Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073

Sylvia Plath 1932-1963

Illustration of PDF document

Download Sylvia Plath Study Guide

Subscribe Now

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Plath from 1980 to 1999.

Considered an important poet of the post-World War II era, Plath became widely known following her suicide in 1963 and the posthumous publication of Ariel, a collection containing some of her most startling and acclaimed verse. Through bold metaphors and stark, often violent and unsettling imagery, Plath's works evoke mythic qualities in nature and humanity. Her vivid, intense poems explore such topics as personal and feminine identity, individual suffering and oppression, and the inevitability of death. Plath's life and works experienced renewed interest when her former husband, the poet Ted Hughes, published in 1998 a volume of poems—Birthday Letters—intended to tell his side of the story of their stormy marriage.

Biographical Information

Born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Plath enjoyed an idyllic early childhood near the sea. Her father, a German immigrant, was a professor of entomology at Boston College who maintained a special interest in the study of bees. His sudden death from diabetes mellitus in 1940 devastated the eight-year-old Plath, and many critics note the significance of this traumatic experience to her poetry, which frequently contains both brutal and reverential characterizations of her father, as well as imagery of the sea and allusions to bees. Plath began publishing poetry at an early age in such publications as Seventeen magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, and in 1959 she earned a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. After spending a month as a guest editor for Mademoiselle in New York City during the summer of her junior year, Plath suffered a mental collapse that resulted in a suicide attempt and her subsequent institutionalization. She later chronicled the circumstances and consequences of this breakdown in her best-selling novel The Bell Jar. Following her recovery, Plath returned to Smith and graduated summa cum laude in 1955. After winning a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University in England, Plath met and married English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. Although they were both by that time respected poets, the competition between Plath and Hughes was intense, with Plath frequently feeling overshadowed and intimidated by Hughes. The eventual disintegration of their marriage in the early 1960s, intensified for Plath by Hughes's relationship with another woman, and the ensuing struggles with severe depression that led to her suicide in 1963 are considered crucial elements of Plath's most critically acclaimed poetry.

Major Works

Plath's poetry poignantly reflects her struggles with despair and mental illness, while her efforts to assert a strong female identity and to balance familial, marital, and career aspirations have established her as a representative voice for feminist concerns. Although she is frequently linked with confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, all of whom directly expressed personal torments and anguish in their work, critics have noted that many of Plath's poems are dramatic monologues voiced by a character who is not necessarily autobiographical. Plath's verse is represented in several volumes. The Colossus, the only book of her poems published during her lifetime, collects poems dating from the mid- to late 1950s; Ariel contains poems selected by Hughes from among the many works Plath composed during the final months before her death; Winter Trees collects several more of the Ariel poems and reflects Hughes's plan to publish Plath's later works in intervals; Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems reprints most of post-Colossus and pre-Ariel verse; and The Collected Poems, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, features all of her verse, including juvenilia and several previously unpublished pieces in order of composition. Plath's early verse reflects various poetic influences, evoking the mythic qualities of the works of William Butler Yeats and Ted Hughes, the diverse experiments with form and language of Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden, and the focus on personal concerns that dominates the verse of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. Most of her early poems are formal, meticulously crafted, and feature elaborate syntax and well-developed metaphors. These early poems are more subdued in their subject matter, tone, and language than the later work for which she became renowned. This later work evidences the increasing frustration of her desires. Her ambitions of finding happiness through work, marriage, and family were thwarted by such events as hospital stays for a miscarriage and an appendectomy, the breakup of her marriage, and fluctuating moods in which she felt vulnerable to male domination and threatening natural forces, particularly death. Following the dissolution of her marriage, Plath moved with her two children from the Devon countryside to a London flat, where the Irish poet William Butler Yeats had once resided, and wrote feverishly from the summer of 1962 until her death in February of the following year. Many of her best-known poems, including “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Lesbos,” “Purdah,” and “Edge” were written during this period and form the nucleus of Ariel. These poems, which reflect her increasing anger, bitterness, and despair, feature intense, rhythmic language that blends terse statements, sing-song passages, repetitive phrasing, and sudden violent images, metaphors, and declarations. For example, in “Daddy,” perhaps her most frequently discussed and anthologized work, Plath denounces her father's dominance over her life and, among other allusions, associates him with Nazism and herself with Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Plath's relationship with her husband supplied her with material for poems containing similarly violent imagery, where women are discussed as dolls and other objects of men's whimsy.

Critical Reception

Response to “Daddy” reflects the general opinion of much of Plath's later work. Some critics contend that Plath's jarring effects and preoccupation with her own problems are extravagant, and many object to her equation of personal sufferings with such horrors as those experienced by victims of Nazi genocide. Others, however, praise the passion and formal structure of her later poems, through which she confronted her tensions and conflicts. Since Plath's death, Ted Hughes has frequently been excoriated, particularly by feminist critics and writers, for driving her to suicide and for his seemingly callous response to her. This arguably romanticized interpretation of the couple's problems led in the late 1960s and 1970s to Plath's cult-like status as a “confessional” poet. The publication in 1998 of Hughes's Birthday Letters, a book of poems that attempt to explain his position and respond to many of Plath's accusations against him in her poetry, led to a new interest in Plath and her writings.

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

The Colossus 1960

Ariel 1965

Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems 1971

Winter Trees 1981

The Collected Poems 1981

The Bell Jar [as Victoria Lucas] (novel) 1963; also published as The Bell Jar [as Sylvia Plath], 1966

Letters Home: Correspondence, 1960-1963 (letters) 1975

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings (prose) 1977; also published as Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts [enlarged edition], 1979

The Journals of Sylvia Plath (journals) 1982

Mary Lynn Broe (essay date 1980)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13584

SOURCE: Broe, Mary Lynn. “The Colossus: ‘In Sign Language of a Lost Other World.’” In Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, 43-79. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Broe discusses Plath's poetic vision during the writing of The Colossus.]


Before the advent of the posthumous volume Ariel in 1965, The Colossus poems were heralded as promising examples of well-crafted work. Critics described the poems as hardy in language and sensibility, marked by unsentimental vitality, “mint-new” rhymes and decisive rhythms: “concrete experience arranged in clean, easy verse, ornate where necessary.”1 In addition to her fine handling of language, Plath was praised for humor, cleverness, and exuberance: “Sylvia Plath writes clever, vivacious poetry which will be enjoyed most by intelligent people capable of having fun with poetry and not just being holy about it.”2 Even the most grotesque of The Colossus poems prompted another critic to say that “she writes a plump and stumping line that jolts with imagination and clarity … she likes life—oh, rare response!”3 Finally, in a 1962 review of The Colossus, E. Lucas Myers almost prophetically suggested that “the poems should be criticized as they are, not as the critics think they might have been. … I cannot help but wonder what will happen if, in Miss Plath's second volume of poems, the emotional distance is shortened.”4

The poet died by suicide on 12 February 1963, leaving a substantial body of uncollected, unpublished poetry, fiction, and prose writing. After the second volume, Ariel, critics shifted their focus to the macabre and grisly elements of The Colossus: “Always she is aware of the doubleness of things, the shark beneath the surface, the tumult beneath the calm, the glitter beneath the veil.”5 Now described as a “breviary of estrangement,” The Colossus became a casebook for those seeking evidence of suicidal despair. Richard Howard spoke of the teasing, riddling quality, the allusive technique of the poems, as “disaster within the surface of life”: the poet brooded over a “broken landscape.”6 In retrospective comment, M. L. Rosenthal rebuked himself for previously overlooking those “irresistible motives” pushing toward the surface of the poems: “The way in which many of the poems are haunted by images of cold terror, and the empathy involved in her poems about dead animals, are more striking now, and the theme of suicide is seen to be more pervasive than was at first evident.”7

When Alfred Alvarez suggested that the disciplined art of The Colossus functioned as a fence to keep psychological disturbance at bay,8 critics and reviewers jumped on the “suicide bandwagon” in their eagerness to mythologize Plath. Pathology was equated with poetic power. Any diminished quality of pain or estrangement in the poems hinted that the poet had not yet come to grips with her subject as an artist. With such revisionist views, the critical history of The Colossus split between life and art, between the pre- and the post-Ariel perspective, a pattern that has determined Plath scholarship of subsequent years.

It is worth introducing another view of these poems, one that explores the broader imaginative vision that shapes both the riddling atmosphere and the particulars of poetic construction (syllabics, slant-rhyme, “ghost” terza rima). For the subject matter of The Colossus suggests the quiet elegance of an old painting: “the prospect is dull as an old etching,” we are told. “At this wharf there are no grand landings to speak of,” merely the “incense of death” mingled with “hours of blankness,” stony landspits with a “bier of quahog chips”; classical tragedy (Medea, the Oresteia) with a dull monochrome newsreel; or nostalgic glances backward to the mythical Lorelei, Lucine, or the ruined Colossus of Rhodes set next to the contemporary ironies of Brueghel and Baskin. “What starts as description,” we are assured, “finishes as a way of defining her [Plath's] own state of mind”9 in these distanced and impersonal poems, balanced and framed like artwork. A peculiar emblematic vision of simultaneity—one that Plath describes as a dialogue between “wingy myths” and “blunt, indefatigable facts”—saturates the Colossus poems.

In the poems written sporadically between 1950 and 1957, Plath made a general philosophical commitment to the whole gamut of opposite choices confronting her. She dutifully recited the rhetorical polarities. She debated her own position between the “fact of doubt, the faith of dream,” often borrowing stale clichés, outmoded metrical forms, and static metaphors. Even the occasional clever variation of traditional form could not redeem the sophomoric subject matter of a circus love “more athletic than a verb”:

Treading circus tightropes
          Of each syllable,
The brazen jacknapes
          Would fracture if he fell.
Acrobat of space
          The daring adjective
Plunges for a phrase
          Describing arcs of love.(10)

But as she attempted a “duet of light and shade” between the forces of love and the powers of the imagination, Plath discovered that the imagination collapsed in the face of the blunt physical world. In sobering polemics she urged herself to accept the fact of limitation, of the less-than-ideal, in a world where “no glory descends” and “all extrapolation beyond the now and here” was doomed.

The early poems convinced Plath that her intellectual and theoretical mandates were to no avail: “so much / is vision good for: like a persistent stitch / In the side, it nags, is tedious.” The chief difference in The Colossus poems is that Plath becomes her own idiosyncratic “literalist of the imagination,” nagged by an idyllic union of contradictory qualities, both practical and visionary. And within her poems—those balanced and cropped pictorial compositions—she repeatedly describes a synchronistic state that suspends the rooted and fluid qualities of things in elemental poise: the lovingly tended “greased machines” of “Night Shift” combine the thud of hammers with the silent, “stalled” motion of the machine; “white Niagaras / Build up from a rock root, as fountains build / Against the weighty image of their fall” in “Moonrise”; a gull frozen in motion suggests an extradimensional view of life in “A Winter Ship,” for it holds the “whole of the flat harbor anchored in / The round of his yellow eye-button.”

Throughout the volume, various poetic devices betray the same habit of vision, the same inclusive pictorial design. With a careful balance of ingredients, Plath dwells in several poems on midpoints or transitional states (day to night, conscious to unconscious). The deliberate two-part structure of other poems (“Aftermath,” “Two Views of a Cadaver Room”) suggests, by physical analogue, her characteristic imaginative realm. In the latter poem, Plath juxtaposes the cadaver room with a well-known Brueghel painting, joining the clinical “rubble of skull plates and old leather” to satin, music, and romantic love. Likewise, memory and indifference are meshed in “Point Shirley,” while the social and personal responses to tragedy are united in “Aftermath.”

Finally, the very shape of the volume itself—the only book of poems to be completely structured and emotionally ordered by Plath—is another version of the simultaneity that obsesses the poet. The Colossus gives the impression that an amorphous, mythical world of “a certain meaning green” coexists with crumbling wrecks and tragic aftermaths. The partially formed world grows ominous while the broken world simply decays, but both coexist in sparring commentary that determines the shape of the volume.

By joining mutually exclusive elements, Plath attempts her own “balance and reconciliation of opposites.” Given rather startling historical precedents,11 she cultivates unresolved ambivalence in her habit of vision and tries to formulate the stated contradictions into a working theory of poetic imagination. In doing this, Plath suggests a need for complexity without isolating or separating contradictory aspects of her awareness. Like those dark old crones in the poem “Net Menders,” Plath is engaged in the specific labors of her craft, but she never ignores the broader, idyllic vision of things:

While their fingers work with the coarse mesh and the fine,
Their eyes revolve the whole town like a blue-and-green ball.
Nobody dies or is born without their knowing it.
They talk of bride-lace, or lovers spunky as gamecocks.(12)

Life is cruelly intricate, starkly simple, bitterly ironic, ecstatically joyous. Why choose to recognize merely one facet, the poet seems to ask.

The imaginative order that Plath so insistently describes in The Colossus remains psychologically distanced from her poetic sensibility. Like those sharp edges and settled lines of graphic art, “desolation stalled in paint,”

The scene stands stubborn …
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. … Here's honest rot
To unpick the elaborate heart, pare bone
Free of the fictive vein.(13)

More with Coleridge's mechanical power of fancy than with the creatively unifying imagination, Plath constructs this ideal realm on a variety of poetic levels. She catalogs her examples as industriously as an omniscient nineteenth-century narrator not yet familiar with Joseph Conrad's Marlowe, or F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway:

At the essential landscape stare, stare
Till your eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Whatever lost ghosts flare
Damned, howling in their shrouds across the moor
Rave on the leash of the starving mind
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.

(“November Graveyard”)

While her forms prove that she has done her homework on the great masters (Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, and others), and that she has dutifully consulted her thesaurus for precision with synonyms, the subjects of her poetic world remain bloodless, generalized, stalled in their aesthetic perfection. She cannot psychologically integrate the examples that she so elaborately describes for the development of her own poetic perception. Visual descriptions remain flat; they lack the energetic playfulness and teasing ambiguity of her later poems.

That she fails to incorporate imaginatively this perfectly synchronized world becomes the central focus of The Colossus poems. Decay and menace, casual processes of the natural world, threaten the development of her poetic vision. Even the cultivation of distance and memory offers no safeguard against the insidious threat everywhere part of the “essential landscape” that is her subject. At last, by focusing on the process of creation—artistic, physical, mythological—Plath explores that special domain of the artist. She examines poetically the nature and the products of artistic endeavor in various paintings and artifacts (Brueghel, Rousseau, de Chirico, Baskin) to understand better her role and function, however limited, in the creative process. As the title poem “The Colossus” shows, Plath gradually becomes aware of her futile efforts to construct a comprehensive imaginative vision. In fact, burdened with all her academic knowledge of technique, Plath's imaginative construction dwindles to reconstruction:

Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.(14)

One Colossus poem in particular, “The Eye-mote,” describes the imaginative vision Plath reveres, yet also presents her limited grasp of the creative process at this stage in her poetic career. In the opening scene of “Eye-mote,” the innocent poet gazes with a painter's eye at a scene that is an ideal emblem of the mental and emotional state she wants:

Blameless as daylight I stood looking
At a field of horses, necks bent, manes blown,
Tails streaming against the green
Backdrop of sycamores.

(Col., 12)

An instant of convergence in the pristine world balances the poet's perception (“I stood looking”) with sharp details of the external world:

… Sun was striking
White chapel pinnacles over the roofs,
Holding the horses, the clouds, the leaves
Steadily rooted though they were all flowing
Away to the left like reeds in a sea. …

(Col., 12)

Suddenly a splinter sticks in her eye, “needling it dark” and shattering the perfectly perceived aesthetic union with a reminder of the imperfect self. The ideal world gives way first to the dark, then to a caricature of the original that is now but a point of nostalgia for the speaker:

A melding of shapes in a hot rain:
Horses warped on the altering green,
Outlandish as double-humped camels or unicorns,
Grazing at the margins of a bad monochrome,
Beasts of oasis, a better time.

(Col., 12)

The perfect imaginative moment has become a “place, a time gone out of mind,” replaced by the immediate rude fact of the “red cinder around which I myself / Horses, planets and spires revolve.” No fabled world of the imagination persists. A shrunken vision threatens any effort to “unseat the speck,” and the poet-subject remains “fixed … in this parenthesis” somewhere between mythical past and desired future, “blind to what will be and what was.”

In three respects, “Eye-mote” serves as a key to understanding Plath's imaginative arena throughout the Colossus poems. First, it sets forth a fixed, flat description of that emblematic world of opposites joined in a moment of simultaneity. Secondly, the presence of the cinder speck reminds the speaker of the necessary intrusion of the practical fact, a theme urged in earlier poems and one that will continue to plague the poet. Thirdly, “The Eye-mote” expresses the poet's desire for a way of seeing that is more comprehensive than the immediate realistic mode. “The Eye-mote” world moves timelessly, yet has the security of being anchored; it joins literary analogues with self-awareness (“I dream that I am Oedipus”); achieves great distance, whether historical, physical, or mythical, yet is localized in a single narrator (“fixed … in this parenthesis”). This world of simultaneity, however attractive, remains just out of reach of the Colossus poet, yet looms as an idyllic place to be recovered in imagination:

What I want back is what I was
Before the bed, before the knife,
Before the brooch-pin and the salve
Fixed me in this parenthesis;
Horses fluent in the wind,
A place, a time gone out of mind.

(Col., 13)


Plath's use of sea imagery recalls an historical tension in American letters between anthropomorphic and destructive forces ranging from Longfellow to Lowell.15 Particularly influenced by Wallace Stevens, she focuses less on facets of death and destruction than on the sea as model for her imaginatively ideal state:

I walk dry on your kingdom's border
Exiled to no good.
Your shelled bed I remember.
Father, this thick air is murderous.
I would breathe water.

(Col., 48)

The sea provided a curious ambience for Plath that continued to shape her poetic sensibility and provide her with a model for a complex, imaginative order throughout her career. According to her autobiographical essay, “Ocean 1212-W,”16 her youth was dominated by the sea: Winthrop, Massachusetts on the bayside; Point Shirley, the home of her maternal grandparents, on the seaside. Even in her postcollege years she was attracted to England with its charm of having “no place more than seventy miles from the sea”: “My childhood landscape was not land, but the end of land—the cold, salt, running hills of the Atlantic. I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own” (O, 102). Plath was continually lured by those first nine years of her life near the Atlantic, years that had “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.”

The myth of the sea, with its peculiar elements of contradiction, took root in Plath's psyche and shaped her poetic temperament for years afterward. At the same time that the sea suggested an unnatural black stillness, the breath of the sea was a pulsating “huge radiant animal”: “Even with my eyes shut I could feel the glimmers off its bright mirrors spider over my lids. I lay in a watery cradle, and sea gleams found the chinks in the dark green window blind, playing and dancing, or resting and trembling a little” (O, 104). While the sea offered her tangible signs of “election and specialness,” it also offered the poet sulphurous afternoons: “My final memory of the sea is of violence—a still, unhealthily yellow day in 1939, the sea molten, steely-slick, heaving at its leash like a broody animal, evil violets in its eye” (O, 108).

“With the typical good sense of the modern poet, Plath … endows the sea with the characteristics of her own mind,” Charles Newman observes.17 The familiar rooted-yet-flowing state is represented by her repertoire of sea figures and sea elements: the mythical marble-headed Lorelei in their “silver flux”; the battering waves eroding Point Shirley; an old Poseidon whose unknown origins add mystery to his rooted, labyrinthine tangle; or the Rock Harbor mussels that hang swaying in liquid suspension. Like the vanishing point in a painting to which all line, color, and perspective are magnetically drawn, Plath's “Man in Black” rivets together “three magenta break-waters,” the gray sea “to the left,” the “cattle green / To the right,” the snuff-colored sand cliffs and the white stones. The poet, too, would be such a pivotal and imaginative center, joining her nearly perfect syllabics (six per line) to the single, compelling sentence that forms this poem, the “unfisting” waves with the barbwired headland:

And you, across those white
Stones, strode out in your dead
Black coat, black shoes, and your
Black hair till there you stood,
Fixed vortex on the far
Tip, riveting stones, air,
All of it, together.

(Col., 52-53)

Repeatedly in these poems, Plath's habit of vision is that of the artist: clearly illustrated compositional unity, perfectly balanced, perfectly inhuman—like the world of a ship in a bottle.

Once again she celebrates the contradictory qualities of the sea, humorous animism and rampant destruction, in the poem “Bull of Bendylaw,” a masterful dialogue between form and narrative. In the poem a child's fable and its props—a king, queen, mulberry arbor, even a royal rose—are formed into a stiff, tight “playing card” world with “box-lined walks.” Each stanza's repetitive rhyme and singsong metrics (two lines of tetrameter, one of trimeter) lend a nursery rhyme ambience to the simple storybook elements. Bendylaw is an orderly world that will “stay put,” Plath claims. But in the narrative, the “bull-snouted sea” refuses to do so, much to the poet's dismay:

A blue sea, four horny bull-feet,
A bull-snouted sea that wouldn't stay put,
Bucked at the garden gate.
The great bronze gate began to crack,
The sea broke in at every crack,
Pellmell, blueblack.
The bull surged up, the bull surged down,
Not to be stayed by a daisy chain
Nor by any learned man.
O the king's tidy acre is under the sea,
And the royal rose in the bull's belly,
And the bull on the king's highway.

(Col., 27-28)

If the sea introduced tumultuous chaos and violence, it also provided Plath with fantasies and real tokens of individuation. Its legacy included physical textures and imaginative myths, storybook bulls and tales of drowned sailors “gone straight to Davy Jones,” as well as strewings of fan shells, egg stones, glass nuggets, and shivers of china bits. Plath delighted as much in the tangibility of the sea's wreckage and its steaming chowders as in its emotional nurture and myths of mermaids or the Spanish infanta.

Most importantly, the sea showed Plath a model of beautiful fusion with things of this world that she thought she had lost when, at the birth of her brother, she was forced to recognize otherness: “The sea, perceiving my need, had conferred a blessing.” “When I was not walking alongside the sea, I was on it, or in it,” reunited with some impossible moment of dynamic flux. She even learned to swim with “hands and feet milling in the cold green,” unanchored and literally absorbed in the sea's contradictions. As model for her imaginative world, according to George Stade, the sea “had come to saturate her sense of identity … to represent for her the depths of poetry in which literal losses underwent a change into symbolic recoveries.”18

No wonder then that watery gods with their perfect union of contradictory qualities dominate a number of the Colossus poems. From both the stone maidens (“Lorelei”) and the old patriarch (“Full Fathom Five”) we learn that the most vivid danger to Sylvia Plath's ideal world is anything that is identified with a distinct polarity, a precise fact, or one “scrutable” dimension. The exclusive precision of any such form violates a comprehensive, if tenuous, imaginative vision:

… All obscurity
Starts with a danger:
Your dangers are many.

(Col., 47)

In her portrayal of the mythical figures, but especially in the skillful “bickering” of form and narrative, “Lorelei” and “Full Fathom Five” are excellent examples of Plath's longed-for imaginative world. With a grained face that “sheds time in runnels,” the mythical old man in “Full Fathom Five” is half fact, half archetype, aged yet timeless. He appears and disappears “as the waves crest and trough,” yet his “hair sheaves” and craggy face are strangely solid:

… white hair, white beard, far-flung,
A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves
Crest and trough. Miles long
Extend the radial sheaves
Of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins
Knotted, caught, survives
The old myth of origins

(Col., 46)

Praised for his ambivalence, the old god warns of obscurity and collision with blunt fact (“keeled ice-mountains”), yet beckons to primitive, mythical sources (the “unbeaten channels of the ocean”).

While whirlpool and ridgepole are the physical referents for Plath's desired imaginative world, the well-wrought poetic devices and language are more tangible equivalents for her idyllic order than the puzzling old god. Words, deliberate not exploratory, are carefully placed, syntactically inverted in this poem. And the careful cresting and falling of the verse—the patterns of iamb and trochee—create a formal wave pattern that suggests both the old man's come-on and his danger:

          … sage humor and
Durance are whirlpools
To make away with the ground-
Work of the earth and the sky's ridgepole.
Waist down, you may wind
One labyrinthine tangle
To root deep among knuckles, shinbones,
Skulls. Inscrutable,
Below shoulders not once
Seen by any man who kept his head,
You defy questions;
You defy other godhood.

(Col., 47-48)

Like the defiant Poseidon, the stony sirens of “Lorelei” embody Plath's ideal imaginative concurrence of opposites. Although they float upward toward the poet, their shapes at once light and fluid, they lure her downward, “limbs ponderous,” “hair heavier / Than sculpted marble.” They “trouble the face of quiet” with their ambiguities. The world promised by their song is a double-edged burden for the common (“whorled”) ear:

                    Yet these shapes float
Up toward me, troubling the face
Of quiet. From the nadir
They rise, their limbs ponderous
With richness, hair heavier
Than sculpted marble. They sing
Of a world more full and clear
Than can be. Sisters, your song
Bears a burden too weighty
For the whorled ear's listening
Here, in a well-steered country,
Under a balanced ruler.
O river, I see drifting
Deep in your flux of silver
Those great goddesses of peace.
Stone, stone, ferry me down there.

(Col., 22-23)

By the poem's end, Plath the observer has moved from description of quiet, mythical sources to a plea for direct psychological and physical involvement in a realm of frightening contradictions: song-yet-silence, fear-yet-beckoning, solidity-yet-flux. In the event of the poem an emblem has taken a textured shape from the vague and amorphous. Specific elements of verse suggest this. Remarkably controlled syllabics—seven per line—function as a check on the maddening harmony of the Lorelei who beckon to their world of oblivion. A coy interlocking rhyme scheme of “ghost” terza rima weaves its physical equivalent to the sirens' gradual pattern of seduction. The progression of verbals in the first two stanzas dramatizes this: a “lapsing” black river in the first stanza yields to “dropping” mists in the next three lines, and finally to fishermen “sleeping” the death of the seduced. Again Plath's carefully wrought craft captures the contradictory realm of the ladies, their “unusual harmony,” while their sphere remains psychologically unattainable for the poet herself. The poet moves beyond the “bland mirror sheen” to a disjunction where a real voice in a real body forms a plea to enter that “world more full and clear / than can be.”

Such final disjunctions are common fare in a number of Colossus poems, but in a curious way. Plath has created precise images with a draftsman's eye and with an imagination whose workings Alvarez sums up as “a gesture on the surface of the poem,” one that is not yet a “part of what she is actually saying.”19 Each pictorial detail in her poetic tableau seems to be a calculated, discrete item; each emblem “beyond the mundane order” is a moment arrested in the flux of the poet-perceiver's attention. While they represent some vague wish for duration, such images do not last apart from their intellectualized moment of description. As the poet rehearses these examples of simultaneity—the rooted-yet-flowing field horses of “Eye-mote,” the “absolute landscape” of “Hardcastle Crags,” or the gull on the ridgepole holding the “whole flat harbor anchored in / The round of his yellow eye-button” in “A Winter Ship”—she grows psychologically more distant from the momentary union she describes. As she repeats these visionary emblems with a kind of verbal calisthenics borrowed from the early work, she is faced with her own separateness. Instead of imaginatively incorporating the metaphysical meaning of that explorer-crab (“Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor”), the poet remains “one two-legged mussel picker” who poises on linguistic pivots, deflects feeling in exhaustive puns: “this relic saved / Face, to face the bald-faced sun.” And at the end of “Lorelei,” the poet is left making a high-pitched incantatory plea for her intellectual experience to be felt more directly: “Stone, stone, ferry me down there.” Visual principles of perfection, it seems, precise serigraphs like the “Man in Black,” have precluded the emotional primacy of the self with its searching voice, its exploring consciousness.

In a 1959 journal entry, Plath criticizes one of her short stories in words that accurately describe her failure to assimilate the idealized imaginative realm throughout The Colossus poems: “… a stiff, artificial piece … none of the deep emotional undercurrents gone into or developed. As if little hygienic trap-doors shut out the seethe and deep-grounded swell of my experience. Putting up pretty artificial statues.”20

“Point Shirley” is perhaps her most ambitious attempt to texturally recreate the sea's contradictions as the source for her vision of simultaneity. Again the poem recounts Plath's failure. The evocative force of the sea's “bickering,” the “gritted wave's” crash and collapse against the seawall, is echoed in the staggered and uneven meter and rhyme. Prosody captures the sensual and visual effect of the crashing retreat of the sea against shingles:

From Water-Tower Hill to the brick prison
The shingle booms, bickering under
The sea's collapse.
Snowcakes break and welter.

(Col., 24)

Natural elements introduce an emotional tension that is echoed in the formal structure of the lines and in the skillfully interwoven patterns of sound (“brick” and “bickering” are picked up by “snowcakes break”). Plath struggles to find the precise connective point between memory and object, between nostalgic impulse and time's subtraction of feeling. How does one reconcile enduring love for a dead relative with the eroding indifference of the sea, its jumble of timbers, carcasses, and “quahog chips,” the poet asks:

                                        This year
The gritted wave leaps
The seawall and drops onto a bier
Of quahog chips,
Leaving a salty mash of ice to whiten
In my grandmother's sand yard. She is dead,
Whose laundry snapped and froze here, who
Kept house against
What the sluttish, rutted sea could do.
Squall waves once danced
Ship timbers in through the cellar window;
A thresh-tailed, lanced
Shark littered in the geranium bed—
Such collusion of mulish elements
She wore her broom straws to the nub.

(Col., 24)

Such poetic anatomy of an emotion or an object in the attempt to find a point of reconciliation is one of the most distinctive traits of The Colossus volume. According to one critic, Plath's “most serious question is ‘how are the object and the emotion interpenetrated, what effect has each on the other?’”21 Plath wants to grasp the origin and power of the creative impulse in physical objects, nostalgic settings:

                              What is it
Survives, grieves
So, over this battered, obstinate spit
Of gravel?
.....A labor of love, and that labor lost.
Steadily the sea
Eats at Point Shirley.

(Col., 25)

“Point Shirley” celebrates its own “collusion of mulish elements.” The tension between technique and imaginative vision and the rapid shifts from nostalgic emotion to physical debris, create a textural ambivalence. There is, nevertheless, a terrible inevitability that undercuts the poem. The narrative suggests that the grandmother, dead twenty years, fought a losing battle not only against the sea, but against the disorder and chaos of life itself. She wore “her broom straws to the nub” in the futile, Sisyphean labor. The poet faces the same foreclosed end in her attempt, once again through vain memory, to rescue and revive a childhood emotion of love from “dry-papped stones” to living passion:

And I come by
Bones, bones only, pawed and tossed,
A dog-faced sea.
The sun sinks under Boston, bloody red.
I would get from these dry-papped stones
The milk your love instilled in them.
The black ducks dive.
And though your graciousness might stream,
And I contrive,
Grandmother, stones are nothing of home
To that spumiest dove.
Against both bar and tower the black sea runs.

(Col., 25-26)

The final stanza, a direct address to the grandmother, is significantly modal or provisional: “I would get,” and “though your graciousness might stream.” The desire, yet the doubt, in the verbal constructions suggests the vain attempt to recover the power or source of the grandmother's love, that experience of factual and emotional concurrence. The force of love and memory—that “spumiest dove”—fails, and vision again shifts to the black, diving ducks, the bar and tower, and the indiscriminately leveling sea. As in “Lorelei,” the shortlived moment of perception is menaced by the “dog-faced” sea which has both the first and last word: its whimsical, dual nature remains the governing principle for the whole poem.

Several explanations come to mind for the poet's final disjunction from her idyllic world in the sea poems. For one, she selects remote, aesthetically distanced models to represent the ideal state: nodding, bald-headed ladies who smother with their curious silence (“Disquieting Muses”); vaporous old men from the archives of sea lore (“Full Fathom Five”); or shrill-songed sisters (“Lorelei”) whose only directive to the poet is their vague “deranging harmony” or “ice-hearted calling.”

But surely the world of The Colossus poems outlines a strangely atypical metaphysic. Absolutes are in flux, constantly metamorphosing, slipping away, evaporating. “Old despot” god figures, petulant children, or silent, inscrutable creatures assume protean shapes from watery mists, green flickerings, distant history, modern biology, even from the depths of memory. Snake charmers find their peculiar spheres to be water, not dust. The Lorelei's call is an ambivalent response—a burden and a promise—while an impersonal silence characterizes the “Disquieting Muses” or Lucina, the “bony mother”:

… laboring
Among the socketed white stars, your face
Of candor pares white flesh to the white bone.

(Col., 65)

Like “Faun,” man becomes god in the Plath canon, but with great difficulty. Touchingly humanized, bumbling man exposes his cover and then absconds as if to underscore his ineptitude. Faun's metamorphosis is effected through dense verse fabric—consonance, assonance, kenning, and interlocking vowels—and an erratically rhymed five-line stanza:

An arena of yellow eyes
Watched the changing shape he cut,
Saw hoof harden from foot, saw sprout
Goat horns. Marked how god rose
And galloped woodward in that guise.

(Col., 17)

Perhaps the most important function of Plath's godlike figures is their role as silent reminders to the poet of that grisly endurance required for the act of creation. A good example of the artist's defiance is the old patriarch of “The Hermit at Outermost House”:

Sky and sea, horizon-hinged
Tablets of blank blue, couldn't
Clapped shut, flatten this man out.

(Col., 56)

Or in “I Want, I Want,” a crusty old god adopts a makeshift plan of “toughing it out”:

Dry-eyed, the inveterate patriarch
Raised his men of skin and bone,
Barbs on the crown of gilded wire,
Thorns on the bloody rose-stem.

(Col., 39)

These figures assume increasing importance as Plath seeks to understand the limitations and commitments of the creative artist.


Richard Howard has summed up Plath's attempt to describe such perfect imaginative moments of equilibrium as self-canceling homeostasis in which the poet succumbs to a leveling off, a running down to nothing.22 Failing to perceive the idyllic moments that fill Plath's Colossus world, Howard does nonetheless suggest a less dramatic but important occurrence in the volume: an effective menace by nature becomes increasingly apparent in the poems. As we have seen, Plath repeatedly finds herself helpless to sustain the emblematic visionary events as part of her direct experience. Exploring for mussels at Rock Harbor, for example, she comes to a pool bed where “it seemed / A sly world's hinges had swung / Shut against me”:

… I
Stood shut out, for once, for all,
Puzzling the passage of their
Absolutely alien
Order as I might puzzle
At the clear tail of Halley's
Comet coolly giving my
Orbit the go-by. …

(Col., 70-71)

Poems such as “Medallion,” “Mussel Hunter,” “The Eye-mote,” and “Hardcastle Crags” trace the poet's progress to a point where the moment of interpenetration—whether it be of place and emotion, present fact and distant memory, or simply the physical qualities of the rooted and the fluent—eludes her. Those shortlived moments of union she perceives do not animate her whole sensibility, so that by the end of The Colossus the poet has become her own “blunt, indefatigable fact.” She is fixed in the parentheses of her pleas for imaginative entrance into an emblematic world: “What I want back is what I was,” she laments. Or in “The Ghost's Leavetaking” she seeks an “ambrosial revelation” or “the hieroglyphs / Of some godly utterance,” or simply:

          … the sign language of a lost otherworld,
A world we lose by merely waking up.
Trailing its telltale tatters only at the outermost
Fringe of mundane vision. …

(Col., 43)

In “Point Shirley,” her attempt to join distant memory with present passion, place with feeling, the grandmother's life with immortality, was merely a “labor of love and that labor lost.” In “Lorelei,” the poet remained earth-clotted in a “well-steered country / Under a balanced ruler,” while she was left exiled on the shores of the dry kingdom in “Full Fathom Five.”

Quite appropriately, “Manor Garden,” the first poem in the volume, treats the difficult task of birthing as well as a life-giving myth, unaided by philosophies or supernatural systems. The subject of this poem (addressed to a newborn infant) is “convergence” or simultaneity—the biological, metaphysical, historical, and familial legacies that converge on the physically developing fetus. With this weight of inheritance, the poet suggests the difficulty of sustaining not just one's own imaginative life—a familiar issue for Plath—but the very fragility of the physical existence itself: “the spider on its own string / Crosses the lake.”

The notion of convergence becomes increasingly complex as the poem weaves together several kinds of time—gestational, evolutionary, historical, psychological—in succinct imagery. As we move from ancient past (“the era of fishes”) to the present moment (the “difficult borning”), from biological signature through the classical “crowns of acanthus” to personal history, the concept of birth-as-death becomes the most dramatic convergence in the poem. In the first stanza, the finality of death and desiccation (“roses are over”) contrast with bursting sensuality (“pears fatten like little buddhas”). The simile is comforting, clever, and temporary. Those “broken flutings” of genetic promise are mollified, too, by the mock-epic humor of biological evolution:

You move through the era of fishes,
The smug centuries of the pig—
Head, toe and finger
Come clear of the shadow. History
Nourishes these broken flutings…

(Col., 3)

For there is no deflecting from the truly “difficult borning”: the child's acceptance of her personal, psychological legacy. Not even the smallest forms of existence can remove the threat and burden of this inheritance, more problematic than the physical birth itself.

Those humble physical existences in “Manor Garden”—the spider, the yellow stars, the small birds—introduce the growing threat from opaque nature that undercuts all that is tenuously human in The Colossus. (Recall again Richard Howard's comment that Plath, in attempting to describe imaginative moments of equilibrium, achieves only self-obliteration.) The menace—both from large, impenetrable elements and from murky threats beneath the surface—requires one to:

          … bear
Dry witness
To the gross eating game
We'd wink at if we didn't hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.

(Col., 29)

Monotony, repetition, and neutrality gather force as distinct ingredients in Plath's poetic world of The Colossus. “This is not death, it is something safer. / The wingy myths won't tug at us any more,” we are reminded. Air “ignites” while sea and sky are “horizon hinged,” threatening to clap shut, flattening any human existence. Indifference is everywhere—in looming sandspits, “ochreous” salt flats, blue wastage of Egg Rock, “dry-papped stones,” even the booming shingles of Point Shirley:

… from Great Head's knob
To the filled-in Gut
The sea in its cold gizzard ground those rounds.

(Col., 25)

Nowhere is blunt impenetrability more evident than in the mute stoniness of “Hardcastle Crags.” Petrifaction threatens human existence. The opaque prevails as the poet traces her own arrested development from the first flinty clatter of her feet through the very real threat of personal dissolution:

All the night gave her, in return
For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat
Of her heart was the humped indifferent iron
Of its hills, and its pastures bordered by black stone set
On black stone.
          … dairy herds
Knelt in the meadow mute as boulders;
Sheep drowsed stoneward in their tussocks of wool, and birds,
Twig-sleeping, wore
Granite ruffs, their shadows
The guise of leaves.

(Col., 15)

Pared down to a “pinch of flame” by the “long wind,” the granite crags and the stone pastures before her, the poet is no match for that “absolute landscape.” Nor does she find a point of identification—no words, no “family-featured ghost,” only a “dream-peopled village”—in that opaque landscape. Only the “sway of lymph and sap” moving timelessly against a “stony light” describes the poles of that mythical realm:

… and the incessant seethe of grasses
Riding in the full
Of the moon, manes to the wind,
Tireless, tied, as a moon-bound sea
Moves on its root.

(Col., 14)

Finding herself too fragile, too threatened—but making this discovery in a step-by-step progress that is the value of the poem—the poet does an about-face to preserve a separate, if humble, sense of self:

… but before the weight
Of stones and hills of stones could break
Her down to mere quartz grit in that stony light
She turned back.

(Col., 16)

It might be argued that the main character of the poem is not the self-conscious perceiver who turns back, but the “whole landscape [that] loomed absolute as the antique world … unaltered by eyes.” This pristine world of opposites is sustained in the textural dialectic of imagery throughout the poem: steel, stone, boulder, and granite vie with flame, lymph, sap, and mist.

Petrifaction continues to threaten fragile humankind in the poem “Departure.” Nothing softens that impenetrable “jut of ochreous rock,” or those flatly insistent colors: green figs, “brickred porch tiles,” the town's “blue bay,” the “leaden slag of the world.” No retrospective nostalgia changes the fact that the “money's run out.” Through the poem's series of imagistic moments, prosody and verse form support the propositional sense of nature “compounding her bitters,” adding to human poverty:

Sun's brass, the moon's steely patinas,
The leaden slag of the world—
But always expose
The scraggy rock spit shielding the town's blue bay
Against which the brunt of outer sea
Beats, is brutal endlessly.

(Col., 18-19)

In the same poem there is a counterworld set against this imposing landscape of indifference. A gradual movement toward insubstantiality lurks in the slowly corroding weather, in the sun shining on unripe corn. All the more insidious because it lacks bulky visibility, this threatening world is animate, alive, and covertly at work eroding any human images of imaginative concurrence. Surely the depleted atmosphere of “Departure” contrasts with the blatant drama of earlier poems where death (stasis, darkness, hardness, separateness) starkly contrasts with life (color, noise, movement, heat, radiance).

Always present in The Colossus poems is this world-in-the-forming that is partially visible. Menace is oblique; for example, the barren sound of “queer, crusty scrabble” of crabs rasping on seashells. A world glimpsed from the corner of the eye is unpeopled, brutal in its elemental guise. Metal is corroded by the sun's rays; stone is worn down gradually to “mere quartz grit”; the sea pulses “under a skin of oil,” suspended activity masking the terror; ice is “knifed” imperceptibly by the sun's rays; mornings “dissipate in somnolence.” Clearly, “the genius of plenitude / Houses himself elsewhere,” but not among The Colossus images.

Qualities of withering and dissipating create a world of monotonous repetition, one moving toward final oblivion:

The insects are scant, skinny.
In these palustral homes we only
Croak and wither.

(Col., 68)

Fury is dissolved; a pall hangs about the world of the poems like the smoke of a fire, slyly choking. Scandals, never dramatic, “ooze” from “smoke-choked closets” like “blood spores” of the old tragedies.

Another note of resignation resounds in the imagery where “white bruises toward color, else collapses,” and “Grub-white mulberries redden among leaves … doing nothing.” Insidiously, the whiteness of “Moonrise” is a mere void that becomes a “complexion of the mind.” The smell of death is hidden beneath stones; or “white catalpa flowers tower, topple / Cast a round white shadow in their dying.” “All things sink / Into a soft caul of forgetfulness” that recalls the weary neutrality of “Resolve,” or the “bone pared free of fictive vein” in “November Graveyard.” The delicate tone of exhaustion is more dramatic than any grand actions, more internalized than Plath's belabored imaginative cosmology. One is sensually immersed in a world that is gradually sinking into nonexistence:

Now coldness comes sifting down, layer after layer,
To our bower at the lily root.
Overhead the old umbrellas of summer
Wither like pithless hands. There is little shelter.
Hourly the eye of the sky enlarges its blank
Dominion. The stars are no nearer.
… all things sink
Into a soft caul of forgetfulness.
This is not death, it is something safer.
The wingy myths won't tug at us any more.

(Col., 80-81)

The tone of resignation, of the spent imagination, resounds throughout The Colossus poems, more convincing and more personal than the “deranging harmony” of the visionary Lorelei:

And we shall never enter there
Where the durable ones keep house.
The stream that hustles us
Neither nourishes nor heals.

(Col., 77)

Plath continues her drama of systematic degeneration in elemental terms distinct from both the later mindscapes of Winter Trees poems and her earlier syntactical war of abstractions. “The Thin People” are presented as quiet and obsequious, yet a growing threat. Relegated to the distant past of childhood or another generation of history, dismissed as harmless gray figures in a dull newsreel, these characters learned a power to endure, not to prevail. These one-dimensional sufferers demonstrate a negative capability in their “thin silence”:

Are unreal, we say:
It was only in a movie, it was only
In a war making evil headlines when we
Were small that they famished and
Grew so lean. …
It was during the long hunger-battle
They found their talent to persevere
In thinness, to come, later,
But a thin silence.
Wrapped in flea-ridden donkey skins,
Empty of complaining, forever
Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore
The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn

(Col., 32-33)

The poem, an accumulation of thin couplets, dramatizes the obstinate force of these people in continuous run-on lines. Paradoxically, their physical force is negligible, but their “thin-lipped smiles” embed themselves in memory and imagination. Their power in passivity topples even the strongest defenses:

They persist in the sunlit room: the wallpaper
Frieze of cabbage-roses and cornflowers pales
Under their thin-lipped smiles,
Their withering kingship.
How they prop each other up!

(Col., 34)

The force of the poem is that the thinness is merely implied, never defined: it gathers force in cumulative appositional clauses. Supported by images of withering, shrinking, and splitting, and bolstered by those major metaphoric shifts in the poem—night to day; grayness to color; unreality to reality; movie screen to sunlit room—thinness grows animate. Like the musty frieze of cabbage-roses, the thin people's presence comes to dominate through nonreaction (“not even moving their bones”): their grayness invades the imagination.23


Another provisional stance against a failed imaginative order is Plath's poetic exploration of certain works of graphic art. In 1958, she wrote her mother about her new source of creativity:

These are easily the best poems I've written and open up new material and a new voice. I've discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of primitives like Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Paul Klee, and de Chirico. … I feel like an idiot who has been obediently digging up pieces of coal in an immense mine and has just realized that there is no need to do this, but that one can fly all day and night on great wings in clear blue air through brightly colored magic and weird worlds.

(LH, 336-37)

Plath draws from the simple emotional world of the primitive painters, from Pieter Brueghel's “panorama of smoke and slaughter,” and the sculptures of Leonard Baskin. She does so less to “fly … on great wings,” that is, to borrow the ready-made shape and order of graphic art, than to look closely at the nature and the products of artistic creation for some clue to her own deficiencies.24

The unnatural vision that characterized the work of so many of the primitives found its roots in the Romantic cult of emotion. This cult not only glorified subjective experience, particularly aspects of privacy and noble savagery, but also suggested the sinister. One thinks of the empty van and the portentous shadow that await the girl with the hoop in de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, or the playful ominousness of Paul Klee's Twittering Machine. In both paintings the quality of foreboding grows out of the precise economic simplicity of the visual facts.25 Thus, we find that the sinister earthly paradise of Rousseau, or the unspoiled Brittany peasant faith of Gauguin, or the gloom in Klee's children's drawings are present also in Plath's poetry about painting. Her bald-headed muses overpower a child's storybook fictions with their terrible bulk and silence (“Disquieting Muses”). The “tame cygnets,” the “thumb-size” birds and the “hedging meadows of benign / Arcadian green” in “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” barely manage to disguise the water rats and the spines of the “blood-berried hawthorn.” And the snake charmer's realm, however comical, is the dark creation of a snake-rooted mind, while the explorer-crab at Rock Harbor has a face etched like a “samurai death mask done / On a tiger tooth, less for / Art's sake than God's.”

Although there appear to be simple equational similarities in any discussion of poetry and painting, John Berryman has offered a warning and a guideline for comparing the two disciplines. Berryman insists that the poem need not be viewed as the verbal equivalent of the painting that inspires it, nor as a strict interpretation of that picture. What aestheticians fail to do, according to Berryman, is to interpret “the event of the poem” itself, a task that often proves the painting to be merely extraneous material for—or a springboard to—a different poetic meaning.26

Always the tinkerer with an impulse to improve her “making,” Plath explores the divergence of the private and public realms in art, the motivation of the artist, the role of the creator, and the limits of “reconstructive” creation in such poems as “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” “Colossus,” and “The Burnt-out Spa.”

Brueghel's painting The Triumph of Death27 holds the extremes of life and death, illusion and desolation, in a tensive balance, precarious yet protected. A little romantic scene in the righthand corner of the painting pictures two lovers who show no concern for the “carrion army” that sweeps through all strata of life. Oblivious to the fact that they are overshadowed by death's head, they court each other to musical accompaniment in a little country “stalled in paint.”

Triumph of Death departs from Brueghel's more famous ironic view of human suffering in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus where, according to the poetic interpretation of the painting by W. H. Auden, suffering is ironic, no doubt because it is unnoticed and unexpected:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, …(28)

Instead, Triumph celebrates the human capacity for forgetfulness or illusion in the face of inevitable death. This theme, less than the irony, would be likely to attract the attention of Sylvia Plath.

Plath employs the structural and prosodic elements of “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” to cultivate a similar kind of wry oblivion, and at the same time to suggest that death and dismemberment are commensurate with a mature and comprehensive vision of life. The poem's two-part structure is itself an aesthetic “stalling,” a formal representation of the Brueghel work where death oversees the romantic-artistic collusion in the corner. This structure suggests that neither clinical disinvolvement (the autopsy) nor romantic illusion (the impervious courtship) is an adequate response to the complexity of life. The first kindles no imaginative vision beyond that fact of half-strung cadavers or babies floating in formaldehyde; the second is an irresponsible illusion, a “foolish and delicate” posturing that is at best only a temporary stay against destruction:

He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin
Skirts, sings in the direction
Of her bare shoulder, while she bends,
Fingering a leaflet of music, over him,
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death's-head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.
Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country
Foolish, delicate, in the lower right-hand corner.

(Col., 6)

The aura of vinegary sterility and the rubble of the cadaver room in the poem's first half merely exaggerate the anesthesia of romance in the second. Meticulous prosodic crafting makes the contrast even more stark: the lilting, rising meter, the alternate liquid and sibilant sounds (l and s), and the run-on lines checked by the abrupt vernacular, “not for long.” Blunt reification threatens in the first half: hearts like “cracked heirlooms,” the vinegary fumes, unstrung bodies with caved-in heads and blackened skin. Amidst such decay, the poet's defense against a failed imaginative vision, is, within formal limits, a crevice, or protective hollow. Ironically, that “desolation stalled in paint,” the Brueghel painting, provides only a feeble stay against death and mutability. It is the poem itself—the more comprehensive artwork—that becomes the small country with the unitive vision of the poles of existence: the metaphysical (the interrelationship of life and death, blue satin charms and the death's-head); the technical (the poem's two-part structure); and the aesthetic (the narrative description of the Brueghel painting).

“The Colossus” and “The Burnt-out Spa” narrate the process of renovating broken or decaying objects. Central to both poems is Plath's description of her changing relation to the theory of the imagination that she has idealized throughout The Colossus. If, as one critic has claimed, a “sense of the huge and continuing” dominates Plath's sensibility, then it must be observed that such monuments of hugeness as the stone statue and the old spa in these poems exist in a state of disintegration; they require active repair or reclamation.29

The metaphor of the title poem, “The Colossus,” invites a variety of interpretations. Among these the most immediate, but perhaps least satisfactory, is the autobiographical. In the act of repairing the huge statue, Plath struggles to come to terms with her childhood. By forming the gestalt (the father “put together entirely”) she gains release from the painful, piecemeal memory of her authoritarian father, Otto Plath, who died suddenly when she was nine. Another approach to the central metaphor sees the poet striving to reconcile her living sensibility with the sentiments and traditions of past generations—the situation in “All the Dead Dears” where museum-cased mummies serve to remind her of the interrelationship of life and death, fact and memory. A more general interpretation, borrowing from T. S. Eliot, reads the poem as a dialogue between the man who suffers and the mind that creates.

But perhaps the most forceful interpretation—and the one closest to Plath's artistic concerns in this volume—takes the statue-renovating metaphor as a dramatic description of the poet's relation to her present aesthetic as well as of the eventual failure of her integrative process. Unable to grasp the imaginative shape of the whole venture, she fails to reclaim the discrete parts:

I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It's worse than a barnyard.
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.

(Col., 20)

Three aspects of the poem seem particularly significant: the poet's role, the futility of her labor, and the final, provisional stance she adopts toward her overly ambitious task. Literally, the poet's chore is an unending labor of reconstructing a formerly grand, even mythological image that has deteriorated to a crumbling mass of broken parts; like its historical predecessor, that bronze Colossus of Rhodes, it seems to be shattered irreparably. While the “huge and continuing” may once have dominated Plath's sensibility, here the poet's world is leveled to a series of small, separate gestures that attempt to put together a single, coherent identity. She is at once patcher, mender, renovator, dredger of silt, debunker of false grandeur, and recipient of a small and dubious reward: the labor is reconstructive. As in that patchwork task of composing her early poems—inching laboriously over words and phrases, juggling syllabics and rhyme schemes—the poet wields gluepots and pails of Lysol here, not her thesaurus.30 Ironically, she meets her match in stubborn clay and silt that bulk and clog like those poetic forms and borrowed cadences of her early poetry.

The initial imbalance between the gigantic task, the dismembered colossus confronting the poet, and her own ability to clear and reassemble the pieces is enormous, even ludicrous. As the poet labors on, the integrative process grows at once more taxing and more futile. Decay is all-pervasive; facts are insistent; imaginative gestalt is missing; the once classical theories of art—“pithy and historical”—are now reduced to unintelligible animal grunts and cackles:

Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.

(Col., 21)

According to one critic, there is a kind of “symbolic ossification” going on throughout Ariel and The Colossus that reduces the individual to a thing: “a calcification or some other type of physical or mental hardening—the deadening of sensitivity and loss of ability to feel tender or loving—a process which reverses the original softening of the hard stones and the implacable gods.”31 Hardness and ossification grip “The Colossus” in the form of fluted bones, weathered forums, pillars, stones, and shadows. In their presence, the poet-laborer finds the risk of total reconstruction unproductive, if not altogether hopeless, and, taking shelter in a part of the statue, decides on a more limited goal. This retreat to a simple, physical haven is a departure from Plath's original ideal vision:

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

(Col., 21)

Forced to take a more provisional stance, the poet no longer seeks a whole, integrated identity, whether in the reconstruction of her aesthetic (physical fact integrated with imaginative vision) or in her own sensibility. Gaining a wry sense of distance she squats in a crevice out of the wind. But will this leveled vision be more than a temporary shelter against a menacing world that threatens to thwart any reunion of fact and imagination?

