Plath’s Psychological Landscapes

(I adapted this piece from an essay I wrote at Oxford. The tone is stuffier than I generally try to aim for in this blog, but I stand by what it says. I’m also, to be honest, pretty proud that I managed to research and write this essay the space of two days.)

It is now commonplace to refer to Sylvia Plath as one of the foremost “autobiographical” poets of the 20th century (falling just short of Robert Lowell in point of confessional intensity), but the channels through which these aspects of autobiography were incorporated into her work were often sinuous and deceptive. Plath’s habitual poetic instinct, like that of her husband Ted Hughes, was always mythopoeic rather than documentary, and her poems typically reflect a desire to transmute rather than simply record the quiddity of the actual and mundane. Her posthumous 1965 collection Ariel, conceived during a period of intense emotional and psychic upheaval, culminating in her suicide in 1963, reflects very powerfully this tendency toward a mythopoeic (or self-mythologizing) transmutation/absorption of the everyday. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the collection’s use of landscape. Plath’s quotidian impressions of the Yorkshire countryside (the primary setting of Ariel’s composition) are stitched very closely into the poetic and psychological subjectivities of her verse, and they can frequently can be seen to mythologize (or “psychologize”) her poems’ life-to-death trajectories toward oblivion. I offer here, then, some thoughts on how these quasi-mythological “landscapes” are manifested in Ariel’s verse.

Plath is not typically grouped among the 20th century’s nature poets—she has consistently been overshadowed in this respect by the work of her husband—but there is undoubtedly a strain of abstract, almost Emersonian naturalism that permeates her work. Emerson, a born and bred Bostonian like Plath, believed in the innate permeability of the human psyche to the natural world (witness his statement in “Nature,” his essay of… that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit”) and always strived (again, like Plath) for an artistic assimilation of the external phenomena of nature into the internal noumena of the self. This is very much of a piece with Plath’s self-mythologizing poetics (collections like The Colossus frequently dramatize the antinomy of man and nature),but what is especially notable in Ariel is a tendency to literally “incorporate” these phenomenal experiences into perceptual extensions of the body—assimilating landscape literally into mindscape. One only has to think of the preponderance of hunger and consumption imagery in Ariel to see this process at work (we recall that Plath’s partial Germanness is absorbed in “Daddy” as “the clear beer of Vienna”) and to consider the tendency of simple natural images (e.g. the titular flowers in “tulips”) to resolve to ones of food (“I imagine them / Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet”) to witness Plath’s edacious assimilation of nature into her mental/physical topology. If, as Judith Kroll asserts in Chapter in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, the primary drive of Plath’s mythopoeic project is towards an incorporation of all the external lineaments of “reality”into a poetic subjectivity, then this symbolic devouring of the natural world represents a characteristic effort to psychologize her exterior experience.

The genesis of Plath’s efforts to incorporate the Yorkshire landscape into her poems’ mythopoeic, self-psychologizing structures can be traced, depending on how one interprets her employments of landscape hitherto, from the final years of the 1950s, at which point poems such as “Hardcastle Crags,” “The Two Campers,” and “Waking in Winter” begin to adumbrate the kind of psycho-poetic geographies that reach their terminus in Ariel. “Hardcastle Crags” in particular, which was written in 1957, represents Plath’s first wholesale departure from the pastoral, Emersonian naturalism of poems like “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” (“There, spring lambs jam the sheepfold. In air / Stilled, silvered as water in a glass / Nothing is big or far”) and is one of her first poems to consciously analogize physical and psychological poetics.

All the night gave her, in return

For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat

Of her heart was the humped indifferent iron

Of its hills…The whole landscape

Loomed absolute as the antique world was

Once in its earliest sway of lymph and sap,

Unaltered by eyes

Whereas Emerson’s poetics of landscape (which are themselves profoundly indebted to Wordsworth’s) typically adumbrate the ecstatic assimilation of a subject to the natural world, here Plath dramatizes the psychology of alienation by presenting nature as something inimical and malicious. The implied tendency of the “eyes” that Plath refers to (which are perhaps indebted to Emerson’s “transparent eye balls”) is to apprehend or alter its external environment, but the hostility of the crags is such that the subject is forced literally to turn her gaze away (“before the weight / Of stones and hills of stones could break / Her down to mere quartz grit in that stony light / She turned back”). The landscape thus becomes the external embodiment of an inimical psychic mindset, and her attempts to accommodate its “humped indifferent iron”a thwarted effort to wrest it under control. Nature is no longer, in other words, the pacific and consoling force of “Grantchester Meadows,” but rather a cruel expression of enclosure and restraint—the constrictive psycho-geographic structures which, according to critic Ingrid Melander, a poet (and especially a poet suffering from mental illness) must internalize to overcome.

The primary trajectory of Plath’s pre-Ariel poetry, then (of which “Hardcastle Crags” is only an exemplar) is always towards a poetic/psychological apprehension of an inimical external world—assimilating, through quasi-mythological transformation, the external phenomena of nature into a unifying (and crucially controlling) subjectivity. In fact, the word trajectory is an especially apposite one in this case, for as we saw in “Hardcastle Crags,” Plath’s efforts to assimilate or subsume the physical/psychological landscape are frequently stymied by psycho-poetic barriers (e.g. the “Guarded broods and litters / Behind shut doors”), and it is only in Ariel that a full synthesis of landscape and mindscape is achieved. Notice, for example, how “Waking in Winter,” a poetic fragment that predates Ariel by just over a year, subtly adumbrates images and themes (eating/consumption, indifference, natural cruelty, etc.) that anticipate the more complete personal-geographical unions of “Elm” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree:”

I can taste the tin of the sky—the real tin thing

Winter dawn is the color of metal,

The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.

