On Looking into Sylvia Plath's Copy of Goethe's Analysis

Diane Fink

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On Looking into Sylvia Plath’s Copy of Goethe’s Faust” is a short poem in free verse with one stanza of nineteen lines and a second stanza with fourteen lines. The title of the poem makes two allusions that are expanded and explored throughout the rest of the poem. In the title, Diane Ackerman refers to Sylvia Plath, the promising young American poet who committed suicide in 1963 at age thirty. She also refers to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823).

The first stanza is a direct address by the poet to Plath: “You underlined the jugglery of flame’/ with ink sinewy and black as an ocelot.” Ackerman identifies Plath with Faust, a medieval alchemist whose story has been retold most notably by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe and later by Goethe. Faust’s tragic flaw was his insatiable desire to know the unmediated truth of the universe. Like Faust, Plath explored the natural world for authentic experience. In the first stanza, Ackerman portrays Plath as “keen for Faust’s appetite, not Helen’s beauty.” Plath looked to the natural world for answers, dissecting each part of life with words. Ackerman details Plath’s transformation into “the doll of insight . . ./ to whom nearly all lady poets write.” According to Ackerman, Plath was alternately angry and wistful. Within the characterization of Plath, however, are chilling references to her own self-destructiveness: “You wanted to unlock the weather system/ in your cells, and one day you did.”

The second stanza shifts focus to the speaker. Whereas the first stanza has four lines beginning with the word “you,” the second stanza has three lines beginning with the word “I.” In shifting the focus, Ackerman connects herself to Plath as naturalist and poet. Ackerman, whose writings include several long prose works on natural science, seems to identify with Plath’s “nomad curiosity.” What Ackerman admires most about Plath is not her pain but her ability to see and report on the world with “cautionless ease.” In line 25, Ackerman reveals her mistaken thoughts about Plath: She had thought that Plath had come to terms with her existence. Line 31, however, returns to Faustian imagery in order to correct Ackerman’s mistaken assumptions: “But you were your own demonology,/ balancing terror’s knife on one finger,/ until you numbed, and the edge fell free.”

On Looking into Sylvia Plath's Copy of Goethe's Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An elegy is a meditation, often one that mourns the death of another individual. Although Ackerman does not follow the rules of meter and rhyme common to classic elegy, she does employ a number of devices to give her poem a decidedly elegiac tone. Through the use of apostrophe, Ackerman turns away from her audience and addresses the dead poet directly, speaking to her as “you.” She uses images from the natural world to draw her picture of Plath: The ink Plath uses to underline the text is “sinewy and black as an ocelot,” and her cells contain “a weather system.” Furthermore, Ackerman describes the pleasures Plath took in life, including collecting bees, cooking, and dressing simply. She also identifies Plath’s talents and her tragic flaws. Finally, Ackerman reveals that she does not mourn Plath for the pain she “wore as a shroud” but for her “keen naturalist’s eye.” It is Plath’s talent as a poet, not her tragic life, that ranks highest in Ackerman’s estimation, a stance that differentiates Ackerman from other “lady poets.”

Another device that Ackerman uses effectively in this poem is the pairing of oppositions; by doing so, she emphasizes the paradoxes of Plath’s life and helps explain Plath’s inevitable suicide. For example, early in the poem she opposes “Faust’s appetite” and “Helen’s beauty,” suggesting the mind/body split with which Plath struggled. Immediately after describing Plath as “armed and dangerous,” she describes her as “the doll of insight.” Dolls are without passion and without power; they are the creation of someone else and are certainly not armed and dangerous. In addition, Ackerman uses the strange image of “a morbid Santa Claus who could die on cue.” It would seem that the gift Plath gives to “lady poets” is her death; that is, it is her suicide, not her poetry, that offers inspiration to would-be poets. In the second stanza, Ackerman continues the use of oppositions. In lines 23 and 24, Ackerman opposes mind and body by portraying Plath’s mind as something like a knife sliding “into the soft flesh of an idea.” Finally, Ackerman opposes “a hot image” with “cool words.” This opposition is at the heart of Ackerman’s notion of poetics: Authentic experience must be rendered intelligible to a reader through words.