Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sunday Plath: On What Precipice?


This was the land's end: the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic,
Cramped on nothing. Black
Admonitory cliffs, and the sea exploding
With no bottom, or anything on the other side of it,
Whitened by the faces of the drowned.
Now it is only gloomy, a dump of rocks ---
Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars.
The sea cannons into their ear, but they don't budge.
Other rocks hide their grudges under the water.

The cliffs are edged with trefoils, stars and bells
Such as fingers might embroider, close to death,
Almost too small for the mists to bother with.
The mists are part of the ancient paraphernalia ---
Souls, rolled in the doom-noise of the sea.
They bruise the rocks out of existence, then resurrect them.
They go up without hope, like sighs.
I walk among them, and they stuff my mouth with cotton.
When they free me, I am beaded with tears.

Our Lady of the Shipwrecked is striding toward the horizon,
Her marble skirts blown back in two pink wings.
A marble sailor kneels at her foot distractedly, and at his foot
A peasant woman in black
Is praying to the monument of the sailor praying.
Our Lady of the Shipwrecked is three times life size,
Her lips sweet with divinity.
She does not hear what the sailor or the peasant is saying ---
She is in love with the beautiful formlessness of the sea.

Gull-colored laces flap in the sea drafts
Beside the postcard stalls.
The peasants anchor them with conches. One is told:
"These are the pretty trinkets the sea hides,
Little shells made up into necklaces and toy ladies.
They do not come from with Bay of the Dead down there,
But from another place, tropical and blue,
We have never been to.
These are our crêpes. Eat them before they blow cold."

Sylvia Plath
September 29th 1961

Britanny, France is called "finisterre." Lands' end, the westernmost tip of northern France, jutting out into the Atlantic. This idea must have been occupying Plath because the poem she wrote just previously to this one, Blackberrying, also uses lands' end imagery. It too ends looking out over the ocean.

Plath and her husband Ted Hughes moved their family to a thatched-roof cottage in the little village of North Tawton, England. They spent much of fall 1961 working on the old place. It had cobblestone floors and the walls were three feet thick.

They worked in the overgrown gardens, made friends with neighbors, hung curtains in the cottage; that sort of thing. It was a productive time for them with their new home and also with their busy writing careers. She had just won a prestigious award. Yet Plath wrote these two poems about high cliffs overlooking the endless sea...

They were using a borrowed dining table that belonged to Assia Wevill.

Hughes would have an affair with Assia. Plath would then leave Ted. Then she would die. He would later father a little girl with Assia.

Assia would also commit suicide, taking little Shura with her.

Of course Plath had no way of knowing that all this would happen over the next few years. But on some level she must have felt that she was at a pivotal time. Her Ariel voice would soon emerge. Perhaps that is why imagery of overlooking seaside cliffs occupied her so.

My spouse, ever the Jungian, says that elevation (as on high escarpments) indicates "spirit." The ocean often symbolizes the womb or the subconscious. Plath was searching there for her Ariel voice, which would soon boil over into her life's work. Just as the events of her life itself would force changes as great to her as the vastness of the sea.


Peter K Steinberg said...

I enjoy your posts on SP; however, if you want to use pictures from my website in the future, please ask first.

Thank you.

dbackdad said...

Did you hear about Plath's son just recently committing suicide:

Nicholas Hughes