Idea of Persona

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1273

“Blackberrying” has drawn readers’ attention because they cannot help but imagine the person behind the poem, the one speaking the words, giving the experience shape. The speaker, however, is different than the author, in that the speaker herself is a construction, a mask if you will, for the author’s words. However, for writers such as Plath, whose personal life has garnered as much, if not more, attention than her writing, it is often impossible for readers to separate author and persona. Combining author and persona, however, makes the poem more meaningful than if it were read in some cultural vacuum. “Blackberrying” has gained in popularity among Plath’s poems precisely because it meets readers’ expectations of the kind of person Plath was represented as being in all of the public discourse about her: fierce, brilliant, troubled, and haunted by death. Reading the poem, we see Plath moving among the blackberry bushes, feel her shifts in consciousness and attention as each image is pegged. By delaying the entry of the “I” until the eighth line of the poem, Plath has readers focus on the landscape rather than the speaker. She draws us in by starting off with more general description of her environment and then narrowing her aim, as if she is snapping photographs first from a distance and then from close up. Readers learn that the sea is “somewhere” at the end of the blackberry lane, but don’t know when they will arrive at it. This “carrot and stick” approach creates a sense of anticipation and of claustrophobia in readers, which they, in turn, assign to the speaker. When the speaker’s focus shifts to what is literally at hand, she compares the blackberries first to the ball of her thumb and then to eyes, emphasizing the physicality of her experience. The gap between the observer and the observed is closing. The full-fledged identification of the speaker with the thing she sees occurs after the berries “squander” their “blue-red” juices on her fingers. Squandering something is akin to wasting it, and using this word to denote the berries’ power to stain suggests the speaker does not feel worthy of the berries’ juice. Her sense of unworthiness, however, turns to gratitude in the very next line, when she says: “I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.” This newfound communion with the berries is symbolic of the speaker’s attitude towards nature in general. Critic Jon Rosenblatt, in Sylvia Plath: Poet of Initiation, puts it best, writing:

The poet seems to identify with the vulnerable, animate form in the midst of a hostile nature. The berries thus become internalized objects: they symbolize the fate of human beings who are “eaten” by the universe, a metaphor Plath employs time and again in the late poetry. The speaker wishes to establish a very special relation with the berries and with the landscape: it is as if the natural scene had been transformed into a human body and she were commenting on that body’s condition.

The speaker, having identified with the berries, now adopts a worried tone. She describes a flock of choughs (Old World crows) in ominous, almost apocalyptic terms, as, “Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.” Such imagery starkly contrasts with the lushness of the berries in the first stanza, and suggests that the speaker, landed, is potentially at risk, a victim in the making. She never states what the birds are “protesting” about, but the implication is that they are hungry. Plath, a student of myth, steeps her poetry in such symbols. Historically, crows have been a harbinger of death, following Viking armies into battle expecting to feast on the dead. The Celts personified death in the female triplicity known as the Morrigan, or “the Queen of Shades.” Consisting of three spirits, the Morrigan was often depicted as a large, black crow or raven, sweeping down to catch its prey. Plath’s image carries these associations. It is after the crows’ emergence that the speaker does “not think the sea will appear at all.” Her increased anxiety leads her to read the environment as a land- scape fraught with danger and signs of danger. For the first time, she sees the land outside the lane, describing it in preternatural (supernatural) terms: “The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.” This luminosity, however, is a prelude to death, not life, as she next sees “one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies.” The speaker, now fully inhabiting the persona of victim, identifies with both berries and flies. The former, having fruited, are ready to die; the latter, doomed by nature to a short life, are quite possibly enjoying their last meal. By saying that the flies “believe in heaven,” the speaker assigns them a human attribute. The image of the feasting flies and martyred berries, fittingly, closes the speaker’s own journey through the lane, which has also been a symbolic journey through a landscape of her own fears. The last stanza signals a tone of acceptance, as the speaker finally arrives at the sea, a symbol of life, chaos, and rebirth. Rather than observing and identifying with elements of nature, as she has done in the first two stanzas, the speaker now receives nature’s force, as “a sudden wind funnels at . . . [her], / Slapping its phantom laundry in . . . [her] face.” By comparing the wind hitting her to “phantom laundry,” the speaker introduces a domestic image, and calls to mind readers’ extra-literary knowledge of Plath’s private life, which was riven by marital discord. This knowledge cannot but feed into their understanding of the speaker’s persona. She is now pushed along the sheep path, prodded by unseen forces both inside and outside her, until she arrives at the “hills’ northern face” that “looks out on nothing.” This “nothing” suggests both death and the absence of meaning. Her literal journey through the blackberry lane, a figurative journey into herself and her place in nature, has come to an end. The last things she sees and hears are:

