Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath Essay - Plath, Sylvia (Poetry Criticism)

Plath, Sylvia (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

Sylvia Plath 1932-1963

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Plath from 1980 to 1999.

Considered an important poet of the post-World War II era, Plath became widely known following her suicide in 1963 and the posthumous publication of Ariel, a collection containing some of her most startling and acclaimed verse. Through bold metaphors and stark, often violent and unsettling imagery, Plath's works evoke mythic qualities in nature and humanity. Her vivid, intense poems explore such topics as personal and feminine identity, individual suffering and oppression, and the inevitability of death. Plath's life and works experienced renewed interest when her former husband, the poet Ted Hughes, published in 1998 a volume of poems—Birthday Letters—intended to tell his side of the story of their stormy marriage.

Biographical Information

Born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Plath enjoyed an idyllic early childhood near the sea. Her father, a German immigrant, was a professor of entomology at Boston College who maintained a special interest in the study of bees. His sudden death from diabetes mellitus in 1940 devastated the eight-year-old Plath, and many critics note the significance of this traumatic experience to her poetry, which frequently contains both brutal and reverential characterizations of her father, as well as imagery of the sea and allusions to bees. Plath began publishing poetry at an early age in such publications as Seventeen magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, and in 1959 she earned a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. After spending a month as a guest editor for Mademoiselle in New York City during the summer of her junior year, Plath suffered a mental collapse that resulted in a suicide attempt and her subsequent institutionalization. She later chronicled the circumstances and consequences of this breakdown in her best-selling novel The Bell Jar. Following her recovery, Plath returned to Smith and graduated summa cum laude in 1955. After winning a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University in England, Plath met and married English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. Although they were both by that time respected poets, the competition between Plath and Hughes was intense, with Plath frequently feeling overshadowed and intimidated by Hughes. The eventual disintegration of their marriage in the early 1960s, intensified for Plath by Hughes's relationship with another woman, and the ensuing struggles with severe depression that led to her suicide in 1963 are considered crucial elements of Plath's most critically acclaimed poetry.

Major Works

Plath's poetry poignantly reflects her struggles with despair and mental illness, while her efforts to assert a strong female identity and to balance familial, marital, and career aspirations have established her as a representative voice for feminist concerns. Although she is frequently linked with confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, all of whom directly expressed personal torments and anguish in their work, critics have noted that many of Plath's poems are dramatic monologues voiced by a character who is not necessarily autobiographical. Plath's verse is represented in several volumes. The Colossus, the only book of her poems published during her lifetime, collects poems dating from the mid- to late 1950s; Ariel contains poems selected by Hughes from among the many works Plath composed during the final months before her death; Winter Trees collects several more of the Ariel poems and reflects Hughes's plan to publish Plath's later works in intervals; Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems reprints most of post-Colossus and pre-Ariel verse; and The Collected Poems, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, features all of her verse, including juvenilia and several previously unpublished pieces in order of composition. Plath's early verse reflects various poetic influences, evoking the mythic qualities of the works of William Butler Yeats and Ted Hughes, the diverse experiments with form and language of Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden, and the focus on personal concerns that dominates the verse of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. Most of her early poems are formal, meticulously crafted, and feature elaborate syntax and well-developed metaphors. These early poems are more subdued in their subject matter, tone, and language than the later work for which she became renowned. This later work evidences the increasing frustration of her desires. Her ambitions of finding happiness through work, marriage, and family were thwarted by such events as hospital stays for a miscarriage and an appendectomy, the breakup of her marriage, and fluctuating moods in which she felt vulnerable to male domination and threatening natural forces, particularly death. Following the dissolution of her marriage, Plath moved with her two children from the Devon countryside to a London flat, where the Irish poet William Butler Yeats had once resided, and wrote feverishly from the summer of 1962 until her death in February of the following year. Many of her best-known poems, including “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Lesbos,” “Purdah,” and “Edge” were written during this period and form the nucleus of Ariel. These poems, which reflect her increasing anger, bitterness, and despair, feature intense, rhythmic language that blends terse statements, sing-song passages, repetitive phrasing, and sudden violent images, metaphors, and declarations. For example, in “Daddy,” perhaps her most frequently discussed and anthologized work, Plath denounces her father's dominance over her life and, among other allusions, associates him with Nazism and herself with Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Plath's relationship with her husband supplied her with material for poems containing similarly violent imagery, where women are discussed as dolls and other objects of men's whimsy.

