Home » I am Vertical

I Am Vertical by Sylvia Plath

“I Am Vertical” is one of Sylvia Plath’s late poems, available in the collection Crossing the Water (1971). It was published posthumously by her husband Ted Hughes. The poem echoes Plath’s thoughts, her wish to feel wanted, and her need to find a purpose. Through this piece, readers witness the poetic voice comparing herself with natural objects. This comparison introduces us to the underlying motif of death which has been one of the commonest themes of Plath’s poetry. Written two years before her death in 1963, this poem provides insight into the complex psyche of suicidal Plath.

  • Read the full poem “I Am Vertical” below:
I Am Vertical
by Sylvia Plath

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them —
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

- from Crossing the Water (1971)
Analysis of I Am Vertical by Sylvia Plath


Summary

The poem “I Am Vertical” begins with a split in the perception and reality of the speaker. She is “vertical” but she would rather be “horizontal.” Then she sets up a comparison between herself and natural objects like trees and flowers she wants to be like. She seeks the strength and immortality of the trees and the beauty and purity of the flowers. Her wish is to be desired and united with nature. This invokes a sense of longing for death and proves just how detrimental her mental condition is getting.

The speaker feels most at one with nature when she is sleeping, which is a euphemistic reference to dying. She, in fact, says that lying down or being dead comes naturally to her. In this state, she can have an open conversation with the sky and maybe then she will feel a little desired. Once she is dead, she will finally receive the attention of the mute living things—the attention that she craves the most from human beings when alive. This imagined reality is the only place where she feels reconciled with the world from which she otherwise felt removed and isolated.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Structure & Form

“I Am Vertical” is a confessional poem and a nature lyric. Plath uses both forms in a manner that echoes her intimate wish of finding ultimate peace through “horizontal” death and her closeness with nature. The text is divided into two stanzas of ten lines each. Interestingly, the title is not separate from the text. Instead, it is part of the very first line itself. The overall poem sounds more like the spoken word or natural speech.

Rhyme Scheme

Plath uses rhyming couplets in this poem. There are no such couplets that have a perfect rhyme, like “soil” and “toil,” “stars” and “scars,” etc. Instead, Plath uses imperfect or slant rhymes in order to create a sense of rhyming. Beneath the veil of rhythm, there is no rhyme at all. For instance, the multisyllabic “horizontal” is not a perfect match for the monosyllabic “soil” in the opening lines. Similarly, “leaf” and “love” in the next two lines, by no means, form a rhyming pair. Overall, it could be said that the rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB. The lack of perfect rhymes adds to the serious nature of the subject. The subjects of declining mental health and eventual death are important subjects in “I Am Vertical” and Plath’s other poems.

Meter

“I Am Vertical” is composed in iambic pentameter with a number of variations. The switch between iambs to trochee, then to trisyllabic anapests hints perfectly at the speaker’s shifting mental state. She, at once, finds her thoughts rising and all of a sudden plunges deeper into the abyss of dejection. Let’s find how the meter interplays with the subject of the poem. Notice how the trochees create a mixed rhythm aptly reflecting the speaker’s state of mind.

But I/ would ra/-ther be/ ho-ri/-zon-tal.

I am/ not a tree/ with my root/ in the soil

Suck-ing/ up mi/-ne-rals/ and mo/-ther-ly love

So that/ each March/ I may/ gleam in/-to leaf,

Nor am/ I the/ beau-ty/ of a gar/-den bed

At-tract/-ing my share/ of Ahs/ and spec/-ta-cu/-lar-ly/ pain-ted,

Un-know/-ing I/ must soon/ un-pe/-tal.

Com-pared/ with me,/ a tree/ is im/-mor-tal

And a flow/-er-head/ not tall,/ but more/ start-ling,

And I want/ the one’s/ lon-ge/-vi-ty/ and the o/-ther’s dar/-ing.

To-night,/ in the in/-fi-ni/-te-si/-mal light/ of the stars,

The trees/ and the flow/-ers have/ been strew/-ing their cool/ o-dors.

I walk/ a-mong them,/ but none/ of them/ are no/-ti-cing.

Some-times/ I think/ that when/ I am sleep/-ing

I must/ most per/-fect-ly/ re-sem/-ble them

Thoughts/ gone dim.

It is/ more natu/-ral to me,/ ly-ing/ down.

Then the sky/ and I/ are in o/-pen con/-ver-sation,

And I/ shall be use/-ful when/ I lie/ down fi/-nal-ly:

Then the trees/ may touch/ me for once,/ and the flow/-ers have time/ for me.