a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

Rosenblatt notes that, “Unlike the blackberries, which Plath converted into ‘sisters,’ the sea resists all comforting anthropomorphic interpretation.” However, the sound is a human one, and made by those who labor. Regardless that the metal is “intractable,” the sound is one that suggests the possibility, if not the probability, of change, even if that change comes at death. At the poem’s end, readers are left with the image of a speaker who creates nature in her own image but who cannot sustain that image throughout her entire journey. When she loses her ability to see herself in nature, she turns toward the human world. If readers see the speaker in the image of the silversmith, they see someone who continues to figuratively “bang her head” against nature, willing it to change. “Blackberrying” wasn’t published until 1971, when it appeared in her collection, Crossing the Water. This is a full eight years after Plath committed suicide and the stories of her life and tragic death had worked their way into public consciousness. It is these stories that readers bring with them to her poem, and which help to fashion their image of the speaker behind it. Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “Blackberrying,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition whose essays, poems, and stories regularly appear in journals and magazines.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2176

The most important aspect of a poet’s creative effort is the manipulation of language to create unique images. It is through the clever use of the words that the writer invites the reader to experience routine images in new ways. For Sylvia Plath, the value of imagery “is not its novelty but its accuracy,” notes Alicia Ostriker. An image is anything in a poem that calls on the reader to respond using the senses. Images are the sensory content of a work and they may be literal or figurative. The words “red rose” call on the reader to “see” a rose; the rough texture of sandpaper asks the reader to “feel” the gritty surface of the paper; the aroma of a pot of baked beans evokes the “smell” of the beans. This, in the hands of good poets, is what makes poetry engaging. Two prominent aspects of Plath’s poetry are sea imagery and the colors used to intensify the imagery. Edward Lucie-Smith (writing in 1970) notes that her “obsession with the sea” runs throughout her major volumes of poetry, including The Colossus (1960), Ariel (1965), and The Uncollected Poems (1965). She “returns to it obsessively, again and again” and this becomes one of the most important images in all of her poetry, including the posthumous volume Crossing the Water (1971). Many critics report that the image of the sea is symbolic of a variety of objects or events, i.e., death (drowning) or a lifegiving and maternal medium. In Plath’s poetry, “contrary to tradition, it is thought of as male,” says Lucie-Smith. Here, the focus will be the literal imagery, not what the image represents. E. D. Blodgett wrote that one purpose “of Plath’s poetry is to use imagery . . . to make a savage appeal to the reader.” Many of her poems that are filled with this kind of appeal include verbal and visual savagery. The poem “Full Fathom Five” (written in 1958) is an early example of Plath’s use of threatening sea imagery. This poem, with the same title as a poem by Shakespeare from The Tempest, begins:

Old man, you surface seldom.
Then you come in with the tide’s coming
When seas wash cold, foam-

From these seemingly benign opening lines the sea is then transformed into:

keeled ice-mountains
Of the north, to be steered clear
of, not fathomed.

