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

Diane Fink

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 653 words.)