Words was one among the last poems Plath wrote before her tragic suicide in February 1963. (Plath would kill herself on 11 February 1963, during a London apartment she had decided to rent because of W. B. Yeats had once lived there; ‘Words’ was written on 1 February.) you’ll read Plath’s poem ‘Words’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
As the poem’s title implies, ‘Words’ may be a meditation on the very stuff of poetry, although it’s neither wholly favourable nor wholly damning about the facility of words. We begin, in summary, with one word: ‘Axes’. Its plural learning on the poem’s plural title, ‘Axes’ immediately invites us to draw a link between title and opening line: words are axes, therein they’re cutting, powerful, but also potentially deadly.
After one has struck the wood of the tree or log with an axe, the wood ‘rings’. (There’s a pleasant suggestion of the lineage and history of words here, therein ‘wood rings’ punningly summons the thought of telling the age of a tree by counting its number of rings. Words, too, accompany a history of their own: as Dennis Potter once said, the matter with words is that you simply never know whose mouth they’ve been in.) Like that axe felling a tree or slicing a log, words echo, and therefore the echoes travel faraway from the ‘center’ (the one who has spoken or written those ‘words’?), galloping away like horses.
The horses image is another one which signals Plath’s ambivalence: horses are associated closely with people, and a horse is an animal that has largely been brought under man’s control. we will train horses, use them for travel, then forth. But they will even be worried or frightened and revert to their wild, ‘fight or flight’ state, during which case they could veer astray, out of control, galloping far away from the one who should have them in check. is that this what words are like: once we write them we believe we’ve mastered them, but they need a lifetime of their own and quickly move out and far away from us? Indeed, there’s another buried pun in Plath’s fifth line, since ‘off from the center’ is that the literal origin of the word ‘eccentric’ (i.e. ex-centric). And eccentricity and madness are related to a loss of control over one’s words, among other things.
The tree image is sustained within the second stanza, with the thought of the tree’s sap as tears, a fluid that weeps from the tree very much like our words are wrought out of our own misery and pain (as was certainly the case with Sylvia Plath). But there’s an inquiry for order and control again here, because the sap/tears are like water flowing during a river or ocean, seeking to calm itself so it can become a mirror, a still pool that reflects the planet back in a way that creates sense. (This may be a rather complex and clever image, almost metaphysical in its ingenuity: the tears we cry find yourself on the page like water flowing, but we attempt to bring our pain in check and switch it into something orderly, like art, which – just like the still waters of a pool or river – can ‘hold the mirror up to nature’, as Hamlet puts it.)
As we move from the second into the third stanza, the rock under those wild waters becomes a skull, decaying (it is being consumed by algae or ‘weedy greens’ growing upon it). A macabre metaphor for the way the living ‘feed’ off the words of the dead, very much like we readers of Plath gain sustenance from reading the work of a poet who died in 1963? Perhaps. Here there’s a parallel with Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘The Death of the Author’, but also with W. H. Auden’s elegy for W. B. Yeats, during which Auden declares that the words of the dead poet are ‘modified within the guts of the living’: the living keep the dead poet’s words alive, albeit they modify their meaning.
And then, to conclude this summary, we discover ourselves sliding from the third into the fourth and final stanza, with Plath encountering her words ‘on the road’: they need going out there into the planet, and are now ‘dry and riderless’. learning on the horse-image from the primary stanza, these words are wild and free, sort of a horse without a rider, very much like the poet’s words float freed from the poet’s control once she has sent her poem out into the planet. Is Plath here anticipating the way these poems are going to be received after her death? She may have known, so almost her suicide, that she would never see them in print, but that they’ll well see the sunshine of day after her death. Plath ends ‘Words’ with another reprise, this point of the image of the water providing a mirrored image – during this case, a mirrored image of the ‘fixed stars’ which govern the lifetime of the poet. Words could also be free, but the poet who creates them isn’t (there’s a suggestion of astrology during this regard to fixed stars: both Plath and Hughes were into their horoscopes).
If this final image of the pool suggests that the poem – now completed both in metaphor and reality as we reach the ultimate lines – has settled down, like those wild flowing waters, so as to reflect the reality of the planet, then what the poem reflects, just like the pool, is that the feeling of being trapped, doomed, fated, which Plath herself is trying to reflect in her late poems especially. ‘Words’ may be a tragic acknowledgment of the very fact that, whilst the poetry may escape, the poet might not.
‘Words’ is, during a sense, an analysis of the ways during which a poet’s words combat a lifetime of their own once they leave the poet who wrote them. this is often a liberating thing – the horse-image chimes with ‘Ariel’, Sylvia Plath’s poem recalling her youthful horse-rides when she felt free and will escape, like T. S. Eliot’s Cousin Nancy, the constraints of twentieth-century society – but it also represents a loss of control.