Within this metaphor of an unreconstructed state of art, what is the plight of the poet's self? What is her future? Timorous (“an ant in mourning”), distracted by cosmic concerns (the sun, plum-colored stars), her future promise now “married to a shadow,” mouthpiece for hollow literary echoes, despairing about release from her chore (“No longer do I listen …”), the poet is alarmingly silent. Weeds and white tumuli cloud her vision, settling silt clogs “oracular” pronouncements. As in the other poems in the volume, insinuating nature, culling all into obscurity if not oblivion, triumphs over the Colossus aesthetic. One might say of both The Colossus poems and of the poet's revered imaginative vision that “an old beast ended in this place.”

In “The Burnt-out Spa” the poet labors—amidst charred “rafters and struts,” the “rubbish of summers, the black-leaved falls”—for the smallest glimmer of understanding about the failure of her artistic theory. Instead of attempting a lofty aesthetic reconstruction, she gleans only an ironic awareness of nature's predatory reversal:

I pick and pry like a doctor or
Archaeologist among
Iron entrails, enamel bowls,
The coils and pipes that made him run.
The small dell eats what ate it once.

(Col., 77)

The blunt force of coil and pipe is overwhelmed by a subtle, almost imperceptible power of nature:

Now little weeds insinuate
Soft suede tongues between his bones.
His armorplate, his toppled stones
Are an esplanade for crickets.

(Col., 76)

If this broken piece of machinery is the landscape of the imagination, everything is in a state of decay, breakdown, or ossification. Liquid has hardened to “lumps / Of pale blue vitreous stuff, opaque / as resin drops”; everything is rubble, “iron entrails, enamel bowls.” Yet in spite of its weedy over-growth, rusty entrails, and “sag-backed bridge,” the spa surprisingly produces a flowing “ichor” that runs “clear as it ever did / From the broken throat, the marshy lip.”

It is in the face of this triumph against odds—the availability of a real voice in the midst of imaginative dross and dysfunction—that the poet realizes most clearly her own failures, her own betrayals in the Colossus poems. For in place of a convincing voice with a full range of tones and nuances, the poet finds only a “blue and improbable” self-image. Fixed and static, aesthetically framed (“a basketwork of cattails”), her visage muffles her voice in these flat, pictorial poems:

Leaning over, I encounter one
Blue and improbable person
Framed in a basketwork of cattails.
O she is gracious and austere,
Seated beneath the toneless water!
It is not I, it is not I.

(Col., 77)

At the end of the poem, reconciled to a bland neutrality, the poet knows that she is neither physically nor artistically one of the “durable ones.” Through the practice of her poetic trade—the syllabics, slant rhymes, ghost rhythms, carefully crafted emblematic moments fixed on a mythical world—she has failed to achieve a sense of wholeness:

No animal spoils on her green doorstep.
And we shall never enter there
Where the durable ones keep house.
The stream that hustles us
Neither nourishes nor heals.

(Col., 77)


The end of The Colossus supposedly heralds a new departure in Plath's art, one identified as:

the confrontation between … the lithic impulse—the desire, the need to reduce the demands of life to the unquestioning acceptance of a stone, “taciturn and separate … in a quarry of silences”—and the impulse to live on, accommodating the rewards as well as the wrecks of existence so that “the vase, reconstructed, houses / The elusive rose.”32

It is on this “vase, reconstructed,” the various and provisional images of the artist as creator, that Plath focuses her energies. As she analyzes the methods and motives of the artistic process (“Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies; A Sestina for the Douanier,” “Blue Moles,” and “Sculptor”), she gains a better grasp of the commitments and limitations of creating. Through the personae of her off-beat creators (“Snakecharmer” and “Hermit at Outermost House”), she forges a myth of the creator-god as individualist. A fine irony is suggested by the hermit who sits on his doorsill and, against all odds, laughingly creates. The power of this solitary figure is not of the usual metaphysical sort. Both his visage and expertise mock the traditional dour gods—“Stone-Head” and “Claw-Foot”—gloomy, winded, and petulant old despots. Lacking divine mandates, an iron fist, or bombastic words, the hermit is strong in his apparent powerlessness. His skill lies in his curious manner of creating. His bravado is far more understated than the biblical fiat, “Let there be light,” might suggest.

In contrast, this old chap “thumbs out” an idiosyncratic creation. Impervious to a world of physical objects and to the menace of a sea and sky clapping shut on him, the hermit has a greater immunity to cosmic clashes than do the old gods. He prevails by refashioning the old dodderers and the world to his idea:

Still he thumbed out something else:
Thumbed no stony, horny pot,
But a certain meaning green.

(Col., 57)

Both Stone-Head and Claw-Foot only “verged on green,” we are told; this hermit interprets and makes sense of it! His power reminds one of those thin sufferers who also prevail, or of the poet's disquieting muses who, during her childhood and adolescence, gradually absorbed her with their nagging silence. Resisting all sharp consonants with only fluid, stalling sounds (u and l), the texture of the poem is as idiosyncratic as the hermit himself. Staid syllabic tercets, seven syllables in each line, are checked by elements of alliteration, assonance, and consonance. In most stanzas off-rhymes replace the traditionally rhymed tercets. The prosodic texture, unlike the regular “brain count” dictates of syllabics, actually dramatizes the hermit's peculiar process of creation.

Just as the “gods began one world, and man another,” so too the poet-creator invents—ever so gradually—an imaginative sphere in “Snakecharmer”:

          He pipes. Pipes green. Pipes water.
Pipes water green until green waters waver
With reedy lengths and necks and undulatings.
And as his notes twine green, the green river
Shapes its images around his songs.
He pipes a place to stand on, but no rocks,
No floor: a wave of flickering grass tongues
Supports his foot. He pipes a world of snakes,
Of sways and coilings, from the snake-rooted bottom
Of his mind. And now nothing but snakes
Is visible. The snake-scales have become
Leaf, become eyelid; snake-bodies, bough, breast
Of tree and human. And he within this snakedom
Rules the writhings which make manifest
His snakehood and his might with pliant tunes
From his thin pipe.

(Col., 54-55)

The poem is a cleverly ironic comment on inherited literary influences and ready-made forms as well as on the traditional mode of creation portrayed in Genesis. Here the creator projects a world that reflects an individual mental geography: undulating, wavering, flickering—images in-the-forming that take shape from “the snake-rooted bottom of his mind.” Not ex nihilo, not from a literary hall of fame, not from antiquity, not even from dust does the snake charmer create. The mouth pipe is his tool; the moony eye his imaginative vision; swayings and coilings his product.

The craft of the poem provides a formal statement of the process of focusing, forming, and then dissolving the creation. Line enjambment couples with interlocking slant-rhymes to move from isolated elements—“pipes green”; “pipes water”—to whole sentences in stanzas five and six. Whimy in verse texture complements the poet's mocking subject matter: an atypical creator. In contrast to the mode of creation in Genesis, the snake charmer's power here is merely a thin reed pipe. His rationale for dissolving water, grass, and snakes is not a master plan for usage, but sheer boredom:

And snakes there were, are, will be—till yawns
Consume this piper and he tires of music
And pipes the world back to the simple fabric
Of snake-warp, snake-weft. Pipes the cloth of snakes
To a melting of green waters, till no snake
Shows its head, and those green waters back to
Water, to green, to nothing like a snake.
Puts up his pipe, and lids his moony eye.

(Col., 55)

According to one critic, the poem is based on a description of Rousseau's La Charmeuse de Serpents. But unlike the painting, the poem omits certain ingredients: “the pink and white tropical bird to the left, the pale reddish flowers among the bushes, the yellow-edged blades of the reeds and the blue exotic flowers above the reeds to the right.”33 It seems that in omitting these decorative features, Plath wanted to focus on the creator's act of making and on the “simple fabric” of his ingredients in the forming.

Shortly before the appearance of The Colossus, Plath published another poem based on a controversial Rousseau painting, “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies.”34 The subject is, quite simply, a red couch. When Rousseau's work showing a naked woman on a red couch in the middle of a jungle was exhibited at the Salon des Independents in 1910, the subject matter was called “intolerable naif” by one critic. Controversy followed the artist's response to the critics, for the explanation that he gave in public was not the one he uttered in private. Privately he said, simply, that he liked the color red.35

But to a friend, in private, Rousseau confessed his eye
So possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you,
Yadwigha, pose on, that he put you on the couch
To feed his eye with red: such red! under the moon,
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!

In this sestina, as in all of Plath's “meta-creative” poems, the motives of the creator and the materials of creation are explored and challenged. The poet knows that the artifact under discussion, the conspicuous red couch, stands stubborn against a world that barrages it with “monstrous lilies” and “fifty variants of green.” The couch remains separate both from the public explanation of its origin and from the artist's motivation, a fact stubbornly resistant to the fictive vein. She also recognizes that, apart from lofty theories, the simple physical fact of the color motivated the artist.

Perhaps she is moved by Rousseau's unabashed, if private, source of inspiration in the color red. In several of the Colossus poems Plath indicates the primary force of physical matter, not inspirational ideas, in the creative process as a way of “capturing real, extant things, before any mythic significance is exhumed.”36 As Charles Newman has observed: “Emily [Dickinson] is in many ways the beginning, and Sylvia the culmination of the movement whereby the imagination, sated with the abstraction of myth, is driven back to the concrete.”37 Ted Hughes, too, has claimed—and the Johnny Panic selections confirm—that Plath's best early writing is often her simply objective records of people and places in her notebooks, untainted by the “artful shaping” of fantasy or the invention of plot (JP, 7).

In the poem “Sculptor” (a reference to Leonard Baskin), physical matter asserts itself over flimsy, vain images of light and air. If we consider the analogy between poetry and sculpture, we might view the poem as a kind of monument of the moment, a surface presenting the volume of an entire life experience: “Rodin said that a sculptor must never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume. Everything pushes up from under, against the taut surface of the world … [poems] remain words but they become material we walk into and lie down in.”38 Plath's craft—represented in the densely wrought verses of The Colossus—is surely as demanding as the sculptor's work with tensive, physical volume. Syllabics of the first stanza, interlocked by slant-rhyme, are perfect until a last extra syllable (“weighty” in the final line, for example) formally indicates the “obdurate” dominance of sheer matter:

To his house the bodiless
Come to barter endlessly
Vision, wisdom, for bodies
Palpable, as his, and weighty.

(Col., 78)

“Sure stations in bronze, wood, stone” take sculpted shape, as the sounds of the diction (u, b, and d) become increasingly resistive:

Obdurate, in dense-grained wood,
A bald angel blocks and shapes
The flimsy light; arms folded
Watches his cumbrous world eclipse
Inane worlds of wind and cloud.
Bronze dead dominate the floor,
Resistive, ruddy-bodied,
Dwarfing us.

(Col., 78-79)

Throughout this poem, the verbal progression presents the gradual “eclipsing” of conceptual reality by matter. Movement is from endless “barter” between idea and volume to that which “blocks and shapes,” from eclipsing to dominating and, finally, to the assertion of matter over concept.

The new departure hailed at the end of The Colossus is no mere verbal chant rehearsed in the face of romantic disillusionment, no tempering of metaphoric acrobatics with clever adjectival reminders of the physical world. Now, after The Colossus, the poet has not only a clear sense of the erosive, neutralizing threat from the physical world, but also a better understanding of her imaginative and creative powers and limitations in the face of sheer matter. She knows her labor is like the work of the “Blue Moles,” conspired against by a wry, Hardian universe where everything is neutralized by “blind nature”:

Outsize hands prepare a path
They go before: opening the veins,
Delving for the appendages
Of beetles, sweetbreads, shards—to be eaten
Over and over. And still the heaven
Of final surfeit is just as far
From the door as ever.

(Col., 50)

But knowledge of limitations gives way to a “wry complaisance.” The poem “Companionable Ills” best illustrates this ironic acceptance that lives on to accommodate the rewards, as well as the wrecks, of existence:

The nose-end that twitches, the old imperfections—
Tolerable now as moles on the face
Put up with until chagrin gives place
To a wry complaisance—
Dug in first as God's spurs
To start the spirit out of the mud
It stabled in; long-used, became well-loved
Bedfellows of the spirit's debauch, fond masters.

(Col., 63)

Brief, elliptical phrases communicate the gradual dominance of these “fond masters,” the old imperfections. The poet must be obliging, accommodating.

In the final poem of the volume, “The Stones,” Plath “arrives at her own center of gravity.”39 She places self at the center of the metaphor, which is here a surgical procedure to restore the speaker to wholeness. While the poem's craft recalls the early work, the self-deprecatory tone and dramatic metamorphosis of the speaker anticipate the best poems of Crossing the Water:

This is the city where men are mended.
I lie on a great anvil.
The flat blue sky-circle
Flew off like the hat of a doll
When I fell out of the light. I entered
The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard.
The mother of pestles diminished me.
I became a still pebble.

(Col., 82)

As the poet struggles with the integrative process, it is the self she is trying to construct now, not a poetic theory or an ideal imaginative emblem from a bit of seascape or a crag of land. The only geography is that of the self in this “city of spare parts.”

After failing to adopt the impersonal imaginative perfection that she addresses with such insistence in Colossus, the poet must now retreat to a “wordless cupboard,” to a preverbal “stomach of indifference.” Here she becomes as inanimate as a still pebble. She is a part of that stubborn and unflinching objective world that menaced the artistic imagination. She is bereft of literary mentors, borrowed forms, hyperintellectualized imaginative realms.

The self is separated into a series of tiny, ossified parts—as “taciturn and separate” as hunted stones—that await the precision tools and chisel of the doctor. These will quarry, prod, agitate, and finally shape her into an image of vitality and individuality where impersonal reconstruction of the kind Plath described in Colossus—kids trading “hooks for hands” on Fridays or anonymously depositing eyes—is no longer useful:

The food tubes embrace me. Sponges kiss my lichens away.
The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry
Open one stone eye.
.....The grafters are cheerful,
Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers.
A current agitates the wires
Volt upon volt. Catgut stitches my fissures.

(Col., 83)

Perhaps the poet of The Colossus and the early poems is the doctor in “Stones,” the “jewelmaster” perfectionist who now must use her craft to fashion a self-image that is—for her poetic purposes—a serviceable vessel, “the vase reconstructed.” Now in disingenuous tones, and with a clear sense of personal metamorphic power to map out a mobile self-image, the “good as new” speaker says:

Love is the uniform of my bald nurse.
Love is the bone and sinew of my curse.

(Col., 83-84)

Plath has tumbled from the verbal calisthenics of the early poems to the inhuman “wordless cupboard.” Reluctantly, she abandons those multiple emblems of simultaneity she so admired in The Colossus. Her powers of the imagination, employed once to recreate that union of contradictory qualities in the realm of art, are now exhausted. Her models of the artist-creator and her grasp of the aesthetic process demanded a capacity for psychological integration that she could not manage throughout The Colossus.

What is evident in “The Stones” is the restlessness of a poet no longer content with impersonal reconstruction. The “elusive rose” is the poet's emblematic vision, that entire mode of perception that has teased, but finally escaped, her through this volume. Plath does not yet have the dramatic power to define and portray the self, nor has she found a balance between self-revelation and artistic form. Simply, she does not have the expressive means—the pure act, not pure art—to say what is happening to her. She betrays her discontent both in terms of the allegory in “Stones” (“my mendings itch”) and by the tone of false bravado mingled with ambivalence that is captured in the trite end rhymes of the final two lines: “There is nothing to do. / I shall be good as new.” The challenge of this voice—its tonal possibilities and new forms for expression—is one Sylvia Plath will take up in Crossing the Water.


  1. Peter Dickinson, “Some Poets,” Punch, p. 829.

  2. John Wain, review of The Colossus, The Spectator, p. 50.

  3. Judson Jerome, “A Poetry Chronicle, Part I,” The Antioch Review, p. 11.

  4. E. Lucas Myers, review of The Colossus, The Sewanee Review, p. 217. Another important critic who treats technique and formal elements is J. F. Nims, “The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Technical Analysis,” The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. Charles Newman, p. 136. Reviewers include: Dom Moraes, “Poems from Many Parts,” Time and Tide, p. 1413; A. E. Dyson, “On Sylvia Plath,” The Art of Sylvia Plath, p. 208; Thomas Blackburn, “Poetic Knowledge,” New Statesman, p. 1016; Guy Owen, Books Abroad, p. 209.

  5. Lynda B. Salamon, “‘Double, Double’: Perception in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” Spirit, p. 34. The most important of these critics are Richard Howard, “Five Poets,” Poetry, pp. 412-13, and “Sylvia Plath: ‘And I Have No Face, I Have Wanted to Efface Myself …’” The Art of Sylvia Plath, p. 77; Ted Hughes, “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems,” TriQuarterly, p. 82, reprinted in The Art of Sylvia Plath. Other critics who are useful for this approach include: James Tulip, “Three Women Poets,” Poetry Australia, p. 37; and Gary Kissick, “Plath: A Terrible Perfection,” The Nation, p. 245.

  6. Howard, “Five Poets,” p. 412.

  7. M. L. Rosenthal, “Metamorphosis of a Book,” The Spectator, p. 456.

  8. Alfred Alvarez, “Sylvia Plath,” The Art of Sylvia Plath, p. 58.

  9. Alvarez, “Sylvia Plath,” p. 61. By the energy of their rereadings and by the highlighting of sensational details, critics as well as poets defined the nature of extremist art. In the words of poet Robert Lowell, “We are all old-timers, / each of us holds a locked razor” (“Waking in the Blue,” Life Studies/For the Union Dead, p. 82). To poet Anne Sexton, the art of appreciation became the art of learning how to “crawl down alone into the death [I] wanted so badly and for so long”:

    … suicides have a special language.
    Like carpenters, they want to know which tools.
    They never ask why build

    (“Sylvia Plath's Death,” The Art of Sylvia Plath, p. 179).

  10. Sylvia Plath, “Verbal Calisthenics,” The Smith Review (Spring 1954), p. 53.

  11. T. S. Eliot speaks of the poet's “unified sensibility” that constantly amalgamates disparate experience, fusing emotional and intellectual aspects without distinction. John Ruskin, in defining both the imagination and fancy, speaks of the “dead earnestness” of the former. T. E. Hulme, despite his battle against the unbounded romantic imagination of Coleridge, pleads for new powers given to the intuitive faculty. In his article “The Creative Process: Science, Poetry and the Imagination,” Murray Krieger (The New Apologists for Poetry, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963) provides a more elaborate survey of theorists on poetic creativity.

  12. Sylvia Plath, “The Net Menders,” New Yorker 36 (20 August 1960), p. 36.

  13. Sylvia Plath, “November Graveyard,” Mademoiselle 1xii (November 1965), p. 134. The poem is also included in the Cambridge Manuscript.

  14. Sylvia Plath, “The Colossus,” The Colossus and Other Poems, p. 20. References to this edition of The Colossus will be indicated in the text by Col. and page number.

  15. Dennis Welland in “The Dark Voice of the Sea: A Theme in American Poetry,” American Poetry, ed. Irvin Ehrenpries, gives a comprehensive history of the use of sea imagery in American poetry.

  16. Sylvia Plath, “Ocean 1212-W,” Writers on Themselves, ed. Herbert Read, p. 110. References to this autobiographical essay will be cited within the text by O and page number. The essay has been reprinted in Johnny Panic, pp. 20-26.

  17. Charles Newman, “Candor is the Only Wile,” TriQuarterly, reprinted in The Art of Sylvia Plath, p. 22. Citations are from the later version.

  18. George Stade, “Introduction,” A Closer Look at Ariel, ed. Nancy Hunter Steiner, p. 12.

  19. Alvarez, “Sylvia Plath,” p. 59.

  20. Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (“Introduction”), p. 5.

  21. Alvarez, “Sylvia Plath,” p. 59.

  22. Howard, “Sylvia Plath: ‘And I Have No Face,’” p. 81.

  23. Other poems reinforce the ominous power of diminished things. In “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows,” menace is camouflaged in a small, silvered perfection; in “All the Dead Dears,” the antique lady in that “mercury-backed glass” case has the power over an unwitting poet: she can “reach hag hands to haul her in”; quiet and discreet, those self-effacing “Mushrooms” suddenly become threatening despite the cautious syllabics of the poem:

    Soft fists insist on
    Heaving the needles,
    The leafy bedding,
    Even the paving.
    Our hammers, our rams,
    Earless and eyeless,
    Perfectly voiceless,
    Widen the crannies,
    Shoulder through holes.

    (Col., 37-38)

  24. “Snakecharmer” and “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies” were inspired by two Rousseau paintings, Le Douanier and La Reve, respectively. “The Disquieting Muses” is based on de Chirico's La Muse Inquietante; “On the Decline of Oracles” was inspired in part by the same painter's l'Enigme de l'Oracle. “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” is based on Brueghel's Triumph of Death. Letters Home (pp. 336-37) reminds us that “Ghost's Leavetaking” is inspired by Paul Klee's Departure of the Ghost; “Battle Scene from the Comic Opera ‘The Seafarer’” by another Klee painting on the opera; “Virgin in a Tree” and a ninety-line poem (“the biggest and best poem I've ever written,” according to Plath), “Perseus, or the Triumph of Wit Over Suffering,” are both modeled after early Klee etchings.

  25. H. W. Janson, History of Art, pp. 527-28.

  26. John Berryman, “Changes,” Poets on Poetry, ed. Howard Nemerov, pp. 96-97. In this article, Berryman discusses the aestheticians' treatment of his poem, “Winter Landscape,” which uses Brueghel's painting as a starting point for an “unusually negative war poem,” not at all the subject of Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow (p. 96). The common interpretive mistake aestheticians make, he points out, is assuming Auden's “Musee des Beaux Arts” is a literal rendering of Brueghel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

  27. Most information about Brueghel here comes from the “Introduction” and “Plate Entries” in Brueghel, edited by Marguerite Kay.

  28. W. H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Arthur M. Eastman, p. 1076.

  29. Howard, “Sylvia Plath: ‘And I Have No Face,’” p. 79.

  30. Hughes, “Notes on the Chronological Order,” p. 82.

  31. Nan McCowan Sumner, “Sylvia Plath,” Research Studies, p. 120.

  32. Howard, “Sylvia Plath: ‘And I Have No Face,’” p. 79.

  33. The textual information is taken chiefly from Ingrid Melander, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Study of Themes. The origin of “The Disquieting Muses” is pointed out in Melander's “‘The Disquieting Muses’: A Note on a Poem by Sylvia Plath,” Research Studies, p. 53. In the same article, she points to de Chirico's l'Enigme de l'Oracle as the inspiration for “On the Decline of Oracles.”

  34. Sylvia Plath, “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies: A Sestina for The Douanier,” Christian Science Monitor, p. 8.

  35. Melander, Poetry of Sylvia Plath, pp. 22-23. The poem's “strong final emphasis is … placed on the artist's privilege to follow his genius quite independently of established rules.”

  36. Ian Hamilton, “Poetry,” London Magazine, p. 55.

  37. Newman, “Candor,” p. 29.

  38. Donald Hall, “Knock, Knock,” The American Poetry Review, p. 22.

  39. Hughes, “Notes on the Chronological Order,” p. 86.

Bruce Bawer (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6392

SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “Sylvia Plath and the Poetry of Confession.” The New Criterion 9, no. 6 (February, 1991): 18-27.

[In the following essay, Bawer contends that Plath's extreme popularity as a confessional poet in the 1960s can be attributed more to her reputation as an oppressed and victimized existentialist than to the literary merit of her works.]

Back when America was careening from the Eisenhower era—the “tranquillized Fifties,” as Robert Lowell called them—toward the Age of Aquarius, American poetry was undergoing a dramatic shift as well. A period of highly controlled, formal, and impersonal poetry, dominated by the likes of Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, gave way with surprising rapidity to one of unrestrained, exceedingly personal free verse, often about extreme emotional states, by such poets as John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. So revolutionary did these effusions seem at the time that the critic M. L. Rosenthal found it necessary, in a review of Lowell's 1959 volume Life Studies, to coin a new name for them: confessional poetry. To be sure, although the confessionalists tended to be more explicit about their divorces, orgasms, and such than poets of earlier generations, there was nothing fundamentally new about verse that took the poet's private life and feelings for its material; accordingly, though Rosenthal's term gained widespread currency, there were from the beginning those who objected to it as unnecessary and even denigrating, and who maintained that to label a poem in this fashion was to draw inordinate attention to its often sensational subject matter and thereby to slight its literary merit.

Of course, the literary merit of confessional poetry varied widely; and perhaps the most unfortunate effect of the term's broad acceptance was that, in the years after Life Studies, many a poet and critic began thinking of confessionalism as something that aspired not to aesthetic excellence so much as to the total honesty of the psychiatrist's couch or—well—the church confessional, and that should therefore be judged by the degree not of its artistry but of its candor. What was lost sight of, by many, was that for such poetry to be of literary importance it must, through a concentration not on universals but on intimate particulars, awaken in all sorts of readers (whose lives might, needless to say, be extremely different from the poet's in those intimate particulars) a sense of common humanity, a mature recognition that the essentials of one life are the essentials of all. If bad confessional poetry, in other words, appeals to a reader superficially, soliciting his attention and empathy on the basis of shared background or politics or neuroses or sexual tastes—or, alternatively, taking him out of himself in much the same way as a lurid, gossipy supermarket tabloid—the best confessional poetry introduces him to individuals with whose social lives and ideas he might not identify at all, but whose personal testimony nonetheless manages somehow to draw him inward. Like the poetry of Wilbur and Hecht, moreover, the best confessional poetry is marked by balance, control, a sense of form and rhythm, and even a degree of detachment.

Though, of all the confessional poets, Robert Lowell earned the most substantial literary reputation, it was Sylvia Plath who, in the years following the posthumous publication of her second poetry collection, Ariel (1965), became the movement's chief icon. Yet while Lowell's fame needs no more explanation than the aesthetic merit of his work, Plath's quick rise to near-legendary status owes much to other factors. For one thing, Plath's notion of herself as a victim of two domineering men—her father, who died when she was a child, and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, from whom she was separated at the time of her suicide in London in 1963—made her extremely useful to the women's movement. (Perhaps no one has more memorably expressed the feminist position on Plath than Robin Morgan, who in a poem entitled “Arraignment” accuses Hughes of Plath's murder and envisions a group of women entering his home, “disarm[ing] him of that weapon with which he tortured us, / stuff[ing] it into his mouth, sew[ing] up his poetasting lips around it, / and blow[ing] out his brains.”) Meanwhile, Plath's proudly flaunted self-destructiveness, and her romantic image of herself as a sensitive genius in a brutal and indifferent world, made her a natural idol for many a young person in the throes of adolescent torment. (What, after all, could be more irresistible to a saturnine, self-romanticizing teenager than a passage like this, from Plath's college journal: “nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the false cheerful brilliance of the electric light. And if you have no past or future, which, after all, is all that the present is made of, why then you may as well dispose of the empty shell of present and commit suicide.”) I think it is safe to say that these two groups account for the majority of Plath's devotees and that neither group cherishes her work chiefly for its literary merit.

For such readers, patently, the real interest lies not in Plath's art but in her life. And her life—from her childhood in Jamaica Plain, Winthrop, and Wellesley, Massachusetts, through her undergraduate career at Smith and two Fulbright years at Cambridge, to marriage, motherhood in Devon and London, the beginnings of literary prominence, marital estrangement, and self-slaughter at thirty—is fascinating, though not on the superficial level that such readers tend to focus upon. It is fascinating, rather, as a study in the nexus among art, ambition, and abnormal psychology, and, more specifically, in the formation of an author whose most anguished poems, composed only weeks before her suicide, are widely considered to be the quintessence of confessional poetry. The story of this formation must begin with Plath's parents, Otto Emil Plath, an authoritarian, German-born entomology professor, and his submissive wife, Aurelia, a second-generation Austrian-American. Both parents shared a belief in discipline, a disinclination to make (or to allow their children to make) close friends, and—in the words of Anne Stevenson, author of the biography Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989)—a “veneration for work”; together, they raised an obedient, overachieving daughter who found security (or, at least, a semblance thereof) in the structures and schedules of the classroom and whose sense of self-definition appears to have depended from an early age upon her ability not only to meet but to exceed the expectations of her parents and teachers. Otto's death when Sylvia was eight years old (she insisted, the next day, on going to school) led to a lifetime of largely suppressed rage at him, both for being a tyrant—which he may or may not have been, depending upon how one defines the word—and for abandoning her, and led also to a lifetime of tireless effort to surpass the goals set for her by the authority figures she erected in his place.

To be sure, as long as she was a student, Sylvia functioned splendidly—or seemed to. At twenty, invoking an image that later provided the title for her autobiographical novel, she would write to a friend that “I've gone around for most of my life as in the rarefied atmosphere under a bell-jar, all according to schedule, four college years neatly quartered out in seasons.” But the daughter of Otto Plath needed that bell-jar, needed the structure provided by school and college, needed her mother and teachers to set goals for her. If, as she admitted, she suffered from a “terrifying fear of mediocrity,” it was because anything less than first-rate work might shatter her fragile sense of self; and if, furthermore, she referred to a college boyfriend as her “major man,” one suspects that it was because she was unable to understand anything in life—whether it was dating, marriage, or the making of a literary career—except by analogy with schoolwork, choosing friends as if they were honors courses and competing for beaux as if they were class prizes.

Peter Davison, who met Plath when she was a star undergraduate at Smith, wrote later that she was “always trying to create an effect, to make an impression,” and that she talked about her own life “as though she were describing a stranger to herself, a highly trained circus horse.” Which, in a way, she was: for she would jump through almost any hoop to please those in authority. The vapid prototypes established by others formed the foundation of her identity: she embraced the role of All-Around Coed, for instance, with an inane fervor astonishing in one so intelligent (“I still can't believe I'm a SMITH GIRL!” she wrote her mother soon after entering college). She would stop at little to win academic distinction: friends complained of her manipulativeness, of how she used people to get ahead and discarded them callously when they were no longer needed.

Even in literature, image ruled. Plath writes her mother about course possibilities at Smith: “Imagine saying, ‘Oh, yes, I studied writing under Auden!’ … Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness.” If many a bard before and since has longed to forge the uncreated conscience of his race, Plath, in journal entries about her poetic aspirations, takes the tone of a high-school climber angling for a graduation medal, noting that “I must get philosophy in [i.e., into her poetry]. Until I do so I shall lag behind A[drienne] C[ecile] R[ich].” Her willingness to bow to both literary and subliterary totems is exemplified by her habit (as noted by Stevenson) “of talking of Wallace Stevens in one breath and Mademoiselle in the next.” Just as she deliberately wrote insipid stories at Smith to win approval from the editors of Seventeen, in later years she was equally desperate for the approbation of The New Yorker, whose first acceptance of a Plath poem occasioned an almost frighteningly rhapsodic journal entry.

Writing was always important to Plath. Her father had been an author—of, among other things, a textbook on bumblebees—and had used the family supper table as a writing desk. Stevenson, who has a sensitivity to the motives behind Plath's writing that seems to have eluded earlier biographers, highlights a memory of Mrs. Plath's. During Sylvia's early childhood, at times when her mother was attending to Sylvia's infant brother, Warren, and wanted to prevent her daughter from trying to draw attention away from the boy, she encouraged the little girl to read letters in newspapers. Stevenson's savvy comment: “even at two and a half her daughter was being urged to treat negative emotion (jealousy of her brother) with words.” This was something that Plath would do throughout her life. For her, writing became a way of asserting herself, of combating her deficient sense of identity. “Haunted by a fear of her own disintegration,” Stevenson notes, Plath “kept herself together by defining herself, writing constantly about herself, so that everyone could see her there, fighting and conquering an outside world that forever threatened her frail being.” No wonder, then, that, as Edward Butscher observes in his 1976 biography Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, “getting published was not merely important [for Sylvia], it was everything”: for her, seeing one's name in print was the ultimate proof not merely of acceptance but of existence.

The literary life, however, proved to differ so drastically from life at home, school, and college that Sylvia's first excursion from familiar territory into the terra incognita of publishing was almost her last. During the summer of 1953, she went to New York as an undergraduate editorial intern for Mademoiselle—an experience that exposed her for the first time to a chaotic, equivocal adult world in which the first thing authority figures demanded of her was simply that she be herself. And being herself, alas, was one thing that Sylvia was not good at. Butscher quotes Plath's editor at Mademoiselle as saying that she had “never found anyone so unspontaneous so consistently. … [Sylvia was] all façade, too polite, too well-brought-up and well-disciplined.” In any event, removed from the closed system of accomplishment and approval within which she had operated for so long, Plath became unstrung. Soon after returning home, she attempted suicide, and spent the next several months undergoing psychiatric treatment at McLean Hospital, which over the years would gain fame as the treatment center of choice for Plath's fellow confessionalists Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. (The whole experience, of course, is retold in fictional form in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar.)

What is one to make of this suicide attempt? Though they differ considerably in tone and emphasis, the interpretations of Plath's biographers are not as inconsistent as one might expect. Butcher's centers on the notion that Sylvia

was three persons, three Sylvias in constant struggle with one another for domination: Sylvia the modest, bright, dutiful, hard-working, terribly efficient child of middle-class parents and strict Calvinist values who was grateful for the smallest favor; Sylvia the poet, the golden girl on campus who was destined for great things in the arts and glittered when she walked and talked; and Sylvia the bitch goddess, aching to go on a rampage of destruction against all those who possessed what she did not and who made her cater to their whims.

To complicate matters, Butscher speaks of additional, if secondary-level, Sylvias, whom he describes as “fitful shadows of the three main configurations.” One was “Sylvia the sad little girl still hurting from the profound wound of her father's rejection and abandonment of her and wanting to crawl back into her mother's cave-safe womb”; another was “Sylvia the ordinary teenager who yearned for a kind husband, children, and a house like her grandmother's by the seashore.”

Stevenson, for her part, settles for two Sylvias—a false outer self and a real inner self—and argues that the poet's self-destructiveness sprang from the yearning of her real self to kill her false self “so that her real one might burn free of it.” This picture seems much simpler than Butscher's, but Stevenson also chooses to complicate things a bit by maintaining that

Sylvia had long been confusing two very different battles within herself. One was with an artificial Sylvia, modeled on her mother, driven by ambitions she believed Aurelia harbored for her and ideas she thought Aurelia projected. This battle was occurring on a comparatively superficial level. Beneath it, so to speak, raged an altogether more serious war, where the “real” Sylvia—violent, subversive, moon-struck, terribly angry—fought for her existence against a nice, bright, gifted American girl. This “real” self may have been created, and gone underground, at the time of her father's death in November 1940. It had emerged in August 1953, before her suicide attempt, and it remained in charge during the months of her slow recovery at McLean. It would be too simple to say that the nice girl wanted to live while the vengeful, deserted daughter wanted to die. But it was probably the case that Sylvia's powerful buried self was deadly in its determination to emerge at any cost.

To a considerable extent, of course, there is no need to choose between Butscher's and Stevenson's formulations: they are largely two ways of looking at the same thing. Stevenson's ‘“real’ self,” for instance, despite the drastic difference in tone, is essentially equivalent to Butscher's “bitch goddess.”

At McLean, Plath underwent shock treatments and was told by her doctor that it was all right (a) to hate her parents and (b) to have sex. She claimed to have found all this liberating, and returned to Smith supposedly cured. (Certainly her success-oriented approach to literature returned, strong as ever. “Must get out SNAKE PIT,” she confided to her journal in 1959, referring to Mary Jane Ward's bestseller. “There is an increasing market for mental hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive it, recreate it.”) But Butscher and Stevenson both believe that McLean did her more harm than good. Butscher's view is that Plath's doctor “resurrected the mask [i.e., her good-girl façade] and gave it a firmer fit by letting Sylvia participate in the unearthing of the classic Electra complex.” Stevenson focuses her attack not on the psychoanalysis but on the shock treatments, arguing that they critically weakened Plath's façade (which she, unlike Butscher, sees as protective and necessary). “It may be that she never really recovered” from the shock treatments, writes Stevenson, suggesting that they

changed her personality permanently, stripping her of a psychological “skin” she could ill afford to lose. Attributable to her ECT is the unseen menace that haunts nearly everything she wrote, her conviction that the world, however benign in appearance, conceals dangerous animosity, directed particularly toward herself. Sylvia's psychotherapy almost certainly opened up the dimensions of her Freudian psychodrama, revealing the figure of her lost, “drowned” father … whose death she could neither forgive nor allow herself to forget; psychotherapy also intensified the presence of her much-loved yet ultimately resented mother, whose double she had to be, for reasons of guilt or ego weakness, and to whom she was tied by a psychic umbilicus too nourishing to sever.

Though the “Freudian psychodrama” is at the center of both interpretations, Butscher places more emphasis on Otto Plath, stating on his first page that Sylvia's “central obsession from the beginning to the end of her life and career was her father,” and interpreting that life in terms of a “frustrated will to power.” Stevenson, by contrast, insists that “[i]t is not clear how much of Sylvia Plath's existential anxiety can be traced to her social isolation as a girl and how much to her father's death.” But it seems to me that both factors are important: if Plath hadn't been sequestered from other children, her father might not have been such a god to her and his death might therefore not have affected her so catastrophically.

Though their interpretations can be seen as largely consistent in their essentials, Plath's biographers differ dramatically in style, method, and perspective. Butscher's book is a mixed—and rather overstuffed—bag. Though he offers a number of perceptive observations and sensitive close readings, he includes countless extraneous details (providing, among much else, the dates on which the Bradford High School honor roll was released). As he demonstrated in his recent biography of Conrad Aiken, moreover, Butscher has an inordinate faith in the ultimate power of psychiatric nomenclature to illuminate anything and everything in the realm of human behavior; to his mind, one gathers, understanding an individual is almost entirely a matter of attaching labels like “neurotic” and “schizophrenic” to that individual's behavior. Butscher assigns these labels with an alarming alarcity and a well-nigh palpable relish, and, quite often, on what would appear to be the slightest of evidence. (A sentence about the mother of one of Plath's boyfriends begins: “Sylvia's dislike of Mrs. Willard, which she of course repressed. …” And: “Sylvia's attitude toward Davison himself remained distant, perhaps because of repressed guilt.”) One comes away from Butscher's book thinking that there should be a psychological label to describe someone overly devoted to psychological labels. Linda Wagner-Martin, in Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), has the opposite problem: she performs too little analysis, whether literary or psychological. She treats Plath's suicidal depression almost as if it were a phenomenon unrelated to the poet's day-to-day psychology, and occasionally leaves the impression that she considers Plath to have been, most of the time, as sound of mind as anyone else—at least, that is, until Ted Hughes entered the picture in February 1956, barely more than two years after her suicide attempt.

It was Plath, then an exchange student in Cambridge, who engineered their meeting: one day she read some of his poems in a magazine—poems as intense and dark as she wanted hers to be, and real in a way hers were not—and decided immediately that she had to meet him. That same night, she introduced herself to him at a party, where (as she wrote in her journal) the tall, brooding, Lawrentian young Yorkshireman “kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair-band. … And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.” And so they were married. Hughes was the first man Plath had ever known to whom she could imagine subordinating herself without difficulty—as both poet and woman—in the way that her mother had subordinated herself to her father. Months later, she would write that Hughes “fills somehow that huge, sad hole I felt in having no father”; for the meantime, however, in letters divulging her new love to her kith and kin, Plath described him as “a violent Adam,” “the only man in the world who is my match,” “the strongest man in the world … with a voice like the thunder of God,” “a breaker of things and of people.” What more could a girl want?

It was after her marriage to Hughes that Plath began to write the poems that eventually appeared in her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960). In their intellectual and stylistic sophistication, they represent a significant advance over the unremarkable verse of earlier years (fifty examples of which are relegated to the appendix of her 1981 Collected Poems). Like their predecessors, however, all but a few of these Colossus poems read like descriptive exercises—and with good reason, for many of them were exercises, written to order for Hughes, who when Plath could not come up with anything to write about, would arbitrarily select some object, animal, or setting that was near at hand and assign her the task of composing a poem about it. Plath did her job competently, employing all the resources about which she had learned during her years of study. The metaphors and similes in these poems are often quite vivid (the cadavers in a dissecting room are “black as burnt turkey”), and her language frequently betrays the influence of some of the major poets of the day, notably Dylan Thomas. (“No doubt now in dream-propertied fall some moon-eyed, / Star-lucky sleight-of-hand man watched / My jilting lady squander coin, gold leaf stock ditches, / And the opulent air go studded with seed.”) And an especially important influence is that of the early poems of Hughes himself, whose lean, grave, and austerely symbolic evocations of nature red in tooth and claw were in turn influenced both by his moor country upbringing and by his extensive reading in anthropology. To be sure, many of the harsh natural phenomena Plath observed in Devon and described in the Colossus poems did apparently move her deeply; Hughes, in an essay published after her death, notes that “[h]er reactions to hurts in other people and animals, and even tiny desecrations of plant-life, were extremely violent.”

As a rule, however, Plath's Colossus poems seem more skillful than inspired. They are, as Anne Sexton commented, “all in a cage (and not even her own cage at that).” Though Hughes presumably tried to suggest topics that would tap Plath's profoundest emotions, almost everything in these verses strikes one as forced, from the intensifying adjectives and adverbs to the patterns of alliteration and assonance. Stevenson notes that as a student Plath, copying words from a thesaurus onto flash cards, had built poems “word by word, like novel, intricate structures”; reading the Colossus poems one can almost see her poring over her Roget's. The irony, of course, is that while the bleak, often violent depictions of nature in many of these poems sincerely reflect Plath's own brittle sense of security in a brutal world—and though some of them plainly seek to draw on her complex, powerful emotions about her father's death—almost all of them have a labored quality, a manufactured intensity, their savage images striking one as over-wrought and self-conscious, their ire and loathing coming across as false. Unlike Hughes's poems, moreover, the Colossus poems almost invariably fail to convey a personality, a point of view, let alone a passionate attachment to or understanding of the people, places, and things that they take as their subjects. Time and again, one feels that Plath is attempting to force greater significance upon scenes and situations than they really hold for her—to force it upon them, that is, rather than to discover it within them. While these poems, then, contain vivid images, striking lines, and pleasing configurations of sound, the poems don't work qua poems.

Not until 1960 did Plath begin to write the poems that would appear in Ariel (1965). The contrast with the most typical Colossus verses is remarkable: her new poems are colloquial, muscular, unafraid of repeated words or odd line lengths or the first person singular pronoun. In the best of them, such as “Tulips,” she breathes some life into her descriptive skills, and yokes wit to feeling. The poems that are almost universally acknowledged as her strongest, however, and that more faithfully represent the characteristic style and tone of the book, are those like “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” in which, rather than try to turn homely objects and settings into objective correlatives for her emotions, she embraces wholeheartedly the idea of poem as subjective (and often highly surrealistic) effusion. So frequently praised and ubiquitously quoted are these two poems that it almost seems at times as if Plath's entire reputation rests upon them. There is, to be sure, good reason why these two perverse and passionate poems should receive special attention, because nowhere else in her verse does Plath more bluntly address her most fundamental psychological conflicts. In both poems, Otto Plath and Hughes figure prominently, as does Plath's suicide attempt at twenty. The speaker of “Lady Lazarus,” indeed, brags darkly about her prowess at such attempts (“I do it so it feels real”), marvels at her survival of her attempt at age twenty (and of a near-fatal “accident” a decade earlier), and addresses an unnamed tormentor as “Herr Doktor” and “Herr Enemy.” She compares herself to an extermination-camp inmate, suggests that her victory over death makes her a “sort of walking miracle, my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade,” and perceives that victory as securing for her a grotesque vengeance upon the opposite sex: “Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Manifestly, we are meant to understand here that the speaker's experience with men (or with a certain man) was responsible in some way for her suicide attempt, and that her survival of it represents a miraculous triumph over them. “Daddy” draws on the same preoccupations and takes the same tone. Here the speaker refers to her father as a “black shoe” in which she has lived for thirty years and attributes her suicide attempt to a desire to “get back, back, back” to him. Spared death, she “made a model” of her father, a man with “a love of the rack and the screw,” said “I do, I do,” and lived with him for some time; but now she's murdered one man, in some sense, and by so doing has killed both: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.”

These poems, along with the other most ferocious and famous poems in Ariel, flowed from Plath's pen in October and November of 1962, sometimes at the rate of more than one a day, soon after Hughes became involved with one Assia Wevill (who would become his second wife) and separated from Sylvia. Anne Sexton referred to these as “hate poems,” and that they most certainly are, expressing time and again, in very similar terms, the most extreme and blatant of emotions, invariably aimed in the same direction. “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” are the most arresting of Plath's verses, and it is their hate, really, that makes them so—a hate communicated, often quite effectively, by way of natural language and rhythms, manically insistent repetitions and multiple rhymes, and sensational, often surrealistic images, all of which are designed to grab the attention of the most impassive reader. And grab the reader they do—on a first reading, anyway. In fact, this ability to capture the attention of readers—and even, at times, to shock them—helps explain why the Ariel poems, nearly three decades after Plath's death, remain a force to be reckoned with. And yet, what ultimately makes the poems memorable is less the hate that they express, or the blunt language that they employ, or even the inexcusable, hyperbolic metaphors that equate the poet's suffering with that of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, than it is the fact that all these elements combine to convey, with vigor and directness, the extreme emotional state of a highly unbalanced, self-destructive woman.

It might be argued that there is a degree of aesthetic value in such an accomplishment. But the more one reads these poems, the more one realizes that beneath the thoroughly convincing representation of psychological disturbance—behind, that is, Plath's shrill, deranged voice—there is precious little human dimension. It has been argued that the Ariel poems are saved by their irony, but Plath's irony is facile and, moreover, always directed at others—never at the poet herself. She is capable of quipping sardonically, in “Lady Lazarus,” “Do not think I underestimate your great concern”; but it doesn't occur to her, in her utter self-absorption, that her own dearth of concern for others might itself be a worthwhile target for irony. It is hardly an exaggeration, I think, to say that the chief problem with these poems is their constricting, claustrophobic solipsism. Compared to Plath, even Lowell—himself no tower of sanity or selflessness—seems quite actively involved with mankind, what with his numerous Life Studies poems about relatives, fellow poets, Czar Lepke, and the like; alongside Plath, even Berryman, with his often puerile attitude toward romantic relationships, comes off in the The Dream Songs as painting a nuanced, mature picture of love, sex, and marriage, and as providing, in his Henry persona, a model of proper authorial distance.

This is not to say that poems of self-scrutiny, as such, are necessarily bad, but rather to say that in the Ariel poems the self is so engrossed in itself that there appears to be little possibility of enlightenment, of discovery; to read them is to feel that their goal is not self-knowledge but self-display, a morbid absorption in and superficial celebration of the poet's own sensitivity and imagined victimhood. Throughout the poems, the world beyond the poet is seen consistently as despotic, destructive; yet she seems not to realize to what degree she is in fact her own destroyer, her own victim. The biographies of Plath make it clear that these poems are the work of a psychologically complicated and fascinating woman; but the poems themselves are, by comparison to the woman, woefully simple and—after the first reading—progressively less interesting.

In virtually every regard, then—in range of theme and invention, in complexity of feeling and structure, and in sophistication of style and technique—the Ariel poems are less impressive than the best so-called confessional poems of Lowell and Berryman. Certainly they are smaller in vision. Butscher quotes Irving Howe as complaining that “in none of the essays devoted to praising Sylvia Plath have I found a coherent statement as to the nature, let alone the value, of her vision.” Butscher's reply is that “Sylvia did indeed have a vision: it was to plunge into the depths of self, the dark side of the mind's moon, and hope to touch the bottom of degradation and sorrow.” Putting aside for the moment Butscher's mixed metaphor, what can one say about this defense? It can hardly be denied, of course, that the Ariel poems take such a plunge as Butscher describes. But is it correct, really, to say that they evince a “vision,” in the sense that Howe plainly means? Yes, poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” pierce the poet's surface as sharply as a surgeon's knife; but the incisions are narrow, the innards unilluminated, the result (for the reader) not a laying bare of the intricate workings of a self and soul but a raw, lurid exhibition of private agony and blood-letting. To put it a bit differently, the Ariel poems provide a startlingly naked glimpse into the mind of a deeply disturbed woman; but a glimpse, however naked, is not necessarily the same as an insight, nor revelation necessarily the same as art.

Wagner-Martin would have us believe that the Ariel poems were a triumphant apotheosis—the inevitable consequence of Plath's rejection of Hughes's artificial little assignments and of her “com[ing] into her own as a woman”—and that Plath's suicide, which came soon after the completion of the poems, was essentially the result of Hughes's betrayal and withdrawal from her life. There is, however, nothing triumphant about the Ariel poems; far from reflecting a newly proud and independent womanhood, these poems, with their mad, unbridled hostility, plainly express the poet's sudden helplessness at the withdrawal of the protective canopy underneath which she had erected her entire life as wife, mother, and author. In Hughes, Plath had found a father-substitute, and his departure from her life served to release, after decades of suppression, an eight-year-old's exorbitant fear and fury at her father's death. Plath's sudden outpouring of thoroughly unfettered Ariel poems, in other words, represents less a breakthrough than a breakdown; for the poems show little sign of control over or understanding of her rage, let alone mature perception into the human complexities that produced it.

Nor can one blame Plath's suicide on Hughes. Her original attraction to him, after all, had much to do with his status as a “breaker of things and of people”; plainly, the self-destructive part of her had craved such a consort, and if he had never existed, she would have had to invent him. While in some sense, moreover, Hughes may indeed have failed Plath, in her mind the failure was doubtless her own: their marriage was, so to speak, a postgraduate honors course that she could not pass. For just as she had aimed for excellence in school and college, she had also set herself the goal of being an A-plus wife and mother; what she could not accept was that one cannot conduct one's personal life as if they gave prizes for it, any more than one can write serious fiction or poetry while aiming, above all, to please some editor, whether at Mademoiselle or The New Yorker.

If Wagner-Martin renders Plath's marriage as something of a feminist domestic tragedy—with Hughes as the villain—Stevenson seems eager to prove that, in W. S. Merwin's words, “there was something in Sylvia of a cat suspended over water, but it was not Ted who had put her there or kept her there.” The sharp contrast between the views of Wagner-Martin and Stevenson in this matter is reflected in their respective prefaces: whereas Wagner-Martin claims, in her preface, that her unwillingness to alter her manuscript in accordance with demands by Olwyn Hughes (Ted Hughes's sister and Plath's literary executor) led to a denial of permission to quote at length from Plath's works, Stevenson thanks both Ted and Olwyn for all sorts of assistance (and, by the way, quotes extensively from the poems). Stevenson appears to go out of her way to catalogue Plath's offenses, especially against her husband (for instance, her rudeness to his humble Yorkshire mother), and to point out the various ways in which she considers him to have been a positive force in Plath's life. Some of the latter observations—for example, the argument that Hughes made the Ariel poems possible by persuading Plath “to be true to her gift rather than to her ambition”—seem valid. But Stevenson's tone is too often prosecutorial, and sometimes one feels as if she is doing little more than proffering a list of the Hughes camp's long-nursed grievances. Plath's Ariel poems, we are reminded, have caused great pain “to the innocent victims of her pen”; after Plath's separation from Hughes, her frequent reference to her lawyer's instructions “helped to make negotiations … difficult.” To hear Stevenson tell it, Plath was always the one making things “difficult”: time and again, the biographer leaves the impression that Hughes was a perfectly balanced and responsible man dealing as honorably as he could with a demented woman. Perhaps most astonishing of all is Stevenson's implication that the attraction between Hughes and Assia might never have developed into an affair had Plath reacted less hysterically upon noticing it—that, in short, Plath, not Hughes, was responsible for his adultery. All this is most unfortunate, for, such matters aside, Stevenson's is by far the most intelligent and sensitive of the Plath biographies; until Hughes steps onstage, Stevenson's picture of Plath rings truer, on the whole, than anyone else's.

What did the poet herself make of Ariel? It is interesting to note that Plath—presumably sensing that the Ariel poems' crude, superficial confessionalism was a deficiency, while not knowing precisely how to mitigate it in presenting her verses to an audience—described “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” to A. Alvarez as “some light verse.” Likewise, in an apparent attempt to put over the idea that the voice in these poems was not hers but rather that of an imaginary persona, she told an interviewer that “Daddy” had as its speaker a girl whose father was actually a Nazi and whose mother “very possibly [was] part Jewish.” Such addenda, of course, if seriously accepted by a reader, rob a poem like “Daddy” of what force it has, a force that derives precisely from the speaker's mad, unreasoning hate; yet the fact that Plath felt compelled to describe the poem in this fashion suggests that, even though she was incapable of eliminating the poem's weakness, she was astute enough to recognize where that weakness lay. It is only to be hoped that, in the next century, such astuteness in regard to Plath's work will be less rare than it is today among poetry readers, and that future generations will be less inclined to confuse questions of aesthetic significance with those of political serviceability or personal idolatry.

Jack Folsom (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6006

SOURCE: Folsom, Jack. “Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath's ‘Berck-Plage.’” Journal of Modern Literature 17, no. 4 (Spring, 1991): 521-35.

[In the following essay, Folsom examines the personal and professional significance of Plath's poem “Berck-Plage.”]

