Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4501
Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
Ms. Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer who lived in England. Her powerful, memorable poems often opposed violent, slashing images and great tenderness, infinite love. Death, pain, and loss were her constant themes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
[Typical] of Sylvia Plath's procedure in [her] last poems [is that the] more desperate she is, the more image thickens into image, dividing and multiplying like fertilized cells; the tighter, too, is her rhythmical control, varying between a chopped, savage, American throw-away and a weirdly jaunty nursery-rhyme bounce. A wealth of image-breeding creativity and the whole book of technique is thrown at situations and feelings that otherwise seem to overbear all technique. It is an art like that of a racing driver [driving] a car: the art of keeping precise control over something which, to the outsider, seems utterly beyond all control.
Whether her involvement with suicide, like Lowell's with nervous breakdown, was real or imaginary is beside the point so far as her art is concerned. All that matters is that the poetry should make a convincing imaginative reality….
Sylvia Plath's [poetry] is a logical extension of Lowell's explorations: she simply went further in the direction he had already taken. For her, it turned out to be a one-way street from which there was no going back. So she went to the extreme, far edge of the bearable and, in the end, slipped over. That is a risk in handling such touchy, violent material. Yet she turned it, too, to advantage; the courage it took to gamble in this way is reflected in the curious sense of creative optimism, of possibilities in the teeth of the impossible, that stirs in her poems like a moving bass.
A. Alvarez (from an essay originally published in The Times Literary Supplement, 1967), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 16-17.
[We] may conclude [that] the Plath cult originates in commiseration. But there is another and very concomitant reason for the rise of a cult. It's the way that declining humanists support each other in their pursuit of the poet who has abandoned the esthetics of humanism and become modern….
Cult also implies a participation whose basis lies in the first reader and the first words. Then the happy amateurs flock together like old friends, united in their memory of the great myth. Now since men began, underlying all participation is the victim, and at the center of Ariel lies the death of Sylvia Plath. Add to this that it would seem that Plath was performing the Orphic triumph of keeping death at bay with a poem. Thus the Rimbaldian temptation would seem to be not only achieved but also surpassed: Life is revolved into death. Instead of succumbing to the illusion of the absolute individual, the poem overcomes death with life and ends in an irrevocable silence. This, at least, is what the critics appear to have hoped for. This, in fact, is what Lowell's preface insists upon: "her art's immortality is life's disintegration." Because of this, Plath's poetic adventure is considered to be the ultimate risk that reached an ultimate limit and rises out of the existential conjunction of her life and death as a phoenix in which all despair, all irony, and all heroism are transmuted. This is what the modern temper demands….
Plath provides a gratuitous illusion of risk: her poems do not necessarily gamble. Moreover, Plath's kind of poetry, as all her critics seem to agree upon, cannot rest satisfied with illusion in the old sense. Illusion is now meant to point to a reality without illusion. The poet becomes the victim through whom the reader goes to reach such a reality, much as if the poet becomes the man who volunteers to form a bridge over the barbed-wire. The bridge, however, is not built merely by means of an original image or by creating a sense of movement that does not belong to the internal narrator of the poem….
Between the absolute release that Plath carves and the humanism that she willfully fails to comprehend, her poems stand. This is not the same thing as redefining mimesis. Plath's poems are, furthermore, poems of anticipation and refusal. They are poems without illusions on the poet's part but poems, as well, that refuse the kind of illusion necessary for a release sought with inestimable anguish. Neither the imitative clarity of humanism nor the drama of absolute freedom is there…. At the center of such a dilemma, it seems, is the probing "I" of the poet, using the poem as a means of both seeking and refusing release….
The "I" of Plath's poetry, clearly, is obtrusive: even when it becomes "nobody," it is there to remind you that it has no reason to be necessarily there. It does not contribute to the drama of freedom, but simply stirs up the ashes of a poetic idea that it neither wants nor needs….
