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"I thought that I could not be hurt"

Updated: Jun 17



This month on Pain Geeks (April 2024) we are exploring one of Sylvia Plath’s iconic and tragic poems alongside the theme of ‘descending modulation’.


Sylvia Plath's poem "I thought that I could not be hurt" is about vulnerability and disillusionment. The poem explores a person’s first experience of pain and the realisation that they are not “impervious to suffering”. The theme and prose of this piece has the ability to immediately transport the reader to a childlike moment, perhaps our own first experience of pain or anguish.


The pain Plath draws on here in this piece is the kind of pain that is felt at the hands of a loved one’s carelessness and how the speaker, initially believing themselves to be immune, discovers they are not invincible but deeply susceptible to emotional upheaval. The poem is a raw and honest depiction of complex and often painful emotions.





Sylvia Plath's poem "I thought that I could not be hurt" is a poignant piece that offers profound insight into her inner world. As is characteristic of Plath's work, the poem is deeply personal and introspective, reflecting her struggle with pain and heartbreak.


The context of this poem adds to the overall reading, although the poem can also be interpreted independently of that.


It is said that “I thought that I could not be hurt” is Plath’s first tragic and dark poem and shows early signs of the depression that she would go on to battle in her adult life. According to one source, Plath wrote this poem at age 14 after a family member carelessly damaged by her Grandmother who "took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it”. Following this incident, Plath sat down and scribbled out the poem we are reading today.


One of the beautiful feelings of reading this poem, is the way that Plath writes about this seemingly un-noticed experience of anguish through the voice of a mature child. The poem for me doesn’t seem to have lost it’s child-like theatre and rawness, but yet the metaphors and descriptive tools are very ‘grown-up’ and emotionally deep - suggesting a lifetime of experience and practice with describing suffering.

The poem begins with the line, "I thought that I could not be hurt," which immediately establishes the theme of vulnerability and disillusionment. This sentence establishes immediately that this is a poem about getting hurt, and the reader must share in the vulnerability with the writer by agreeing to connect with whatever danger may lay ahead.


We know we are about to experience hurt


As the poem progresses, Plath's words evoke a sense of disillusionment and despair. The speaker of the poem finds that they are not invincible, but rather, deeply susceptible to the suffering that comes with being human.


The use of the word “agony” to end the final line of the first stanza brings. thereader to a sense of impending doom as we realise, that this pain that is being felt, will be almost un-bearable to the experiencer.


Plath makes a quick direction change in the second and third stanza, by masterfully describing and inviting us to feel her joy and happiness. We wilfully go along with the feeling of excitement “swooping breathlessly” with her on the wings of her contentment at simply being human.


(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

But all is not well. Alongside this joyful robustness and playful nature of the human, is also a frailty, a “trembling instrument of crystal” that could shatter, like our worlds, at any moment.


The partner of this joy, is the capacity for pain.


The pain of neglect, of careless injury is further complicated by the urge to disregard the experience as a reader. I found myself thinking, ‘oh it can’t be that bad’ at points in this poem and wanting it to be less painful, less hurtful. The urge to reject the pain described, not allow it inside and to be somehow the judge of it, the observer of it, although maybe subtle, was there for me.


Which was a harsh reflection, perhaps brought about even more so because of the context of the poem. Am I more likely to dismiss the writer’s pain because she’s a child? To judge it is an over-reaction? But yet, if I put myself back in my 14-year old self, and remember the pain of rejection or damage to a prized possession I don’t see it as that at all. I know the pain of having someone shatter a corner of my world without knowing. And at 14, my world was very different to my 39 year old self, but no less important and sacred to me.


The power of perspective-taking is a fundamental skill in poetry reading, that is needed in clinical practice too. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge the validity of harm done to the other, in whatever form that takes, without rejecting or dismissing is a key clinical skill that poetry offers up as a training ground.


Poetry is a training ground for empathy


"I thought that I could not be hurt" is a testament to Plath's ability to articulate complex and often painful emotions with stark honesty and clarity. Through her words, she invites readers into her world, allowing them to share in her experiences and understand her perspective.


This poem, like much of Plath's work, continues to resonate with readers today, attesting to her enduring legacy as a poet.


I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

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