workmen flowed in and out of the flat—all this causing Sylvia to compare their situation to that of the hero in Ted’s short story “Snow,” where an unnamed madman imagines he has crashed in the arctic and has only his chair to keep him sane and in contact with the past.

But after a couple of hectic weeks the workmen departed and Sylvia, who had been too exhausted to write, settled down into the routines of home-making that always soothed her. Soon she would feel strong enough to return to poetry, although she would write only one poem, “You’re,” before the baby arrived in April. The flat was cozy, if still too chilly at times; and it had the advantage of much airy space and light.

The kitchen in back was sunny for the most part, and the parlor had two large windows overlooking the square. And although the bathroom was tiny, the hallway was big enough for a bureau. The third-floor location gave Sylvia a sense of peaceful detachment from the outside world. Above her in the attic dwelled an old woman artist—a rent-control tenant who could not be moved out and who lived, according to Sylvia, on gin and pineapple juice. Sylvia reacted with unkind distaste to the idea of the old woman’s flat being buried under twenty years of accumulated detritus amid endless pots of rainbow hyacinths.

The greatest drawback of the flat was its lack of an extra room for the baby. Sylvia wrote to Marcia that the baby would thus have to sleep with them, “Freud and Spock to the contrary,” since it would be at least two years before they could consider finding a larger place. Ted’s Guggenheim was stretched thin already and money remained a major difficulty. Not too surprisingly, the baby preoccupied her. She was uneasy and tense, though convinced it would be a strong baby boy. They had registered too late with the National Health Service for that organization to locate a free hospital bed for her, and she would have to have the baby at home with the help of a midwife—the ‘very term “midwife” went against her entire American background. Fortunately, Dido Merwin had introduced Sylvia to her own doctor, John Wigg, who put her in the care of his young assistant, whom Sylvia found both attractive and capable. He promised to stand by in the event she needed him during the actual delivery, and she went to relaxation classes at a clinic to prepare for her ordeal. Her mother’s warning against natural childbirth still haunted her, but she was relieved somewhat when told she would be given whiffs of anesthesia and other mild sedation to help lessen the pain.

Sylvia was also comforted by the fact that she would not have to spend twelve long days in the hospital, which was standard practice in England at the time, and could have Ted at her side throughout. Also she was provided with a free pint of milk each day, and received reduced prices on milk and medicines at the stores. Economy was important, and Sylvia looked with ironic humor upon the reality that the baby whose conception she had had to pay for was going to be delivered free. The baby itself as idea and approaching fact was another matter. Myron Lotz, who had returned to Oxford, visited her before April and remembers that “she had this fantastic premonition and fear that the child would be born dead, with the umbilical cord around its neck, a horrible fear of the death of her child.” And yet he also recalls that she “seemed reasonably well adjusted” to the entire pregnancy.

Of course, for a pregnant woman to have harbored such fears is hardly abnormal. Yet Lotz (now a doctor) unhesitatingly labelled Sylvia’s fear as “definitely pathological.” This raises again the spectre of Sylvia’s obsession with dead infant skulls and her consistent linkage of babies with sterility and death itself. It also summons up the possibility of a deep, carefully repressed feeling of hostility towards the unborn child.

At best, Sylvia had always been ambiguous about childbirth, and the addition of another obstacle between her and her art had to have instigated many moments of intense, if hidden, despair. There was a life growing inside her, and that life threatened her own both literally and figuratively. But the event itself remained essential, as she well knew, as well as positive and wonderfully “normal” in its own right. Later, after Frieda and Nicholas were born, Sylvia would desire more and more children—reasserting an earlier determination to breed a race of “giants.”

For now, things were less certain. But her time and energy, perhaps fortunately, were too engaged for much quiet reflection or anxiety. She ran the flat efficiently and calmly, did the cooking and laundry, and continued to send out Ted’s and her own manuscripts. Her only real regret was that she would have the baby in England, away from her mother and close friends like Marcia. And economic difficulties lessened somewhat when Ted’s first book, The Hawk in the Rain, was given the 1960 Somerset Maugham Award. They planned to use the money for a three-month trip to southern Europe either that winter or the next.

