Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Survival

A confessional poet, an extremist poet, a post-romantic poet, a pre-feminist poet, a suicidal poet – all these terms have been used (and are still being used) in attempts to define and explain Sylvia Plath’s writing. Some critics have seen her as schizoid, carrier of a death wish that they perceive in everything she ever wrote. Others have seen her as the victim of male brutality, destroyed by a faithless husband, having been undermined by an ambitious mother, over compensating for her own inadequate marriage. There will no doubt be other equally extravagant ‘explanations’ of her writing in the future, since, like the works of Keats, with whom she shares the dubious honour of having died young, her writing does not slot easily into categories and headings.

maxresdefaultWorking on Sylvia Plath’s poetry and prose for many years, reading the secondary source material, talking to people who knew her and, by no means least, writing my own poetry, I find it impossible to accept any of these glib definitions, these reductions and over simplifications of a complex personality and multifaceted writer. Her writing simply does not fit into these easy categories. Some of her poems do indeed appear to be written in the confessional mode but not many of them; some of them might have been written by someone well acquainted with the feminism of the late sixties but some of them decidedly not; some of them show a fascination with death, others equally show delight in life and in living. Nor do the poems show a steady progress towards suicide. Read with hindsight, it can be seen that she went through several stages of anger, despair, grief, quietness and longing for an end to pain but those stages are not part of a steady movement towards dying. In a note in Encounter, Ted Hughes wrote:

It is impossible that anyone could have been more in love with life, or more capable of happiness, than she was.1

Other friends and acquaintances have expressed similar astonishment that she could have taken her own life. Alvarez asserts his belief that she had never intended to die at all:

I am convinced by what I know of the facts that this time she did not intend to die. Her suicide attempt ten years before had been in every sense, deadly serious. She had carefully disguised the theft of the sleeping pills, left a misleading note to cover her tracks, and hidden herself in the darkest, most unused corner of a cellar, rearranging behind her the old firelogs she had disturbed, burying herself away like a skeleton in the nethermost family closet. Then she had swallowed a bottle of fifty sleeping pills. She was found late and by accident, and survived only by a miracle. The flow of life in her was too strong even for the violence she had done it. This, anyway, is her description of the act in The Bell Jar; there is no reason to believe it false. So she had learned the hard way the odds against successful suicide; she had learned that despair must be counterpoised by an almost obsessional attention to detail and disguise.

By these lights she seemed, in her last attempt, to be taking care not to succeed.2 Alvarez’ distinction between the first suicide attempt and the second, successful one seems important to bear in mind. A failed suicide attempt at 21, when under enormous academic pressures, is not, after all, so unusual and certainly does not indicate a lasting desire to die. When she killed herself in 1963, ten years later, Sylvia Plath had been living under other kinds of enormous, untenable pressures and it seems far more likely that those pressures were the immediate cause of the depression that led her to take her own life, rather than any romantic notion of the inevitability of selfinduced death. Those readers who study her work as a series of prefigurations of suicide will find plenty of references to death, many to suicidal death. But it seems to me to be as absurd to read the poems as death wishes as it is to read the poems as evidence of mental illness. That she could have been judged to be mentally ill and unstable is a sign of the failure of many readers – especially male ones – to understand the dilemmas about which she tried to write. The great outpouring of women’s writing over the past twenty years has shown more clearly than anything else could that the problems with which Sylvia Plath wrestled are problems that are by no means unique. What was unique was the way in which she gave voice to those contradictions and fragmented aspects of her personality at a time when other women were still keeping silent.

The most straightforward way to reject the writing-as-prelude-todying reading is to go back to the poems and prose and look again at them. The Bell Jar is a novel about a suicide attempt that fails; but it is also a novel about a woman who learns how to live with herself and how to come to terms with the world, that world of destruction and horror that is described in the first sentences of the book:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggleeyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.3

When she leaves the hospital at the end of the novel, Esther has no answers – ‘all I could see were question marks’ – but she has looked into herself and seen the problem areas that she had been trying so hard to conceal – her relationships with men, her difficulties with her mother, the split between her sexual and intellectual lives, her obsession with marriage and social status. She has also learned enough to realise that she cannot erase the past, that the images of pain will never leave her because they are part of her history:

I remembered everything.

I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig-tree and Marco’s diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon’s wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rook that bulged between sky and sea like a grey skull.

