In 1958 Plath attended Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar in Boston, where she met fellow poet Anne Sexton and became familiar with her work. Plath later identified Lowell and Sexton as poets whose work she admired for what became known as the confessional mode of poetry that they pioneered. The three poets are frequently linked by critics.
Confessional poetry engages in the unabashed exploration of the less salubrious aspects of the poet’s life, such as marital difficulties, mental illness, fascination with death, and addiction. It has to do with self-disclosure, without the usual societal filters of discretion or modesty.
While several of Plath’s poems fit this mold, the self-disclosure of ‘‘Mushrooms’’ takes a somewhat different form. This is best expressed by Ted Hughes (quoted by Kathleen Margaret Lant in her essay, ‘‘The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath’’), who noted that Plath shared with Lowell and Sexton not only a similar geographical homeland but also ‘‘the central experience of a shattering of the self, and the labour of fitting it together again or finding a new one.’’ ‘‘Mushrooms’’ can be interpreted as detailing the dehumanization and oppression of the female individual and her attempt to build another identity.
A symbol in literature is a thing that stands for or suggests another thing. Often, a visible and concrete thing will be used to suggest something invisible or abstract. Here, Plath uses a visible thing, the growth of mushrooms, to suggest an abstract thing, the feminist uprising and the empowerment of women. (Plath was preoccupied with the journey toward self-identity and self-fulfillment at a time when women did not have rights equal to men. This leads many readers to conclude that the poem is symbolic of the feminist struggle.) More generally, the mushrooms can be said to symbolize any dispossessed group that is growing into its power.
The symbolism of ‘‘Mushrooms’’ relies upon personification, a literary device in which inanimate or non-human entities (in this case, mushrooms) are given human qualities. The mushrooms are given human-type body parts and behavior, but this stops short of completeness: they are human yet lack ears, eyes, and a voice. This creates a sinister effect and also emphasizes the fact that they are denied full power and complete humanity. This plays into the feminist theme of the poem. While women are portrayed as heavily relied upon for support in the manner of tables or shelves, they are not listened to or credited with full sensory perception. In addition, women who lack eyes and ears might be expected to be blind and deaf to injustices done to them.
There is an implicit question of what would happen to an eyeless, earless, and voiceless woman if she suddenly came into possession of these things. She would be able to see and hear injustice and she would be able to speak about it.
‘‘Mushrooms’’ is written in a strict and regular verse form which creates an austere impression. There are eleven stanzas of three lines each. Each line has five syllables.
The poet also uses alliteration (repetition of consonants), consonance (repetition of the same consonant two or more times in quick succession), and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) to enrich the rhythm and meaning. For example, the first line of stanza 2 uses two long o sounds (assonance) to reflect the gradual but forceful effort that the mushrooms must expend in their growth.
An example of consonance occurs in the first line of stanza 4, which has four s’s. This has the effect of linking the first two words of the line through their s sounds with the word insist, which has two such sounds. Thus, the entire line adds to the strength of the idea of the insistence of the mushrooms’ growth.
The pairing of similar sounds frequently recurs in the poem. In the penultimate (or second to last) stanza the first and third lines use assonance to link words of similar meaning in pairs, reinforcing their significance. The repetition of similar sounds reflects the meaning of the unstoppable multiplication and growth of the mushrooms.
The poem uses eye rhymes, a similarity in spelling between words that are pronounced differently and therefore do not produce an auditory rhyme, to add to the rhythm. The last two lines of the first stanza, for example, each end in a word ending in -etly, though the vowel sound of the e in each of these words is pronounced differently. The first line, too, ends in the same -y sound (assonance). The repetition of these visuals and sounds contributes to the sense of insistent effort and persistence on the part of the indomitable mushrooms.
There are also half rhymes in the poem. A half rhyme is consonance on the final consonants of the words involved. The poet sometimes ties together two stanzas with such half rhymes, as with stanzas 4 and 5. Here, the last line of stanza 4 ends in -ing, as does the first line of stanza 5. In this case, the half rhyme, as well as creating auditory rhythm, ties together two words of similar meaning. Both words refer to the material of which the ground is made and through which the mushrooms must push in order to grow.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Sylvia Plath, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010