Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Death & Co.” is a poem about life and death. How does a woman with a troubled relationship to both life and death envision the moment when death comes to visit her? How does her poetic vision of this complicated scene get articulated? References to death abound in Plath’s poems (she attempted suicide three times, the last successfully), yet her differing figures of death reveal a fascination more with how the living view death itself than with what they imagine death to be like after life. One may wonder if this is a kind of madness. In her many poems that address the theme of death (especially her last poems, collected in Ariel), the images are frightening and surreal. Still, the poetry out of which “Death & Co.” comes is not without a kind of history. Emily Dickinson wrote harrowing poems on madness and dying, while Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Hayden Carruth all have explored similar subject matter.

The common theme among Plath’s “death poems” is, interestingly, the ambivalent attitude toward death they reveal. In “Death & Co.,” the ambivalence takes the form of a speaker who seems part of a dramatically staged performance of being in wait for death while revealing an assertiveness, wit, ingenuity, and sheer life force in attempting to outwit death. She performs even though she is faced with the suffering and pain of personal failure (how badly she photographs and her dead babies) as well...

(The entire section is 412 words.)