In many ways, Sylvia Plath as a poet defies categorization. She has been variously described as a lyricist, a confessionalist, a symbolist, an imagist, and a mere diarist, but none of these terms can adequately convey the richness of approach and content of her work. Perhaps the proper way to identify Plath is not through a process of exclusive labeling but through inclusion and synthesis. All these terms aptly describe the various modes of discourse that work effectively in her poetry and her prose.
She was definitely a lyricist, capable of creating great verbal beauty to match feelings of peace and tranquillity. Her lyricism can range from a simple but effective evocation of a Spanish sunrise (“Southern Sunrise”) in which adjectives and metaphors balance finely against the simple intent of the word-picture, to a very Hopkinsian ode for her beloved (“Ode for Ted”), in which a blending of delicacy of emotion with startling diction is achieved. Even toward the end of her tortured life, she was able to return to this mode in a few of her last poems, the finest of which is “Nick and the Candlestick,” in which transcending not only the usual maudlin and mawkish treatment of maternal love but her own emotional plight as well, she is able to re-create a moment of genuine tenderness that emerges from her wholly realistic viewing of herself and her young son. This lyrical trait was not restricted to whole poems; quite often, in the midst of utter frustration and despair, Plath creates images or sounds of great beauty.
Plath’s poetry is largely confessional, even when it is lyrical. Most of her confessional poetry, however, is not at all lyrical. Especially in her last years, she used this mode frequently, personally, and often viciously. She seldom bothered to create a persona through whom she could project feelings; rather, she simply expressed her feelings in open, exposed, even raw ways, leaving her self equally exposed. One such poem is “The Jailer,” written after her separation from Hughes. The focus is the authorial “I,” which occurs twelve times (together with the pronouns “my” and “me,” which occur thirteen times) within the poem’s forty-five lines. This thinly disguised persona imagines herself captive of her lover/husband (the jailer of the title), who has not only drugged her but also raped her; she has become, in her degradation, a “Lever of his wet dreams.” She then imagines herself to be Prometheus; she has been dropped from great heights to be smashed and consumed by the “beaks of birds.” She then projects herself in the role of a black woman being burned by her captor with his cigarettes. Then she sees herself as a starved prisoner, her ribs showing after her meals of only “Lies and smiles.” Then she sees herself as persecuted by him because of her rather frail religious belief (her “church of burnt matchsticks”). She is killed in several ways: “Hung, starved, burned, hooked.” In her impotence to wish him the harm she feels he deserves, she retreats to slanders against his sexuality, making him impotent as well. She is paralyzed: unable to attain freedom through his death (by her wishes) and unable to escape her own imagination and her own psyche’s fears. She ends the poem by unconsciously revealing her worst fear: “What would the light/ Do without eyes to knife, what would he/ Do, do, do without me?” She seems reconciled to the pain and suffering that awareness brings, but, by repeating “d” three times, she shows that she cannot face her awareness that her lover has already assumed another active role, that he is performing on his new victim the same deeds he performed on her. Written only four months before her death, this poem shows Plath at both her strongest and her weakest. She is in command of the poetic form and language, but the emotions running through the words are in control of her. This same phenomenon occurs in many of Plath’s other confessional poems, but especially in “Daddy,” perhaps her most infamous poem. There she also seems able to control the artistic expression within the demands of the poem, but she ultimately resorts to “screaming” at her father, who is transformed into a “Panzer-man,” a “Fascist,” and a “bastard.”
Plath used many symbols throughout her poetry, some assuming the value of motifs. Although her mode was not, in the strictest literary sense of the word, symbolic, she frequently resorted to symbols as primary conveyors of meaning, especially in some of her most personal and most obscure poems. The moon held a special fascination for her, and it recurs throughout her entire poetic output. Colors—especially white—take on greater significance with each appearance. In the same manner, trees become larger and more significant in her later poems. Fetuses and corpses, although less often used, are two prominent symbols in her poetry. Animals move in and out of symbolic meaning in both her poetry and prose. The sea is second only to the moon as one of her favorite symbols. Other recurring symbols include bees, spheres (skulls, balloons, wombs, heads), mirrors, flowers, and physical wounds. This is only a partial list, and the meaning of each of these symbols in any particular context is governed by many factors; but the mere repetition shows that Plath allowed them to assume special value in her own mind and imbued them with special meaning in her poems.
