Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 17)
Sylvia Plath 1932–1963
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet and novelist.
Plath's poetry gives a vision of life as enhanced by death. The blinding intensity of the poems written during the last months of her life and the circumstances of her death lend themselves to psychological interpretations to such an extent that it is now difficult for many critics to separate her work from her life. There seems to be little doubt that Plath was driven to be successful at whatever she did. After a phenomenally productive career at Smith College, interrupted for a year because of her mental collapse and nearly accomplished suicide, she won a Fulbright Fellowship to study English literature at Cambridge. In England she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children. She seemed to be able to fulfill the demanding and often conflicting roles of mother and wife, poet and critic very well, but seven years after her marriage she committed suicide.
Though literary magazines had been printing Plath's poetry for several years, at the time of her death she had published only one collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems, and her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. As it was a bitterly direct commentary on the life she had almost ended earlier, she published it only in England, and under a pseudonym, hoping thereby to avoid hurting her mother. The initial response to these works was favorable, despite some critics' reservations about the resemblance of her poetic style to that of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke, among others. Her reputation today rests mainly on the posthumous volumes selected by her husband, Ariel, Winter Trees, and Crossing the Water.
Critical opinion differs on the degree to which these later poems follow from her early work. Most of the poems in The Colossus were written in a carefully structured form, using scholarly language in creating elaborately detailed metaphors. In comparison, the last "blood jet" of poetry she wrote broke out of established forms and diction and employed distinctively colloquial phrasing. Her imagery remained precise, but seemed to develop itself more freely than before. This general relaxation served in the opinion of many critics to release a certain passion that made her poetry, always concerned with such themes as the ephemerality of life, its inevitable destruction, and the beauty and timelessness of the natural cycle, even more effective and powerful.
Plath's best-known poem, "Daddy," tells in a disquietingly singsong rhythm the story of a daughter's fury at the "fascist brute" who is her father. The personal tone of such poems as this and their apparent derivation from her own life have led some critics to classify Plath as one of the "Confessional Poets" along with Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Others claim her as a precursor of more recent feminist writers. Certainly some of her poems and, more openly, her novel show an awareness of the complicated distribution of power between men and women. Her poetry seems also to reveal a concern with making the feminine role compatible with the demands of art. Lines such as "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children," from "The Munich Mannequins," would seem in context to indicate that she does value women's unique capacity for childbirth. Above all Plath is refreshing in her insistence in the subjectivity of her female protagonists. As Esther Greenwood, the heroine of The Bell Jar, announces, "The last thing I wanted was … to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted … to shoot off in all directions myself…." Although there may be much to learn about the pressures endured by women artists by studying Plath's life, many commentators hope that the fascination exerted by her death will not eclipse her poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 14, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
It is difficult not to think of Ted Hughes (I mean, of course, some of his poems) when reading such an admirable invocation of exuberant, unparagraphed vitality as Sylvia Plath's 'Sow'…. Not that her work is in any sense derivative, but that these two poets often share the same vision. One might criticise the rather baffling obliqueness of some of Miss Plath's work, and the fact that her imagery tends to get out of hand, so that the poem becomes not a single experience but a series of intriguing 'literary gems'. But these are worthy faults, and [The Colossus and Other Poems] is distinguished for its fine handling of language and vitality of observation.
Thomas Blackburn, "Poetic Knowledge: 'The Colossus and Other Poems'," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 1551, December 3, 1960, p. 1016.
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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. Miss Plath writes from phrase to phrase as well as with an eye on the larger architecture of the poem; each line, each sentence, is put together with a good deal of care for the springy rhythm, the arresting image and—most of all, perhaps—the unusual word. This policy ought to produce quaint, over-gnarled writing, but in fact Miss Plath has a firm enough touch to keep clear of these faults. Here and there one finds traces of 'influences' not yet completely assimilated … but, after all, [The Colossus] is a first book, and the surprising thing is how successful Miss Plath has already been in finding an individual manner.
John Wain, "Farewell to the World," in The Spectator (© 1961 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 6916, January 13, 1961, p. 50.
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[The poems of The Colossus show that] Miss Plath has some of the excusable faults of youth: the attempt to blow up the tiniest personal experience into an event of vast, universal and, preferably, mythic importance; intoxication with the rare word which she displays with nouveau riche ostentation; and obsessive fiddling with certain forms and devices, e.g., terza rima. But with time—the deepening of perception and strengthening of control—these temporary improprieties can become the proper pursuits of poetry: holding nature's immensities in the poem's pocket mirror; redeeming the language; and letting the parallel rails of form lead on to a meeting point in, and with, infinity. When Miss Plath resists pretentiousness, she achieves glistening, evocative poems….