Sylvia’s work, too, earned some money for them. Before she left Yorkshire, she had been told by Olwyn about a contest being sponsored by The Critical Quarterly, which had been receptive to Ted’s poetry. She submitted a poem called “Medallion,” which had probably been written several months earlier, and was notified in January that she and another poet, Alan Brownjohn, were to divide the prize. Her share came to nearly eight pounds. The poem saw print later in the year in a slim supplement, Poetry 1960: An Appetiser, appearing in the back section under “Prize Poems,” while Ted’s “Hawk Roosting” was included in “Poems of the i95o’s,” along with pieces by Philip Larkin, R. S. Thomas, Thorn Gunn, and others.

As the baby’s kicks could not be entirely ignored, Sylvia’s imagination was poked into action. “You’re” is nothing more than a strand of associative responses to the reality of a foetus, but its art is certain and fascinating to contemplate. Addressed to the unborn babe, it begins with an exterior description that sees the bud as already born, “Clownlike, happiest on your hands”; but then it turns inward and remains a portrait of an unborn child: “Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,/ Gilled like a fish.” Sylvia’s ambiguity about the foetus is evident in the odd mixture of the horrific and the whimsical—as in the connection between her own child’s head and those moon-barren skulls glowing in a hospital jar. Dodo, spool, owl, turnip are the images in the first stanza and these lead to a touching climax of “O high-riser, my little loaf”—a play upon the old expression, “one in the oven.” Sylvia then returns to the idea of foetus as fish—”our travelled prawn” (a reference to the Hugheses’ recent trip through America and back to England)—which homes “Like a sprat in a pickle jug.” This jar, however, has none of the terror of a specimen jar. It contains not something that is still and dead, but rather “A creel of eels, all ripples.” In the end, a mathematical image brings the playful sequence to an appropriate close: “Right, like a well-done sum./ A clean slate, with your own face on.”

“You’re” is essentially a joyous celebration of the life process, that other extreme of nature’s order which helps make the reality of “Medallion” bearable. In it the poet gambols through her own field of talent without care for the fatal pits she knows are still there. Sylvia herself was generally happy as the birth approached, and that sense of joyful expectation was intensified when the publishing firm of William Heinemann accepted The Colossus for fall publication. At last she would have a book in print and could legitimately bear the title of poet. Book and child were dual symbols of important completions in the autobiography Sylvia Plath was carving from experience. They were also proof that she could maintain two supposedly antagonistic roles, those of mother and poet, and thereby create life as well as literature. And her husband’s book, Lupercal, also appeared in England just before the birth. This too was taken as another sign of achievement and essential success. Not only did it appear, but it got excellent reviews and transformed Ted Hughes into a major figure in British poetry. Soon he and Sylvia would be introduced to London’s literary set and be taken up by Eliot and Spender.”


The most underexplored dilemma of contemporary feminism is the woman’s personal identity crisis, the recognition that the self, bound as it is by the facts of the world, may, despite our best intentions, remain inarticulate, lost. To insist on responding to this crisis simply with the removal of the self from any of its earthly entanglements is both reductive and arrogant. It is our responsibility at this point to question more rigorously the implication that we ought to-or can-be “through,” as Plath so famously was. Confronted with too complicated a web of opportunities-a snug bed, doting parents, and forms of chauvinism grown too subde to be conclusively called out-young women, at present, are understandably tempted to prefer the smoke and mirrors of self-pitying mystifications to a genuine analysis of a woman’s many restraints and possibilities. However, such mystifications ultimately prove to be as silencing as the conventions they purport to overturn.

There is no definte word of ‘baby’ in the poem, however it becomes obvious to the reader. It is talking about an unborn baby, ‘O high-riser, my little loaf’ implies the baby is growing inside her as bread grows in an oven. There is a clever change of the saying snug as a bug which has been transformed to ‘snug as a bud’. ‘A creel of eels’ is describing the baby wriggling inside her and ‘jumpy as a mexican bean’. The womb is ‘a pickle jar’. The baby is offten reffered to as an equatic creature, ‘eels’, ‘prawn’ and ‘fish’. Plath compares its precence to global space, ‘farther off than Australia’. ‘A clean slate’ is showing the baby will be new and be its own person. Plaths ‘travelled prawn’ must stay in its ‘pickle jar’, ‘snug as a bud’ until it is ready to leave.