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape.4

Before The Bell Jar, she had written another breakdown story, ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’, completed in December 1958 but not published until ten years later. In his preface to her collected stories, Ted Hughes discusses her fears about putting her life into her writing and suggests that the Johnny Panic story had tapped ‘the molten source of her poetry as none of her poems up to then had’. He sees this story as a turning point and suggests that the writing of stories, despite her intensely hard work and desire to succeed with them, was not her strongest point. The reason he gives is interesting:

If a story is inevitably a fantasy, and if every fantasy leads eventually to the heart of the labyrinth, her problem was that she could not linger among the outer twists and turns and complications, where the world is still solidly itself and comparatively safe, however thrilling. She had an instant special pass to the centre and she had no choice but to use it. She could no more make up an objective ingenious narrative than she could connect up all the letters in her handwriting, where nearly every symbol seems to sit perched over a gulf. This lighting pass through all the walls of the maze was her real genius. Instant confrontation with the most central,unacceptable things.5

If ‘Johnny Panic’ marks a shift in her prose narrative style, it may be, as Hughes suggests, because it tackles the fearsome issues of madness, suicide and an uncaring world. At the end, when the I-speaker becomes a Christ figure (‘the crown of wire’ on her head, ‘the wafer of forgetfulness’ on her tongue) she experiences the horror of electricshock treatment, the closest she can come to sharing the fate of the Rosenbergs. As someone who had undergone such treatment during her breakdown, Sylvia Plath could write about it ‘from the centre’, from having been there. It is a story full of bitterness and anguish but the final note is not one of despair and resignation, it is one of anger and anger, despite the references in the words to dying, fuels survival and desire for revenge:

At the moment when I think I am most lost the face of Johnny Panic appears in a nimbus of arc lights on the ceiling overhead. I am shaken like a leaf in the teeth of glory. His beard is lightning. Lightning is in his eye. His Word changes and illumines the universe.

The air crackles with his blue-tongued lightning-haloed angels. His love is the twenty-story leap, the rope at the throat, the knife at the heart.

He forgets not his own.

Sylvia Plath writes her breakdown story and suicide attempt in prose; in poetry she writes other themes. A set of poems written in February–March 1961 arise out of her period in hospital, with her miscarriage and appendicitis. Again, though, this is not an exclusively Plathian preoccupation but one which recurs in the poetry of many twentieth-century women writers, from the Russians to the Americans. Hospital poetry seems to belong more to women writers than to men, partly because the experience of childbirth is often in a hospital context but partly also because the doctor–patient relationship is a very powerful one in female mythology. At its most disarming, it is the basis of the saccharine love stories of romantic fiction between doctors and nurses or doctors and patients; at its most terrifying it is the area in which male power over women’s bodies can be most clearly demonstrated. The woman in the hands of the male surgeon experiences a double powerlessness, that of the sexual as well as the medical, and it is probably for this reason that hospital or medical poetry should keep recurring in the work of so many women writers.

‘Tulips’, dated 18 March 1962, is a poem built on the experience of being a patient in hospital where time seems to have another meaning and extremes of feeling are dulled by the daily routine. The poem is made up of nine seven-line stanzas, each one a separate unit, without the device of the run-on line between verses that Plath so often uses. The end-stopped verses reinforce the feeling of the packaging of time into distinct units of the hospital day. But within that packaging, the mind of the I-speaker ranges out beyond the limits imposed on her. The first line contrasts the stillness within with the desire for movement: ‘The tulips are excitable, it is winter here’. The I-speaker has given herself up to the doctors, she has handed herself over:

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions. I have given my name and my day-clothes to the nurses And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to the surgeons.

This helplessness is described further in the second verse where the I-speaker has virtually been dismembered by the doctors and nurses – ‘They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff’. In the third verse her body is compared to a pebble and the medical staff are like water running over it. She has lost all feeling and become a stone. What is more she does not need ‘baggage’ – the literal baggage of her overnight case and the emotional baggage of the photo of her husband and child.

The fourth verse moves onto another dimension. The I-speaker talks about herself as ‘a thirty-year-old cargoboat’ who has ‘let things slip’. As the rest of her life has slipped out of view, the metaphor of drowning is used – ‘the water went over my head’. Purified by this absence she is ‘a nun now’. In the fifth verse, dazed with the medically induced peacefulness, she describes freedom as a kind of total stasis:

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

In this world of whiteness and motionlessness, the tulips are an intrusion, symbols of the life of activity outside – ‘the tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me’, ‘the vivid tulips eat my oxygen’, ‘the tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals’. The redness of the tulips gradually forces the I-speaker to leave her death-in-life state. They breathe at her ‘through the gift paper’, they turn their faces to her and in the last two verses, as the pace of the language speeds up and the number of images increases, the tulips become a force for life, bearers of noise in verse 8 and warmth in verse 9, bringing the I-speaker back up out of her drowning state into an awareness of life:

