'Full Fathom Five' by Sylvia Plath

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The Collected Poems1958Old man, you surface seldom.
Then you come in with the tide's coming
When seas wash cold, foam-Capped: white hair, white beard, far-flung,
A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves
Crest and trough. Miles longExtend the radial sheaves
Of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins
Knotted, caught, survivesThe old myth of orgins
Unimaginable. You float near
As kneeled ice-mountainsOf the north, to be steered clear
Of, not fathomed. All obscurity
Starts with a danger:Your dangers are many. I
Cannot look much but your form suffers
Some strange injuryAnd seems to die: so vapors
Ravel to clearness on the dawn sea.
The muddy rumorsOf your burial move me
To half-believe: your reappearance
Proves rumors shallow,For the archaic trenched lines
Of your grained face shed time in runnels:
Ages beat like rainsOn the unbeaten channels
Of the ocean. Such sage humor and
Durance are whirlpoolsTo make away with the ground-
Work of the earth and the sky's ridgepole.
Waist down, you may windOne labyrinthine tangle
To root deep among knuckles, shinbones,
Skulls. Inscrutable,Below shoulders not once
Seen by any man who kept his head,
You defy questions;You defy godhood.
I walk dry on your kingdom's border
Exiled to no good.Your shelled bed I remember.
Father, this thick air is murderous.
I would breathe water.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Full Fathom Five by Sylvia Plath: A Complex Exploration of Death and Transformation

Sylvia Plath's poem Full Fathom Five, written in 1960, is a deeply complex and evocative exploration of death and transformation. At just six lines long, the poem is a masterclass in economy of language, yet manages to convey a wealth of meaning and emotion.

Plath is known for her confessional style of poetry, in which she often drew on her own experiences of pain and suffering to create works of great intensity and power. Full Fathom Five is no exception, and can be seen as a reflection of her own struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide.

The Poem

The poem is as follows:

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.

At first glance, the poem appears to be a simple elegy for a deceased father. However, on closer examination, it becomes clear that Plath is exploring much deeper themes of transformation and metamorphosis.


The first line of the poem - "Full fathom five thy father lies" - is a direct reference to Shakespeare's play The Tempest, in which a character sings a song with the same opening line. However, Plath's version takes on a much darker tone than Shakespeare's, hinting at the theme of death and decay that runs throughout the poem.

The second line - "Of his bones are coral made" - is a vivid and striking image that serves to reinforce the theme of transformation. Coral is formed over time by the accumulation of tiny organisms and other materials, and is itself a symbol of change and growth. By suggesting that the father's bones have turned into coral, Plath is hinting at the idea that even in death, transformation is possible.

The third line - "Those are pearls that were his eyes" - is another striking image that serves to reinforce the theme of transformation. Pearls are formed in oysters over time, as a response to the presence of foreign objects. Like coral, they are a symbol of change and growth, and the fact that they were once the father's eyes suggests that even in death, his essence lives on.

The fourth line - "Nothing of him that doth fade" - reinforces the idea that transformation is possible even after death. By suggesting that "nothing" of the father will fade, Plath is hinting at the idea that he will continue to exist in some form, even if his physical body has decayed.

The fifth line - "But doth suffer a sea-change" - is a direct reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest, and reinforces the theme of transformation even further. In the play, the term "sea-change" refers to a change or transformation that is so profound that it is almost beyond comprehension. By using this term in her poem, Plath is suggesting that the father's transformation is similarly profound and transformative.

The final line - "Into something rich and strange" - is a fitting conclusion to the poem, and encapsulates the idea that transformation is not only possible, but can be a positive and enriching experience. The use of the word "strange" suggests that the transformation may be difficult to understand or comprehend, but the use of the word "rich" suggests that it is ultimately a positive experience.


On a broader level, Full Fathom Five can be seen as a meditation on the nature of death and transformation. Plath was known to be obsessed with the idea of death, and her own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts undoubtedly influenced her poetry.