‘Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode’

While the imagery points to an unborn baby, I find myself coming back to the fact that one of Plath’s children was born on All Fool’s Day.

This means that either Plath was a really good guesser or she composed the poem with hindsight after her baby was born.


Form of a dramatic monologue, the speaker is addressing an implied listener, in this instant it is the mother addressing her unborn child.

There are 2 stanzas symbol of two stages in pregnancy,

9 lines in each stanza - 9 months gestation period.

The title has to be placed in front of each phrase, the title is also a contraction of the verb “you are” contraction links with pregnancy and the poet acknowledges her unborn child’s existence.

The poem is clearly about a young child, who has been born. Every line she writes is full of description that follow on from the title ‘you’re’. She describes the child’s moon-like face, big ‘owl-like’ eyes, and the way the child crawls around, preferring her hands to her feet. At the end of the poem, she says how the child has a clean slate, and says how she is unique, by saying, with your face- note how she says ‘your’ instead of you’re, for the fist time in the poem.

The poem is a collection of homely similes that she uses to describe her unborn child in her womb. There is a childlike amusement in these similes, it seems that she is almost caressing her child and at the same time proud of her creation. In a loving manner she sketches the child’s moon like face with big “owl like eyes”. His posture in the womb is as his feet are in upward direction” to the stars” with thumbs down like that of dodo. The child is quite safe and enjoying the warmth and comfort of his cozy abode,

“Snug as a bud and at home”

He is almost cocooned in that place “like a spool”. At number of places Plath compares the child with fish--”Gilled like a fish”, “sprat”, ”eel”--kept or canned in the womb which is also symbolised by “pickle jug” or “creel”. In this cocoon the child is moving like “Mexican bean” producing “ripples” and at the same time growing as a “loaf”. Despite such clear cut similes Plath insists that every thing is as “vague as fog” and to see the reality she has to wait long “from Fourth Of July to All Fool’s Day” (nine months of pregnancy period) which seems as far off as Australia. Still she waits impatiently like a much awaited mail. Interestingly nothing will be written in that mail, it will be “a clean slate”. But still it means the world to her which is again symbolised by Atlas with the world over his shoulders. It is clear that her child has already given her a lot of pleasure. Indeed she is very satisfied, “Right, like a well done sum”. At last she feels complete and has feeling of existing, of being alive.

Clown like ……clumsy, a funny position/ pouster in which usually the clowns stand (head downwards and feet towards the sky) ,and content as you are on your own, in mother’s womb when mother can do nothing much for the baby .feet towards the sky ………….baby’s position is up side down before birth in placenta, and skull like moon ,clear and hairless .Gilled like a fish….not using your lungs .A common sense that if your feet are towards sky your thumbs(toes) are towards your head in a clumsy ,silly manner (dodo) is considered to be a clumsy bird. Wrapped in many folds of protective membranes like a cylinder/ Trawling, nesting in dark like an owl. Here Plath uses the simile of trawl for umbilical cord to show the contact of mother and child. Mute and quite as a fleshy white/yellow, turnip whose only contact with the earth is its main root (like umbilical cord in humans), from fourth of July to Fool’s day. O high riser ………ever growing, round bread like (another day to day simile) baby.

Vague, dreamy and enchanting like most waited mail from a far off land. Your top vertebra (Atlas) is bent like a prawn. You feel safe and at ease. Now next lines describe the birth with the use of many similes surprisingly only of fish. These all fish are wriggly and slippery and these similes show the condition of newly born baby, squirmy and writhing and all slippery because of natural fluid on them.

You make ripples and are nervous and jumpy on your birth and ,but are a perfect sum or result .A clean slate….a record of past events and activities(from conception to birth).With your face forwards toward the world ………..children are born this way.

The poem is perhaps about Plath’s ex-husband, how he blocked her out and never listened to anything she had to say. In the second half...it refers to when he had left and she had no idea were he was. The last line of the poem means her husband has gone on with his life...new face…to the world…and left his past with her, has the same person only a new beginning.
The “clean slate” symbolizes innocence, the baby is a new person and so has nothing written in its life thus far.

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