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.

Metaphors – Sylvia Plath – Analysis


I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

Sylvia Plath

Metaphor = the use to describe somebody or something of a word or phrase that is not meant literally but by means of a vivid comparison expresses something about him, her, or it, e.g. saying that somebody is a snake.

Riddle = a puzzle in the form of a question or rhyme that contains clues to its answer

Tendril = a modified stem, leaf, or other part of a climbing plant, usually in the form of a thread, that coils around and attaches the plant to supporting objects

The poem has nine lines and each line has nine syllables. It is a little unusual for a poem to be swamped by metaphors – so the title quite appropriate.

A pregnant lady can be an elephant (maybe the way she feels about herself in making movement) – a ponderous house (thinking about herself as containing life) – a melon on two tendrils (gives emphasis to a large round body with thin legs).

A red fruit, ivory, fine timbers – red fruit = ready to be picked, the elephant is valued for ivory – a woman for childbirth – fine timbers has sexual connotations perhaps … how the pregnancy was established (structured)

Pregnant body is a big loaf in the making or a fat purse containing a coin in the making (something of value, and kept safe in a purse).

The pregnant lady a means to production and a stage in the process and the bag of green apples implies a certain uncomfortable feeling in the stomach.

But the last sentence is all important – a decision and a commitment – the journey ahead unknown – perhaps a little trepidation in what lies ahead.

Note that this was written before SP became pregnant – perhaps at the time she was deciding – standing on the station so to speak … and the puzzle only solved with time.

Blue Moles – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Blue Moles

They’re out of the dark’s ragbag, these two
Moles dead in the pebbled rut,
Shapeless as flung gloves, a few feet apart —-
Blue suede a dog or fox has chewed.
One, by himself, seemed pitiable enough,
Little victim unearthed by some large creature
From his orbit under the elm root.
The second carcass makes a duel of the affair:
Blind twins bitten by bad nature.

The sky’s far dome is sane and clear.
Leaves, undoing their yellow caves
Between the road and the lake water,
Bare no sinister spaces. Already
The moles look neutral as the stones.
Their corkscrew noses, their white hands
Uplifted, stiffen in a family pose.
Difficult to imagine how fury struck —-
Dissolved now, smoke of an old war.

Nightly the battle-snouts start up
In the ear of the veteran, and again
I enter the soft pelt of the mole.
Light’s death to them: they shrivel in it.
They move through their mute rooms while I sleep,
Palming the earth aside, grubbers
After the fat children of root and rock.
By day, only the topsoil heaves.
Down there one is alone.

Outsize hands prepare a path,
They go before: opening the veins,
Delving for the appendages
Of beetles, sweetbreads, shards — to be eaten
Over and over. And still the heaven
Of final surfeit is just as far
From the door as ever. What happens between us
Happens in darkness, vanishes
Easy and often as each breath.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes attended ‘Yaddo’ the artist retreat at Saratoga Springs, New York for eleven weeks between September and November 1959. This was one of the poems she wrote at that time. The poem followed her experience of finding two dead moles on the path while walking in the area.

Part 1 … the encounter …
S1 … a description on an unexpected sight … nice comparison with a couple of dropped gloves … she feels pity for them at the hands of some large creature … and they have left their underworld life – the world in which they ‘orbit’ … they could have been twins and had a fight … S1 ends by reflecting that this is ’bad nature’ – projecting her values on what she sees … seemingly the pointless death of the two creatures
S2 … it might have been a clear autumn sky on her walk and there is great contrast between the underground mystery dirt-orbit of the mole and the dome of clarity in the sky in the first line of this stanza …there is no evidence of their burrow from disturbing the surface leaves … they have been neutralised by coming to the surface and being killed become blended with the ground … SP always has a knack of using interesting words – ‘corkscrew noses’ … and then the closing thought how did this happen … the fury of the attack over – only the smoke of battle

Part 2 … the life of the mole personified …
S3 … SP enters the skin of the animal and goes to battle for mole food … imagining what it’s like down there while she is sleeping – the only evidence she has is the above ground mole-hills created as they tunnel … I don’t know though whether they are ‘alone’ presumably moles have underground families … note their killing for food appears legitimate in contrast to the death of the moles
S4 … SP concentrates on the foraging for food aspect … heaven is equated to a surfeit of food (well my dog Rani would agree!) … but what happens down there happens in darkness and continues constantly akin to our breathing in and out … the endless strive for nourishment and the maintenance of existence

SP wrote this on her stay stay at ‘Yaddo’ . She was aged 27 and pregnant with Frieda … not quite knowing where she was going with her work … perhaps at the time more interested in stories than poetry … and in the shadow of TH … in December 1959 the couple would return to England … in three years (Oct 62) much would have changed in her life – she would be separated from TH, in London, with two young children and bravely surviving the mental trauma that plagued her life as she penned her ‘Ariel’ poems. Her definitive work much recognised after her death.

Morning Song – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath (Feb 1961)

S1 – The first line of a poem is very important and this first start line is such a wonderful definitive statement on the start of life, that of the birth of a baby, and indeed relevant to life in general. ‘Fat’ and ‘Gold’ appropriate for fat signifies health in a baby as weight is so important for increase is eagerly sought by the mother. Gold signifies purity.

S2 – Voices echo at the birth usually a common joy resonates A museum signifies history and those of the old generation. Drafty (= draughty) generates an uncomfortable feeling and the ‘nakedness’ of the baby in this new environment increases the concern. The audience is a blank entity as far as the baby is concerned. The baby has no awareness of how he or she fits into the world – she is very much a new exhibit with everyone watching intently.

S3 – This is an interesting image expression to show the independence that exists between mother and child. A cloud trying to catch an image of itself as the wind quickly dissipates any such attempt.

