Sylvia Plath – The Ghost’s Leavetaking

This poem focuses on the moment of waking up and invokes the dream-state in a luscious menagerie of images. It is interested in transitions, the state of semi-consciousness ‘between two worlds’, and draws connections between sleep and death, where mortality is portrayed as both terrifying and embracing. The nature of dreams as at once ludicrous and utterly sincere is used as a prism through which to see the whole of existence. The ghost of the title can be seen both as the shadow of a dream after waking, and also the dreamer themself in a wakened world.

The poem’s interest in transitional states and dreaming is conveyed from the first line where ‘no-one’s land’ uses the stock image of disputed territory to suggest a place between definitions, with no unique qualities but notable only for the two concrete things it is not. The alien feeling of remembered dreams is conjured in the vivid soundscapes created by different word sounds, ‘void’, ‘draggled lot’, ‘sulfurous’, playing off each other in cacophony. This aural representation of colour is countered by the sterility imposed by ‘no-colour void’ – mimicking the return of reality which banishes these memories of colour. The poem attempts to hold both states in suspension, capturing the moment of transition when both ‘worlds’ are available. There is a sense in which the wakened state seems the more false, the more one-dimensional. It is a ‘ready-made creation’, reflecting the fact that it appears instantly on regaining consciousness, but reinforcing the sense of sterility – it has been pre-prepared, and populated with banal objects, ‘chairs and bureaus’ as if it itself had been mass-produced.

The poem makes allusion to Egyptian rituals and culture to present dreaming and sleep ans intimately connected with death. The ‘twisted sheets‘ found on waking are the only evidence of actions in the night that have now been forgotten. They have associations of mummification, the Egyptian practice that has also faded in the memory, and decayed physically, to leave ‘twisted sheets’ as its only remnant. It brings associations of ancient ritual, mysticism that is picked up in the idea of ‘hieroglyphs’. The ‘chairs and bureaus’ become profound symbols with divine significance, something ‘wakened heads ignore’. Trying to interpret dreams is likened to attempting to delve into a mysterious history, interpreting symbols that now seem devoid of meaning. The image of the ghost, ‘Upraised, as a hand, emblematic of farewell’ bears a resemblance to an ancient depiction of a deity, with ’emblematic’ seeing this figure as another symbol in the hieroglyphics of the dream. The ‘rocky gizzard of the earth’ represents death, with the harsh sounding ‘gizzard’ reflecting the pain of mortality, and resembling buzzard‘, which in turn recalls the bird of prey represented in Egyptian hieroglyphs. This ghost does not descend into death, however, but instead rises into thinner ‘atmosphere’ – the world of reality.

The poem also looks at dreams as a means of exploring the bond between banality and profundity. The transformation of the ‘chairs and bureaus’ is an example of this already noted, we also see in the ‘region’ the ghost ascends to a ‘point of exclamation’ like a ‘stellar carrot’. The bathetic vegetable simile is imposed upon an image that perhaps alludes to another poem I’ve recently written on, Eliot’s The Hollow Men, where the different ‘regions’ of Dante’s Hell and Purgatory are invoked in a fear of death and judgement. So the profound and terrifying resolves in this poem in to absurdity – the absurdity of dreams ‘which seemed when dreamed to mean so profoundly much’, but also of real life.

The figure of the ghost in the poem can therefore be seen to represent the half-remembered dream – which like a dream is both there and not there. The ‘ghost of our mother and father, ghost of us’ are the fragmented resemblances of people in dreams that bear only ephemeral connections to reality. These lines also indicate that the ‘ghost’ is also the dreamer themself, where the ‘ghosts’ of the family are the wakened family living in reality. This is underscored by the recurrence of the ‘head’ at the start and end of the poem, first clearly the dreamer’s ‘waking head’, and at the end the ‘dreaming skull’ of the ghost – a figure both intimate and familiar, but also a representation of death.

This poem takes an ambivalent look at dreams both as the most profound human experience but also as death-in-minature. The speaker seems grimly reconciled with what is portrayed as an empty, sterile reality – seeing humour in the absurdity of existance and poetry in the escape of unconsciousness.


1 thought on “Sylvia Plath – The Ghost’s Leavetaking

  1. Hi, I’m a 16 year old who’s looking to broaden my taste in literature and poetry, i suppose to help me get an idea of what i want to do in the future, and I just wanted to say I’m finding your “furious essay-writing crusade” very interesting and inspiring, thank you :)

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