In the following essay, I will examine the development of Plath’s poetry through analysis of major themes and imagery found in her description of landscapes, seascapes, and the natural world.
Following the lead of Ted Hughes, critics today tend to read Sylvia Plath’s poetry as a unity. Individual poems are best read in the context of the whole oeuvre: motifs, themes and images link poems together and these linkages illuminate their meaning and heighten their power. It is certainly easy to see that through almost obsessive repetition some elements put their unforgettable mark on the poetry: themes such as the contradictory desires for life and death and the quests for selfhood and truth; images like those of color, with red, black and white dominating the palette; and symbols of haunting ambiguity, for example, the moon and the sea.
But equally obvious is the striking development that Plath’s work underwent in the course of her brief career as a professional poet. This is perhaps most readily seen in the prosody: from exerting her equilibristic skill at handling demanding verse forms, such as the terza rima and the villanelle, she broke free of the demands of such literary conventions and created a personal verse form which still retained some of the basic elements of her earlier ‘academic’ style. She turned the three-line stanza of the villanelle into a highly flexible medium. Freed from the prosodic strictness of poems like ‘Medallion,’ written in 1959, this verse form reappeared in poems composed in the last year of her life in a superbly liberated yet controlled form. Some of her finest and most personal poems are written in this medium, for example, ‘Fever 103°,’ ‘Ariel,’ ‘Nick and the Candlestick,’ ‘Lady Lazarus,’ ‘Mary’s Song,’ and the late ‘Sheep in Fog,’ ‘Child’ and ‘Contusion.’
More important, though, is the development one can observe in Plath’s handling of images and themes, of settings and scenes. My concern in this essay is Plath’s use of landscapes as settings. There are indoor settings in her poetry, such as kitchens and bedrooms, hospitals and museums, but the
outdoor ones are in overwhelming majority. Plath’s use of landscapes and seascapes is indeed one of the most characteristic features of her poetry. They put their mark on a considerable part of the work and appear throughout her career, linked as they are to her experiences as a woman and a poet. The seascapes with their crucial relevance for themes like the daughter-father relationship, loss and death, deserve a special and thorough treatment of their own and will have to fall outside the scope of this essay.
No reader can fail to note the many items of nature that Plath makes use of as setting and image. Three scholars have paid special attention to this aspect. In her pioneering work, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Study of Themes (1972), Ingrid Melander includes analyses of poems set in different landscapes and seascapes that Plath knew; in addition to discussing a group of poems connected to the sea, she deals with the following landscape poems: two poems on the moorland (‘Hardcastle Crags’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’); two ‘idylls’ (‘Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows’ and ‘In Midas’ Country’); and three ‘landscapes as experienced by the traveller’ (‘Sleep in the Mojave Desert,’ ‘Stars over the Dordogne’ and ‘Two Campers in Cloud Country’). Melander’s approach is thematic and she makes no attempt to suggest development or continuity concerning this aspect of the poetry.
In Jon Rosenblatt’s Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation (1979), in my view still the most useful book-length critical study, the idea of development is a main concern. He devotes one chapter to Plath’s use of landscapes and seascapes, focusing on the transition from early to late poetry as part of his overriding argument: that Plath’s poetry enacts a ritual of initiation from symbolic death to rebirth. He programmatically refrains from placing her poems in extraliterary contexts, such as her biography.
Edward Butscher, on the other hand, goes to the other extreme in his critical biography, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), where he makes no essential difference between the life and the poetry. While he offers many imaginative and perceptive comments on Plath’s anthropomorphizing of nature, they naturally become subsumed in the telling of the story of the poet’s life and also, frequently, slightly distorted by Butscher’s psychoanalytically loaded thesis about the emergence of Sylvia Plath the ‘bitch goddess.’
Since the appearance of these three studies Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems has been published (1981) with a securer and more precise dating of the poems than before, and we are now in a better position to deal with the poems chronologically. The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982) also add to our knowledge of the composition of the poems. Linda W. Wagner-Martin’s recent biography (1987) has given us a firm platform to build our critical studies on, by confirming or correcting information provided by previous biographies and memoirs.