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

‘Fever 103°’ is a very different medical poem. Dated 20 October 1962, it derives from a period of depression and high fever that is documented in the letters home (it was on 21 October that Sylvia Plath wrote angrily to her mother about the person out of Belsen needing to know that others have been there and survived). ‘Fever 103°’ is a poem about a descent into hell and is full of images of hell. The first line asks the crucial question about eligibility to enter: ‘Pure? What does it mean?’ and the reader is drawn in, past three-headed Cerberus ‘who wheezes at the gate’, into the realm of sin, ‘the tinder cries’ and ‘the indelible smell /of a snuffed candle’. The next line after this image, with the keyword ‘snuffed’, opens with the word ‘love’ repeated twice, another example of Sylvia Plath’s ability to set words alongside each other in such a way that their fields of connotation open out in all kinds of directions. The ‘yellow sullen smokes’ that ‘roll / from me’ are presented as signs of the ever-presence of hell and the reader proceeds through a range of images of suffering ever deeper into the depths – Isadora Duncan, strangled with her own scarf in the wheel of a car, after a lifetime of emotional desolation following the deaths of her two children, ‘the aged and the meek’ choked to death, the image of the dying baby contrasted with the ‘ghastly orchid’, the leopard turned white and killed in just an hour by radiation poisoning and, finally, the ultimate horrors of both the speaker’s inner life and the world: unfaithfulness in marriage and the atomic bomb

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.

The tenth verse opens with a direct address to ‘darling’. For three days and nights (the time Dante spent in Hell) she has been unable to eat or drink, in great pain – ‘your body /hurts me as the world hurts God’ and undergoes a series of metaphorical transformations –‘I am a lantern. . . . All by myself I am a huge camellia. . . .’

The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses

The bitter, jokey tone of the poem shifts in the last few lines to an enigmatic conclusion. The acetylene virgin ascends to heaven, out of the fires of hell, but alone without you or him, or any man. This last sentence is without a main verb; it is a deliberate syntactical shift that stresses linguistically the breaking down of the old self, glibly able to handle words with fluency and flair:

Not you, nor him
Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) –
To Paradise.

In a note for her BBC reading of this poem, Sylvia Plath said:

it is about two kinds of fire – the fires of hell, which merely agonize, and the fires of heaven, which purify. During the poem, the first sort of fire suffers itself into the second.

Out of the hell of fever and pain, the woman rises up to paradise. She is a survivor. Between these two poems, Sylvia Plath wrote another kind of hospital poem, Three Women, a piece for BBC radio, broadcast on 19 August 1962. As the use of personae in her poetry shows, she had a strong sense of the dramatic and Three Women is a verse play for three female voices.6 The First Voice is that of a woman who gives birth to a healthy male child:

Who is he, this blue furious boy,
Shiny and strange, as if he had hurtled from a star?
What did my fingers do before they held him?

The Second Voice is that of a woman who suffers a miscarriage and loses the child:

It is usual, they say, for such a thing to happen.
It is usual in my life, and the lives of others.
I am one in five, something like that. I am not hopeless.
I am beautiful as a statistic. Here is my lipstick.

The Third Voice is that of a young student who gives birth to a girl that is given away for adoption immediately:

The books I carry wedge into my side.
I had an old wound once, but it is healing.
I had a dream of an island, red with cries.
It was a dream, and did not mean a thing.

On the surface, the three women represent three different moments  of the childbearing process – the satisfied first-time mother, the sorrowful woman who loses her baby, the immature woman who gives birth and then renounces the child and returns to her previous life. But what makes Three Women rise above the level of cliché is the constant variation of viewpoint throughout the piece. Each woman tells her story, giving her point of view, and there is no definitive ideological narrative voice that locates the women in any moral hierarchy: the First Voice begins to speak with authority and patience ‘I am slow as the world . . . I am calm. I am calm’ but recognises that this is a calm that presages something very different. ‘It is the calm before something awful’. Then comes the moment of the child’s birth and all the calmness and stoicism vanish in the pain of the happening:

I am the centre of an atrocity.
What pains, what sorrows must I be mothering?

In the next verse, she links that pain with the pain of living in the world:

Can such innocence kill and kill? It milks my life.
The trees wither in the street. The rain is corrosive.

Childbirth has a political dimension; producing another human being is to expose that child to the horrors that wait for it in the world, to experience for a few moments the primal pain in which all is terror and chaos:

My eyes are squeezed by this blackness.
I see nothing.

But after the birth, that feeling of terror changes. The child born is one of many, brother to the rest of mankind:

I see them showering like stars on to the world –
On India, Africa, America, these miraculous ones,
These pure, small images. They smell of milk.
Their footsoles are untouched. They are walkers of air.

