The Couriers

The Couriers   by Sylvia Plath

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?
It is not mine. Do not accept it.

Acetic acid in a sealed tin?
Do not accept it. It is not genuine.

A ring of gold with the sun in it?
Lies. Lies and a grief.

Frost on a leaf, the immaculate
Cauldron, talking and crackling

All to itself on the top of each
of nine black Alps.

A disturbance in mirrors,
the sea shattering its grey one-

Love, love, my season.

The main idea of this poem is about love giving way to betrayal and it illustrates the point that love is something that would not last but instead, would ultimately vanish from one’s life. Also, the struggle of the persona who is trying to assert her identity can also be seen through the presentation of the first three stanzas.

In the first three stanzas, the persona can be seen questioning the truth behind the things that were probably promised by her lover. It is evident that there is the presence of an inner conflict in the persona’s self. The persona has to constantly remind herself not to ‘accept it’, ‘it’ referring to the promises (‘word of a snail on the plate of a leaf’) that are made by her lover. This is further exemplified in the first line of the second stanza, where she refers to her lover as a ‘sealed tin’ which is full of ‘acetic acid’ for her. The fact that she has to persistently remind herself not to acknowledge and believe in these promises clearly shows that she is indeed caught in a struggle to suppress her feelings for her lover.

It is however in the third stanza that the idea of love giving way to betrayal is constructed. ‘A ring of gold’ creates the image of marriage as a very bright and uplifting relation, as if the ring of marriage comes with ‘a sun in it’. It can be alluded to the promise of marriage and the warmth love can bring about. However, this blissful image is shattered when these lines are paradoxically juxtaposed with the repetition of the word ‘lies’ and the mention of ‘grief’, thereby indicating that love in a marriage, and the warmth and comfort it can bring, cannot last forever. The contrast between a glowing and blissful image of marriage and love, and ‘a grief’ further serves to heighten the disappointment felt by the persona through her realisation of the reality in the make-believe image of marriage and love. Hence, the persona feels disappointed but with a certain resentment towards her lover, thus bringing even more confusion and instability to her already distressed condition.
Moreover, love and marriage are portrayed as something which cannot last forever, and would ultimately lead to the destruction of one’s world and at the same time, one’s identity and self. The phrase ‘frost on a leaf’ illustrates the turning point in the seasons, which represents the changing nature of love, from something which is beatific to something that would cause a ‘disturbance in mirrors’. Love is thus portrayed as a temporal feeling that would not last but instead, bring harm and pain to its partakers with time.
The poem emphasises the fact over and over again that love would ultimately change into an empty and hollow feeling with time. The imagery of an ‘immaculate cauldron’ is used to emphasize on the blank and bare emotion that the persona now attaches with love and how she feels like the contents of a cauldron that are boiled dried and charred, leaving behind hollowness and scars. It eventually leads to the ‘shattering’ of the sea, again causing ‘a disturbance in mirrors’. In this case, the phrase ‘disturbance in mirrors’ possibly refers to the fragmented and scarred self that the persona sees when she looks at herself through the mirror.

The use of natural imageries such as the changing seasons is evident not only in this particular poem but also in Plath’s other poems such as ‘Morning Song’, whereby the baby in the poem is described or referred to using unconventional elements such as elements of nature, animals and insects, like ‘moth-breath’ and ‘cat’. Also, the title ‘Morning Song’ is itself an example of the use of natural imagery in Plath’s poem, whereby it symbolises a new day and a new life. Furthermore, in ‘The Night Dances’, the poet uses the metaphor of snow by comparing the persona’s son’s dances to snow ‘flakes’ which are ‘Falling like blessings’ on her.

The fragmentation of self which is portrayed through the use of shattered mirrors in this poem can also be seen in many of Plath’s poems such as ‘The Applicant’ and the ‘Munich Mannequin’. In ‘The Applicant’, the allusion to fragmentation is evident in the first stanza of the poem when it states ‘Are you our sort of person?’ and the questions that follow ‘Do you wear/A glass eye, false teeth or a crunch,/A brace or a hook,/Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch’?. All these elements mentioned are artificial and synthetic, thus giving rise to the idea that the speaker is of a society so industrialized and mechanized that it has ceased to be human. Further references to the individual as an ‘it’ and a ‘doll’ are also evidences of the disintegration of one’s self and identity.

In conclusion, ‘The Couriers’ not only brings forward the idea that love does not last, but instead will give way to betrayal and after which, pain and suffering to the individual, but also the theme of the disintegration and fragmentation of one’s self and identity. The use of natural imagery which is evident in many of Plath’s poems can also be seen in ‘The Couriers’ and it is with these rich imageries that one is able to understand and enter the persona’s state of mind.

Xin Ning

Published in: on April 5, 2009 at 10:03 AM  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Your words: ” she refers to her lover as a ‘sealed tin’ which is full of ‘acetic acid’ for her.” helped me to understand The Couriers, thank you.

  2. C-

  3. Thanks for your analysis, I read the poem and had a misty idea so this really helped me to figure out more, especially the images and the poetics of the poem

  4. Nice. Since the poet equates love to her season, it could imply that she comes back renewed like earth to find its glorious embrace – this time with a vigour to witness multitudes of snowy Alps.

  5. Thanks for posting, I read the poem and had no idea so this really helped me to figure out what it meant.

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