With the premise that Plath’s poetry should be read as a unity I wish to study the development of her use of landscapes throughout her career, paying special attention to the role the landscape plays in the individual poem–quantitatively and qualitatively–and to the way the poet creates ‘psychic’ landscapes out of concrete places, scenes and objects. I tie this discussion firmly and consistently to actual landscapes Sylvia Plath had seen. With a poetry like Plath’s, which is highly subjective and concrete, it is surely a disadvantage to disconnect the poems from the poet’s life. My use of biography aims at illuminating the poetic process, and my main interest is in the subtle and gradual shift in the poet’s technique: the process by which her landscapes become increasingly ‘psychic’ and at the end ‘fragmented.’
Sylvia Plath evidently looked upon herself as a city person (in spite of her documented love of the sea). Amidst the beautiful scenery at an artists’ colony in upstate New York she complained: ‘I do rather miss Boston and don’t think I could ever settle for living far from a big city full of museums and theaters.’ Nevertheless she seldom used the cities and towns where she lived, more or less permanently, as settings in poems. Cambridge, England; Northampton, Massachusetts; Boston and London, these places made little impact on the poetry as cityscapes. When she draws on such settings, she usually lets her persona move from the streets and buildings to parks or gardens or surrounding fields. When she remembers Cambridge, she sees
meadows and fields outside the town, as in ‘Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows’ (1959). Of Northampton she commemorates above all a park with frog pond, fountain, shrubbery and flowers, as in ‘Frog Autumn’ and ‘Child’s Park Stones,’ both written in 1958. Where the town of Northampton itself does figure, in ‘Owl’ (1958), it is as a frivolous contrast to harshly elemental nature. Commenting on an actual experience in the summer of 1958 such as described in this poem, she noted: ‘Visions of violence. The animal world seems to me more and more intriguing.’ One of the rare poems with a London setting is ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ (1961), but typically the scene has a rural touch. (It is set on Hampstead Heath).
Inspired–and sometimes prodded–by her husband who was versed in country things, Sylvia Plath the city person turned to nature for topics and scenery. Shortly after having met Ted Hughes in the spring of 1956 she confided to her mother: ‘I cannot stop writing poems! . . . They come from the vocabulary of woods and animals and earth that Ted is teaching me.’ Prodded or inspired, Plath drew on her personal experiences of different places and landscapes as raw material for many of the poems. One might actually plot locations and stages of her life on the map of her work. Among the poems that open her career as a professional poet–her debut can conveniently be set to 1956–we can find scenes from her stay in England and her travels on the Continent. Later there will be scenes from New England and other parts of the United States and Canada. After her return to England in 1959 she set many of the poems in Devon and a few in London. One’s immediate reaction to Plath’s outdoor scenery is that the persona never seems to be quite at home in nature. Descriptions of nature will most often register feelings of estrangement, fear and the like. This is true even of poems commemorating travel experiences in happy moods, such as camping in a California desert (‘Sleep in the Mojave Desert’) or by a Canadian lake (‘Two Campers in Cloud Country’), poems written in 1960.
Plath’s depictions of places and landscapes reveal her interest in pictorial art. She said that she had ‘a visual imagination’ and that her inspiration was ‘painting, not music, when I go to some other art form.’ We know of this interest in art, American and European, and the inspiration she derived from
specific paintings resulting in, for example, the poems ‘Snakecharmer’ (1957) and ‘Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies’ (1958), both modelled on paintings by Henri Rousseau, and ‘Sculptor’ (1958), dedicated to her friend Leonard Baskin. Her own efforts as a draftswoman establish a link between her verbal gifts and her graphic talents. Some of her drawings have been reproduced; The Christian Science Monitor (November 5 and 6, 1956) illustrated her reports about a summer visit to Benidorm in Spain with a couple of strictly realistic sketches by her hand: sardine boats pulled up on a beach; a corner of a peasant market; and trees and houses clinging on to steep sea cliffs. In his collection of essays on Plath’s poetry, editor Charles Newman included three drawings of scenery that we can recognize in the poems; strong pen strokes show an old cottage in Yorkshire (Wuthering Heights); an irregular row of houses in Benidorm; and small fishing boats left for the winter on the bank of a river near its outlet into the ocean at Cape Cod. She evidently did not give up the habit of drawing. As late as October 1962, in a letter to her mother, she rejoices over the gift of pastels that she will surely find time to use.
