Sylvia Plath

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,314 words

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About this Person
Born: October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died: February 11, 1963 in London, United Kingdom
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Lucas, Victoria (American poet); Hughes, Sylvia
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

Selected Books

  • The Colossus (London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1960; abridged edition, New York: Knopf, 1962).
  • The Bell Jar, as Victoria Lucas (London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1963; New York, Evanston, San Francisco & London: Harper & Row, 1971).
  • Ariel (London: Faber & Faber, 1965; New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
  • Crossing the Water (London: Faber & Faber, 1971; New York, Evanston, San Francisco & London: Harper & Row, 1971).
  • Crystal Gazer and Other Poems (London: Rainbow Press, 1971).
  • Winter Trees (London: Faber & Faber, 1971; New York, Evanston, San Francisco & London: Harper & Row, 1972).
  • The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Frances McCullough (New York: Dial Press, 1982).

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

In "Three Women," the final poem of Winter Trees (1971), Sylvia Plath speaks through the voice of a woman in a maternity ward, whose words provide a fitting statement for the poet's singular fixation with annihilation:

A power is growing on me an old tenacity.
I am breaking apart like the world.
There is this blackness,
This ram of blackness. I fold my hands on a mountain.
The air is thick. It is thick with this working.
I am used. I am drummed into use.
My eyes are squeezed by this blackness.
I see nothing.
Composed during the last year of Plath's life, "Three Women" foreshadows the poet's self-asphyxiation in February 1963. In all of the poems written during the two-year period immediately preceding her suicide, including those in Ariel (1965) and Crossing the Water (1971), Plath expresses her anguish with her experiences as a writer, a wife, and a mother. She had come to see her life dominated by forces beyond her control, by ungovernable and meaningless pain brought on, in many cases, by her own depression.

In 1940, when Plath was eight years old, her father died after a long, painful illness, and the memory of this loss was to stimulate much of the violent father imagery of The Colossus (1960) and Ariel. By the time she entered Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, on an academic scholarship, she had already had prose and poetry accepted by the Christian Science Monitor and Seventeen, and while in school she continued to publish in Seventeen and served on the editorial board of the Smith Review, a student literary publication.

In the next two years Plath won several poetry prizes as well as Mademoiselle magazine's College Board fiction contest, which allowed her to work as a guest editor for one issue of the magazine. She continued to publish poems in various outlets before suffering acute depression that resulted in her subsequent hospitalization and suicide attempts. She later chronicled this period of her life in The Bell Jar (1963), an autobiographical novel published, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, one month before her death. In many respects The Bell Jar forms the backdrop for recurring motifs in Plath's poetry. "Three Women," for instance, is a thematic outgrowth of a particular situation described in the novel. The protagonist's observations as she is led through a maternity delivery room by a young medical student prefigure her own hospitalization later in the novel, while her description of the effects of sodium pentothal provides a framework for understanding Plath's preoccupation with psychological and physical pain:

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
The Bell Jar chronicles the trauma of Plath's life during her years at Smith College. But in spite of her bouts with depression, Plath excelled academically, and in the spring of 1955 she graduated summa cum laude and attended Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship. The following spring she married poet Ted Hughes and returned to teach at Smith in 1957. During the next two years, until she returned to England in December of 1959, Plath taught at Smith, worked on preliminary drafts of The Bell Jar, and tried with little success to have her first collection of poems, The Colossus , accepted for publication. In 1960, in England Plath's first child was born and her poetry book was published by William Heinemann.

The initial reception of her first book of verse was unsatisfying for Plath. John Wain , writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, called it "clever, vivacious poetry, which will be enjoyed most by intelligent people capable of having fun with poetry and not just being holy about it." Other critics, notably P. S. Hurd and Thomas Blackburn , spoke respectively of the "adroit fashioning of metaphor and simile" and the "fine handling of language and vitality of observation," but no one praised the underlying passion of the poems. Plath wanted more than an affirmative nod toward her technical expertise with words and wit, and the lackluster reviews were hardly strong enough forces to pull her from the ensuing psychological trauma brought on by what she considered to be exhaustive efforts to write while raising a family.

