Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032
In this opening stanza, Plath’s speaker introduces readers to the scene and the task at hand— picking blackberries in a woods near the sea. In the first line she strongly establishes the isolation of the setting, emphasizing that “nobody” is in the lane and repeating the word “nothing.” Through the use of personification, Plath depicts the berries with human characteristics, as though “peopling” the scene with blackberries. They are associated with the speaker’s thumb, they are likened to eyes, and they “squander” their juices. By accumulating these details, Plath prepares the reader for an unusual but intriguing bond between the blackberries and the speaker: they have a “blood sisterhood” and the berries “love” her. In this stanza Plath also introduces the image of a hook, in the curves of the blackberry “alley” or lane. She also introduces the image of the sea, although as of yet it remains unseen (it is “somewhere at the end” of the lane). In the course of the poem Plath will develop these images as the speaker is “hooked,” drawn forward down the curving path to the mysterious (because unseen) and somewhat threatening sea.
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In this stanza Plath expands the setting to include the sky and other living creatures—birds and flies. Choughs are dark birds, related to crows. They are presented here as vaguely ominous, sug- gestive of death. They are described as being “in black” rather than simply “black,” as though they are dressed in black clothing, as if in mourning. They are compared to “bits of burnt paper,” like ashes blown from a fire; and they caw in “protest” at some unnamed offense. Their noise seems to break the stillness of the scene—theirs is the “only voice.” Significantly, the black coloring of the birds recalls the blackness of the berries—and anticipates the blackness of the flies in line 15. In that line the speaker says of a bush of over-ripe blackberries that “it is a bush of flies,” suggesting both that the bush is filled with berries that look like flies and that the bush is literally covered in flies. Associations with death occur here too, as the blackberries are depicted as rotting and covered in flies. Plath, then, has established links between the blackberries, the choughs, and the flies through their black coloring and suggestions of death. Looking back, lines 7 and 8, in which the berries “bleed” on the speaker and establish a “sisterhood” with her, includes the speaker in this network of associations. The suggestion of death is given a positive aspect, however, with the reference to heaven in line 17. For the flies, at least, the field of blackberry bushes is heaven. The “honey-feast” (and, perhaps the “milkbottle” of line 9) is reminiscent of the labelling of paradise as “the land of milk and honey.” Line 14, with its description of the “high, green meadows” that are “glowing as if lit from within,” similarly evokes a beautiful, golden world. It is also worth noting that this world is a world of nature, away from people.
The sea is again mentioned in this stanza, but it remains mysterious and distant—so distant that the speaker doubts it will “appear at all.” But the path again “hooks” the speaker, drawing her closer to the sea, away from the blackberries: “One more hook, and the berries and bushes end” (line 18).
Lines 19–27 This stanza establishes a series of contrasts between the fields of blackberry bushes and the seaside. Emerging from an idyllic world into a harsher reality, the speaker is buffeted by the wind blowing off the ocean. The wind “tunnels” at her, and “slaps” her face. The hills she is leaving behind are “sweet” (recalling the honey sweetness of the berries) and what lies ahead is salty (the sea). As if being herded (the “blackberry alley” has turned into a “sheep path”), she follows the trail between two hills. She’s “hooked” again, and now she is standing on the northern face of the hills she has just left. Plath’s choice of the word “face” to describe the side of the hill seems intended to connect it with the face of the speaker, which has just been slapped by the wind. The hills’ northern face is orange rock—a rather startling contrast to the “green meadows” up on top of the hills. This suggests that the speaker too is changed, altered by the transition from hilltop to seaside. The rock face (and the speaker’s face) looks out on “nothing, nothing but a great space.” This repetition of the phrase “nothing, nothing” reminds the reader of its first occurrence in line 1, when it referred to the blackberry field. That first occurrence now seems ironic or paradoxical, because Plath has, through the careful use of detail in the course of the poem, made what was originally presented as empty seem very rich and full. This fullness is now contrasted with the desolate expanse of the sea. The “din” of the sea also contrasts with the comparative quiet on the hills, where the cawing of the choughs is “the only voice.” The fact that the sound of the birds is described as a “voice” is also significant, for “voice” implies an articulate, sensible being (what the choughs “say” has meaning), whereas the sound of the sea is violent and inarticulate, the result of beating on senseless and unmanageable (“intractable”) metal. It is perhaps particularly ironic that the inarticulate sea is associated with people—the “silversmiths” whose beating on metal creates a great noise. There are other subtle allusions in this stanza to the world of humans— the references to “laundry” (human clothing), “sheep” (domesticated animals), and “pewter” (a man-made metal)—perhaps suggesting that harshness and violence are associated with humans. In contrast, the heavenly world of the blackberry field has “nobody” (line 1) in it. The poem thus traces an interior journey within the speaker as well as the exterior journey down the path. The speaker travels from a peaceful world of “sisterhood” with nature, a world that contains suggestions of death, but which are connected with thoughts of heaven. She moves to a hard, unsettling world of violence and noise, a world of people.