John Simon, "More Brass than Enduring" (originally published in The Hudson Review, Vol. VX, No. 3, Autumn, 1962), in his Acid Test (copyright © 1963 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day, Publishers), Stein and Day, 1963, pp. 236-52.∗
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[The Bell Jar] is a clever first novel, and the first feminine novel I've read in the Salinger mood…. [Esther] is very sharp indeed with the world—certainly one can't see the New York and Boston she describes offering her any support or satisfying any possible human need. But her sharpness is expressed in such an inner-directed way that on the rare occasions her thoughts get out and touch the world at all they do so only at a tangent: 'If there's anything I look down on, it's a man in a blue outfit. Black or grey, or brown even. Blue just makes me laugh.' This, I suspect, is meant as a point in her favour, and so is her whole breakdown. Despite the asylums and the shock treatment, she goes mad in a rather undisturbing way, partly because she writes about it with such bright assurance, partly because it's seen much less as a failure in herself than as a judgment on the world. But this is about as tangential a way of making a judgment as the remark about blue outfits, and rather more unfair. It recalls how Esther jumps to conclusions on inadequate evidence even when she's quite sane…. (p. 128)
Robert Taubman, "Anti-heroes," in New Statesman (© 1963 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXV, No. 1663, January 25, 1963, pp. 127-28.∗
Few writers are able to create a different world for you to live in; yet Miss Lucas in The Bell Jar...
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There are several bad reasons for admiring [Ariel], and they are intricately involved with the good ones. The poems conform exactly to a stereotyped contemporary idea: that poems should be a strenuous exploration of suffering, the more painful the better…. Above all they are full of images, terribly direct and sinister, of blood, an inhuman sap pulsing through people's bodies, driving them on to more and more painful living, or seeping out of them like sawdust to bring the pain to an end.
The personal tragedy behind them entirely confirms the 'sincerity' of these preoccupations—we are dealing neither with affectation nor coincidence—but doesn't make them any easier to discuss. (p. 687)
Some neutral qualities are easy to observe. Sometimes the imagery, especially of children born and unborn, is straightforwardly enlivening, energetic and pleasurable…. One can also admire the authoritative use of free verse: what at first seems slack and random (many of these poems were written at great speed) takes on a hard clarity as rereading shows up the care with which the lines have been wrought and balanced, or the plain economy which demands just those words and no others. (pp. 687-88)
But most of these are unmistakably horror poems, which call up all the contrasting dishonesties of squeamishness and bravado in any but the most self-confident reader…. She made something out of this horror;...
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[Plath's early poems] seemed to have no absolute necessity for being: they read like advanced exercises. She wrote a lot of prose as well, including a novel, but none that I have read seemed to me much out of the ordinary. Sylvia Plath's talent, though intensely cultivated, did not bloom into genius until the last months of her life, when, if we may take the internal evidence of the poems in Ariel … as our guide, she stood at the edge of the abyss of existence and looked, steadily, courageously, with holy curiosity, to the very bottom. (p. 76)
Every artist, and almost everyone else, at one time or another fetches up against the stark facts of life and death…. The greatest writers have been able to record these terrible moments against the larger canvas of ordinary life, adjusting the threatened catastrophes of death and destruction among related and contrasting themes of life and hope and renewal. It has become fashionable—or if not fashionable, at least common—for poets to set down their autobiographical crises, first person and second person and all, as a qualifying confession to admit them to the fraternity—a kind of professional good-conduct pass. All the difference in the world, however, lies between such antics, performed always with an audience in mind, whether explicitly in the poem or implicitly in its tone, and, on the other hand, [some] terrifying lines … from several of the poems in Ariel. No...
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If, as Robert Frost pointed out, the purpose of any poem is to be different from every other poem, Ariel fails. We read the same poem over and over. The same techniques recur. Subjects are not really examined, explored, reviewed. They become opportunities for the personality to impose itself; they are reviled, distorted, made terrifying. People turn into things; things turn into monsters. After a while one knows exactly how the poet will respond…. Without surprise, poems become dull. The intensity of emotion out of which Ariel undoubtedly grew loses its force for the reader.
Ariel must be the dead-end of romanticism. It represents a kind of sentimentality—not the "Truth is a velvet doe with large and dewy eyes" variety, but the "Truth is a malevolent fungus stalking us like a nightmare" kind. Each poem insists life is not worth it, thereby indicting poetry, too. Ariel asks us to feel emotions based on a delirium we do not share. It is best viewed as a case study. Sylvia Plath had, to be sure, a way with language and rhythm; but unless experiencing the identity created in these poems vivifies the lives of readers there is little reason for them.
