The Collected Poems

by Sylvia Plath

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Besides the poems' speaker, which shifts throughout Plath's career (particularly between her earlier poems and those ultimately collected in Ariel), several figures recur in her mature work.

The Father Figure

In 1958, Plath wrote in a journal that her father, Otto Plath, "heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home." Her poem "Daddy" addresses this in a blunt, forthright manner. It is vicious:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.

In the light of a series of recently released FBI files, this is a shocking indictment of a man labelled (in those files) as an "alien enemy". Plath deploys a run of sinister Nazi images, and connects them directly with her father. They are his Luftwaffe, he is Panzer-man. These connections are made all the more troubling through their juxtaposition with childish language. "[g]obbledygoo" is at the same time an unknown language and an onomatopoeic signifier for the language of a child. In this context, from a child's point of view, the German language exists side by side with air raids. They exist in the same realm, for Plath's speaker.

The final phrase introduces the theme of religion. She addresses her father as "O You," omitting the h from "Oh" as one addresses a god. This is a confession, or an address in a place of worship. But it is the obverse of worship—it is a rejection of the You, the Father—it is a relinquishment.

Ted Hughes

Plath also deals heavily with the character of Ted Hughes, her husband and fellow poet. However, more intriguingly, she addresses her poems themselves, along with her children.

The poem "Parliament Hill Fields" deals with the subject of Plath's miscarried second child. She addresses the child directly:

Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.

Her tone is faintly accusatory, but not shaming. It is one of exercised grief, of tragic reflection. She likens the miscarriage to the experiences of those with invisible disabilities. The cause of her suffering is invisible—it does not invite solidarity or sympathy.

Similarly, "Stillborn" deals with poems which "do not live." She confesses, she "cannot explain" what happened to them—it is a "sad diagnosis." Her tone throughout the poem is sad but not ponderous, it weeps but does not lose momentum. These are stillborn poems, but we cannot help but think of the tragedy of a stillborn child, and the suffering which inevitably follows.

Striding forward, she asserts:

If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn't for any lack of mother-love.

She is not making excuses. Rather, she is finding ways to not be destroyed by the tragedy of experience. She likens the child to a poem, or a series of poems, because the death of a poem is trivial. This is her coping mechanism.

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