Jack Folsom
Montana State University



Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath's "Berck-Plage"



copyright 1994 Temple University

See the poem Berck-Plage online.




Sylvia Plath's "Berck-Plage," which contains 126 lines of seemingly unmitigated malaise and funereal gloom, stands in many readers' estimation as one of her heaviest and least appealing works, even considering its autobiographical significance. The occasion for the poem is described by Ted Hughes in a note to the poem written in 197O:

          In June, 1961, we had visited Berck-Plage, a long 
          beach and resort on the coast of France north of Rouen. 
          Some sort of hospital or convalescent home for the 
          disabled fronts the beach. It was one of her nightmares     
          stepped into the real world. A year later -- almost to           
          the day -- our next door neighbour, an old man 
          [Percy Key] died after a short grim illness during which 
          time his wife repeatedly needed our help. In this poem 
          that visit to the beach and the death and funeral of 
          our neighbour are combined. [1]  
In a notebook entry later published as "Rose and Percy B" in the Johnny Panic collection, Sylvia Plath recorded her own feelings several days after the funeral, which took place on June 29, 1962: "I have written a long poem, 'Berck-Plage,' about it. Very moved. Several terrible glimpses". [2] Indeed, Plath's description of Percy's stiffening corpse is a glimpse even more ghastly than the drowned face looming under the fishpond surface in "All the Dead Dears". That earlier poem (1957) offers an important clue to Plath's purposes in her later poems about the dead and the dying: "How they grip us through thin and thick, these barnacle dead." Faces in an endless mirror of preceding generations -- these skeleton-kin, she says, "Reach hag hands to haul me in."[3]

Plath's motivation in writing such ugly and terrifying pictures of death is certainly not its glorification. Far more likely a motive, given Sylvia Plath's abundantly demonstrated lust for the rich textures of life, is her concern for physical and psychic survival in the face of suffering and death.[4] In many of her poems, what Plath perceives is a death-figure which threatens to swallow her up unless she can reassert her living identity by "fixing" and thus immobilizing her enemy in a structured poetic image. The otherwise uncontrollable fear brought on by what she perceives can thus be allayed by its transference to what she can control: the image.[5] For Sylvia Plath, the spectacle of the maimed French war veterans at Berck-Plage and of Percy Key, the cancer-ridden English Everyman next door, were to become emblems of her own struggle to confront death and defeat its power to poison the mind. The early drafts of the poem show that Plath had an even larger purpose in mind than the fusion of the two incidents when she began to compose it during the week following the old man's death (June 26-3O, 1962).[6] According to the dates on the drafts, there emerged by June 28 a third element of great personal importance: an ironic parallel between the dying processes she had witnessed and the birth and growth into life of Nicholas, her second child, who came into the world at almost the same time that Percy Key was entering his final decline into death. Few readers of the published version of "Berck-Plage" would suspect that Sylvia Plath had deleted a whole section of the poem before the final typescript. The deleted section shows in juxtaposed "buntings" a dying man and a hungry, growing baby.[7]

As we shall see, Plath had justifiable reasons for deleting the section, but the knowledge of what it contains compels us to reconsider carefully the published version of the poem. In spite of its size and complexity, "Berck-Plage" has attracted relatively scant attention from scholars and critics, especially in connection with rebirth and affirmation of life. Although Judith Kroll does not discuss the poem specifically in her book-length st udy, Chapters in a Mythology, her introductory comment about the death/rebirth theme can serve as a keynote for the present study:

          To see the autobiographical details only as such is 
          to regard Plath's vision of suffering and death as 
          morbid, but to appreciate the deeper significance of 
          her poetry is to understand her fascination with 
          death as connected with and transformed into a 
          broader concern with the themes of rebirth and  
          transcendence.[8] 
Plath's basic method of "transforming" death is to assume, figuratively speaking, the role of a photo-journalist at the scene, keenly observing details with her camera and narrating interpretive commentary in such a way as to "control" what she sees with the transforming power of her language. Her technique resembles that of cinematic montage, which juxtaposes and thereby fuses diverse visual images in a meaningful way, beyond the normal parameters of space and time. In this way, Plath's "lens" can both record and transcend the literal immediacy of what she witnesses, thereby creating order out of chaos.