Critical Reception

Response to “Daddy” reflects the general opinion of much of Plath's later work. Some critics contend that Plath's jarring effects and preoccupation with her own problems are extravagant, and many object to her equation of personal sufferings with such horrors as those experienced by victims of Nazi genocide. Others, however, praise the passion and formal structure of her later poems, through which she confronted her tensions and conflicts. Since Plath's death, Ted Hughes has frequently been excoriated, particularly by feminist critics and writers, for driving her to suicide and for his seemingly callous response to her. This arguably romanticized interpretation of the couple's problems led in the late 1960s and 1970s to Plath's cult-like status as a “confessional” poet. The publication in 1998 of Hughes's Birthday Letters, a book of poems that attempt to explain his position and respond to many of Plath's accusations against him in her poetry, led to a new interest in Plath and her writings.

Principal Works

The Colossus 1960

Ariel 1965

Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems 1971

Winter Trees 1981

The Collected Poems 1981

The Bell Jar [as Victoria Lucas] (novel) 1963; also published as The Bell Jar [as Sylvia Plath], 1966

Letters Home: Correspondence, 1960-1963 (letters) 1975

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings (prose) 1977; also published as Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts [enlarged edition], 1979

The Journals of Sylvia Plath (journals) 1982

Criticism

Mary Lynn Broe (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Broe, Mary Lynn. “The Colossus: ‘In Sign Language of a Lost Other World.’” In Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, 43-79. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Broe discusses Plath's poetic vision during the writing of The Colossus.]

INTRODUCTION

Before the advent of the posthumous volume Ariel in 1965, The Colossus poems were heralded as promising examples of well-crafted work. Critics described the poems as hardy in language and sensibility, marked by unsentimental vitality, “mint-new” rhymes and decisive rhythms: “concrete experience arranged in clean,...

(The entire section is 13584 words.)

Bruce Bawer (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “Sylvia Plath and the Poetry of Confession.” The New Criterion 9, no. 6 (February, 1991): 18-27.

[In the following essay, Bawer contends that Plath's extreme popularity as a confessional poet in the 1960s can be attributed more to her reputation as an oppressed and victimized existentialist than to the literary merit of her works.]

Back when America was careening from the Eisenhower era—the “tranquillized Fifties,” as Robert Lowell called them—toward the Age of Aquarius, American poetry was undergoing a dramatic shift as well. A period of highly controlled, formal, and impersonal poetry, dominated by the likes of Richard Wilbur and...

(The entire section is 6392 words.)

Jack Folsom (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Folsom, Jack. “Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath's ‘Berck-Plage.’” Journal of Modern Literature 17, no. 4 (Spring, 1991): 521-35.

[In the following essay, Folsom examines the personal and professional significance of Plath's poem “Berck-Plage.”]

Sylvia Plath's “Berck-Plage,” which contains 126 lines of seemingly unmitigated malaise and funereal gloom, stands in many readers' estimation as one of her heaviest and least appealing works, even considering its autobiographical significance. The occasion for the poem is described by Ted Hughes in a note to the poem written in 1970:

In June, 1961, we had visited...

(The entire section is 6006 words.)

Timothy Materer (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Materer, Timothy. “Occultism as Source and Symptom in Sylvia Plath's ‘Dialogue Over a Ouija Board.’” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 2 (Summer, 1991): 131-47.

[In the following essay, Materer analyzes the Freudian implications of occultism in Plath's poetry.]

“O Oedipus. O Christ. You use me ill,” are the concluding lines of Sylvia Plath's “The Ravaged Face” (116).1 In this poem, Plath uses a major trope of modern writers, the wholesale rejection of the past, represented here by two symbolic figures from the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions. The historical discontinuity of the modern age with the past is familiar in many...

(The entire section is 7032 words.)

Jahan Ramazani (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ramazani, Jahan. “‘Daddy, I Have had to Kill You:’ Plath, Rage, and the Modern Elegy.” PMLA 108, no. 5 (October, 1993): 1142-56.

[In the following essay, Ramazani argues that Plath's poems expressing grief fit the criteria of modern elegy and that Plath expanded the genre by adding a tone of abiding anger.]

“How they grip us through thin and thick, / These barnacle dead!” Plath wryly observes in “All the Dead Dears” (Poems 70). More than all the other dead dears, Plath's father grips her through poem after poem. Dead when Plath was eight, he became the “buried male muse” of her work (Journals 223). She explicitly evokes his...

