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Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963
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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4473
[No] poet more than Sylvia Plath keeps reminding us of the terms and the ground of her writing. To say that she writes in extremis is not only an accurate statement of fact but a suggestion that more than aesthetic matters may be involved. (p. 127)
Ariel, Sylvia Plath's major posthumously published book of poems, begins and ends in extremis. "Morning Song," the opening poem, begins with the word "love." "Words," the concluding poem, ends on the word "life." The title of the last poem "Words," and the pun in the title of the opening poem "Morning Song" suggest the two other prominent centers here, art and death. Love and death, life and art—these are the extremities out of which the Ariel poems proceed. And Plath insisted upon them and returned to them for alignments of the most dangerous kind.
The Ariel poems reveal and often pursue a direction more nearly final than that found in Plath's earlier poetry or in her nonpoetic work. What surfaces in Ariel proves to be a love of extremity. It expresses itself in obsessive rhythm, in a momentum and an inventiveness of image, and in a defining vocabulary recognizable by what it is attracted to and by what it seeks: totality, finality, obduracy. In Plath's most central books of poetry, The Colossus and Ariel, the adjectives expose this range of thought and feeling. The attraction involves what is "sheer," "mere," "pure," "absolute," "necessary." Movement in the poems is toward what cannot be stopped or reversed, things "intractable" and "tireless." It is toward what lies beyond loving, human feeling, things "vast" and "immense." And toward what is unrepeatable, things "unique" and "perfect." Plath's recurrent use of the prefixes "in-," "un-," and "ir-" relates to this defining poetics. And her attempt at using words like "terrible," "awful," and "horrible" in their root sense further characterizes her poetry and its preferences. The vocabulary which she evolved in her poetry is never far from the limits her opening and concluding poems announced and made final as the proper centers among which her poems move. (p. 128)
The terms under which Plath chose to write her poems are unmistakably given, over and over. She sought to embrace nothing less than "everything." A procedure on this scale was bound to assume personal and historical, aesthetic and sexual dimensions. (pp. 128-29)
If ideally nothing escaped Plath, her tone when confronting what she called "atrocity" or "enormity" shifted between the mocking and the serious, the playful and the deadly. She could play child, adolescent, and adult, alternately, and at the same time. As a consequence, it sometimes is difficult to separate boast from threat or fear from wish in her readiness for the enormity of everything…. Predictably, the question of knowledge returned the poet to the smaller, but still large questions of love and death, life and art.
What can love manage. What is death's domain. What are the just concerns of life and of art. These involved Plath in the issue not only of poetic content but of poetic form as well.
At once inclusive and exclusive, the content of Sylvia Plath's poetry appropriated all provinces of knowledge. She not only accepted the extremity and enormity of history and personality but sought out the most outrageous facts and facta of life and art. Repeatedly, the impression she conveyed was that of a woman and poet to whom nothing was alien. In moving prose written after her death, Ted Hughes … attempted to detail this sense in her:
The world of her poetry is one of emblematic visionary events, mathematical symmetries, clairvoyance, metamorphoses, and something resembling total biological and racial recall.
Hughes's last clause defines what readers coming to Plath's work even for the first time inevitably feel. (pp. 129-30)
What Sylvia Plath sought to manage as content, she also had to handle in and as form. The poetry she admitted admiring and the methods of composition attributed to her by people who knew her involved poems written "all-of-a-piece." Such poems are in evidence in the post-Romantic, organic verse she frequently succeeded in writing….
If the word "organic" commonly has been turned into an almost meaningless term expressive of a quasi-mystical ideality which is present in a particular poem, for Plath's poetry it can be a critical term of the most descriptive and telling kind. The best poems in her first book, The Colossus, are organic in conception, in their management of matters as basic as stanza and line length and image. In the poem, "Man in Black," taken from the first book, Plath achieved a poem unmistakably "all-of-a-piece."… (p. 131)
What Plath accomplishes in "Man in Black" is nothing less than the achievement, wished for, willed, and executed, of the kind of organic, post-Romantic poem which she delighted in and which she aspired to write….