Dan Jaffe, "An All-American Muse," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 42, October 15, 1966, p. 29....
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[In the poems of Ariel], Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another "poetess," but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines. This character is feminine, rather than female, though almost everything we customarily think of as feminine is turned on its head. The voice is now coolly amused, witty, now sour, now fanciful, girlish, charming, now sinking to the strident rasp of the vampire—a Dido, Phaedra, or Medea, who can laugh at herself as "cow-heavy and floral in my Victorian nightgown." Though lines get repeated, and sometimes the plot is lost, language never dies in her mouth.
Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of a fever…. The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare's lovely, though slightly chilling and androgenous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author's horse. Dangerous, more powerful than man, machinelike from hard training, she herself is a little like a racehorse, galloping relentlessly with risked, outstretched neck, death hurdle after death hurdle topped. She cries out for that rapid life of starting pistols, snapping tapes, and new world records broken. What is most heroic in her, though, is not her force, but the desperate practicality of her control, her hand of...
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William F. Claire
[Sylvia Plath's] last poems hit the reader with all the passion and pathos of a mind simultaneously fused with love and hate. They are often glorious, mostly sick, unbelievably irritating. They are the like of which have not been seen before, exclusively and tragically her final epitaphs. (p. 552)
Grief, a crazy, jig-saw humor, and destructive undertones comprise the basis of the poetry published since her first volume—though some of the features were apparently from the beginning. But the cadences of "Daddy" keep coming back, like dirge songs that are sung at the funeral of everyone…. (p. 556)
A rare random descent was to strike Sylvia Plath often in poems that were fastidious in their choice of words, perceptive in their handling of metaphor and simile. The wonder of it all was her ability to keep imagery working for the poem and not against it. Her poems resist line extractions, build steadily, word by word, image by image. (pp. 556-57)
Her poetry finally transcended the restrictions of overemphasis on place, as she took on the terrifying human condition that places her solidly in the modern classic tradition of writers like Albert Camus and Robert Lowell. It is powerful company for a young woman poet. Only such American writers as John Berryman in certain of his "Dream Songs" and the late Theodore Roethke were able—in their separate ways—to match the intensity of her explorations. Her...
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Eleanor Ross Taylor
There is a pervasive impatience, a positive urgency to the poems [in Ariel]…. This makes for speed and excitement as you read, but on subsequent readings of many you wish there had been time for distilling and perfecting….
The staging throughout—the one-word questions, exclamations, excesses, three-word repetitions, and determined emphasis on woman's special experience—are self-consciously womanly, yet there is a curious underlying rejection of being a woman. In spite of the poems' ostensible candor and display of all innards … there is a preoccupation with blood and bleeding…. There is a straining towards purity and virginity…. (p. 260)
These are poems bursting with self, and, unlike the comparative classicism of her first book, highly romantic in their lack of reserve, in their adoration of the suffering, the wounds, the ignominy. Tulips is the raw psychological stuff of poetry, touching, but not yet fashioned into a work of art. The same must be said of Death and Co., Lesbos, and Daddy. The last, in fact, has much in common with that period piece Rock Me To Sleep, though the reverse in statement. Lesbos has the tone of certain [T. S.] Eliot poems, but exists on one level only. Except for the line "I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair" it is like pure case history. Missing, too, in spite of a flair for the erudite word and classical allusion,...
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Reading The Colossus and Ariel … on the assumption, perhaps perverse but useful for analysis, that the poetry has nothing to do with the suicide and must be approached like other poetry as a tissue of language, there remains the startling phenomenon of a poet finding her own voice in the space of a very few years, through an almost complete reversal of stylistic direction…. I want to suggest, first, that the poetic strength of Ariel lies in its fusion of personal voice with national voice in an Americanism which takes the form of strict—or strident—insistence on immediate factual reality; and second, that this strength, mostly missing in The Colossus, is achieved in Ariel by means of a poetic technique, again essentially American, which consists in taking poetic risks. (p. 202)
The difference between The Colossus and Ariel lies in the poet's advancing will and ability to do it, technically, so it feels real, without veils…. It is not a question of themes, which are implicitly as brutal in The Colossus as in Ariel. Indeed, several of the poems in Ariel are precisely re-visions of poems in The Colossus. Rather, an astonishing change occurs in the typical occasions employed, the diction, and the form of the poems. One could summarize the change by saying that having learned to see the skull beneath the skin, she threw away the skin.
