19-Year-Old Sylvia Plath on the Transcendent Splendor of Nature
By Maria Popova
Carl Sagan believed that nature itself is a source of spiritual awe. Alan Lightman captured this beautifully in his account of a secular transcendent experience. And yet it’s not the scientists but the poets and writers who are best able to capture that sense of earthly reverence, from Virginia Woolf’s intoxicating account of visiting Stonehenge to Hans Christian Andersen’s chronicle of climbing Vesuvius.
From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness — comes an achingly beautiful meditation on the transcendent simplicity of nature, spurred by the feeling awakened in Plath by “an anonymous part of the Massachusetts coastline.”
In July of 1951, a few months before her 19th birthday, she writes in her diary:
On a relatively unfrequented, stony beach there is a great rock which juts out over the sea. After a climb, an ascent from one jagged foothold to another, a natural shelf is reached where one person can stretch at length, and stare down into the tide rising and falling below, or beyond to the bay, where sails catch light, then shadow, then light, as they tack far out near the horizon. The sun has burned these rocks, and the great continuous ebb and flow of the tide has crumbled the boulders, battered them, worn them down to the smooth sun-scalded stones on the beach which rattle and shift underfoot as one walks over them. A serene sense of the slow inevitability of the gradual changes in the earth’s crust comes over me; a consuming love, not of a god, but of the clean unbroken sense that the rocks, which are nameless, the waves which are nameless, the ragged grass, which is nameless, are all defined momentarily through the consciousness of the being who observes them. With the sun burning into rock and flesh, and the wind ruffling grass and hair, there is an awareness that the blind immense unconscious impersonal and neutral forces will endure, and that the fragile, miraculously knit organism which interprets them, endows them with meaning, will move about for a little, then falter, fail, and decompose at last into the anonymous soil, voiceless, faceless, without identity.
From this experience I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquillity that comes from dwelling among primal things.
From this experience also, a faith arises to carry back to a human world of small lusts and deceitful pettiness. A faith, naïve and child like perhaps, born as it is from the infinite simplicity of nature. It is a feeling that no matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Plath’s little-known drawings, her verses for kids illustrated by Quentin Blake, and her moving reading of “A Birthday Present.”
Published June 12, 2014