[The] drift of Plath's poetry is to use imagery either to make a savage appeal to the reader or, failing any response, as a labyrinth of horror to find a way out of. So long, however, as the narrator prefers, on the one hand, to juggle the horror of experience and, on the other hand, to remind one from time to time that it is all horrible, I find it impossible not to feel fooled. But because of the kind of things Sylvia was throwing in air, I have immense sympathy for the poet as a woman. My admiration of the woman as a poet cannot but be reserved. To use art as a framework and pretext for things beyond or outside art is frequently understood as art in our time. This is why Plath is so widely admired. She does this excitingly well. But let us understand each other clearly: drugs may break down all the walls, and Whitman and Ginsberg may want to smash the remaining doors, but this is not the same method as art. That is probably why Rimbaud abandoned poetry; that may be why Sylvia abandoned life. We might wonder where, in fact, poetry does begin. Does it begin here? Marlowe: "He sleeps, my lord, but dreams not on his horns"?
E. D. Blodgett, "Sylvia Plath: Another View," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1971, pp. 97-106.
[There are no] catheters and tubes here [in Sylvia Plath's poetry], no flaccid abdication of life. The sense of recklessness, of teetering with wild gaiety on the edge of an abyss is tremendous. Uniqueness, a voice, a life, a death uniquely her own. This seems to me the crux of the matter and why a lemming-like wave of psychosis and suicide simply would not do. Anything Extreme must by very definition be unique, lonely, else it becomes the norm. We can learn craft from Sylvia Plath, but we cannot imitate her or identify too closely with her inner life.
One might almost be tempted to call Sylvia Plath a landscape poet to underscore her difference from her followers whose experience seems to take place always in stuffy hospital interiors. There is a great deal of inner landscape in Sylvia Plath's poetry, but there is a sense of fresh blowing air, since, more often than not, she conveys her inner mood in terms of some outdoor scene, seascape or bleak moor, manor garden or English meadow, moon-ridden trees or the salt-aired painterly scene of 'Blackberrying'. And there are interiors as fresh and sharply detailed as a Vermeer, kitchen scenes, or the witty, even worldly domestic stage-setting of 'Leaving Early' in her posthumous book, Crossing the Water. Even her preoccupation, the grave, is furnished lightly, carefully with deeply felt and seen things, cooking pots, a turquoise warm from handling in 'Last Words'. She affirms, never rejects, such modest earthly things. She includes them miraculously in the exciting possibilities beyond death….
Like Rilke, without self-pity, Sylvia Plath accepted the lure of death as a final answer to what she wanted to know. She accepted, too, her own dissatisfaction as part and parcel of what is, paradoxically, a tremendous affirmation of life, life as seen at those rare high moments when the angel descends. But along with this went an irritable perfectionism that could not long settle for less….
Crying and love [exist] together, often humour, too, an ironic laughter at herself and her own fascination with death. This unique witch's brew is much more potent than the despair-filled notebooks that try to pass for Extremism. Life is exciting to Miss Plath, as exciting as death which appears sometimes as a marvellous birthday present, sometimes as an evil bird….
It is apparent that Sylvia Plath's poetry is powerful and at the same time very feminine. It seems to me that the image of a compelling flirtation with death is even more valid than the gambling one of Mr Alvarez's Russian roulette theme. Not everyone is blessed or cursed with so demonic an obsession. Fortunately, this is not the only kind of human experience worth recording as Sylvia Plath would be the first to admit. I, for one, believe that her kind of suicidal compulsion has been expressed as well as it can be, and that to cultivate despair and self-destruction in emulation would be sterile vitiated imitation. A path that might well be followed lucratively, is the path that Sylvia Plath did not follow to the end, but nonetheless clearly indicated. It is a less spectacular path, it's true, but one that remains to be explored with freshness and originality. And it lies somewhere in the area of her rather unfashionable ability to speak in an authoritative voice (authoritative because never complacent or cosy or slipshod) of ordinary human life as it glimmers, fades, endures from day to day, year to year, century to century. Such authority is a gift she has left for all poets, a kind of liberation from having to express those self-destructive tendencies she articulated so definitively, and a freeing, perhaps, into a new poetry of survival.