"Berck-Plage" opens with a strange seaside scene. In a fragmentary rough draft, Plath's first image is not of the sea, as it is in the finished version, but of the sun:

          Silent and violent, the sun 
          Laid its bright poultices on the promenade.[9] 
The recollection also includes pretty girls selling ice cream cones, but as the draft continues, the images shift into the realm of the bizarre: the girls are adjusting wigs over their bald scalps, Their identical heads glistening in the cool, little china eggs. Part of the nightmare-come-to-life that Ted Hughes mentions is evidently Plath's association of these heads with Giorgio de Chirico's The Disquieting Muses and her own obsessive poem with the same title, which have been examined closely by Judith Kroll.[1O] From the very beginning of her work on "Berck-Plage," Plath envisioned grotesque, surrealist transformations of what she had actually seen, as if she herself were doing a Chiricoesque painting or a Fellini film.

The sun's poultice -- a poultice of silences, she calls it in the first draft -- is simply a covering laid or unrolled over the concrete promenade, but then Plath uses its medicinal qualities to assuage the pain of seeing once again the darning-egg heads: "How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation."[11] The cause of this inflammation is not yet revealed. In her second try at opening the poem, she says that the sun, like a poultice, draws my poison into the light.

We may call this the poison of festering memory, which in turn poisonously distorts her vision of the scene. The sun's act or process of drawing forth such poison can in medicinal terms heal the infection. The poet's corresponding act is also to have healing power. A father (Otto Plath) once died of a gangrenous infection, leaving his daughter bereft of her belief in God: "I'll never speak to God again," the young Sylvia said to her mother.[12] Now, more than twenty years later, an old man (Percy Key) has died of a cancerous poison within him, and the spectacle of his dying recalls the scene at Berck-Plage the year before. These awful images, already fused in Plath's mind and thereby all the more poisonous, must be drawn out by the poultice of the poem's making, and be replaced by healthy tissue. That is Sylvia Plath's evident purpose and challenge in writing "Berck-Plage."

The bald-headed girls must be changed, played down. Plath shifts the emphasis to their function, the dispensing of sherbets:

       Electrifyingly-colored sherbets, scooped from the freeze        
       By pale girls, travel the air in scorched hands. (1.3-4) 
Soothingly cold sherbet -- it too is a poultice, against the fiery heat. But there is a sinister note in the fifth line: "Why is it so quiet? What are they hiding?" the speaker asks. Bald scalps under their wigs -- by implication there may be other deformities lurking about in this scene: amputees, perhaps, like Otto Plath, the one-legged father, the eminent entomologist. The speaker-as-daughter reassures herself, and as always, she puts on her own disguise: "I have two legs, and I move smilingly" (1.6).

Plath's next step is to develop the silence of the scene. The manuscript shows considerable experimentation with the effect of sand that dampens her breathing and deadens vibrations like a piano damper, muting voices and the sounds of boats. The speaker expresses fear: I carry my twangling apprehensions, she says at one point, as if anticipating the disabled patients, their "shrunk voices/ Waving and crutchless, half their old size" (1.8-9) becoming part of the general deadening of the sense of hearing in the scene. Ironically, the sense of sight is at the same time being stung sharply by what is seen:

          The lines of the eye, scalded by these bald surfaces, 

          Boomerang like anchored elastics, hurting the owner. (1.1O-11) 

Such scalding baldness both literally and figuratively must be filtered out, evidently because the underlying truths brought to light by the sun's poultice are unbearable. One must put on a face, a disguise, so as not to be "seen" as unbearable. One must put on dark glasses, so as not to "see" the unbearable.

Given Sylvia Plath's known distaste for the hypocrisies and blindness of men of the church (one of whom is shocked by what is revealed in her poem, "Dialogue Between Ghost and Priest"), it is not surprising that she now brings into view a priest:

          Is it any wonder he puts on dark glasses? 

          Is it any wonder he affects a black cassock? (1.12-13) 
The poem is to end with a climactic funeral ceremony in which "the priest is a vessel,/ A tarred fabric, sorry and dull" (7.5-6). Black is the absence of color, the absence of living sunlight in which one can have vision. [13] The death of the senses, in particular the death of the visionary imagination, is what Sylvia Plath feared most. For her, a rebirth, the making of a new life, is a psychic necessity.

