Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2212
Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
An American poet who moved to England, Miss Plath is the author of Ariel and the autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. She has become a kind of cult figure since her death. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
If Sylvia Plath's performance were not so securely knowledgeable, so cannily devised, so richly inventive and so meticulously reined, it would be intolerable. Many of [the] poems [in Ariel] are magnificent; a whole book of them is top-heavy, teetering on that point where the self-created figure threatens to topple over into self-expression and the diversions of psychopathology….
In Sylvia Plath,… anguish is not a consequence but the whole relentless subject itself. In her vision the primary colors of anguish, the myopic eye of anguish, not only seriously distort the observed world but threaten to obliterate it. The exhibition of an obsession may, for a time, provide a reader with a voyeuristic frisson. But in the long run any fixation is apt to alienate its witness. The old cliché is inevitable: Miss Plath's strength is her weakness; impulses that individuate her thrilling talent are the same impulses that shrink the limits of a commanding achievement. Anything pursued far enough is likely to turn into its opposite: a shriek maintained for eighty-five pages becomes, to say the least, a bore. Nevertheless, what we have here is not, as some bewildered critics have claimed, the death rattle of a sick girl, but the defiantly fulfilling measures of a poet. Taken in small—one is almost forced to say, medicinal—doses, she is a marvel.
John Malcolm Brinnin, in Partisan Review, Winter, 1967, pp. 156-57.
That [the] poems [in Ariel] grew out of terrible and shattering and finally unbearable experiences, no one who reads them could gainsay for a moment; and certainly it is difficult not to be moved to (and by) speculation about those experiences, so far as they are hinted—and rendered—within the cryptic in extremis privacy of the poetry itself. But to suspend one's critical attention as somehow impertinent, to indulge the brittle fervors of biographical gossip and instant-mythos, means to default the poems that survived the experiences and that bestow upon them their defining form. The most useful enterprise, as always, is to cut through the swirling fog of talk and to determine, so far as possible, what these final poems come to as poems: an enterprise abetted not at all by Robert Lowell's rhapsodic three-page "Foreword".
Perhaps the first point that requires making is that, contrary to most of the reviews and review-articles that I have come across, the poetry within Ariel does not penetrate darknesses into which no poet had previously ventured. Emily Dickinson with a handful of her most harrowing zero-at-the-bone poems on madness and dying, Roethke in page after page of his middle-period work—these are only two of the poets who had been there before and who returned to create triumphant poetry…. If I were compelled to formulate a single comprehensive statement about these poems (a dubious undertaking at best), I should prefer not to suggest that they are poems "about" psychosis, although to a degree this is unquestionably true. I would maintain, rather, that they are poems which find their fullest analogies in the visions and emotional states and awful insights of psychosis—a distinction that seems to me useful and not mere quibbling. Throughout Ariel, language hardens, or seeks to harden, on the truth of a shriek. In a world of outrages and "vulturous boredom", a world lit by "cobra light", things come to live with the devouring horror of hallucination….
For the life of me, I cannot escape the conviction that to experience any five or six of the poems from Ariel … is to have experienced all forty-three of them. Too many frightful imaginings, too similar in setting and burden, soon begin to extinguish one another. I am convinced, also, that some of these poems disclose failures of language, moments in which, to levy on Sylvia Plath's own image, the words become "riderless".
Robert L. Stilwell, in Sewanee Review (© 1968 by The University of the South), Summer, 1968, pp. 531-32.
[Sylvia Plath] is not prodigal in her use of metaphor—only one to a poem usually. She establishes her metaphor and then moves it about—the way Donne fingered the stiff, twin legs of his compass—until it defines precisely the statement she wishes to make. Her fault is seldom in the direction of obscurity, but rather in being at times, as Frost is, just a bit too careful that the reader clearly see the implications of her poem. The vehicles for her metaphors are sometimes unexpected, but the rational strategies are traditional….
Her best poems have [a] delayed effect in which the idea and the emotion strike the reader unexpectedly heavily at the end and leave him satisfied with the experience of the poem.
Charles Stubblefield, "A Craft" (© 1971 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1971, p. 83.
[After the publication of The Colossus in 1960, Sylvia Plath] remained chronically dissatisfied with all she wrote. What she was after was the new poetic world she had glimpsed in the poem titled 'Stones', printed at the end of The Colossus, and of course when she got back there, early in 1962, with poems like 'Elm' and 'The Moon and the Yew Tree', everything before that became unimportant.
However, since she was incapable of writing an ordinary poem, all this work from the interim [which Hughes collected and published as Crossing the Water in 1971] is fascinating and much of it beautiful in a rich and easy way that we find neither in The Colossus nor Ariel…. The new thing in these poems is the freedom of the voice. And the more free it gets, the more musically exact it gets.
Ted Hughes, "Sylvia Plath's Crossing the Water: Some Reflections" (reprinted by permission of Olwyn Hughes, Literary Agent; © 1971 by Ted Hughes), in Critical Quarterly, Summer, 1971, pp. 165-72.
[It] is quite difficult to read Sylvia Plath's poetry and fiction and not think of her suicide. So often she herself is the subject of her creations. Her pathetically early death seems to shadow her work. The poems written during the last months of her life (collected in the volume, Ariel) are filled with a quiet rage and desperation. They are like a series of abstract suicide notes. We read the poems for their stark quality and technical brilliance, but we also read them because we wish to share the poet's grief, know what it's like to suffer a steady, painful breakdown, to reach the end of the line. For the lay Freudians and the madness and alienation buffs, Ariel is a work to be analyzed rather than experienced, a psychological gold mine rather than a work of art….
