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Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
Ms Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer who lived in England. Her elegant and controlled style belied her images of anger, violence, and pain. Her finest work is the poetic realization of ultimate love and ultimate death. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
The first review I ever wrote of a book of poems was of her first book of poems, that breviary of estrangement (the rhymes are all slant, the end-stop avoided like a reproach), The Colossus…. The conflict, or at least the confrontation between what I should designate 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": such was the dilemma I glimpsed as a departure at the end of The Colossus. (pp. 413-15)
Yet now that we have the whole thing together, the two books of poems and the novel …—now that we can see Sylvia Plath's life, as she kept meaning us to, from the vantage of her death, we must not make too great a disjunction between the "conceptual" and the "immanent," the bridged and the engulfed in her utterance. It was all one effort—as Hughes says perfectly: "she faced a task in herself, and her poetry is the record of her progress in the task…. The poems are chapters in a mythology"—and it was all one quest, as Sylvia Plath says imperfectly (that is, with the abiding awareness of imperfection), in an uncollected poem:
… With luck I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call these spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles.
Her entire body of work can be understood best as a transaction—out of silence, into the dark—with otherness: call it death, or The Stone, or as she came to call it, "stasis in darkness" ("Ariel"), "great Stasis" ("Years"), in the first book such negotiations taking the form of a dialogue ("your voices lay siege … promising sure harborage"), which is to say taking a form; while in the later poems she is speaking from a point of identification with stasis which is complete, resolved, irreversible ("the cold dead center / where spilt lives congeal and stiffen to history")—she is on the other side, within the Deathly Paradise, so that it is the triumph of her final style to make expression and extinction indivisible ("I like black statements"). Which is why A. L. Alvarez says that her poems read as if they were written posthumously, for the very source of Sylvia Plath's creative energy was her self-destructiveness. (pp. 415-16)
We shall best realize the goal and the gain of Sylvia Plath's poetry if we reckon with Joy as Nietzsche accounts for it:
… All that suffers wants to live, longing for what is farther, higher, brighter. "I want heirs"—thus speaks all that suffers; "I want children, I do not want myself."
Joy it is that wants itself—the ring's will strives in it …
Joy, however, does not want heirs, or children—joy wants itself, wants eternity, wants everything eternally the same.
And we shall best recognize the vestal responsibilities of the woman occupied by such joy if we invoke the demonstrated responsibilities of other women—such heroic initiates as Pauline Réage and Doris Lessing; it is in the cause of a sacramental joy that Histoire d'O and To Room Nineteen survey the entire sweep of a spiritual evolution, an ascesis whose inevitable conclusion—after everything else has been endured—is the body's destruction. (pp. 417-18)
Sylvia Plath enters upon her apprenticeship to otherness, to ecstasy; more ceremonious than Lessing, more ingenuous than Réage, but like them prepared to obey a tragic ontogeny ("I am ready for enormity"), she sloughs off—we see her divest herself of—mere personality like the cloud … in order to achieve the ecstatic identity conferred by Joy…. Though she submits herself to the ordeal, the process refuses to take, and the would-be victim is left with only the impenetrable surface of existence…. [No]—joy cannot be willed, it can only be surrendered to, gained when it has been given over…. That is why the poems in this first book … are all confessions of failure, records of estrangement, even boasts of betrayal…. The exhaustion before its term of the lithic impulse, as I have called it, the impoverishment of the effort to escape effort ("the stars are no nearer … and all things sink / into a soft caul of forgetfulness … This is not death, it is something safer") is the worry of The Colossus…. (pp. 418-19)
Richard Howard, "Sylvia Plath," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 413-22.
The poems in Sylvia Plath's The Colossus are largely flawed by a rhythmical and lexical vulgarity. However, many of them are very good poems, there is a powerful sense of them having come from a single, eccentric imagination, and they are full of strange and startling expressions. They are also identifiably by the author of Ariel. For example, there are forecasts of Ariel's subject-matter, that evolution of psychological background, domestic oppression and public and private pain, into a private and ultimate specialisation. In order to achieve that unique and powerful poetry it was necessary to abandon the earlier clotted style…. [There is] a quite obvious liberation of tone and freedom of movement in her later verse which is unlike anything in The Colossus. It will be reasonable to suggest that the compulsion to dramatise what she had come to see as her identity was so strong, and so artistically felt, that it was necessary to devise a way of writing that would be a literary version of the identity she was obsessed with fulfilling—in other words she had to find her "own voice", that unriddable cliché. (p. 68)
Crossing the Water is much freer in style than the first book. There is still something formulaic and precious about her phrase-making: "… a valedictory, pale hand"; or "Black, admonitory cliffs." However, there is more of that zany, accurate and unexpected imagery that is so central to the style of Ariel, and also the first book. Alert, nervous, and often domestic, it is one of her peculiar strengths. (p. 69)
What struck me most after reading Crossing the Water was not just that it was so good, or that none of the poems there had been thought good enough for Ariel, but that Ariel itself represents such a unified stretch of work, such a strong and tragically magnificent working out of a single complicated theme….