In the two and one-half years preceding her death, Plath completed The Bell Jar as well as most of the poems included in her posthumous books. During this time, she suffered a miscarriage, then an appendectomy, and then became pregnant with her second child. The subject matter of many of her poems is taken from these hospital experiences, and the predominant theme is death. Her obsession with annihilation results from a finely developed sense of self-importance; her poems are an outgrowth of an untiring egocentrism, much as Walt Whitman 's stem from his conscious celebration of living. In an extensive passage published in Charles H. Newman's collection, The Art of Sylvia Plath (1970), Anne Sexton tells of Plath's obsession with talk of dying and suicide:

Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electriclight bulb. Sucking on it! ... as if death made each of us a little more real at the moment .... We talked death and this was life for us, lasting in spite of us, or better, because of us, our intent eyes, our fingers clutching the glass .... I know that such fascination with death sounds strange (one does not argue that it isn't sick--one knows it is--there's no excuse), and that people cannot understand.
The "richness" to which Sexton alludes manifests itself in the poems of The Colossus . Plath recognizes the state of her existence and knows the "Colossus" will never be pieced together entirely:
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It's worse than a barnyard.
The poet's consciousness is totally fragmented in The Colossus, and recognizing the practical implications of such a state--insanity or death--she tries to piece together the figure that haunts her. But Plath seems to know intuitively that no glue is strong enough to hold the human mind forever in place, particularly when the psyche is forced to undergo the pain at the heart of the poet's writing.

The theme of disembodiment is mirrored in The Bell Jar, in which Plath's protagonist is led through a training hospital where medical students are offered prizes for "persuading the most relatives of dead people to have their dead ones cut up whether they [the students] needed it or not, in the interest of science." The cadaver image is sustained through the novel as a reminder of the girl's concern with suicide--"and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver's head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar."

In many respects, Plath echoes French Existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus , as well as twentieth-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in their attacks on the brutal nature of modern life. Each laments man's state in the "scheme of things" that makes individuals into pieced-together robots. The ego is shattered by technology and man is faced with nothingness, the void that informs him that meaning exists only in death. The last stanza of "The Colossus" might be read as an ironic mockery of T. S. Eliot 's closing lines in The Waste Land (1922), where there remains at least the hope of redemption. For Eliot, man can shore up his ruins and begin to fish for some sort of meaning and order. Plath, however, entertains no such optimism:

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.
Plath recognizes in man's condition a potential for destruction and pessimism that is not balanced by an alternative concept of hope. Her hours, "married to shadow," are measured by the bleakness of a meaningless landscape and the expressionless despair of "the blank stones of the landing."

In "All the Dead Dears," perhaps the darkest of the poems in The Colossus, Plath writes of a skeleton in the Cambridge museum. The poem illustrates her near obsession with death:

How they grip us through thin and thick,
Those barnacle dead!
This lady here's no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is; she'll suck
Blood and whistle my marrow clean
To prove it. As I think now of her head,
From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, great grandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck feet winnowing his hair--
The images of the family return to haunt the poet; the "barnacle dead" reach out to pull her inside the "mercury-backed glass." Plath's theme revolves around the death of the poetic imagination, which is pictured as essentially female in nature. A conglomerate of images merges in the poem: the dead reaching out to haul the living into the grave with them, the women physically joined by blood and death, the father figure looming evil above the rest, the young poet mutilated and bled by some unnameable destructive force. Although the images and allusions are far-reaching, they are never dispersed. Each connects with another, and the effect is that of terror and blind power.

Plath's dominating concern for death, her own death in particular, ultimately surfaces as the controlling force of her poetry. Even in poems where death is not the stated theme, the implicit darkness of nonexistence hovers in the background. In "Water-colour of Grantchester Meadows," the setting is rimmed by an undertone of bleakness, and the pastoral landscape is interrupted by latent hysteria:

Droll, vegetarian, the water rat
Saws down a reed and swims from his limber grove,
While the students stroll or sit,
Hands laced, in a moony indolence of love--
Black-gowned, but unaware
How in mild air
The owl shall stoop from his turret, the rat
cry out.
The "moony indolence of love" is disturbed by black gowns, gowns that reek of ritualistic unconcern. The vegetarian rat, about his constant business, is eclipsed by the carnivore. Only the poet hears the rat "cry out."