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Arthur K. Oberg
The poems in Ariel have succeeded almost too well. Their restless intelligence and agonizing, ordered intensity have marked them too tellingly. They are now in danger of becoming an anomaly instead of taking their place in a romantic, imagistic tradition extending back and beyond the official Romantic poets to [Christopher] Smart and [William] Blake and [John] Clare. A respect for the particular otherness of things and for the peculiar joy of the visionary moment places Sylvia Plath in a long line of poets often wrongly separated into romantic and unromantic camps: [William Butler] Yeats and Eliot, [Theodore] Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop, [Dylan] Thomas and Marianne Moore.
Yet, Sylvia Plath's curiosity and hunger for experience are continually transformed in her poems from a romantic poetry of observation into a poetry of annihilation and transcendence. Her poems strive toward a state of purity. (p. 66)
Sylvia Plath presents us with poems that, after long looking at, remain unfamiliar and increasingly disdainful of outer, human reference. In the history of poetry, language has seldom been so evidently in crisis, written so painfully in extremis.
What we discover in approaching Sylvia Plath's work is less a collection of poems than a distinctive décor that is related to a new decadence in art. (p. 67)
Combining lyricism with bald understatement, Sylvia Plath guys...
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Sylvia Robinson Corrigan
[The sarcasm and sharp wit Plath] shows boyfriends in Bell-Jar is a timid complement to the furious tantrums she displays to the men in the poems of Ariel. The feelings of the personae, the women in the poems, are often so complex that it is difficult to glean any evidence of a truly feminist bent. She is feminist in the sense that she perceives inequities and expresses them excruciatingly well; but there is no prescription for positive thinking or acting, as I take it. (p. 18)
Whether the poet was concerned with larger social or political issues is doubtful, but one thing is sure: many aspects of the traditional female experience are portrayed [in "Daddy"] angrily. Two bitter portraits of women are drawn above, the martyred Jew and the lover of a fascist. I cannot help thinking that any woman looking for freedom and self-knowledge could profit from the poet's perceptions.
There can be no doubt that her poems are charged with an electricity that shocks, tears life wide open, that exposes a rawness and a meanness under the thick blankets of the ongoing process of day-to-day life which tends to muffle the real facts of being, whether male or female. (pp. 18-19)
Much of her poetry, beginning in the early book, The Colossus, implies that the life of woman is a movement down-hill from a sort of false innocence, for even babies "moon and glow," pickled in jars, and have been long since...
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Lynda B. Salamon
[Sylvia Plath's] is a sensibility disturbed, which sees reflected in the exterior world the very tensions, conflicts, and fears that haunt the inner spirit. Her power as a poet derives from her capacity to express this state of mind through the evocation of profound horror. The sense of horror springs from many sources: from her habit of dredging up historical atrocities, from the violent intensity of her expression, from the accuracy and hardness of her language, and most significantly, from the nature of her perception. Always she is aware of the doubleness of things, the shark beneath the surface, the tumult beneath the calm, the glitter beneath the veil. The gaze which she turns outward upon the world is schizophrenic….
This perception leads first to fear and eventually to despair, for it forces upon one the recognition that the world is disjointed, that things are not what they seem. Among Sylvia Plath's works run two rather different ways of expressing poetically the theme of doubleness. One method—the more obvious of the two—proceeds by revealing horror amid an atmosphere of apparent security. This is a somewhat traditional device, certainly not unique with Miss Plath, although in her hands it is capable of vivid effects. A second and somewhat more subtle method … [is this]: doubleness is conveyed by a sort of hallucinatory vision, a way of seeing, simultaneously, the opposing qualities of a thing.
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[The Bell Jar is a] poet's novel, a casebook almost in stanzas, each episode brief, brittle, encapsulated. The past consists of 'Atoms that cripple', minute totalities of pain which spill out separately. They lack the essential sprawl and waste of the novel. The progress from one to another is poetic too, less in time than in image. Whatever scene is settled upon, is drawn up to its sharpest point, until it hurts. And yet, the disparate scenes gather congruity. They lean forward, crowding closer together in the momentum of madness; then slowly and less successfully they move back upward, against expectation, to a second sanity.
The method is nervous, a formalized jerkiness rather like Dorothy Richardson's, but without her gasps and flutters. This instability is plain, awkward, laughable. The girl's words make fun of her own ingenuous disorder. The Bell Jar is perhaps closest to a poem like 'Cut', that series of macabre conceits on the theme of one decapitated thumb. Here it is one cracked mind. The further range within the poems, of the 'cry', is withheld from the novel. Its cries are only mouthed, like grins…. The same narrow and reiterative memories pervade both the poems and the novel. The same segment of Atlantic shore emerges in both: the prison, the rock, the public hotdog grills, the garbage hem of the water. The difference: each object in the novel is a photograph taken at a fun-house, nut-house angle, a...
