The Angel of Depression: Thoughts on Sylvia Plath’s Bleakness


I’ve always turned to Sylvia Plath’s poetry when those dark moods hit me, when that vaster rhythm of the angel of depression wanders through my mind:

Through portico of my elegant house you stalk
With your wild furies, disturbing garlands of fruit
And the fabulous lutes and peacocks, rending the net
Of all decorum which holds the whirlwind back.
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

Her autobiography The Bell Jar is also comforting in those moments of deep bleakness… I seem to wander between those black sounds of which the poet Lorca spoke, and the comic escapes of those comedians of absurdity like Robin Williams who uttered strange tales in the laughter between despair and nothingness.

Maybe there truly is no real comfort from this dark voyage between two abysses – birth and death, but rather the endless agon against annihilation… only our fierce desperation to exist in the midst of this vast silence where we attain only momentary insights into the pain and suffering of what is do we begin to realize that even our most desperate fractures are part of that dark flame of the Real… and, can attain a majesty even as we touch our deepest fears and terrors.

Fractured pillars frame prospects of rock;
While you stand heroic in coat and tie, I sit
Composed in Grecian tunic and psyche-knot,
Rooted to your black look, the play turned tragic:
With such blight wrought on our bankrupt estate,
What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

Plato a follower of those theurgic priests of the Orphic traditions would banish the poets from his cosmos of purity, order, and harmony. Yet, the poets would not go away silently into that dark night, but would continue to disturb the cosmic visions of philosophers with their logic of the Real. The poet’s cosmos is often one of despair rather than wisdom, a world where the fragmentary and glistening tide of war, strife, and the labors of unending horror lurk just beyond the confines of Socratic dialectic. Where Desire not Intellect rules the night and the dark moon and her feminine retinue skirt the blooded mountains wreaking havoc everywhere. Sacrifice and ecstasy begin in that night-world where the poets rule supreme and their black music singes the beards of those staid philosophers of day. Like that caged leopard of Rilke that moved back and forth, restless, caught in the envelope of that philosophical gaze – seeking that freedom wherein the hidden life of its raging heart could once again follow its drives into the wildness of time.

Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice
as is your image in my eye; dry frost
glazes the window of my hurt; what solace
can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste
grow green again ? Who’d walk in this bleak place?
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

Here the poetess has that “mind of winter” that Stevens spoke of, where love’s bittersweet pang sifts the landscape and her mind like sift the memories of summer and winter, a divide of loss that shatters the heart in a bleak place that is also the time of her travail.

Borges would remind us that poetry is life. “And life is, I am sure, made of poetry. Poetry is not alien – poetry is lurking round the corner. It may spring on us at any moment.” The panthers of poetry like Plath awaken us out of our stupor, give us back again the alienated truth of our lives. That ‘alienated Majesty’ of which Emerson once said is our birthright, the insubstantial truth of our inner life, the heart of our mind and being. Part and partial of that ‘austere sun’ of which Plath says:

The austere sun descends above the fen,
an orange cyclops-eye, scorning to look
longer on this landscape of chagrin;
feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook,
brooding as the winter night comes on.
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

This brooding over the abyss like some sated dove of time, a woman wandering the plight of winter neither goddess nor enchantress; rather, a singular and unique being whose becoming touches the magic of reality with her erotic blend of metaphor and despair. Like a lost Ulysses stalked by the Cyclops in a blind world that is no longer part of some tragic realm but rather a farce in which the poetess feathered and tarred broods over her fate, a wyrd that is both fatal and unyielding.

Anne Carson will tell us that in Sappho we discover the truth of eros – that it is bittersweet, “at once an experience of pleasure and pain”. (Carson, Eros the bittersweet) To feel those affective tortures that connect us to another is to know that despair, that loss of one’s self, the bittersweet tang of flesh on flesh, mind on mind in which a commingling of two desires suddenly if aggravatingly forms a new thing, a new object within which love is born of our despair.

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

Some say Orpheus belonged to that tribe of seers, singers and healers who wandered the wildlands in discovery of that ancient guilt which the gods once laid on humans seeking to absolve us and save us from its dire taint and corruption. These cosmocrators of the orphic lyre, poets of a new salvation, hoped to restore an imagined ideal state of harmonia, goverened by the “universal law”, the Vedic rta – a “unifying principle which animates the parts into a single cosmic machine”, like the animated “chariot of truth” drawn by a pair of horses – the divine twins.1

Against such cosmic harmony and pantheism the Alexandrian Gnostics would present an alternative cosmos, one in which disharmony and misrule were the operative order of the day in which Chaos held sway over our doom ridden lives, and the very powers that manifested themselves in this evil cosmos were shaped by a Cosmocrator or Demiurgos whose intent was blind madness rather than philosophical light and harmony.

The poets would shift between a pagan animism and a gnostic and acosmic naturalism, between a cosmos where gods lived among us like vital and terrible powers of the natural order; or, were disbursed into the cosmic void like so many daemonic dispositions. Between them came those like Lucretius who would follow a world between harmony and disorder, where the gods were nothing but human gifts and dispositions of the mind not reality; constructed out of our need to order the cosmos, but were no longer external to those needs, – a cosmos at once natural and human in which the gods had left the stage, and the forces of the cosmic order were neither good nor evil but rather indifferent and oblivious to our human needs of thoughts.

So the Lucretian tradition in poetry was born and those like Shakespeare, Leopardi, Pope, and many others would sing of our natural universe which was no longer good or evil, from which no external authority held sway but rather the human mind alone attuned to the openness of things began to dispel the fears and horror of things with a new way of thinking and being, Science.

Yet, like all things this new path would become dogma, a religion for the world that would replace once again the philosopher and poet and set itself up as the ultimate arbiter of value and truth in the world. It’s cathedrals would become the large Hadron Colliders, the mathematical and abstract worlds of indecipherable and unnatural algorithms, encoded in languages no longer natural and linguistic but rather specialized and internal realms – artificial dataclaves, computing avatars of some machinic mind, that only the priesthood of a new religion of data and computers could be entrusted to interpret and bare witness too.

So once again another tribe of poets was born who would wander back into the realms of gods and demons, magic and the outerings of dispelled superstition in search of what was no longer accepted or condoned. Those who once again stepped beyond the phenomenal and into the noumenal where Reason’s limited circle of knowledge could not stay us against the darkness and chaos of things.

The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.
Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

Here begins the dark trek back into our open world beyond the human and into the non-human where we once knew the terror that gave us life. Where as Nietzsche once stated “Chaos gives birth to a dancing star.”

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
……..– from Plath’s Collected Poems

Like W.B. Yeats “what beast comes round”, Plath’s panther on the stairs is that order of the natural that cannot be tamed either by imposing an order of the mind, nor by some external acceptance of an animistic god-enchafed cosmos; but, rather it is that which is neither of the mind nor of the flesh, a crossing between orders that cannot be located among our poetics of despair, nor tamed by our speculative philosophies but yields to us a wildness in the universe that is both vital and indifferent to our human or non-human thoughts of order or chaos. Something just outside language that is treading up the stairs of being, both contingent and power maddeningly ominous.

  1. Algis Uzdavinys. Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism. (Mattheson Trust, 2007)

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