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Sylvia Plath 1932–1963
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet and novelist.
Plath's poetry gives a vision of life as enhanced by death. The blinding intensity of the poems written during the last months of her life and the circumstances of her death lend themselves to psychological interpretations to such an extent that it is now difficult for many critics to separate her work from her life. There seems to be little doubt that Plath was driven to be successful at whatever she did. After a phenomenally productive career at Smith College, interrupted for a year because of her mental collapse and nearly accomplished suicide, she won a Fulbright Fellowship to study English literature at Cambridge. In England she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children. She seemed to be able to fulfill the demanding and often conflicting roles of mother and wife, poet and critic very well, but seven years after her marriage she committed suicide.
Though literary magazines had been printing Plath's poetry for several years, at the time of her death she had published only one collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems, and her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. As it was a bitterly direct commentary on the life she had almost ended earlier, she published it only in England, and under a pseudonym, hoping thereby to avoid hurting her mother. The initial response to these works was favorable, despite some critics' reservations about the resemblance of her poetic style to that of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke, among others. Her reputation today rests mainly on the posthumous volumes selected by her husband, Ariel, Winter Trees, and Crossing the Water.
Critical opinion differs on the degree to which these later poems follow from her early work. Most of the poems in The Colossus were written in a carefully structured form, using scholarly language in creating elaborately detailed metaphors. In comparison, the last "blood jet" of poetry she wrote broke out of established forms and diction and employed distinctively colloquial phrasing. Her imagery remained precise, but seemed to develop itself more freely than before. This general relaxation served in the opinion of many critics to release a certain passion that made her poetry, always concerned with such themes as the ephemerality of life, its inevitable destruction, and the beauty and timelessness of the natural cycle, even more effective and powerful.
Plath's best-known poem, "Daddy," tells in a disquietingly singsong rhythm the story of a daughter's fury at the "fascist brute" who is her father. The personal tone of such poems as this and their apparent derivation from her own life have led some critics to classify Plath as one of the "Confessional Poets" along with Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Others claim her as a precursor of more recent feminist writers. Certainly some of her poems and, more openly, her novel show an awareness of the complicated distribution of power between men and women. Her poetry seems also to reveal a concern with making the feminine role compatible with the demands of art. Lines such as "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children," from "The Munich Mannequins," would seem in context to indicate that she does value women's unique capacity for childbirth. Above all Plath is refreshing in her insistence in the subjectivity of her female protagonists. As Esther Greenwood, the heroine of The Bell Jar, announces, "The last thing I wanted was … to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted … to shoot off in all directions myself…." Although there may be much to learn about the pressures endured by women artists by studying Plath's life, many commentators hope that the fascination exerted by her death will not eclipse her poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 14, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
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It is difficult not to think of Ted Hughes (I mean, of course, some of his poems) when reading such an admirable invocation of exuberant, unparagraphed vitality as Sylvia Plath's 'Sow'…. Not that her work is in any sense derivative, but that these two poets often share the same vision. One might criticise the rather baffling obliqueness of some of Miss Plath's work, and the fact that her imagery tends to get out of hand, so that the poem becomes not a single experience but a series of intriguing 'literary gems'. But these are worthy faults, and [The Colossus and Other Poems] is distinguished for its fine handling of language and vitality of observation.
Thomas Blackburn, "Poetic Knowledge: 'The Colossus and Other Poems'," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 1551, December 3, 1960, p. 1016.
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Sylvia Plath writes clever, vivacious poetry, which will be enjoyed most by intelligent people capable of having fun with poetry and not just being holy about it. Miss Plath writes from phrase to phrase as well as with an eye on the larger architecture of the poem; each line, each sentence, is put together with a good deal of care for the springy rhythm, the arresting image and—most of all, perhaps—the unusual word. This policy ought to produce quaint, over-gnarled writing, but in fact Miss Plath has a firm enough touch to keep clear of these faults. Here and there one finds traces of 'influences' not yet completely assimilated … but, after all, [The Colossus] is a first book, and the surprising thing is how successful Miss Plath has already been in finding an individual manner.
John Wain, "Farewell to the World," in The Spectator (© 1961 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 6916, January 13, 1961, p. 50.
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[The poems of The Colossus show that] Miss Plath has some of the excusable faults of youth: the attempt to blow up the tiniest personal experience into an event of vast, universal and, preferably, mythic importance; intoxication with the rare word which she displays with nouveau riche ostentation; and obsessive fiddling with certain forms and devices, e.g., terza rima. But with time—the deepening of perception and strengthening of control—these temporary improprieties can become the proper pursuits of poetry: holding nature's immensities in the poem's pocket mirror; redeeming the language; and letting the parallel rails of form lead on to a meeting point in, and with, infinity. When Miss Plath resists pretentiousness, she achieves glistening, evocative poems….
John Simon, "More Brass than Enduring" (originally published in The Hudson Review, Vol. VX, No. 3, Autumn, 1962), in his Acid Test (copyright © 1963 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day, Publishers), Stein and Day, 1963, pp. 236-52.∗
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[The Bell Jar] is a clever first novel, and the first feminine novel I've read in the Salinger mood…. [Esther] is very sharp indeed with the world—certainly one can't see the New York and Boston she describes offering her any support or satisfying any possible human need. But her sharpness is expressed in such an inner-directed way that on the rare occasions her thoughts get out and touch the world at all they do so only at a tangent: 'If there's anything I look down on, it's a man in a blue outfit. Black or grey, or brown even. Blue just makes me laugh.' This, I suspect, is meant as a point in her favour, and so is her whole breakdown. Despite the asylums and the shock treatment, she goes mad in a rather undisturbing way, partly because she writes about it with such bright assurance, partly because it's seen much less as a failure in herself than as a judgment on the world. But this is about as tangential a way of making a judgment as the remark about blue outfits, and rather more unfair. It recalls how Esther jumps to conclusions on inadequate evidence even when she's quite sane…. (p. 128)
Robert Taubman, "Anti-heroes," in New Statesman (© 1963 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXV, No. 1663, January 25, 1963, pp. 127-28.∗
Few writers are able to create a different world for you to live in; yet Miss Lucas in The Bell Jar has done just this….
Miss Lucas can certainly write and the book is convincing. It reads so much like the truth that it is hard to disassociate her from Esther Greenwood, the "I" of the story, but she has the gift of being able to feel and yet to watch herself: she can feel the desolation and yet relate it to the landscape of everyday life. There is a dry wit behind the poetic flashes and the zany fiascos of her relationships, and when the last part of the book begins to trail a little and details seem both ugly and irrelevant one finds oneself thinking "but this is how it happened". Miss Lucas is exploring as she writes and if she can learn to shape as well as she imagines, she may write an extremely good book. The Bell Jar is already a considerable achievement.
"Under the Skin," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3178, January 25, 1963, p. 53.
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There are several bad reasons for admiring [Ariel], and they are intricately involved with the good ones. The poems conform exactly to a stereotyped contemporary idea: that poems should be a strenuous exploration of suffering, the more painful the better…. Above all they are full of images, terribly direct and sinister, of blood, an inhuman sap pulsing through people's bodies, driving them on to more and more painful living, or seeping out of them like sawdust to bring the pain to an end.
The personal tragedy behind them entirely confirms the 'sincerity' of these preoccupations—we are dealing neither with affectation nor coincidence—but doesn't make them any easier to discuss. (p. 687)
Some neutral qualities are easy to observe. Sometimes the imagery, especially of children born and unborn, is straightforwardly enlivening, energetic and pleasurable…. One can also admire the authoritative use of free verse: what at first seems slack and random (many of these poems were written at great speed) takes on a hard clarity as rereading shows up the care with which the lines have been wrought and balanced, or the plain economy which demands just those words and no others. (pp. 687-88)
But most of these are unmistakably horror poems, which call up all the contrasting dishonesties of squeamishness and bravado in any but the most self-confident reader…. She made something out of this horror; even made something out of transcribing it with a directness more terrible than honesty. But just how great a talent her premature death destroyed is still obscure. A unique one, certainly, obsessive about words and eloquent about obsessions, and with an energy which could fairly be called demonic. (p. 688)
Francis Hope, "Suffer and Observe," in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXIX, No. 1781, April 30, 1965, pp. 687-88.
[Nearly all Sylvia Plath's poems are full of] inexorable and often terrible forces driving through her mind and body regardless of any consequences; and the first accomplishment of Ariel is that it makes their existence real…. The forces are fears, or nightmarish impulses towards brutality or suicide; or often they are simply obsessive images of death that press a confused set of feelings, horror and fascination and pain, on her…. The stillness and purity of death sometimes present themselves as the only riposte to the horror of man's being a creature that dies.
Yet there is another quality in some of the poems: an ability—ability with language, ability of spirit—to confront the horrors not only with a precise description of them but also with a slangy bravado, to make mocking caricatures out of them at the very moment that they threaten to suffocate her….
We do not learn a great deal from the poems about the happenings in her life that exposed Sylvia Plath to these sufferings…. But one or two of the poems grapple with her relationship with her German father, and one of them, "Daddy", is perhaps the greatest poem in the book. The father in the poem is a Fascist, who died when his daughter, who is the thirty-year-old "I" of the poem, was ten. It is about the fear and love, the hatred and the longing, that the girl has felt for twenty years for this stranger, and about her terrible final rejection of him in her heart…. The five-line stanzas have the grim rhythm—in the context—of a children's poem (almost exactly the form, in fact, of [Rudyard] Kipling's poem on the camel's hump: "We all get the hump / Camelious hump / The Hump that is black and blue"). The child's rhyme with its tortured content itself stands as a metaphor for the whole experience that the poem is about. It is both a powerful historical poem … and as anguished a personal poem as any in the book….
There are, too, a number of poems that seem like parodies of a Sylvia Plath poem, where the sinister trappings are mounted one on the other without carrying any conviction at all. But such duds are of no importance, just relics of a bid for intensity that on those occasions failed. The bids that came off make this one of the most marvellous volumes of poetry published for a very long time.
"Along the Edge," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspaper Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3326, November 25, 1965, p. 1071.
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[Plath's early poems] seemed to have no absolute necessity for being: they read like advanced exercises. She wrote a lot of prose as well, including a novel, but none that I have read seemed to me much out of the ordinary. Sylvia Plath's talent, though intensely cultivated, did not bloom into genius until the last months of her life, when, if we may take the internal evidence of the poems in Ariel … as our guide, she stood at the edge of the abyss of existence and looked, steadily, courageously, with holy curiosity, to the very bottom. (p. 76)
Every artist, and almost everyone else, at one time or another fetches up against the stark facts of life and death…. The greatest writers have been able to record these terrible moments against the larger canvas of ordinary life, adjusting the threatened catastrophes of death and destruction among related and contrasting themes of life and hope and renewal. It has become fashionable—or if not fashionable, at least common—for poets to set down their autobiographical crises, first person and second person and all, as a qualifying confession to admit them to the fraternity—a kind of professional good-conduct pass. All the difference in the world, however, lies between such antics, performed always with an audience in mind, whether explicitly in the poem or implicitly in its tone, and, on the other hand, [some] terrifying lines … from several of the poems in Ariel. No matter to whom these may be addressed, they are written for nobody's ears except the writer's. They have a ritual ring, the inevitable preface to doom. (pp. 76-7)
Though the poems have humor in them …, it is gallows humor. They carry little of the playfulness that is contained in most poetry. Their hectic, breathless rhythms give plenty of evidence that they were written in dead earnest, as stays against confusion that were at best only momentary….
The poems in Ariel are poems of defeat except in one sense: that they exist at all. It would be preposterous to suggest that the experience embodied here is unique; but it would be a lie to suggest that experience alone could have written these poems, that they could have been written by anyone but a true poet. They are a triumph for poetry, in fact, at the moment that they are a defeat for their author. (p. 77)
Peter Davidson, "Inhabited by a Cry: The Last Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1966, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 218, No. 2, August, 1966, pp. 76-7.
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If, as Robert Frost pointed out, the purpose of any poem is to be different from every other poem, Ariel fails. We read the same poem over and over. The same techniques recur. Subjects are not really examined, explored, reviewed. They become opportunities for the personality to impose itself; they are reviled, distorted, made terrifying. People turn into things; things turn into monsters. After a while one knows exactly how the poet will respond…. Without surprise, poems become dull. The intensity of emotion out of which Ariel undoubtedly grew loses its force for the reader.
Ariel must be the dead-end of romanticism. It represents a kind of sentimentality—not the "Truth is a velvet doe with large and dewy eyes" variety, but the "Truth is a malevolent fungus stalking us like a nightmare" kind. Each poem insists life is not worth it, thereby indicting poetry, too. Ariel asks us to feel emotions based on a delirium we do not share. It is best viewed as a case study. Sylvia Plath had, to be sure, a way with language and rhythm; but unless experiencing the identity created in these poems vivifies the lives of readers there is little reason for them.
Dan Jaffe, "An All-American Muse," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 42, October 15, 1966, p. 29.
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[In the poems of Ariel], Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another "poetess," but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines. This character is feminine, rather than female, though almost everything we customarily think of as feminine is turned on its head. The voice is now coolly amused, witty, now sour, now fanciful, girlish, charming, now sinking to the strident rasp of the vampire—a Dido, Phaedra, or Medea, who can laugh at herself as "cow-heavy and floral in my Victorian nightgown." Though lines get repeated, and sometimes the plot is lost, language never dies in her mouth.
Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of a fever…. The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare's lovely, though slightly chilling and androgenous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author's horse. Dangerous, more powerful than man, machinelike from hard training, she herself is a little like a racehorse, galloping relentlessly with risked, outstretched neck, death hurdle after death hurdle topped. She cries out for that rapid life of starting pistols, snapping tapes, and new world records broken. What is most heroic in her, though, is not her force, but the desperate practicality of her control, her hand of metal with its modest, womanish touch…. Suicide, father-hatred, self-loathing—nothing is too much for the macabre gaiety of her control. Yet it is too much; her art's immortality is life's disintegration. The surprise, the shimmering, unwrapped birthday present, the transcendence "into the red eye, the cauldron of morning," and the lover, who are always waiting for her, are Death, her own abrupt and defiant death….
There is a peculiar, haunting challenge to these poems. Probably many, after reading Ariel, will recoil from their first overawed shock, and painfully wonder why so much of it leaves them feeling empty, evasive and inarticulate. In her lines, I often hear the serpent whisper, "Come, if only you had the courage, you too could have my rightness, audacity and ease of inspiration." But most of us will turn back. These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder, a game of "chicken," the wheels of both cars locked and unable to swerve…. And yet Sylvia Plath's poems are not the celebration of some savage and debauched existence, that of the "damned" poet, glad to burn out his body for a few years of continuous intensity. This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it. (pp. vii-ix)
Robert Lowell, in his introduction to Ariel by Sylvia Plath (copyright © 1965 by Ted Hughes; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1966, pp. vii-ix.
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[Sylvia Plath's] last poems hit the reader with all the passion and pathos of a mind simultaneously fused with love and hate. They are often glorious, mostly sick, unbelievably irritating. They are the like of which have not been seen before, exclusively and tragically her final epitaphs. (p. 552)
Grief, a crazy, jig-saw humor, and destructive undertones comprise the basis of the poetry published since her first volume—though some of the features were apparently from the beginning. But the cadences of "Daddy" keep coming back, like dirge songs that are sung at the funeral of everyone…. (p. 556)
A rare random descent was to strike Sylvia Plath often in poems that were fastidious in their choice of words, perceptive in their handling of metaphor and simile. The wonder of it all was her ability to keep imagery working for the poem and not against it. Her poems resist line extractions, build steadily, word by word, image by image. (pp. 556-57)
Her poetry finally transcended the restrictions of overemphasis on place, as she took on the terrifying human condition that places her solidly in the modern classic tradition of writers like Albert Camus and Robert Lowell. It is powerful company for a young woman poet. Only such American writers as John Berryman in certain of his "Dream Songs" and the late Theodore Roethke were able—in their separate ways—to match the intensity of her explorations. Her insistent desire was to have the reader hear, feel, and experience her own ordeal. (p. 558)
William F. Claire, "That Rare, Random Descent: The Poetry and Pathos of Sylvia Plath," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1966 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1966–67, pp. 552-60.
