The Colossus and Other Poems by Sylvia Plath

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The past for Plath is a province of ghosts who offer nothing but their abiding absence of life as a tool for the management of existence. In “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” and the title poem, the father’s bequest to her is “the winter of [his] year” and “fluted bones . . . littered/ In their old anarchy to the horizon-line,” respectively. It is no better when she turns to the larger family or even to humankind’s prehistoric forebears. This is the menacing point of “All the Dead Dears,” wherein the “long gone darlings”—constituted equally by the relic “lady” in an archaeological museum and one’s own female progenitors, who always reappear at family affairs via photograph and anecdote—come only to “Reach hag hands to haul me in.” It is a point made summarily in “The Ghost’s Leavetaking.” To see the dead properly is to see oneself with them, in each next second of one’s life. They steal the impulse to live or to fashion a self engaged by being rather than atrophied by extinction. Plath’s speaker has taken to heart the paradox that at the moment of conception, a life is borne forward by death. This is much more a matter of feeling than of disinterested observation, and it is what makes voice and emotion the substance of these poems, over which a pall of self-doubt and despondency is brilliantly cast.

Like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, Plath’s natural world is “red in tooth and claw.” In the second section of “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” a poem clearly imitative of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the speaker dissects the painting The Triumph of Death, calling it a “panorama of smoke and slaughter” to which a pair of young Flemish lovers are oblivious, though “not for long.” Within it, desolation is “stalled,” for both the couple and a “foolish, delicate” country, but “only in paint.” More often, however, Plath conveys mortality in terms of grinding obliteration and an absence of light. Again, this view involves projecting a doom-filled mind onto only those facts of nature that bespeak an incessant withering of vitality.

“Suicide off Egg Rock” builds on the essential irony that a great rock, long likened to an egg (a basic life symbol), sits not upon a fecund sea but upon a “blue wastage.” The surf of this “wastage” laps interminably at this egg of rock. Stone is literally and figuratively at the core of this collection, but its durability is rendered as merely another impermanence. The persona’s father is a Colossus of Rhodes, broken...

(The entire section is 665 words.)