The priest, like the bald-headed girls and later the maimed veterans, represents a disturbing intrusion upon the natural landscape. As the first section of the poem ends, we see the priest moving among the mackerel gathers, "who wall up their backs against him" (1.15) as they go on "handling the black and green lozenges like parts of a body" (1.16). Plath's early draft describes the mackerel gatherers as simple, the way we would all like to be/ And dressed in a washed, good blue, signifying grace. She admits they would appear sinister, were it not for their faded blue work shirts, honest potato-colored faces? And their absolutely blank, skylike expressions. Unlike the surgeons who presumably have been amputating body parts of the mutilated veterans, the fishermen are simply sorting out the biggest. Yet the first section ends with the protesting sounds of the hitherto silent and inactive sea:

          The sea that crystallized these,
          Creeps away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress.   (1.17-18) 
The draft indicates that the sea's distress is over the loss of the fish, to whom it had given birth out of its darkness. Plath's worksheets often show her tendency to delete or alter explicit references or reasons so that her images in final form are more subtle and ambiguous.

As the first section ends, the tone is ominous. The first draft of the second section shows no separation as yet from the first. Who is this priest? Has he come to bless the salt flats, she wonders? It is full of shells, orange-pink and delicate, like lacquered fingernails, which she is collecting for her daughter. But then the edge of the priest's cassock is blown back, revealing a deformed, shortened leg in an orthopedic boot which precedes the longer leg like a compass point whose faulty ovals paste their deformities in the air like bitter mouths... such faulty ovals, engendered by a bad compass.

This priest in dark glasses who "affects a black cassock" might as well be the black-booted Nazi we see fantasized in "Daddy." The finished version of section 2 opens with Dr. Death, reading his missal at a funeral service:

          This black boot has no mercy for anybody. 
          Why should it, it is the hearse of a dead foot, 

          The high, dead, toeless foot of this priest 
          Who plumbs the well of his book, 

          The bent print bulging before him like scenery.  (2.1-5) 
The printed words of the funeral service are voluptuous to the priest. They are his pornography. He does not see "the real stuff" nearby, the sickly and ugly spectacle of raw human sex:
          Obscene bikinis hide in the dunes, 

          Breasts and hips a confectioner's sugar 
          Of little crystals, titillating the light, 

          While a green pool opens its eye, 
          Sick with what it has swallowed -- 

          Limbs, images, shrieks. Behind the concrete bunkers 
          Two lovers unstick themselves. (2.6-12) 
Beside the sea, the locus of beauty and the source of life, we are made to watch here a deathscaped travesty of spirituality and procreation that is reminiscent of Eliot's "The Waste Land." As yet, there is nothing affirmative to be understood apart from the poem's opening proposition: "How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation."

The second section ends with the speaker's exclamation over delicate shells ("white sea crockery") which, as one crossed-out line in the draft says, have been crunched by the priest's blind boot. The priest himself, an onlooker, warped & dark in the draft, is now seen as being drawn in his wind-trembling cassock "through a still virulence,/ And a weed, hairy as privates" (2.17-18). As we know from the last stanza of Plath's "In Plaster" and from Buddy Willard's exposure of his "turkey neck and gizzards" to Esther in The Bell Jar, hairy to Plath is ugly, and "hairy privates" are even uglier.[14] Near the end of "Berck-Plage," the blackness of the priest's cassock and the blackness of shoe polish are to be negative images in opposition to the colors of earth and the funeral flowers.

In the third section of the poem, the scene shifts from the beach to the balconies of the "hotel" and a glimpse of glittering "things." As the speaker in Plath's draft observes, these glittering things are not jewelry but steel wheelchairs and aluminum crutches -- the miracles of science, she calls them sarcastically. As her eyes shift away toward the sea's edge, her nostrils pick up its scent: Such salt-sweetness. Why should I walk Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles? I am not a nurse, white and attendant, I am not a smile. (3.4-7) In this fusion of images, we see that an emotional barrier of stone separates the speaker both from the maimed and barnacled veterans and, in the lines next to come, from the children digging in the sand. She is attracted to them, but as she says, "my heart is too small to bandage their terrible faults" (3.9). These faults may be the children's emotional wounds, prefiguring the physically wounded side of a man that is shockingly revealed in the following lines: "his red ribs,/ The nerves bursting like trees" (3.10-11). The draft contains far more description: empty sleeves and trouser legs, an emaciated man no more than the suit he wears,[15] poled on a crutch, another man wheeled by on his back, like a family scandal, and the children meanwhile, poking the waste sand, their terrible fault now clearly understood as the fate they share with the speaker-as-child and the man on the gurney cart: abandonment to the impersonal, mirrory eye of the surgeon. His mirror, she says, is but "a facet of knowledge" (4.13), capable of mending broken bodies, but by implication incapable of mending broken souls.

