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Analysis of Sylvia Plath’s poem “To Eva Descending Upon the Stair”

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Sylvia Plaths’ poem “To Eva Descending the Stair” may at first seem only a petty, pretty piece with a few good alliterations which plays upon the overused mystery of the cosmos. However, beyond the references to the moon, sun, and stars, Plath cleverly hides deep symbols of pagan religion and the feminine divine.

The title of the poem is the first and only mention of Eva, presumably the addressed “you” in the rest of the poem. Eva could easily be a variation of the Biblical Eve. Plath, herself a feminist during the early 1960’s, most likely chose Eva, or Eve, to represent humanity, rather than representing it in the more common masculine form of Adam.

Assuming Eva is humankind as a whole, her descent down the spiral staircase can be interpreted as man’s progression through the ages. Thus, just as history repeats itself, a person can walk down a spiral staircase in repetitive circles, his lateral position limited to the diameter of the stairway. The spiral stair can also be considered a reference to paganism in two ways. First, because its spiral shape reminiscent of the cyclical pattern or circadian rhythm, upon which many pagan religions are based. Second, many spiral staircases are built according to principals originally discovered and explained by the Greek philosopher and physicist Archimedes, who explored mathematics and science long before Christianity emerged and silenced the voices of many brilliant scientists during the Dark and Middle Ages, and well into the Renaissance.

One of two repeated (and assumedly more important) lines in the poem is “clocks cry: stillness is a lie, my dear.” Taken at it’s most obvious meaning, this phrase simply reminds us that the ticking of the clock continues even in the silence and stillness of night, and we are powerless to pause or slow it. The “my dear” at the end of the line adds a sense of familiarity, but the real interest here may be the clock. Again, Plath hides a reference to pagan worship in a seemingly simple word. Our current measurement of time was originally devised by the ancient Babylonians, who used a number system based on 12’s (hence, we have 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, and 24 hours in a day.) The Bible, on the other hand, usually features numbers that sit well with our decimal (10-based) number system. Thus, Moses wandered the desert for 40 years, not thirty-six.

Besides the repeated mention of clocks and staircases, there are many references to nature, and specifically the more cyclical processes in nature. Plath’s repeated references to pagan religion can be understood not as a rejection of Christianity, but as an extension of her feminist beliefs. In Christianity, the focus is upon man. The book of Genesis says that God created man in His own likeness, which implies that man exclusively is based upon the same “blueprint” as the divine being. Assuming this, a woman is seen as the lesser of the two sexes because she is not created in the exact likeness of God–or at least, that’s how Christian scholars across the ages have imagined it. Pagan religion, on the other hand, is based mainly upon the worship of nature as a manifestation of a divine being, who is often female.

Circadian rhythms, which appear in nature as lunar cycles, the elliptical orbits of planets, the rise and set of the sun, and even the sleep cycles of animals (including man), are seen as an important part of nature. Women, who had the power to bring forth new life, were seen as part of the divine cycle of birth, death, and renewal. As part of this cycle, they were considered equal, if not superior, to men. Other symbols in the poem, including planets, stars, the color red, and a rose, are all related in some way to paganism.

Sylvia Plath’s poetry expresses her beliefs in a way that is both intriguing and creative. Her use of repeated lines, unstructured rhyme scheme, and the interesting way in which she presents her theme make her poem both poignant and memorable.

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