American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

About the Poet

Sylvia Plath, a precocious enigma of the 1960s, battled perfectionism and precipitous mood swings while pursuing a career as a teacher and poet. She was born in Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. In early childhood, she lived in Winthrop on Massachusetts Bay. Left fatherless at age 8, she lived with her mother's parents and attended school in Winthrop and college at Wellesley. She later acknowledged uncertainty about her father through bee imagery in "Stings," "The Swarm," "The Bee Meeting," and other poems.

After publishing the story "And Summer Will Not Come Again" in Seventeen magazine and the poem "Bitter Strawberries" in Christian Science Monitor in 1950, Plath earned a scholarship to Smith College and majored in English literature and composition. She published additional poems in Harper's. A subsequent story, "Sunday at the Mintons," won a Mademoiselle scholarship, a position on the magazine's college board, and a summer internship in New York.

In August 1953, Plath attempted suicide. She underwent electroconvulsive therapy at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. She returned to Smith in February 1954 and earned a B.A. in English, graduating summa cum laude with membership in Phi Beta Kappa. She subsequently studied English literature as a Fulbright scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge, and then married British poet Ted Hughes in June 1956.

Plath taught at Smith, then worked as a hospital secretary in Boston while concentrating on writing. Her diary captures the negativism that paralyzed and bedeviled her. She felt lonely and isolated at school. The best she could offer her bruised self was a grade of "middling good." The year after Ted Hughes published a critical success, The Hawk in the Rain, she failed twice, neither earning a Saxton Fellowship nor publishing verse.

After seeking guidance from Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, Plath won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959. She continued working in the clerical department of Massachusetts General Hospital while undergoing therapy. The family returned to London in December 1959, months before the birth of daughter Frieda Rebecca and a subsequent move to a Devon manor house. Plath published The Colossus and Other Poems (1962) and completed a radio play, Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1962), and The Bell Jar (1963). The latter, a powerful psychological novel and autobiographical study of schizophrenia, she issued under the pen name Victoria Lucas.

Plath entered a productive period in 1962, when a renewed vigor and daring took her into ever-deepening levels of psychic expression. Her health and emotional stability declined with the birth of a son, Nicholas Farrar. She was antagonized by her husband's adulteries, and she burned a stack of manuscripts (her own and Hughes') and filed for divorce. Seeking renewal in the visionary works of William Butler Yeats, she moved the children to Chalk Farm in London. During a wretched winter, after supplying each crib with a mug of milk and stuffing the crevices with towels, on February 11, 1963, she committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates and inhaling gas from the kitchen stove.

Plath was much missed. Her friend, poet Anne Sexton, composed a Unitarian eulogy and wrote a verse tribute. Literary fans and cultists welcomed posthumous publication of Ariel (1965), a verse study of the patriarchy of her husband and father. Additional titles — Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems (1971), Winter Trees (1972), and Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963 (1975), edited by her mother — strengthened Plath's place among feminists. Hughes issued his ex-wife's prose (minus one he chose to destroy) in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings (1977), The Collected Poems (1981), and The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982). On the strength of these works, Plath earned the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her work continues to influence the writings of a new generation of feminists.

Chief Works

In 1959, Plath wrote "The Colossus," a painstaking evaluation of her deceased father. After three decades of labor, the speaker's plastic reconstructions fail to re-create the man she knew only from childhood memories. The astonishing controlling image of a fallen giant places the speaker in the seriocomic role of a Lilliputian, who climbs ladders and traverses the oversized brow and pate of a fallen Gulliver. Locked in the hell of ambivalence, she explores fantasies meant to free her from loss, betrayal, and remorse.

Charged allusions to Aeschylus's Oresteia and the Roman Forum dignify the dead father as they tinge a lifelong search with subtle shades of tragedy. The poet-speaker allies herself with the Greek Agamemnon's doomed twins, Orestes and Electra, who destroyed themselves by attempting to avenge the father's murder. A pivotal image — "married to shadow" — tethers the harried speaker to an Electra Complex, the Freudian name for a young girl's abnormal adoration of her father. As though abandoned on a faraway island, she ceases to anticipate rescue from an idealized father.

In 1961, Plath composed "Morning Song," a re-creation of childbirth. Like coded messages, her personal memories lie hidden among metaphors of parenthood. Conceived in love, the infant arrives to an ungentle world. The poet enhances fragility with the midwife's slap, the dual meaning of "sole" in "footsole," and the vulnerable hairless head and naked limbs. The image of the child as a "New statue. / In a drafty museum" prefigures later views of bodies as sculpture. In the third stanza, the mother retreats from importance like a cloud dispersed by wind. During the first night, she accustoms herself to infant breathing, pink complexion, and the demanding cry. With self-deprecating humor, she sees herself as "cow-heavy," a bovine shape in floral nightdress hurrying to nurse a newborn. One of her most optimistic works, the poem characterizes normalcy and hope.

Composed at the height of her creativity, "Daddy" (1962) resorts to childish, mannered naughtiness and the ebullience of jump-rope rhyme to express a more complex defiance and rage at a father who confined his daughter like a foot laced into a shoe. Returning to the image of the fallen statue, the poet reveals personal recollections of Nauset Beach and her father's Polish ancestry. Departing from anguish, the mouthy brat envisions herself stuttering in German, then succumbing to Nazi torments at "Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen." In the seventh stanza, the choice of "chuffing" for the sound of trains deporting Jews returns to the baby language that began the poem. The word, a pun on "chough," draws on the connection between hovering blackbirds and carrion. Wordplay continues as she degrades her father with the words "the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you."

