Essay Non-Fiction posted October 3, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
thoughts on Sylvia Plath

The Dryad

by Wabigoon

The author has placed a warning on this post for sexual content.

1. Dryad

I put the Sylvia Plath tape into the tape deck because Highway 53 north from Orr, a small tourist town on Pelican Lake, all the way to International Falls and the border with Canada is so boring I need a distraction, something to listen to and there isn’t any radio to speak of this far north. One would think the scenery here might be fascinating, full of bears, moose and beautiful woods, but it isn’t. Instead, the road is so straight and tedious I have trouble staying awake through the twilight zone along the south sides of big Namakan and Kabetogama Lakes just north in Voyageur's National Park. Boring straight road through small aspen trees chewed down to bare twigs by army worms this spring, devoured by billions upon billions of army worms marching mostly east across the highway from Duluth to Dryden, more than 300 miles north in Ontario, my destination. The road in places is slick with their squished bodies. 

Then there's that other army -- the army of Americans towing huge boats with 225 hp motors going north at ten to fifteen miles per hour above the speed limit on their way to Eagle Lake, Lac Seul, Lake St. Joseph, Wabigoon, Abrams, Minitakki in search of the elusive walleye. I used to tow my boat too, but found a friendly resort where I can store it. Now I drive north without the telltale boat but, in some ways, searching for the same things as these fellows -- more space, more woods, more wilderness, fewer people and, in my case, inspiration.  I am inches from hallucinating army worm mandibles ripping out through my cheeks, then black beady eyes and the long, furry accordion army worm length because of boredom so I decide I need some company and put in the tape . . .

Plath's voice reading her early poems is a shock in the car. She reads her poems about dryads, rooks, sows, the decline of oracles, Lorelei, etc., in a specious English or academic accent without an iota of Eros in it. According to the pamphlet her husband, Ted Hughes, the famous English poet, was sitting right next to her on the couch as she recorded them. I cannot "hear” or sense him, except in the...accent. Where in the hell did she get that? Was she trying to impress him? Sure ain't no Canadian lake woman in it. Just Smith, Oxford and trying to impress some professor or editor are what I hear.

On the Difficulty of Conjuring up a Dryad Plath intones in that voice full of thesaurus and academic marbles while I drive north across the empty lot daze wondering just what a “dryad” is? A tree nymph is my guess, like Daphne. Yes, there it is: "that damn scrupulous tree won't practice wiles to beguile sight: e.g. by cant of light concoct a Daphne; my tree stays tree."

What, is Plath in magic class and she's talking to her magic spells professor saying, "I'm sorry Professor Spells, but no matter how many big, strange and beautiful words I use in the poem to conjure with. . . the damn thing doesn't do something poems are supposed to do! No matter how well I write it, read it in my acquired English accent with my trophy poet husband beside me, just like Orpheus and Eurydice, it doesn't happen! The wand doesn't work, the myth does not open, Daphne the Dryad step out of that laurel tree into reality." 

Same for the later On the Decline of Oracles in which Plath recounts, apparently, a hypnogogic vision had while napping or lying down in which she sees "neither brazen swan nor burning star, heraldry of a starker age, but three men entering the yard, and those men coming up the stair." 

She then goes on to recount how she gets up and goes down these same stairs and meets these same three men on their way up, laments: "worthless such vision to eyes gone dull that once descried Troy's towers fall, saw evil break out of the north." 

Again, the magic, the power of the oracle to foresee great things, great evil is gone from the world, the role of the poet. The poem, that mysterious speech of the oracle that required "decipherers of enigmas" to solve has lost its power to both warn and change the world.

2. Crown Highway

I have little trouble at the border this crossing into Canada. On others I have been pulled aside, truck and bags searched or have had to pay duties on various things I was hauling north. It is amazing how violated such a search can make you feel. This crossing, the literal crossing is simple. On the one from death into life, or vice versa, they make you leave everything behind including your wand, your magic, your memory, your dark matter and your lesson. 

I listen to the second half of the Plath tape once across the border into Canada cruising along utterly secluded, but rough, Crown Highway 502. Everything has changed. The voice in the later poems is mostly hers or her. It is not "Poetry's voice,” a Smith College voice or a young woman trying to impress putting on an English accent; it is the dryad, it is the pythia, it is the snarl of Eurydice up from the rape shops of hell. The trouble is, as I see it, Plath did not know this. Did not see, realize, her magical project, her spells in the early poems had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

3. The Voice of the Dryad

The "dryad," the wood nymph, does not emerge from a tree as a pleasant vision breaking from the hard reality of oak or laurel as Plath imagined in her poem, rather as a howling voice, a mad person, a repressed power unleashed from the unimaginable prison of wood. With the resurrection of the dryad from the petrified heart of a tree, the numbness of wood, come feelings, unbearable feelings that have long been suppressed. These feelings date from the original trauma that turned our Daphne into wood to begin with. How great must the terror of Daphne be that she calls out to her father to be turned into a tree rather than "feel the love" of the God, Apollo? How terrible must the phallus of fire, of inspiration, of Fate thrust up from the God's loins be that Daphne desires the catatonia of wood to escape it? Escape seeing it, feeling it, knowing what is happening as this phallus on fire enters her life to seed her with Fate? 

This is the voice of the dryad I hear in Plath's later poems. This is the infinitely deeply repressed rage of a murdered Niobe raised from the grave. It is the voice of a woman, a person forced to become a whore, a slut-slave in hell. Forced to fornicate with the dark "Daddy" side of Popes, Cardinals, academicians, the Mr. Hyde of Doctors, the Pazuzu of politicians, the psychoses of psychiatrists. In short, a Rosemary raped by the Devil, the instrumentality of the Dark Side of God, of Daddy, to bear the children of evil to force the sheep back into the fold. 

It is the voice of experience of the roots of evil, not the stilted voice of academic knowledge, and yes, "There is a charge, a very large charge for the viewing of this Lady Lazarus's scars." 

That charge is—knowledge. To understand the voice, the scars, you must feel them, feel the terror that turned a person into a tree and know it is real. To feel these things will change your life utterly, turn your world upside down, bring the terror which is the beginning of the knowledge of God and make hell and other things you never thought you wanted to know about, that you thought you could cruise above in the ark of your doctorate, or the yacht of your poem, the most real things in the world.

Story of the Month contest entry


I am of the opinion Sylvia Plath did not commit suicide but was murdered. Murdered in the most insidious of ways, by the Dark Side of Inspiration. Few warn us the power of inspiration has two sides, a light and dark side. Plath was, in my opinion, capable of revealing that Dark Muse and its power, therefore had to be hit from behind by the dark hearse of it to eliminate the threat of her talent.
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