Compare and contrast Sylvia Plath ‘Blackberrying’, Sylvia Plath ‘Mirror’ and Elizabeth Jennings ‘My Grandmother’
I have chosen two poems by Sylvia Plath called ‘Blackberrying’ and ‘Mirror’. Plath was a manic depressive most of her life, she was married to Ted Hughes who later became poet laureate, but despite this marriage she claimed never to feel truly loved nor that she could give all her love to one person. She committed suicide at the age of 30 leaving two children and her husband so bereaved he did not write poetry for 3 years after her death. The other poem I have chosen is called ‘My grandmother’ by Elizabeth Jennings, she also suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 40 after the recovery from a serious illness.
Like Plath the years of asperity in her life were enhanced in her poems and the comparisons between the two ways of expressing this loneliness and sadness are to be compared and contrasted in this essay. In the poem ‘Blackberrying’ Plath talks about walking down a lane towards the sea whilst picking blackberries in a milk-bottle. The first verse of the poem starts by describing the fact that she is alone ‘nobody in the lane, and nothing’, does this imply that she is often on her own? and is she happy like this, or does she feel no-one knows the ‘real her’ that she has no-one she is really close to that she can talk to?
Then the atmosphere changes and there are blackberries all around her and she is no longer alone. It’s almost as if she takes comfort in being with the blackberries as we see a few lines down she describes a relationship between herself and the blackberries ‘a blood sisterhood; they must love me’ She imagines the juice of the berries and her own blood mingling together, this bonding is what she’s missing from real life and perhaps wants to bond with people, possibly her husband but feels incapable of doing so.
There is a lot of articulation about the size and shape of the blackberries and how they are ‘on the right mainly’. I think this shows she likes to observe life and watch it go by, this can be compared to her other poem ‘Mirror’ where she goes into detail about how she meditates staring at the opposite wall thinking it has become part of her heart. The line ‘the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks’ implies that the atmosphere has been broken and the calmness has been interrupted. There is also use of onomatopoeia on the pronunciation of the words ‘choughs’ and ‘cacophonous’.
In verse two there is a lot of colour imagery from the black crows to the ‘green meadows’ and the ‘bluegreen bellies’ of the flies, these spurts of colour again begin to interfere with the calmness created in verse one. She repeats the word protesting in line 13 as if she’s asking why me, meaning she is obviously very upset or depressed about something in her life. There is a definite mood change in the last stanza, it is shown by the amount of space as she reaches the sea, and the nothingness that we saw in the first line of the poem comes back contrasting the masses of blackberries surrounding her before.
She has a sudden snap out of the perfect fantasy world she has created ‘slapping its phantom laundry in my face’ the word laundry reminds us of everyday chores that we have to undertake it gives the impression she is being slapped back into the reality of everyday life. The mention of bright lights in the distance shows she still has hope for the future and although all the references to suicide ‘one last hook and the berries and bushes end’, she may find something to hold on to.
But the last image of the poem is of the beating of a ‘intractable metal’ although it is being beaten it will not break this could be referred to the relationship with her husband as no matter how hard she tries she can never get through to him her true feelings. This poem displays what Sylvia Plath thinks of her relationships with other people and how she can’t seem to connect with anyone in her life. Therefore she feels very lonely and the poem also shows how she copes with this sadness by trying to correlate with objects instead of people, as these do not have any opinions or thoughts to criticise her.
The other poem by Sylvia Plath I have been studying is ‘Mirror’. The narrator, ‘I’ is on looking on a woman referred to as ‘she’. The poem describes the relationship between the two characters. I believe the narrator is a person Plath wants to be, the person is admired and complemented with attributes Plath desires, ‘I am sliver and exact’ maybe Plath is trying to explain how she wants to stand out and shine above others and be an exact figure not just a blur in the distance.
She even calls this person ‘the eye of a little god, four-cornered’ again showing her desire to be this person who she perhaps worships, she admires their stability, the four-cornered shape gives an impression of a square, equal all around with great structure and support. This desire for something solid in her life is also shown in ‘blackberrying’ how she lusts for someone to take interest in her and how she finds this comfort in the blackberries. I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me’. The other person in the poem is ‘she’, I think this person represents who Plath used to be or doesn’t want to be anymore, ‘she turns to those liars’ the narrator doesn’t like the way ‘she’ is infrequent as it shows un-stability ‘she comes and goes’ but it’s as if the woman is her master and the narrator doesn’t get a choice as she is represented by the mirror unable to move, obediently reflecting anything that comes in her path.
