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Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963

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Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. A leading member of the confessional school of poetry, Plath explores in her verse the horror and chaos that lurk beneath the appearance of sanity. Her violent, despairing poetic vision is presented in verse distinguished by technical control and brilliant imagery. Plath also published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

George Steiner

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It is fair to say that no group of poems since Dylan Thomas's Deaths and Entrances has had as vivid and disturbing an impact on English critics and readers as has Ariel. Sylvia Plath's last poems have already passed into legend as both representative of our present tone of emotional life and unique in their implacable, harsh brilliance. Those among the young who read new poetry will know 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', and 'Death & Co.' almost by heart, and reference to Sylvia Plath is constant where poetry and the conditions of its present existence are discussed. (p. 211)

To those who knew her and to the greatly enlarged circle who were electrified by her last poems and sudden death, she had come to signify the specific honesties and risks of the poet's condition. Her personal style, and the price in private harrowing she so obviously paid to achieve the intensity and candour of her principal poems, have taken on their own dramatic authority.

All this makes it difficult to judge the poems. I mean that the vehemence and intimacy of the verse is such as to constitute a very powerful rhetoric of sincerity. The poems play on our nerves with their own proud nakedness, making claims so immediate and sharply urged that the reader flinches, embarrassed by the routine discretions and evasions of his own sensibility. Yet if these poems are to take life among us, if they are to be more than exhibits in the history of modern psychological stress, they must be read with all the intelligence and scruple we can muster. They are too honest, they have cost too much, to be yielded to myth.

One of the most striking poems in The Colossus, 'All the Dead Dears', tells of a skeleton in the Cambridge museum of classical antiquities…. The motifs touched on are those which organize much of Sylvia Plath's poetry: the generation of women knit by blood and death, the dead reaching out to haul the living into their shadowy vortex, the personage of the father somehow sinister and ineffectual, the poet literally bled and whistled clean by the cruel, intricate quality of felt life. (pp. 211-12)

[A] penchant for the Gothic effect seems to me to weaken much of Sylvia Plath's earlier verse, and it extends into her mature work. She used Gothicism in a particular way, making the formal terrors an equivalent to genuine and complex shocks of feeling, but the modish element is undeniable. Her resources were, however, more diverse. Possessed of a rare intensity and particularity of nervous response—the 'disquieting muses' had stood at the left side of her crib 'with heads like darning-eggs'—Sylvia Plath tested different symbolic means, different modes of concretion, with which to articulate what rang so queer and clear inside her. It is almost silly to argue 'influences' when dealing with a young poet of this honesty and originality. But one can locate the impulses that helped her find her own voice. Wallace Stevens for one…. Or Emily Dickinson, whose authority gives a poem like 'Spinster' its spiky charm…. The tactile, neutral precision of D. H. Lawrence's observations of animal and vegetable is recognizable in 'Medallion' and 'Blue Moles'. These poets, together with Andrew Marvell and the Jacobean dramatists, seem to have meant a lot. But the final poem in The Colossus, a seven-part garland 'For a Birthday', is unmistakable. In at least three sections, 'Dark House', 'Maenad', and 'The Stones', Sylvia Plath writes in a way that is entirely hers. Had one been shown only the last six lines, one would have known—or should have—that a formidable compulsion was implicit and that a new, mature style had been achieved:

          Love is the bone and sinew of my curse.
          The vase, reconstructed, houses
          The elusive rose.
 
          Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.
          My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.
          I shall be good as new.

Undoubtedly, the success of this poem arises from the fact that Sylvia Plath had mastered her essential theme, the situation and emotive counters around which she was henceforth to build much of her verse: the infirm or rent body, and the imperfect, painful resurrection of the psyche, pulled back, unwilling, to the hypocrisies of health. It is a theme already present in The Colossus ('Two Views of a Cadaver Room'). It dominates, to an obsessive degree, much of Ariel…. It requires no biographical impertinence to realize that Sylvia Plath's life was harried by bouts of physical pain, that she sometimes looked on the accumulated exactions of her own nerve and body as 'a trash/To annihilate each decade'. She was haunted by the piecemeal, strung-together mechanics of the flesh, by what could be so easily broken and then mended with such searing ingenuity. (pp. 213-15)

This brokenness, so sharply feminine and contemporary, is, I think, her principal realization. It is by the graphic expression she gave to it that she will be judged and remembered. (p. 215)

The progress registered between the early and the mature poems is one of concretion. The general Gothic means with which Sylvia Plath was so fluently equipped become singular to herself and therefore fiercely honest. What had been style passes into need. It is the need of a superbly intelligent, highly literate young woman to cry out about her especial being, about the tyrannies of blood and gland, of nervous spasm and sweating skin, the rankness of sex and childbirth in which a woman is still compelled to be wholly of her organic condition. Where Emily Dickinson could—indeed was obliged to—shut the door on the riot and humiliations of the flesh, thus achieving her particular dry lightness, Sylvia Plath 'fully assumed her own condition'. This alone would assure her of a place in modern literature. But she took one step further, assuming a burden that was not naturally or necessarily hers….