The last line in "Man in Black"—"All of it, together"—succeeds impressively in underlining the impression that the poem has been or at least given the illusion of being "born all-of-a-piece." "Man in Black" concludes by becoming something like a completed miniature "Kubla Khan." The poem is there on the page, "all of it, together." In part, "Man in Black" is one more attempt at writing the final, Romantic poem in the English language. (p. 133)
The early poems, when seen in connection with the poems from the posthumous volumes, reveal a search on the part of the poet for objects or images adequate to whatever love or hate she wished to attach to them. In many of the late poems, she directed her relentless precision toward casting poems in the form of extended correlatives. In the first line of each poem, an interior state commonly is recorded toward which the rest of the movement of the poem is painstakingly devoted…. Each poem exposes a search for adequate image. Each exposes the wish to find whatever is in the vase or in the tree or behind the veil. In the course of each poem the poet steadily attempts [in Ted Hughes's words] "to locate just what it was that hurt." (p. 139)
Separately and as a group, ["Tulips," "The Swarm," and "A Birthday Present"] deal with problems of language, or, more specifically, with the adequacy of any image in the face of an extreme situation. They address the confrontation, immediate or potential, of something desired, yet also feared. And they address the problem of finding words able to express that confrontation. In each of these poems, the poet attempts to locate, by means of a run of images, what "it" is: in "Tulips," what "it" is that is in the vase and to what "it corresponds," a correspondence which signals sickness or health, life or death; in "The Swarm," what "it" is that is in the tree and, in the mind, so intriguing and threatening at the same time; in "A Birthday Present," what "it" is that can lie behind the veil and be the source of such comforting and horrible enormity. (pp. 142-43)
The need to locate what "it" is proves equally central to the movement and meanings of other poems of Plath's. In part, the mad and associational intensity of poems like "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," and "The Applicant" becomes understandable in view of what the poet, there, is bent on relentlessly seeking out…. (p. 143)
"The Applicant," "Daddy," and "Lady Lazarus" reveal Plath centrally concerned with the universal habit of image-making, [but] this is not all. More important, in these poems she exhibits the extremes, personal and historical, to which image-making has been taken.
"Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" extend and provide variations on the concerns of "The Applicant." In particular, they seek to locate what it was that hurt. These two poems radically confront Lear-like questions of man and his image, of what constitutes for him need and excess. "Is man no more than this? Consider him well," Lear mused. Both "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" raise issues as basic as image and as man. They seek to find images which will sufficiently body forth that man.
"Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" are poems which seem written at the edge of sensibility and of imagistic technique. They both utilize an imagery of severe disintegration and dislocation. The public horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the personal horrors of fragmented identities become interchangeable. Men are reduced to parts of bodies and to piles of things. The movement in each poem is at once historical and private; the confusion in these two spheres suggests the extent to which this century has often made it impossible to separate them. (p. 146)
The barkerlike tone of "Lady Lazarus" is not accidental. As in "Daddy," the persona strips herself before the reader … all the time utilizing a cool or slang idiom in order to disguise feeling. Sylvia Plath borrowed from a sideshow or vaudeville world the respect for virtuosity which the performer must acquire, for which the audience pays and never stops paying. Elsewhere in her work, she admired the virtuosity of the magician's unflinching girl or of the unshaking tattoo artist. Here, in "Lady Lazarus," it is the barker and the striptease artist who consume her attention. What the poet pursues in image and in rhyme (for example, the rhyming of "Jew" and "gobbledygoo") becomes part of the same process I observed in so many of her other poems, that attempt, brilliant and desperate, to locate what it was that hurt. (p. 147)
Sylvia Plath never stopped recording in her poetry the wish and need to clear a space for love. Yet she joined this to an inclination to see love as unreal, to accompanying fears of being unable to give and receive love, and to the eventual distortion and displacement of love in the verse. Loving completely or "wholly" she considered to be dangerous, from her earliest verse on.
Love was so much a part of her world that it often stood in her poetry for that world itself. When the world seemed unreal, so did love. In the early poetry, this sometimes approximated a secondhand, Romantic poetics. But the early poems also give evidence of some more profound sense of a loving unreality which the later poems turned into a more desperate, pathetic tableau of "valentine-faces" and candy or enamel-painted hearts.
Plath often wrote with humor and irony when she considered love. She could be the satirist alert to the sentiments of a Victorian or Edwardian age. She could be a shrewd psychologist of love's ambiguities. She could be sane and clairvoyant, joining writers as major as Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky in probing the darkness of the heart. But in what she wrote just before and at the time of Ariel, she began to establish a stance which I find problematic and dangerous. A progression is evident in her handling of love and the love poem that calls into question the loving of intentions which some of the first lines of poems announce, but which the tone of whole poems or the endings of poems commonly belie. (pp. 152-53)
In the important Ariel bee poems, her uncertainty issues in the fear of being hurt or fatally "stung" by love. It is the kind of bad joke or bad pun which comes to typify her late art. It expresses a situation so extreme and intolerable to her that only by such devices could she ever have hoped to manage her world. Lowell and Berryman use similar devices, but very often out of real strength. In Plath, however, the strategy commonly reduces to sheer helplessness.
The Ariel poems reveal a woman both too exposed and too unopen. The sexuality is relentless and overwhelming. The puns not only proliferate—"head," "queen," "screw," "cherry"—but succeed in words like "mail" (letter and "male") and "box" (sexual organ and coffin) in making explicit the meanings which are central to her work. (p. 154)
If Plath wished her poems to stand as love letters to the world, the perspective from which they proceed may, in the end, have made that wish impossible. Her metaphor for the world may very well have been a response to a loveless world. But it is here that the logic of the argument breaks down. For the poetry shows the controlling metaphor threatening to become the informing vision itself. By the time she wrote her last poems, there was less and less room for and patience with love. If the poems were once meant to create love, they came to stand for a world which had forgone or gone beyond some loving, human circumference.