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"The Bell Jar" is a novel about the events of Sylvia Plath's 20th year: about how she tried to die, and how they stuck her together with glue. It is a fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems—the kind of book [J. D.] Salinger's Franny might have written about herself 10 years later, if she had spent those 10 years in Hell….
"The Bell Jar" is about the way this country was in the nineteen-fifties and about the way it is to lose one's grip on sanity and recover it again….
To Esther madness is the descent of a stifling bell jar over her head….
The world in which the events of this novel take place is a world bounded by the cold war on one side and the sexual war on the other. We follow Esther Greenwood's personal life from her summer job in New York with "Ladies' Day" magazine, back through her days at New England's largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tire: "patched, retreaded, and approved for the road."
But this personal life is delicately related to larger events—especially the execution of the Rosenbergs, whose impending death by electrocution is introduced in the stunning first paragraph of the book. Ironically, that same electrical power which destroys the Rosenbergs, restores Esther to life. It is shock...
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[The Bell Jar] is not really a good novel, although extremely promising as first novels go. It is clever and polka-dotted with sharply effective vignettes. It is also highly autobiographical, and at the same time, since it represents the views of a girl enduring a bout of mental illness, dishonest. Plath never solved the problem of providing the reader with clues to the objective reality of episodes reported through the consciousness of a deranged narrator.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'The Bell Jar'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 227, No. 5, May, 1971, p. 114.
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Crossing the Water consists of poems written in 1960 and 1961, after The Colossus was published but before her final intense period of creation. It's important to stress that they are not Ariel left-overs, but poems of the brief interregnum between her strange precocity and full maturity…. Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath's control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel. Once more death has all the best parts, but his disguises and metamorphoses are doubly audacious. (p. 774)
In this period of Plath's poetry, objects come towards the reader like frightening Greek messengers. The gifts are not even ambiguous; they are seen wearing their proud colours of destruction. The language is that carefully judged half-formal, half-vernacular one she perfected in Ariel. It's capable of bearing the full weight of the grand style while staying true to the sharpest observation of realtiy. (pp. 774-75)
But Sylvia Plath runs counter to our schools of 'life-enhancing' critics—she deals in what most people cannot accept. And we, her legatees, profit by her courage. (p. 775)
Peter Porter, "Collecting Her Strength," in New Statesman...
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I hadn't realized until recently … that Sylvia Plath had become something of a heroine of the feminist movement. The myth being, as I understood it, that here was a girl with tremendous literary gifts who married, had two children, and then, hopelessly burdened and appalled by her bleak domestic situation, finally put her head in the oven, turned on the gas, and died…. But though the cause is just, Sylvia Plath is simply no heroine for this or any other movement. Because, alas, that girl was dead from the beginning, passionately, madly in love with death. And if she did succeed in killing herself in the kitchen after having married and having had those two babies, it was just that she had failed other times….
[What] chilled the heart was that it had turned out to be all a facade—the sweetness, the modesty, the golden prettiness, the amiable charm, just a front to fool us until she could get on with the business of dying. She was only a dead girl on a visit, and a very short visit at that….
For most of us, despair comes from seeing that the world is beautiful and yet being unable to grasp it, and rage from caring so much about life, expecting so much from it that it invariably either terrifies or disappoints. Whereas in The Bell Jar, Sylvia regards the fact of existence with a dull remote pain from which all expectation is absent, yet never questions this fault of vision in herself. It is a book full...
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In [the poems collected in "Crossing the Water"] written between 1960 and late 1961 and antedating "Ariel," the poet plays Pygmalion to her own Galatea, willing herself into shape, struggling against the inherited outlines of her predecessors…. What exhausting costumes these were, and how heavy, and how distasteful to Sylvia Plath's soul we can only judge from her persistent attempts to shed these skins, and finally, in "Ariel" and some later poems, to transcend them. Meanwhile, here, she rages about in these disguises like some rebellious adolescent dressed by her mother in unsuitable clothes….
Though a poem like ["In Plaster"] seems a textbook illustration of R. D. Laing crossed with Women's Lib, it fails to authenticate Laing, consciousness-raising or itself. To find the genuine Plath, it is not enough to say that she is the ugly and hairy id repressed by the saintlike superego. On the contrary, she is not at all exclusively a libido in search of liberation. Her rage, though it may come from the most primitive levels, is not primitive in its most natural utterance: an undeniable intellect allegorizes the issues before they are allowed expression….