Literary Devices & Figurative Language

In “I Am Vertical,” Plath uses the following literary devices in order to enhance the overall meaning.

Imagery

Visual Imagery: Images evoking the sense of vision are those of the trees, garden bed, flowers, stars, and sky. They present a soothing picture of nature that helps readers visualize the setting of the poem. Images of colors are those of the brown soil, green leaf, and the phrase “spectacularly painted,” depicting various colors. Images of the space can be found in the “infinitesimal light of the stars.” This image helps in visualizing a night sky with dimly lit stars. The line, “the sky and I are in open conversation,” presents an image of a clear night sky.

Olfactory Imagery: It occurs in the line “The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.” The “odors” emitted by the trees and flowers make the speaker feel more at home and bring peace of mind.

Tactile Imagery: This type of imagery is used in “I am not a tree with my root in the soil” and “Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.”

Symbolism

In this poem, the “trees” are symbolic of strength and vitality. They are associated with words like “immortal” and “longevity” in the first stanza. The trees suck up “minerals” and “motherly love” to gleam into “leaf.” This is symbolic of the lack of love and nourishment in the speaker’s life. She has not blossomed the way she would want to.

Alongside that, the “flowers” are symbolic of temporal beauty and innocence. She does not feel beautiful. Besides, she is aware of the doom of death upon her, unlike the naive flowers. The flowers do not know when they are to “unpetal,” but she has the knowledge of her mortality. Besides the words, “horizontal,” “unpetal,” “sleeping,” and “lying down” are symbolic of death, which is an overarching theme of “I Am Vertical.”

Personification

Plath personifies the inanimate objects “trees” and “flowers” in the following lines:

The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.

I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.

Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

The speaker wants the attention of the trees and flowers as if they are human beings. This suggests the fact that she wishes to unite with nature as the reality of her life seems rather bleak. The poet also personifies the “sky” in this line: “Then the sky and I are in open conversation.”

Metaphor

The first stanza of the poem is strewn with some interesting metaphors. The title, “I Am Vertical,” contains a metaphor as well. Plath uses the geometrical term “vertical,” which is defined as at right angles (90°) to a horizontal plane in order to define her persona. Literally, the term hints at her position with respect to society and accepted norms. She is upright and straightforward in her expression. In the first line, she metaphorically compares being horizontal to leading a mundane life. Besides, this term also hints at her wish to be one with nature through death.

In the next lines, the speaker implicitly compares herself to a tree and garden bed. She rejects the possibility of being similar to a rooted tree sucking nutrients from the soil and a perfect flower bed. In the second stanza, the invisible odors of trees and flowers are compared to physical objects that can be strewn by hand.

Alliteration

The repetition of similar sounds at the beginning of nearby words can be found in the following instances:

  • soil/ Sucking”
  • minerals and motherly”
  • March I may”
  • “I must most”
  • may touch me”

Anaphora

This device is used in the last two lines of the first stanza:

And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,

And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

These lines begin with the same word “And.” Plath uses this technique for the sake of emphasis.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-4

But I would rather be horizontal.

I am not a tree with my root in the soil

Sucking up minerals and motherly love

So that each March I may gleam into leaf,

The first line is a continuation of the poem’s title, “I Am Vertical,”  and a reaction to it. Plath makes this stylistic attempt in order to introduce her persona. The use of the title as part of the first line sets up a contrast between the opposing forces echoed throughout the poem. The “I” in the first line, the poetic persona seems to be Plath herself. This may be so because of the poem’s autobiographical nature and Plath’s poetic opus in general.

The speaker says she would rather be “horizontal” in opposition to being “vertical,” implying how inadequate she feels in her own being. The first line may also mean that she would rather be dead, as the dead are buried horizontally beneath the ground. This possible conclusion can be drawn because one of the most recurrent motifs in Plath’s poetry is death.

From the second line to the fourth one the speaker draws a contrast between herself and a tree. She is not rooted in the soil that enriches her with “minerals” and “motherly love.” That is why she does not “gleam” the way she wants to, like the trees sprouting in March. Hence, she feels dull and useless, unlike the trees.

Lines 5-7

Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed

Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,

Unknowing I must soon unpetal.

From lines, five to seven, Plath furthers her argument about all that her persona is not. She is not like a “garden bed” curated beautifully with flowers. Therefore she does not receive any awed response when one looks at her life as a whole. She does not feel beautiful, youthful, or colorful. Her life is not something that can be painted spectacularly. The implication is that she finds herself to be uninteresting and black-and-white.