The problem of artistic control which so many critics have addressed in Sylvia Plath I find less central and settleable than that of the controlling metaphor in her verse. Her best poems are incredibly controlled. But the issue of controlling metaphor lingers on long after a reader has decided whether the poems show control or "the look of control" or "controlled uncontrolledness."
The controlling metaphor affects much that happens in Plath's poetry. In the process of finding what to "do" with her love, she often concluded by inverting it. Poem by poem, not just in Ariel, she radically confused love and death, self and other. Images of love give way to images of incest ("Daddy," and the bee poems) and masturbation ("Suicide Off Egg Rock," "Ariel," "Death & Co.," "The Jailor," "Childless Woman"). Loveless images of madness, suicide, and solipsism—from the "I am, I am, I am" of "Suicide Off Egg Rock" to the "ich, ich, ich, ich" of "Daddy"—take on the force of leitmotifs for her work. And art, if capable of leading us back to loving, human contexts, here gives the impression of being one more inversion of love. It can be one more deception in this life.
In the late poems, something happens to language and to love and to the possibility of defining a self through love. Repeatedly, the health or breakdown of one is a reflection of the other. (pp. 156-57)
As a representative, twentieth-century writer, Plath lends to language as language a central place in her work. But in the implications and concluding achievement of this, she is entirely herself. In five very late poems, "Words," "Kindness," "Edge," "Contusion," and "The Fearful," she has no rival, perhaps fortunately so.
These poems, unlike "Lesbos" or "Stillborn" which show love and language breaking down but which discover no words or tone artful enough to manage that fact, succeed in what they attempt. They learn the art of leaving human love behind, but whether out of necessity or freedom it is not always clear.
The five poems share, aside from having been written during the last week of Plath's life, an assessment of a situation where love seems either absent or unreal, deceptive or unimportant. In all of them, there is a rightness in choice of phrase and word and a brilliance in the run of images in individual stanzas and in entire poems. (p. 158)
These poems all take an associational, imagistic technique to a point of deadly confusion and delusion where the poet can fold her poem-children back into her body simply by writing out the wish ("Edge") or where she is so uncomprehending of human, loving kindness that she cannot distinguish between children and roses ("Kindness").
What I am suggesting is that these late poems are not the mystically calm, orderly pieces which some critics have seen them to be. Instead, they are the terrible, terrifying creations of a woman who, near the end of a life, still could not do without love, even if she never learned what to do with it. As a result, the tone of the poems is something less than the matter-of-factness of the saint. (p. 160)
If love was never completely renounced by her, neither was it constant in her work. And the poems keep recording a journey and a movement as inevitable as death. Now that the poems which were written just before or at the same time as the Ariel poems have been collected and published in Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, we are afforded an even better means of charting and confirming larger movements and stages in her work. When Ted Hughes and other critics first wrote of an inevitable, conscious development in her poetry and when the titles of the posthumous books Crossing the Water and Winter Trees were first announced, I wondered how willful was the creation of that legendary development and reputation. But a consideration of the poems themselves and of her title, The Colossus, for her first book, helped to dispel such fears. In the same way, interpretations of her art after the fact of her suicide now strike me as less arbitrary and fallacious than they once did. That she eventually took her own life is important. It might be dangerous not to consider that fact seriously.
Plath's development from The Colossus to the poems of the later volumes is technical as much as it is psychic and spiritual. More particularly, that development concerns her use of image in connection with the possibilities for language and love. How that development implies and makes explicit a journey, her gathered work actualizes and clarifies.
By the title of her first volume, The Colossus, Plath signified what she would spend a lifetime trying to create. Sometimes she exchanged the colossus image for the image of an ark or a garden. But the intentions were always the same, to write words that would bear love and that would have life. The difficulty, however, was that, from the very beginning, her landscape risked turning into (to use images from her own poems) some nightmarish bestiary or wintering ship or burnt-out spa. The problem of what would be her controlling metaphor, then, was full upon her from her earliest work.
The poems she wrote after those included in The Colossus show her still involved in trying to put together saving, loving words. But the colossus which she feared would never get "put together entirely" and which she feared would be a ruin becomes more than a distant, playful fear. The opening and closing poems of The Colossus—"The Manor Garden" and "The Stones"—depend upon and establish the essential, ominous ambiguity that mark later poems like "Tulips." (pp. 161-62)
Now that Crossing the Water and Winter Trees have been published, there is the opportunity to observe the poet at every stage taking stock of her situation and development. The Colossus and Ariel, even before the other volumes appeared recently, showed her charting a course, or "getting there," as she put it; she assigned it as a title to one of her poems. If the exact nature of the journey or voyage or ride, all prominent metaphor in her verse, was often in doubt, its connection with love was not.
