Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 11)
Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. A leading member of the confessional school of poetry, Plath explores in her verse the horror and chaos that lurk beneath the appearance of sanity. Her violent, despairing poetic vision is presented in verse distinguished by technical control and brilliant imagery. Plath also published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
It is fair to say that no group of poems since Dylan Thomas's Deaths and Entrances has had as vivid and disturbing an impact on English critics and readers as has Ariel. Sylvia Plath's last poems have already passed into legend as both representative of our present tone of emotional life and unique in their implacable, harsh brilliance. Those among the young who read new poetry will know 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', and 'Death & Co.' almost by heart, and reference to Sylvia Plath is constant where poetry and the conditions of its present existence are discussed. (p. 211)
To those who knew her and to the greatly enlarged circle who were electrified by her last poems and sudden death, she had come to signify the specific honesties and risks of the poet's condition. Her personal style, and the price in private harrowing she so obviously paid to achieve the intensity and candour of her principal poems, have taken on their own dramatic authority.
All this makes it difficult to judge the poems. I mean that the vehemence and intimacy of the verse is such as to constitute a very powerful rhetoric of sincerity. The poems play on our nerves with their own proud nakedness, making claims so immediate and sharply urged that the reader flinches, embarrassed by the routine discretions and evasions of his own sensibility. Yet if these poems are to take life among us, if they are to be more than exhibits in the history...
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A. E. Dyson
One immediately felt [reading The Colossus] a highly distinctive new voice, and sensibility—something cool, refreshing, healing, like the personality of the poet herself; but something darker, too, at the heart. The title poem is significantly named; a sense of the huge and continuing dominated her sensibility. But the grandeur of nature oppressed, as well as fascinated her: apprehensions of lurking menace, more likely to test endurance than joy, are seldom absent. In 'Hardcastle Crags', the young woman who walks at night through a bleak landscape is offered nothing, unless it be the satisfaction of pitting flesh and blood against the iron of the universe itself…. (p. 204)
In battling with the encroachments of rock, wind, the sea which is 'brutal endlessly', a temporary, almost humdrum heroism may be earned, as poems like 'Point Shirley' and 'The Hermit at Outermost House' suggest; but nature outlasts man, and wins again in the end….
When Sylvia Plath encountered a landscape that had been tamed and reduced by man, she responded as to a type of trifling. Walking in Grantchester Meadows, since Rupert Brooke the very Touchstone of English nostalgia, she notes that 'Nothing is big or far'. The birds are 'thumb-size', the cygnets 'tame', the Granta 'bland', the water rats 'droll'. Even the students, lost in a 'moony indolence of love', are unmenaced, and therefore somewhat unreal. 'It is a country on a nursery...
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Crossing The Water is an extraordinary book, not promising merely nor dazzling as one might have expected of a poet who was later to write the poems in Ariel, but perfectly satisfying in the way that only major poetry can be. That her achievement here may be spoken of in terms more orthodox than one could legitimately apply to Ariel is but one of the facts the promoters of the legend will have to deal with—how distressing it must be, for some of them at least, to confront a Plath largely in control even of her most terrible associations, and deliberately fashioning a voice by working through the poetry of Stevens, Frost, Lowell, Roethke, and others. The figure of the demon-lady with red hair eating men, and everything else, "like air," is considerably attenuated in the perspective of this new volume. Though one was always grateful for the dozen or so magnificent poems in Ariel, one may now be grateful that they can be read in a broader perspective wherein we shall more resolutely attend to the poems themselves rather than to the figure of the poet haunting the margins.
The items included in Crossing The Water were written, or so at least the dust-jacket of the volume informs us, "in the period between the publication of The Colossus (1960) and the posthumous book Ariel (published in England in 1965)." A number had appeared in periodicals before the poet took her life in 1963, but very...
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[I think] that the so called "religious" motifs of [Plath's] "Mystic" have nothing to do with religion or religious spirituality or the supernatural as commonly conceived, but rather with the only variety of religious experience she knew and perhaps believed she ever would know: the "mystical union" of her "great love" and the creative mania that seized her up in the wake of its rupture and left her with a sense of something worse than "total neutrality," a sense of utter annihilation.
