Sylvia Plath

Finisterre by Sylvia Plath

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath focuses on ocean imagery. It uses the sea as a way of considering the human experience and complex topics of life and death.

This poem reflects on the vast sea and the cliffs of the Cape Finisterre. The poetic persona, here the poet herself talks about several things associated with the place. Her imagination helps her to go beyond what her mortal eyes can behold. She can visualize the dead, the past, and the unknown depths of the vast sea before her eyes. The awestruck poet appears as a pilgrim meditating on this ancient spot. ‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath presents her thoughts and creates a world in itself that has unknown depths like the Atlantic ocean in front of the Cape Finisterre.

Finisterre by Sylvia Plath


Summary of Finisterre

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath revolves around the scenic beauty of the Cape Finisterre and reflects on the mysterious depths of the ocean before it.

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath is all about the Cape Finisterre and revolves around all the things that are associated with this place. In the first stanza, the poet gives a preliminary description of the edges of the cape and reflects on the sea that devoured several “faces” throughout history. The next stanza talks about the men who “rolled in the doom-noise of the sea”. The poet finds herself among them who “go up without hope, like sighs”. In the third stanza, the poet visualizes a figure of a “Lady of the Shipwrecked”, three times bigger than a normal person. The mysterious lady appears as a guardian spirit of that place. In the last stanza, there is a reference to a peasant woman and a sailor. It seems that they have come there as pilgrims. They offer the poet “crêpes”, a type of pancake at the end of the poem.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Finisterre

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath contains four stanzas. Each stanza of the poem contains nine lines each. The poem doesn’t follow a regular pattern. The line lengths also vary in each stanza. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in the poem. However, the poet occasionally uses slant rhymes for maintaining the flow of the poem. The poet uses both the iambic and trochaic meter in the poem. But there isn’t any metrical pattern. That’s it is a free verse poem. The absence of a fixed internal rhythm also makes it an example of a black verse. Apart from that, the admixture of the meters used in the poem somehow creates a flow in the poem. It breaks in the middle but the next line sufficiently catches the flow again.


Literary Devices

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath contains several literary devices that are important concerning the idea of the lines. Likewise, in the first line, “land’s end” is a metaphor as well as an allusion. It refers to the Cape Finisterre. The poet personifies the cliffs and compares those to the fingers of an old person. In the phrase, “Admonitory cliffs” the poet uses a personal metaphor. There is an allusion to the Battle of Cape Finisterre in the first stanza. The poet also uses onomatopoeia in the poem.

In the second stanza, the poet metaphorically compares the cliffs to the end of an embroidered cloth. There is a simile in the line, “They go without hope, like sighs”. In the last line “beaded with tears” is a metaphorical reference to the bead-like tears falling from the eyes of the poem. In the third stanza, the poet uses metonymy in the use of the words “marble skirts”. Here the color of the marble is referred to. There is a metaphorical reference to the divine quality of the song sung by the “Lady of the Shipwrecked”. In the last two lines of this stanza, the poet uses an anaphora. In the last stanza, “Bay of the Dead” acts as a symbol. It symbolizes the Cape Finisterre and reflects the history associated with the place.


Themes in Finisterre

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath presents several themes. The most important theme of the poem is death. The poet talks about men who died by drowning in the sea. The images used in the first two stanzas of the poem features this theme of death. The appearance of the cliff creates a mystery around it. The sea appears as a ruthless force of nature that has no sympathy for the men who died in it. It hides the sorrow and passion of men who after falling into the sea tried to save their lives by any means. In this way, the poet presents the theme of death and uses the sea as a symbol of death.

Another important theme of the poem is faith. The pilgrims in the last two stanzas have come to this spot for the faith they have in the Finisterre. In their heart, there is a wish for washing their sins. Those pilgrims think that the unknown depths of the sea have something pious to offer them. However, the poet also presents the theme of natural mystery. The poem has a mysterious kind of tone. The images of the sea and the cape incite a sense of astonishment and wonder in the poet’s mind. The sudden appearance of the “Lady if the Shipwrecked” is also mysterious as well as divine in nature.


Analysis of Finisterre

Stanza One

This was the land’s end: the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic,


Other rocks hide their grudges under the water.

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath paints a gloomy picture of Cape Finisterre in the first stanza. The cliff appears as “black” and “admonitory”. It refers to the fierce nature of the sea. The cliff admonishes men not to go too near it as it has observed several men dying in the sea. The sea isn’t that kind. It has devoured men at its bottom. Now those men have turned into “a dump of rocks”. The cruelty of the sea doesn’t stop here. It even suppressed their “grudges” with its rocky bottom. The representation of the sea is clear. There are no feelings in the sea’s heart apart from cruelty and harshness.


Stanza Two

The cliffs are edged with trefoils, stars and bells


When they free me, I am beaded with tears.

In the second stanza, the poet gives a brief description of the cliffs. It was like the fingers of an old man, “knuckled and rheumatic” in the previous stanza. In this stanza, the poet says, the cliffs look like a cloth, embroidered by an old lady. The pattern of trefoils and other objects on the cliffs lack the sophistry of embroidery of steady hands. Apart from that, the cliff is partly shrouded by mists. The poet thinks the cliff might be looked the same in ancient times.

Thereafter, the poet again talks about the souls of the drowned men. The men of war who died in that sea had no hope in their hearts. There were only sighs. The poet also belongs to this group of men. But the souls of those men are unsympathetic to the poet.


Stanza Three

Our Lady of the Shipwrecked is striding toward the horizon,


She is in love with the beautiful formlessness of the sea.

In the third stanza, a mysterious lady appears in the scene. She appears to be the guardian spirit of the place. But, she is also ignorant about the suffering of men like the sea. Hence, the lady can be a symbol of the sea itself. Men pray at her feet to save their souls. The lady doesn’t give an ear to their pleas. Though her lips are “sweet with divinity”, she doesn’t have any urge to reply to them. She seems to be disgusted with the wars men fought in front of her eyes. The way men corrupted the serenity of the place, had struck the lady deep. That’s why she is now passive, only in love with the sea that remained constant to her calls.


Stanza Four

Gull-colored laces flap in the sea drafts


These are our crêpes. Eat them before they blow cold.”

In the last stanza, it seems that the poet is with a group of pilgrims. They have come to the cape with hope. One of them tells the poet about the “Little shells made up into necklaces and toy ladies”. Those are there at the bottom of the sea and come floating “from another place”. In the end, they offer the poet a pancake and request her to take one before it becomes cold.

So, in the end, the warmth of human companionship makes the poet return from her thoughts of the past. It is clear from this stanza that the poet was actually sitting at the shore and thinking about the things mentioned in the poem.


Historical Context

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath talks about the Cape Finisterre. This rock-bound peninsula is located on the west coast of Galicia in Spain. In ancient Rome, the cape was believed to be “the end of the world”. The name Finisterre also means “end of the earth” in Latin. The reference of the “dark sea” in the poem is actually the name of the Atlantic in the middle ages. The reference of the “Lady of the Shipwrecked” might be the Celtic crone-goddess Orcabella. The Cape Finisterre is the ultimate destination for many pilgrims on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James. This place is pious from pre-Christian times. The poet appears as a pilgrim reflecting on the history of the Cape Finisterre.


Similar Poetry

‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath presents the cruel nature of the “black sea” and paints a gloomy picture of the cliffs from the beginning of the poem. Likewise, the following poems capture the same mood exhibited in Plath’s poem.

If you liked ‘Finisterre’ by Sylvia Plath, you can read about The Top 16 of the Best Sylvia Plath Poems here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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