“On a red gold throne in the heart of the sea”

"A Mermaid" (1901) by John William Waterhouse

“For a time I believed not in God nor Santa Claus, but in mermaids.” ~ Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath grew up near the ocean, in Winthrop-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, and was indelibly shaped by its influence in a myriad of ways. In an essay entitled “Ocean 1212-W” that she wrote in 1962, the year before she took her own life, she recalled:

My childhood landscape was not land but the end of the land–the cold, salt, running hills of the Atlantic. I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own. I pick it up, exile that I am, like the purple “lucky stones” I used to collect with a white ring all the way round, or the shell of a blue mussel with its rainbowy angel’s fingernail interior; and in one wash of memory the colors deepen and gleam, the early world draws breath.

“Ocean 1212-W” referred to her grandmother’s lifelong phone number, which as a little girl she would repeat “to the operator, from my home on the quieter bayside, an incantation, a fine rhyme, half expecting the black earpiece to give back, like a conch, the susurrous murmur of the sea out there as well as my grandmother’s Hello.” Too, she described how her mother, Aurelia, “a sea-girl herself,” awakened her to the power of words by reading to her and her brother from Matthew Arnold’s “Forsaken Merman”:

Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam;
Where the salt weed sways in the stream;
Where the sea-beasts, ranged all round,
Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground;
Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,
Dry their mail, and bask in the brine;
Where great whales come sailing by,
Sail and sail, with unshut eye,
Round the world for ever and aye.

“I saw the gooseflesh on my skin,” Plath remembered. “I did not know what made it. I was not cold. Had a ghost passed over? No, it was the poetry. A spark flew off Arnold and shook me, like a chill. I wanted to cry; I felt very odd. I had fallen into a new way of being happy.”

In this clip from a 1988 “Voices & Visions” documentary about Plath produced by the New York Center for Visual History, she reads excerpts from “Ocean 1212-W,” starting at 2:08 minutes in:

To read Plath’s full essay, which was published in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, click here. To see the full “Voices & Visions” documentary (in six parts), click here


About Diana Rico

Check out her fabulosity at http://www.dianarico.com.
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4 Responses to “On a red gold throne in the heart of the sea”

  1. Joanne Elliott aka soulsprite says:

    Love this! I’m with Sylvia about poetry. It does give you goosebumps.

  2. Thanks. I am just becoming enthralled by Sylvia, both journals and poems. Reading the new biography I would like the words of her early poem, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’.

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