Faced with this absolute purity that she has to defend, the First Voice meditates on her role as protector: ‘How long can I be wall, keeping the wind off?’ Sooner or later, she fears, the darkness of life and the pain in the world will reach out and engulf him. But her monologue ends on a note of hopefulness; she has painted his nursery, made his small world as beautiful as possible and wishes for him a life of ordinariness:

I do not will him to be exceptional . . .
I will him to be common,
To love me as I love him,
And to marry what he wants and where he will.

The Third Voice has a very different style and language. From her first speech she uses short, assertive statements, repeating the cry: ‘I wasn’t ready’. Later, in her final speech, she repeats another sentence, only this time it is a question: ‘What is it that I miss?’ Between that first cry of unwillingness and unreadiness and that final question, the Third Voice goes through a series of stages that leave her increasingly troubled and ill at ease. The birth is associated with horror – ‘It is a place of shrieks’ and the cries of the child when born are like ‘hooks that catch and grate like cats’. The cries pierce the mother’s side ‘like arrows’ – and when she leaves her in the hospital she has to undo her fingers ‘like bandages’. Leaving the child behind, walking out into the world again with ‘the clothes of a fat woman I do not know’, she is suddenly afraid:

I am so vulnerable suddenly,
I am a wound walking out of hospital.
I am a wound that they are letting go.
I leave my health behind. I leave someone would adhere to me . . .

Once outside again, back at college, the wound starts to heal and she is left with the memory of something that has been lost, something that troubles her despite her insistence that ‘it is so beautiful to have no attachments’. For the Third Voice, the world is outside the hospital; leaving the child, she leaves behind some part of herself in a place that has been unreal to her. This is in direct contrast with the First Voice for whom the hospital becomes the centre of the world and the source of all creation. The Third Voice is doomed to live with another kind of pain, the pain of loss. Both women learn about suffering through the birth of their children; once the actual pain of the birth itself is over, they are left to deal with the pain of living as mothers, one with the daily fears of what will happen to her child in the world as he grows, the other with the pain of having been briefly a mother but having renounced that role in order to grow in other ways. For neither woman does the future look whole and happy and the underlying significance of this emphasis on sorrow and motherhood is that woman’s lot is seen to be a hard one. Men do not feature in their lives as sharers or as easers of their pain.

It is in the speeches of the Second Voice that men are mentioned most frequently. The Second Voice loses her child before birth, hence she does not pass through the gates of childbirth that are marked as an exclusively female rite of passage. Having lost her child, she has lost that special experience – ‘I see myself as a shadow, neither man nor woman’. In her first speech the Second Voice describes the first tell-tale sign of the miscarriage but goes on immediately in the next line to talk about the world she now cannot leave, the world of men. Significantly, it is a world of work, an office:

When I first saw it, the small red seep, I did not believe it. I
watched the men walk about me in the office. They were so flat!

That image of flatness, of two-dimensionality which she sees as typical of men, is an image that recurs throughout her monologue. In the next line of the first speech, she associates that flatness with inadequacy: ‘There was something about them like cardboard and now I had caught it’. The Second Voice tells how she leaves the hospital looking as she did when she came in – ‘the mirror gives back a woman without deformity/ the nurses give back my clothes, and an identity’. She puts on her make-up, ‘the red mouth I put on with my identity’, and goes out. Her husband, she says, will understand and will love her as if she had lost ‘an eye, a leg, a tongue’. But behind this neat appearance there has been a massive change in her reality. ‘How shyly she superimposes her neat self / on the inferno of African oranges, the heel-hung pigs’. She has experienced a kind of suffering that marks her within. At home, with her husband, quietly mending a silk slip she reflects that ‘I think I have been healing’. She holds the pain inside, waiting.

The Second Voice concludes the piece, with the image of herself and her husband sitting quietly together in silence, she with her outward calm and control and inner turmoil, he oblivious, turning the pages of a book. The husband is seen as distant and although she talks about his love and understanding, she also says that he cannot share in what she is feeling. ‘I am a wife’, she says almost at the end of her monologue and the placing of that four-word statement stresses its ambiguity. What does it mean to be a wife, she seems to be asking, if she is denied a child. The next words return to her pain – ‘The city waits and aches’. In the previous verse, the subject of the verbs ache and wait had been I. Now it is the city, the whole world, reality itself that shares her pain with her. Reality, that is, as a woman experiences it not as a man does.

The verse play ends with an image of hope: ‘The little grasses / crack through stone, and they are green with life’. It is an image of beginning, of promise; the city of stone comes alive again and the woman too, in time, will heal and perhaps will succeed in giving birth. The little grasses of the last lines recall the image of the opening speech by the First Voice, when she describes herself as attended by ‘leaves and petals’. The woman denied the fulfilment of childbirth waits and hopes for some future moment of fruition.

