Plath, Sylvia (Poetry Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Colossus 1960
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
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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.]
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, easy verse, ornate where necessary.”1 In addition to her fine handling of language, Plath was praised for humor, cleverness, and exuberance: “Sylvia Plath writes clever, vivacious poetry which will be enjoyed most by intelligent people capable of having fun with poetry and not just being holy about it.”2 Even the most grotesque of The Colossus poems prompted another critic to say that “she writes a plump and stumping line that jolts with imagination and clarity … she likes life—oh, rare response!”3 Finally, in a 1962 review of The Colossus, E. Lucas Myers almost prophetically suggested that “the poems should be criticized as they are, not as the critics think they might have been....
(The entire section is 13584 words.)
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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 Anthony Hecht, gave way with surprising rapidity to one of unrestrained, exceedingly personal free verse, often about extreme emotional states, by such poets as John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. So revolutionary did these effusions seem at the time that the critic M. L. Rosenthal found it necessary, in a review of Lowell's 1959 volume Life Studies, to coin a new name for them: confessional poetry. To be sure, although the confessionalists tended to be more explicit about their divorces, orgasms, and such than poets of earlier generations, there was nothing fundamentally new about verse that took the poet's private life and feelings for its material; accordingly, though Rosenthal's term gained widespread currency, there...
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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 Berck-Plage, a long beach and resort on the coast of France north of Rouen. Some sort of hospital or convalescent home for the disabled fronts the beach. It was one of her nightmares stepped into the real world. A year later—almost to the day—our next door neighbour, an old man [Percy Key] died after a short grim illness during which time his wife repeatedly needed our help. In this poem that visit to the beach and the death and funeral of our neighbour are combined.1
In a notebook entry later published as “Rose and Percy B” in the Johnny Panic collection, Sylvia Plath recorded her own feelings several days after the funeral, which took place on June 29, 1962: “I have written a long...
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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 modernist writers, as in Yeats's prediction of a violent conclusion to the 2000-year cycle of Christianity and Eliot's less violent but still destructive “dissociation of sensibility.” But the closest we can come to Plath's sense of this discontinuity is probably Ted Hughes's statement about contemporary writers who have gone beyond the modernist “state of belonging spiritually to the last phase of Christian civilization.” The world of these contemporary writers is “a continuation or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world … it is the world of the little pagan religions and cults, the primitive religions from which of course Christianity itself grew.”2 Plath shares with Hughes an attempt to find a new ground for...
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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 death in her novel, journals, and stories and in various poems, but perhaps the finest works elicited by his loss are the elegies Plath wrote between 1958 and 1962: “Full Fathom Five,” “Electra on Azalea Path,” “The Colossus,” “Little Fugue,” and “Daddy.” With these works, Plath made a major contribution to the development of the modern elegy, even though they have more often been read as examples of “confessional,” “extremist,” “lyric,” “American,” or “domestic” poetry than as poems of mourning. To reinterpret them as elegies is not to restrict them to a new classificatory cage but to ask pragmatically what aspects of their psychopoetic character this context reveals. If one defines the elegy as...
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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 children, family relations, medicine, and psychiatry.
—Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
Sylvia Plath wrote in a number of forms, including novels, but her main reputation comes from her work as a poet. It is her poetry, then, which calls for attention and assessment. In this short essay I shall try to make explicit the point of view from which I would approach Plath's poetry, one that accords special attention to the operation of the signifier, to the formal properties of poetry, and the place of her poetry (with one poem as a particular example) within the developing and uneven tradition of twentieth-century poetry in English. And that itself is defined partly by its...
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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.
(“Death & Co.,” 205)
Mothers beg for their babies to be saved from becoming food for others' cravings:
And my baby a nail Driven, driven in. He shrieks in his grease
O You who eat
People like light rays, leave This one Mirror safe, unredeemed. …
But these mothers plea in vain to exempt their children from the violent oppression of the world:
It is a heart, This holocaust I walk in, O golden child the world will kill and eat.