All night I have dreamed of destruction, annihilations—

An assembly-line of cut throats, and you and I

Inching off in the gray Chevrolet, drinking the green

Poison of stilled lawns

Already in this poem can we see Plath beginning to physically incorporate the landscape through the metaphor of consumption (“I can taste the tin of the sky” etc.), and to effect the kind of psycho-physical correlations (“The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves”) that “psychologize” the external world. However, the effect of these correlations is always mitigated by a sense of distance—a sense that Plath is still perceptually and ontologically distinguished from her subject(s)—and it is not until we arrive at Ariel proper that this distinction is ameliorated. Observe, for example, how the trees of “Waking in Winter” (standing symbolically, one assumes, for Plath’s electrically-addled neurons) are transformed in “Elm” from external metaphor to internal subjectivity (“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets. / Scorched to the root / My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires”) and how its “stilled lawns” become literally subjected to her absolutized naturalism in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (“The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God, / Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility”). Now in her full mythopoeic, naturally assimilative mode, Plath has passed from calling on nature for illustration to mimetically projecting herself onto it—effecting a complete synthesis of physical/psychological perception and “becoming” the landscape for herself.

Various scholars have interpreted, as I alluded to at the start, this desire to “become one” with this psycho-geographic landscape partly as a symbolic expression of the death drive that animates so much of her late verse. However, if we treat Plath’s poetic assimilations with nature solely as gestures toward annihilation (recall that the stars/snowflakes of ‘The Night Dances” reduce to “Touching and melting. / Nowehere”) we all but vitiate the complex and multivalent poetic structures that enliven her psycho-poetic landscapes before directing them to destruction. It is not the act of assimilation itself, in other words, which Plath equates with self-destruction, but rather the self-abnegating surrender to the darkness and indifference that nature inherently represents. Observe, for example, how “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (written in response to a Yew at North Tawton) expertly dramatizes the progress of a mind at first animating nature and then giving in to its impersonal nullity.

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

…The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,

White as a knuckle and terribly upset.

It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet

With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.

…The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.

And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.

Already within this poem’s first line (“This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary”), we can see a complete integration of the external realities of nature into Plath’s subjective experience (how otherwise could the light of the mind be “planetary?”), and witness the static phenomenon of light and color assimilated into active intellection. This assimilation is expanded in the following lines to embrace trees (“The trees of the mind are black”), grass (“The grasses unload their griefs on my feet”), and even the extra-planetary Moon (“The moon is no door…The moon is my mother”), but once all of these elements have been subsumed within Plath’s psycho-poetic ambit—notice how each of these static and impersonal elements is endowed with “human” characteristics—she shifts from trying to bring the landscape poetically to life to embracing its oblivious death. (“The Moon sees nothing of this… / And the message of the Yew Tree is blackness—blackness and silence”). It is as if Plath, once she has fully marshaled the landscape within her mythopoeic idiom, is compelled to submit to a thanatotic impulse that is inherent in nature itself, to enact its invariant and inexorable progression from being into non-being.

The poem in Ariel which perhaps best exemplifies this thanatotic progression from life to death (at least as revealed within psycho-poetic “landscape”) is the chilling “Rabbit Catcher” from 1962.What is truly remarkable about this poem, particularly as regards its mythopoeic engagement with nature, is the way in which Plath at once assimilates its natural geography (“I tasted the malignity of the gorse, / Its black spikes, / The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers”) and alienates herself from it—making herself at once master and victim of the indifferent nullity it represents.

There was only one place to get to.

Simmering, perfumed,

The paths narrowed into the hollow.

And the snares almost effaced themselves—

Zeros, shutting on nothing.

…Shutting shut on some quick thing,

The constriction killing me also.

What Plath is essentially trying to do here (which distinguishes “The Rabbit Catcher,” at least in point of conceptual ambition, from every other poem in the collection) is to effect a startling rupture in her speaker’s narrative subjectivity, at once “becoming” the psychologized landscape of the poem (“Simmering, perfumed, / The paths narrowed into the hollow”) and a disempowered subject (e.g. the constricted rabbit) within it. Plath’s obsession with doubles and duality has been well documented, but this expert (dis)integration of the physical and psychological landscape enables her to dramatize both her own subjection and assimilation to its thanatotic structures—the “paths” (marriage, depression, self-contempt) which narrow into the constricted killing of its final lines. She is, in other words, both the rabbit that is caught and killed by an oppressive external world, and the indifferent natural/psychological landscape that enforces its destruction—a perfect metaphor for the life of a poet finally “denatured” by her own oppressive and depressive psychic subjectivity.

It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely that Plath would find little to recognize of herself in these interpretations. Autobiography, even for confessional poets like Plath, is only one tool in the artist’s toolkit, and the different formal and technical demands of composition shape this autobiography in ways that even the poet can’t control. However, given Plath’s lifelong interest in psychology and the theory of the mind, and in particular the work of Carl Jung, it doesn’t seem too much of a reach to read aspects of psychology into any aspects of her poetry, particularly one as prevalent as physical landscape. Looking for the “real Plath” in her poems, as opposed to the artfully mythologized persona that she cultivated from her earliest work, is a little bit like chasing shadows, pursuing the rabbit that got out of its trap. However, even if these shadows are and shall remain uncatchable, we can still draw a lot from analyzing the different landscapes across which they are cast.

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