By and large Plath’s early poems betray the same sort of literary artificiality that marked most of her Juvenilia; they strain too noticeably toward effect and cleverness. But there are some whose subjects and settings introduce thoughts and moods which reverberate in the rest of the oeuvre. ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ is one such poem. The very title tells us that this scene is rendered by a ‘painterly’ poet. It describes a pond where a solitary swan ‘floats chaste as snow.’ To the observer-speaker it is a ‘landscape of chagrin’ ‘scorn[ed]’ by the setting sun. The speaker’s mind is as dark as the pond: walking about like an imaginary rook–the only creature fit to match the wintry landscape–she finds no solace from her sorrow at the absence of a cherished person.
In a journal entry for February 20, 1956 Plath outlined the scene that inspired some of the realistic details of this poem. On her way to a literature class which was to be held at some distance from her Cambridge college, she noticed ‘rooks squatting black in snow-white fen, gray skies, black trees, mallard-green water.’ The ‘real’ rooks are missing from the poem; there is only a metaphorical one. We find features that will characterize a great deal of the poetry to come: the color scheme of black, white and red; the theme of loss and frozenness; and the parallel between landscape and human observer. Plath referred to the poem as ‘a psychic landscape.’ From now on her poetic landscapes will embody association between scene and mood. What marks ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ as an early poem is the lack of proportion between the loss suggested and the mood resulting from the contemplation of a calm winter scene. The poem ends with a sigh of self-pity: ‘Who’d walk in this bleak place?’
The punning title of another poem written in 1956, ‘Prospect,’ suggests comparison with a painting, calling to mind, for example, the Italian veduta of landscape or city. We find in it some of the same elements as in ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’: the fen, here with its gray fog enveloping rooftops and chimneys, and this time not with a metaphorical rook but two real ones sitting in a tree, with absinthe-colored eyes ‘cocked’ on a ‘lone, late, / passer-by.’ As in an impressionist painting much is made of color–orange, gray, black, green–at the expense of line and composition, but here too there is suggested a ‘psychic’ element: the solitary human being neither seeks nor derives protection or comfort from nature.
‘Alicante Lullaby,’ one of several poems inspired by Plath’s stay in Spain in the summer of 1956, attempts to record the actual sounds of a busy little Spanish town. The poet uses onomatopoeia to recreate realistic sounds. (Evidently Sylvia Plath regretted that she did not have an ear for music.) In another poem, ‘Departure,’ the speaker, taking leave of her temporary Spanish refuge sketched in bright colors, is able to note, with self-irony, that nature does not grieve at all at the parting. The reason why she leaves is decidedly unromantic: ‘The money’s run out.’ The last glimpse of the scene is unromantic in another way and may suggest a parallel between the speaker’s mood and nature: what she sees is a stone hut ‘Gull-fouled’ and exposed to ‘corroding weathers,’ and ‘morose’ and ‘rank-haired’ goats. It may all be in the viewer’s eyes.
Returning to the favored rook in ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ the poet again musters up self-irony to face her urge to commune with nature. She might wish to see ‘some design’ among the fallen leaves and receive ‘some backtalk / From the mute sky,’ but this, she knows, would be to expect a miracle. Still, she leaves herself open to any minute gesture on the part of nature lending ‘largesse, honor, / One might say love’ even to the dullest landscape and the most ignorant viewer; this could be achieved, for instance, by letting a black rook arrange its feathers in such a way as to captivate the viewer’s senses and so ‘grant // A brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality.’ The miracle has not happened yet, but the hope of such a moment of transcendent beauty and communion is worth the wait. She knows that it might in fact be only a trick of light which the viewer interprets as ‘that rare, random descent’ of an angel.
The next set of landscape poems, chronologically, are located in the West Yorkshire moorland which Sylvia Plath knew from visits with her husband’s family. ‘November Graveyard’ introducing this group describes a setting where nature–trees, grass, flowers–stubbornly resists mourning over death. But it does not deny death; the visitor notes the ‘honest rot’ which reveals nature’s unsentimental presentation of death and decay. And the poet concludes that this ‘essential’ landscape may teach us the truth about death.
