Mirror by Sylvia Plath (). I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. Whatever I see I swallow immediately. Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. My Dashboard · Intro to Literature: ENGL · Files · Poems by Sylvia Plath .pdf. Spring Home · Syllabus · Modules · Collaborations · Course. This page intentionally left blank The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath Sylvia Plath is widely recognised as one of the leading figures in twentieth- century.
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Contents. User's Guide. 7. Editor's Note. 8. Introduction. 9. Biography of Sylvia Plath. Thematic Analysis of “The Colossus”. Critical Views on “The. By Sylvia Plath. You do not do, you do not do. Any more, black shoe. In which I have lived like a foot. For thirty years, poor and white,. Barely daring to breathe or . PDF - Sylvia Plath: A Biography. It has been just over 50 years since Sylvia Plath committed suicide, and her place in American letters is secure. Today she is.
Her radiance scathes me. I was ten when they buried you. This does not reduce the concurrent importance of marriage break-up or of exhaustion after a period of unusual artistic activity or from recent infectious illness or from the difficulties of being a responsible, practical mother. For example, the due dates of Plath's second and third pregnancies and her weaning schedule for Frieda in , all noted in her letters, clarify that three of Plath's most disastrous episodes of violent or antisocial behavior occurred during the luteal phase of her cycles, which was made even more acute by pregnancy. This is rain now, this big hush. An earlier self-flagellating letter to the self, dated June—July — that is, the summer immediately before her suicide attempt — and included as an appendix to the Journals begins by excoriating the self as an overindulged baby. The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare's lovely, though slightly chilling and androgenous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author's horse.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town. The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna. With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck. A cleft in your chin instead of your foot. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Poetry and Feminism. Read More. Immortal Beloved. By Austin Allen. On the missing persons of love poetry.
Poem Sampler. Sylvia Plath By Benjamin Voigt. Tracing the poetics of a lyrical genius. Their Living Names. Elegies in the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. More Poems by Sylvia Plath. Wreath for a Bridal. Dream with Clam-Diggers. Plath returns to and wres- tles with these expectations again and again in her Journals and in The Bell Jar, where the impossibility of the choices available to women such as her heroine Esther Greenwood are exposed to dreadful effect.
In June she travelled to New York and, with the other guest editors, experienced a month-long internship. By plane and train, from coastal cities and dusty inland towns, we crossed the Rockies, the Mason-Dixon, and the Mississippi.
We whispered in awesome places atop pastel carpets thick as cream cheese, our palms and upper lips sodden: According to her mother, Sylvia blanched visibly at the news LH This, coupled with emotional and physical exhaustion, and the prospect of a long and fruitless summer at home in the Boston suburbs, seems to have been the final catalyst for a psychological breakdown. In August she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills. Alex Beam glosses the situation thus: Trapped at home. She very nearly died.
This was applied in December and by the New Year she had shown sufficient improvement to be able to return to college in time to register for the second semester of that academic year. During her first Christmas break from university, she travelled to Paris and the South of France with Richard Sassoon, who was then studying at the Sorbonne. He had graduated from Cam- bridge two years before meeting Sylvia and was working as a reader for a film company in London, though he returned to Cambridge frequently to meet friends and fellow writers.
The marriage had, at first, to be kept secret from Cambridge and Fulbright authorities as Sylvia feared losing her scholarship if it became known.
When news did leak out, the authorities proved willing to give special dispensation. From to Sylvia continued her Fulbright scholarship while Ted taught in a local school. Later that year, they sailed for the USA and after a brief holiday on Cape Cod, settled down to a year of writing and teaching Plath back at Smith College and Hughes at the University of Massachusetts.
On the one hand, it was an honour to be included among the faculty of such an esteemed institution, on the other, Plath had no female role models who could persuade her of the feasibility in these circumstances of reconciling all her other aspirations. Plath wanted, as her Journals repeatedly make clear, to write, to teach and to be a fulfilled wife and mother. This route, she feared, might be closed to her in the path she had taken. Kopp recalls a letter from Plath which confirms the apparent impossibility of her position.
Although this group met for only a few months, it proved of lasting mutual influence. She complained that Sexton was ahead of her: She was reading widely in psychoanalytical literature at the same time, and her Journals show her working hard to forge a meaningful narrative from difficult childhood experiences and complex adult relationships J ff. The early summer was a productive one for Plath: But there were also disappointments and rejections.