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There is a pervasive impatience, a positive urgency to the poems [in Ariel]…. This makes for speed and excitement as you read, but on subsequent readings of many you wish there had been time for distilling and perfecting….
The staging throughout—the one-word questions, exclamations, excesses, three-word repetitions, and determined emphasis on woman's special experience—are self-consciously womanly, yet there is a curious underlying rejection of being a woman. In spite of the poems' ostensible candor and display of all innards … there is a preoccupation with blood and bleeding…. There is a straining towards purity and virginity…. (p. 260)
These are poems bursting with self, and, unlike the comparative classicism of her first book, highly romantic in their lack of reserve, in their adoration of the suffering, the wounds, the ignominy. Tulips is the raw psychological stuff of poetry, touching, but not yet fashioned into a work of art. The same must be said of Death and Co., Lesbos, and Daddy. The last, in fact, has much in common with that period piece Rock Me To Sleep, though the reverse in statement. Lesbos has the tone of certain [T. S.] Eliot poems, but exists on one level only. Except for the line "I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair" it is like pure case history. Missing, too, in spite of a flair for the erudite word and classical allusion, and a love for language apparent in The Colossus, is speech highly individual.
Many of the poems are hasty, sometimes prosy, sometimes over-imaged, with connections tenuous or non-existent—a number are unintelligible. (p. 261)
A Birthday Present, [a] cry for death, is a little essay on the unknown, and shows Miss Plath's personality at its best, her daring, her love of standing on the brink. It is also a particularly feminine poem…. The drama and refined irony of this poem are found nowhere else in the book. (pp. 261-62)
Eleanor Ross Taylor, "Sylvia Plath's Last Poems," in Poetry (© 1967 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CVIX, No. 4, January, 1967, pp. 260-62.
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Reading The Colossus and Ariel … on the assumption, perhaps perverse but useful for analysis, that the poetry has nothing to do with the suicide and must be approached like other poetry as a tissue of language, there remains the startling phenomenon of a poet finding her own voice in the space of a very few years, through an almost complete reversal of stylistic direction…. I want to suggest, first, that the poetic strength of Ariel lies in its fusion of personal voice with national voice in an Americanism which takes the form of strict—or strident—insistence on immediate factual reality; and second, that this strength, mostly missing in The Colossus, is achieved in Ariel by means of a poetic technique, again essentially American, which consists in taking poetic risks. (p. 202)
The difference between The Colossus and Ariel lies in the poet's advancing will and ability to do it, technically, so it feels real, without veils…. It is not a question of themes, which are implicitly as brutal in The Colossus as in Ariel. Indeed, several of the poems in Ariel are precisely re-visions of poems in The Colossus. Rather, an astonishing change occurs in the typical occasions employed, the diction, and the form of the poems. One could summarize the change by saying that having learned to see the skull beneath the skin, she threw away the skin.
The first book is safer in many ways. It depends upon "tradition," and this is not simply a matter of allusions to classical and European literature and art, although the allusions are there…. In the earlier poems some hard language loses its bite because of the distance imposed by an objective tone, allusion used only as illustration, and the fact that the ironies are lavished on easy game, not yet turned against the poet herself. In the later poem … hysteria veiled becomes hysteria unveiled, what it feels like, without logical development or analysis, self-indulgent, regressive, shrilly repetitive, exaggerated—and of course liable to look ridiculous. This is typical, for the "I" at the center of an Ariel poem is commonly childish, hysterical, and radically incomplete, moving the poem along by sheer will, and forcing the reader into disequilibrium. Still less pleasantly, the reader may sometimes by forced to identify with Plath's antagonists, the loving tormentors against whom certain poems are acts of fury. "You" are the leering crowd craving a look at her scars, you are Herr Doktor, Herr Enemy, you are the husband whose cool normality is killing her, you are the inane lady friends, you are Daddy. This combination of a refusal of traditional literary locus, dramatic and arrogant assertion of a self which is totally unstable but is the only self one has, and furious attack on an outside world seen as stupidly and brutally stable, produces a poetry which is continually threatening to slide into absurdity. These tactics have of course been popular since [John] Donne. Plath's versions of them are more risky than the usual because she allows herself an unusual degree of confusion and because her antagonisms are not in jest.
She undertakes a similar gamble with her language. In The Colossus, the language is neutrally literary (with complex sentences, parallelisms, inversions, compound epithets) most of the time, privately symbolic (rather like early Roethke) some of the time, colloquial occasionally and in the best pieces. In Ariel, the American language rises gap-toothed from the waves. It is brusque, businesslike, and mean…. It grins behind and through the literary language, exploiting it. (pp. 203-05)
Here the gain is clear, since everybody likes the shock of recognition from a good mimesis of the spoken tongue. Novelists with an ear for dialect will sell. Playwrights who have it will prosper. But there is an equivalent risk. Colloquial meat decays—nobody cares how people talked twenty years ago—and the only thing that can preserve it fresh (judging by, say, Shakespeare, [Ben] Jonson, Donne, [Jonathan] Swift, [Charles] Dickens, [James] Joyce) is salt…. [Plath's colloquialism] will be a permanent asset, one may presume, in the poems where it turns most spitefully against itself—"The Applicant," "Lady Lazarus," "Cut," "Death & Co.," "Lesbos," "A Birthday Present," "Daddy"—as if to prove that a world which talks like this, therefore thinks like this, therefore is like this, nasty, cannot deserve one's survival.
This ironic streak, in Ariel, even engages itself to something as technical as prosody. Plath's musical ear, like her ear for colloquialism, is dead keen. Yet in her first book it seems to function almost decoratively rather than organically. Meter in The Colossus is usually fairly loose, rhymes up-to-date false, and so on. But the prosodically conscious reader is led to play can-you-find-this, as in a picture puzzle book: terza rima in "Sow,"… rime royale in "The Eye-Mote," three-line a-rhyme stanza in "Bull of Bandylaw,"… all cleverly disguised, lines broken with apparent irregularity turning out time after time to serve complicated and static stanza patterns. Ariel is less patient. Poems drop into and out of formal verse as if time were too dear to spend rewriting. If something happens to fall into meter or rhyme, fine. If it doesn't, the devil with it. This is a free verse in Eliot's range, always approaching the older, stricter discipline, and gaining its power from the tension…. The verse thus correlates with her scorn, or fear, of everything orderly and finished, and with her paradoxically simultaneous feeling that the moment of death, which is her epitome of total organization, is desirable. (pp. 206-07)
This connection between the idea of dying and the idea of formal beauty explains why the most conspicuously musical moments in Ariel tend to be the most annihilating. (p. 208)
The value of Plath's imagery … is not its novelty but its accuracy, and it is striking because the poet is abandoning her mind not to words but to realities which she insists the words must convey. Surprising things are continually falling into place in Ariel because the poet has a remarkable gift for producing verbal equivalents of physical sensation…. There is also a hard-edge precision in the way she can present the look of something and its significance wrapped neatly together…. "Berck-Plage" … may be the most successful poem in the whole book. It has a broader scope than any other, more character, more variety of scenery and activity, and certainly more complexity. It begins by being privately neurotic, concentrating on the author's various obsessions with sex and disease at a seaside spa, where all the other people in the landscape, and all the objects in the landscape itself, appear to threaten, sicken, and demand something of her. But unlike other lyrics which both begin and remain so, "Berck-Plage" works outward to something which is in a sense more real, one particular old man's hospital death and how the world goes on after him. This tale at once confirms, enlarges, and objectifies the poem's initial vision, and the poem gains emotional impact as it grows more "objective," since part of its point is that one is irrevocably separated from other people and can do nothing for them, until at the conclusion it has become public in the way that tragedy is public. The loss is every loss, its details sordid, the survivors helpless, the dead man's deeds "are flying off into nothing: remember us" but nobody shall remember; a ritual performs itself which is like the celebration of a wedding, and at the last moment one almost believes that a miracle of vitality may occur as the sky pours itself into the earth—but no, of course not, "it is given up." Plath's artistic progress was accomplished so rapidly that it is easy to imagine the creation of her work as identical with the consuming of her life. A poem like "Berck-Plage," however, suggests that far from being at the poetic impasse her intense subjectivity implies, she was even at the end prepared to apply the method to matter outside her own skin. (pp. 209-11)
Alicia Ostriker, "'Fact' As Style: The Americanization of Sylvia," in Language and Style (copyright © 1968 by the Board of Trustees Southern Illinois University), Vol. I, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 201-12.
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The poems in Ariel have succeeded almost too well. Their restless intelligence and agonizing, ordered intensity have marked them too tellingly. They are now in danger of becoming an anomaly instead of taking their place in a romantic, imagistic tradition extending back and beyond the official Romantic poets to [Christopher] Smart and [William] Blake and [John] Clare. A respect for the particular otherness of things and for the peculiar joy of the visionary moment places Sylvia Plath in a long line of poets often wrongly separated into romantic and unromantic camps: [William Butler] Yeats and Eliot, [Theodore] Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop, [Dylan] Thomas and Marianne Moore.
Yet, Sylvia Plath's curiosity and hunger for experience are continually transformed in her poems from a romantic poetry of observation into a poetry of annihilation and transcendence. Her poems strive toward a state of purity. (p. 66)
Sylvia Plath presents us with poems that, after long looking at, remain unfamiliar and increasingly disdainful of outer, human reference. In the history of poetry, language has seldom been so evidently in crisis, written so painfully in extremis.
What we discover in approaching Sylvia Plath's work is less a collection of poems than a distinctive décor that is related to a new decadence in art. (p. 67)
Combining lyricism with bald understatement, Sylvia Plath guys rhythm as she pursues a persuasive and controlled voice. Violence is never excluded, and in the virtuosity of the rhythms—exceeding even the jack-hammer rhythms of [Robert] Lowell's early poetry—we sense what is being held down and held back. The rhythmical expertise of Ariel distinguishes poems that are in the tradition of Eliot's "fragments … shored against my ruins" and Frost's "momentary stay[s] against confusion." But Sylvia Plath let in more horror than Eliot or Frost ever entertained in their most terrible poems. In turn, she was forced to create rhythms more compelling and compulsive than anything contemporary poetry has known.
In Sylvia Plath, rhythm and image, relentlessly extended as far as they will go, evolve into a poetry of breakdown and breakthrough. A woman watched and watching, Sylvia Plath writes out of a modern sensibility burdened by an excess of guilt and consciousness. She is married and suffering, and she shamelessly introduces us to her particular "totem," "medallion," "muses," and "lorelei." The company she keeps is both mentor and destroyer. Associated with madness, sex, sickness, and death, this company establishes her décor. (pp. 68-9)
Despite the number of annihilatingly beautiful poems in her volumes … we are more likely to remember a series of images rather than individual poems. Similarly, we are more likely to take away a vision of evil and corruption than an impression of particularized horrors….
Death is redolent in Sylvia Plath's moon poems, night poems, and bee poems. It inhabits poems that begin like domestic, occasional pieces but which end in terror. What she seeks is a stance and a collection of selves that are fitted to an awareness of sublunar darkness and natural and unnatural danger. As she approaches moments of vision, Sylvia Plath is often reticent. But she is more often given up to a histrionic exhibition of herself and her wounds, and to a wish to undo herself. (p. 69)
[It] is in her taste in sounds, colors, jewels, music, painting, and literature that she shows herself to be a contemporary decadent. Lowell's attraction to the personages of Nero and Caligula, and Anne Sexton's, to the distortions of [Franz] Kafka and [Vincent] Van Gogh, are outdone in Sylvia Plath—in her espousal of [Pieter] Brueghel, [Jonathan] Swift, and Leonard Baskin, in her choice of a snake for medallion, in her method of "deranging by harmony," in her taste for the absolute blankness of black and white for sheer, primary red. And the contents of her boudoir table and city of mending, while going back to the catalogues of Swift and Ovid, rival any late nineteenth century, decadent mélange. (p. 71)
Stasis. Perfection. Death. The associations are unmistakable, and they are increasingly, obsessively impressed upon us in Sylvia Plath's late work. Whatever light or sanity existed in The Colossus … is overpowered in Ariel in images of screaming, bloodied babies and of instruments of torture. As the images turn to stone, there is the reduction of words to fixed objects that neither the poetry of [Ezra] Pound nor [William Carlos] Williams ever aspired toward, but that the decadent poetry of number and nightmare curiously did. Sylvia Plath's use of imagery looks back to the French Decadents and to their attempts to perfect color, sound, and sense in image and vowel. (p. 72)
The poetry that Sylvia Plath sought and came to write is so pure and perfected that at her death several journals and newspapers printed her last poems as they stood, with little or no editorial comment, as her most suitable epitaph. They read as if they were expressly written to commemorate the occasion of her death. As epitaph, they attain the highest mark of a decadent art, the perfection of life in art in death. (p. 73)
Arthur K. Oberg, "Sylvia Plath and the New Decadence," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1968 by Chicago Review), Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer, 1968, pp. 66-73.
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[The sarcasm and sharp wit Plath] shows boyfriends in Bell-Jar is a timid complement to the furious tantrums she displays to the men in the poems of Ariel. The feelings of the personae, the women in the poems, are often so complex that it is difficult to glean any evidence of a truly feminist bent. She is feminist in the sense that she perceives inequities and expresses them excruciatingly well; but there is no prescription for positive thinking or acting, as I take it. (p. 18)
Whether the poet was concerned with larger social or political issues is doubtful, but one thing is sure: many aspects of the traditional female experience are portrayed [in "Daddy"] angrily. Two bitter portraits of women are drawn above, the martyred Jew and the lover of a fascist. I cannot help thinking that any woman looking for freedom and self-knowledge could profit from the poet's perceptions.
There can be no doubt that her poems are charged with an electricity that shocks, tears life wide open, that exposes a rawness and a meanness under the thick blankets of the ongoing process of day-to-day life which tends to muffle the real facts of being, whether male or female. (pp. 18-19)
Much of her poetry, beginning in the early book, The Colossus, implies that the life of woman is a movement down-hill from a sort of false innocence, for even babies "moon and glow," pickled in jars, and have been long since defiled by being born. It is not enough or to the point to say that Sylvia Plath hated, feared, or distrusted men, or that she hated her mother and rejected the father whose love she sought (how the Electra complex is described by some). The worst is, even recognizing her distrust of the social hierarchy geared to martyr women was to no avail. (pp. 19-20)
Sylvia Robinson Corrigan, "Sylvia Plath: A New Feminist Approach," in Aphra (copyright © 1970 by Aphra, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1970, pp. 16-23.
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[Sylvia Plath's] is a sensibility disturbed, which sees reflected in the exterior world the very tensions, conflicts, and fears that haunt the inner spirit. Her power as a poet derives from her capacity to express this state of mind through the evocation of profound horror. The sense of horror springs from many sources: from her habit of dredging up historical atrocities, from the violent intensity of her expression, from the accuracy and hardness of her language, and most significantly, from the nature of her perception. Always she is aware of the doubleness of things, the shark beneath the surface, the tumult beneath the calm, the glitter beneath the veil. The gaze which she turns outward upon the world is schizophrenic….
This perception leads first to fear and eventually to despair, for it forces upon one the recognition that the world is disjointed, that things are not what they seem. Among Sylvia Plath's works run two rather different ways of expressing poetically the theme of doubleness. One method—the more obvious of the two—proceeds by revealing horror amid an atmosphere of apparent security. This is a somewhat traditional device, certainly not unique with Miss Plath, although in her hands it is capable of vivid effects. A second and somewhat more subtle method … [is this]: doubleness is conveyed by a sort of hallucinatory vision, a way of seeing, simultaneously, the opposing qualities of a thing.