Not only does the speaker feel ugly in comparison to the flowers, but she also lacks their ignorance, especially of their own mortality. Humankind is plagued by the thoughts and questions of their mortality and so is Plath. Thus her speaker knows that she would “unpetal” (lose her youth and beauty) sooner than the flowers in the garden bed. The flowers are naive, so they are unaware of the inevitable.

Lines 8-10

Compared with me, a tree is immortal

And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,

And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring. 

In the final lines of the first stanza, the speaker continues with the comparison of herself with trees and flowers. She asserts that she neither possesses the immortality of trees nor the beauty of “startling” flowers. In the last line, she confesses her desire to be like them: to have the “longevity” of a tree, representing timelessness, and the “daring” of flowers, representing confidence. The flowers also represent beauty and innocence.

In this way, the poetic persona distinguishes herself from the living beings of nature that are almost inanimate. She wants to be desired in a manner that does not appear to be humane. This hints at a sense of isolation she feels due to her inadequacy, chronic sadness, and disappointment with her own existence.

Lines 11-13

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,

The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.

I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.

The second stanza of “I Am Vertical” begins with the word “Tonight,” which indicates a shift into the present moment. Plath creates a hypothetical reality that helps readers to delve into her complex psyche. In these lines, she creates an ambiance that shows just how overpowering the natural world is. Her persona feels terribly small in comparison to the vast nature. Amidst the almost dark or the “infinitesimal light of the stars” at night and the “cool odors” of trees and flowers, she finds herself utterly insignificant. When she walks amongst the gloomy, imposing presence of nature, she is desired by none.

Lines 14-16

Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping

I must most perfectly resemble them —

Thoughts gone dim.

The term “sleeping” in line fourteen is a euphemistic expression for “death.” In the sedated state of sleep, she feels like she is one with the flowers and trees, in fact, she “most perfectly” resembles them. She does not have to think anymore. The “thoughts” are an indication of the suicidal thoughts Plath had. This line appears to be a sign of Plath’s degrading mental condition.

Lines 17-20

It is more natural to me, lying down.

Then the sky and I are in open conversation,

And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:

Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

Line seventeen contains yet another euphemistic expression, “lying down,” an implicit reference to death. According to the speaker, to be dead is “more natural” to her, something she feels comfortable doing. In one of her best-known poems, “Lady Lazarus,” Plath says:

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

While reading “It is more natural to me, lying down,” readers are immediately reminded of this piece. This line radiates a sense of finality and relief. One can sense how serious the speaker’s condition is and how invasive her thoughts can get. When she is lying down, she and the “sky” are in an “open” conversation. The sky represents heaven, the ultimate destination of true souls. The conversation that she has with the “sky” lets her exercise her intellectual abilities and self-expression as a woman. Then she might finally feel “useful.”

The last line of “I Am Vertical” is of particular importance. The possibility of her death in this imagined reality seems more liberating to the speaker than in her real life. The trees and flowers mentioned throughout the poem represent nature as a whole (use of synecdoche). She believes that once she is dead, she will finally gain the attention of the natural world, and unite with nature. This unitive urge signifies the lack of security and stability in Plath’s life. That is why being dead and being one with nature seem like attaining peace to her persona.

Themes

Death

Plath explores her fascination with death in her poetry. Her poem “I Am Vertical” is no different. It has an overarching theme of death. The poetic persona seems to be aware of her mortality. Starting from her wish to be “horizontal” rather than being “vertical” to her straightforward statement, “It is more natural to me, lying down” reflects this theme. Besides, there are a number of indirect references in the second stanza that hint at the speaker’s preoccupation with the finality of death.

Insecurity

Another prominent theme in “I Am Vertical” is insecurity or dissatisfaction with oneself. In the first stanza, the speaker describes how she always lacks something and how her life is inadequate in every aspect. Due to her radical opinions and also her mental conditions, Plath felt isolated and different from others. This poem reflects her insecurities about her own existence. This insecurity is so acute that she thinks of rather dying than feeling it:

Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping

I must most perfectly resemble them —

Thoughts gone dim.

It is more natural to me, lying down.

Nature

The immortality/vitality found in nature is another theme of this piece. In the beginning, the speaker points out the dissimilarities between the trees and flowers and herself. By laying down this contrast, she voices her inner desire to be like them:

And I want one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

The theme of calming beauty of nature can be found in the second stanza. In this section, the speaker tries to be one with nature by resting under the clear, inspiring night sky. All she wants is to be noticed by the trees and flowers and to have an open conversation with the starlit sky. In this way, she somehow finds herself useful in the vast scheme of things.

Historical Context

Sylvia Plath was active during the 1950s and 1960s, a period marked by radical feminist movements. The emergence of feminism in mainstream society was fairly recent during this time. Plath constantly felt like an outsider for having such a revolutionary perspective. This is precisely what helped Plath write her deeply personal and emotional poetry.