Sylvia Plath's “Berck-Plage,” which contains 126 lines of seemingly unmitigated malaise and funereal gloom, stands in many readers' estimation as one of her heaviest and least appealing works, even considering its autobiographical significance. The occasion for the poem is described by Ted Hughes in a note to the poem written in 1970:

In June, 1961, we had visited Berck-Plage, a long beach and resort on the coast of France north of Rouen. Some sort of hospital or convalescent home for the disabled fronts the beach. It was one of her nightmares stepped into the real world. A year later—almost to the day—our next door neighbour, an old man [Percy Key] died after a short grim illness during which time his wife repeatedly needed our help. In this poem that visit to the beach and the death and funeral of our neighbour are combined.1

In a notebook entry later published as “Rose and Percy B” in the Johnny Panic collection, Sylvia Plath recorded her own feelings several days after the funeral, which took place on June 29, 1962: “I have written a long poem, ‘Berck-Plage,’ about it. Very moved. Several terrible glimpses.”2 Indeed, Plath's description of Percy's stiffening corpse is a glimpse even more ghastly than the drowned face looming under the fishpond surface in “All the Dead Dears.” That earlier poem (1957) offers an important clue to Plath's purposes in her later poems about the dead and the dying: “How they grip us through thin and thick, these barnacle dead.” Faces in an endless mirror of preceding generations—these skeleton-kin, she says, “Reach hag hands to haul me in.”3

Plath's motivation in writing such ugly and terrifying pictures of death is certainly not its glorification. Far more likely a motive, given Sylvia Plath's abundantly demonstrated lust for the rich textures of life, is her concern for physical and psychic survival in the face of suffering and death.4 In many of her poems, what Plath perceives is a death-figure which threatens to swallow her up unless she can reassert her living identity by “fixing”—and thus immobilizing—her enemy in a structured poetic image. The otherwise uncontrollable fear brought on by what she perceives can thus be allayed by its transference to what she can control: the image.5 For Sylvia Plath, the spectacles of the maimed French war veterans at Berck-Plage and of Percy Key, the cancer-ridden English Everyman next door, were to become emblems of her own struggle to confront death and defeat its power to poison the mind. The early drafts of the poem show that Plath had an even larger purpose in mind than the fusion of the two incidents when she began to compose it during the week following the old man's death (June 26-30, 1962).6 According to the dates on the drafts, there emerged by June 28 a third element of great personal importance: an ironic parallel between the dying processes which she had witnessed and the birth and growth into life of Nicholas, her second child, who came into the world at almost the same time that Percy Key was entering his final decline into death. Few readers of the published version of “Berck-Plage” would suspect that Sylvia Plath had deleted a whole section of the poem before the final typescript. The deleted section shows in juxtaposed “buntings” a dying man and a hungry, growing baby.7

Plath had justifiable reasons for deleting the section, but the knowledge of what it contains compels us to reconsider carefully the published version of the poem. In spite of its length and complexity, “Berck-Plage” has attracted relatively scant attention from scholars and critics, especially in connection with the themes of rebirth and affirmation of life. Although Judith Kroll does not discuss the poem specifically in her book-length study, Chapters in a Mythology, her introductory comment about the death/rebirth theme can serve as a keynote:

To see the autobiographical details only as such is to regard Plath's vision of suffering and death as morbid, but to appreciate the deeper significance of her poetry is to understand her fascination with death as connected with and transformed into a broader concern with the themes of rebirth and transcendence.8

Plath's basic method of “transforming” death is to assume, figuratively speaking, the role of a photo-journalist at the scene, keenly observing details with her camera and narrating interpretive commentary in such a way as to control what she sees with the transforming power of her language. Her technique resembles that of cinematic montage, which juxtaposes and thereby fuses diverse visual images in a meaningful way, beyond the normal parameters of space and time. In this way, Plath's lens can both record and transcend the literal immediacy of what she witnesses, thereby creating order out of chaos.

“Berck-Plage” opens with a strange seaside scene. In a fragmentary rough draft, Plath's first image is not of the sea, as it is in the finished version, but of the sun:

<Silent and violent, the sun
Laid its bright poultices on the promenade.=(9)

The recollection also includes pretty girls selling ice cream cones, but as the draft continues, the images shift into the realm of the bizarre: the girls are adjusting wigs over their bald scalps, The Disquieting Muses and with her own obsessive poem with the same title, which have been examined closely by Judith Kroll.10 From the very beginning of her work on “Berck-Plage,” Plath envisioned grotesque, surrealist transformations of what she had actually seen, as if she herself were creating a Chiricoesque painting or a Fellini film.

The sun's poultice—a poultice of silences, she calls it in the first draft—is simply a covering laid or unrolled over the concrete promenade, but then Plath uses its medicinal qualities to assuage the pain of seeing once again the darning-egg heads: “How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation.”11 The cause of this inflammation is not yet revealed. In her second try at opening the poem, she says that the sun,

We may call this the poison of festering memory, which, in turn, poisonously distorts her vision of the scene. The sun's act or process of drawing forth such poison can, in medicinal terms, heal the infection. The poet's corresponding act is also to have healing power. A father (Otto Plath) once died of a gangrenous infection, leaving his daughter bereft of her belief in God: “I'll never speak to God again,’” the young Sylvia said to her mother.12 Now, more than twenty years later, an old man (Percy Key) has died of a cancerous poison within him, and the spectacle of his dying recalls the scene at Berck-Plage a year earlier. These awful images, already fused in Plath's mind and thereby all the more poisonous, must be drawn out by the poultice of the poem's making and be replaced by healthy tissue. That is Sylvia Plath's evident purpose and challenge in writing “Berck-Plage.”

The bald-headed girls must be changed, played down. Plath shifts the emphasis to their function, the dispensing of sherbets:

Electrifyingly-colored sherbets, scooped from the freeze
By pale girls, travel the air in scorched hands.


Soothingly cold sherbet—it too is a poultice, against the fiery heat. But there is a sinister note in the fifth line: “Why is it so quiet? What are they hiding?” the speaker asks. Bald scalps under their wigs—by implication there may be other deformities lurking about in this scene: amputees, perhaps, like Otto Plath, the one-legged father, the eminent entomologist. The speaker-as-daughter reassures herself, and as always, she puts on her own disguise: “I have two legs, and I move smilingly” (1.6).

Plath's next step is to develop the silence of the scene. The manuscript shows considerable experimentation with the effect of sand that dampens her breathing and deadens vibrations like a piano damper, muting voices and the sounds of boats. The speaker expresses fear:

The lines of the eye, scalded by these bald surfaces,

Boomerang like anchored elastics, hurting the owner.


Such scalding baldness both literally and figuratively must be filtered out, evidently because the underlying truths brought to light by the sun's poultice are unbearable. One must put on a face, a disguise, so as not to be seen as unbearable. One must put on dark glasses, so as not to see the unbearable.

Given Sylvia Plath's known distaste for the hypocrisies and blindness of men of the church (one of whom is shocked by what is revealed in her poem, “Dialogue Between Ghost and Priest”), it is not surprising that she now brings into view a priest:

Is it any wonder he puts on dark glasses?
Is it any wonder he affects a black cassock?


The poem is to end with a climactic funeral ceremony in which “the priest is a vessel, / A tarred fabric, sorry and dull” (7.5-6). Black is the absence of color, the absence of living sunlight in which one can have vision.13 The death of the senses, in particular the death of the visionary imagination, is what Sylvia Plath feared most. For her, a rebirth, the making of a new life, is a psychic necessity.

The priest, like the bald-headed girls and later the maimed veterans, represents a disturbing intrusion upon the natural landscape. As the first section of the poem ends, we see the priest moving among the mackerel gatherers, “who wall up their backs against him” (1.15) as they go on “handling the black and green lozenges like parts of a body” (1.16). Plath's early draft describes the mackerel gatherers as

The sea that crystallized these,
Creeps away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress.


The draft indicates that the sea's distress is over the loss of the fish, to whom it had given birth

As the first section ends, the tone is ominous. The first draft of the second section shows no separation as yet from the first. Who is this priest? Has he come to bless the salt flats? she wonders. It is full of shells,

This priest in dark glasses who “affects a black cassock” might as well be the black-booted Nazi we see fantasized in “Daddy.” The finished version of section 2 opens with Dr. Death, reading his missal at a funeral service:

This black boot has no mercy for anybody.
Why should it, it is the hearse of a dead foot,
The high, dead, toeless foot of this priest
Who plumbs the well of his book,
The bent print bulging before him like scenery.


The printed words of the funeral service are voluptuous to the priest. They are his pornography. He does not see the reality nearby, the sickly and ugly spectacle of raw human sex:

Obscene bikinis hide in the dunes,
Breasts and hips a confectioner's sugar
Of little crystals, titillating the light,
While a green pool opens its eye,
Sick with what it has swallowed—
Limbs, images, shrieks. Behind the concrete bunkers
Two lovers unstick themselves.


Beside the sea, the locus of beauty and the source of life, we are made to watch a deathscaped travesty of spirituality and procreation reminiscent of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” As yet, there is nothing affirmative to be understood apart from the poem's opening proposition: “How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation.”

The second section ends with the speakers exclamation over delicate shells (“white sea crockery”) which, as one crossed-out line in the draft says, have been crunched by the priest's The Bell Jar, hairiness to Plath is ugly, and “hairy privates” are uglier still.14 Near the end of “Berck-Plage,” the blackness of the priest's cassock and the blackness of shoe polish are to be negative images in opposition to the colors of earth and the funeral flowers.

In the third section of the poem, the scene shifts from the beach to the balconies of the “hotel” and a glimpse of glittering “things.” As the speaker in Plath's draft observes, these glittering things are not jewelry but steel wheelchairs and aluminum crutches—

Such salt-sweetness. Why should I walk
Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles?
I am not a nurse, white and attendant,
I am not a smile.


In this fusion of images, we see that an emotional barrier of stone separates the speaker both from the maimed and barnacled veterans and, in the lines next to come, from the children digging in the sand. She is attracted to them, but as she says, “my heart is too small to bandage their terrible faults” (3.9). These faults may be the children's emotional wounds, prefiguring the physically wounded side of a man that is shockingly revealed in the following lines: “his red ribs, / The nerves bursting like trees” (3.10-11). The draft contains far more description: empty sleeves and trouser legs, an emaciated man no more than the suit he wears,15

That capability or power is not to be found in surgery, nor, as Plath has shown, in religion: the priest we have just seen drawn through a virulence. The capability might be found in art: the poultice of the poem is at work, but its efficacy is still under question. Now instead, the image of the man on the gurney fuses with the image of an old man lying on a striped mattress—old Percy Key next door, whose dying and funeral are to be the main focus of the poem:

An old man is vanishing.
There is no help in his weeping wife.
Where are the eye-stones, yellow and valuable,
And the tongue, sapphire of ash.


The spareness of the finished version of the third section is the result of five manuscript pages of experimentation with various image combinations and details that were finally omitted. “The stones of his eyes,” for example,

The living room was full, still, hot with some awful translation taking place. Percy lay back on a heap of white pillows in his striped pajamas, his face already passed from humanity, the nose a spiraling, fleshless beak in thin air, the chin fallen in a point from it, like an opposite pole, and the mouth like an inverted black heart stamped into the yellow flesh between, a great raucous breath coming and going there with great effort like an awful bird, caught, but about to depart. His eyes showed through partly open lids like dissolved soaps or a clotted pus. I was very sick at this. … The end, even of so marginal man, a horror.16

Together with the eye-stones, the beak-like nose preoccupied Plath as she was composing the first view of the old man in the poem. The cognitively dissonant catechresis, “And the tongue, sapphire of ash” (3.18), added later, underscores the shockingly ironic nature of this transformation from jewel—valuable life to ash-reduced death—ashes to ashes. After the long and difficult job of making her transition from the beach scene to the death scene, Sylvia Plath wrote the fourth section of the poem very readily, much as we see it in the published version. Percy Key, now dead, has been transfigured into a sort of religious icon that appears grotesquely comic:

A wedding-cake face in a paper frill.
How superior he is now.
It is like possessing a saint.


The wing-capped nurses, no longer so beautiful since their “blooming days” of caring for Percy are done, “are browning like touched gardenias” (4.5). With the death scene ended, there remain only “things, things,” as on the balconies of the hotel: the bed, rolled from the wall, the bird-beaked effigy, now stiffening, encased in a glued white sheet. In death, says the speaker, “This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible” (4.7). Most poignant of all are the hands, now folded, “that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye” (4.12).

The next stage in the aftermath is the application of a ritual poultice, to draw out the grief and return life to the living. As in Emily Dickinson's “The Bustle in a House,” grief after death is more quickly put behind by housecleaning:

Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
The pillow cases are sweetening.


The speaker, having already pronounced the completeness of death to be horrible, now mouths unconvincingly a typical death-room platitude at the sight of the coffin and “the curious bearers”:

“It is a blessing, it is a blessing”


Some draft pages of “Berck-Plage,” including the first part of the next (fifth) section of the poem, are written on the backs of pages from Ted Hughes' play, “The Waking,” which is probably not coincidental. Indeed, Susan R. Van Dyne has been compiling extensive evidence of Plath's deliberate use of certain pages in manuscript by herself or by Hughes for writing the drafts of poems in some way related thematically and/or emotionally to what is on the other side or to what is written above or below the space that she used.18 In the case of “Berck-Plage,” Plath's first draft begins on the back of a page from “The Waking” and below four fragmentary lines from “Child” (which is thus a poem begun earlier in 1962 although not finished until January 28, 1963), an important fact considering what “child” material Plath wrote in (and later deleted) before the funeral scene in “Berck-Plage.” The fifth section of the poem is the transition scene, moving from the parlor of the stone house where, as the earliest draft says,

Freely become the sun's bride, the latter
Grows quick with seed.
Grass-couched in her labor's pride,
She bears a king. Turned bitter
And sallow as any lemon,
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, yet no woman.(19)

Appropriately enough, section 5, which opens with a distance shot of green Devon hills under a lowering sky, moves in on the concealed hollows of a wife's thoughts of losing her husband: practical details about trunks—“Blunt, practical boats / Full of dresses and hats and china and married daughters” (5.4-5). Things: a curtain flickering from the open window the speaker calls “the tongue of the dead man: remember, remember” (5.9). Amid the “Pallors of hands and neighborly faces” (5.13), the memory begins to fade. Color is draining, even from the flying iris in the room, “flying off into nothing” (5.15). As the images dissolve, we hear the plaintive cry of all who are dying: “remember us.”

At this point, the scene shifts abruptly to the graveyard, and the speaker in the poem observes:

The empty branches of memory look over stones
Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.


No one is present but the stones, the spirits of the dead within them, their “flesh” reduced to blue-veined marble. The stones are flanked, not by reverently placed vases, but by cheap jelly glasses containing what the draft of the poem refers to as

In the first handwritten drafts and typescript, Sylvia Plath interrupts the description of the graveyard and funeral in order to reflect upon the opposite end of the life cycle. The speaker hears a sound, and as usual in this long procession of sensory observations, she must make sense of it, put it in place within her structure of meaning:

<This dovey moaning is not an old man, it is a baby.
A baby delivered in the same January
As the old man's tears for himself:
One eye weeping and weeping
Through the blue of the boxing, the blue of the news.
A wintry body felt itself thinning.
O hungry substance, greedy for color!
The tulips had a part of him that spring,
The green came in late, wiping its lips.=

The pallors so much emphasized in the fifth section are now seen as the result of the voracious renewing phase of the death-to-life cycle. As Kroll puts it, this is “an ironic version of the idea of spring-as-rebirth (seen instead as death masquerading as renewal).”20 Treacherous for the aged, then, is the boxing time, the festival week of midwinter celebration in anticipation of spring. Treacherous too are the tulips for a pallid hospital patient: “The vivid tulips eat my oxygen,” says the speaker in “Tulips.”21 The green of spring has sucked the life from Percy Key, and now, before we see him buried, we see in retrospect his waning life transferred to the waxing life of an infant, unmistakably that of Nicholas Hughes, the poet's second child:

<And this is the baby—
This collocation of delicate vowels,
This singular distillation in which I admire myself.
I too have given him valuables.
And am rewarded with smiles,
Two wise eyes in a worm's body,
Smells of sweet oil and cotton.=

The speaker dwells upon the ironies of reversal and transformation: the coos of the mourning dove become the coos of the baby; Spring the life-destroyer just above now becomes Spring the life-creator, with the speaker herself as its agent, as a mother recreating herself. She admires the product as if looking into a mirror: the gift of “valuables” is repaid with the baby's smiling face and wise eyes, which, as Plath's draft says, assess the value of the giver. That she admires herself through her offspring says a great deal about the value of creativity as a counter-force to death, and about Plath's own artistic counter-balancing in this poem, even if she later changes her intent and deletes the baby section.

The last two lines of this sixth section in the draft contain a sharply focused and ironic contrast between the old man and the baby:

<Old man, what a dirty bunting!
My baby's cries are round and blue. They fly off
                              like pigeons.=

Baby bunting is white and fresh; “bunting” for a withered corpse is dirty: bury it—so the argument runs—and behold instead the swelling of a new life, taking independent flight from its creator. This is the most positive line in the whole poem as originally conceived by Plath, but it is a personal reassurance for Plath herself, not really an integral part of the death/burial narrative. As a life-creator, Plath can make her speaker mock the old man and boast of her creation, thereby working the medicine of the sun's poultice in the opening of the poem: it has drawn off her inflammation, and she is restored to health, ready to attend the funeral with a lighter heart.

If one sees the sixth draft section as a digression for the purpose of psychic and emotional self-medication, then it is easy to see why Plath discarded it. Having been healed by what she has thought and written, she can regain her poet's aesthetic distance and restore the poem's unity of focus upon Percy Key's death and burial.

The sixth section in the final version of the poem, then, moves from the graveyard above to the narrow lane below, along which the funeral procession will move:

The natural fatness of these lime leaves!—
Pollarded green balls, the trees march to church.
The voice of the priest, in thin air,
Meets the corpse at the gate,
Addressing it, while the hills roll the notes of the dead bell;
A glitter of wheat and crude earth.


The scene is striking for its blending of human artifice and transformation (sculptured lime trees, marching as the actual procession will march) with the larger landscape that echoes the death-knell while displaying its life-face, “A glitter of wheat and crude earth.” The earth is a central image here; it is labeled as

What is the name of that color?—
Old blood of caked walls the sun heals,
Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts.


That last line evokes the memory of Otto Plath, who, as we gather from many of her poems, is in Sylvia Plath's mind and emotions not as yet properly buried. The idea of “Berck-Plage” as a symbolic burial of the father, in association with images of renewal out of the same red earth, is considered by Olwyn Hughes to be the central significance of the poem.22 Eventually, Sylvia Plath focused her many images of red earth/blood/flower/womb in her late poem, “Brasilia” as “Red earth, motherly blood.”23 So it is in this poem: the open grave that waits for Percy Key is the red womb of the Earthmother—the final image of “Berck-Plage,” for which these lines in section 6 are a preparation. Plath now re-establishes the healing power of the sun for “Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts” (6.8)—a metaphor of our old but still untranslatable sense of Weltschmerz. That pain is healed, in the end, by the sun, the giver of life. Four months later, Plath's Ariel will fly “Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.”24 There is a purity in redness, a release from the pain of lies and “fatuities.”

With the graveyard setting thus described and labeled, Plath is ready for the tableau of the widow and her three daughters, all in black,

And the bride flowers expend a freshness,
And the soul is a bride
In a still place, and the groom is red and forgetful, he is featureless.


Birth, marriage, death—in this description we recognize the mythic fusion of the three as the female soul, released from the male body, “remarries” the red, impersonal earth enroute to fresh procreation of life. In the draft, Plath envisions an intermediate step

The seventh and final section of the poem re-creates the actual event in which Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes participated. The speaker first positions herself in the procession:

Behind the glass of this car
The world purrs, shut-off and gentle.
And I am dark-suited and still, a member of the party,
Gliding up in low gear behind the cart.


She is at the moment an insulated observer, in the draft version

Following the coffin on its flowery cart like a beautiful woman,
A crest of breasts, eyelids and lips
Storming the hilltop.


Now we realize the importance of the marriage rite previously described. A dead human being lives again as the flowers and leaves of plants, climbing toward the sky, the red eye of morning.

The speaker's burial rite could be considered as a triumph of beauty over death, but now its efficacy is threatened. The speaker passes children in a schoolyard, who smell the shoe blacking of the mourners. Anointing with shoe polish is not consecration, she implies; blackened shoes too, like the priest, are “tarred fabric.” One must see beyond the sorry and dull appearances of Devon villagers in order to discover something else on that hill.

Then from the barred yard, the children
smell the melt of shoe blacking,
Their faces turning, wordless and slow,
Their eyes opening
On a wonderful thing—


Speaking literally, what the children see is a funeral procession, but Plath manages the narrative so that the images which follow become the children's vision as well as the speaker's. Appropriately, it is an aerial view, looking down on the gravesite:

Six round black hats in the grass
                              and a lozenge of wood,
And a naked mouth, red and awkward.


These are difficult lines to interpret. For instance, Judith Kroll notes that death here is a “mere physical extinction,” only a parody of completeness as opposed to the transcendence in some of Plath's last poems.25 On the other hand, one could argue that these lines contain an image that is emblematic and enduring, more than mere physical extinction. Sights and sounds are removed from the everyday world and persist in the mind much as they do on Keats's Grecian urn: the mourners' hats superimposed upon the green grass, the coffin reduced in scale to a lozenge (one recalls the fish-lozenges in section 1), and the naked mouth, red and awkward—an earth-mother's vagina about to take back her offspring. The image is not entirely static, however, because the red mouth is like a gaping wound (reminiscent of the red ribs of the wounded veteran in section 3) that the “surgeon” must try to repair. In the last two lines of the poem, the attempt apparently fails:

For a minute the sky pours into the hole like plasma. There is no hope, it is given up


The poem would appear to end in despair (most readers take it that way), but one must not forget the image of the coffin among flowers now transformed into a beautiful woman. The “giving up” in the final line becomes as much an exorcism of death as it is a yielding unto death. The hole claims its human sacrifice. For Percy Key, there is no hope of return to mortal life; he (and perhaps Otto Plath as well) is given up so that the life cycle can renew itself. The next stage of the grieving process is to let him go, so that the speaker and the mourners in the black hats can go back down the hill to the living world.

The speaker, who is here transparently Sylvia Plath herself, has risen above the world's tumult and has seen renewal after death, even a triumph of rebirth, as we know from these images recently discussed and from the omitted section about the infant Nicholas. Her hope has not dissolved into futility, as David Holbrook contends,26 but rather she has through the act of composing “Berck-Plage” transformed her grief over Percy Key's death, her revulsion concerning human “deformity,” and her latest ordeal of existential despair into a life-renewing vision. One might say that this vision in philosophical terms is rather superficial and lacking in life-sustaining force—a mythic vision of renewal, after all, does not help much when one is dead—but the essential point about Plath in writing “Berck-Plage” is the power of her images to re-fashion her sense of self by ridding her mind of self-destructive garbage. It is the act of image-making—horrific as well as beatific images—that liberates the troubled mind of the modern artist and enables her or him to go on living. Since Sylvia Plath could not and would not bear the loss of creative imagination because of psychic paralysis, she was compelled to imagine the worst (deformity, disease, death) as eclipsed by the best (newborn children, woman-flowers, sky-plasma). The act of juxtaposing the two was her reality, her method of making order out of chaos.


  1. This note (p. 194) and other important information from Hughes relating to circumstances under which the poems were written appears in “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems,” in The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. Charles Newman (Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 187-95.

  2. “Rose and Percy B,” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (Harper & Row, 1978), p. 75.

  3. The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 70-71. Subsequent references to the poems are cited as CP plus page number.

  4. This view of Plath's preoccupation with death as motivated by her appreciation for life has been ably defended in a doctoral thesis by Janice Markey, published as A New Tradition? The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich (Peter Lang, 1985):

    The opposition life/death, kinesis/stasis lies at the heart of Plath's work, and most of her poems, especially the last ones, make it quite clear that, given a choice, she always preferred the passionate intensity of human life with all its imperfections to the final impersonality and ugliness of death

    (p. 34).

  5. The point is further clarified by Pamela Annas in A Disturbance of Mirrors (Greenwood Press, 1988): “The self often feels itself in danger of being swallowed up by the object perceived” (p. 125). Annas goes on to quote R. D. Laing's comment in The Divided Self (Penguin, 1965) about the fear of implosion as the impingement of reality: “Impingement does not convey, however, the full terror of the experience of the world as liable at any moment to crash in and obliterate all identity as a gas will rush in and obliterate a vacuum” (p. 45).

  6. Quotations from these drafts are reprinted from manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection in the Smith College Library Rare Book Room, Copyright Ted Hughes, 1993. I am indebted to Ruth Mortimer, Curator of the Plath Collection, for her assistance, and to Olwyn Hughes for her permission to quote from the drafts.

  7. According to Linda Wagner-Martin in Sylvia Plath: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1987), Plath was depressed that spring by the contrast between her healthy baby and the apparently cancer-ridden old man. Wagner-Martin observes that “Percy's impending death is the subject of several of her spring poems, as if it was standing for some ominous other happening as well [her loss of Ted] that she did not yet want to recognize or even name” (p. 202). If so, then the distinctly positive tone of her description of the baby in her draft of “Berck-Plage” may be seen as a deliberate strategy (later abandoned) to depict her own creativity in triumph over deterioration and loss.

  8. Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Harper & Row, 1976), p. 5.

  9. Quotations in < = brackets are draft material either deleted or altered in the published version.

  10. Kroll, pp. 22-37.

  11. This and subsequent quotations from the published version of the poem (CP, pp. 196-201) are cited by section and line numbers.

  12. Recalled by Plath's mother in the Introduction to Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, ed. Aurlia Schober Plath (Harper & Row, 1975), p.25.

  13. Richard Matovich in A Concordance to the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (Garland, 1986) shows that the color black has the second highest frequency (158 times) after white (166 times) among descriptors of nouns in Plath's poetry. The mythic significance of these colors is discussed at great length in Kroll (for example, pp. 57-59, 110-11).

  14. The Bell Jar (Harper & Row, 1971), p. 75; for the text of “In Plaster,” see CP, p. 160.

  15. Cf. the image in Plath's “Totem” of transitory, diminished life, with self-identity being the only suit that one unpacks:

    There is no terminus, only suitcases
    Out of which the same self unfolds like a suit
    Bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes,
    Notions and tickets, short circuits and folding mirrors.

    (CP, pp. 264-265)

  16. “Rose and Percy B,” pp. 75-76.

  17. Alicia Ostriker, in “The Americanization of Sylvia,” Language and Style, I, (1968), repr. in Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda W. Wagner (G.K. Hall, 1984), commenting on Plath's departure from strict form in the Ariel poems, aptly describes the ambivalence which she felt at this stage:

    The verse correlates with her scorn, or fear, of everything orderly and finished, and with her paradoxically simultaneous feeling that the moment of death, which is her epitome of total organization, is desirable. In “Berck-Plage,” she explains about an old man's sheeted corpse, “This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.” A few lines later she declares, “It is a blessing. It is a blessing”

    (Critical Essays, p. 104).

  18. See “‘More Terrible Than She Ever Was’: The Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems,” in Sylvia Plath, “Stings,” Original Drafts of the Poem in Facsimile (Smith College Library Rare Book Room, 1982), repr. in Critical Essays, pp. 154-170; also “Rekindling the Past in Sylvia Plath's ‘Burning the Letters,’” Centennial Review, XXXII, (1988), 250-265.

  19. Lynda Bundtzen, in Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (University of Michigan Press, 1983), asserts that this scene represents “silly didacticism,” later rejected by Plath herself as a bogus earth-motherly submission to the raping male sun god's creativity (p. 40). Nevertheless, in Plath's upcoming juxtaposition of baby and graveward-bound corpse, there is a strong suggestion that the earth mother and her newborn “king” are to stand in opposition to death—a key issue to be resolved at the very end of the poem.

  20. Kroll, p. 73.

  21. CP, p. 161.

  22. As Olwyn Hughes puts it in a recent letter to this writer, “My feeling is that she was trying in this poem to bury Otto (she never attended her father's funeral). The woman of flowers lying across the coffin is simply a symbol of her father-love.”

  23. CP, p. 258.

  24. CP, p. 240.

  25. Kroll, p. 145.

  26. David Holbrook, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (Athlone Press, 1976), p. 18.

Timothy Materer (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7032

SOURCE: Materer, Timothy. “Occultism as Source and Symptom in Sylvia Plath's ‘Dialogue Over a Ouija Board.’” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 2 (Summer, 1991): 131-47.

[In the following essay, Materer analyzes the Freudian implications of occultism in Plath's poetry.]

“O Oedipus. O Christ. You use me ill,” are the concluding lines of Sylvia Plath's “The Ravaged Face” (116).1 In this poem, Plath uses a major trope of modern writers, the wholesale rejection of the past, represented here by two symbolic figures from the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions. The historical discontinuity of the modern age with the past is familiar in many modernist writers, as in Yeats's prediction of a violent conclusion to the 2000-year cycle of Christianity and Eliot's less violent but still destructive “dissociation of sensibility.” But the closest we can come to Plath's sense of this discontinuity is probably Ted Hughes's statement about contemporary writers who have gone beyond the modernist “state of belonging spiritually to the last phase of Christian civilization.” The world of these contemporary writers is “a continuation or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world … it is the world of the little pagan religions and cults, the primitive religions from which of course Christianity itself grew.”2 Plath shares with Hughes an attempt to find a new ground for writers beyond the traditions represented by Oedipus and Christ. Hughes sees such an attempt, for example, in East European writers like Vasko Popa who “have in a way cut their losses and cut the hopelessness of that civilization off. …” At its most profound, such an attitude is “a shifting of your foundation to completely new Holy Ground, a new divinity, one that won't be under the rubble when the churches collapse” (Fass 207).

In her earliest work, Plath directly attacks Christianity but soon goes beyond this merely negative attitude in her search for a religious stance of her own. This search does indeed take her into the world of “cults,” or rather of the occult. Her occultism may be taken either as a sign of an attempt to find “new Holy Ground” or as a symptom of mental disturbance. One of the values of Anne Stevenson's biography of Plath, Bitter Fame, is that it documents the poet's occult interests so thoroughly, even though the biography's rather negative tone makes the occultism seem a mere symptom of psychological instability. Rather than a mere symptom, Plath's occult studies were a stage in her poetic development and a source of her mature symbolism. As I will suggest later, Plath's occultism was indeed a symptom that may be interpreted psychoanalytically. But one should first understand it as a major step toward her mature work.

A study of Plath's occultism reveals the kind of patterns one finds in mythic interpretations of her poetry. One of the first treatments of Plath as a major imaginative artist rather than an extremist, “confessional” poet was Judith Kroll's Chapters in a Mythology. Drawing on Graves's The White Goddess, Kroll showed how Plath's use of the symbol of the moon as both creator and destroyer, as well as rituals of marriage and rebirth, unifies her poetry. Kroll's book has been criticized because it makes Plath's poetry seem too systematic a development of a personal mythology and because her major symbols were in fact developed before she read Graves in 1959 (Rosenblatt xi). Plath's career obviously did not and (given its tragic briefness) could not reveal the kind of development one sees in William Blake's or W. B. Yeats's. Nevertheless, Kroll's admittedly exaggerated sense of the unity of Plath's work helps one appreciate the Yeatsian power of her major symbols.

To say that Plath's symbols antedated her reading of Graves, moreover, is no criticism of Kroll's thesis because to Plath The White Goddess was an inspiration and an encouragement to develop her symbolism rather than a handbook of mythology. My thesis is that the symbolism Plath discovered in The White Goddess (and of course in many other sources) exists in early poems that have formerly been seen as tangential to her development. An understanding of these poems can increase our appreciation of Plath's ability, which indeed rivals that of Yeats, to alchemize a poetic vision from arcane sources. More importantly, both Plath and Yeats have the gift of major poets to express compelling and universal emotions through their highly personal mythologies.

An important early poem (c. 1952-56), “Sonnet to Satan,” demonstrates how difficult it was for Plath to avoid the mere negativity Hughes discovers in the “last phase of Christian civilization.” A dramatic means of rejecting the Christian God is to praise His adversary Satan, as Baudelaire did in “Litany to Satan.” Such a stance came naturally to the young Plath, who is reputed to have said at age eight when her father died, “I'll never speak to God again.” In her correspondence with Edward Cohen, she was openly hostile to religion: “Those who believe in God are mental cowards; those who devote their lives to his service are physical cowards as well” (Wagner-Martin 28, 58-59). The first stanza of “Sonnet to Satan” describes the “black out” of “bright angels” that represent conventional belief: “In the darkroom of your eye the moonly mind / somersaults to counterfeit eclipse …” (323). In this Yeatsian eclipse of daylight and reason, Plath celebrates Satan's power, which a reference to ink and white paper suggests is the power of the creative (“moonly”) mind:

Commanding that corkscrew comet jet forth ink
to pitch the white world down in swiveling flood,
you overcast all order's noonday rank
and turn god's radiant photograph to shade.


Although comets are the traditional signifiers of portentous events, the comet in this stanza writes revelations, not across the heavens, but across the “white world” of writing or photographic paper. This creative flood is a reimagining of the world as the daylight is “overcast.” Compared to this heroic re-creation of the world, “god's radiant photography” is a timidly mimetic work of art.

In its final quatrain, the spiral movement of the comet gives way to that of a “steepling snake” that is also an agent of revelation and of course also traditionally associated with Satan. A still more significant association of the snake is with the origin of life, as in the figure of the world-snake Ouroboros. This association is used in the opening of Plath's “Snakecharmer” (1957): “As the gods began one world, and man another / So the snakecharmer begins a snaky sphere …” (79). In “Sonnet to Satan,” the snake creates a world in the sense of printing it. The snake replaces God's photograph with a “flaming image” in “contrary light”:

Steepling snake in that contrary light
invades the dilate lens of genesis
to print your flaming image in birthspot
with characters no cockcrow can deface.


To borrow Wordsworth's phrase, these are “Characters of the great Apocalypse” (Prelude 6:638), but they reveal the satanic rather than the divine. Nevertheless, the poem's conclusion leaves Plath still within the Christian framework. The rhetorical problem with preferring Satan to God is that it is shocking only if one assumes belief in the traditional God; otherwise there would be no shock in attacking Him or calling upon the Adversary. As a means of beginning a new spiritual phase, “Sonnet to Satan” is ineffectual. But it adumbrates, in black and white, the dualistic mythology behind her mature work.

For much of her adult life, Plath was reluctant to cut her ties to religion. Her mother was raised as a Catholic and her father as a Lutheran; after her father's death, Plath was reared by her mother as a Unitarian. At Wellesley, she wrote a term paper on Unitarianism in which she praised a Unitarian congregation she had joined the year before (Wagner-Martin 75). Plath may eventually have felt, as T. S. Eliot did, that Unitarianism is rather a code of ethics than a religion and that it could not offer the symbols and rituals (confession, communion, exorcism) that she craved.3 She introduced her own children to traditional religious services. In 1961 she wrote to her mother about attending the Anglican church in her village and sending her own daughter to Sunday school:

I'm sure as she starts thinking for herself, she will drift away from the church, but I know how incredibly powerful the words of that little Christian prayer, “God is my help in every need,” which you taught us have been at odd moments of my life.

(Letters Home 280)

Plath was not of course, like Eliot, on a track from Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism. Her religious development was more like Yeats's. In his Reveries over Childhood and Youth, Yeats wrote that “My father's unbelief had set me thinking about the evidences of religion and I weighed the matter perpetually with great anxiety, for I did not think I could live without religion” (Yeats 15).

Occultism provided both Yeats and Plath with a system of symbols and rituals that did not demand intellectual assent to a traditional religion. It also populated the afterlife with spirits that may have been frightening but less so than a world utterly without them. She feared more than anything a spiritual void. When her persona faces the spiritual desolation of Brontë country in “Hardcastle Crags,” she turns back from a landscape that contains “no family-featured ghost” (63). Plath fears the “vacuous black” (255) and the “immortal blankness between stars” (164). Of the Hardyesque “big God” of “Lyonnesse,” she writes that the “white gap of his mind was the real Tabula Rasa” (234).

Consequently, Plath was prepared to appreciate the occult doctrines and practices to which Ted Hughes introduced her. As he shows in “Craig Jack's Apostasy,” Hughes rejected “all the dark churches.” To counteract this loss, he calls “continually”:

On you, god or not god, who
Come to my sleeping body through
The world under the world. …

(Lupercal 55)

Hughes gave his wife a Tarot deck, which later provided the imagery for many poems, such as “The Hanging Man,” and even a principle of organization of her novel The Bell Jar (Kurtzman). A letter she wrote just before her marriage in 1956 shows how central occultism was in her life with Hughes: “When Ted and I begin living together we shall become a team better than Mr. and Mrs. Yeats—he being a competent astrologist, reading horoscopes, and me being a tarot-pack reader, and, when we have enough money, a crystal-gazer” (Letters Home 280). (One recalls that the title page of Letters Home shows Plath gazing over a transparent globe.)

At Yaddo in 1959, to help her over a block in her writing, Hughes introduced Plath to meditation exercises that were based on handbooks of cabalistic and hermetic magic.4 A poem of 1956, “Crystal Gazer,” shows Plath and Hughes exploring the dangerous world of the occult. The poem is based on their visit to a crystal gazer (called “Gerd” in the poem) near Hughes's home in Yorkshire to ask about the future of their married life. The prediction is banal: despite some harm to “tender limb,” the marriage will thrive and produce “crop's increase, and harvest fruit …” (55). When the newlyweds leave the crystal gazer to her own thoughts, the tone changes drastically. We are told that, braving “Church curse,” Gerd began her fortune-telling with a “crooked oath / Whereby one hires a demon.” Like Plath's Satan, the crystal gazer is a kind of poet or at least a muse, “with power to strike to stone / Hearts of those who pierced time's core” (55). But the price she pays for her vision is the knowledge of what is at its center: “fixed in the crystal center, grinning fierce: / Earth's ever-green death's head” (56).

In addition to crystal gazing and tarot divination, Hughes and Plath used a Ouija board together. In her poem “Ouija,” as in “Crystal Gazer,” they find death at the core of this occult practice. The satanic figure in this poem, still associated with the “shade” of “Sonnet to Satan,” is now the spirit of the Ouija board: “It is a chilly god, a god of shades, / Rises to the glass from his black fathoms” (77). He is a god not only of darkness but also of the spirits (in the Greek sense of “shades”) whom the god can summon as he rises from the wine glass used to point at the board's letters. Like Virginia Woolf, Plath conceives of art as mediumship, which allows the dead to speak through her. They come swarming to her glass as the shades in Pound's Canto I gather around the blood Odysseus brings them:

At the window, those unborn, those undone
Assemble with the frail paleness of moths. …
Imagine their deep hunger, deep as the dark
For the blood-heat that would ruddle or reclaim.


These shades must be ignored to hear the voice of her “control” in the spirit world, and it requires a sacrifice from the medium or poet to hear this spirit: “The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger. / The old god dribbles, in return, his words.” More clearly than Plath's Satan, this god is a muse for her poetry: “The old god, too, writes aureate poetry / In tarnished modes, maundering among the wastes. …” He is like Satan in the way he darkens the “blue, divine hauteur” of the heavens, which under his influence “mistily descend, / Thickening with motes, to a marriage with the mire” (77). But he is hardly a satisfactory muse. Devoted to the “queen of death” (one aspect of the “White Goddess” of the later poems), his work may be aureate but only in “tarnished modes” that express his “nostalgias,” as the poem says in its conclusion:

He, godly, doddering, spells
No succinct Gabriel from the letters here
But floridly, his amorous nostalgias.


The reference to “Gabriel” leaves the reader with an insoluble puzzle. As a Christian angel, the one who will play the last trump, one would expect him to be contrasted, or opposed, to the “old god” of pagan expression. But this allusion is undeveloped, and indeed makes the poem seem “occult” or “obscure” not only in its subject matter but also in its expression. The ambiguity of the poem's conclusion is appropriate to a work in which Plath is struggling to find her own untarnished mode. A look at her intense interest in the occult, however, can answer some of the questions “Ouija” raises.

The poem that is crucial to Plath's exploration of the occult world, and to a full understanding of her poetic development, is included in The Collected Poems in a note to “Ouija.” “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” grew out of her sessions with a Ouija board in 1957-58. Plath first mentions these sessions when she tells her mother about “Pan (our Ouija imp),” who has been giving them tips on betting the football pools: “We keep telling Pan we want it so we can have leisure to write and have lots of children. …” (In his note to the poem [276], Hughes writes that they came near to winning, though the credit probably goes less to their clairvoyance than to Hughes's knowledge of football.) A deeper significance of the Ouija experience is apparent when she tells her mother:

I am at last writing my first poem for about six months, a more ambitious topic: a short verse dialogue which is supposed to sound just like conversation. … It frees me from my writer's cramp and is at last a good subject—a dialogue over a Ouija board, which is both dramatic and philosophical.

(Letters Home 294, 324).

“Writer's cramp” hardly seems an adequate term for a six-month lapse in poetry writing, especially since we know how depressed Plath became during these fallow periods. Considering the centrality of this dialogue to her subsequent published work, it seems more adequate to describe the dialogue as a breakthrough to the subjects that truly inspired her imagination.

In the note to “Dialogue,” Hughes explains that “she never showed the poem” (276), and his uncertainty about the exact time it was written suggests that she never even showed it to him. As a result, Hughes does not include it in the body of the Collected Poems; and Plath's critics ignore the poem even though the quality of its verse and its dramatic form make it one of her most important works. When Steven Axelrod, for example, says that her dramatic poem “Three Women” (1962) was a “major departure” (1963), he forgets that “Dialogue” preceded it by some four years as a dramatic poem for voices that is equally long and even written in the same stanza form. If “Dialogue” is so important, then, why didn't Plath “show” it? To give a brief answer, one could say what Pound said when Eliot showed him an autobiographical section of The Waste Land: that it is too “photographic” (Eliot 26n5). Pound was referring to the section of “The Game of Chess” in which a man and wife reveal their ennui, which Pound believed reflected Tom and Vivienne Eliot's life too graphically. So too the husband and wife of “Dialogue” are transparently Ted and Sylvia revealing not only their occult interests but also their desire for a child and the competitiveness of their lives together as poets. Plath did publish a story that reflected their creative rivalry in 1957, “The Wishing Box”; but the story is not so densely biographical as the poem.5

The control spirit of the Ouija board is the child the couple have not yet had, and they argue about its puzzling behavior like “rival parents over a precocious / Child …” (284). (One finds a similar theme in James Merrill's Changing Light at Sandover, where the Ouija spirit is interpreted as the child Merrill's and David Jackson's love for one another cannot produce.) When the spirit disappoints her, the wife calls him a “psychic bastard / Sprung to being on our wedding night / Nine months too soon for comfort …” (280). An argument about whom the Ouija spirit takes after, husband or wife, develops into an argument about who is the more creative. If one assumes that the spirit is actually a product of poetic imagination, whose imagination is creating it? Is one partner's imagination stronger than the other's, or is the spirit the result of a true poetic collaboration? The issue is highly sensitive because it goes to the root of Plath's concern that her husband's imagination is overpowering hers.

As in Merrill's Sandover, the alphabet of the Ouija board is a metaphor for language itself and the stylus used to indicate the letters (a wine glass in Plath's case) for the poet's manipulation of it. As the letters are selected one at a time, they seem “jabberwocky” and “a balderdash / Of half-hints”; but the Ouija players (like the poet) struggle to make sense of the mysterious letters. The two experimenters also wonder whether Pan's imagery is more characteristic of one rather than the other (283). At its starkest, the question that arises is whether two poets can live creatively in the same house: “Such duels infect best friendships” (283). The answer appears positive because the last lines of the poem are spoken in unison: “When lights go out / May two real people breathe in a real room” (286). Despite the unity of the voices, however, the statement itself does not resolve the issue since it hinges on the ambiguous word “real.” Are “real” people, for example, ordinary ones rather than highly self-conscious poets? Must one or both yield to the other to have a successful marriage?

The poem does not resolve these personal issues because its major subject is the reality of the afterlife and the occult world. This subject is explored in a dramatic form that is truly a breakthrough for Plath in 1957. The handling of speaking parts, moreover, is superior in one way to that of “Three Women.” Instead of voices speaking in a set order, the poem's two voices interweave and break up the stanza forms; and Pan's voice (speaking through capital letters) adds further variety and dramatic tension. Despite the breaks within the stanzas as the voices speak, they are unified by a recurrence of slant-rhymes that never affect the naturalness of the dialogue. (The same rhyme scheme appears in “Three Voices,” but it is less pronounced.) The second stanza is a good example of the pattern (ababcbc, similar to rime royal) that Plath will ring variations on throughout the poem. After a first stanza in which the two main characters, who are named Sibyl and Leroy, sit down before a coffee table with an inverted wine glass, the second stanza describes the spirits, imagined as “marble statues” or “heirloom furniture”:

Moving, being moved. And we'll imagine
A great frieze, Egyptian, perhaps, or Greek
And their eyes looking out of it: keen,
With the cold burn dry ice has. Yet the clock
Has never failed to see our fabling sheared
Down to a circle of letters: twenty-six
In all. Plus Yes. Plus No. And this bare board.


Sibyl is speaking, and she is reluctant to begin; but Leroy insists that they have the session. (“Leo” is Hughes's astrological sign, and the derivation from le roi is appropriate to Leroy's dominating personality.) Their earlier sessions brought them a group of “minor imps” who wasted their time. Two are mentioned by name, Gabriel and Beelzebub, which explains the reference to “succinct Gabriel” in “Ouija.” (In this dualistic pair, it seems evident that Gabriel would be the “succinct” one and Beelzebub, like the “old god,” would be a “talking whirlwind.”) The stage now belongs entirely to Pan, even though Sibyl is discouraged by his poor performance with the football pools. A more serious reason for her reluctance is that, like a true medium, she is exhausted by the sessions. Pressing her, Leroy builds up the fire and brings Sibyl a brandy “So the artful glass won't change its chill for heart's / Blood and bank wrist, elbow, shoulder, lip / With winter as you claim it does” (277). Despite the strains and dangers of the experiment, they begin the session as they at length fix on a first question to ask Pan.

The poem expands around the replies to this question and two additional ones. The first question goes right to the heart of Plath's obsession: “Do you know how my father is?” (278). The answer demonstrates both the unreliability and the creativity of the Ouija board. Sibyl and Leroy are sitting at a coffee table ringed with the letters of the alphabet (apparently on heavy paper) and the words “Yes” and “No.” The pressure of their index fingers on the inverted wine glass moves it over the table's smooth surface.

As the poets provide the subject (the father) of the discourse and interpret the letters that are spelled out, Pan provides words and inspiration. The problem with the arrangement is that Pan appears no more successful as a muse than as a predictor of the football pools. His answer to the question about Sibyl's father is that he is “I-N-P-L-U-M-A-G-E” (“in plumage”), which initially strikes Sibyl as an authentic message from beyond because she says the angelic metaphor would never have occurred to her. But Pan goes on to spell: “O-F-R-A-W-W-O-R-M-S” (“of raw worms”), which is the kind of metaphor both Sibyl and Leroy might typically use in their poetry: “That's what we'd say. About rot / Feeding at the root of things” (279). Responding to Sibyl's disappointment, Leroy criticizes her for expecting too much: “The Faith-Maker, fisted in his cloud, or the chorus / Or mandatory voices you half expect / To fracture these four walls” (279). The imagery of Leroy's speech recalls Wallace Stevens as do the ideas in its conclusion: “we face / Obliteration hourly unless our eye / Can whipcrack the tables into tigers. …” In other words, Pan's importance is that he is a poetic fiction that can be listened to as if he were true since all “spiritual” experiences are poetic creations.

Sibyl's reply to this argument reveals the ambition of Plath's work. She dismisses Leroy's comments with the phrase, “All this I know.” Because the fist does not in fact appear, she says that “I shrink … the size of my demand to magic,” which explains why her interest in the occult is so much deeper than Leroy's. In occultism she seeks transcendental experience and not merely, as Leroy does, ideas or metaphors for poetry. Leroy is content with a psychoanalytic interpretation of occult experience as an experience of the unconscious mind. Sibyl violently rejects the interpretation of their experience as the projection of the unconscious mind or the creation of Yeatsian archetypes:

… I'd sooner be staked for a witch, kindled, and curled
To a cinder, than meet a poor upstart of our nether
Selves posing as prophet and slyly poaching
Pebbles we preserve in our own cupboards
To build his canting towers.


The difference between their two views of occultism augments the dramatic element in this experimental verse drama. Tension between the two players begins to rise as Sibyl rejects the notion that Pan is a “psychic bastard.” Leroy hopes to continue the session by putting a second question: “Pan, tell us now; Where do you live?” (281). After a false start, Pan replies that he lives “I-N-G-O-D-H-E-A-D.” Sibyl is encouraged by the answer to believe that he might be the source of genuine visions:

                    If veronicas and fountains
Can once in a blue moon catch the shadows of
Their passing on a perishable screen
Of cambric or waterdrops, who knows what belief
Might work on this glass medium.


The debate reaches its crisis as Leroy maintains that, no matter what Pan tells them, “the fight is ours, / And tongue, and thought. …” To settle what Leroy calls their “duel,” they ask a third question, “Where do you live?”. The answer spells defeat for Sibyl: “I-N-C-O-R-E-O-F-N-E-R-V-E.” If Pan lives in the core of their nerves, he is nothing but a projection of their psyches. Sibyl observes bitterly that the board has become “our battle field” and that “My will has evidently / Curtseyed to yours” (284). But they are both insulted when they feel the glass move once more, and Pan “romps round” to spell out: “A-P-E-S.” With Leroy's approval, Sibyl smashes the wine glass in the fireplace, and their supernatural revels are ended.

The broken glass, with its symbolism of fragility and destruction, is the culminating symbol of the poem. Although Pan's name suggests a natural force, a friendly imp or psychic child, his name also suggests the name for primal fear since it is the root of the word “panic.” In the brilliant story inspired by her employment at a Boston psychiatric clinic in 1958, “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” Plath reveals the same ambivalence toward “Johnny Panic” as she does toward Pan. The clinic's patients, who have various amusing and disturbing phobias, are under the influence of Johnny; and the narrator is disappointed when one of his “converts” is cured: “Johnny Panic injects a poetic element in this business you don't often find elsewhere. And for that he has my eternal gratitude” (28).

More than a poetic “element,” Johnny is a hermetic figure who can conduct one to the source of dreams and poetry:

To be a true member of Johnny Panic's congregation one must forget the dreamer and remember the dream: the dreamer is merely a flimsy vehicle for the great Dream-Maker himself. This they will not do. Johnny Panic is gold in the bowels, and they try to root him out by spiritual stomach pumps.

(Johnny Panic 32)

Much as the narrator disapproves of rooting or casting out Johnny Panic, he is not a benign figure in her own life. In a scene reminiscent of Plath's poem “The Bee Meeting,” the clinic doctors bring the narrator to a room for what is obviously electroshock treatment after they discover her reading confidential case histories. As she feels the electroshock, she sees Johnny's face as a Christian martyr might see Christ's: “At the moment I am most lost the face of Johnny Panic appears in a nimbus of arc lights on the ceiling overhead.” But Johnny is also the panic fear of the shock itself (“I am shaken like a leaf in the teeth of glory”), and the religious language of the story's conclusion is sardonic:

His love is the twenty-storey leap, the rope at the throat, the knife at the heart.
He forgets not his own.


The terror inspired by Pan, or by what he represents, is revealed in “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” by the smashing of the glass. Sibyl destroys the link to the other world, but even the fragments seem to have symbolic power. The symbolism of the act is emphasized by Sibyl's comment that “Once, in a dream / I smashed a glass, and ever since that dream / I've dreamed of doing it again” (285). Although this leaves the glass's destruction no more specific symbolically, it emphasizes the importance Sibyl places on the action—as if it were the fated violation of a taboo. The moment of the smashing brings visions to both Sibyl and Leroy. Leroy's vision is so powerful that he now questions his own psychoanalytic interpretation of Pan as an expression of their combined consciousness:

Those glass bits in the grate strike me chill:
As if I'd half-believed in him, and he,
Being not you, nor I, nor us at all,
Must have been wholly someone else.


He has a vision of a threat to Sibyl, which is described in one of the finest passages in the poem:

                                                                                I saw cracks appear,
Dilating to craters in this livingroom,
And you, shackled ashen across the rift, a specter
Of one I loved.

Leroy's vision of Sibyl is matched by her vision of Leroy: “The image of you, transfixed by roots, wax-pale, / Under a stone” (285). The spiritual reality of their session seems authenticated by these two visions (“Death's two dreams”). Sibyl has undergone a ritualized death and rebirth, with Leroy as her Orpheus. Her hand is deathly cold, and she asks him to “chafe the cold / Out of it. There. The room returns / To normal.” Although she has escaped her danger, she can never really return to a “normal” state. Outside, in the November evening the “blown leaves make bat-shapes, / Web-winged and furious,” and the full moon makes the “neighbors' gable-tops / Blue as lizard-scales.” Leroy proposes to “shut the door / And bolt it” by breaking off the sessions. Sibyl resolves that they must promise “to forget / The Labyrinth and ignore what manner of beast / Might range in it” (286). The dialogue concludes with both Sibyl and Leroy saying: “When lights go out / May two real people breathe in a real room” (286).

The vision of death seems to come not from their psychic child Pan (although he is the medium for it) but from the spirit asked about in the first question, Sibyl's father. In “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals,” Ted Hughes describes how their experiments with the Ouija board related to Plath's father. He notes that Plath would refer to her 1953 suicide attempt as a “bid to get back to her father” and that some of “the implications might be divined from her occasional dealings with the Ouija board” in the late 1950s:

Her father's name was Otto, and “spirits” would regularly arrive with instructions for her from one Prince Otto, who was said to be a great power in the underworld. When she pressed for a more personal communication, she would be told that Prince Otto could not speak to her directly, because he was under orders from The Colossus. And when she pressed for an audience with The Colossus, they would say he was inaccessible. It is easy to see how her effort to come to terms with the meaning this Colossus held for her, in her poetry, became more and more central as the years passed.


