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Berck-Plage. Useful paper on EBSCO (Literary Reference Centre): “Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s ‘ Berck-Plage ’ Folsom, Jack. Journal of Modern Literature, Spring91, Vol. 17. Issue 4, page 521, 15p. (also posted to website via a link). Background.

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berck plage


Useful paper on EBSCO (Literary Reference Centre): “Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage’ Folsom, Jack. Journal of Modern Literature, Spring91, Vol. 17. Issue 4, page 521, 15p. (also posted to website via a link)


The poem combines two experiences in Plath’s life. Firstly, a visit to Berck-Plage on the northern coast of France, and secondly, a year later, the death of a neighbour (Percy Key) which Plath found upsetting and disturbing.

She began writing this poem immediately after Key’s death in 1962. Her son, Nicholas, was born as Keys entered the final stages of decline, and a section about a baby was deleted from an earlier draft of the poem.

  • The poem is an assertion of life and living, perhaps of creativity in the face of death, which is a force which cannot be controlled. Her own poetry (the creation of an image) however, can be.
  • Berck-Plage is like a sequence of images and has a filmic quality.
opening images
Opening Images
  • There are some typical seaside images (girls, sun, ice-cream) but also a hint of the grotesque (the girls’ head are referred to as ‘little china eggs’ implying baldness)
  • The sun is referred to as a ‘poultice’. If the poem is seen as a whole and not in a linear fashion, this could refer to the possibility of healing the pain caused by Keys’ illness and the feelings of distress it caused Plath.
  • The need for healing could also refer to the illness that killed Otto Plath, her father (infection).
reference to deformity
Reference to deformity
  • The heads of the girls
  • ‘What are they hiding?’
  • Evocative of her own father’s situation (amputation of his foot)
  • Foreshadows the mention of the war vets of the nearby institution (‘waving and crutchless’)
  • The sun is a poultice, but also glares: it reveals the unpleasant or grotesque aspects of the scene.
  • Which words convey the feeling of a glaring sun as opposed to a healing sun?
the priest
The Priest
  • The priest wear ‘dark glasses’ –why do you think this is?
  • What doesn’t the priest see?
  • ‘bikinis’
  • ‘Breasts and hips’
  • ‘Limbs, images, shrieks.’
  • ‘Two lovers unstick themselves’

The blackness of the priest contrasts with the colours of the earth and the funeral flowers.

Find examples and highlight them in your text.

transition to the next part of the poem
Transition to the next part of the poem
  • This is done through the images of the war vets on the terrace of the home. There are references to their disability (wheelchairs and crutches are described as ‘glittering’, their need for nurses.
  • Plath feels a distance from them, emotional and physical:

…why should I walk

Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles?

I am not a nurse, white and attendant,

I am not a smile.

juxtaposition of vets and children
Juxtaposition of vets and children
  • Find examples of these and highlight them in different colours, if possible.

Then the poem moves to the description of Percy Keys. This happens with the line

An old man is vanishing

percy keys
Percy Keys
  • These images are quite unpleasant. Plath’s shock at the vision of the dying man was also confirmed by what she wrote in her note book. However, amid the images of death and dying there are references to jewels:

-eye stones, yellow and valuable


after death
After death
  • Percy and the nurses are changed by death. Percy is still (note description of hands)
  • The nurses are less lovely now that they have no caring function.
  • Instead the house becomes absorbed in the rituals which follow a death
  • Cleaning (‘the washed sheets fly in the sun’)
  • Platitudes (‘It is a blessing…’)
the funeral scene
The funeral scene
  • The house and family prepare themselves for the funeral.
  • There is an image of the Devon hills/ sky.
  • The scene moves suddenly to the graveyard, where there are a number of dramatic images to conclude the poem.
  • Identify these.
  • Does the poem conclude with a note of despair, or as previously suggested, the idea of a triumph of life over death, and the suggestion of a continual ‘life cycle’ which constantly renews itself?
  • “Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage’ Folsom, Jack. Journal of Modern Literature, Spring91, Vol. 17. Issue 4, page 521, 15p.
  • Images:


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