There are two major movements which the entire body of Plath's poetry suggests—toward the creation of love and toward some state beyond love. These movements are not strictly chronological any more than they are exclusive of one another. In part, they exist in and through the very last poems she wrote. But, as poems written in time, by a woman aware of time, they tend to build toward that point where the second movement, a state beyond human love, can be claimed, or at least volitionally prophesied…. Sometimes Plath depended upon the fierce repetitions of "would" or "shall" or "let us" in order to move toward and create that state beyond love. The syntax of poems like "A Birthday Present" and "Lady Lazarus" depend greatly upon such a volitional strategy. (pp. 162-63)
"Mystic" contains within it a countermovement toward a belief in earthly love.
The contradictory impression which "Mystic" succeeds in conveying not only is central to the meaning of that poem, but it also connects with a defining center in much of Plath's late verse. On the one hand, there is the woman who becomes a contemporary doubting Thomas, except that what she disbelieves are not Christ's wounds and resurrected presence but his love:
How I would like to believe in tenderness.
("The Moon and the Yew Tree" …)
This moment is as desperate as any in modern poetry. It is as pathetic as Prufrock's musing on the mermaids, "I do not think that they will sing to me." (p. 165)
Marriage imagery is resplendent in Sylvia Plath's poetry. "Do" is recurrent and hypnotic as a word and as an action. At times the persona saying, "I do, I do," is a mechanical doll or a prisoner confessing to a crime. These senses of the word and phrase Plath commonly linked with the recital of the marriage vow. "Do" also is punned upon, especially in her poem, "Daddy." The German, familiar "du" or you ("do," "du," "you"—they even rhyme) of intimate address and love songs is recalled, almost as a reminder of the historical and personal perversions to which love and action can be subjected. (pp. 165-66)
The Colossus already revealed the poet's predilection for decadent unions between love and death, and art and life. If her browned gardenia and ghastly orchid recall fin de siècle botanical catalogues, it is in her taste in sounds, colors, jewels, music, painting, and literature that she shows herself to be a contemporary decadent…. In the poems that came after The Colossus, however, we are able to see how this incipient decadence is turned from something faintly literary into something closer to the poet's very self: "Pom! Pom! They would have killed me!" (pp. 166-67)
That Sylvia Plath wrote two last-words poems, one called just that ("Last Words") and another, "Words," I find significant. The major problem which I address in this chapter—to whom and to what do her poems finally belong—the two poems engage, although in the body of her poetry they are not unique in that concern. (p. 168)
"Last Words" is a very different kind of poem, closer in style to poems of intense desire like "Tulips," "A Birthday Present," or "The Arrival of the Bee Box." The poet in "Last Words" [in Crossing the Water] wants and volitionally unlooses herself from domestic things in order to achieve a state of utter mystic peace:
It will be dark,
And the shine of these small things sweeter than the
face of Ishtar.
Ishtar, Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of love and fertility, is invoked. But it is the artful, statuary face of Ishtar which has importance for her in this poem. The state yearned for is death, not love. The word "sweeter" in this quotation goes back to a line earlier in the same poem, "I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!" Sweetness commonly threatened loving deception for Plath. Here it carries equally dark connotations of preservation, but always at the unnatural expense of life. Sweetness proves costly, proves to be death.
As "Last Words" earns its authority, there emerges that tone, or "décor"—an important word for … Plath—which related to the matter of control and to whatever triumph or failure these final poems contain.
"Last Words" manages to indicate how the poet willed to move herself and her poetry toward love as much as it indicates how she could not handle the artful business she went about. "I can't stop it," she wrote in this poem. Here "It" meant not love or blood-hurt but the escape of spirit-breath or the release of images. (pp. 168-69)
"Last Words," like any of the major poems from Ariel or Crossing the Water or Winter Trees, does not dispose of the nagging sense that, in love as it may be with "a soldier repose than death's" (a phrase from an early poem, "The Sculptor"), in the end, it belongs to an art of elegy, less by choice than by some desperate, pathetic necessity. (p. 170)
If the late poems belong to anyone, they belong not to her father or husband or children or even to poetry (the sense of the poem as unloving love-child she never forgot). But to Death, Death the lover, Death the double…. (pp. 170-71)
What I have been tracing—the attempts of the poems to establish lyric and love and the countermovement toward elegy and to a deadly journey which could not be stopped—gain authority and intensity from the more recently released volumes. They never contradict but extend what the Ariel poems were about. The old faults prove to be the same; "love cannot come here," we again find.
