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On "Black Rook in Rainy Weather"

Brita Lindberg-Seyersted

In 'Black Rook in Rainy Weather' the poet again musters up self-irony to face her urge to commune with nature. She might wish to see 'some design' among the fallen leaves and receive 'some backtalk / From the mute sky,' but this, she knows, would be to expect a miracle. Still, she leaves herself open to any minute gesture on the part of nature lending 'largesse, honor, / One might say love’ even to the dullest landscape and the most ignorant viewer; this could be achieved, for instance, by letting a black rook arrange its feathers in such a way as to captivate the viewer's senses and so 'grant // A brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality.' The miracle has not happened yet, but the hope of such a moment of transcendent beauty and communion is worth the wait. She knows that it might in fact be only a trick of light which the viewer interprets as 'that rare, random descent’ of an angel.

From "Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes." English Studies 71.6 (December 1990).

Margaret Dickie

The rook in Plath's poem, arranging and rearranging its feathers, seems like the fastidious spinster in comparison with Hughes's hawk. It is an object set out on the landscape for no particular purpose, because Plath's real desire is "some backtalk/ From the mute sky." Neither rook nor sky speaks, but the walker is very wordy, full of parenthetical phrases ("Although, I admit, I desire," "At any rate, I now walk"), concerned not with the actual landscape but with her own thoughts. She finally reattaches these thoughts to the landscape by saying,

                    I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality.

The rook, then, is just a ploy, a common bird which serves only as the focus of a vision. No master-fulcrum of violence in this landscape will ever compare to "that rare, random descent" of radiance that hallows "an interval / Otherwise inconsequent."

[. . . .]

[Yet] "Miracles occur," she suggests hopefully. The fear of total neutrality can be relieved by poetic vision . . . .

from Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Joanne Feit Diehl

When, in the old way, inspiration does occur, it releases consciousness from an ordinariness experienced as devoid of meaning or purpose. . . .

The hope held out by such a descent depends upon the workings of the miraculous. Conjoined with the passivity of awaiting a miracle, however, is an effortful resistance that has nothing to do with grace.

... I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality.

"Seize" and "haul," the verbs that Plath chooses to characterize the moment of Sublime intervention, convey the rook’s effect upon her as they suggest a resistance on her part, a passivity that must be broken through. When this resistance combines with dread, Plath envisions a world that will not break into moments of radiance but yields only absence, an absence synonymous with a world untransformed by an imaginative power envisioned as having been created by forces beyond the self.

... With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent

The passivity associated with Plath's early understanding of imaginative creativity would later be replaced by a conception of creative powers that originate from within. Such self-reliance, however, depends upon a release from the early poems' fabric of identifications, where the inspiratory powers of the imagination and the voice of poetic authority are both linked to forces external to the self: to the male poet or to an aversive, hostile nature.

Only by reengendering the terms of these initial identifications can Plath escape the equation of poetic inspiration as annunciation and the passivity it entails.

From Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl.

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