The contrast between real terror and apparent safety is central to much of Sylvia Plath's work. (p. 34)
[The] poems in Ariel are more disturbing to the reader than those in [The Colossus]; the later poems are less accessible, more violent, more desperate—and, in many cases, more subtle. "Daddy," for example, relies upon the same sense of horror amid supposed security as "Grantchester Meadows" and "Mushrooms," but here Miss Plath has worked some significant changes in technique. In "Daddy," it is the horror that is obvious, while the sense of security nibbles at our subconscious from its hiding-place in the poem's rhythmical pattern…. The real, lasting horror of "Daddy" comes, I think, not from the consistent Nazi metaphor, but rather from the skillfully created tension between the form and the content of the poem. (p. 35)
In [another] group of poems, Sylvia Plath conveys doubleness in a rather different manner: by expressing, almost simultaneously, both aspects of a thing—by committing a sort of blind leap from what the eye sees to what the mind perceives. The method is almost mystical; the poems that result seem hallucinatory in nature. (p. 36)
One of the best illustrations of the hallucinatory nature of Miss Plath's perception is provided by a poem entitled simply "Sow," from The Colossus. Through fifteen three-line stanzas, the speaker describes a neighbor's pig, and it is not until the very last line that we realize that this pig is not only an animal, but the image of a terrific bestial force, a metaphor for destruction. A parallel that works implicitly throughout the poem suddenly becomes explicit in the metaphor of the sow swilling "the seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent."… In this poem, the double nature of the sow is conveyed as a hallucination which shows us at once the thing as gigantic, sleepy sow and as embodiment of ungovernable destructive forces. The poem also shares techniques with the method discussed earlier—here again, Miss Plath depicts a creature whose potentially vicious nature is masked by seemingly peaceful surroundings. (pp. 37-8)
Double perception is painful…. It is painful to realize that things are not what they seem, that security is not safe, that reality is an illusion. Sylvia Plath conveys this pain as few other contemporary poets are able to do. (p. 39)
Lynda B. Salamon, "'Double, Double': Perception in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in Spirit (copyright, Seton Hall University, 1970), Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1970, pp. 34-9.
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[The Bell Jar is a] poet's novel, a casebook almost in stanzas, each episode brief, brittle, encapsulated. The past consists of 'Atoms that cripple', minute totalities of pain which spill out separately. They lack the essential sprawl and waste of the novel. The progress from one to another is poetic too, less in time than in image. Whatever scene is settled upon, is drawn up to its sharpest point, until it hurts. And yet, the disparate scenes gather congruity. They lean forward, crowding closer together in the momentum of madness; then slowly and less successfully they move back upward, against expectation, to a second sanity.
The method is nervous, a formalized jerkiness rather like Dorothy Richardson's, but without her gasps and flutters. This instability is plain, awkward, laughable. The girl's words make fun of her own ingenuous disorder. The Bell Jar is perhaps closest to a poem like 'Cut', that series of macabre conceits on the theme of one decapitated thumb. Here it is one cracked mind. The further range within the poems, of the 'cry', is withheld from the novel. Its cries are only mouthed, like grins…. The same narrow and reiterative memories pervade both the poems and the novel. The same segment of Atlantic shore emerges in both: the prison, the rock, the public hotdog grills, the garbage hem of the water. The difference: each object in the novel is a photograph taken at a fun-house, nut-house angle, a displaced vision in the poems.
The comparative outwardness of The Bell Jar makes clear what the poems transcend: how much can be wrung out of very little. The novel exposes Sylvia Plath's first milieu, the poverty of suggestion by which her talent was nonetheless roused. The American Girl is the topic. Her growing up suburban, with saddle shoes and 'fifteen years of straight A's', her eastern women's college, her scholarships and weekends at Yale; her summer month, at the end of her third year, on a New York f(ashion)-f(iction) magazine, playing editor…. And then the breakdown—the only implement required to separate 'Esther Greenwood' from her banality, to pull her like a letter from hell out of her innocuous envelope…. The cheap smart lie is gone, and there is nothing left but the self, which seems to have been always waiting, like the dullest of truths, to reclaim attention. (pp. 221-22)
Release in the novel, as in the poems, takes the form of precipitate movement. But while the two share a hatred of stasis, the novel is not capable of that terrible resurgence of 'Ariel.'… The novel retains its girlish ambiance: the things of girls, their penchant for losing and falling, not rising. (p. 225)
The novel scarcely indicates what there is to be sane for, beyond escaping the fustiness of insanity. And yet the relief of the bell jar's lifting even temporarily, of the girl's breathing fresh air again, suggests something more. It is still girlish (perhaps still American), it keeps the simplicity of her denied preferences. The obverse of desperation in the novel, as in the poems, is startlingly wholesome. The girl in New York never knew what drink to order in a bar. What she liked best was to eat avocadoes and take hot baths. After her ptomaine poisoning, she drank bouillon: 'I felt purged and holy and ready for a new life.' And after an insulin reaction, she was given milk…. (pp. 225-26)
Babies gleam in and out of the novel, sometimes forms of horror, more often of desire…. The extremes of the novel are those of the poems, suicide and childbirth, erasing a line or writing a new one. Before madness, the person is crude, self-made and self-sufficient. After it, she is taken up by two élite societies—the dead inviting her to die, the unborn requesting to be born. Between these rival importunities she draws, for a time, her breath. (p. 226)
Mary Ellmann, "'The Bell Jar': An American Girlhood," in The Art of Sylvia Plath, edited by Charles Newman (copyright © 1970 Charles Newman and the estate of Sylvia Plath), Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 221-26.
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"The Bell Jar" is a novel about the events of Sylvia Plath's 20th year: about how she tried to die, and how they stuck her together with glue. It is a fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems—the kind of book [J. D.] Salinger's Franny might have written about herself 10 years later, if she had spent those 10 years in Hell….
"The Bell Jar" is about the way this country was in the nineteen-fifties and about the way it is to lose one's grip on sanity and recover it again….
To Esther madness is the descent of a stifling bell jar over her head….
The world in which the events of this novel take place is a world bounded by the cold war on one side and the sexual war on the other. We follow Esther Greenwood's personal life from her summer job in New York with "Ladies' Day" magazine, back through her days at New England's largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tire: "patched, retreaded, and approved for the road."
But this personal life is delicately related to larger events—especially the execution of the Rosenbergs, whose impending death by electrocution is introduced in the stunning first paragraph of the book. Ironically, that same electrical power which destroys the Rosenbergs, restores Esther to life. It is shock therapy which finally lifts the bell jar and enables Esther to breathe freely once again. Passing through death she is reborn. This novel is not political or historical in any narrow sense, but in looking at the madness of the world and the world of madness it forces us to consider the great question posed by all truly realistic fiction: What is reality and how can it be confronted?
In "The Bell Jar," Sylvia Plath has used superbly the most important technical device of realism—what the Russian critic Shklovsky called "defamiliarization."…
Sylvia Plath's technique of defamiliarization ranges from tiny verbal witticisms that bite, to images that are deeply troubling. When she calls the hotel for women that Esther inhabits in New York the "Amazon," she is not merely enjoying the closeness of the sound of that word to "Barbizon," she is forcing us to rethink the entire concept of a hotel for women…. And she is announcing a major theme in her work, the hostility between men and women.
With Esther Greenwood this hostility takes the form of obsessive attempts to get herself liberated from a virginity she finds oppressive, by a masculinity she finds hideous. When her medical-student boy friend suggests that they play a round of the traditional children's game—I'll show you mine if you show me yours—she looks at his naked maleness and reacts this way: "The only thing I could think of was a turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed." This is defamiliarization with a vengeance….
In the face of such cosmic disgust, psychological explanations like "penis-envy" seem pitifully inadequate. Esther Greenwood is not a woman who wants to be a man but a human being who cannot avoid seeing that the price we pay for life is death. Sexual differentiation itself is only a metaphor for human incompletion. The battle of the sexes is, after all, a civil war.
Esther Greenwood's account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing. It makes for a novel such as Dorothy Parker might have written if she had not belonged to a generation infected with the relentless frivolity of the college-humor magazine. The brittle humor of that earlier generation is reincarnated in "The Bell Jar," but raised to a more serious level because it is recognized as a resource of hysteria….
"The Bell Jar" is not a pot-boiler, nor a series of ungrateful caricatures; it is literature. It is finding its audience, and will hold it.
Robert Scholes, "'The Bell Jar'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971, by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 11, 1971, p. 7.
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[The Bell Jar] is not really a good novel, although extremely promising as first novels go. It is clever and polka-dotted with sharply effective vignettes. It is also highly autobiographical, and at the same time, since it represents the views of a girl enduring a bout of mental illness, dishonest. Plath never solved the problem of providing the reader with clues to the objective reality of episodes reported through the consciousness of a deranged narrator.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'The Bell Jar'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 227, No. 5, May, 1971, p. 114.
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Crossing the Water consists of poems written in 1960 and 1961, after The Colossus was published but before her final intense period of creation. It's important to stress that they are not Ariel left-overs, but poems of the brief interregnum between her strange precocity and full maturity…. Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath's control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel. Once more death has all the best parts, but his disguises and metamorphoses are doubly audacious. (p. 774)
In this period of Plath's poetry, objects come towards the reader like frightening Greek messengers. The gifts are not even ambiguous; they are seen wearing their proud colours of destruction. The language is that carefully judged half-formal, half-vernacular one she perfected in Ariel. It's capable of bearing the full weight of the grand style while staying true to the sharpest observation of realtiy. (pp. 774-75)
But Sylvia Plath runs counter to our schools of 'life-enhancing' critics—she deals in what most people cannot accept. And we, her legatees, profit by her courage. (p. 775)
Peter Porter, "Collecting Her Strength," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 81, No. 2098, June 4, 1971, pp. 774-75.
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I hadn't realized until recently … that Sylvia Plath had become something of a heroine of the feminist movement. The myth being, as I understood it, that here was a girl with tremendous literary gifts who married, had two children, and then, hopelessly burdened and appalled by her bleak domestic situation, finally put her head in the oven, turned on the gas, and died…. But though the cause is just, Sylvia Plath is simply no heroine for this or any other movement. Because, alas, that girl was dead from the beginning, passionately, madly in love with death. And if she did succeed in killing herself in the kitchen after having married and having had those two babies, it was just that she had failed other times….
[What] chilled the heart was that it had turned out to be all a facade—the sweetness, the modesty, the golden prettiness, the amiable charm, just a front to fool us until she could get on with the business of dying. She was only a dead girl on a visit, and a very short visit at that….
For most of us, despair comes from seeing that the world is beautiful and yet being unable to grasp it, and rage from caring so much about life, expecting so much from it that it invariably either terrifies or disappoints. Whereas in The Bell Jar, Sylvia regards the fact of existence with a dull remote pain from which all expectation is absent, yet never questions this fault of vision in herself. It is a book full of disgust and loathing…. [There] is a detestation here for everything that is life. If there is pity, it's self-pity, unmoving except for the one scene of real loss when she lies sobbing across her father's grave.
"… I was ten when they buried you. / At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do." But these are lines not from The Bell Jar but from Ariel, that magnificent stunning burst of poems written before she died…. [There] she is right in the heart of her subject. Babies again, but now rubies, roses. "Viciousness in the kitchen," where the potatoes hiss. Death stared right in the face…. Passion, rage, anger fill these poems. Sylvia, the real Sylvia, had entered into her proper subject at last. Yet, there is an irony about a poet's celebrating death, the act of art and celebration, which mean life. I don't know how Sylvia finally came to write these poems, or, in fact, how she finally came to succeed in dying. But I have a feeling that this time it wasn't being stymied by life that made Sylvia kill herself but the wondrous terror of entering into the heart of it at last.
Ann Birstein, "The Sylvia Plath Cult," in Vogue (courtesy Vogue; copyright © 1971 by the Condé Nast Publications Inc.), Vol. 158, No. 6, October 1, 1971, p. 176.
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In [the poems collected in "Crossing the Water"] written between 1960 and late 1961 and antedating "Ariel," the poet plays Pygmalion to her own Galatea, willing herself into shape, struggling against the inherited outlines of her predecessors…. What exhausting costumes these were, and how heavy, and how distasteful to Sylvia Plath's soul we can only judge from her persistent attempts to shed these skins, and finally, in "Ariel" and some later poems, to transcend them. Meanwhile, here, she rages about in these disguises like some rebellious adolescent dressed by her mother in unsuitable clothes….
Though a poem like ["In Plaster"] seems a textbook illustration of R. D. Laing crossed with Women's Lib, it fails to authenticate Laing, consciousness-raising or itself. To find the genuine Plath, it is not enough to say that she is the ugly and hairy id repressed by the saintlike superego. On the contrary, she is not at all exclusively a libido in search of liberation. Her rage, though it may come from the most primitive levels, is not primitive in its most natural utterance: an undeniable intellect allegorizes the issues before they are allowed expression….
Plath would like, in distrust of mind, to trust nature, and yet she ends, in the volume, by refusing nature any honorable estate of its own. "The horizons ring me," she says in the opening words of this volume, and this awful centripetal sense binds nature into a compass much smaller than it deserves. The poet's eye bounds the limits of the world, and all of nature exists only as a vehicle to her sensibility. (p. 4)
Too often, in this volume, a metaphor is chosen and used without any full sense of its own unalterable solidity apart from the poet's use of it. It is understandable that a writer, surveying her less successful poems, should think "It is as though they are my stillborn children." But then, as she takes up the metaphor of the mother of the stillborn, she invests the poem with a kind of ghastly friskiness that is not in any way what a real mother of the stillborn would say about her children, leaving us to wonder why Plath invoked the parallel in the first place:
These poems do not live:
it's a sad diagnosis….
They are not pigs, they
are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy
and a fishy air—
It would be better if they
were alive, and that's
what they were.
Pigs and fishes, alive or not, are not what the mother of a dead child wishes her child were. This falseness to the wellsprings of life from which metaphors are drawn, though it can serve certain surrealistic purposes, palls in the long run and endangers several poems in this book….
To criticize the poems in "Crossing the Water" is to share in her own evident self-criticism of them: she went on to do better. But even here there are some poems which justify themselves without apology, and the fact that they are among the most clinical and harsh shows the direction, never fully travelled, in which her verse was going. (p. 48)
Helen Vendler, "'Crossing the Water'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1971, pp. 4, 48.
The world constructed by [the poems in Crossing the Water] is a mutable one, amorphous almost; a world in which, behind the apparent permanency of natural objects, things are breaking up; what makes it compelling is the shock of surprise which comes with recognition—the way in which deeply personal themes are transmuted into poems which look intuitively outward for their effect. These last poems map out a territory which is unique, harrowing, yet always controllable; and which breeds its own distinctive landscapes: "The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve." Fixed temporally, that line could be the product of "that still blue, almost eternal hour before the baby's cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles"; but it is also an emotional landscape: an inescapable affinity. For Sylvia Plath, discovering that landscape must have been like coming home.
"A World in Disintegration," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3643, December 24, 1971, p. 1602.
A great deal of the power of Sylvia Plath's poems has to do with destiny. Not destiny as the donee relating to her subsequent suicide, but destiny as a philosophical or psychological equation. Character is destiny, says Heraclitus. A woman's body is her destiny, says Freud. In [Winter Trees] Sylvia Plath continually confronts her complex biology and fierce temperament and seems continually affronted by both…. It is her own particular sexual vulnerability and her transcendent awareness of the nature of things … which gives a terrifically prophetic aura to her voice, her lines and images; the stark and restless landscape over which she travels with such intensity, a landscape seductively beckoning to her for a further advance or a terrifying descent. Though opposites clash and mangle one another, though her humiliating hatreds and loves are so immediately present as to seem almost deranged, the Heraclitean and Freudian strains do finally fuse in Sylvia Plath's work—as of course they could never do in her life. This contradiction is what her poems are "about," but it is the triumph of that fusion, a triumph of craft and dazzling discrimination, which gives her poems their real "meaning." Women's Lib is not wrong to be claiming her as a heroine. Certainly she is topical. But beneath the needs of the moment is a timeless resonance which shall surely reverberate for years to come.
"Non-Fiction: 'Winter Trees'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1972 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 14, July 15, 1972, p. 846.
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The Bell Jar is the matrix of Sylvia Plath's work and anticipates her transition into neurotic writing. Indeed, her task of correcting the proofs of this novel may well have determined the direction as well as the energy of the late poems. In particular, the verbal parallels between The Bell Jar and "Daddy" are numerous and striking.