Plath was also capable of creating Imagistic poems, word-pictures intended to evoke a specific emotional response. Using an economy of words and an artist’s eye (Plath did sketch and draw for a brief period), she could present a picture from her travels in Spain (“Fiesta Melons”), ships tied up at a wharf in winter (“A Winter Ship”), or a beach scene in which her eye is attracted by an incongruous figure (“Man in Black”).
Perhaps Plath’s greatest talent lay in her ability to transform everyday experiences—the kind that would be appropriate entries in a diary—into poems. Her poetry is a journal, recording not only full-fledged experiences but also acute perceptions and a wide range of moods. One such poem based on an everyday happening is “Medallion,” in which the persona tells of discovering a dead snake. In fact, if the lines of the poem were simply punctuated as prose, the piece would have very much the appearance of a diary entry. This style in no way lessens the value of the piece as poetry. It is, indeed, one of Plath’s most successful works because it is elegantly easy and colloquial, exemplifying one more mode of expression in which the poet excelled.
As Plath developed as a poet, she attempted to fuse these various modes, so that, by the end of her life, she was writing poems that combined any number of symbols and images into a quasi-lyrical confessional poem. What remains constant throughout her life and the various modes in which she wrote, however, is the rooting of the poem in her own experience. If Plath is to be faulted, this quality is perhaps her greatest weakness: She was not able to project her personae a great distance from herself. Plath was aware of this limitation (she once wrote: “I shall perish if I can write about no one but myself”), and she attempted to turn it into an advantage. She tried to turn her personal experiences and feelings into a vision. Her vision was in no way comprehensive, nor did it ever receive any systematic expression in prose, but it did govern many of her finest creations, especially in her later poetry, and it does account for the “lapses of taste” that many readers find annoying in her.
One of Plath’s last poems will serve as an example of how this vision both limited and freed her expression. “Mary’s Song” is a complex of religious imagery and the language of war, combined to express feelings of persecution, betrayal, impending destruction, and, at the same time, defiant hope. The poem is very personal, even though its language works to drown the personal voice. An everyday, ordinary scene—a Sunday dinner in preparation, a lamb cooking in its own fat—suddenly provokes violent associations. It is the Sunday lamb whose fat sacrifices its opacity. The fire catches the poet’s attention—fire that crystallizes window panes, that cooks the lamb, that burned the heretics, that burned the Jews in Poland. The poet re-creates the associations as they occurred to her, as it was prompted by this everyday event of cooking. Her vision of the world—bleak, realistic, pessimistic—demands that the associations follow each other and that the poem then turn on the poet herself, which it does. The victims of the fire do not die, she says, implying that the process has somehow transformed them, purified them. She, however, is left to live, to have the ashes of these victims settle on her eye and in her mouth, forcing her to do a psychic penance, during which she sees the smokestacks of the ovens in Poland as a kind of Calvary. The final stanza returns the poet to her immediate plight: Her own heart is a holocaust through which she must travel; it too has been victimized by fathers, mothers, husbands, men, gods. She ends by turning to her own child—her golden child—and lamenting that he too will be “killed and eat[en]” by this same world.
This poem shows how Plath’s vision worked to take a moment in her day and, rather than merely entering it mechanically in her journal, transform it into a statement on suffering. The horror of death by fire for heretics and Jews in Poland is no less intense, she says, because her horror—a heart that is a holocaust—is as real as theirs was; nor is her horror any the less horrible because other victims’ horror was so great or so real. Plath’s vision works to encapsulate this statement with its corollary in virtually all her later confessional pieces.
Although Plath’s vision remained, unfortunately for her, fairly consistent, the personae through whom she expressed that vision often varied widely. In some poems there is no reason to assume the presence of any persona; powerful, sometimes psychotic emotions brush aside any obstacle between Plath and her reader. This shortened distance can be seen in such poems as “The Disquieting Muses,” “On the Decline of Oracles,” “Full Fathom Five,” “Lesbos,” and “Lady Lazarus,” all poems written with a specific person in mind as both the subject of the poem and the object of the feeling, usually anger, expressed therein. In these works, Plath does little to create a mask behind which she could create feelings analogous to her own. Rather, she simply charges frontally and attacks whoever she feels has somehow wronged her. As a result of too much frontal assault and too little consideration for the poetic mode, some of these poems are not as successful as those in which she is at least in control of the poetic medium.
