The coastal landscape has become a sea/cret garden of delight for several women living and writing on the south-western sea-coast … It was then (from the standpoint of a Devonian sea lover), a shock to read in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters that for the poet Sylvia Plath, living in the heart of Devon in the mid C20, and immersed in the writing of her later poems, including some of those published in Crossing the Water, sea trips in the south-west peninsula were not even pleasant, let alone inspiring. On a day-trip to Woolacombe, craving the ‘oxygen’ of her beloved American seas, Hughes notes that she finds instead the ‘flip of an ocean fallen dream face down’.Rhys and Plath: Cheriton and Court Green *
It was a surprise also to find that Jean Rhys, writing early drafts of Wide Sargasso Sea in Bude on the North Cornwall coast, actually loathed the place, considering her little flat to be a bathing hut or deserted tea shop for tourists. However, for the poet H.D., who was, admittedly, writing much earlier in the century, when beaches were quieter and less polluted, the west Penwith seascape at Bosigran in Cornwall was restorative, even mystical. Walking in this landscape and writing early drafts of her autobiographical Bid Me To Live/Madrigal, in 1918, she felt that ‘the whole world … [was] given her in consciousness, she was see-er, priestess … wise woman with her witch ball the world’. And when staying in north Devon, during spring 1916, she revelled in daily walks to the wild cove at Heddon’s mouth …
As a child, H.D. had lived not too far from and often visited the sea during family holidays. Later, as writer living in England, her poetic forays into Greek straits were realised during periods spent on the coasts of North Cornwall and Devon, when she was re-membering her childhood seascapes of the North Atlantic: New Jersey, Rhode Island and the Casco islands off the coast of Maine.
Sylvia Plath was also brought up in the eastern coast of the United States; her early childhood was spent in a seaside town in Massachusetts: her beloved Nauset on Cape Cod was, for her, a ‘jewel in the head’. Near the end of her life, when she was living in North Tawton, Plath wrote many of the poems later published in Crossing the Water; including ’Babysitters’, with its penultimate line, ‘And from our opposite continents we wave and call’. However, given her apparently negative interactions with the coast during this time, Plath’s sea poems must have arisen from an interior imagination or remembering of the past.
For the first eight years of her life Rhys was brought up in Dominica. Her island paradise was surrounded by Caribbean seas, in particular, the Sargasso Sea. Much later, (but only five years after Plath's death), while living in Cheriton Bishop, a village only a few miles from where Plath had lived, she completed her last, most rebellious novel, the prequel to the famous Jane Eyre, which was centred on the sea-strewn landscapes of her childhood, abandoning the familiar city settings of her earlier novels …
… All three writers had the sea-scape in common as a powerful childhood formative influence. All three also ‘crossed the ocean’ and became writers in exile living in England. All three later lived periods of their life in Devon (and for Rhys and H.D., in Cornwall).
Perhaps, subconsciously, they were harking back to their sea-roots …
Let’s side-track for a moment and briefly retrace these three women writers to their early sea experiences. Rhys' childhood paradise in Dominica haunted her. She left it for England at the age of sixteen, but those formative experiences of the sea kept playing in her mind, and for the rest of her life metaphorically flickered tricks of light in and out of her fiction. H.D. was born only a few years before Rhys; her memorable family holidays on the North Atlantic coast were later re-iterated persistently in her poems and prose, becoming part of her palimpsest-map of self-discovery. Plath, a ‘sea girl’, lived until the age of nine at the sea-side town of Winthrop, in Massachusetts. This coastline remained in her memory as ‘beautiful, inaccessible’, playing over and over in her mind with the ‘jewel’ metaphor of Nauset. These sea images proliferating in her poems were frequently emblematic of the paradoxical nature of her self-realisation …
… Given their seaside childhoods, it is unsurprising that all three of these writers persistently employed sea figuration, not only in their fiction and poetry but also in letters, journals, essays and other writings. They critically self examined their status and sense of dislocation as expatriate in their various texts, to explain and analyse their creative impulse and self identity. The quest for each of them was to delineate a textualised self in terms of the loss of an early idealised childhood sea landscape and a real, or figurative, looking back over amniotic Atlantic waters, to their distant American or West Indian shores.