(“Mary's Song,” 208)
Images of tortured, cut-up, oppressed, and consumed bodies can be heard echoing throughout the poetry...
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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 having had experiences that could not be given a rational, materialistic explanation. Visiting Yeats's Tower at Ballylee in Ireland in September 1962 she “had the uncanny feeling [she] had got in touch with Yeats' spirit,” she wrote.2 Once in January 1956, on a visit to Vence in southern France, she had, as she noted in her journal, a “mystic vision” of dying and coming to new life through the power of love.3 She also had an intense experience of the Matisse Chapel, an event she described on a postcard sent to her mother on January 7, 1956 (LH 203-05). She had a vision of beauty, a beauty that had an aura of the sacred about it, especially since a kindly Mother Superior, in an act of particular...
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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 invested in bitterly opposed biographical readings that the complexities of language, sexuality, history, and fantasy in Plath's texts have too often been ignored.1 Cixous, on the other hand, has received attention primarily as a “French feminist” and theorist—even as a literary critic—rather than as a novelist and dramatist. Moreover, detailed analysis of her feminist theory has often been lacking in debates over her reputed essentialism. This situation too has begun to change recently with the publication of a number of texts examining a more inclusive range of Cixous's work (Morag Shiach, Lee Jacobus and Regina Barreca, and Françoise van Rossum-Guyon and Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz).
Féral based her...
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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.]
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 Plath's later work, above all to poems written in 1962, her peak period as a literary artist. The poetry she wrote as a newly established professional poet, from 1956 and on for a couple of years, is mostly characterized by a highly ‘literary’ style with a complex syntax; a dignified, often archaizing diction parading words like ‘hest’ (for ‘order’) and ‘bruit’ (for ‘noise’); and settings that are not seldom vaguely medieval or fairytale-like with a cast of knights and giants, queens and witches.1 Gradually she moved in the direction of a more ‘natural’ mode shaped by settings and characters that are more recognizably contemporary, and by a less convoluted language where the spoken voice comes through...
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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”
Sticks and stones may break your bones, But words can never harm you.
In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes confessed to destroying one of Sylvia Plath's “maroon-backed ledgers” and losing another. They “continued the record from late '59 to within three days of her death. The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). The other disappeared” (xiii). As Steven Gould Axelrod's comparison of Plath's missing journals to a Jewish victim of the Holocaust shows, many critics regard Hughes as committing an act of desecration worse than...
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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 emotion. Rather, the touches rendered to this poem encourage an intellectual, rather than purely emotional response. Such an intellectual approach to “Edge” reveals that this is a poem about contradictory expectations, about how two contrasting emotions can occupy the same space at the same time, how two contradictory drives can be pulling at a woman from opposite ends. Women are expected to be perfect sexual objects, but they are biologically designed to create life, give birth, nurture. Bearing children, however, wears the body down, destroys its perfection. These mutually exclusive expectations drive women to violent, desperate acts. Women are pushed to try to achieve perfection, but perfection denies what women are really about....
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Hargrove, Nancy D. “The Chronology of Sylvia Plath's Poems: 1956-1959.” Studies in Bibliography 45 (1992): 266-92.
Chronological bibliography of Plath's early poems, with supporting commentary from Plath's journals.
Meyering, Sheryl L. Sylvia Plath: A Reference Guide, 1973-1988. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1990, 203 pp.
Guide to Plath criticism and primary sources from 1973 to 1988.
Tabor, Stephen. Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Publishing Corporation, 1987, 268 pp.
Bibliography of Plath's primary works, focusing on monograph publications and Plath's contribution to periodicals.
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991, 402 pp.
Biography of Plath; Alexander notes in his preface that Ted Hughes did not wish to participate in the publication of any biographical material on Plath.
Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 257 pp.
Discusses events of Plath's life as they appear in her poetry.
Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London:...
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