The Ouija experience was crucial to her exploration of this theme in developing a private mythology that would inform her vision. Hughes says that Plath's attempt to “get back” to her father through suicide seems “a routine reconstruction from a psychoanalytical point of view.” The word “routine” is accurate in its way, but one could as justly use the word “classic.” The interpretation is routine only because the attempt to return to the father through suicide conforms so closely to a Freudian paradigm. Plath's profound understanding of psychoanalytic thought through her reading and especially her psychoanalysis in 1958-59 meant that she herself saw her symptoms in Freudian terms. For example, she found in Freud's Mourning and Melancholia an “almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide” as well as the “‘vampire’ metaphor” that she used in “Daddy” (Journals 279).

A Freudian reconstruction will also give us an insight into Plath's fascination with the occult. As Philip Reiff observes, the “unknown” is a clearly related term for the phenomenon that is referred to as the “unconscious” (361, 377). Both psychoanalysis and the occult deal with the “unknown.” For example, both deal with “ghosts,” although their appearance is treated as factual truth by occultism and as symptoms of mental disturbance by psychoanalysis. To Freud's displeasure, the superficial affinity between the two studies meant that the two were also bracketed together. In a paper drafted in 1921, Freud complained that it “no longer seems possible to keep away from the study of what are known as ‘occult’ phenomena.” He defined occultism as “facts … that profess to speak in favour of the real existence of psychical forces other than the human and animal minds with which we are familiar, or that seem to reveal the possession by those minds of faculties hitherto unrecognized.”

Freud attributes this influence to the “loss of value” resulting from World War I and the “great revolution towards which we are heading and of whose extent we can form no estimate …” (“Psycho-Analysis and Telepathy” 177). We are still living through this revolution in values, and here Freud's analysis resembles Umberto Eco's in Foucault's Pendulum, that occultism flourishes in an “age of confusion” (261). Freud believes that occultism fills the place of a discredited religion by taking over its “attempt at compensation, at making up in another, a supermundane, sphere for the attractions which have been lost by life on this earth” (“Psycho-Analysis and Telepathy” 177).

Should Plath's occultism be considered a form of “compensation”? No one has suggested that Ted Hughes's interest in the occult is a psychologically significant symptom. Why should Plath's interest seem any more significant? One reason is that Hughes, on the evidence of “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” itself, regarded techniques like fortune-telling either as a game or as a way of exploring one's own psyche. In Plath's case, “Dialogue” suggests that her belief in occultism was an attempt to experience a spiritual world directly—as she put it in “Mystic,” to be “seized up / Without a part left over …” (268). Such an experience, which reportedly obsessed her in the last few days of her life (Wagner-Martin 240; Stevenson 289-90, 296), seemed threatening to her because, as she put it in “Mystic”: “Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?” (268). The experience of this spiritual world makes the ordinary world somehow unreal, as Yeats shows in poems from “The Stolen Child” to “Sailing to Byzantium.”

If one does consider Plath's occultism as a symptom or compensation for some loss, a Freudian interpretation of her Ouija experiments would of course center on her attempt to reach her father. Her approval of Freud's “Mourning and Melancholia” is significant since in this essay suicide is not simply an attempt to “get back” to the dead but to revenge oneself upon them. Freud notes that the ambivalent feelings of hate as well as love one may feel for someone close may cause intense guilt and self-torment if that person dies, which may in turn lead to a self-torment that exacerbates negative feelings toward the dead. In Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, for example, the poet admits that his fascination with the spirit world is related to his guilty feelings toward his dead father.6 Freud's complicated explanation of the way this emotional syndrome may lead to suicide involves what he calls “emotional ambivalence in the proper sense of the term—that is, the simultaneous existence of love and hate toward the same objects [which] lies at the root of many important cultural institutions” (“Mourning and Melancholia” 156).

Freud relates this ambivalence to religious feelings in his essay “A Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession.” From his own patients, Freud knew that the attitude toward a father is “not merely one of fondness and submission but another of hostility and defiance” (278). In his essay on “The ‘Uncanny,’” Freud writes that the same ambivalence is felt toward the divine: “From this unresolved conflict, on the one hand of longing for the father and on the other of dread and defiance, we have explained some of the important characteristics and most epoch-making vicissitudes of religion” (143). He concludes that “it requires no great analytic insight to divine that God and the Devil were originally one and the same, a single figure which was later split into two beings of opposed characteristics” (278). In his essay on “The ‘Uncanny,’” Freud further relates this religious duality to the theme of the phenomena of the double: “The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage. … The ‘double’ has become a vision of terror, just as after the fall of their religion the gods took on daemonic shapes” (143). It is the kind of vision that Plath expresses in “Death & Co.”

In deriving the origins of religion from ambivalence toward the father, Freud in effect identifies the patterns in Plath's work that stem from her love/hate feelings toward her own father: the communication with him in the quasi-religious afterlife of occultism, her ambivalence toward figures like Johnny Panic, Pan, and the “old god” of “Ouija,” the theme of the double that obsessed her from the time of her Smith College thesis to the writing of poems like “Death & Co.,” and finally the dualistic mythology of her mature poetry. In other words, considering Plath's occultism as a symptom, or as a compensation for the loss of a father, leads directly to a source for what Hughes called her “chapters in a mythology.”

By using the terms Hughes employs, we may understand her occultism as a creative element in Plath's search for “new Holy Ground, a new divinity” and not only as a psychological symptom. Although her “new divinity” was no less threatening than the Christian God, it was her own unique conception that inspired rather than oppressed her imagination. In a discussion of the chronology and unity of Plath's work, Hughes wrote:

The world of her poetry is one of emblematic visionary events, mathematical symmetries, clairvoyance, metamorphoses, and something resembling total biological and racial recall. And the whole scene lies under the transfiguring eye of the great white timeless light. Her poetry escapes ordinary analysis in the way clairvoyance and mediumship do: her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them. In her poetry, in other words, she had free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests, shamans and Holy men. …

(“Notes” 81-82)

Just as Hughes says that her psychic gifts tend to escape analysis, he says of her “mythology” that “the origins of it and the dramatis personae, are at bottom enigmatic” (81). No one can fully account for the symbolic power of her terrible and beautiful moon goddess, her dying and rising god, or her ritual exorcisms. Nevertheless, one can conclude that Plath's early experiments in occultism expressed and supported her rejection of Christian culture and brought her closer to the brilliance of her mature work. When Pan spoke to her from the ring of letters, she heard the unique voice of her inspiration.


  1. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Sylvia Plath's poetry appear in her Collected Poems (1981).

  2. “Ted Hughes and Crow” (Interview with Ekbert Fass) in Fass 205.

  3. On Eliot's Unitarianism, see Gordon 11-12. I am grateful to Paul Alexander for information in this paragraph.

  4. Fass 44. See also the reference to these works of “magical literature” in the interview with Hughes that Fass prints as an appendix, 210.

  5. The rivalry in “The Wishing Box” concerns which spouse dreams the most vivid dreams. See Plath, Johnny Panic 54-61.

  6. See esp. section “I” of “The Book of Ephraim” (29-32) of The Changing Light at Sandover.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Steven. The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Eco, Umberto. Foucault's Pendulum. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt, 1988.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land: A Facsimile. Ed. Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

Fass, Ekbert. Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe. With Selected Critical Writings by Ted Hughes & Two Interviews. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 15. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955.

———. “A Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in the Seventeenth Century.” On Creativity and the Unconscious. Ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper, 1958.

———. “Psycho-Analysis and Telepathy.” 1941 [1921]. Standard Ed. Vol. 18.

———. Totem and Tabu. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1950.

———. “The ‘Uncanny.’” On Creativity and the Unconscious. Ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper, 1958.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot's Early Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Hughes, Ted. Lupercal. London: Faber, 1960.

———. “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems.” Tri-Quarterly 7 (Fall 1966): 81-88.

———. “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals.” Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. New York: Harper, 1985. 152-64.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper, 1976.

Kurtzman, Mary. “Plath's ‘Ariel’ and Tarot.” Centennial Review 22 (Summer 1988): 286-89.

Merrill, James. The Changing Light at Sandover. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper, 1981.

———. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings. London: Faber, 1977.

———. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Eds. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Ballantine, 1985.

———. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath. New York: Harper, 1975.

Reiff, Philip. Freud: The Mind of a Moralist. 3rd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton, 1989.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon, 1987.

Yeats, William Butler. Reveries over Childhood and Youth. Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Collier Books, 1971.

Jahan Ramazani (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10286

SOURCE: Ramazani, Jahan. “‘Daddy, I Have had to Kill You:’ Plath, Rage, and the Modern Elegy.” PMLA 108, no. 5 (October, 1993): 1142-56.

[In the following essay, Ramazani argues that Plath's poems expressing grief fit the criteria of modern elegy and that Plath expanded the genre by adding a tone of abiding anger.]

“How they grip us through thin and thick, / These barnacle dead!” Plath wryly observes in “All the Dead Dears” (Poems 70). More than all the other dead dears, Plath's father grips her through poem after poem. Dead when Plath was eight, he became the “buried male muse” of her work (Journals 223). She explicitly evokes his death in her novel, journals, and stories and in various poems, but perhaps the finest works elicited by his loss are the elegies Plath wrote between 1958 and 1962: “Full Fathom Five,” “Electra on Azalea Path,” “The Colossus,” “Little Fugue,” and “Daddy.” With these works, Plath made a major contribution to the development of the modern elegy, even though they have more often been read as examples of “confessional,” “extremist,” “lyric,” “American,” or “domestic” poetry than as poems of mourning. To reinterpret them as elegies is not to restrict them to a new classificatory cage but to ask pragmatically what aspects of their psychopoetic character this context reveals. If one defines the elegy as strictly autobiographical, Plath's projection of her mourning onto dramatic and mythic personae may seem to bar her poems from the genre; but Plath, though labeled a “confessional poet,” follows elegists from Spenser to Yeats in articulating her grief through semifictive selves, albeit speakers more closely resembling her than contrived shepherds resemble pastoral poets. If, by contrast, one understands the elegy to be fundamentally dramatic, the semiautobiographical content of Plath's elegies may seem to exclude them from the genre; but poets from Jonson and Bradstreet to Hemans, Emerson, and Robert Lowell mourn family members in propria persona. Further, if the elegy is defined as immediately occasional, Plath's delayed mourning may seem to forbid interpreting her poems as elegies; but canonical elegists like Spenser, Tennyson, and Hardy wrote elegies many years after the commemorated deaths. As long as Plath is excluded from the genre of poetic mourning on the basis of such rigid criteria, readers will miss her significant perpetuation and renewal of the ancient literary dialogue with the dead. She should be understood as participating in a genre irreducible to raw outpouring, impersonal artifice, or prompt tally—a genre that allows her, like other poets, both to mask and to reveal grief, to dramatize and to disclose it.

The foremost obstacle to reading Plath's poems as elegies is probably their harsh ambivalence; but this is precisely her most important contribution to the genre—her enlargement of the elegy's affective parameters beyond the traditional pathos, love, reverence, and competitive camaraderie. Summoning a violent anger at her father, Plath shuns the elegy's affiliations with love poetry and encomium. She uses the genre “to express anger creatively”: “Fury,” she observes of her writing, “flows out into the figure of the letters” (Journals 273, 256). Plath extracts and magnifies the elegy's potential aggression toward the dead, which canonical elegists convert into male bonding and professional competition or expend on nature, third parties, and themselves. Milton and Shelley, though they may scourge clerics and reviewers, honor the dead without reservation. Even Jonson, Dryden, and Swinburne, who betray competitive friction with the dead, contain aggression by casting it as homosocial rivalry. The modern elegists who most influenced Plath demonstrate that the dead can be not only revered but openly resisted in elegies: Yeats and Auden criticize the personal limitations of public figures and family members, Roethke re-creates his childhood irritation at his father's unthinking hurtfulness, Lowell satirically mocks the grandiose self-regard of parents and ancestors, and Sexton calmly defies and curses her reproachful mother.1 But no previous elegist brands a dead parent a “danger,” a “barnyard,” a “barbarous” butcher, and, as Plath writes in her final assault, a “Fascist,” a “devil,” a “vampire,” and a “bastard.” Intensifying more than any of her elegiac forebears the mourner's aggression toward the dead, Plath shatters the old dictum de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Oedipal antagonism might be expected in men's elegies for real or poetic fathers, but Plath's fierce resistance does not conform to the stereotypical gendering of aggression as male and cooperation as female. Her combative elegies complicate recent attempts to define the “female elegy” as a “poem of connectedness,” “attachment,” “continuity,” “closeness,” and “identification” (Schenck 15, 18-19, 20; Stone 87). “Women poets,” argues Celeste Schenck, “seem unwilling to render up their dead,” whereas the “masculine elegy” enacts “separation” and “rupture” (15). Associating men's elegies with “accusation” and women's with “affiliation,” Carole Stone similarly believes that it is the “refusal to give up the dead that characterizes female elegy” (84, 85, 90). This overly rigid distinction, which obscures the relational work in men's elegies and the dissociative impulse in women's, clearly founders on Plath's poetry of agonistic mourning. In elegies of explosive grief and rage that will her deliverance from the “barnacle dead,” Plath helped to free women poets from the prostrate role assigned by literary and gender codes to the female mourner. An essentialist model of “female elegy” that overemphasizes “continuity” with precursors and with the dead risks blurring the historic consequences of Plath's feminist revolt and her generation's. Already in Bradstreet's poetry the “stress-marks of anger” may be perceptible (Rich, On Lies 22), but the originator of the American elegy clasps her dead father in eulogy instead of desecrating his image. Like many of her female successors, this daughter feels “By duty bound … / To celebrate the praises” of her father—a man “pious, just, and wise.” Yet ever since Plath wrote her last elegies of violent separation and rupture, American women poets like Sexton, Rich, Wakoski, Kumin, Kizer, and Olds have been more willing to use the genre to exorcize, slough, divorce, defame, even annihilate the dead. Perhaps their elegiac aggression could be seen, from a perspective made available by Simmel and Freud, as strengthening ties with the dead, but strife-sealed bonds differ markedly from unambivalent “connectedness.”

While all Plath's elegies are angry, her early ones turn rage inward, resulting in poems of bitter self-reproach, and only the later ones directly attack her father. Plath was well aware that her love for her father was mingled with sadomasochistic feelings. “He was an autocrat,” she said of him; “I adored and despised him, and I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him” (Steiner 45). Just as Plath heightens the outwardly directed anger of the elegy, she also heightens its inward manifestation, pitilessly charging herself with having murdered her father. Self-destructive mourning has long played a role in the elegy. Emily Brontë, for example, remembers her “burning wish to hasten / Down to that tomb,” and Tennyson recalls wishing that his “hold on life would break” (28.15). But elegists before Plath are not as aggressive and persistent as she in their acts of self-immolation: her elegies end in fantasies of breathing water, of a razor rusting in her throat, of her marrying first shadow and then the pallor of clouds, and of her being “finally through.”

In the early elegies, Plath blames her father's death on her excessive love for him, articulating an incestuous desire unlike the decorous affection customary in the genre. But despite the “Electra complex” that she assigned to herself and that critics have persisted in citing, Plath's ambivalent descriptions of her father indicate that this love was always laced with hostility. Indeed, she sometimes uses the “Electra complex” to mute guilt over patricidal anger. After finishing “Electra on Azalea Path,” Plath asks whether guilt is the basis of her “dreams of deformity and death. If I really think I killed and castrated my father may all my dreams of deformed and tortured people be my guilty visions of him or fears of punishment for me? And how to lay them? To stop them operating through the rest of my life?” (Journals 301). Like such dreams, Plath's elegies depict her father as having suffered castration (a “strange injury”), gangrene or drowning (“face down in the sea”), a shattering blast (“more than a lightning-stroke”), mutilation (“one leg”), and deformity (“one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal”). These images are at once “guilty visions of him,” her reenactments of the death she seems to have caused, and “punishment for me,” self-flagellations for killing him.

While the concept of the Electra complex veils the hostility in Plath's elegies for her father, the concept of melancholia may help to clarify their sadomasochistic mourning. When Plath read Freud's “Mourning and Melancholia,” she called it “[a]n almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a transferred murderous impulse” (Journals 280).2 Although Freud allows that ambivalence inheres in all love relationships and in all mourning, he argues that a disproportion of negative feelings results in “melancholic” or “pathological” mourning, characterized by “self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e., that he has willed it.” The mourner's self-reproach is therefore secondary, deriving from the primary anger toward the deceased. In melancholia, feelings of “sadism and hate” for the dead person “have been turned round upon the subject's own self,” so that the mourner takes revenge “by the circuitous path of self-punishment” (251).3 Prohibitions against female anger in particular, one might add, would encourage this internalization of rage. Moreover, later analysts show that anger and guilt in mourning are not necessarily pathological (Klein; Lindemann 142; Bowlby 29-30). Modified by these and other revisions, Freud's ideas can alert the reader to the changing distributions of anger in Plath, from the self-torment of the early elegies to the later emergence of sadistic grief, from the initial masochism, persisting to haunt her last elegy, to the final destructive force, surfacing even in her first.

Together with such poets as Hardy, Owen, Sexton, and Lowell, Plath remakes the elegy for the twentieth century, helping to shift the genre's psychic work from consolatory mourning to the violent, contradictory, and protracted work of melancholia.4 She rejects the tradition of redemptive mourning not only in men's elegies but also in women's, from Bradstreet and Behn to the great profusion of consolatory elegies by the “nightingale” poets.5 Early modern women poets like Millay and Bogan had muted the generic paradigm of consolation, and still earlier poets like Elizabeth Boyd and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had strayed from it, but Plath contests it more vehemently and pervasively than her predecessors did. She dramatizes the kind of irresolvable bereavement that Sigourney condemns as “pagan” and “heathen” (15, 111), the kind of violent female grief that Jackson denounces as Demeter's “foul shame to motherhood.” Plath emphatically refuses (unlike Bradstreet) to bow before the dead patriarch or (unlike the nightingales) to veil furious grief as a secret sorrow or to “[p]ut on submissive strength to meet, not question death” (Hemans 359). At the same time, Plath defies the largely masculine canon of elegy, which typically magnifies the mechanisms of patriarchal inheritance and homosocial affiliation, relegating women to the roles of ineffectual muses, distracting nymphs, inadequate mothers, and figures of death—as in the elegies of Milton, Shelley, and Whitman. Reversing norms of female subjugation and masculine inheritance, she insists on her power as wrathful mourner instead of effacing it, defaces the name of the dead father instead of revering it.6

But in naming her early work, Plath at first perpetuates the name of the dead father. She considered entitling her initial collection of poems after her first elegy for her father, “Full Fathom Five,” before deciding to call the book after another elegy for him, “The Colossus.” Shakespeare's phrase, she wrote in her journal, relates “to my own father, the buried male muse and god-creator” (Journals 223). Yet the presence of the dead father is not altogether benign even in Plath's early work. Though her description of paternity as the “father-sea-god muse” might seem at this point to be entirely free of ambivalence (244) and though some critics believe that her negative feelings erupt only later (Butscher 238), “Full Fathom Five” already suggests the basis for Plath's subsequent attacks on her dead father (Poems 92-93).

In the first elegy, the Neptune-like father may be divine in his timelessness and enormity, but he is also a menace. A commentator thinks that in this poem the daughter regards the father with “ceaselessly loving eyes” (Rosenblatt 70), but she says she “[c]annot look much” at him because he frightens her. Plath protects herself with a coldly formal tone, diction, and syntax, nearly freezing the poem's momentum with clotted alliterations and impeded rhythms. Her glacial language is an apotropaic mimesis of the father, who is as “cold” as “ice-mountains // Of the north, to be steered clear / Of, not fathomed.” The elegy's impassive and stoic surface points the way to the opposite—the wildly heterogeneous and pugnacious discourse of “Daddy”: whether withdrawing behind a rhetorical shield or attacking with a verbal onslaught, Plath represents her dead father as a dangerous antagonist. The daughter can only “half-believe” the “rumors” of the father's demise because he rises and falls with the tide, surfacing unpredictably. The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan observes:

In pathological grief the psychodynamic process of the work of mourning is frozen. Indeed, the pathological mourner frequently uses the word “frozen” in describing his “typical” dream in which the struggle of keeping the dead person alive appears. The lost one is both killed and not killed, is both buried within the mourner, and not buried within the mourner.


If the normative term “pathological” is left aside, this description of melancholic mourning usefully suggests that the daughter's conflict between hatred and love keeps her father dead but alive, relinquished but yearned for, feared but adored.

Like his depth, age, and power, the father's expanse is immeasurable, his hair a “dragnet” that might trap the unwary. The hair stretches out ominously, threatening to envelop his daughter: “Miles long // Extend the radial sheaves / Of your spread hair.” With hair like “sheaves,” “skeins,” and a “dragnet,” the dead father resembles an all-encompassing text, a vast system of signifiers. In death he has assumed the boundlessness of an absent presence, living only in traces and tokens that cannot be contained, virtually personifying patriarchy's symbolic order. Because he holds within his web, “[k]notted, caught,” the secret story of his daughter's “origins,” he retains absolute power over her, preventing her from turning fear into rebellion or from drawing strength from her occluded origins. The daughter struggles with a paternal discourse that is unresponsive and indecipherable, in contrast to the soothing voices and inspirited texts that once granted elegists access to the dead.7 “You defy questions,” she says, and she dares not read him because of his many “dangers”: a father of terrifying “obscurity,” he is ultimately “[i]nscrutable.” From the “[w]aist down,” in particular, he is “[o]ne labyrinthine tangle.” Hidden there are the twin secrets of her birth (by his seed) and of his death (or castration), but though she would unravel the mystery, she fears discovering that her birth led to his death. She averts her gaze, guiltily worried that she may be implicated in the obscure story of his wounding—a wounding that links this god to the gored or castrated deities of fertility myth and elegiac tradition. By the law of the talion, her castrative loss of sight would be compensation for his “strange injury.”

The poem's final stanza sexualizes their relationship, suggesting that perhaps an incestuous bond has caused his death and “[e]xiled” her from his kingdom: “Your shelled bed I remember. / Father, this thick air is murderous. / I would breathe water.” To live is death, and to die is also death. That is, to live in exile from her father is to mourn her loss perpetually, ever remembering the guilty love that may have caused the loss, ever breathing an air filled with murderous thoughts of her guilt—thoughts that enforce her subjugation. But to end her exile would also be to die—to kill herself, to surrender herself to a watery death, to reenact the terrible story that she fears he enfolds. The elegy ends in a paradoxical image of both fulfillment and self-punishment: to achieve her father's underwater bed would also be to drown herself. Ever desiring his phallic power but prohibited from attaining it, the bereft daughter amplifies the contradictions lived by women under patriarchy. Instead of ending the poem with an elegiac motif of compensatory inheritance or of the empowering recovery of origins, Plath extends the anti-consolatory strain of elegy, of which the most famous example is Shelley's suicidal counsel at the end of Adonais: “No more let Life divide what Death can join together.” The daughter's only escape from grief is to embrace the incestuous but castrative desire that caused her grief, to kill herself into a complete union with her father—the latest in a long line of female suicides in Western literature. The dead father resembles not only glaciers but also “whirlpools,” a kind of Scylla and Charybdis through which the daughter cannot possibly navigate. Normative elegists transfer affection from the lost object to a symbolic substitute—an oedipal resolution that Peter Sacks compares to the “healthy” mourning of Apollo and Pan (5-8). But nearer classical analogues for Plath's dramatic surrogates might be such female mourners as Demeter, Niobe, and Antigone, whose melancholic grief is less susceptible to the compensatory substitutions of the symbolic order. Like her ancient predecessors but unlike most elegists from Bradstreet to Sigourney and from Milton to Tennyson, Plath refuses to submit her mourning to the redemptive law of symbolic exchange, ending her elegies in inconsolable despair.

It is in part guilt that obstructs recovery in Plath's first elegy for her father—an understated guilt that breaks into full song in “Electra on Azalea Path” (Poems 116-17). For twenty years, the daughter has slumbered in “innocence,” but the poem relates her painful fall into experience, into a sense of responsibility for her father's death. The elegy maps onto Plath's later development the psychoanalytic narrative of a child's fall from the preoedipal to the oedipal, or from the imaginary to the symbolic—a fall occasioned by the father's “castrative” threat. Hibernating under her mother's protective embrace, “I had nothing to do with guilt or anything.” But one day the name of the father intervenes: she wakes to read it on a crooked tombstone, cramped by other stones and by corroding plastic flowers. Plath savagely parodies the elegiac association of flowers with immortality and sympathy: though stiff and rotproof, the “red sage” hardly betokens immortality, since it has never lived and its dye drips; nor can the dripping of the red dye indicate nature's sympathy, since the sage is merely an “artificial,” “plastic” flower. Earlier elegists from Spenser (“Astrophel”) to Hemans (“To the Memory of the Dead”) accept flowers as substitutes for the dead, but the sage offers no such consolation because it is an “ersatz” (a plastic duplicate) of an “ersatz” (a floral token of the deceased). For this melancholic daughter, no substitute for the father, including his name, flowers, or an elegy, can heal the wound of loss.

Shocked by the inglorious and unconsoling sight of her father's grave, the daughter shifts through various explanations for his death. The shabbiness of the burial plot indicates that the mother might have caused the death, as in the story of Agamemnon, which the daughter cites. “I borrow the stilts of an old tragedy,” she reports, somewhat deflating her self-mythologization as Electra. Plath sets against the Electra myth a different story, which hints at the daughter's patricidal guilt, suggesting that the Electra myth may be a smokescreen. But the new story is ambiguous in its imputation of culpability: “The truth is, one late October, at my birth-cry / A scorpion stung its head, an ill-starred thing; / My mother dreamed you face down in the sea.” Is it daughter or mother who is responsible for the father's death? If in dreams begins responsibility, then the mother's dream reveals her guilt. But the daughter also seems implicated, since her birth occasioned the omen and the death dream. This poem, like “Full Fathom Five,” both articulates and obscures the relation between the birth and the death, indicating that the connection may be merely temporal (her birth was followed by signs of his death) yet worrying that it may be causal (her birth caused the death). This ambiguity persists even in the more forthright statement “I brought my love to bear, and then you died.” The “then” may either designate mere sequence or signify that the love precipitated the death. The uncanny logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc plagues earlier melancholic elegists. Jonson, for example, confesses, “My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy,” as if his affectionate feelings had caused his son's death; to “like too much,” he implies, is to risk killing. Because patriarchal power often shifts guilt from man to woman, father to daughter, a female elegist might be even more prone to this frightful thought than a male would. Plath's speaker tries to override it by believing that her father died of a natural cause—gangrene, according to her mother. But the abrupt shift to a surreal image of self-destruction betrays the failure of this consoling story: “I am the ghost of an infamous suicide, / My own blue razor rusting in my throat.” Suddenly, she rather than her father is killed. Having attempted to punish herself for her illicit and destructive love, the daughter survives as the ghost of her former self. Even though under patriarchy it is the father, not the daughter, who typically instigates incest, the daughter is made to bear the guilt: “It was my love that did us both to death.”

“The Colossus” repeats the analogy with Electra, but this time the daughter resembles her classical counterpart even less (Poems 129-30). Now she not only loves and fears her father but reproaches and mocks him. Once again her guilt over having killed him develops into a fantasy of self-punishment, but before diverting the rage inward, she begins the poem in scornful anger. Convincingly read by several critics as an allegory of Plath's confrontation with patriarchal tradition (Bundtzen 186-88; Annas 33; Axelrod 45-51) the poem should also be seen as an allegory of her ambivalent mourning for a particular patriarch—the man who embodied that tradition in her childhood. Plath portrays her mourning of her father as the frustrated, even impossible, task of reconstituting a grandiose but shattered colossus: “I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.” If traditional elegies represent therapeutic mourning, Plath's elegy represents its breakdown. According to Melanie Klein, mourners must go through “the pain of re-establishing and reintegrating” their childhood images of their parents:

In normal mourning the individual reintrojects and reinstates … his loved parents who are felt to be his “good” inner objects. His inner world, the one which he has built up from his earliest days onwards, in his phantasy was destroyed when the actual loss occurred. The rebuilding of this inner world characterizes the successful work of mourning.

(354, 363)

The daughter tries to rebuild the image of her dead father, but he stubbornly remains a vast incoherence. As a boundless confusion, his disorderly patriarchal order sets the boundaries of her world: his fragments “are littered // In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.” The father's dispersal is the basis of his power over his daughter, condemning her to the endless, fruitless work of melancholia. Were the father to speak coherently, the daughter might be able to reject or refute his utterances; instead, she can only mock them as “barnyard” noises—“Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles.” Nor can she learn from the cacophonous sounds spewing from his lips; for thirty years she has tried to make sense of his utterances, but, she sarcastically concludes, “I am none the wiser.” As in “Full Fathom Five,” she has “labored” to open symbolic lines of both aural and visual communication with the dead man, but the enveloping earth interrupts her access to him: she can neither “dredge the silt” from his throat nor “clear / The bald, white tumuli” of his eyes. In the fragmentation of the colossus, Plath figures her inability to totalize scattered memories and contradictory feelings—to re-member and thus forget them.

Torn between yearning for communication and mocking the father's responses, between solicitous love and dismissive aggression, the daughter cannot bring her mourning to completion. “When hatred of the lost loved object … gets the upper hand in the mourner,” Klein writes, “this not only turns the loved lost person into a persecutor, but shakes the mourner's belief in his good inner objects as well. The shaken belief in the good objects disturbs most painfully the process of idealization,” which alone can save the ego from anxieties that it will destroy itself and the loved dead person through its sadism (355). Earlier, Plath could represent her father as a sea-god or ancient hero in accordance with traditional elegiac apotheosis, but now she ridicules him for conceiving of himself as “an oracle, / Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.” The daughter's rage subverts her affectionate efforts at elevating and totalizing the dead man, for it breaks apart the ideal imago that she labors to reconstruct. Portraying herself as a mere ant that crawls over the father's immensity, she disguises the destructive power that she worries she may have unleashed on him.

As the poem unfolds, the daughter tames the sarcastic anger of its beginning, fearful of aligning herself with the blast that, “more than a lightning-stroke,” reduced her father to “ruin.” Disguising her hatred as love, she begins to ennoble him again as the hero of the Oresteia. He even becomes a kind of Roman Forum. Guilty over her anger, she turns increasingly submissive and self-punishing (Bundtzen 188). This countermovement is evident in the poem's representation of the daughter as engulfed by the ruins of the father. In Klein's picture of mourning, the lost object is imaginatively reintegrated and reinstated within the mourner. Unable to unify or introject her dead father, the daughter in Plath's poem is instead enveloped by his remains. Encompassed by fragments that bound her vision, the daughter even squats in the father's ear. Because she fails to internalize him, he internalizes her. The law and language of the father rule over her hopes for renewal and over her picture of the outer world: “The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.” The sun, a primary elegiac trope of the happy rejuvenation of the dead, figures instead the cruel enslavement of the daughter by her undying but unliving father. By the end of the poem, she has quashed her hope for any departure from his half-dead world: she is “married to shadow,” no longer listening for some hero to liberate her from subjection. Initially combative, the daughter now directs her rage wholly inward, punishing herself for having wanted to defy or escape her father. Trapped within his ruins, she is condemned to a world defined by his catastrophic death: she must ever lament a father she detests too much to allow him a rebirth, ever chastise herself for her ambivalence toward the dead man. Even so, this apparent psychological failure is once again a literary triumph—Plath's third elegy that, while seeming to submit to the patriarch, contravenes elegiac norms of compensatory substitution and restoration.8 With this anticonsolatory elegy, Plath continues to help fashion for the genre a new poetics of melancholia.

Whereas “The Colossus” signifies melancholia primarily by the broken statue, Plath's next elegy for her father, “Little Fugue,” represents melancholia in the discontinuities of the poem's formal surface (Poems 187-89). The shards that the daughter could not put back together are now the broken syntactic units in which she speaks. The father's symbolic order still encompasses and frustrates her. Unable to master or integrate her psychic world, the daughter shifts abruptly among recurrent images and non sequiturs. The musical term of the title also alludes, as commentators agree, to the temporary amnesia that is called a fugue, but the daughter's amnesia is part of a broader psychological condition of unsuccessful mourning.9 Impeded from any therapeutic advance, she numbly recycles a small set of images. Mourning is blocked partly because the daughter cannot connect with the father symbolically by either sight or sound—a blockage figured in the poem's variations on the blankness of white and black, “[b]lack yew, white cloud.” In “The Colossus,” the daughter can neither “dredge” his cavernous throat nor “clear” his “white” eyes. In “Little Fugue,” she is again cut off from aural and visual communication, as the elegy suggests by its confusion of the senses:

The yew's black fingers wag;
Cold clouds go over.
So the deaf and dumb
Signal the blind, and are ignored.

Whereas the dead can often be seen, heard, and spoken to in traditional elegies, this elegy opens with an oblique representation of the deafness, dumbness, and blindness of both mourner and mourned. Despite assiduous efforts by the daughter at breaking through the barrier of death, she and the father are doomed to be oblivious of each other. Because the mourner cannot resign herself to the father's inaccessibility, her senses unsuccessfully reach out for response. Her melancholia keeps him alive even in his deadness. “I see your voice,” she says, the senses misjoining sight and sound, and she describes the voice in terms that are more visual than aural: it is a “dark funnel,” “[b]lack and leafy,” “A yew hedge of orders, / Gothic and barbarous, pure German.” Figured as black, this so-called voice resembles writing, a voice transcribed into black marks that might seem leafy, particularly in German Gothic type. Unlike the letters that join Tennyson to his friend or the “[d]ark yew” that answers the poet's touch (39, 95), this “yew hedge” of print cannot possibly yield an exchange between father and daughter. The poem's pattern of black and white represents in part the symbolic order that entraps the daughter. Her father's voice is paradoxically dumb yet loud, its “big noises” like a “grosse Fuge,” its clamor like the cries of “[d]ead men.” Because the father seems alive but dead, accessible but inaccessible, the lines of communication misconnect. The blind pianist figures a crisscrossing not only of sight and hearing but of the other three senses as well: “He felt for his food. / His fingers had the noses of weasels.” Touch (“felt,” “fingers”) intersects with both taste (“food”) and smell (“noses”). The melancholic daughter looks uncontrollably at the pianist, even though neither he nor the dead father whom he represents can return her gaze.

But the daughter's desire to reach her father conflicts with her terror at the possibility of breaking through. The daughter's psychic fugue, Marjorie Perloff argues, is her inability to remember anything except her father (132), while others claim that it is her inability to remember him. Perhaps both views are right, for the daughter remembers yet represses him, wants to see and hear yet silence and block him. She wants, for example, to restore his voice, but once she begins to do so, she must defend herself against its unspoken accusations: “Dead men cry from it. / I am guilty of nothing.” In “Electra on Azalea Path,” the daughter also convinces herself that she “had nothing to do with guilt or anything,” but her denials break down by the end of the poem. Having protested her innocence in “Little Fugue,” the speaker half denies, half confesses guilt in her image of a “tortured” Christ, which suddenly gives way to images of a bloody, violent father. Hints of self-accusation turn round into accusations, reversing the pattern of “The Colossus,” which moved from indictment to self-punishment. She is not guilty of murder, the logic of the poem suggests; rather, he is the cruel aggressor. She remembers him “[l]opping the sausages,” which are “[r]ed, mottled, like cut necks.” This butchery is linked to the mutilation not only of his body (leaving him “one leg”) but also of her mind (making her “lame in the memory”). His death left a “[g]reat silence,” but this quiet is imposed partly by the daughter as a defensive reaction to his violent disruption of her life. She responds to the severance of his life, figured as the redness that invades her mind, by displacing it with total blankness. The disturbing recollection of his death leads her to impose this blankness once again: “Now similar clouds / Are spreading their vacuous sheets.” The daughter uses the father's enforced black-and-white pattern to force pattern on her loss—to repress his abrupt death and block his horribly colorful assault on her world. The orderly binary system of black and white shuts out red and other jarring colors: “a blue eye, / A briefcase of tangerines.” Her endurance depends on her stifling such eruptions of the past:

I survive the while,
Arranging my morning.
These are my fingers, this my baby.
The clouds are a marriage dress, of that pallor.

“Morning,” “hands,” and a “new-borne babe” once afforded consolatory hope near the end of elegies,10 but here none of these images is so vivid as the brutal memory it squelches, nor can dreary skies or a bridal shroud hold out much promise. Deictic terms (“these,” “this”), while assuring the daughter of a world here and now, suggest her difficulty in fastening her attention on the present. She arranges her morning by arranging her mourning; that is, she maintains a sense of order in the present by organizing her grief in a stark black-white pattern, in simple declarative statements, and through energetic repression of the unnerving past.

To answer the dead father decisively—this is the driving impulse of Plath's last elegy for her father. “Daddy” brings to a culmination the imagery and psychology of her elegiac poems (Poems 222-24). The opening recapitulates the contrasts of black and white in “Little Fugue,” except that the father, more demonic than ever, is now explicitly associated with “black” and the once powerless daughter with “white.” The father is again a “[c]olossus” (“Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue”), but now the daughter needs to be “stuck … together with glue” and the father split open with a stake. Like the daughter in “Electra on Azalea Path,” this speaker has attempted suicide to rejoin her father, only she directs her rage not at herself but at him. Like the sea-god in “Full Fathom Five,” this father has his head in the ocean, but as a mortal creature he put his “foot” and “root” in the Polish earth. Tumbling from one order of being to the next, the paternal sea-god of “Full Fathom Five” dwindles in “Electra on Azalea Path” to a mortal hero, then in “The Colossus” to someone who merely considers himself an oracle, then in “Little Fugue” to a butcher of sausages, finally in Plath's last elegy to “a devil,” “[n]ot God.” Despite his earlier fearfulness, the mourned father once approximated Klein's “good object,” but he now turns into the “bad object”—the inner image of the lost parent that embodies aggressive and paranoid fantasies.

This shift in psychological extremes coincides with a shift in rhetorical extremes. The tonal and discursive monotony of “Full Fathom Five” gave way to the abrupt self-reversals of the increasingly ambivalent “Electra on Azalea Path” and “The Colossus,” poems that juxtapose devotion with mockery, the colloquial (“Lysol”) with the archaic (“acanthine hair”); these poems gave way in turn to the abandonment of syntactic cohesion in the numb drift of “Little Fugue.” “Daddy” marks the last stage in this devolution of discursive integrity: the poem hops from nursery rhyme to ritual exorcism, from enraged curse to adoring supplication, from English to German. Plath directs the violence of melancholia at discourse itself, turning against the traditional elegiac use of the sign as restorer of the dead. Melancholic mourners resist language, in Julia Kristeva's view, because they are unwilling to accept substitutes for what they lost—and the original loss is the child's loss of the mother on entering into the father's symbolic order (3-68). Plath hints at this primordial grief, using Mother Goose rhyme and childlike repetition to evoke the unresolved oedipal position of the child. In a remarkable anticipation of French theories of the feminine, she portrays the symbolic “language” of the father as alien and “obscene,” a disfiguring discourse that was, nevertheless, the only vehicle through which she could constitute her identity: her tongue was “stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak.” The language of the father allowed her to enunciate herself, yet it threatened not only to wound but even to annihilate her; it resembled a train, “Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.” Raging against the monolithic language of the father, Plath would define herself in a mercurial discourse, restlessly squirming beneath the opacity and weight of the paternal signifier, “a swastika / So black no sky could squeak through.” And yet her heterogeneous counterdiscourse depends on the signifier it rejects, on the father it vilifies.

“Daddy” embodies Plath's ambivalent resistance toward and dependence on the discourse of her father. She combats his fascistic and demonic violence, but her elegy reproduces it in exaggerating his evil and destroying his image. For Plath, patriarchal violence found its ultimate expression in the Nazi death camps, which were the triumph of the victimization from which she suffers. Her father has the same “bright blue” eye as he has in “Little Fugue,” and he terrifies her as he does throughout her elegies: “I have always been scared of you.” But instead of cowering under his massive image, she now fights back. As in her earlier elegies, she announces her guilt for having murdered her father: “Daddy, I have had to kill you. / You died before I had time.” The deaths in these two incongruous lines are of different orders: her father died literally before she imaginatively killed him. She murdered him in childhood fantasy (“I probably wished many times that he were dead” and afterward “imagined that I had killed him”), and now she must murder him again in this poem. In “Electra on Azalea Path” and “The Beekeeper's Daughter,” it is her love that kills her father—an incestuous love that has to be punished. Even though Plath's radio comments link “Daddy” to the “Electra complex,” his death in this poem is the result less of love than of her need to defend herself from annihilation (Poems 293). Having been victimized by his violence, she now batters him with an equal and opposite aggression. The poem itself makes clear the mirror relation between his and her violence: he “[b]it my pretty red heart in two,” and so now she splits open his “fat black heart” with a stake. Much as he seemed to deport her in the Nazi boxcar of his language, she now tries to expel him by her verbal blast. He threatened her by assuming massive proportions, and now she, unlike the tiny “ant in mourning” of “The Colossus,” inflates herself by commanding a rhetoric that bullies and bellows; her denunciations, like villagers in a tribal rite, “are dancing and stamping on you.” By dying, he abruptly severed the lines of communication between them, and now she, instead of seeking to “get back” to him, tears the telephone “off at the root.”

Plath uses the frequently patriarchal discourse of the elegy to banish and kill the patriarch. Although she follows such modern elegists as Yeats, Roethke, Sexton, and Lowell in departing from the eulogistic strain of the elegy, she exceeds their defiance by representing her elegy as an act of murder. Even so, Plath calls attention to her demonization of the dead man, showing it to be a myth necessary for her liberation from him. Looking at a picture of her father teaching a class, she self-consciously transforms the professor into “a devil.” She converts his “cleft” chin into a trope for the devil's cloven foot. In addition to the elegiac glorification of the dead, Plath parodies a number of other motifs central to the genre, including compensatory substitution. Having resisted libidinal displacement onto flowers, the sun, or a heavenly soul in her earlier elegies, Plath now fiercely mocks her desire to fashion a surrogate for her dead father. “I made a model of you,” she admits, marrying “[a] man in black with a Meinkampf look.” Instead of creating yet another substitute, her elegy enacts the destruction of both the original and the copy: “If I've killed one man, I've killed two.” Wrecking father and husband-substitute, Plath also demolishes the psychological backbone of the traditional elegy. After preferring self-punishment to consolation in her earlier elegies, she now chooses sadistic vengeance over libidinal redirection or solace. To free herself of substitutive connection with the dead man, she tears out the telephone line, melancholically rejecting any simulacrum of “voices” from the grave.

The end of “Daddy” resumes but revises another traditional elegiac device—the troop or chorus of mourners. Milton and Shelley amplify their laments by representing them as group acts; Plath unites with a group, but the chorus of mourners join her in a rite not of love but of vengeance: the villagers “are dancing and stamping on you.” Milton and Shelley parallel their laments with mourning rites for such fertility gods as Adonis and Orpheus; Plath also alludes to primitive ritual, but her tribe enacts death without hoping for resurrection. She simulates the rhythms of a destructive dance in the mounting frenzy of her ending: the final stanza begins slowly, then shifts to three anapestic lines that build in speed until slamming into the abrupt syntax and inverted rhythms of the final line: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.” The ritual exorcism has succeeded, as Plath, resuming the typical work of the elegiac coda, reflects on the accomplishment of her elegy: in writing the poem, she has finally driven a stake “through” her father's heart—the heart being an ancient elegiac synecdoche for the dead. She has spilled his blood to free herself from his vampirelike appetite for her blood. Attacking him with the violence she once directed at herself, she inverts the restorative work typical of elegy—a reversal that is in part the psychological consequence of her earlier failures at restoration. “I used to pray to recover you,” she recalls, but her anger subverted reconstructive idealization. The father of “The Colossus” and “Little Fugue” could not be totalized or internalized, so in “Daddy” the daughter tries expelling what she has been unable to ingest, pulverizing what she has been unable to put together. Earlier, she even “tried to die / And get back, back, back to you,” much as in “Full Fathom Five” she wants to “breathe water” and reunite with him. Now she would rather get back at him than get back to him, rather renounce him than renew him. With spectacular energy, Plath shatters the taboo against female anger—a taboo that had once forced her to take vengeance on her father by the circuitous path of attacking herself.

But the violence the daughter unleashes to liberate herself risks, paradoxically, destroying her. “I'm finally through” is a claim that she emphatically repeats at the end of the poem, a proud declaration of her independence; but the pronouncement also suggests its opposite—that in being through his heart, through with him, through with her vitriolic utterance, she is herself through, finished, at the end of her poem and of her life. Once more the sadism and masochism of melancholia seem inextricable. From “Full Fathom Five” to “Daddy,” each of Plath's elegies punishes the mourner less and the father more than does its predecessor; but even the outward anger of her final elegy obliquely modulates into an image of self-destruction. Her vehement bid for self-assertion kills off both her father and herself, indicating that her negative self-definition depends on the father whom it negates, that the obliteration of his image necessitates her own demise. This psychorhetorical interdependence between father and daughter may suggest “connectedness,” but the link is a bleak version of the relational identity that Schenck and Stone attribute to women's elegies. Trapped long in lamentation, Plath triumphs over grief but risks destroying the grounds of her melancholic life and work. Moreover, in spite of her effort to redirect rage outward, much of the elegy betrays a fierce self-contempt. Breathing fire, she mocks her earlier willingness to live submissively in his tomblike “shoe,” to see his gargantuan image as “a bag full of God” rather than as garbage or worse, to repeat futile prayers for his recovery, to search for his “common” and unrecognizable birthplace, to speak his obscene and menacing language, to play the victimized Jew or Gypsy of his oppression, to be yet another woman who “adores a Fascist,” to submit her heart to his destruction, to try even suicide that she might recover his dull bones, and, in her last foolish act, to make and marry a model of him. This chronicle of her degrading self-deceptions ends only when she describes her present efforts at resolute self-assertion: cutting the phone line, killing both original and surrogate, and orchestrating the ritual dance of the father's destruction.

A primary rhetorical figure for Plath's ambivalence toward her father is apostrophe. The trope summons up the dead man, fictively endowing him with the ability to hear, yet it animates him in order to kill him. An ancient convention of elegy, apostrophe allows mourners to convert their relations to the dead from “I-it” to “I-thou.” The figure has this function in Plath's earlier elegies, all of them apostrophic: in each of the first three elegies, “you” and “your” appear at least a dozen times, always introduced in the first line, most often respectfully. But increasingly Plath remakes the trope, using it in the first half of “The Colossus” to display contempt for the “barnyard” incoherence of her father's voice and introducing the figure belatedly in “Little Fugue” after his guilt-inducing voice begins assaulting her (earlier there is a pun on yew). In these instances, apostrophe counteracts the father's aggressive voice, for, as a “figure of voicing,” the trope empowers her writing with the semblance of a speech act (Culler 40). Apostrophe is essential to the fiction of a combative voice in “Daddy,” where the trope becomes even more prominent: “you” and “your” appear more than thirty times, with “you” often serving as an emphatic end rhyme (in earlier poems, the pronoun takes the initial and medial positions in lines). But the insistent apostrophe strengthens the illusion not only of a speaking daughter but also of a listening dead man. To empower herself, Plath must empower her opponent; the repeated you animates each of two competing subject positions. Calling “Daddy” “a love poem,” A. Alvarez links the phoneme “oo” to a “cooing tenderness” (66), and the syllable does suggest intimate contact with the dead man; but Plath turns the sound into an angry taunt, and by the end of the poem the repetitions become undeniably fierce and vengeful (“villagers never liked you … stamping on you … knew it was you … you bastard, I'm through”).11 Thus, apostrophe is yet another figure for Plath's melancholic ambivalence, for her desire to revive yet revile the dead man, to reach yet relinquish him. Unlike the earlier elegies, this poem makes the word you the object of many verbs and prepositions, grammatically demoting the father from sovereign agent to passive target (“kill you … recover you … to you … of you … like you … of you … buried you … to you … of you … liked you … on you”).

Apostrophe generates the elegy's rhetorical whirligig, resuscitating the dead man only to necessitate the further enlivening of his daughter, who in turn wills his destruction. The figure that summons him from the grave risks depriving her of life, and so she uses the trope to reassert ever more vigorously her own power. Apostrophe usually serves to connect the living with the dead, but much as Plath revises other elegiac tropes suitable for postmortem exchange, she uses this one to hammer her dead father into oblivion. The father's language had engendered yet endangered her utterance and existence; now she adopts the very “barbarous” and vengeful voice that had impeded her speech. To escape the father's threat, her voice must reincarnate his; to annihilate him, she must annihilate herself: she assumes his power in order to obliterate his identity but thereby obliterates her own.12 Even so, this drama of self-destructive destruction does not hold at the level of literary genealogy; for however much Plath reincarnates her elegiac inheritance even as she wrecks and ravages it, she stunningly redefines the potential of the genre, creating an elegy more combative and melancholic than any work in the tradition. Plath's rhetorical violence may kill off the fictive Plath in the poem and may even eerily anticipate the poet's suicide, but it endows Plath the elegist with literary immortality.

Plath was, of course, not the only poet helping to reinvigorate the American family elegy during the late 1950s and early 1960s. At a time when many Americans and Britons felt, according to the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, that mourning should be disciplined and silenced, “indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as if it were an analogue of masturbation” (128), Lowell, Sexton, and Ginsberg were, like Plath, using the parental elegy to articulate publicly an ever more intense and ambivalent grief. Lowell mocks his mother's pretentions, describing the casket he brought her as “like Napoleon's at the Invalides” (77), and chronicles his father's pathetic decline from naval officer to soap salesman; Sexton sneers at her father's “alcoholic tendency” and her mother's Christian “clutter of worship” (Poems 51, 43); and Ginsberg remembers feeling “revolted a little” by his mother's scars, stitches, and orifices (24). But even amid this irreverent and outspoken company, the aggression of Plath's last elegies is singular. Indeed, her “torrent … / of agony and wrath” so impressed Berryman (191) that he, although previously mourning his father in ironic elegies indebted to Lowell, adopted her violent elegiac mode for his climactic, penultimate poem in The Dream Songs. Getting back at and back to his father, he wields an “ax” that functions enough like Plath's stake to suggest that, in a neat reversal of patriarchal inheritance, the poetic son is now borrowing “phallic” authority from a literary foremother (406).

Moreover, Plath broke taboos not only on desecrating and openly mourning the dead but also on female expressions of rage, thereby setting a precedent of special importance for women poets. The daughter's elegy for the father became, with her help, one of the subgenres that enabled women writers to voice antipatriarchal anger in poetry—anger initially focused on the familial embodiment of masculine authority. Writing about Plath and Wakoski, Rich argues that “[u]ntil recently this female anger and this furious awareness of the Man's power over her were not available materials to the female poet” (On Lies 36). Rich herself, who later explored her lingering rage toward her father in prose, began to articulate such feelings in poetry under the sway of Plath's elegies. Less than two years after Plath wrote “Daddy,” Rich composed her premortem elegy, “After Dark.” Despite many differences between the poems, the mourning daughter in each confesses that she has wanted her father to die, protests that he has eaten her heart, depicts him as physically impeding her utterances, remembers trying to join him in the ground, meditates on a photographic image, and represents him as an insistent, repetitive, autocratic voice. In beginning to sound her anger in this elegy, Rich affirms as a valid affect what she had been taught in childhood was a “dark, wicked blotch” to be suppressed (Of Woman Born 46). In her later prose poem Sources, Rich's address to her dead father still echoes Plath's apostrophic “Daddy”: “For years I struggled with you: your categories, your theories, your will, the cruelty which came inextricable from your love. For years all arguments I carried on in my head were with you” (15). Plath's example has been fundamental for other women poets, who have used elegies for fathers to vent continuing anger, to finger childhood wounds, and to scrutinize paternal power in its absence. In father poems of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kumin represents her dead parent in a nightmare vision of enormous, disconnected body parts, and Wakoski mythologizes her vanished “Father, / Father, / Father” as absent, militaristic autocrat. Sexton, whose work Plath echoes in “Daddy” (Cam), admitted in 1968 that Plath's incomparable “hate poem” had “influenced” her in turn: Sexton had “never dared to write” such a poem and had “always been afraid … to express anger” (Sexton, “Art” 13). In her late elegies for “‘Daddy!’ ‘Daddy!’” Sexton even brands the dead man an incestuous demon: “I am divorcing daddy—Dybbuk! Dybbuk! / I have been doing it daily all my life” (Poems 543, 545). Today, Plath's work continues to reverberate through elegies by women. While claiming never to have “written against the dead,” Olds nevertheless says of her grandfather, “Let this one be dead” (“Of All the Dead”), and she details in an entire volume of poems the death of a father she not only “loved” but also “hated” and even “killed” (The Father 71, 60). Like Plath, these undutiful daughters renounce the submissive mourning commended by gender codes, mortuary custom, and elegiac tradition—a renunciation basic to their poetic careers and their renewal of the elegiac genre.13


  1. For valuable discussions of Plath's debt to these poets, though not of the generic debt specified here, see Guttenberg; Gilbert; and Cullingford—all on Yeats—and see Axelrod on Lowell and Roethke (62-70); Cam on Sexton; and Plath herself on Auden, Lowell, and Sexton (Interview 170, 167-68).