[So] far as I know there was nothing Jewish in her background. But her last, greatest poems culminate in an act of identification, of total communion with those tortured and massacred. (p. 216)

Sylvia Plath is only one of a number of young contemporary poets, novelists, and playwrights, themselves in no way implicated in the actual holocaust, who have done most to counter the general inclination to forget the death camps. Perhaps it is only those who had no part in the events who can focus on them rationally and imaginatively; to those who experienced the thing, it has lost the hard edges of possibility, it has stepped outside the real.

Committing the whole of her poetic and formal authority to the metaphor, to the mask of language, Sylvia Plath became a woman being transported to Auschwitz on the death trains…. In 'Daddy' she wrote one of the very few poems I know of in any language to come near the last horror. It achieves the classic act of generalization, translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all. It is the 'Guernica' of modern poetry. And it is both histrionic and, in some ways, 'arty', as is Picasso's outcry.

Are these final poems entirely legitimate? In what sense does anyone, himself uninvolved and long after the event, commit a subtle larceny when he invokes the echoes and trappings of Auschwitz and appropriates an enormity of ready emotion to his own private design? Was there latent in Sylvia Plath's sensibility, as in that of many of us who remember only by fiat of imagination, a fearful envy, a dim resentment at not having been there, of having missed the rendezvous with hell? In 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Daddy' the realization seems to me so complete, the sheer rawness and control so great, that only irresistible need could have brought it off. These poems take tremendous risks, extending Sylvia Plath's essentially austere manner to the very limit. They are a bitter triumph, proof of the capacity of poetry to give to reality the greater permanence of the imagined. She could not return from them. (pp. 217-18)

George Steiner, "Dying Is an Art," in his Language and Silence (abridged by permission of Atheneum Publishers; copyright © 1967 by George Steiner), Atheneum, 1967 (and reprinted in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium, edited by Charles Newman, Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 211-18).

A. E. Dyson

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One immediately felt [reading The Colossus] a highly distinctive new voice, and sensibility—something cool, refreshing, healing, like the personality of the poet herself; but something darker, too, at the heart. The title poem is significantly named; a sense of the huge and continuing dominated her sensibility. But the grandeur of nature oppressed, as well as fascinated her: apprehensions of lurking menace, more likely to test endurance than joy, are seldom absent. In 'Hardcastle Crags', the young woman who walks at night through a bleak landscape is offered nothing, unless it be the satisfaction of pitting flesh and blood against the iron of the universe itself…. (p. 204)

In battling with the encroachments of rock, wind, the sea which is 'brutal endlessly', a temporary, almost humdrum heroism may be earned, as poems like 'Point Shirley' and 'The Hermit at Outermost House' suggest; but nature outlasts man, and wins again in the end….

When Sylvia Plath encountered a landscape that had been tamed and reduced by man, she responded as to a type of trifling. Walking in Grantchester Meadows, since Rupert Brooke the very Touchstone of English nostalgia, she notes that 'Nothing is big or far'. The birds are 'thumb-size', the cygnets 'tame', the Granta 'bland', the water rats 'droll'. Even the students, lost in a 'moony indolence of love', are unmenaced, and therefore somewhat unreal. 'It is a country on a nursery plate', a pretty place, but Sylvia Plath was more at home when she sensed behind nature its naked inhospitality to man.

