The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

“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.

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“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 now”), but it terrifies her nonetheless. She graphically describes first the one face and then the other, beginning with “the one who never looks up.” He is cold and distant, and his eyes are lidded to avoid contact with the speaker. He reminds her of a marble statue, a death mask “like Blake’s.” In the second stanza, the poet continues the litany of characteristics that distinguish the first face of death. He publicly exhibits the trademark signs of the memento mori, reminding the speaker how accomplished he is by the appearance of his many birthmarks. By the end of this stanza, the poet realizes that she is his next victim. Her statement “I am red meat” mocks the serious nature of her realization while revealing her inevitable fear of the moment. She steps aside as he tries to grab her: “I am not his yet.” Still overtly threatening, he begins to play a psychological game with her by undermining those things in her physical world she feels are safe: her physical attractiveness and her children. The speaker of the poem notes his overarching self-confidence.

While he is a perfectionist, a kind of artist bragging about his accomplishments, his partner is oily, sociable, and fawning. The first wants to be respected and admired, the second “wants to be loved.” Yet they operate together: “The frost makes a flower,/ The dew makes a star.” Hoping to be noticed by neither figure, the speaker retreats into stasis. However, the lure and inevitability of the business the two contradictory figures have come for is pronounced, in the speaker’s mind, by the inevitable ringing of the bells. By the last line of the poem she knows her time is up, but her sarcasm remains: “Somebody’s done for.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

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 “Death & Co.,” which reads like a bizarre juxtaposition of things public and private. Characteristic of this poem as well as several other of Plath’s later poems are the self-reflexive quality of her experience, a rhythmic energy, clearly ambiguous images, and the colloquialisms of the speaking voice. All of this suggests that the poem is staged as a process of change and discovery narrated by a speaker who is both mocking and vengeful. For instance, “Death & Co.” opens with a juxtaposition of the two figures of death that appear before the speaker. As the poet’s discovery of their business unfolds, she carefully controls her response to their visit with a form of self-parody that helps keep in mind the exchange between the audience’s reception and her own feelings. She imposes limits of rhyme and rhythm so she can measure changes within her personal situation. The rhythmical energy of the speaking voice, in fact, is a reminder of how sporting, playful, vengeful, or mocking she can be. The first two stanzas, for example, include the repetition of numbers (“Two, of course there are two”), colors (“nude/ Verdigris” and “red meat”), alliteration (“balled, like Blake’s”), and slant rhyme (“birthmarks that are his trademark”). Sentence patterns are repeated again and again with interesting developments: “He tells me how badly I photograph./ He tells me how sweet.” The rhymes are widely separated (“sweet” in the third stanza rhymes with “feet” in the fourth stanza). However, the self-conscious, performing, and poetic self of the speaker puts her in touch with moment-to-moment changes and forces the audience to sit rapt, to accept the form as expression and artifact. It is characteristic of Plath to end her poetry with the same ironic awareness held by the speaker throughout the poem. In the final stanza and last line of “Death & Co.,” her ear for music and vernacular is right on the mark. She is still recording her speaker’s shifting sensibility even to the point that the speaker, feeling personally diminished, still maintains her voice of manic buffoonery.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 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.

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