Coming at the end of Plath’s first year as a professional poet this poem may be seen to exemplify a minor change in her depiction of landscapes; elements of nature are discreetly anthropomorphized: ‘skinflint’ trees refuse to mourn or ‘wear sackcloth,’ the ‘dour’ grass is not willing to put on richer colors to solemnize the place, and the flowers do not pretend to give voice to the dead.
Two other Yorkshire poems, ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ and ‘Two Views of Withens,’ written the following year, offer realistic glimpses of the moorland as backdrop for descriptions of relationships between people and of attitudes to nature. In the first poem, a condensed narrative relates a husband-and-wife quarrel with the woman being brought down from her pride by a vision of indomitable male power in the guise of a giant snowman; and in the second, we have in capsule form a definition of two very different attitudes to nature–perhaps also to life–epitomized in two persons’ differing responses to a bare landscape and a dilapidated farmhouse with literary and romantic associations. (The scenery is associated with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.) The speaker of the poem regrets that she cannot respond the way the ‘you’ does. To her, landscape and sky are bleak and ‘the House of Eros’ is no ‘palace.’
‘Hardcastle Crags’ gives a harsher view of a human being alone and defenseless in an unresponsive, ‘absolute’ landscape. The poem derives its power from a very detailed, realistic picture of fields and animals, stones and hills. The last Yorkshire poem written in 1957, however, with the title ‘The Great Carbuncle,’ brings in an element of wonder performed by nature: a certain strange light with magical power–its source remains unknown–creates a moment of transfiguration for the wanderers. The Great Carbuncle may allude to a drop of blood in the Holy Grail. But it is a painfully brief moment: afterwards ‘the body weighs like stone.’
In a poem written in September 1961, ‘Wuthering Heights,’ Plath returned to the ambiguous fascination this moor landscape held for her. The mood, though, has now become unequivocally sinister. The descriptive details have lost much of their realistic significance. The solitary wanderer bravely ‘step[s] forward,’ but nature is her enemy: the alluring horizons ‘dissolve’ at her advance, wind and heather try to undo her. Images of landscape and animals are consistently turned into metaphors for the human intruder’s feeling of being insignificant and exposed. A seemingly harmless thing such as the half-closed eyes of the grandmotherly-looking sheep makes the speaker lose her sense of identity and worth: it is as if she were being ‘mailed into space, / A thin, silly message.’ This landscape is indeed ‘psychic’ to an extent that ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ was not. This is most certainly a result of Plath’s greater ability to transform realistic, concrete objects and scenes into consistent sets of metaphors for her thoughts and emotions.
‘New Year on Dartmoor’ is a somewhat later poem, inspired by a walk Sylvia Plath took with her small daughter on Dartmoor some distance from the
Hugheses’ home in Devon; the poem may have been written in late December 1961.
NEW YEAR ON DARTMOOR
This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.
The poem shows how Plath’s technique of using landscape scenes has changed even more. Here there is very little realistic description; the setting becomes completely ‘metaphorized’ and gives rise to the speaker’s inner words, both sad and humorous, addressing her child who is accompanying her. The year is new and to the child the newness is exciting but baffling. Only the mother is aware of a rawer reality beneath the ‘glinting’ and the ‘clinking,’ and she knows what ‘newness’ entails of challenge and hardships.
In the fall of 1959 Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes spent several weeks at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York. Although she was at first charmed by the old-fashioned beauty of the estate, she soon tired of it, and on the whole the Yaddo poems do not express any genuine pleasure in nature. Some of the poems she set in the grounds of the estate evidence a certain strain of finding something to write about and of getting the most out of the scenery. She was pleased with ‘Medallion,’ a poem she defined as ‘an imagist piece on a dead snake.’ Nature is here in a somewhat macabre fashion used to aestheticize death. The speaker is only a cool observer. In another Yaddo poem featuring animals, ‘Blue Moles,’ with its unequivocal message that strife and violence are the modes of nature, nature is anthropomorphized; the speaker empathizes with the moles (‘Down there one is alone’) while the sky above is ‘sane and clear.’
