An article in the Guardian about “strong calls for a proper memorial to [Sylvia Plath’s] life and work” prompts UD to consider just why she’s such a fine poet.

Readers tend to think of the spiky violent famous poems (Daddy, Lady Lazarus), but for UD it’s mainly about small moody works which are able, like many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, to make the natural world somehow broadcast the poet’s inner extremity.

    Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

The unsettling unclarity of this poem — the sense that the perceptual sense of the speaker is strangely and movingly messed up — signals a spiritual condition of urgent existential threat. A depressive person gradually loses her sense of the physical world around her in these few lines, and the final lines of the poem confirm that as the perceptual world dissolves, an entire world of death supercedes it.

Plath’s ability to establish this imperiled mood quickly, and sustain it through mere sequences of sketchy images, goes to the very heart of what makes lyrical poetry great: condensation, image, and the intense evocation through condensation and image of a particular state of consciousness.

The poem’s title is a painting’s title, naming what the artist will (we assume) describe — here, the way white sheep on a foggy hillside merge with the fog and become a sort of nothingness. The larger point of course will be the way in which the poet’s entire world is losing sharpness, definition, meaning, legibility.

She starts with personification:

The hills step off into whiteness.

Not merely the sheep step off, white into white, but rather the hills themselves, along with the entire natural world, undergo a white-out.

People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

This strikingly perceptual poem includes not merely the poet’s perceived world, but the poet perceived by the world; and since in her affectless state the distinction human/natural doesn’t really apply, she feels herself equally surveyed by stars and people. Or is it that she can’t tell the difference? Between the face of a star and the face of a person? Between a white sheep and a white hillside? In any case, in a reflection of her self-hatred, her despair reads all apprehensions of her as disappointed.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –

A brilliant and packed objective correlative here, the train carrying, as it were, the weight of her self- and world-annihilating misery. Her own final breath is anticipated in the trace of breath the train leaves behind; her mental and physical lassitude expresses itself in the poetic O slow; her sense of her rusted-out life appears in the color of the train – the train compared to a horse, with, again, a weird melding of the natural and the human-made… And note how carefully she’s worked the repeated O sounds in this stanza: O, slow, colour, hooves, dolorous. It amounts to a lament: O, O, O, O. Color and dolor make a rhyme, part of the odd incantatory feel of this lyric.

All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.

From white to black here – from the sheep, and the steam, and the foggy hills, all white, to the immediate reality of her inner experience: the blackness of sorrow. The world moves O slowly; but her depressed day moves swiftly, blackening by the hour as a flower left out will quickly blacken. Her repetition of morning, in the context of blackness, hints at mourning.

My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

Her frantic mind moves her toward death; she feels herself as a physical being already dead: her bones hold a stillness. Her feelings, though, are most acute: From her infinitely pulled-back perspective, the far fields, the fields dissolving into obscurity and meaninglessness as she withdraws from life, break her heart, for they are the avatars of her oncoming reduction to nothingness.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

See how she returns to stars at the end of the poem; liberated into death, the poet no longer suffers the disappointed face of stars (notice also all of the near-rhymes here, which deepen the poem’s mystical, chanting feel: threaten/heaven, star/dark, father/water, a feel conveyed throughout in any case merely by the radical shortness of each line). Her paradoxical heaven looks like hell – it’s pure death, after all, dark and starless. But heaven nonetheless, because it removes her from an agonizingly inchoate and uncomprehending world.

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3 Responses to “Plath Memorialized”

  1. Kevin Says:

    As much as I enjoy your riffs on university life, I love when you bust a move in literary analysis. Wonderful, really. Best regards, Kevin

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Many thanks, Kevin!

  3. University Diaries » A Poem for the Harvest Moon … Says:

    […] This poem by Jane Kenyon, titled “Alone for a Week,” demonstrates the weird, affecting, tightly-packed emotional power of the short, subtly rhymed, lyric. Read the poem intact here; I pick it apart below. (For another example of the suggestive power of the well-conceived short lyric, go here.) […]

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