In this poem, the poet delves into themes of loneliness and loss. Many readers have interpreted this particular piece to be an admission of her planned suicide.
Plath makes use of powerful imagery in this poem that utilizes all of the reader’s senses. It paints an emotional landscape that is devoid of joy and filled with a growing blackness (as seen through the stars falling from the sky). The speaker, who is more than likely the poet herself, is alone on the bank of the river with only a few remaining stars to keep her company.
From the title, a reader is given the setting. The poem takes place in the department of Dordogne in Southwestern France, specifically along the river.
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Summary of Stars Over the Dordogne
The poem takes the reader to the bank of the Dordogne river in France. There, the speaker considers the stars in the sky and describes how, in her mind, they vanish. She considers why this is so and how it relates to her own perceptions of time and place. As the poem progresses, more and more is revealed about her state of mind and what the stars have come to represent for her. They are lights in her life that are vanishing one at a time. They represent, perhaps, all the hope and optimism that is left for her.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Stars Over the Dordogne
‘Stars Over the Dordogne’ by Sylvia Plath is a five stanza poem that’s separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves do not follow a specific rhyme scheme nor do they conform to a metrical pattern. But, there are examples of rhyme within the text. For instance, half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme. It is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance.
This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “distress” and “anxiousness” in line seven of the first stanza and “smaller” and “all” in line four of the second stanza.
This work is a perfect example of the emotional power of confessional poetry, with Plath as one of the leaders of this genre. Confessional poetry is a branch of Postmodernism that emerged in the United States in the 1950s. It is a style of poetry that is personal, often making use of a first-person narrator. The use of this particular perspective makes it likely that a great majority of these poems are reflective of the poet’s own life.
It is impossible to discuss confessional poetry without considering Sylvia Plath’s poetry. She wrote some of the best, and most skillfully crafted, examples of this style. Many, info all of these, still resonate today. Some examples include ‘Daddy,’ ‘Lady Lazarus,’ ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘Morning Song’. Her writing is noted for its autobiographical elements and the way she was willing to show, what seemed like anyway, her true emotions, no matter their complexity. Read more about confessional poetry here.
Poetic Techniques in Stars Over the Dordogne
Plath makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Stars Over the Dordogne’. These include alliteration, enjambment, allusion, and caesura. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “sky” and “starless” in the third line of the first stanza. Or, “hanging” and “horizon” in line three of the third stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. The fourth line of the first stanza is a good example. It reads: “The woods are a well. The stars drop silently”. There is another example in the second stanza. The sixth line reads: “They are orphans. I cannot see them. They are lost”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between the first and second lines of the first stanza and the fourth and fifth lines of the second stanza.
Allusion is one of the most important techniques at play in ‘Stars Over the Dordogne’. It is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In the case of this poem, throughout the entirety of the text, Plath is alluding to her personal depression and, some believe, to her planned suicide.
Analysis of Stars Over the Dordogne
Stars are dropping thick as stones into the twiggy
Picket of trees whose silhouette is darker
Or any signal of distress or anxiousness.
They are eaten immediately by the pines.
In the first stanza of ‘Stars Over the Dordogne,’ the speaker begins by using a simile to describe the movement of stars in the sky. They are said to drop “thick as stones” into the trees along the horizon. These pinpricks of light, which represent her remaining hopes or happiness, fall into darkness. They are moving from the darkness of the sky to the silhouette of the trees which is even “darker / Than the dark of the sky because it is quite starless”.
The woods are, the speaker says through metaphor, “a well”. They are a deep hole, a place that appears to eat up, consume the stars from the sky. It is not a happy image and it does a good job representing the speaker’s, and the poet’s, mental state. The stars make no sound as they fall, but, they appear large. Despite this, when they are gone, “no gap” in the sky is visible. There is no sign of distress or anxiety that they sendup. They are simply gone, “eaten…by the pines”.
Where I am at home, only the sparsest stars
Arrive at twilight, and then after some effort.
But tonight they have discovered this river with no trouble,
They are scrubbed and self-assured as the great planets.
The speaker takes the reader into a memory of home. When she’s there, a place that does not appear to offer her any comfort, the “sparsest stars” are visible. There are some in the sky but they are dim, barely present at all. They are “wan” and tired. They have been “dulled by much travelling” through the sky. Plus, there are many that never appear at all. Those are the smallest and timider. These stars, as the poem progresses, come to represent more and more clearly the speaker’s own waning and nearly vanished optimism and hope. They are positivity, warmth, love, and all things good. They are what one would live for and as they vanish she moves closer to a place where she’s ready to enter into death.
There is a dark and lonely image crafted in the second half of this stanza. The speaker describes the lost, small stars sitting as “orphans” where she can’t see them. These are the parts of her mind, her past, that she can no longer reach. These moments of happiness or pleasure are beyond her. A few have appeared this evening though they have “discovered” the river in Dordogne and seem quite “self-assured,” as if they are “great planet”.
The Big Dipper is my only familiar.
I miss Orion and Cassiopeia’s Chair. Maybe they are
I am overlooking them by looking too hard.
Perhaps it is the season that is not right.
Of these, there is only the Big Dipper that she can recognize. Most of the stars are gone, hanging somewhere “under the studded horizon,” possibly. They are hidden or perhaps consumed by the “Infinite numbers” in the sky. They could be disguised, causing the speaker to overlook them. She might not be looking in the right place. These are a few of the many excuses or reasons she gives for being unable to find these stars that were so important to her. They are lost, by their fault, her own, or some combination of the two. The facts of her life are both in her, and out of her, control.
And what if the sky here is no different,
And it is my eyes that have been sharpening themselves?
They are too puritan and solitary for that—
When one of them falls it leaves a space,
She addresses the possibility that the sky has not changed at all. That the stars are not hidden or vanished; she has changed. Maybe her “eyes have been sharpening themselves” and that a “luxury” of stars would seem too much. It would be embarrassing, and that’s why there are fewer. The only ones that are visible are those that are “plain and durable”.
Those that are there are “too puritan and solitary” for “much company”. The last line of this stanza references the continual disappearance of these stars. Those that appear steadfast do eventually “fall” from space.
A sense of absence in its old shining place.
And where I lie now, back to my own dark star,
Is accounting for its cow. I shut my eyes
And drink the small night chill like news of home.
The fifth stanza moves the poem very much into the present. It is a perfect example of confessional poetry and the profound emotion at the center of many works in that genre. When the stars are gone, the speaker admits, there is a gap. There is a “sense of absence” one that is felt rather than seen. In its old shining place, there is only loss.
The second and third lines directly address the stars, the speaker’s own “dark star,” or depression, and the “constellations” in her head. They are, and she is, “Unwarmed by the sweet air of this peach orchard”. This suggests that nothing can reach into her head and improve things for her. She is not influenced by the remaining goodness or warmth that’s left the world.
In fact, she feels out of the place where she is. There is “too much ease” along the river, in the peach orchard, looking at the stars. Her perception moves beyond the stars to consider the wider environment and the ringing of bells, denoting the moving cows in the fields.
In the final lines of ‘Stars Over the Dordogne,’ she shuts her eyes and experiences the “small night chill like news from home”. This very foreboding line takes the reader back up to her description of home in the second stanza and the lack of happiness it offers her. She does not feel as though there is anything positive in the future, and her own “dark star” is what’s on her mind.