Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Plath: The Summer After High School

The Dead

Revolving in oval loops of solar speed,
Couched in cauls of clay as in holy robes,
Dead men render love and war no heed,
Lulled in the ample womb of the full-tilt globe.

No spiritual Caesars are these dead;
They want no proud paternal kingdom come;
And when at last they blunder into bed
World-wrecked, they seek only oblivion.

Rolled round with goodly loam and cradled deep,
These bone shanks will not wake immaculate
To trumpet-toppling dawn of doomstruck day :
They loll forever in colossal sleep;
Nor can God's stern, shocked angels cry them up
From their fond, final, infamous decay.

Sylvia Plath

Now that's more like it. Though this sonnet is (obviously) an early work included only in the "juvenilia" section of her Collected Poems, it's a personal favorite of mine, and I think because of its subject matter it's quite characteristic of her.

Plath didn't grow up in a devout family and church-going didn't seem to be a big part of their lives. Some of her poems betray a sensuous and mystical reverence for nature, though; Sheep in Fog and Blackberrying come to mind, in the sense that her images can somehow almost be felt against your skin as you read them. That is a sort of spiritual thing, I suppose.

Certainly she held no traditional religious beliefs. From her Unabridged Journals, entry #48:

"...I don't believe in God as a kind of father in the sky. I don't believe that the meek will inherit the earth: The meek get ignored and trampled. They decompose in the bloody soil of war, of business, of art, and they rot into the warm ground under the spring rains..."

She started those journals in July 1950 when she was seventeen years old. She continues this in the next entry:

"...I don't believe there is life after death in the literal sense. I don't believe my individual ego or spirit is unique and important enough to wake up after the burial and soar to bliss and pink clouds in heaven."


"The human mind is so limited it can only build an arbitrary heaven - and usually the physical comforts they endow it with are naively the kind that can be perceived as we humans perceive - nothing more. No: perhaps I will wake to find myself burning in hell. I think not. I think I will be snuffed out. Black is sleep: black is a fainting spell; and black is death, with no light, no waking. And how I bleed for all those on the battlefields - who thought "I am I, and I know this, that there is dying with no one knowing." I know a little how it must be - to feel the waters close above you for the third time, and to feel the internal juice sapping away, leaving you empty."

Plath's high school graduation picture from 1950.

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