Crossing the Water is an indispensable book, and Sylvia Plath one of that handful of modern poets whom intelligent readers will feel, more and more, that they have no option but to try and understand. (p. 70)
Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1971 by Encounter Ltd.), August, 1971, pp. 68-70.
It is difficult to describe the peculiar quality of Sylvia Plath's last poems. Their originality is not simply an originality of mood. Nor does it lie in the brilliance and precision of her language, although in a certain sense Sylvia Plath's descriptive talent was greater than any other she had. Perhaps what is most surprising is the complete avoidance of hysteria. For Sylvia Plath's poetry is never reflective; it contains no sympathy for attitudes that were not her own. Her intelligence sought expression not in judgement but in the lightning clarity of revelation. The poems present a sudden glimpse of things, and, caught in that glimpse, a moment of intense emotion. Her great achievement was to evolve a style that would fit this precarious mode of lyrical expression: the multiple metaphors, the quick rhythms, the mastery of colloquial speech, the extraordinary language, and the direct, unhesitant manner.
In the later poetry we find no attempt to say anything. Images enter these later poems as particulars only, without symbolic significance, and however much the poet may borrow the emotional charge from distant and surprising sources (from the imaginary life in ocean depths, from the real and imaginary calamities of modern history) it is never with any hint of an intellectual aim. It is tempting to restore to these poems some vestiges of generality, by interpreting them as Freudian parables, or as complex symbols. But although the poems of Ariel and Winter Trees invite such an interpretation, they also show how valueless it is. It is not through their coincidence with unconscious wishes that these poems affect us, nor do they have any symbolic force comparable to their overwhelming immediacy of impact. Everything in them is objective, concrete, conscious; we can feel moved by Sylvia Plath's obsessions without feeling any need to share in them.
Roger Scruton, "Sylvia Plath and the Savage God," in The Spectator (© 1971 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 18, 1971, p. 890.
Tragedy is not a woman, however gifted, dragging her shadow around in a circle or analyzing with dazzling scrupulosity the stale, boring inertia of the circle; tragedy is cultural, mysteriously enlarging the individual so that what he has experienced is both what we have experienced and what we need not experience—because of his, or her, private agony. It is proper to say that Sylvia Plath represents for us a tragic figure involved in a tragic action, and that her tragedy is offered to us as a near-perfect work of art in her books…. [The] cult of Sylvia Plath insists that she is a saintly martyr, but of course she is something less dramatic than that, though more valuable. The "I" of the poems is an artful construction, a tragic figure whose tragedy is classical, the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature—as in the poem "Mirror," the eye of a little god that imagines itself without preconceptions, "unmisted by love or dislike." This is the audacious hubris of tragedy, the inevitable reality-challenging statement of the participant in a dramatic action which he does not know is "tragic." He dies, and only we can see the purpose of his death—to illustrate the error of a personality that believed itself godlike. (pp. 501-02)
[The] creatures of "Heavy Women"… smile to themselves above their "weighty stomachs" and meditate "devoutly as the Dutch bulb," absolutely mute, "among the archetypes." Between the archetypes of jealous, ruthless power represented by the Father/Son of religious and social tradition, and the archetype of moronic fleshly beauty represented by these smug mothers, there is a very small space for the creative intellect, for the employment and expansion of a consciousness that tries to transcend such limits. Before we reject Sylvia Plath's definition of the artistic self as unreasonably passive, even as infantile, we should inquire why so intelligent a woman should assume these limitations, why she should not declare war against the holders of power and of the "mysteries" of the flesh—why her poetry approaches but never crosses over the threshold of an active, healthy attack upon obvious evils and injustices. The solitary ego in its prison cell is there by its own desire, its own admission of guilt in the face of even the most crazily ignorant of accusors. (p. 504)
Sylvia Plath did not like other people; like many who are persecuted, she identified in a perverse way with her own persecutors and not with those who, along with her, were victims. But she did not "like" other people because she did not essentially believe that they existed; she knew intellectually that they existed, of course, since they had the power to injure her, but she did not believe they existed in the way she did, as pulsating, breathing, suffering individuals. Even her own children were objects of her perception, there for the restless scrutiny of her image-making mind and not there as human beings with a potentiality that would someday take them beyond their immediate dependency upon her, which she sometimes enjoyed and sometimes dreaded.