That capability or power is not to be found in surgery, nor, as Plath has shown, in religion: the priest we have just seen drawn through a virulence. The capability might be found in art: the poultice of the poem is at work, but its efficacy is still under question. Now instead, the image of the man on the gurney fuses with the image of an old man lying on a striped mattress --old Percy Key next door, whose dying and funeral are to be the main focus of the poem:

          An old man is vanishing. 
          There is no help in his weeping wife. 

          Where are the eye-stones, yellow and valuable, 
          And the tongue, sapphire of ash  (3.15-18) 
The spareness of the finished version of the third section is the result of five manuscript pages of experimentation with various image combinations and details that were finally omitted. "The stones of his eyes," in the line above, for example, are turned up and melt from us like water in the draft. The stones are yellow and valuable-looking because of the light reflected from an electric fire, which also cauterizes the blunt stumps of the furniture. In the early evening of June 25, when Plath actually saw the old man dying (he died at midnight), she carefully observed such details, recording some but not all (as we see in the draft of the poem) in her notebook entry for July 2:
          The living room was full, still, hot with some awful 
          translation taking place. Percy lay back on a heap of  
          white pillows in his striped pajamas, his face already  
          passed from humanity, the nose a spiraling, fleshless 
          beak in thin air, the chin fallen in a point from it, 
          like an opposite pole, and the mouth like an inverted  
          black heart stamped into the yellow flesh between, 
          a great raucous breath coming and going there with 
          great effort like an awful bird, caught, but about to 
          depart. His eyes showed through partly open lids like 
          dissolved soaps or a clotted pus. I was very sick at 
          this.... The end, even of so marginal man, a horror.[16]
Together with the eye-stones, the beak-like nose preoccupied Plath as she was composing the first view of the old man in the poem. The cognitively dissonant catechresis, "And the tongue, sapphire of ash" (3.18), added later, underscores the shockingly ironic nature of this transformation from jewel-valuable life to ash-reduced death -- ashes to ashes. After the long and difficult job of making her transition from the beach scene to the death scene, Sylvia Plath wrote the fourth section of the poem very readily, much as we see it in the published version. Percy Key, now dead, has been transfigured into a sort of religious icon that appears grotesquely comic:
          A wedding-cake face in a paper frill. 
          How superior he is now.  

          It is like possessing a saint.  (4.1-3) 
The wing-capped nurses, no longer so beautiful since their "blooming days" of caring for Percy are done, "are browning like touched gardenias" (4.5). With the death scene ended, there remain only "things, things," as on the balconies of the hotel: the bed, rolled from the wall, the bird-beaked effigy, now stiffening, encased in a glued white sheet. In death, says the speaker, "This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible" (4.7). Most poignant of all in the description are the hands, now folded, "that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye" (4.12).

The next stage in the aftermath is the application of a ritual poultice, to draw out the grief and return life to the living. As in Emily Dickinson's "The Bustle in a House," grief after death is more quickly put behind by housecleaning:

          Now the washed sheets fly in the sun, 
          The pillow cases are sweetening.  (4.13-14) 
The speaker, having already pronounced the completeness of death to be horrible, now mouths unconvincingly a typical death-room platitude at the sight of the coffin and "the curious bearers:
          "It is a blessing, it is a blessing" (4.17).[17] 
Some draft pages of "Berck-Plage," including the first part of the next (fifth) section of the poem, are written on the backs of pages from Ted Hughes' play, "The Waking," which is probably not coincidental. Indeed, Susan R. Van Dyne of Smith College has been compiling extensive evidence of Plath's deliberate use of certain pages in manuscript by herself or by Hughes for writing the drafts of poems in some way related thematically and/or emotionally to what is on the other side or to what is written above or below the space she uses.[18] In the case of "Berck-Plage," Plath's first draft begins on the back of a page from "The Waking" and below four fragmentary lines from "Child" (which is thus a poem begun earlier in 1962 but not finished until January 28, 1963), an important fact considering what "child" material Plath wrote in (and later deleted) before the funeral scene in "Berck-Plage." The fifth section of the poem is the transition scene, moving from the parlor of the stone house where, as the earliest draft says, the dead man awaits his tribute, to the cemetery scene where he is to be buried. Plath's first full draft of section 5 is written on another sheet of paper that is even more remarkable than "The Waking" for what we find on the other side: the last two stanzas from "Two Sisters of Persephone" (1956):
          Freely become the sun's bride, the latter 
          Grows quick with seed. 
          Grass-couched in her labor's pride, 
          She bears a king. Turned bitter 
 
