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Sylvia Plath, Two Views of a Cadaver Room

1960

Sylvia Plath

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  • Intro

    Sylvia Plath is best known for her poetry, but she also wrote short stories and the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Plath was born in Massachusetts in 1932 and, like the heroine of The Bell Jar, attended Smith College and won a prestigious internship at a New York magazine. Shortly after this internship, Plath suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. On graduation from Smith, Plath was awarded a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where she met and later married the poet Ted Hughes. In 1960, Plath published her first volume of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems. The Bell Jar was published in January 1963; the following month, Plath committed suicide. Her most famous collection of poems, Ariel, was published posthumously.

    ‘Two Views of a Cadaver Room’ appears in The Colossus and Other Poems, and uses imagery that recurs throughout Plath’s work, such as foetuses and skulls. The poem is divided into two formally similar parts, each consisting of eleven lines. In the first section, the speaker portrays a dissecting room and the cadavers within it. The second section describes Breugel’s painting The Triumph of Death, in which an army of skeletons advances across a charred landscape. In a corner of the painting, two lovers are oblivious to the chaos that surrounds them.

    This audio clip of Harriet Walter reading ‘Two Views of a Cadaver Room’ was recorded at The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour. Visit Poetry and Performance to find out more.

  • Audio

    Can't play the file above? Listen to the audio clip here

  • Transcript

    Two Views of a Cadaver Room

    (1)
    The day she visited the dissecting room
    They had four men laid out, black as burnt turkey,
    Already half unstrung. A vinegary fume
    Of the death vats clung to them;
    The white-smocked boys started working.
    The head of his cadaver had caved in,
    And she could scarcely make out anything
    In that rubble of skull plates and old leather.
    A sallow piece of string held it together.

    In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow.
    He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.

    (2)
    In Brueghel's panorama of smoke and slaughter
    Two people only are blind to the carrion army:
    He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin
    Skirts, sings in the direction
    Of her bare shoulder, while she bends,
    Finger a leaflet of music, over him,
    Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
    Of the death's-head shadowing their song.
    These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.

    Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country
    Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.

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