The legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work. Her work will endure where poetry endures.
The trouble for us who come to study her work in depth at Leaving Cert or A Level is that we already know the ending – a bit like watching a film of The Titanic! We know that Plath died by suicide in mid-sentence, so to speak, at the age of thirty one. Studying this arbitrary selection of her poems here should impress on us her vast and vital legacy. She is, in my view, a very essential poet.
There is unfortunately a widespread tendency to interpret Plath’s work as autobiographical, to read her poems as if they tell her life story. While it is quite obvious – and probably inevitable – that a writer’s life will influence what she writes, it is important to understand that poetry is art. Writing about this issue, Ted Hughes pointed out that the reader must learn, ‘to distinguish between a subjective work that was trying to reach an artistic form using a real event as its basis, and a documentary of some event that did happen.’
Some critics read her later poems exclusively in the light of her suicide. They argue that she signals her suicide (intentionally or otherwise) in a number of her last poems, through various references to despair, rage, loss, separation, or death. This is by no means as obvious as these critics claim and after all hindsight has always been the great tormentor of those left bereaved and bereft after a suicide. Many of these poems are the work of a woman who is coming into her own, recognising her own needs, using her own voice, finding her true self. Look, for example, at ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. This is about facing and releasing the fears that are hidden beneath the surface – not about a woman who is contemplating death.
So therefore, it is important to read the poems as they stand. Looking for signs of what was to happen afterwards in her life is to predetermine how the poems should be read, not actually attending to the poems themselves.
Note: To help you prepare for your Leaving Cert you need to become very familiar with at least six of Sylvia Plath’s poems. I would recommend that you concentrate on her later poems (from 1960 to her death) because of their power and honesty. The following selection will be dealt with in some depth here:
- ‘Morning Song’ (19th February, 1961),
- ‘Finisterre’ (29th September, 1961),
- ‘Mirror’ (23rd October, 1961),
- ‘Pheasant’ (7th April, 1962),
- ‘Elm’ (19th April, 1962),
- ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, (4th October, 1962),
- ‘Child’ (28th January, 1963).
The points made here represent one interpretation of her work. It is important that you develop your own response to each poem; where this differs from the suggestions given here, trust your own judgement! Become familiar with the poems and with the major themes running through Plath’s poetry.
Plath wrote incessantly during her short life: poetry, short stories, articles, essays, and one semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Her writings were first published in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic; later they appeared in book form.
She considered poems written before 1956 as ‘juvenilia’. Her first published book, The Colossus, includes only poems written after this date. Her remaining poems were published after her death in three collections: Ariel and Other Poems, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees.
Her last poems are generally seen as Plath’s outstanding achievement and that is why we concentrate on them here in this review. Here she truly found her voice, expressing herself in a distinctive, unique style. She was aware of this herself: while writing them she informed her mother, ‘I am a writer…. I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name…. (Letters Home, 16th October 1962).
Her husband, Ted Hughes, describes these poems equally glowingly:
‘Her real self showed itself in her writing … When a real self finds language and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event’ (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982).
MAJOR THEMES IN PLATH’S POETRY
Motherhood: Plath wrote many poems dealing with all aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, at a time when writers, especially poets, rarely touched on such topics. Her best-known work on the theme, ‘Poem for Three Voices’, evokes powerfully the variety of emotions experienced by women around pregnancy, miscarriage, motherhood, and adoption. Her poems on this theme are remarkable for their lyricism (their song-like quality), depth of feeling, and tenderness.
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
However, being a realist, she also reflected the other side of being a mother: the drudgery, the anxieties, and the level to which a mother is bound to her child:
I have never seen a thing so clear …
It is a terrible thing to be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.
Both attitudes are seen in ‘Morning Song’. The mother’s life is shadowed by the child’s arrival, but is enriched by the joy of love. ‘Child’ also reflects the simple pleasure she derives from her child; his eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing that she longs to fill with the beauty of the world. But there is also an underlying threat to the child’s safety, which distresses her.
Identity: Plath frequently returned to the issue of double identity in her writing. The subject of her undergraduate thesis in Smith College was: ‘The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Dostoevsky Novels’. Her interest in what appears on the surface and what is hidden is reflected in ‘Mirror’. Here, the depths hide something frightening and sinister; something the woman would prefer to avoid but cannot escape.