The moral assumptions behind Sylvia Plath's poetry condemned her to death, just as she, in creating this body of poems, condemned it to death. But her moral predicament is not so pathological as one might think, if conformity to an essentially sick society is taken to be—as many traditional moralists and psychologists take it—a sign of normality. Miss Plath speaks very clearly a language we can understand. She is saying what men have been saying for many centuries, though they have not been so frank as she and, being less sensitive as well, they have not sickened upon their own hatred for humanity—they have thrived upon it, in fact, "sublimating" it into wondrous achievements of material and mechanical splendor. Let us assume that Sylvia Plath acted out in her poetry and in her private life the deathliness of an old consciousness, the old corrupting hell of the Renaissance ideal and its "I"-ness separate and distinct from all other fields of consciousness, which exist only to be conquered or to inflict pain upon the "I." Where at one point in civilization this very masculine, combative ideal of an "I" set against all other "I's"—and against nature as well—was necessary in order to wrench man from the hermetic contemplation of a God-centered universe and get him into action, it is no longer necessary; its health has become a pathology and whoever clings to its outmoded concepts will die. If Romanticism and its gradually accelerating hysteria is taken as the ultimate end of a once-vital Renaissance ideal of subject/object antagonism, then Miss Plath must be diagnosed as one of the last Romantics; and already her poetry seems to us a poetry of the past, swiftly receding into history.
The "I" that is declared an enemy of all others cannot identify with anyone or anything, since even nature—or especially nature—is antagonistic to it. Man is spirit/body, but as in the poem "Last Things," Sylvia Plath states her distrust of the spirit which "escapes like steam/In dreams, through the mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can't stop it." Spirit is also intellect, but the "intellect" exists uneasily inside a prison-house of the flesh, a small, desperate calculating process (like the Ego in Freud's psychology) that achieves only spasmodic powers of identity in the constant struggle between the Id and the Superego or between the bestial world of fleshly female "archetypes" and hypocritical, deathly male authorities. This intellect does not belong naturally in the universe and feels guilt and apprehension at all times. It does not belong in nature; nature is "outside" man, superior in brute power to man though admittedly inferior in the possibilities of imagination. When this intellect attempts its own kind of creation, it cannot be judged as transcendent to the biological processes of change and decay but as somehow conditioned by these processes and, of course, found inferior. Why else would Miss Plath call a poem about her own poetry "Stillborn" and lament the deadness of her poems, forcing them to compete with low but living creatures?—"They are not pigs, they are not even fish…." It is one of the truly pathological habits of this old consciousness that it puts all things into immediate competition: erecting Aristotelian categories of X and non-X, assuming that the distinction between two totally unconnected phases of life demands a kind of war, a superior/inferior grading. (pp. 504-06)
The poems of hatred seem to us very contemporary, in their jagged rhythms and surreal yoking together of images, and in their defiant expression of a rejection of love, of motherhood, of men, of the "Good, the True, the Beautiful…." If life really is a struggle for survival, even in a relatively advanced civilization, then very few individuals will win; most will lose (and nearly all women are fated to lose); something is rotten in the very fabric of the universe. All this appears to be contemporary, but Sylvia Plath's poems are in fact the clearest, most precise (because most private) expression of an old moral predicament that has become unbearable now in the mid-twentieth century. (p. 509)
The passive, paralyzed, continually surfacing and fading consciousness of Sylvia Plath in her poems is disturbing to us because it seems to summon forth, to articulate with deadly accuracy, the regressive fantasies we have rejected—and want to forget. The experience of reading her poems deeply is a frightening one: it is like waking to discover one's adult self, grown to full height, crouched in some long-forgotten childhood hiding place, one's heart pounding senselessly, all the old, rejected transparent beasts and monsters crawling out of the wallpaper. So much for Plato! So much for adulthood! Yet I cannot emphasize strongly enough how valuable the experience of reading Miss Plath can be, for it is a kind of elegant "dreaming-back," a cathartic experience that not only cleanses us of our personal and cultural desires for regression, but explains by way of its deadly accuracy what was wrong with such desires.
The same can be said for the reading of much of contemporary poetry and fiction, fixated as it is upon the childhood fears of annihilation and persecution, the helplessness we have all experienced when we are, for one reason or another, denied an intellectual awareness of what is happening. For instance, the novels of Robbe-Grillet and his imitators emphasize the hypnotized passivity of the "I" in a world of dense and apparently autonomous things; one must never ask "Who manufactured these things? who brought them home? who arranged them?"—for such questions destroy the novels. Similarly, the highly praised works of Pynchon, Barthelme, Barth (the Barth of the minimal stories, not the earlier Barth), and countless others, are verbalized screams and shudders to express the confusion of the ego that believes—perhaps because it has been told so often—itself somehow out of place in the universe, a mechanized creature if foolish enough to venture into Nature; a too-natural creature for the mechanical urban paradise he has inherited but has had no part in designing. The "I" generated by these writers is typically a transparent, near-nameless personality; in the nightmarish works of William Burroughs, the central consciousness does not explore a world so much as submit pathetically to the exploration of himself by a comically hostile world, all cartoons and surprising metamorphoses. Sylvia Plath's tentative identity in such poems as "Winter Trees," "Tulips," and even the robustly defiant "Daddy" is a child's consciousness, essentially, seizing upon a symbolic particularity (tulips, for instance) and then shrinking from its primary noon, so that the poems—like the fiction we read so often today—demonstrate a dissolution of personality. (pp. 509-11)
There is never any integrating of the self and its experience, the self and its field of perception. Human consciousness, to Sylvia Plath, is always an intruder in the natural universe.