S4/S5 – The mother is in constant awareness of the sound of the baby at sleep – akin to the sound of the sea in her ear. She wakes to listen for re-assurance. And it only takes one cry for an immediate response. ‘Stumble’ might indicate that the mother is tired from getting up to tend the needs of the baby or from keeping herself awake in her attentive concern.

S6 – I like the personification of the window square as it takes colour in a white frame and as it swallows the stars as dawn dissolves the night. The handful of notes belong to the baby, perhaps the starting voice of that independence referenced in the third stanza. Balloons of course are colourful and have happy child associations – and the healthy sounds of the baby are truly a bright ‘morning song’ to the mother.

Footnote – Cats do have clean mouths – due in part to the fact that the saliva in a feline’s mouth destroys germs and keeps the mouth clean. This is more powerful in cats than it is in humans and dogs, probably because cats use their mouths to clean themselves so often.

Here is a link to a YouTube reading of this poem by Sylvia Plath

You’re – Sylvia Plath – Analysis


Clown like, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.

Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.

Sylvia Plath

Frieda Hughes, SP’s first child, was born on the first of April 1960. The poem infers conception was on the fourth of July. I think the poem was published after the birth – but the imagery could have been latent in SP’s mind while pregnant. Each stanza is nine lines.

The fish comparison flows through both stanzas. It starts with the foetus being ‘gilled like a fish’ indicating that it is very much in an underdeveloped state and ‘farther off than Australia’ in the second stanza reinforces the idea that it is at an early stage of development.

SP likens the foetus to fog, to a loaf, to a turnip, to a bud, to a sprat, to a prawn, to eels in a basket and to a Mexican bean. I think all of this imagery is quite appropriate to the shape and nature of a foetus as experienced by a woman, pregnancy being an experience that only a woman can understand.

‘Bent-backed Atlas’ – well he, or she, is certainly holding up his, or her, ‘world’. This is an immense thought considering the comparison of the smallest of being with Atlas.

The second stanza also shows excitement and anticipation as in ‘looked for like mail’. The last two lines are interesting. Birth is ‘right’ and natural and in the end can easily be seen as a ‘well-done sum’ – an accumulation of cells over time. The end product being all important. And to my mind birth is always a clean slate and the uniquenesss of the new arrival is given emphasis by ‘your own face’. Humanity is pure at this stage and of course we always hope the new generation will improve things.

Looking at some of the words –

Spool – a cylinder on which thread is wound
Sprat – a highly active small oily fish
Creel – wicker basket used to hold fish

Dodo – large extinct flightless bird
Atlas – primordial being holding up celestial spheres

Mexican bean – Mexican jumping bean contains lava in the bod causing the bean to jump
when heated
A clean slate – an opportunity to start afresh

Black Rook in Rainy Weather – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain-
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honour
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant

Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

Sylvia Plath (1957)

This poem was written in 1956 and published in 1957 when Sylvia Plath would have been about 24 years old. She had married Ted Hughes in June 1956 (Bloomsbury Day) and she would have been living in England (Cambridge) and studying. It was the first SP poem that I read and prompted me to find out more about her – and that lead to discovering the relationship with Ted Hughes.

Here is a link to a You-Tube audio of SP reading this poem

Ostensibly this is a poem about boredom and living in a dull wintry environment with no respite from the depressing English weather … (even in this dull, ruinous landscape), remembering too that SP was used to ‘Boston’ weather. But at times miracles occur and simple objects radiate a heavenly aspect. However there are long waits for such happenings – (for that rare random descent).

For me her words underscore the nature of bipolar depression, albeit with a somewhat philosophic acceptance, – the many days of depression broken by an occasional intense high before the onset of many more depressive days. In this regard it is a poem which resonates and I placed a post on the ‘Sylvia Plath Forum’ several years ago which gives an explanation. Here is the link … (you will have to scroll to the archived Post for 27 October 2001).

And I do I like the choice of her words … well poetry was her vocation and she spent much thought in the use of words in expressing her poetic voice. And unlike many SP poems this poem is readily accessible as well as being an honest reflection on her state of mind.

Desultory – unfocused, aimless
Portent – sign, omen
Largesse – generosity, benevolence
Politic – tactful, diplomatic
Incandescent – luminous, radiant
Inconsequent – unimportant, insignificant
Celestial – heavenly, holy

To Time – An early Sylvia Plath Sonnet

The following sonnet was written by Sylvia Plath about 1952-53 at the age of 19-20, and probably as a student as a class assignment for her English professor, Alfred Young Fisher, at Smith College. Apparently SP followed the annotated suggestions of her professor.

Sonnet: To Time

Today we move in jade and cease with garnet
amid the clicking jewelled clocks that mark
our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet
we vaunt our days in neon, and scorn the dark.

But outside the diabolic steel of this
most plastic-windowed city, I can hear
the lone wind raving in the gutter, his
voice crying exclusion in my ear.

So cry for the pagan girl left picking olives
beside a sun-blue sea, and mourn the flagon
raised to toast a thousand kings, for all gives
sorrow: weep for the legendary dragon.

Time is a great machine of iron bars
that drains eternally the milk of stars.

Sylvia Plath

This poem was taken from the Juvenilia section of ‘SP Collected Poems’.

Here are some questions to promote discussion …

What type of sonnet … what is the rhyming scheme and metre?

What is the overall issue of concern?

How does jade and garnet relate to time?

Why does the poet view the city as plastic-windowed?

What is the overall feeling conveyed by the second stanza?

Why a ‘legendary dragon’ … why weep for the dragon?

What is missed by the reader if only the couplet is read?

And for the creative, write an alternative couplet based on a positive perspective of time in relation to the universe, for example …

time endlessly spreads the rays of the sun
throughout our world touching everyone.