Poetic Destruction in “Conversation Among the Ruins”
Inspired by the 1927 Giorgio De Chirico painting of the same name, Sylvia Plath’s 1956 poem, Conversation Among The Ruins, is an ekphrastic sonnet structured as a story about author’s own failed relationship. The original painting, done in the surrealist style, is of an isolated, deconstructed domestic scene. Although Sylvia’s sonnet contains more turbulent action, the painting’s placement of the man and woman, in direct conflict with each other, speaks to the greater themes of her text, especially the more subordinate position of the woman. Through the use of symbolic imagery and alterations to the traditional sonnet structure, Plath chronicles the relationship’s deterioration and explores the dynamics between the destructive, dominant man and the wounded woman.
At first glance, the sonnet follows the traditional Italian 14-line arrangement with an octave and a sestet. However, this poem, both in structure and subject matter, is nothing like the commonly known Shakespearean love sonnets. It rejects ABAB and ABBA rhyme structure and avoids iambic pentameter altogether. Conversation Among The Ruins reads more like a descriptive monologue than a loving ode. Plath, with the use of “I”, is present within the poem, acting as both witness and victim to male destruction. From her destroyed femininity in the octave to the new separation of the doomed couple in the sestet, Sylvia subverts the classic love sonnet through her symbolic narration of failed romance.
From the beginning of the octave, the reader is placed inside the couple’s chaotic unraveling. Plath describes the man as “stalking with his wild furies,” citing the vengeful monsters of Greek tragedy. The man encroaches on her space, marked by feminine decorations such as “garlands of fruit” and “lutes and peacocks.” Sylvia’s language paints him as a purely destructive force. He brings with him a “whirlwind” and “ruins,” and, through the construction of each line, Plath describes their harmony falling quickly into chaos. As the man’s damaging masculinity continues to ravage their relationship towards the end of the octave, Sylvia decides to portray their love as “magic,” yet it disappears like “a daunted witch, quitting castle when real days break.” This intentional use of the witch imagery is another one of Plath’s acts of feminization against the cruel man. To her, their love has become like a persecuted witch, fleeing the comfort of a castle to avoid being spotted in the morning light. Although the witch is traditionally a powerful and feared character in literature, she almost always ends up a victim, destroyed at the hands of men who fear her power. This love that Sylvia has for the man is equally as vulnerable, and ultimately he, with his “stormy eye” is the one that drives it away, although Sylvia never reveals exactly what he has done. None of this is included in the original painting, but the skeletal house and the wasted ruin of landscape evoke similar emotions. Plath, throughout the octave, does not place very much attention on herself. Instead, she focuses on the man’s power, his ability to ruin her beautiful world. Although Sylvia is affected by his cruel actions, she refuses to place herself within the stereotypical trope of the female victim. She is an active observer within this poem, dwelling less on her own emotions and more on how a single man had the power to dismantle a loving relationship without any trouble befalling him.
Plath’s exploration of power is continued into the sestet. At this point in the poem, a volta has occurred between the two parts. The first half of the sonnet is Sylvia’s documentation of the relationship’s end, with each line narrating the man’s actions as he destroys the love they once shared. Now, the couple is in the aftermath of the destruction, quite literally amongst the rubble of “fractured pillars.” The tone of the poem shifts from turbulent action to an uncomfortable calm no different than the end of a storm. Like a confrontation on the battlefield, Plath directly addresses the man, the causer of her pain. Through her words, they become positioned like the two figures of the painting: Sylvia sits while he stands and faces her. This placement of bodies, the man looking down to the woman, emphasizes their dynamic of power. He is the one that who can destroy and be heartless while she is forced to remain at the table, to endure and witness without any ability to stop the pain he is afflicting. Sylvia uses more symbolic language to describe the aftermath. The man is unscathed, dressed like a gentleman in his “heroic” coat and tie. Plath, on the other hand, appears almost lost in time. Like a forgotten muse, she describes herself wearing “Grecian tunic and psyche-knot.” The psyche-knot, in this sonnet, has another meaning beyond the Greek hairstyle. Psyche, in Greco-Roman mythology, is the wife of Eros and traditionally known as the goddess of the mortal soul, who suffered through many trials so she could remain married to the god (Bolen 1). By depicting herself as a mortal woman in the face of someone more powerful than she, Plath emphasizes her own emotional vulnerability. She is powerless in the face of man she loves even as he hurts her. She describes their romantic times as a “play turned tragic,” keeping with the classical symbolism. Their relationship’s fate is ultimately sealed. Interestingly enough, Plath chooses to end her monologue with a question: “Which blight wrought on our bankrupt estate, what ceremony of words can patch the havoc?” By choosing to end the sonnet in this way, she suggests that perhaps their relationship can be salvaged, but her use of words such as “ceremony,” “patch,” and “bankrupt estate” refutes that assumption. The man has devastated their love beyond repair, not even the artifice of a good relationship can be recreated.
Sylvia Plath’s Conversation Among The Ruins goes against the traditional English love sonnet. Within the poem’s 14 lines, she challenges conventional poetic structure by revoking iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme. She also chooses an unusual sonnet subject: the end of a relationship rather than the traditional romantic ode. She evokes the history of female oppression by making this man into a Greek god and a witch-slayer alike. Through her descriptive language, Sylvia Plath equates destruction with masculinity, and deconstructs idealized romance with each symbolic line. Plath turns the woman from Giorgio De Chirico’s painting, painted with her back against the viewer, from a helpless victim to a woman who is not afraid to share the story of her own romantic destruction.
Bolen, Jean. “Transitions as Liminal and Archetypal Situations.” Mythic Imaginations. 2004. http://www.mythicjourneys.org/newsletter_jul05_transitions_bolen.html
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Inspired by the 1927 Giorgio De Chirico painting of the same name, Sylvia Plath’s 1956 poem, Conversation Among The Ruins, is an ekphrastic sonnet structured as a story about author’s […]