This distrust of the intellect in certain poets can result in lyric-meditative poetry of an almost ecstatic beauty, when the poet acknowledges his separateness from nature but seems not to despise or fear it…. It is a paradox that the poet believes he will honor the objects of his perception—whether swallows, trees, sheep, bees, or infants—only by withdrawing from them. Why does it never occur to Romantic poets that they exist as much by right in the universe as any other creature, and that their function as poets is a natural function—that the human imagination is, to put it bluntly, superior to the imagination of birds and infants?
In art this can lead to silence; in life, to suicide. (pp. 513-14)
Perhaps it is not just Sylvia Plath's position at the end of a once-energetic tradition, and the circumstances of her own unhappy life, that doomed her and her poetry to premature dissolution, but something in the very nature of lyric poetry itself. What of this curious art form which, when not liberated by music, tends to turn inward upon the singer, folding and folding again upon the poet? If he is immature to begin with, of what can he sing except his own self's immaturity, and to what task can his imagination put itself except the selection of ingenious images to illustrate this immaturity?… The risk of lyric poetry is its availability to the precocious imagination, its immediate rewards in terms of technical skill, which then hypnotize the poet into believing that he has achieved all there is to achieve in life as well as in his art…. Most lyric poets explore themselves endlessly, like patients involved in a permanent psychoanalysis, reporting back for each session determined to discover, to drag out of hiding, the essential problem of their personalities—when perhaps there is no problem in their personalities at all, except this insane preoccupation with the self and its moods and doubts, while much of the human universe struggles simply for survival…. The small, enclosed form of the typical lyric poem seems to preclude an active sanctifying of other people…. [The] lyric poet, if he is stuck in a limited emotional cul-de-sac, will circle endlessly inside the bell jar of his own world and only by tremendous strength can he break free. (pp. 514-16)
Again, lyric poetry is a risk because it rarely seems to open into a future: the time of lyric poetry is usually the present or the past. "This is a disease I carry home, this is a death," Miss Plath says in "Three Women," and, indeed, this characterizes most of her lines. All is brute process, without a future; the past is recalled only with bitterness, a stimulus for present dismay.
When the epic promise of "One's-self I sing" is mistaken as the singing of a separate self, and not the universal self, the results can only be tragic. (p. 518)
Sylvia Plath's essential innocence, her victimization by the pressures of an old, dying, ungenerous conception of man and his relationship to nature, must be made clear; this essay is not an attack upon her. She understood well the hellish fate of being Swift's true counterpart, the woman who agrees that the physical side of life is a horror, an ungainly synthesis of flesh and spirit—the disappointment of all the Romantic love poems and the nightmare of the monkish soul. (pp. 518-19)
In most of the poems, and very noticeably in The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath exhibits a recurring tendency to dehumanize people, to flatten everyone into "cut-paper people," most of all herself. She performs a kind of reversed magic, a desacralizing ritual for which psychologists have terms—reification, rubricization. Absolute, dramatic boundaries are set up between the "I" and all others, and there is a peculiar refusal to distinguish among those who mean well, those who mean ill, and those who are neutral. Thus, one is shocked to discover in The Bell Jar that Esther, the intelligent young narrator, is as callous toward her mother as the psychiatrist is to her, and that she sets about an awkward seduction with the chilling precision of a machine—hardly aware of the man involved, telling us very little about him as an existing human being. He does not really exist, he has no personality worth mentioning. Only Esther exists.
"Lady Lazarus," risen once again from the dead, does not expect a sympathetic response from the mob of spectators that crowd in to view her, a mock-phoenix rising from another failed suicide attempt: to Sylvia Plath there cannot be any connection between people, between the "I" that performs and the crowd that stares. All deaths are separate, and do not evoke human responses. To be really safe, one must be like the young man of "Gigolo," who has eluded the "bright fish hooks, the smiles of women," and who will never age because—like Miss Plath's ideal self—he is a perfect narcissus, self-gratified. He has successfully dehumanized himself.