Unquestionably this is a work that glorifies motherhood as a uniquely female experience. The woman who renounces her child cannot, nevertheless, renounce the experience she has undergone, which has marked her forever in a very special way, just as the woman who loses the child mourns the loss of participating in that specialness. But the First Voice, the one who gives birth to a wanted child, is not held up to the others as an ideal. Her happiness is tempered by anxiety and the source of that worry is living in the world that creeps in through all kinds of channels. Throughout the poem there are references to the vastness of the world, in comparison to the boundaries within which the women move; Africa reaches out even through the fruit in the shop windows, the shadow of war and the nuclear bomb, of the thalidomide children, touches the new mother and her child. The Second Voice makes the gap between the world of women and the world of men explicit throughout her monologue:

And then there were other faces.
The faces of nations, Governments, parliaments, societies,
The faceless faces of important men.

It is these men I mind:
They are so jealous of anything that is not flat! They are jealous gods
That would have the whole world flat because they are.
Eileen Aird says of Sylvia Plath that her originality

lies in her insistence that what has been traditionally regarded as a woman’s world of domesticity, childbearing, marriage, is also a world which contains the tragic. She draws from this female world themes which are visionary and supernatural; although it is a world which is eventually destroyed by death, her work is far from depressing because of the artistry with which she delineates her vision.7

This assessment is a very fair one. Again and again the bleakness of the content material of one of Sylvia Plath’s poems is offset by the structure and the language which foregrounds the motif of survival. Three Women ends with the word ‘life’ and she arranged the poems for her Ariel collection in a deliberate sequence that began with the word ‘Love’ in ‘Morning Song’ (‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’) and ended with the word ‘spring’ in ‘Wintering’ (‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring’). Far from foregrounding death there is a conscious effort to foreground life, even when the poems speak of the greatest pain, and it is this characteristic of her poetry which marks Sylvia Plath as a survivor poet, a writer with a message of hope.

Shortly after Three Women, Sylvia Plath wrote Crossing the Water, a twelve-line poem divided into four stanzas of three lines each, which is, as the title indicates, a poem about transition. There is no I-speaker, instead there are references to us and the final verse is addressed to a you that may be an individual or may be the collective reader. The image of flatness, developed in Three Women, is strongly present here and the word ‘black’ or ‘blackness’ is repeated several times. The opening lines establish the tone of the poem:

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?

The trees, humanised in this way, seem more alive than the people who are reduced to silhouettes, two-dimensional figures of blackness. In the second verse there is a shift of perspective; from the wideangle image of the lake and the vastness of trees stretching out to ‘cover Canada’ down to the people in the boat looking at the water lilies whose leaves ‘do not wish us to hurry’. But these leaves too are flat and they are also ‘full of dark advice’. The people in the boat, like the flowers, trees, even the fishes in the lake are filled with darkness – ‘the spirit of blackness is in us’.

The ninth line of the poem introduces a whole new set of images: a snag in the water ‘is lifting a valedictory, pale hand’. This is an image from Arthurian romance recalling the passing of Arthur, the moment when the white hand emerged from the dark lake to take back Arthur’s sword, symbol of the now-lost unity of the Round Table. As in ‘Lyonnesse’, there is a deliberate reference to the end of idealism through the image of the end of Arthur’s dream of an ideal society. The last verse of the poem goes beyond the lake, beyond the immediacy of the blackness, into a quasi-dreamlike state:

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Who is the you-figure, blinded by the silence of the lilies? Floating on the water’s surface, the lilies seem to be inviting the people in the boat to join them and sink down beneath the black water. In Arthurian legend, the arm rising from the lake is evidence of the supernatural, of the fairy kingdom that finally takes Arthur back to live forever waiting for the moment to return. In this poem, the dark water remains an enigma; the stars among the lilies may be beckoning to death or to a state beyond death, a mystical point of stasis where no pain exists and all is silence.

Despite stylistic differences, there are close links with ‘Winter Landscape with Rooks’ from 1956. There is the same dark water, the same use of contrast with a flash of white (a swan in the first poem, lilies in the second), the same use of landscape to create a physical image of a state of mind. The close links between the imagery of these two poems is further evidence of the validity of Ted Hughes’ analysis of her work as a unified whole, through which patterns of imagery, themes and symbols recur consistently. In the last year of her life, Sylvia Plath wrote several poems that have been described as mystical though whether this is evidence of a religious conversion, as some critics have suggested, is a debatable point. What seems most likely is that emotional crises through which she was passing caused her to reconsider various strands of her own existence. Earlier, in December 1958, she had noted in her Journal that

Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be. A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world.

