Sylvia Plath's “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” stands out for its mystical allusion and its deep naturalistic imagery. Plath uses an encounter with nature as a point of departure for self-discovery. The rook in the poem functions as a portent of the process of self-examination and flight (individuation) that will take place throughout the later stages of Plath’s life and career. Plath brings her steely gaze of realism to this mystical encounter. Instead of yielding passionately to the animistic inspiration of the scene, she remains skeptical throughout, refusing to be moved by anything less than ultimate truth and revelation.
The poem begins with the lines: “One the stiff twig up there / Hunches a wet black rook”. This description is important because it fuses imagery of the natural world with archetypal imagery of the unconscious. The black rook is a symbol for the unconscious, just as its “wet” feathers show that it is freshly arrived from a point of inspiration. Perhaps the wetness of the rook even corresponds to Plath’s deep sea-childhood memories.
In any case, the poem opens with the vision of the wet, black bird above the poet's head in an obvious symbol of inspiration. What follows is the poet’s logical dissection of the experience in an attempt to strip away all psychological and emotional pretenses in order to find ultimate reality. The speaker states that she no longer looks for order or meaning in the natural landscape, but instead lets “spotted leaves fall as they fall / Without ceremony, or portent”. This is a direct refutation of the portentous tone of the scene and the poem's plot.
The most dramatic shift in the poem takes place when the speaker states: “I only know that a rook / Ordering its black feathers can so shine / As to seize my senses”. At this point, the speaker surrenders to the revelation and portent that was obvious to the reader all along.
But Plath's phrasing of the realization uses the words “ordering” and “senses.” These are indications that, for her, there is a correspondence between order and meaning, and this order and meaning can be actualized through the senses. The poet’s early guarded approach toward the revelatory experience is the means by which the senses can actualize the order and meaning that exists in nature. Only by insisting on the most honest and direct perception of nature, free of delusion or wish-fulfillment, can the deeper (hidden) harmony and meaning of nature be experienced. The meaning of nature is not readily divulged to just any observer; the observer must be made “pure" enough to receive the “rare, random descent” of revelation.
The poem obviously describes a mystical experience, but it does so in a way that is best read as initiatory. The poet now knows that there is a meaning and order to nature that can be grasped through the senses, so it is now the poet’s task to perceive all things as honestly as nature.
In the poems that form her first two published collections, Plath continues the journey that was initiated in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” The next stage of her development is very complicated and prolonged with poems scattered throughout that document her progress. Throughout this stage of her poetic development, Plath brings the same unrelenting eye of honesty to her own inner-nature that she previously brought to bear on nature itself. It is as though her first encounters with nature as a child, then as a poet, initiated her into a process of self-realization.
However, in order for the process to be real to her satisfaction, Plath felt compelled to strip away all artifice or pretense from her art and her life.