The Collected Poems
If Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, and Delmore Schwartz helped make pathology with a Freudian twist popular in modern American poetry, Sylvia Plath’s reputation—mostly posthumous—seems to rest on her concern with it. “Confessional poetry” was the tag her verse was stuck with, and the new interest in women’s problems brought her an unusually large audience.
Now that almost twenty years have passed since her death, and Ted Hughes has continued to publish annually (1956 to 1963) editions of her poems, it is possible to see what Plath’s overriding concern was and how she managed her expression of it.
The poems about Plath’s father, of course, are famous, but it is surprising to see how few there are. The conflicting postures of the voice in these poems do not change, only the tropes do. The victim, the suppliant, and the hunter which show up in “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” and “Electra on Azalea Path” are not far from the roles in “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” except that the tropes for the father have shifted from Agamemnon and country squire to Nazi murderer, and the tropes for the voice from bee, crushed flower, and dog to tortured, killed, and avenging Jew. Plath’s mother, too, does not seem such an unrelenting subject now. What “The Disquieting Muses” seems to have against the woman is that by sugarcoating her own bad feelings she poisoned her daughter. Besides this, though, the voice in the poem says, “I learned . . ./ From muses unhired by you,” which turns out to mean that split in Plath—deeper and older than clinical jargon—which has always been the mark of poets at odds with imposed ideals, and which preoccupied most of her poetry.
The split occurs between that part in humans which feels and goes by instinct and that which thinks and goes by abstractions. The Dionysian versus the Apollonian is a cliché for the split; what it comes down to in Plath’s case is a long war between the mind’s habit of looking for an escape from disorder and the body’s impulse to wallow in it. Adopting a range of tones from baby talk and sarcasm to indictment and rhapsody as the ideal frosts her over but makes her long for it and the mortal disgusts her but impels her to snuggle up to it, Plath summarizes the solutions she saw. By escape from disorder she meant an afterlife in which she did not believe and an oblivion in which she did, and by wallowing in disorder she meant a life among the small and vivid which she felt and a withdrawal from the critique of life which got her nowhere.
In “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Plath sees the attempt to kill death itself, to aspire to an order that has no time, as a death before the real death, her analogy for which is the statues of saints, “Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.” When she says in “In Plaster” that there are two women in her, she calls one of them “absolutely white,” a woman who “doesn’t need food” and “is one of the real saints”—which is to say dead while still alive. Plath wants nothing to do with this side of herself and fears the kind of death for which it stands, seeing herself “wheeled off under crosses and a rain of pietas” (“Apprehensions”). In the same poem, she links cold ideals which she must entertain with the mind that she cannot bear, the mind that leaves her in “The Bee Meeting” confused and unmoved by what the people around her are doing. Finally, she indicts the side of human nature which idealizes: “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children,” she says in “The Munich Mannequins.” A life that sets itself up above feeling is no life at all for her.
On the other hand, feeling and pain often go together, and there is one type of order which offers relief from the pain of living and the pain of thinking about living: oblivion. In “Moonrise,” Plath—dramatizing oblivion as she often does in images of whiteness—wants to withdraw from the indoors or limits of life and do “nothing.” When her eye is hurt by a splinter in “The Eye-mote,” she considers the oblivion behind her as the innocent time before sex and...
(The entire section is 1691 words.)