Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
An American poet who moved to England, Miss Plath is as well known for her suicide as for her poems. She is the author of The Colossus and Ariel, and the novel The Bell Jar. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
Poetry … is not made by efficiency—least of all Sylvia Plath's poetry. Instead, her extraordinary general competence was, I think, made necessary by what made her write; an underlying sense of violent unease. It took a great deal of efficiency to cope with that, to keep it in check. And when the efficiency finally failed, her world collapsed.
But she was disciplined in art, as in everything else. For a first volume, by someone still in her twenties, The Collossus is exceptionally accomplished. A poem like "The Ghost's Leavetaking" is fairly typical. It exhibits her range of language, in which the unexpected right word comes so easily….
In a way, most of her later poems are about … the unleashing of power, about tapping the roots of her own inner violence. There is, of course, nothing so very extraordinary about that. I think that, in general, this is the direction all the best contemporary poetry is taking. She, certainly, did not claim to be original in the kind of writing she was doing….
It seems to me that it was only by her determination both to face her most inward and terrifying experiences and to use her intelligence in doing so—so as not to be overwhelmed by them—that she managed to write [her] extraordinary last poems, which are at once deeply autobiographical and detached, generally relevant….
[What] is remarkable about ["Lady Lazarus"] is the objectivity with which she handles such personal material. She is clearly more than someone talking about her suffering. Instead, it is the very closeness of her pain which gives it a general meaning. Through it she assumes the suffering of all the modern victims. She becomes the Japanese murdered by the atom bombs. Above all, she becomes an imaginary Jew. I think this is a vitally important element in her work. For two reasons. First because anyone whose subject is suffering has a ready-made modern example of hell on earth in the concentration camps. And what matters in them is not so much the physical torture—since sadism is general and perennial—but the way modern, as it were industrial, techniques can be used to destroy utterly the human identity. Individual suffering can be heroic provided it leaves the person who suffers a sense of his own individuality—provided, that is, there is an illusion of choice remaining to him. But when suffering is mass-produced, men and women become as equal and identity-less as objects on an assembly-line, and nothing remains—certainly no values, no humanity. This anonymity of pain, which makes all dignity impossible, was Sylvia Plath's subject….
The achievement of her final style is to make poetry and death inseparable. The one could not exist without the other. And this is right. In a curious way, the poems read as though they were written posthumously. It needed not only great intelligence and insight to handle the material of them, it also took a kind of bravery. Poetry of this order is a murderous art.
A. Alvarez, "Sylvia Plath," in Review, No. 9, October, 1963, pp. 20-6.
The reception that has been accorded Sylvia Plath's last volume of verse [Ariel ] has been generous to a fault. The poems are marked by a good deal of freshness and originality, but collectively they do not seem to me to add up...
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to that self-consuming brilliance that some critics, including Mr. Robert Lowell in his introduction, have professed to find in them….
The life of these poems is centered in their imagery, but having read the volume several times over a period of two or three weeks, I find it difficult to discover under or behind the images a decisively shaping attitude towards experience. I do not mean that consistent attitudes are not present throughout the volume, but Miss Plath sometimes seems to have hardened into them; they do not seem to have evolved out of her sensibility to become the living form of what she writes. There is occasionally a kind of female hardness that I find resistible….
Marius Bewley, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1966, pp. 491-93.
[Sylvia Plath] chose, if that is the word, what seems to me the one alternative advance position to Lowell's along the dangerous confessional way, that of literally committing her own predicaments in the interests of her art until the one was so involved in the other that no return was possible. It was the old romantic fallacy, if you will, of confusing motive and art, or the real with the ideal. But in this instance the conception has no real meaning because the long, escalating drive toward suicide and the period of extraordinary creativity (comparable in its way to the brief, miraculous period of Keats's most fruitful writing) actually coincided, or were at least two functions of the same process. The commitment was violent, excluding other possibilities—although the poems themselves, because of their artistic character by which private obsession and disorientation become normalized as they are organized into a structure outside themselves, have many doors opening to other worlds. The poems of Ariel, written in 1962, were an extraordinary change from the careful, highly promising, but seldom exciting work of The Colossus (1960). Contemplation of the meaning of this change can easily arouse fear, for it suggests the dangers of the real thing, as opposed to the safer titillations of what usually passes for artistic and intellectual imagination. The Colossus does show some flashes of the longstanding imminence in Sylvia Plath of her final kind of awareness….
She was, as she says in 'Lady Lazarus,' 'only thirty' when she threw herself into that last burst of writing that culminated in Ariel and in her death, now (as in the case of Hart Crane's poems and his suicide) forever inseparable. We shall never be able to sort out clearly the unresolved, unbearably exposed suggestibility and agitation of these poems from the purely aesthetic energy that shaped the best of them. Reading 'Daddy' or 'Fever 103°,' you would say that if a poet is sensitive enough to the age and brave enough to face it directly it will kill him through the excitation of his awareness alone. Sometimes … Sylvia Plath could not distinguish between herself and the facts of, say, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. She was victim, killer, and the place and process of horror all at once.