The moving center of both books, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, is that of a woman of sorrows. Recurrently, Plath imagined herself as Mary and Christ. Ease, love, correspondence, and relationship all were yearned for and did not emerge. (p. 172)
If some important part of Sylvia Plath in her late poetry refused to accept a world of gigolos as the final version of the world, she never abandoned the doubt that she could recognize or accept love even were she able to manage it in her life and art. As a result, tone figures more and more prominently in the interpretation of the poems she left behind. Tone, its readiness and surety, dominates.
The posthumous poems expose discrepancies and failures of the most serious kind. The phoenix figure, prominent in various guises in her work, deserted her outside her poems. And the children-poems she imagined in the late poem, "Edge," folded back into her and taken out of this life, became painfully distinct from her in death—the two children fathered by Ted Hughes and left behind; the poems which were posthumous. And the Medea figure, once little more than a literary trapping in her early poem, "Aftermath," proved in the late poem, "Edge," only a pathetic wish denied to her outside of mythology. When she died, so did her long sought-after and invoked gods.
The confusions and delusions of art and life, wish fulfillment and reality, became exposed at her death. And they record a sad fact. But, beyond that and more important, they reach back to some sense of lovelessness or lack implicit in a major part of her poetry. The Ariel poems, looked at together with the poems from Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, now strike me as less in love's behalf than she would have liked them to be. Poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" in the end may not be the triumphs which their momentum and inventiveness at times celebrate. Instead, and this is my sense of them, they belong more to elegy and to death, to the woman whose "loving associations" abandoned her as she sought to create images for them. (pp. 172-73)
Arthur Oberg, "Sylvia Plath: 'Love, Love, My Season'," in his Modern American Lyric: Lowell, Berryman, Creeley, and Plath (copyright © 1978 by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press), Rutgers, 1978, pp. 127-73.
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That mystery and obfuscation, as well as pregnant misreading, have helped to create a Plath cult is undoubtedly true. That there is a cult-like interest in her life and work (the two often seen as inextricable) can't be denied…. (p. 40)
Re-reading all of her published poems, and reading or re-reading a mass of stuff written about her, I've been struck again and again by the dramatic distancing of so much of her work, the way in which she created poems which are precisely not cries from the heart, or from a sick mind, or from the edge of the precipice in an obtrusively narrow or personal way; and at the same time I've been struck by the way these poems are indeed quarrels with herself, dramatic debates between action and stillness, fulfilment and blankness, hope and despair, anger and love—not seen in those abstract shapes, of course, but translated into that dense and sprightly metaphorical discourse which is one of the languages of poetry and which was certainly her language.
Very often it is a pictorial language, the first level of metaphor, something seen: she has the attentive detail, the highlighted focus, of a genre painter. It comes out, for example, in the second part of her poem "Two Views of a Cadaver Room", in which that "little country, foolish, delicate" in the Brueghel painting is the frail and threatened place yearned for and sought—and sometimes found—in many Plath poems. Sometimes, in early poems and late ones, it is the country of Death, very still, very composed, very "accomplished"—to vary a word she used in one of the poems she wrote in the last week of her life, "Edge." Here the temptation is to read back into it one's retrospective knowledge…. But Sylvia Plath, like any good poet, didn't write poems as autobiographical or proleptic footnotes. (pp. 42-3)
The perfection, the accomplishment, the necessity of "Edge" have an inevitability which would, I think, seem just as inevitable if Sylvia Plath hadn't in fact killed herself within a week of writing it. The poem's stillness is a conscious weapon against distraction, and a stabilising one. The quarrel, for the moment, is over, resolved. That in a moment of desolation she miscalculated and pushed herself over the edge is … in a sense irrelevant. We need to remember this, so as not to magnify the manner of her death and thereby keep on reading it back into the poems…. Poems that survive …—survive and have currency—do so not because of legendary "circumstances" but because they are well-made things which extend us, enlarge us, and make us, too, survive and endure and enjoy. (pp. 43-4)
The notion of serious writers—especially, perhaps, serious women writers—playing with their obsessions, or joking about serious matters, is offensive to many people. The squeamishness of male critics confronted with the work of, say, Erica Jong has often been remarked. To justify or tidy up, such work is sterilised with the cosmetics of black comedy, theatre of the absurd, sick humour, etc. Sylvia Plath was a very controlled, very witty, and also very serious and ambitious writer, who had the bad luck to be born and brought up in a society which—at one and the same time—equated seriousness with solemnity and, in its more intellectual reaches, gave an odd and special status to what used to be called insanity. In a secular age, without belief but hungering for something transcendental, many felt like the natives in the Evelyn Waugh novel: "Very mad, very holy."…
What is unique about Sylvia Plath is not what happened to her and what she did to herself—the gas oven and the note to the doctor—but her control, her zest, her vitality as a poet up to that point. If we make her into a legend, we falsify and diminish her. (p. 44)
Anthony Thwaite, "Out of the Quarrel: On Sylvia Plath," in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIII, No. 2, August, 1979, pp. 40-4.