‘Elm’ also deals with doubleness: the apparent calm of the elm in the opening stanzas, and the hidden terrors that surface as she talks. A similar preoccupation is at the heart of ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. The practical, square box is a simple container: apparently there are no mysteries here. However, it conceals something sinister, but also fascinating.
Nature: Plath’s abiding interest in the world around her, her interest in nature, is reflected in many poems. Her descriptions are remarkable for their concrete, precise detail.
‘Finisterre’ paints a graphic picture of the scene before her eyes, conveying the harshness of the sea, the bleakness of the rocks, the delicacy of the flowers on the cliff, and the effect of the mist.
Her painterly style creates graphic images in ‘Pheasant’: the bird itself, the flowers, the hill and elm in the background, the earlier scene where the snow was marked with the ‘crosshatch’ footprints of various birds. This poem also reflects her stance against the destruction of nature, a concern that features in many of her poems.
Psychic landscapes/Mindscapes: While her descriptions of landscapes and seascapes are very striking, the scene is at times simply the backdrop to the mood of the speaker. In ‘Finisterre’, the place is identified by the title. The landscape is captured in a series of wonderful images. Many of these are personified: cliffs are ‘admonitory’, rocks hide their grudges, the sea wages war, and mists are without hope. The place assumes an atmosphere that is oddly human.
Style: Plath’s style changed considerably during her career – unlike, say, Hopkins. However, there are certain features that mark all her work:
- Her remarkable use of language
- Unusual and striking imagery
Language: Plath’s ‘crackling verbal energy’ is apparent in her poems’ biting precision of word and image. Her writing has been variously praised for its tactile quality, power, incisiveness, control, taut originality, and luminosity. Joyce Carol Oates observed that, ‘the final memorable poems (‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ among others) … read as if they’ve been chiselled with a fine surgical implement out of arctic ice.’ In her Journals, Plath constantly urges herself to develop ‘diamond-edged’, ‘gem-bright’ style. This she certainly achieved. Part of her technique was to reuse certain words in many poems, which thus took on an almost symbolic meaning: smiles, hooks, element, dissatisfaction, vowels, shriek, horse, sea.
‘Pheasant’ is a good example of her skilled control of descriptive language. The form here is less dominant, and the poet’s feelings are reflected in the personal voice that speaks throughout. The words are simple, the descriptions are vivid, and the poem is crystal clear – a good example of Plath’s descriptive powers at their best.
‘Elm’ shows her powerful response to loss, pain and terror. The feeling of despair, for example, is conveyed through a number of highly charged nouns and verbs.
Imagery: Certain images recur in Plath’s poetry, taking on a symbolic meaning that gains added force through repeated use.
- The moon symbolises barrenness, coldness, and the negation of life. in ‘Elm’ it is merciless, cruel, and barren, associated with pain and suffering.
- The mirror often symbolises the hidden alter ego (the ‘other self’), as in ‘Mirror’.
- The horse is a symbol of vitality. In ‘Elm’, love gallops off like a horse.
- The sea is often associated with undefined menace or hidden threat, as is so graphically evident in ‘Finisterre’.
She uses many other images, however, that are not symbolic, images that add to the vividness and immediacy of what she is describing. One of the most distinctive features of her work is her use of metaphors, many of which are visual.
- Mists are ‘souls’, which ‘bruise the rocks out of existence’ (‘Finisterre’).
- The pheasant is ‘brown as a leaf’, a ‘little cornucopia’ (‘Pheasant’).
- The bee box is ‘square as a chair’, a ‘midget’s coffin’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
- Bees are like ‘African hands, / Minute and shrunk for export’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
- The baby’s mouth opens ‘clean as a cat’s’ (‘Morning Song’).
- Her crying is ‘a handful of notes’, which rise ‘like balloons’ (‘Morning Song’).
Plath attached great importance to colours, often identifying them with specific attributes. The repeated use of colour to suggest certain qualities links her poems to one another, giving added force to her meaning.
- Red signifies vitality, life force: the pheasant’s vitality is envisaged largely through its vivid colouring.
- Green too signifies the positive, creativity, life force: the pheasant is red and green.
- Black is associated with death, anger, depression, aggression, and destruction: the black headland that opens ‘Finisterre’ underlines the sinister mood.
- Surprisingly, white too is sinister: the white faces of the dead, the white mists in ‘Finisterre’.