This is not the whole picture. Though Sylvia Plath may become a legend, we ought not to indulge in oversimplification. Some of her last poems ('Poppies in October,' for instance) are cries of joy despite some grimmer notes. There is rhythmic experimentation looking to the future….
Under all the other motifs of Sylvia Plath's work, however, is the confusion of terror at death with fascination by it. The visions of the speaker as already dead are so vivid that they become yearnings toward that condition. In a later poem like 'Death & Co.,' what I have called her mastery of dynamics enables her to escape the almost inert heaviness of 'The Disquieting Muses.' 'Death & Co.' is one of several nearly perfect embodiments of this deeply compulsive motif of hers. In it, as in 'The Disquieting Muses,' there is a literal vision, this time of the two faces of death: the face of the condor and the face of the revolting but irresistible lover…. The faces are seen in relation to a projection of herself as dead, as part of a possibly beautiful series of patterned objects though a series in which she, as her living self, no longer exists. The tone shifts from the literalness of almost naturalistic description to passionate contempt to incantation and then to a single death-knell effect. The pictorial shifts, meanwhile, are comparable in variety to those that might be contrived with a motion-picture camera.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 79-89.
Sylvia Plath's only novel, the autobiographical The Bell Jar, is a deceptively modest, uncommonly fine piece of work…. It is written to a small scale, but flawlessly—an artistically uncompromising, witty account of the experiences, inner and outer, that led to Miss Plath's earlier breakdown and recovery.
The book is humorous and dramatic, the prose for the most part lean but sometimes, suddenly, full of a transforming imagery….
Miss Plath doesn't claim to "speak for" any time or anyone—and yet she does, because she speaks so accurately. The slip into breakdown is handled with such skill that the mad girl could be us, and her walk toward madness ours. The achievement is possible because, even in the extremity of irrationality and despair, a part of the narrator's fine intelligence remains alert and functioning, still attached to reality….
The novel has a sharp and memorable poignancy. With her classical restraint and purity of form, Sylvia Plath is always refusing to break your heart, though in the end she breaks it anyway.
Lucy Rosenthal, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 24, 1971; used with permission), April 24, 1971, p. 42.
[The Bell Jar] itself is no firebrand. It's a slight, charming, sometimes funny and mildly witty, at moments tolerably harrowing "first" novel, just the sort of clever book a Smith summa cum laude (which she was) might have written if she weren't given to literary airs. From the beginning our expectations of scandal and startling revelation are disappointed by a modesty of scale and ambition and a jaunty temperateness of tone. The voice is straight out of the 1950's: politely disenchanted, wholesome, yes, wholesome, but never cloying, immediately attractive, nicely confused by it all, incorrigibly truth-telling; in short, the kind of kid we liked then, the best product of our best schools. The hand of Salinger lay heavy on her….
She laid out the elements of her life, one after the other, and left to the late poems the necessary work of imagining and creating it: it is for this reason that we feel in the book an absence of weight and complexity sufficient to the subject.
On balance, The Bell Jar, good as it is, must be counted part of Sylvia Plath's juvenilia, along with most of the poems of her first volume; though in the novel as in a few of the early poems she foretells the last voice she was ever to command.
Saul Maloff, "Waiting for the Voice to Crack," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 8, 1971, pp. 33-5.
Young people love The Bell Jar. Not since J. D. Salinger has anyone pinioned "phoniness" so totally to their satisfaction, and nothing since Franny and Zooey has captured the depressions and hysteria that seem to be part of the liberal arts curriculum….
The Bell Jar is a major text for women's liberation. Writing in the early '60s about the cossetted, conventional '50s, Sylvia seems like a kind of naïve prophet who knew instinctively what Kate Millett had to write a doctoral dissertation to discover. All the characters—most of them remorselessly lampooned—try to force Esther into a subservient role. Buddy and her mother assure her that if she has sex before the crowning honor of marriage to a "clean" boy, she will be lost beyond redemption. In those pre-Pill days she believes them, but at the price of furious resentment. Though the book is written in an offhand, often funny style, an undertow of implacable demand and unappeasable anger moves just below the surface.
Martha Duffy, "The Triumph of a Tormented Poet," in Life (courtesy Life Magazine; © 1971), November 12, 1971, pp. 37B-38B.
[My] complaint against the poets of personal complaint [and Sylvia Plath in particular] is not that they are confessional, in the sense of being engaged in a true encounter with the horrible depths that everyone has, with the compulsive hatreds that tear us apart, but that they are not confessional enough. They are slickly confessional; they are glib. They do not really offer the "real life"—as opposed to "literary life"—they purport to do; they are astonishingly literary—and here I mean literary in the bad sense—despite their insistence on "ordinary life."… The main feeling that one has—or at least that I have—is of an attempt to be clever; and if there is one thing that I find intolerable in either literature or in the world, it is slick, knowing patter about suffering and guilt, particularly about one's own.
This is a limited and solipsistic approach to poetry, luxuriating in and hiding behind the supposition on the reader's part that the poet has actually suffered what the poem describes. One can surely sympathize with that part of it, as one would sympathize with the person whether a poet or not. It is the way in which the suffering is presented which so falsifies it, and which the reader will not easily forgive. The more he believes the personal situation, the less he believes the poem.
