‘Sheep In Fog‘ was Sylvia Plath’s final attempt to rid her mind of intrusive thoughts and suicidal urges. In the poem, Plath compiles a series of eerily connected images to guide the reader through her depression and anxiety.
Explore Sheep in Fog
‘Sheep In Fog‘ is a confessional poem in which Plath describes her feelings of helplessness, depression, and anxiety.
While battling depression, suicidal urges, and anxiety, Plath’s only emotional outlet was poetry. The months leading up to her death were filled with sleepless nights in which Plath wrote vengeful, angry poems. ‘Sheep In Fog‘ was published in 1965 as a part of the Ariel anthology.
Context and Speaker
To fully appreciate the complexities of the poem, it is important to understand its context. In July 1962, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes got divorced after Hughes refused to end the several-month-long affair with Assia Wevill, a German poet. Plath had custody of her children Frieda and Nicholas until her suicide in February 1963.
The months between the divorce and Plath’s death were incredibly productive, albeit depressing; Plath wrote an exorbitant amount of poetry that was published after her passing. Plath felt as though poetry was her only emotional outlet during that time. She had manic depression, and her mood swings were unpredictable and volatile. Moreover, she was left alone with her newborn son and toddler daughter, whom she barely managed to care for. Ultimately, after many unsuccessful attempts, she took her own life by inducing carbon monoxide poisoning.
The poem ‘Sheep In Fog‘ was written in December 1962 but heavily amended in 1963. The poem is one of her last ones before she took her life, and many critics assume it was her final cry for help. Plath uses a singular first-person narrative throughout the poem.
Literary Devices & Punctuation
- Metaphor is a literary technique wherein the creation of comparison without prepositions. Plath uses a metaphor throughout the poem to refer to her conflicting emotions. For example, ‘the hills’ is a metaphor for Plath’s life journey, and the ‘blacking morning’ is a metaphor for Plath’s upcoming death.
- An anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases for emphasis. Plath uses an anaphora in the third stanza when repeating ‘morning’.
- Imagery is visually descriptive language that immerses the reader into the poem. Plath uses color imagery when talking about the fog and dark water, as well as natural imagery when talking about the hills, the horse, and the flower.
- Caesura is the use of punctuation in the middle of a line for repetition, emphasis, or break of rhythm. Plath uses caesura in the last lines of the first and last stanzas.
- Enjambment is the lack of punctuation throughout the stanza, allowing a phrase/sentence to continue for several lines. Plath uses enjambments in the second line of every stanza, allowing them to run into the third lines.
In ‘Sheep In Fog,’ Plath explores the themes of anxiety, distress, depression, and helplessness. ‘Sheep In Fog‘ is one of the last poems she wrote before committing suicide, so the dystopian themes are rather appropriate.
Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme
‘Sheep In Fog‘ is a free verse confessional poem comprising 15 lines divided into five stanzas, three lines each. The poem lacks a rhyme scheme or consistent meter. Plath’s use of enjambment and anaphora makes the poem take on a confessional tone: the poem is neither romantic nor lyrical. Plath complies seemingly unconnected imagery together in an attempt to clear and calm her mind.
The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.
The first stanza of ‘Sheep In Fog‘ sets the scene for the poem. Immerses the reader in the stanza through natural and color imagery.
Color and Nature Imagery
Plath uses ‘hills’ as a metaphor to describe her lifelong journey and experiences. Just as hills have peaks and troughs, so too did Plath have high and low points in her life. The context for this particular poem is clearly a low point: she just got divorced and left with two children while being barely able to take care of herself. The hills, therefore, are approaching a trough: the lowest point, at which they ‘step off.’
The color imagery is compelling: while Plath uses ‘whiteness’ as a metaphor for fog (hence the title ‘Sheep In Fog’), it is also a metaphor for death and the erasure of all her pain. The colour white symbolizes purity, rebirth, and hope. While none of the connotations link directly to Plath’s depression, they do represent her desire for solace and comfort.
