“On Looking into Sylvia Plath’s Copy of Goethe’s Faust” is a short poem in free verse with one stanza of nineteen lines and a second stanza with fourteen lines. The title of the poem makes two allusions that are expanded and explored throughout the rest of the poem. In the title, Diane Ackerman refers to Sylvia Plath, the promising young American poet who committed suicide in 1963 at age thirty. She also refers to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823).
The first stanza is a direct address by the poet to Plath: “You underlined the jugglery of flame’/ with ink sinewy and black as an ocelot.” Ackerman identifies Plath with Faust, a medieval alchemist whose story has been retold most notably by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe and later by Goethe. Faust’s tragic flaw was his insatiable desire to know the unmediated truth of the universe. Like Faust, Plath explored the natural world for authentic experience. In the first stanza, Ackerman portrays Plath as “keen for Faust’s appetite, not Helen’s beauty.” Plath looked to the natural world for answers, dissecting each part of life with words. Ackerman details Plath’s transformation into “the doll of insight . . ./ to whom nearly all lady poets write.” According to Ackerman, Plath was alternately angry and wistful. Within the characterization of Plath, however, are chilling references to her own self-destructiveness: “You wanted to unlock the weather system/ in your cells, and one day you did.”
The second stanza shifts focus to the speaker. Whereas the first stanza has four lines beginning with the word “you,” the second stanza has three lines beginning with the word “I.” In shifting the focus, Ackerman connects herself to Plath as naturalist and poet. Ackerman, whose writings include several long prose works on natural science, seems to identify with Plath’s “nomad curiosity.” What Ackerman admires most about Plath is not her pain but her ability to see and report on the world with “cautionless ease.” In line 25, Ackerman reveals her mistaken thoughts about Plath: She had thought that Plath had come to terms with her existence. Line 31, however, returns to Faustian imagery in order to correct Ackerman’s mistaken assumptions: “But you were your own demonology,/ balancing terror’s knife on one finger,/ until you numbed, and the edge fell free.”