However, rather than simply wallowing in despair, Plath uses Full Fathom Five to explore the idea that even in death, transformation is possible. The use of vivid and striking imagery, as well as references to Shakespeare's The Tempest, serve to reinforce the idea that transformation is a profound and transformative experience.

Ultimately, Full Fathom Five is a deeply powerful and evocative poem that speaks to the human experience of death and transformation. Plath's use of language is economical, yet highly effective, and the poem is a masterclass in the power of poetry to convey complex themes and emotions in just a few short lines.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Sylvia Plath's "Full Fathom Five" is a haunting and enigmatic poem that explores themes of death, transformation, and the power of language. Written in 1962, the poem is part of Plath's collection "Ariel," which was published posthumously in 1965. In this analysis, we will delve into the meaning and significance of "Full Fathom Five," examining its language, imagery, and symbolism.

The poem begins with the line "Full fathom five thy father lies," which immediately sets a somber and mournful tone. The phrase "full fathom five" refers to a depth of five fathoms, or thirty feet, which is the traditional depth at which a body is buried at sea. The use of this phrase suggests that the speaker is addressing someone who has lost a loved one, and that the body has been lost to the depths of the ocean.

The next line, "Of his bones are coral made," introduces the first instance of imagery in the poem. The idea of bones turning into coral is a powerful metaphor for transformation and decay. Coral is formed from the skeletons of tiny sea creatures, and over time, these skeletons accumulate and harden into the structures we know as coral reefs. By comparing the father's bones to coral, the speaker is suggesting that even in death, there is the potential for transformation and growth.

The third line, "Those are pearls that were his eyes," is another striking image that reinforces the idea of transformation. The phrase "pearls that were his eyes" suggests that the father's eyes have been transformed into something precious and valuable. Pearls are formed when an irritant, such as a grain of sand, becomes trapped inside an oyster or mollusk. Over time, the mollusk secretes layers of nacre around the irritant, creating a smooth and lustrous pearl. By comparing the father's eyes to pearls, the speaker is suggesting that even in death, there is the potential for beauty and value.

The next two lines, "Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change," continue the theme of transformation. The phrase "sea-change" refers to a profound transformation or metamorphosis, and suggests that the father's body is undergoing a fundamental change as it is submerged in the ocean. The use of the word "suffer" suggests that this transformation is not necessarily a pleasant one, but rather a painful and difficult process.

The final two lines of the first stanza, "Into something rich and strange / Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell," introduce the idea of sea-nymphs, which are mythological creatures associated with the sea. The phrase "ring his knell" refers to the tolling of a bell, which is traditionally used to mark the passing of a person. By suggesting that sea-nymphs are ringing the father's knell, the speaker is creating a sense of otherworldliness and mystery. The phrase "something rich and strange" suggests that the father's transformation is not only painful, but also potentially transformative and valuable.

The second stanza of the poem begins with the line "Hark! now I hear them, - Ding-dong, bell." This line reinforces the idea of the sea-nymphs ringing the father's knell, and creates a sense of urgency and immediacy. The use of the word "Hark!" suggests that the speaker is listening intently, and that the sound of the bell is both haunting and compelling.

The next two lines, "Hark! the bell for him doth toll! / Ding-dong, bell," repeat the phrase "Ding-dong, bell," creating a sense of rhythm and repetition. The use of repetition is a common technique in poetry, and serves to emphasize the importance of the sea-nymphs and their tolling of the bell.

The final two lines of the poem, "Swim by his side, / Sea-nymphs, twinkle-eyed," introduce the sea-nymphs once again, and suggest that they are swimming alongside the father's body. The phrase "twinkle-eyed" creates a sense of playfulness and mischief, and suggests that the sea-nymphs are not necessarily malevolent or threatening.

Overall, "Full Fathom Five" is a powerful and evocative poem that explores themes of death, transformation, and the power of language. Through its use of striking imagery and symbolism, the poem creates a sense of mystery and otherworldliness, and suggests that even in death, there is the potential for growth and transformation.

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