          And sallow as any lemon, 
          The other, wry virgin to the last, 
          Goes graveward with flesh laid waste, 
          Worm-husbanded, yet no woman.[19]   
Appropriately enough, section 5, which opens with a distance shot of green Devon hills under a lowering sky, moves in on the concealed hollows of a wife's thoughts on losing her husband: practical details about trunks -- "Blunt, practical boats/ Full of dresses and hats and china and married daughters" (5.4-5). Things: a curtain flickering from the open window the speaker calls "the tongue of the dead man: remember, remember" (5.9). Amid the "Pallors of hands and neighborly faces" (5.13), the memory begins to fade. Color is draining, even from the flying iris in the room, "flying off into nothing" (5.15). As the images dissolve, we hear the plaintive cry of all who are dying: "remember us."

At this point, the scene abruptly shifts to the graveyard, and the speaker in the poem observes:

        The empty branches of memory look over stones
     
        Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils. (5.16-17) 
No one is there but the stones, the spirits of the dead within them, their "flesh" reduced to blue-veined marble. The stones are flanked, not by reverently placed vases, but by cheap jelly glasses containing what the draft of the poem refers to as yesterday's malingering daffodils. Memory is indeed fading, but as the fifth section of the poem concludes, the speaker affirms the value of the site as a way station on the road to eternity: "It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place" (5.18). As in her poem with that title, "Getting There" for Plath is an arduous journey with an unknown destination.

In the first handwritten drafts and typescript, Sylvia Plath interrupts the description of the graveyard and funeral in order to reflect upon the opposite end of the life cycle. The speaker hears a sound, and as usual in this long procession of sensory observations, she must make sense of it, put it in place within her structure of meaning:

          This dovey moaning is not an old man, it is a baby.
          A baby delivered in the same January

          As the old man's tears for himself:
          One eye weeping and weeping

          Through the blue of the boxing, the blue of the news.
          A wintry body felt itself thinning. 

          O hungry substance, greedy for color! 
          The tulips had a part of him that spring, 

          The green came in late, wiping its lips.
The pallors so much emphasized in the fifth section are now seen as the result of the voracious renewing phase of the death-to-life cycle. As Kroll puts it, this is "an ironic version of the idea of spring-as-rebirth (seen instead as death masquerading as renewal)."[20] Treacherous for the aged, then, is the boxing time, the festival week of midwinter celebration in anticipation of spring. Treacherous too are the tulips, for a pallid hospital patient: "The vivid tulips eat my oxygen," says the speaker in "Tulips."[21] The green of spring has sucked the life from Percy Key, and now, before we see him buried, we see in retrospect his waning life transferred to the waxing life of an infant, unmistakably that of Nicholas Hughes, the poet's second child:
          And this is the baby --
 
          This collocation of delicate vowels, 
          This singular distillation in which I admire myself. 

          I too have given him valuables. 
          And am rewarded with smiles,
 
          Two wise eyes in a worm's body, 
          Smells of sweet oil and cotton.  
The speaker dwells upon the ironies of reversal and trans- formation: the coos of the mourning dove become the coos of the baby; Spring the life-destroyer just above now becomes Spring the life-creator, with the speaker herself as its agent, as a mother re-creating herself. She admires the product as if looking into a mirror: the gift of "valuables" is repaid with the baby's smiling face and wise eyes, which, as Plath's draft says, assess the value of the giver. That she admires herself through her offspring says a great deal about the value of creativity as a counter-force to death, and about Plath's own artistic counter-balancing in this poem, even if she later changes her intent and deletes the baby section.

The last two lines of this sixth section in the draft contain a sharply focused and ironic contrast between the old man and the baby:

          Old man, what a dirty bunting! 
          My baby's cries are round and blue. They fly off like pigeons. 
Baby bunting is white and fresh; "bunting" for a withered corpse is dirty: bury it -- so the argument runs -- and behold instead the swelling of a new life, taking independent flight from its creator. This is the most positive line in the whole poem as originally conceived by Plath, but it is a personal reassurance for Plath herself, not really an integral part of the death/burial narrative. As a life-creator, Plath can make her speaker mock the old man and boast of her creation, thereby working the medicine of the sun's poultice in the opening of the poem: it has drawn off her inflammation, and she is restored to health, ready to attend the funeral with a lighter heart.

