Sylvia Plath Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 17) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Thomas Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

John Wain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Francis Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

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Peter Davidson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Dan Jaffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Lowell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

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William F. Claire

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Eleanor Ross Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alicia Ostriker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Arthur K. Oberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sylvia Robinson Corrigan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Lynda B. Salamon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Mary Ellmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Robert Scholes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

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Peter Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Ann Birstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…....

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Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Hobsbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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M. D. Uroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…....

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Elizabeth Hardwick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Stan Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Saul Maloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sandra M. Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Caroline King Barnard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Dowie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Jon Rosenblatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Marjorie Perloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Carole Ferrier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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