Spinster by Sylvia Plath

Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious April walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
Her gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower.
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then! –
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock, each sentiment in border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here – a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley –
A treason not to be borne. Let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.

 

Plath’s 1956 poem ‘Spinster’ serves to juxtapose the order and disarray of the natural world with the anxiety to maintain control. The persona in ‘Spinster’ – as is evident by the name – exists in a state in which men are not to be depended on, furthering the interpretation that ‘this particular girl’ wants to have autonomous control over her own life; without being dictated to by a man. The use of the word ‘ceremonious’ in the first stanza implicates heavy connotations of both the prospect of marriage and also structure and uniform, the ‘suitor’ that walks with her is clearly somebody that this girl is expected to marry. But the presence of disorder in their environment clamps the girl’s attentions, with the ‘birds’ irregular babel / and the leaves litter’; the word ‘litter’ erasing the usual connotations of nature’s beauty, portraying it as a mess and not at is should be.

The persona’s sterile detachment from the ‘suitor’ she walks with is truly confirmed in the second stanza. She ‘observed her lover’s gestures’, the verb ‘observed’ reminiscent of a scientist looking on at some lab-rat experiment, even Plath’s description of him as a ‘suitor’ depersonalizes his character. He poses no significance to the persona, she has no emotional ties to him; he is her ‘latest suitor’, implying that there have been many others before him. The persona also continues to have a dissatisfaction of nature’s movements, in ‘a rank wilderness of fern and flower; / she judged the petals in disarray.’ The only facet of nature that seems to please the persona is the season of winter, which she describes as being ‘scrupulously austere in its order / of white and black’; t’s monochromatic characteristics implies a sense of uniform with the reduced components –  ‘ice and rock.’

The third stanza concludes by referring to ‘heart’s frosty discipline / exact as a snowflake’, finally bringing together the two elements of nature and the heart of the persona. The rest of the poem shows the persona’s rationalization of remaining in spinsterhood, and rejecting all men. In the final stanza Plath implements the metaphorical  ‘barricade[s] of barb and check’ that the persona set around her heart – which Plath refers to as her ‘house’ – which ‘no mere insurgent man could hope to break / with curse, fist, threat / or love, either.’ The persona is utterly adamant. She will remain a spinster, and be the master of her own life.

A young Plath on holiday in 1953, three years before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.

A young Plath on holiday in 1953, three years before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.

 

I Am Very Bothered by Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.

 

I’d say the most interesting thing about this particular Armitage poem is the way in which it follows the traditional length of the romantic sonnet; although abandons all of the other usual facets. A sonnet professes the poet’s love for the recipient and in a strange and unconventional way, this poem does exactly that. It describes a juvenile love and the innocent disregard for consequences and the ‘butterfingered way[s]’ we use to get attention when falling in – what we then are convinced is – love at a young age. The language used massively juxtaposes what one would expect to find  in the traditional sonnet; roses and wine are replaced with white-hot scissors, Bunsen burners and ‘the stench of branded skin’…not quite the pinnacle of conventional romance; and it is in some ways endearing how the speaker still holds some guilt over his actions so many years into the future

Marriage is used as a covert motif throughout the poem and is finally professed as the speaker’s intentions in the final line. Armitage refers to the victim of the speaker’s ‘butterfingered ways’ as ‘slipping [your] thumb and middle finger in / then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings.’ Now, this particular line is a very interesting one. As opposed to the ring finger, Armitage puts emphasis upon the fact that the unnamed girl is using other fingers to use the scissors, perhaps suggesting that she is blatantly not ready for even contemplating the thought of marriage in the same way that the speaker’s immature act proves his lack of readiness. Of course a lack of readiness for marriage at the age of thirteen is to be both expected – to a degree – encouraged, but the following line which depicts that the girl ‘couldn’t shake off the two burning rings, Marked / the doctor said, for eternity’ seems to imply that just because these two are not ready for marriage in that present moment, they are in some way destined for each other and ‘marked’ to be together.’  The speaker’s anecdote of how he burned the hand of a girl he loved to draw her attention suggests an entirely positive message overall; it denotes that an action does not have to be lavishly brimming with romance for it to be romantic in itself uniquely.

Simon Armitage (1963-)

Simon Armitage (1963-)