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Although raised near the ocean and fascinated by the power of nature, Sylvia Plath spent most of her life in the suburbs and the city. In July 1960, however, she and Ted Hughes went camping for a week in Rock Lake, Canada. Not only was she with her husband away from the constant pressures of writing and teaching, but she hadn’t ever been quite so far from the civilized world she was used to before. Her reaction was therefore understandably intense. These sentiments were reflected in “Two Campers in Cloud Country,” which describes the new world Plath discovered in Canada, utterly separate from the respectable (and by some accounts prissy) life she had previously led in the American suburbs.
Plath’s descriptions of the lake and the life behind her create two distinct worlds, as she differentiates between the tame city with its concrete details, and the wild country with almost magical possibilities. The first line of the poem reads, “In this country there is neither measure nor balance,” suggesting that the rules she is so accustomed to no longer apply. Rather than the customary restrictions that accompanies her status as a woman in the mid-twentieth century, there is a profound sense of freedom. Instead of diminutive “labeled elms,” the trees that surround her are tall and wild enough to reach up to the “man-shaming clouds” overhead. Back home, Plath is used to walks through the Public Gardens filled with “tame tea-roses,” but feels more invigorated surrounded by an unlimited, undomesticated landscape where rocks and woods dominate. While her language describing home is familiar and concrete, her new observations are more mystical. For instance, she describes feeling small relative to the forest around her by saying that she cannot control the trees here “like local trolls in the spell of a superior being.” Clearly, this strange new world is both more inspiring and more terrifying than Plath’s ordered life back home.
Despite the profound differences between the two places, the poem makes it clear that both are civilizations of sorts. Boston is full of “polite skies,” “plates and forks,” and skies as “chummy as uncles.” The Canadian wilderness, however, is not yet so clearly formed. Instead, Plath imagines that the rocks and trees are creating a place for themselves where people are not entirely welcome–a “dynasty of perfect cold.” As the meaning of civilization is transformed in the poem, the speaker’s sense of self is also altered. Although she originally believed she had the ability to fit in as she was in this place, she realizes as the poem continues that she must view herself as both smaller and less important in order to properly understand her surroundings. Despite (or perhaps because of) Plath’s perfectionism and self-importance, she says in response, “It is comfortable, for a change, to mean so little.” Away from the stress of academia, she is free to exist without anything being demanded of her. As she begins to feel both smaller and less connected to the rigid societal rules of home, she tells the reader, “In a month, we’ll wonder what plates and forks are for.”
Her loosening grip on the ties that bind her to human civilization are further represented in several historical references. She calls the wilderness “the last frontier of the big, brash spirit,” a line that is (perhaps intentionally) reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s discussion of the first settlers’ reactions to the New World at the end of The Great Gatsby. However, instead of the deeply flawed society that Gatsby portrays, Plath implies that this time will be different–humanity doesn’t have enough control over this expanse of wilderness to corrupt it. Instead, it has the ability to influence and change them. A few lines later, she says she feels so connected to the forest and the lake that “The Pilgrims and Indians might never have happened”–her deeply ingrained connection to human history pales in comparison to her desire to become a part of this natural world. Society, academia, and everything but the immediacy of her surroundings has become inconsequential.
As a result of this newfound sense of insignificance, her ordinarily tight grip on memory, reality, and other people seems to slip. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker says, “Around our tent the old simplicities sough sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in. We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.” This reference to Lethe, a mythical river in Hades whose water caused the dead to forget their past lives, is an apt one, referencing the ability of nature to make material attachments and other memories fall away. However, the speaker seems not to want to lose her connection to others entirely. Earlier, the line, “I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here,” shows her desperately trying to reestablish ties with someone recognizable, so as not to lose her old life entirely. As a “fossil,” she is reaching through millennia for the promise of human connection. However, the poem’s conclusion implies that her hopeless efforts to retrieve a souvenir of civilization in the wilderness weren’t necessary in the first place. Although the natural world isn’t wholly conducive to human interaction, the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. She and an unnamed companion are still together, free to forge new bonds separate from those created at home in Boston previously.
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