During the five months preceding her suicide, Plath wrote almost the entire body of poems that were to be collected two years later and published as Ariel . The poems are personal testaments to the loneliness and insecurity that plagued her, and the desolate images suggest her apparent fixation with self-annihilation. The violence of the Colossus poems is continued in Ariel, and the suicidal themes become frighteningly direct, as in "A Birthday Present": "And the knife not carve, but enter / Pure and clean as the cry of a baby, / And the universe slide from my side."

In Ariel, the everyday incidents of living are transformed into the horrifying psychological experiences of the poet. The domesticity of the situations serves as an ironic backdrop to the tragic elements of nearly every poem. "The Bee Meeting," for example, concerns some people who are watching a beekeeper move virgin bees away from the queen. It is a simple job, but one that, when viewed from Plath's unique poetic perspective, acts as a symbol for human isolation and suffering. Initially, the poet is "nude as a chicken neck" without the protective gear necessary to approach the hives. Until she dons her smock, hat, and veil, she is in danger of being stung. However, the physical danger is no more menacing than the isolation that begins to take shape in the poet's imagination. As the poem progresses, she begins to identify with the queen bee, who will undoubtedly die when the other bees are released the following year. Toward the close of the poem, she anticipates her own death in her questioning: "whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold?"

The undercurrent of violence in "The Bee Meeting" surfaces in Plath's most famous poem, "Daddy." The death of Plath's father when she was a child is of considerable importance to her writing, but the "daddy" of the poem is by no means a representation of her own father. Images of mutilation recur throughout the poem, but whereas the persona of "The Colossus" attempts to piece together the inhuman figure that haunts her, in "Daddy" the poet's own image is dichotomized before it is pieced together "with glue":

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
The power of "Daddy" supersedes human hope. When there is an attempt at redemption, the necessary method is savage violence:
If I've killed one man, I've killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
In this pivotal poem the violence is not dissolved but only transferred to the villagers, people whose fear has turned to hatred and inhuman brutality. The Poles and Jews and gypsy women turn on the Nazi "panzer-men," but there clearly is no redemption, only dominance replaced by revenge.

"Tulips," one of the few Ariel poems written more than two years before Plath's death, recalls the time she spent in a hospital recovering from an appendectomy. As in the great majority of her poems, the protagonist is isolated and despairing, but the tone of the poem is reflective. The frenzy of "Daddy" is replaced by thoughtful acquiescence to the pain and fear of living. The speaker, a hospital patient, is intent on surrendering her individuality to the faceless world around her: "I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses / And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to / surgeons." The attending nurses are anonymous creatures likened to birds:

The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
The poet apprehends herself as an inanimate object, content to let others control her: "My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water / Tends to the pebble it must run over." In allowing the nurses to "run over" her, the poet rejects her individual ability to bring about her own convalescence, a decision that foreshadows Plath's decision to kill herself.

A brief, ironic respite from Plath's obsession with death occurs in "Black Rook in Rainy Weather," a moving poem in the tradition of Robert Frost 's skeptical verse and central for understanding her posture in Crossing the Water , a second posthumous volume published in 1971. In particular, the poem is clearly reminiscent of four Frost poems--"Design," "For Once, Then, Something," "Dust of Snow," and "The Most of It." The parallel images and the stance taken by the poet in Plath's poem point to the close proximity of the two poets' skeptical perspectives. Plath questions the feasibility of universal order, as Frost does in "Design." She employs the same questioning stance as the poet figure in "The Most of It." There is concern for the brief epiphany brought on by a commonplace occurrence, which is Frost's concern in "A Dust of Snow." And the poet of "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" becomes aware of the fleeting nature of truth, much like the poet figure of "For Once, Then, Something."