The anthropomorphizing tendency is strong in the Yaddo poems; it does not serve to explain nature, rather to express the human protagonist’s feelings and moods. Thus in ‘Private Ground’ ‘the grasses / Unload their griefs’ in the protagonist’s shoes, and in ‘The Manor Garden’ items from nature are used to parallel and explain the growth of a foetus in a human body. It is not enough for Plath in these poems to call forth a human mood or attitude from a fairly detailed, more or less realistic picture of objects and scenes in nature; now she will more readily metaphorize natural processes, and detailed pictures become rarer. Often key words or phrases will suffice to hint at a parallel or an origin in nature.
Early in 1959 Plath had made clear what she wished to achieve in her nature poems. After finishing ‘Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows’–a memory of the Cambridge surroundings–she noted: ‘Wrote a Grantchester [sic] poem of pure description. I must get philosophy in.’ As every reader knows, Plath was wrong about this poem: in her picture of a seemingly idyllic landscape, cruelty and violence are lurking beneath the smooth appearance. The realistic scenery is ‘distorted,’ not in the direction of the ugly and the grotesque, but in the direction of nursery-plate prettiness. The ‘philosophy’ is apparent: terror and violence in the shape of an owl swooping down on an inoffensive water rat are at the heart of creation. Melville had said the same thing in Moby Dick when he let Ishmael reflect on the ‘tiger heart’ that ‘pants’ beneath the ‘ocean’s skin.’
Plath’s most ambitious piece of writing done at the artists’ colony was the sequence ‘Poem for a Birthday.’ Making notes for it she acknowledged the influence of Theodore Roethke. The greenhouse on the estate must have been a special link to him; it was ‘a mine of subjects.’ Her tentative plans for the poem were these: ‘To be a dwelling on madhouse, nature: meanings of tools, greenhouses, florists shops, tunnels, vivid and disjointed. An adventure. Never over. Developing, Rebirth, Despair. Old women. Block it out.’ Her ambition was to ‘be true to [her] own weirdnesses.’ Starting as an end-of-autumn poem it immediately turns into a seemingly random search for the origins and processes of the self; the landscape disappears, and forays into the past take over. The poem comes full circle by ending with a hope of birth into a new life. ‘Poem for a Birthday’ is an indication of the direction Plath’s poetry was to take from now on: toward greater use of free associations and juxtaposition of fragments of scenes and objects, experiences lived and imagined, feelings and thoughts harbored.
Sylvia Plath’s life and surroundings in Devon, where she lived from September 1961 to December the following year, provided rich material for poetry. Court Green, the thatch-roofed house the Hugheses had bought, sat in a two-acre plot with a great lawn, in spring overflowing with daffodils, with an apple orchard and other trees that found their way into the poems. The settings of the poems she wrote in Devon are very varied. Several are set indoors, for instance, in a hospital (‘The Surgeon at 2 a.m.,’ ‘Three Women’), a kitchen (‘An Appearance,’ ‘The Detective,’ ‘Lesbos,’ ‘Cut,’ ‘Mary’s Song’), an office (‘The Applicant’), or an unspecified interior (‘The Other,’ ‘Words heard, by accident, over the phone,’ ‘Kindness’).
These interiors are never described; they are often to be inferred by a situation dramatized or an action going on, such as cooking a Sunday dinner or being served tea. Action and character play the greater role. The trees and flowers of the Court Green garden appear in several poems, such as ‘Among the Narcissi,’ ‘Poppies in July’ and ‘Poppies in October,’ all from 1962. But in these poems too there is much more story or incident than description.
‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ offers a good example of how Plath used nature as material for poetry at this transitional stage in her career. Written in October 1961 this was the first poem for which she drew on her immediate Devon surroundings. As we see from Ted Hughes’s comments, she still needed an occasional prodding to find a topic: ‘The yew tree stands in a churchyard to the west of the house in Devon, and visible from SP’s bedroom window. On this occasion, the full moon, just before dawn, was setting behind this yew tree and her husband assigned her to write a verse “exercise” about it.’