  2. As Axelrod remarks, Plath “[a]stonishingly” goes on to apply the essay's insights to her mother rather than to her father; see his discussion of Freud's essay and Plath (26-27).

  3. Schwartz and Bollas aptly say of Plath, “By focusing murderousness on herself rather than on the father who left her, she could have partially denied the magical idea that her bad feelings toward him caused his death” (186). For helpful literary discussions of female anger, see Gilbert and Gubar 85-89; Marcus 122-54; Ostriker 122-63; and Bennett 242-67.

  4. For descriptions of the traditional elegy in relation to consolatory mourning, see Sacks 1-37 and Pigman 6-9.

  5. In contrast, see Schenck's argument that “refusal of consolation” characterizes women's elegies (24) and Stone's assertion that “women in the past have been excluded … from the writing of elegy” (85). On the “nightingale” poets and their elegies, see Walker 23.

  6. For analysis of traditional elegy in terms of oedipal inheritance, see Sacks 32, 36-37; Schenck 13-16.

  7. See, for example, Hemans's “O Ye Voices Gone” (255) and Tennyson 95.

  8. See Axelrod's analogous distinction (50-51).

  9. For insightful readings of the poem informed by psychoanalytic concepts (fugue, castration, the lex talionis, etc.), see Kroll 110-14, Bundtzen 186-92, Holbrook 160, and Rose 130-33. Perloff astutely analyzes the poem's language and black-and-white pattern (130-34).

  10. See Milton; Tennyson 124.23; Sigourney's “The Lost Sister” (59); and Spencer.

  11. In contrast, Wagner-Martin terms the poem “a nearly reasonable hate-chant” (219). Axelrod places the work in the generic context of “poems about parents” or “family poems” (59). My reading draws on de Man's discussion of the dangerous symmetries implicit in apostrophe.

  12. At a more general level, Schwartz and Bollas note this psychodynamic process: “Plath's response to her father's death was to become like her father. … Her aggression, in its verbal and phallic form, is inseparable from the fantasized aggression of the father” (187). Still, it could be argued that Plath's aggressivity differs from his in being the violence of resistance rather than of oppression.

  13. For generous help in revising this essay, I thank Susan Fraiman, Diane Freedman, Paul Mariani, Caroline Rody, and Herbert Tucker.

Works Cited

Alvarez, A. “Sylvia Plath.” The Art of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Charles Newman. London: Faber, 1970. 56-68.

Annas, Pamela J. A Disturbance of Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Bennett, Paula. My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. 1986. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, 1969.

Bowlby, John. Loss: Sadness and Depression. 1980. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Pelican-Penguin, 1985. Vol. 3 of Attachment and Loss.

Bradstreet, Anne. “To the Memory of My Dear and Ever Honoured Father Thomas Dudley Esq.” The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Ed. Jeannine Hensley. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1967. 201-03.

Brontë, Emily. “Remembrance.” Selected Brontë Poems. Ed. Edward Chitham and Tom Winnifrith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985. 162-63.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Continuum-Seabury, 1976.

Cam, Heather. “‘Daddy’: Sylvia Plath's Debt to Anne Sexton.” Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 223-26.

Culler, Jonathan. “Changes in the Study of the Lyric.” Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism. Ed. Chaviva Hošek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 38-54.

Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. “A Father's Prayer, a Daughter's Anger: W. B. Yeats and Sylvia Plath.” Daughters and Fathers. Ed. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 233-55.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-facement.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 67-81.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1957. 243-58. 24 vols. 1953-74.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “In Yeats' House: The Death and Resurrection of Sylvia Plath.” Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: Hall, 1984. 204-22.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Kaddish.” “Kaddish” and Other Poems, 1958-1960. San Francisco: City Lights, 1961. 7-36.

Gorer, Geoffrey. Death, Grief, and Mourning in Contemporary Britain. Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.

Guttenberg, Barnett. “Plath's Cosmology and the House of Yeats.” Lane 138-52.

Hemans, Felicia. The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. Boston: Phillips, 1856.

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. 1968. London: Athlone, 1976.

Jackson, Helen Hunt. “Demeter.” Verses by H. H. Boston: Roberts, 1874. 181.

Jonson, Ben. “On My First Son.” The Complete Poems. By Jonson. Ed. George Parfitt. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975. 48.

Kizer, Carolyn. “Thrall.” An Answering Music: On the Poetry of Carolyn Kizer. Ed. David Rigsbee. Boston: Ford-Brown, 1990. 118-19.

Klein, Melanie. “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States.” “Love, Guilt and Reparation” and Other Works, 1921-1945. By Klein. Ed. Masud R. Khan. London: Hogarth, 1981. 344-69.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper, 1976.

Kumin, Maxine. “The Nightmare Factory.” The Nightmare Factory. New York: Harper, 1970. 93-94.

Lane, Gary, ed. Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.

Lindemann, Erich. “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief.” American Journal of Psychiatry 101 (1944-45): 141-49.

Lowell, Robert. “Sailing Home from Rapallo.” “Life Studies” and “For the Union Dead.” New York: Noonday-Farrar, 1964. 77-78.

Marcus, Jane. Art and Anger: Reading like a Woman. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1988.

Milton, John. “Lycidas.” Complete Shorter Poems. By Milton. Ed. John Carey. London: Longman, 1971. 239-54.

Olds, Sharon. The Father. New York: Knopf, 1992.

———. “Of All the Dead That Have Come to Me, This One.” The Dead and the Living. New York: Knopf, 1984. 21.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Perloff, Marjorie. “On the Road to Ariel: The ‘Transitional’ Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. Ed. Edward Butscher. New York: Dodd, 1977. 125-42.

Pigman, G. W. Grief and English Renaissance Elegy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper, 1981.

———. Interview. The Poet Speaks. With Peter Orr. New York: Barnes, 1966. 167-72.

———. Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Frances McCullough and Ted Hughes. New York: Dial, 1982.

Rich, Adrienne. “After Dark.” Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974. New York: Norton, 1975. 82-84.

———. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1976.

———. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979.

———. Sources. Woodside: Heyeck, 1983.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979.

Sacks, Peter M. The English Elegy: Readings in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Schenck, Celeste M. “Feminism and Deconstruction: Reconstructing the Elegy.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5 (1986): 13-27.

Schwartz, Murray M., and Christopher Bollas. “The Absence at the Center: Sylvia Plath and Suicide.” Lane 179-202.

Sexton, Anne. “The Art of Poetry: Anne Sexton.” 1968. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978. 3-29.

———. The Complete Poems. Boston: Houghton, 1981.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Adonais. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977. 390-406.

Sigourney, Lydia H. Poems. New York: Leavitt, 1841.

Simmel, Georg. Conflict. Trans. Kurt H. Wolff. Conflict and The Web of Group-Affiliations. New York: Free, 1955. 11-123. Trans. of Der Streit. 1908.

Spenser, Edmund. “Astrophel.” The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. Ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt. New York: Oxford UP, 1912. 547-50.

Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper's-Harper, 1973.

Stone, Carole. “Elegy as Political Expression in Women's Poetry: Akhmatova, Levertov, Forché.” College Literature 18 (1991): 84-91.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam. Ed. Robert H. Ross. New York: Norton, 1973.

Volkan, Vamik D. “The Linking Objects of Pathological Mourners.” Archives of General Psychiatry 27 (1972): 215-21.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. London: Chatto, 1988.

Wakoski, Diane. “The Father of My Country.” Trilogy. New York: Doubleday, 1974. 139-43.

Walker, Cheryl. The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Antony Easthope (essay date 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4824

SOURCE: Easthope, Anthony. “Reading the Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” English 43, no. 177 (Fall, 1994): 223-35.

[In the following essay, Easthope discusses Plath's place in poetic tradition, particularly as it pertains to Romantic poetry.]

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relation … Beginning in the sixteenth century, this rite gradually detached itself from the sacrament of penance, and via the guidance of souls and the direction of conscience—the ars artium—emigrated toward pedagogy, relationships between adults and children, family relations, medicine, and psychiatry.

—Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

Sylvia Plath wrote in a number of forms, including novels, but her main reputation comes from her work as a poet. It is her poetry, then, which calls for attention and assessment. In this short essay I shall try to make explicit the point of view from which I would approach Plath's poetry, one that accords special attention to the operation of the signifier, to the formal properties of poetry, and the place of her poetry (with one poem as a particular example) within the developing and uneven tradition of twentieth-century poetry in English. And that itself is defined partly by its connection back to the poetry that came before within the Romantic inheritance.

To set in the foreground Plath's poetry in its relation to poetic tradition involves marking a distinct separation between author and text. Reading a text in a context of interpretation a reader applies the various rules he or she knows for the language of that text—phonetic, syntactic, semantic—to produce a meaning from the ‘words’, the signifiers organised in that text. Although it would not be possible to read a poem without a sense of its author's intention, no intention can fill the writing so completely it must govern our reading of it; in a text ‘it is language which speaks, not the author’,1 and meaning will always spill beyond the text, beyond any known intention, beyond any context of interpretation.


Identification of poem with author was promoted at the Renaissance but ratcheted up to an extreme point in the Romantic movement. Romanticism believed the text should as far as possible express its author's personal experience—‘Poetry’, as Wordsworth writes in the ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.2 Yet Romanticism knows that expression, no matter how intense and sincere, can never actually by-pass the signifier,3 a knowledge which increasingly presses in on the poetry written in England in the nineteenth century. There are a variety of ways to refer to the causes for this pressure but I would stress how the rapid development of modernity renders the apparent self-sufficiency of the individual subject increasingly impossible by revealing its dependence on Darwinian nature, on its positioning in the social formation, on the process of the unconscious and of the body.

While the Romantic poet would efface the unbridgeable gap between signifier and meaning, by the middle of the nineteenth century a poet such as Tennyson aims to make the best of a necessarily bad job by creating a plenitude of the sign, as Alan Sinfield suggests:

In Tennyson's writing any particular word has, or appears to have, many reasons for being appropriate: it is linked to other words through effects of sound and rhythm, syntactical parallelism, and figurative associations which may extend through a network of images across hundreds of lines; and passages which seem ornate rather than organic also seem to make the word more substantial in itself. Thus the arbitrariness of language seems to be controlled.4

This self-defeating struggle to deal with the arbitrariness of language by holding meaning onto word, signified onto signifier, is advanced to a further stage in the poetry of Hardy, in a lyric or concessional mode whose pre-Modernist achievement is of crucial significance for assessment of English poetry thereafter.

This is Hardy's poem, ‘The Voice’:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
          Thus I; faltering forward,
          Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
          And the woman calling.(5)

December 1912

Statement in the first and fourth verse framing questions in the second and third verse; in the second verse she may be a real ghost, in the third she may be dead and merely imagined on the basis of memory but in the extraordinary final stanza the supernatural/natural distinction is blurred as hearing replaces sight. Sexuality is taken up in the discourse of confession, individualising the speaker as he struggles to articulate the inward truth about himself and his love. Across the first three verses the absent lover stands in as addressee for second-person discourse but after a self-referring gesture (‘Thus I’) the last verse moves into third-person discourse—she is named in the final line as ‘the woman’ and the reader is admitted to the position of addressee and implied interlocutor. All this finds its place in terms of the lyric tradition, stretching back to Petrarch, in which a male speaker idealises a dead lover.

But Hardy's lyric discourse of the personal voice agonising to express what is deepest within its unique recesses is set within or against a kind of writing which, relative to the lyric tradition in Wordsworth and then Tennyson, forces the formal properties of poetry on the attention of the reader. The metre is highly wrought (largely dactylic in the first three stanzas), linking it with Victorian music-hall ballad, patter songs in Gilbert and Sullivan and even the limerick, as do the rhymes (‘call to me’/‘all to me’) and such coinages as ‘listlessness’ and ‘wistlessness’ (a rhyme whose elaborate contrivance the then still unpublished Hopkins would not have shunned).

Does this work/play of the poetic signifier in ‘The Voice’ subvert entirely our sense of the represented reality of the speaker caught in the velleities of inner emotion? I don't think it does. In the first place these are poetic effects—in metre and rhyme—consistent with the status of the text as poetry, organised therefore into lines on the basis of parallelism in the signifier. And, significantly, they are not sustained—or sustained with this degree of elaboration—into the final four lines where dactylic movement gives way to trochaic (in three out of the four lines) and, although there is phonemic repetition (the /f/ sound in ‘faltering’, ‘forward’, ‘Leaves’ and ‘falling’), rhyme is eschewed which is too obviously contrived (‘forward’/‘norward’, ‘falling’/‘calling’). In other words, the poem moves from a certain foregrounding of poetic effects in the first three stanzas to what, relative to this, must count as direct expression of the represented speaker in the simplicity of the last lines. So the degree to which the poem acknowledges the dependence of signified upon signifier in fact operates a strategy of recuperation, once again aiming to contain, manage and control the arbitrariness of language, as in Tennyson. As in Tennyson but with a difference, for the judgement that Hardy's ‘The Voice’ exemplifies recuperation becomes valid from a point of view which situates the poem within different historical conditions from those surrounding the work of Tennyson. The insistence of the signifier is squeezing Hardy's writing more tightly than before and it is a measure of its continuing interest that it recognises that pressure. One might overdramatise the situation by saying that in these lyrics of the years just before the First World War Hardy's writing almost foresees the impending crisis of Modernism but retains a pre-Modernist privileging of voice over signifier.

With Modernism and the conditions to which Modernist poetry responds that relation is reversed. On one side the self-standing individual becomes problematised—as Pound wrote in 1916:

In the ‘search for oneself’, in the search for ‘sincere self-expression’, one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says ‘I am’ this, that or the other, and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.6

On the other, the primacy and foundational insistence of the signifier as the condition within which subjectivity emerges becomes openly acknowledged, so that, as Eliot's essay on ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ of 1919 asserts, critical attention must now be directed ‘not upon the poet but upon poetry’ for the poet now has (is) ‘only a medium and not a personality’.7 These can be seen as accurate and perceptive comments on a practice which expands continuously from Eliot's The Waste Land of 1922:

O the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la couple!
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd

to Pound's The Pisan Cantos, published in 1948,

Incense to Apollo
                                                                      snow on the marble
snow white
                              against stone-white
on the mountain
and as who passed the gorges between the sheer cliffs
as it might be by, is it the Garonne?

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

To find an appropriate attitude to the massive intervention in the first thirty years of the present century of what we now somewhat reductively term ‘Modernism’ one might well take as a point of departure Jacques Lacan's outrageous assertion that ‘the slightest alteration in the relation between man (sic) and the signifier … changes the whole course of history’.8 From Modernism on, as the Minervan flight of post-structuralism shows, the ineluctable dependence of presence on difference, of imaginary plenitude on the symbolic order of the signifier, cannot be evaded. Or rather it can, but only at the price of repeating what has been done before and disavowing the consequences (for poetry) of writing such as that of Eliot and Pound.


If the template of this argument is tested against contemporary British poetry the analysis that follows from it is, I find, bleak in the extreme. As Andrew Crozier has shown in a solidly convincing article,9 the hegemonic post-war tradition, emerging from the Movement of the 1950s and promoted virtually on all sides by the literary pages of The Guardian, John Carey in The Sunday Times, much of the academic press and whenever poetry is mentioned on Channel 4 and BBC 2, consists of a line of succession that runs from Philip Larkin through Ted Hughes10 to Seamus Heaney. This is what Charles Bernstein has spoken of as the British High Anti-Modernist tradition and it is characterised by an endeavour to represent the empirical individual, staged in terms of the depths of the inward self, with a corresponding necessity to deny, contain or—on Hardyesque precedent—to recuperate the operation of the signifier. A precondition for this lyric-confessional mainstream tradition to hold sway is that the Modernism of Eliot and Pound should be concreted over leaving the road directly open back to the comfort of Hardy.

A. Alvarez in his well-known introduction to his collection, The New Poetry, published by Penguin in 1962, lays down at the level of argument how this procedure may be defended. Move one is to dismiss the break with the pentameter and traditional metric forced through especially by Pound's Modernism on the grounds that they are not English:

… the experimental techniques of Eliot and the rest never really took on in England because they were an essentially American concern: attempts to forge a distinctively American language for poetry.11

(One might note in passing the ‘essentially American’ nature of Modernist experimental techniques in Kafka, Pirandello, Joyce, Apollinaire, etc.). Move two is to insinuate that such experimentalism leads to right-wing politics—‘the whole movement of English verse has been to correct the balance experimentation had so unpredictably disturbed’, says Alvarez after mentioning how Eliot came out for Anglo-Catholicism, royalism and classicism.

The ‘most far-reaching influence (in British poetry) of the last 50 years’, writes Donald Davie in 1973, is ‘not Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, not Lawrence, but Hardy’.12 Davie goes on to confirm this judgement by (1) dismissing the relevance of Eliot and Pound to the English tradition on the grounds that they were American, (2) implying a link between Modernism and right-wing politics. And just as Alvarez had done, Davie cites with entire approval Hardy's remark to Robert Graves that ‘vers libre could come to nothing in England’.13 It's impossible to disagree with this assessment of the poetry of Larkin, Hughes and Heaney. Such work is Hardyesque, essentially Georgian poetry in the lyric-confessional mode except that to Hardy's recuperation of the signifier it adds what it has indeed taken on board from Modernism, a certain patina or decoration of techniques in vocabulary and metaphor which it turns mainly to the purposes of a more plausible expressiveness. Though the overt influence on Sylvia Plath's work was the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell rather than that of Hardy, her poetry falls into the same category, at least on the evidence of the poem I shall look at here.


Plath's poem, ‘Daddy’ appears on pp. 222-4 of her Collected Poems.14 I shall not cite it in full both because it is too well-known and because I want to consider it by setting a distance between my reading and that of Jacqueline Rose given pre-eminence as the concluding chapter of her book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath.15 Rose advances a subtle, challenging and complex argument, and I hope I have followed it clearly.

Two things at issue merit initial discussion, Eliot's concept of the ‘objective correlative’, the relation between the I of enunciation and the I of the enounced or statement. Eliot defines an objective correlative by saying that emotion in art can only be expressed by finding an objective correlative, ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’,16 in other words, that objects, situations, events which are correlative to emotion have to be read as a representation of subjectivity. But this is not how all poetry offers itself to be read, as for example in these lines from The Waste Land:

Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth …

Certainly these images perform as an objective correlative for subjectivity and a state of mind (paranoia, hallucination, madness) but at the same time they invite reading in a range of social and political discourses referring them to the First World War, the use of gas-masks (‘hooded hordes’) and trench warfare. What inclines reading in one direction or another is the mode of poetic representation. So, if a consistent speaker were represented for the lines, they would be mainly an objective correlative for his or her emotion; since, in Eliot's poem there is a radical uncertainty as to whether the lines express a subjectivity or stand merely as a form of textuality, they invite both ‘personal’ and ‘historical’ readings at once.

Not so, typically, with Yeats. In ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, for example, the reference to how the swans ‘All suddenly mount’ and scatter ‘in wheeling in great broken rings’ can be read in the context of zoological discourse and the behaviour of swans. It is, however, mainly an objective correlative for a certain emotion, a feeling for beauty that aspires to transcendence and a somewhat phallic power. A reader is pushed towards that because the lines occur in a poem which carefully sustains the representation of a consistent and coherent self watching and thinking about the swans and what they mean for him.

The planes of signifier and signified always remain disjunct, and two positions for the speaking subject need to be distinguished, one as subject of the signifier or process of enunciation, another as subject of the signified or enounced or statement. In Lacan's now famous exemplum,17 someone who says ‘I am lying’, is not committing themselves to paradox but enacting the disjunction between the two ‘I's (enunciation/enounced) which happen to be designated by the same shifter, the first person pronoun. So someone under interrogation might admit, ‘I am lying’, meaning that the liar is, as it were, the person represented in their own discourse. Or, by saying ‘I can't think of anything to say’, someone positioned as subject of the enounced denies what as subject of enunciation they enact and so affirm.

Performing a poem (silently or aloud) the reader as speaking subject is placed as subject of enunciation for that text so that what is represented ‘in’ the poem becomes for them its enounced, and that enounced may well have a subject. In pre-Modernist poetry such as Hardy's ‘The Voice’ and Yeats's ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ the use of ‘I’ is supported and held together around a recognisable psychological state, thus encouraging the speaking subject to overlook his or her positioning as subject of the enunciation and identify with the speaker represented in the poem. This is precisely the mode of representation of lyric-confessional discourse Foucault describes when he defines confession as ‘a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement’.18 The importance of these brusquely summarised distinctions will become clearer in a minute.


Jacqueline Rose's extended commentary on Plath's ‘Daddy’ gives most space to possible meanings of the text, arguing that it is a poem ‘of the murder of the father’ (p. 222) whose narrative moves ‘from victimisation to revenge’ (p. 223), a murder in which, according to the logic of the unconscious mechanism of deferred action (Nachtraglichkeit), ‘the father who is killed is already dead’ (p. 224).

The poem has been attacked by critics for its deployment of the Holocaust, a criticism epitomised in one view that ‘Whatever her father did to her it cannot be what the Germans did to the Jews’ (cited Rose, p. 206). Rose summarises these criticisms as the views that (1) ‘in aesthetic terms, what Plath is being criticised for is a lack of “objective correlative”’, (2) ‘only those who directly experienced the Holocaust have the right to speak of it’ (p. 206).

In defending Plath, Rose first sustains a long, serious and important argument against (2), affirming the necessity, even at the price of some forms of sado-masochistic identifications, that those who have not directly experienced the Holocaust should encounter it in fantasy as, among things, a means to begin to work it through in the psychoanalytic sense (the argument has recently come alive again over Schindler's List). Since the perspective of this argument concentrates on thematic meaning rather than matters of signification I'll not pursue the question of fantasy in ‘Daddy’ except to remark that a reading of Freud would provoke us to think about the masochistic side of the speaker's fantasies in relation to the essay on “‘A Child is Being Beaten’”,19 while a reading of Lacan might encourage us to ask what may be masked by this fantasy structure.

Difficulties in Rose's argument occur, for me, with (1)—not so much (to anticipate) the poem's lack of an objective correlative but rather that it uses the Holocaust mainly as an objective correlative. The question, as Rose concludes, depends on the ‘conditions of representation’ (p. 214) operating in the text, that is, I take it, an issue which largely resolves into a formal question.

In her analysis of the poem and its conditions of representation Rose makes three related assertions:

(1) The poem presents ‘a crisis of language and identity’ (p. 228) caused by a process in which ‘identity and language lose themselves in the place of the father whose absence gives him unlimited powers’ (p. 227).

(2) This crisis of language and identity is registered in the text especially in two instances. On the lines

Ich, ich, ich ich
I could hardly speak …

Rose comments that ‘The notorious difficulty of the first-person pronoun in relation to identity—its status as shifter, the division or splitting of the subject which it both carries and denies—is merely compounded by its repetition here’ (p. 226). Noting that ‘In the poem, the “I” moves backwards and forwards between German and English’, she refers this to ‘the dispersal of identity in language’ (p. 226).

(3) Rose argues that it is the ‘crisis of representation in the place of the father which is presented by Plath as engendering—forcing, even—her identification with the Jew’ (p. 227); that identification equates the father with a Nazi, so leading into images of the Holocaust such that, Rose claims, ‘Plath's poem enters into one of the key phantasmic scenarios of Nazism itself’ (p. 232).

A first response to this would be to ask who is meant in the argument by ‘Plath’ as when it is said that the crisis of representation in the poem is ‘presented by Plath’ (p. 227), that the poem exhibits ‘Plath's use of simile (p. 228), that ‘Plath stages this (event) … as part of a crisis of language and identity’ (p. 228). Is this merely a convenient and conventional way of identifying a text or is something deeper at stake? In the third example ‘Plath’ is distinguished from ‘the poem’ and its ‘speaker’ but in the other two, for example, ‘Plath’ is not separated clearly from the poem's represented speaker.

What to me is so striking about Plath's ‘Daddy’ is the sustained coherence and stability of its represented speaker, the I which runs across and is confirmed at every instance in:

I have lived …
I have had to kill you …
I used to pray …
I never could tell …
I never could talk …
I could hardly speak …
I thought every German …
I began to talk like …
I think I may …
I may be …
I have always …
I was ten …

and so on to the end, ‘I'm through’. One could argue that such insistent affirmation on self-identity by the represented speaker might deny its own confidence. Identity is always an effect, always in play, but the poem represents a speaker whose identity is substantiated and confirmed throughout by a consistent individual state of mind, a psychological unity which is very much that Rose defines—in imagining the father's death, the represented speaker moves from victimisation to revenge. If you can still say ‘I think I'm having a crisis’, your subjectivity is still very much in place; for an example of a radical crisis in identity and language you have to turn to the closing eleven lines of The Waste Land.

Identity is never wholly unified but, given this degree of pre-existing integrity in the represented speaker, it is hard to see how it is deeply split by the repetition of the German ‘Ich’, especially since any momentary disturbance is immediately made good when the speaker comments retrospectively on this disturbance, ‘I could hardly speak …’. If the speaker is represented as experiencing such a split (an effect with precedents as far back as Tintern Abbey), far from producing a crisis that reminds us we are reading a poem, it in fact stages the speaker's state of mind more convincingly. Nor can I see a movement between German and English as entailing a ‘dispersal of identity in language’ since again that movement is explained by the state of mind of the represented speaker who reflects upon it, ‘I thought every German was you’.

In the dominant poetic tradition from Wordsworth on represented speakers frequently refer to themselves and their own thoughts so that a split between subject of enunciation and subject of enounced is represented by the poem as something the speaker feels. And, according to the same strategy, represented speakers often imagine identities for themselves. In Wordsworth's The Prelude the represented speaker identifies with a version of his earlier self, just as, in a rather different way, the represented speaker of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ rather imagines himself as a swan. Far from undermining the stability of identity represented by the text such manoeuvres actually tend to strengthen it, by admitting and holding in place what might threaten to dissolve such stability. So it is very much in accord with tradition that the speaker represented in ‘Daddy’ begins to imagine an identity for herself. For me it is crucial that this kind of slide in identity does not occur, as it does so often in The Waste Land or The Cantos, as an unanticipated change of discourse, of textuality. Far from it: the represented speaker in ‘Daddy’ makes the situation clear, ‘I think I may well be a Jew’. The first ‘I’ is firmly in place holding up the second as a provisional and temporary identity.

A temporary identity for what purpose? Here perhaps we should retrieve the points made earlier about ‘objective correlative’. How far is the very powerful material in the poem circulating around the fantasies Rose acutely describes made available for contextualisation in historical and social discourses and how far as personal expression? Though of course the two can never be fully separated, the nodal factor is the mode of representation. I would propose that a necessary condition for historical contextualisation (‘as historical reference’, p. 216) is the kind of relatively unanchored textuality specified earlier in the lines about ‘hooded hordes’ in The Waste Land. But ‘Daddy’ does not work like this since it seeks throughout to efface and control textuality in the service of representing a speaker and her state of mind. To that extent the images from the Holocaust function as objective correlatives for a personal emotion, are appropriated to express a version of the self. There is, then, justice in the claim that ‘Whatever her father did to her it cannot be what the Germans did to the Jews’ if it is read to mean something like, ‘To adapt some of the most intense and overwhelming historical discourses of the twentieth-century as means to express mental suffering caused to an individual by a personal relationship is to diminish and reduce those discourses’.

Rose accepts that in ‘Daddy’ there is a ‘preliminary privileging of the personal’ (p. 223). I find this privileging to be not preliminary but comprehensive, ensuing as it does from the poem's failure to challenge the inherited lyric-confessional mode in which it is written. On my showing ‘Daddy’ is a humanist poem, and a pretty old-fashioned one, inviting comparison with the work in the confessional voice of Plath's mentor, Robert Lowell, ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ and so on. The problem with such poetry, aiming as it does to put at the centre of writing a dramatisation of the unified self, is that, as Toril Moi argues, it conforms to a ‘humanist ideology’ in which ‘the self is the sole author of history and of the literary text’.20

My argument has concentrated upon Plath's poetry especially in relation to its formal effects and to a certain sense of poetic tradition. This is obviously not the only perspective on Plath's writing, nor is it necessarily the most important. There are lots of other ways of reading her work and reaching very different conclusions.


  1. Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image-Music-Text (London, Fontana, 1977), p. 143.

  2. William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (London, Methuen, 1965), p. 246.

  3. The situation of the poet, Wordsworth concedes, is ‘slavish and mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering’, ibid., p. 256.

  4. Alan Sinfield, Tennyson (Oxford, Blackwell, 1986), p. 86.

  5. Thomas Hardy, Poems of Thomas Hardy: A New Selection, ed. T. R. M. Creighton (London, Macmillan, 1974), p. 57. In line 11 the MS has ‘consigned to existlessness’.

  6. Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (Hessle, Yorkshire, Marvell Press, 1960), p. 85.

  7. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London, Faber, 1961), p. 17, p. 20.

  8. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London, Tavistock, 1977), p. 174.

  9. Andrew Crozier, ‘Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’, Society and Literature 1945-1970 ed. Alan Sinfield (London, Methuen, 1983), pp. 199-233.

  10. I have tried to justify this argument in more detail with reference to Ted Hughes in ‘Why most Contemporary Poetry is so bad and how Post-Structuralism may be able to help’, PN Review 12, 4 (November/December 1985), pp. 36-38.

  11. A. Alvarez, ‘The New Poetry or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, The New Poetry (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1962), p. 17.

  12. Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and English Poetry (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 3.

  13. Alvarez, The New Poetry, p. 17 and Davie, Thomas Hardy, p. 131.

  14. Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (London, Faber, 1981).

  15. Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London, Virago, 1991).

  16. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 145.

  17. See Jacques Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London, Hogarth Press, 1977), p. 139.

  18. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality v. 1 (Harmondsworth, Pelican, 1981), p. 61.

  19. Sigmund Freud, “‘A Child is being Beaten’”, Standard Edition 17, pp. 175-204.

  20. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London, Methuen, 1985), p. 8.

Jacqueline Shea Murphy (essay date 1995)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5074

SOURCE: Murphy, Jacqueline Shea. “‘This Holocaust I Walk In:’ Consuming Violence in Sylvia Plath's Poetry.” Bucknell Review 39, no. 1 (1995): 104-17.

[In the following essay, Murphy attempts to locate sources for the imagery of violence and destruction in Plath's poetry.]

Bodies melt, voices shriek; hooks pierce; human flesh is chopped, like meat, wrapped and unwrapped. People eat and get eaten:

My night sweats grease his breakfast plate
.....My ribs show. What have I eaten?

(“The Jailer,” 185)1

People wait to be eaten:

I am red meat. His beak
Claps sidewise: I am not his yet.

(“Death & Co.,” 205)

Mothers beg for their babies to be saved from becoming food for others' cravings:

And my baby a nail
Driven, driven in.
He shrieks in his grease
O You who eat
People like light rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, unredeemed. …

(“Brasilia,” 210)

But these mothers plea in vain to exempt their children from the violent oppression of the world:

It is a heart,
This holocaust I walk in,
O golden child the world will kill and eat.

(“Mary's Song,” 208)

Images of tortured, cut-up, oppressed, and consumed bodies can be heard echoing throughout the poetry Sylvia Plath wrote during the last months of her life. These final lines to “Mary's Song,” in particular, with its singled-out body part (the heart), its reference to the atrocities of the Second World War, its speaker's sense of complicity in the war's horrors, and the ultimate inescapability of violence shown in its future tense (the world will kill and eat, regardless), becomes a coda to Plath's work. Taken together, these images show the acute awareness of violence that anguished Plath and gave her work its oft-noted intensity.

Less established (though hotly debated in Plath criticism) is the source of this violence and the intense horror it evoked in Plath's poetry. Lawrence R. Ries argues in his study of violence in contemporary British poetry, Wolf Masks, that the violence haunting Plath came from the intensified violence of the world around her, most explicitly from the Second World War. She and other poets writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ries claims, were responding to a world littered with the ideological and physical debris of the war. These effects included “the destruction of millions of human beings, the ruins of a desecrated Europe, and … the distorted sensibility born in those who witnessed the death and violence of the war.”2 The war itself, combined with the political tensions following it—the cold war—and the potential for nuclear annihilation of the planet that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made vivid, produced a world where violence in poetry was accurate, appropriate, and even called-for.

But Plath's use of holocaust imagery—the Jew, the Nazi, the concentration camp body which haunt her later poems—seems to come from more than a desire to translate the violence of the world that she saw around her. It was not, after all, the immediacy of the concentration camps and their horrors that compelled Plath to use these images and metaphors in her work; she wrote the bulk of these poems almost two decades after the war, and after a decade of writing poetry without a proliferation of Nazi images. The most often advanced competing interpretation of Plath's violent and fascistic images argues that while these are undeniably connected to her keen sensitivity to political horrors (not explicitly gendered), they are also inextricably tied to the immediate personal struggles she faced as a woman. Numerous critics and biographers have traced the split she apparently felt between the need to be the perfect 1950s housewife dutifully supporting her poet husband and her own desire to write herself successful—in her life and in her work.3 Some have argued that the political references in her poems are analogies to her own relation to patriarchy—that when, for example, she refers to Jews and Nazis, she is writing about her position as a woman in a male-dominated world.4 At second glance, even the Ted Hughes quote that Ries calls on to prove that “the violence of her poetry was a reaction to the violence of the world” hints at a gendered violence at the root of Plath's horror. Ries quotes Hughes as saying:

Her reactions to hurts in other people and animals, and even tiny desecrations of plant-life were extremely violent. The chemical poisoning of nature, the pile-up of atomic waste, were horrors that persecuted her like an illness—as her latest poems record. Auschwitz and the rest were merely the open wounds, in her idea of the great civilized crime of intelligence that like the half-imbecile, omnipotent, spoiled brat Nero has turned on its mother.

(WM, 36)

The concentration camps, in his simile, become “merely the open wounds” of an already-established murderous mutilation of a female body, the despot Nero's flexing of his political muscle by demanding that his mother be cut up so he can see her womb.

Reading patriarchy at the base of Plath's violence, however, poses some problems, as Jacqueline Rose notes in a piece on Plath and sexuality. Rose suggests that feminist readings of literature might circumscribe them, leaving out “the specific question of culture and history which seem to be raised by a writer like Plath.” She writes:

The paradox of a concept like patriarchy in this context, and Plath's work has of course been read as a protest against a patriarchal world, is that its very exhaustiveness can operate in the form of an exclusion of the immediate, albeit monumental, political history, even if that history could finally be explained within its terms.5

Rose's comments suggest that Plath's violence and intensity do not come solely from a sensitivity to Nazi violence and the horrors of a post-World War II world; but neither do they come solely from Plath's literal and metaphoric problems with her dead father, her poet-husband, and (as critic Steven Gould Axelrod has recently suggested) the patriarchal literary and poetic traditions in which she was immersed.6 “In relation to Plath,” Rose writes, “the line dividing sexuality and history simply cannot be drawn” (“SP,” 19). This interconnection seems accurate and also central to the poems Plath wrote toward the end of her life.7 Plath, I think, intertwined images of Nazi brutality with feminist protest not only as a way of registering the horrors of the death camps, and/or the oppression and circumscription of women's lives; her point was not even, as Axelrod posits, to show the “Holocaust and the patriarchy's silencing of women [as] linked outcomes of the masculinist interpretation of the world” (SP, 55)—a reading which subordinates anguish at political history to patriarchal protest, as Rose cautions against. Rather, in these poems, quests for power—a Fuhrer's or race's or a father's attempts to dominate—were and are so shockingly brutal not only to show a connection between fascism and patriarchy, but also and more strikingly, I think, to highlight the violence and disempowerment that quests for power and domination, in themselves, produce.

The profusion of bodies and body parts in Plath's late poems, and the violence that they register, works to articulate this position. One striking commonality between Nazi power and patriarchy is the emphasis both place on controlling bodies.8 Patriarchy has functioned historically, as various critics have demonstrated, by controlling and containing the female body.9 The fascism of World War II likewise reinforced the centrality of bodies, of actual physical flesh, in attempts to garner power. Nazism required the physical destruction of people's bodies, a destruction that was designed to lead ultimately to the eradication of an entire culture; Hitler's power was to be gained by destroying and mutilating human bodies so as systematically to remove an entire body of people from existence. Some have argued that this system was itself gendered; Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies, a compelling study of the imagery and rhetoric surrounding the Nazi Freikorpsmen, for example, argues that these fascists operated out of a fear of female bodies and desire to escape women. (Theweleit traces in numerous Freikorpsmen posters, pamphlets, and writings a dread of being swallowed and engulfed, where women's bodies are, as Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her introduction to the study, “the holes, swamps, pits of muck that can engulf.”)10 But even without Theweleit's explicit equation of Nazi desire for power with the desire to control women's bodies, the Nazi desire to control bodies seems to suggest a gendered subtext, given the proverbial mind/body split in which women have become associated with the bodily and men with the loftier, philosophical mind. These two forms of oppression—fascism and patriarchy—then, converge in their insistent awareness of real, physical flesh and the power it wields. Nazism, because of its blatant, horrific, dramatic call for power and because of the violence (six million and more dead bodies) that this call required—becomes a fitting metaphor for the violence that patriarchal power demands; at the same time, images of patriarchal power enacted through careful control of women's bodies help to articulate the political horror of Nazism. Bodies violated and controlled in encounters with authority recur in Plath's late work: the gendered complaint of the Applicant's anatomized body, her glass eye and rubber breasts, echo in Lady Lazarus's lampshade skin, Jew linen face, and right foot paperweight. The common ground—the common horror—here, is authority expressed violently on oppressed bodies.

Sylvia Plath, though, wanted authority. She wanted to be an influential, respected, famous, successful, artist; she wanted the power wielded by successful artists, even while she recognized the violence that having power can entail. What her later poems chronicle, I think, is her attempt to grapple with the doubleness of her desire. Her “bee poems,” for example, present a painful awareness of this doubleness; the speaker's fascination with the control she can wield over the bees alternates with her terror at the harm they can do her. “Mary's Song” (208) illustrates the anguished complicity the speaker feels in a world where oppression has been carried on for thousand of years. “Lady Lazarus” (198) shows the bodily violence of her move into the oppressor position. The poems show authority expressed on others' bodies—cut up, made to crackle, killed; they show a poet grappling with authority in a world where to achieve power, as Hitler writes, “one is either the hammer or the anvil,” where “if men wish to live, then they are forced to kill others,”11—and struggling, too, with the gendered, theoretical, implications behind these claims.

Bodies, then, in the later Plath poems, matter immensely. Open at random her collected poems from 1962 on and almost invariably a body or body part will appear on the page. A horrific fascination with the body's physical vulnerability becomes the subject of several poems: “Cut” (191) luxuriates in the image of a sliced finger: “What a thrill— / My thumb instead of an onion,” the poet writes. “Fever 103°” (188) anatomizes a burning, feverish body: “I am a lantern— / My head a moon / Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin / Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.” In “Paralytic” (217), the speaker imagines existence from inside an arrested body frame:

It happens. Will it go on?—
My mind a rock,
No fingers to grip, no tongue,
My god the iron lung
That loves me, …

In other poems, a heightened awareness of appearance and beauty emphasizes the physical. In “The Applicant” (182), the speaker inquires about the body of a “perfect” wife:

Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,
.....A living doll, everywhere you look.

In “A Birthday Present” (173), a similar attention to beauty and female anatomy clothes a death wish:

What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?

Other poems highlight bodies by illustrating the potential for their mutilation or dismemberment. In “The Rabbit Catcher” (164), snares constrict the rabbit and the poet; in “Berck-Plage” (167), body parts are washed ashore; in “The Detective” (174), the body is explicitly absent, its removal chronicled piece by piece; and in “The Jailer” (185), “Lady Lazarus” (198), and “Daddy” (183), power struggles are played out on someone's flesh. This insistence on the bodily continues throughout Plath's work in other ways as well—including the prevalence of wombs and babies, and the images of the crucifixion and of Jesus' body in it. All in all, a remarkable number of very different issues get worked out on bodies, both the speaker's own and others', all the way up to Plath's final published poem, “Edge” (224), where

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment, …

Most of these bodies are featured in explicit or implicit struggles for control, for dominance, for authority. The Applicant's body, for example, needs to fit superior requirements. The speaker in “The Rabbit Catcher” becomes ensnared—constricted and strangled—by the hands encircling a tea mug. In a number of these power poems, images of bodily control merge with images of warfare and struggle for political control. “Cut” (191), for example, moves from the speaker's slicing of her thumb and the thrill it gives her to a struggle between a pilgrim and an Indian:

Little pilgrim,
The Indian's axed your scalp.

From this one-on-one melee, the thumb becomes an army, the bodily mutilation of a lead-in to the specific warfare of the American Revolution:

Out of a gap
A million soldiers run,
Redcoats, every one.

The cut then becomes, moving chronologically even, a reference to racial violence and the attempts white supremacists make for dominance in the United States:

The stain on your
Gauze Ku Klux Klan. …

Cutting her own body, in other words—exercising a maiming control over it—spreads in the poem to increasingly diffuse violent struggles for power and dominance, struggles that have, in different forms, existed for centuries.

In “Fever 103°” (188), a similar collapse occurs between what happens to the poet's body and what happens during historical, political struggles for control, although here the violence of the world moves not from her thumb to the world but instead from the outside world into her body. Here, the poet refers specifically to the nuclear horrors that resulted from the struggle for political control of World War II: the “yellow sullen smokes” from the fever ravishing the speaker's body will, she is afraid, “trundle round the globe / Choking the aged and the meek” and turning orchids ghastly white with radiation. The fever then becomes “Like Hiroshima ash” and her head “a moon / Of Japanese paper, … Glowing and coming and going.” The poet's feverish head, then, comes to contain the infinitely incredible violence of Hiroshima.

The most arresting—and certainly the most well-known—occurrences of a desire for power and control spreading violently between one body and the world, though, happen in the poems where Plath makes explicit references to the holocaust. In “Mary's Song” (208), violence to an individual body (here, Jesus, Mary's son) escalates into “This holocaust I walk in”; the poem makes explicit the escalation and proliferation of violence caused by subjugating a body. “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat,” the poem opens, and then the fire that broils this Christ image becomes “The same fire / Melting the tallow heretics, / Ousting the Jews.” In this world where dominance and authority come to those who control others, in other words, the same violent force spreads over centuries, outward from one body: the Roman desire for power which required that Christ, the Sunday lamb, be crucified, then moves to melt Christians, the “tallow heretics” who insist on their belief in him; when authority has shifted to these Christians, the same fire—that which controls by cracking, melting, burning—then spreads to oust the Jews, to gas in ovens that “glowed like heavens” those who do not believe in Christ and who instead are blamed for killing him. This fire feeds on whatever bodies—signaled by the central, fleshy image of a lamb roast cracking in its fat, reinforced by the reference to the holocaust's glowing ovens—it can find. The poet returns to the scene, complicit in the burning oppression of these bodies over centuries, in the poem's final lines. “It is a heart, / This holocaust I walk in,” she writes, making the holocaust a body part, and a vital one, and showing herself to be walking in it. The poem's final line then circles back to the same horror that opened the poem, the Sunday lamb being consumed, “O golden child the world will kill and eat,” signaling the never-ending horror of this cycle of oppression.

In “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” a collapse between violent control of the poet's body, and violent control of bodies in history, becomes even more dramatic. These poems not only hint that the poet glows like Hiroshima, or walks in the heart of the holocaust, but enact a transformation of that body into an explicit agent of oppression. In them, the speaker moves from the position of the oppressed—the Jew, the mutilated concentration camp victim—to that of the oppressor, capable of killing and consuming others' flesh. “Daddy, I have had to kill you” says the speaker who “may be a bit of a Jew” in “Daddy”; “Beware / Beware / … I eat men like air” says the dead and dismembered—unwrapped hand and foot—Lady Lazarus, whose skin has glowed “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” and whose face is “a featureless, fine Jew linen” when she returns from the dead. This violent dichotomy—be oppressed or oppress, be controlled or control, be mutilated or mutilate—seems evident. The prevalence of this dynamic supports the idea that not only survival but power per se, in its many different forms, is a large part of what these poems embody and address.

In suggesting that the thrust of these poems has to do not only with patriarchal protest but also with the ways that power and authority are obtainable, I do not mean to gloss over the ways that the power struggles Plath writes about are explicitly gendered. The speakers, first, are nearly all female and speak to expose or get back at men: Lazarus has returned from the dead a “lady” who is ready to eat men. “Daddy”'s little girl wants to kill her fascist father. Mary, the mother, sings of the violence that men will do to her child. Plath also chooses particularly gendered metaphors of oppression to describe power struggle. As the poems quoted throughout suggest, oppression gets figured, in her dichotomies, as cooking or eating others; being oppressed means being eaten. Those in control are those who can eat or who can keep others from eating: in “Mary's Song,” the world will kill and eat Jesus, figured as a lamb roast. Lady Lazarus will return from being dismembered not to rip men to bits, but to eat them. The speaker in “The Arrival of the Bee Box” (177) contemplates the control she has over the bees: “They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.” The vampire who said he was Daddy drank the poet's blood for a year. “The Jailer” (185) has his breakfast plate greased by the sweat of the one he has imprisoned; his prisoner starves until his or her ribs show. In “Death & Co.” (205), the speaker is red meat. In “Brasilia” (210), a mother pleads that her baby be saved from oppression by begging that he not be eaten:

O You who eat
People like light rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, …

Self-assertion, too, gets expressed in terms of this particular dichotomy of eating or being eaten. In “Ariel,” the speaker expresses her electrified, almost gleeful, suicidal drive by exclaiming she will fly into a cauldron—will assert herself by placing her own self in a cooking pot. Perhaps she will become food for others, but she will do it to herself. This eating, cooking, feeding, and food imagery abounds in Plath's poetry; women's cultural connection with food make it, I think, a particularly gendered way of expressing a desire for power and a fear of being overpowered. At the same time, though, describing power in terms of food and eating reinforces the centrality of the body in struggles for dominance. Food is the literal mainstay of the body, without which the body will shrivel and die. Still, then, what Plath ends up with is a structure where people—including women—can either oppress or be oppressed, and where either position gets marked on bodies. The move she makes in her later poetry, given this, seems entirely understandable. In one move she seeks to imagine women in the place of power, mutilating others' bodies; Lady Lazarus eats men, daughter kills Daddy. The power structure stays intact; she just imagines being the one in control mutilating others. In another move, she emphasizes the power of the oppressed, mutilated body. As she recognizes, the oppressor is entirely dependent on the oppressed. The torturer's power depends on the prisoner's body:

What would the dark
Do without fevers to eat?
What would the light
Do without eyes to knife, what would he
Do, do, do without me?

(“The Jailer,” 185)

The Nazi's power depends on the Jew:

So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.

(“Lady Lazarus,” 198)

The mutilated, oppressed body, in this formulation, is recognized as important: cut bodies, perfect dead bodies, feverish bodies, are authoritative texts to be read. This configuration flips the dichotomy of oppressor/oppressed, so the oppressed body ends up on the top. As a poet creating texts from pain, her mutilated body becomes a source and manifestation of her power. A. Alvarez, commenting on “Daddy,” notes how this dynamic works: “This is the strategy of the concentration camps. When suffering is there whatever you do, by inflicting it upon yourself, you achieve your identity, you set yourself free.”12 As everyone knows, this is precisely what happens next: Sylvia Plath converts her kitchen oven into a gas chamber. Plath asserts herself by recreating fascist history and turning it against her own body; in both her poetry and her life, she adopts the fascist model of power.

I have been assuming that this system—power expressed through control of the body—is completely undesirable, especially for women, whose bodies are metaphorically and often literally the ones oppressed under it. But it is possible, I know, to see a system that makes bodies the locus of power as liberating for women. Promoting and empowering the (female and female-identified) body—the maternal, the sexual—is hardly a new feminist move; it has been the goal behind much of the so-called “French” feminist project of the 1980s.13 Neither, for that matter, is promoting the oppressed female body as a way of claiming authority for women particularly novel. Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1405, presents women's experiences of torture and self-mutilation as proof that they (and because of them, women in general) deserve respect. Saint Catherine has her breasts torn off, and milk pours from them; the virgin Marina has her body stretched out and her flesh ripped off with iron hooks; the blessed Blandina is placed on a grill, roasted, and sliced.14 The women endure triumphantly, without flinching. By exercising control of their violently violated bodies, these women serve as examples of the authority of women's lived experience.

What interests me, finally, then, is Plath's inability to imagine any way out of this bodily bind, any way of asserting herself without reverting ultimately to a fascist—a violent, dichotimized—model for obtaining power, a model that, as Hannah Arendt notes, itself enables totalitarianism:

What totalitarian rule needs to guide the behavior of its subjects is a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim.15

The nagging discomfort that tempers the awe that readers—including this one—sometimes feel in response to Plath's poetry may be in part the product of her (and our) failure to conceive a power and authority not based on a dichotomy, not requiring an overpowered body. Stunningly articulating this disease is, I think, as far as Plath got.

I wanted to look at this double bind, not to judge Plath and what she did, but to examine what I think she was saying and to wonder (and of course only speculate) why she—who was, according to Ted Hughes, so repulsed and horrified by violence and fascism—ended up writing the poems she did and dying the way she did. The difficulties that Plath embodied seem telling in ways that extend beyond the particulars of her poems and her life and death. Her attempt to figure and claim authority for herself, in the shadow—or at least the intense awareness—of fascism and the model for claiming authority it made vivid, parallels, in some ways, the solutions of other women writers and thinkers of this century, such as Virginia Woolf and Simone Weil; they too confronted fascism's threatened and actual disempowerment by killing themselves, although their conflicts with fascism were, to be sure, more immediate. Weil, especially, turned the very terms of the war against her own body. This brilliant French philosopher-scholar-mystic pleaded to join the underground in 1942, but her request to be parachuted behind Nazi lines was denied.16 Hitler's horrors had led her to turn from the ideological pacifism she had previously believed in; she was then denied the opportunity to become, in a sense, the oppressor—to fight Nazis and Nazism directly, to overpower them (to become, in Plath's poems, “Daddy”'s killer). Her move from there was to make herself into the oppressed and use her own oppression to combat the war. Weil starved herself to death when, diagnosed with tuberculosis and told by her doctors to eat well, she refused more nourishment (and took in even less) than what was allowed French troops at the front. In striving to confront the increasingly powerful fascism before her, she moved through the dialectic of options available to her (be the oppressed; be the oppressor; be the oppressed but claim it as powerful), and ended up subjugating her own body to death. Weil and Plath, confronted with fascism (for Weil, actual Nazi threat; for Plath, more metaphorically, the violence of gaining authority), turned its terms against themselves. The disturbing similarities between these responses point all the more urgently to the fact that Plath, and we, have yet to think of a notion of power, or of not-power, of something other than power, some way of existing together without requiring the overpowered, some notion of shifting, fluctuating self-assertions; of nonheirarchies, of something other than being on top, or validating the bottom, a space where bodies can move in and out of formation, and where, (say …), the movement itself is what keeps it together.


  1. All Plath citations are taken from Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper & Row, 1981). The title, followed by the number of each poem rather than the page number, will be cited parenthetically after each quotation.

  2. Lawrence R. Ries, Wolf Masks (New York: Kennikat Press, 1977), 8. Hereafter WM, cited in the text. Ries focuses on Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, and John Wain, as well as Plath.

  3. See, for example, Sandra M. Gilbert, “A Fine, White Flying Myth: The Life/Work of Sylvia Plath,” in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 245-60; Paula Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986); Mary Lynn Broe, Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Columbia: University Press of Missouri, 1980); Lynda Bundtzen, Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983); and Steven Gould Axelrod, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

  4. See, for example, Carole Ferrier's “The Beekeeper's Apprentice,” in Gary Lane, ed., Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

  5. Jacqueline Rose, “Sylvia Plath and the Obscenity of Literary Criticism,” 20; an essay written for the Oxford English Limited Conference, “Prohibited Pleasures,” May 1987. Hereafter “SP,” cited in the text.

  6. Axelrod's recent Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words sees Plath's struggle with the patriarchy of poetic form and tradition at the core of her voice and vision. Further references to this work will be cited in the text as SP.

  7. I have focused here on the poems Plath wrote from 1962 on, where I think these issues come together most dramatically and with an accelerated frequency that makes me think they were vital to Plath and what she was trying to express and to where she finally ended up. A number of her earlier poems also address these issues and use the images and metaphors I am talking about.

  8. For a compelling discussion of ways the body figured, similarly, at the base of theoretical conceptions of both race and gender in America, see Karen Sanchez-Eppler, “Bodily Bonds: The Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition,” Representations 24 (1988): 28-59.

  9. See, for example, Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Margaret W. Ferguson et al., eds., Rewriting the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). Stallybrass genders Bakhtin's analysis (see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984]) of the way unruly bodies in the Renaissance disrupted or subverted class structures, suggesting that a “female grotesque” could interrogate class and gender hierarchies alike. See also Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (New York: Feminist Press, 1973).

  10. See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 1:xiii.

  11. Gordan W. Prange, ed., Hitler's Words (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Public Affairs, 1944).

  12. A. Alvarez,

  13. I do not, however, think that the overall tenor of Plath's late poetry describes joyous female bodies, although one might well find flickers of this kind of joy in her poems; she was writing before that position had been clearly and loudly voiced and did not voice it herself.

  14. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea Books, 1982), 222, 226, 241.

  15. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 468.

  16. According to Anna Freud, Weil's request was denied in part because she looked “so obviously Jewish,” as quoted in Robert Coles, Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987), 58, and in part, Coles suggests, because she was a woman (33).

Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (essay date 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6365

SOURCE: Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita. “Dramatizations of ‘Visionary Events’ in Sylvia Plath's Poetry.” Studia Neophilologica 68, no. 2 (1996): 205-15.

