The Swarm by Sylvia Plath

The Swarm by Sylvia Plath

Q. Critically analyze the poem Swarm by Sylvia Plath.

Stanza 1

Somebody is shooting at something in our town—
A dull pom, pom in the Sunday street.
Jealousy can open the blood,
It can make black roses.
Who are they shooting at?

Somebody is shooting at something in our town

The poem begins with an unspecified act of violence, indicating that someone is using a gun in the town. Using “somebody” and “something” creates a sense of uncertainty and mystery. The identities of the shooter and the target are unknown.

A dull pom, pom in the Sunday Street

This line describes the sound of gunfire, notably out of place or unexpected on a Sunday—a day typically associated with peace due to religious observance and rest.

The choice of “dull” to describe the sound emphasizes its disruption of the usually calm atmosphere. The repetition of “pom, pom” mimics the sound of fired shots, bringing an auditory element to the scene.

Jealousy can open the blood

The poem then shifts to a metaphorical statement about the motives behind violence. It suggests that jealousy is a powerful and destructive emotion capable of leading to physical harm.

“Open the blood” is a way to speak about causing injury or death. It implies that jealousy can escalate to violent outcomes.

It can make black roses

Black roses symbolize death or mourning. Roses typically represent love or beauty, but when colored black, they become symbols of grief and loss.

Thus, the poem suggests that jealousy transforms something that could be beautiful (love, relationships) into something dark and deadly.

Who are they shooting at?

The first stanza closes with a question that returns to the initial act of violence. This question highlights the uncertainty and fear that violence instills in a community.

Stanza 2

It is you the knives are out for
At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon,
The hump of Elba on your short back,
And the snow, marshaling its brilliant cutlery
Mass after mass, saying Shh!

It is you the knives are out for

This line suggests that someone is being targeted or threatened. In this context, “you” refers to Napoleon Bonaparte, indicating that he is the focus of hostility or opposition. The knives symbolize danger and betrayal.

At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon

Mentioning Waterloo twice emphasizes the significance of this location for Napoleon. The Battle of Waterloo occurred in 1815 and was Napoleon’s decisive and crushing defeat. It ended his rule as the French emperor.

The hump of Elba on your short back

This phrase alludes to Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba (Italy) in 1814. It was a period of humiliation and downfall before his escape and return to power for a brief period known as the Hundred Days, which ended with his defeat at Waterloo.

The “hump” metaphorically suggests a burden or mark of shame that Napoleon carries with him.

And the snow, marshaling its brilliant cutlery

The imagery here personifies the snow as an army preparing for battle, with “brilliant cutlery” referring to the gleaming, knife-like quality of ice and snow.

“Cutlery” refers to utensils used for eating or serving food, such as knives, forks, and spoons. In this line, cutlery is a metaphor for snow’s sharp aspects—like icicles or frost edges. It compares them to shiny, sharp kitchen tools.

This line suggests the harsh winter conditions during the campaign and battle, which were factors that affected the troops and the outcome of historical battles.

Mass after mass, saying Shh!

This line points to a constant, colossal build-up, probably of snow, called “mass after mass.” Repeating the word ‘mass’ shows how big and non-stop it is.

Saying “Shh!” makes the snow or place seem like it’s asking for quiet. It suggests silence in a snow-filled place, how snow quiets all, or a cue to feel the scene’s deep impact.

This also conveys the vast, unstoppable nature of the environmental challenges faced by Napoleon’s army.

Stanza 3

Shh! These are chess people you play with,
Still figures of ivory.
The mud squirms with throats,
Stepping stones for French bootsoles.
The gilt and pink domes of Russia melt and float off.

Shh! These are chess people you play with

This line compares the individuals involved in the conflict to chess pieces, suggesting they are being maneuvered and used in a strategic game of war.

The exclamation “Shh!” could indicate this is a secret or subtle strategy. It suggests leaders control people like chess pieces, making decisions that affect their lives, against their will.