By this time, Plath knew that she was pregnant at last. This was her first collection of poems, one she had been working on intermittently for at least four years J The move to Britain had given her the impetus to start seeking a home for the collection once more. The book was published later that year, in October.
Just a few weeks afterwards, she and Hughes met T. Both poets continued to write — for magazines and journals, for the BBC and for their next collections of poems — juggling space in their cramped London flat, and negotiating time away from domestic and childcare duties as best they could.
In the months after her operation, she worked on the first draft of The Bell Jar though the germ of the plot is recorded in a notebook entry of 28 December J Later that year, desperate for more room and for a break from the financial pressures of living in London and for time to write, she and Hughes bought a large dilapidated thatched house in the Devon village of North Tawton LTH — They moved in at the very end of August Plath gave birth there at the beginning of to her second child, Nicholas.
To her mother, Plath wrote generally positive and chatty letters, enthusing about the house and the neighbours LH In her private sketches, appended to her Journals, and in the Journals themselves, she paints a different picture, despairing at the constant interruptions, the strange manners of the locals and the pressures to conform to village life. At this time, though, she settled into something like a writing routine.
Earlier in the summer, Hughes had begun a relationship with a mutual acquaintance, Assia Wevill. The two couples had literary interests and acquaintances in common, and in May the Wevills travelled to North Tawton to spend a weekend with Plath and Hughes.
The relationship between Hughes and Assia seems to have begun at this time and to have continued throughout the summer. She decided to seek a separation and to spend the winter in Ireland, resting and writing. In September she travelled with Hughes and the children to Ireland and stayed there with the poet Richard Murphy while seeking a home to which she could return for the rest of the winter; Hughes left his family there and, unbeknownst to Plath, travelled to Spain.
From Ireland Plath and the children returned to Devon; Hughes briefly returned to the family home in October, but only to pack his belongings and leave again for London. All book poems.
When I was happy domestically I felt a gag in my throat. Missing London culture, burdened by the demands of the large Devon home and isolated from childcare support, Plath decided to return to the city with her young children. She found a flat — in W. She was still writing prolifically, reading her work for broadcast by the BBC and meeting with editors Alvarez of the Observer, for example, who had become a supporter and friend. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants, and she was making enquiries about finding a therapist.
She and the children spent a weekend with friends, returning to London on the Sunday evening. In the early hours of 11 February , Plath committed suicide by gassing herself. Amer- ican friends presumed that she had died of pneumonia or flu. For some commentators, it represents an indictment of patriarchy, an inevitable — if extreme — consequence of the pressures on wives, mothers and women writers during this period. For others, it seems the necessary and therefore justifiable climax of her writing; the trajec- tory of her career, culminating in the Ariel poems, leaving no other route.
It sets the scene, but it does not supply all the answers. In her early poetry in particular she employs a number of complex forms terza rima, rime royale and so on to considerable effect, thereby demonstrating her debt to an established poetic tradition.
An American by birth, she traces her ancestors back to Germany and Poland and was brought up by parents for whom English was a second language. In terms of literary and linguistic influences, then, she is partway between American and European heritages. She aimed high with her poetry, submitting her work to acclaimed publishers and for prestigious prizes, yet she also had a keen interest in popular culture and a sure sense of the diverse markets for her work.
In —2, settled in England with her husband, two children and writing career, Sylvia Plath can satirize the absurdity of this suburban kitchen-mat marriage offer. At one and the same time, it extolled the virtues of family and home and the security of the domestic sphere, while regarding the private lives and desires of Americans as potentially suspect and thereby worthy of close examination.
Instead, it sits between or moves around several. This mutability may be a virtue. Less positively, the refusal to settle in any one position might be interpreted as a failure to fit in anywhere. Yeats had published major works. A vital set of literary influences was in place.
Chief among these was T. Steven Gould Axelrod provides a list of the authors Plath studied and wrote papers on at high school and Smith College. What I chiefly learned from them was craft. The poet stood for Plath as one of a succession of colossal idols, mentors or father figures — someone to emulate figuratively and to please literally Auden was the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize to which Plath had, in , unsuccessfully submitted an early version of her collection The Colossus.
In her BBC interview, Plath looks back on her worship of Auden as though it were a thing of the past: Instead, they are viewed as potential competitors. Barely six months later, the resentment is more explicit. Plath was writing for publication in a culture which offered fewer oppor- tunities to women writers than to men and implicitly pushed women into competition with each other. An edi- tor of a national magazine wrote me with regret that he could not accept any more poems from me for 6 months or so because he had already published a woman poet the previous month.