‘Years’ and ‘Mary’s Song’, for example, both written in November 1962, are poems with a strong sense of mysticism as is an appropriately titled poem dated 1 February 1963, ‘Mystic’. As with many of the poems from the last year, questions are asked and answers are not given. In ‘Mystic’, the question that is repeated over and over is ‘what is the remedy?’ Once one has seen God, the I-speaker asks, what is the remedy? How can the experience be put out of mind when memory brings it back continuously? The god, however, does not seem to be the Christian God, despite the many overtly Christian references to cathedrals, the communion tablet, even to Christ himself. Rather God is symbolic of something or someone that the I-speaker has encountered and loved and cannot forget. ‘Meaning leaks from molecules’, ‘the air is a mill of hooks’, the speaker of the poem cannot escape from the memories of the vision of perfection that she once believed was possible. Yet even here, despite the sadness, the poem ends on a hopeful note:

The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats,
The children leap in their cots.
The sun blooms, it is a geranium.
The heart has not stopped.

The suffering heart can still experience the daily life of a city, still reach out towards the energy of children and the colour of flowers. Whatever remedy is sought, the poem seems to answer itself. The remedy is living, it is continuing to experience those parts of life that are beautiful, despite the encounter in the past with God.

Besides the mystical poems, the poems in which the struggle for happiness competes with the forces that bring despair and hopelessness, there are also poems that show a strong awareness of the historical moment through which Sylvia Plath was passing. Just as she seems to have thought deeply about the significance of religious experience once the greatest pain was over, so she also seems to use images from the world to describe her own inner feelings. In an interview with Peter Orr she describes her new interest in studying history:

I am very interested in Napoleon. at the present: I’m very interested in battles, in wars, in Gallipoli, the First World War and so on, and I think that as I age I am becoming more and more historical. I certainly wasn’t at all in my early twenties.8

Napoleon, ‘The hump of Elba on your short back’, provides one of the central images for ‘The Swarm’, one of the five bee poems written in October 1962. He fuses with the beekeeper, the ‘man with gray hands’, who comes to the village to catch and hive the swarm which is taken from the freedom of the high trees to its ‘new mausoleum’. Susan Van Dyne has studied the bee poems in manuscript form, looking at the changes in the drafts, and she suggests a reading for ‘The Swarm’ that integrates the motif of the retreat from Moscow and Napoleon’s plundering of Europe, the details of the capture of the bees and the reference in the third line of the poem to jealousy – ‘Jealousy can open the blood’. In Van Dyne’s reading, Sylvia Plath is linking her Napoleon with Ted Hughes, the ‘little man’, as she described him after the break-up, and there is a level of autobiographical statement running through the poem which utilises the historical references metaphorically. History, and everyday experiences became equally material sources for poetic expression. Susan Van Dyne states her view that the entire bee sequence of poems represents ‘Plath’s struggle to bring forth an articulate, intelligible self from the death-box of the hive’.9 Her essay is very useful in shedding light on the way in which Sylvia Plath created her poems, carefully selecting words and phrases, listing her own alternatives. She shows, for example, the way in which the final, assertive line of ‘Wintering’ went through a series of stages of doubt, when the poet seemed unable to move beyond questioning. As it stands, that final verse reads as follows:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?  The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

The questions remain unanswered in that last line but the sureness of these two short sentences gives the reader an impression of hope. That hope was certainly not so clear in the versions listed by Van Dyne:

Snow water? Corpses? (Thin, sweet Spring.)
(A sweet Spring?) Spring?
(Impossible spring?)
(What sort of spring?)
(O God, let them taste of spring.)

The form of the question, the use of adjectives to qualify the noun ‘spring’, the wish form of the last alternative are all syntactically weaker than the final version with its short, tight statements. The bee poems bring together a complex web of narrative threads, from Sylvia Plath’s autobiography and her other writing, but the clearest single line through them all is the exploration of the meaning of power and freedom. In the first of the sequence, ‘The Bee Meeting’, the I-speaker is met by a group of villagers who dress her in a beekeeper’s veil. She appears to be their victim, unable to escape from the task they have imposed on her – ‘I could not run without having to run for ever’ – and as the villagers hunt the old queen bee, so the I-speaker and the queen fuse together and the last verse of the poem might equally be spoken by either woman or bee.

In the second poem, ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, the I-speaker listens to the buzzing of the furious bees within the box and wonders what would happen if she were to let them loose. By the last lines of the poem she has decided. The bees will not attack her since she is ‘no source of honey’ so she will take on herself the power to release them:

Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.