[In the following essay, Lindberg-Seyersted considers Plath's concerns with clairvoyance and occultism in her life and poetry.]

Ted Hughes writes of Sylvia Plath: “The world of her poetry is one of emblematic visionary events, mathematical symmetries, clairvoyance and metamorphoses. Her poetry escapes ordinary analysis in the way clairvoyance and mediumship do: her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them.”1 Sylvia Plath herself testified to having had experiences that could not be given a rational, materialistic explanation. Visiting Yeats's Tower at Ballylee in Ireland in September 1962 she “had the uncanny feeling [she] had got in touch with Yeats' spirit,” she wrote.2 Once in January 1956, on a visit to Vence in southern France, she had, as she noted in her journal, a “mystic vision” of dying and coming to new life through the power of love.3 She also had an intense experience of the Matisse Chapel, an event she described on a postcard sent to her mother on January 7, 1956 (LH 203-05). She had a vision of beauty, a beauty that had an aura of the sacred about it, especially since a kindly Mother Superior, in an act of particular understanding and gentleness, made the chapel accessible to Sylvia as a personal favor. Her gratefulness—“Vous êtes si gentille”—was acknowledged by the nun with a smile and the words: “C'est la miséricorde de Dieu.” “It was,” Sylvia concluded (LH 205).

Already as an adolescent Plath seems to have had intimations of insights that went beyond the rational. Shortly before entering Smith College she put down in her diary: “There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me, as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding, waiting for me to grasp it” (J 11). She ended this entry, somewhat in the vein of an eager teen-ager: “Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst in upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I'll laugh. And then I'll know what life is” (J 12).

We have also been told about Plath's experiments at the Ouija board together with Ted Hughes. She drew on this interest in two poems: “Ouija” and “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board: A Verse Dialogue.”4 From a reading of these poems it is hard to know just how seriously she took such occult seances.5 Even before Ted Hughes brought these sessions into her life, she had toyed with ideas about phenomena such as “scientific mysticism, probability in foreknowledge in cards, hypnotism, levitation, Blake” (J 126). Hughes taught her about horoscopes (LH 242), and she pursued this line later on. In a journal entry for February 9, 1958, she states: “I must meantime, this June beginning, learn about planets and horoscopes to be in the proper starred house: I'll wish I had learned if I don't: tarot pack, too. Maybe I should stay alone, unparalyzed, and work myself into mystic and clairvoyant trances” (J 191).


In her journals and letters, then, Plath recorded her desire to know transcendence in its many guises. In her poetry she dramatized such yearnings in the form of visionary events with various kinds of emblematic significance. As essential parts of the poems' story-lines they lead to climactic moments of beauty, triumph, and ecstasy, or the texts formulate passionate hopes and longings for such moments. As a young woman she dreamed of being carried away by an all-consuming experience of love; she had an “enormous desire” to give love, she asserted (LH 223). Violent language served to define such total abandon: “I just have to ‘give out’ and feel smothered. …” Her description of Ted Hughes, shortly after their “cataclysmic” first encounter at a party in Cambridge,6 is rapturous: he—and her meeting him—represent “something most miraculous and thundering and terrifying” (LH 234). But love and sexual passion as means of reaching transcendence are rare subjects in her poetry. “Pursuit” (CP 22-23), a poem written immediately after that first meeting with Ted Hughes, is one of her few poems focusing on love between man and woman. Plath said that she was herself “hypnotized” by this poem (LH 222). Here love and lover appear in the shape of a panther who “stalks” the female persona “down.” Words like “aflame,” “lordly,” and “insatiate” characterize this overpowering, devastating force. Pursuer and pursued act out a fearful game. The female persona confesses:

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
          To quench his thirst I squander blood;
          He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

The outcome is uncertain but threatening: “The panther's tread is on the stairs, / Coming up and up the stairs.” Stronger than the desire for sexual ecstasy is, in my reading, fear of completely losing one's self to the tyrannous power of sex.

In Plath's early works there are other and, so it seems, more immediate needs that have been given artistic form. There is the yearning and the waiting for a vision; this may be a vision of beauty, of inspiration, perhaps of the divine. In “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” (CP 56-57), the last poem assigned to the year 1956 in Collected Poems, we encounter an early example of her dramatizations of a “visionary event.” The speaker adopts a humble attitude in her observation of nature. We recognize one of the poet's favorite landscapes; here it is a dull, grey, ordinary scene, modestly adorned with a random black rook which performs its daily activities—“[a]rranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain”—unconcerned about the human observer. The scene is seemingly without design or any deep meaning, and the observer certainly does not “expect a miracle / Or an accident” which might add color or structure and perhaps even an inkling of purpose to the sight. She admits to herself that she “desire[s], / Occasionally, some backtalk / From the mute sky,” but she soberly refuses to complain about unresponsive nature. She has, though, a lingering, faint hope that “[a] certain minor light may still / Lean incandescent // Out of kitchen table or chair.” She is ready to interpret such light from above as the token of a willingness to “hallow” an unremarkable scene and an “inconsequent” moment in a human being's life. This might be a gift of “largesse, honor, / One might say love.” “Wary,” “skeptical,” “ignorant,” these words announce the speaker's attitude as she is waiting for such a sign, but wait she does, for she is “politic” enough to be ready for whatever “fire,” “light,” or “burning” that may “seize [her] senses, haul / [Her] eyelids up. …”

It comes as a surprise to the reader to learn, near the end of the poem, how serious the situation is for the speaker: she longs to stave off “fear / Of total neutrality.” The tone of the poem has become less ordinary and factual. A religious vocabularly was introduced early by the word “miracle,” but its possibility, perhaps even its existence, was denied. “Light,” “celestial,” “hallowing,” and “angel,” all of these words have up till the very end been partly hidden, as it were, by the surface of the ordinary and the factual. The speaker knows that a simple thing like a rook “[o]rdering its black feathers” can bring forth a certain light and grant her a “brief respite” from her fear of blankness; it has apparently happened before. At the close of the scene and its accompanying inner monologue, the speaker affirms the reality of miracles, at the same time adding a safeguarding afterthought. The final note, expressed in lines of haunting beauty, is marked by hope and confidence:

. … Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

In this poem, then, with its patient waiting for a “miracle,” the poet gives voice to a desire for an unspecified kind of visionary event. In my reading the gift sought is an infusion of creative inspiration brought about by a “trick” of natural beauty. The religious vocabularly adds a spiritual dimension to this longing. In the poet's view, the gift is of a divine nature and significance, giving meaning to an artist's life.

Read in the context of Plath's development as a poet, this poem with its humble speaker, who makes herself ready to receive a gift of inspiration in a moment “hallowed” by a certain vision of light, suggests an awareness of the need to give up the stance of the self-reliant virtuoso and instead, with a naked face and mind, open oneself to creative influences, in this instance through the beauty and quiet drama of nature.

In two related poems also written in 1956, “On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad” (CP 65-66) and “On the Plethora of Dryads” (CP 67-68),7 Plath criticizes the virtuoso stance in a lighthearted manner. The former poem is a self-ironical treatment of an intellectual artist's attempt to force nature to cooperate in the creation of beauty. But nature does not obey by the laws of intellect and order. Instead of being gloriously transformed into a lovely nymph, the speaker's “damn scrupulous” tree “stays tree.” In “On the Plethora of Dryads” the artist-speaker starts out by making a similar mistake. Aiming for “a quintessential beauty” she believes that by focusing all her efforts, like an ascetic, on her object—the perfect Tree—she can attain an understanding of nature and perceive “visionary lightnings.” But only by surrendering her senses to disorderly, imperfect nature is she granted a chance to transcend the trivial and the ordinary, and thereby spot the seductive dryads. The fine frenzy of creativity is gained, not through the intellect nor through a pretentious belief in some kind of divine inspiration, but through the senses.

There were other early poems, set in an inspiring landscape, where Plath succeeded in creating a scene and a plot that convincingly celebrate a visionary event. In “The Great Carbuncle” (CP 72-73) she uses a religious vocabulary to describe a brief moment of transcendence experienced by wanderers in a moor landscape. The title's “carbuncle” alludes to a bright-red jewel, but more importantly it brings to mind the drops of blood that according to legend fell from the crucified Christ's body into the Holy Grail; other religious terms are “transfiguring,” “pilgrims,” and “angels.” The poem tells how wanderers and landscapes become bathed in an extraordinary light.8 To the wanderers it is as if their bodies are “transfigured”; they become weightless, and hands and faces turn “[l]ucent as porcelain.” These “pilgrims” are drawn toward the mysterious source of the light, emanating from a burning red sun in the likeness of a carbuncle. This great jewel is

          shown often,
Never given; hidden, yet
Simultaneously seen
On moor-top, at sea-bottom,
Knowable only by light
Other than noon, than moon, stars—

Although this poem draws on a religious vocabulary, with the allusion to the blood of a crucified Christ as its central symbol, the miracle it dramatizes does not seem to be of an orthodox, Christian kind. Rather it is a pagan one which through the magic of nature makes the human being part of a transcendental existence. What this moment of transcendence achieves may be a forgetting of an earthbound self, a self which is at home among earthbound tables and chairs. To the present reader “The Great Carbuncle” suggests the poet's desire for an otherworldly experience, which is not necessarily religious but rather spiritual-esthetic and which is a means to rise above the mundane and the humdrum. Read in the context of poems like “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” the miraculous light of the carbuncle signifies creative inspiration of a high order.

The idea of a transfiguring moment continued to preoccupy the poet. “On the Decline of Oracles” (CP 78) is a—somewhat lame—complaint over the triviality of today's visions, compared to those of a past, heroic age. This regret was apparently a heartfelt one on Plath's part, for, as Ted Hughes testifies in his comment on this poem, she “frequently mentioned flashes of prescience—always about something unimportant” (CP 287). Plath's antidote to triviality was the magic of art. In “Snakecharmer” (CP 78), for example, the creative artist has the power to perform miracles; they may be illusions, but they exist as long as the artist cares to call them forth from his instrument.

In some poems the moment of transcendence appears as a state of ecstasy or euphoria. In “Lorelei” (CP 94–95) this feeling is inseparable from a death wish. The speaker is tempted by the song of the Lorelei sirens, her “sisters,” to join them deep down. What they offer is a form of “drunkenness,” related to darkness and death, and their world is “more full and clear // Than can be.” The ecstasy they are willing to share is a means for the speaker to get away from an existence that is too “well-steered,” too “balanced,” too “mundane.” The poem ends by the speaker welcoming the sirens' invitation:

O river, I see drifting
Deep in your flux of silver
Those great goddesses of peace.
Stone, stone, ferry me down there.

Thus, in this poem, the transcendence is something wished for, not actually achieved, but clearly imaged as ecstasy.

In his note to “Lorelei” the editor glosses the relationship between “drunkenness” and ecstasy that the poet establishes here. She drew on facts presented by the deep-sea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau about the euphoria felt by divers suffering from oxygen shortage. In such a “euphoric, visionary” state divers are apt to “blissfully forget all precautions and danger” (CP 287). When Plath wrote the poem (in July 1958) the idea of the death wish appealed to her as a subject for poetry (J 246). Less than a year later she dismissed the poems she had written while she was teaching at Smith College (1957–58): they were all “miserable death wishes” (J 302). She may have included “Lorelei” as well in her sweeping condemnation, for already in December 1958 she commented somewhat condescendingly on “Lorelei” and other poems as “all my romantic lyricals” (J 275).

Poems written in the years 1959 and 1960 dramatize no striking “visionary events.” In “Blackberrying” (CP 168–69), written in 1961, the scene is being prepared for such a moment, but it is not realized in the way the reader is led to expect. This is another of Plath's “psychic landscapes,” that is, scenes where the human observer interprets natural forms, colors, and sounds as messages to be received by her. By anthropomorphizing nature the personae of such poems seek to arrive at an idea of their own identity and place in the world.

Walking down a blackberry lane the persona of this poem responds ambiguously to nature's signs and gestures. She is presented as a naively self-centered person, and when the blue-red juice of the berries colors her hands, she imagines that this is a token of sisterhood, a token that is both flattering and slightly disturbing to her. “I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me,” she thinks. But under a seemingly composed outward appearance the speaker's inmost attention is directed elsewhere. She is listening for the distant sea and is vaguely aware of it “[s]omewhere at the end” of the blackberry lane. Her longing for it is masked by a put-on matter-of-factness in an effort to cope with inevitable lack and loss: “I do not think the sea will appear at all.” This Prufrockian evasion is meant to fortify the “child” against disappointment. She takes in other elements of the scene—the sounds, the movements and colors of birds, and the colors of berries and meadows. None of these bring her joy or a sense of beauty.

But then the scene changes: near the end of the lane her face is suddenly “slapped” by a gush of wind. A sheep path takes her down to the tip of a hill, where the longed-for view of the sea meets her eye. But this is not a grand vision of harmonious beauty; what she sees is “nothing, nothing but a great space” of color and sound. Earlier in the poem colors have been rich: berries are “ebon”-colored, their juices “blue-red,” and bellies of flies are “blue-green.” But colors associated with the land are tinged with putrefaction (“one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies”). The colors of the sea, however, are uncompromisingly stark—white and pewter-grey. From being unpleasant (“cacophonous”), sounds have become harsher and more insistent (“beating, beating”). But the sea has a redeeming aspect in that the vision it renders recalls that of art: lights and sounds of this enormous space resemble those of the silversmith hammering at an “intractable” material in order to shape it into art.

It seems inevitable that readings of this poem should end up in statements about “dread,” “meaninglessness,” “emptiness,” and “void or nothingness.”9 There are indeed lots of negations in the text, for example words like “nobody,” “nothing,” “not,” and “protesting.” And the final view of the sea calls forth no triumphant cries of “Thalassa! Thalassa!” the way the Greek legionaries greeted the sea on their return from war inland. Nevertheless I interpret the poem in a less “negative” way. In my reading the speaker does reach her goal: she is granted a vision of the sea. It is true that the vision is bleak, but it changes her frame of mind and perhaps even her personality. The language shrewdly mirrors her character: the epithets “dumb” and “fat” that she applies to the berries suggest her own, slightly contemptuous attitude to nature, as does the prosaic image of the birds which look like “[b]its of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.” Her self-centeredness is aptly reflected in the idea of berries “accommodating” themselves to her milkbottle by “flattening their sides.” At the end of the scene she forgets about herself, at least for a moment, and surrenders to a source of greatness and power totally alien to herself. The egocentric, childish person that she was is now forced to acknowledge the naked truth: what lies ahead of her is a grim reality that she will have to face. The closing image of the silversmith hints at a way for the speaker to cope with this seemingly unresponsive space: to try to come to terms with it like—and as—an artist who does not fear seeming emptiness and harshness. Her longing has not brought her to an uplifting “visionary event” or to a revelation of tranquil beauty, but to a recognition of the naked, bitter truth about the world and her own place in it. Even though this sort of revelation may not be of an unequivocally beneficial kind, to have reached the goal is what matters, to have won an insight is the gain, and it was the vision of the sea, so urgently waited for, that brought this about.

While in these pre-1962 poems we have seen the poet envisage and experience moments of creative inspiration or of ecstasy and visions of beauty or truth, her later poems embody desires which seem to be even more personal. They render situations where a woman is freed from hindrances of passivity and masochistic cooperation with whatever or whomever had victimized her. Such yearnings are often resolved in metaphors of activity—rising, flying, and so on—instead of a passive receiving of some kind of gift or favor.

The poem “Stings” (CP 214-15), written in the highly productive month of October 1962, dramatizes a different and much more “positive” vision than the one we find in “Blackberrying.” In “Stings,” one of the Bee cycle poems, the “story-line” refers to the beekeeping procedure of exchanging honey for clean combs. The dream-like quality of the scene is marked, for example, by the anonymity of the people taking part in the operation (“The man in white,” “He and I,” “These women”) and by the several questions that express uncertainty and fear (“What am I buying, wormy mahogany? / Is there any queen at all in it?” “Will they hate me … ?” “Is she dead, is she sleeping?” “Where has she been … ?”). Novice beekeeper and practiced beeseller alike are vulnerable although dressed according to beekeeping decorum (they are “[b]arehanded”); that much vulnerability is part of the dangerous game. The speaker-novice identifies more and more with the old queen. Life has been harsh to her; her wings are by now “torn shawls, her long body / Rubbed of its plush— / Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.” But that is the price the elect have to pay for their status, and the speaker herself proudly rejects the inferior, unglamorous role that the honey-drudgers and their human sisters submit to. Earlier she had let herself be thus exploited; for years she had “eaten dust / And dried plates with [her] dense hair.”

The speaker may be a novice to the trade, but she obeys by the rules, and she feels that she is “in control.” Suddenly a third person appears on the scene. He is definitely an outsider who doesn't stick to the rules, and the bees accordingly punish him for that; they “found him out.” They hit him where he is most guilty: they fasten onto his lips “like lies,” for lies, so the reader assumes, is what used to flow from his lips. The presence of this third person—an appearance which, as Susan R. Van Dyne argues, is “curiously unmotivated in the narrative”10—is, thematically, doubly justified. On one level this unidentified man, who the speaker with a touch of Schadenfreude sees as “a great scapegoat,” functions as the single object of revenge; on another, equally meaningful one, his presence introduces the idea of death and through it the idea of rebirth. While the honeybees die after they sting, the speaker, who now identifies completely with the queen bee, cannot stop at death. She has “a self to recover,” a self that has been absent—dead or asleep.

The poem ends in triumph: the old queen may have been killed in accordance with the rituals of beekeeping, but, miraculously,

Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her—
The mausoleum, the wax house.

The speaker has become the reborn queen, a survivor and a potential avenger. She has recovered a self that was all but lost, and hers is now a self stronger than ever before. Thus the poem closes in a vision of triumph; it has dramatized a transformation from drabness and powerlessness, from fear and uncertainty, to wholeness and strength, to fearlessness and self-possession.

“Wintering” (CP 217-19), the final poem of the Bee cycle, also ends on a hopeful note. This is even more explicitly an homage to survival. The speaker situates us in mid-winter. She has dutifully performed the rituals of beekeeping: she has extracted the honey from the combs; she has stored the jars of honey in the cellar; and now her job is to feed the surviving bees, who are “[s]o slow [she] hardly know[s] them.” She responds with baffled admiration to their bravery and persistence: they are “[f]iling like soldiers / To the syrup tin.” She fears the darkness in which the bees dwell; she would never be able to breathe down there, for to her such an existence represents “[b]lack asininity. Decay. / Possession.” The bees apparently are unaware of any dangers and horrors.

The final stanza opens with a series of questions, all of them expressing doubt and fear about the fate of hibernating nature:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

Without answering these questions, the poet ends the poem in a tone of absolute certainty: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.”

The speaker of “Wintering” closely identifies women with bees. The bees, doomed to darkness and a strategy for precarious survival, are all female; they are workers and a queen bee. The gradual identification is marked by the words “women” and “men” for members of the bee society. Drones are spoken of as “[t]he blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors” that the “women” have got rid of. The reference to a universalized Woman, “still at her knitting, / At the cradle of Spanish walnut, / Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think,” joins wintering bee and motherly woman in the idea of patient waiting and gestation. The final line then lifts the scene out of darkness and dumbness to a vision of regeneration: bees and women are moving toward a new spring, toward a new life.11

In “Fever 103°” (CP 231–32) fire is the means of regeneration. The poem depicts a state of a person's body and mind that lends itself to delirious fantasies. A series of surrealistic images, loosely strung together, render a feverish preoccupation with various forms of fire. Hellish flames, crackling tinder, a reeking candle envelop the speaker-patient, whose horrified thoughts circle around other killers and victimizers as well. In her unruly imagination radiation and atom bombs mingle with Isadora Duncan's killing scarves, with “ghastly” orchids, and with “devilish” leopards and adulterers. In a final vision, and purified by fire, the speaker sees herself rising free of ties to a “you”—perhaps a child—and to a “him”—a husband or any man. Her destination is a Paradise of aggressive self-assertiveness where her old selves of sinful, too easily victimized woman give way to a pure virgin:

I think I am going up,
I think I may rise—
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him
Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)—
To Paradise.

The vision of transcendence that this poem leads up to is of a less assured kind than the ones we have encountered in earlier poems. The “triumph” is compromised by being visualized in a state where reason and fact are missing. In her heart the speaker knows this, but, irresponsibly and egotistically, she abandons herself to these wild fancies in a kind of unabashed bravado.

“Ariel” (CP 239-40), a poem that has attracted a great deal of critical attention, has puzzled readers by the very intricate fusion of elements which have gone into the dramatization of a horseback ride.12 Horse and rider become one; direction and goal for the ride are uncertain; and metaphors and images connected with rider, horse, and landscape melt into one highly ambiguous picture:

God's lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,(13)

Is this a journey toward death? Or does it lead to rebirth after the speaker, daringly and shamelessly like a Queen Godiva challenging her husband the King, has rid herself of both inner and outer hindrances: “dark hooks,” “shadows,” her own “dead hands,” and “dead stringencies” imposed on her? Does the allusion to sexual orgasm (“And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas”) mean just that or does it rather suggest any kind of ecstasy? While there are critics who see only or largely darkness and death in the poem,14 most commentators tend to view it as embodying at least some element of victory or gain. They speak of “new-found freedom from male surveillance,” “some sort of resurrection,” “a goal which is at once destructive and ecstatic, an end and a beginning.”15

What I as reader respond to most strongly is the very idea of ecstasy that the speaker reaches in her daredevil ride. It is first of all a physical thing resulting from the thrill of mastering the horse and the breakneck speed, and from the overcoming of hindrances in the landscape through which the ride takes the speaker. But more importantly the ecstasy is envisioned as the conclusion of a liberating process of mind and psyche. Since this process involves both pain and danger to self and others, the shedding of an old self and an old existence is deathlike. But rebirth is the goal for her arrow-like flight, not death. In the same way as other poems we have examined, “Ariel” thus ends in a vision of transcendence. Like the poem “Wintering” which closes with the word “spring,” “Ariel”'s final word is one of hope and a new beginning:

And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.

The poems written during these months of great creativity—September-October 1962—also embody strong desires for revenge, not only rebirth. This is true of “Purdah” (CP 242-44), written at the end of October. Identifying with celebrated female avengers—Charlotte Corday and Clytemnestra—the speaker envisages herself as a lioness who, after having been hidden behind the doll-mask that the purdah-existence has forced her to wear, experiences the ecstasy of both freedom and revenge. When the time comes, she will “unloose— / From the small jewelled / Doll he guards like a heart— // The lioness,” and the “shriek in the bath” and the “cloak of holes” will testify to her triumph: the tyrant will be defeated and she will be free. This is a moment of triumph still to be won, but having been shown the way by her avenging heroines, she feels assured of reaching it.

In “Lady Lazarus” (CP 244–47), the last poem Plath completed in the amazingly productive month of October, the conclusion is again a vision of terrifying, “successful” revenge on the male. The freakshow star Lady Lazarus's crowning performance is to die and be reborn, again and again. “Dying / Is an art, like everything else,” she boasts, and she does it “exceptionally well.” Her hatred of the man, the “Herr Doktor” who promotes her at his vulgar shows, establishes a fearful bond between the Master and his Slave. She pictures her liberation as the result of a final act of violence. Like the queen bee of the poem “Stings,” Lady Lazarus will rise to a new life, but she is out to take a more specific revenge than the queen bee ever was. The queen bee's glory was to recover a self, while Lady Lazarus's envisaged triumph will allow her also to kill her enemy. She gives him proper warning:

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Coming after these visions of violence and revenge, the poem “Getting There” (CP 247–49), which was written in early November 1962, works as a coda in the present discussion. It is a more impersonal poem than the angry ones created in October. The I is presumably female (she rises from “Adam's side”), but her role as a passenger on a mysterious train is uncertain, and so is the purpose of the train ride. The text consists to a great extent of speculations and observations, and of questions without answers, with “How far is it?” as an ominous refrain. It reads like a tentative interpretation of a dream, or rather a nightmare, and surrealism characterizes the style and mood of the journey which holds the various ideas and images together. Through landscapes and scenes of war and violence this nightmare train finally takes the speaker to the destination. The carriage turns into a cradle, and she is able to shed the old, tattered and wounded self (“this skin / Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces”) and alight, “[p]ure as a baby.” This rebirth is achieved at a price, for the last means of transportation is “the black car of Lethe.” Lethe, the river in Hades, spells death and the underworld, but it also signifies oblivion. Thus the poem ends in a vision of new life, won through suffering and graced by merciful forgetfulness.


We have thus witnessed how in Sylvia Plath's poetry visionary events and the yearning for them appear in several forms and with varying emblematic purport. We have seen how as a novice poet she gave voice to longings for an infusion of creativity in her life as an artist and how she battled with creative droughts and feelings of being caught in the humdrum and the mundane. “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” exemplifies this aspect of Plath the poet. In a poem such as “The Great Carbuncle” the dramatization of a moment of transcendence, also performed through a phenomenon in nature, is emblematic of other yearnings: a desire to experience another world, another kind of existence, or perhaps to be in communion with the sacred. In both this poem and “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” it is a certain light that is the conjuring element, and it is the observer's senses that are the medium.

Some poems conclude with a vision of euphoria or ecstasy. In “Lorelei,” for instance, we meet euphoria in the form of “drunkenness,” an experience which combines a feeling of total freedom from an inhibiting intellect, with a death wish. It is tempting to read this rendering of a death wish in the context of other poems where the poet seeks to rejoin a lost father-figure, whether deep down in the sea or in the ground (for example, “Full Fathom Five” and “The Beekeeper's Daughter”). In “Ariel” we witnessed another kind of ecstasy—joyful, powerful—which is reached through boldly bringing body and mind to the brink of death but overcoming danger and guilt and leading to a liberation of mind and psyche. The ecstasy of sexual passion that is hinted at in “Ariel” occurs also as a possibility in the early “Pursuit,” but, as I have argued, this form of ecstasy is rare in Plath's poetry.

Stronger, we found, is another form of ecstasy that is envisioned, for example, in “Purdah”: the excitement caused by an act of revenge on a victimizing male. In other poems as well with a victimizer-victimized theme, such as “Stings” and “Lady Lazarus,” the visionary event appears as this kind of triumph. Revenge here also means liberation and recovery of self. Emblematic events signifying survival and rebirth are envisioned, for example, in “Wintering.”

In the explosive poems Plath wrote in the fall of 1962, the visionary events that they present most memorably make up emblems for the power created through the uninhibited release of anger. This is an anger often tempered by humor and the appeal of reckless bravado, and it is certainly these features, harsh and provocative as they often are, that make the reader empathize with an avenging woman.

In some of the texts where the present discussion has identified visions of transcendence, the moments of ecstasy and the “triumphs” that the poems dramatize may be so brief and sudden, or so minimal, that it is difficult to spot them. My overriding purpose has been to highlight such elements in order to counterbalance a prevalent view which holds that Plath's poetry is largely haunted by death and feelings of regret and anger. There is no denying that longings and desires represented in her poems are often riddled with doubtfulness and anxiety, even anguish and despair, but as I have shown in my analysis, her poems as frequently lead to some kind of transcendence, however momentary or ambiguous.


  1. “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems,” in Charles Newman, ed., The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 187.

  2. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963, ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 480. Hereafter referred to as LH in the text.

  3. The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough (New York: The Dial Press, 1982), 128. Hereafter referred to as J in the text.

  4. Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 77-78 and 276-86, respectively. Hereafter referred to as CP in the text. For experiments at the Ouija board, see the editor's note number 62 (CP 276).

  5. For discussions of Plath's use of occultism, see Timothy Materer, “Occultism as Source and Symptom in Sylvia Plath's ‘Dialogue over a Ouija Board,’” Twentieth Century Literature 37, 2 (1991): 131-47; and Helen Sword, “James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, and the Poetics of Ouija,” American Literature 66, 3 (1994): 553-72.

  6. See Journals, 111-12, 153.

  7. Nancy D. Hargrove places these two poems among the output for 1956, not 1957 which is the date assigned to them in Collected Poems; see The Journey Toward “Ariel”: Sylvia Plath's Poems of 1956-1959 (Lund: Lund Univ. Press, 1994), 48.

  8. Ted Hughes's comment on the poem explains the nature of this light: “On an odd phenomenon sometimes observed on high moorland for half an hour or so at evening, when the hands and faces of people seem to become luminous” (CP 276).

  9. See Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 236; Victor Kramer, “Life-and-Death Dialectics,” in Linda W. Wagner, ed., Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1988), 163; Jon Rosenblatt, Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1979), 93. See also Edward Butscher, who speaks of “vacuum space”; Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (New York: The Seabury Press, 1976), 283.

  10. Susan R. Van Dyne, Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's “Ariel” Poems (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993), 108. For an instructive discussion of the poet's various drafts of “Stings,” see Revising Life, esp. pp. 107-12.

  11. It is interesting to note that as Plath visualized and planned her second book of poems, Ariel, she placed “Wintering” with its hopeful ending as the very last of the collection. See Ted Hughes, Introduction and Notes to Collected Poems, 14-15 and 295, respectively.

  12. The editor of Collected Poems comments on the title of the poem: “The name of a horse which she rode, at a riding school on Dartmoor, in Devonshire” (CP 294).

  13. The name “Ariel” in Hebrew means “God's lioness”; see, e.g., Linda W. Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 220.

  14. E.g., Jon Rosenblatt, who interprets the metaphoric ride as “a clearly self-destroying journey”; see Sylvia Plath, 146.

  15. Linda W. Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath, 220; Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame, 272; Caroline King Barnard, Sylvia Plath (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 97.

Marilyn Manners (essay date 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9305

SOURCE: Manners, Marilyn, “The Doxies of Daughterhood: Plath, Cixous, and The Father.” Comparative Literature 48, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 150-71.

[In the following essay, Manners examines similarities regarding images of paternity in the works of Plath and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous.]

As early as 1982 (English translation, 1984) Josette Féral called for comparative investigation of writers such as Sylvia Plath and Hélène Cixous, but until very recently, neither writer has been consistently and seriously considered as a literary figure (in the United States at any rate). Plath criticism, as Jacqueline Rose has exhaustively demonstrated, is so heavily invested in bitterly opposed biographical readings that the complexities of language, sexuality, history, and fantasy in Plath's texts have too often been ignored.1 Cixous, on the other hand, has received attention primarily as a “French feminist” and theorist—even as a literary critic—rather than as a novelist and dramatist. Moreover, detailed analysis of her feminist theory has often been lacking in debates over her reputed essentialism. This situation too has begun to change recently with the publication of a number of texts examining a more inclusive range of Cixous's work (Morag Shiach, Lee Jacobus and Regina Barreca, and Françoise van Rossum-Guyon and Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz).

Féral based her proposal, as well as her readings of theatrical works by Plath, Cixous, and others, on the general premises of l'écriture feminine: a writing that “shatter[s] traditional discourse” (549), or, citing Irigaray, is characterized by “excess and disruption” (550). Although I find Féral's argument convincing I will begin at an even more preliminary, or rudimentary, level. I should like to draw attention to a conjunction of interests in Plath and Cixous—by examining a few of Plath's “father-poems,” not so much in strict comparison with, as in view of, an early Cixous novel, Dedans.2

Dedans, Cixous's first novel, was published and awarded the Prix Médicis in 1969 and translated into English as Inside in 1986.3 It investigates a daughter's obsession with her dead father. Such an “obsession,” along with an “obsession” with death, is generally believed to be at the very center of Plath's thematics (and, of course, her life). Whether there is actually a father at that center—or whether there is a center at all—remains highly debatable, but it can certainly be said that Plath wrote a handful of major poems which explore unsettling father-daughter relations.

The lives of Plath and Cixous resemble each other in certain respects. Both had fathers who died shortly before their daughters reached the age of ten (Plath was eight, Cixous nine), and both grew up acutely aware of languages. Plath's mother and father spoke German; her father majored in classical languages; her maternal grandfather spoke four languages. Cixous's mother spoke German, her father French, and she learned English as well. In the works of both Plath and Cixous there are not just one but a number of fathers and Fathers: these fathers are personal, loved, hated, poetic, psychic, social, surrogate, symbolic. Thus the father may range from an autobiographical reconstruction of Otto Plath or George Cixous to “les pères et les flics,” which Cixous comments upon in Samuel Beckett's texts (“Une Passion” 399), or to those Fathers who emerge in Plath's poem “Lady Lazarus” as Plath's “Herr God, Herr Lucifer” (Collected Poems) or in the form of the penis-as-bludgeon or enormous serpent-penis found in Cixous's first play, La Pupille.

The early death of the father is used by both writers to investigate death in general, with its potential for regaining a sense of oceanic unity, albeit at the loss of all else. Plath's and Cixous's writings on the father-daughter relationship exceed this theme, however; imaginary re-membering leads to reflections on language and on writing itself, to a questioning of power and authority, and to an implicit (and occasionally explicit) re-mythification of privileged daughters such as Electra. Plath's and Cixous's use of the Electra myth allows for, indeed seems almost to demand, critical investigation of the dichotomies active/passive, construction/destruction, power/helplessness, as these concern the daughter.

For Plath, attention to myth in general is suggested by a number of the titles chosen for her father-poems: “On the Decline of Oracles” (1957), “The Colossus,” “Maenad,” “Electra on Azalea Path” (all written in 1959).4 By the time of “Daddy” (1962), Plath's mythic and allusive structures change, at least as concerns the father poetry:5 Auschwitz and Hiroshima have become equally important. Cixous analyzes the Electra myth in detail in La jeune née (1975); in Dedans, however, she uses the titular thematics of inside/outside to explore not only the father-daughter relationship, but a daughter's relation to her extended family and heritage as well. This heritage necessarily includes an historical intersection with Germany and the death camps because her family is in fact Jewish.

Both Plath and Cixous treat the father's early death as a kind of primary trauma which is re-written into the painful coming-of-age of the daughter as writer, as she who assumes language and the use of words both native and foreign—although language(s) may appear to, and even may, master her own fictional female subjects. To a certain degree, both Plath and Cixous use a “father obsession” to overturn an old myth: “The old myth of origins / Unimaginable” (Plath, “Full Fathom Five”). In classical tragedy Electra may be read as one stage of the historical establishment of patriarchy over matriarchy and goddess worship (Graves, 62-64; Cixous, La jeune née 186-208). But Plath's and Cixous's manipulations of the “Electra complex” disinter the personal father—that memory of a father which becomes a fiction of the father—and at the same time attempt to bury the Father and his Law.

In both writers, the father's death leads to the daughter's physical and psychic retreat or exile into ambivalently-considered “interior” spaces. In both Plath and Cixous, the father is idealized excessively (although the self-conscious ways in which this idealization is then portrayed are much less predictable); the mother's role as wife and primary mourner is contested competitively; the mother's sexuality causes anxious concern whereas the sexuality of the father is cherished and privileged; both mothers and fathers are submitted to the rigors of love and hate. Both writers replace God/father/husband/lover in a series of substitutions which are at times deadly serious, at other times ironic and comical. Both Plath and Cixous emphasize almost surreally the disparity in size between father and daughter. Finally, both writers identify the dead father specifically with prison.

The first substitution (in Dedans and chronologically in Plath's poems), occurs when God's place is filled by the father: “You defy other godhood” (“Full Fathom Five”); “Je commençai par révoquer Dieu, dont l'inutilité n'était que trop manifeste, et je le remplaçai par mon père” (20-21; Inside 11). This preliminary, symbolic substitution opens up a position to be filled, a position of power, if not always of glory. Plath depicts the dangers of the desire to keep that position always filled: “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” (“Daddy”).6 What may not be so apparent, however, is that this space (of immense—indeed, mythical—strength), once opened, may then be filled by anything or anyone—including the writer herself, her own substitutions or projections, her imagination, her own Imaginary.

In order that the metamorphoses begin, the daughter must make herself very small in relation to the father (or make the father very large; both tactics are employed).7 The daughter shrinks even into the non-human: “Small as a doll in my dress of innocence / I lay dreaming your epic, image by image” (“Electra on Azalea Path”); “I crawl like an ant in mourning / Over the weedy acres of your brow” (“The Colossus”); “Mieux valait être chien, ou lézard, que moi-même. Mieux valait être poussière, chat crevé, ou noyau de pêche, qu'être la fille du mort. Plus j'étais réduite, moins la vie aurait de surface à lacérer” (28; Inside, 16-17). A shattered “proper” perspective distorts in more ways than one: the father expands also into the non-human: “Miles long / Extend the radial sheaves / Of your spread hair” (“Full Fathom Five”); “Il s'allongeait et s'étalait, il envahissait l'horizon et cependent je ne l'approchai pas. Peu à peu je cessai de vouloir l'approcher, it était devenu trop grand” (35; Inside, 21).8 The daughter is metaphorically as well as physically smaller than life: she becomes animal or insect or inert matter. The father, on the other hand, is larger than life in all senses: he replaces not only God, but Nature itself. In “Castration or Decapitation?” Cixous touches on the cultural significance of this disparity: “It's the classic opposition, dualist and hierarchical. Man/Woman automatically means great/small, superior/inferior … means high or low, means Nature/History, means transformation/inertia” (44).9 In Dedans and in Plath's poems, we find this “classic opposition” emphasized excessively, rendered almost unrecognizable and certainly unclassical—almost perversely “feminine,” some might say.

In the father-texts under consideration here, the burial site intended to contain father/God/Nature is envisaged, not surprisingly, as utterly inadequate:

I found your name, I found your bones and all
Enlisted in a cramped necropolis,
Your speckled stone askew by an iron fence.
In this charity ward, this poorhouse, where the dead
Crowd foot to foot, head to head, no flower
Breaks the soil. This is Azalea Path.

(“Electra on Azalea Path”)10

La voilà, la voilà, c'est dans la troisième allée en haut, cinquante mètres après l'eucalyptus, à droite, on ne peut pas la voir, elle est trop plate, c'est la plus basse, toutes les autres sont plus hautes, il faut arriver au pied, à ses pieds, pour la voir …

—Que c'est froid cette pierre, que c'est petit! … Les autres te marchent dessus sans te voir ah ah.

(85-86; Inside, 55)

Actively and relentlessly playing with size and stature works against the “natural” Oedipal relation as well, a relation which in any case, for women, is already unnatural, is not the Same (Irigaray), and requires following a “very circuitous path” (Freud 199), as we shall see below. The identification of the father with Nature is a bit unnatural as well; when he becomes physically one with Nature, rather than overtaking it in a mythical manner, he not only loses stature but risks being trod upon. As God/Nature, he appears all-powerful, but association with Nature allows for some contamination, slippage into the unprivileged side of the oppositional couple, into passivity, the female, even into the smaller than human: “Il n'est pas mort ton fils. … Dans l'appartement, il y a une poupée en métamorphose, c'est pas mon père, c'est pas ton fils” (89; Inside, 57).

Relations with the father are further complicated by his association with the Law; or with one particular manifestation of the law, the prison:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.


Even as prison, the father has his attractions, but he is eventually repulsed in these texts, and violently: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through”; “Pourquoi m'as-tu abandonnée? Salaud, salaud, salaud, salaud, salaud” (188; Inside, 123).11 In Dedans (even in the first half of the novel, in which the protagonist is a child), an awareness of the ambiguous meanings of “inside” is apparent: “Le passé ne cache plus qu'il a été ma prison” (77; Inside, 49). In the second part of the novel, in which the narrator is an adult, the father “returns,” and acknowledges that life/death with him is a prison.12 The father has indeed become something of a con artist:

—Viens, allons en prison, tous les deux ensemble, nous serons heureux, quand tu me salueras, je m'agenouillerai et je te demanderai pardon …
—Viens allons en prison rien que nous deux ensemble, et je te dirai tout, et tous les jours je te donnerai un autre nom, mais je serai toujours là et tu me diras tout”

(193-94; Inside, 126).

This father—if the voice is indeed even her father's (“C'est toi, dis-je?—Oui, c'est lui, dit sa voix. [Mais cette voix était … ?]”)—is a singularly ineffective manipulator, however; his tactics are progressively aimed towards the little girl whom the protagonist no longer is, or even recognizes clearly. This father is (also) Lear (V.III.8-9), speaking to a daughter who refuses to go on playing his Cordelia, that abject daughter, hanged in prison, neck/voice broken, silenced once and for all. Cixous later referred to Cordelia as one of the archetypal victim-positions for women in the theater (as characters or as spectators):

Who is this victim? She is always the Father's daughter, his sacrificial object, guardian of the phallus, upholding the narcissistic fantasy which helps the Father to ward off the threat of castration … If she is Ophelia, her body banned and her soul violated, she will never have lived. And if, like Cordelia, she finds the strength to assert a femininity which refuses to be the mirror of her father's raving, she will die. For in every man there is a dethroned King Lear who requires his daughter to idealize him by her loving words and build him up, however flat he may have fallen, into the man he wishes to appear …

(“Aller à la mer,” 546).

Cixous rewrites Cordelia in Dedans much as Plath rewrites Miranda in “Full Fathom Five”; both will have the last laugh in rewriting Ophelia as well.13 As Plath's speaker “would breathe water,” Cixous's defies the dangers of drowning: “Ma robe flotte et gonfle autour de mes cuisses, éclate de rire, fonce, verdoie sur les bords, écume au ras de mes genoux, je suis vêtue de mer et j'algue doucement mes cheveux verts” (206; Inside, 134).

But however much these texts speak to one another, there is no complete or absolute congruence between Plath's and Cixous's poetic narratives. A closer look at individual texts will help to show where divergences arise even within similarities.

In “Full Fathom Five” (1958), Plath identifies the father with the sea, as she had earlier in “All the Dead Dears” (“And an image looms under the fishpond surface / Where the daft father went down / With orange duck-feet winnowing his hair—”). The daughter-persona, although in “dry … exile” on his “kingdom's border,” reserves for herself the possibility of transgressing this boundary: “I would breathe water.” There are resonances of this transgression to be found in Dedans (“Je peux tout, il suffit de vouloir, l'air est pur comme l'eau. Ne sais-je pas nager?” 42; Inside 25), but that daughter discovers the leash and crashes back to earth. Other boundaries effaced in “Full Fathom Five” have to do with transgression of the conscious/unconscious and the “real world”/dream world (of the type which structure Dedans)14: the “old man surface[s] seldom,” but his surfacing is not their only means of contact; she herself can dive down: “Your shelled bed I remember.”

Surfacing and diving are common enough metaphors for the unconscious or dreams, certainly, but there are also epic or adventurous qualities in this poem which are too often neglected. “All obscurity / Starts with a danger,” the speaker announces, and “Your dangers are many.” The timid are advised against pursuing such dangers: “You float near / As keeled ice-mountains / Of the north, to be steered clear / Of, not fathomed.” She, and we, are already in deep waters. Critics often mention the inverted syntax of “Full Fathom Five,” but less often note that it can render meaning very nearly unfathomable:

                                                                                Miles long
Extend the radial sheaves
Of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins
Knotted, caught, survives
The old myth of origins

The “wrinkling skeins” pose a real danger here: “skeins” would commonly be associated with hair, but this hair is not in skeins, but spread, radially. Certainly, some of the hair could be “caught” and “knotted” in “wrinkling skeins,” but “caught” applies equally well to “The old myth.” We are tossed about, from an old man of mythic proportions to the sea to hair to sheaves to skeins to an (other?) old myth—so entangled in “A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves / Crest and trough,” that we have no idea what “myth of origins” survives there (or where). Yet there is an “I” who “Cannot look much but your form suffers / Some strange injury / And seems to die: so vapors / Ravel to clearness on the dawn sea.” An “I” at last—a life boat surely, or at least a raft—but this “I” possesses no enlightening vision. The “reappearance [which] / Proves rumors shallow” is a “form” which is compared to “vapors,” and looking causes a very “strange injury” indeed: disappearance of the form. Far from a mastering gaze which results in clarity and unravels confusion, this particular look causes the “vapors” somewhat paradoxically to “Ravel to clearness”; the object of the gaze, when scrutinized, simply dissolves. And the many “dangers,” it should be noted, are not posed directly to the “I” but to the “form”; furthermore, here as elsewhere the diction suggests the language of writing as well as that of mourning: “You defy questions; // You defy other godhood.” This “old man” might be an unruly god of poetry as easily as the father.

In “Full Fathom Five,” says Mary Lynn Broe, “we learn that the most vivid danger to Sylvia Plath's ideal world is anything that is identified with a distinct polarity, a precise fact, or one ‘scrutable’ dimension” (52). The old man is identified with the masculine principle:

Waist down, you may wind
One labyrinthine tangle
To root deep among knuckles, shinbones,
Skulls. Inscrutable,
Below shoulders not once
Seen by any man who kept his head

But here (unlike in Cixous's “Castration or Decapitation?”) both castration and decapitation are man's problem only; the female speaker has descended, has “seen” and yet “kept [her] head.” The god/father, associated with the flux of the sea, is also given the sea's destructive attributes; these attributes are portrayed in classical Freudian terms, but with a “labyrinthine” twist. He encompasses both rigidity and fluidity, both inscrutability and the power to destroy those who would read/see him: “… Such sage humor and / Durance are whirlpools / To make away with the ground- / Work of the earth and the sky's ridgepole.” Although “whirlpools” and “Durance” (in the archaic sense of duration: “archaic trenched lines … shed time … Ages beat like rains”) link the old man to the effacement of the polarity of earth and sky (with their respectively feminine and masculine connotations), “sage humor,” “durance” (in the sense of imprisonment), and “whirlpools” may remind us as well of the language of the poem itself and its many “dangers”: its images unclearly “seen,” its polysemy, its odd use of a recurring anaphoristic structure linked by prepositions (of, to, on) which provide both a sort of continuity (“To make away” “To root deep”) and a dislocation of idiom (“ice-mountains / Of the north, to be steered clear / Of”). The “sage humor” especially seems to belong almost entirely to the language of the poem rather than to the father/God. It applies equally well to the poem's evocation of the Oedipal relation (the father's—dangerous—sexuality, his enormous and engulfing size, his shelled bed) and to the poem's repudiation of castration—there is neither castration nor decapitation for the daughter here, though there is a dry exile. It is not seeing the woman's (mother's) genitals that triggers the castration crisis, but what lies below the father's “shoulders.” “Waist down,” he “may” be marked by “One labyrinthine tangle”—indicating on the one hand a very proper singularity and on the other a highly improper, Medusa-like profusion.

In “Electra on Azalea Path” (1959) the father is again associated with the sea, but here the boundaries transgressed are not water and air, but the human and non-human—and within the human, there is a scrambling of familial roles: “your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.” The confusion of categories is dramatically staged: allusions to myth are mingled with a narrative that investigates and winds its way around to determining who takes credit for control over life and death. Although at the beginning of the poem this god-like control is ostensibly left—or placed—in the father's hands (“The day you died I went into the dirt”), by the end of the poem the daughter takes all the blame, or credit, herself (“It was my love that did us both to death”). As is only fair: she has in fact constructed, or reconstructed, another myth of the Death of the Father—and of the writing of the Daughter. Again the mythical father is associated with the unconscious, with dreamwork, this time overtly: “Small as a doll in my dress of innocence / I lay dreaming your epic, image by image. / Nobody died or withered on that stage. / Everything took place in a durable whiteness.” But this Electra dreams her own epic (“I borrow the stilts of an old tragedy”), certainly not The Iliad or The Oresteia: “nobody died or withered.”

“The Beekeeper's Daughter” (1959) takes the “Electral” situation one step further: whereas “Electra on Azalea Path” blamed the mother for having thought the father was and died “like any man,” this text “electrifies”15 the sexual tension between daughter and father. Sensual references to smell and breath mingle with references to voice and sight: “mouthings,” “dilate,” “too dense to breathe in,” “Trumpet-throats open to the beaks of birds,” “death to taste,” “I set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye.” A jumble of organs and body fragments (“many-breasted,” “heart,” “foot,” “heads,” “flesh,” “parings,” “finger”) mingles with a series of references to “boudoirs,” the father's “potency,” and the mother's inability to contest the daughter's—or the queen bee's—rivalry for the father.

“The Colossus” (1959) assumes an ironic position (which will be further elaborated in “Little Fugue,” and especially “Daddy”) regarding the greatness, in all senses, of the lost father. The tension here between a passive daughter- and active writer-figure tends to tip towards a writerly re-construction (away from the excavations of the unconscious and dreamwork of the earlier father poems).16 Self-conscious references to the babble of language begin with the barnyard noises in the first stanza; by the end of the poem, attention to language, sound, and silence involves only the speaker herself. She “no longer” listens for the sound of a rescuer “On the blank stones of the landing”; this blankness resembles “The bald white tumuli of [the colossus-father's] eyes.”17 Although the sun itself rises under the tongue of this father (who is “pithy and historical as the Roman Forum”), he is no “oracle,” nor is he in any way “pithy,” though he may consider himself a “Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.” After thirty years of labor, the daughter/restoration-artist is “none the wiser” regarding what (if anything) he may have to say. This dead language is phallic in image (“the pillar of your tongue”) and bestial in sound: “mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles.”

Failure, or refusal, to hear acquires significant value in “Little Fugue” (1962), in which the father's voice can only be seen, not heard:

Deafness is something else.
Such a dark funnel, my father!
I see your voice
Black and leafy, as in my childhood,
A yew hedge of orders,
Gothic and barbarous, pure German.
Dead men cry from it.
I am guilty of nothing.

Again language is associated with the dangerously phallic: the father cut sausages in California “during the Great War,” sausages which, to the speaker, resemble “cut necks / There was a silence!” Structurally, the latter phrase resembles “This was a man, then!” three stanzas later.18 Necks—with their throats and breathing, speaking and voice—also have a part to play in the general disability and dismemberment: “You had one leg, and a Prussian mind … Do you say nothing?” The daughter also has lost a leg of sorts—she is “lame in the memory.” To the daughter's “wound” I shall return shortly.

A certain preoccupation with lameness also marks Plath's “Daddy” (1962). The daughter has long been an entrapped foot in a black shoe; she is another sort of Oedipus in that sense, named by her crippling.19 In this text, all the earlier themes come into play: father as god, sea, and colossal statue (“Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal / And a head in the freakish Atlantic”); tongues and language (“I could never talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw. / It stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak”); the daughter's work on the father's image (“I used to pray to recover you”); the father's sexuality (“So I could never tell where you put your foot, your root”); the daughter's victimization (“I may be a bit of a Jew. // I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo”).

In “Daddy,” moreover, Plath adds to the collection with the substitution of other men, the husband specifically, for the father: “If I've killed one man, I've killed two— / The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know.” In Cixous's Dedans, an emphasis on the “barbed wire” quality of the father's language (“Ces mots dans sa bouche étaient gracieux. Dans la mienne ces mots m'avalent la langue,” 198; 129) as in Plath's “Daddy,” is used to great effect in the delineation of a series of lovers/father-substitutes. This language emphasizes, and sometimes parodies, male discourse that has one overriding object—keeping the object in line: “Tu dois lire un peu plus de Marx” (165; Inside, 107), or “Mon dernier ami, celui qui vit, dit que je suis mapoulette, mabellechatte, macaille. Je n'en suis pas sûre” (170; Inside, 110). A particular lover (“un amant distrait qui parle à travers moi à quelqu'un qui est n'importe qui,” 176; Inside, 115) is notably and ridiculously “rigorous” in his lessons: “Il concevait des effigies corrompues qui me ressemblaient mal. Il m'expliquait: 1° ce qui est désirable; 2° ce qui est illusoire; 3° ce qui est pur; 4° ça” (178; Inside, 116).

One lover, the “last lover” is distinguished in Dedans as the “père-époux”; he is the only one whose primary objective is not necessarily didactic-sexual.20 But to see in him an ideal synthesis, as does René Micha (116), is to confuse the sometimes naive narrator of Dedans with the text itself; this lover also receives his share of ironical treatment, as in the (classically parodied) argument scene:

Je n'ai rien, je voulais seulement me mettre près de toi.
—Mais nous sommes près, dit sa voix en dressant à la hâte des barricades.
—Regarde-moi, dis-je, regarde-moi.
—Pourquoi? Je te vois, je te connais. Qu'est-ce que tu veux?
La barricade monte, je ne le vois presque plus.

(174; Inside, 113)

The treatment of marriage (in death) with the father himself carries some ironic detachment as well: “Moi dans ma robe bleue d'autrefois, lui dans son costume de granit, nous formons le couple éternel” (208; Inside 135). Rigidity of the father, fluidity of the daughter: this is not a marriage that will last.

In both “Daddy” and Dedans, the daughter takes up her own language and speech and cuts off communication with the father (if only temporarily) in order to combat the power of the father and father-substitutes: in “Daddy,” “Ach, du” becomes “O You,” and the “telephone's off at root”; in Dedans, “je me réjouis de pouvoir parler, que j'aie dix ans, trente ans ou soixante, et de pouvoir dire merde merde merde à la mort” (208; Inside 135). But the emphasis on language begins long before the end. In Dedans, German is the mother's language, and the mother teaches a little English as well, but the language of writing, the language in which Dedans is written, is the father's language, French:

J'ai peu de mots. Mon père, qui les avait tous, est parti si précipitamment, qu'il n'a pas eu le temps de me les donner (53; Inside, 32).

Ma mère ne parle guère, de plus son language n'est pas le même que celui de mon père; autrefois ils ont dû échanger des quantités de mots, et elle a deux cahiers de vocabulaire remplis de mots de mon père, mais je les ai tous lus, et je les connaissais déjà.