An ongoing but one-sided monologue developed in which book reviews of female poets by male poets sidelined the female poets as effective players. In effect, by perennially addressing the work of female poets in a set of approaches that were repeated from poet to poet, male reviewers virtually evoked a composite portrait of the woman poet.
You know? But you get used to it. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to overlook the value to Plath of a female literary tradition. According to Axelrod, Aurelia Plath encouraged her daughter to read Dickinson. Moments of Brocade, both poets devise an aesthetics of excess. The relationship with Moore is, perhaps, more ambiguous. Moore was born in and began writing prose, poetry and a voluminous correspondence at an early age.
She was an enthusiastic reader, critic and promoter of the work of the early modernists H. She is a superbly inventive poet; one who takes poetry seriously, is unafraid to tackle challenging forms, and is determined to refine and revise repeatedly until absolutely sure of the rightness of the final text.
Firstly, she has been regarded as a model by generations of women poets who have seen her sure control of her material as a valuable precedent.
Secondly, she has bridged the gap between the work of the early modernists and that of a later generation of more contemplative poets.
Several years later, though, Plath was both mortified and angered by what she interpreted as a rebuff from Moore, to whom she had sent carbon copies of some of her new work J In Lowell previously a disciple of Allen Tate took a new direction with the publication of his collection Life Studies.
It was in a review of this book that the critic M. Rosenthal first identified and defined this new confessional mode. These peculiar, private and taboo subjects, I feel, have been explored in recent American poetry. I think particularly the poetess Ann Saxton [sic], who writes about her experiences as a mother, as a mother who has had a nervous breakdown, is an extremely emotional and feeling young woman and her poems are wonderfully craftsman-like poems and yet they have a kind of emotional and psychological depth which I think is something perhaps quite new, quite exciting.
PS —8 However, her apparent enthusiasm for the mode was tinged with ambivalence. It has also been indicted as a popular form which dangerously democratises what had hitherto been an elite field of endeavour. She now acknowledges the demands it makes in terms of plot and tone — skills which are not easily come by J She nuances her position further in the interview cited above, where she attempts to distance the political concerns of her own work from the apparent introspection, even narcissism, of confessionalism: Brunner identifies a complex relationship between mid-century confessional poetry and the traditions that preceded it: When confessional verse appeared at the end of the decade it was widely regarded as a break from the academic verse of the s, but if a domestic verse that envisions family members as under siege from the state vies with an academic verse that is intent upon affirming the social unity of the state, then confessional verse may be less a breakaway text than a focusing of concerns that the decade has been struggling to articulate.
Rather, it operates in a particular time and place — in postwar, Cold War, suburban America. These include the legacy of World War II and, with it, a growing public under- standing of the nature and extent of the Nazi Holocaust. This was particularly brought to light in early with the trial the first to be televised of Adolf Eichmann for the enforced transport and murder of six million Jews.
In Britain where Plath lived as a student from to and to which she moved permanently with her husband in late , some of the same concerns arise. The impact of World War II was, perhaps, experienced differently in the UK, which had lived through the threat of imminent invasion and persistent attack: The familiar references to popular cultural forms sit uneasily — jarringly — with the wider political picture, thereby exposing the duplicity of contemporary American ideologies.
As the story proceeds, the impact of the war becomes more and more explicit. Even the idealised image of Superman fades before the shock of this injustice. Those who fall outside the norm in this story, as in the wider world, invite surveillance, punishment or coercion until they, too, conform to the norm. It begins at the outbreak of the war and situates its experience of that conflict in the context of ordinary, civilised domestic life, albeit a life which, as the opening paragraph makes clear, seems subtly to have changed JP The story is explicit about the vilification of German-American families during World War II and it is complex in its treatment of other ethnic groups, including the Irish-Americans represented by the Roman Catholic Kelly family and the Jews.
Partway through the story, the first person narrator begins to realise that she is being ostracised and treated with suspicion JP Japanese-Americans, like the German-Americans before them, were hencefor- ward identified as potential enemies and a mass programme of internment and deportation was carried out along the West Coast.
He was jailed for a year and a day for his refusal to fight, passing through the infamous West Street Jail the setting for one of the key poems in his confessional collection, Life Studies en route to his correctional centre. The war against Germany ended with its surrender in May , but the war against Japan continued.