If one sees the sixth draft section as a digression for the purpose of psychic and emotional self-medication, then it is easy to see why Plath then discarded it. Having been healed by what she thought and wrote, she could then regain her poet's aesthetic distance and restore the poem's unity of focus upon Percy Key's death and burial.

The sixth section in the final version of the poem, then, "pans" from the graveyard above to the narrow lane below, along which the funeral procession will move:

          The natural fatness of these lime leaves!-- 
          Pollarded green balls, the trees march to church. 

          The voice of the priest, in thin air, 
          Meets the corpse at the gate, 
          Addressing it, while the hills roll the notes of the dead bell; 
          A glitter of wheat and crude earth.     (6.1-6) 
The scene is striking for its blending of human artifice and transformation (sculptured lime trees, marching as the actual procession will march) with the larger landscape that echoes the death-knell while displaying its life-face, "A glitter of wheat and crude earth." The earth is a central image here; it is labeled as bloodily colored in the draft, but Plath wants to say more and crosses that out to write the following:
          What is the name of that color?-- 
          Old blood of caked walls the sun heals, 
 
          Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts.  (6.7-9) 
That last line evokes the memory of Otto Plath, who, as we gather from many of her poems, is in Sylvia Plath's mind and emotions not as yet properly "buried." The idea of "Berck-Plage" as a symbolic burial of the father, in association with images of renewal out of the same red earth, is considered by Olwyn Hughes to be the central significance of the poem.[22] Eventually, Sylvia Plath focused her many images of red earth/blood/flower/womb in her late poem, "Brasilia" as "Red earth, motherly blood."[23] So it is in this poem: the open grave that waits for Percy Key is the red womb of the Earthmother -- the final image of "Berck-Plage," for which these lines in section 6 are a preparation. Plath now re-establishes the healing power of the sun for "Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts" (6.8) -- a metaphor of our old but still untranslatable sense of Weltschmerz. That pain is healed, in the end, by the sun, the giver of life. Four months later, Plath's Ariel will fly "Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning."[24] There is a purity in redness, a release from the pain of lies and "fatuities."

With the graveyard setting thus described and labeled, Plath is ready for the tableau of the widow and her three daughters, all in black, final and theatrical as the draft says, and "Necessary among the flowers" (6.11) as if they too were props on a stage. The widow "Enfolds her face like fine linen,/ Not to be spread again" (6.12-13) just as her dead husband's face has been shrouded. The departed facial expressions of once-living people now reappear in the low-flying clouds of "a sky, wormy with put-by smiles " (6.14). Thus far the speaker seems to mock the tableau of the mourners for its staginess, but in the following lines, Plath does some serious mythologizing:

          And the bride flowers expend a freshness, 

          And the soul is a bride 
          In a still place, and the groom is red and forgetful, he is featureless. (6.16-18) 
Birth, marriage, death -- in this description we recognize the mythic fusion of the three as the female soul, released from the male body, "remarries" the red, impersonal earth enroute to fresh procreation of life. In the draft, Plath envisions an intermediate step As the lone soul marries itself/ To the flesh of a leaf. In this myth, then, the dead man is physically enfolded in earth to become organic fertilizer for new life that is already extant in the spiritual marriage of soul-bride and red-earth groom. The groom is "red and forgetful, he is featureless." In the chronology of the poem, the earth-groom now awaits the "bridal party," the funeral procession that is ascending the hill to "put by" the shrouded, soul-bereft body of Percy Key.

The seventh and final section of the poem re-creates the actual event in which Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes participated. The speaker first positions herself in the procession:

          Behind the glass of this car 
          The world purrs, shut-off and gentle. 

          And I am dark-suited and still, a member of the party, 
          Gliding up in low gear behind the cart.  (7.1-4) 
She is at the moment an insulated observer, in the draft version Lugging my small grief up behind the cart -- a modest grief by comparison to that of the widow, but a real one, as we know from her journal. As usual, she is an ambivalent observer, as she was at Berck-Plage, sensitive to the inconguities of the scene. The deformed priest on the beach now reappears as a pale and shabby imitation of a priest -- another functionary prop on the stage. These rites are "fatuities" compared to the transforming death/marriage/birth rite that ends the previous section of the poem. "And the priest is a vessel," declares the speaker in the final version, "A tarred fabric, sorry and dull" (7.6-7). There cannot be a "true" burial rite with such a figure in charge. The speaker will conduct her own rite, then, and she proceeds immediately to do so, shifting attention from the priest to the coffin and the flowers, and shifting the tone as well within a half-line. The priest is
          Following the coffin on its flowery cart like a beautiful woman, 
          A crest of breasts, eyelids and lips 

          Storming the hilltop.    (7.7-9) 
Now we realize the importance of the marriage rite previously described. A dead human being lives again as the flowers and leaves of plants, climbing toward the sky, the red eye of morning.

