Metaphors / Daddy / Cut / The Thin People / I Am Vertical / Bee Poems / November Graveyard / Mirror / Apprehensions / Eyemote / Guestbook / Lady Lazarus /In Plaster / Mirror / Black Rook in Rainy Weather / Mary's Song / Getting There / Ariel / Fever 103 / Elm / The Moon and the Yew Tree / The Bee Keeper's Daughter / Firesong //Sheep in Fog/ Lorelei / Stings / The Bee Meeting / Burning the Letters / Words/Balloons/The Queen's Complaint/Moonrise/Sonnet to Satan/Thalidomide/ Maenad/Edge/ Last Words/All the Dead Dears/The Death of Myth Making
November Graveyard and Black Rook in Rainy Weather
Sylvia Plath's Confrontation with the 'Beingness' of the Archetypes:
Evidence of Evolution of Consciousness in November Graveyard and Black Rook in Rainy Weather
"The Gods are never far below the surface of Homer's language-hence its unearthly sublimity."1
In The Form of Hamlet, Owen Barfield discerns that the reader's recognition of form in a great work of art is an actual encounter with a spiritual entity rather than the learning and recognizing of something that falls merely into an abstract categorization:
"What is form, the form of a work of art, the form of anything? I think it is fairly safe, to begin with, to say that it involves some kind of unity in variety. Neither mere unity nor mere haphazard 'multeity' (to borrow Coleridge's word) have form, but something between the two. The one theme, with many variations, this is not only the basis of all musical form but the basis of all form. So far, if it can be called for, all are agreed. It is when the critic seeks to go beyond, or to apply, this elementary maxim that he commonly gets into difficulties. This is especially so in the case of literature. For what is it that makes the form of a play or a poem into a real solid thing, something to be reckoned with, something that is able, so to say, to send a little shiver down the back? What is it that gives life to a work of art? It is, that the unity which is at the base of its form is itself a real being. At the lowest it must be a part of the author's own being, informed with his own life,so that if you prick it will bleed. At the highest it will be something altogether beyond any one personality. But it will be a being, not an idea."2
Of course Barfield is dismissing desiccated abstractions, not living, archetypal ideas that are synonymous with the "being " that he is discussing. Archetypal ideas fuse form and myth into entities that live in our selves and the "outer" cosmos simultaneously. We may be aware of them or they may remain outside of our consciousness. The great poet can materialize them, incarnate them in a complex web of thinking that suddenly thrusts these beings and our own natures into our waking life.
Whether Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, or any of the seemingly innumerable thought systems that seek to explain human existence, all seem to worship the Word as the basis of the creation of form and as the basis for the gods to reappear in the human through speech and language. God "spoke" creation and poets "speak" the human contribution to this web of creation, even when those poets are "speaking" the birth of new aspects of our souls which can put us face to face with the dark beings of complete isolation. Shakespeare "spoke" the master plan for the creation of the free ego and Sylvia Plath "spoke" from within this new creation and courageously brought light to this dim frontier to guide us on our journey through this evolutionary stage. Plath's instinctual, clairvoyant artistry combined with her ruthlessly honest self examination made her a modern pioneer of the new cognition of the human and the universe.
Barfield traces the evolution of language from a stage where meaning is suffused in myth, where Nature lives in our thinking, to intermediate stages where the purely rational begins to take effect. The rational principle brings dualism and creates the separation of subject and object which Barfield calls "camera consciousness" because this thinking generally coincides with the invention of the camera obscura and the Renaissance artist's fascination with perspective. Universals or archetypes, once perceived as actual spiritual beings, are now perceived as classifying abstractions.3
In speaking of the "victory" of camera consciousness which separates us from the world, Barfield states:
"Even our poetry has become, for the most part, camera poetry. So much of it consists of those pointedly paradoxical surface contrasts between words and between random thoughts and feelings, arranged in the complicated perspective of the poet's own often rather meager personality. Where, one asks, has the music gone?4
Sylvia Plath continually confronted the barrenness of dead archetypes and strove to rediscover meaning in the world around her. This path begins by a direct perception of the separation between the poet observer and the surrounding world. The estrangement from nature and spirit of the individual trapped in "camera consciousness" and the possible means of growing out of this stage is illustrated by Plath's November Graveyard and Black Rook in Rainy Weather.
