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EDGE by Sylvia Plath

“Edge” is a short poem in free verse; its twenty lines are divided into ten couplet stanzas. The title suggests a border, perhaps between life and death. One of the last two poems written by Sylvia Plath before her suicide, “Edge” is a meditation on the death of a woman.

Written in the third person, the poem may give the impression of offering a detached judgment of the dead woman. This point of view usually suggests a less subjective perspective than the first person. The apparently objective imagery of the poem, however, disguises a high degree of subjectivity on the part of the poet.

“Edge” begins with an implied thesis: A woman is “perfected” by death. It is not difficult to see at least three ways in which the woman has been “perfected.” To “perfect” means to complete, to master, or to make flawless. While literally true that the woman has completed her life, “perfected” also suggests that the woman has mastered womanhood and has been made flawless through her death. These notions of completion, mastery, and achieved excellence are linked to death in the brief second line, “Her dead,” which provides an approximate rhyme with the first line.

The second stanza notes “the smile of accomplishment” that adorns the dead body, suggesting that the woman is pleased by the perfection she has achieved. The poet then hints that the woman has achieved death through suicide. The “Greek necessity” that one imagines flowing “in the scrolls of her toga” strongly suggests the ritual suicides demanded of disgraced individuals in the classical world. Although most readers are familiar with the self-inflicted death by hemlock of the Greek philosopher Socrates, ritual suicide (like the toga) is actually associated with imperial Rome. Nevertheless, Plath is able to allude to her own writing through the clever description of the folds of the toga as “scrolls.” The third and fourth stanzas explain the meaning of the woman’s bare feet. They have taken her the length of her life with all its obstacles, but now “it is over.” The sense of relief at journey’s end is apparent.

A new and ominous element is introduced in the fifth stanza. Dead children, presumably the woman’s own children, are described as white serpents. Each is coiled before a small “pitcher of milk,” which is “now empty.” Apparently, the children have each drunk the milk and coiled, fetuslike, at each pitcher; they are pale, or white, with death. One must consider the possibility that the children have been poisoned by their mother.

The sixth through eighth stanzas confirm this suspicion. The woman has “folded/ them back into her body.” She is their mother, and she has taken her children with her into death. The first line of the poem, “The woman is perfected,” now takes on yet another meaning: She becomes whole or complete as all the life that went forth from her is returned to her in death. The poet defends the murder of the children as the mere closing of a flower at the approach of night. The rose draws in its petals (as the mother draws in her children) when the chill of the evening (or, in the case of the woman, death) descends upon the garden. The sensual but ghastly image of the night as a many-throated flower that “bleeds” its odors transforms the traditional literary meaning of flowers and gardens as emblems of love into omens of death.

From the lush imagery of the garden at nightfall, the ninth stanza turns to the stark moon of the night sky. The poet imagines the moon’s view of the grisly tableau of the dead bodies of mother and children. Like a nun in a white cowl, the moon in “her hood of bone” surveys the scene without sadness.

The final stanza of the poem explains the moon’s indifference: “She is used to this sort of thing.” The dead woman has reenacted an ancient tragedy that the moon has witnessed over and over again. Further, the poem concludes with the hint that the moon bears some responsibility for the deaths. The moon’s “blacks crackle and drag.” The effect of the moon on the earth (dragging the oceans back and forth across the planet in tides) and on the menses of women account for the final verb. “Crackle,” however, suggests something more like sunspots, casting interference and static into the atmosphere and, perhaps, troubling individuals. Such a relationship between the moon and human behavior is acknowledged in folklore (the werewolf is transformed under the light of a full moon) and even in our vocabulary (“lunatic” derives from the same root as “lunar”). The moon, it is implied, may have influenced the terrible events that “she” then observes impassively.

Forms and Devices

As Linda Wagner-Martin points out in Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), “Edge” was drawn together from previous drafts of poems. The poem’s title and some of its most important images first appeared in a draft of “Mystic,” a poem that includes images of the demanding life of nuns. Coincidentally, “Nuns in Snow” was the working title of “Edge.” The image of the moon with “her hood of bone” (suggesting the cowl of a nun’s habit) seems the only trace of this religious motif in the final version of the poem.

The moon’s hood is not the only image of clothing in the poem. The dead body of the woman “wears” a smile; she is clothed, first of all, by her sense of satisfaction in her suicide. More graphically, her blood flows down her “toga.” As one descends from her lips to her body, one comes to her feet, which are bare. She wears no more than a nightgown.

The shocking image of her dead children coiled like white serpents before little pitchers that had held poisoned milk reveals the troubled mind that describes the scene. (The fragmentary couplets and unexpected enjambments heighten this impression of a disordered and unbalanced narrator.) This highly subjective imagery conveys repugnance for the children. It may also allude to the whitish umbilical cords that linked them to their mother.

Their fetal posture in death seems to return the children to their mother, who “has folded/ them back into her body.” The image of a body closing in on itself is developed through the image of the rose drawing its petals shut against the night. The garden “stiffens,” and odors “bleed,” as does the corpse, when the flower of night (traditionally symbolic of death) opens. Poets have employed the flower and the garden as images of sexual love as long as poetry has been written. The floral imagery here, however, suggests another tradition: death as an alluring and intoxicating temptation. This depiction of death through erotic imagery also has a long history. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” by John Keats, is one of the most famous examples of this tradition.

The most powerful “beautiful lady without mercy” in Greek mythology (the fourth line of the poem alludes to the Greeks) is Artemis, whose attribute is the moon. This virgin goddess, unconquered by love, slew those who attacked her chastity. Sudden deaths of all sorts, but especially among women, were blamed on her arrows. The description of the moon in the virginal habit of a nun modernizes the myth, but the implication of the lines that the moon is responsible, in some fashion, for the woman’s death harks back to the implacable Artemis herself.

Themes and Meanings

Written only six days before the author’s suicide, “Edge” has sometimes been viewed as a formal suicide note. Such a hasty conclusion deprives the poem of its significance as a work of art. As mentioned above, “Edge” was carefully constructed through a series of drafts. A close inspection of its form and imagery confirms an artistic intent, so one must look for the meaning of the poem not in Plath’s biography, but in the poem itself.

The poem argues that the woman who is the subject of the poem is “perfected” in death, which alone offers release from her unhappiness. She smiles in death at the conclusion of an obviously painful journey through life. The description of her children suggests the malevolent role they have played in her life. She imagines them back within her as her body closes like a chilled rose. The woman seeks to return to the condition of the virgin, and it is to the virgin goddess, Artemis, that the poet turns for consolation. The solitary, pure white, perfect female offers no sympathy; the suicide has endured the ancient destiny of women. Only the woman who can hold herself aloof from love and its demands can escape a similar fate.

It is difficult to imagine a bleaker view of human experience than that which Plath expresses in “Edge.” She suggests that one can find happiness only in absolute solitude, the solitude of death.