In this poem, the poet takes the reader on a journey that leads away from a threatening sea. The reader is encouraged to avoid it rather than understand it. Contrary imagery is found in other poems of Plath’s that employ the sea as the chief image. In “Finisterre” (from September 1961), the opening image is “the sea exploding / With no bottom.” But at the end of the poem, the image is transformed through the eyes of “Our Lady of the Shipwrecked” in this line: “She is in love with the beautiful formlessness of the sea.” From an exploding image to the object of the Lady’s love, Plath juxtaposes the threatening and beckoning nature of the sea. A brief reference to a comforting sea is found in “Morning Song” (February 1961) when a mother, listening for her child’s cry, says “A far sea moves in my ear.” In the motherly context of the poem, this is a positive sea image. These conflicts are part of the intrigue of the sea imagery in Plath’s poetry. The poem “Man in Black” (from 1959) begins with the “shove and suck of the gray sea,” showing the sea as a hostile, threatening force. Later, “the wave unfists” against the headland in its relentless attack on the shore. Similarly in “Point Shirley” (1959) she writes:

The gritted wave leaps
The seawall and drops into a bier
Of quahog chips,
leaving a salty mash of ice.

In this poem, the sea not only attacks the seawall, it crosses it and attacks an area behind it. “Suicide off Egg Rock” (1959) contains even more disturbing imagery with:

—that landscape
of imperfections his bowels were part of—
Rippled and pulsed in the glassy updraught.

In these lines, the corpse of a suicide victim has washed up onto the shore. The final line of the poem closes with “The forgetful surf creaming on those ledges.” These are examples of Plath’s imagery of the sea as a relentless force, one that is unaware of the damage it does to the shore and the breakwaters that have been built to hold it back. It is an impersonal force with a disregard for the people it encounters; even the suicide’s body is “Abeached with the sea’s garbage.” In these three poems, the brutal nature of the images shows the sea as male. “Blackberrying,” written in September 1961, is what Douglas Dunn calls “a poem of menacing description” that uses “direct statements”—“Blackberries as big as the ball of my thumb”—to create “surprising” imagery in the poem. A striking combination of the critiques by Dunn and Blodgett comes at the end of “Blackberrying.” After following the sheep path, the speaker and the reader are assaulted by the overpowering image of the vast and mysterious sea. This final impression from the poem combines the calls of the choughs (an Old World, crow-like black bird with a harsh, electronic- sounding call), the rush of the wind and the din of the sea itself into what Plath calls a “doom noise” in “Finisterre.” Plath draws the reader into the text through what Dunn has called her “improved sense of drama,” especially in her volume Crossing the Water (1971). This is created by her use of the “direct statements” and a “freedom of movement” that avoids “the earlier clotted style” of poems from previous volumes. Compare the introduction of the hills in the following lines from “The Great Carbuncle” (1957) to a similar introduction in the last stanza of “Blackberrying”:

We came over the moor-top
Through air streaming and green-lit,
Stone farms foundering in it,
Valleys of grass altering
In a light neither of dawn
Nor nightfall.

Note the more simply described hills in the last stanza of “Blackberrying” and the somewhat congested presentation in the earlier poem. (This comparison does not mean to imply that one poem is better than the other; it merely indicates the difference in style that Dunn points out.) In “Blackberrying,” Plath adopts a sparseness of expression that focuses the reader’s attention sharply on the imagery she presents. In this way, she adopts the motto of the Bauhaus architects that says “Less is More.” (In architecture this was a movement away from a florid style to a more austere style.) This analysis applies especially to Plath’s poetry from her later volumes. Dunn also comments that the poems in Crossing the Water, including “Blackberrying,” are filled with “unexpected imagery” of the kind now under discussion. A writer for the London Times has commented that the poems in this volume are compelling because they “map out a territory which is unique, harrowing, . . . and which breeds its own distinctive landscapes.” The writer remarks that these poems create a world filled with “the shock of surprise” at the mutable nature of the images in them. In the present context, this means that the sea is both changeable (always in motion) and permanent (always present). Plath plays with these contradictions to increase the dramatic tension in “Blackberrying.” In “Blackberrying,” the dramatic moment of meeting the sea is intensified by the hesitant way it has been introduced (by the poet) into the poem. At first it is at the end of the path, “heaving.” Then the speaker, impatient at the length of time it takes to follow the path, says, “I do not think the sea will appear at all.” Finally, the sea is confronted but it is “nothing but a great space.” It is this combination of hesitation and anticipation that creates the reader’s interest. But when the sea is met, it is not what is expected at the end of a walk spent picking blackberries. It is an empty hostile sea that Jon Rosenblatt calls a “powerful and gigantic nothingness.” The hope of a comforting encounter is dashed just as the sea itself dashes repeatedly against the shore in the deafening din. The speaker and the reader are left on the shore facing the unrestrained savagery of this hostile sea. Brita Lindberg-Seyersted claims that the speakers in many of Plath’s poems are uneasy in the out-of-doors, exhibiting “feelings of estrangement and fear.” In “Blackberrying,” the impatient speaker seems to be in a hurry to get to the end of the journey without taking the time to enjoy the experience of the blackberry patch. Stanza three opens with “The only thing to come now is the sea.” However, this seems a bit of wishful thinking because two hills and one more turn in the path remain in the walk to the sea. Margaret Newlin says that it is “tempting to call Sylvia Plath a landscape poet.” This comes from the fact that she often writes about outdoor locations near her home. Lindberg-Seyersted reports that when she lived in the United States, inspiration came from the New England coast. When she lived in England, scenes were often taken from Devon and London. Plath’s deliberate approach to poetry, especially the land and seascapes, gives her poetry crispness and clarity. Lindberg-Seyersted explains that “Plath’s depictions of places and landscapes reveal her interest in pictorial art.” It is readily seen in her use of color and color combinations that contribute to the development of crisply drawn outdoor scenes. Many of her best poems are “landscape word-paintings,” according to Phoebe Pettingill. An example of this “word-painting” is found in these lines from “Blackberrying”:

