Analysis: Sylvia Plath “Contusion”

Today we received a request to see a specific poem analyzed.  Many of you may be familiar with Sylvia Plath as she was a stunning poet, and fans will be happy to know that  today, our focus is her piece “Contusion”.  Without further delay then, let’s get into it!

“Contusion” by Sylvia Plath
(1981, The Collected Poems)

Color floods to the spot, dull purple.
The rest of the body is all washed-out,
The color of pearl.

In a pit of a rock
The sea sucks obsessively,
One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

The size of a fly,
The doom mark
Crawls down the wall.

The heart shuts,
The sea slides back,
The mirrors are sheeted.

Absolutely wonderful work, but what does it mean?  Line by line, here we go!

Color floods to the spot, dull purple.

This would be the contusion she speaks of, this bruise.

The rest of the body is all washed-out,
The color of a pearl

The body is pale, described as ‘washed out’, which ties into the sea imagery we will see later.  It also invokes an image of a lifeless body, as if the only color remaining is the contusion, presumably the cause of death.  The pearl imagery as well, ties in with the next stanza.

In a pit of a rock
The sea sucks obsessively,
One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

I want to stop to point out her word use here.  She is describing an image very clearly, we all know what she is showing us, but there’s no glamour, in fact it’s almost intentionally bland, almost a side observation.  This is done intentionally to set tone.  Note that she points at the thing, stating it as a single point the entire sea focuses on, implying that everyone or everything stops to stare and notice a thing.  It separates the writer from the viewers, it becomes me and them, and they are looking at me.  It should also be noted that this offers thoughts of  life being drained away slowly, hungrily.

The size of a fly,
The doom mark
Crawls down the wall.

The insignificance of it all is shown here.  The sea, this grand, mighty force may seek to draw the very life from her, but to look at the bigger picture, to zoom out a bit, none of it matters.  Such a tiny thing, the size of a fly.  The doom mark, so tiny, so ultimately unimportant, yet it changed everything here.  Note her use of size within images presented, it offers scale and definition of meaning.

The heart shuts,
The sea slides back,
The mirrors are sheeted.

Finality, it is done.  The heart shuts, it accepts.  The sea slides back, there is nothing more to stare at or feed upon.  The mirrors are sheeted.  Interesting line, that last one.  She mentions sheeting items within the home of the deceased, a common thing.  She could have mentioned covering anything, furniture perhaps, but she chose the mirror.  Ah, the mirror, a poetic device if ever there was one.  It shows an image of self, a reflection, a reversal.  Everything is true in a mirror, but it is backwards.  As true as your visage may be when reflected, your left still becomes your right.  It is a perception.  In this usage I would say it is a loss of self, or of self perception.  She cannot see herself, and therefore, she no longer exists.  Still, she does not mourn, she is detached, distant, unfeeling.

I think what is important to note in this piece (amazing piece, we love this one) is that she is pointing not at death, but at the state of it.  Yes, we die, we lose, but perhaps we never really were, not to anyone but ourselves.  Death is not glamorous, nor is life, they are merely states of being, in the end no one will pay attention for long anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.  The you that was, is, no more and then the moment passes.

An absolutely wonderful piece, I hope you enjoyed the read.  Now go, write something!

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4 thoughts on “Analysis: Sylvia Plath “Contusion”

  1. An astute analysis, thank you. Plath seems to have fallen out of fashion but I’ve always considered her one of the great poets of the 20th century. I would note here too that, based on our knowledge of her marriage to Ted Hughes, Plath often cloaked her marital struggles deep in metaphor. So the “death” you’re sensing here may also be metaphoric: the gradual death of a marriage, like a tide going out. As you say, it’s a brilliant poem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does seem that poets will come and go from being fashionable or not, but the reasons we first loved their work will never fade. In analyzing a poem, I try to to pretend I know nothing of the writer, of their life or death, as I fear using that knowledge to bias an examination of a given work.. In truth though, you are quite right. Her pain was palpable, and she took effort in masking her true aggressor. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Like

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