My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.
There's a stake in your fat, black heart …
What I didn't say was that each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw,
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
The poem says (echoing The Bell Jar) that her father died before she had time to kill him, but it also blames him for dying and leaving her prematurely. And so we see the obverse of the situation in the novel: under the surface hatred of the poem there is a desperate need for the person she abuses.
There is nothing to justify the critics' awe before this poem: it has force, but little originality…. [The] writing is fraught with unresolved ambiguities. The nine-year-old child is so grieved by her father's death that she treats it as a willed departure and so wants to punish him for what seems to her a wanton desertion. She asserts that she attempted suicide at twenty to "get back" to her father (the recessive vocabulary is interesting) and at the same time she blames her father for this suicide attempt and the consequent wreck of her life. Either one of these attitudes may be true; it is hard to see how both can be, and, in any case, the divergence is not registered in the verse. Indeed, the very violence of Plath's writing enables her to put forward with equal conviction widely disparate versions of the same event. In the poem, "Lady Lazarus," the speaker boasts that she can die "exceptionally well"; but this does not prevent her from casting the world in a Nazi rôle and blaming it for killing her.
Line by line, these two poems, which I suppose are Plath's show-pieces, have considerable force. Their structure, like that of most of her poems, is a simple form of association. One thought leads to the next, often propelled by the compulsive rhyming; one metaphor develops out of another. And, though this often leads to far-fetched conceits, the insistent rhythm carries the reader through.
But this is true only at the time of immediate reading…. [Looked] at critically, these poems of Sylvia Plath do not stand on their own…. [She] has given up a great deal to gain the sensational effect, but sensation is only a part of experience. Moreover, like most sensational works of art, the effect of these poems tends to diminish with each repeated frequentation. (pp. 606-07)
[Yet] there are signs that she could have developed very differently, and, to my mind, more satisfactorily, though over a trajectory more extended than the one we have…. Crossing the Water is a distinguished volume by any standards, and it is a great pity both for the poet and for her audience that it did not come out when it was written. It may lack the more spectacular effects of the Late Poems, but it indicates a far healthier line of development. If Sylvia Plath had been willing to let her experience come to her, instead of thrusting herself forcibly towards it, she might very well have become a major poet, though not the kind that her advocates declare her to be. (pp. 609-10)
Philip Hobsbaum, "The Temptation of Giant Despair," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXV, No. 4, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 597-612.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310
In Plath's poems, the woman speaking is frequently talking to a man about their relationship. This relationship has almost always failed, and the cause of its failure is the women's concern. Those critics who see Plath's women as self-enclosed, narcissistically fascinated with their own torment, gratuitously hateful and enraged beyond any cause, fail to consider this basic situation of the poems. To be sure, the women are voicing their own reaction; but it is a reaction and not an unmotivated outburst. In the course of Plath's poems, the women assume attitudes of increasing intensity toward their failed relationships with men; but they are consistent in identifying men and women with two different orders of being…. In Plath's poetry, the division is not between ideal and real, spiritual and physical beings but between women who are intellectual and pure and men who are brutish and physical. The men are not elevated by contact with the women nor are the women degraded by the men; they are instead each driven more deeply inward. In Plath's poetry read as a whole, their careers may be charted. The women are transformed from thinkers to worriers to vicious plotters in their efforts to defend themselves against men who seem at first merely unruly, then turn into animalistic creatures and finally into predators…. The women represent a higher order, yet they also cannot know love. They are intellectual, not emotional, beings. The physical nature of men repels them, and instead of descending to that level, they withdraw farther and farther from it into the purity of their minds until they become mere abstractions, pure but lifeless. (pp. 45-6)
In Plath's early poetry, there is a split between order and chaos, austerity and slovenliness, which is identified with the refusal and the acceptance of love. Far from offering access to an ideal order, love for Plath is disruptive. To love is to consort with disorder, and it is a choice rejected for that reason by two women in Plath's early work. The spinster in the poem by that name, walking with her latest suitor, finds love and its season, spring, "A treason not to be borne," "a burgeoning / Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits / Into vulgar motley." She prefers winter, "scrupulously austere in its order," "each sentiment within border." Again in "Two Sisters of Persephone," one sister chooses order, "works problems on / A mathematical machine," and this choice precludes love…. It is the other sister of Persephone who "Freely becomes sun's bride," "Grows quick with seed," and "bears a king," that apparently best exemplifies the woman in this poem. She is earthy, open, as natural as the poppies she sees whose "red silk flare / Of petalled blood / Burns open to sun's blade."
[While] the spinster here is regarded with what appears to be scorn, her situation is the one which recurs in Plath's poems. She possesses wit, some kind of intellectual gift, and the concomitant attributes of fear and bitterness. This combination of intelligence and fear, not an incomprehensible reaction to a love that is regarded as chaotic, is the central feature of the female psyche in Plath's work. The intellectual virgin's indolent sister, fecklessly inattentive to the potentially ominous possibilities of the poppies' "petalled blood," is virtually unique in Plath's poems. Plath's women are thinkers, not sexual objects, while her men are frequently imaged as merely physical creatures. Thus, the conventional distinction between the woman as flesh and emotions and the man as spirit and rationality is reversed in Plath's work. (p. 46)
In the course of Plath's poems, this spinster emerges from her barricade, engages herself with love's tumult, and survives to tell her embittered tale. Her fears here prove well founded; in the later poems, she never finds in love the order she prizes. However, the disorder she fears leaves her less terrified than first depressed and later enraged.
Perhaps the only woman in Plath's poetry who is not split between the opposing desires for order and love is the speaker in "Wreath for a Bridal," a poem which must have been written for Plath's husband as an early celebration of marriage….
Certainly Plath was never to write again in such hyperbolic terms about the possibilities of the "single state" of wedlock. However, the hyperbole is significant here. This poem's suggestion that love's fever need not be feared, that in fact on rare occasions its fire is creative, is linked to its assertion that this particular bridal is absolutely unique and, implicitly, unlike other loves. Plath seeks here to parry her own scruples (if sacraments can parry scruples) and the scruples of those earlier women in her poetry about wedlock. The union is a pact and promise of a rare new life, of teeming breath and poetic power. The woman is exalted by love's fever, neither destroyed nor purified as in her later poems, and in her exaltation she becomes a creator of life and poetry. (p. 47)
Between the early poems that berate the virginal woman and the later poems that express the married woman's outrage are several poems that detail the desolation and disappointment of the woman whose lover or husband has been unsatisfactory…. The male and female figures as they emerge in these poems assume identities somewhat different from those of the earlier poems. The male, associated with disgusting animals, represents a repulsive fleshiness. Although he is present physically in the poems, he seems to have withdrawn from his wife, and her attribution of animalistic qualities to him stems from this emotional or spiritual retreat. She is left simply with his body which is for her loathesome, not necessarily in itself but because it is empty of love and concern. The man's body without his spirit is not only not enough; it is repellent. (p. 48)
The woman who withdraws into the calm of the hospital [in "Tulips"] and the one who burns her way back to virginity [in "Fever 103°"] speak with an insistence that verges on hysteria and in a much higher pitch than the [women of earlier poems]…. The woman in Plath's last poems neither retreats nor lowers her voice, however. She explodes with rage and turns into a devourer. (pp. 52-3)
These devouring and murderous women seem to be at the farthest remove from the finicky spinster, the worrying wife, the pure spirit of Plath's other poems; yet they share with these other women a desire to be free from the torment imposed by the physical nature of the male…. In these poems, the man seems to represent a kind of order or control…. [They hold] the woman entrapped…. The women in these poems appear to be centers of turmoil, as unable to control their emotions as they are unable to control their destiny. Yet, although they squirm in their captivity, revolve in a "Sheath of impossibles," they wait painfully and sometimes even quietly for the moment of revenge. They are driven to violence but to a violence that is premeditated, final, triumphant. They may shriek at the end but it is the shriek of release. It is the women, not the men, who survive and dominate. (pp. 53-4)
The women in Plath's poetry have come a long way from the fastidious spinster who hid behind her barricade to guard herself against the "curse, fist, threat / Or love" of some "mere insurgent man." In the course of the poems, the woman has suffered the onslaughts of the man on all four accounts, and her final triumph must be the triumph over fear, the final power to break out of her own barricade and confront chaos directly, affirmatively, willfully. She gathers her forces in these poems, and, if her final position seems outraged and violent, it is also affirmative and powerful. (p. 54)
M. D. Uroff, "Sylvia Plath's Women," in Concerning Poetry (copyright © 1974, Western Washington University), Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 45-56.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1591
In Sylvia Plath's work and in her life the elements of pathology are so deeply rooted and so little resisted that one is disinclined to hope for general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons. Her fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible. Her work is brutal, like the smash of a fist; and sometimes it is also mean in its feeling. Literary comparisons are possible, echoes vibrate occasionally, but to whom can she be compared in spirit, in content, in temperament? (p. 104)
For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath. A destiny of such violent self-definition does not always bring the real person nearer; it tends, rather, to invite iconography, to freeze our assumptions and responses. She is spoken of as a "legend" or a "myth"—but what does that mean? Sylvia Plath was a luminous talent, self-destroyed at the age of thirty, likely to remain, it seems, one of the most interesting poets in American literature. As an event she stands with Hart Crane, Scott Fitzgerald, and [Edgar Allan] Poe rather than with Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, or Elizabeth Bishop. (p. 105)
In the last freezing months of her life she was visited, like some waiting stigmatist, by an almost hallucinating creativity—the astonishing poems in Ariel and in a later volume called Winter Trees.
The creative visitation was not from heaven, but from the hell of rage. Yet so powerful is the art that one feels an unsettling elation as one reads the lacerating lines. The poems are about death, rage, hatred, blood, wounds, cuts, deformities, suicide attempts, stings, fevers, operations—there is no question of coming to terms with them. There is no consolation in our experience of the poems but they are alive, filled with hurt, excitement; a grinding, grating joy in the perfection of the descriptive language overcomes hesitations of the spirit.
There are also poems about children, her own, who were intensely loved. And yet "child" and "baby" as mere words are often attached to images of pain and death. Many of the poems are tirades, voiced at such a pitch of eloquence and passion they take your breath away. She, the poet, is frighteningly there all the time. Orestes rages, but Aeschylus lives to be almost seventy. Sylvia Plath, however, is both heroine and author; when the curtain goes down, it is her own dead body there on the stage, sacrificed to her plot.
She has the rarity of being, in her work at least, never a "nice person." There is nothing of mystical and schizophrenic vagueness about her. No dreamy loss of connection, no manic slackness, impatience, and lack of poetic judgment. She is, instead, all strength, ego, drive, endurance—and yet madly concentrated somehow, perplexing. Disgust is very strong in her nature, but she faces things with a classical fierceness and never loses dignity. That is why her vision is more powerful and more pure than the loose abandon of other poets of her period.
She is capable of anything—that we know. (pp. 106-07)
It is not recklessness that makes Sylvia Plath so forbidding, but destructiveness toward herself and others…. For the girl in [The Bell Jar], a true account of events so far as we know, the ego is disintegrating and the stifling self-enclosure is so extreme that only death—and after that fails, shock treatment—can bring any kind of relief. Persons suffering in this way simply do not have room in their heads for the anguish of others—and later many seem to survive their own torments only by an erasing detachment. But even in recollection—and The Bell Jar was written a decade after the happenings—Sylvia Plath does not ask the cost.
There is a taint of paranoia in her novel and also in her poetry…. If she does not, as so many have noticed, seem to feel pity for herself, neither is she moved to self-criticism or even self-analysis. It is a sour world, a drifting, humid air of vengeance. The Bell Jar seems to be a realistic account of her suicide attempt during the summer before her senior year at Smith. But the novel is about madness as well, and that separates it from the poems. Death, in the poetry, is an action, a possibility, a gesture, complete in itself, unmotivated, unexamined. (pp. 107-08)
Committing suicide is desperation, demand for relief, but I don't see how we can ignore the way in which it is edged with pleasure and triumph in Sylvia Plath's work. In The Bell Jar she thinks of slashing her wrists in the tub and imagines the water "gaudy as poppies"—an image like those in her late poems. When she is unable to do the act, she still wants to "spill a little blood" for practice. (p. 109)
With Sylvia Plath the submission to, the pursuit of pain are active, violent, serious, not at all in a Swinburnian mood of spankings and teasing degradation. Always, behind every mood, there is rage—for what reason we do not know, not even in the novel where the scene is open and explicit. (pp. 109-10)
The novel is not equal to the poems, but it is free of gross defects and embarrassments. The ultimate effort was not made, perhaps, but it is limited more in its intentions than in the rendering. The book has an interestingly cold, unfriendly humor. We sympathize with the heroine because of her drudging facing of it all and because of her suffering. The suffering is described more or less empirically, as if it were a natural thing, and the pity flows over you partly because she herself is so hard and glassy about her life.
This autobiographical work is written in a bare, rather collegiate 1950s style, and yet the attitude, the distance, and bitter carelessness are colored by a deep mood of affectlessness. The pleasures and sentiments of youth—wanting to be invited to the Yale prom, losing your virginity—are rather unreal in a scenario of disintegration, anger, and a perverse love of the horrible. The seduction of Esther Greenwood, as the heroine is called, is memorably grotesque and somehow bleakly suitable. The act led to a dangerous, lengthy, very unusual hemorrhaging. The blood—an obsession with the author—flows so plentifully that the girl is forced to seek medical help. (pp. 110-11)
The atrocious themes, the self-enclosure, the pain, blood, fury, infatuation with the hideous—all of that is in The Bell Jar. But, in a sense, softly, hesitantly. The poems in Ariel are much more violent. Indeed, the celebrated poem "Daddy" is as mean a portrait as one can find in literature. (p. 111)
Sylvia Plath always seems to be describing her self-destruction as an exhilarating act of contempt. (p. 114)
"Daddy," with its hypnotic rhythms, its shameful harshness, is one of Sylvia Plath's most popular and known works. You cannot read it without shivering. It is done, completed, perfected. All the hatred in our own hearts finds its evil unforgiving music there—the Queen of the Night. (p. 116)
What can we make of a poet so ambitious and vengeful, so brilliant and yet so willfully vulnerable? How can we judge such a sense of personal betrayal, such rage, and such deformed passions? Her work is overwhelming; it is quite literally irresistible. The daring, the skill, the severity. It shocks and thrills. She called—in a typically awful phrase—her last burst of poetry "the blood jet." (p. 117)
The suicide of a young woman with the highest gifts is inevitably a circumstance of the most moving and dramatic sort. We cannot truly separate the work from the fascination and horror of the death….
It is interesting to make the effort to read Sylvia Plath's poems as if she were still alive. They are just as brilliant, just as much creations of genius, but they are obscured and altered. Blood, reds, the threats do not impress themselves so painfully upon us. (p. 119)
Beyond the mesmerizing rhythms and sounds, the flow of brilliant, unforgettable images, the intensity—what does she say to her readers? Is it simple admiration for the daring, for going the whole way? To her fascination with death and pain she brings a sense of combat and brute force new in women writers. She is vulnerable, yes, to father and husband, but that is not the end of it at all. I myself do not think her work comes out of the cold war, the extermination camps, or the anxious doldrums of the Eisenhower years. If anything, she seems to have jumped ahead of her dates and to have more in common with the years we have just gone through. Her lack of conventional sentiment, her destructive contempt for her family, the failings in her marriage, the drifting, rootless rage, the peculiar homelessness, the fascination with sensation and the drug of death, the determination to try everything, knowing it would not really stop the suffering—no one went as far as she did in this.
