The speaker in this poem might be bitter about having a child, but the sounds in her writing would be pleasing to a child's ear, as riddles often are. We could imagine a mother reading this aloud to her newborn child, the words slipping over her tongue in their smooth and upbeat rhythm. There's no rhyme scheme, but lines like "I'm a riddle in nine syllables" and "A melon strolling on two tendrils" are fun to say. And there are delightful moments of alliteration ("two tendrils," "Money's new-minted," and "cow in calf"), assonance ("riddle […] syllables" and "ivory, fine"), and consonance ("melon strolling" and "yeasty rising") that add music to the lines.
Despite the fun and flow of this writing, though, there are a couple places that catch—that show us that, hey, all is not well in this poem. For example, the word "ponderous" weighs heavy on our tongue, slowing us down much as a pregnant woman is slowed by her weight. The word "fat" sticks out in line six as more abrupt than all the surrounding sounds.
So even though this poem is fun to read aloud, parts of it are just as jerky and awkward as a pregnant woman's movement would be. That's kind of the point. We're not meant to enjoy ourselves here, but to ponder the heavy burden our speaker is bearing.
The title of this poem hasn't always been the same thing—at one point, this poem was apparently published as "Metaphors for A Pregnant Woman", which is a bit on the nose if you ask Shmoop. We think that title takes all the fun out of reading the poem, and makes the whole riddle thing pretty moot. We highly approve of Plath's change to plain and simple "Metaphors."
That said, the title "Metaphors" doesn't give us much to work with when we're trying to suss out what's going down in the poem. But it does tip us off that this poem is full of—say it with us—metaphors. Sure, that's an obvious point to make, but it's key in figuring out how to read the poem. It's saying one thing, but meaning another.
Plus, it's feasible to figure out that the metaphors are about pregnancy by the end of the poem without any help from the title, so it's not like we miss the cue all that much. Yet the title is important because it puts us on guard and, along with the first line, lets us know that we're supposed to be solving a riddle.
We're nowhere, folks.
Literally speaking, if we imagined the setting of each metaphor, it takes us to Africa, where there would be majestic elephants roaming out on plains, back to suburban America and its rows of oversized houses, into a surreal garden where melons can stroll, and then back into the wild of fruit, ivory and timbers.
Then it takes us into the kitchen, where bread is rising, and perhaps onto a city street, where a rich person has just gotten fresh new money from the bank and is off spending it in fancy stores. Then we jump to a farm, where we'd be likely to find pregnant cows and bags of apples. We end up, finally, on a train. Interestingly, this poem ends with a journey. When we stop reading, our speaker is still moving, as is our literal setting.
But here's the thing. Even though it's fun to hop around to all of these different, imaginative places, changing our setting from metaphor to metaphor, beneath the surface, there is the real setting surrounding the pregnant woman this poem is describing. We have very little that lets us know what this setting is like, but we can imagine the setting that would surround a pregnant woman in the late 1950s, which is when this poem was written.
That wasn't an easy time to be knocked up, because it wasn't an easy time to be a woman. This real life pregnant woman is probably not on a train at all, but stuck in one place, too pregnant to travel. Yet she feels as if her life has boarded a train—she's stuck moving in one direction, the motherhood direction, whether she wants to jump off halfway through the journey or not.
Our speaker pretends to be all mysterious and sphinxlike, but really spells out the riddle to give us an easy solution: the "I" in this poem is a pregnant woman, who isn't exactly reveling in the expectant mother glow.
Sure, she's telling us, the readers, that she's a riddle, but we think that she finds herself to be a riddle as well. She seems pretty detached from this so-called loaf of bread growing in her belly, as if she's grasping at these metaphors to understand just what it is that has happened to her. And she's certainly not happy about it.
Why? Well sometimes she feels she's just a means to an end, like she's being used as someone who bears a child and nothing more. She also feels trapped—stuck on a train she can never get off of. As unfortunate as these emotions sound, we can bet that many an expectant mother has felt them, too. After all, having a kid is a Big Deal, and once you have that kid, there really is no turning back.
Though this is a short, relatively simple poem, it's also a riddle, and you have to work a little to get at the hidden meanings in this poem. There's metaphor after metaphor, and each line could trip you up. Keep up the hike, though, and you'll enjoy it if you stick it out to the end.
Sylvia Plath loves making her readers work. This poem is a prime example, as it's through and through a poem of metaphors and riddles. When you read Plath, you might find yourself stopping again and again to visualize some of the crazy (but cool) metaphors she uses, and digging around to imagine what she might be talking about beneath the surface. It's generally not too difficult to figure it out by the end of the poem, as Plath gives her readers plenty of clues, but sometimes, a little digging is necessary. So, before you read a Plath poem, grab your shovel, and get ready to do some work to uncover the little treasures and notes from her own life, which she hides throughout her poetry.
This poem definitely has a form, but it's not one that you've heard of before because it's particular to this poem—you could say it's custom fit, perhaps maternity fit.
The first line gives us a big hint about the form—each line has nine syllables. Count on down, and you'll find that the poem is nine lines long. This makes us think of the term of pregnancy—nine months. Writing nine lines, nine syllables each, is a pretty clever way to structure a poem about pregnancy.
As for a specific meter, or formalized rhythm, the lines are pretty all over the board in terms of which syllables they emphasize. Still, the poem has a lovely flow, by relying on sonic tricks like alliteration and assonance. And just like with meter, the poem has no highly structured rhyme scheme. Yet words like "syllables," "tendrils" and "apples" provide some end rhyme as well as the slant rhyme of "purse" and "house." Be sure to check out our "Sound Check" section for more.
Size matters when you're pregnant. It just does. And it definitely matters to our speaker. We never hear directly about a woman's huge belly, but we hear about elephants, houses, melons, and all sorts of big things that make us visualize pregnancy in a whole new (big) way.
In a poem about pregnancy, it's no surprise that fruit pops up here and there. It's often said that marriages that bear children are fruitful. But fruit isn't always good news. Remember Eve? Remember Snow White?
Throughout the poem, pregnant women, and the children they carry, are compared to things of value. The speaker seems to feel as if she's been used to produce something, as nothing more than a cow bearing a calf, or a means to an end. The gist here is that a woman's value—especially in Plath's time—was often connected to her fertility.
For a poem about pregnancy, there's little talk of the birds and the bees.