Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

In the opening stanza, the speaker shows her contempt for the great statue she is trying to repair, stating:

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Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles

Proceed from your great lips.

It’s worse than a barnyard.

The speaker has contempt for the figure; what comes from the lips of this great statue is animal sounds that have no beauty or meaning. Though she tries to pry an understanding from it, all the figure produces is confusion. In the next two stanzas, she addresses the figure directly, asking if he considers himself an "oracle," a dispenser of wisdom, but saying that after thirty years of dredging nothing but wet dirt from it, she is no wiser. She also likens herself to an ant, having taken on the role of endless drudgery in trying to maintain, clean, and repair the statue. She struggles with her identity and sees herself as small for having spent so much time focused on making sense of their relationship and thinking there would be some benefit to her work.

The fourth stanza alludes to ancient mythology:

A blue sky out of the Oresteia

Arches above us. O father, all by yourself

You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.

I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.

Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered.

In Agamemnon, the first play in the Oresteia, Aeschylus's trilogy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods. Agamemnon is late killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, as vengeance. Electra, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's other daughter, is left to mourn her father, despite the complicated relationship and legacy that he left behind. The poem's speaker sacrifices herself, as the women of this ancient myth were sacrificed, to the identity and legacy of her father.

The black cypress tree symbolizes death in the classical tradition, and it represented mourning in ancient times as well as in the Victorian era. The imagery of death continues in the fluted bones and acanthine (leaflike hair) of broken Roman statues. This parallels the death of Plath's own father when she was only eight years old, and it illustrates the metaphorical ruins left in the wake of a parent's death. In the last stanza, she states she has given up hope—she no longer waits for the "keel," or ship of return that will save her.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

“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 “mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.” Although she has worked for thirty years on her dredging project, she is “none the wiser”; no god’s message has been heard.

The third and fourth stanzas remain focused on the image of the incomprehensible head, but they move from the lips to the brow, the eyes, and the hair. In addition, the fourth stanza finally removes some ambiguity by stating specifically that the “you” she is trying to recompose and listen to is, in fact, the speaker’s father. The images become increasingly bizarre and macabre as the speaker crawls all over the “skull plates” of her father, trying still to clean and mend him. She then proceeds to eat her lunch in this huge burial ground. The father’s enormity is clear not only because of the physical size of his ruined corpse/statue, but also because of the exaggerated comparisons he elicits from the speaker: Her father, all by himself, is “pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.” The reader is convinced that the father is immensely important to the speaker by the sheer size and outrageousness of the comparisons.

The final stanzas end one workday for the tireless speaker and begin another. During the night, she protects herself from the elements by squatting “in the cornucopia/ Of [his] left ear,” but she still hears nothing from him. The morning sun rises “from under the pillar of [his] tongue,” but it rises silently: No message comes from the land of the dead. The speaker is “married to shadow,” not substance, because she is still enamored of her deceased father. The poem ends with a striking image, taken once again from the classical world, of a boat’s keel scraping the shore as it lands; she no longer listens for this sound of rescue or deliverance—either because she does not expect a husband-type figure to win her or because she has resolved herself to the fact that her father will never return.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 193

Anderson, Robert. Little Fugue. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001.

Bundtzen, Lynda. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition, by Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

Many American poets writing after World War II concentrated on their own personal histories or family trees for poetic subject matter. Sylvia Plath is often linked with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman, all poets writing in postwar America, because of the self-analysis and self-reflection present in the poems. Often these writers are called “confessional poets” because they reveal their own personal obsessions, psychological quirks, or tawdry misdeeds in the poems. Plath’s “The Colossus” fits into this school of poetry because of its self-absorption and the ambivalent feelings the speaker has toward her father.

Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her father, who died when she was eight, is the subject of much of her poetry. In later poems, especially “Daddy,” she reveals astonishingly strong and disturbing feelings toward her father. She imagines herself as a Jew and her father as a Nazi and confesses that she, in some way, relishes the role: “Every woman adores a Fascist,/ The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you.” The poet seems to enjoy the need for punishment, perhaps to erase feelings of guilt about her father’s death.

“The Colossus,” an early poem, does not go quite so far in examining the psychologically disturbing relationship of father and daughter as “Daddy” does, but it does examine archetypal patterns of behavior. It is no accident that the poem’s one direct allusion to a classical text comes with the “blue sky out of the Oresteia.” That trilogy by the Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus deals in part with Electra’s attempt to come to terms with the death of her father, Agamemnon. Sigmund Freud, working with this Greek myth, thought the Electra complex paralleled in many ways the male Oedipus complex, and he suggested that daughters often want to displace their mothers in order to capture totally their father’s affections.

Plath’s obsessive quest to reestablish contact with her father in “The Colossus” participates in some ways in this Freudian theory. The mother is invisible in the poem (and in most Plath poems); she is removed from the scene by the author’s inattention to the relationship. The speaker confesses that her “hours are married to shadow” because of her devotion to her father’s memory. In the poem, she labors to piece together her father in order to establish some type of relationship with him again; she wants to hear him speak, to listen to his words of advice.

The fact that the father lies scattered across the poem, littering the horizon, perhaps suggests the ambivalence the poet feels for her father. On one hand she wants to become reunited with him, but on the other the image she creates of a dismembered ruin perhaps suggests her anger at her father for leaving her when she was a young girl.

When a poem deals with a psychologically complex relationship, its meaning is often difficult to pin down. The seriousness of the poem’s subject combines with the comic exaggerations of the conceit, and the desire of the speaker for reunion with her father is linked with Plath’s own capacity to “create such a ruin” in the first place. To say that the poem’s meaning is difficult to express is to say that Plath’s relationship with her father was extremely ambivalent. Like most good poems, “The Colossus” creates its power from the tensions and ambiguities it contains.

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