Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying" by Daniel E. Blackston
Violence and Transformation in Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying" by Daniel E. Blackston
In this pre-Confessional, symbolist poem, Plath’s natural imagery fuses with her journey of self-discovery. As indicated by J. Rosenblatt, “Blackberrying” marks a transitional poem where Plath probes herself to find what is authentic and what can be cast away in favor of growth. Rosenblatt notes that “Blackberrying" is representative of transitional landscapes, and it can be used to show the mood and method of the transitional works as a whole.”1 The setting of the poem is one that accents the promise of discovery. The landscape in this poem must be read psychologically rather than naturalistically in order to be understood. Rosenblatt remarks “The blackberries become symbols of blood, and the thorns of the berry bushes are repeatedly spoken of as "hooks."2 The landscape becomes a place of danger, traps, and predicaments. The danger is obviously not proportional to the scene, so it must be a psychological threat that is apparent in the poem.
Read from this angle, the poem represents Plath’s not-yet-successful urge to rid herself of façade. The last line of the poem reads “Beating and beating at an intractable metal.”3 What is revealing in this context is that Plath points out that it is “silversmiths” pounding at the “intractable” metal. The mentioning of silversmiths shows a stage that is transitory to gold in traditional alchemical symbolism. As the metal that is just "under” gold in usual thinking, the archetype of silver almost always refers to an unfinished process. Plath has initiated the process of self-discovery and she is “hammering” at the pretenses and obstacles that prevent her from reaching the gold of her remembered childhood joy and the latent harmony she has already perceived in nature. At the same time, her individuation as an artist and as a woman has also begun. It was initiated at the same time she began her search for meaning and truth.
While there is nothing to overtly suggest in “Blackberrying” that the obstacle to gold and true artistic individuation is the superficiality of ego and social persona, the poem “Mirror” makes these points quite clearly. This poem provides an intricate symbolic structure to express the ways in which socially enforced identities based on gender, age, and physical appearance constrain the process of individuation. W. Freedman mentions in: “The Monster in Plath's "Mirror" that the image of the fish at the close of the poem can only be offered when the literal mirror of the first stanza is transformed to the metaphorical mirror of the second stanza. Freedman writes: “But the image of the fish's emergence requires that the mirror be transformed into water, Plath's symbol of the hideous depths in which the monster lives.”4 These “hideous depths” are the unconscious knowledge repressed under the daily persona of the speaker’s life.
The unconscious realizes that vanity is a losing proposition. An old woman waits in the future, at the bottom of the pool. It is only by moving from the mirror, a symbol of the persona and of vanity, to the pool, a symbol of natural revelation that truth can be grasped. In this case, the truth is that the construct of femininity that has been forced on the speaker of the poem presents an obstacle to revelation. It is unnatural. It is an artifice and, as such, does not fulfill Plath’s criteria of being honest, intimate, and morally sound. Plath’s peering into nature yielded an initiatory portent; her immersion in introspection revealed a limiting layer of falseness and self-limitation. To an extent that would be very difficult to overstate, the next stage of Plath’s personal and artistic development, the Ariel period, represents Plath’s violent and unrelenting attempting to strip away the artifice and limitations of her personal life and career.
For Plath, nature functioned as a kind of eye that revealed the shortcomings and dishonesties of her life and self-image. What can be said to have happened is that Plath’s identification with nature increased to such a level that she saw all the forces and powers of nature, including the mystical and destructive forces chronicled in her earlier developing poems as being present in her psychic and domestic life. P. J. Annas remarks that : “As Plath moves toward the Ariel poems…What had before been animistically projected outward onto the natural world is now internalized as Plath faces the social world.”5 These forces broke her life apart at the same time that her process of introspection freed her artistically.
The Ariel poems represent the final stage of Plath’s encounter with nature. In this stage, the same joy and harmony that Plath associated with her early childhood were rediscovered through her purifying immersion in the natural world. Also in her immersion in the inner-world symbolized in her poems by nature imagery. Being a poet, like being a child, allowed Plath to find a correspondence with the natural world that was uplifting and joyous. However, to grasp it, she had to sacrifice all artifice and dishonesty. This meant personal catastrophe. Cooley states that “Throughout Ariel the speaker insists on absolute control over objects and situations. Without it, she feels powerless, surrenders.”6 This need for control emerged as a consequence of Plath’s individuation process. She needed the outside world, her personal life and career, to facilitate the process of individuation that was initiated by her deep contact with nature. However, she found many social, political, economic, and personal barriers to this process that are fully detailed elsewhere.
One of the ironic elements of Ariel is, of course, that it represents and artistic triumph at the same time that it dramatizes personal collapse. S.R. Van Dyne notes that Plath chose to begin Ariel with the word “love” and end it with the word “Spring.” This was “an order Hughes did not honor in his ordering of the volume,”7 This itself shows that Plath’s latent faith in joy and hope fell prey to personal complications of artifice and ego. Such a fate ironically validates the deepest cynicisms expressed in her work and journals.
1. Rosenblatt, 1979, p. 89.
3. Plath, 27.
5. Annas, 53.
7. Van Dyne, 101.
Annas, P. J. (1988). A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Greenwood Press.
Cooley, P. (1973). Autism, Autoeroticism, Auto-Da-Fe: The Tragic Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Hollins Critic, 10(1), 1-15.
Freedman, W. (1993). The Monster in Plath's "Mirror." (Sylvia Plath). Papers on Language & Literature, 29(2), 152-160.
Plath, Sylvia. (1992) The Collected Poems. Harper Perennial.
Rosenblatt, J. (1979). Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Van Dyne, S. R. (1993). Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.