(The entire section is 10286 words.)

Antony Easthope (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Easthope, Anthony. “Reading the Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” English 43, no. 177 (Fall, 1994): 223-35.

[In the following essay, Easthope discusses Plath's place in poetic tradition, particularly as it pertains to Romantic poetry.]

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relation … Beginning in the sixteenth century, this rite gradually detached itself from the sacrament of penance, and via the guidance of souls and the direction of conscience—the ars artium—emigrated toward pedagogy, relationships between adults and...

(The entire section is 4824 words.)

Jacqueline Shea Murphy (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Murphy, Jacqueline Shea. “‘This Holocaust I Walk In:’ Consuming Violence in Sylvia Plath's Poetry.” Bucknell Review 39, no. 1 (1995): 104-17.

[In the following essay, Murphy attempts to locate sources for the imagery of violence and destruction in Plath's poetry.]

Bodies melt, voices shriek; hooks pierce; human flesh is chopped, like meat, wrapped and unwrapped. People eat and get eaten:

My night sweats grease his breakfast plate
.....My ribs show. What have I eaten?

(“The Jailer,” 185)1

People wait to be eaten:

I am red meat. His beak
Claps sidewise: I am not his yet....

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Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita. “Dramatizations of ‘Visionary Events’ in Sylvia Plath's Poetry.” Studia Neophilologica 68, no. 2 (1996): 205-15.

[In the following essay, Lindberg-Seyersted considers Plath's concerns with clairvoyance and occultism in her life and poetry.]

Ted Hughes writes of Sylvia Plath: “The world of her poetry is one of emblematic visionary events, mathematical symmetries, clairvoyance and metamorphoses. Her poetry escapes ordinary analysis in the way clairvoyance and mediumship do: her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them.”1 Sylvia Plath herself testified to...

(The entire section is 6365 words.)

Marilyn Manners (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Manners, Marilyn, “The Doxies of Daughterhood: Plath, Cixous, and The Father.” Comparative Literature 48, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 150-71.

[In the following essay, Manners examines similarities regarding images of paternity in the works of Plath and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous.]

As early as 1982 (English translation, 1984) Josette Féral called for comparative investigation of writers such as Sylvia Plath and Hélène Cixous, but until very recently, neither writer has been consistently and seriously considered as a literary figure (in the United States at any rate). Plath criticism, as Jacqueline Rose has exhaustively demonstrated, is so heavily...

(The entire section is 9305 words.)

Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita. “‘Bad’ Language Can Be Good: Slang and Other Expressions of Extreme Informality in Sylvia Plath's Poetry.” English Studies 78, no. 1 (January, 1997): 19-31.

[In the following essay, Lindberg-Seyersted traces instances of slang in Plath's poetry.]

I

In a great number of Sylvia Plath's poems, the reader is invited to listen to a voice talking. Usually those poems feature an I-person, identifiable or not as to gender and situation in life. But even when there is no first-person speaker, a poem can be perceived as ‘speech’ rather than ‘text’. Such speech-like quality applies pre-eminently to...

(The entire section is 6902 words.)

Lynda K. Bundtzen (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Bundtzen, Lynda K. “Poetic Arson and Sylvia Plath's ‘Burning the Letters.’” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 3 (Fall, 1998): 434-51.

[In the following essay, Bundtzen examines “Burning the Letters” for its clues to the nature of Plath and Hughes's relationship.]

Only they have nothing to say to anybody.
I have seen to that.

—Sylvia Plath, “Burning the Letters”

What was in those manuscripts, the one destroyed like a Jew in Nazi Germany, the other lost like a desaparecido?

—Steven Gould Axelrod, “The Second Destruction of Sylvia Plath”

...

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Jerrianne Schultz (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Schultz, Jerrianne. “Perfection and Reproduction: Mutually Exclusive Expectations for Women in Sylvia Plath's ‘Edge.’” English Language Notes 37, no. 2 (December, 1999): 68-75.

[In the following essay, Schultz finds allusions to mythological images of motherhood and womanhood in “Edge.”]

As the last poem Sylvia Plath ever wrote, “Edge” is tempting to read as her final decision to commit suicide, especially with lines like, “We have come so far, it is over.”1 But a close analysis reveals that the poem contains subtle, carefully constructed prosodic effects. Such poetic finesse would be difficult to affect from a stupor of suicidal...

(The entire section is 2639 words.)