On the most literal level, ‘‘Mushrooms’’ is a description of the natural process of the growth of mushrooms. The poem opens with a description of how mushrooms appear seemingly out of nothing, quietly, unexpectedly, and without fuss. They appear overnight. Their white color is noted.
Using imagery of body parts that normally applies to human beings, the poet describes the mushrooms as pushing through loam, a type of rich, fertile soil considered ideal for growing plants. Having taken possession of one element, the earth, they now emerge into, and take possession of, the air. The stanza makes clear for the first time that the voice of the poem is the first person plural. This means that the poet is speaking as if she is one of the mushrooms.
The mushrooms grow in secret, with no one noticing their presence. The idea is introduced that some people may want to prevent the mushrooms from growing and treacherously reveal their existence. But this does not happen, and the mushrooms are allowed to progress unimpeded. The grains that make up the soil are portrayed as making space for the mushrooms.
As in stanza 2, the mushrooms are personified, with the suggestion that they have hands that they use to fight their way out of the earth. There is some effort involved, as the mushrooms have to lift the weight of the soil and other materials that lie on the earth. The soil is described as being covered with pine needles and leaves.
The mushrooms force their way through or past even the heavy weight of paving stones. They are imagined, metaphorically speaking, as having hammers or rams with which they push their way through obstacles. This image likens them to soldiers laying siege to a fort. The fact that they lack ears and eyes is both a literal and accurate description of mushrooms and (since the personification of the mushrooms has already given them a human aspect) a sinister image, as the idea of a person without ears and eyes would frighten many people. It also, paradoxically, robs the mushrooms of humanity and individuality, as ears and eyes are part of the sensory equipment of human beings.
The poet returns to the idea introduced in stanza 1 of the quietness of the mushrooms’ progress. Not only are the mushrooms, as mentioned in stanza 5, lacking ears and eyes, but they also lack a voice. Again, this is both literally accurate, as mushrooms do not make sounds, and an image that dehumanizes and de-individualizes the mushrooms. It is often said of dispossessed and downtrodden people that they lack a voice, and the poet’s portrayal of the mushrooms as voiceless identifies them with these oppressed groups. In another personifying image using a human body part, the mushrooms are shown pushing their way through holes in an attempt to grow to their full stature. They are successful, as the cracks are forced apart by their efforts.
In a run-on line (a line that runs from the last line of the previous stanza to the first line of the new stanza), the mushrooms’ sparse diet is emphasized. Crumbs and water is the sparsest penitential diet imaginable, but the poet makes it seem even more so by intensifying the idea of crumbs with the insubstantial image of shadows. The blandness of the mushrooms’ manner is another factor that emphasizes their ability to fade into the background and not be noticed.
In another run-on line that crosses stanzas, the poet states that the mushrooms do not ask for much. They are modest and undemanding. Nevertheless, they are successful at multiplying and there are now very many of them. This point is emphasized by the poet’s repetition of the second and third lines of the stanza. Repetition used as a literary device is called anaphora. The fact that these two lines are also exclamations has the effect of expressing the poet’s wonderment at the large number of mushrooms.
The mushrooms are likened in metaphors to shelves and tables. These are items to which most people give little thought, but people find them useful because they place other items of greater importance on top of them. If the shelves and tables were suddenly removed, the objects they support would crash to the ground. The mushrooms accept this state of things because of their essential humility. The poet is conveying the idea that the mushrooms may be overlooked, but that other things or beings that are given greater status are dependent on them. The final line of this stanza details the way in which other beings depend on mushrooms: the mushrooms are edible and are eaten. This makes the individual mushrooms disappear, as they are consumed.
The fact mentioned in the previous stanza that the mushrooms are eaten suggests that they disappear, but this stanza makes clear that this is not the end of mushrooms as a collective group. They continue to grow, forcing their way through the earth in their journey of self-realization. They do this in spite of their undoubtedly humble and self-effacing appearance. The final line of the stanza makes clear that the mushrooms have a power that enables them to overcome apparent annihilation: they breed, and rapidly, too.
The poet ends by invoking the Biblical dictum from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: ‘‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’’ (Matthew 5:5). While Christian theology often places this event at some point in the distant future, after the Day of Judgment, or in the afterlife, the poet has a shorter timescale in mind: the very next morning. There is a paradox in the fact that something as small and apparently insignificant as the mushrooms can inherit the vast earth. The final line can be taken as a promise or a threat. Like the salesman who sticks his foot in the door to prevent a house-owner shutting him out, so the mushrooms have gained a foothold on world domination.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Sylvia Plath, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010