I Am Vertical


Courtesy - http://www.bl.uk
(Excerpt from Collected Poems - Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes)

I am vertical by Sylvia Plath

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf, 
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted, 
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling, 
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, 
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors. 
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing. 
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping 
I must most perfectly resemble them -- 
Thoughts gone dim. 
It is more natural to me, lying down. 
Then the sky and I are in open conversation, 
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally: 
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

 - Sylvia Plath (© 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath)

This is a poem that never fails to stir me in a strange way. Powerful by itself, in retrospect, the context of Plath’s life adds unbelievable pathos to it. Sylvia Plath was an outstanding poet and writer, who committed suicide at the age of 30. This was not her first suicide attempt; she was plagued by depression all through her life, winding in and out of psychiatric care. Her academic achievements were dazzling. Her body of work throbs with a pain of its own, stinging like tears.

At the surface, the lines of this poem are innocuous enough – but go a level deeper, you can hear Plath’s voice – her bewildered helplessness, her pressing desire to call it quits. Assume her point of view, and, only for a moment, wear the cloak of depression and read the lines...

The first line But I would rather be horizontal – a continuation from the title – sets the tone of the poem. The imagery conjured up by the word ‘horizontal’ is startling. One knows what it means.

The second line I’m not a tree with my root in the soil – it’s probably a recurrent question in a depressive mind – what is the use of being alive (vertical)? Her reference to the roots, nourishment and ‘motherly love’ is interesting. It can be interpreted as a lack of connection and rootedness that seems to dog her. It’s not as simple as ‘counting one’s blessings’ – a depressive mind is a black hole – no amount of love can fill that up. It reveal’s Plath’s mental isolation. There is also the sense of her pained bewilderment – of no one understanding her. It is true: for a normal person, it is difficult to show empathy with someone suffering from such clinical depression.

Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted

We get a glimpse of her self-image, which is not very flattering. I think for the kind of abject depression she was battling with, she could never really appreciate how much she was cherished and respected. 

But it is the lines - So that each March I may gleam into leaf, and Unknowing I must soon unpetal - that, to me, gives an idea about the kind of conflict that goes on and on in her mind. Her reference to the immortality of the tree (compared to her own lifespan), and the ‘daring’ of the flower further confirms this conflict of thoughts – on the one hand, there is a desire to live a long fulfilling life, but on the other, there is the sense of futility. The flower blooms spectacularly irrespective of its destiny to wither and die. The tree, rooted and tall and strong – it is happy to remain that way. But what about human life, with its curse of intelligence and self-awareness? A flower and a tree may not know their destinies – but humans do. It all eventually leads up to the same end. Human life is inherently cruel – just as we mature (well, probably not in all cases), and make peace with ourselves and the world around us, our body turns against us. In a sadistic twist of irony, the body that we nourish and nurture so much, withers in an undignified way, even as age sharpens the mind to dazzling brilliance. Our mind, ever intelligent, growing younger with its capacity to understand the universe, must also register the fact that its vehicle is no longer up to the job.

For someone as creatively hypersensitive as Plath, thoughts of the body and mind, and the inevitability of death would have had a profound effect. The thought of ending it all would have always been buzzing inside her head. I guess some days it would be really loud, this buzzing – a mental torture of the worst kind.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, 
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors. 
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing. 

In these lines, Plath reveals almost metaphysical thoughts – her sense of absolute insignificance in the larger scheme of things. For all our jumping around, it is true that humans are insignificant in the cosmic sense. But to have this reality hang like a dense cloud over your head, and inside your head – what a prison such a mind is.

It is more natural to me, lying down. 

This line is chilling and tragic at the same time – the sense of Plath’s surrender to her depression; she is almost comforted by the thought of death – that there is a choice to put an end to it. There is a choice not to go through with the physiological hideousness of life.

Then the sky and I are in open conversation, 
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally: 
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

Dust to dust – six feet under, the human body, whether it was useful in life or not – nature puts it to use – the body, now back to its very basic elements – is one with the earth, from where the trees and get their nourishment; and indeed there will be flowers on the grave.
Plath eventually committed suicide on Feb 11, 1963. I won’t go into the morbid details – but for someone in her state of mind, I think it truly was an escape to freedom.   

She leaves behind a treasure trove of contribution to modern English Literature. In the Bell Jar, she says, “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” I hope she found her eternal peace.



© Sumana Khan – 2015 

Comments

  1. Sumana, as I was reading through the first few lines after the verse, I was reminded of a few lines I had come across. I was trying to recollect the exact wordings of those lines all the while reading through your post and what do I find at the very bottom of the post?!! it is the same set of lines!! This is just unbelievable.

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    1. Yes I am talking about these lines : “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
      These lines do paint a picture of eternal peace.

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    2. Yes. It also shows the struggle she had within herself...such a relentless struggle...of wanting to love life but also wanting to end it.

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