This poem, comprised of ten two-line stanzas, is famously difficult to summarize due to its ambiguous, abstruse nature. It seems to be about a woman who has recently committed or is soon to commit suicide.
It begins with the description of a "perfected" woman, whose dead body smiles with accomplishment. She wears a toga, and her feet are bare. The feet suggest that they have traveled far but have now reached their end.
Several dead children are folded like serpents, each with a pitcher of milk. The woman has folded them into her body. She compares this effect to rose petals which close when the garden "stiffens" and the night flower's odor issues forth.
The moon looks down over this scene, but has no cause for sadness because she is used to "this sort of thing."
This is Sylvia Plath's last poem, written mere days before she committed suicide. It is a short, bleak, and brutal piece that reflects the depth of her depression.
As is the case with many of her poems, the theme of death is quite conspicuous. There is a sense of finality and defeat; hope has fled. In fact, the woman is considered "perfected" rather than compromised, suggesting that her suicide was a mark of bravery and vision, not cowardice. Plath creates an eerie, somber mood through the lack of color and the repeated words that emphasize whiteness, blankness, and cold – "bare," "white serpents," "milk," and "hood of bone" are some examples. There are also allusions to Medea ("the illusion of a Greek necessity"), who in the Greek myths avenged her husband's betrayal by killing their two children. This allusion furthers the sense of suicidal feelings, especially when one remembers that the Greeks did not believe that suicide was unequivocally bad; in many cases, it was perceived as honorable.
This poem is generally characteristic of Plath's late work, which, as Tim Kendall writes, features "a style of heightened detachment and resignation in the face of an intractable destiny." This poem does not aim to please the reader; it defies poetic categories, and exists to express the poet's sense of hopelessness and detachment, rather than to communicate an idea to an audience. There is only one mention of what might be deemed pleasure – the woman smiles with a sense of accomplishment, perhaps at being dead herself, or perhaps because she took her children with her. Obviously, this sense of pleasure is ironic at best.
Indeed, the issue of infanticide looms heavy over this poem. Many critics interpret two particular lines - "Each dead child coiled, a white serpent," and "She has folded / Them back into her body as petals" - as evidence that Plath had seriously contemplated killing her own children as part of her suicide. She never attempted any deed of such atrocity, but the poem can be understood as at least a consideration of the possibility.
The moon is an interesting image. Personified as a woman, the moon looks down impassively because she is accustomed to such scenes of tragedy. The "perfected" woman's death is neither unnatural nor unusual, but instead merely one aspect of human existence. The ironic detachment lies in the social stigma against suicide, and the narrator's belief that it is of no great significance. It does not affect the cosmic order, as reflected in the moon's perspective. The female personification of the disinterested observer also suggests that women are more accustomed to tragedy than men are.
The short lines, with their sparse wording, may indicate Plath's exhaustion and anticipation of impending death. This interpretation explains why she would "smile with accomplishment" and delight at the idea of finality. She smiles because her feet have nowhere else to carry her. The accomplishment is doubly notable for her because they have already carried her so far. She takes little effort in fashioning the poem's form because "it is over." She has very little left to say, and certainly sees no need to defend herself. Instead, the poem is a confession of fatigue.
However, critic Stephen Gould Axelrod looks at the poem through a very different lens – that of postmodernist and linguistic criticism. In his reading, the text is indeterminate, with the words completely distinct from meaning. Axelrod refers to Roland Barthes's idea of the blank edge of discourse, wherein one can perceive the death of language. He considers "Edge" to be a "poetic epitaph." The scrolls and words of the poem are a "necessity," but the coiled children (which represent poetry itself) are folded back into her empty self. The woman cannot actually be perfected because her texts are merely "warring forces of signification." No matter what she intended to write, the poems now mean various different things. As a result, the speaker has misread her own texts, the poet has miswritten her own poems, and they no longer express what she intended them to. Perhaps, therefore, the texts are telling the woman to live, to continue searching for the meaning behind their words. Axelrod concludes, "On an edge between metaphysics and indeterminacy as well as between life and death, Plath's last poem gapes at the space separating words from their referents and meanings, while the moon's shadows 'crackle and drag' to commemorate the dissolution." Of course, even from this interpretation, the sense of helplessness and misunderstanding of one's own passion and work feed the idea of suicidal depression. Nobody would deny that the poem, no matter whether it is to be taken literally or figuratively, is a bleak cry.