‘Aftermath’ is a poem by American poet and writer Sylvia Plath that talks about human nature, and how unconsciously humans tend to show the worst of their behavior.
Sylvia Plath was depressed most of her adult life. She had a very different way of seeing the world, and the people around her. Her depression did not mean she did not care for the relationship.
She was very keen on observing all the little things humans go through; how we behave with each other, how we treat each other, and what our intentions are.
Let’s take a look at the poem and then at the poem’s meaning and analysis.
Aftermath by Sylvia Plath
Compelled by calamity's magnet They loiter and stare as if the house Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought Some scandal might any minute ooze From a smoke-choked closet into light; No deaths, no prodigious injuries Glut these hunters after an old meat, Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies. Mother Medea in a green smock Moves humbly as any housewife through Her ruined apartments, taking stock Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery: Cheated of the pyre and the rack, The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.
Meaning of the Poem Aftermath
‘Aftermath’ talks about the aftermath of an event and how people gathered around not out of sympathy or with the intention to help the affected person but to get some gossip and look for scandals.
The poem describes a disastrous event where someone’s house is completely burnt and people have gathered around. They are chatting about it, looking for any interesting gossip so that they can discuss it with other people.
Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
The magic of this poem comes from the wonderful ways Plath has used these brilliant metaphors. “Compelled by calamity’s magnet” means that people are attracted to calamity as if it were a magnet.
These people come around, make a fuss and stare at the house as if their own house has burnt. The reason why they are loitering around is because they are hoping to find something.
Even in someone’s utter disaster, these people are not here to show condolence or sympathy. All they are hoping for is to see something scandalous; something that they can gossip about.
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.
But alas, there are no deaths or grave injuries that these ‘blood-seekers’ find. Again, we cannot commend enough how beautiful and hard-hitting these metaphors are.
Now that there is no death or anything scandalous that these insensitive people can find, we move to the next stanza of the poem.
Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Plath says that the owner of the house then makes an appearance. She calls her “Mother Medea” which is a reference to the Greek stories of Medea; an enchantress who helped Jason, a man who was trying to obtain the Golden Fleece.
Medea is known to be a helper-maiden. She tries to help Jason but in the end, she gets betrayal, which leads to her taking revenge and leaving the city where she lived. More on this later.
Back to the poem, the woman moves through the burnt house, taking a look at the aftermath. She picks up the burned shoes, the completely destroyed upholstery, and whatever she can.
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.
The final two lines conclude the poem by saying that these blood-thirsty people were at least expecting something really bad; perhaps the death of someone or at least some grave injuries.
But since the woman was fine, they felt “cheated” by this event. When they could not get any gossip, they turned to the woman and “suck” her last tear, and turned away.
Notice how they do not care about the woman at all. All they were looking for was something big so that they can talk about it later. But when they get disappointed by the disaster, they leave.
Theme and Essence of the Poem
The poem is aptly titled ‘Aftermath’ as it does not talk about the aftermath of the fire, but the aftermath of people showing their true nature. No one in the crowd came to care about the person who lost everything.
But there is more to the poem than it seems, especially the poet calling the owner of the house “Mother Medea.” Why that specific name and why call her “Mother?”
A possible (and the most probable) reason is that she is referring to the event where Medea actually murdered her children to take revenge on Jason, their father.
Could it mean that this woman burnt her house down to take revenge on her husband? Perhaps this woman was a troubled woman and people were expecting something like this to happen.
This explains the crowd, their anticipation, and their morbid excitement. It is also the reason why the woman is so calm while collecting all the burnt things.
Just like Medea killed her sons to take revenge on her husband, this woman, acting like Medea acted as a mother, burnt her house down.
It is a possible explanation for why she calls the woman that. But yet, the main subject of the poem remains the insensitivity and vulture-like nature of people.