On the other hand, Plath could at times be a bit too detached from her persona, trying to force personal sentiment into a statement intended to have universal significance. One example of this kind of distancing is “Maudlin,” a poem rooted in Plath’s experience but one that attempts to moralize without sufficiently providing the moral, or literal, groundwork. Its cryptic images—a sleep-talking virgin, “Faggot-bearing Jack,” and “Fish-tailed girls”—drive the reader to hunt for clues outside the poem, weakening the basis for the moralizing that takes place in the last two lines. The poem seems to be based on a birth that Plath witnessed during one of her visits to a hospital with a medical student. The “sleep-talking virgin” is the expectant mother (thus Plath indulged her love of dark and comic irony), rambling on in her drug-induced stupor. “Jack” is the child, reluctant to emerge from the mother (hence, “in his crackless egg”), a male bearing a “faggot” (a penis). He finally emerges with his “claret hogshead” (the placenta) to take his place with the dominant sex in the world (“he kings it”). This scene is behind the poem, but it cannot be reconstructed from the poem itself: The reader must turn to The Bell Jar and other prose. Without an understanding of this scene—knowledge of what is literally occurring—the reader is not only unprepared for the moral at the end of the poem, but is also unwilling to accept such a pat bit of overt sermonizing, especially after pondering the cryptic clues. The poet simply warns her readers, especially women, that such pain as the mother suffers in childbirth results from the loss of the maidenhead. “Maudlin” is one of the few poems by Plath that actually needs less distance between the poet and her persona; it stands as an example of the other extreme to which Plath occasionally went, confusing her readers in an attempt to “depersonalize” her poems. A similar poem is “Among the Narcissi,” about her ailing neighbor in Devon: It lacks the presence of the persona, it lacks a perspective, and it lacks a reason for its stark diction.
Such failures, however, were not typical: Few of her poems suffer from excessive detachment. Rather, her recurring struggle was against uncontrolled subjectivity and self-dramatization. Two poems written in October, 1962, demonstrate the difficulties Plath faced when her poetic persona was simply herself, and her poetry less an act of communication than a private rite of exorcism. The first poem, “By Candlelight,” presents a winter night’s scene of a mother and her young son. The first stanza represents the exterior environment as threatening to break through the windows and overwhelm the two characters in cold and darkness. The next stanza focuses on the reality given the child by the light that fights the darkness (the candlelight of the title). The next stanza presents the awakening of the child and the poet’s gazing on a brass figure supporting the candle. That figure is the focus of the final stanza, in which the little Atlas figure becomes the child’s sole heirloom, his sole protection “when the sky falls.” The poem is Plath’s lamentation on her inadequacy as a mother, as a human being, and as a poet to ward off the world that threatens to break through the window. Her perception is made graphic and horrifying, as the surroundings take on an autonomy beyond human control. The tone of this poem is submissive, not even rebellious; the poet writes as therapy for her wounded self, as justification for resorting to words when all else fails.
“Nick and the Candlestick”
“Nick and the Candlestick,” written five days later, reveals changes in the poet’s psyche that make the poem more assertive and alter its tone. Even the very beginning of the poem reflects this change of tone: “I am a miner.” At least now the poet has assumed some sort of active role, she is doing something other than resorting to mere words to ward off mortality. She does, in fact, assume the role of a target, a lightning rod to attract the overwhelming forces toward her and away from the child. Even her small gestures—decorating their “cave” with rugs and roses and other Victoriana—have taken on great significance as acts to ward off the reality outside the window. The poet is able to end on a note of strengthened resignation, almost challenging the world to hurl its worst at her, for her child has been transformed by her into her own messiah, “the baby in the barn.” The process by which this quasi-religious transformation and salvation has occurred accounts for the major differences in tone in these two poems; but, again, without reference to Plath’s life, the reader cannot be expected to grasp this process.
The tonal fluctuation and the inconsistent and varied personae in Plath’s poems are rooted in her personality, which is capable of adopting numerous, almost infinite, masks. Plath played at many roles in her life: wronged daughter, brilliant student, coy lover, settled housewife, poet of promise, and mentally disturbed woman. Her life reflects her constant attempt to integrate these masks into what she could consider her identity—an irreproachable and independent psyche that needed no justification for its existence. Her life was spent in pursuit of this identity. She attempted to reassemble her shattered selves after her first suicide attempt, to exorcize selves that seemed to her too horrible, and to invent selves that she felt she should possess. Her poetry overwhelms its readers with its thematic consistency, drafted into this battle by Plath to help her survive another day, to continue the war against a world that seemed always on the verge of undoing the little progress she had made. Her personae were created from her and by her, but they were also created for her, with a very specific intent: survival of the self as an integrated whole.
