The Moon and the Yew Tree: Patti Smith Reads Sylvia Plath’s Haunting Portrait of Depression
By Maria Popova
One of the most menacing things about depression is its elasticity — its way of suddenly receding, swinging open a window of light, only to return just as suddenly with redoubled darkness, just when life has begun to feel livable again, even beautiful.
On September 16, 1962, a voice unspooled from the BBC airwaves carrying an emblem of that cruel elasticity.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — who spent her life living with the darkness and making light of the barely bearable lightness of being, until she could no more — had composed the poem a year earlier, shortly after moving to a quiet market village in Devon. For the first time, she had a room of her own to write in. “My whole spirit has expanded immensely,” she wrote to her mother as she filled the house with “great peachy-colored gladiolas, hot red & orange & yellow zinnias” from the garden, that great living poem.
Within a month, in the fading autumn light, her spirit had begun contracting again in the grip of the familiar darkness. One night, unable to sleep, she tried a meditative writing exercise: to simply describe what she saw in the Gothic churchyard outside her window. That exercise became one of her finest poems and one of the most poignant portraits of depression in the history of literature.
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 at 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 be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over 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.
Complement with Jane Kenyon’s magnificent poem about living to the other side of depression and Galway Kinnell’s lifeline for the darkest hour, then revisit Zoë Keating reading Plath’s “Mushrooms,” Meryl Streep reading her “Morning Song,” the poet herself reading “Tulips,” and Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson.
Published September 4, 2023