(55; Inside 34)

To examine the highly problematic attachment to the father/Father and, after Lacan, the equally difficult entry into language, is in some ways also necessarily to re-think the Oedipal situation. As Cixous herself has pointed out:

Dedans was necessarily written within the father, in seeking him right up to death and revenant (coming back, ghostly). There is something simple and mysterious in the origin of a writing: “I” am in the father I carry within me, he haunts me, I live him. There is a rapport between the father and language, the father and the “symbolic.”

And the mother? She is music, she is there, behind, the force that breathes …

(“The Scene of the Unconscious” 4)

These Plath and Cixous texts do not represent simple Oedipal crises (whatever that can mean for girls and women), nor do they illustrate an “awful little allegory” of “a girl with an Electra complex,” as Plath would have had her BBC radio audience believe (Collected Poems 293, n. 183).

In La jeune née, Cixous has a great deal to say about Electra and her “complex”; the Electra myth heralds the “dawn of phallocentrism.” The Oresteia (very properly named) signals symbolically, if not historically, the grasping/consolidation of the father's power qua Father. The father now owns the children; he has control over the line: this is indeed, as Freud puts it, a victory for abstraction, and as Cixous reminds us, “Electra lights the path, makes way for patriarchy” (109). Plath's and Cixous's father-texts, on the other hand, work to dim the “path” and disrupt the line. In them, both the love and the disproportion are excessive, far too much, not in good taste; the father's language becomes the daughter's provenance; the science of beekeeping (Plath) and notebooks full of words (Cixous) are put to new uses—unscientifically, humorously, disrespectfully, poetically, and yes, mournfully too.

One of the divergences in Plath criticism is between (primarily) male psychoanalytic readings (following the orthodox Freudian model, as it has been adapted in the U.S.), and feminist readings (which in the U.S. have often rejected Freud entirely). These opposed readings tend, at times, to sound as though they are cut out of the same cloth, although one wears the proper side out, the other the reverse. That is, assumptions are sometimes much the same, although judgments are often bitterly opposed.21 “Plath”—the “truth” about Plath and all her personae—is firmly embedded at the center of these otherwise utterly divergent readings. I understand the historical and political necessity of such feminist readings of Plath (though I do not believe they are the only possible feminist readings of her); but as a feminist I also believe we must recognize that the biographical “necessity” that generally operates in Plath criticism leads to innumerable oddities. It seems to account, for instance, for Lynda Bundtzen's feminist and Freudian reading of Plath, which undoes itself on the same point. For all the meticulous care Bundtzen takes to demonstrate that Plath's poetry is not confessional, she continues to operate on the premise that Plath speaks through almost every “I” therein.22

The questions raised by both Plath's and Cixous's father-daughter writings form one part of a discourse on female subjectivity. If Plath's lyric “I” can be said to raise a reader's expectations for a coherent and immediate subject-speaker, the same can presumably be said about the first-person narrator of an autobiographical narrative, such as Cixous's Dedans. These expectations operate even though Cixous's autobiographical “I” usually remains elusive, or solidifies momentarily only to dissolve once again. To what extent does the female “I” in and of itself necessarily cast doubt upon preconceptions about a unified, coherent, and, especially, masterful subjectivity? In the cases of Plath and Cixous, or at least in the works under consideration here, a number of issues are put into play which set the subject, or “any theory of the subject” (Irigaray), a-quivering. The sheer excessiveness of attention to the father, for example, serves a number of purposes: it oversteps the boundaries of Oedipal anxiety and propriety; it furnishes a useful smokescreen for the expanding significance of the daughter's voice; it re-enacts the circuitous coming-into-being of the female subject and demonstrates that she cannot, because of her difference(s), ever be the Self-Same. She must (also) be Other, therefore at once subject and not subject; she is never entirely subject to the Father's Law, whether that father be “her own,” Freud, Lear, Prospero, Polonius, or the Symbolic.

For Freud, “the third, very circuitous path” is woman's only road to “normal” female heterosexuality. “So divided in her mind” (198), her only other choices are the more straightforward oppositions of excessive femininity/passivity (“turning her back on sexuality altogether,” 198) or excessive masculinity/activity (which may “also” lead to “a manifestly homosexual object-choice,” 198). “In the case of boys the explanation is simple … With little girls it is otherwise” (194). Indeed this must be so because in order to negotiate “the third, very circuitous path” the girl must relinquish the pleasure of her clitoris “in favour of a new zone—the vagina” (194); she must practice, therefore, the prescribed gesture of clitoral effacement which Gayatri Spivak reads as fundamental for the economy of reproduction.23

It is, I would argue, the “very circuitous path” of “normal” female sexuality and “normal” female speech/writing which Plath's father poems and Cixous's Dedans inscribe. Yet, unlike Freud's tracing of that path, these works uncover the tortuous perversity of that undertaking, that normality (“definitive femininity,” 201), by means of irony, exaggeration, and parody. By “acting out” that “development,” both performatively and hyperbolically, these texts undo that normality. The way they do so, however, is far from simple. For one thing, the relationship not only to the father but also to the mother is highly ambivalent. In Dedans, this ambivalence persists in the most “positive” as well as in the most “negative” reactions of the daughter towards her mother:

Ma mère ne parle guère, de plus son langage n'est pas le même que celui de mon père … Là où elle en sait plus que moi, c'est en anatomie et en physiologie. Bien que cela ne me serve à rien ici, je retiens ces mots par dizaines, pour lui faire plaisir … nous nous rencontrons ainsi aux articulations secrètes du Corps Humain.

(55-56; Inside 34)

Parce que je la hais, ma mère n'est plus. Ce que j'appelle la haine, c'est ce qui ressemble le plus à la mort, dans le monde où circulent les vivants; et la mort, c'est la disparition provisoire d'un être bien connu.

(66; Inside 42).

This ambiguity is less consistent in Plath's poems, where the mother is often elided or dismissed in one line: “Here is a queenship no mother can contest” (“The Beekeeper's Daughter”). Yet “Electra on Azalea Path” is notable for its quite thorough re-tracing of the “circuitous path”: intense love of and identification with the mother (“as if I came / God-fathered into the world from my mother's belly: / Her wide bed wore the stain of divinity. / I had nothing to do with guilt or anything / When I wormed back under my mother's heart”); separation from the mother and recognition of female “castration” (“that evil cloth / My mother unrolled at your last homecoming. … The truth is … at my birth cry / A scorpion stung its head, an ill-starred thing; / My mother dreamed you face down in the sea” [Plath's emphasis]); turning away from and hostility toward the mother (“My mother said; you died like any man. / How shall I age into that state of mind?”); love of the phallus/father, and thus the beginning of the Oedipal complex (for Freud, “only too often a woman never surmounts it at all,” 199: “your hound-bitch, daughter, friend. / It was my love that did us both to death”). The poem ends with that tightrope-walking between activity and passivity, masculinity and femininity, which is the route the “very circuitous path” has led out into—Azalea Path perhaps (Plath's mother's name is Aurelia Plath).

The path of “definitive femininity” does indeed reveal itself to be a tightrope which Freud finds women commonly fall off: “I have refrained from touching on the complications which arise when a child, disappointed in her relation with her father, returns to the abandoned mother-attachment, or in the course of her life repeatedly shifts over from the one attitude to the other” (209). And the ambivalence, apparently all too common in the normal assumption of the feminine role, places women in approximation with the West's other Other: “In members of primitive races also we may say that ambivalence predominates” (204). T. Minh-ha Trinh has succinctly delineated the commonplace quality of this comparison in theories of subjectivity: “The domain of subjectivity understood as sentimental, personal and individual horizon as opposed to objective, universal, societal, limitless horizon is often attributed to both women, the other of man, and natives, the Other of the West” (373). Freud himself draws another, and similar, telling comparison: “Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipus phase in the little girl's development comes to us as a surprise, comparable in another field with the effect of the discovery of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind that of Greece” (195). “Electra on Azalea Path” follows and mocks Freud on this point as well, for it evokes not only the classical “origins” of Western culture (“your epic,” “the stilts of an old tragedy”) but points a hag-like finger beyond, to the West's repressed “pre-History.” There is blood everywhere: “the stain of divinity,” “bloody dye,” “drip red,” “[a]nother kind of redness bothers me,” “the flat sea purpled like that evil cloth.” Yet this blood is multivalent, comes from both Ends of History, and includes the “ersatz petals” of postmodernist pastiche as well as Graves's tripartite goddess.

There is no blood, however much it might be expected, at the site of the daughter's mutilation, a wound difficult to read without attention to irony: “I am the ghost of an infamous suicide, / My own blue razor rusting in my throat.” This is a death, like Cordelia's by hanging, for example, which should decisively cut off the female voice,24 or which might function like the daughter's psychic death described in “Little Fugue”: “And you … Lopping the sausages! / They color my sleep, / Red, mottled, like cut necks. / There was a silence!” The “little creature without a penis” (Freud 200) must regress endlessly, as far as she can—from life to death, from speech to silence, from male to female—in order to (re)claim an incomplete castration; the daughter is she who has had to renounce what she never had (a penis) and yet remembers having (a clitoris). “I am the ghost of an infamous suicide”: the remainder of the penis and the little penis which turned out not really to be one. And yet this wounded ghost, this castrated creature, speaks. She may, if not kept to her proper “path,” even laugh:

Women have no choice other than to be decapitated … if they don't actually lose their heads by the sword, they only keep them on condition that they lose them—lose them, that is, to complete silence …

It's a question of submitting feminine disorder, its laughter … to the threat of decapitation … if masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, it might be said that the backlash, the return, on women of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation …

(“Castration or Decapitation?” 42-43; Cixous's emphasis)

What is at stake here, finally, is inheritance, that guarantee of accession to everything—from sexual pleasure to stable subjectivity to knowledge, to the power to symbolize and name, to property of all kinds, to privileged relations to both birth and death. To learn that one has no heritage is for Freud a matter of shame: “When the universality of this negative character of her sex dawns upon her, womanhood, and with it also her mother, suffers a heavy loss of credit in her eyes” (202).25 In Cixous's Dedans, shame becomes the critical nexus point between the maternal and the paternal:

Quant à la honte, c'est ma force; je dirais même que c'est ma mère; je nais d'elle, j'ai honte d'elle, j'ai envie d'elle, j'ai peur d'elle; je pourrais dire aussi qu'elle est ma bien-aimée … je peux même dire que nous sommes aussi inséparables que la pupille de l'oeil et qu'Iseult la belle de Tristan. Elle est mon ouverture sur dehors, elle est ma lumière et mon apporte-mort; je passe par elle pour arriver à moi. Je lui dois même la découverte de mon anatomie … et conjointement ma découverte des lois sociales, des tables mosaïques et de mon sens de la propriété. Honte à honte, on m'a construite.

A ma première honte je fis rencontre de la fragilité mystérieuse de mon ventre, à ma seconde honte j'appris l'importance du sexe, et la nécessité dans l'un ou l'autre genre de se connaître soi-même en détail

(26; Inside, 15).

In a novel in which childhood “confusion” regarding inside/outside is associated almost exclusively with the father, this passage confuses the mother/father as well.26 Shame is equated with the maternal, but the inheritance of mother-shame exceeds self-awareness of gender and sexuality (the mother's shameful inheritance, for Freud) and “bleeds” into the father's realm: law, society, property. That (mother-daughter) shame is figured both as positive (“Mais la honte a des bons côtés quand elle est forte,” 24; Inside 14) and as transgressing gender-specific boundaries. We see here as in “Electra on Azalea Path” a parody of Freud's path to “definitive femininity,” yet the twist that picks up and incorporates the mother into the “definition” finally pushes the formula inside out in its aggressive blurring of sex/gender boundaries. This transgression is repeated in the daughter's transformation of mirror-stage self- and gender-splitting into a self-conscious heterogeneity of gender:

On m'a dit: tu es, tu as, tu seras, regarde comme il est beau ce petit garçon dans la glace, qui est? … On me dit: coucou, c'est toi. Je l'ai cru, non sans regret et surtout non sans honte. (24; Inside 14)

Ainsi je sus qu'il y avait moi et qu'il y avait toi, et que je pouvais être l'un ou l'autre.

(26; Inside 15)

That Cixous is well-acquainted with Freud is never forgotten; that Plath was also is seldom remembered (except insofar as a reader measures her sickness or health, that is, the success of her Freudian treatment). Yet there are in these texts odd, perhaps “ghostly,” dialogues—with Freud, and with each other—that inflect the “circuitous path” to “definitive femininity.” For Freud, a girl's first “choice” leads to suppression of sexuality altogether (a “too feminine” state even for his tastes) and the second to an excessive masculinity which may lead “also” to the choice of a female love-object. But heterosexual woman is less stuck between a rock and a hard place (those phallic dichotomies which always amount to the same) than in the position of another lost little girl: this path is too small, this path is too big, but this path is just right. Except that the gymnastic contortions “the third, very circuitous path” requires are not quite right after all. They do, however, lend themselves to play, to the excessive overwriting and undercutting which mark parody, that anti-genre so infected by laughter—“laughter that breaks out, overflows … ‘she who laughs last.’ And her first laugh is at herself” (“Castration or Decapitation?” 55)—the last laugh, even of a truly “infamous suicide.”


  1. Susan Bassnett was the first to point out the truth-seeking apparatus of the Plath industry; see also Manners. Jacqueline Rose's The Haunting of Sylvia Plath provided the first book-length study to question the Plath myth: what is it about Plath, she asked, that continues to produce such dread and desire in Plath's readers, critics, editors, family, friends? While Rose's overall argument is laudable and long overdue, some elements in its development are disturbing in their uncanny echoing of the very fascination she seeks to revise; in particular, she insists upon the exemplary applicability of Kristeva's theory of abjection to Plath's corpus, while dismissing with very little examination (and mentioning Cixous and Irigaray only briefly) feminists who valorize “the disordered, fragmented, shifting subjectivity which women oppose to a destructively linear world” (10; see also 26-28). Since I hope to delineate only a very few of the complexities of such a “position” in the case of Cixous, it seems necessary to draw attention to this double haunting in Rose's book.

  2. The numerous thematic, narrative, and structural similarities that mark Plath's poems and Dedans are not to be found in a recent Cixous novel which also deals with the death of the father, Jours de l'an.

  3. All page references to this translation will immediately follow those cited for Dedans within the body of the text.

  4. This was also the year in which Plath wrote “The Beekeeper's Daughter” as well as the bulk of the father poems. She had gone back into psychoanalysis and in her writing was using personal material which had been dredged up once again.

  5. “Medusa” is the title of one of her “mother-poems” at that time, however.

  6. Helen Vendler says about these lines that “style turns to slashing caricature of Freudian self-knowledge” (9). Cixous's considerably more detailed treatment of this subject will be discussed below.

  7. However, in “Maenad,” the third section of Plath's “Poem for a Birthday,” the father shrinks, and the daughter grows “too big.”

  8. See also, in “The Beekeeper's Daughter”: “My heart under your foot, sister of a stone” (118); in “Maenad”: “When it thundered I hid under a flat stone” (133); in “Daddy”: “black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot / For thirty years” (222); in Dedans: “tandis que je lui posais les questions essentielles il grandissait, jusqu'à ce que son chapeau touche le ciel, mais sans que je me sente dépassée” (31; Inside, 18); “De plus je n'étais pas à la hauteur favorable, et je n'osais pas avouer à mon père qu'il était trop élevé ce jour-là” (32; Inside, 19); “le monde entier avec ses bois et ses collines, tous les états, les races, les climats, les noms de bêtes, les coutumes des peuples, mon destin et le nôtre, l'histoire et la géographie tenaient dans l'espace de ses bras, des fleuves me roulaient sans tumulte jusqu'aux courbes lisseurs de ses os, je connaissais tous les vertiges et l'univers était fait de la chair de ma chair” (34; Inside, 20-21); “Mon père était haut, plus haut que tous” (47; Inside, 29); “j'étais petite, je me diminuai encore, je me raffinai autour de mes os; plus mince qu'un serpent, plus douce que la peau d'une pêche je calculai ma tiédeur pour la confondre avec la Sienne” (81; Inside, 52); “j'apprends ma petitesse illimitée” (98; Inside, 63).

  9. The opposition “Nature/History” seems to be a slip in this series (and exists in the French original, “Le sexe ou la tête?” as well), taking into consideration both its immediate context and Cixous's work elsewhere (La jeune née, for example, especially the beginning of “Sorties”): man is generally associated with History, women with Nature.

  10. See also The Bell Jar 136, and Journals 298: “I found the flat stone, ‘Otto E. Plath: 1885-1940,’ right beside the path, where it would be walked over.”

  11. Inside renders “salaud” as “bastard,” so the resemblance to Plath is much more striking in Barko's English translation.

  12. In Hélène Cixous (1992), Conley suggests, without citing particulars, that among the oppositions questioned in Dedans, “paradise is prison” (13). The extreme ambivalence and ambiguity of the father's final call to prison “nous deux ensemble” (which constitutes the final paragraph of Dedans, 209; Inside, 136) might uniquely warrant such a claim. I find more convincing Shiach's argument that images of imprisonment (often associated with “inside”) throughout the text are associated with both confinement and security (73). Neither, however, takes into account the irony and parody which often characterize “prison” in this text.

  13. Claudine G. Fisher discusses a related aspect of Cixous's inscription of Cordelia in other novels: there Cordelia both seriously and humorously signifies attachment to the father and tradition, “corde il y a” (31).

  14. Conley believes that “Dedans poetically weaves an oneiric bloody fabric where the self metamorphoses itself unceasingly” (Writing the Feminine 27); “bloody” is not, however, an especially appropriate adjective for Dedans.

  15. “Electric” is Cixous's phrasing in La jeune née (186-208; Newly Born Woman 100-112).

  16. In a quite useful reading of “Colossus,” which positions the poem's concerns in relation to the (male) literary canon, Steven Axelrod argues that this tension between “the female ephebe['s] … silence and voice” (50) structures the poem; yet he reads its narrative closure so literally that he believes the speaker's original “scalding irony” finally disappears and that “Colossus” demonstrates its author's creativity while lamenting the incapacity of its invented speaker” (51). The hyperbolic staging of lines such as “A blue sky out of the Oresteia / Arches above us” or the lingering ambiguity of the final stanza's “My hours are married to shadow” casts doubt on the certainty of such readings.

  17. As Cixous remarks concerning the traditional waiting-to-be-rescued position: “Sleeping Beauty is lifted from her bed by a man because, as we all know, women don't wake up by themselves: man has to intervene … She is lifted up by the man who will lay her in her next bed so that she may be confined to bed ever after, just as the fairy tales say” (“Castration or Decapitation?” 43).

  18. We might also remember The Bell Jar, in which Buddy Willard's genitals remind Esther Greenwood of a turkey's neck and gizzards (55).

  19. Judith Kroll discusses this crippling, in the context of a different argument (112-13, 124, and especially 248, n. 1): “When Plath said that ‘Daddy’ was about a ‘girl with an Electra complex’ she gave a clue to what may be a play on words in the poem. ‘Oedipus’ means ‘swell-foot,’ and therefore the speaker's identification of herself as a ‘foot’ may be a private way of saying ‘I am Oedipus’ and incorporating an allusion to the Electra complex into the poem.”

  20. Compare with the others on 166 (Inside 107) and, especially, 177 and 179 (Inside 116-17).

  21. Not always, however. Compare, for example, Edward Butscher, who seems generally an admirer of Plath and sometimes sensitive about the difficulties of her life as a woman (238, 266-67), although what he says about her may be utterly offensive at times (he comes very near saying Plath wanted to be raped [95] and insists throughout on the “bitch goddess” appellation, for example), and Harriet Rosenstein, whose “Reconsidering Sylvia Plath” is feminist, but who really does not approve of Plath.

  22. At the beginning of Bundtzen's fifth chapter, for example, she justifiably states that she has “attempted to show the variety and richness of Plath's imagination—to explode the notion that her poetic world is narrow and solely concerned with self” (235), yet later in the same chapter (248, regarding “Cut”), she claims “With these final lines, Plath understands her self-amputation as an acting out of her self-hatred as a woman.”

  23. Spivak argues that the clitoris is that excess/remainder which cannot be forced to serve a useful, (re)productive purpose. Irigaray argues instead (though with a similar effect in relation to Freud) for a multiplicity of female sexual “zones” that are effaced in Freud's insistence on the phallic Same as measure of all sexuality—male and female.

  24. As Irigaray says of another “classical” female suicide, Antigone, “She will cut off her breath—her voice, her air, blood, life—with the veil of her belt, returning into the shadow (of a) tomb, the night (of) death, so that her brother, her mother's desire, may have eternal life” (219; Irigaray's emphasis).

  25. See Irigaray's definitive reading of Freud on female sexuality, “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” in Speculum; on the issue of “shame,” see 115.

  26. Mairead Hanrahan argues a related point somewhat differently. She believes that “Part II situates the subject … in relation to the mother” (158); by “mother” here, she refers to a “feminine” or “maternal space … a space ‘between’” masculine and feminine, inside and outside (160-161).

Works Cited

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1987.

Broe, Mary Lynn. Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. 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, 1976.

Cixous, Hélène. “Aller à la mer.” 1977. Trans. Barbara Kerslake. Modern Drama 27 (1984): 546-548.

———. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs 7 (1981): 41-55.

———. Dedans. Paris: Grasset, 1969.

———. “From the Scene of the Unconscious to the Scene of History.” Trans. Deborah W. Carpenter. The Future of Literary Theory. Ed. Ralph Cohen. New York: Routledge, 1989. 1-18.

———. Inside. Trans. Carol Barko. New York: Schocken, 1986.

——— and Catherine Clément. La jeune née. Paris: Union Générale D-Editions, Collection 10/18, 1975.

———. Jours de l'an. Paris: des femmes, 1990.

———. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken, 1981. 245-264.

———. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

———. “Une Passion: L'un peu moins que rien.” Cahier de L'Herne 6: Samuel Beckett. Paris: Editions de l'Herne, 1976. 396-413.

———. La Pupille. Cahiers Renaud-Barrault 78 (1972).

———. “Le sexe ou la tête?” Cahiers du GRIF 13 (1976): 5-15.

Conley, Verena Andermatt. Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

———. Hélène Cixous. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Feral, Josette. “Writing and Displacement: Women in Theatre.” Trans. Barbara Kerslake. Modern Drama 27 (1987): 549-63.

Fisher, Claudine G. “Réfractions Shakespeariennes et Humour Noir chez Hélène Cixous.” Thalia 10.1 (1988): 30-34.

Freud, Sigmund. “Female Sexuality.” 1931. Trans. Joan Riviere. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963. 194-211.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Vol. 2. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960. 2 vols.

Hanrahan, Mairead. “Hélène Cixous's Dedans: The Father Makes an Exit.” Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990. 151-62.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jacobus Lee A. and Regina Barreca, eds. Lit: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 4.1, Special Issue on Cixous (1992).

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Manners, Marilyn. “Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath, Hélène Cixous: Reading Woman in the Language of Man.” Diss. University of California, Los Angeles, 1989.

Micha, René. “La tête de Dora sous Cixous.” Critique 33 (1977): 114-21.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam, 1972.

———. Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

———. “A Comparison.” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. 56-58.

———. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Rosenstein, Harriet. “Reconsidering Sylvia Plath” Ms. 1 (Sept. 1972): 44-51, 96-99.

Rossum-Guyon, Françoise van and Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz, eds. Hélène Cixous, chemins d'une écriture. Saint Denis and Amsterdam: PUV and Rodopi, 1990.

Shiach, Morag. Hélène Cixous: A Politics of Writing. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “French Feminism in an International Frame.” (1981). In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York, London: Routledge, 1988. 134-53.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. “Not You / Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference.” Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990. 371-75.

Vendler, Helen. “An Intractable Metal.” Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. 1-12.

Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (essay date 1997)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6902

SOURCE: Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita. “‘Bad’ Language Can Be Good: Slang and Other Expressions of Extreme Informality in Sylvia Plath's Poetry.” English Studies 78, no. 1 (January, 1997): 19-31.

[In the following essay, Lindberg-Seyersted traces instances of slang in Plath's poetry.]


In a great number of Sylvia Plath's poems, the reader is invited to listen to a voice talking. Usually those poems feature an I-person, identifiable or not as to gender and situation in life. But even when there is no first-person speaker, a poem can be perceived as ‘speech’ rather than ‘text’. Such speech-like quality applies pre-eminently to Plath's later work, above all to poems written in 1962, her peak period as a literary artist. The poetry she wrote as a newly established professional poet, from 1956 and on for a couple of years, is mostly characterized by a highly ‘literary’ style with a complex syntax; a dignified, often archaizing diction parading words like ‘hest’ (for ‘order’) and ‘bruit’ (for ‘noise’); and settings that are not seldom vaguely medieval or fairytale-like with a cast of knights and giants, queens and witches.1 Gradually she moved in the direction of a more ‘natural’ mode shaped by settings and characters that are more recognizably contemporary, and by a less convoluted language where the spoken voice comes through very strongly.

It is this speech-like language that is my general concern in this essay. No one who reads Plath's poetry, especially the poems she wrote in 1962, can fail to be struck—pleasantly or unpleasantly—by the insistent, often loud voice that calls out to us from those verses. I wish to examine aspects of this voice, which expresses itself with great intensity and strength. One very important element creating the special ‘sound’ of these poems is the poet's use of a highly informal, ‘unacceptable’ language, a language which comprises slang, vulgarisms, and verbal taboos such as swearwords, obscenities, and other offensive language.2 This is an aspect of her style and language that has not, to my knowledge, been discussed in the rich Plath criticism, but which, in my view, significantly illuminates the power of her work. The issues I consider are: Who uses these words in the individual text? In what context and situation? To whom are they addressed? For what purpose? What feelings and attitudes do they transmit? What is the effect? What do they add or do to the text? And, quite generally, what function does this kind of language perform for Plath the poet?

I am aware that in introducing terms like ‘slang’ and ‘vulgarism’, or status labels such as ‘swearword’ and ‘obscenity’, I enter a minefield of controversy, or at least of confusion. What is to be classified as ‘slang’, this elusive and easily outdated commodity? What is ‘vulgar’ or ‘obscene’, and who sets the standard? How much has the English language—and attitudes to it—changed since the time when Sylvia Plath wrote her poetry, that is, the late Fifties and early Sixties? Can we distinguish between American and British usage in these matters, considering that Americanisms nowadays quite easily cross the Atlantic? Married to an Englishman and living for a few, but important, years of her life in England, Plath's language may have become somewhat attuned to the British variety, but at least her written language must be defined as American English.3

Acknowledging such snags of definition and identification of varieties and usage, I have been guided by information supplied by various dictionaries, but also by my subjective response to the way words function within the context of each individual poem.4 The ever-present variable, and the decisive one, is the degree of informality that marks the language.


Certain settings, situations, and concerns run through Plath's poetry and give the reader a sense of unity in the body of her work. Poem after poem brings us familiar landscapes and seascapes; human beings in search of their place and role in nature; conflicts between men and women and between children and parents; an artist's yearning for creativity; and an individual's quest for peace. And although there is a world of difference in style and language between the extremely ‘literary’ early poems and the ‘speech’ poems of later years, there are even in works belonging to the archaizing period occasional examples of a very informal language that heralds a freer and more ‘speakerly’ style.

Among the output of 1956, there is only one poem, ‘Ella Mason and Her Eleven Cats’ (53-54), where Plath uses outright slang. The language is a mixture of the formal and the colloquial. Nonce compounds (e.g., ‘minx-thin’, ‘gruff-timbred’) and frequent alliteration (e.g., ‘Rum and red-faced’, ‘sulk single’), which are among Plath's favorite devices in the early period, contrast with instances of the informal. Because the formal traits dominate, the few colloquialisms (e.g., ‘skedaddle’, ‘dearies’) and especially the rare slang expressions are all the more noticeable. The poem presents a childhood memory about a woman mocked and harassed by her village community. The verdict of the children—the reminiscing adult was once one of them—was that ‘Miss Ella's got loony from keeping in cahoots / With eleven cats’. The slang expression ‘keeping in cahoots’ suggests an American setting, and together with the contemptuous ‘loony’ it lends an air of authenticity to the reminiscence. The very informal language serves to indicate an attitude that is ignorant and unfeeling, an attitude that the grown-up speaker does not identify with. The speaker even harbors feelings of admiration for Miss Ella, who in her haughty youth missed the chance to barter away her independence for marriage, something that the ‘demure’ ones gladly do.

Poems assigned to the years 1957 and 1958 are transitional in the sense that an ‘old’ style, the archaizing one, is being loosened up by traits of a new, ‘modern’ manner, for example through an occasional addition of words and expressions of varying degrees of informality. The poem ‘Sow’ (60-61), which is a mock-heroic homage to a powerful domestic animal, opens with the phrase ‘God knows’. Normally an expression like this one, using the name of God in a trivial context, has lost most or all of its offensive character, but because of its emphatic position in the poem, a trace of the unacceptable clings to it, and by its extreme informality, the phrase contrasts humorously with the elaborate, ‘heroic’ style of the piece. Another poem, the lighthearted ‘A Winter's Tale’ (86-87) describing holiday activities in a Boston setting, features the interjection ‘Lord!’ with some of its taboo quality retained. ‘Lord, the crowds are fierce!’ the fastidious observer exclaims. The taboo word, which may also be a left-handed appeal to God, adds a satirical touch to the poem's depiction of a Christmas scene which has been commercialized and deprived of religious meaning.

A swearword like ‘damn’ fits into the humorous style of a poem about lack of creative inspiration, ‘On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad’ (65-66). In this self-ironical piece the artist-speaker, who dreams of transforming reality into something miraculous or mythical, accuses ‘that damn scrupulous tree’ which ‘won't practice wiles’ and ‘concoct a Daphne’ for her: the tree obstinately ‘stays tree’. Slang also works well here in the speaker's attempt to avoid sentimentalizing nature: ‘cold vision / Will have no counterfeit / Palmed off on it’. The speaker is evidently a woman, envious of the male artist who successfully courts the Lady Muse. The American slang expressions ‘egghead’ and ‘lowbrow’ are likewise used for comical effect in ‘Natural History’ (71), a pastiche in the ‘old’ style of Poe's ‘The Haunted Palace’. Poe's poem is a symbolic portrait of a supreme intellect, the ‘monarch Thought’, whose entire personality is in disarray. Plath turns this model into a put-down of the (British?) intellectual elite. Her ‘lofty monarch, Monarch Mind’, who ‘Blue-blooded in coarse country reigned’, loses his throne to the lowbrow: ‘King Egg-Head saw his domain crack, / His crown usurped by the low brow / Of the base, barbarous Prince Ow’. An American connection is found also in a poem based on art work (an etching by Paul Klee), ‘Perseus’ (82-84). Addressing Perseus, the resourceful hero, the anonymous speaker praises him for overcoming the horrible Medusa of human suffering, the gorgon whose look was worse than ‘a double whammy’ (that is, evil eye). Here the poet refers to a bit of popular Americana: in the comic strip ‘Li'l Abner’ a figure, ‘Evil-Eye Fleegle’, could put people in a trance by staring at them. (In emergencies he used both eyes). The introduction of colloquial (‘belly’, ‘plaguey’) and slangy words into a pseudo-classical context may be intended to bring up to date the topic of ‘wit’ triumphing over ‘suffering’ (as the poem's subtitle cues it). At the time of writing (1958) Plath looked upon this and other poems inspired by art as ‘easily the best poems I've written’, and they meant to her an ‘open[ing] up’ of ‘new material and a new voice’.5 However, it took some time before her really new voice managed to free itself of the elaborate and self-conscious style which even in this poem overpowers the strain of informality.

The subtle change that Plath's poetry is undergoing in the late Fifties is noticeable especially in works whose subjects are very personal. Here style and language are more relaxed and ‘normal’. These poems do not seem to be ‘exercises’,6 but spring out of the poet's own experiences and feelings, for example ‘The Disquieting Muses’ (74-76) and ‘Full Fathom Five’ (92-93), verses spoken by a daughter to a mother and a father, respectively. Slang and similar informal language are still quite rare, and while such forms, as before, usually are a means of comedy or mild satire, they occasionally have a sharper edge to them than we have met in earlier poems. One example is ‘Leaving Early’ (145-46), a sketch of a shabby sexual encounter written in 1960. A slang word describing the female party's world—the American ‘lousy’—has an ugly sound as uttered by the male speaker: ‘Lady, your room is lousy with flowers’. He gives himself away through a language in which the very colloquialisms—a mixture of American (‘junked’) and British (‘fubsy’)—appear insolent and vulgar. He is not, however, unaffected by self-disgust at his one-night affair: ‘… Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?’7


Poems written in 1961 abound with colloquialisms, so much so that Plath's ‘new tough prosiness’, as she called this style, at times led to a loss of the music needed to make poetry out of the text.8 In ‘Face Lift’ (155-56) the prosiness seems functional in suggesting the personality of a high-strung, vain woman, while, for example, in the long monologue ‘In Plaster’ (158-60) the detailing of the conceit of two selves—the body and the plaster cast—becomes monotonous as well as predictable. Slang or similar forms of informality do not occur in these poems. Those kinds of expressions return, however, with greater force and frequency than ever before in works created during the summer and fall of 1962, the most dramatic period in Sylvia Plath's career as a poet. This was the time when her marital problems climaxed, and her despair at the collapse of what to her had promised to be the ideal marriage was first channeled into sad and bitter poems. Addressing her child in ‘For a Fatherless Son’ (205-06) the female persona's tone is quietly informal to begin with. But at the end the mother's grief has turned to bitterness at the father's absence. In this mood the speaker uses taboo language that is not suited nor intended for the ‘dumb’ child's ear. Her son is as yet faced with nothing more challenging than the mother's nose, which he ‘grabs’ in play, but she warns him that one day he ‘may touch what's wrong’ and become aware of ‘the godawful hush’ of the silence that the absent father has left behind. In another context, the taboo word ‘god-awful’ might have been overlooked as a comparatively innocuous slang expression, but here it carries the weight of a deserted woman's pent-up bitterness.

Plath's favorite interjection ‘my god’ occurs twice in ‘A Birthday Present’ (206-08) as a muted sign of scorn and resentment.9 The female speaker receiving the present imagines that the gift itself is mockingly doubtful whether she is a worthy recipient, for it gives voice to such an attitude by the exclamation ‘My god, what a laugh!’ This is the kind of language that the woman herself uses when confronted with the curious present. But uttered by her, the phrase has become more heavily loaded. The matter treated can no longer be dismissed with a scornful laugh; now it is accompanied by images of suffocation and death. What to the outsider, such as the gift or the bringer of the gift, were ‘only transparencies, clear air’, are to the speaker ‘veils’ that ‘were killing [her] days’. ‘But my god’, she exclaims, ‘the clouds are like cotton. / Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide’. The phrase ‘my god’ here echoes a paradoxical mixture of undertones; of despair, fear, and longing for death. What might have had the potential to be a gift of new life or renewed creativity, turns out to be half-feared, half-wished-for death.

The poems Plath wrote in the month of October, when her personal drama reached its climax in the breakup of her marriage, vibrate with her rage at what she experienced as the cruelest of betrayals. The rage is somewhat held in check in ‘The Courage of Shutting-Up’ (209-10). This poem is speech without an ‘I’ or a ‘you’, but in style it is not much different from the I-poems, featuring exclamations, questions and answers, and a final slang expression which gives it an American accent. The anonymous speaker shows considerable self-knowledge in an ironical itemizing of the difficulties and costs of keeping mum and hiding your anger. The sharp tongue, which has ‘pierced’ many things ‘in its time’, has been put away, and the eyes, which are ‘mirrors’ that ‘can kill and talk’, even these weapons must be loyal in the present situation; this may be a murder investigation that has been dropped or put off. And loyal they are: ‘they are no stool pigeons’. This slangy phrase confirms the poem's ambivalent attitude to the idea of controlling your fury by means of self-irony, for shouldn't all good forces join to catch and punish the guilty party?

A rawer and sharper tone marks other works written at this time. In ‘A Secret’ (219-20), a poem charged with hatred and violent anger, a woman addresses her rival, whose very deceitfulness is her strength. The two of them carry on a dialogue full of pretense and murderous spite. The speaker challenges the rival to reveal her evil-smelling secret; this is done in the image of an illegitimate baby hidden in a bureau drawer. Here the poet—the once so well-behaved Sylvia Plath—acts out a scene in which she abandons all gentility. The speaker's advice on how to remove the smell is given a vulgar turn of phrase: ‘Do away with the bastard’. As we shall see, this kind of play with double meanings—‘bastard’ referring both to ‘illegitimate child’ and to ‘despicable person’—is a striking feature of Plath's use of obscene and vulgar language during the last phase of her poetic career. It is a device that allows the poet to be vicious and contemptuous while keeping her social ‘cool’.

The language of ‘The Applicant’ (221-22) is highly informal, matching the poem's urgent tone and fast pace. In contrast to the majority of her I-poems, here both speaker and addressee are men. The speaker, a matchmaker cum marriage-license dispenser, fires a series of preposterous questions at a man in search of a usable wife. Answers are inferred by the simple device of repeating a word: ‘No, no?’ The matchmaker resorts to slang and colloquialisms in his role as a falsely jovial questioner-adviser. He certainly has ‘the ticket’ for coping with empty heads: he only has to call a ‘sweetie’ out of a closet. ‘Well, what do you think of that?’ he triumphantly asks the empty-headed applicant. The extreme informality of the language serves to create a sardonic picture of marriage as a contemptible buying-and-selling operation.

The two companion pieces, ‘Daddy’ (222-24) and ‘Medusa’ (224-26), are similar in the basic pattern of a daughter speaking to a parent, but the tone differs considerably from one poem to the other. ‘Daddy’ is delivered in a very informal language where slang and colloquialisms, often of a humorous kind, are employed to give voice to a mixture of resentment, contempt, and affection. The American slang expression ‘gobbledygook’—Plath's ‘gobbledygoo’ fits her chosen rhyme scheme—(that is, pompous and scarcely intelligible language) and the pejorative ‘Polack’ (which associates to the father's place of origin) typify the immigrant father's social flaws. His language, so the speaker says, is like an obscene engine ‘chuffing [her] off like a Jew’. The dominant vowel sound /u:/ of the rhymes ends up in the colloquial phrase ‘I'm through’. The ambiguity of this phrase—is it positive or negative?—is enhanced by the equally ambiguous taboo phrase which precedes it: ‘you bastard’. The picture of the authoritarian, fear-inspiring father that the poem offers, receives quite logically its spiteful finishing touch in the ‘bastard’ epithet, but several clowning words—‘Achoo’, ‘chuff’, ‘gobbledygoo’—and the playful nursery-rhyme mode of the entire poem justify a different interpretation: having come to terms with the memory and image of her father as a ‘brute’, the daughter can now address him more as an equal and as a friend, and she does so in the chummy language of her college years: ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through’.

‘Medusa’, which employs the scaffold of a Greek classic instead of contemporary history as in ‘Daddy’, is calmer and more serious in tone. No humorous touches soften the picture of this relationship between daughter and mother. Resentment at the mother's persistent hold on the daughter, whether she is physically or only mentally present, is rendered in very flat, declarative sentences (‘In any case, you are always there’). The unforgiving daughter's cold anger is channeled into a hackneyed cliché: ‘Who do you think you are?’ She proffers her own, very cruel labels: ‘A Communion wafer?’—meaning phony saintliness—and, with an American slang word, ‘Blubbery Mary?’ that is, an over-protective, anxiety-ridden Mother. The poem ends as ambiguously as ‘Daddy’ does. The final sentence—‘There is nothing between us’—receives extra weight by standing by itself as a one-line concluding stanza. Viewed against a preceding image cluster of ties and contacts (‘umbilicus’, ‘cable’, ‘line’, ‘tentacle’) the most likely reading is one that sees the umbilical cord as irreparably severed, resulting in loss as well as release. But it could also indicate the daughter's defeat, in that as yet nothing has come between the two to set her free, in spite of her desperate cry, ‘Off, off, eely tentacle!’10 The ambiguities in both this poem and its companion piece, achieved through a subtle handling of simple language tools, including slang and colloquialisms, testify to Plath's great skill as a verbal artist during these final months of her life.

In ‘Lesbos’ (227-30) the temperature is much higher. The opening line both strikes the feverish tone and gives us the claustrophobic setting: ‘Viciousness in the kitchen!’ We are far from the harmony and love that we associate with Sappho's island. Speaker and addressee are both women, the speaker having brought her children for a visit. The atmosphere is dense with the speaker's irritation and scorn, levelled at the hostess and her husband. The visitor's children unwittingly reveal their part as objects and agents in this petty drama of anger and resentment. The mother's language is provocatively vulgar, and the many slang words and obscenities very effectively tally with the kind of hip irony that characterizes the poem. The hostess has ‘stuck’ the girl child's kittens out of doors, where they ‘crap and puke and cry’. She has done so, as she has admitted, because she cannot stand the child. And no wonder, for, as the speaker explains the hostess's attitude (which may also be her own), ‘The bastard's a girl’. The hostess, who, in the visitor's words, has ‘blown her tubes’ (that is, has had herself treated for infertility), seems to look with self-hatred at anything female. The only line of hers that is directly quoted signals this hatred: ‘Every woman's a whore. / I can't communicate’. Her sex life is bad, for her ‘doggy’ husband's ‘Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl’. In her youth, when she was still beautiful, she was famous for her (faked) orgasms. Her acting fooled the men, who no doubt unaware of distorting the name of Jesus, responded with baffled admiration: ‘Through? / Gee baby, you are rare’. The visiting woman's American sound comes through, for example in the colloquialism ‘cute’.

After this orgy of ‘truths’ which have been flung at her hostess and made particularly outrageous by a medley of slang and vulgarisms, the speaker's farewell lines are free of such vicious fury. In their stark simplicity they define very directly and honestly the bleak situation for visitor and hostess alike:

I see your cute décor
Close on you like the fist of a baby
Or an anemone, that sea
Sweetheart, that kleptomaniac.
I am still raw.
I say I may be back.
You know what lies are for.
Even in your Zen heaven we shan't meet.

This poem is an excellent example of the mature poet's skill in modulating her voice within the span of one poem with the help of language that exceeds the limits of the quietly informal. She moves from high-keyed speech to a toned-down coda. Throughout most of the poem the sound is turned to high volume through the speaker's self-conscious resorting to the provocative language of slang and vulgarisms. Her outburst works indeed as a means of letting off emotional steam, and at the end, free of all illusions, she has reached a modicum of resigned tranquillity. She is even able to establish a kind of sad sisterhood with her hostess, earlier so hotly despised and reviled: they are both caught in a dilemma, the hostess in her claustrophobic life situation, the visitor in her state as a newly wounded sufferer. It seems appropriate that this muted conclusion should be spelled out in such simple and bare language. The language of ‘Lesbos’ is part of a therapeutic process which consists in unveiling lies. The unveiling leads, not to peace and pleasure, but to hurtful truth.

In the dreamlike ‘Stopped Dead’ (230) as well, slang and vulgar language, American and British, is an apt tool for venting strong emotions. The poem is a kaleidoscope of elements evoking death and rebirth, of thoughts of revenge and escape. The speaker addresses, in her mind, an infirm old man who is reduced to a wheelchair-existence. With the ease of the dream his identity shifts from innocuous, wealthy uncle, to Hamlet's sinful uncle, who has ‘stash[ed]’ his life away from the punishing knife; by extension this male figure hints at another guilty man, a man whose death the speaker desires. She is acutely and painfully aware of a baby crying in the distance and finds outlet for the great annoyance that the child's presence causes her. As in ‘Lesbos’, but in a less ferocious mood, the speaker's irritation is expressed by means of slang and taboo words:

. … We're here on a visit,
With a goddam baby screaming off somewhere.
There's always a bloody baby in the air.
I'd call it a sunset, but
Whoever heard a sunset yowl like that?

Such taboo feelings, hidden in the heart of the proverbially loving Mother but revealed in taboo language, may be permissible in a dream! The language here is very different from that which we find in the several poems spoken by a loving mother to her child, such as ‘You're’ (141) and ‘Morning Song’ (156-57). No word of abuse enters these poems which express delight and wonder at the miracle of birth and growth.

‘Fever 103°’ (231-32) and ‘Amnesiac’ (232-33) are examples of texts from this period which are very much ‘spoken’, but which do not rely for their effect on slang or vulgar language. In ‘Cut’ (235-36), however, written at about the same time and in the same informal style as these two poems, Plath again makes use of slang. The expression ‘to step on it’ fits well with the gallows-humor tone of this piece. The scene is a kitchen, and the mini-drama enacts an ordinary kitchen accident. With fascinated horror the somewhat masochistic speaker-victim notes how the blood pours out of her cut thumb. Like a red plush carpet it ‘rolls // Straight from the heart’. ‘I step on it’, she reports, ‘clutching my bottle / Of pink fizz’. The double meaning of the phrase ‘step on it’, joining the image of the ‘carpet’ of blood with the idea of quick action, underscores the schizoid attitude of the speaker-observer.

Plath includes the exclamation ‘my God’, which, as we have noted earlier, is her favorite instance of ‘bad’ language, in other October poems, for example ‘The Tour’ (237-38). Here we are treated to a falsely convivial conversation between two women, one that we hear, the other whose presence we infer from the dramatic monologue. The speaker-housewife, annoyed by an unannounced visit—to her indeed a visitation—expresses herself in very informal, slyly insulting language. Showing her visitor around the house, she warns her not to dip her handkerchief into the ‘Morning Glory Pool’ (a tub for laundering and blueing?), for ‘Last summer, my God, last summer / It ate seven maids and a plumber / And returned them steamed and pressed and stiff as shirts’. The phrase ‘my God’, as a rule quite harmless, is here a simple but shrewd device of voicing the speaker's disrespect of a prim and proper visitor. In another context, the tall tale about the cannibalistic tub might have been humorous, but here the ‘my God’ betrays the unneighborly speaker's hostile feelings.

This interjection has a different ring to it in ‘Poppies in October’ (240). While it most often in Plath's poetry is a fairly trivial sign of resentment or irritation, in this poem it is used as a real appeal to a god, at the same time as it retains its mundane meaning. The color of the poppies, a flaming red that outdoes even the morning clouds and the color of blood, may go unnoticed ‘by eyes / Dulled to a halt under bowlers’, but it has a shock effect on the speaker, whose psychic wounds are forced open by the sight. The poem ends in a skillfully loaded utterance which contains amazement at being the only one to be touched by the vision. But stronger, it seems to me, is the note of despair heard in what can be interpreted as a serious call for help or for a moment of insight. ‘O my God’, the speaker asks, ‘what am I / That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers’.

Slang does its work as carrier of extra meaning also in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ (240-42), another of the several poems that are addressed to children and which were inspired by Plath's own children, born and unborn. This one is darker in tone than the earlier ones, no doubt reflecting the poet's difficult situation at the time of writing. The speaker's mood changes from a contrived playfulness, as she is creating a cave-like atmosphere for herself and her son (‘I am a miner’), to deep seriousness. Security and cosiness are missing from the scene, for this cave is cold and terrifying. The speaker's anger at those she feels have betrayed her, the sanctimonious ones, is discharged into a contemptuous slang phrase: ‘holy Joes’. Whiteness as a religious symbol of purity and innocence is turned into a perverse image of cold rapaciousness. In this make-believe cave of calcium ‘Even the newts are white, // Those holy Joes’. The vulgar exclamation ‘Christ!’ strengthens the religious reference, but this is a vampire religion which sucks the lifeblood out of her:

And the fish, the fish—
Christ! they are panes of ice,
A vice of knives,
A piranha
Religion, drinking
Its first communion out of my live toes.

Only the innocent child is ‘solid’; he is ‘the baby in the barn’, the only one who at least momentarily redeems the world's deceptions and cruelties.

In her biography of Sylvia Plath, Linda W. Wagner-Martin comments on a growing interest in religious matters that the poet showed during the fall of 1962. Thus Plath asked one of her correspondents, a Catholic priest, about his belief.11 ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ suggests that Plath may have found both matters and modes of religion of use to her as a poet. But at least in this poem the name of Christ is handled as a stylistic device carrying a mildly offensive message, and not as a religious symbol or fact.

We find biblical allusions in other poems as well. The reference to the story of Lazarus which Plath incorporates into the title of ‘Lady Lazarus’ (244-47) functions as a sardonic pointer to the rest of the poem. We witness a poetic enactment of a sado-masochistic interplay between two shameless entities: an exhibitionist Queen of Death and Rebirth and her vulgar audience hungering for bloodcurdling sensations without cost to themselves. The poem can be viewed as the self-castigating portrait of a ‘confessional’ poet, but stronger than guilt is the idea of the shameless woman's triumph: she is eternally reborn.

As in other poems, slang is here used to express scorn, and it adds to the strong streak of vulgarity that this confessional artist openly admits to. She teases her audience by playing with double meanings. Dying is an ‘art’, she boasts; she does it ‘so it feels like hell’. She knows that her performance of dying, again and again, is a success (‘It really goes’), but she responds to the stupid-brutish audience's enthusiasm with contempt and self-loathing. The very theatricality of the ‘miracle’ ‘knocks [her] out’.

‘Lady Lazarus’ is the last poem Plath completed in October 1962. In the November poems we encounter a calmer mode, the poet's fury having largely spent itself in the highly charged poetry of the preceding, very dramatic weeks. The language is accordingly closer to standard. The style is also more tentative and unspecific, with many unanswered questions, as in ‘Getting There’ (247-49), or with unidentified speaker and addressee, as in ‘The Couriers’ (247). Taboo words are rare, but we find one instance in ‘Death & Co.’ (254-55). This poem deals with the haunting reality of death and its double identity. In a comment on the poem Plath described the two aspects of death that are juxtaposed, as ‘two men, two business friends, who have come to call’.12 Each of them is tempting the woman they are visiting with false prospects: one, which I take to represent physical death, holds out promises of the cold peace of death; the other stands for a kind of sensual ecstasy. The latter, brazen and alluring, offers an illusion of life but is nevertheless deadly. His character is defined by very few lines, but they are that much stronger. The speaker's fascinated disgust calls forth a vulgarism that fits his character: ‘Bastard / Masturbating a glitter, / He wants to be loved’. The poem embodies the poet's analysis of an ambivalent attitude to death, each position representing a longing for death. But it appears that the position which associates death with ecstasy is the more powerful one, calling up fascination as well as horror.

Considering the role that slang and vulgarisms play as outlets for anger and resentment in several of the texts discussed so far, it is significant that the only one of the post-October poems in which this kind of language has a similar function is a piece where the poet's fury again explodes. This is ‘Eavesdropper’ (260-61), the poem that concludes the 1962 group, but which was begun already in mid-October. The tone throughout is vicious, and anger and contempt bring back the extremely informal language of earlier poems. The target for the speaker's fury is a female neighbor. This woman's complexion calls forth the damning outburst ‘Godawful!’ and her fiddling with the curtains to hide her gossipy curiosity meets with the spied-upon's icy scorn dressed in slangy language: the woman is ‘tarting with the drafts that pass, / Little whore tongue, / Chenille beckoner, / Beckoning my words in—’. The poem is a failure, though, for it seems too private in its references (‘tropics’, ‘Belge’, etc.), and the language has lost the gusto and wry humor that put life into the earlier ‘anger-and-hatred’ poems.

In the small number of poems that Plath wrote during the few remaining weeks of her life in 1963, we recognize several features of her previous work. There is the loving tenderness for the child (‘Child’ [265]), the feeling of sadness attuned to a bleak landscape (‘Sheep in Fog’ [262]), the dedication to the art of poetry (‘Words’ [270]), glimmers of humor (‘Balloons’ [271-72]), and contempt for sterility (‘The Munich Mannequins’ [262-63]) and for sexual betrayal (‘Gigolo’ [267-68]). There is the concrete, often colloquial diction and the straightforward syntax of her peak-period work. We find also, but rarely, an extremely informal expression, for example in ‘The Munich Mannequins’, where the word ‘lollies’ apparently refers to the lollipop-color of the mannequins, at the same time as it takes on the meaning of ‘easily earned money’ that British slang attaches to the word. Another rare instance of slang in these late poems is the American ‘snazzy’ used in the portrait of a narcissistic Don Juan (‘Gigolo’).


When we take an overview of the sweep of Plath's development as a poet, it is easy to notice the curve of emotional intensity rising to a peak in work written during a brief span of time in the fall of 1962. And as we have seen, this heightened temperature is to a considerable extent created or promoted by a linguistic device that she exploits to perfection: the extremely informal, often provocative, language of slang, vulgarisms and taboo words. She can tease and provoke us with her obvious delight at flinging a ‘godawful’ or ‘bastard’ at addressee and reader. By inserting one of her favored speech-signs, the phrase ‘my god’, and interjections like ‘Lord!’ or ‘Christ!’ she can convince us that we are actually listening to somebody speaking. Words like ‘snazzy’ and ‘cute’ tell us that it is an American voice we are hearing.

Slang and vulgarisms indeed make up one of the most characteristic stylistic features of Plath's most mature poetry. Often such language does no more than add a light touch of humor to a poem and enhance the illusion of somebody speaking to us. At other times it works as a more active element in creating a gallows-humor mood, a mood where tragedy or danger is held at bay by the bravado of a feisty spirit. In other contexts, especially in poems written in the fall of 1962, the poet clearly uses slang and taboo language as means in a therapeutic process, no doubt therapeutic for herself, but extending beyond the private by strongly involving the reader. This kind of language can open up for ‘forbidden’ feelings; it can unveil lies. Taboo feelings are let loose by means of taboo language. This very informal, often ‘shameless’, language helps to lessen the distance between poem and reader, for it is hard not to be affected by it, whether pleasantly or unpleasantly. The voice speaking to us is one we can hear in our daily lives; it may even be our own.

