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Last Reviewed on September 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

Plath's work can be difficult to interpret and analyze. In this she is no different from many other modernist poets, yet much of our view of her poetry is conditioned by the knowledge many of us already have concerning her troubled life. Though it's not wrong to interpret her work...

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Plath's work can be difficult to interpret and analyze. In this she is no different from many other modernist poets, yet much of our view of her poetry is conditioned by the knowledge many of us already have concerning her troubled life. Though it's not wrong to interpret her work in light of her biography—which is partially given to us in fictionalized form in her novel, The Bell Jar—one must be wary of overusing such a method of analysis, whether in Plath's case or any other.

Throughout The Collected Poems, the dominant mood is dark and troubled. Even when Plath is not openly expressing a kind of horror of existence, her verse ranges from sorrowful melancholy to grim pessimism extreme even by twentieth-century standards. In a collection of so many poems, it is difficult to generalize about her subject matter; that said, the principal themes most readers would identify are death, the haunting image of Plath's deceased father, and alienation—especially alienation expressed from a woman's perspective.

Few of the poems deliver their meaning in an unequivocal, readily understandable way. At times, the word choice and train of thought seem unnervingly open to interpretation, as in the opening of the poem "Years":

They enter as animals from the outer
Space of holly where spikes
Are not thoughts I turn on, like a Yogi,
But greenness, darkness so pure
They freeze and are.

Though this excerpt may take multiple readings to parse on its own, it is followed by a stanza that makes its intent—to undercut the commoner human drive for immortality, which Plath's speaker sees as static and "awful"—far clearer:

O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.

The poems in which the expression is most lucid have understandably become the most famous in Plath's oeuvre—such as "Daddy," in which the speaker's father is revealed as an abusive parent whose memory both repels and fascinates her. Because Plath's own father was German, Plath repeatedly invokes images of World War II and the Holocaust in her descriptions of the speaker's father:

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.

The poem is obviously cathartic, but in such a way that the despair seems unending, in spite of (or paradoxically because of) the speaker's declaration in the final line:

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Plath had attempted to kill herself once when she was a young woman, but she survived. She finally did commit suicide by asphyxiation at the age of thirty. The longing for death pervades her work. "Lady Lazarus" combines the theme of suicide and revival (or a return from the dead like the biblical Lazarus) with her continued interest in the dark paternal figure:

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade.
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

The theme of victimized women is perhaps most fully expressed in the brief "Strumpet Song." The speaker seems to ask if any man exists who can truly love her, who will

spare breath
To patch with brand of love this rank grimace . . .

All of these themes—death and suicide, the horrified ambivalence to a father figure, and the oppression of women—are intertwined. Plath created a body of work that both expresses and transcends her personal story, one that stands as a monument to a deeply troubled, truncated life.

The Collected Poems

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1691

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 other physical harms, perhaps surgery. Sometimes she makes believe that she has come to oblivion: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions” (“Tulips”). In the long poem “Three Women,” one of the voices longs to be detached from everything, as Plath pretends to be in “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” hoping she really is as she stands there in the protective clothing of a bee-keeper. In her last poem of this collection, oblivion has become not only death but the metaphor she uses for it, so that the poem itself is oblivion and composing it is the act of becoming nothing, “perfected,” an “illusion” (“Edge”). The implied metaphor of feet in “Epitaph in Three Parts” is the overt one in “Edge”: in the first poem it means the human presence Plath wishes would vanish around her, and in the second it means a woman’s death, her long walk done with.

In early poems, Plath tries to express the split she sees in human life. “Metamorphoses of the Moon” puts the unreal constructs of the mind on one side and the small disorders of life—“dirty socks and scraps/ of day old bread”—on the other. The latter do not think, and if the mind thinks in order to stop thinking, not thinking at all is how life itself gets on.

