Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows
There, spring lambs jam the sheepfold. In air
Stilled, silvered as water in a glass
Nothing is big or far.
The small shrew chitters from its wilderness
Of grassheads and is heard.
Each thumb-sized bird
Fits nimble-winged in thickets, and of good colour.
Cloudrack and owl-hollowed willows slanting over
The bland Granta double their white and green
World under the sheer water
And ride that flux at anchor, upside down.
The punter sinks his pole.
In Byron’s pool
Cattails part where the tame cygnets steer.
It is a country on a nursery plate.
Spotted cows revolve their jaws and crop
Red clover or gnaw beetroot
Bellied on a nimbus of sun-glazed buttercup.
Hedging meadows of benign
The blood-berried hawthorn hides its spines with white.
Droll, vegetarian, the water rat
Saws down a reed and swims from his limber grove,
While the students stroll or sit,
Hands laced, in a moony indolence of love —
Black-gowned, but unaware
How in such mild air
The owl shall stoop from his turret, the rat cry out.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)
King’s College Cambridge owns Grantchester Meadows, a riverside beauty spot south of Cambridge. This area would be familiar to SP when at Cambridge. There may have been a Watercolour at the University. Apparently, it was written when she was in America in 1959 after returning there with Ted Hughes after their marriage.
The Granta is a tributary of the Cam.
Byron’s Pool is a well-known beauty spot where Byron used to bathe.
It is an ekphrastic poem before that word had poetic coinage. According to the Poetry Foundation, “an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.”. You can appreciate the text without needing a sighting of the Watercolour. And it is an SP poem which is easy to understand.
Students would be familiar with punting on the Cam. It is a nursery plate image; a quintessential image associated with England by those overseas.
Nimbus – a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere about a god or goddess when on earth. I do like that line – bellied on a nimbus of sun-glazed buttercup – it conjures up bright summer meadow flower sunshine relevant to my England heritage.
And we learn that water rats are vegetarians. I am always impressed by SP in how she uses her wide vocabulary in the choice of appropriate words. In the case of the water rat the verb saws = rapid two and throw motion, and the adjective limber = lithe. Implying skill in movement in the water.
Students and tourists often travel from Cambridge by punt to picnic in the meadows or take tea at The Orchard tea-rooms. But do the students really listen to the environment; especially when minds are locked in thought or otherwise engaged in romancing with a lover. And today locked in mobile use while walking.