Updated: Jul 25
The Poet, Sylvia Plath depicts her two different views on corpses in this poem. In the first view, she records her own life experience, which she had when she reached Harvard University for the first time with her boyfriend Buddy Willard in October 1951. This is also recorded in her only semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Here is the extract from the book.
“I started out by dressing in a white coat and sitting on a tall stool in a room with four cadavers, while Buddy and his friends cut them up. These cadavers were so inhuman-looking they didn’t bother me a bit. They had stiff, leathery, purple-black skin and they smelt like old pickle jars.” (Chapter 6, pg 59)
“I was quite proud of the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things. The only time I jumped was when I leaned on Buddy’s cadaver’s stomach to watch him dissect a lung.” (Chapter 6, pg 59)
In the second view, the poet describes the couple who are seen amid (in the right lower corner) of the oil panel painting, Triumph of Death painted by one of the most significant painters of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance Painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This painting is in the famous Spanish national art museum, Madrid. This painting shows an imaginary war where an army of skeletons wins the war with Humankind. This is considered to be the prediction of the world’s end. When one looks into the painting all he/she witnesses are murder, death, pain, devastation, eternal loneliness for the souls of the dead, and also a couple in trance who will soon be dead.
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.
Two Views of a Cadaver Room Poem Summary:
The first stanza is in the third person point of view. We do not know who the narrator is but there is a woman who is witnessing the incident that is described here. It is a dissecting room where there are four men's corpses that are laid out in a row for dissection. They look like a black burnt turkey that is already damaged. There is a bad pungent smell that is covered all over the room. She sees the lab assistances working on the corpses. The head of his (her boyfriend who is mentioned earlier in the poem introduction) corpse is caved (bent). She could hardly see anything inside these ruined skull plates, old leathers like corpses who are strung together into a single piece. As she is in the room she looks around and finds jars that have the stages of baby growth in a Uterus. At this time she was served with a cut-out heart in her hands which she compares to an heirloom, ‘a cracked heirloom’.
In the second stanza, she speaks of Brueghel’s depiction of smoke and slaughter (the painting Triumph of Death). In between the painting, there is a couple who are blind to look at the skeleton army. In them the Boy, he is slanting in the sea of his Lady love’s skirt and is singing by looking at her bare shoulders while she bends to play a leaflet of music to him. They both remain as if deaf to the tricks of death’s head which is slowly consuming their song. These medieval European lovers might flourish for now but it is not for a long time.
In the last two lines, she comments that even though the whole painting has misery in abundance, at least there is a very tiny foolish delight seen in the lower right corner of the painting.
~ Literpretation Team for Education