66. Two Views of a Cadaver Room: Sylvia Plath

Perhaps a bit too grisly for a middle schooler; know your kids. So, let me skip to the second stanza that I actually use.

An analysis is at the NYU Literature, Arts and Medicine Database, which has a treasure of medical-related poetry, along with literature and art. You have to hunt down the actual works, but it offers an interesting resource to start with and does a nice job in explaining what you are looking at. I had not heard of many of these pieces, and it reveals new sides to those I am familiar with.

That second stanza goes with Brueghel’s painting The Triumph of Death (1562). If that link does not work, there is one from the NYU site. It, too, might be a bit much for your middle school students. It’s nothing like the carnage of the movies. Again, know your kids.

But, if your kids are open and mature you can do an excellent job linking the art with the poem. This, in itself, is a novelty that will open their minds a bit. Which only leaves the motive.

What is Brueghel trying to say? What is Plath trying to say?

I suggest showing Brueghel and asking the kids what the point is. They will focus on the mayhem. Then, show them Plath. What is her point? Now, look at Brueghel again. Does Brueghel’s painting still mean the same thing it did before reading Plath, or are we, as modern viewers, forever changed at how we look at it? I can’t not look at that corner; the mayhem falls away.

Unlike Plath, who waits for the carnage to destroy the pastoral love, I now can only see that love. I would say it is a beacon of hope, but that’s a bit corny.

Ah, the power of art. If it can change how we look at this carnage, think how it can change how we look at the world.

Two Views of the Cadaver Room
Sylvia Plath

The day she visited the dissecting room
They had four men laid out, black as burnt turkey,
Already half unstrung. A vinegary fume
Of the death vats clung to them;
The white-smocked boys started working.
The head of his cadaver had caved in,
And she could scarcely make out anything
In that rubble of skull plates and old leather.
A sallow piece of string held it together.

In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow.
He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.


In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter
Two people only are blind to the carrion army:
He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin
Skirts, sings in the direction
Of her bare shoulder, while she bends,
Finger a leaflet of music, over him,
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death’s-head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish;not for long.

Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country
Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.


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