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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Many American poets writing after World War II concentrated on their own personal histories or family trees for poetic subject matter. Sylvia Plath is often linked with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman, all poets writing in postwar America, because of the self-analysis and self-reflection present in the poems. Often these writers are called “confessional poets” because they reveal their own personal obsessions, psychological quirks, or tawdry misdeeds in the poems. Plath’s “The Colossus” fits into this school of poetry because of its self-absorption and the ambivalent feelings the speaker has toward her father.

Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her father, who died when she was eight, is the subject of much of her poetry. In later poems, especially “Daddy,” she reveals astonishingly strong and disturbing feelings toward her father. She imagines herself as a Jew and her father as a Nazi and confesses that she, in some way, relishes the role: “Every woman adores a Fascist,/ The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you.” The poet seems to enjoy the need for punishment, perhaps to erase feelings of guilt about her father’s death.

“The Colossus,” an early poem, does not go quite so far in examining the psychologically disturbing relationship of father and daughter as “Daddy” does, but it does examine archetypal patterns of behavior. It is no accident that the poem’s one direct allusion to a classical text comes with the “blue sky out of the Oresteia.” That trilogy by the Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus deals in part with Electra’s attempt to come to terms with the death of her father, Agamemnon. Sigmund Freud, working with this Greek myth, thought the Electra complex paralleled in many ways the male Oedipus complex, and he suggested that daughters often want to displace their mothers in order to capture totally their father’s affections.

Plath’s obsessive quest to reestablish contact with her father in “The Colossus” participates in some ways in this Freudian theory. The mother is invisible in the poem (and in most Plath poems); she is removed from the scene by the author’s inattention to the relationship. The speaker confesses that her “hours are married...

(The entire section is 574 words.)