Waking in Winter

Sylvia Plath

‘Waking in Winter’ by Sylvia Plath tells the story of hotel residents. They’re living different lives but are unified through their hopelessness.

Sylvia Plath

Nationality: American

Although Sylvia Plath was succeeding poetically, she was still deeply unhappy.

She tried to kill herself a number of times throughout the early 60s and in February of 1963, she succeeded.

This is a two-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of eight lines, or octaves. These octaves do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but that does not mean that they lack rhyme. There are moments of half or slant rhyme scattered throughout the text. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance in ‘Waking in Winter.’ This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, in the fourth line of the first stanza, the words “night” and “annihilations” are related due to the internal “ni” sound, using both assonance and consonance. 

Alliteration also helps to great rhythm, and the feeling of rhyme, in the text. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. In the first line of the first stanza, a reader can see it with the words “tin thing”. Other examples in the second stanza with “Mother Morphia”. 

Another important technique that is commonly used within poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It 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.  This can be seen to great effect in the transition between lines six and seven of the first stanza. A reader might find themselves surprised by what the adjective “green” is describing. Another example is at the end of line six of the second stanza. 

Waking in Winter by Sylvia Plath

Summary of Waking in Winter

Waking in Winter’ by Sylvia Plath describes a natural landscape, a hotel, and those who reside there as hopeless and loveless.

In the first lines of ‘Waking in Winter’ the sky is portrayed as hard, cold and slick and the trees are relayed to the reader as “stiff” as if “burnt nerves.” With these descriptions, Plath intended to convey a space that is devoid of feeling— it has all been burnt off. The “nerves” which are responsible for feeling within the human body, are destroyed. In the fourth line, she takes the reader into her dreams and speaks about “destruction, annihilations”.

It soon becomes clear that the speaker and a companion are taking a car trip to a resort, but the places they pass are dark, poisoned, and speak of death. 

Eventually, they get to the resort and the speaker describes skull-like people looking at the views, and emotionless nurses tending to those in residence there. The whole poem feels colorless, loveless, and hopeless. Death is the reigning power in the world Plath has created. 

You can read more poems by Sylvia Plath here.

Analysis of Waking in Winter

Stanza One 

Lines 1-4 

I can taste the tin of the sky —- the real tin thing.
Winter dawn is the color of metal,
The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.
All night I have dreamed of destruction, annihilations —-

In the first lines of ‘Waking in Winter’ the speaker begins by giving the reader sensory information. First, she says that she can “taste the tin of the sky.” Whatever this metallic taste is, to the speaker, it seems to be coming from the sky. The metal taste she refers to comes from the sky itself. It appears white and silver, like “the color of metal”. It is a “Winter dawn” and there are none of the colors that might appear in the sky during summer. At the same time, it has a realism to it the speaker feels is important to note. It is “the real tin thing”. 

Just as the sky is portrayed as hard, cold, and slick, the trees are replayed to the reader as “stiff” as if “burnt nerves.” With this line, the speaker anthropomorphizes the landscape, making it easier for a reader to imbue with emotion and also forcing a reader to emphatically consider the space. 

Additionally, through this description, Plath sought to convey a space that is devoid of feeling it has all been burnt off. The “nerves” which are responsible for feeling within the human body, are destroyed. In the fourth line, she takes the reader into her dreams and speaks about “destruction, annihilations”. Through just these few lines a reader should get a sense of the dark and gloomy tone of the text. Plath is clearly going to be speaking about death and perhaps loss, and these lines set a barren, lifeless scene for the rest of the poem to follow from. 

Lines 5-8 

An assembly-line of cut throats, and you and I
Noiseless, on rubber wheels, on the way to the sea resort.

In the next four lines, the speaker uses other violent words, such as “cut throats” and “Poison,” and paints other dark images like “clapboard gravestones”. 

She begins this section of lines by describing a car trip. She, the speaker, and “you” a reference to either the reader or to a specific listener, are in a “gray Chevrolet”. The car has just moved off the “assembly-line of cut throats.” This is a very interesting and shocking image. The “assembly-line” speaks to automation and consistency, but with the addition of “cut throats,” as the thing which is being produced, the production becomes sinister. 

Through context clues, it becomes clear that the “assembly-line” is in fact a highway, or a road of some sort, that was backed up with cars. This speaks to the state of contemporary society. As well as how the way one moves through the world, and the obstacles they deal with, change them. 

Plath’s speaker describes a few of the things that she and her passenger see along the way. One of the most interesting descriptions is that of the “green / Poison” of the unnaturally colored, fake grass in suburban neighborhoods. There are also “clapboard gravestones.” The word clapboard doesn’t refer to a kind of grave, but to a material used to build houses. This directly connects to the poison lawns. It makes sense that the houses sitting on them would be tombstones.

In the last line of the stanza the speaker describes how despite all this death, they are on their way to a “sea resort”. Through these lines, the idealized image of suburbia is destroyed, and one is left with a brutal and naked reality. This continues into the next stanza.

About Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born Boston, Massachusetts in October of 1932. Her mother was Aurelia Schober Plath, and was of American-Austrian descent. Plath’s father was Otto Plath.
Read Sylvia Plath's Biography

Stanza Two 

Lines 1-4 

How the balconies echoed! How the sun lit up
Cot legs melted in terrible attitudes, and the nurses —-

In the second stanza of ‘Waking in Winter’ the speaker and her passenger, “you” arrive at the resort. As expected, the view of the world the speaker exposed in the first stanza continues. Rather than speaking on a beautiful, relaxing seaside hotel, she is relieved to arrive at, it is filled with death. The “balconies echo” out their pasts and the “sun lit up / The skulls.” The first line is very successfully enjambed, perhaps surprising the reader again with the phrase “The skulls”. These are the people, men, and women, who face the view from their rooms. 

Again, her descriptions of place strip them of their superimposed meaning. The speaker, and likely Plath herself, do not believe in the fantasy of suburbia, vacations, and those embarking on vacations. In the last two lines of this stanza, she goes into the room and goes through a few of the things she can see inside. The bed is falling apart, and the legs are melting. 

Lines 5-8

Each nurse patched her soul to a wound and disappeared.
Or the sea, Hushing their peeled sense like Old Mother Morphia.

At the end of the fourth line of this stanza, it becomes clear that there are nurses at this resort. This takes it out of the realm of a simple vacation destination and into one of intended health and healing. One might come to this place to recover from any number of illnesses or injuries, or even just the brutality of life, before returning. 

The guests in this resort are cured of nothing, nor are they happy with anything. By the end of the poem their “peeled sense” is hushed like “Old Mother Morphia”. With this final line, the numbness of the world takes hold and a resident of the resort willingly indulges in the stupor of a morphine high. It becomes one’s surrogate mother. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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