Two Views of a Cadaver Room

Plath, Sylvia

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine
  • Date of entry: Sep-19-1997
  • Last revised: Jan-23-2013


This poem is divided into two formally identical halves of eleven lines each. The first part describes a visit to a "dissecting room," a Gross Anatomy laboratory. The female visitor dispassionately observes the four male cadavers, "already half unstrung" by dissection, and the students, "white-smocked boys," who work on them. She observes the fetuses in bottles, "snail-nosed babies," which are given a kind of power and fascination absent from the cadavers. Finally, "he," one of the students, hands her the "cut-out heart" of his cadaver.

This disturbing valentine is indirectly elaborated on in the second half of the poem, which describes Brueghel’s painting The Triumph of Death (1562), a "panorama of smoke and slaughter." The speaker focuses on a pair of lovers who, in the lower right corner of the painting, seem entirely unaware of the horrors around them. Enclosed by their love, they form a "little country," admittedly "foolish" and "delicate," but spared from encroaching death--if not by love itself, then at least by the arresting effect of art’s image, for desolation is "stalled in paint."


One’s initial response is to ask in what way we can equate Brueghel’s painting with the cadaver room, as the poem’s title asks us to do. The presence of death is obvious, and yet little is made in the second half of the very vivid images of dead and diseased bodies seen in the painting itself. Rather, what connects the two halves of the poem is the question of romantic love. (One can probably assume that the speaker and the student in the first half are romantically connected, especially since the poem closely resembles a scene in The Bell Jar where Esther Greenwood visits an anatomy lab with Buddy, her medical--student boyfriend.)

Brueghel’s lovers, despite their minor place in the painting and the fragility of their mutual absorption, threaten death’s triumph. This illuminates the student’s parody of a romantic gesture in the first part of the poem, his careless handing over of the real--but dead--heart. One might argue that this ghoulish sign of affection mitigates against the presence of death in the cadaver room in the same way that Brueghel’s lovers do; it certainly echoes many student pranks which fight off horror with gallows humor. Plath’s tone, however, suggests a contrast rather than a connection between the two pairs of lovers.

Where the painted couple are enwrapped in their perfect unity, the real ones, despite their less obviously threatened state, can only make a flawed connection by means of a cliched symbol which, despite--or maybe because of--its shockingly literal realness, is flawed and outmoded, "a cracked heirloom." The heart is "cut out" of the body it lived in, and this reduces it to a flattened "cut--out," something less alive than the fictional love expressed by the painter. Plath’s poem warns, then, that it may be only in art (and this might include the poem itself, momentarily redeeming the boy’s gesture) that the approaching triumph of death can be withstood.


Primary Source

The Colossus


Harper & Row

Place Published