What was also emergent during that period was confessionalism. The poetry of the personal or the “I” and the subjects engaged by the confessional poems are a writer’s personal experiences. This type of poetry discusses previously untouched topics, such as the psyche, traumatic events, mental illness and suicide, and other intimate issues like sexuality and discontentment with the domestic setup. This inward movement was an attempt to move away from the public sphere. Events like the Holocaust, Cold War, and nuclear threats tainted the minds of both 20th-century writers and the audience.

All these confessional elements combined with the traumatic personal life of Plath make up the context of her poetic opus. She wrote “I Am Vertical” on 28 March 1961. Plath had a miscarriage in February that year. She wrote a number of poems during this phase addressing this event. The echo of this event can also be found in “I Am Vertical.” From the speaker’s wish to find peace and a sense of purpose, it can be inferred that Plath was in dire need of relief from the emotional pain of miscarriage.

The poem was first published posthumously in the 1971 collection, Crossing the Water. Reviewing the volume, poet Peter Porter made the following remark:

Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath’s control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel.


Questions and Answers

What does “I Am Vertical” mean?

The primary meaning of the poem “I am Vertical” by Sylvia Plath lies in the combination of the title and the very first line, “I am Vertical./ But I would rather be horizontal.” The images depicted through the words “vertical” or “horizontal” are simple in their representation. They make up for something straight or stoic, lacking any kind of emotional engagement. These are certain manifestations of the attempt made by Plath to internalize and accept her depressive disorder. She had not only tried to accept her fate with this illness but she also wished to dissolve in it. That is why her persona wants to be dead and to be one with nature, finding peace and self-expression only while lying down horizontally.

What is “I Am Vertical” by Sylvia Plath about?

Plath’s poem “I am Vertical” is about imagined or hypothetical reality. All through her life, Plath was plagued by her insecurities and all that she was not. But once dead, although imagined, her persona (or imagined self) may finally have the attention that she so earnestly desires. This reconciliation with nature: “trees,” “flowers,” “stars,” and “sky,” is her only desire and the only way to find everlasting peace.

What does the word “vertical” suggest in the poem “I Am Vertical”?

The word “vertical” has two implications. Firstly, it means that the poetic persona feels at odds with her social circumstances. She fails to fit into the normative or “horizontal” setting of society and often feels like persona non grata or “vertical.” Secondly, it also means that the persona is always engrossed with overarching, perpendicular thoughts, which is a reason for her restlessness. Therefore, she longs for some sort of stability that the term “horizontal” aptly evokes.

When did Sylvia Plath write “I Am Vertical”?

“I Am Vertical” was written on 28 March 1961, two years prior to Plath’s death in 1963. Plath had a miscarriage in the month before writing this poem. This poem was included in the posthumous collection published by her husband Ted Hughes, Crossing the Water (1971).

What is the tone of the poem “I Am Vertical”? 

The tone in the first stanza is one of disappointment. The speaker is not happy with her current situation and feels inadequate. She longs for a life that she does not have—one where she would feel satisfied, beautiful, strong, and innocent. This tone is marked by the words “want” and “would rather.” There is a shift in the tone from the second stanza. The tone becomes more delusional with a hint of desperation. The speaker transfers into her world of imagination or a hypothetical reality where she is slightly more peaceful. This tone is marked by “Thoughts gone dim,” “lie down finally,” and “have time for me.” The overall tone of “I Am Vertical” remains calm, somber, and mellow.

What type of poem is “I Am Vertical” by Sylvia Plath?

“I Am Vertical” is composed in the rhyming couplet form with iambic pentameter. There are only slant or imperfect rhymes and the metrical scheme is also not regular. The text consists of two ten-line stanzas. Besides, the pathos and clinical depression of Plath are the subjects of this piece.

Whose daring does the speaker in the poem “I Am Vertical” want?

The speaker wants the daring of the flowers. Though they are aware of their temporality, they bloom fully and brightly.


Similar Poems about Nature & Death

  • The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton — Here’s one of the best-known Anne Sexton poems that echoes Sexton’s wish of dying under the imposing, starry night sky.
  • I Am!” by John Clare — In this poem, a speaker describes how only death can ease him from his pain and help him to be close to the “Creator.”
  • Easter” by Jill Alexander Essbaum — The speaker of this piece feels rather dejected by the fact that her loved ones cannot return from their graves.
  • Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — In this poem, Millay describes how the season of Spring makes us forget about the harsh realities.


Useful Resources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.