This nature poem is marked by the metaphorical mode already in the opening line: ‘This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.’ Using a phrase from an earlier poem (‘Private Ground’) the poet creates a transition to the garden landscape by anthropomorphizing nature: ‘The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God.’ The light of the mind does not help. The speaker complains: ‘I simply cannot see where there is to get to.’ Following the upright lines of the yew tree, the speaker’s eyes seek the mother moon. Yew tree and church, one planted in the earth but striving toward heaven, the other bringing the message of heaven to earth, have nothing to give the speaker. She faces her real self: it is not the Church with its mixture of far reaching authority (the booming bells), its holiness stiffened by convention (the sculptured or painted saints floating above the heads of the churchgoers) and its somewhat sentimentalized sweetness (the mild Virgin), it is not these she can identify with: she is the daughter of the wild female moon with her dark and dangerous power.
Plath herself evidently read this poem slightly differently. Introducing it in a BBC program she said that a yew tree she had once put into a poem ‘began, with astounding egotism, to manage and order the whole affair. It was not a yew tree by a church on a road past a house in a town where a certain woman lived . . . and so on, as it might have been in a novel. Oh no. It stood squarely in the middle of my poem, manipulating its dark shades, the voices in the churchyard, the clouds, the birds, the tender melancholy with which I contemplated it–everything! I couldn’t subdue it. And, in the end, my poem was a poem about a yew tree. The yew tree was just too proud to be a passing black mark in a novel.’ As I have indicated, another reading of the poem highlights the moon as the one who is taking over the scene.
The yew tree appears again in ‘Little Fugue,’ written in 1962, but only as an introductory image bringing in a contrast through its blackness counterpointed with whiteness in the concrete form of a cloud (‘The yew’s black fingers wag; / Cold clouds go over’). Black and white do not merge, just as the blind do not receive the message of the deaf and dumb. These counterpointing ‘absences’ prefigure the main theme of the fugue: the speaker-daughter’s despair at not being able to reach her dead father: ‘Gothic and barbarous’ he was a ‘yew hedge of orders.’ Now he sees nothing, and the speaker is ‘lame in the memory.’ The fugue ends by finally joining the two items from nature–the black yew tree and the pale cloud–as images of a marriage between death and death-in-life.
The Devon milieu is the scene also for ‘Among the Narcissi.’ Here an ailing old neighbor is the main subject, the flowers attending upon him like a flock of children. Another poem with a Devon setting is ‘Pheasant.’ It is a scene in the drama of tensions in a marriage, of suspicions, hurt, jealousy and anger, which was begun in ‘Zoo Keeper’s Wife’ and continued in ‘Elm’, ‘The Rabbit Catcher,’ ‘Event,’ ‘Poppies in July’ and ‘Poppies in October.’
Two poems written in the last month Sylvia Plath spent in Devon, ‘Letter in November’ and ‘Winter Trees,’ testify to the almost uncanny equilibristics she was capable of by now in realizing highly different topics, scenes, moods, as it would seem from one moment to the next. Anger at deception (‘The Couriers’), longing for spiritual rebirth (‘Getting There’), tender anguish at a child’s future (‘The Night Dances’), revulsion at death (‘Death & Co.’) and fascination with the dynamics of motion and life (‘Years’), naked hatred and contempt (‘The Fearful’), these are some of the emotions embodied in the November poems.
‘Letter in November’ is set in the Court Green garden. It is unusual for Plath at this stage in her career in that it contains a fairly detailed picture of the scenery. The ‘letter’ is addressed to an unspecified receiver (perhaps a child) apostrophized as ‘love.’ It describes, in a relaxed tone, details of a well-known garden which in this moment of seasonal transition is shifting color and form as if by some kind of magic that a child would understand. The speaker’s boots ‘squelch’ realistically in the wet masses of fallen leaves. The old corpses buried under the ‘death-soup’ she is walking in prefigure the despair at total defeat revealed in the final allusion to the destruction of a heroic army at Thermopylae (‘The irreplaceable / Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae’). Was the lovingly detailed description of her garden an incantation for a moment’s relief from pain?
‘Winter Trees’ is also set in the garden.
The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve.
