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 of modern psychological stress, they must be read with all the intelligence and scruple we can muster. They are too honest, they have cost too much, to be yielded to myth.
One of the most striking poems in The Colossus, 'All the Dead Dears', tells of a skeleton in the Cambridge museum of classical antiquities…. The motifs touched on are those which organize much of Sylvia Plath's poetry: the generation of women knit by blood and death, the dead reaching out to haul the living into their shadowy vortex, the personage of the father somehow sinister and ineffectual, the poet literally bled and whistled clean by the cruel, intricate quality of felt life. (pp. 211-12)
[A] penchant for the Gothic effect seems to me to weaken much of Sylvia Plath's earlier verse, and it extends into her mature work. She used Gothicism in a particular way, making the formal terrors an equivalent to genuine and complex shocks of feeling, but the modish element is undeniable. Her resources were, however, more diverse. Possessed of a rare intensity and particularity of nervous response—the 'disquieting muses' had stood at the left side of her crib 'with heads like darning-eggs'—Sylvia Plath tested different symbolic means, different modes of concretion, with which to articulate what rang so queer and clear inside her. It is almost silly to argue 'influences' when dealing with a young poet of this honesty and originality. But one can locate the impulses that helped her find her own voice. Wallace Stevens for one…. Or Emily Dickinson, whose authority gives a poem like 'Spinster' its spiky charm…. The tactile, neutral precision of D. H. Lawrence's observations of animal and vegetable is recognizable in 'Medallion' and 'Blue Moles'. These poets, together with Andrew Marvell and the Jacobean dramatists, seem to have meant a lot. But the final poem in The Colossus, a seven-part garland 'For a Birthday', is...
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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 plate', a pretty place, but Sylvia Plath was more at home when she sensed behind nature its naked inhospitality to man.
Wind and sea were only the more natural of the forces she detected waiting to batter or supplant the human race, or patiently take over when it was gone. In 'Ouija', there is an eerie evocation of 'those unborn, those undone' as they crowd into the seance room, drawn to the living by envy…. (p. 205)
In 'Mushrooms', the quality of menace is even more chillingly detected, in the sinister, almost cancerous proliferation of fungus. This macabrely ironic vision of a form of life infinitely lower than man, simply waiting in endless patience to 'Inherit the earth', has the vividness of science fiction at its best, without being in the least sensational. (The associations which the word 'mushroom' have for us since Hiroshima may enhance the effectiveness, which is not, however, dependent upon them.) In 'Sculptor', by a further surprising stroke, the forms the sculptor is about to create are felt...
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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 few writers and critics had taken notice of them in discussing her career. It was as if, with Ariel, one had all one needed to reach some proper estimation of the poet…. We see clearly now that Ariel was by no means enough, that we wanted some assurance of substantiality and permanence in our impression of such poems as "Tulips," "Lady Lazarus," and "Daddy." Already too many of us had come to think of these poems we have so often read aloud and heard recited to us as instances in some peculiar event we had lived through and wondered over, but which seemed more and more remote from conventional poetic experience. In part, of course, it is the propensity of our youth and literary cultures to convert disturbed people into heroes that was responsible, but the Ariel poems themselves had no small hand in encouraging us to think of them as extraordinary primal events without antecedent or analogue. Crossing The Water may be discussed less feverishly, and one does not hesitate to describe it as a book with a number of great poems, a number of less ambitious but beautifully realized poems, and several immature pieces each of which calls to mind a particular poetic voice imperfectly assimilated.
One need only be familiar with the work of a few poets to speak of Plath's failures in Crossing The Water. In poems like "Who," "Dark House," "Maenad," and "The Beast," the hand of Roethke is unmistakably heavy on the page. To read [such] lines in a Plath poem is to have our attention forcibly turned from the intrinsic relations among the poem's constituent elements to a mode of comparison that has little to do with Plath, but a great deal to do with Roethke's compelling ingenuity and uniqueness…. (pp. 96-7)
The presence of Stevens is ordinarily less obvious in Plath, whether one examines The Colossus or the present volume, but how startling it is to come upon … a poem called "Black Rook In Rainy Weather."…
It is as though Plath had sat down to write the poem fresh from an intensely involving session with "Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird" and a few shorter lyrics in the Opus Posthumous, such as "The Course Of A Particular." Again, one draws attention to these things not to score points on Sylvia Plath but to suggest emphatically how thorough was her absorption in the poetry of her time and how difficultly she forged what is by all accounts an original voice. In her memorable work one hears that voice practically alone—nothing alien clings to it, nothing interferes with its inwardness and that special resonance which is the imprint of a driven and strangely passionate sensibility. (p. 98)
So fine are the best poems [in Crossing The Water] that they cannot fail to impress a trained reader with their distinctive authority and linguistic abundance…. In these poems the Sylvia Plath whom we have learned to speak of as a case, a clinical item in a running catalogue of the century's abuses, has transformed her character into a fate, an emblem of the singular personality gorgeously projecting itself into a universe of alien things allowed their otherness. Though the project of Ariel involved an insistent appropriation and evisceration of this otherness, this peculiar thinginess in the object and human universe through which the poet moved like a devouring angel, the project of the major poems in Crossing The Water falls short of so encompassing an enterprise. What we so admire in the present volume is the formal verbal...
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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.
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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...
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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...
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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...
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