Poem by Sylvia Plath, 1958
It is no night to drown in:
A full moon, river lapsing
Black beneath bland mirror-sheen,
The blue water-mists dropping
Scrim after scrim like fishnets
Though fishermen are sleeping,
The massive castle turrets
Doubling themselves in a glass
All stillness. Yet these shapes float
Up toward me, troubling the face
Of quiet. From the nadir
They rise, their limbs ponderous
With richness, heavier
Than sculpted marble. They sing
Of a world more full and clear
Than can be. Sisters, your song
Bears a burden too weighty
For the whorled ear’s listening
Here, in a well-steered-country,
Under a balanced ruler.
Deranging by harmony
Beyond the mundane order,
Your voices lay siege. You lodge
On the pitched reefs of nightmare,
Promising sure harborage;
By day, descant from borders
Of hebetude, from the ledge
Also of high windows. Worse
Even than your maddening
Song, your silence. At the source
Of your ice-hearted calling —
Drunkenness of the great depths.
O river, I see drifting
Deep in your flux of silver
Those great goddesses of peace.
Stone, stone, ferry me down there.
Lorelei is the name of a steep rock on the bank of the Rhine river. The name means “murmuring or lurking rock.” The alluring sound of the plashing currents, amplified by the shape of the rock, gave rise to legend and poetry about a spirit who so distracts boatmen that they crash into the rock and sink to their death.
Plath often wrote with a thesaurus ready to hand, and she liked to find odd words. Hebetude is an obscure word that means lethargy or dullness of the senses. To descant is to sing in harmony with an underlying tune or bass line. So by night the Lorelei spirits sing from the top of the rock, “the pitched reefs of nightmare,” and by day they haunt from the edges of everyday boredom and irresponsible unresponsiveness. In contrast to ordinary “sensible” people who go untroubled about their business, Plath was extraordinarily sensitive to detail, both physical and emotional.
Although this poem deals with temptations to suicide, and Plath did eventually die by suicide, it would be a mistake to read the poem in a narrow autobiographical manner. The poem can entrance us with the beauty of its language and the eerie Gothic beauty of the things it describes. It expresses a longing for “a world more full and clear than can be,” a life better than the one we actually live. In a sense this is the danger of art in general. Who for example lives a life that feels as sweet as Mozart’s music? What may not happen to a person who longs for that golden spirit and cannot bear reality falling far short of second best? Art may pull us disappointed away from reality.
The weight of artistic beauty may also pull us deeper into reality. But there, at the heart of things, is where we are most vulnerable: sooner or later, with great love comes great pain. That’s just why “sensible” people avoid it…like the plague…that creeps in with the fog…under the dizzy spin of the lighthouse lamp… (I’m trying here to illustrate the kind of fun we have telling ghost stories; Plath seems to be having this kind of fun too.)
This poem is crafted in syllabic verse: each line has exactly seven syllables, no matter how many of them are stressed or unstressed. It also creates an intricate rhyming pattern ABA, then BCB, CDC, and so on. Yet the effect is subtle because most of the rhymes are less than full. For example, the final words glass, face, and ponderous all end in an S sound; ruler, order, nightmare all end with an open R sound.
The genre of this poem is classical lyric, with its signature feature: the poet exclaims “Oh!” and speaks to something as if it were a person, in this case, the river. Earlier in the poem, the speaker also addresses the Lorelei spirits as sisters.
Listen to a reading of the poem by clicking the triangular Play button.