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Sylvia Plath was a romantic of the most self-cancelling kind. She reduced romanticism to a fever, a scream of defiance; but romantic she was, and exactly to the degree that she was alive and struggling. Her romanticism was her wish to live, if at times only in that touchingly qualified transcendence (located on no one's map of earth or heaven) where she could be born once again as her father's little girl. (p. 3)
Crushing, nearly Kafkaesque as this father worship was, it is nonetheless moving. No embrace more longed for, more healing and validating than the father's. For so judgment gets a heart, distance takes us up and hugs us to the source of power. Plath is our scapegoat, the child who needed this blessing more, who would not give up asking for it until the effort killed her.
But her quest was by definition immature. And, except as the mote that provoked the splendid blindness of her poetry, what is its importance? Critics maunder about her vision, but as Irving Howe suggests, she had none. She saw neither the next world nor this one; she saw only her distance from each. What her husband called her "free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests" was at best a private clairvoyance, as her romanticism was a private "salvation."
It is true that her sense of the horror of Creation was up to the minute. But her relation to this commonplace was private and tandem. If she saw entropy as an animistic terror, a piranha religion drinking from live toes, it was not simply because the scientific view of things had once again been dipped into a child's and a poet's primitivism. It was specifically because her heart was under her father's foot, "sister of a stone." What her "vision" of the dripping "mercuric / Atoms that cripple" shows is not insight but an instinct for self-justification.
And if she drank dismay from history as we all do, she has nothing of interest to say about it…. Plath uses the historical and mythical as a vanity mirror. When she writes as if she were as abused as a Nazi victim she climbs to self-importance over the bodies of the dead. She enters a moral sphere that her amoral personal imagination cannot apprehend.
So her thought is not important. Nor, in a way, is her sensibility, for it was self-consumed in contradiction. Ambivalence afflicted her. For she did try to love life—how she tried. (pp. 4-5)
At worst, and often, her sensibility was "childish," overvulnerable: a chest pounding in terror, blood boiling blackly…. She was ever thus extreme. The whole strength of her sensibility lay in reaction, in the cry that, as Simone Weil says, is the innocence of the soul: "Why am I being hurt?"… Her imagination lacked justice. She used it as those backed against a wall use a knife, fingernails, anything.
Emotionally her work is a vicious circle of weakness and strength, the strength unstable because reactive. Her capacity for feeling injured and angry were equally awesome. Now she was a toadstool, her flesh falling apart at a nudge, now a lioness. Everything that enters her world seems either too strong to live with or too weak to live. How could she but disconcert us? Her sensibility has no horizon, no free space, no issue except extinction. Where Hughes in Crow flogs hackneyed horrors to get a sign of life from them, Plath had but to be herself to terrify.
Yet in a way her sensibility is useful, a monstrous dredging machine. Like the young woman in "The Tour" it addresses the maiden aunt in all of us and bids us look into our hearts…. Plath takes us down to where familial and other fears and resentments crawl; she exercises a dark-of-the-basement fascination. And we may come to see that it's only honest to admit our complicity in these petty and unreasonable and serious and pathetic passions. (pp. 5-6)
[Plath's] poetry is the inverse of the letters [found in Letters Home], their antimatter. This poet is not least curious in repudiating in her verse almost the whole of her daily consciousness, at any rate as her letters and reported conversations disclosed it. The letters mirror a lah-lahing Pollyanna whom the poetry, sneaking up behind, ruthlessly savages.
Plath A, the Plath people knew, not only struggled to "master" the fiction formulas of the slicks; she lived pulp dreams.
Husband, children, house, fame—she was to go after them as one pursues the Fully Desirable, the Approved. The frequent superlatives in her letters—the quarters and half-dollars of "amazing," "marvelous," "happiest"—were part of the dues she paid to the American dream.
Where in Letters Home are a poet's slatted observations, a poet's accents and reserves? Banality, banality; it never lets up. (p. 6)
Plath B saw through her—saw that she was thin air, the brilliance that bounces off mirrors. Plath B was Plath A when all the friendly mirrors were taken away. She was also a pointed retaliation against Plath A, against all that fulsome trust. (p. 7)
Plath A, Plath B, each acted on the post-Hegelian romantic belief that true being lies in intense feeling. No mute renunciation, no neutered acceptance, for her. If a rock crushes your toe, will you inquire into the law of gravity or do a dance of pain? Plath danced then kicked the rock.