November Graveyard 5
By Sylvia Plath
The scene stands stubborn: skinflint trees
Hoard last year's leaves, won't mourn, wear sackcloth, or turn
To elegiac dryads, and dour grass
Guards the hard-hearted emerald of its grassiness
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. No dead men's cries
Flower forget-me-nots between the stones
Paving this grave ground. Here's honest rot
To unpick the heart, pare bone
Free of the fictive vein. When one stark skeleton
Bulks real, all saints' tongues fall quiet:
Flies watch no resurrections in the sun.
At the essential landscape stare, stare
Till your eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Whatever lost ghosts flare,
Damned, howling in their shrouds across the moor
Rave on the leash of the starving mind
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.
One may be tempted, on a first reading, to hear Plath explain that the death of the Gods is a result of modern, scientific consciousness rising above the superstitions of atavism and simply having the courage to bluntly state that "There is nothing there but material objects." The material world cannot be affected by the observer's consciousness ("the scene stands stubborn"). Trees will not be personified or reveal elemental beings. The dead no longer exist and their cries cannot be transformed into flowers. One skeleton contradicts all religion. Nature is blind to the resurrection of the dead and provides no inspiration for the poet. We've reached the point where all metaphor is falsehood and the honest poet cannot rightly set down anything except the absolute deadness of everything surrounding her.
Then comes the great revelation. By continually staring at the air, the poets eyes are opened to a remarkable vision. She sees damned and howling lost ghosts flaring across the moor. These are the archetypes, the universals or "Gods" that were readily available to Homer in the everyday world. Modern consciousness has driven them back to the far off Moors of the mind where they they howl to be resurrected. Plath then equates the grave and the human skull. Death has superseded life in our own thinking. Our modern consciousness has put these beings on "leashes" to keep them outside of ordinary consciousness, but our humanity starves without the necessary assimilation of our spiritual aspects.
The first two paragraphs starkly present the emptiness of pure observer consciousness(what Barfield referred to as camera consciousness); however, by the third paragraph, Plath's tenacity of will allows her mind to complete what was only partially revealed by the objects themselves. Traditionally November is the month of the dead and the death forces of that season reinforce the images of this poem. Only by rediscovering the leashed beings in the back of her own mind could Plath begin to heal the division between observer and world.
In the beginning of "The Oversoul" Emerson states that "There is a difference between one and another hour of life, in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences." These "brief moments" may come unbidden or as a result of a feverish exercise of will. The "vice" is our sinking into pure sensory experience which bars our connection to our higher self or "oversoul". This oversoul Emerson describes as:
"The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other;that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty."
This is the transcendental unity to which Plath struggles to unite. It is the light that shines through the thinking of the observer which makes every object a revelation as in "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" discussed below. It is also the source of unease and discontent as it rumbles in the unconscious when we separate ourselves from it and reduce the size and mystery of our own humanity, a humanity that Emerson claims is:
"What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine inuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim? Why do men feel that the natural history of man has never been written, but he is always leaving behind what you have said of him, and it becomes old, and books of metaphysics worthless? The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence."
The "grandiloquent" mind of Goethe also fought with the "poverty" of death and human remains. It is interesting how poets are drawn to the graveyard as a place of research and study:
|Goethe (translated by Edgar Alfred
LINES ON SEEING SCHILLER'S SKULL
WITHIN a gloomy charnel-house one day
I view'd the countless skulls, so strangely mated,
Close pack'd they stand, that once so fiercely
Are lying cross'd,--to lie for ever, fated.
No one now asks; and limbs with vigour fired,
Vainly ye sought the tomb for rest when tired;
Back into daylight by a force inspired;
A glorious noble kernel it contained.