The Cosmos is indeed lost to Sylvia Plath and her era, and even a tentative exploration of a possible "God" is viewed in the old terms, in the old images of dread and terror. "Mystic" is an interesting poem, on a subject rare indeed in Miss Plath, and seems to indicate that her uneasiness with the "mill of hooks" of the air—"questions without answer"—had led her briefly to thoughts of God. Yet whoever or whatever this "God" is, no comfort is possible because the ego cannot experience any interest or desire without being engulfed…. Sylvia Plath has made beautiful poetry out of the paranoia sometimes expressed by a certain kind of emotionally disturbed person, who imagines that any relationship with anyone will overwhelm him, engulf and destroy his soul. (For a brilliant poem about the savagery of erotic love between lovers who cannot quite achieve adult autonomy or the generosity of granting humanity to each other, see Ted Hughes's "Lovesong," in Crow, not inappropriate in this context.)
The dread of being possessed by the Other results in the individual's failure to distinguish between real and illusory enemies…. Sylvia Plath's inability to grade the possibilities of danger is reflected generally in our society, and helps to account for peculiar admissions of helplessness and confusion in adults who should be informing their children: if everything unusual or foreign is an evil, if everything new is an evil, then the individual is lost. The political equivalent of childlike paranoia is too obvious to need restating, but we have a cultural equivalent as well which seems to pass unnoticed. Surely the sinister immorality of films like A Clockwork Orange (though not the original, English version of the Burgess novel) lies in their excited focus upon small, isolated, glamorized acts of violence by non-representative individuals, so that the unfathomable violence of governments is totally ignored or misapprehended. (pp. 519-21)
What may come to seem obvious to people in the future—that unique personality does not necessitate isolation, that the "I" of the poet belongs as naturally in the universe as any other aspect of its fluid totality, above all that this "I" exists in a field of living spirit of which it is one aspect—was tragically unknown to Miss Plath, as it has been unknown or denied by most men. Hopefully, a world of totality awaits us, not a played-out world of fragments; but Sylvia Plath acted out a tragically isolated existence, synthesizing for her survivors so many of the sorrows of that dying age—Romanticism in its death throes, the self's ship, Ariel, prematurely drowned. (p. 522)
Joyce Carol Oates, "The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poems of Sylvia Plath," in The Southern Review (copyright © 1973 by Joyce Carol Oates; reprinted by permission of the author and her agent, Blanche C. Gregory, Inc.), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 501-22.
Sylvia Plath, martyr and archetype in the imagination of many, dangerously courted some portion of the blame for these irrelevant labels in more than one aspect of her poetry. Admiring critics in the decade since she committed suicide at the age of thirty have tried assiduously to dissociate her from the death-happy exultation of her cult. Yet this very ghoulishness has marked, often enough, their own accounts of her talent. It was A. Alvarez who, shortly after Sylvia Plath's own solemnizing gesture, established the orthodox tone of her praise [see excerpts in CLC-2]: "The achievement of her final style is to make poetry and death inseparable…."
Poetry of this order is a murderous art.
Murderous, that is, rather than suicidal: Sylvia Plath is a martyr in this view to the demands of her art. It follows that to appreciate her poetry we must recognize the rightness, even the value, of her self-destruction.
The aesthetic that underlies this claim is not only confused but disastrous; though Alvarez's sympathy for the poet is incontrovertible, what he urges is ultimately unfeeling and inhumane. And though not all subsequent appreciation of Plath has struck his peculiar and abyss-dwelling note, it has been decisive for the conventional understanding of her poetry until now…. Alvarez has done much—very nearly everything—to influence our way of receiving the poems, and some of it has been useful…. But his disservice may be more enduring still.
What is most suspicious and disconcerting, however, about this intense and apparently irresponsible collation of her suicide and her poetry is the ease with which the case may be supported by citation from the poems themselves:
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
Equally troubling are those moments, for example in "Lady Lazarus," when Plath envisions suicide attempts, quite as the cult of Plath does, as fundamentally performances, pieces of art, like poetry itself:
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
These are my hands,
The notion of theatrical suicide is satirized, of course, but it is also relished, even sexually relished: "The big strip tease." (It may be said that the analogy between suicide and strip tease is not obscene only in the complicated sense in which Fellini is not obscene.) The poem records a series of three unsuccessful suicide attempts, each of which the lady is proud of having performed, proud of having survived:
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—
A sort of walking miracle …
The tone is weirdly masochistic and show-offy. ("I guess you could say I had a call") and remarkably free of dread. But it's not the private and discreet suicide that appeals to her, nor, indeed, the successful one. Rather,
It's the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face,
the same brute
That knocks me out.
I do not mean to say of such a poem that, having written it, Sylvia Plath had invited the "peanut-crunching crowd" to a celebration of her own, real suicide, though come they did. Nor does she imply that a performance of this kind could be painlessly observed: "There is a charge/For the eyeing of my scars." But even in this detail, self-importance mixes with self-loathing: a decidedly public self-immolation.