Margaret Newlin, "The Suicide Bandwagon," in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1972, pp. 367-78.
What separates poetry from therapy? When do the words on the page become a poem? How does the mental tension which necessitates the making of a poetic statement become transformed from an intangible psychological fact to an aesthetically valid expression of personal perspective?
These questions are, of course, unanswerable, and all criticism must be an attempt merely to approach their resolutions. The urgency of such queries bears extraordinary weight in the consideration of Sylvia Plath, however, for the peculiar inclinations of her poetry as well as the insistent phenomenon of her success demand some sort of explication. Her poetry is, indeed, dazzling; it is her obsession, her deathwish, her emphasis on personal horror that sets her apart, that challenges the reader to decide just what it is that he is reading. Sylvia Plath's verse burns with the intensity of a thousand lamps, a brilliance which cannot be discounted. But such a flame must require additional light if it is to endure….
Winter Trees is Sylvia Plath's final collection of verse. It consists of twenty-four poems of moderate length plus one longer piece originally intended as a radio play for the BBC. The themes here are the same as those of Plath's best-known book of poetry Ariel: the encroachment of death on the land of the living, the quest for an escape from the horrors of the mind, the pitiless cruelty of a world which hastens to confront the innocent with guilt greater than the human capacity to deal with it. Once again, as in Ariel, Plath avoids the snares that line the confessional journey and emerges from the dark road with her craft well in hand, with poetry that tears into a realm of perilous dimension. The world she creates towers forth from each line, terrible and formidable, masterfully constructed. Winter Trees is superb.
Plath's accomplishment is impressive. Not once does she betray her commitment to her art, her duty to fashion from the merely human something of durable substance. Her tools are the tools of the best poets: a love of the language, an appreciation of poetic device, a fine degree of control which, when pitted against the uncontrollable horrors she describes, creates an irrepressible tension. Her rhythms are strong but not monotonous, her use of words is inventive, her ability to successfully associate seemingly disparate thoughts is marked. Indeed, the extent of Plath's talent is more apparent in Winter Trees than in Ariel, for in the earlier volume the initial shock which invariably greets the raw candor of such poems as "Lady Lazarus" (Dying/is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.) or "Daddy" (Daddy, I have had to kill you.) can cause the reader to overlook the poet's proficiency. Winter Trees is no less candid than Ariel, but we are prepared now for Sylvia Plath and we can appreciate her art beyond the level of its scare value….
Above all, Sylvia Plath is not self-indulgent. She escapes that trap with an ease which puts the self-pitying mass of confessional poets to shame. She may expose the extent of her fears as she does in "Apprehensions" …, she may cry the annulment of her personality as in "The Detective" …, she may speak of the loss of love or the loss of innocence; still the strangling intoxicant of self-sympathy remains untouched….
Plath's deathwish does indeed permeate her verse; but if death is an obsession with her, so too is the desire to shape from its call a genuine art. Intolerable vowels enter my heart, she says in the poem "Event." And she painstakingly transfers those vowels from the strongbox of personal despair to the open secret of the page. Most important, she does it well….
Winter Trees deserves to be read. For in this collection Plath walks the confessional tightrope with no more than her dedication to the poetic art as a balance, and she walks with the aplomb of a skilled acrobat. There is much to be learned from her act, much about dexterity, about true commitment. Perhaps we can even try to understand why, when the crowd is gone for the evening and the tightrope has fallen into a shroud of nothing, Sylvia Plath continues to balance herself above the canvas floor.
Mark E. Leib, "Into the Maelstrom," in The Harvard Advocate (© 1973 by The Harvard Advocate; reprinted by permission), Vol. CXI, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 45-7.
Sylvia Plath's stories have received little attention. For the most part they have been dismissed as minor exercises by a major writer. The stories do deserve study, however, for two reasons: one, they reflect aspects of Plath's own thematic development, and two, they are in different ways profound representations of the sexual political conflict….