Still figures of ivory

This phrase describes the individuals as “Still figures of ivory,” likening them to stationary, decorative objects made from ivory.

It suggests they are passive, perhaps elegant or valuable, but lacking agency or motion, like chess pieces before a player moves them.

“Ivory” emphasizes their beauty, worth, inertness, and role in a larger scheme or game. It reflects on the dehumanization that occurs in war, where people are seen as mere tools or ornaments in the grand scheme of conflict.

The mud squirms with throats

This line describes mud teeming with life. It specifically suggests the presence of creatures with throats, possibly implying frogs, worms, or other small, vocal animals.

“Squirms” refers to wriggling or twisting movements, often suggesting discomfort, agitation, or the lively motion of tiny creatures. Throats personify the mud, suggesting it is alive with sounds.

Stepping stones for French bootsoles

The line shows the battlefield as stepping stones for French soldiers, ignoring the cost of lives lost in their advance.

It reflects a harsh, practical attitude towards the fallen, treating them as tools for progress. It shows the brutality and heartlessness of war.

The gilt and pink domes of Russia melt and float off

This line symbolizes the destruction of cultural and historical landmarks in Russia, with the “gilt and pink domes” representing the iconic architecture that is being lost.

The image depicts change or fading away, with “gilt and pink domes of Russia.” It probably refers to famous Russian domes like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, melting and drifting off.

It might show a shift or loss in Russian culture or politics, suggesting that nothing grand or powerful lasts forever.

The melting and floating domes give a dreamy, unreal feel. It shows that even solid structures or systems can be fragile and temporary.

Stanza 4

In the furnace of greed. Clouds, clouds.
So the swarm balls and deserts
Seventy feet up, in a black pine tree.
It must be shot down. Pom! Pom!
So dumb it thinks bullets are thunder.

In the furnace of greed. Clouds, clouds

“Furnace of greed” indicates an environment or context characterized by intense desire and materialism.

The repetition of “clouds, clouds” might symbolize obscurity, confusion, or the overshadowing effects of this greed. It implies that overwhelming desires compromise the clarity or purity of the situation.

So the swarm balls and deserts

Here, “the swarm” likely refers to a group moving together, which could be people, ideas, or even a literal swarm of bees. They gather into a ball shape and then disperse (deserts).

This behavior could symbolize a reaction to external pressures or changes. It reflects adaptability or survival instincts within the natural world.

Seventy feet up, in a black pine tree

It shows a swarm high in a tree. They are in nature, but it is also hard to reach them because they are so high.

It must be shot down. Pom! Pom!

Choosing to shoot the swarm, with the sound of gunfire, shows a strong reaction to seeing the swarm as a threat. This action indicates a conflict between human desires, safety, and nature.

The onomatopoeic “Pom! Pom!” mimics the sound of gunfire, emphasizing the action of shooting at the target.

“It must be shot down” indicates a sense of necessity or urgency in taking this action, though the reason for this requirement is not specified.

So dumb it thinks bullets are thunder

This line anthropomorphizes (gives human traits to) the swarm, suggesting it cannot differentiate between the sound of gunfire and natural thunder. It shows how nature is unaware of, or does not understand, human violence.

Stanza 5

It thinks they are the voice of God
Condoning the beak, the claw, the grin of the dog
Yellow-haunched, a pack-dog,
Grinning over its bone of ivory
Like the pack, the pack, like everybody.

It thinks they are the voice of God

This line suggests that the swarm (or whatever is being referred to) interprets the sounds of gunfire as divine approval or command.

It emphasizes the subject’s naivety and shows an instinct to interpret unknown or intense experiences in spiritual or supernatural terms.

Condoning the beak, the claw, the grin of the dog

It suggests tolerating or accepting animals’ natural instincts and behaviors, such as hunting or defending.

The beak and claw are survival tools for birds and other animals, while the “grin of the dog” might symbolize satisfaction or aggression.

This line implies an acknowledgment of animals’ inherent nature to use these tools for survival without moral judgment.