In Summary then…
Sylvia Plath was a lyric poet in the Romantic tradition. She wrote poems that drew on her own experience of life and explored a range of emotions from love and joy to terror and despair. Like the Romantics, she looked inwards rather than outwards; her experience is gauged by what she has lived through.
‘Elm’ is perhaps the most striking example of this. It is one of a number of poems she wrote around the same time, expressing agonising emotions. Some of these emotions were quite ‘acceptable’, provided they were not shown too openly: the grief and loneliness expressed in ‘Elm’, for example. However, less acceptable was the intensity with which she voiced these; it was considered ‘over the top’, too revealing.
The writer and critic Joyce Carol Oates sees in these poems the seeds of Plath’s eventual suicide.
Her poems have that heart-breaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares, her poetry is as deathly as it is impeccable; it enchants us almost as powerfully as it must have enchanted her.
Not everyone agrees with this estimate, however. Janice Markey sees Plath’s writings as life-affirming:
‘The enduring success and greatness of Plath’s work lies in its universal appeal and in an innovative, effective presentation. Plath was the first writer in modern times to write about women with a new aggressive confidence and clarity, and the first to integrate this confidence and clarity in a sane, honest and compassionate vision’.
SYLVIA PLATH – AN AMAZING POET
One of the problems when reading poetry is how much do we need to know about the poet’s life and background. The poet Thom Gunn argues that the making of poems is not like turning out clay pots; poems are rooted in and tell directly or indirectly of a life. People who have never read a Sylvia Plath poem know that she killed herself at thirty one and therefore, her death has come to overshadow and dominate the life. In Plath’s case, probably more so than the other poets on our course, her life is so emotionally complicated and complex that a fuller understanding and appreciation of the poems are possible when they are read against the life. That life was in Sylvia Plath’s own words, ‘magically run by two electric currents’ and these she named ‘joyous positive and despairing negative’; her poetry reflects those charged polar opposites.
The seven poems that we have chosen here were written in the space of two years – the last one, ‘Child’ two weeks before she died. Her poems describe the natural world and the domestic world but, whether she is writing about a pheasant, an elm tree, bees, or her child, she is primarily writing about herself.
Her poetry is always very urgent and intense. That poetry has sometimes been described as hysterical and self-dramatising but such descriptions ignore the clear-sighted understanding she has of a situation. She very often courageously writes of troubled emotions, the darker side of life, her own experiences. Ted Hughes once told Eavan Boland that Sylvia Plath’s face changed in absolutely every single moment of expression. She did experience extremes and, if her work is more pessimistic than optimistic, more shaded than light, she herself defended it as follows:
Don’t talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff! What the person out of Belsen – physical or psychological – wants is nobody saying that the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like. It is much more help for me, for example, to know that people are divorced and go through hell, than to hear about happy marriages (Letter to her mother, 21st October, 1962).
‘Morning Song’, ‘Finisterre’, ‘Mirror’, ‘Pheasant’, ‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, in Seamus Heaney’s words, reveal, ‘the terrible stresses of her own psychological and domestic reality’. If she writes about a dramatic landscape, as she does in ‘Finisterre’, we see that landscape as Plath sees it. She brings to it, just as every viewer would, her own preconceptions and concerns. Anne Stevenson, in her book Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, writes that Plath’s, ‘raw-edged response to personal sorrows and joys, her apprehensions of the world’s horrors and injustices, as well as its beauty, were excessive to an unusual degree.’
Asked once about the importance of poetry, Plath said:
‘I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.’
She wanted her poetry to mirror the life lived, its ordinariness and its extraordinariness, so much so that Plath once famously said that she wanted to get a toothbrush into a poem and that she was interested in writing about, ‘The real world. Real situations, behind which the great gods play the drama of blood, lust and death’.
Her mother, Aurelia Plath, said that Sylvia Plath, ‘made use of everything and often transmitted gold into lead …… These emotions in another person would dissipate with time, but with Sylvia they were written at the moment of intensity to become ineradicable as an epitaph engraved in a tombstone’. But on the page the thoughts and feelings are shaped and crafted. Eavan Boland speaks of Plath’s, ‘great elan, her handling of the line, her very unusual take on language and image – all of those things have become coded into the poetry that we now have. Robert Lowell speaks of Plath’s, ‘perfect control, like the control of a skier who avoids every death-trap until reaching the final drop’ and Michael Schmidt says of her poetry that it ‘is hard to imagine a poetry more forcefully stamped with a personality and voice’.
