Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath

‘Crossing the Water’ by Sylvia Plath is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. Theses lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

Repetition is one of the most important, and obvious, techniques that Plath makes use of in ‘Crossing the Water’. For example, the word “black” appears four times in the first stanza alone. The use and reuse of this word is about more than just emphasizing the word itself, it is about getting a certain feeling across. It’s not just dark in the speaker’s world, it is really dark. So much so that the blackness has seeped into, and become a part of everything. It connects to the major theme of the poem, the “spirit of blackness” that is in all of us, and the ability to see light in the midst of darkness. 

Another kind of repetition that Plath makes use of is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the first line, the words “black boat,” “paper people” and in the third line, “cover Canada”. There are a few other examples in the other stanzas as well. 

You can read the full poem here.


Summary of Crossing the Water

‘Crossing the Water’ by Sylvia Plath describes the blackness of the human spirit in combination with moments of light. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing the setting. Everything is black and penetrated with darkness to its core.There are paper people and trees with tall shadows. The world the speaker describes is figurative, standing in for the larger world the reader is familiar with. The leaves in this forest do not want the speaker to hurry and there is light coming from the “water flowers”. 

As the poem progresses the source of the light becomes clear, it is the reflection of the stars in the lake. When the speaker, who has been consumed with darkness, sees the light, she is deeply moved. 


Analysis of Crossing the Water

Stanza One 

The images in the first lines of ‘Crossing the Water’ are dark, strange and confusing. First, the speaker goes through three parts of the landscape and setting. There are the,” Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people”.

Through this first line a reader becomes aware that the speaker is in a natural setting, or is at least imagining one. It’s likely nighttime, but the darkness seems more consuming than that. In addition to the lake and boat, there are “cut-paper people.” The fact that they too are described as black makes them a part of the scene. They are put on an equal level with the lake and boat. Additionally, they are made of paper. This speaks to fragility and the fact that someone had to “cut” them out. 

She goes on to ask a very confusing question, “Where do the black trees go that drink here?” Within this line it appears that the speaker is indeed in the woods. But, her premise is also clearly imagined as trees aren’t able to move in the way she implies. Additionally, why, a reader might wonder, does it matter where they drink? In the last line she adds that the trees are so large, their shadows cover Canada. 


Stanza Two

In the second stanza of ‘Crossing the Water’ the speaker draws attention to the fact that there is a little light in a scene, despite all the references to its darkness in the previous stanza. The light is coming from the “water flowers.” She personifies the leaves of the specific flowers, pressing onto them her opinion of what they would want her to do. She says that they “do not wish us to hurry”. Here, for the first time the speaker refers to herself and to someone else. It is not clear who the other person is, if they are physically with her, or if they are in her mind. 

It is interesting to consider that perhaps she is one of the two “cut-paper people” mentioned in the first stanza. This would make her companion the second person. But, due to the nature of the speaker’s words, and the imagined question posed in the first stanza, it is more likely that she speaking to herself. 

The last line of this stanza crafts another strange image. She describes the leaves normally, as a “round and flat and full” but, she adds that they are also full of “dark advice”. This phrase could be taken in a number of ways. Perhaps she is unable to interpret their advice, or they are giving bad advice that would lead her to a dark place. 


Stanza Three 

The second stanza takes the reader to the water. The speaker describes how “cold worlds” drip down from the oar as it is plunged into and pulled out of the water. In the next lines the speaker connects her own being, and her companion’s, to the larger world and the “spirit of blackness” in everything. She adds that blackness is part of her, and part of the world that drips down from the oar, and it is “in the fishes”.


Stanza Four

In the fourth stanza of ‘Crossing the Water’ the speck of light returns to the scene. Again, it is related to flowers. This time though it becomes clear that she speaking about stars. They are “among the lilies”. This is likely a reference to the reflection of the sky in the water. 

Then, in the second line of the fourth stanza the speaker asks another interesting question. It seems to be addressed directly to her companion, who is still undefined, or perhaps to the reader. She asked, “Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?“ Through this line the speaker is relating the light of the stars in the water to the eyes of the singing sirens written about in Greek mythology. But, the sirens only have eyes. They are “expressionless” because they have no other facial features.They have the most important attribute of a siren though, they are able to draw the speaker in. She is entranced by the stars.

In the last line last speaker describes the scene again. There is the silence of the lake, and the mostly dark surrounds and her experience. She is part of the “silence of astounded souls.” The dark tone Plath’s speaker used the first lines of this text has been, at least in part, cast off. The beauty of the light in the water has taken her beyond the physical realm into something more more beautiful and easier to understand and accept, the light of the stars.

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