Wind and sea were only the more natural of the forces she detected waiting to batter or supplant the human race, or patiently take over when it was gone. In 'Ouija', there is an eerie evocation of 'those unborn, those undone' as they crowd into the seance room, drawn to the living by envy…. (p. 205)

In 'Mushrooms', the quality of menace is even more chillingly detected, in the sinister, almost cancerous proliferation of fungus. This macabrely ironic vision of a form of life infinitely lower than man, simply waiting in endless patience to 'Inherit the earth', has the vividness of science fiction at its best, without being in the least sensational. (The associations which the word 'mushroom' have for us since Hiroshima may enhance the effectiveness, which is not, however, dependent upon them.) In 'Sculptor', by a further surprising stroke, the forms the sculptor is about to create are felt as bodiless realities waiting to use him for incarnation, after which they will both dwarf and outlast him…. (p. 206)

The affinity which Sylvia Plath felt with the dead and the alien was not unlike a form of pity; a conviction of kinship with everything that lives or has lived, however inaccessible or sinister. Her feeling for animals is similar in kind, not only in 'Frog Autumn' and 'Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbour', but in one of the most moving of her earlier poems, 'Blue Moles'.

One further theme running through The Colossus was her occasional sense of being teased by glimpses of better worlds, also lurking just beyond the surface of things, but now in the realm of acknowledged fantasy. (p. 207)

[It was] in the last two years of her life that [a] kind of miracle occurred; the dark undercurrent of her experience became a new and fierce possession, and a terrible beauty was born. Between The Colossus and the very late poems, there was a period when her earlier mode took on a new, almost ethereal quality in poems such as 'I am Vertical', where a longing for death more explicit than anything expressed earlier is transmuted, however, by an altogether refreshing and spring-like quality of style. And then, something further happened; it seems as though having mastered form, she transcended it, and the central drama of her troubled consciousness was wholly released. In 'Daddy', violence erupts through the poem's powerful rhythm, which seems generated, however, by the actual experience of the poem, and imbued with organic life. The rhythm is hinted at in the first stanza, temporarily lost in the second, recovered powerfully but still fitfully in the next six; and then from stanza nine onwards it takes over completely, as though generated by the creative ferment itself. And in two of the other unforgettable poems of this period—'Lady Lazarus' and 'A Birthday Present'—something altogether exalted and ecstatic controls the verse. In literary terms, one is aware of the influence of Robert Lowell, and of Sylvia Plath's close friend of genius, Anne Sexton; but the label 'confessional' poetry, which has already been used to link them, seems more inadequate, even, than labels usually do. Certainly much of the greatest poetry since the Romantics (since Shakespeare, indeed) has dealt with the deranged mind; with the paradox of wisdom and folly, of true vision wholly alienated from the rational mind. In Sylvia Plath, it is as though the poet finds in personal experience a depth of derangement, but then, in the magnificent sanity of creation, transmutes this into a myth for her age. (pp. 208-09)

In Sylvia Plath's last poems, as in the work of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, we are reminded that the Modern Movement, as Kafka himself exemplified it, is not dead, but still with us; that its mutations are if anything more terrifying than those we have learned to accept in Yeats, Eliot and Joyce; that an art which does confront our present nuclear world fully and totally must be an art on the brink of the abyss; that perhaps the creative mind exploring its innermost anguish is the only mirror art can hold up to us today.

The paradoxes of Sylvia Plath's last poems are inexhaustible. In 'Lady Lazarus' she faces with bitter irony our modern response to the miraculous, but in a poem where the miracle of dignity, at least, is achieved. At moments, it seems almost as if the writer's unhealed suffering is required for the poem's aesthetic success. (p. 210)

A. E. Dyson, "On Sylvia Plath," in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium, edited by Charles Newman (copyright © 1970 Charles Newman and the estate of Sylvia Plath), Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 204-10.

Robert Boyers

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Crossing The Water is an extraordinary book, not promising merely nor dazzling as one might have expected of a poet who was later to write the poems in Ariel, but perfectly satisfying in the way that only major poetry can be. That her achievement here may be spoken of in terms more orthodox than one could legitimately apply to Ariel is but one of the facts the promoters of the legend will have to deal with—how distressing it must be, for some of them at least, to confront a Plath largely in control even of her most terrible associations, and deliberately fashioning a voice by working through the poetry of Stevens, Frost, Lowell, Roethke, and others. The figure of the demon-lady with red hair eating men, and everything else, "like air," is considerably attenuated in the perspective of this new volume. Though one was always grateful for the dozen or so magnificent poems in Ariel, one may now be grateful that they can be read in a broader perspective wherein we shall more resolutely attend to the poems themselves rather than to the figure of the poet haunting the margins.