In her early stories, "The Wishing Box" (published 1957) and "The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle" (1960) the sexual political conflict is seen in social terms. In both these stories the central woman character is presented as a victimized, vulnerable figure. Each story dramatizes a particular aspect of the oppression that submerges women in Western society. In "The Daughters of Blossom Street" (1960) and "The Fifty-Ninth Bear" (1961), however, the conflict takes place on a mythic level. The male becomes associated with the sterile, apollonian consciousness of Western technocracy; and the woman, with the dark, repressed dionysian level of being. It is this level—the woman's level—which triumphs. "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" (1968) is built upon a similar perception of the schizophrenic nature of Western culture, but the resolution is different. While the one-dimensional Man appears to be the victor, it is really the woman's vision of redemptive love which is triumphant….
In the short fiction of Sylvia Plath we see that the sexual political game takes on a mythic form. The social roles which are given to men and women are those which express psychic dimensions of reality. What has happened in Western civilization is that the male "apollonian" dimension has come to dominate. The womanly "dionysian" realm has been forced underground.
Plath's stories show this dialectic operating in terms of individual relationships. But the socio-cultural implications of what she is saying are far-reaching: until and unless women—as bearers of a repressed dimension of reality—are integrated back into the system, we are faced with three alternatives. Either the female (and her value-system) are destroyed, as in "The Wishing Box" and "The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle"; or the male (and his system) is destroyed ("The Fifty-Ninth Bear" and "The Daughters of Blossom Street"), or one makes a transcending leap out of the situation, as in "Johnny Panic."
One might hope, however, that a fourth course might evolve, one which Plath does not compass in her writings. This course would provide for an ultimate synthesis of the male-female value conflict, such that something of that radical significance, that love and passion, now relegated to the woman's underworld, might re-infuse our culture with life.
Josephine Donovan, "Sexual Politics in Sylvia Plath's Short Stories," in The Minnesota Review, Spring, 1973, pp. 150-57.
The Bell Jar is [Miss Plath's] early and unsatisfactory novel which never gets below the surface of its real materials. Some critics have compared it to J. D. Salinger's classic of male adolescence in the fifties, Catcher In the Rye. The comparison might more accurately be made to the quasi-clinical pop best seller of a couple of seasons ago, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Plath's thinly veiled autobiographical account of the summer of her college-aged suicide attempt is a small novel distinguished primarily by those occasional images which find their proper expression in the poems. Many of the images in the poems are elaborated on in useful ways in the prose version. For example, that deceptively obvious question which opens "Fever 103," "Pure? What does it mean?," may be answered by "Esther's" prolonged hot baths in which she finds the world "dissolving" as "all that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin … is turning into something pure." The connections between "growing pure again," sexuality, and death are clarified by the prose description, though the force of language and meaning is in the poem….
At the opposite extreme are the poems of Winter Trees, the last collection. The voice is that of a woman and a mother whose special anguish is that it is she who will soon be leaving the child. The volume includes some previously published material, including the 1962 BBC verse drama, "Three Women." The poetic flatness of "Three Women" is offset by such fine poems as "Childless Woman," "For a Fatherless Son," and "Child." In her emptiness, the Childless Woman says, "My landscape is a hand with no lines."… In these poems, Plath's images combine the stunning intensity and originality of her best poems with an occasional grace of tenderness and melancholy that is lacking in the nearly hysterical poems of Ariel….
The most satisfying of these volumes in Crossing the Water, though it contains a number of poems which disappoint more than anything in Winter Trees does. Crossing the Water is subtitled "Transitional Poems," and the selections are primarily from the period between 1960 and late 1961. Nine of them appeared in the 1960 British edition of The Colossus, and the others were written before the period of the Ariel poems, which came in the last year of her life. All the best poems in this uneven volume are from the middle period. Unlike the woman of Ariel who is in a near-frenzy of hate and insanity, this woman is being pressed down by forces which close on her from all sides. She is the "delicate" and helpless victim as "The horizons ring me," and even "the roots of the heather … will invite me/ To whiten my bones among them."…
For many readers of Plath, Crossing the Water will offer the answers we miss in The Bell Jar. She says, in the isolate loneliness of her imagination, "Nobody can tell what I lack." Perhaps not, but from Crossing the Water we can begin to feel how she was bent and pressed and finally seduced by "the spirit of blackness."