In her quest for survival, Plath uncannily resembled Hedda Gabler, the title character of the 1890 Henrik Ibsen play. Like Hedda, Plath viewed the feminine self as a product created and manipulated by traditions and bindings far beyond the control of the individual woman. Also like Hedda, Plath felt that by rejecting the traditional demands placed on women, she could take one step toward assertion of an independent self. Plath’s reactions to these traditional demands can be seen in “All the Death Dears,” “The Ghost’s Leavetaking,” and “Magi,” but the bulk of her poetry deals not so much with rejection of demands as with the whole process of establishing and maintaining identity. Masks, roles, charades, lies, and veils all enter Plath’s quest and all recur throughout her poems.
In “Channel Crossing,” an early poem, Plath uses the excitement of a storm at sea to suspend temporarily the identity of the persona, who reassumes her identity when the poem ends and she picks up her luggage. Identity is depicted as a fragile, dispensable entity. The nature of identity is also a theme in “The Lady and the Earthenware Head,” in which the head is a tangible mask, a physically separate self that the persona seeks unsuccessfully to destroy. Here, instead of fragility, Plath emphasizes the oppressive durability of a prefabricated self. Identity’s endurance, if it violates one’s personal sense of self, is a terrible burden. That quality is displayed in“The Bee Meeting.” Here the persona is a naked, vulnerable self that assumes identity only when the villagers surrounding her recognize her need for clothing, give her the clothing, and respond to the new self. The poem ends with the implication that her perceived identity will prove to be permanent, despite any efforts she might make to alter these perceptions. Identity becomes a matter of perception, as is clearly stated in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” In this poem, the persona concedes to the artist’s perception the very power to establish the artist’s identity. The dynamic of power between perceived and perceiver is finely balanced in this poem. In “A Birthday Present,” the balance is tipped by the duplicity of veils and what they hide in identities that are established within personal relationships.
“Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”
Toward the end of her life, Plath’s concern with identity became rebellious. In “Daddy,” she openly declares her rebellion, severing the demands and ties of tradition that so strangled her earlier in her life and in her poetry. She adopts several methods to achieve her end of freedom: name calling, new identities, scorn, humiliation, and transfer of aggression. Her freedom rings false, however; the ties are still there. “Lady Lazarus” reveals Plath’s awareness of the lingering ties and stands as an encapsulation of her whole life’s quest for identity—from passivity, to passive resistance, to active resistance, and finally to the violently imagined destruction of those people who first gave and then shattered her self: men. This poem contains meaning within meaning and exposes much about Plath’s feelings on where her identity arose. She saw herself as a product of a male society, molded by men to suit their particular whims or needs. Her contact with women in this context led inevitably to conflict and competition. This duality in her self was never overcome, never expelled, or, worse, never understood. Having failed to manipulate her manipulators, she tried to find identity by destroying her creators. Set free from the basis she had always known even if she despised it, she had nowhere else to go but to the destruction of the self as well.
Plath realized this quandary. In “Words,” a poem written ten days before her death, she looked back:
Years later IEncounter them on the road—Words dry and riderless,The indefatigable hoof-taps.WhileFrom the bottom of the pool, fixed starsGovern a life.
The words with which she had striven to create a self—a meaningful self that would integrate her various sides in a harmonious whole and not merely reflect “daddy’s girl,” “mommy’s girl,” “big sister,” “sorority Sue,” or “Mrs. Hughes”—these words had turned “dry and riderless.” They too had failed her, just as her family, friends, husband, and her own self had failed her. She had sought identity in traditional places—parents, school, marriage, and work—but had not found enough strands to weave her various selves together. She had sought identity in unorthodox places—the mind, writing, Devon, and hope—but even these failed her.
Plath finally conceded her failure to create a self that would satisfy her and the world about her. She reviewed a life that she had tried to end earlier. Even then she had been forced to regroup, forced to continue inhaling and exhaling. The truth of the real world that had threatened to overwhelm her collection of masks throughout her life had finally yielded to her on one point. She asked ten days before her death: “Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?” The perfection of death that had haunted her throughout her life seemed the only answer. Her final act was her ultimate affirmation of self in a world that would not let her or her words assume their holistic role.