A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange
That looks out on nothing.

This passage could have been inspired by a painting hanging in a museum. The Seascape at Saintes-Maries by Vincent van Gogh and The Stormy Sea by Gustav Corbet are both excellent examples of paintings that embody the same intense quality described in these poems by Plath. Some of her poems take their names from paintings. For example, “Snakecharmer” (written in 1957) and “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies” (from 1958) are both inspired by paintings by Henri Rousseau. At the end of the latter, Plath writes:

Rousseau confessed . . . that he put you on the
To feed his eye with red: such red! under the
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!

The colors in these excerpts function as intensifiers of the scene. The rock and the couch could exist in the poems without the stated color, but including unexpected or intense color descriptions adds to the drama of the passage. In “Blackberrying,” the rock face is “orange,” an unexpected color. In “Yadwigha,” the couch is “such red” and it stands in direct contrast to the “great lilies” and “all that green.” Just as a crafty painter would use unconventional colors or color contrasts, so too does Plath. Her use of green twice in “Blackberrying” pushes the reader to see this color in two different ways. The first is a green that is “lit from within” and the second describes the hills as “too green and sweet.” Moreover, Plath’s attention to the pictorial details of her poetry yields, what Newlin has called, a “salt-aired painterly scene.” In “Blackberrying,” facing the funneling wind at the moment the sea is first seen is a particularly poignant “salt-aired” image. The “savage appeal” that Blodgett notes builds continuously toward the closing line: “Of white and pewter lights, a din like silversmiths / Beating and beating at an intractable metal.” Here the poet captures one final powerful image—a noisy, determined, overpowering, yet mysterious sea. To do this, she combines two descriptive sensory attributes, color and sound, into one concluding image. The progression of color from pure unaltered white, through the unrefined gray pewter to shiny silver is paralleled in the sounds of the poem, a movement from the raucous cawing of the choughs through the rushing wind to the din of the roaring sea. As these are combined, they drag the speaker and the reader through ever-intensifying levels of sight and sound. Margaret Uroff has commented that as a result of Plath’s attempts to write about landscapes realistically, she created “deceptive and encroaching” landscapes. The images in the poems herein discussed make Blodgett’s “savage appeal” to the reader an unrelenting challenge to the senses and imagination. While the images themselves may not be literally savage, they grasp the reader on a primordial level. This essay has focused on Plath’s crafty use of color as an intensifying agent in image building and on literal sea images that are at once beckoning and threatening. In “Blackberrying,” the pewtercolored sea is the most powerful and enduring image. Source: Carl Mowery, Critical Essay on “Blackberrying,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Mowery holds a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University and has written extensively for The Gale Group.

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Critical Overview