Plath would like, in distrust of mind, to trust nature, and yet she ends, in the volume, by refusing nature any honorable estate of its own. "The horizons ring me," she says in the opening words of this volume, and this awful centripetal sense binds nature into a...
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The Bell Jar is the matrix of Sylvia Plath's work and anticipates her transition into neurotic writing. Indeed, her task of correcting the proofs of this novel may well have determined the direction as well as the energy of the late poems. In particular, the verbal parallels between The Bell Jar and "Daddy" are numerous and striking.
My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.
There's a stake in your fat, black heart …
What I didn't say was that each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw,
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
The poem says (echoing The Bell Jar) that her father died before she had time to kill him, but it also blames him for dying and leaving her prematurely. And so we see the obverse of the situation in the novel: under the surface hatred of the poem there is a desperate need for the person she abuses.
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M. D. Uroff
In Plath's poems, the woman speaking is frequently talking to a man about their relationship. This relationship has almost always failed, and the cause of its failure is the women's concern. Those critics who see Plath's women as self-enclosed, narcissistically fascinated with their own torment, gratuitously hateful and enraged beyond any cause, fail to consider this basic situation of the poems. To be sure, the women are voicing their own reaction; but it is a reaction and not an unmotivated outburst. In the course of Plath's poems, the women assume attitudes of increasing intensity toward their failed relationships with men; but they are consistent in identifying men and women with two different orders of being…. In Plath's poetry, the division is not between ideal and real, spiritual and physical beings but between women who are intellectual and pure and men who are brutish and physical. The men are not elevated by contact with the women nor are the women degraded by the men; they are instead each driven more deeply inward. In Plath's poetry read as a whole, their careers may be charted. The women are transformed from thinkers to worriers to vicious plotters in their efforts to defend themselves against men who seem at first merely unruly, then turn into animalistic creatures and finally into predators…. The women represent a higher order, yet they also cannot know love. They are intellectual, not emotional, beings. The physical nature of men...
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In Sylvia Plath's work and in her life the elements of pathology are so deeply rooted and so little resisted that one is disinclined to hope for general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons. Her fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible. Her work is brutal, like the smash of a fist; and sometimes it is also mean in its feeling. Literary comparisons are possible, echoes vibrate occasionally, but to whom can she be compared in spirit, in content, in temperament? (p. 104)
For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath. A destiny of such violent self-definition does not always bring the real person nearer; it tends, rather, to invite iconography, to freeze our assumptions and responses. She is spoken of as a "legend" or a "myth"—but what does that mean? Sylvia Plath was a luminous talent, self-destroyed at the age of thirty, likely to remain, it seems, one of the most interesting poets in American literature. As an event she stands with Hart Crane, Scott Fitzgerald, and [Edgar Allan] Poe rather than with Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, or Elizabeth Bishop. (p. 105)
In the last freezing months of her life she was visited, like some waiting stigmatist, by an almost hallucinating creativity—the astonishing poems in Ariel and in a later volume called Winter Trees.
The creative visitation was not from...
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In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath uses the psychological alienation of the heroine, Esther Greenwood, to reinforce … aesthetic alienation. Esther's 'madness' offers her an increasingly 'objective', exterior view of the 'eating customs, jurisprudence, and love life' [in Bertolt Brecht's words] of the culture she has inherited. 'Manners', provide an important motif of the book. Using the finger-bowl at a special lunch, Esther, for example, 'thought what a long way [she] had come' …, and recalls that in her first encounter with a finger-bowl, she drank the water and the cherry blossoms in it because 'I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup'. Esther's 'oddity' is here revealed as, in origin, no more than a social disjunction, between her own learnt expectations and the codes of manners within which she comes increasingly to move. A clue to the process at work is revealed in her memory of a poet who in 'do[ing] something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance', 'made eating salad with your fingers seem to be the only natural and sensible thing to do'…. The poet, significantly, had been talking about 'the antithesis of nature and art'. Esther's perception of the fictive nature of 'manners' spills over into an attitude which evacuated the world of all spontaneous content. There are no such things as 'natural' responses, no intrinsic values in things, all are equally arbitrary and artificial, and all are viewed...