There is nothing of the social revolutionary in her, but she is whirling about in the center of an overcharged, splitting air and she especially understands everything destructive and negative. What she did not share with the youth of the present is her intense and perfect artistry, her belief in it. (p. 121)
Elizabeth Hardwick, "Sylvia Plath," in her Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (copyright © 1974 by Elizabeth Hardwick Lowell; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1974, pp. 104-24.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898
In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath uses the psychological alienation of the heroine, Esther Greenwood, to reinforce … aesthetic alienation. Esther's 'madness' offers her an increasingly 'objective', exterior view of the 'eating customs, jurisprudence, and love life' [in Bertolt Brecht's words] of the culture she has inherited. 'Manners', provide an important motif of the book. Using the finger-bowl at a special lunch, Esther, for example, 'thought what a long way [she] had come' …, and recalls that in her first encounter with a finger-bowl, she drank the water and the cherry blossoms in it because 'I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup'. Esther's 'oddity' is here revealed as, in origin, no more than a social disjunction, between her own learnt expectations and the codes of manners within which she comes increasingly to move. A clue to the process at work is revealed in her memory of a poet who in 'do[ing] something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance', 'made eating salad with your fingers seem to be the only natural and sensible thing to do'…. The poet, significantly, had been talking about 'the antithesis of nature and art'. Esther's perception of the fictive nature of 'manners' spills over into an attitude which evacuated the world of all spontaneous content. There are no such things as 'natural' responses, no intrinsic values in things, all are equally arbitrary and artificial, and all are viewed with the same cynical-naïve eye. Collapsing the 'antithesis of nature and art', Esther comes to view her own life as an aesthetic construct, a perpetual self-manipulation…. (p. 248)
Esther's paranoia penetrates the bland benevolent surfaces of other people's motives to discover their inner and unconscious significance. The first psychiatrist she visits, for example, is far less perceptive about her than she is about him…. What Esther observes here—and it is a recurring note throughout the book—is the artificiality, the artifice, of Dr. Gordon's identity. He is an image presented to the world, acting a conventional role. (p. 249)
Esther's stance towards her own self is graphically depicted in a sequence in the Public Gardens where, watching children riding a swanboat, she recalls her own manipulated childhood…. She continually assumes the role of an aesthetic voyeur towards her own past and present experience…. Omniscience is redefined as a pose assumed to evade the suspicion of callowness and ignorance.
This fastidious aesthetic distance extends, too, to the apparently 'cured' and regenerate Esther who is the imputed author of The Bell Jar. The book itself supposedly fulfils that ambition to write a novel whose frustration contributed to the breakdown it records. If the younger Esther stands in schizoid relation to her own experiences, retrospectively analysing and interpreting them, endlessly turning them over in her mind in some kind of Proustian recherche, Esther the narrator assumes the same kind of stance to her past, seen as an initiation rite to be scrupulously and objectively tabulated. Plath, the actual author, seems to be manipulating a continuous and ironic parallel between the condition of schizophrenic self-alienation and the familiar devices of narrative technique. Esther's narrative distance from the recounted facts of her own previous life has a peculiar, antiseptic quality, presenting the most harrowing and intimate experiences with a dispassionateness which tends to endorse her own doubts about the extent of her cure. The hard-boiled narrative tone suggests a narrator herself numbed in some significant way, left cold by her own past…. Esther the narrator seems preoccupied with insulating her own past self under the bell jar of a retrospective fiction. Plath not only enables us to see the pathological honesty of vision which accompanies and in part causes the younger Esther's breakdown; she also suggests that the assurance embodied in the posture of the disinterested narrator may itself have more profound social significance, and closer analogies with the schizophrenic's experience, and with the self-alienation of a world that dismisses that experience as mere delusion, than we appreciate. This double 'estrangement effect' acts as a critical, ironic dimension in the novel.
One way in which the character Esther tries to reject the role to which she has been assigned and assume a manipulative power over others, is to invent a surrogate identity. It is clear that, initially, she sees it as a kind of authorial intervention in the plot of her own life, that gives her the opportunity to dissociate herself from the actions she commits, as the novelist employs a persona to establish a critical distance between himself and his narrative. (pp. 249-50)
Her actual identity becomes no more than the negative source of her positive image (Elly). Equipped with this persona, she assumes the heightened acuity of Stephen Dedalus's artist, 'like the God of creation, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his finger-nails', in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (p. 251)
Recurrently, the desire to be a disinterested narrator comes up against the obstructive reality of a world of others who can reduce the rebellious self to 'a small black dot'….
The sense of being a character in someone else's fiction intensifies with Esther's return home to Boston. (p. 253)
In revolt, she decides to spend the summer writing a novel….
Yet her motives for writing the novel are impure, as her comment—'That would fix a lot of people'—suggests. In part, she is interested in revenge; she will elicit from them the respect they should have given her before by "fixing" them (perhaps there is a lurking photographic pun here) as characters in a scenario over which she will have complete mastery. For the novel is to be explicitly and directly autobiographical. Its protagonist 'Elaine', is another surrogate—'Elly Higginbottom', possibly, endowed with the dignity of her full Christian name. 'Elaine' is explicitly a self-projection…. Esther, however, lacks the critical distance from her character that both the imputed and the actual author of The Bell Jar possess. She is altogether absorbed in her heroine, unable to do more than transcribe her own actual experience at the moment of writing. And yet even to do this she is forced to stand back from herself in a way which heightens her self-estrangement, spying upon herself…. (p. 254)
[If] 'Elaine' stands in dependent relation to her author, Esther in turn feels herself the puppet of powers she cannot comprehend, as if she too were a character in a novel (Plath's further irony is that of course she is). But the 'narrator' of this 'novel'—Esther's life—is a whole matrix of social forces, of conventions and norms represented by her mother's authorial manipulations, which have converged to make Esther precisely the person she is. (p. 255)
Esther's most intense perception of the extent to which individuals are the manipulated dummies of a puppet-master society occurs on her visit to Dr. Gordon's mental hospital…. [The] place is a parody of normality, an ensemble of isolated vignettes which together act as an ironic commentary upon the 'normal' world. Most significant is the sense of display…. It is only their apparent immobility that distinguishes these people, as if their abnormality lies simply in the isolation and endless repetition of any one of a number of 'normal' actions. 'Insanity' is merely a still copy of sanity, isolating and exposing its strangeness. The 'schizoid' character parodies the process by which 'normal' identity is learnt from the imitation of images, assimilating not only the content but the form of the image, acquiring the stillness of the photograph which is a leitmotif of the book. Madness aspires to the condition of art…. (pp. 255-56)
The leitmotifs of photograph and puppet converge when Esther is expected, as part of her Ladies' Day commitment, to be photographed 'with props to show what we wanted to be'…. Reluctantly, she offers 'poet' as her self-definition, and is equipped with a rose for the part…. The photograph propagates a cult of individualism while actually negating it. For it is not the actual Esther but the cliché image that can be made from her which matters. She has become no more than a cipher in the life-process of a mass-circulation magazine, plucked momentarily out of anonymity to be invested with the fraudulent charisma of 'celebrity' whose image then returns to its place of origin divested and purified of circumstantial history. Significantly, in the mental asylum later, she refuses to admit that a picture in a magazine may be of her…. (pp. 256-57)
Esther sees suicide not so much as self-destruction as a theatrical ritual which will free her from her 'factitious' identity and restore her to singularity. It is her 'image' that she wishes to murder, the fraudulent twin which is her public persona, a shamming and artificial 'dybbuk'…. If the mirror-image here, like 'Elly Higginbottom' and 'Elaine', is a fictitious twin, the book also has its quota of real-life 'twins'. Joan Gilling, an old rival for Esther's boyfriend, is admitted to the same mental hospital where Esther is recovering from a later, almost successful suicide attempt. As Esther had attempted to imitate a starlet's suicide described in the newspapers so Joan in turn had imitated her…. (p. 258)
But Esther learns to distinguish the mythic image from the more complex reality; to distinguish between copy and imitation, sameness and similarity; and to see that there is a crucial failure of discrimination in confusing another person with one's own projected image…. [If Esther's] rebuff in part accounts for Joan's eventual suicide, it is not something for which Esther can take responsibility. In a sense, she has invented her, but only because Joan chose to identify with that newspaper image of Esther which Esther herself disclaimed…. Structurally, Joan's suicide and Esther's recovery are arranged in an inverse ratio, to the extent that Esther is left wondering, at Joan's funeral, just what she thinks she is burying, the 'wry black image' of her madness, or the 'beaming double of [her] old best self'. In a sense, the suicide of this surrogate is Esther's rebirth.
The book has abounded in images of ropes and cords and strings of various kinds that share this ambiguity…. This ambiguity persists into the very last paragraph, when Esther faces the interviewing committee that is to decide on her release. The equivocal close opens a new putative future outside the bell jar of this story:
The eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as if by a magical thread, I stepped into the room…. (pp. 258-59)
The thread could lead the redeemed heroine out of the 'familiar labyrinth of shovelled asylum paths' …; or it could be 'the thread that might lead me back to my old, bright salesmanship' spoken of earlier …, that makes the puppet dance in the eyes of others. For, if Esther seems at last in control of her own life, she is 'guiding [her]self' back on to a public stage, where her future will be decided by the impression she makes on others. The novel closes on a deliberately unresolved upbeat note which never finally clarifies the tension between authentic selfhood and public image, between life as self-articulation and as ritual performance—between, ultimately, 'life' itself, and those 'attitudes', no matter how deeply assimilated and accredited, which merely counterfeit it. (pp. 259-60)
Stan Smith, "Attitudes Counterfeiting Life: The Irony of Artifice in Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 247-60.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 204
In Plath's schoolgirlish novel [The Bell Jar] nothing is imagined; the events come straight out of the life, untransfigured; madness and suicide are facts like any other. No insight, no illumination, no irony, no following wisdom. The events are chronological, monochromatic, sequential; the reader, appalled by the flatness of narration, may even find himself thinking that had the madness and self-burial occurred before the reported antecedent events, the latter, by that device, might have assured a power and awesomeness they do not otherwise possess, though only for those acolytes most disposed to invest them with magical properties. The book yields nothing of the kind; in it, madness and suicide are random events, forms of tantrum, self-indulgent, excessive—so to speak, unearned. Causeless—uncaused—in the literary sense; unmotivated, motiveless. Gratuitous. (p. 371)
[The] novel is full of venomous little sketches. Self-pity excepted, spitefulness is the only powerful running feeling. Everything carefully excluded from the letters went into the work—as if having been nice too long she could now be horrid a while. Art as revenge. (p. 372)
Saul Maloff, "The Poet as Cult Goddess," in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIII, No. 12, June 4, 1976, pp. 371-74.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2264
The reading of [Plath's] work has been entangled in a fascination with her suicide and the broken marriage which preceded it, and such misreading is as widespread among her admirers as among her detractors; she has become for both a convenient symbol. To approach Plath as a poet rather than to use her as an image of a poet one must confront her work in its own terms, which is to say, as literature. In these terms, the fact, for example, that she killed herself is irrelevant to the consideration of the meaning of her work; as literature, her poems would mean what they do even if she had not attempted suicide.
Among the current classifications in literary criticism, Plath is usually assigned the category of 'confessional' poet. That view is facilitated by the obviously autobiographical element in her work and by the apparent accessibility of many of her best-known poems, in which the 'confessional' surface is sensational enough to divert the reader from seeing deeper meanings. One might even prefer to read many of her poems as one might view the bloodstains at the site of a murder, as residues of real events—for example, "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" as the expression by the actual Sylvia Plath of a supremely venomous attitude toward her father. The thrill this provides might easily be lessened when the more impersonal dimensions of such poems are considered. But the very accessible confessional aspect of her work is so powerfully affecting that the thought that there might be something more, and quite different in nature, hardly arises. Nevertheless, her poetry is not primarily literal and confessional. It is, rather, the articulation of a mythic system which integrates all aspects of her work, and into which autobiographical or confessional details are shaped and absorbed, greatly qualifying how such elements ought to be viewed. (pp. 1-2)
In a great deal of the work of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, often considered the paradigm 'confessional' poets, the voice—intensely personal and almost journalistic—is the direct voice of the author in an everyday role. In Plath the personal concerns and everyday role are transmuted into something impersonal, by being absorbed into a timeless mythic system. The poetry of Lowell and Sexton relates their narratives; in Plath—although many narrative details of her mythic system are drawn from her life—the emphasis is more on expressing the structure of her state of being. 'Confessional' poetry usually comprises a plurality of concerns—politics, the writing of poetry, marriage, aging, fame, and so on—that remain relatively independent. But in Plath's poetry, there is one overriding concern: the problem of rebirth or transcendence; and nearly everything in her poetry contributes either to the statement or to the envisioned resolution of this problem.
Because a mythic system accommodates the personal element, the voice of her poetry is detached from the personal in a sense that it is not in 'confessional' poets, whose strategy depends partly upon convincing the reader of a lack of such detachment. For them mundane life overflows into art, but with Plath it is just the opposite.
She has a vision which is complete, self-contained, and whole, a vision of a mythic totality, which such poets as Lowell and Sexton do not have. Much of the vitality in her poetry arises from the very incompleteness of the vision; from a sense that there exist possibilities of discovery and change; from the interest and pleasure one may have in observing the self in encounters whose outcome is not foreclosed; from confronting a future which is open-ended. Plath's late poems, on the other hand, convey the sense that no substantial change can be occasioned by experience, and that only rebirth or transcendence of self would be a resolution. (pp. 2-3)
If her poetry is understood as constituting a system of symbols that expresses a unified mythic vision, her images may be seen to be emblems of that myth. Red, white, and black, for example, the characteristic colors in her late poetry, function as mythic emblems of her state of being much as they do in the mythologies which she drew upon. A great many other particulars of her poetry are similarly determined by her system, and personal and historical details as well are subordinate to it. While a confessional poet might alter certain details to make them more fitting … Plath's alteration of details has a deeper significance. Her protagonist in "Daddy" says, "I was ten when they buried you," but Plath was only eight when her father died. A magical "one year in every ten" cycle, however, conveys the mythic inevitability necessary to define her state of being. It is precisely such details of confessional literalness that Plath most frequently alters or eliminates, when they are not sufficiently mythic….
The subordination of details, in Plath's poetry, to her mythic vision, goes beyond alterations of matters of fact, for the significance even of apparently 'occasional' poems about small events—such as cutting her thumb ("Cut") or seeing red flowers ("Poppies in October")—lies in their evocation of her pre-existing primary concerns. While the details in 'confessional' poems stand on their own, frequently unified only to the extent that they occur within a single consciousness, there is hardly a detail in Plath's poetry that is not connected with and does not intimate her entire vision.
To a reader unaware of this unity, Plath's poetry will seem to contain a collection of brilliant and fortuitous images, bearing more or less the significance they do for us in daily life. (p. 4)
Without [the awareness of a mythic dimension in Plath's poetry], the elements of suffering, violence, death, and decay will generally be seen as aspects of a self-indulgent stance that is merely—albeit brilliantly—nasty, morbid, and decadent, the extremist exhibitionism. Were she a 'confessional' poet, this might be the case. But her poetry is of a different order, and these details are absorbed into a broader system of concerns. To see the autobiographical details only as such is to regard Plath's vision of suffering and death as morbid, but to appreciate the deeper significance of her poetry is to understand her fascination with death as connected with and transformed into a broader concern with the themes of rebirth and transcendence. (p. 5)
To deal with the structure of Plath's poetry is primarily to deal with the voices, landscape, characters, images, emblems, and motifs which articulate a mythic drama having something of the eternal necessity of Greek tragedy. The myth has its basis in her biography, but it in turn exercises a selective function on her biography and determines within it an increasingly restricted context of relevance as her work becomes more symbolic and archetypal….
All of Sylvia Plath's late poems, including even the few that seem to be out of the mainstream, can best be understood in terms of her underlying system, as can her characteristic and effortless skills—the arrestingly exact images; the language that is at once colloquial and charged with extraordinary intensity; the ritualistic and prophetic tone; the shifting perspectives, masks, and other devices—these all evolve from the same basic concerns and necessities. (p. 6)
The crucial motifs of Sylvia Plath's myth can be identified as three sets of polarities: the male as 'god' and as 'devil,' the false self and the true self, and death-in-life and life-in-death (or death and rebirth). The motif of a dominant male figure includes the heroine's father, and other male figures—identified as husband, but sometimes as lover or bridegroom. This dominant male may appear in godlike guise as a colossus, "bag full of God," or "Lord of the mirrors," or in the guise of a "devil," Nazi, or "vampire." The protagonist, rejected by her personal 'god,' characteristically attempts to resolve the resultant death-in-life by transforming him into (or exposing him as) a devil or similar figure as a basis for rejecting him.