The items included in Crossing The Water were written, or so at least the dust-jacket of the volume informs us, "in the period between the publication of The Colossus (1960) and the posthumous book Ariel (published in England in 1965)." A number had appeared in periodicals before the poet took her life in 1963, but very few writers and critics had taken notice of them in discussing her career. It was as if, with Ariel, one had all one needed to reach some proper estimation of the poet…. We see clearly now that Ariel was by no means enough, that we wanted some assurance of substantiality and permanence in our impression of such poems as "Tulips," "Lady Lazarus," and "Daddy." Already too many of us had come to think of these poems we have so often read aloud and heard recited to us as instances in some peculiar event we had lived through and wondered over, but which seemed more and more remote from conventional poetic experience. In part, of course, it is the propensity of our youth and literary cultures to convert disturbed people into heroes that was responsible, but the Ariel poems themselves had no small hand in encouraging us to think of them as extraordinary primal events without antecedent or analogue. Crossing The Water may be discussed less feverishly, and one does not hesitate to describe it as a book with a number of great poems, a number of less ambitious but beautifully realized poems, and several immature pieces each of which calls to mind a particular poetic voice imperfectly assimilated.

One need only be familiar with the work of a few poets to speak of Plath's failures in Crossing The Water. In poems like "Who," "Dark House," "Maenad," and "The Beast," the hand of Roethke is unmistakably heavy on the page. To read [such] lines in a Plath poem is to have our attention forcibly turned from the intrinsic relations among the poem's constituent elements to a mode of comparison that has little to do with Plath, but a great deal to do with Roethke's compelling ingenuity and uniqueness…. (pp. 96-7)

The presence of Stevens is ordinarily less obvious in Plath, whether one examines The Colossus or the present volume, but how startling it is to come upon … a poem called "Black Rook In Rainy Weather."…

It is as though Plath had sat down to write the poem fresh from an intensely involving session with "Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird" and a few shorter lyrics in the Opus Posthumous, such as "The Course Of A Particular." Again, one draws attention to these things not to score points on Sylvia Plath but to suggest emphatically how thorough was her absorption in the poetry of her time and how difficultly she forged what is by all accounts an original voice. In her memorable work one hears that voice practically alone—nothing alien clings to it, nothing interferes with its inwardness and that special resonance which is the imprint of a driven and strangely passionate sensibility. (p. 98)

So fine are the best poems [in Crossing The Water] that they cannot fail to impress a trained reader with their distinctive authority and linguistic abundance…. In these poems the Sylvia Plath whom we have learned to speak of as a case, a clinical item in a running catalogue of the century's abuses, has transformed her character into a fate, an emblem of the singular personality gorgeously projecting itself into a universe of alien things allowed their otherness. Though the project of Ariel involved an insistent appropriation and evisceration of this otherness, this peculiar thinginess in the object and human universe through which the poet moved like a devouring angel, the project of the major poems in Crossing The Water falls short of so encompassing an enterprise. What we so admire in the present volume is the formal verbal apparatus which makes possible the evocation of a conflict without altogether dissolving the initiating elements in that conflict. The ardor of immediate perception co-exists here with the hunger to use that perception and transform its objects into something that they are not, but the tension is manageable, and the objects retain their identities. In Ariel, a poppy observed had inevitably to be changed into something it could call to the mind only of a furious and distracted sensibility, into a bloody mouth, in fact, or "little bloody skirts." A warmly upturned smile in the concerned face of a loved one would turn to a fish hook, ominous and seductively sinister. There are conversions of this sort in a number of poems in the new book, but they are relatively few, and they seem almost out of place here. Frequently the poet will play with the far-flung association or the grotesque extension of an already unpleasant image, but it is the original image itself she cares for here, its special character and irreducible resonance. (pp. 98-9)

[In the opening stanza of "Widow"] we suspect the poet of contriving an occasion for a display of hysteria such as we have known in Ariel, a display in which a series of wondrous metamorphoses will tell us a great deal about the processes of an intelligence conceived almost abstractly, as if it were nothing but process devoid of determinant content. We see though, in succeeding stanzas, that this is not to be the case in "Widow," for it is carefully directed towards the establishment of a vital tension between the reality of the widow, the essence of the condition the word itself traditionally invokes, and the poet's emotional relationship to that condition as dictated by her own needs. What she does here is to imagine what the condition must really be like, to insist upon a mode of imaginative relation, in fact, in which the needs of the self will be deliberately restrained. To speak in such a context of responsible imagination is not at all misguided, nor ought it to invite critical reprisal, as if the merest mention of responsibility were to introduce into a specifically aesthetic domain a moral dimension not at all warranted or conceivably welcome. One may speak of responsible imagination, after all, without any reference to realities external to the poem. The question of propriety here refers exclusively to elements set in motion within the poem itself, and the loyalty to experience one feels moved to comment upon in reading Crossing The Water is a loyalty to a particular experience whose dimensions the poem initially describes or suggests…. How unafraid the poet is to inhabit this almost otherworldly dimension of the widow's loss, to give expression to a grief anachronistic in its single-mindedness. (pp. 99-101)