She became our second queen (poor queen, mad queen) of subjectivity. The first of course was Emily Dickinson, an early influence. Both poets told "all the Truth," meaning all it would be pretty to leave out, but told it "slant," through the amusement rides, terror rides, of metaphor. Neither questioned the sufficiency or even the supremacy of her own intensity as a subject for art. Hence their terrific concentration. That both may have written partly to "fill the awful longitude" scored by a departed man also explains the peculiar urgency of some of their work, work that seems the outlet for a great vehemence. Both exemplify romantic passion, an infinitude of force imprisoned in a mortal personality. And the overcharged feeling in each produced a similar poetic of bolts…. To be sure, Plath is the more discursive even though she lacks Dickinson's deep (if gust-ruffled) power of reflection. She does not reflect, she reacts.
What is it to be a queen, as I have both mockingly and respectfully put it, of subjectivity? In Plath's case, writing against a nominally Christian culture (and against its back-drop), it is to have at best a macabre magnificence. The small demons attend Plath. Then, too, her self-pity is like an enormous underground labyrinth in which she wanders as if raging for her lost diadem—but the labyrinth itself is the only domain permitted to her, and her subjects have all gone away.
Yet how impressive she is as she wails, "Why am I being hurt?" How absolutely she commits herself to what Kierkegaard called "the moment of individuality," subjective being conceived as a unique, irreducible nexus of reality. And how much yearning her pain and anger express for the romantic experience of a lyrical harmony with others and with the world.
Yet to us Plath's subjectivity would be nothing without her objectifying dramatic values. Her astonishing force lies in the way she performs her emotions. She invents and speaks from within para-objective scenes that give body to her intensity without diminishing her subjectivity. If she attacks her feelings from outside, it is not to allay them but, with a director's aural and visual sort of dreaming, to delight in staging the person in her passions.
True, like all modern poets, she was handicapped for writing drama. When culture was sent to the boards by the increasing industrialization of society …, the poet lost a knowledge of other people and dramatic and narrative poetry fell away. What was left but to cultivate sensibility? Hence romantic lyricism. Yet, opposite though they tend to be, romanticism and drama share a common love: the blood-hot moment. It remained for the romantic poets—a Hopkins, a Yeats—to discover the dramatic values of the lyric itself.
Plath is one of the greatest of these inventors. It may be true that her only successful character creation was her imaginative exaggeration of her own. Still, how much drama this produced! Which of our other poets gives us so much of conflict, elliptical plot, eloquence under circumstantial stress? Plath is almost alone in the field. Her wounds forced her to her knees precisely at the center of all drama, what Karl Jaspers calls Communication, the struggle to love other persons. She could write only about herself, but she herself was the struggle of persons, she herself was drama.
To the intensity of her emotions Plath added the implicit intensity of fantasy, the piquancy of the peculiar, and turning-screw situations. The result was alarming, beautiful. And she was of it: her last poems could boast and wail with Captain Ahab, "A personality stands here." She was of it yet transformed. It was as if after a fateful sleep she had awakened fully herself but more concentrated, ignited by pressing circumstances, in a realm magic and terrible. (pp. 8-9)
Plath's fantasy, with its magnifications, macabre distortions, violence and magic and foreboding, exaggerates, but on behalf of subjective truth. It is a graph of affliction. (p. 9)
As if by a sudden access of dramatic impulse, [some] of the late poems combine momentum and momentousness—for instance, "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," "Getting There," "Ariel," "Fever 103°." These poems simultaneously exhilarate and frighten by catching the moment just before, or just as, a tremendous tension peaks. Going over a hundred miles an hour and still on the road and getting there, Plath invents for the lyric a new urgency. (p. 10)
For the most part [Plath's style of monologue] is blocked in short sentences. Like tamps. And this sharp insistence of breath falls in with her visual startlingness. For she visualizes everything as if working from the very young child's assumption that to be at all is to be visible. Her whole content is shaped as for an appreciative and all but literal gaze; even the horrors enter as hypnotic objects of perception, as if winking light from a blade…. With theater at any rate the poems share a fascination with the espial of human behavior under stress. Plath seems to have wanted above all to see what she felt—not to understand it but to see it…. Nor in taking note of Plath's dramatic inventiveness can we avoid the impression that her poems unfold what is in some sense a tragedy. The poet had read classical tragedy at Cambridge, and its glamorous fatalism staggered her mind…. [Her] immersion in tragic literature may have caused her to emulate a destiny of passion and an unnatural yet crowning end.
Since nothing is more undramatic than a life, how to make a drama of it except by fabrication? Plath fabricated not after the Greek pattern (she was too anarchic to share its view of transgression) but after the simple model of a destroying passion. She went to where the flesh met the blade, omitting an explanatory world picture. (pp. 10-11)
Far from being a tragedy of will, like classical tragedy, Plath's is a tragedy of weakness, of a fatal vulnerability to the sense of injury. If there is heroism here, it talks of putting a stake in the fat black heart of a vampire; it talks like a pouting child. We feel pity and even terror before such sensitivity, but it has nothing to teach us. It looks like an accident in the scheme of things, a senseless failure.
