This poem was written in 1958, after Sylvia Plath left her job at Smith College to write for a living. It was during this time she found writing extremely difficult and resorted to set themes and deliberate exercises in style, in her efforts to find a release. The poem is based on a drawing "The Virgin in a Tree" by Paul Klee. Sylvia Plath expresses her feelings about the concept of virginity, virgins etc. She holds their morals and values accountable, for what they believe to be right and what they believe to be wrong.
Sylvia Plath uses great many mythical allusions to illustrate her perceptions about virgins, especially in Ancient Greek mythology, many of which have been a direct bearing on the title of the poem; 'Virgin in a Tree'. The first most obvious allusion is that of Daphne.
'Ever since that first Daphne
Switched her incomparable back
For a bay-tree hide,'
In Greek mythology Daphne was a nymph, the daughter of the river god Peneus. She was a hunter who dedicated herself to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and, like the goddess, refused to marry. The god Apollo fell in love with Daphne, and when she refused his advances, he pursued her through the woods. She prayed to her father for help, and as Apollo advanced upon her, she was changed into a laurel tree (Daphne in Greek). Grief-stricken at her transformation, Apollo made the laurel his sacred tree. With reference to Apollo made in the phrase; 'god-haloed'. The other phrase 'goat thighed', may signify Philocetes (Trainer of the heroes) or Pan (god of the woods). It is most obviously Pan, with evidence in future reference in the fourth stanza. Pan, in Greek mythology, was the god of woods, fields, and fertility, the son of Hermes, messenger of the gods, and a nymph. Part animal, with the horns, hoofs, and ears of a goat, he was a lusty deity, the god of the shepherds and the goatherds. A wonderful musician, he accompanied, with his pipe of reeds, the woodland nymphs when they danced. He invented this pipe when the nymph Syrinx, whom he was pursuing, objected to his advances and was transformed into a bed of reeds, enabling her to escape him.
'Celebrate Syrinx whose demurs
Won her the frog coloured skin, pale pith and watery
Bed of a reed.'
Pan then took reeds of unequal length and played on them. The god was always wooing one of the nymphs by playing on his pipes, but was always rejected because of his ugliness.
' Pine-needle armour protects
Pitys from Pan's assault!'
Pan's haunts were the mountains and caves and all wild places, but his favourite spot was Arcadia, where he was born. The word panic is supposed to have been derived from the fears of travellers who heard the sound of his pipes at night in the wilderness.
Another diverging route of mythology, which Plath employs, is the opposing story of mythical (or historical) women, who were very different from the virgin nymphs. Included are Eva, Cleo and Helen of Troy. Helen of Troy, being the most prominent among the...