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In Plath's schoolgirlish novel [The Bell Jar] nothing is imagined; the events come straight out of the life, untransfigured; madness and suicide are facts like any other. No insight, no illumination, no irony, no following wisdom. The events are chronological, monochromatic, sequential; the reader, appalled by the flatness of narration, may even find himself thinking that had the madness and self-burial occurred before the reported antecedent events, the latter, by that device, might have assured a power and awesomeness they do not otherwise possess, though only for those acolytes most disposed to invest them with magical properties. The book yields nothing of the kind; in it, madness and suicide are random events, forms of tantrum, self-indulgent, excessive—so to speak, unearned. Causeless—uncaused—in the literary sense; unmotivated, motiveless. Gratuitous. (p. 371)
[The] novel is full of venomous little sketches. Self-pity excepted, spitefulness is the only powerful running feeling. Everything carefully excluded from the letters went into the work—as if having been nice too long she could now be horrid a while. Art as revenge. (p. 372)
Saul Maloff, "The Poet as Cult Goddess," in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIII, No. 12, June 4, 1976, pp. 371-74....
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The reading of [Plath's] work has been entangled in a fascination with her suicide and the broken marriage which preceded it, and such misreading is as widespread among her admirers as among her detractors; she has become for both a convenient symbol. To approach Plath as a poet rather than to use her as an image of a poet one must confront her work in its own terms, which is to say, as literature. In these terms, the fact, for example, that she killed herself is irrelevant to the consideration of the meaning of her work; as literature, her poems would mean what they do even if she had not attempted suicide.
Among the current classifications in literary criticism, Plath is usually assigned the category of 'confessional' poet. That view is facilitated by the obviously autobiographical element in her work and by the apparent accessibility of many of her best-known poems, in which the 'confessional' surface is sensational enough to divert the reader from seeing deeper meanings. One might even prefer to read many of her poems as one might view the bloodstains at the site of a murder, as residues of real events—for example, "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" as the expression by the actual Sylvia Plath of a supremely venomous attitude toward her father. The thrill this provides might easily be lessened when the more impersonal dimensions of such poems are considered. But the very accessible confessional aspect of her work is so powerfully...
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Sandra M. Gilbert
Being enclosed—in plaster, in a bell jar, a cellar or a waxhouse—and then being liberated from an enclosure by a maddened or suicidal or "hairy and ugly" avatar of the self is, I would contend, at the heart of the myth that we piece together from Plath's poetry, fiction, and life…. The story told is invariably a story of being trapped, by society or by the self as an agent of society, and then somehow escaping or trying to escape. (p. 592)
[In] poem after poem, she tried to puzzle out the cause of her confinement…. For her central problem had become, as it became Jane Eyre's (or Charlotte Brontë's)—how to get out? How to reactivate the myth of a flight so white, so pure, as to be a rebirth into the imagined liberty of childhood? (pp. 593-94)
Especially in Ariel, but also in other works, Plath gets out by 1) killing daddy (who is, after all, indistinguishable from the house or shoe in which she has lived) and 2) flying away disguised as a Queen Bee (in "Stings"),… a horse (in "Ariel" and other poems), a risen corpse (in "Lady Lazarus"), an arrow (in "Ariel," The Bell Jar, and "The Other"), or a baby (in too many poems to mention). (p. 594)
[For] Plath the baby is often a mediating and comparatively healthy image of freedom (which is another important reason why the Plath Myth has been of such compelling interest to women), and this is because in her view the fertile mother...
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Caroline King Barnard
Sylvia Plath's early poetry is both technically and thematically significant, for scattered through the early poems are most of the elements which were later fused into the final, powerful outbursts of the mature poetry. We find in this early work the sense of doom, the fascination with disintegration and death so central to the later poems, though the poet's expressed attitudes are less cogent, less specific in the early poems. We see as well the ambivalence toward sex, wifehood, and motherhood. The propensity to nightmare is here, too, as are many initial uses of the later, more skilfully handled, set of images.
When viewed as part of her entire canon, Sylvia Plath's early poetry displays a distinctly amateur, experimental quality. In contrast with the spontaneous, raw force of her late work, Plath's early poems seem generally contrived, mannered, and self-conscious, features apparently caused by her tendency to create artificial divisions in the essentially single dilemma she faces in these poems and by her reluctance to confront directly the various difficult subjects with which she deals. In the sense that the poet's expressed perceptions in these works appear generally less well informed than they do in the later poems, the poetry suffers from too little control, and in the sense that content sometimes seems artificially manipulated to fit a set structure they suffer from too much.
Virtually all of the early...
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[While reading Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,] the reader feels as though he is looking at a Sylvia Plath pickled in a laboratory jar….
What we see is not altogether pleasant. Sylvia Plath had an uncommon desire to be a writer…. Her notebook entries reveal her to have been an anxious user of events for the sake of words. Obsessively, she searches for material, for interesting events in life around her; but behind the frantic recording of detail lies a transparent boredom with life….