Although [The Bell Jar, her only novel,] is a beautifully written book, it is also a badly flawed one and its importance has been greatly exaggerated. A thinly disguised account of Miss Plath's breakdown and attempted suicide in her twentieth year, The Bell Jar is not the startling book it is alleged to be…. Why if Miss Plath lived through the events described are they so unconvincing? Perhaps she herself could not explain her behavior. Or perhaps the events were too painful to deal with in depth. Or perhaps at the time of writing Miss Plath hadn't had enough experience with fiction to produce anything more than a thin journal-like record. Whatever the reason, the novel lacks density.
Ronald De Feo, in Modern Occasions, Fall, 1971, pp. 624-25.
A glamour of fatality hangs over the name of Sylvia Plath, the glamour that has made her a darling of our culture. Extremely gifted, her will clenched into a fist of ambition, several times driven to suicide by a suffering so absolute as to seem almost impersonal, yet in her last months composing poems in which pathology and clairvoyance triumphantly fuse—these are the materials of her legend. It is a legend that solicits our desires for a heroism of sickness that can serve as emblem of the age, and many young readers take in Sylvia Plath's vibrations of despair as if they were the soul's own oxygen. For reasons good and bad, the spokesmen for the sensibility of extreme gesture—all the blackness, confession, denial, and laceration that are warranted by both modern experience and the moral bromides of this moment—see in Sylvia Plath an authentic priestess. Because she is authentic, the role would surely displease her; dead now for almost nine years, she can offer no defense….
The most interesting poems in Ariel are not confessional at all…. They are poems written out of an extreme condition, a state of being in which the speaker, for all practical purposes Sylvia Plath herself, has abandoned the sense of audience and cares nothing about—indeed, is hardly aware of—the presence of anyone but herself. She writes with a halucinatory, self-contained fervor. She addresses herself to the air, to the walls. She speaks not as a daylight self, with its familiar internal struggles and doubts, its familiar hesitations before the needs and pressures of others. There is something utterly monolithic, fixated about the voice that emerges in these poems, a voice unmodulated and asocial.
It's as if we are overhearing the rasps of a mind that has found its own habitation and need not measure its distance from, even consider its relation to, other minds. And the stakes are far higher than can ever be involved in mere confession. She exists in some mediate province between living and dying, and she appears to be balancing coolly the claims of the two, drawn almost equally to both yet oddly comfortable with the perils of where she is. This is not the by-now worn romanticism of Liebestod. It is something very strange, very fearful: a different kind of existence, at ease at the gate of dying. I don't believe that the poems Sylvia Plath wrote in this state of being are "great" poems, but I can hardly doubt that they are remarkable. For they do bring into poetry an element of experience that, so far as I know, is new, and thereby they do advance the thrust of literary modernism by another inch or so. A poem like "Kindness" is set squarely in what I have called the mediate province between living and dying….
Even in this kind of poetry, which does strike an original note, there are many limitations. The poems often shock; they seldom surprise. They are deficient in plasticity of feeling, that modulation of voice that a poet writing out of a controlled maturity of consciousness can muster….
After the noise abates and judgment returns, Sylvia Plath will be regarded as an interesting minor poet whose personal story was deeply poignant. A few of her poems will find a place in anthologies—and when you consider the common fate of talent, that, after all, will not be a small acknowledgment.
Irving Howe, "Sylvia Plath: A Partial Disagreement," in Harper's, January, 1972, pp. 88-91.
Had Sylvia Plath been ugly, and not died in so deliberate a manner, I wonder if she would have the standing she has. Maybe so; she seems an unusually good poet, at her best pithy and stark, with a passion for minute accuracy in recording the physical, and not afraid to be caustic or discordant. Something muscular shows up in her work, as unusual in woman poets as visceral self-pity seems common. And (this perhaps gathered from living among the English) she has a way of putting catastrophe casually, without frills, and you wince at the zombie decorum with which she does it. It's precarious, though, only a bit more decorum than it is a shambles; its tautness might snap and scatter. Reading her is like standing on the San Andreas fault or crawling on a glass roof; she sets up a nervewracking excitement after which, as the poems end, you feel drained and down. She cannot be read aloofly….
There is always in Plath a sense that this, right here, is as far as the mind may be able to go; so, instead of hermeneutics, settle for a precise look, a concise delineation, something solid to grip while investigating human emotions…. Her dense specificity makes her people more present than their emotions do….
Her span of confidence is usually only a line's length and she seems glad, after each completed sortie, to return to the left-hand margin, which is fixed and static. She stabs a period at the line's end to stop it coming after her into the next. The lines cage her in and she shrinks within their confines.
Crossing the Water (lame title to be foisted on such a skillful phrase-smith) is a substantial eyeful from an unflagging sharp sensibility; a small pageant in insistent vernacular; a book of vivid austerities in which Plath advances from the release of saying almost anything, so long as it's with an engraver's precision, to the containment of saying literally next-to-nothing—a nextness of which her sense was to become woundedly acute. Her later poems tell us how close you can go before you fall in.
Paul West, "Fido Littlesoul, the Bowel's Familiar," in Book World, January 9, 1972, p. 8.
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