Yellow-haunched, a pack dog

Describing the dog as “yellow-haunched” shows a specific type of dog. It suggests cowardice or treachery, as the yellow color can imply.

The mention of “a pack dog” emphasizes its identity as a member of a collective rather than an individual.

Grinning over its bone of ivory

The line talks about a dog looking happy or proud (“grinning”) while it has a bone called “of ivory” here.

The word “ivory” could mean that the bone is essential to the dog, maybe because ivory is valuable. It shows how much the dog cares about the bone.

This picture shows the dog feeling satisfied or victorious for getting something it thinks is valuable. It symbolizes the pleasure derived from gaining power, wealth, or advantage over others, even in a morally questionable manner.

Like the pack, the pack, like everybody

This line suggests the dog’s behavior, particularly its satisfaction with the bone. It mirrors the behavior of its pack and, by extension, reflects a universal or standard behavior—”like everybody.

The repetition of “the pack” emphasizes the collective nature of this behavior.

It critiques individuals’ tendency to follow the crowd without questioning the morality or implications of those actions.

Stanza 6

The bees have got so far. Seventy feet high!
Russia, Poland and Germany!
The mild hills, the same old magenta
Fields shrunk to a penny
Spun into a river, the river crossed.

The bees have got so far. Seventy feet high!

This line expresses surprise or admiration for the bees’ achievement of reaching seventy feet. It highlights the impressive nature of their progress.

“Seventy feet high” emphasizes their ascent, perhaps symbolizing ambition, growth, or expansion beyond expected limits.

Russia, Poland and Germany!

Naming these countries might suggest a vast area covered or affected by whatever the bees symbolize. These nations have rich histories of conflict, change, and resilience.

The mild hills, the same old magenta

The imagery of “mild hills” and “magenta” fields introduces a peaceful, idyllic scene, contrasting with the earlier mention of countries known for historical turmoil.

Magenta is a purplish-pink color, a combination of blue and red light. It creates a hue not found in the visible light spectrum but can be produced by mixing these colors.

It also implies vibrancy and life, visually representing nature’s beauty and continuity amid human affairs.

Fields shrunk to a penny

This metaphor suggests a dramatic reduction in size or importance, with vast fields being diminished to something as small as a penny.

It could represent the perspective gained from height (as with the bees) or comment on the grand scheme’s loss of value or significance.

Spun into a river, the river crossed.

The transformation of fields into a river and crossing that river symbolize change and movement. Rivers symbolize boundaries or transitions.

Crossing the river can mean overcoming obstacles. It also suggests moving into new territories or experiencing significant shifts in understanding.

Stanza 7

The bees argue, in their black ball,
A flying hedgehog, all prickles.
The man with gray hands stands under the honeycomb
Of their dream, the hived station
Where trains, faithful to their steel arcs,

The bees argue, in their black ball

This line depicts bees gathered closely together to make decisions as a group. Using “argue” anthropomorphizes the bees, suggesting a debate or conflict within their swarm.

A flying hedgehog, all prickles

A hedgehog is a little animal with a back full of short, sharp spikes called “prickles.” These spikes protect it. If scared, a hedgehog curls up so its spiky outside can keep predators away.

“Flying” describes a rapid movement or perhaps an unexpected mode of travel for a hedgehog. This metaphor conveys a sense of unity and defense in the bees’ actions.

The man with gray hands stands under the honeycomb

The introduction of “the man with gray hands” might symbolize human interaction or intervention in the natural world. Gray hands possibly indicate age, wisdom, or the impact of labor.

Standing “under the honeycomb” places him in a position of observation or control regarding the bees’ activities.

Of their dream, the hived station

Describing the hive as a “dream” and a “station” suggests a place of collective aspiration and organization.

The hive becomes a metaphor for a busy, purposeful community, perhaps likening it to human societal structures or hubs of activity like train stations.

Where trains, faithful to their steel arcs

This parallels the bees’ flight patterns with the predictable, engineered paths of trains on tracks.