The most suitable defense against the charge I have just made is that the "I" of Sylvia Plath's poetry is an artificial construct, and not Sylvia herself—in spite of the avowed "confessional" models, such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, in spite of the unmistakable and direct autobiographical inspirations, in spite of the fact that more than a few of her poems, and among them the most important, are partially or wholly unintelligible without autobiographical gloss. It is not Sylvia Plath, but the persona of "Lady Lazarus," who is self-aggrandizing, the persona of "Daddy" who is vindictive, etc. I am not convinced by this defense, though it has New Critical good sense behind it, because in the case of Plath it leaves too much excepted, too much in awkward doubt. I suspect that when it is rigorously prosecuted, and it rarely is, it would end in a preference for the earliest Plath, the poems of Colossus (1960), a technically sure but derivative and generally bland first book. Plath's achievement, whatever its merits, rests on the posthumous collections, Ariel (1966), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1971), where indisputable originality of voice and subject matter abounds. One has the feeling, in turning from Colossus to these, that a mask has been dropped, and any understanding of her poetry which depends upon the assumption of a mask must stop where these begin. (pp. 47-8)
[Where] the poet chooses a method especially "confessional" and direct, as in Plath's poetry, or as in Robert Lowell's Life Studies,… a lack of self-knowledge can have dire aesthetic consequences. By self-knowledge I mean not some tidy, amateur delineation of psychic cause and psychic effect, but a sensitive, probative apprehension of root contradiction, root ambivalence in the self, without which the poetry, however "felt" or strident, must be shallow, unsponsored from within. The poem "Lady Lazarus" is, in the end, not autobiographical enough: it tells us something about how much she suffers, and less about how, and nothing about why. And that is true of Sylvia Plath's presentation of the other themes of her poetry: death, and bearing children, and hating one's father, and going without love. (p. 48)
I don't well see how anyone who has read James Dickey's Deliverance could call Plath's The Bell Jar (1963) a "poet's novel," though that is the rather evasive description it is usually given…. It is true that there is a tendency in the prose to dilate upon analogies and images until they achieve an autonomous significance rare in conventional novels…. All of this novel's successes are of this sort; as a narrative it is pedestrian. The chapter in which Esther Greenwood learns to ski, for example, could hardly be duller. But when we find her poised, alone, at the top of the slope, the novel becomes, for a paragraph, a "poet's" again….
Of course, the genre to which The Bell Jar genuinely belongs is unmistakable. It would have been hard indeed to write a novel about adolescent Weltschmerz in the early 50's without feeling the influence of J. D. Salinger, even if one hadn't been an undergraduate of modish literary pretensions at the time. The confrontation between innocence and the big city, the embarrassed and embarrassing pretense at knowing its ways; the sexually advanced roommate, the first sexual encounter and its horrors, the inevitable boozy nausea; the return to a distant and uncomprehending parent, the withdrawal and mounting fascination with death, the ultimate breakdown…. [The] question upon which any judgment of The Bell Jar must turn [is] to what extent does the world beyond the parameters of Esther's psychosis seem real? Sylvia Plath is reported to have said of the novel that she tried to "show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown…. I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar…. My second book will show that same world as seen through the eyes of health." It is certainly unfair to adduce the genius of Proust, which was to write both these novels at once; but no novel could be unvaryingly one or the other without a damning thinness, and in respect of this it may be that [Catcher in the Rye] comes nearer the mark. Salinger succeeds in conveying to us that it is in his narrator's unwillingness to tell us "all that David Copperfield kind of crap"—the complex personal history, the why of suffering—that his trouble is fixed. The world beyond the parameters of the psychosis includes, then, not only the material world and its threatening "otherness," but the psychotic's own submerged past, the repressed realms of the self. It is here that The Bell Jar fails: we never see around the edges of the distorting lens, either outward into the world, or inward, into the self. But experiences whose effects the distortion of the lens will intensify—suicide, attempted rape, electroshock therapy—are here in abundant and vivid detail. They stack up like atrocities on the evening news. (p. 49)
A … pertinent strain in Plath's work is her concern with a woman's experience of her own body. One essay in the volume Radical Feminism describes Plath as the poet of woman's body as "biological prison." It is a fact that, early and late, the poet was preoccupied with the imagery of female genitals, menstruation and menopause, child-bearing and miscarriage. But, as in a line like "The womb/ Rattles its pods," the tone of such preoccupation is sour, the presumed distance between the self and the body is great. The recurring desire for cleanliness and purity—
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Hurts me as the world hurts God.
—is really the desire not to have a body at all, and manifests itself in disgust with all bodily functions, and especially 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—…
There is some question about the value of the lessons women can learn about themselves from a text of such self-hatred. (p. 50)
[It] is maudlin and depraved to speak of her death as if it were inevitable, or of her suicide as if it were murder. This, finally, is what Alvarez does, suggesting that the poet was (and is) a victim not in the sense in which we all are, but in some elect and especially stricken way. Plath herself goes further, and identifies suicide not only with murder but even with genocide….