Which not to all its holy sense explained,
I saw a form, that glorious still remained.
Gave me a blest, a rapture-fraught emotion,
What mystic joy I felt! What rapt devotion!
A look, how did it whirl me tow'rd that ocean
Mysterious vessel! Oracle how dear!
Except to steal thee from thy prison here
Back to the air, free thoughts, and sunlight clear.
Than when God-Nature will to him explain
How steadfast, too, the Spirit-Born remain.
Interestingly, a similar vision is found in the work of Ezra Pound. In The Return Pound seems to encounter the same "leashed" beings that peopled Plath's November Graveyard. This comparison is interesting because although the two poets see the same archetypal entities , the entities' behavior is quite different. Plath's beings are howling and screaming while Pound's are fearful but not hysterical, more like beings that went to sleep and have awakened to a brand new world. The difference may be attributable to the difference in the poets' psyches and the enormous effect our inner projections have on the spiritual world. In both cases the beings have fallen a long way since Homer and now are tethered to leashes under the control of the human ego. Although we cannot revert to our original consciousness of their glory days, we can recognize and revitalize these essential parts of our makeup:
The Return by Ezra Pound
pallid the leash-men!
The new paradigm requires that we give new life to the mythic Gods but we can never allow them their former ruling power because our ego must establish its autonomy. Something of this can be seen in the Actor's speech in Hamlet where the recounting of the deeds of Greeks and Trojans confronts Hamlet with a prior condition of our consciousness. Hamlet is made acutely aware of that he must now be fully responsible for his own actions and cannot rely on the higher beings to steel his will. The new ego can feel ineffectual when confronted by "the Gods of the Winged Shoe" and this speech acts as a mirror by which Hamlet sees the dark spots in his own soul.
In the Form of Hamlet, Barfield states:
"Now for the first time a completely self-conscious Ego detaches itself from the rest of the spiritual world which rules in his unconscious. Fully responsible at last for his own actions, he is deprived of the instinctive guidance of spirits, even including his National or Folk Spirit, on whom, up to now, he has leaned. This is described in an illuminating way by Dr. Steiner (in this case actually with especial reference to Hamlet) in the first lecture of the course on St. Mark's Gospel. Living in the Consciousness Soul man experiences isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in a spiritual world, above all--uncertainty. The soul has to make up its mind and to act in a positive way on its own unsupported initiative. And it finds great difficulty in doing so. For it is too much in the dark to be able to see any clear reason why it should, and it no longer feels the old (instinctive) promptings of the spirit within."6
This is precisely the vision which Plath confronts and describes. In Black Rook we see that Plath's patience cultivates her visionary ability; she accepts that she cannot see the spiritual archetypes at will. But she can wait for the small moments of illumination and weave together a bigger picture of the supersensible. Note here the fire imagery for the appearances of the spiritual and the fine line between doubt and belief:
On the stiff twig up there To set the sight on fire Although, I admit, I desire, Out of the kitchen table or chair By bestowing largesse, honor, Of whatever angel may choose to flare A brief respite from fear Of sorts. Miracles
occur, Plath's angel is as much her higher
self as some totally separate being. It is her higher cognition that
bestows "beingness" to those "spasmodic tricks of
radiance"; the reenliving of the archetypal thought forms
depends on the spiritual development of the observer. The observer
must learn to to raise cognition to a level where consciousness is
both "inside" and "outside" and soars over both
the external world and the thinking subject. Rudolf Steiner describes
this process when he says:
Black Rook in Rainy Weather
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident
In my eye, not seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then ---
Thus hallowing an interval
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant
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
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
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.