“Faithful to their steel arcs” implies reliability and determination in following set paths. It compares natural instincts and human-made systems of order and progress.

Stanza 8

Leave and arrive, and there is no end to the country.
Pom! Pom! They fall
Dismembered, to a tod of ivy.
So much for the charioteers, the outriders, the Grand Army!
A red tatter, Napoleon!

Leave and arrive, and there is no end to the country
Pom! Pom! They fall

It suggests continuous movement and an expansive, possibly limitless, landscape. It brings to mind endless chances or the huge expanse of nature and land.

The repetition of “Pom! Pom!” mimics the sound of gunfire or cannon fire, leading to the fall of individuals or groups.

This sudden shift to violence highlights the fragility of life and the abrupt end to action and movement, possibly in battle or conflict.

Dismembered, to a tod of ivy

“Dismembered” means taken apart or divided into pieces.
It describes the physical separation of limbs or parts from a body.

It can also metaphorically refer to the breaking down or dismantling of objects, structures, or ideas into their parts.

A “tod of ivy” refers to a significant amount or mass.

“Tod” is a term that can mean a measure or quantity. It has often been used historically to refer to the weight of wool.

Here, it indicates a large, perhaps tangled or dense, collection of ivy plants.

Ivy is a climbing or ground-creeping plant known for its vigorous growth and the ability to cover or envelop surfaces it grows on.

The phrase evokes imagery of an abundant, possibly overgrown, expanse of ivy.

So much for the charioteers, the outriders, the Grand Army!

This line reflects on the fall of those once considered powerful or invincible, like charioteers, outriders, and Napoleon’s Grand Army.

It is a commentary on the vanity of ambition and the inevitable decline of power and might.

A red tatter, Napoleon!

A “red tatter” is a piece of cloth or fabric that is torn, frayed, or worn out and colored red.

The color “red” could also recall the blood from his battles, the intensity of his goals, or the royal symbols.

This imagery could symbolize Napoleon’s decline or downfall. Once an influential figure, he is now represented as diminished or damaged.

Stanza 9

The last badge of victory.
The swarm is knocked into a cocked straw hat.
Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!
The white busts of marshals, admirals, generals
Worming themselves into niches.

The last badge of victory

This phrase suggests a final symbol or remnant of success. It could imply that what remains of victory is no longer meaningful or grand.

The swarm is knocked into a cocked straw hat

Cocked refers to something being tilted or positioned at an angle.

“A cocked straw hat” means a straw hat that is askew or tilted, not sitting in its usual or straight position.

The description indicates the hat’s position has changed, maybe because of the swarm’s effect or something hitting (knocking) it.

Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!

This line describes the island of Elba in the sea, referring to it as a “bleb,” which suggests a small bubble or blister-like shape on the water’s surface.

Elba is historically significant as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first exile in 1814. The repetition of “Elba” and the description of it as a “bleb on the sea” could emphasize its isolation and perhaps its perceived insignificance in the grand scheme of Napoleon’s life.

The imagery portrays Elba as a small, almost unnoticed spot in the sea’s vastness. It underlines the difference between Napoleon’s former greatness and his humble situation in exile.

The white busts of marshals, admirals, generals

This line refers to sculptures or statues of high-ranking military officials such as marshals, admirals, and generals.

These busts (sculptures of a person’s head, shoulders, and chest) are white and might be made of marble or another similar material commonly used for commemorative sculptures.

This line suggests a legacy of power and command by referring to statues or memorials of military leaders. However, putting them in this context shows their legacies as still and lifeless.

Worming themselves into niches

It implies that the subjects, possibly the previously mentioned busts, are finding their place or fitting into specific roles or settings.

It could imply a critique of how history is made or remembered, with power and influence.

Stanza 10

How instructive this is!
The dumb, banded bodies
Walking the plank draped with Mother France’s upholstery
Into a new mausoleum,
An ivory palace, a crotch pine.

How instructive this is!

This line suggests that there is a lesson to be learned from the described events. It indicates that the subsequent imagery carries a deeper meaning or moral.