In ‘Stings’, the third poem, the I-speaker states explicitly ‘I am in control’. She and the old queen bee share past imprisonment; the one is old, ‘her wings torn shawls, her long body / robbed of its plush’, and the other has suffered from servitude: ‘for years I have eaten dust / and dried plates with my dense hair’. Both woman and queen bee ‘stand in a column / of winged, unmiraculous women’. But in the last verse of the poem, the queen comes out to claim her own like an avenging angel:

Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her –
The mausoleum, the wax house.

The battle continues in ‘The Swarm’ when the bees are captured and taken prisoner by the man with grey hands. For a time, it seems, the male power of the beekeeper has triumphed. But in the last poem, ‘Wintering’, that triumph is turned around, as female bees and the woman become the survivors of the winter cold and the bringers of new life:

The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women –
The woman still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

‘This is the time of hanging on for the bees’ says the I-speaker in the fifth verse of the poem and equally it is a time of hanging on for the woman with her child and her knitting. Once through the winter they will share in the coming of spring and new life. It is ironic that, despite this promise, Sylvia Plath was not to see the next spring after all.

The battles of which she spoke in her interview rage through many of the poems in the autumn–winter of 1962–63. ‘The disks of the brain revolve, like the muzzles of canon’ she says in ‘The Courage of Shutting-Up’; in ‘Daddy’, the Polish town is ‘scraped flat by the roller / of wars, wars, wars’; the sleeping capsule in ‘The Jailer’ is a ‘red and blue zeppelin’ that drops the speaker ‘from a terrible altitude’. Most potent of all, the image of the concentration camps and the destruction of the Jews runs through many poems, such as ‘Daddy’, ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Getting There’. This image is linked to another central twentieth-century image of total devastation, that of the nuclear holocaust. In ‘Mary’s Song’, dated 19 November 1962, these images combine with other motifs – the fears of the mother for her child, the necessity of sacrifice, regeneration after suffering.

‘Mary’s Song’ is a poem made up of seven three-line stanzas, linked by the imagery which proceeds through a series of thoughtleaps. The opening line presents an image from everyday life: ‘The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat’ but then immediately that sentence acquires symbolic overtones in the next two lines: ‘the fat / sacrifices its opacity . . .’. The lamb that is being cooked is equated to the lamb that was Mary’s child, the Christ child. The image of the fat losing its texture and thickness and becoming translucent is taken up in the second verse, where the golden colour of the fat is a ‘holy gold’. The fire that melts the fat, making it edible (‘precious’) also burns people – heretics and Jews – and the fourth verse stresses the permanence of those historical persecutions as symbols of man’s inhumanity:

Their thick palls float
Over the cicatrix of Poland, burnt-out
They do not die.

The past with all its horrors remains part of the present, the images of death cannot be set aside. In the fifth verse the I-speaker appears for the first time with an image of suffering – ‘gray birds obsess my heart’. The grey birds that bear the message of death from the past move us on to the possibility of future destruction in the next line – ‘Mouth-ash, ash of eye’ – where the word ‘ash’ carries connotations of nuclear death. The ashes of burned bodies, the glowing ovens become the whole universe in the sixth verse and in the seventh that universe turns into a psychic landscape:

It is a heart,
This holocaust I walk in,
O golden child the world will kill and eat.

‘Mary’s Song’ recalls the fears of the First Voice in Three Women, uncertain how long she will be able to protect her child from the world’s evils. Mary’s case should be different, since the death of her child is a symbol of human regeneration, but the emphasis in this
poem is on the power of history and the horrors of the past to reach out and touch the present. Mary must accept the inevitability of suffering.

Anne Cluysenaar discusses Sylvia Plath in terms of someone who is a ‘survivor’ in the clinical sense of the term. She describes her as ‘a typical “survivor” in the psychiatric sense’, arguing that ‘as an element in this complex of emotions, imagining death has a lifeenhancing function’. The fictionalising of death becomes an assertion of power over death. Anne Cluysenaar sees the central message of her writing as being:

The retention of discrimination and the will to speak, the will to
communicate. Her determination not to accept relief from any
ready-made dogma is admirable.10

The poems are a testament to struggle and the Ariel poems particularly show a determination to survive that overrides all the imagery of death and horror. In the event, Ariel was never published in the order that she had wanted it and the collection was ultimately overshadowed by Winter Trees, which contained the last poems she ever wrote, together with Three Women. The disparity between her structure for Ariel and the volume that finally appeared is most obvious in the different emphasis on hope and survival. Her structure would have led the reader towards faith in the continuation of the struggle. As we have received the poems since her death, the emphasis has shifted onto a reading of the poems which perceives them as prefigurations of her end. She has become a writer who wrote her own epitaph during her lifetime.