Their topographical textualisation of the sea reflected the treatment of the alienation, severance, schisms, displacement and fragmentation, which they all felt as part of the ‘difference’ they experienced as expatriates. For instance, H.D., writing in Tribute to Freud, mentions ‘two countries, America and England … separated by a wide gap in consciousness and a very wide stretch of sea’ …
Rhys also chooses water imagery to express her inspirational modes. Whilst writing Wide Sargasso Sea, she likens the creative process to ‘walking on water’. Rhys began to write her novel after she woke from a dream, with ‘words’ on her lips; subsequently she completed the novel after another suggestive dream about childbirth and amniotic waters. The title of the earlier novel Voyage in the Dark, highlights a ‘metaphor of the drifting boat … positioning Anna in her wayward passage between two cultures’, which parallels H.D.'s ‘wide gap in consciousness’.
One critic notes Rhys's ‘double dislocation’ as exiled colonial and gendered subject. Both novel titles, (Voyage and Sargasso), focus on the sea as an ‘important feature of Caribbean topographical and literary space, as well as being an historical marker of the notorious Middle passage of the slave route’. The figures Rhys chooses to explain her modes of creativity tend to oscillate, but they all derive from the sea-strewn landscapes of her childhood: sometimes the motif is the spiritual miracle of ‘walking on water’, or else, as ‘drifting boat’, it is more stormy and unpredictable. It is then, as Rhys puts it in a letter, ‘more like one wave after another knocking me against rocks … a great net of weeds that could trap ships and men. Like the Caribbean islands’.This ambivalence may reflect the writer's precarious dislocation, a state in which ‘she is in danger of being drawn towards that legendary site of becalmed wrecks, the wide Sargasso Sea.’
For Plath, the topographical split of continents (equivalent to H.D.'s wide consciousness or Rhys's drifting boat in the dark) precipitates a more real, heart-rending angst. The pervading image of her sea-past is conjured as a ‘ship in the bottle’/white flying myth. As much as she wills that it should be, the Devon or Cornish coast is not the precious gem of the Massachusetts seas, of Nauset. There is every suggestion that for Plath, the new home in North Tawton was, at least to begin with, understood as her permanent haven – somewhere she would see as a lasting base and creative locus. Then the disillusion set in, encapsulated in the double betrayal of the not-sea and her father-husband’s infidelity: there is anger, betrayal at the perceived loss and her sense of exile was intensified. In Ocean 1212 W the poet recalls how
‘the cold salt running hills of the Atlantic … my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own … Now [ this is in Devon]… when I grow nostalgic about my ocean childhood somebody solicitous will … drive me to the nearest briny horizon … I stretch my legs, I sniff. The sea. But that is not it, that is not it at all.’Plath offers her essay Ocean as ‘a fine, white flying myth’ of origins recalled from the sealed off memories of childhood. She pin-points the exact moment when her life changed and took her away forever from the ‘poetic sea-heritage’ of her first nine years.
‘This is how it stiffens, my vision of early childhood. My father died. We moved inland. Whereon those 9 first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle, beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.’
… Plath's figuration of the ‘sea-cradle’ of her childhood as a ‘sealed off’ unit links with the subject of her thesis at College, which concerned the concept of the ‘double’, that which is divided from the physical and becomes the ‘deathless double of the mortal body’. It is a schism that is lifelong: she can not return to that split off ‘aspect’, which then becomes the ‘site’/’sight’ of the wound that leads to her schizophrenic disposition …
…. Sea as eternal space called all three of these writers to respond to its energy as elemental source of creativity; each of them in their own way challenged the canonic and patriarchal strictures of the symbolic order of language; each of them projected qualities of their own psychic-personal introjections from their childhoods onto the outer seascapes in which they lived and wrote: in a sense, for them all, the empty page was the seascape.
It was in their response to that call that they varied from one another.