The speaker's burial rite could be considered as a triumph of beauty over death, but now its efficacy is threatened. The speaker passes children in a schoolyard, who smell the shoe blacking of the mourners. Anointing with shoe polish is not consecration, she implies; blackened shoes too, like the priest, are "tarred fabric." One must see beyond the sorry and dull appearances of Devon villagers to discover Something Else on that hill.

          Then from the barred yard, the children  

          smell the melt of shoe blacking, 
          Their faces turning, wordless and slow, 

          Their eyes opening
           On a wonderful thing--   (7.10-14) 
Literally speaking, the children see a funeral procession, but Plath manages the narrative so that the images which follow become the children's vision as well as the speaker's. Appropriately, it is an aerial view, looking down on the gravesite:
          Six round black hats in the grass 
                   and a lozenge of wood, 
          And a naked mouth, red and awkward.  (7.15-16) 
These are difficult lines to interpret. For instance, Judith Kroll notes that death here is a mere physical extinction, only a parody of completeness versus the transcendence in some of Plath's last poems.[25] On the other hand, one could argue that these lines contain an image that is emblematic amd enduring, more than mere physical extinction. Sights and sounds are removed from the everyday world and persist in the mind much as they do on Keats's Grecian urn: the mourners' hats superimposed upon the green grass, the coffin reduced in scale to a lozenge (one recalls the fish-lozenges in section 1), and the naked mouth, red and awkward -- an earth-mother's vagina about to take back her offspring.

The image is not entirely static, however, because the red mouth is like a gaping wound (reminiscent of the red ribs of the wounded veteran in section 3) that the "surgeon" must try to repair. In the last two lines of the poem, the attempt apparently fails:

          For a minute the sky pours into the hole like plasma.
          There is no hope, it is given up.  (7.17-18) 
The poem would appear to end in despair (most readers take it that way), but one must not forget the image of the coffin among flowers now transformed into a beautiful woman. The "giving up" in the final line becomes as much an exorcism of death as it is a yielding unto death. The hole claims its human sacrifice. For Percy Key, there is no hope of return to mortal life; he (and perhaps Otto Plath as well) is given up so that the life cycle can renew itself. The next stage of the grieving process is to let him go, so that the speaker and the mourners in the black hats can go back down the hill to the living world.

The speaker, who is here transparently Sylvia Plath herself, has risen above the world's tumult and has seen renewal after death, even a triumph of rebirth, as we know from these images recently discussed and from the omitted section about the infant Nicholas. Her hope has not dissolved into futility, as Holbrook contends, [26] but rather she has through the act of composing "Berck-Plage" transformed her grief over Percy Key's death, her revulsion concerning human "deformity," and her latest ordeal of existential despair into a life-renewing vision. One might say that this vision in philosophical terms is rather superficial and lacking in life-sustaining force -- a mythic vision of renewal, after all, does not help much when one is dead -- but the essential point about Plath in writing "Berck-Plage" is the power of her images to re-fashion her sense of self by ridding her mind of self-destructive garbage. It is the act of image-making -- horrific as well as beatific images -- that liberates the troubled mind of the modern artist and enables her or him to go on living. Since Sylvia Plath could not and would not bear the loss of creative imagination because of psychic paralysis, she was compelled to imagine the worst (deformity, disease, death) as eclipsed by the best (newborn children, woman-flowers, sky-plasma). The act of juxtaposing the two was her reality, her method of making order out of chaos.

Footnotes:

[1] This note and other important information from Hughes relating to circumstances under which the poems were written appears in "Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems," in The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. Charles Newman (Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 187-95.

[2] "Rose and Percy B," Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (Harper & Row, 1978), p. 75.

[3] The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 70-71. Subsequent references to the poems are cited as CP plus page number.

[4] This view of Plath's preoccupation with death as motivated by her appreciation for life has been ably defended in a doctoral thesis by Janice Markey, published as A New Tradition? The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich (Peter Lang, 1985):
   The opposition life/death, kinesis/stasis lies at the heart of Plath's work, and most
   her poems, especially the last ones, make it quite clear that, given a choice, she
   always preferred the passionate intensity of human life with all its imperfections to
   the final impersonality and ugliness of death (p.34).