The motif of false and true selves derives from the heroine's relation to the male figure, from which her true self has been alienated, thus giving rise to a false self. Either the false self or the male (or both) must be killed to allow rebirth of the true self. The motif of death and rebirth also provides the terms of conflict and resolution in this matter: life lived by the false self is death-in-life, while the rebirth of the true self promises life-in-death, expressed in the poetry in images of purgation, purification, and transcendence.
The central motifs of Sylvia Plath's myth are so closely parallel to motifs that occur universally in the history of myth, religion, and literature …, that they might be identified as archetypes. It is not surprising that this should be the case, given Plath's personal and poetic history. In respect to the theme of the father as 'god' or 'devil,' for example, one might point out that Plath was, after all, writing about an elemental relationship, in her case made critical by the fact of her father's untimely death; one would expect such a relationship to be prefigured in universal structures of meaning. Further, she was familiar with literary and psychoanalytic archetypes and symbols…. [The] multitude of similarities between universal archetypes and the major motifs of her work helps to explain the power of her late poems. (pp. 12-13)
[There] is no real temporal development in the late poems; for since the objects in these poems function as 'releasers' of a predetermined meaning, there is no real openness to possibilities (though there is sometimes an apparent temporal development, as in "Kindness" or "The Bee Meeting," for the sake of drama). The object encountered by the persona does not have the potential for determining an outcome, and therefore a certain tension between object and subject is lacking. The tension in Plath's poetry is located instead in the pre-existing oppositions constituting the state of being which is 'released' by certain objects and situations through their inherent relevance to it, in a reenactment of her timeless myth. (p. 19)
Plath's poetry reflects that she came to consider success in altering the terms of her being as the "only alternative" to "disintegration on a massive scale" (to use [Herbert] Fingarette's phrase). The terms of this conflict are inherently religious, as they are in the recognition of selfhood as a stigma even while remaining at its mercy, and as they are in the attempt to integrate experiences of selfless ecstasy into mundane life. With this in mind, it should be clear that her suicide cannot be construed as the end of a morbid, tortured, death-loving woman (and, as is clear in comparing her to a poet such as Anne Sexton, the speaker of the late poems does not present herself as sick or neurotic, but as a heroine trapped in "the illusion of a Greek necessity"); it is rather the mark of failure to achieve wholeness in circumstances which made this achievement a matter of life and death. It might be mentioned in this context that her last two poems, both dated February 5, 1963, were "Balloons" and "Edge": in one of these a mother plays with her two children in a realistic domestic setting; the other presents a dead mother and her dead children in a stark symbolic manner.
Toward the end of her life, Plath underwent a religious crisis, undoubtedly precipitated by her domestic crisis, but also quite distinct from it. Although the breakup of her marriage probably made the problem of overcoming the "stigma of selfhood" an urgent one, the need to transcend personal history in a way more radical than that expressed in her poetry as mythic rebirth had long been implicit in her work. Anyone preoccupied with the limitations and apparent inescapability of personal history (concerns evident in "The Disquieting Muses" and "Electra on Azalea Path," and in still earlier poems such as "Lament" and "Full Fathom Five") has a very good chance of coming to be interested in entirely transcending personal history and the self which is its subject.
She had come to consider selfhood a problem; and she had experienced or imagined various states (reflected in "Ariel," "Mystic," "Paralytic") in which a confining selfhood is dissolved in an ecstatic apprehension of a larger identity. Yet while such experiences offer insights, they do not in themselves constitute a way of life that will permanently integrate these insights. This is the problem of the 'dark night of the soul,' acknowledged directly in "Mystic" and implied in "Ariel" and "Paralytic," where the ecstatic experience clearly has no future and will not itself be the state in which the speaker continues to live.
Had Plath survived, it seems likely, given the nature of her concerns at the end of her life, that she would have further developed and further explored the overtly religious themes of some of the last poems, coming more and more to realize her power of what Ted Hughes calls her "free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests, shamans and Holy men …"; and, as in the case of her mythology, evolving a sensibility shaped by several traditions, but with a voice unmistakably her own. The unflinchingness of her gaze, her refusal to compromise the truth, her precision, her intelligence, and her passion—all of these would have qualified her uniquely, in the discovery of her wholeness, to convince us that the achievement is possible. (pp. 209-11)
Judith Kroll, in her Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (copyright © 1976 by Judith Kroll; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1976, 303 p.
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Being enclosed—in plaster, in a bell jar, a cellar or a waxhouse—and then being liberated from an enclosure by a maddened or suicidal or "hairy and ugly" avatar of the self is, I would contend, at the heart of the myth that we piece together from Plath's poetry, fiction, and life…. The story told is invariably a story of being trapped, by society or by the self as an agent of society, and then somehow escaping or trying to escape. (p. 592)
[In] poem after poem, she tried to puzzle out the cause of her confinement…. For her central problem had become, as it became Jane Eyre's (or Charlotte Brontë's)—how to get out? How to reactivate the myth of a flight so white, so pure, as to be a rebirth into the imagined liberty of childhood? (pp. 593-94)
Especially in Ariel, but also in other works, Plath gets out by 1) killing daddy (who is, after all, indistinguishable from the house or shoe in which she has lived) and 2) flying away disguised as a Queen Bee (in "Stings"),… a horse (in "Ariel" and other poems), a risen corpse (in "Lady Lazarus"), an arrow (in "Ariel," The Bell Jar, and "The Other"), or a baby (in too many poems to mention). (p. 594)
[For] Plath the baby is often a mediating and comparatively healthy image of freedom (which is another important reason why the Plath Myth has been of such compelling interest to women), and this is because in her view the fertile mother is a Queen Bee, an analog for the fertile and liberated poet, the opposite of that dead drone in the wax-house who was the sterile egotistical mistress of darkness and daddy. (p. 596)
That [a] liberating sense of oneness with life was Plath's predominant attitude toward childbirth and maternity is clear from "Three Women," a verse-play on the subject in which the voice of the First Woman, the healthily golden and achieving mother, is obviously the poet's own, or at least the voice the poet strives to attain. Repudiating yet again the "horrors," the "slighted godmothers" (like the bald muses) "with their hearts that tick and tick, with their satchels of instruments," their speaker resolves to "be a wall and a roof, protecting … a sky and a hill of good." For, she exclaims, "a power is growing in me, an old tenacity. / I am breaking apart like the world … / I am used. I am drummed into use" (Winter Trees, pp. 53-54). Though this passage may sound as if it is about escaping or about writing poetry, it is really about having a baby. And when the child appears later on, he appears in flight…. Plath stresses the likeness of babies, poems, and miraculous escapes: "I see them," she says of babies, "showering like stars on to the world … These pure small images…. Their footsoles are untouched. They are walkers of air." Living babies, in other words, are escaping shrieks—as poems are; pure small images—as poems are; walkers of air—as poems are: all ways for the self to transcend itself. (pp. 597-98)
A profound and inescapable irony of all the works … I've been mentioning is that in her flight from the coffin of herself the woman-writer or the character who is her surrogate is often consumed by the Heraclitean fires of change that propel her forward…. Sylvia Plath, dissolving into the cauldron of morning, "is lost," as she says in the poem "Witch-Burning," "lost in the robes of all this brightness."… One may be renewed like a baby in the warm womb of the mythic oven, but the oven is also Auschwitz, Dachau, a place where one is baked like a cookie back into the plaster cast of oneself. Ding Dong the witch is dead: she won't give anybody any trouble any more. The dangers are terrible. Not everyone gets away like Hansel and Gretel.
For this reason, it is the paradox of Plath's life (perhaps of any woman's life) and of the Plath Myth, that even as she longs for the freedom of flight, she fears the risks of freedom—the simultaneous reactivation and disintegration of the past it implies. (p. 601)
Sandra M. Gilbert, "'A Fine, White Flying Myth': Confessions of a Plath Addict," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1978 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. XIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 585-603.
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Sylvia Plath's early poetry is both technically and thematically significant, for scattered through the early poems are most of the elements which were later fused into the final, powerful outbursts of the mature poetry. We find in this early work the sense of doom, the fascination with disintegration and death so central to the later poems, though the poet's expressed attitudes are less cogent, less specific in the early poems. We see as well the ambivalence toward sex, wifehood, and motherhood. The propensity to nightmare is here, too, as are many initial uses of the later, more skilfully handled, set of images.
When viewed as part of her entire canon, Sylvia Plath's early poetry displays a distinctly amateur, experimental quality. In contrast with the spontaneous, raw force of her late work, Plath's early poems seem generally contrived, mannered, and self-conscious, features apparently caused by her tendency to create artificial divisions in the essentially single dilemma she faces in these poems and by her reluctance to confront directly the various difficult subjects with which she deals. In the sense that the poet's expressed perceptions in these works appear generally less well informed than they do in the later poems, the poetry suffers from too little control, and in the sense that content sometimes seems artificially manipulated to fit a set structure they suffer from too much.
Virtually all of the early poetry is death-directed. The sense of impending doom is often couched in somber terms, and death waits in a diffuse gothic landscape…. [Yet] the gothicism seems frequently imposed for effect rather than included by necessity. Thus, in much of Plath's early work, the vague sense of doom is not always given an origin; rather, nature is presented as menacing, as antipathetic to man in a very general, undefined way…. (pp. 36-7)
[In] many of the early poems, the poet's attitude toward the inevitability of death is ambivalent, revealing sometimes resignation, sometimes fear, sometimes regret, and sometimes decided resistance. Though she can state that "The money's run out," or that "there's death in the pot," the poems do not quite convince us that she really means it.
In fact, this very unconvincing quality of some of the early poems … distinguishes them from the late. (p. 38)
There appears in this early work … a tension between death's allure and the poet's instinctive resistance to it. Certainly, resistance is most often momentary and impulsive, the desire for it being in some way overpowered by the claims of doom. Still, the balance between the claims of life and death, of self-preservation and destruction, is more even in the early poems than in the later ones. (pp. 41-2)
Apparent in these early poems … are several features uncharacteristic of Plath's later work. Her emphasis on the sleeping, dreaming state as a region separate from the waking one is evident only in the early work; later, she adroitly, and terrifyingly, combines the two. And the whimsical, and sometimes desperate, optimism of some of the early poems is an attitude later abandoned. (p. 46)
In these poems, even though they often seem verbally stilted and structurally forced, it is possible to detect the beginning of an energy bordering on hysteria which points directly to the later poems…. In the interpretation of the child's experience [in "Circus in Three Rings"], we can already hear the mocking, desperate tones of Lady Lazarus.
In fact, this mocking, even occasionally humorous voice is an aspect which should be stressed in discussing Sylvia Plath's poetry. Certainly, none of the poems is raucously funny, but subtle humor of various kinds is visible. And this is another feature which distinguishes the early work from the late; the humorous attitude of some of the early poems is one which Plath seems to have relinquished by the time she wrote her final ones. In those, levity is diminished, and bitter mockery predominates. (pp. 47-8)
There exists, I think, a positive correlation between the poet's increasingly honest confrontation with [her] problems and a growing power and efficiency in her poetry; extraneous props like a cuckoo clock, a staircase, or frivolous gothicism in nature give way to mythic reference, and strumpets, stones, snakes, and spinsters are as symbolic and internal as they are real. The few [early poems] where Plath controls together many or all of the facets of her personal dilemma instead of creating artificial divisions in it anticipate the later poetry. (p. 55)
The poems which we may call transitional generally reveal neither the honesty of the early poems nor the power of the late ones. To be sure, a number of poems which properly belong to Plath's late period were written also during this 1960–1962 period; the distinction between "transitional" and "late" must be made on the basis not only of composition date, but also of style and approach. Indeed, the transitional volume Crossing the Water is aptly named, for the poems of this period do indeed evince, variously, a kind of stepping-stone quality, or a sense of floundering, of being neither on one shore nor the other. Both in form and in substance, these poems are mainly interesting only because they are there, because they represent an important stage in Sylvia Plath's poetic development. (p. 57)
[The transitional poems] are relatively subdued compared with those in Ariel and Winter Trees; subdued, in fact, because of their special, and necessary, transitional aspect. In the poems of Crossing the Water, Sylvia Plath's technique is in the process of becoming, of developing from an experimental to a finely honed and natural mode. It is in the transitional work that the change in oral quality occurs, so that we see, in the individual poems of this period, the shift in Plath's verse from a written to a spoken language. Moreover, the poet's extreme self-consciousness, responsible for the mediocrity of so many of these transitional poems, is perhaps a necessary qualification for the precision of the late work; here, the poet comes to know herself, so that her attitudes can be expressed, rather than explained, in her final poetry. (p. 73)
The principal characteristic of Plath's late poems, and what distinguishes them from the poems of her transitional period, is their innate intensity combined with their ease of composition. In this late work, composed so rapidly, Plath had indeed found her own voice…. (p. 74)
The world of [the] late poems is the world of a nightmare, though there are constant objects and places in it which define its boundaries, which allow the visitor to recognize its outlines, and which afford the poetry much of its control. This world is made up mostly of aspects of the several worlds of the early poetry, now assimilated and working together. (p. 76)
Permeating these dark landmarks is the wild seascape of the poet's childhood, its recollected feel and smell as well as the emotions associated with it. All these provide at once the reserve from which the poet draws her imagery and symbolism and the referents where meaning resides….
[As Plath herself commented], a "relevant" issue like Dachau becomes in her poems an analogue for the private experience she presents. (p. 77)
In Sylvia Plath's late poems, the ultimate result of this linking of the inner with the outer world is that distinctions between external and internal reality are virtually removed. Landscape exists only as the poet perceives it. (p. 78)
The landscape is a deathly landscape [in the late poetry]…. Even common household objects become internalized and strange under the distorted, surreal gaze of the poet….
This fusion of external and internal landscape seems, in its particular manifestations, a kind of weird, updated metaphysical conceit. Nor is this the only kind of fusion of opposites in these late poems; the opposites of love and hate are fused as well, with death as the catalyst. Even in death there is a merging of opposites, for death is both the act of loving, the lover, and the only possible place to find love. Clearly, Plath has achieved excellence in the late works through her controlled and organic manipulation of imagery. Indeed, in a number of the Ariel and Winter Trees poems, the progressive linking of one image to the next creates a new order of reality for the whole poem in much the same way that the creating of a single metaphor makes us see differently, or more clearly. (p. 81)
[No] matter how it is rendered, the conflict [in the late poems] involves the love and hate of strumpet and celibate for one another, for their acts, and for their chosen types of lovers. In its absolute impossibility of reconciliation in life, the frustration requires death for its resolution, a death which is at once actual and sexual, an end and a beginning. And this inevitable death is not only accepted by the poet—it is desired. As the conflict joins love with hate and end with beginning, it also joins love with death. (p. 84)
There is no letting up in these poems, no release whatever…. [Reality] is the nightmare. And in informing it, much of the power derives from the controlling, but not taming, influence the poetic structure exerts upon the poet's outpourings. Not only do the breakdown of exterior interior boundaries, the highly symbolic landscape, and the particularized set of images require special control because of their wild, hallucinatory nature; they also, at the same time, provide control as they define the limits of a nightmarish world. In this poetry, well-established boundaries guide the turbulent stream and cause it to flow faster. Economy relates directly to intensity.
In this economizing, intensifying role, the poems' structures play an important part. Most of the poems in Ariel and Winter Trees differ from the earlier ones … by being more emphatic, more direct, simpler, and more linguistically natural. And the increase in excellence here is related in part to a decreasing concern on Sylvia Plath's part with formal stanza and end-rhyme constructions.
One exception to this rule, however, demands attention. The only poem among the late ones with consistent end-rhyme and rhythmic regularity from beginning to end is "Daddy," a poem which suffers no loss of power from its apparently conventional structure…. [In its] sounds and rhythms, "Daddy" has clear affinities with the nursery rhyme, a mode which provides, in this case, an obviously ironic structure. Indeed, in her adoption of this form. Plath has intentionally linked the nursery-rhyme world with the world of the poem to create a precariously balanced tension between the two…. [Since] the sense which drives this poem is perhaps more painful to her than any other, a real need may exist for the extra edge of control afforded by regular form. The rhythm is the rhythm of ritual, and the ritual is one both of death and of love. (pp. 87-8)
[Word] sounds actually provide meaning, so that the texture of the poem's language itself presents the experience being offered simultaneously in the poem.
