Sylvia Plath's "Nick and the Candlestick," a scalpel of a poem, is exasperating in its details but crystal clear in "plot" and feeling. Here it is in its entirety. Read it through; don't be alarmed if it seems impenetrable or opaque; it's not. Or not entirely so.
I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Drip and thicken, tears
The earthen womb
Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs
Wrap me, raggy shawls,
They weld to me like plums.
Old cave of calcium
Icicles, old echoer.
Even the newts are white,
Those holy Joes.
And the fish, the fish----
Christ! They are panes of ice,
A vice of knives,
Its first communion out of my live toes.
Gulps and recovers its small altitude,
Its yellows hearten.
O love, how did you get here?
Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean
In you, ruby.
You wake to is not yours.
I have hung our cave with roses.
With soft rugs----
The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,
Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
Here''s the story in simple outline: the candlestick-bearing poet enters a dark bedroom in which she finds rugs on the wall, an aquarium, and her sleeping infant -- the "Nick" of the title. The poem's import: simply that the world may be dangerous and hostile, but is redeemed by the child. It's a simple tale in a traditional form ("dramatic monologue") but its language and imagery are startling, intense, even revolutionary. The poem's governing idea is not unusual, but it is conveyed with magnificent, electric imagery and emotion.
Some lines are clear, others entirely mysterious. A line-by-line commentary follows.
"I am a miner." For the purposes of the fiction, the poet bluntly transforms herself into a miner and explorer. The space into which she enters is a bedroom, which in terms of the metaphor, is cast both as a mine and a cave. What minerals will the miner extractr? Both the rich and rare (a ruby) and the poisonous (mercury).
"The light burns blue." The candle that she carries is nearly extinguished (or, alternatively, there is a gas heater in the room).
"Waxy stalactites drip and thicken." Candle drippings, in the poet's imagination, become stalactites; we are in a cave. But she holds a candle as it would be employed in worship. It is through the agency of the candle that religion (specifically Roman Catholicism) enters the poem.
"Tears/ The earthen womb/ Exudes from its dead boredom." The room, the mine, the cave, is now figured as a womb. Tears/womb extends and transforms candle/cave. The series of terms ("room" (implied) "mine," "cave," "womb") is the metaphorical center of the poem -- the "spaces" that will be evoked in the poem's next to last sentence. The womb is the previous home of "Nick," who is also the babe of larger meaning in the climax of the poem.
The phrase "from its dead boredom" is not clear, at least to me. It's tempting to say that the poet transfers her own emotion onto the wax/stalactite/tear -- so that "the womb is crying just as I am" -- but nevertheless the phrase "dead boredom" is too personal and vague to communicate perspicuously. The room/cave/womb, at this point in the poem, seems to be infertile ("dead") and unengaging. But that will change. .
"Black bat airs/ Wrap me, raggy shawls,/ Cold homicides." I understand why the poet encounters bats in her cave, and it makes sense that she defines her own clothes as a tattered shawl. It is also clear that the room into which she has entered is dangerous and inhospitable. The syntax of the sentence is less than clear. Does the phrase "cold homicides" stand in apposition to "airs?" Who are these "cold homicides?" A "homicide" can be a murderer or a victim of murder or even an abstraction. In what sense can a poet be "wrapped" in "cold homicides?"
"They weld to me like plums." The least explicable line in the poem. "They" seems to refer to "black bat airs" -- but how airs can "weld like plums" is beyond me. In the same way way that plums weld to me? What way is that?
"Old cave of calcium/ Icicles, old echoer." Calcium icicles are clearly the stalactites and a cave is certainly a place of echoes. But "old? Once again, tired, unproductive, never fertile, but possibly also "old" in the sense of familiar, as in "old friend."
"Even the newts are white,/ Those holy Joes." The stalactite-dominated cave with its calcium icicles is drained of color. So too are the newts, or salamanders, which ought to be red. Newts are traditionally associated with fire, but not here. In Christian symbolism, they stand for faith, because, in the legends, they survive the fiery passions of disbelief. Why are they "holy Joes?" The only meaning of "holy Joe" with which I am familiar is "military chaplain," which isn't pertinent. But "Joe" is significant, because Joe or Joseph is the absent father of the baby in the barn. But why is there a salamander in the room, unless it lives in some sort of aquarium or terrarium?
"And the fish, the fish---/Christ! They are panes of ice,/ A vice of knives,/A piranha religion, drinking/ Its first communion out of my live toes." Not just a newt in this room/cave/womb, but fish as well. Fish, of course, the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity -- the Greek word ixthos, fish, signifying Jesus Christ theos ouk soter (god and savior). But these fish, like the salamander, are anything but redemptive. On the contrary, they stand for a "piranha religion" and a sacrament not of communion but consumption -- with the poet herself, or perhaps only her toes, the sacrifice.
These lines bring to conclusion the first part of the poem, which does not offer any good news. But then begins the second movement of the poem, which is of a different character.
"The candle/ Gulps and recovers its small altitude,/ Its yellows hearten." Well, that's encouraging. The candle was almost extinguished, and with its return comes a bit of color, at last. And perhaps some cheer.
"O love, how did you get here?/ O embryo/ Remembering, even in sleep,/Your crossed position." How, my child, did you find yourself in such a cold and inhospitable universe. The baby is newly arrived, his legs still crossed as they were in the womb -- "crossed," being, of course, an obvious reference to "the cross."
"The blood blooms clean/ In you, ruby." No original sin in this jewel of a child.
"The pain/ You wake to is not yours." It is the world's pain to which the innocent child must gradually accommodate -- but not yet, and not in this poem..
"Love, love,/ I have hung our cave with roses./ With soft rugs----/ The last of Victoriana." The room is momentarily figured as a better world -- a pre-modern world. It's comfortable, blooming; a room in strong contrast to the colorless, cold cave of the first movement of the poem.
"Let the stars/ Plummet to their dark address,/ Let the mercuric/ Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well," "Let" has the force of "even if." Even if the the world ends, even if the earth is polluted and poisoned, the poet exclaims,
"You are the one/ Solid the spaces lean on, envious." You, Nick, my infant child who makes the world whole, are the "one solid," the only palpable reality, which the spaces (vacuities, caves, rooms, emptinesses of all sort) lean upon. And finally, at last,
."You are the baby in the barn." You, my own newborn infant, are the baby in the barn. Which is to say, you, not Him. You, not Jesus, are my savior. As we've seen, the poem is not traditionally reverent. The baby in the barn is stripped of religious mystery. The poet has already made clear her feeling about Christianity -- it's a "piranha religion." But the "baby in the barn" -- Jesus in the manger -- that's another thing. This barn-born baby (barn, not cave) is a universal, trans-religious symbol of rebirth, of hope. "You are the baby in the barn" invests meaning in Everyinfant. It repudiates the claim to special importance of any particular child, even the god/man of theology. The poet rejects Christianity in favor of a universal human and natural relationship (parent-child) that underlies and precedes all religion.
It's a poem that travels a great distance in a handful of lines. Brilliant, isn't it?