The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Colossus” is a fairly short poem in free verse, with six stanzas of five lines each. The title of the poem, which also serves at the title of Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poetry, suggests both the classical world in which huge statues or monuments were constructed (for example, the Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient wonder of the world) and the enormity of the subject for the writer.

The poem is written in the first person, but the speaker of the poem does not place herself in a recognizably contemporary world; instead, she chooses a strange environment that seems to be partially a reconstruction of classical Greece and Rome and partially a bizarre world of exaggerated, nightmarish metaphors. As with many first-person lyrics, this poem is addressed to a specific “you”; however, the identity of the person addressed is withheld from the reader through the first three stanzas.

Plath begins with an image that suggests Humpty-Dumpty rather than the classical world. She can never get her colossus “pieced, glued, and properly jointed” together, no matter how hard she tries. Despite her attempts to “dredge the silt” from the throat of this thing (is it monster, statue, human, or animal?), all she hears are the untranslatable brays, grunts, and cackles proceeding from its lips. Because the oracles of Greece and Rome communicated by nearly incomprehensible messages, Plath thinks that perhaps these sounds are coming from a...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The chief literary technique employed by Plath is the conceit, or extended (and often exaggerated) metaphor. A reader can easily accept a quick metaphor which compares a person with a statue, but Plath allows this metaphor to surprise the reader when she insists on focusing her attention on the comparison for the entire poem.

Because of its subject matter, the poem could have easily become a macabre or sentimental piece, but because of the exaggerated and therefore humorous nature of the conceit, the poem is saved from the problems inherent in a poem about mourning a parent. The poem’s seriousness is undercut by the oddity of her comparisons.

The scattered remains of a dead parent are horrific, but Plath’s conceit allows her to challenge the horror by placing the absurd alongside it. The speaker imagines herself “crawl[ing] like an ant in mourning/ Over the weedy acres of [his] brow,” but she complicates the picture by having the metaphorical ant scale “little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol.” The poem becomes cartoonlike in its images: The ant carries glue to fix the “immense skull plates” and Lysol to clear his eyes. When the poem regains its seriousness with an allusion to Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.), the Greek tragedy, Plath again disrupts the sober scene by explaining, “I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.” She eats surrounded by her father’s bones and hair “litteredto the horizon line.” She has followed the metaphor for so long that the normal biological demands, the ingredients usually of comedy, interrupt the poem, and she picnics amid the littered scene. Finally, at night, when she protects herself from the elements near the poem’s close, she squats in “the cornucopia” of her father’s severed left ear. This hyperbolic, or exaggerated, comparison between a cornucopia and an ear, as with the other metaphors in the poem, becomes oddly humorous because the conceit, or the analogy between the father and the ruined statue, has become strained: He is her father, a Greek or Roman ruin, litter, and a cornucopia.

Plath’s successes come from her ability to risk the excesses of her metaphors, and her work is important at least partly because of the extremes—in both subject matter and style—she was able to reach in her writing.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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