On the stiff twig up there
To set the sight on fire
Although, I admit, I desire,
Out of the kitchen table or chair
By bestowing largesse, honor,
Of whatever angel may choose to flare
A brief respite from fear
Of sorts. Miracles
Plath's angel is as much her higher self as some totally separate being. It is her higher cognition that bestows "beingness" to those "spasmodic tricks of radiance"; the reenliving of the archetypal thought forms depends on the spiritual development of the observer. The observer must learn to to raise cognition to a level where consciousness is both "inside" and "outside" and soars over both the external world and the thinking subject. Rudolf Steiner describes this process when he says:
It can be seen that only that life which is dominated by the inner sense, man's highest spiritual life in the truest sense, thus raises him above himself. For it is only in this life that the nature of things is revealed in confrontation with itself. Matters are different with the lower faculty of perception. The eye for instance, which mediates the sight of an object, is the scene of a process which, in relation to the inner life, is completely similar to any other external process. My organs are parts of the spatial world like other things, and their perceptions are temporal processes like others. Their nature too only becomes apparent when they are submerged in the inner experience. I thus live a double life: the life of a thing among other things, which lives within its corporeality and through its organs perceives what lies outside this corporeality, and above this life a higher one, which knows no such inside and outside, and extends over both the external world and itself. I shall therefore have to say: At one time I am an individual, a limited I; at the other time I am a general, universal I. This too Paul Asmus has put into apt words (cf. his book: Die indogermanischen Religionen in den Hauptpunkten ihrer Entwicklung, The Indo-European Religions in the Main Points of their Development, p. 29 of the first volume): "We call the activity of submerging ourselves in something else, "thinking", in thinking the I has fulfilled its concept, it has given up its existence as something separate; therefore in thinking we find ourselves in a sphere that is the same for all, for the principle of isolation, which lies in the relationship of our I to what is different from it, has disappeared in the activity of the self-suspension of the separate I; there is only the selfhood common to all."7 -Rudolf Steiner in the Introduction to Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age
The poet's inner life reveals not only a picture of a particular individual but also the great stage of macrocosmic universal processes where the Gods may reappear:
What takes place in the inner life of man is not a mental repetition, but a real part of the universal process. The world would not be what it is if it were not active in the human soul. And if one calls the highest which is attainable by man the divine, then one must say that the divine does not exist as something external to be repeated as an image in the human spirit, but that the divine is awakened in man. For this Angelus Silesius has found the right words: "I know that without me God cannot live for a moment; if I come to naught He must needs give up the ghost. God cannot make a single worm without me; if I do not preserve it with Him, it must fall apart forthwith." Such an assertion can only be made by one who premises that something appears in man without which an external being cannot exist. If everything which belongs to the "worm' also existed without man, it would be impossible to say that the worm must "fall apart" if man does not preserve it. 8 --Rudolf Steiner in the Introduction to Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age
In the poetry of
Daddy / Cut /Metaphors/ The Thin People / I Am Vertical / Bee Poems / November Graveyard / Mirror / Apprehensions / Eyemote / Guestbook / Lady Lazarus / Links/ In Plaster / Mirror / Black Rook in Rainy Weather / Mary's Song / Getting There / Ariel / Fever 103 / Elm / The Moon and the Yew Tree / The Bee Keeper's Daughter / Firesong / Lorelei / Stings / The Bee Meeting / Burning the Letters / Words/Balloons/The Queen's Complaint/Moonrise/Sonnet to Satan/Thalidomide
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1Barfield, Owen. A Barfield Reader edited by G.B. Tennyson. Wesleyan University Press.1999 page 14. Selection from Poetic Diction.
2Barfield, Owen. The Form of Hamlet. From The Quarterly View of Spiritual Science.London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 46 Gloucester Place, W. 1. Vol 6 #3. 1931. 5th para.
3Barfield, Owen. A Barfield Reader edited by G.B. Tennyson. Wesleyan University Press.1999 page 14. Selection from Poetic Diction.15
4Barfield, Owen. A Barfield Reader edited by G.B. Tennyson. Wesleyan University Press.1999.Page 54. Selection from The Rediscovery of Meaning.
5The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Ed by Ted Hughes. HarperPererrial.c1981.Page 56.
6Barfield, Owen. The Form of Hamlet. From The Quarterly View of Spiritual Science.London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 46 Gloucester Place, W. 1. Vol 6 #3. 1931.