On Looking into Sylvia Plath's Copy of Goethe's

by Diane Fink
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

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“On Looking Into Sylvia Plath’s Copy of Goethe’s Faust” is more than an elegy for Plath. It is also an exploration of two poets, Plath and Ackerman, and their notions of poetry. Through the use of allusion, Ackerman expands and widens the scope of her poem; however, in order for readers to understand the poem, they must know something about Plath’s life, work, and death, and about Goethe’s The Tragedy of Faust. Plath, a graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts, had her first poem published when she was a child. After that, she wrote hundreds of poems. She married the English poet Ted Hughes and the couple had two children. In the semiautobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963), she chronicles her own struggle with depression and attempted suicide. On February 11, 1963, alone and ill in a London flat, her marriage in ruins, Plath killed herself by sticking her head into the oven and turning on the gas.

The recognition of Plath’s talent as a poet has grown in the years since her death, and Ackerman’s careful characterization of Plath reveals close attention to her poetry. For example, Ackerman writes that Plath “undressed the flesh/ in word mirrors.” This line alludes to the poem “Mirror,” in which Plath, speaking as the mirror, writes, “A woman bends over me/ Searching my reaches for what she really is.” This line suggests that words can somehow mirror reality in such a way that a reader can find truth in poetry. Likewise, Ackerman writes that Plath “wanted/ to be a word on the lips of the abyss,” a reference to the creation story according to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” This reference speaks the belief that words can create worlds ex nihilo just as God created the world out of the abyss.

In the most important allusion in the poem, Ackerman links Plath with The Tragedy of Faust, a play about a medieval scholar who makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain knowledge, wealth, and power. Faust’s deal requires Mephistopheles to give him whatever he wants of earthly pleasures, but Faust will forfeit his life and soul if he ever stops striving to experience more, if he ever becomes satisfied with what he has. In the poem, “Faust’s appetite” refers to his longing to know the world directly, something Ackerman also attributes to Plath.

It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that this poem is only about Plath. Ackerman is known for her intense curiosity and her sensory appetite. She longs to explore the natural world and lay its secrets bare. Consequently, some of the same images and allusions she associates with Plath appear in other poems Ackerman has written. For example, the ocelot image from line 2 surfaces in another poem from Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: In “Dinner at the Waldorf,” Ackerman writes, “Unleash me and I am an ocelot/ all appetite and fur.” Even more telling, Ackerman’s earlier collection of poems is called Lady Faustus (1983). In the title poem she writes, “I rage to know/ what beings like me, stymied by death/ and leached by wonder, hug those campfires night allows,/ aching to know the fate of us all.” This is the theme of much of her work: the desire to know the natural world directly and to learn the truth of existence. Thus when Ackerman writes that she thought Plath had “found serenity in the plunge/ of a hot image into cool words” and that she thought that Plath had taken “the pledge/ that sunlight makes to living things,” it seems likely that she is writing to herself, for this certainly describes how Ackerman has come to terms with her overwhelming desire to know. For Ackerman, the tragedy of Plath’s life is not her suicide but rather her numbness, her growing inability to experience life’s terror and joy.