Her comparison of her suffering to the suffering of the six million [Jews killed in the Holocaust] has been, of course, one of the most controversial features of her poems, as it is one of their most striking….
But what relevance do her poems establish? In "Lady Lazarus," the Belsen allusions tell us that she is oppressed, now by the "brute amused" crowd, now by "Herr Doktor" and "Herr God, Herr Lucifer." We know that she takes over from her oppressors the act of her own persecution, perhaps to win their approval, or to give to herself the sense of identity and self-command. We know also that such reversals were common in the concentration camps. The allusion has intensified her suffering in our imagination, and lent to it an air of cultural and historical importance. But where is there even a pretense of its legitimacy, a shred of support for such claims? There is none…. Moreover, what can Plath's claims for the "relevance" of her personal suffering mean? Despite the account of suffering it contains, and the larger amount that it invokes, "Lady Lazarus" conspicuously fails to tell us anything about the nature of suffering itself.
Plath's commitment to death was obscure—obscure to herself, we can only assume, because obscure in her art—and in her failure of insight, she left herself only the choice between a cold, still death and a "bed of fire." The sardonic triumph of the former is recorded in "Edge":
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity …
Each dead child, coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty….
[The] implication is that all accomplishment, all the earnest endeavor of our lives, tends toward this final perfection. It is a perfection that is achieved, moreover, with "the illusion of a Greek necessity," that is, as if our state were naturally and necessarily so perfect, which it is not. Instead, we must accomplish death: we die by art. Her poem itself is the penultimate gesture, the cutting "Edge." The … serpent is an infant child. (p. 51)
[It] remains for me to say how mean a poem it is, how fundamentally cold-hearted and unkind. One may take as an example its very simplest unkindness: the image of the dead children "coiled" at the woman's breast. Their own deaths are, of course, irrelevant to the poem; they exist only as props. As such, they are examples of what the poet has called "flat," "cardboard" people, meaning "the other": ultimately, anyone but herself. The failure to imagine the other as having what George Eliot called an "equivalent center of self" is, of course, a moral lapse, but it is also an aesthetic one. Where Sylvia Plath's failure as an artist is not rooted in a failure to apprehend herself, it is rooted in a failure to apprehend the self in others.
Such judgments are possible—I would say, necessary—when we have wiped from our minds, "like chalk from a blackboard," the myth of Sylvia Plath's martyrdom. Her death, they say, begs all questions of sincerity in her poems. It may be so. It is impossible to read her poetry without being convinced of the pain in which it had its origin. It is impossible not to be moved. But in the end we must make judgments based upon our allegiance to life. (pp. 51-2)
John Romano, "Sylvia Plath Reconsidered" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, April, 1974, pp. 47-52.
Alternately heroine or victim or martyr, [Sylvia Plath] has been symbolized so hauntingly in the cultural consciousness that it is difficult not to read her life—with its gestures of defiance, courage, compulsion and despair—rather than her work in which those gestures are reflected or re-imagined. The reasons can be sifted. Certainly in the last fifteen years the taste has been created by which she is so appreciated—with critics madly urging the Extremist visions of madness, and the new energies released by the increasing acceptance by poets and readers of the confessional mode. The way we live now, as well, must be counted: the context of a decade stalked by public violence and private nightmare, the lip-service paid to women as a class, and our desperate national psychoses that are run like films out of sequence. There is this and more, and none of it enough.