In her later poetry, Plath sees this mindless life in the small things and steeps herself in smallness. “I enter the soft pelt of the mole,” she says in “Blue Moles,” adding that light kills moles, suggesting that the mind does that to humans. In “Poem for a Birthday” she wants to “sit in a flowerpot,” and she calls herself “a root, a stone, an owl pellet.” She says that the lair she built by herself like a small animal is “dark . . . very big,” which stresses the mindlessness of the project and the smallness of the builder. She calls herself a mushroom, lowly, “edible,” poking its way up (“Mushrooms”). She pictures herself making love “in the moist/ Fug of the Small Mammal House” in “The Zoo-Keeper’s Wife,” and lying in the grave with small common possessions—“cooking pots . . . rouge pots” in “Last Words.”

That all these small things are repulsive or confining allures Plath. The moles are dead, the garden shed is musty, the mushrooms are underground, the mammal house is gooey and reminds her of the blood of dead animals, and her body will be swathed up like a mummy’s. She may put her first child in almost cute tropes of smallness in “You’re,” referring to her as “my little loaf.// . . . Snug as a bud,” but she says of her own poems in “Stillborn” that they are tucked in “pickling fluid” and have “a piggy and a fishy air.”

Raw life struck Plath as violent, smelly, and mortal, and she seems to have had to keep it in small details to feel intimate with it, but even the small could get out of hand through its rawness, and it was hard for her to ignore this. In the famous “Tulips,” as Plath tries to withdraw into a colorless aura, the tulips—devouring the air she breathes—unnerve her “with their sudden tongues and their color,” as her own heart does as it “opens and closes/ Its bowl of red blooms.” Her heart is also “A red fist, opening and closing” (“Apprehensions”), and poppies are “like the skin of a mouth.// A mouth just bloodied” (“Poppies”). In “Paralytic,” “The claw/ Of the magnolia” does not care if it lives forever; in “Elm,” Plath is afraid of an obscure movement like a bird’s in her, and she is both frightened and attracted by the feverish bees in “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” This repellent energy infests domestic life, too: in “Lesbos” “the potatoes hiss,” “there’s a stink of fat and baby crap,” and the house is “A bit of a wild machine.”

At times, though, Plath welcomes the passion and carnage of raw life. The grass that breaks through hard surfaces is vital, not threatening (“Three Women”). This kind of life provides the trope of vengeance in “Stings” when Plath, sealed up by a bad marriage, becomes a raging queen bee; it provides a similar trope in “Lady Lazarus” when Plath, squashed by a bad father, becomes a devouring phoenix-woman. Love becomes “The blood flood” in “The Munich Mannequins” and poetry “The blood jet” in “Kindness”; in the first poem, love means the choice of a true over a false self, and, in the second poem, poetry means the irresistible.

Shriveled and lured by both sides of human life in her poems, Plath tried to solve the split between both and within each by putting the whole matter aside, first in favor of the uncomplicated and the unexceptional, and finally in favor of a “peacefulness . . . so big it dazes you,” which is “what the dead close on, finally” (“Tulips”). Plath wants the down-to-earth for herself and her child in “Three Women,” and her idea of peace changes from a kind of waking coma to the idealized corpse in “Edge,” where giving life adds up to death and making art adds up to oblivion.

Life on the level of instincts may have been too hot, and life on the level of thought too cold, for the voice in Plath’s poems to put up with, but the tensions created and the feelings let loose by both levels made those poems what they are: lyrics in a voice that, if it often runs away with itself, still stands out—its analogies original, its sounds and rhythms urgent, and its reasons important. Freudian pathology is too meager a way to account for such poetry.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 15, 1981, p. 74.

Book World. XI, November 22, 1981, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, September 15, 1981, p. 1229.

Library Journal. CVI, November 1, 1981, p. 2142.

New Statesman. CII, October 2, 1981, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 22, 1981, p. 1.

Observer. November 1, 1981, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, October 16, 1981, p. 66.

Spectator. CCXLVII, November 14, 1981, p. 20.

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