Linda Ray Pratt, "'The spirit of blackness is in us …'," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1973, pp. 87-90.
Sylvia Plath wrote more poems about motherhood than about any other single subject. It is a point worth noting not only because it must serve to revise her reputation as a death-ridden poet but because a concentration on maternal themes is almost unique among serious poets. These two points are not entirely unrelated. Her most widely known poems express attitudes that, although phrased in newly explosive ways, are nonetheless familiar ones in modern poetry: the suicidal urge, the ecstasy of pain, horror, despair. The other side of her poetry (her poems about conception and birth and childhood) remains relatively unexplored in part at least because it is difficult to reconcile this interest with her obsessive concern for death and in part because motherhood appears to be if not trivial then not a very promising subject for lyric poetry. Motherhood has its artistic tradition in prose which can detail its long-range effects and in the double image of portrait painting. It is a subject very quickly vulgarized in poetry, and it has usually been the sole province of second-rate female poets. To write well on the subject is not only an accomplishment; it is a novelty worth examining. An exploration of Plath's poems on motherhood should provide a more accurate estimate of her poetic concerns, and it should also provide some new insights into a relatively unexplored area of female psychology….
Plath continues to write poems about children, and, although she writes about what were perhaps quite specific domestic details or actual habits of her own children, she focuses in her poetry on the general condition of childhood in a terrible world and on the special relationship between mother and child. Frequently in these poems, the child is asleep or just waking. He never does anything. He is, if a "clean slate," also totally passive, receptive, vulnerable. Most infants are of course most often sleeping; but the predominance of the sleeping child in Plath's poems is interesting as a continuation of concerns evident in the poems about her own childhood. While her earlier poems about her mother were particularly resentful about the victimization of the child, her later poems about her own children underscore the fact that all children are victims. She does not minimize her fears that, as a mother, she too will be a victimizer. Her child will inherit hours of blackness from her. But she more often sees the child as the victim of the world's evil and blackness….
The value of Plath's poems on motherhood lies in their exploration of a relatively uncharted area of experience. The cluster of maternal feelings surrounding the birth of a child has never been adequately described, and traditional attitudes do not serve. The view of the woman as a vessel through which the man provides himself with heirs is everywhere denied in the creative act. The passive, dependent wife is at the opposite extreme from the active, life-giving mother. Caretaker of hearth and child is not an accurate image for the mother who is often care-ridden by the very great dangers from which her child will not be sheltered by his father. Plath writes with an awareness of her own inadequacies as a mother and a sense of the difficulties of nurturing another human being; but she is also aware of the inadequacies of the world. She talks here as a creator in an increasingly destructive world and her fears are the will founded fears of all mothers. Her poems on motherhood open up the subject for serious consideration. If she verges on private and taboo areas, she also is concerned with universal questions about creation and nurture.
Margaret D. Uroff, "Sylvia Plath on Motherhood," in The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn, 1973, pp. 70-90.
For reasons good and bad, the spokesmen for the sensibility of extreme gesture—all the blackness, confession, denial, and laceration that are warranted by modern experience but are also the moral bromides of our moment—see in Sylvia Plath an authentic priestess. Because she is authentic, the role would surely displease her; dead now for a decade, she can offer no defense….
Sylvia Plath's most notable gift as a writer [is] a gift for the single, isolate image….
The most interesting poems in Ariel are not confessional at all. A confessional poem would seem to be one in which the writer speaks to the reader, telling him, without the mediating presence of imagined event or persona, something about his life: I had a nervous breakdown, my wife and I sometimes lie in bed, sterile of heart, through sterile nights. The sense of direct speech addressed to an audience is central to confessional writing. But the most striking poems Sylvia Plath wrote are quite different. 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 hallucinatory, 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 the 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. The poems Sylvia Plath wrote in this state of being are not "great" poems, but one 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 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….
Irving Howe, "The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent," in his The Critical Point (© 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1973, pp. 158-69.
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