In the following essay, I will examine the development of Plash’s poetry through analysis of major themes and imagery found in her description of landscapes, seascapes, and the natural world. By acceptable Sylvia Plash’s Psychic Landscapes In the following essay. I will examine the development of Plash’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 Plash’s poetry as a unity.
Individual poems are best read in the context of the whole oeuvre: motifs, homes 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 selfless 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 Plash’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 equilibrium’s skill at handling demanding verse forms, such as the terra rim and the Belleville, 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 Belleville 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 f her finest and most personal poems are written ;n this medium, for example, ‘Fever 1030,’ ‘Ariel,’ ‘Nick and the Candlestick,’ ‘Lady Lazarus,’ ‘Mar’s Song,’ and the late ‘Sheep in Fog,’ ‘Child’ and ‘Contusion. ‘ More Important, though, Is the development one can observe In Plash’s handling of images and themes, of settings and scenes. My concern in this essay is Plash’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. Plash’s use of landscapes and seascapes Is Indeed one of the most harmonistic features of her poetry. They put their mark on a considerable part of 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 Plate makes use of as setting and image.
Three scholars have paid special attention to this aspect. In her pioneering work, The Poetry of Sylvia Plate: A Study of Themes (1972), Ingrain Mainlander includes analyses of poems set in different landscapes and seascapes that Plate 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 (retardant’s Crags’ and Withering Heights’); two ‘idylls’ (terrycloth of Shortchanges Meadows’ and ‘In Midas’ Country’); and three ‘landscapes as experienced by the traveler’ (sleep in the Mojave Desert,’ ‘Stars over the Doreen’ and ‘Two Campers in Cloud Country’).
Mainlanders approach is thematic and she makes no attempt to suggest development or continuity concerning this aspect of the poetry. In Jon Restaurant’s Sylvia Plate: The Poetry of Initiation (1979), in my view still the cost useful book-length critical study, the idea of development is a main concern. He devotes one chapter to Plash’s use of landscapes and seascapes, focusing on the transition from early to late poetry as part of his overriding argument: that Plash’s poetry enacts a ritual of initiation from symbolic death to rebirth.
He pragmatically refrains from placing her poems in extraterrestrial contexts, such as her biography. Edward Butcher, on the other hand, goes to the other extreme in his critical biography, Sylvia Plate: Method and Madness (1976), where he makes no essential preference between the life and the poetry. While he offers many imaginative and perceptive comments on Plash’s anthropomorphism of nature, they naturally become subsumed in the telling of the story of the poet’s life and also, frequently, slightly distorted by Butcher’s psychoanalytically loaded thesis about the emergence of Sylvia Plate the ‘bitchy goddess. Since the appearance of these three studies Sylvia Plash’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 Plate (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 Plash’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 landscapes Sylvia Plate had seen. With a poetry like Plash’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 Plate 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: ‘l 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 ‘Watercolors of Shortchanges 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 Hempstead Heath). Inspired–and sometimes prodded–by her husband who was versed in country things, Sylvia Plate 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: ‘l cannot stop writing poems! … They come from the vocabulary of woods and animals and earth that Ted is teaching me. Prodded or inspired, Plate 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 Plash’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 odds, 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.
Plash’s depictions of places and landscapes reveal her interest in pictorial art. She 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 ‘Jackhammers’ (1957) and ‘Hading, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies’ (1958), both modeled on paintings by Henry Rousseau, and ‘Sculptor’ (1958), dedicated to her friend Leonard Basking.
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 Ovenbird 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 Plash’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 (Withering Heights); an irregular row of houses in Ovenbird; 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 Plash’s early poems betray the same sort of literary artificiality that marked most of her Juveniles; 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’ 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 Plate outlined the scene that inspired some f 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. Plate referred to the poem as ‘a psychic landscape. ‘ From now on err 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 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 advertorial 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. Allegiance Lullaby,’ one of several poems inspired by Plash’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 Plate 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 e 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 he 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 Plate knew from visits with her husband’s family. ‘November Graveyard’ introducing this group describes a setting where nature–trees, grass, lowers–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 Plash’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 anthropomorphism: ‘skinflint’ trees refuse to mourn or ‘wear sackcloth,’ the ‘dour’ grass is not willing to put on richer colors to solemnizes the place, and the Two other Yorkshire poems, ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ and ‘Two Views of Withers,’ 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 errors’ differing responses to a bare landscape and a dilapidated farmhouse with literary and romantic associations. (The scenery is associated with Emily Bronze’s Withering 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. ‘ ‘Hardest 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 mom 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, ‘Withering Heights,’ Plate 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 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 Plash’s greater ability to transform realistic, concrete objects and scenes into consistent sets of metaphors for her thoughts and emotions. New Year on Doormat’ is a somewhat later poem, inspired by a walk Sylvia Plate took with her small daughter on Doormat some distance from the Hughes’ home in Devon; the poem may have been written in late December 1961. NEW YEAR ON DOORMAT This is newness: every little tawdry Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you Don’t know what to make of the sudden sleepiness, 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 Plash’s technique of using landscape scenes has changed even more. Here there is very little realistic description; the setting becomes completely ‘metaphorical’ 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 Plate and Ted Hughes spent several weeks at Yawed, 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 Yawed 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 bout and of getting the most out of the scenery. She was pleased with ‘Medallion,’ a poem she defined as ‘an images piece on a dead snake. Nature is here in a somewhat macabre fashion used to aestheticism death. The speaker is only a cool observer. In another Yawed poem featuring animals, ‘Blue Moles,’ with its unequivocal message that strife and violence are the modes of nature, nature is anthropomorphism; the speaker empathetic with the moles (down there one is alone’) while the sky above is ‘sane and clear. ‘ The anthropomorphism tendency is strong in the Yawed 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 grief’ in the protagonist’s shoes, and in ‘The Manor Garden’ items from nature are used to parallel and explain the growth of a fetus in a human body. It is not enough for Plate 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 metaphoric natural suffice to hint at a parallel or an origin in nature. Early in 1959 Plate had made clear what she wished to achieve in her nature poems.
After finishing Watercolors of Shortchanges Meadows’–a memory of the Cambridge surroundings–she noted: ‘Wrote a Shortchanges poem of pure description. I must get philosophy in. ‘ As every reader knows, Plate 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 Mob Dick when he let Shame reflect on the ‘tiger heart’ that ‘pants’ beneath the ‘ocean’s skin. ‘ Plash’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 Rotten. 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 own weirdness’s. ‘ 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 Plash’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 Houghton harbored. Sylvia Plash’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 Hughes 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,’ ‘Losses,’ ‘Cut,’ Mar’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 traumatized 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 Narcissism,’ ‘Poppies in July’ and ‘Poppies in October,’ all from 1962. But in these poems too there is much more story or incident than description. Eternal 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 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 Asp’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 anthropomorphism nature: ‘The grasses unload their grief on my feet as if I were God. ‘ The light of the mind does not help. The speaker complains: ‘l 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 sentimentalists 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. Plate 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 counterpoised 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 counterpoising ‘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 beaker 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 The Devon milieu is the scene also for ‘Among the Narcissism. ‘ 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 Plate spent in Devon, ‘Letter in November’ and ‘Winter Trees,’ testify to the almost uncanny equilibriums 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 (areas’), naked hatred and contempt (the Fearful’), these are some of the emotions embodied n the November poems. Letter in November’ is set in the Court Green garden. It is unusual for Plate 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) apostrophe 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.