(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...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A literary biography blending biographical information with themes in Plath’s work, including language, the mother-daughter bond, and death.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Concentrates on close readings of Plath’s texts, rather than on the cult of her personality and suicide. Chapters include “God, Nature, and Writing” and “Writing the Family.”

Gil, Jo. The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A brief but comprehensive introduction to Plath’s life and work. Includes chapters on The Colossus, the critical reception to her work, and analyses of the cultural contexts—including the domestic sphere and suburbia—in which she lived and wrote.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. 2d ed. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2007. First published in 1976, this book is one of the first to concentrate on the complexity of Plath’s work, rather than on the circumstances of her life and death. Discusses books and artwork that influenced Plath, including mythological and psychological sources.

Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A compilation of essays including an early assessment of The Colossus, an analysis of sea imagery in Plath’s poetry, and a discussion of her use of form, rhythm, and metaphor. Includes a checklist of criticism and a bibliography.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 1997. A collection of criticism on Plath and her work. Includes reviews of all editions of The Colossus.