[5] The point is further clarified by Pamela Annas in A Disturbance of Mirrors (Greenwood Press, 1988): "The self often feels itself in danger of being swallowed up by the object perceived" (p. 125). Annas goes on to quote R.D. Laing's comment in The Divided Self (Penguin, 1965) about the fear of implosion as the impingement of reality: "Impingement does not convey, however, the full terror of the experience of the world as liable at any moment to crash in and obliterate a vacuum" (p.45).

[6] Quotations from these drafts are reprinted from manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection in the Smith College Library Rare Book Room, Copyright Ted Hughes 1993. I am indebted to Ruth Mortimer, Curator of the Plath Collection, for her assistance, and to Olwyn Hughes for her permission to quote from the drafts.

[7] According to Linda Wagner-Martin in Sylvia Plath: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1987), Plath was depressed that spring by the contrast between her healthy baby and the apparently cancer-ridden old man. Wagner-Martin observes that "Percy's impending death is the subject of several of her spring poems, as if it was standing for some ominous other happening as well [her loss of Ted] that she did not yet want to recognize or even name" (p. 202). If so, then the distinctly positive tone of her description of the baby in her draft of "Berck-Plage" may be seen as a deliberate stragety (later abandoned) to depict her own creativity in triumph over deterioration and loss.

[8] Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 5.

[9]

[10] Kroll, pp. 22-37.

[11] This and subsequent quotations from the published version of the poem (CP, pp. 196-201) are cited by section and line numbers.

[12] Recalled by Plath's mother in the Introduction to Letters Home by Sylvia Plath , ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (Harper & Row, 1975), p. 25.

[13] Richard Matovich in A Concordance to the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (Garland, 1986) shows that the color black has the second highest frequency (158 times) after white (166 times) among descriptors of nouns in Plath's poetry. The mythic significance of these colors is discussed at great length in Kroll (for example, pp. 57-59, 110-11).

[14] The Bell Jar (Harper & Row, 1971), p. 75; for the Text of "In Plaster," see CP, p. 160.

[15] Cf. the image in Plath's "Totem" of transitory, diminished life, with self-identity being the only suit that one unpacks: There is no terminus, only suitcases

Out of which the same self unfolds itself like a suit
Bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes,

Notions and tickets, short circuits and folding mirrors. (CP, pp. 264-265)

[16] "Rose and Percy B," pp. 75-76.

[17] Alicia Ostriker, in "The Americanization of Sylvia," Language and Style, I, (1968), repr. in Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath , ed. Linda Wagner-Martin (G. K. Hall, 1984), commenting on Plath's departure from strict form in the Ariel poems, aptly describes the ambivalence which she felt atthis stage:
The verse correlates with her scorn, or fear, of everything orderly and finished, and with her paradoxically simultaneous feeling that the moment of death, which is her epitome of total organization, is desirable. In "Berck-Plage," she explains about an old man's sheeted corpes, "This is what it is like to be complete. It is horrible." A few lines later she declares, "It is a blessing. It is a blessing "Critical Essays, p. 104

[18] See "'More Terrible Than She Ever Was': The Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems," in Sylvia Plath, "Stings,"Original Drafts of the Poem in Facsimile (Smith College Library Rare Book Room, 1982), repr. in Critical Essays, pp. 154-170; also "Rekindling the Past in Sylvia Plath's 'Burning the Letters,'" Centennial Review, XXXII, (1988), 250-265.

[19] Lunda Bundtzen, in Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (University of Michigan Press, 1983), asserts that this scene represents "silly didacticism," later rejected by Plath herself as a bogus earth-motherly submission to the raping male sun gud's creativity (p. 40). Nevertheless, in Plath's upcoming juxtaposition of baby and graveward-bound corpse, there is a strong suggestion that the earth mother and her newborn "king" are to stand in opposition to death - a key issue to be resolved at the very end of the poem.

[20] Kroll, p. 73.

[21] CP, p. 161

[22] As Olwyn Hughes puts it in a recent letter to this writer, " My feeling is that she was trying in this poem to bury Otto (she never attended her father's funeral). The woman of flowers lying across the coffin is simply a symbl of her father-love."

[23] CP, p. 258.

[24] CP, p. 240.

[25] Kroll, p. 145.

[26] David Holbrook, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (Athlone Press, 1976), p. 18.



copyright 1994 Temple University


I would like to thank Jack Folsom for providing me with this article and for his help and advice concerning the Sylvia Plath pages.