Often in going through Ariel one thought of the late R. P. Blackmur's reflection on Robert Lowell's earliest work, to the effect that in it there is nothing loved unless it be its repellence. Blackmur never really understood what Lowell's first volumes were about, and just so does his observation miss the mark if too rigidly applied to Plath. Still there is some truth in the observation taken in relation to Ariel where one necessarily thinks of Crossing The Water in other terms. If Sylvia Plath does not love the widow she describes, her compassion for and insight into her condition are at least considerable. Always, of course, the impulse to cry me me me is present, but the determination not to clearly masters any such impulse, and one must be moved by the drama the poet enacts among her warring desires…. [One] trained in the excesses and hungers of Ariel would not expect … lines like these [in "Two Campers in Cloud Country"]:

  It is comfortable, for a change, to mean so little.
  These rocks offer no purchase to herbage or people:

How restrained the sentiments in such assertions and yet how tense the voice that utters them, how unlike comfort are the attendant emotions. If from nothing else in the poem, a reader would know for sure of the tension that rings just in the background of every utterance by listening to the final words:

       Around our tent the old simplicities sough
       Sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in.
       We'll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.

For Sylvia Plath it was no easy matter to love what did not openly include her or that did not yield to her will, and she did no doubt court repellence precisely so that she might justify her poetic and personal excesses. The image of her acquiescently pondering a blank-brained awakening is then no emblem of an easy regression, but the expression of a determined wish to be, occasionally, nothing at all, and thereby to inhabit a various universe according to the principle of a negative capability. "The horizons are too far off to be chummy as uncles," the poet observes, and the line may stand in a sense for the impression one takes of the entire volume. It measures the poet's capacity to endure limited distance and otherness, to resist the temptation to suffocate everything in her fervent embrace. (pp. 101-02)

As one reads through the Ariel poems one is taken not by any sense of mystery but by a sense of inevitability that grips one by the throat, occasionally perhaps by the fingers of the hand, and drags him along to an ending that was never really in question, no matter how dazzlingly circuitous the route. There is an element of mystery in Crossing The Water that is very different indeed, and one may locate its source at just that point where the object refuses to yield in its intransigeant otherness and insists upon a range of potential meanings or associations that lead not in a straight line but in several directions at once. And this mystery is no mere rhetorical affair, but at least equally an affair of a spirit which can still afford a limited generosity. Suffused as so many poems in this volume are by this genuine current of mystery playing over the surfaces of objects and persons, it is no wonder that even ritualistic enactments incorporated by the poet are touched with a gentleness, a tentativeness one will hardly identify with Ariel. One need look no further than the poem "Candles," in fact, to see a perfectly glorious manifestation of this gentleness, this tentativeness, an alternation of sombre sentiment and delicate perception that constitutes a fabric as fine as anything Sylvia Plath has given us…. (pp. 102-03)

How pleasant to be able to say of such a poem that the Lowellian echoes are unmistakable, and that they do not matter a bit, that so totally has the poet taken possession of her materials and transformed them that the life and breadth of all she has touched are enlarged and enhanced. And as to the craft that makes such a poem what it is, how just it is to observe that mere quotation is nearly sufficient—analysis of dynamics may well take a back seat to a mode of pleasure we may not have thought possible where Sylvia Plath was concerned. (p. 104)

Robert Boyers, "On Sylvia Plath," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Winter, 1973, pp. 96-104.

Gene Ballif

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[I think] that the so called "religious" motifs of [Plath's] "Mystic" have nothing to do with religion or religious spirituality or the supernatural as commonly conceived, but rather with the only variety of religious experience she knew and perhaps believed she ever would know: the "mystical union" of her "great love" and the creative mania that seized her up in the wake of its rupture and left her with a sense of something worse than "total neutrality," a sense of utter annihilation.

             This is a case without a body.
           The body does not come into it at all.
 
           It is a case of vaporization.

