All The Dead Dears, Sylvia Plath, Analysis & Summary

"All the Dead Dears" by Sylvia Plath is a poem that explores the theme of death and the connection between the living and the dead. The poem depicts an old woman lying dead, surrounded by the relics of small animals that had once fed on her. The speaker reflects on the power of the dead to haunt the living and how they can grip us through "think and thick". Plath's use of vivid imagery, including the description of the dead woman's "granite grin" and the "barnacle dead" that cling to us, adds to the eerie and unsettling atmosphere of the poem. Ultimately, the poem suggests that the dead are never truly gone and continue to exert a powerful influence over the living.

All The Dead Dears: Poem Text

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

These three, unmasked now, bear
Dry witness
To the gross eating game
We'd wink at if we didn't hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.

How they grip us through think and thick,
These barnacle dead!
This lady here's no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is: she'll suck
Blood and whistle my narrow clean
To prove it. As I think now of her hand,

From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck-feet winnowing this hair ---

All the long gone darlings: They
Get back, though, soon,
Soon: be it by wakes, weddings,
Childbirths or a family barbecue:
Any touch, taste, tang's
Fit for those outlaws to ride home on,

And to sanctuary: usurping the armchair
Between tick
And tack of the clock, until we go,
Each skulled-and-crossboned Gulliver
Riddled with ghosts, to lie
Deadlocked with them, taking roots as cradles rock.

Critical Analysis

Sylvia Plath's "All The Dead Dears" is a poem that explores the theme of mortality and the fear of death. The speaker uses the image of a museum-cased lady, who is surrounded by the relics of a mouse and a shrew, to convey the idea that death is a grotesque and gruesome game. The lady's grin, which is likened to granite, and the presence of the two small creatures, serve to highlight the fragility and vulnerability of human life.

The poem is structured in a way that suggests the speaker is reflecting on the idea of death and how it connects her to her ancestors. The opening stanza presents a stark image of the lady, who is stiff and lifeless. Her expression is described as a "granite grin," which emphasizes her lack of vitality and emotional expression. The presence of the mouse and shrew, which have been feeding on her ankle-bone, is a reminder of the transience of life and the inevitability of death.

In the second stanza, the speaker shifts her focus to the "gross eating game" of life and death. She suggests that we are all players in this game, but we try to ignore it by distracting ourselves with other things. The reference to "stars grinding, crumb by crumb" is a metaphor for the slow process of aging and decay that we all experience.

The third stanza is where the speaker reveals her personal connection to the lady in the museum case. She describes how the lady is not related to her by blood, but she still feels a kinship with her. The lady's hand, which is described in detail, becomes a symbol of the speaker's own mortality.

The fourth stanza is where the speaker's reflections take a more surreal turn. She imagines the spirits of her ancestors reaching out to her from the "mercury-backed glass." The reference to Gulliver and ghosts suggests that the speaker feels overwhelmed by the weight of her ancestors' memories and the burden of their mortality.

The final stanza of the poem is where the speaker imagines a future reunion with her dead loved ones. She suggests that they will return to her through any "touch, taste, [or] tang." The image of the "skulled-and-crossboned Gulliver" is a metaphor for the speaker's own eventual death and the way in which she will become entangled with the ghosts of her ancestors.

In terms of style, Plath uses vivid and often grotesque imagery to convey the idea of death and decay. The poem is structured in a way that moves from a specific image (the museum-cased lady) to a more universal meditation on mortality. The use of surreal imagery and metaphorical language adds to the poem's dreamlike quality, which reflects the speaker's preoccupation with the idea of death and the afterlife.


Stanza 1: The poem begins with an image of a dead lady lying in a museum display case with a "granite grin". She is surrounded by cheap objects like relics of a mouse and a shrew who fed on her ankle-bone.
Stanza 2: The speaker reflects on the inevitability of death and how it affects everyone. She uses the metaphor of "stars grinding" to describe the slow process of decay that reduces our bodies to bones. The objects around the dead lady bear "dry witness" to the "gross eating game" of life and death.
Stanza 3: The speaker reflects on how the dead grip us even in death. She feels a strange kinship with the dead lady, even though they are not related. The dead can still affect the living and can make them feel as if they are being sucked into death themselves.
Stanza 4: The speaker imagines a scene from her childhood, where she sees images of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in a mirror. She feels as if they are trying to pull her into the mirror and that she is connected to them in some way.
Stanza 5: The speaker reflects on how memories of loved ones who have passed away can come back to us at any moment, triggered by everyday events like wakes, weddings, and family barbecues. Any "touch, taste, tang" can bring them back to us.
Stanza 6: The poem concludes with the idea that the dead never truly leave us. They can still be with us, even after they are gone. The dead become like ghosts, haunting us and taking root in our memories, like cradles that rock.

Literary Devices 

In "All the Dead Dears," Sylvia Plath employs a range of literary devices to create a haunting and macabre mood.

Imagery: Plath uses vivid and unsettling imagery throughout the poem, such as the "granite grin" on the lady's face, the "gimcrack relics" of the mouse and shrew, and the image of the father with "orange duck-feet winnowing this hair." These images contribute to the eerie atmosphere of the poem.
Metaphor: The dead are compared to barnacles that grip onto the living, and the lady in the museum case is referred to as an "antique." These metaphors add to the sense of decay and stagnation that permeates the poem.
Allusion: The reference to Gulliver, who was imprisoned by the Lilliputians, suggests a similar entrapment of the living by the dead.
Personification: The stars are given the ability to grind, and the dead are described as "outlaws" who ride home on any touch, taste, or tang. These examples of personification contribute to the overall sense of unease in the poem.
Repetition: The repetition of the word "soon" in the third stanza creates a sense of inevitability, as if the dead will always return no matter what the living do.
Enjambment: The use of enjambment, particularly in the final stanza, creates a sense of continuity and connectedness between the living and the dead.

The poem's use of imagery, metaphor, allusion, personification, repetition, and enjambment work together to create a haunting portrait of the relationship between the living and the dead.

Major Themes

Mortality and the inevitability of death: The poem's major theme is mortality and the inevitability of death. The image of the "antique museum-cased lady" lying with a "granite grin" and the "gimcrack relics of a mouse and a shrew" suggest the finality of death and the decay that follows. The poem also highlights the idea that death is an inescapable part of life and how it grips us "through think and thick."
Connection with ancestors and the past: The speaker of the poem reflects on the connection she feels with the "antique museum-cased lady" and her own ancestors who are depicted as "hag hands" reaching out to "haul me in." This connection to the past suggests that the dead are not truly gone and can still exert influence over the living.
The passage of time: The passage of time is another theme in the poem. The use of phrases like "long gone darlings" and "skulled-and-crossboned Gulliver" suggest that the dead have been gone for a long time, and the poem also acknowledges that the living will eventually join the dead. The idea of "taking roots as cradles rock" implies a sense of permanence and the unstoppable passage of time.
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