Reading the notebooks and stories side by side is illuminating not just in the sense of tracing how an artist reworks material from her life into her fiction. Even more revealing is how the flat, dispassionate tones of the notebook carry over into the stories and explain their emotional shallowness. In both places, Plath is the quintessential observer. She watches people closely and etches them cleanly, but a lack of involvement and passion leaves her stories thin and rootless. The stories lack sympathy and it is no wonder, for her diary is cold as ice. With few exceptions, her stories are surface creations of routine but careful observation.
The exceptions occur only when Plath looks directly into the face of death, and makes her own secret, squeamish, erotic, nerve-jangling fear of it her subject matter. She does this in "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," the best story of the collection, and...
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More successfully than any other recent American poet, Sylvia Plath dramatized those moments of crisis during which the self must choose between life and death. By using intensely personal material, she gave concrete form to an action involving violent self-transformation and initiatory change. Yet it is unfortunate that her poems, which embody a coherent and self-sufficient action, have been understood almost exclusively as confessional documents. (p. 21)
Instead of looking at the lyrics in Ariel and Winter Trees as confessional outpourings of self-pity and grief, we can see that they play out the dramatic conflict between opposed external forces on the field of the poet's body and self. Life and death operate in Plath's poetic world as tangible powers: they appear as dramatic agents embodied in people, trees, houses, colors, and animals. And they proceed to control the self's actions and desires, its present and its future…. The poetry focuses on a dramatic conflict between universal agencies in which the self must use ritual and magical methods in order to free itself.
Using these methods, Plath dramatizes a ritual confrontation with a powerful enemy force that may be death and its symbolic agents or life and its harsh demands for self-negation and painful individuation. This meeting between self and destructive other occurs frequently in Plath's work in a symbolic space that is often reached...
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[Reading Plath's poetry, we] are continually outflanked by someone who knows what we'll approve and how we'll categorize, and is herself ready with the taxonomic words before we can get them out.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Parlor psychiatry is forestalled; she sketches the complex herself. Lady Lazarus is a bitch? It's not news to her; "I eat men like air." (I'm also the only candid person here.) Our fantasies of anarchic candor stir into life and help animate Ariel. She persuades us that she's daring to say what we wouldn't, and if we succumb to the spell we're apt to end up believing that this is what we've always wished we could say…. All her life, a reader had been someone to manipulate.
To facilitate its understanding with its reader, poetry since Homer's time has had formal ceremonies. It is in this connection that Sylvia Plath herself speaks of manipulation:
I think my poems come immediately out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying—like madness,...
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[What] Letters Home reveals, is that the various roles Plath assumed—Dutiful Daughter, Bright and Bouncy Smith Girl, Cambridge Intellectual, Adoring Wife and Mother, Efficient Housekeeper—were so deeply entrenched that they determined the course not only of her life but also of her writing. If, as Karl Miller so rightly observes, Plath's letters to her mother were "bent on withholding her 'true' condition," so, the correspondence suggests, were the poems written prior to the final crisis in her life, poems that emerged, in large part, from Plath's false-self system. (p. 156)
In coming to terms with the transformation of "Sivvy," the carefully controlled voice of the earlier poetry and prose, into the Sylvia of the Ariel poems …, Letters Home is a centrally important document…. [Despite] the fractured state of the final manuscript, the portrait of Sylvia that emerges is peculiarly consistent.
One learns, to begin with, that Sylvia Plath did not just happen to be a schizophrenic girl who had a genius for poetry. In many ways, hers was a representative case of the American Dream gone sour…. (pp. 156-57)
What sort of influence did Aurelia Plath exert over her daughter's development as a poet? The letters reveal that she was by no means the negative presence Mrs. Greenwood is in The Bell Jar. Sylvia both feared and worshipped her widowed mother who lived only for her...
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Plath was in many ways a victim of the fifties and its ideology of the family…. Plath, in common with women grappling then with the problems of developing feminist theory, was fighting her way in those poems of the early sixties toward a definition of what life within the middle-class nuclear family does to its members. Her distinctive mediation of the ideology of the family and of love in the fifties and early sixties can tell us a great deal about patriarchal attitudes and how women in general, and women writers in particular, can find ways to resist and triumph over them.
It is not that Plath presents blueprints or role models; indeed, often what she portrays is the false directions into which her search led her. But her intellectual grasp of both crosscurrents and contradictions in the hegemonic ideology of this period and the new rising tide of women's resistance is what makes her work particularly valuable for us, and her search particularly important. (pp. 214-15)
Carole Ferrier, "The Beekeeper's Apprentice," in Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, edited by Gary Lane (copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 203-17.
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