It is possible that toward the end of her career Plath had largely exhausted her stock of ‘bad’ language for use in her poetry, and that she was to revert to a more orthodox language. There are other signs as well of changes in her poetic set-up, signs that she was on her way to enlarging her stock of poetic tools and broadening her perspective. The speaker-role is becoming more varied than before, considering the slight number of poems written in the last few weeks of her life, with male speakers (‘Paralytic’ [266-67] and ‘Gigolo’ [267-68]) and speakers unidentifiable as to gender (‘Totem’ [264-65], ‘Mystic’ [268-69], ‘Edge’ [272-73]). There is in addition a somewhat stronger concern with spiritual matters, above all in ‘Mystic’. She may have been on the point of leaving the highly ego-centered poem and moving in the direction of work where her own feelings and experiences were to be given a wider, more general reference and validity.

Whichever way Plath's poetry would have moved, it is likely that she would have kept up the informal tone she had already practised with such success. Sylvia Plath had earned—and she deserves—recognition as a poet of great verbal power and artistry, and she achieved this by boldly drawing on the many resources of the English language, in both its American and British varieties, even on the most unorthodox features of the spoken language. At its best hers was indeed a spoken medium.


  1. See, e.g., ‘Pursuit’, ‘The Queen's Complaint’, ‘Ode for Ted’, ‘Vanity Fair’, and ‘Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives’, printed in Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London, 1981). Further references will be to this edition, and page numbers for poems cited will appear within parentheses in the text. I follow the chronology proposed in this edition.

  2. Naturally no moral stigma attaches to these terms as they are used in the present essay.

  3. In an interview conducted by Britisher Peter Orr in 1962, Sylvia Plath claimed—somewhat apologetically—that as regards language she was an American, that her ‘way of talk’ was ‘an American way of talk’; ‘Sylvia Plath’, in The Poet Speaks, ed. Peter Orr (London, 1966), 168.

  4. I have found the second college edition of Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, ed. David B. Guralnik et al. (New York, 1970) to be a handy source of information. I take its treatment of slang and other informal language to represent the general attitude and speech habits of the educated American language community to which Sylvia Plath belonged. I have also turned to dictionaries of slang, among them The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang, comp. and ed. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner (New York, 1968) and the more recent New Dictionary of American Slang, ed. Robert L. Chapman (London, 1987). For the category of taboo language I have profited from Anna-Brita Stenström's article ‘Expletives in the London-Lund Corpus’, in English Corpus Linguistics: Studies in Honour of Jan Svartvik, ed. Karin Aijmer and Bengt Altenberg (London, 1991), and Magnus Ljung's Om svordomar i svenskan, engelskan och arton andra sprak [On Swearwords in Swedish, English, and Eighteen Other Languages] (Stockholm, 1984). The material Stenström treats largely dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. Ljung discusses a wide variety of taboo words available to speakers of American English. Plath uses only a minimal part of this repertory, and the expressions she does use are of a fairly ‘mild’ type (with ‘bastard’ as an exception). As for my subjective response, I partly rely on my experience as a student at Sylvia Plath's alma mater, Smith College, in the 1950s.

  5. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963, ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (New York, 1975), 336.

  6. In Collected Poems (287) editor Ted Hughes writes: ‘Throughout this time [Jan. 1958-June 1959] SP found writing difficult. She resorted to set themes, and deliberate exercises in style, in her efforts to find release’.

  7. I take it that Plath's brief description of the poem, given in a letter to her mother (26 Oct. 1960), has been expurgated for the addressee's benefit: ‘One poem is a monologue from the point of view of a man about the flowers in the lady's room upstairs (where he isn't working any more—her visitors are something she wants to keep secret. …)’ (Letters Home, 397).

  8. Reading Boris Pasternak's lyric poetry Plath noted (6 March 1961): ‘I felt: a new start can be made through these. This is the way back to the music. I wept to lose to my new tough prosiness’; The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough (New York, 1982), 341.

  9. Anna-Brita Stenström found that the British speakers in the London-Lund Corpus preferred taboo language ‘originating in religion’ to the types that were concerned with sex and the human body. Another finding was that the female speakers used words related to ‘heaven’ more often than other forms, while the male speakers favored expressions related to ‘hell’ and ‘sex’; see ‘Expletives in the London-Lund Corpus’, 241.

  10. Gary Lane makes a point about the two-sidedness of this phrase, which joins ‘the desired exorcism of the mother’ with ‘the recognition of an unalterable similarity with her’; see Sister Bernetta Quinn, ‘Medusan Imagery in Sylvia Plath’ [private communication to Sister Bernetta Quinn], in Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, ed. Gary Lane (Baltimore, 1979), 108. See also Steven Gould Axelrod, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (Baltimore, 1990), 85.

  11. Linda W. Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (New York, 1988), 226. In return Plath gave the young priest advice about writing poetry. ‘Speak straight out’, she told him, ‘let the world blow in more roughly’ (quoted in Wagner-Martin, 226). Her suggestion reflects the kind of insight she had reached for her own poetry.

  12. Quoted in the editor's note on the poem (Collected Poems, 294).

Lynda K. Bundtzen (essay date 1998)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6845

SOURCE: Bundtzen, Lynda K. “Poetic Arson and Sylvia Plath's ‘Burning the Letters.’” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 3 (Fall, 1998): 434-51.

[In the following essay, Bundtzen examines “Burning the Letters” for its clues to the nature of Plath and Hughes's relationship.]

Only they have nothing to say to anybody.
I have seen to that.

—Sylvia Plath, “Burning the Letters”

What was in those manuscripts, the one destroyed like a Jew in Nazi Germany, the other lost like a desaparecido?

—Steven Gould Axelrod, “The Second Destruction of Sylvia Plath”

Sticks and stones may break your bones,
But words can never harm you.

In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes confessed to destroying one of Sylvia Plath's “maroon-backed ledgers” and losing another. They “continued the record from late '59 to within three days of her death. The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). The other disappeared” (xiii). As Steven Gould Axelrod's comparison of Plath's missing journals to a Jewish victim of the Holocaust shows, many critics regard Hughes as committing an act of desecration worse than Hitler's burning of the books. Indeed, Hughes's handling of Plath's work has aroused endless critical fury, and he has responded in myriad ways—at times with scorn, defensively, at others with cool detachment, as if he were only her editor.1 In a piece titled “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals,” Hughes refers to himself as “her husband” when he describes the destruction and disappearance of the final two journals and even says, “Looking over this curtailed journal, one cannot help wondering whether the lost entries for her last three years were not the more important section of it. Those years, after all, produced the work that made her name. And we certainly have lost a valuable appendix to all that later writing” (177-78). Hughes the editor criticizes Hughes the husband for an unnecessary appendectomy on Plath's corpus.

Acts of textual violence or abuse, if so they might be called, were, as it turns out, habitual in the Plath-Hughes marriage, although Plath was customarily the perpetrator. Plath's biographers describe more than one incident in which Plath destroyed her husband's work, and Plath's “Burning the Letters” is about one of those times, when she pillaged and burned the contents of Hughes's study. A more covert form of sabotage and vandalism is apparent only when one views Plath's manuscripts at Smith College's Mortimer Rare Book Room. Smith paid for one corpus when it bought Plath's manuscripts but received tattered remnants of another body of work—that of Ted Hughes. Many of her final poems are written on his backside, so to speak: Plath recycles old manuscripts and typescripts by Hughes, and often she seems to be back talking, having the last word in argument. The friction between these two bodies is palpable at times, as text clashes with text, and one intuits Plath's purposeful coercion and filleting of Hughes's poems and plays as she composes. Even some of Plath's phrases—“The tongue stuck in my jaw. // It stuck in a barb wire snare” (“Daddy,” Collected Poems 223) and her obsession with “hooks” (“The air is a mill of hooks” [“Mystic,” Collected Poems 268])—may well allude to Hughes's sometimes indecipherable handwriting, clotted with a thicket of curlicues, hooks, flourishes, and, like barbed wire, backward, snare-like strokes. These allusions often suggest how a tongue, a feminine voice, finds itself stuttering to express itself in the presence of a stronger masculine one: “Ich, ich, ich, ich” (“Daddy”).

If Plath's “rare” body is skillfully re-membered for public viewing and scholarly dissection, Hughes's seems at times hopelessly dismembered, scattered, and disordered. Her words are on top and one peeks at the other side, often finding her ink has bled through, indelibly splotching and staining Hughes's work. One cannot help but interpret Hughes's book cover for Winter Pollen, his 1994 collection of critical essays (some of them on Plath), in light of this practice by his wife. His photograph on the cover is defaced on one side with Plath's manuscript for “Sheep in Fog,” covering him from pate to cheek to chin—an acknowledgment of how thoroughly he has been “over-written” (humbly “effaced”) by his wife? how hopelessly his own immortal body of work is inscribed/entombed with that of his wife?

One of the more striking moments of simultaneous entanglement of textual bodies and of marital violence occurred in Plath's composition of “Burning the Letters.” According to The Collected Poems, it was the only poem written during the month of August 1962, when marital discord was moving toward the Plath-Hughes decision to separate. At Smith, there are six heavily reworked drafts of the poem before a final typed copy dated August 13.2 Then, more than a month passed before Plath composed “For a Fatherless Son” (its title speaks for itself), dated September 26, 1962, the poem that initiated a phenomenal outpouring of creativity. By the end of October, Plath would have composed twenty-seven poems, among them some of her most famous: “Ariel,” “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” the bee poems. Against this later achievement in October, “Burning the Letters” appears paltry, both as an odd blip on the flat line of poetic activity for August, and because it seems so thoroughly embedded in biographical circumstance, unlike the poems she was about to write, where personal grievance is raised to the level of myth. Unlike these October poems, too, Plath did not intend to include “Burning the Letters” in her version of Ariel, and although she sent it off to The New Yorker and The Hudson Review, it was not published until 1973 in the collection of poems titled Pursuit, a limited edition of one hundred copies by the Rainbow Press.3

“Burning the Letters” is halting in its rhythms, enervated in its tone, and misshapen on the page, its unwieldy verse paragraphs alternating very long lines—“They would flutter off, black and glittering, they would be coal angels”—with short, blunt assertions—“They console me” (Collected Poems 204). Though it certainly fits Ted Hughes's category of “personally aggressive” poems, it also sounds weary and flat, as in its opening line of explanation, “I made a fire; being tired,” repeated a few lines later as an excuse: “Love, love, and well, I was tired.”4 Instead of the incendiary rage that fuels a poem like “Lady Lazarus,” here Plath is just fed up with feeling stupid, like a “Dumb fish” mocked by

                              the white fists of old
Letters and their death rattle
When I came too close to the wastebasket.
What did they know that I didn't?

“Burning the Letters” is, I believe, important precisely because of its crudities, its poetic awkwardness, and, further, because these deficiencies constitute an attack on her poet-husband Ted Hughes's aesthetic principles. It is, to my mind, a “slash and burn” poem, clearing the poetic playing field to make room for the type of poems she would compose for Ariel.

What is, perhaps, surprising is that all of the biographies and memoirs describe the incident commemorated in “Burning the Letters” more vividly than the poem itself, which has a deliberative, even plodding quality. In early July, while Ted Hughes was away from the Court Green home in Devonshire he shared with Plath and their two children, she invaded his attic study, gathered assorted papers and “stuff,” and burned them. According to Susan Van Dyne, as Plath describes the act in her first draft, it is motivated by a desire to overcome “feelings of isolation or helplessness with claims of control and authority. For example, in the first draft the speaker complains, ‘There was nobody for me to know or go to. / So I burned the letters & the dust puffs & the old hair’” (37). The tone is one of exasperation and vicarious control, as if to say, “Even if you are not around, I can take possession of your things.” The most vivid account available is Clarissa Roche's, in her memoir, “Sylvia Plath: Vignettes from England.” Roche was not a witness but Plath's confidante in November, after Plath and Hughes had separated and he had left her and the children in Court Green. Roche retells the incident as she remembers hearing it from Plath:

when the moon was at a certain stage, she had skimmed from his desk “Ted's scum,” microscopic bits of fingernail parings, dandruff, dead skin, hair, and then, with a random handful of papers collected from the desk and wastebasket, she had made a sort of pyre in the garden and around this she drew a circle. She stepped back to a prescribed point, lit the fire with a long stick of a torch and paced around, incanting some hocus-pocus or another. Flames shot up toward the moon, and smoke sketched weird shapes in the mist. Then fragments of letters and manuscripts fluttered like moths, hovered and, after the heat abated, floated to the ground. One charred piece settled at Sylvia's feet. It had been reduced to an ash save for a corner. She picked it up and by the light of the moon read “A_____,” the name of a friend. Sylvia now knew the woman with whom Ted was having an affair.


Here, the incident sounds like Plath meant to cast a spell, to exorcise a demon. Whether Plath embellished what happened in order to entrance Roche, who also describes Plath as a witty raconteur, or whether Roche is the source of these spellbinding details, we still have the poem, and “Burning the Letters” has none of this quality of a witch's ritual being performed. In fact, many of Plath's revisions have the effect of taming the potential melodrama in the incident.

Other evidence for what happened is slight. Aurelia Plath, visiting her daughter from June 21 to August 4, leaves no account of the incident immortalized by the poem. Nor do the letters of Plath to her mother after she concluded her visit refer to this episode. Biographers have supplied other details, the sources for which seem vague. In her 1987 biography, Linda Wagner-Martin places the incident on July 10, following Plath's interception of “a mysterious phone call for Ted” and another act of violence:

and when Ted's conversation was over, she tore the telephone wires from the wall. She turned her rage inward as she stoically, blankly, dressed Nick and carried him to the car. Leaving Frieda with Aurelia, she drove the twenty-five miles to [her friends'] the Comptons'. When she arrived, both Elizabeth and David were worried about her behavior; distraught, she wept and held on to Elizabeth's hands, begging “Help me, help me.” … Sylvia fed Nick and the two of them spent the night in the Comptons' living room.


The following day, Plath is described as returning home, and in the evening, she made a pyre of Hughes's “letters, drafts of work, and papers, and the manuscript of what was to have been her second novel, the book about her great love for Ted” (208). Biographers Ronald Hayman and Paul Alexander agree with this order of incidents, although Alexander claims there were at least three bonfires that summer: one destroying a novel conceived as “the sequel to The Bell Jar,” a second where she burned all of Aurelia's letters to her (“upwards of a thousand”), and then the third, the burning of papers from Hughes's attic study (286).6 Anne Stevenson oddly reverses the chronology, claiming that the phone incident occurred after the burning of the letters, and also refutes the notion that Plath burned anything of her own: “There is … no documentary evidence that such a novel existed” (251n). What provoked Plath to burn Hughes's papers is left so murky in Stevenson's narrative that it makes no sense at all:

On July 9 she and her mother drove to Exeter for a day's shopping. On the way home Sylvia exulted, “I have everything in life I've ever wanted: a wonderful husband, two adorable children, a lovely home, and my writing.”

Days later, while Ted was in London, she invaded his attic study, hauled down what papers she could find—mostly letters—and made a bonfire in the vegetable garden. The mother watched, appalled. …


The phone incident then occurs “Soon after the bonfire” (251). To this, Ronald Hayman adds that Aurelia “was holding Nick and trying to keep Frieda inside the house” and “did her best to stop Sylvia from starting a bonfire” (161).

Perhaps the best evidence for when Plath knew for certain who her rival was comes in a poem earlier than “Burning the Letters”: “Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone,” composed on July 11, 1962. One line reads, “Now the room is ahiss,” suggesting the whispered intimacies between Hughes and the “other woman,” but also Assia's name. The words in this poem are clearly feces: “They are plopping like mud” from “the bowel-pulse” of conversation, and the phone is itself a “muck funnel” (Collected Poems 202-3). In the first draft for “Burning the Letters,” words are set on fire—“lit”—and become a vehicle for revenge and purgation, and while “letters” in Plath's title refers directly to Hughes's personal correspondence, her delight in destruction extends to words and letters—to writing itself.

The first draft of “Burning the Letters” begins on a page topped by three crossed-out lines from an early version of “Stings,” a poem about an incident in June when Plath's bees began attacking—“zinging”—Hughes. On the back is the typescript for Hughes's poem “Toll of Air Raids,” which may well have been chosen for its analogy to the air attack of the bees. Plath's last line for this version of “Stings” warns her “love” that he is trapped in the bees' aerial assault as if he were in a “cat's cradle.” Cat's cradle is a little girl's game, and the sense here is of girls' flying fingers happily weaving and “zinging” back and forth like stinging bees, with Hughes caught in the middle, tangled in knots of string.7 Better than a “cat's cradle” stinging her unfaithful husband will be the revenge of Plath's poetic suttee in the poem she is about to compose. Both Hughes's papers and letters from Assia will fuel this fire.

After a false start of two lines she crosses out, Plath arrives at her title, “Burning the Letters.” Though discarded, these lines show that her inspiration comes directly from the distinctive character of Hughes's handwriting and its predilection for deceptions and mockery, evidence that he is a liar. Eventually, these lines will evolve into a final form: “And here is an end to the writing, / The spry hooks that bend and cringe, and the smiles, the smiles” (Collected Poems 204). Hughes's handwriting, which I described earlier in similar terms, is here conceived as a series of springlike hooks, with bending and cringing backward strokes. More important, though, than its physical appearance is the sense of smirking duplicity attributed to Hughes's writing. Coupled with the substitution of Hughes's textual body for his actual body in the vengeance she imposes, this makes Plath less the witchy voodoo queen of Roche's memoir than a vulgar harridan who has decided to invade the writing garret of her brilliant poet-husband. She has had enough of his linguistic sophistry, and enough of the high culture it represents. The reverse of the third page of Draft 1 is a typescript for Hughes's poem “A Fable,” and the first line reads, “A man brought to his knees in the desert”—what Plath would probably like to do to Hughes.

Van Dyne argues that Plath oscillates between representing herself as Hughes's victim and his victimizer in “Burning the Letters,” that she “fails to resolve whether the burning words in her ‘little crematorium’ are more dead than alive or whether she murders or is herself ghoulishly tormented by ‘letters

On the reverse of the second page of Plath's first draft of “Burning the Letters” is what Van Dyne describes as “one of [Ted Hughes's] most famous statements of his own poetics, ‘The Thought-Fox’” (9). “Burning the Letters” is similarly inhabited by a fox, but one that must be read as an anti-thought-fox. Plath's fox helps to make her case for the poetic efficacy of shrieks—the animal's death cry as immortal utterance:

The dogs are tearing a fox. This is what it is like—
A red burst and a cry
That splits from its ripped bag and does not stop
With the dead eye
And the stuffed expression, but goes on
Dyeing the air,
Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water
What immortality is. That it is immortal.

(Collected Poems 205)

While this immortal “music” is not exactly, indeed, exactly not the “full-throated ease” of Keats's nightingale, Plath is making a similar if cruelly perverse claim for the fox's cry as transcendent expression, superseding the efficacy of the printed word. She is turning a purposely deaf ear to poetic lyricism in favor of something crude and sensational.

Plath's immortal fox challenges what she derides as Hughes's poetic taxidermy—“the dead eye / And the stuffed expression” of his “The Thought-Fox.” Her ink bleeds through onto his poem, “dyeing” it with her fox's agony, spilling onto his page and sullying its silent beauty. More attuned to literary convention, Hughes's poem contrarily invokes solitude and silence as the moment of poetic inspiration. He opens:

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

(Hawk 14)

Plath's handwriting also mars Hughes's “neat prints into the snow” and thereby defies her husband's poetic authority. Her mockery of his “thought-fox” is evident in “stuffed expression,” nastily implying that Hughes's poem, his creation of a fox, is a stuffy and bombastic little piece with about as much life as one of Norman Bates's birds. Her own fox is immortal because of its pain, and, by extension, Plath makes a case for private anguish as the basis for her new poems. She stakes the immortality of her verse on the sincerity, the authenticity of its feeling, on the impact of a cri de coeur. One discarded line from her first draft baldly exclaims her sense of being abandoned by him, left completely “loveless.”

The aesthetic alternative in Hughes's poem is that the poet reveals nothing about himself except as a poet. “The Thought-Fox,” to the extent that it has a content, is about all those elements prized by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or W. H. Auden, Hughes's own poetic mentors: the impersonal voice, the crafting of sensuous images, the cultivated representation of the poet as a mind that creates and not a man who suffers. “The Thought-Fox” is one of those tricky little self-reflexive pieces about the process of creating the poem's writing of itself. The title suggests its cerebral origin, and when we come to the final stanza—

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

—we suddenly realize that the whole poem celebrates the imagination's ability to evoke an animal's presence in language. All of the animal's foxy grace redounds to the brilliance and concentration of the poet who created it—even, perhaps most of all, its “sudden sharp hot stink.” The fox's “neat prints into the snow” magically become the poet's writing on the blank whiteness of the page at the end. Voilà! A poem has been made. In her first draft for “Burning the Letters,” Plath responds in kind, with a writerly gesture: the cry of the fox is merely a splash of red ink in clear water. By Draft 3, however, the cry is independent of ink and paper, standing apart as simply a “red burst,” and now it is the poet's blood, not ink, that implicitly stains the white page.

The youthful Hughes leaves himself open to the charge of smugness in the way he boasts about “The Thought-Fox.” Indeed, one cannot help but speculate that Plath chose to attack this poem precisely because of the way Hughes invested it with claims to poetic immortality. On October 6, 1961, a year earlier, in the first of a series of BBC broadcasts designed for schoolchildren on how to write poetry, Hughes read the poem as part of a lesson titled “Capturing Animals.” While he begins with childhood memories of trapping animals, as Hughes warms to his subject, we know he will end with the idea of “capturing” as an artist captures the essence of animals, the essence of fox, as it were, to use a “stuffed expression.” He highly prizes his achievement in this poem:

If I had not caught the real fox there in the words I would never have saved the poem. I would have thrown it into the wastepaper basket as I have thrown so many other hunts that did not get what I was after. As it is, every time I read the poem the fox comes up again out of the darkness and steps into my head. And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out in the darkness and come walking towards them.

So, you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words.

(Poetry in the Making 20-21)

It is hard not to read the final lines of Plath's “Burning the Letters” as throwing down the gauntlet, as spattering the blood/ink of her fox, the hunted and truly captured animal, onto Hughes's rigorously artificed fox and thereby defying his intellectual and, yes, “high” culture version of literary immortality with something literal, real, and downright low. Her emphatic “This is what it is like,” followed by the extended trope of the fox torn by hounds, and then the repetitive “What immortality is. That it is immortal,” is flat-out assertion, insistently stomping on Hughes's subtlety, his cleverness, his literary sophistication. Unlike Hughes, she does not mean to dazzle with her brilliance, nor to condescend as to a child. As she explains earlier in the poem, “I am not subtle” (204).

“Burning the Letters” was initially interpreted either as supersubtle in its meaning or as a grossly literal representation of an actual incident. It was either extraordinarily encoded with allusions to “moment[s] of breakthrough or enlightenment” in Zen Buddhism (Kroll 276n37) or simply negligible in the context of the literary value of Plath's later Ariel poems.8 I would argue that its subtlety—or perhaps “cunning” is a better word—paradoxically depends on its literal-mindedness, its insistence that textual and real bodies are the same: “I open the pages, white wads that would save themselves. / Spirit after spirit gives itself up!” (Draft 1, p. 2), and later, “I flake up papers that breathe like people” (Collected Poems 204). Plath knew, I believe, that her fox was not the product of sophisticated thinking about what constitutes poetic immortality. She means to be both coarse and low in her fury, and not a poet so much as a woman scorned, invading the man's study, destroying his “property,” burning her husband's letters: “So I poke at the carbon birds in my house-dress.” Violating all sense of propriety, she is consoled with having snuffed out both his words and the words of others' writings to him: “they have nothing to say to anybody. / I have seen to that” (Collected Poems 204). The detail of the housedress makes her the “little woman,” not the rival poet-wife, and the So there! implicit in her satisfied assertions is meant as a retort to the condescensions she has suffered. She is cleaning house, and it's about time:

And at least it will be a good place now, the attic.
At least I won't be strung just under the surface,
Dumb fish
With one tin eye,
Watching for glints,
Riding my Arctic
Between this wish and that wish.

(Collected Poems 204)

Even the self-demeaning metaphor here seems appropriate, as if a housewife were trying to challenge her poet-husband with less than perfectly realized artistic form. To paraphrase, “At least now I won't be treated like some dumb fish waiting, even hoping, to be caught, looking for a lure, a sign, from you, upstairs in the attic, while I live in cold uncertainty down here.” In Draft 1, the arctic imagery was explicitly linked to Hughes's inattentiveness as a husband and elaborated to demonstrate his cold estrangement from her—Plath's sense of being taken for granted. The metaphor in this poetic and marital situation also suggests his “higher” state of being, his clear atmosphere, his warm and ambient space, while she lives beneath his feet, a subhuman fish in a state of arctic suspension.

One can only speculate as to why Plath chose not to include this poem in her version of Ariel. My own suspicion is that she knew it was too low and too antiliterary in many ways. Of all the late poems, the body of this poem is the one most dependent for its meanings on knowledge of others' bodies. It is, as Freud might say, anaclitic in the way it leans on the writing-body of Hughes and Assia Wevill's embodiment as burning paper. The frustrated desire in pyromania is also apparent in Plath's urge to play with the fire and to reach in and touch these paper bodies:

My fingers would enter although
They melt and sag, they are told
Do not touch.

(Collected Poems 204)

The lines describing Assia confound her sexual and textual bodies, the sound of her voice and name with its signature:

And a name with black edges
Wilts at my foot,
Sinuous orchis
In a nest of root-hairs and boredom—
Pale eyes, patent-leather gutturals!

(Collected Poems 205)

In the image of the hairy orchid, Assia's crumpled and burning letter (invaginated folds of paper) resembles female genitals, and the hissing is both her name and the sound of the fire. In Draft 1, p. 3, Plath misspells “gutturals” as “gutterals” (a Freudian slip?), alluding to Assia's German accent and also suggesting that it belongs to a guttersnipe. As for Hughes, the poem celebrates an act of poetic arson and scorns Hughes's writing at every level—from its physical appearance to its poetic pretensions—as dissembling, pompous, and useful only as recycled scrap for her own poetic process.

According to Anne Stevenson, this was not the first time Plath systematically went about destroying her husband's poetic property. In a fit of jealous rage, she vandalized Hughes's work as an act of “preemptive revenge” (206) for a liaison that never materialized except in her fantasy. Stevenson reports that Hughes was interviewed for “a series of children's programs” early in 1961 (ironically, the same ones described above and including “Capturing Animals”) by a woman producer with “a lilting Irish voice, which Sylvia instantly associated with flaming red hair and lascivious intentions” (206). When Hughes was late returning, and based only on the sound of the producer's telephone voice, Plath created “a scene of carnage. All of his work in progress, his play, poems, notebooks, even his precious edition of Shakespeare, had been torn into small pieces, some ‘reduced to “fluff”’” (206).9 The Shakespeare is described as “his most treasured book,” and Stevenson goes on to claim that “Ted could neither forget nor forgive this desecration” (206). The language suggests that Plath's crime was not directed only at her husband, but at culture—a “desecration” of an artist's work in progress, of a rare book, of Shakespeare. As in “Burning the Letters,” Plath insists on venting her fury on textual bodies, literalizing poetry as a substitute victim for her husband, whom she would probably like to tear into, reduce to fluff.

This incident not only haunts “Burning the Letters” but also seems to haunt Hughes. Writing to Anne Stevenson about this episode in Bitter Fame, Hughes expresses regret for not asking her to delete “one phrase in particular”:

When Sylvia's destruction of my papers etc. has been described, it is said “this could never be forgotten or forgiven,” or words to that effect. …

The truth is that I didn't hold that action against [Sylvia]—then or at any other time. I was rather shattered by it, and saw it was a crazy thing for her to have done. But perhaps I have something missing. She never did anything that I held against her. The only thing that I found hard to understand was her sudden discovery of our bad moments (“Event,” “Rabbit Catcher”) as subjects for poems. But to say I could not forgive her for ripping up those bits of paper is to misunderstand utterly the stuff of my relationship to her. It is factually untrue, in other words. So in future, in any new edition or translation, I would like to have that phrase cut out. Let the episode speak for itself.

All those fierce reactions against her—which she provoked so fiercely—from people who thought, perhaps, sometimes, that they were defending me—were from my point of view simply disasters from which I had to protect her. It was like trying to protect a fox from my own hounds while the fox bit me. With a real fox in that situation, you would never have any doubt why it was biting you.

(qtd. in Malcolm 143)

Hughes's reluctance to understand Plath's “sudden discovery of our bad moments” as poetic ore to be mined reflects his later editorial choices when he put Ariel together, deleting virtually all of the poems from Plath's own version of Ariel that were explicitly about their bad moments. Yet Hughes also appears to be acknowledging Plath's fox in “Burning the Letters” here—conceding to its eloquence as poetic statement and its immortality over that of his own thought-fox. Perhaps this is a belated apology for the earlier hubris in the boast that he has “captured” the fox by giving it the permanence of art in his poem. In his 1961 BBC talk, Hughes says, “An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive [after capturing it] is the fox” (19). This is prelude, of course, to the claim he will then make that poetry is the better strategy for “keeping alive.” A real fox, however, defies poetic sophistry. It desperately wants to escape and, in the frenzy of its capture, will not abide its own survival, its own salvation, especially not at the hands of its captor. Its desperation and ferocity speak for themselves—as do Sylvia Plath's.10

While Ted Hughes has steadfastly refused interviews by biographers of Plath, he has not been entirely silent. In a 1995 poem published in The New Yorker, “The Error,” he provides chilling evidence that Plath's fire of July 1962 continued to burn and to inflict pain. The overall conceit of the poem is that Plath's “grave opened its ugly mouth” (156) and spoke to Assia, but that she made an “error in translation” (157):

You must have misheard a sentence.
You were always mishearing
Into Hebrew or German
What was muttered in English.


The fire which yields up the name of Assia Wevill to Plath—“The name of the girl flies out, black-edged, like a death card” (Draft 1, p. 3)—eventually swallows up the woman herself, described as having “selflessly incinerated yourself / In the shrine of [Plath's] death” (156). He “watched [Assia] feeding the flames,” and once again, her life is as crumpled paper:

Six full calendar years—
Every tarred and brimstone
Day torn carefully off,
One at a time, not one wasted, patient
As if you were feeding a child.


Six years after Plath's suicide, Assia Wevill killed herself and her daughter by Hughes, Shura, in a similar way to Plath, by gas and carbon monoxide asphyxiation. A discarded line from “Burning the Letters” personifies the earth as savoring “the taste of ashes,” and following as it does “a name with black edges” that “Wilts at my foot” (Collected Poems 205), one cannot help but hear—or mishear—the pun on Assia in “ashes.” As Plath goes on to boast, she is salting the red earth with these ashes.


  1. In a 1971 letter to the Observer addressing A. Alvarez's criticism of how Plath's poems were published, Hughes defended himself by attacking Plath's audience. He claimed to “feel no obligations whatsoever” to either academics or Plath's fans, whom he regards scornfully as sensation seekers: “The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died. The scholars may well inherit what they want, some day, and there are journalists supplying the other audience right now. But neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything” (“Publishing Sylvia Plath” 164).

  2. The first draft with a date on it is the third, dated August 12. Drafts 1 and 2 might have been started earlier, closer to the date of the incident described, which biographers place in July.

  3. Plath's own collection of poems for her version of Ariel is at Smith's Mortimer Rare Book Room with a title page and table of contents. With the publication of The Collected Poems in 1981, editor Ted Hughes made this earlier, “authorized” version of Ariel known in his notes (Collected Poems 295). For an analysis of Plath's Ariel versus the volume collected by Ted Hughes and published in 1965 in Great Britain and 1966 in the United States, see Perloff.

    “Burning the Letters” appears in a collection designed for the Rainbow Press by Leonard Baskin. The Rainbow Press was run by Olwyn Hughes, sister to Ted Hughes. Pursuit is a rather peculiar collection, including juvenilia composed before 1956, but also poems of 1962 originally intended by Plath for her version of Ariel: “Dark Wood, Dark Water” (1959); “Resolve” (1956); “Temper of Time” (juvenilia); “The Shrike” (1956); “Faun” (1956); “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” (1957); “Pursuit” (1956); “Doomsday” (juvenilia); “Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone” (July 11, 1962); “Stings [2]” (July or August 1962); “Spider” (1956); “The Fearful” (November 16, 1962); “The Rival [2]” (July 1961); “A Secret” (October 10, 1962); and “Burning the Letters” (August 13, 1962). The title poem was written shortly after Plath met Hughes and is about her sexual attraction to him. “Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone,” “Stings [2],” “A Secret,” and “Burning the Letters” are also about Hughes, his infidelity, and their marital problems, making Pursuit a volume that documents the history of their relationship. “A Secret” is the only poem originally intended by Plath to be in her version of Ariel.

  4. As Hughes describes “[t]he Ariel eventually published in 1965,” it “was a somewhat different volume from the one she had planned. … It omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962, and might have omitted one or two more if she had not already published them herself in magazines—so that by 1965 they were widely known” (“Collecting Sylvia Plath” 172-73). Most of the “personally aggressive” poems Plath planned to include were directed at Hughes: “The Rabbit Catcher,” “A Secret,” “The Jailer,” “The Detective,” “The Other,” “The Courage of Shutting-Up,” “Purdah,” and “Amnesiac.”

  5. For a more detailed account of this conversation with the Comptons, see Sigmund 104.

  6. Alexander cites an interview with Clarissa Roche as contradicting her earlier statement that Assia's name was revealed in the fire: “Plath told Roche that the name ‘Dido’ was written on the charred scrap of paper, not ‘A_____,’ as appeared in Roche's memoir. … According to Roche, Butscher changed the name … to make the scene more dramatic” (378-79). If so, then Plath did as well in “Burning the Letters,” because “patent leather gutturals” alludes to Assia Wevill's German accent, and “Sinuous orchis” fairly hisses out her name.

  7. The visual image is similar to one in “Gulliver” (Collected Poems 251): “The spidermen have caught you, // Winding and twining their petty fetters, / Their bribes— / So many silks.”

  8. See Judith Kroll's elaborate reading of the fox's immortality in Chapters in a Mythology as reflecting that Plath “was more than superficially acquainted with Hinduism and Buddhism. (Her familiarity with these literatures was confirmed by Ted Hughes, in conversation)” (275-77n37). My reading directly contradicts Kroll's in the sense that Kroll chooses to elevate what I describe as the literal-mindedness of the poem to an extraordinary symbolic height. I am also skeptical of the way in which Hughes authorizes her reading of the poem, which may be seen as his defensive strategy for obscuring the wounds Plath inflicts on his “The Thought-Fox.” Jon Rosenblatt's dismissive commentary appears in Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation (107).

  9. According to a note in Bitter Fame, “This account is from Dido Merwin, to whom Hughes confided it in the autumn of 1962, after his breakup with Sylvia” (206).

  10. One of the stranger essays in Hughes's collection Winter Pollen is “The Burnt Fox” (1993), an account of a dream Hughes claims to have had as a student reading English at Cambridge in the early 1950s. While trying to write one of his weekly critical essays, he falls asleep and is visited by

    a figure that was at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs. It was a fox, but the size of a wolf. As it approached and came into the light I saw that its body and limbs had just now stepped out of a furnace. Every inch was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding. Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain. It came up until it stood beside me. Then it spread its hand—a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him—flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said: “Stop this—you are destroying us.” Then as it lifted its hand away I saw the blood-print, like a palmist's specimen, with all the lines and creases, in wet, glistening blood on the page.


    One senses allegory at work, the medieval scholar-dreamer visited by a figure representing the English canon and warning him that his critical pedantries are “destroying” literature. The anticritical sentiment echoes Hughes's scorn for “the hundred thousand Eng Lit Profs and graduates who … feel very little in this case [about Plath's life and death] beyond curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, popular bloodsport kind, no matter how they robe their attentions in Lit Crit Theology and ethical sanctity” (see letter to Stevenson in Malcolm 141). The same “bloodsport” is rending the body of Hughes's fox-man. In addition, though, one is tempted to read this as yet another self-derisive allusion to “The Thought-Fox,” an animal that also comes at night, leaving not its bloody handprint behind on the blank page but the neat prints of the poem's writing. The self-derision may also extend to a comparison once again with Plath's bleeding fox in “Burning the Letters,” making its appearance in the charred ruins of her husband's letters.

Works Cited

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1991.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. “The Second Destruction of Sylvia Plath.” American Poetry Review 14.2 (Mar.-Apr. 1985): 17-18.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury, 1976.

Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann, 1991.

Hughes, Ted. “The Burnt Fox.” Winter Pollen 8-9.

———. “Capturing Animals.” Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from Listening and Writing. 1969. London: Faber, 1982. 15-21.

———. “Collecting Sylvia Plath.” Winter Pollen 170-76.

———. “The Error.” New Yorker 26 June and 3 July 1995: 156-57.

———. Foreword. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Dial, 1982. xi-xiii.

———. The Hawk in the Rain. 1957. London: Faber, 1964.

———. “Publishing Sylvia Plath.” Winter Pollen 163-69.

———. “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals.” Winter Pollen 177-90.

———. Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. Ed. William Scammell. New York: Picador, 1994.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper, 1976.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Perloff, Marjorie. “The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon.” American Poetry Review 13.6 (Nov.-Dec. 1984): 10-18.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel and Other Poems. ts. Sylvia Plath Collection. The Neilson Library, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

———. “Burning the Letters.” Drafts 1-6, ms. and ts., and Typed Copy 1, Ariel poems. Includes reverse typescripts of “The Toll of Air Raids,” “The Thought-Fox,” and “A Fable,” by Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath Collection. The Neilson Library, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

———. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper, 1981.

———. Pursuit. London: Rainbow, 1973.

Roche, Clarissa. “Sylvia Plath: Vignettes from England.” Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. Ed. Edward Butscher. New York: Dodd, 1977. 81-96.

Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979.

Sigmund, Elizabeth. “Sylvia in Devon: 1962.” Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. Ed. Edward Butscher. New York: Dodd, 1977. 100-107.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton, 1989.

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's “Ariel” Poems. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Jerrianne Schultz (essay date 1999)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2639

SOURCE: Schultz, Jerrianne. “Perfection and Reproduction: Mutually Exclusive Expectations for Women in Sylvia Plath's ‘Edge.’” English Language Notes 37, no. 2 (December, 1999): 68-75.

[In the following essay, Schultz finds allusions to mythological images of motherhood and womanhood in “Edge.”]

As the last poem Sylvia Plath ever wrote, “Edge” is tempting to read as her final decision to commit suicide, especially with lines like, “We have come so far, it is over.”1 But a close analysis reveals that the poem contains subtle, carefully constructed prosodic effects. Such poetic finesse would be difficult to affect from a stupor of suicidal emotion. Rather, the touches rendered to this poem encourage an intellectual, rather than purely emotional response. Such an intellectual approach to “Edge” reveals that this is a poem about contradictory expectations, about how two contrasting emotions can occupy the same space at the same time, how two contradictory drives can be pulling at a woman from opposite ends. Women are expected to be perfect sexual objects, but they are biologically designed to create life, give birth, nurture. Bearing children, however, wears the body down, destroys its perfection. These mutually exclusive expectations drive women to violent, desperate acts. Women are pushed to try to achieve perfection, but perfection denies what women are really about.

To gain access to “Edge,” it is essential to understand Plath's reference to mythology. Although she never tells us the name of a specific myth, saying just “The illusion of a Greek necessity,” line nine's reference to “Each dead child,” causes us to consider Euripides' tragedy Medea. At line twelve, Plath writes, “She has folded / Them back into her body as petals / Of a rose close when the garden / Stiffens and odors bleed / From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.” Here it is clear that Plath is alluding to Medea, who cut the throats of her own two children. In this setting, Plath's title, “Edge,” which is otherwise especially elusive, begins to take on a new meaning. “Edge” may indeed indicate a woman on the edge of completely breaking down. Plath may have felt herself slipping over the edge into despair, but “edge” in the context of the Medea myth must also signify the edge of a knife or sword blade.

Medea has a real relevance in Plath's life and would perhaps be a tale she would explore in connection with her grief and rage at being abandoned by her husband for another woman. In the play, just as in Plath's own life, Medea marries and then leaves her own country behind to live faithfully in her husband's country. Once they have made their home together and have two children, Medea's husband abandons her for another woman. Medea, who is an intelligent and powerful woman, decides to punish her husband. This character is appropriate for Plath's poetry since often the personae in her poems are women who are victims but who also at last find a way to fight back. Unlike Plath, however, Medea kills her own children to punish her husband, Jason. Although her main motivation is to deprive Jason of his sons, at one point in the play she tells the chorus that by killing them herself, she is really protecting them.

Women, my task is fixed: as quickly as I may
To kill my children, and start away from this land,
And not by wasting time, to suffer my children
To be slain by another hand less kindly to them.
Force every way will have it they must die, and since
This must be so, then I, their mother, shall kill them.(2)


This sense of protection also appears in Plath's poem within the image of the closing flower. Although this poem never explicitly states that the woman has killed her children, by its association with the Medea myth, it is implied. Plath also leads us to believe that the woman has killed the children by making the woman active in line twelve. Plath says, “She has folded / Them back into her body.” She does not say, “They were folded / Back into her body,” as though death took the children from her. Instead, the woman has clearly caused this to occur. She has done the folding. Yet, rather than presenting the murder of the children as a moment of insanity, Plath has the dead children appear to be held close in a protective embrace. They are the closed petals of a maternal flower, protected from the night garden. Plath emphasizes this closeness by the phrase “rose close.” We are prepared for this type of internal rhyme from poems such as “Lady Lazarus,” where we find combinations like “grave cave” and “large charge.”3 Yet, the syntax leading up to “rose close” causes the reader to stumble over “close,” destroying the rhyme. We expect it to say that she folds the children “as petals / Of a rose, close to her.” Instead, however, we find that “close” is being used as a verb. Plath chooses “close” for its dual meaning of “to shut” and “to be near.”

In addition to fooling us with “rose close” in order to emphasize its dual meaning, Plath also sets up expectations for the reader within the first section of the poem, lines one through eight, which she turns upside down. “Edge,” unlike many other Plath poems, lacks repetition. Rather than lingering on ideas by repeating them, “Edge” maintains a fast pace throughout. This pace and these surprising turns occur in part because of line break. The poem begins with a complete statement. “The woman is perfected.” We wonder how this perfection has come about and what defines it. The next line answers that question in part: “Her dead.” Plath places this alone on a line to emphasize death. But at this point, it is not clear what the “dead” is or are. Is “dead” here singular or plural? Is “dead” a noun or an adjective? The possessive “Her” makes us think that the “dead” is or are something that belongs to her or that she is responsible for, like “her relations” or “her children.” By separating “dead” and “Body” the reader is at first inclined to read line two as something the woman cares for or nurtures. When we consider the traditional role of the woman, we expect to find perfection for her in reference to her duties toward others. The woman is perfected in her role as caretaker, for example. This woman, judging from line two, happens to care for the dead. “The woman is perfected. Her dead” and we might infer something like “are lined up neatly in their caskets.” But this strange joining of “Her” and “dead” is unexplained by the end of the line, so we rush on to find out the answer. “Her dead” … “Body.” Again it is interesting that “Body” comes at the head of line three. In this position, “Body” is emphasized. Again, the body is one thing which traditionally defines a woman—woman is a collection of body parts. And that sense is communicated here. This woman seems somehow separate from her body. It is her dead body which “wears the smile of accomplishment.” Plath does not say, “Now dead / She wears the smile of accomplishment.”

Plath again pushes the reader along in the fourth line. It begins, “The illusion of a Greek necessity,” but when we jump down to the next line, we realize that line five is a continuation of the thought begun in line four. So when we reach “Flows,” we again speed up. The next line, “Her bare,” recalls the form of line two, “Her dead.” Even though we have just read that “Greek necessity / Flows in the scrolls of her toga,” when we reach “Her bare,” we think back to line two and remember how we were tricked. Our eye falls upon this familiar pattern: two-word line; second line in a two-line stanza; begins with “Her”; ends with an adjective. The mind immediately recalls how the first instance of this pattern was resolved, and we expect the next word to again be “Body.” “Her dead / Body”; “Her bare / Body.” Such repetition would be consistent with Plath's development in other poems. But, Plath again tricks us. We rush down to the next line and instead of finding “Body,” which would again recall the view of women as sexual objects, or even finding “Breasts,” which she may also be preparing us for by her reference to a toga, perhaps tied loosely over one shoulder, Plath sticks “Feet” into first position. This is rather shocking to the reader. We were prepared to find her “Body,” but instead all we have is her feet. Here Plath reduces woman. The image begins with an entire woman, we assume body and soul. In the next stanza, woman is reduced to only a body. Finally, woman is only a part of that body. In “Daddy,” Plath describes herself as a foot.4 Daddy is a “black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot / For thirty years, poor and white.” She focuses on the feet in “Edge” because they carry the entire load, the body's full weight rests on the feet. Plath has the feet, which are the workhorse of the body, speak for the woman. The adjective “bare” here also alludes to the saying “barefoot and pregnant” versus “bare naked.”

The next section, between lines nine and sixteen, focuses on the children and her relationship with them. It is significant that Plath transforms the children here into flower petals. They are part of their mother; the most beautiful part. The image of the children, however, is dual. They are “coiled,” each is a “white serpent.” “White” joined with “serpent” is an especially stark contrast. There are only two colors mentioned in this poem, white and black. Judging from other poems by Plath, white and black both have a specific significance. In “Daddy,” for example, white is used only once and it refers to the speaker. She is “poor and white.” Daddy, on the other hand, is the “black man” with a “fat black heart.” In “Edge,” white refers to the children whom we assume are innocent, like the speaker in “Daddy.” Yet they are also serpents, “One at each little / Pitcher of milk, now empty.” We imagine a baby at each breast but also a serpent at each breast, sucking up her strength, emptying her.

Along with the image of serpents, Plath also brings helpless kittens to mind. “One at each little / Pitcher of milk,” makes us think of kittens lapping at their bowls. This may indeed have been intended, since she presented the same image overtly in “Lesbos.”5 “You say I should drown the kittens. Their smell! / You say I should drown my girl. / She'll cut her throat at ten if she's mad at two.” The reference in “Edge” alluding to kittens, if considered within the context of the kittens in “Lesbos,” also makes us think that killing the children was considered an act of kindness. Like Medea, she has destroyed the children before they could reach adulthood and experience real cruelty.

In addition to presenting two images of children, this middle section of the poem, lines nine to sixteen, also illustrates two contrasting images of motherhood. Children grow out of the mother's body and are a part of her. The mother loves and cherishes the children, but they also drain something vital from the mother. The children are like leeches, sucking out her vital fluids, but they are also kittens, helpless and gentle. The woman, who had been reduced to only the foot, is now an inanimate object, an empty drinking vessel. But there is perhaps a duality to this emptiness. The pitchers of milk may be empty because the children have consumed all the milk; but they may also be empty, because as occurs in lactation, when the milk is no longer removed, it is no longer produced. The pitchers are empty both because they have been consumed and because they are no longer needed. There are no longer any children to drink from them.

In “The Fearful,” dated November 16, 1962, Plath writes, “The voice of the woman hollows— / More and more like a dead one, / Worms in the glottal stops. / She hates / The thought of a baby— / Stealer of cells, stealer of beauty— / She would rather be dead than fat, / Dead and perfect, like Nefertit.”6 Here, when the woman is alive, she seems to be slowly worn down, more and more dead than alive. Having a baby would be another drain, hastening that decay. Yet, in this passage, in which death and perfection are joined as they are in “Edge,” death seems to be a sort of suspended animation, an end to the decay. But, on the other hand, in “The Munich Mannequins,” written January 28, 1963, Plath scorns this type of perfection.7 She begins with

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb
Where the yew trees blow like hydras,
The tree of life and the tree of life
Unloosing their moons, month after month, to no purpose.
The blood flood is the flood of love,
The absolute sacrifice.

She contrasts the fertility of motherhood with the barrenness of perfection and ends, “Voicelessness. The snow has no voice.”

In all three of these poems, “The Fearful,” “The Munich Mannequins,” and “Edge,” written between November 1962 and February 1963, Plath combines death, perfection, and motherhood. Perfection is always achieved in death and without children. Yet it is not clear whether perfection is really desirable. In “Munich Mannequins,” it is clearly not; barrenness is “voicelessness.” In “Edge,” her “Body wears the smile of accomplishment, / The illusion of a Greek necessity / Flows. …” But, significantly, it is only the “illusion”; it is not simply “a necessity.” And although there is no mention made of anything masculine in this poem, there is a dead woman, genderless children, and female moon, because of Plath's associations with Medea, the male role is implied. It is man who drove a woman to this point. It was Jason's disregard for his marriage vows to Medea even though she had been faithful, loved him, and bore him two children, which drove Medea to her violent acts.

“Edge” presents contradictory images of motherhood and forces the reader to examine the contradictory expectations women are expected to live up to. Women are designed to produce. Reproduction is a sacrifice that is built into them. Yet giving birth, nurturing and raising children also wear a woman's body down. Although women are expected to nurture and produce, they are also expected to be young, vibrant, beautiful, attractive to their husbands. But this type of physical perfection and child bearing are mutually exclusive, and having children is natural to women, perfection is not. In “Edge,” a woman has been driven to destroy her children and in so doing, herself. The flower of fertility closes, and she is perfected. “Her bare / Feet seem to be saying: / We have come so far, it is over.” In “Edge,” the moon looks on this scene and has “nothing to be sad about.” We are told, “She is used to this sort of thing.” Why is it necessary for the woman to achieve perfection? Are women regularly driven to the edge in this world, caught between their biological and social need to bear and nurture children and pressure to be the perfect sexual object? Plath ends only with the image of the moon, going on about her business, dragging the darkness along behind her.


  1. Sylvia Plath, “Edge,” The Collected Poems: Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper, 1981) 272-3.

  2. Euripides, Medea, trans. Rex Warner, The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, ed. Marnard Mack, 6th ed., vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 1992) 768.

  3. Plath, “Lady Lazarus,” 244-47.

  4. Plath, “Daddy,” 222-24.

  5. Plath, “Lesbos,” 227-30.

  6. Plath, “The Fearful,” 256.

  7. Plath, “The Munich Mannequins,” 262-63.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641


Hargrove, Nancy D. “The Chronology of Sylvia Plath's Poems: 1956-1959.” Studies in Bibliography 45 (1992): 266-92.

Chronological bibliography of Plath's early poems, with supporting commentary from Plath's journals.

Meyering, Sheryl L. Sylvia Plath: A Reference Guide, 1973-1988. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1990, 203 pp.

Guide to Plath criticism and primary sources from 1973 to 1988.

Tabor, Stephen. Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Publishing Corporation, 1987, 268 pp.

Bibliography of Plath's primary works, focusing on monograph publications and Plath's contribution to periodicals.


Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991, 402 pp.

Biography of Plath; Alexander notes in his preface that Ted Hughes did not wish to participate in the publication of any biographical material on Plath.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 257 pp.

Discusses events of Plath's life as they appear in her poetry.

Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann, 1991, 220 pp.

Attempts to provide biographical information not previously known and to uncover the motivations behind Plath's suicide.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989, 413 pp.

Explains the effects of fame on Plath's life and work both before and after her death; contains appendices written by Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy.

Thompson, Catherine. “‘Dawn Poems in Blood’: Sylvia Plath and PMS.” TriQuarterly, no. 80 (Winter 1990): 221-49

Interprets Plath's poems and journal entries from a physiological point of view, arguing that Plath most likely suffered from severe premenstrual syndrome.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, 282 pp.

Biography that “emphasizes Plath's identity as a writer.”

———. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, 172 pp.

Literary biography of Plath.


Alvarez, A. “Your Story, My Story.” New Yorker 73, no. 45 (2 February 1998): 58-65.

Overview of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters that reprints several poems from the volume.

Annas, Pamela J. A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, 186 pp.

Examines Plath's search for selfhood through her poetry.

Bremer, J. M. “Three Approaches to Sylvia Plath's Electra on Azalea Path.”1Neophilologus 76, no. 2 (1992): 305-16.

Analyzes Plath's poem “Electra on Azalea Path” by explaining the mythical figure of Electra, providing an autobiographical sketch of Plath, and assessing the poem itself.

Broe, Mary Lynn. “Plathologies: The ‘Blood Jet’ Is Bucks, Not Poetry.” Belles Lettres 10, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 48-62

Examines the “murky politics of critical interpretation and disturbing editorial and censorship practices [surrounding] Plath's publication history.”

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1983, 284 pp.

Discusses Plath poems as being particularly female.

Hughes, Ted. “On Sylvia Plath.” Raritan 14, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 1-10.

Discusses Plath's difficulties with writing narrative prose.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. London: Virago Press, 1991, 288 pp.

Analyzes the impact of Plath's works and legend on the wider culture.

Sugars, Cynthia. “Sylvia Plath as Fantasy Space; or, The Return of the Living Dead.” Literature and Psychology 45, no. 3 (1999): 1-28.

Attempts to read Plath's works as fantasy, both to Plath and to the reader.

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1993, 206 pp.

Examines Plath's texts as a key to her self-representation.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Routledge, 1988, 332 pp.

Collects reviews and criticism of Plath's work.

Additional coverage of Plath's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 19-20; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 34; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 14, 17, 50, 51, 62, 111; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poetry; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 6, 152; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 96; and World Literature Criticism.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Sylvia Plath Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Plath, Sylvia (Feminism in Literature)

Explore Study Guides