Starless and Fatherless: On Sylvia Plath's "Sheep in Fog"



Rarely have I felt that a poem knew me before I knew myself. It's only happened once.

At sixteen, I discovered Sylvia Plath. It was by accident. "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" appeared on one page of a massive tome about the art, music, and politics of the twentieth century. Above the poems was a short biography and there was that iconic picture of her in the black sweater, sitting before a bookcase, starring with a blankness in her eyes. "Lady Lazarus" incinerated me; "Daddy" wounded me. I was hers. My love affair continues to this day.

I soon found Ariel, and it was my life. I owned the volume edited by Ted Hughes. So several poems were included in my copy that were not intended for publication in Plath's original manuscript. One such poem was  "Sheep in Fog."

When I read "Sheep in Fog," my father was still alive, though his health was declining. The poem is short, compact, but searing. I've never forgotten it. I think I must know it by heart now. How do I write about it? I've never been able to articulate my feelings about poetry; they are ineffable. I always think the poem should speak for itself:

The hills step off into whiteness. 
People or stars 
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them. 

The train leaves a line of breath. 
O slow 
Horse the colour of rust, 

Hooves, dolorous bells - 
All morning the 
Morning has been blackening, 

A flower left out. 
My bones hold a stillness, the far 
Fields melt my heart. 

They threaten 
To let me through to a heaven 
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.



I read Ariel constantly after my father's death. I'd sit alone at night and be consumed by the poems.  I loved all the blood and poultices and melancholy and, more than anything, I loved the dead father who haunted the pages, from the infamous "Daddy" to the bee poems. She was writing my pain and my obsession: the lost, unreachable father whose absence mars every moment of my life.

Sylvia said she'd never talk to god again after her father's death. She was eight years old. Death seduced her, it was the siren call that eventually claimed her. Unlike Plath, I cowered in fear of death, and always wondered how she plunged into it with such ferocity. Something about her still terrifies me.

"Sheep in Fog" predicted my fate. I still read the poem aloud to myself, melting into the rhythm, feeling the incision every word makes.  I've always felt that the poem was written for me and that it belongs only to me because, like the narrator, I am beyond salvation, beyond peace, trapped in a life absent of my father and doomed to a death that will bring no reunion with him. My heaven will be "starless and fatherless, a dark water."

 I live in the world that "Sheep in Fog" describes, and I will die there.