The dumb, banded bodies:

“Dumb” here likely refers to being mute or voiceless. It suggests that the bodies (possibly soldiers or citizens) cannot speak for themselves or tell their own stories.

“Banded” could imply unity or being marked by a common cause or fate. This imagery paints a picture of individuals collectively facing an outcome they cannot control.

Walking the plank draped with Mother France’s upholstery

“Walk the plank” is a phrase traditionally linked to pirates making prisoners step off a plank extending over the sea, leading to their execution by drowning.

“Drape” refers to covering, hanging, or decorating with cloth or fabric in a flowing or elegant manner.

Mother France’s upholstery

This phrase suggests covering something with fabric that symbolizes France, often implying the nation’s culture, heritage, or identity. “Mother France” personifies the country as a nurturing figure.

“Upholstery” refers to the material used to cover furniture, metaphorically representing French characteristics or values.

Into a new mausoleum

A “mausoleum” is a large, stately burial structure; “new” implies that it was recently constructed.

An ivory palace, a crotch pine

“An ivory palace “suggests a grand, luxurious structure made or decorated with ivory.

“A crotch pine” refers to a pine tree with a fork or branching structure near its base.

This contrast shows the difference between beauty created by humans and natural beauty.

Stanza 11

The man with gray hands smiles—
The smile of a man of business, intensely practical.
They are not hands at all
But asbestos receptacles.
Pom! Pom! ‘They would have killed me.’

The man with gray hands smiles—

This line shows a man with “gray hands” smiling. The gray hands might indicate that the man is older, has much experience, or has worked hard.

His smile could show he’s happy, understands something, or feels he has achieved something.

The smile of a man of business, intensely practical

This line describes the smile of a man characterized by his practical, business-oriented mindset.

It suggests his smile isn’t driven by emotion but by calculations, decisions, or the satisfaction of achieving practical goals.

They are not hands at all But asbestos receptacles

This line dramatically shifts the description of the man’s hands, suggesting they are not hands in the traditional sense but “asbestos receptacles.” 

Asbestos, a material resistant to fire and heat, symbolizes protection against damage or destruction. 

Receptacles are containers or devices designed to hold or receive something.

Describing hands as such receptacles implies they are used to handle dangerous or challenging situations without harm.

This indicates the man’s ability to deal with hazardous or difficult tasks without being affected.

Pom! Pom! ‘They would have killed me.’

It suggests a threat to the character’s life, possibly from those opposed to his actions or decisions.

This reflects the character’s sense of danger, hinting at the consequences or stakes of his business dealings.

Stanza 12

Stings big as drawing pins!
It seems bees have a notion of honor,
A black intractable mind.
Napoleon is pleased; he is pleased with everything.
O Europe! O ton of honey!

Stings big as drawing pins!

This line compares the size and impact of bee stings to drawing pins. It emphasizes the painful or significant effect of the bees’ defense mechanism, suggesting something small but potent.

It seems bees have a notion of honor,
A black intractable mind

Sylvia Plath attributes a sense of honor and a stubborn, determined mindset to the bees in this poem. This personification implies that despite their small size, bees have principles guiding their actions.

“Intractable” means stubborn or difficult to manage and control. Bees stick firmly to their goals and principles, not easily giving up or changing course. This suggests a comparison to the human values of honor and resistance.

Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything

This repetition underscores Napoleon’s satisfaction or approval, hinting at his ambition or ego, satisfied by conquest or control. It draws a parallel between his emotions and the actions or state of the bees.

O Europe! O ton of honey!

“O” at the beginning of each phrase expresses admiration, wonder, or a deep emotional response to the continent’s qualities.

The exclamation addresses Europe, likening it to a vast quantity of honey. It represents the area’s wealth and resources, which were desired by people like Napoleon, who aimed to control it.

“Ton of honey” suggests that Europe is abundant, rich, or overflowing with sweetness and prosperity, much like a large quantity of honey.

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