Even more striking than the sounds of individual words is the feeling and even the sound of motion which the poetry projects through its line lengths and its distinct, though often fragmentary rhythms…. For the poems of Ariel and Winter Trees conform not to an externally imposed pattern, but rather to the pattern demanded by the poem's sense. Short lines, abrupt enjambements, and jerking rhythms effectively convey the speaker's clipped tones, laden with emotion and/or rage about to break the lines' tight restrictions, in such poems as "Lady Lazarus" or "Purdah."… Longer lines, and easier rhythms, evoke also the speaker's emotional condition…. In any case, rhythms, and line and stanza length (and, indeed, the length of the poem itself) are determined by sense; in the late poetry, structure and sense are joined inextricably. (pp. 89-91)
However various the cadences of Ariel and Winter Trees may be, they are the cadences of speech, the rhythms of a person talking. The poet has progressed from the often stilted rhythms of the early work, through the easier, more natural rhythms of Crossing the Water, to the appropriate and diverse rhythms of the last poems. (p. 91)
Sylvia Plath's uses of sound and structure, of rhythm and language, are imaginative, varied, and always appropriate in her final poems…. The poet has truly become a master of her form; the poems now are economical and appropriate in technique, powerful and yet controlled in expression, and incisive and original in conception. (p. 93)
Robert Lowell concludes that these late poems of Sylvia Plath "tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it." But that is only part of what they tell. For the poems themselves do live on, surviving the death of their composer, as in fact all poems do…. [The] poet's death must be regarded as an act which neither negates nor authenticates her work; death, after all, is not a poem. (p. 96)
Decked with surreal landscapes, mythological characters, scenes of World War II horrors, and glimpses of modern domestic life, the essential vision has been invoked and newly expressed to define the poet's present misery and her anticipation of triumphant release.
Since the late poems represent a culmination, in their subjects, images, and technical excellence, of Sylvia Plath's whole poetic career, it is to these poems that we look for the most cogent statement of this vision. And in the same way that these final poems contain the major concerns of the whole canon …, the title poem of the volume Ariel presents the predominant concerns of the late work. "Ariel" is a compendium of the poetry; in it we find the sense of present oppression and despair, the belief in release from that oppression, and the notion of relentlessly, uncontrollably speeding ahead through an antipathetic landscape toward a goal which is at once destructive and ecstatic, an end and a beginning.
On an obvious level, "Ariel" describes a dawn ride which begins with the instant that the speaker, having mounted her horse, is poised for action ("Stasis in darkness"), continues as she gathers speed and intensity, and culminates as recognizable landscape dissolves and the speaker is violently propelled through air. Even in the poem's opening lines we recognize that this ride will have intangible as well as tangible qualities: "Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances." Emerging from inaction, perhaps even specifically from a dark stable, into the light of early dawn, horse, rider, and landscape are all curiously "substanceless."
The effect of this "substanceless" quality is to permit a fusion of elements. Indeed, that fusion is the source both of the poem's strength and of its abstruseness…. (pp. 97-8)
At the center of this "substanceless" collection of ingredients is the word "Ariel." For one thing, Ariel is the name of Sylvia Plath's horse, and as Ted Hughes describes it, the experience which provides the simple, surface sense of the poem is an actual one…. Included in this unity of elements, then, is not just any rider, but the poet herself. (p. 98)
[The] sense of present oppression and anticipation of release and freedom [as in Ariel] is thematically central to Sylvia Plath's poetry. (p. 99)
Ariel, then, is poet, rider, and horse; she is a swift, indomitable presence galloping unflinchingly ahead; and she is an androgynous spirit assuming the form of anything, or anyone, who is oppressed and yearning for freedom. She is God's lioness. Ariel is also a specific poem and a volume of poetry, and in its unity of elements Ariel becomes also a metaphor for the poet's vision. (p. 101)
From its opening lines, ["Ariel"] has proceeded inexorably toward [its] final breakthrough, so that the closing lines achieve both an ultimate shedding of tangibility and a complete unity of elements. There is also a rhythmic culmination in these lines…. [The] horse's gallop has been growing faster and more uncontrollable through the poem. And here, at the end, a kind of rhythmic climax is reached at exactly the moment that the last veil is rent. (p. 103)
This special release is characteristic not only of this poem but also of most of the other poems in Ariel and Winter Trees and indeed throughout plath's canon. In one way or another, conveyed variously by certain images or by orgastic rhythms, Sylvia Plath expresses repeatedly the notions of present suffering and servitude, of violent and/or ecstatic death, and of triumph and new life as an immediate condition of that death. She is God's lioness; her vision is apocalyptic.
This is not to say, however, that she can forecast the exact nature of the new order or describe for us the particulars of the millennium. Of this her poetry gives only clues. What she does, instead, is descry present danger and woe…. (pp. 103-04)
[If Plath expresses] a feminist point of view in her writing, it does not seem to be of the variety which offers a viable program for release from and overcoming of male oppression. She may offer an affecting portrait of the destruction and loss which that oppression creates, and in so doing may explore matters coincidental with feminist concerns. But Plath does not finally, as a writer or as a person, seem predominantly interested in advancing the feminist cause. Her hatred of men seems rooted not so much in feminism as in her deeply disabling, ambivalent relationship with her father; it seems frivolous to say that her struggle with the colossus expresses merely a feminist's sense of sexual injustice.
Indeed, the attitude toward men which emerges from her writing is a love-hate relationship; the destruction of her male oppressors requires also the destruction of herself. (p. 111)
Plath's death neither negates nor authenticates her work in the sense that her poems of apocalyptic vision survive her, speaking powerfully and compellingly to whoever may read them. Her late poems assure her a place among poets; she is a fine writer no matter how or at what age she died. Therefore, the most rewarding perspective which we, as readers and witnesses, can assume is one whose main focus is the self newly created for us, phoenixlike, in the poetry. With this viewpoint, we realize that the woman in the poems is the Sylvia Plath who is Ariel, God's lioness. (p. 115)
Caroline King Barnard, in her Sylvia Plath (copyright © 1978 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1978, 132 p.
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[While reading Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,] the reader feels as though he is looking at a Sylvia Plath pickled in a laboratory jar….
What we see is not altogether pleasant. Sylvia Plath had an uncommon desire to be a writer…. Her notebook entries reveal her to have been an anxious user of events for the sake of words. Obsessively, she searches for material, for interesting events in life around her; but behind the frantic recording of detail lies a transparent boredom with life….
Reading the notebooks and stories side by side is illuminating not just in the sense of tracing how an artist reworks material from her life into her fiction. Even more revealing is how the flat, dispassionate tones of the notebook carry over into the stories and explain their emotional shallowness. In both places, Plath is the quintessential observer. She watches people closely and etches them cleanly, but a lack of involvement and passion leaves her stories thin and rootless. The stories lack sympathy and it is no wonder, for her diary is cold as ice. With few exceptions, her stories are surface creations of routine but careful observation.
The exceptions occur only when Plath looks directly into the face of death, and makes her own secret, squeamish, erotic, nerve-jangling fear of it her subject matter. She does this in "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," the best story of the collection, and invents a brilliant, striking image of the threat that stalked her dreaming and waking life. Death is the source of the only real passion in her fiction. (p. 165)
William Dowie, "A Season of Alarums and Excursions: 'Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams'," in America (© America Press, 1979; all rights reserved), Vol. 140, No. 8, March 3, 1979, pp. 165-66.
All [the writing which appears in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams] is stamped with the Plath mystique: terrible controlled force, autobiographical premonitions of disaster, not only personal but cosmic. Parts of the journal … carry the raw, enigmatical and harrowing sense of disaster which her previously published autobiography The Bell Jar, and the poems in Ariel and Crossing the Water were weighted.
There is a fastidious choice of vocabulary, a distinguished use of language conveying the moods that hang heavily over all her writing. Like Flannery O'Connor, but without her eschatological emphases, there is remarkable control which is almost too tense. There is no denying that Sylvia Plath was a rare writer; her short stories like her poems, leave the reader pondering the unfinished business of life. With remarkable understatement she hints at the breaking up of things within her world and ours.
"Books in Brief: 'Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams'," in The Critic (© The Critic 1979; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 37, No. 17, March 15, 1979, p. 7.
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More successfully than any other recent American poet, Sylvia Plath dramatized those moments of crisis during which the self must choose between life and death. By using intensely personal material, she gave concrete form to an action involving violent self-transformation and initiatory change. Yet it is unfortunate that her poems, which embody a coherent and self-sufficient action, have been understood almost exclusively as confessional documents. (p. 21)
Instead of looking at the lyrics in Ariel and Winter Trees as confessional outpourings of self-pity and grief, we can see that they play out the dramatic conflict between opposed external forces on the field of the poet's body and self. Life and death operate in Plath's poetic world as tangible powers: they appear as dramatic agents embodied in people, trees, houses, colors, and animals. And they proceed to control the self's actions and desires, its present and its future…. The poetry focuses on a dramatic conflict between universal agencies in which the self must use ritual and magical methods in order to free itself.
Using these methods, Plath dramatizes a ritual confrontation with a powerful enemy force that may be death and its symbolic agents or life and its harsh demands for self-negation and painful individuation. This meeting between self and destructive other occurs frequently in Plath's work in a symbolic space that is often reached through a journey or voyage. In this central place, those aspects of existence that consciousness normally separates and opposes come together as one. Death and birth, self and other, good and evil, merge in a kind of darkness. Frequently, Plath compares this darkness to that of the womb, suggesting that she wishes to simulate the condition of unity that existed before the differentiation of consciousness took place in childhood. (pp. 21-2)
As might be expected, two possibilities are created as a result of the journey backward and inward to the beginning of life. The darkness into which the poet enters may be the prelude to her own death or it may be the means for her to gain a more vivid and intense existence. These two alternatives, which result from abandoning adulthood, provide the dynamic basis for Plath's poetry….
Her poems dramatize a struggle for existence as the personality lives through repeated encounters with death.
Plath's poetry thus can be viewed not as a direct transcript of inner pathological states but as a ritual action that defines the roles that the poet may play. Essentially, the symbolic settings that Plath chooses for her dramas and the images that structure her ritual journeys compose a poetry of initiation in which the self and body are transformed through a succession of profound changes. The initiatory character of Plath's work emerges most clearly when we see how closely she follows the structural pattern and imagery of initiation in archaic societies. (p. 22)
According to [historian of religions Mircea Eliade] archaic man places a positive value on death through the initiation rite during which he simulates his own dying…. The pattern of death-and-rebirth is so common in ritual practices and in the literature of all cultures that Eliade feels free to call initiation the fundamental method that men have developed in order to deal with dying. (pp. 22-3)
If we adapt Eliade's perceptions about initiation to Plath's work, it becomes clear that her poems frequently perceive of death not as a suicidal ending but as the path to a transformed identity. This point is of particular importance, since the common critical tendency is to view Plath solely as a poet of suicide. Actually, the imagery and characteristic movement of her poems dramatize a death-and-rebirth pattern in much the same way that her novel The Bell Jar narrates a psychic death followed by personal regeneration. In a central group of poems, including "The Stones," "Lady Lazarus," "Ariel," and "Fever 103°," the transformation of death into life follows the three-part structure that most students of myth see as basic to initiation rites: entry into darkness, ritual death, and rebirth. Most of Plath's late poems dramatize only one or two of these aspects of initiatory structure, but almost all of them use the setting and imagery of ritual action. The dominant pattern of Plath's work—the journey to a black space where all opposites become one—merges at key moments into the larger action of initiation. (p. 23)
The first stage in the initiatory process involves the transformation of the external setting of the poem—landscape, seascape, domestic or hospital scene—into a symbolic landscape of death. In "Tulips," for example, the monologue is spoken by a woman in a hospital bed. Recovering from surgery, she thinks of her hospital room as a white sea of death in which her body is a pebble. The monologue substitutes the metaphoric reality of water, pebbles, and cargo boats for the actuality of the hospital. The initial stage of change in "Tulips," then, places the self in a watery space where it can die. (pp. 23-4)
In the second stage of transformation, the self undergoes drastic forms of self-transformation in order to escape from the violence of the death-world. Paradoxically, this escape takes the form of physical destruction, including self-mutilation, dismemberment, or symbolic annihilation…. This process may be experienced as either pleasurable or painful, depending on the psychic motive that accompanies the particular image or action. Plath often switches from a horrified awareness of disintegration to an intense longing for it. (pp. 24-5)
These opposed reactions to death are actually aspects of the same ritual descent into darkness. In poems like "Lady Lazarus" and "Fever 103°," which dramatize the complete destruction of personality and body, Plath expresses both attitudes. The speakers are simultaneously terrified by their annihilation and exalted by it. By bringing death and birth into the closest possible proximity, the process of initiation releases within the individual profoundly contradictory feelings toward existence…. Evidently, the ritual strategy is to use the death impulses in order to generate a renewed desire to live.
The characteristic imagery of this second stage in Plath's poems centers on physical dissolution and dismemberment. Her poems frequently employ images of knives, operations, amputations, blood, and lost limbs. Often she imagines herself being absorbed or "eaten" by some powerful forces external to her, usually the darkness of the sky or water or God. These images and processes point, of course, to the characteristic elements of initiation, with their bloodletting, incisions, and symbolic deaths…. Plath never presents an image that has only a single emotional charge or value. The imagery of disintegration is both fascinating and horrifying. In "Totem" the universe appears as a voracious mouth that consumes its own body: the railroad track "eaten" by the engine; the pigs and hares eaten by the farmers; men roped in and eaten by the spider Death. Absorption is the frightening prospect in "Totem." But in "Poppies in July," images of the mouth and of eating indicate a desirable state of being…. Death can be either self-laceration or salvation, agony or peacefulness.
The final stage of Plath's initiatory scenario occurs only when the body has been cleansed through its own annihilation or effacement. In "Face Lift" the operation on the persona culminates in the replacement of her old, hated face with a new one. Symbolically, the speaker gains a new self…. She has been able to perform the magical act of self-generation, which is the true goal of Plath's scenarios. (pp. 25-6)
Imagery that is associated with the infant naturally revolves around birth and children. Embryological and obstetric metaphors predominate in poems that dramatize the rebirth of the self. (p. 26)
We can hardly read "Getting There," or any of the other late poems about life and death, without feeling Plath's immense terror of biological reality…. Plath links death and birth so closely that they are virtually indistinguishable. The final image of "A Birthday Present" combines images of cutting and of birth. The speaker has been asking for an appropriate "birthday" gift—her death: "And the knife not carve but enter / Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,…"…. The deadly irony of the punning title suggests that only death could satisfy the speaker, but the final image gives another dimension to the death wish: Plath wants to go back to the purity of infancy as an alternative to the agonizing present. (pp. 26-7)
The persistence and depth of the initiatory images and structures in Plath's works point to the archaic nature of her beliefs, particularly her faith in spirit life and animism. Animals, insects, and vegetation in her poetry are aware of their roles and take on characteristics that are normally reserved for human beings: a bull rises up against a kingdom ("The Bull of Bendylaw"); bees take revenge against their keepers ("Stings"); flowers suffer or feel pleasure ("Poppies in July"). "The world is blood-hot and personal …"…, Plath says, in a phrase that could stand as the motto for all her poetry. All organic life, it appears to Plath, lives and dies aware of the violence or victimization that is part of nature.
The "personal" nature of the world thus imposes on all sentient beings the constant burden of suffering and death. Each encounter between beings and the world is a ritual confrontation with death that is repeated on all levels of existence and in all activities. For Plath death is a kind of spirit or god who incarnates himself in the objects and forms of the world…. At every turn death appears to frighten and to seduce animal and man.
