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Poetry Soup Ep. 10: "Pheasant" by Sylvia Plath


Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today I’ll be reading the poem, “Pheasant,” by Sylvia Plath, which is about the subtle beauty of nature.

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. She published her first poem at the age of eight, in the children’s section of “The Boston Herald.” Shortly after her eighth birthday, her father died. Her famous poem, “Daddy,” is about the experience of losing her father. This event is one of the many things that influences the melancholy feelings of most of her poetry. She kept a journal from the age of 11. Her most famous books are “The Bell Jar,” a novel inspired by her struggles with depression, and her collection of poetry, “The Colossus.” She attended Smith College in Massachusetts where she edited the Smith Review. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree after submitting her thesis, about two Dostoevsky novels. She married the poet Ted Hughes, and had two children, but the couple split up a few years later. She was awarded the Glascock Poetry Prize, and after her death by suicide on February 11, 1963, she received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

“Pheasant” is a poem full of beautiful descriptions, with a unique rhyme scheme that doesn’t stand out right away and is really fun to pinpoint.


You said you would kill it this morning.

Do not kill it. It startles me still,

The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing


Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.

It is something to own a pheasant,

Or just to be visited at all.


I am not mystical: it isn't

As if I thought it had a spirit.

It is simply in its element.


That gives it a kingliness, a right.

The print of its big foot last winter,

The trail-track, on the snow in our court


The wonder of it, in that pallor,

Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.

Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.


But a dozen would be worth having,

A hundred, on that hill-green and red,

Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!


It is such a good shape, so vivid.

It's a little cornucopia.

It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,


Settles in the elm, and is easy.

It was sunning in the narcissi.

I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.

"Pheasant” consists of eight tercets (stanzas with three lines). It turns a pheasant, an ordinary animal that is sometimes seen as a pest, into something regal, both frightening and beautiful. It advises the reader to leave nature alone and not to impose human ideas on it, especially in the powerful last lines, “let, be, let be.” Plath describes the pheasant with vivid words and images. For example, the line, “it’s a little cornucopia” could refer to the tail of the pheasant, which is shaped somewhat like a cornucopia. From the beginning of the poem, Plath begs her audience not to kill the bird, saying that she’s “not mystical,” but there is simply no need to kill the pheasant — it exists, and it deserves to live. Plath also says that she does not love the bird because it is rare — “a dozen would be worth having” — she loves it because it is natural and beautiful. Through the image of the pheasant, she shows the reader that things don’t have to be rare to be marveled at. Referring back to the theme of leaving nature alone, Plath conveys guilt for trespassing on the pheasant while it is “sunning in the narcissi,” which are also known as daffodils. In a way, she admits that to even see the pheasant is to trespass upon it — it doesn’t deserve to be killed or watched in wonder, it should simply be allowed to live its own life. However, it is impossible for Plath to tear her eyes from this regal bird.

The rhyme in “Pheasant” is very interesting — there is lots of off-rhyme and an unclear rhyme scheme. There is an  interlocking rhyme scheme of tercets, in which the second rhyme of each stanza becomes the first line of the next  – “still” and “hill,” “pheasant” and “isn’t.” This is a form called terza rima, which translates from Italian to the
“third rhyme.” The rhyme is subtle — I didn’t notice it my first few times reading the poem — and it is natural, performed in a way that doesn’t make it the most important part of the poem, but that makes the poem flow, which is what makes the rhyme so powerful. There are internal rhymes, too, such as “stupidly” and “be,” two words that are in the same line. As well as rhyme, there is plenty of assonance and consonance in “Pheasant.” The end almost has an AAA rhyme scheme — “easy,” “narcissi,” and “be” all rhyme. There are other rhymes in this stanza, too — six rhymes in three lines. Though this rhyme scheme is common, it stands out for different reasons when it’s used. Like the pheasant, the rhyme is both plain and beautiful. You need to look closely to find it, but when you do, it’s really rewarding. Another aspect of this poem is that most of the lines have nine syllables. There are only two exceptions to this: the line, “Is it its rareness, then? It is rare,” has eight syllables, but here the question mark almost serves as a ninth syllable. There is also the last line which has ten syllables, ending the poem in a special way.

“Pheasant” does what many people cannot; it acknowledges the normality of something while describing its beauty. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!


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