Some of the more obvious damage caused by this aghast, retrospective piety has been done to Plath's first, and now overpraised, collection, The Colossus. There is about this volume the self-consciousness of beginnings. It is poetry of chosen words, of careful schemes and accumulated effects; its voice is unsteady, made-up. It leans heavily on its models and sources; there are broad hints of help from Roethke and Stevens, and even Eliot is echoed without parody: "In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow." Ted Hughes seems also to have been a strong influence, but one need only compare her "Sow" to his "View of a Pig" (or to any of his other early animals) to sense the more natural ease with which he urges and controls his language and the power it draws from strangeness. The awkward refinement which separates her from Hughes is evident as well in the literary cast of many poems which borrow Oedipus or Gulliver, Byron or Medea, Gabriel or Lucina for their authority, and in the stiff, stale diction which rattles around in them: cuirass, wraith, descant, bole, ambrosial, bruit, casque, ichor, pellicle. Too often the poems show their seams, and carry with them the musty smell of the underlined Thesaurus which Hughes remembers always on her knee at this time…. The reductive eye dominates the book and its slow figures, blocked landscapes and primary colors. There are times, though, when another vision intrudes, when the "moony eye" is "needled dark" and transformed to the "Red cinder around which I myself,/ Horses, planets and spires revolve" ("The Eye-Mote"). It is then that she sees most clearly, and at the same time allows us access to her deepest concerns. For the book's value seems finally to lie not in the promise or accomplishment of its verse, but in its introduction of themes that would recur more forcefully in later work. (pp. 155-56)
Crossing The Water and Winter Trees gather most of Plath's uncollected "transitional" poems, and while a few of them predict Ariel, most are more or less uncertain efforts to secure a new voice. At one extreme, Yeats lurks behind her "Magi", and at the other, there is a wholly unsuccessful attempt at swagger ["Stopped Dead"]…. But generally, the lines are fuller and less studied than those in The Colossus, and her cadences are less tense, more closely adjusted to the speaking voice…. Perhaps this is due to the delayed influence of Robert Lowell—to whom she also admits a debt for his confessional "breakthrough."… Her own voice, the shrill, sharp sound that soars in Ariel, can be heard in such poems as "Whitsun", "Zoo Keeper's Wife", or in "Surgeon at 2 A.M." where the body is described as "a Roman thing"…. The poems in Winter Trees—poems like "Purdah", "Childless Woman", "By Candlelight" and "Thalidomide"—are closer still to the hard exactness of tone in Ariel; they read like the negatives from which the later poems were printed. The images used to enclose personal relationships are more carefully worked, and poems like "The Babysitters", "Leaving Early" and "Candles" demonstrate her increasing ability to accommodate facts into poetry, to discover her experiences rather than merely to display her feelings about them. (pp. 159-61)
Ted Hughes has described the style of Ariel as one of "crackling verbal energy." But the exuberance is of a special sort. One hesitates to term it "American," except that Plath herself does, in her 1962 interview: "I think that as far as language goes I'm an American, I'm afraid, my accent is American, my way of talk is an American way of talk." The dynamics, the sharp, quick tonal contrasts, the hard exactness of word and image, the jaunty slang, the cinematic cutting—these are what she is pointing to. Even in poems—like "Tulips"—with quieter long lines, she sustains a new tension of menace and energy…. [In the] book's best poems, the lines are pared down, at times to a stark, private code, but always with purity and precision. Paradoxically, this taut, new control often creates effects of singular primitivism. She may have sought these; Hughes recalls her reading African folktales "with great excitement." They may also owe something to her marked identification of the imagination with the unconscious. Poems like "Getting There", "Medusa", and "Little Fugue" splay psychic scraps across dream landscapes with the mastery of Ingmar Bergman. The Gothic, or merely grotesque, aspects in the late poems which critics have commented on seem to be the weaker signs of this tendency, and the several mystical plunges she takes—for example, in "The Night Dances", "The Moon and the Yew Tree", and "Poppies in July"—are also attempts to approach, through the unconscious, higher states of being and art. Plath confesses the influence of Blake on these later poems, and like Blake she often seems to compel her vision through the poem.
That vision, again, is one of "perfection"—a term as central to Plath as "circumference" is to Emily Dickinson. Though "Ariel" and "Yeats" offer terrified, exultant arguments against "great Stasis," and "The Munich Mannequins" presents an ambiguous image of those bloodless idols to the self, the relentless hunt for a still completion, a condition beyond "the aguey tendon" of mortality, beyond the Shelleyan veils of life, continues. (pp. 163-64)
The familiar dilemma and longing in Ariel … take on an urgency and poignance that the earlier volumes lack. Part of it lies in a despair with the very language the poet now finally controls:
Years later I
Encounter them on the road—
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.
Perhaps this is her frequent distrust of voice, but the poem ["Words"], which closes Ariel except for the last blank page, implies that the vision forever escapes the language that alone can restore it. The silence that "perfection" demands, like the trusting, completed silence of her infants, becomes then a source of confusion for the poet, as though to contemplate an action were already to have accomplished its consequences. What she substitutes for the contradictory silence is "purity," the process towards perfection: "Pure? What does it mean?" Again, her technique is shaped into her theme, and purity, the spoken silence of great suffering and of the mystics, becomes a central concern among some of the book's strongest poems. (p. 165)
Sylvia Plath's suicide, which some critics read as her last, inevitable poem, has led most critics to assume a greater degree of fulfillment and completion in her work than it can justly claim. Her consistency, instead, lies in her experimentations with voice, and in her reworkings of the dilemma of the divided mind. That she was able, in Ariel, to include so much more of her experience and of her most persistent theme, in a voice equal to their demands and significance, does not mean that she might not have continued to seek a style that would have allowed her to write from beyond the limits of her longing. Her last poems are just arriving. (p. 166)
J. D. McClatchy, "Staring from her Hood of Bone: Adjusting to Sylvia Plath" (copyright © 1974 by J. D. McClatchy), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 155-66.
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