The irony of ‘whiteness’
Plath has tried virtually everything to feel better, yet things only got worse for her. She battled post-partum depression after giving birth to Frieda, had a miscarriage that Ted Hughes was allegedly the cause of, and then had her husband commit adultery and leave her with her toddler daughter and infant son. Plath sees death as the only way out – the whiteness in the dark. Having attempted suicide (which led her to write poems such as ‘Lady Lazarus’ ), Plath kept coming back, and by the time she was thirty, she had tried to take her life three times. The irony is compelling: using a color that symbolizes birth and hopes to write about death. Plath sees death as her salvation.
Disappointment and Failure
In the second and third lines of the stanza, Plath declares that she disappoints both people and stars. She feels as though she disappoints the people around her. She blames herself for the affair and, consequently, the divorce, the depression that followed Frieda’s birth, and the miscarriage of her unborn child. Despite none of those being her fault, she is guilt-ridden.
Moreover, stars are faraway inanimate objects that do not care for Plath’s achievements; how can she disappoint them? The stars are in the sky; they symbolize the people that Plath has lost throughout the years, but more importantly, her past selves. The versions of herself she desperately tried to rid herself of are now looking down at her, disappointed. Plath feels like the ultimate failure: not only has she disappointed everyone around her, but she has also disappointed herself.
The train leaves a line of breath.
Horse the colour of rust,
In the second stanza of ‘Sheep In Fog’, Plath explores her journey via metaphors and imagery. A train is a mode of transportation capable of carrying hundreds of people at a time. Consequently, the passengers get on and off, often without seeing each other again. Plath equates the train to her own life: people come and leave. When the poem was written, Plath was planning her suicide, getting ready to leave people behind. Moreover, the ‘line of breath’ that the train leaves symbolises the final reminder of her life. Plath killed herself by suffocating, so leaving a final breath is an eerie foreshadowing.
Horse The Colour Of Rust
In the following two lines, Plath refers to an orange-brown horse. The image has a personal connection to Plath: she used to have a horse she rode frequently. The bond was so strong that she named her posthumous anthology Ariel after her horse. The color description effectively uses imagery: instead of saying brown or chestnut, she referred to the coat as ‘the colour of rust’. Rust is a brittle brown coating that forms on metal objects over time.
Plath refers to her horse as rusted because it is one more thing she will leave behind. She once again galloped across fields, feeling exhilarated and free, whereas now she is a depressed divorcee with two infant children. The contrast goes past the physical comparison but also extends to seasons. In Plath’s poem ‘Ariel’, she uses bright, vivid summer imagery; ‘Sheep In Fog’, in contrast, is written in the dead of winter.
Hooves, dolorous bells –
Morning has been blackening,
The third stanza of ‘Sheep In Fog’ is a continuation of the second: Plath carries on with the description of the horse.
Plath’s choice of language is effective: ‘dolorous’ is an adjective referring to feelings of sorrow and agony. The hooves of the horse are akin to ringing bells, symbolizing the upcoming end of Plath’s life. Ironically, Plath’s only source of happiness is the harbinger of her death.
Plath uses an anaphora in the second and third lines of the stanza, repeating ‘morning.’ In the second line, morning is used as a duration of time, whereas in the third, it is used as a noun: an independent variable. Plath effectively uses personification to describe the change she observes in the morning. She describes the warping of something light and hopeful into something dark and ominous. The morning is a metaphor for the last years of her life. Although she is an esteemed poet, married to an intellectual, and a mother of two healthy children, she cannot escape the darkness of her mind. Terrified, she watches herself fall into a deep depression, despite having a seemingly perfect life. Her bright future has been darkening for quite some time, hence the reference.
Plath does not end the stanza with a full stop, opting for a comma, allowing her thought to continue in the next stanza.
A flower left out.
Fields melt my heart.
The fourth stanza of ‘Sheep In Fog’ is a continuation of the third stanza, although the transition is not smooth. Plath used an anacoluthon to shift between the stanzas, giving the poem a prosaic tone.
Fragile Flower vs Morning Darkness
The contrasting imagery between the stanzas is compelling: Plath describes an onset of darkness and death while juxtaposing it with a frail flower left outside. Rather than describing the sky or clouds, she chose to refer to the morning as a whole, enlarging it. The collocation of a flower next to the ominous foreshadowing of death is highly effective. A flower is a fragile plant, most exposed to the elements. A flower is the plant’s reproductive organ, used to bear fruit later in the season. It is often surrounded by brightly colored, physically appealing petals and an enticing smell.