In Plath's "Black Rook in Rainy Weather," the poet figure watches a rook arranging its feathers in the rain, and her observation prompts speculation on the nature of poetic inspiration. She begins with her stated cynicism:

I do not expect miracle
Or an accident
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.
The poet figure is alone, and as her honest musings begin to unfold, her cynicism is replaced by the innocent desire to receive "some backtalk from the mute sky," some primitive "original response" that will help her hallow "an internal / Otherwise inconsequent / By bestowing largesse, honour, / One might say love." Here Plath is not speaking of the indolent love witnessed in "Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows"; instead, she is after a kind of primordial inspiration, a sign that will link her perception to some nameless and sympathetic deity. The rook offers an instant of belief in life, but the final ironic lines undercut the hope that has momentarily lodged in the poet's mind:
I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality ....
....................
... Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
As in "Daddy" and "The Colossus," Plath patches together "a content of sorts," a content much like Frost's attempt to achieve momentary stays against confusion. The kind of miracles that occur to Sylvia Plath are simple, fleeting epiphanies, ridden with nuance and uncertainty. They are little more than "spasmodic/Tricks of radiance," as brief as they are unpredictable.

The theme of annihilation operates again in Winter Trees (1971). In "Brasilio," for instance, where the idea of sacrifice becomes a thematic focal point, Plath reacts to the conglomeration of mechanistic and spiritualistic power:

O you who eat
People like light-rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, unredeemed
By the dove's annihilation,
The glory,
The power, the glory.
The poet's religious imagery suggests the theme of redemption, a redemption accompanied by death at the hands of a sadistic deity. There is no human glory, no salvation except death.

The desire not to be redeemed translates into Plath's obsession with individual purgation, at both the spiritual and intellectual levels. The man is not redeemed by "the dove's annihilation" because the redemptive power is not centered in a loving deity. Instead, each individual is subjected to dominance by pure power, amoral and staggering in its scope and intensity. In the face of such awesome strength, the poet appears incapable or unwilling to establish a stable viewpoint from which to study the situation. Such ambivalence stems from a perception of reality colored by fear, fear of something "other," something beyond comprehension in both its loving and its hating potential, akin perhaps to the malevolent force in E.E. Cummings 's The Enormous Room (1922), the pervasive fear in the works of Kafka, or the faceless angst of the existentialist writers.

Sylvia Plath's desperate need to "talk death" is the underlying power of her poetry. As Anne Sexton points out, death seemed to make her "a little more real at the moment," and this perception of reality translates itself into poem after poem. One discovers in Plath's work an indulgence in ego so pervasive as to warrant the ego's own destruction. She is a twentieth-century Emily Dickinson who has left the silent insanity of a New England home and ventured into a world of existential despair. More primitively vocal than her nineteenth-century counterpart, Plath reacts to violence and fear in bursts of guttural emotion, as in "Daddy":

Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
Characteristically, as in "The Colossus," Plath sees her own mind as a "mouthpiece of the dead." At her most articulate, meditating on the nature of poetic inspiration, she is a controlled voice for cynicism, plainly delineating the boundaries of hope and reality. At her brutal best--and Plath is a brutal poet--she taps a source of power that transforms her poetic voice into a raving avenger of womanhood and innocence.

Plath's legacy is one of pain, fear, and traumatic depression, born of the need to destroy the imagistic materialization of "Daddy." The horrifying tone of her poetry underscores a depth of feeling that can be attributed to few other poets, and her near-suicidal attempt to communicate a frightening existential vision overshadows the shaky technique of her final poems. Plath writes of the human dread of dying. Her primitive honesty and emotionalism are her strength.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Eileen M. Aird, Sylvia Plath (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973).
  • A. Alvarez, The Savage God (New York: Random House, 1972).
  • Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness (New York: Seabury Press, 1976).
  • David Hobrook, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (London: Atholone Press, 1976).
  • Ted Hughes, "Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath's Poems," Triquarterly, 7 (Fall 1966): 81-88.
  • Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
  • Ingrid Melander, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath; A Study of Themes (Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1972).
  • Sheryl L. Meyering, Sylvia Plath: A Refernce Guide, 1973-1988(Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990).
  • Charles H. Newman, ed., The Art of Sylvia Plath (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970).
  • Cameron Northouse and Thomas Walsh, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1974).
  • Nancy Hunter Steiner, A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1973).
  • Stephen Tabor, Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography(Westport, Conn.: Meckler., 1987).
  • Linda W. Wagner, ed., Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath(Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984).
  • Wagner, ed., Sylvia Plath, the Critical Heritage(London & New York: Routledge, 1988).
  • Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

 

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200001843