The relationship between the two characters in the poem suggests they need each other to survive how ‘she’ is the narrator’s master but ‘she’ rewards the narrator with tears it is clear they need each other and the narrator (the new Plath) still needs the old Plath to stay as she is to be able to refer back to when she was that other person and knows not to be her again. This bizarre form of relationships can be reflected into Sylvia Plath’s life, her unstable relationship with her husband but still they remain together and affect each other greatly.
There is a lot of contrast in this poem, light and dark is used to show the importance of the infrequent day and how it changes to night ‘she turns to those liars, the candles and the moon’. There are also a lot of metaphors in the poem, ‘faces and darkness separate us over and over’ the faces that separate her portray that there are people in her life that she feels are interfering and the darkness could be a whole in her life where she feels something is missing and these people are interfering with her finding it.
The poem ends by telling us how a young lady has been drowned and an old woman has become, this finalises that the poem is about growing up and the realisation that as you grow older, your views change and you can look back at what you were like. This point of view is greatly taken on in the third poem I have chosen, ‘My Grandmother’, where the differences between young and old are compared and the opinion of the poet is that as you get older you get lonelier and no one pays any attention to you anymore. The poem starts ‘she kept an antique shop-or it kept her. She uses personification to tell us that the grandmother in the poem is indeed old (shown by the word antique) and it gives an impression that she’s not quite in control of her life, that her age ha taken over. In the next few lines the ambience created is that everything is worn out, that it’s had its prime time and is now fading in the corner under the layers of dust. The mention of love, and how the antique shop has taken over these feeling tells me that something may have happened in the past to defer the grandmother off the idea of finding a partner, perhaps the death of a husband or close relationship.
The description of the grandchild’s relationship with her grandmother is very interesting, how they are virtually afraid of each other and when the grandchild turns down the offer to go out with her, there is a enormous feeling of awkwardness between the two, how nothing was ever said between them about why they didn’t want to go out with her nor that the grandmother was hurt about this decision. This lack of communication shows us that the grandmother was being isolated from her grandchild and possibly the whole family; this made her lonely and arrogant so she could never fall in love again.
The structure is different to that of Sylvia Plath, as Plath uses a lot of complex imagery and metaphors in her poems but Elizabeth Jennings uses very simple language, applying punctuation carefully, so that half a sentence carries on to the next line forcing you to pause in mid sentence, making the sentences seem really short and simple. When the grandmother is taken ill she still can’t be forced to separate from her antiques where everything around her is old; maybe she doesn’t want to be reminded of when she was young, relating back to the bad experience putting her off finding love.
The metaphor ‘ the smell of absences’ makes me think that as soon as you walk in the room you can tell something is missing from her life, something ‘that can’t be polished’ or put away, just an empty space in her life that she knows she can never fill as she’s too old. This can be compared to the empty feeling Sylvia Plath feels whilst picking blackberries and how she doesn’t know how to fill it either.
The last stanza is demonstrating the final part of growing up, it talks of ‘the things she never used, but needed’ portraying that she was stubborn not to try new things and insisted on living in the past. The emptiness after she dies really shows through, as all the antique that cluttered her life have gone is shown in the metaphor, ‘no finger-marks were there, only the new dust falling through the air’ even after she has died it’s not until the young and fresh come in to start all over again that the old dust is set free to settle somewhere else.
The structure of this poem is very important, the way the poem is spilt into four verses to separate the different stages of the last part of her life. And the simple words used in the second verse to make the true importance of the words to stand out, there are still lots of metaphors used in the poem, the same as Sylvia Plath but not in the same effect, as Plath uses them as riddles on what she is thinking that you have to work out yourself but Jennings uses them very directly to what she is trying to tell us about the people in the poem.
I think all the poems are effective at adeptly displaying their ideas on loneliness and how it influences the poet’s life individually. The first poem by Sylvia Plath is different to ‘Mirror’ because although both talk about the relationships, in ‘Blackberrying’ the relationship is between her and an object and in ‘Mirror’ it is between her future and her past and is all about wanting to be someone else and growing wiser by learning from your mistakes. Blackberrying’ is about how she is feeling at present, with herself and the people around her, this idea of creating relationships is also taken on by Elizabeth Jennings but she does not talk of personal experiences but those of possibly people she knows or simply her opinion of what life will be like for her when she reaches the age of a grandmother.
Perhaps the shock of surviving a serious illness made her realise she may never reach this age and so has already started to feel lonely at a younger age than the people in her poem. From comparing these poems I have learnt that there is more than one way of expressing the same emotion and different people choose to express them in ways that suit them and there is not a stereotypical way of doing this.
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