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Sylvia Plath's "Crossing the Water"

Updated on December 19, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sylvia Plath


Crossing the Water

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Interpretive Reading of Plath's "Crossing the Water," with drum accompaniment

The speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “Crossing the Water” begins her performance tainted by the influence of an intensely dark mood, but then just a flicker of starlight transforms her dark mood from grave to wonder.

This lyrical poem consists of only twelve lines, separated into tercets. Each tercet builds to the amazing crescendo of the fabulous image of "the silence of astounded souls"—one of Plath's most memorable creations.

First Tercet: “Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people”

The speaker tersely describes an ominous setting: “Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.” The somber mood heralds an equally somber, even bizarre, question that asks where “black trees go” after they “drink here.” The question is jarring because trees literally go nowhere regardless of where they “drink.”

But this speaker’s mind is a jagged edge that asks figurative questions and makes wholly imaginary assertions; for example, after the jarring question, she claims that the shadows of those trees “must cover Canada.” The enormity of those shadows implies near equally enormous trees.

Second Tercet: “A little light is filtering from the water flowers”

The speaker then notes a “little light” in this nearly total blackout, and that light “is filtering from the water flowers.” The speaker’s mood again intrudes upon common sense, leading her to believe that the leaves of those “water flowers” “do not wish us to hurry.”

Although the speaker is alone, she now suggests that she is traveling with at least one other person. Despite her opening reference to “two black, cut-paper people,” the speaker’s assertions indicate that she is, in fact, talking to herself, as the muses on the solemn scene.

The cut-paper people do not accompany her; they reside in the imaginary realm within the darkness that the speaker quite desperately attempts to penetrate with her against-the-natural questions and her peculiar claims.

The speaker describes the leaves of the water flowers as “round and flat,” and more strikingly, these leaves are filled with “dark advice.” The speaker implies that she is privy to that advice, yet she also suggests that her understanding of the advice is flawed.

Third Tercet: “Cold worlds shake from the oar”

As the oars move the boat through the black water, the speaker perceives that water falling from the oars morphs into “cold worlds.” The earth that is made of three-fourths water is but a drop that the oarsman might shake from the oar as he moves the boat through the dark water.

The speaker then concludes that this somber scene reveals the “blackness” that is in each human being. She makes her plain statement—“The spirit of blackness is in us”—and follows it with the claim that this blackness is also “in the fishes.”

Fourth Tercet: “Stars open among the lilies”

Suddenly, the speaker notices, “Stars open among the lilies.” This statement can be taken literally as well as figuratively. The stars that have suddenly appeared in this blackened landscape reflect both sky and earth. They not only appear, however; they also “open.”

The light that now appears along with the newly formed visible “lilies” stuns the speaker so much that she blurts out a revealing question, ”Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?” Unlike the singing sirens of the Odyssey, these sirens sing only to the eyes, and coming out of blackness they seem to blind the observers with their brilliance.

Because they remain “expressionless,” that is, silent, they represent the kind of silence “of astounded souls.” The speaker is shaken from her black mood into one of astonishment; she is transported to a mood of surprise by the simplicity of light and silence.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 23 months ago from U.S.A.

      Hello, Mihnea--I just now saw this comment. That's why it's taken me so long to respond. Anyway, Plath has many fine poems and a reputation well deserved for her skill. Thanks for mentioning John Berryman; he's a poet whose works I have thus far neglected. I'll have to remedy that oversight. Have a great day, and thanks for responding.

    • Mihnea Andreescu profile image

      Mihnea-Andrei Andreescu 2 years ago from Tilburg

      I love Sylvia Plath's work although my favourite of the Confessionalists is John Berryman.Her work sure is very deep but I always found it sad that many skilled poets have had suicidal tendencies and even commited suicide.