Therefore, it is clear that the legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work. Her work will endure where poetry endures.
SAMPLE ANSWER: Nature imagery in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath was a very ambitious writer. In 1958, before the publication of her first volume of poetry, she wrote in her journal: ‘I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America ….. I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift.’ Plath dedicated much of her short life to writing and developed several features that became characteristic of her style. One of the most interesting and accomplished features is her depiction of nature in her work.
Plath shows a very keen eye for detail in her fine and striking portrayals of nature. It is easy to picture the ‘Black admonitory cliffs’ in ‘Finisterre’ and she can also recreate the beauty of nature’s creatures as we see in ‘Pheasant’ where she marvels at ‘the wonder of it, in that pallor / Through crosshatch of sparrows and starling’. She manages to capture the beauty and richness and ‘rareness’ of the pheasant in one remarkably apt image: ‘It’s a little cornucopia’. Imagery, of course, adds a new dimension to Plath’s descriptions of nature. She uses imagery in a way that sends echoes of suggestion, of splendour, of menace through a poem and invites interpretations from the reader.
Much of her imagery is of a visual kind, in itself emphasising the importance of ‘seeing’ and ‘reflecting’ in her work. One of her common images from nature, very like Heaney, is water. In ‘Finisterre’, for example, Plath recreates the sights and sounds of land’s end in a dramatic evocation of the sea as it explodes, ‘Whitened by the faces of the drowned’. The sea ‘cannons’ to the dead, suggesting that for Plath, it represents a destructive force that humans can only hope to oppose in their unheard prayers to ‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked’. The scene at the sea cliffs is a grim one. Nature is unforgiving; it is a receptacle of death, ‘Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars’, and it holds potential for more evil where ‘rocks hide their grudges under the water’. Certainly, it is not a benevolent force, not a nostalgic, romantic or sentimental place. Plath’s vivid and perhaps unexpected images have created a disturbing ‘Bay of the Dead’.
However, a further development occurs in Plath’s imagery when she begins to use it, not merely to create a vivid picture of external reality, but as a device to suggest the inner reality of her own mind. In this way, Plath uses imagery as an expression of landscape but also as a reflection of her own inner mindscape. (Hopkins does this also in his Terrible Sonnets). In other words, Plath succeeds in fusing external events with her own inner feelings. In the poem ‘Elm’ the poet creates a dark, disturbing and surreal world where love is ‘a shadow’, sunset an ‘atrocity’, where winds are violent, the moon ‘merciless’, and the tree/woman is ‘terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me’. The poem concludes with death that seems, rather than being final, to be ongoing. The external landscape of the tree may indeed express the inner turmoil and disturbances of Plath’s mind, that has become ‘inhabited by a cry’ that ‘Nightly … flaps out / Looking with its hooks, for something to love’. The poet is ‘terrified by this dark thing’ that ‘petrifies the will’.
Imagery, therefore, captures various states of emotional distress. Often this unexpected power of her images originates in objects that at first appear commonplace, such as the elm tree or, in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, the bees. Nonetheless, the echoes that emanate from such commonplace objects are unexpected and startling. The bees in the bee box, for example, are variously described ‘a Roman mob’, ‘maniacs’, who speak ‘unintelligible syllables’. However, the poet has to ‘live with’ them overnight. Such imagery certainly animates the bees in the poem, but it could also evoke the inner turmoil and chaos within the poet’s mind. Her inner voices are like the bees: she can’t control them, can’t understand them, they remain ‘dark, dark’. She also sees them as ‘Black on black, angrily clambering’ and their shriek ‘appals’ her. In the poem she decides, hesitantly, to ‘set them free’ from her mind, which up to now has remained a ‘coffin’, a locked up box with ‘no exit’. The poet, dressed in her ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ both wishes for and fears their release. But the conclusion is more hopeful than that in ‘Elm’, for tomorrow she will ‘set them free’.
(As an interesting exercise, you might examine the poem ‘Mirror’ with some of these ideas in mind. Stanza two of that poem should reward you with some thoughtful insights! Another worthwhile study would be Plath’s use of colour and what it might symbolise in her poetry.)
It is clear, therefore, that Plath’s striking metaphors and startling similes are usually central to a poem’s development. Her images can evoke vivid descriptions of the external world, the poet’s feelings for that world, and at times she has the ability to fuse these feelings to the emotional insecurities of her inner world.