The Poem

“Death & Co.” is a short poem in free verse, its thirty-one lines divided into seven stanzas. The title suggests the name of a business or corporation; its function is to establish the mood of the poem, which is ironic and mocking. Death is often viewed with ambivalence, something that not only takes away life but also (sometimes mistakenly) offers comfort to those who are in pain or who believe in an afterlife; death can seem cold and officious, but also, perhaps, ironic in the form it finally takes. The poem is written in the first person in the form of a confession monologue in which the speaker mockingly describes a terrifying—and coldly businesslike—scene unfolding before her eyes. While it is often the case that poets use a persona to distinguish themselves from the poem’s speaker, no such distinction is implied in this poem. The poet Sylvia Plath, like the speaker, conceives a monologue wherein one person speaks alone. Although Plath is considered by many to be a “confessional” poet, this poem seems less like a confession to someone, explicitly or implicitly, and more like a monologue to the self.

“Death & Co.” begins with the idea of a duality, a form common to many of the subjects in Plath’s poetry. In this case, the speaker, while being visited by two mordant and menacing figures, becomes aware that death is not singular but has two faces. It is a realization that does not surprise her (“It seems perfectly natural...

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Forms and Devices

Early criticism of Plath’s poetry tended to see it as confessional in nature, an autobiography of the poet’s personal neuroses. Following that line of thinking, readers who examine the imagery closely will time and again be referred back to the poet’s own desperate life, which was filled with shame and psychic fragility. The early critics viewed her work as successful not because it was strictly confessional but because the self placed at the center of the poem makes “vulnerability and shame” representative of a wider civilization. The private events are universalized through the speaking voice. However, later literary critics began to focus more on her developing poetic and the achievement of her voice and tone, while admitting that much of her content was in fact drawn from her own life. Perhaps the strongest reason to believe that Plath’s clever crafting of her poetry places her outside the strictly confessional school of poetry (a school that includes the poets John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Anne Sexton) is that she avoids sounding confessional; she lacks self-pity and an overreaction to what might seem appropriately terrifying. In other words, she constructs in her later poems dramatically staged performances that pose a tension through the face-off between life, movement, and energy on one hand and death, inertia, and passivity on the other.

This juxtaposition between life force and death force may be said to be at the heart of...

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