Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The poems of Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus, and Other Poems are metrically free but stanzaically strict; only rarely does the poet choose the foot over the syllable. That the poems are nevertheless very rhythmic is attributable less to an adroit syllabic measure than to felicitous aural features such as internal rhyme and alliteration. If Plath’s line was only modestly fresh in 1960, her marriage of sound and sense in poetic diction was dramatically innovative and became a hallmark even of her most mature period. The free line is, however, joined almost invariably to patterned stanzas that repeat themselves precisely within poems. Tercets, quatrains, and quintains predominate. Pervasively, however, the free rhythms of the verse soften the rigid impression made by the formality of the stanzas. Such an effect underlies “Aftermath,” within which the separation of the octave and sestet and the nine-syllable line mask the fact that the poem is an Italian sonnet. The play of these apparently oppositional choices created the blend of tradition and reformation that Plath desired for her first collection of lyrics.

The imagery and metaphors of the poems convey relentlessly the inner emotional life of the persona. Indeed, there is but one voice behind these poems. It may be called “confessional,” a word too often applied to Plath’s verse, but it must be understood as less singular and female than modernly nihilistic in a fashion beyond gender...

(The entire section is 408 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The reader interested in the feminist character of this collection should remember that it was written in 1960 by a young poet who, like Adrienne Rich, assumed a standard that had been set by men, not women. Only “Spinster,” “Strumpet Song,” and “I Want, I Want” approach that indirect but seminal judgment of male dominion and the female disavowal of it which undergirds Rich’s very early and masterful poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” While it is probably true that Plath always had her female nature in mind when writing, this viewpoint is clearly much less manifest in The Colossus, and Other Poems than in The Bell Jar (1963) and Ariel (1965). There are two principal reasons for this fact. The first is that the basic nihilistic viewpoint of these poems gains its power and authenticity precisely from not being rooted in gender. Plath’s generalized voice of despair has to meet the standards not of a revolutionary woman but of an illusionless human. This is the reason that the poems elaborate primarily the misery found not in the relations of men and women but rather in the natural, often fatal struggles of nonhuman beings, even moles.

In these poems, Plath is out to meet a test of disillusioned observation established by all the great modern deconstructors of a benignly and purposefully governed universe. Her success in the enterprise, both spiritually and aesthetically, demonstrated a talent in need of no special, patriarchal approval. Here was a brilliant young poet, not a brilliant young female poet. The figures within the poems who most embody and convey the fully realized implications of this unremitting challenge to the idea of a purposeful existence are the man in black (in the poem of the same title) and the male protagonist of “Suicide off Egg Rock.” While it is Plath herself who is projected as persona onto these male figures, she has carefully made that persona a hyperconscious but genderless witness for...

(The entire section is 806 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976. This biography closely links the stages of Plath’s life to a chronological assessment of the poems. The poet’s “madness” or obsession is seen to be ordered by the “method” of her aesthetic practice via the agency of the artistic ego. Butscher offers much about which to argue.

King, P. R. “Sylvia Plath.” In Nine Contemporary Poets. London: Methuen, 1979. An exceptional introduction to Plath’s work, including a section on The Colossus, and Other Poems which vigorously argues that the collection displays a “deep dread of experience” and that Plath intended the argument of the poems’ speaker to be general, not unique to herself or to some rarefied type.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. An indispensable study of all the poetry in light of Robert Graves’s myth of the white goddess and Plath’s adaptation of her life’s material to it. No book so thoroughly, and rightly, dispenses with the spurious ideas of the “confessional” in Plath’s practice. The treatment of the series “Poem for a Birthday” helps to fix the relation of this collection to Ariel.

McNeil, Helen. “Sylvia Plath.” In Voices and Visions, edited by Helen Vendler. New York: Random House, 1987. This volume is the companion piece to a Public Broadcasting System television series on American poetry. It is a fine critical starting point for the serious reader. McNeil looks at the poems mainly in terms of how they negotiate the simultaneous and antithetical claims of repression and declaration that seemed to press so heavily upon Plath.