The convergence in stanzas 11 through 16 illustrates why critics disagree in their assessment of Plath's skill. Clever and inventive in the drumming beats and assonance of oh and oo sounds in "go," "glue," "screw," "you," and "through," the picture of a cloven-footed demon biting a child's heart precedes self-destruction. No longer the sturdy, willful persona of the opening stanzas, the poet-speaker suffers from suicide attempts, the patchwork of psychoanalysis, and a "fat black heart," a guilt-soaked conscience which she plants in her father's breast. A mental picture of the tormenter adept at rack and screw compels her to say "I do, I do," an oral implication of perverse sex and emotional marriage to the father. In the guise of a vengeful bride of Dracula, she kills off the real and the imagined father, a monstrous, self-damning double murder intended to set her free.

In this same period, Plath produced "Ariel," a spare, densely packed vision. Like piano scales, the deranged persona speaks brief lines. Ecstatic and energized, she produces word pictures compressed to maximize motion. Named for a sprite who did the will of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, the poem draws on a memory of riding a horse named Ariel before sunup. A controlling assonance — "I," "White / Godiva," "rider," "flies," "drive," "eye" — suits the gallop, which liberates as it brings the speaker nearer extinction.

The image of the furrow, an allusion to female genitalia, builds with an overlay of the blood-red berry juice. The flow of semen into her body renders her powerless, as though she dangled in air. Sexual connotations continue with "Thighs, hair; / Flakes from my heels," a reference to the missionary position, which places the female on bottom during intercourse, where she attains leverage with her feet. The poem diverges into a new direction in stanza 7, which recalls childbirth. The first-person mother evolves into a death-dealing arrow, the self-destroyer. Envisioning suicide, she epitomizes freedom as unbridled flight toward a burning sun, a symbol of power and regeneration.

Also written in her last three months, "Lady Lazarus" strikes out with a lacerating tone. An allusion to the dead man whom Christ revived, the poem enlarges on glimpses of a rotting corpse stripped of its burial napkin. Terrible in fleshless skull and decay, the deceased revitalizes in stanza 7, like a cat that retains nine of its fabled lives. The poet-speaker, livid with rage and self-pity, envisions a third reclamation from death, with crass, peanut-eating gawkers pushing to get a look at the unwrapping of her body. The revelation recharges the corpse, as though empowered by a sideshow appeal to the crowd.

In chronological order, the poet-speaker recalls the first suicide attempt, then the second, when she "rocked shut / As a seashell." With a neurotic joy in the art of suicide, she claims, "I do it exceptionally well," an artful statement made by Sylvia-the-poet about Sylvia-the-madwoman. Still angry at viewers, she insists on charging them for "eyeing of my scars," "the hearing of my heart." As though chanting to terrify tormentors, she intones through repetition, implied rhyme, and paired rhymes a surreal return to the victims of Nazi persecution. To both God and Satan, she warns that her rejuvenation is lethal to men.

A posthumous work, "Blackberrying" (1965), retreats from anguish to a pastoral setting, where the speaker gathers and eats ripe berries, a controlling metaphor for art poised atop constraints, depicted as thorns. Pitting sweet-juiced spheres against the price for gathering, the speaker accumulates an ominous fruit, which she characterizes as black eyes. The darkness mirrors black birds protesting in the sky. They ride air currents as gracefully as fly ash blown from a fire, a blended image of cremation and release. In line 13, the speaker doubts that the alley-shaped hedges will allow her a glimpse of the sea, an implication of spiritual release in the afterlife.

The remainder of "Blackberrying" addresses the obstacles to Plath's personal freedom and art. The lushness of berries leads her to a bush so ripe that it is decked in flies, hellish insects whose translucent wings stand out like the sheer panels of an oriental screen. By the end of stanza 2, the speaker moves beyond berrying to stand in the damp gust of sea air, "slapping its phantom laundry in my face." The housewife image links to the taste of salt, an allusion to the poet's hatred of domestication. After achieving the final push to the sea, the speaker looks out on space, a metaphor for the purity of death. The sound of the sea reminds her of hammerings against her stubbornness.

From the same time period, a crossover piece, "Fever 103," parallels the metrics of "Lady Lazarus" with its abrupt question, exclamation, and confession, but reflects the resignation of her last works. Picturing illness as a trip to hell, the poet imagines herself undergoing purification. Wrapped in sin, she hears "tinder cries," a pun on tender/tinder to heighten the flimsiness of human tissue, soon to be burned away amid the smell of an extinguished candle flame. The smoke that circles her frame reminds her of Isadora Duncan, the dancer accidentally strangled when her scarf tangled in the spokes of the Bugatti convertible in which she was riding.

Building on the death of Isadora, the poet protests the snuffing out of delicate infants, like hothouse orchids, a double image of hanging planter and the hovering aura of lavender smoke. As the hallucinatory imagery returns to history, death steals aboard technology, annihilating the rare leopard with radiation and the innocents at Hiroshima, who, in 1945, were incinerated in an atomic explosion that ended World War II. In stanza 10, the poet returns to self, the victim who flickers between life and death. The raging, self-destructive fever, depicted in the repetition of "The sin. The sin," turns the victim's head into a macabre Japanese lantern, which gives off an astounding glow resembling the flushed petals of a camellia. In a kaleidoscopic shift to the final image, she pictures lust falling away as the spirit, purged to its original state, rises to heaven.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Analyze the success of confessional modes in Plath's The Bell Jar and poems from Ariel. Account for severe criticisms of self-indulgent neurosis.

2. Compare Plath's startling images of confinement and coercion in "Purdah" with those in poems by Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, and H. D.

3. Summarize lines from Plath's prose and verse that capture her ambivalence toward male authority figures, in particular, her husband and father.

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