Whiteness I Have Known
I. Context & Subject Matter
In her first year at Cambridge, Plath had hired an old horse called Sam who was expected to be placid, but bolted with the inexperienced rider on his back. It was her first attempt at horse riding – “First horse under me”. While it was a frightening and dangerous experience, Plath recalled it as a time when she felt immensely alive. It formed the basis of the thrilling horse-ride described in both “Whiteness I Remember” and a later poem Ariel.
For a third perspective of the same ride refer to Ted Hughes’ poem Sam.
II. Sound Effects
Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.
Poets can make words sing by blending meaning and using sound to convey mood in an emotive and suggestive manner. Some poets deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy. The subtle repetition of vowel sounds (rhyme, assonance) can create a distinctive mood or ambience. The repetition of consonants (alliteration) can also obliquely affect the emotions of the responders.
This appears to be a straightforward literal account of Sylvia Plath’s terrifying “novice” ride on what was supposed to be a placid horse that turns and "bolts" on its way home to give her the ride of her life. The poem begins with a subdued descriptive account of the scene and the horse but then dramatises the ride by increasing the pace from a trot to a jog and finally an uncontrollable bolt. This is done by ellipsis and a change of rhythm:
Then for ill will
Or to try me he suddenly set
Green grass streaming, houses a river
Of pale fronts, straw thatchings, hooves four hammers to jolt
Me off into their space of beating,….
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns
This poem expresses the feelings of a heightened death defying experience and how it focuses all our being in survival. It strips all other concerns as staying alive is paramount. The whiteness refers to either the white light near death survivors allude to or the intensity and purity of the experience.
I hung on his neck. Resoluteness
“Death in earnest gives life force as nothing else does; it makes one alert as nothing else does.”
When faced by death we suddenly begin to value life and an instinctive self preservation sets in. At times it creates a raised consciousness or awareness.
‘How to reactivate the myth of a flight so white, so pure, as to be a rebirth into the imagined liberty of childhood?’ (Gilbert and Gunbar in Brennan 1999:54)
Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic. Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of sp eech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc
White is the blending or composite of all colours.
Spinning to still in his one whiteness.
White Words: These words are synonymous with white or represent various shades of the colour white.
Snow, pearl, bells, lace, swans, ice, sugar, antique white, ivory, chalk, milk white, lily, smoke, seashell, old lace, cream, linen, ghost white, beige, cornsilk, alabaster, paper, whitewash.
The two recurring patterns in her texts and life: namely that in some way Plath is enclosed ‘...in plaster, in a bell jar, a cellar, a cave or a wax house...’ perhaps she is yearning for the safety of the womb.
Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.
Language of White:
White is pure, new, untested; the beginning as opposed to black’s ending, it is YES to black’s NO.
The use of white in familiar phrases can help a designer see how their colour of choice might be perceived by others, both the positive and negative aspects.
White hats represent the good – the hero,
doves, virginity in wedding dresses.
- White as the driven snow - pure, clean, innocent
- White elephant - rare, valuable but perhaps unwanted
- White knight - someone who comes to another person's rescue, someone perceived as being good, noble
- White list - list of good or acceptable items
- White sale - sale of sheets, towels, other linens
- Pearly white - teeth, especially very white teeth
- Whitewash - cover up, conceal
- Whiteout - zero visibility
- White flag - surrender
- White lightning - moonshine, illegal whiskey
- White elephant - rare, valuable but perhaps unwanted
- White knuckle - something that is fast, exciting, or frightening
- White light is also a feature people who have been brought back to life report they have seen.
This is not one of Plath's major poems, however it is very useful in comparing it with another of her poems - Ariel and that of Hughes poem on the same incident: Sam.
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