—as "The Detective" wittily puts it. Clearly, the only gods Plath worshipped were poetry and her husband, and from the moment she fell in love we see that husband and poetry were one. (pp. 239-40)

A word about the "religious" motif in "Medusa" as compared with that in "Mystic." The two are quite different poems, of course, but it seems to me that the "remedies" interrogated in the later poem suggest a connection. The "Communion wafer" of "Medusa" had also appeared as "Communion tablet" in "Tulips," where it was associated with a kind of death that was not unwelcome. The religious allusions in both "Medusa" and "Mystic," however, evoke something repellent, something dreaded, scorned, and refused; and though in the later poem the refusal seems muted by an Eliotic presence (echoes of "Ash Wednesday" and "Marina" haunt the first eight lines, for example, and the first "remedy," patently suggestive of Eliot's conversion, is followed by "Memory?"—a key word in Four Quartets); the voice that "would like to believe in tenderness" cannot. What the ecclesiastical language in both poems connotes is a crippled, imprisoned, parasitic existence that inevitably implicates the mother and, just as inevitably, the daughter's fear of that "total negation of self" she thought she'd faced the worst of. (pp. 245-46)

"Mystic" is Plath's to-be-or-not-to-be poem, whose final lines suggest that, like Hamlet, she defers felicity a while in favor of a readiness for the hope of day-to-day living…. (pp. 246-47)

To call ["Mystic"] "confessional" would be misleading, so ingeniously does it evade confession, and if the letters help reveal what its pressure of disguise comes out of, they don't elucidate the process of its art. Paradoxically, its obscurities are vivid and sharp, obliterating distinctions with an acid edge; the images its images beget seem to move live a multiple-exposure film sequence, fluent, surreal, seashifting, like a liquid translucent palimpsest. "Medusa," one could say to suggest what troubled her bond with her mother, is a palimpsestuous poem…. Composed under duress of contending emotions, it suffers from the conditions of its own brilliance. Plath's strenuous hand here renders the aegis of Athena a trophy too cloudy to ensure steady and lucid reflections, as if to fix the features of the Gorgon too closely were to run the risk of fixing one's own. How is a reader to apprehend what so clearly doesn't want to be apprehended clearly? It is hard to approach such heavily guarded self-exposure. (p. 248)

A poem like "Daddy" has to be read for what it is on its surface before it can take root in imaginations that sense in it something else. What it is on that level has proved to be so much for so many of its readers, however, that one begins to look for cultural explanations of the sort George Steiner gave when over a decade ago he remarked that the late poems are "representative of our present tone of emotional life" [see excerpt above]. By the time she wrote "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," Plath's personal situation had pushed her to psychic extremes one can readily associate with the last half of the Sixties; but the continued popularity of those poems among the young suggests something more, and other, than a tribute to her achievement. One assumes that the twin themes of parricide and suicide have connections and significances as profound and enduring for our culture as ever they did for the Greeks and Romans, and as they've no doubt always had in some form or other for every culture. Yes, but what form, one wants to ask, and why? Our forms in particular seem formless—anesthetic and hysterical in emotional tone, cerebral and mindless, dehumanized by their own vitality. Even some of Plath's best poems seem to me tainted with a dram of these evils, notwithstanding their intensities of feeling, style, and apprehension. Their obscurities, moreover, vivid and suggestive as they are, tend to turn them into jeux de qui and jeux de quoi. Her themes may be timeless and her methods uniquely personal, but there is something in what she does and does not convey that continues to make her the most misunderstood and controversial of American poets. Cultists, New Feminists, necrophiliac reviewers, and in some ways even the "dissenters" among her audience might be the mere fringe of the cultural anarchy her poetry flourishes in. I suppose even some of her most intelligent and appreciative readers would admit, as I do, to split feelings about her that tend to interfere with efforts to understand what she means. Perhaps that has something to do with why Hardwick said of her poems that "there is no question of coming to terms with them"—and one reason why some of us keep having to try. (pp. 258-59)

Gene Ballif, "Facing the Worst: A View from Minerva's Buckler," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall-Winter, 1976, pp. 231-59.

Lorna Sage

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This selection [Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams], made by Ted Hughes, of Sylvia Plath's miscellaneous prose—published stories, articles, a few passages from the notebook-journals—is probably the best that can at present be done to pad out the record….