Plath’s choice of ‘flower’ could allude to several things in her life. On the one hand, does she view herself as a flower? Left out, with no one to help her deal with the forces of nature (her mind), feeling utterly helpless and alone? On the other hand, she could see her children as flowers: beautiful, fragile beings that Plath’s inevitable death will heavily impact. They have just started to ‘bloom,’ to develop into people, and their mother’s death will undoubtedly traumatize them beyond belief. Just as a flower has no chance to withstand a thunderstorm, so too do Plath’s children have no way of dealing with the grief.
Plath describes her bones as holding a ‘stillness,’ further developing the thunderstorm imagery and creating a tense atmosphere by employing a comma (use of caesura) in the middle of the line. Akin to the phrase ‘the calm before the storm,’ Plath’s bones are still in anticipation. Plath uses a paradox: bones cannot tense up or relax, unlike muscles and tendons. Perhaps what Plath means refers to another common phrase: to chill to the bone or be soaked to the bone. The colloquialisms refer to an emotion being felt so profoundly that one experiences it in the core of their being: it penetrates the parts of the body that are traditionally immobile.
In the last lines of the stanza, Plath refers to faraway fields that make her feel intense emotions. Plath uses natural imagery to refer to the fields, once again referencing her horse that she will leave behind when she dies. She longs for the times she galloped across fields, terrified and exhilarated but freer than ever. Ironically, the fields are also a metaphor for a calm and still life: a juxtaposition to the rolling hills of the first stanza. Plath desperately wishes for her mind to calm itself down, to experience tranquillity and peace, rather than the constant vicissitudes of her unstable mind.
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
The final stanza of ‘Sheep In Fog’ explicitly foreshadows Plath’s death. The first line is a continuation of the previous stanza. Plath personified the fields, feeling as though they were the final drop in her already too-full cup; watching the fields is what will ultimately kill her.
Plath expresses that she will be judged before she enters heaven. The use of ‘fatherless’ is entirely deliberate: although Plath was raised as a Unitarian, she abandoned her faith after her father’s death: hence her heaven being fatherless. Moreover, heaven lacks stars: an intentional juxtaposition with the first stanza. In the last lines of the first stanza, Plath confesses that she feels as though even the stars are disappointed, whereas, in the last lines of the last stanza, she concludes that when she dies, there will be no more judgment and disappointment: a metaphorical weight will be lifted off her shoulders.
Plath’s use of contrasting color imagery is highly effective: while in the first lines of the first stanza, she mentioned whiteness, referring to fog, in the last lines of the last stanza, she describes dark water. Not only are the colors colligated, but so are the states of matter. The whiteness refers to fog, a vapor-like form of water, something intangible and fleeting, whereas dark water is a physical, feasible liquid. Plath was uncertain and anxious at the poem’s beginning; she had found peace and calm by the end.
‘Sheep In Fog’ was published as part of the anthology Ariel in 1965, two years after Sylvia Plath’s death. Ted Hughes published Ariel after he inherited Plath’s estate and all her written work.
Sylvia Plath committed suicide on the eleventh of February, 1963. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning from putting her head into an oven that was turned on.
Sylvia Plath’s first child, Frieda, was born on the first of April 1961. In 1961, Plath had a miscarriage. On the seventeenth of January 1962, she had her second child, a boy named Nicholas.
Plath’s declining mental health, just like anyone’s, had a multitude of reasons. She struggled with depression most of her life and tried to commit suicide multiple times. The main reasons she took her life are a miscarriage in 1961 (that Hughes may have caused) and Hughes’s affair in 1963.
If you enjoyed ‘Sheep In Fog,’ consider exploring the following poems:
- ‘Out, Out’ by Robert Frost is a depressive poem about a young boy dying from an injury.
- ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a heartfelt poem about loss and allowing oneself to let things go.
- ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ by Emily Dickinson is a poem about losing one’s sanity and loss of oneself.