‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ by Sylvia Plath is a three-stanza poem separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. Plath chose to structure ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ with a rhyming pattern of ababc.
Plath wrote this piece in 1956, the same year she married the writer Ted Hughes.
Additionally, Plath has given this piece a serious tone and a dark, verging on depressing mood. Today, Sylvia Plath is known as the first, and greatest, of the modern confessional poets. Her work is centered around her own emotional experience, a fact which remains true within this particular text. The landscape Plath describes is used to represent her current feelings and outlook on life.
Due to the utilization of enjambment, (the continuation of a phrase from one line to another), the poem reads very fluidly. One is able to move from one line to the next without necessarily thinking about pausing. This adds a story-like quality to the piece.
Also important to note is the word “rooks” in the title. Rooks are a member of the crow family and are known to be exceptionally smart.
Summary of Winter Landscape, with Rocks
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is a river running through the different parts of a watermill. It is moving fluidly, as the poem does, passing through and over all obstacles. The water eventually leads to a dark pond. This is not somewhere one wants to be. Nevertheless, and much to the surprise of the speaker, there is a swan there. This one white creature is very out-of-place. So much so, it taunts the speaker with its chastity.
In the next section, the landscape is described further and the speaker places herself within it. She is moving through the darkness like a “rook.” The poem concludes with the speaker addressing her intended listener. This person’s image is frozen on her eyes, just like her hurt is within her heart. There is a frost over her whole being. It does not allow her to heal or move on.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Winter Landscape, with Rooks
Water in the millrace, through a sluice of stone,
which hungers to haul the white reflection down.
In the first stanza of the poem the speaker begins her description of a “Winter landscape.” Before beginning this piece one is able to assume, from the title, the type of scenery surrounding the speaker. The first line describes the flow of water from the “millrace” in and through a “sluice of stone.” A “millrace” is a channel used to carry water to drive a mill-wheel. There is a great deal of movement already at the beginning of this piece.
This is emphasized by the image of the water moving on to pass through the “sluice of stone.” A “sluice” is a gate or opening used to control the flow of water. While these pathways are open now, there is the inherent possibility of them closing in the future.
A reader should also take note of the alliteration used in this line with “sluice of stone.” The sliding “s” sound resembles the smooth movement of water through the river. From this poem, the water “plunges headlong” into a “black” or dark, “pond.” This place might be dark, situated somewhere the sun cannot illuminate its depths, but there is a spot of light in it. One “single swan” is seen floating in the water. This is a bright spot on the already darkening scene.
The swan surprises the speaker by its presence. She states that it is very “out-of-season.” It doesn’t belong there at this time of year. That being said, she moves on to describe it. It is white and “chaste as snow.” The darkness does not impact it. Her own depressed state comes through in the final lines of the first stanza in which she admits to an impulsive need to, “haul the white reflection down.” It is there, “taunting” her with its clean white feathers and unbothered mind. It doesn’t care it is “out-of-season.”
The austere sun descends above the fen,
brooding as the winter night comes on.
In the second stanza, the scene moves on. The sun is described as being “austere” or strict. It is not setting with the intent of disappearing but of looking closer, and for “longer” at the landscape. One part of the land she also notices is “the fen.” This is a marshy area with long grass.
The sun’s shape and brightness have a power beyond the obvious. Its eye is like that of a “cyclops.” It uses its penetrating gaze to look deeply into what the speaker calls this “landscape of chagrin.” She sees the fen and river as some kind of failure or existing in a state of distress.
In the last lines of this section, the speaker introduces herself into the scene. She is moving through the landscape like a “rook.” Her movements are quick, silent, and “brooding.” The speaker is filled with “dark…thought[s]” that are only enhanced with the coming of the “winter night.” At this point, one should realize that there are not rooks, just the speaker. She has taken on their mannerisms in an effort to move through the scene.
Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice
grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?
In the last stanza, the speaker refers back to the year before. She sees the “reeds” of “last summer” frozen in ice. They have been stuck in the same spot for the preceding months, unable to get free. These images of freezing, restriction, darkness, and brooding all relate to Plath’s own state of mind when she wrote ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks.’
The reeds remind her of “you,” the intended listener of the poem, or the person to whom she is speaking. One might assume this “you” to be her new husband, Ted Hughes, or perhaps someone totally unknown. This person’s “image” is stuck in the speaker’s eye. She has been unable to stop seeing them, no matter where she goes.
In the second half of this section, she speaks of her own “hurt” being glazed over by “dry frost.” It is not removed, only covered over is more coldness. The final lines pose two questions to the reader and intended listener. The place she is walking in, whether that be the imagined landscape or her own everyday life, is “bleak.” She is unable to find something to make her heart’s “waste” become “green again.”
The speaker is in a situation she cannot get out of. Her mind is stuck in a dark, cold, and depressing state without any options to improve. The speaker does not see a way out of her present situation.