[The] notes from Cambridge (1956) are the most remote, not just in time. They reek of closet-theatre, and are full of self-disliking yet somehow cosy parentheses—"as I have so often boasted cleverly", "see, how dangerous", "always patching masks". She sounds bored with the gothic contents of her consciousness; the motifs are all there (Lazarus, the cold moon, father/lovers, birth-damaged babies, stillborn poems) but devoid of passion or even interest, as though she had grown weary of rehearsing them. It was perhaps a defensive pose; however, it seems to have stuck, and obviously had to be unstuck—"My God, I would love to cook and make a house, and surge force into a man's dreams, and write"—before these gruesome relics could work their miracles in the later poems….

More interesting, if less paraphrasable, are the pieces from 1961–62 which record some of the events that went into "The Bee Meeting" and "Berck Plage". The tone is very different, though how far it's representative is impossible to tell. It would be cheering to think that it was since these were professional notes, ready-tailored to be used for poetry, shorn of self-analysis. She hardly needed to make notes about herself—what she did need was visual recall, the "soap-coloured oak" and "raw date" on Percy B.'s coffin; the different veils, the cow parsley and angry bees zinging "as at the end of long elastics". There are some interesting contrasts between her private tone and her bardic finalities: "The end, even of so marginal a man, a horror", says the journal of her dead neighbour. "This is what it is to complete. It is horrible", says the poem, placing him centre stage, but at the same time merging him with all the dead, especially Daddy. Or again, there is the prosaic grave as a "narrow red earth opening", compared with the "naked mouth, red and awkward" that gapes in the verse. The poetry and the prose seem at last to have sorted themselves out—as though now that she was writing poems that pleased her, she no longer needed to compose sub-lyrics in her journals. The closer she got to simply gathering material, the better her prose….

She is surprisingly inept at inventing structures, even ordinary plots, taking refuge instead in archaic, would-be wry, O. Henry "twists" to rescue directionless narratives. Only four or five of the stories take on a full fictional identity, and then it's done through large-scale mythic patterns rather than the discreet adjustments that usually belong to the form. For example, the only endings she can make work seem to be death or waking out of a hallucination, or both at once, as in the title story, "Johnny Panic". There, and in a companion piece, "The Daughters of Blossom Street", she manages something like the metamorphosed autobiography of The Bell Jar, turning a brief job she had in 1958 as secretary to a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital into a cold, gleeful vision of the sharable nightmare…. Even here, though, there are signs of self-consciousness and the worry about pastiche, since the heroine arrives at her "bible", her collection of dreams, by stealing them out of people's files.

Indeed, in so far as the stories have—or suggest—a theme, this is it. Perhaps because they are so often hesitant, dependent, ill at ease, they reveal even more clearly than her poems her fear that for all her isolation, she was a psychic parasite. "Day of Success", which tries to dislaim any such parasitism, must be one of the creepiest instances: an attempt at a woman's magazine story (unpublished until last year) about a young wife and mother coping with her writer-husband's sudden breakthrough into realms of money and fame. It is saccharine-sweet, and entirely (deliberately?) fails to hide its bitterness…. It's terrible stuff, with the feeblest of happy endings, a parody of the zest with which she threw herself into the role of housewife and insisted on an exaggerated separation of roles in the earlier part of her marriage….

This collection of prose belongs to the semi-created level of [Plath's] work, but even here she has the power to set off like firecrackers problems that go way beyond the often dull or scrappy style.

Lorna Sage, "Death and Marriage," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 21, 1977, p. 1235.

Simon Blow

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

[Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams] is only of interest if discussing why Sylvia Plath should ever have wanted to write prose—so inferior (The Bell Jar included) is it to her verse—thus this publication must have a purely technical fascination, for even Plath addicts cannot have grown so indiscriminate as to swallow these writings whole….

She thought that fiction, by obliging a writer to create outside himself, would train her to objectivity, and yet in all but a very few of these stories does she not write of death, the dying or the dead. In prose her death obsession never shakes off an adolescent curiosity and yearning, and in one story, 'The Daughters of Blossom Street', she hints at a suspiciously unattractive asset to an early death. Young Billy takes a fatal header while running up and down unlit stone stairs, and Plath puts into a character's mouth, 'I think that boy's a lucky boy. For once in his life he's got sense. For once in his life, I think that boy's going to be a hero'. Later she reflects that Dotty was quite right to think that, as posthumous fame is heaped on the boy through dying young. This is unattractive in the light of Sylvia Plath's own death by suicide at thirty, and the fame that has grown from it and surrounded her since.