James Dickey, in his Sorties: Journals and New Essays (© 1971 by James Dickey; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1971, pp. 190-91.
If Sylvia Plath's life hadn't gone the way of the Ariel poems, these might have been the kinds of poems she could have written for a long time. All existence is in transit, and the pieces in Crossing The Water (subtitled "Transitional Poems") do, by and large, absorb if not conquer that fact. But these poems are also uniquely transitional. The intense control and the maturity found here are not matched in the earlier, youthful Colossus or in the later, tortured Ariel. This short middle period gives us Plath at her most sophisticated and skilled; there are even occasional flashes of humor and tenderness. But the movement in the final poems is inexorably toward Ariel, away from a somewhat detached vision of likeness (similes abound in the bulk of the poems) to the chaotic power of identity, to the kind of oneness that either destroys or saves the self. Deciding which of Plath's printed poems are best is now more difficult. The cult feeds on the poet's pathology, loves her risks and her most daring, Ariel poems. Calling Crossing The Water Plath's finest collection might be heresy and is probably wrong; as usual, it would surely say as much about the reader as the poet.
The Antioch Review (© 1972 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, 1971–72, reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, 1971–72, p. 587.
The collection [Crossing the Water] discloses a world of stone and blazing light, inhabited by a whole population of … blind people. The poems repeatedly contrast the warmness of the heart with the coldness and blindness of the eye….
There are many … images connecting the eye that sees but cannot understand with the heart that beats and cannot feel. Childbirth and child-rearing seem to make no difference to this inner alienation; neither does love, for the heart cannot comprehend it. When the poems reach back through memory toward the poet's childhood, they still encounter the same parched and glittering landscape, the same abyss between the heart and the eye.
Ariel would take Sylvia Plath up from this desert of death into the wild country at the edge of life. By then, exalted and exultant, she would no longer be separated from her vision, for the heart and the eye would have learned by some desperate stratagem to see as one….
Her death was, like almost all suicides, unnecessary. It is reasonable to think that Sylvia Plath might have agreed, had she survived her last "accident." There was no more need for her death to take place than there was a need for the visions in Crossing the Water to set her eye and her heart at loggerheads. It is both sentimental and ghoulish to applaud her self-sacrifice in "going all the way," for her death blithely brutalized a number of other people's lives; yet her dedication as an artist was as total as her humanity was defective.
Peter Davison, "Three Visionary Poets," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972, by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1972, pp. 104-07.
[In Winter Trees] there is ample further evidence of [Sylvia Plath's] endless imaginative resource in the restatement of her familiar themes: all proceeding, ultimately, from the 'divided self', the self which is alienated, oppressed, disembodied, dissolved. We meet again the familiar images, particularly the (characteristically schizoid) image of the mirror, which appears in all but two of these poems and seems to haunt them with its inevitability and its destructiveness…. We are dazed again by the complicated use of colours, almost as a symbolism, to signify states of mind, attitudes; the alienating absolutes of black and white, the terrifying violence red almost always means, the uncertainty of blue …; and the occasional consolation of the organic colours, brown and green. In these poems a woman is on trial before herself, and spared nothing.
Damian Grant, in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1972, pp. 92-3.
Of the 24 poems and the dramatic trialogue originally written for the BBC in Winter Trees, there is no work equal in horror, sorrow, or brilliance to the best in Ariel. They're left over, as Ted Hughes says in a note, from the batch that led to that book. On the whole Winter Trees is a depressing book given over to a suicidal gloom qualified once by the title poem, a lovely minor lyric, and rather regularly by surprising combinations or confusions of images. The poems are littered with skulls, maggots, corpses, the dead, and vivid unrealities disguised in the vocabulary of reality. You don't read these poems. You inhale them.
If you've ever spent any time with a truly emotionally ill person—a schizophrenic or a person suffering from a toxic drug psychosis—you'll experience a sense of déjà vu as you read Winter Trees….
The poems want to know everything. They mix glittering images with neurotic junk. They seek death. As they have no beginnings, so they have no conclusions. They trail off. They seem to be the final breakdowns of language and feelings that held together in Ariel against extreme pressures. It's questionable that anything in Winter Trees will last, although the dramatic trialogue, "Three Women," may have some enduring value. Eventually it should be mined—it makes stubborn reading—to determine just how badly confused she was about a life role for herself and whether childbirth might not have been the trauma that broke her mind.
Sylvia Plath was a sick woman who made art of her sickness. One or two of her poems will be read a long time, but absent from her work are joy, glory, strong love, any sense of the interdependence of human relationships and the infinite alternatives of life.
Webster Schott, "The Cult of Plath," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 1, 1972, p. 3.
"Winter Trees" is Sylvia Plath's last collection of poems, most of them contemporary with "Ariel" and "Crossing the Water"; the single most powerful work in the volume is "Three Women," a radio play set in a "Maternity Ward and round about," though all of the poems—those that are obviously not-quite-finished as well as those that are technically perfect—have that exquisite, heartbreaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares…. Her poetry is as deathly as it is impeccable; it enchants us almost as powerfully as it must have enchanted her.
Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1972, p. 7.