Crossing the water- Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Crossing the Water

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Sylvia Plath

This is the first poem in the poetry book of the same name Crossing the Water being a 1971 posthumous collection of poetry by Sylvia Plath that Ted Hughes prepared for publication. The collection was published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1975.

S1 – it seems a dark night journey over the water … everything is black … and there is dark mystery in the personification of the numerous trees close to the water … the setting sounds like New Hampshire, America, perhaps after she was married and there with TH

S2 – the water flowers sound like lilies and the white picks up any light … filtering suggestive that the water is processing and giving up something via the lilies … thick leaves are preventing the boat from easy movement … and again darkness prevails in their advice … what are the water lilies saying? – don’t cross or go slow … more mystery in the personification of the flowers – are they trying to drag the boat down to a dark peril?

S3 – cold worlds that shake from the oar … the water is cold and another world, the mysterious world that is below … and the spirit of blackness is in us as though the black environment now enters us or gives recognition to our nature too … and as the boat passes through the mass of lilies the passing message is personified as a pale hand trying to catch the boat … like a snag catching hold of a fisherman’s line, it is always difficult to free a snagged line most times you lose hook and sinker

S4 – ‘stars open among the lilies’ – my first thought went to a patch of clear water with reflections from the sky – but perhaps more likely reference to the flowers themselves … in the next line their effect is so dramatic to be blinded – at least SP is blinded and this is after all the dark, dark, dark and then they are referred to as sirens for their beauty, imposing her femineity … clearly this sighting had a dramatic effect on SP … and in the last line there is a counter-play of silence as if SP and the audience is mummified

This is not the only SP poem which contrasts blackness with a sudden luminous spark of ‘heaven’ – consider, for example, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ which also shows the extremes in the persona of SP.

Unfortunately the spirit of blackness haunted SP all of her life … in the poem the snag lifted and the boat moved on through the mass of lilies. Sadly, we all know that it was only a temporary reprieve and that her journey was cut short by those unsinkable demons below the surface.

Home After Three Months Away – Robert Lowell

Home After Three Months Away

Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze–
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.

Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair–
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. . . .
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.

Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; no no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

S1 – While away the nurse has left the household. He remembers the porkrind put out on the magnolia tree for the birds to feed on during the Boston winter. I can identify with this as we did exactly the same thing during my childhood days during a Hampshire winter. In particular I remember blue tits feasting on bacon fat. Those were days when I was sick with whooping cough and measles so looking through the bedroom window to the birds acrobating as they fed was a distraction.

gobbets = drops

S2 – The current bathroom scene between father and young daughter is compared with a previous occasion. The child plays the same games as if his time away was nothing – just child’s play. They touch noses and she dabs her cheeks to initiate his shaving. But for him the time away has been significant magnified by the fact that he is is in fact a year older. But it is not time now to reflect.

levee = embankment

S3 – Perhaps he is dressing as he looks out from an upstairs room. He, like the tulips, has survived an ordeal over winter. In a way he has been in a coffin but he is recovering now. Will he, or will the tulips, survive another snowballing enervation.

enervate = weaken

This is a story of returning home after three months away for physciatric treatment which included shock therapy. The last two lines succinctly describe his emotional adjustment to normal life after being in hospital – ‘being cured‘ – but being ‘stale’ and without ‘rank or station’ at the bottom of the social scale – especially considering this was at a time when mental ilness was not well recarded by  general socieity as an illness.

Robert Lowell is a well known ‘confessional’ poet and his words are based on personal experience.

Details of Robert Lowell on wikipedia