Summary and Analysis of By Candlelight by Sylvia Plath

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About the Poet:

Sylvia Plath is one of the most admired poets of the twentieth century, who had established this reputation by the age of thirty. Her violent emotions and obsession with death is something that caught the eye of multitude readers. She is believed to be one of the most controversial postwar poets. In this section, I am going to look at the poem analysis of “By Candlelight” one of her famous poems.

Summary of By Candlelight:

1st Stanza:

This is winter, this is night, small love —

A sort of black horsehair,

A rough, dumb country stuff

Steeled with the sheen

Of what green stars can make it to our gate.

I hold you in my arm.

It is very late.

The dull bells tongue the hour.

The mirror floats us at one candle power.

The poet is trying to draw an image of a cold and dark night in these lines. She calls it as black as “black horsehair”. She is writing this poem dedicating it to her son, and in these lines she expresses that she is holding her son in her arms, keeping him warm when the bight is chilly and dark, there is silence and loneliness everywhere, which is occasionally broken by the sound of the bells far somewhere. These bells are the marker of time and hour. There is only one thing that keeps them guided and lighted, a sole candle whose light is dancing in the room.

2nd Stanza:

This is the fluid in which we meet each other,

This haloey radiance that seems to breathe

And lets our shadows wither

Only to blow

Them huge again, violent giants on the wall.

One match scratch makes you real.

At first the candle will not bloom at all —

It snuffs its bud to almost nothing, to a dull blue dud.

In these lines, the poet is speaking about her introspection about the time when she had conceived her son, and who was slowly growing in her womb. She feels her son in her womb, in the fluid where he grows slowly day by day, enlarging her belly. She holds the candle and sees the shadow of her womb on the wall, and observes it growing slow by slow. With the scratch of one match stick, the existence of her son comes real by forming a shadow on the wall.

3rd Stanza:

I hold my breath until you creak to life,

Balled hedgehog,

Small and cross. The yellow knife

Grows tall. You clutch your bars.

My singing makes you roar.

I rock you like a boat

Across the Indian carpet, the cold floor,

While the brass man

Kneels, back bent as best he can

The poet is giving a description of her childbirth, where she goes through immense pain to bring her son to the earth. She clutches the bars of the bed in pain until the child creaks into life. She rocks him in her arms to calm him down when he is crying. She rocks him like a boat and makes him sleep. And there is only one spectator who watches this, the man of brass molded to be kneeling on the ground, bending.

4th Stanza:

Hefting his white pillar with the light

That keeps the sky at bay,

The sack of black! It is everywhere, tight, tight!

He is all yours, the little brassy Atlas —

Poor heirloom, all you have

At his heels a pile of five brass cannonballs,

No child, no wife.

Five balls! Five bright brass balls!

To juggle with, my love when the sky falls.

The poet is now writing about leaving the brass candle-stand as the only heirloom for her son, as the candle stand had been a constant thing in their relationship, watching them grow together through joy and sorrow. She wants to leave the candle-stand behind as a memory of their time together. This candle-stand, she hopes, would give him the strength to go through the hard times in life.

The poem is an emotional writing of the poet, where she is talking about her attachment with her son, and she binds the relationship with the candle-stand as their souvenir, which has been a constant element in their dark and happy times. The candle-stand has been her source of light when her child was growing in her womb, and the light from the candle standing erect on the candle-stand threw light when she was giving birth to her child. Since then, in every dark and cold day, the candle-stand would be their constant source of light.

The poet describes the time when she would not be around her child anymore, which is somewhere like she has predicted her death in this poem. She writes that when she is no more around him, this candle stand would give him the strength to go through all the dark times in life, and her blessings and love would be on him through this.


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Critical Analysis of By Candlelight:

Context:

Sylvia Plath is one of the most dynamic poets who had established her identity in the literary world by her thirties. Her writings attracted readers from different multitudes. She was one of the best postwar poets who wrote many controversial poems which are crude and raw in the description. Her expressions are violent and raw in her poems. In this poem, she has explored her maternal anguish and in most of her autobiographical notes, she has written about her troubled marriage with her husband, Ted Hughes.

In this poem, she has written about her love and attachment with her son, where she has beautifully described her relationship. There is one thing which keeps them bound together, which is the candle-stand. The brass candle-stand has been with her when she observed the baby grow in her womb, day by day her shadow on the wall, where her womb is growing every week. The very candle-stand was holding the candle which poured light during her childbirth, being the source of the first light of her motherhood and her son. The candle-stand has been their only source of light in the dark nights when they both stayed alone and together during the hard times. When there was all dark around them, and there was nothing that they could think of doing to come out of it, the candle-stand brought a ray of light to their lives.

The poet’s description of how the candle-stand is going to be the only heritage and memory of the shows that she has already predicted her death. This poem is like her announcement of her death, and what she has left behind for her son. The description of her pregnancy and her childbirth is quite crude and raw, for example:

This is the fluid in which we meet each other,

This haloey radiance that seems to breathe

The fluid which she is talking about here is the amniotic fluid, in which her baby grows inside her womb, connects her and her child together. The poem is a description of her pain and sadness that she cannot continue living with her son, help him through all the sorrows of life, but she leaves the candle-stand behind, to shed light in his dark times.

Rhyme Style and Structure of By Candlelight:

In the entire poem, the poet has not maintained any strict rhyming style or structure. In the first stanza, the poet has followed a rhyming structure like:

This is winter, this is night, small love (a)

A sort of black horsehair, (b)

A rough, dumb country stuff (c)

Steeled with the sheen (d)

Of what green stars can make it to our gate. (e)

I hold you in my arm. (f)

It is very late. (e)

The dull bells tongue the hour. (f)

The mirror floats us at one candle power. (f)

The poem holds deep grief and sadness of the poet that she will not be able to continue her life with her son, that she’ll have to leave him behind and pursue what she wishes to. The poet has a very deep and strong attachment with her child, who had once been a part of her body, growing inside her, and who came out in the world to breathe. The candle-stand has been their silent companion shedding light in their cold and dark nights, from the day she had conceived him, till the day they both grew together, the child as her son and she as a mother. Hence, she leaves behind the candle-stand, which would remind him of her, and give him the strength to survive all of the dark times in his life. The poem contains some crude words to express her feelings.

Poetic Devices in By Candlelight:

Imagery:

The imagery in the poem is related to how poet saw and felt her child growing inside her. She has tried to draw an image of her expressions through the words that she has chosen in the poem. For example:

I hold my breath until you creak to life,

Balled hedgehog,

Small and cross. The yellow knife

Grows tall. You clutch your bars.

In these lines, the poet has tried to show the immense pain that she had gone through, to give birth to her child. How she held her breath and the bars to go through the pain of childbirth. How the amniotic fluid kept her and her child bound together. These descriptions draw a picture of the bond that is made out of pain and love, and how the candle-stand was their constant support to shed light in all the darkness.

The theme of By Candlelight:

The theme of this poem is that deep sorrow of the poet that she will not be able to spend her life with her child, whom she bore for nine months inside her, and for whom she bore immense pain to bring him to this world. She grew as a mother with him, but she wouldn’t be able to continue the rest of her life with him. Hence, she leaves the candle-stand behind, which has been their constant source of company, hope, and light through their journey together. This poem is like her announcement of death, and what she wants to leave behind for her son.

Deep Meaning:

The poem is about the deep love the mother has for her son and is sad that she’ll have to leave him behind and pursue what she always wished for. She leaves the candle-stand behind her as a heritage, since it has been their constant companion through the hard times.

 

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