This is a case without a body.
The body does not come into it at all.
It is a case of vaporization.
—as "The Detective" wittily puts it. Clearly, the only gods Plath worshipped were poetry and her husband, and from the moment she fell in love we see that husband and poetry were one. (pp. 239-40)
A word about the "religious" motif in "Medusa" as compared with that in "Mystic." The two are quite different poems, of course, but it seems to me that the "remedies" interrogated in the later poem suggest a connection. The "Communion wafer" of "Medusa" had also appeared as "Communion tablet" in "Tulips," where it was associated with a kind of death that was not unwelcome. The religious allusions in both "Medusa" and "Mystic," however, evoke something repellent, something dreaded,...
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This selection [Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams], made by Ted Hughes, of Sylvia Plath's miscellaneous prose—published stories, articles, a few passages from the notebook-journals—is probably the best that can at present be done to pad out the record….
[The] notes from Cambridge (1956) are the most remote, not just in time. They reek of closet-theatre, and are full of self-disliking yet somehow cosy parentheses—"as I have so often boasted cleverly", "see, how dangerous", "always patching masks". She sounds bored with the gothic contents of her consciousness; the motifs are all there (Lazarus, the cold moon, father/lovers, birth-damaged babies, stillborn poems) but devoid of passion or even interest, as though she had grown weary of rehearsing them. It was perhaps a defensive pose; however, it seems to have stuck, and obviously had to be unstuck—"My God, I would love to cook and make a house, and surge force into a man's dreams, and write"—before these gruesome relics could work their miracles in the later poems….
More interesting, if less paraphrasable, are the pieces from 1961–62 which record some of the events that went into "The Bee Meeting" and "Berck Plage". The tone is very different, though how far it's representative is impossible to tell. It would be cheering to think that it was since these were professional notes, ready-tailored to be used for poetry, shorn of self-analysis. She...
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[Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams] is only of interest if discussing why Sylvia Plath should ever have wanted to write prose—so inferior (The Bell Jar included) is it to her verse—thus this publication must have a purely technical fascination, for even Plath addicts cannot have grown so indiscriminate as to swallow these writings whole….
She thought that fiction, by obliging a writer to create outside himself, would train her to objectivity, and yet in all but a very few of these stories does she not write of death, the dying or the dead. In prose her death obsession never shakes off an adolescent curiosity and yearning, and in one story, 'The Daughters of Blossom Street', she hints at a suspiciously unattractive asset to an early death. Young Billy takes a fatal header while running up and down unlit stone stairs, and Plath puts into a character's mouth, 'I think that boy's a lucky boy. For once in his life he's got sense. For once in his life, I think that boy's going to be a hero'. Later she reflects that Dotty was quite right to think that, as posthumous fame is heaped on the boy through dying young. This is unattractive in the light of Sylvia Plath's own death by suicide at thirty, and the fame that has grown from it and surrounded her since.
But, in fairness, she did do her best to exorcise her demons by writing stories and a part of her was quite serious when she said that her aim was to...
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"Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" is a minor work by a major writer…. [It will interest] any reader sympathetic enough to Plath's work to have read most of it already and to be interested in foreshadowings, cross-references, influences and insights…. [It's a prose catch-all] and as such it ought to round out one's knowledge of the writer and, perhaps, offer some surprises. Luckily it does both….
It was a shock akin to seeing the Queen in a bikini to learn that Sylvia Plath, an incandescent poet of drastic seriousness, had two burning ambitions: to be a highly paid travel journalist and to be a widely published writer of magazine fiction…. To this end she slogged away in the utmost self-doubt and agony, composing more than 70 stories, most of which were never published, and filling notebooks with the details of what she thought of as real life: styles of clothing and interior decoration, mannerisms of acquaintances, sketches of the physical world that she believed she had no talent for observing. (Poetry she considered a mere escape, a self-indulgence, an indulgence in self, and as such unreal, because she was not totally convinced of her own worth or even of her own existence.)
It's easy to sneer at such ambitions, and the editor [Ted Hughes] does not altogether resist the temptation, though his disapproval is gentle and underlined by a statement of crushing validity: Sylvia Plath's genuine medium was...
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