On their blotter of fog the trees
Seem a botanical drawing
Memories growing, ring on ring,
A series of weddings.
Knowing neither abortions nor bitchery,
Truer than women,
They seed so effortlessly!
Tasting the winds, that are footless,
Waist-deep in history–
Full of wings, otherworldliness.
In this, they are Ledas.
O mother of leaves and sweetness
Who are these pietas?
The shadows of ringdoves chanting, but easing nothing.
The opening image, of trees barely visible in the early morning fog, might have led us to expect a landscape of the kind Plath wrote in her earlier years, that is, a fairly realistic description with a mood attached or a ‘philosophy’ as the outcome of pictures turned into metaphors. In this poem, however, trees are immediately turned into an aesthetic product: a drawing presenting themselves (‘On their blotter of fog the trees / Seem a botanical drawing’)! This idea is at once dropped and without the modulating help of language we are brought into the human domain of memories, relationships between people, values and morality. Memories, rings, weddings, abortions, bitchery–these words hint at a miniature narrative of past love and union, contrasted with ugly losses and failures.
The speaker’s muted despair has turned into disgust at the very idea of human femaleness. The trees have become symbols of ideal humanity: at the same time as they partake of the solidity and security of elemental earthliness, they achieve spirituality. Visited by a god, these Ledas share in the sacred, but being Ledas they also know suffering. In a last transformation, the trees take on the appearance of the grieving mother of another god. The final lines of the poem express the speaker’s anguished cry lamenting her inability to partake of the perfection and pity of nature. Being a woman she appeals to a Mother Goddess for a ‘clue,’ but no sounds or sights in nature bring her relief.
This superb poem is an example of the skill and power Plath had reached in her thirtieth year. Within the span of a few short lines she manages to create a complex of sight and sound, history and myth, Christian and pagan, ugliness and beauty, hope and despair. As has been argued by a recent critic, this is a fine example of Plath’s ability to raise her poetry above the level of the private and the confessional to a level of universality.
The poems Sylvia Plath wrote in the last few weeks of her life maintain continuity with her earlier work in subject matter and style. She still favors the two- or three-line stanza, and essential also in these poems are emotions and attitudes such as love for children–what Helen Vendler so succinctly refers to as the ‘small constructiveness of motherhood’–hatred of deception, and conflicting urges toward stasis and motion. But as a whole they are more concise and more referential–even to the point of obscurity–than earlier poems. They do not offer easy readings, for one thing because images from strikingly different spheres of life are juxtaposed, with no apparent associations to join them. By establishing links to the earlier poetry as reference and source material we may be in a better position to read these difficult texts.
Plath’s use of landscapes is one such line to pursue. In these late poems recognizable, actual landscapes do not occur; here the poet uses only fragments from her experiences of various kinds of scenery, fragments that often suggest moods and attitudes similar to those that the more fully described landscapes had once signified. The first poem dated 1963, ‘Sheep in Fog,’ was begun in December 1962 and completed the following January, and it works as a transitional poem. It is the last poem Plath wrote in which we can recognize the outlines of an actual landscape. It keeps some of the elements of poems set in an English landscape, with touches of the moorland, perhaps Dartmoor where Plath took riding lessons. She introduced the poem for a BBC program with these words: ‘In this poem, the speaker’s horse is proceeding at a slow, cold walk down a hill of macadam to the stable at the bottom. It is December. It is foggy. In the fog there are sheep.’
This is of course only the bare skeleton around which the poem itself has been fashioned. The title suggests a realistic landscape with figures, and we find several such items: hills, horse and fields. No sheep are visible in the poem; the ‘dolorous bells’ indicate their presence. There is a watercolor aspect to the hills dimly seen in the fog, the faint line of smoke from a passing train and the touch of color provided by the horse. Human references, which are counterpointed with the touches of nature scenery, take over in the latter part of the poem. The speaker interprets the scene as an expression of her own situation. Resignedly registering her own inadequacy (‘People or stars / Regard me sadly, I disappoint them’) she perceives her situation as darker and darker. Against the normal order in nature ‘All morning the / Morning has been blackening.’ She fears that she has to accept nothingness as her lot, even after death; this is expressed in the image of the distant fields which ‘threaten / To let me through to a heaven / Starless and fatherless, a dark water.’ This is no longer a ‘psychic landscape’ of the kind exemplified by ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’; in ‘Sheep in Fog’ the landscape as reality almost ceases to exist.
