The Colossus, and Other Poems by Sylvia Plath

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sylvia Plath’s first book of poetry, The Colossus, and Other Poems, was generally well received as the clever first book of a promising young poet. The poems contain images and themes that Plath revisited in her writing, themes such as death, nature, the sea, water, and the parent-child relationship.

The Colossus, the only book of poetry Plath published during her lifetime, was published first in England in 1960, then in the United States in 1962. Some poems were omitted in the American edition for fear that their resemblance to the poetry of Theodore Roethke could cause legal problems. While Plath was influenced by Roethke, the poems in this collection are distinctly hers. Furthermore, some reviewers had undercut Plath’s individual poetic achievements by drawing attention to her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes.

Plath’s poetry, to take one particular example, examines the theme of death from many angles. In two poems in the first half of the collection, Plath contemplates dead bodies. In “Two Views of a Cadaver,” the almost unrecognizably human corpses are contrasted with the two living lovers observing them, and the poem ends on a slightly hopeful note: There is life before inevitable death. Considering a mummified body in a museum in “All the Dead Dears,” however, the poet’s tone is bleaker, acknowledging that being alive implies eventual death. The poem’s speaker feels a bond with the dead, another theme that reappears. In several poems, death is presented as a quiet, neutral place in contrast to the noise and disorder of life.

In three poems in the second half of the book, this idea of death is represented by images of dead animals. The two dead moles in “Blue Moles” have left behind the “fury,” “war,” and “battle-shouts” they struggled with in life, and are now “neutral as the stones.” Their positioning is benignly described as a “family pose.” In “Medallion,” the poet describes a dead snake admiringly, as grinning and laughing, and notes that the snake’s firelike colors are beautiful. She also depicts the snake as “pure” and “chaste.” A crab’s corpse is presented similarly in “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor,” a long poem near the end of the book. Even though the crab’s inner body has been washed away, its hard outer skeleton remains as a “relic.” Its shell is “bleached” and “pallid,” with the white colors suggesting a desirable purity and neutrality.

Water and the sea appear repeatedly in Plath’s work. A more explicit wish for death appears in three poems about drowning. The first poem, “Lorelei,” uses German mythological figures (similar to the Greek sirens) to symbolize the attractiveness that death can have: “They sing/ Of a world more full and clear/ Than can be.” Another poem, “Suicide off Egg Rock,” also depicts death’s attractiveness, but couples it with the desperation of a suicidal man. He cannot stand the noises and smells of the public beach around him, or even the sound of his own pulse. As the poem progresses, his senses slowly recede, and the sea in which he drowns himself offers a “blank” and “forgetful” respite. In Plath’s heavily autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963; written as Victoria Lucas), the main character contemplates committing suicide this way, but she cannot go through with it. Plath herself attempted suicide in 1953, and eventually did kill herself in 1963. Finally, in “Full Fathom Five,” a daughter feels compelled to join her drowned father: “Father, this thick air is murderous./ I would breathe water.” This poem foreshadows Plath’s later themes, and its title comes from a line spoken by a character named Ariel in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). Plath later wrote a poem titled “Ariel,” which also was used as the title of her next book.

Other poems in The Colossus deal with the parent-child relationship. The title poem “The Colossus” is widely thought...

(The entire section is 1,495 words.)