Margaret Uroff sums up the achievement of Ariel in fitting terms:
Ariel must be read as several chapters of a creative autobiography, written by a woman whose purpose in the last years of her life was to come to terms with the various female roles and identities into which she had been split. It is full of wrong leads, frustrated efforts, obscure and private battles that attest to the difficulties she had to face and to the energy she expended on them. Her final poetic accomplishment was not to transcend these hardships, but to face them directly and to leave a record of that confrontation. In the image of the rising lioness / Virgin / red comet, she identified a female figure violent enough to triumph in a world that Plath imagined would reduce the woman to a jade statue – but a female also with creatively violent powers of her own.11

The poems read as epitaphs belong to the last days in February 1963. On 1 February she wrote ‘Mystic’, ‘Kindness’ and ‘Words’. Three days later, on 4 February, came ‘Contusion’ and on 5 February the two last poems, ‘Balloons’ and ‘Edge’. Two of these, ‘Contusion’ and ‘Edge’, are poems in which any semblance of struggle has been abandoned; they are perhaps the saddest of all her works. The four sparse verses of ‘Contusion’ offer, through the means of a distant third-person narrator, a vision of stasis and silence. The first two lines contrast the dull purple of the bruise with the whiteness of the deathly body:

Colour floods to the spot, dull purple.
The rest of the body is all washed out

The pearly whiteness of the body of the third line carries connotations of death; years before, Plath had described her father as Neptune with his conch shell (‘On the Decline of Oracles’), which in turn was an image derived from T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’). Whose death, whose body are never defined in this poem but the very absence of clarification emphasises the sense of despair. The third-person narrator makes statements in a cold, detached manner that belies the content material. The last three lines are three simple sentences, each containing an image of ending:

The heart shuts,
The sea slides back,
The mirrors are sheeted.

‘Edge’ continues from that image of the covered mirror. Narrated in the third person it describes someone only as ‘the woman’, whose dead body ‘wears the smile of accomplishment’. Robed in a Greek toga, her dead children ‘coiled’ beside her, ‘folded . . . back into herbody as petals / of a rose close’, she is observed from a distance. The last two verses introduce the image of the greatest watcher of all, the moon:

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

The dead woman is a kind of statue, a monument to herself, watched by the old moon in her hag phase. The woman and her children ‘have come so far, it is over’ and the poem seems to suggest that this decision of ending should be accepted for what it is – a statement of finality. The moon, ancient goddess and muse, need not grieve, for this is neither unexpected nor unusual. She has seen it many times before when a woman gives up the struggle to juggle the many facets of her life. And yet the woman who wrote ‘Edge’
also wrote the beautiful ‘Balloons’ on the same day, in which she compares the ‘globes of thin air, red, green’ to ‘wishes or free / peacocks blessing / old ground with a feather’. Two such different poems, one rejoicing in the mobility of life and the other praising the dignity and silence of death.

Reading Sylvia Plath’s Journal, the swings of mood show up very clearly. She records moments of ecstasy, enthusiasm, anger, pain and black depression. An entry for 13 October 1959 details one such depression:

Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness. I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers’ beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life in this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass.

Perhaps, on that morning of 11 February 1963, the glass walls descended round her once again and she was too exhausted to fight back. The last lines of ‘Ariel’ say all that needs to be said:

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.


1. Ted Hughes, note in Encounter, October 1963.
2. A. Alvarez, The Savage God (London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971), pp. 28–29. Notes 167
3. The Bell Jar, p. 1, see Chapter 1, Note 11.
4. Ibid., p. 250, see Chapter 1, Note 11.
5. Preface to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (London, Faber & Faber, 1977), p. 15.
6. Sylvia Plath is included in the section entitled ‘Where Are the Women Playwrights?’ in Women in American Theatre, eds Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins (New York, Crown Publishers, 1981).
7. Eileen Aird, Sylvia Plath (London, Oliver & Boyd, 1973), p. 14.
8. ‘Sylvia Plath’ in The Poet Speaks, ed. Peter Orr (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 167–172.
9. Susan R. Van Dyne, ‘More Terrible Than She Ever Was’, ‘The Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems’ in Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda W. Wagner (Boston, G. K. Hall and co., 1984), pp. 154–170.
10. Anne Cluysenaar, ‘Post-culture: Pre-Culture?’ in British Poetry since 1960: A Critical Survey, eds Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop (Oxford, Carcanet Press, 1972), pp. 219–221.
11. Margaret Dickie Uroff, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Urbana, Chicago, London, University of Illinois Press, 1979), p. 169.

Source: Sylvia Plath An Introduction to the Poetry Second Edition Susan Bassnett  Palgrave New York, 2005.

Sylvia Plath [Death]

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