Yet with its extremes of feeling, its spasms, barbarism, surprises, her tragedy has romantic power. Even as her fear and bitterness attack the quick of romanticism, numbing the nerve of love and life, her imagination startles her experience into drama. She wrote as if vividness itself could soothe suffering, as if she could escape pain by increasing its intensity.
To her dramatic imagination Plath brought a sense of language unceremoniously her own but still in the reverberant classical line: traditional grandeur sped up with a corresponding gain in mass. (pp. 14-15)
Her verbal and prosodic values blend with her dramatic values in being not only vivid in themselves but dramatic in their variety. From clauses as swift as Stevie Smith's to phrases as slow as Keats', dying into themselves of a swoon; from language tortuously lathed by lineation to sentences plopped down on the bartering counter of the line; from classical pentameter to the nude line "the nude" to spillaway lines of eighteen syllables; from a murmured chiming dialogue of vowels and consonants to vituperative repetitions; from slang to stunning metaphors—as a poet there was little she did not permit herself, and nothing she permitted herself to do that she did not do well.
She quickly burned through the elaborate prosody of her early poems…. She learned to get down into the foulness, to make foul itself fair. Her desperate force, her very ambition, made her drop her mouldy style and rush on 1961, 1962.
Romantic in its immediacy, her sharpened poetic was not quite typical of the sixties, and precisely to the extent that it was Poundian. Poundian in the first place as to eye. Her work unfolds perhaps for the first time the full dramatic potential of what T. E. Hulme called "the new visual art," an art depending "for its effect not on a kind of half sleep produced by meter, but on arresting the attention, so much so that the succession of visual images should exhaust one."… But though the new visual art set itself off from leisured traditional description by rapid-fire figuration, it was notorious for being static, limitedly pictorial. The instant fixing of a single impression, as by a jeweled pin, was its convention. Still, there was nothing to prevent its being thickcoming and developmental; it could be galvanized.
Or so Plath, more than any other, was to prove. She made images burst forth and succeed one another under acute psychological pressure, the dramatic crisis of the poem a generating furor. In violent import, color, solidity, and velocity her images are unsurpassed. Even when her spirit ebbs, her imagery ferments. In "Words," for instance, one metaphor instantly gives rise to two others, which are then elaborated in quick succession, each giving way and coming in again, but without any effect of haste. Proliferation has perhaps never been more subtle and vigorous, more constantly deepening.
But the most "delicate and difficult" part of the new art, so Hulme implies, is "fitting the rhythm" to the image—fitting all the sound, I might amend. And Plath's ear is no less gifted than her imaginative eye. For instance, she rivals Pound's hearkening ear for the calling back and forth and expressive rightness of sounds. Consider "And daylight lays its sameness on the wall," with its quasi-tedious fly-buzz of a and s and same-same meter, the slight staleness of the pentameter form precisely supporting the feeling…. In writing like this, the phrases are single beings made of rhythm and rhyme, inexhaustible to the emotional ear.
Her lineation sometimes shows the same headcocked quality…. The analogical imagination and a feeling for tensions at once spatial and dramatic contribute to this exquisite craft. Such lineation is gesture and architecture as well as rhythm; the tensions are to be seen as well as heard.
With Pound, Plath also shared the decidedly modern ear for what she called the "straight out" rhythms and words of prose and colloquial speech; like Pound, if less ambitiously and more evenly, she assimilated them into poetry, creating new verse rhythms…. The breathless doubling of a clause ("is it … is it …?") is peculiarly Plathian. Although working free from meter Plath liked a rhyme or grammatical construction or beat that swung back even as it pounded on. She favored the piston rhythms of anxiety.
At times she may be too laboring in exposition, as in "Tulips" and "The Bee Meeting," though these poems have been much admired…. But no one will question her general authority in the colloquial range of the art. She was even more inventive at spoken than at written effects and worked them for an equal if different intensity. (pp. 15-17)
Plath's poetic, then, is Poundian—romantic. True, classical simplicity shows up in passages, and classical grace and proportion sometimes govern whole poems. Then, too, her persistent use of stanzas reflects the same orderly habit of mind that made her list each morning what she wanted to accomplish during the day. Undeniably, moreover, certain associations of the word "romantic" shrivel when held up to her flame. The shriek of her ego, the sound of a tense holding on to little, drove off every softness. She maximized horror as if she lived on menace. All the same, her poetic is full of romantic presence. No retreat, no passivity, can harbor in it; it is the aggressive poetic of one buried alive but not ready to die. (Even in expressing revulsion from reality she reached obsessively and inconsistently for visual analogy, a language of rapport.) What is her struggle against fear, pain, isolation, if not romantic? Perhaps we would deny her reasons for writing at all to think of it as anything else or anything less. (p. 18)
Calvin Bedient, "Sylvia Plath, Romantic …," in Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, edited by Gary Lane (copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 3-18.
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