Items from ‘Sheep in Fog’ reappear in even more fragmentary form in ‘Totem,’ a poem written on the same day as the former one was completed. Here we find a train on a ‘useless’ journey, darkened fields, and mountains letting us glimpse an unchanging sky. These fragments of a landscape are only small signs in a composition overwhelming in its rich confusion, of images which all spell the greed of inevitable death. Plath spoke of this poem as ‘a pile of interconnected images, like a totem pole.’
Other late poems have a similar quality of ‘interconnected images like a totem pole’ in which fragments of landscapes may reappear in a weak or distorted form. In ‘The Munich Mannequins’ the yew tree from beside the Devon church has been transformed into a part of a womb (‘the womb // Where the yew trees blow like hydras’); an unhappy memory of Sylvia Plath’s own visit to Germany in 1956 in search of roots identifies the city of Munich as a place of death and sterility. In ‘Child,’ expressing a mother’s wish to create a happy world for her child, there are remnants of the Devon garden in bloom as a contrast to the mother’s worried ‘Wringing of hands.’ ‘Gigolo’ recalls a Mediterranean setting with crooked streets, cul-de-sacs and fruits-de-mer, alluring and disgusting as the professional seducer himself. In ‘Mystic’ there may be traces of a summery Atlantic coast–memories of smells of pines, sun-heated cabins and salty winds–as well as references to the harsh London winter Sylvia Plath was facing while she was composing these poems (‘The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats’).
These fragments accompany a more important religious imagery. The poem has been interpreted in several ways; one interpretation sees it as the mystic’s dark night of the soul, but the last line, ‘The heart has not stopped,’ indicates hope of an end to this night. And in ‘Edge,’ one of the two last poems Plath wrote a few days before her death, she may have drawn on visual memories of the Yaddo estate. The ‘perfected’ body of the woman whose epitaph the poem is and her children make up a sculptured group of death. In addition to other allusions, such as the Laocoon group, here inverted from struggle against death to fulfilled death, this group may vaguely recall the marble statuary at Yaddo.
In the preceding pages we have seen how Sylvia Plath sought inspiration and raw material for her poetry in different settings and how she very early saw the potential for ‘psychic’ qualities or parallels in realistic word paintings. In depicting external reality she is not concerned with representing, as faithfully as possible, shapes and lines, color and light, objects and figures. She hardly ever devotes an entire poem to something that looks like mere description of a scene in nature. There is always a metaphorical touch or dimension to the realistic composition. At times there is a narrative hinted at or rendered in some detail. Her landscape poems do not give the impression of a spontaneous pleasure in nature, nor of a wish to understand the processes of nature. They seem rather to serve as mirrors for a self in search of identity and truth.
Plath’s career as a poet was brief, but even so it is possible to see a development in her use of landscapes, toward more metaphorizing, more anthropomorphizing of nature, and in the late poems, more fragmentation of scenes in nature. In the early poetry she includes more ‘documentable’ detail, sometimes established already in the titles of poems, such as ‘Hardcastle Crags’ and ‘Two Views of Withens.’ She may have coerced herself–or been prodded–to broaden her palette by consciously turning to now one, now another landscape that she had experienced, but at the end she no longer had to look for settings as inspiration.
Elements of landscapes came to her when she needed them as pieces in a mosaic more fraught with meaning than the early ‘psychic landscapes.’ She had at her command an extraordinary set of highly diverse materials which she juxtaposed into poems of striking originality–sometimes with less than complete success. Even though we may not be able to reach into the obscurest crevices of her imagery and thought, the poems Sylvia Plath wrote in the last few weeks of her life haunt us with their cries and whispers. Recognizing fragments of earlier landscapes may not be the most important clue to these and other poems, but it may help us clear the ground for entering deeper into her poetic world.
Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, “Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes,” in English Studies, Vol. 71, No. 6, December, 1990, pp. 509-22.