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Winter landscape, with rocks -- Sylvia Plath

Somebody asked about the confessional poets - Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton,
Adrienne Rich and the like - and as we all know, the minstrels exist
only to serve... :-)
(Poem #53) Winter landscape, with rocks
Water in the millrace, through a sluice of stone,
plunges headlong into that black pond
where, absurd and out-of-season, a single swan
floats chaste as snow, taunting the clouded mind
which hungers to haul the white reflection down.

The austere sun descends above the fen,
an orange cyclops-eye, scorning to look
longer on this landscape of chagrin;
feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook,
brooding as the winter night comes on.

Last summer's reeds are all engraved in ice
as is your image in my eye; dry frost
glazes the window of my hurt; what solace
can be struck from rock to make heart's waste
grow green again? Who'd walk in this bleak place?
-- Sylvia Plath
<biographical note>

Born to middle class parents in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Sylvia
Plath published her first poem when she was eight. Sensitive,
intelligent, compelled toward perfection in everything she attempted,
she was, on the surface, a model daughter, popular in school, earning
straight A's, winning the best prizes. By the time she entered Smith
College on a scholarship in 1950 she already had an impressive list of
publications, and while at Smith she wrote over four hundred poems.

Plath's surface perfection was however underlain by grave personal
discontinuities, some of which doubtless had their origin in the death
of her father (he was a college professor and an expert on bees) when
she was eight. During the summer following her junior year at Smith,
having returned from a stay in New York City where she had been a
student ``guest editor'' at Mademoiselle Magazine, Plath nearly
succeeded in killing herself by swallowing sleeping pills. She later
described this experience in an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar,
published in 1963. After a period of recovery involving electroshock and
psychotherapy Plath resumed her pursuit of academic and literary
success, graduating from Smith with honors and winning a Fulbright
scholarship to study at Cambridge, England.

In 1956 she married the English poet Ted Hughes, and in 1960, when she
was 28, her first book, The Colossus, was published in England. The
poems in this book---formally precise, well wrought---show clearly the
dedication with which Plath had served her apprenticeship; yet they give
only glimpses of what was to come in the poems she would begin writing
early in 1961. She and Hughes settled for a while in an English country
village in Devon, but less than two years after the birth of their first
child the marriage broke apart.

The winter of 1962-63, one of the coldest in centuries, found Plath
living in a small London flat, now with two children, ill with flu and
low on money. The hardness of her life seemed to increase her need to
write, and she often worked between four and eight in the morning,
before the children woke, sometimes finishing a poem a day. In these
last poems it is as if some deeper, powerful self has grabbed control;
death is given a cruel physical allure and psychic pain becomes almost

On February 11, 1963, Plath killed herself with cooking gas at the age
of 30. Two years later Ariel, a collection of some of her last poems,
was published; this was followed by Crossing the Water and Winter Trees
in 1971, and, in 1981, The Collected Poems appeared, edited by Ted


In general I don't like Plath's poetry.

Oh, I admit that she's a great poet, and that she's written some
stunningly powerful poetry; there are few pieces of writing as raw and
emotionally intense, as visceral, as Plath's work. For Plath, as for all
the confessional poets, the need to write was compelling, overpowering -
in the catharsis of the written word, they found (for some time, at
least) relief from the personal demons that haunted them.

But the fact remains, she's not one of my favourite poets. And I don't
think I'd be able to do justice to her more important poems - I shall
leave that as an exercise for one (or more) of our readers :-) - so I've
confined myself to today's poem, somewhat atypical, perhaps, but
possibly more accessible.


PS. I will, however, restore the balance by sending you the following
short essay, posted anonymously to Usenet:

Sylvia Plath - the darkness inside of us

Sylvia Plath scares people. When I say "Sylvia is my favorite poet" I
get a weird look and a silence. The only poet I have ever really liked,
besides my own poetry, was Sylvia's. She was brillant, and in her poetry
there is a razor edge, opened to the inside of one's soul. This is what
makes people afraid. There is a certain connection in the suicidal. Once
you've been there, and are "lucky" enough to have survived, the entire
world is shaded in different colors. It follows you insistently, no
matter how often you attempt to exorcise your demons throught the pen
and the paper. Until you have realised the potential of death, and at
the same time, of life, you can not understand the dark beauty of blood,
of pills, and of her poetry.

64 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

SHough7428 said...

>The only poet I have ever really liked,
>besides my own poetry, was Sylvia's.

This is a bit conceited, n'est-ce-pas? sort of like saying, "I don't really
like art, except for my paintings and Picasso's."


Maria said...

is it not conceited to like more than your own poetry if your own poetry is all that you like? conceit is stupidity. it is smart to like what you write or you may as well gas yourself now. it is smart to desire improvement in your own writing and conceited to rest on your laurels.
considering there is so much crap writing then to like less is natural but to expect so is once again, conceited.

allison cox said...

if anyone knows what Sylvia Plaths very first poem was
called plz e-mail me and give me the info!!!

Edward Black said...

Sorry, but isn't this poem called "Winter Landscape, with ROOKS" ?

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The punctuation of the poem produces a clear structure that urges the reader on with the energy of the thought structure it supports.The first section of this poem is really wonderful.

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