H.D,’s inter-relationship with sea, both in life and texts, is mostly blissfully jouissant. She had many dramas and traumas to chasten her, but essentially sea-envelopment was a transformative, sometimes clairvoyant, healer. H.D. enjoyed a relatively long life for her generation. Plath did not, and Rhys’ last years in Devon were anything but happy. The negativity in both the latters’ lives is picked up, predicated on, or predicted by their complex textual relationships with the sea.
For Rhys, living by the sea at Bude, or in a cottage in the mid-Devon village only fifteen miles from the southern coast, sea as real sensual element in the landscape, to be enjoyed, watched, observed, swum in, paddled in even, didn’t exist: for her the sea was present only in memory. Her south western surroundings seemed, perversely, to take on more and more negative responses from her. Devonian territory, including Devon’s coast, became as though a projection of a kind of dark brooding anti-muse, and this was perhaps, and ironically, the motivation that enticed her into developing her famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which is not located in England’s westcountry, yet the novel’s potent sensory power may derive from Rhys’ subconscious introjection of the wave-like curves of distant Dartmoor which could be viewed from near her cottage in Cheriton Fitzpaine.: 'We pulled up and looked at the hills the mountains and the blue-green sea'.
|Dartmoor as 'sea', seen from near Cheriton Bishop|
For Plath living in Devon the situation became more intolerably fraught with difficulties; the double-split of her childhood, divided by (good) sea-experiences and (bad) after-sea life, became doubly mirrored by the geographical divide between the States and England. Then there was another split, that of the repetition in her adult married life of her earlier childhood separation when she came to live in what seemed to be a blissful Devonian environment, only to be eventually utterly disenchanted and disillusioned. Within a year, her world, which, like HD’s sea-journey was full of jouissance and semiotic envelopment and fusion, transposed into that of an ugly, terrifying black swamp of semiotic abyss: aesthetic creativity turned into iced-up imagination.
Supposing the poet had found a beautiful sea-place which matched that of her interior sea-space? Would there have been such a place for her in the south west? Could she have found such? Or, was she forever predisposed to internalise any sea-experience as disagreeable? I think the latter. The idyllic eruption of the semiotic for her at Court Green, figured by the garden, its apple trees, the bees, the cooking and all the other elements of her ‘green property’, was crushed and displaced by the ‘alien paternal tongue’. As David Lodge puts it, in his analysis of Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’, ‘looking for the father, failing to find him anywhere, the speaker finds him everywhere instead’. The overwhelming presiding supra-ego? - the symbolic law of the father – her father – and that of the patriarchal world, everything had to be subsumed into that which had eluded her and which she had tried to find and put together again - but had, paradoxically, become alienated from her. Her ‘flying white myth’, which, after her father’s death, she had originally encapsulated as the life left behind in a capsule, in her childhood’s sea-imagination, returned to her in some of her chillingly best and final poems, as she envisioned the dissolution of her self- identity and poetic persona dispersing into the white-blue fields of sea-sky.
Although these three writers, in their connections with south-western seas, experienced their mutuality or antipathy towards the coast in wildly contrasting ways and explored their textual seascapes using very different genres, modes, themes, atmospheres, characters and moods, they shared in common what Derek Walcott called the ‘white hush between two sentences’.
For H.D., Jean Rhys and Sylvia Plath the common roots of their backgrounds, their lives as expatriates (which occasioned their re-memberings of childhood coasts), became channelled into their respective textual sea-iconographies and negotiated the crossing/s of the split coasts of their lost childhood (sea) lands. Any Devonian lover of books, who has been born and bred near the shaping waters of the south-west, can only sit back and admire all three of them for the way that as one critic put it, as exiles they ‘cross borders ... break barriers of thought and experience ... seeing the whole world as a foreign land makes possible originality of vision’. Like dazzling seahorses, the interplay and intertexts of their aquatic writings still glitter and sparkle reflectively on the stormy textual-coastal waters of our post-modern world.
This piece consists of excerpts taken from a longer piece. It is a 'companion' to Sea-thyme (you'll find the essay if you scroll through). There are quotations from various sources (all marked within parenthesis, but too many to specify here).
copyright julie sampson
*This poem was published in Shearsman,75/76.