But, in fairness, she did do her best to exorcise her demons by writing stories and a part of her was quite serious when she said that her aim was to be a top-paid storyteller of The New Yorker or The Ladies' Home Journal, only it wasn't for her. Plath's suicide put her private neuroses into the public domain and in the majority of these stories they are all too visible and prevent the fiction from taking on any life of its own. (p. 42)

From two articles published in this collection she seems to have been on the defensive over her poetry, as if she thought that the success she craved could never come from what would be judged a minor form when set against the vast territory of fiction. 'For me, poetry is an evasion of the real job of writing prose', she wrote and she tortured herself for ideas and an original style. Very occasionally she got there, as in a story like 'The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle' where for once she is able to stand aside and observe, but she couldn't keep it up, and soon enough she is back to death and more death. Perhaps were Sylvia Plath alive it would be possible to see these stories differently, but in that event it is doubtful that such a book would ever have come about. (pp. 42-3)

[However] the book ends with two prose pieces that served as notes for three of her poems. These are of interest since it is Sylvia Plath's poetry that ultimately must hold us, not her suicide and the inflated legend that has sprung from it. To compare the prose with the verse is to see how a formless, unshaped talent was transformed by its rightful medium into something positive and durable. (p. 43)

Simon Blow, "Sylvia Plath's Prose," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Simon Blow 1978; reprinted with permission), June, 1978, pp. 42-3.

Margaret Atwood

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

"Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" is a minor work by a major writer…. [It will interest] any reader sympathetic enough to Plath's work to have read most of it already and to be interested in foreshadowings, cross-references, influences and insights…. [It's a prose catch-all] and as such it ought to round out one's knowledge of the writer and, perhaps, offer some surprises. Luckily it does both….

It was a shock akin to seeing the Queen in a bikini to learn that Sylvia Plath, an incandescent poet of drastic seriousness, had two burning ambitions: to be a highly paid travel journalist and to be a widely published writer of magazine fiction…. To this end she slogged away in the utmost self-doubt and agony, composing more than 70 stories, most of which were never published, and filling notebooks with the details of what she thought of as real life: styles of clothing and interior decoration, mannerisms of acquaintances, sketches of the physical world that she believed she had no talent for observing. (Poetry she considered a mere escape, a self-indulgence, an indulgence in self, and as such unreal, because she was not totally convinced of her own worth or even of her own existence.)

It's easy to sneer at such ambitions, and the editor [Ted Hughes] does not altogether resist the temptation, though his disapproval is gentle and underlined by a statement of crushing validity: Sylvia Plath's genuine medium was poetry. Of course this is true; but her desire for journalistic success, which seems so incongruous in view of the final excellence of her achievement, must be placed in context. Sylvia Plath became famous only after she was dead….

On one level "Johnny Panic" is the record of an apprenticeship. It should bury forever the romantic notion of genius blossoming forth like flowers. Few writers of major stature can have worked so hard, for so long, with so little visible result. The breakthrough, when it came, had been laboriously earned many times over. But there's more to "Johnny Panic" than juvenilia. The writing varies widely in quality and interest, or rather in the quality of the interest; for although the young Sylvia Plath squeezed out some fairly dismal stories, as most young writers do, all the pieces presented here are revealing.

Some things stand brilliantly on their own: two short later essays, "America! America!" and "A Comparison"; several of the notebook entries; the title story, which foreshadows "The Bell Jar"; and "Tongues of Stone." Two pairs—notebook entry, short story—demonstrate the transformation from observed real life to fiction; in both cases the notebook entries have a spontaneity that the stories, in their desire to be literary, almost lose. There are some straight formula pieces, most notably "Day of Success," which is about a young wife and mother who keeps her dashing playwright husband by being domestic. At first sight these stories are merely no more deplorable than other such 1950's set pieces, but on second reading they cause pricking of the thumbs.

Even when she was trying to be trite, Sylvia Plath could not conceal the disconcerting insights into her own emotional mainsprings that characterize her poetry. The unevenness of the stories is often the result of a clash between the chosen formula and the hidden message that forces its way through, seemingly despite the writer. (p. 10)

The stories are arranged chronologically but in reverse order. This creates an archeological effect: the reader is made to dig backward in time, downward into a remarkable mind, so that the last, earliest story, "Among the Bumblebees" (a wistful story about a little girl's worship of her father who dies mysteriously), emerges like the final gold-crowned skeleton at the bottom of the tomb—the king all those others were killed to protect. Which it is. (p. 31)

Margaret Atwood, "Poet's Prose," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 28, 1979, pp. 10, 31.

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