It is not surprising, then, that blood becomes Plath's symbol both for animate beings and for a poetry that would be faithful to the nature of life. "The blood-jet," she says in a late poem, "is poetry."… Poems spring from the same life-consciousness or blood-consciousness that exists at the root of all natural and animal beings. Men, animals, and vegetative life exist as one in a universe that absorbs them into its blackness and nothingness; and poetry must give expression to the simultaneous destructiveness and creativity inherent in existence. (p. 33)
Within [the] context of a deathly, black exterior world and a blood-red, animate existence initiation appears as the means of transcendence to another condition of being. In many of Plath's full-scale initiatory dramas, the self attains a superhuman condition. In "Fever 103°," the speaker becomes the Virgin, ascending to Heaven; in "Lady Lazarus," she is a red-haired demon; in "Ariel," an arrow shot to the sun; in "Stopped Dead," a woman who can live off air; in "Purdah," a fierce lioness. Alternately, she is magically reborn as a baby without the tormented consciousness of the adult, as in "Face Lift," "The Stones," and "Getting There."… In a cosmos that is alternately persecutory and inert, the poet summons the courage to face the death-forces by undergoing, through the ritual journey, a descent into blackness. When the descent stops in the midst of the blackness, the poetry seems to mirror the inertness and passivity of nonbeing: poems like "Edge" and "Words" offer no resistance to the death-world. But in much of Ariel and Winter Trees, Plath rushes into sun, sky, or water in order to be reborn. (pp. 34-5)
What her poems reveal again and again is her tremendously violent struggle to gain control of the psyche. Each of Plath's poems portrays in different but parallel settings a momentary ordering of the symbols of life and death. (p. 35)
Jon Rosenblatt, "Sylvia Plath: The Drama of Initiation," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1979, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 21-36.
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[Reading Plath's poetry, we] are continually outflanked by someone who knows what we'll approve and how we'll categorize, and is herself ready with the taxonomic words before we can get them out.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Parlor psychiatry is forestalled; she sketches the complex herself. Lady Lazarus is a bitch? It's not news to her; "I eat men like air." (I'm also the only candid person here.) Our fantasies of anarchic candor stir into life and help animate Ariel. She persuades us that she's daring to say what we wouldn't, and if we succumb to the spell we're apt to end up believing that this is what we've always wished we could say…. All her life, a reader had been someone to manipulate.
To facilitate its understanding with its reader, poetry since Homer's time has had formal ceremonies. It is in this connection that Sylvia Plath herself speaks of manipulation:
I think my poems come immediately out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying—like madness, being tortured, this kind of experience—and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind….
[What] she started to say is surely that cries from the heart are not poems until subjected to a discipline like that of her own stanzaic and metrical structures. (pp. 34-5)
The formalisms of The Colossus—assonance, rhyme, stanzaic pattern—serve a number of interdependent offices, one of which is to reassure the genteel reader (and notably the one who counts, the one who edits an upper-middlebrow magazine). This reader wants to see the candles lit and the silver laid out (and so do we, so do we), and will half-accept, half-overlook an intrusion of the mortuary, the morbid, or the demonic provided that table-manners are not disrupted…. "Hardcastle Crags" is especially nightmarish, a journey on foot into fear that keeps inviting us to attend to its compact elegances of phrasing … so that although clues abound, we barely notice the whole world growing steadily more inimical, stark, unassimilable, with one's death the only appropriate resolution…. Did any editor notice that the poem's walk was into a cosmic graveyard?… The wilfully patterned stanzas, the ababa off rhymes, effect attention's displacement from perversity to craft.
Perversity? I call it that because, in displacing her own attention too, she indulges herself in reconstructing that walk with lurid specificity, forcing a stated unmeaning into its landscape, transforming a mood into something like an article of belief…. Living with the poem, working out its nine stanzas, fifty-four lines, retouching its ingenious assonances (struck / street / black / ignite / shake) and the riding of its sentences over stanza breaks (these coincide only once, at the end of stanza five), she could, telling herself she was solving technical puzzles, pencil taboo combinations into its grid, almost as the rhyme of a limerick gives one license to utter a scatology, and rise from her work perhaps incrementally more convinced than before that Sivvy and the huge physical world were incompatible.
I don't want to melodramatize this; but it's been contrived that the manner of her death cannot but haunt any discussion of her work, and read in that knowledge the poems of The Colossus offer us the spectacle of someone accustoming herself to the necessity of a speedy death: the more so the longer, clearly, they took to write (thesaurus on lap, Ted Hughes tells us …). Here off rhymes are especially betraying. Since they won't serve as finding devices for one another the way "bright" prompts "light," they entail a search and trial that must linger and brood; then can choose, as if uncoerced, to call the hills "humped indifferent iron," yet justify "iron" by the need of an assonance for "return." So, poem by poem, the universe was fitted with a bleak vocabulary, freely chosen yet seemingly necessary.
By the time her poetic had gone into free fall—Ted Hughes dates this from "The Stones," the last poem in the Knopf Colossus—that vocabulary came at call: stones, iron, bleak light, all solid things inimical, all gentle locutions used bitterly ("My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber" and "There is nothing to do. / I shall be good as new."). (pp. 38-40)
If we think of The Colossus not as the frigid precursor to Ariel but as the work of a very intelligent girl in her mid twenties, it is an amazingly good collection. There is no guessing how far in ten more years she might have developed that way of working. It is a plausible guess that the arc of her development might have easily exceeded Lowell's. That rich resourcefulness of diction, that command of craft, that intentness—it is hard to think of a first collection that promises so much. And the other error that adheres in our easy preference for Ariel is its overlooking of the fact that as long as she worked in the manner of The Colossus she kept safely alive. One prefers one's poets kept alive.
But no, Ariel has been made to seem a new and final sincerity. Ted Hughes gives conventional opinion its cue: until "The Stones," at Yaddo, he writes, "she had never in her life improvised. The powers that compelled her to write so slowly had always been stronger than she was. But quite suddenly she found herself free to let herself drop, rather than inch over bridges of concepts." Note the loaded terms: with "The Stones," which I would call her first sick poem, she had overcome the compulsion of inhibiting powers. She is "free" (to drop). And she inches no longer. Inching is an ignoble mode of progress, is it not? Never mind that [John] Milton inched. Hughes goes on: in her final phase she "was able to turn to her advantage all the forces of a highly-disciplined, highly intellectual style of education which had, up to this point, worked mainly against her, but without which she could hardly have gone so coolly into the regions she now entered." What she did now was write "at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter. From then on, all her poems were written in this way."
What had, in Ted Hughes's phrase, "worked mainly against her" was a set of habits that, if I read aright, had kept her producing and alive. I would not blame those habits for the frigidities and immaturities of The Colossus: I would guess that she was late to mature, and frigid. The strident insincerities of even the later Letters Home may help us gauge how much of her mind was still taken up with role playing; will power and ambition incited, habits of craftsmanship released, extraordinary poems from the part of her talent that could be mobilized nonetheless.
From Water-Tower Hill to the brick prison
The shingle booms, bickering under
The sea's collapse.
Snowcakes break and welter.
Poets have imitated the sea's sound since Homer, never more authoritatively than in such a detail as this. Alert fidelity to the actual produced the clou-word, "bickering," with its aural reminiscence of "brick" and its fine antithetical play against "booms," before "sea's collapse" terminates the wave in a hiss of sibilants. (pp. 41-2)
Poems like "A Birthday Present" … have a Guignol fascination, like executions. She was somewhere on the far side of sanity, teasing herself with the thrill of courting extinction, as though on a high window ledge. Such spectacles gather crowds and win plaudits for "honesty" from critics who should know better. In those terrible months the habits of craft lasted, a feel for shaping and phrasing gone into her bones. Rhyme, though, was no longer a diffraction grating but a wild heuristic, prompting, encouraging—
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe.
She could have done without that voodoo encouragement. It's too much to say the poems killed her, but one can't see that they did anything to keep her alive. The death poems—say a third of Ariel—are bad for anyone's soul. They give a look of literary respectability to voyeurist passions: no gain for poetry, nor for her. (p. 43)
Hugh Kenner, "Sincerity Kills," in Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, edited by Gary Lane (copyright © 1979 by Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 33-44.
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[What] Letters Home reveals, is that the various roles Plath assumed—Dutiful Daughter, Bright and Bouncy Smith Girl, Cambridge Intellectual, Adoring Wife and Mother, Efficient Housekeeper—were so deeply entrenched that they determined the course not only of her life but also of her writing. If, as Karl Miller so rightly observes, Plath's letters to her mother were "bent on withholding her 'true' condition," so, the correspondence suggests, were the poems written prior to the final crisis in her life, poems that emerged, in large part, from Plath's false-self system. (p. 156)
In coming to terms with the transformation of "Sivvy," the carefully controlled voice of the earlier poetry and prose, into the Sylvia of the Ariel poems …, Letters Home is a centrally important document…. [Despite] the fractured state of the final manuscript, the portrait of Sylvia that emerges is peculiarly consistent.
One learns, to begin with, that Sylvia Plath did not just happen to be a schizophrenic girl who had a genius for poetry. In many ways, hers was a representative case of the American Dream gone sour…. (pp. 156-57)
What sort of influence did Aurelia Plath exert over her daughter's development as a poet? The letters reveal that she was by no means the negative presence Mrs. Greenwood is in The Bell Jar. Sylvia both feared and worshipped her widowed mother who lived only for her children and especially for her. (p. 160)
[Until] the last year of her life, Plath's ideal way remained popular success, coupled with the role of wife and mother. Despite her rather vague objections to the atom bomb and to Nixon, she was essentially a conservative. (p. 161)
[The] infidelity of her husband and their consequent separation must have been the electric shock that finally severed the carefully "patched" self. In the winter of 1962, Plath could still be Sivvy, happy mother of two who wrote brilliant poetry in her free mornings. But by that summer she had become, in what seems to me an especially sad irony, a "widowed" young mother with very slender financial means—in short, she had become her mother. Even the sex of her two children—first a girl, then a boy—repeated the Sylvia-Warren pattern.
Only now, one gathers, did Sylvia fully grasp the futility of her former goals. And so she had to destroy the "Aurelia" in herself; she now rejected all notions of home, family, marriage, love, hard work. In the demonic Ariel poems, she could finally vent her anger, her hatred of men, her disappointment in life…. Read against the background of the mother-daughter relationship I have been discussing, the thrust of Plath's earlier poetry becomes much clearer. The question of influence, for example, appears in quite a new light. One reads again and again that Plath was "influenced" first by Hopkins, Yeats, and Thomas, then by Auden and Stevens, later by Lowell, and most profoundly by Roethke and Ted Hughes himself. I find that, on the contrary, Plath was peculiarly impervious to what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. For her, it was not a case of beginning in the shadow of a strong poet, of absorbing that poet's influence and then swerving away from the predecessor in the act of finding her own voice. Rather, she imitated a series of poets who have little in common with one another beyond their status as "major poets." (pp. 162-63)
[In] the wake of Ariel (1966), it became fashionable to argue that of course Plath's genius had always been there, latent in the early poetry….
This is the way we usually regard the development of poets, and in most cases it makes sense…. But in Plath's case, the "deliberate technical training" that Davison speaks of was less a move toward Ariel than it was a retreat toward safety, the cultivation of a mask. (p. 166)
[An early love poem, "Epitaph for Fire and Flower,"] begun on Plath's honeymoon in Spain, sounds as if Dylan Thomas were trying to rewrite Donne's "The Canonization." (p. 167)
In this neo-metaphysical poem, with its ingenious conceits and elaborate sound structure, Plath seems to define what love is supposed to be rather than what it is for her.
One can argue, of course, that Plath was only twenty-four when she wrote "Epitaph for Fire and Flower," that it is an apprentice poem she herself later excluded from The Colossus. This would be a valid argument if one could chart a direction in the work of the following four years, if the early poems were indeed moving toward a goal. But what happens is that Plath simply drops the dense metaphoric mode of "Epitaph" and tries out first one style and then another without ever quite renouncing her carefully constructed facade. This is true of "Point Shirley," written in 1959 under the influence of Robert Lowell; it is even truer of the series of seven poems called Poem for a Birthday, written at Yaddo in the fall of that year and included in the British edition of The Colossus (1960).
If we except "The Stones," the last poem in the series, which Plath did choose to include in the shorter American edition of The Colossus, and which … is one of her first major poems, we are left with a set of variations on the poems of Theodore Roethke, especially the "mad songs" of Praise to the End! (pp. 167-68)
Despite [her] borrowings, Plath does not really resemble Roethke. Her use of nature imagery, for instance, seems oddly willed….
There was no room for wise passiveness in her response to nature; rather, she had to conquer it, to become one with her horse Ariel, flying like an arrow "Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning."… (p. 169)
By the middle of 1961, the Sivvy mask was cracking; the more enthusiastic and Pollyanna-like the letters of these months, the more somber and withdrawn the poems. And what is especially interesting is that "Tulips," like the Ariel poems that follow, is no longer in any sense an imitative poem; on the contrary, it seems to manifest no influence at all, although it can be said to follow the paradigm established by Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," in which the longing for "easeful Death" finally gives way to the recognition that the poet cannot escape his "sole self." But whereas Keats's speaker longs to transcend the sense world so as to enter the magic realm of the nightingale, the "I" of "Tulips" is attracted by the purely negative qualities of death—that is, by the peace of nonbeing. (pp. 172-73)
It is, I think, the extraordinary originality of poems like "Tulips" that makes Sylvia Plath such an important but, paradoxically, limited poet. In Ariel and Winter Trees, we have a body of work quite unprecedented in twentieth-century American poetry; to find analogues for "Tulips," one would have to turn to, say, Trakl or to German Expressionist painting, in which a vase of flowers can become a similarly threatening presence. But Plath's limitation is that, having finally ceased to be Sivvy, she had really only one subject: her own anguish and consequent longing for death. To a degree, she camouflaged this narrowness by introducing political and religious images: "Daddy" as "Panzer-man"; the poet herself as a Jew being "chuf(fed) off to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen," her skin "Bright as a Nazi lampshade"; her enemy as alternately "Herr Lucifer," "Christus" with "The awful / God-bit in him," or "Blubbery Mary," offering a "Communion wafer." But since the woman who speaks throughout Ariel hates all human beings just as she hates herself, her identification with the Jews who suffered at Auschwitz has a hollow ring, just as her violent rejection of Christianity is no more than a rejection of herself. (p. 173)
The bee poems … mark, both literally and figuratively, a dead end. For years, Sivvy had been trying to tell herself that she was "milkweed silk, the bees will not notice," that perhaps no one would ever "notice" the inner Sylvia. But now she admits that "I could not run without having to run forever." There is, finally, no future. Thus, when in "Medusa," she tells the female monster (a terrifying projection of the mother imago), "Off, off, eely tentacle! // There is nothing between us,"… she is paradoxically cutting herself off from the "Old barnacled umbilicus" that had, in fact, kept her alive thus far. The first shock of recognition produced by Sylvia Plath's sudden "independence" from her husband and her mother was the stimulus that gave rise to the Ariel poems. But given the "psychic osmosis" between herself and Aurelia Plath …, given the years of iron discipline during which Sylvia had been her mother's Sivvy, the touching assertion that "There is nothing between us" could only mean that now there would be nothing at all. (p. 175)
Marjorie Perloff, "Sylvia Plath's 'Sivvy' Poems: A Portrait of the Poet as Daughter," 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. 155-78.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198
Plath was in many ways a victim of the fifties and its ideology of the family…. Plath, in common with women grappling then with the problems of developing feminist theory, was fighting her way in those poems of the early sixties toward a definition of what life within the middle-class nuclear family does to its members. Her distinctive mediation of the ideology of the family and of love in the fifties and early sixties can tell us a great deal about patriarchal attitudes and how women in general, and women writers in particular, can find ways to resist and triumph over them.
It is not that Plath presents blueprints or role models; indeed, often what she portrays is the false directions into which her search led her. But her intellectual grasp of both crosscurrents and contradictions in the hegemonic ideology of this period and the new rising tide of women's resistance is what makes her work particularly valuable for us, and her search particularly important. (pp. 214-15)
Carole Ferrier, "The Beekeeper's Apprentice," 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. 203-17.
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