Fear of the number of casualties American and Japanese likely to be caused by a conventional ground attack has been cited as just one of the factors which persuaded the USA, in August , to use atomic bombs against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered shortly afterwards, heralding the end of the war. As we will see in Chapter 4, the cultural legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki informs many of the poems of Ariel. Postwar cultures As significant as these events are to our sense of the context in which Plath grew up, it is the aftermath of the war which is of major importance to our understanding of her cultural and literary milieu.
The immediate postwar period in the USA is one of profound contradictions. On the one hand, it is a time of peace and relative plenty the nation had benefited economically from its role as supplier to its allies during the war.
It is a time when women, encouraged by the economic and personal opportunities the war had given them, could glimpse a more independent future, free of the round-the-clock pressures of home. And it is a time when returning black soldiers might have expected some kind of social recompense for the duties they had performed abroad.
This retreat to the family and the home clearly has particular implications for women, both as poets and in their everyday experience as American citizens. The communist threat emerges again and again throughout this period.
In communist North Korea waged war on South Korea, which was gen- erally sympathetic to the liberal West. The United Nations became involved, largely under American direction, in order to prevent the fall of South Korea to the communists, and thereby the spread of communist ideas to Western democracies. This fear of infiltration, corruption or invasion by alien forces, underpins American life throughout the period. In this atmosphere of anxiety, the anticom- munist drive known subsequently as McCarthyism could hardly fail to thrive.
A deep-seated suspicion about the activities of the communist party in the country led to the organization being banned in many states. The fear was that communists would infiltrate political, cultural and educational establishments, eventually overthrowing the democratically elected government.
In Sen- ator Joseph McCarthy nailed his colours to the mast. The suspicion and hostility in the Johnny Panic stories dis- cussed earlier convey something of the atmosphere. The perceived threat from within was matched, as the Cold War proceeded, by a perceived threat from outside in the shape of potential nuclear attack from communist enemies. This threat came close to home in with the rise to power of Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Cuba became an ally of the Soviet Union, which, by , had begun to install some of its nuclear weapons there. The Cuban missile crisis of October saw the world apparently on the edge of World War III, though a peaceful compromise was finally negoti- ated. It emerges into a historical and cultural space which simultaneously encourages — even demands — personal revelation while also treating such exposure with suspicion and disdain. The new premium on privacy, coupled with economic and technological growth in the postwar years and a desire to reinstate a vision of the natural American order helped to reshape domesticity in this period.
Similarly, as Brunner shows, male poets including Richard Wilbur and W. Merwin with his wife Dido an acquaintance of Plath and Hughes despair at the lot of the suburban male — bored, trapped, cuckolded. She gracefully concedes the top jobs to men.
Perhaps inevitably, these conditions gave rise to a reborn feminist movement. From the mids, there emerged a new consciousness among some women of the structural and ideological barriers against their full participation in the world.
Other countercultural movements emerged at the same time, from the Beats to the black rights movement to a nascent environmentalism. However, as in the USA, there were undercurrents of disquiet about such issues as rising Cold War tensions, race and immigration, housing, violence between youth subcultures and a steadily growing divergence within society between forces of conservatism and stasis and those of progress and change.
This is the date which Ted Hughes, the editor of the collection, controversially defines as the starting point of her mature writing CP For many, Ariel represents the pinnacle of her career, the collection for which all other volumes are mere preparation.
Thus we can see that a chronological framework, though helpful to the extent that it identifies broad sweeps of design, tone or subject matter, or shifting personal, cultural, historical or national contexts, does not fully accommodate the complexity of the work.
Nevertheless, there is much to interest the reader here. For many readers, there does seem to be a conscious, deliberate, at times rather methodical approach in operation here. So, too, does the emphatic punctuation. The poem has an end-stopped first line, with an apparent caesura in line 2, followed by enjambment, which is brought short by the semi-colon in line 3.
The effect is halting. It is as though we are caught in a mathematical conundrum which invites us to proceed but then prevents our so doing. In this poem, then, a mathematical concept is invoked in order to celebrate a richness of other perspectives. The complex and demanding rhyme scheme in this and a number of the other early poems is worthy of note. Another sonnet is used in similar manner, to expose the constructed and therefore artificial nature of femininity.
The poem contemplates the dismantling of a broken or mechanical woman whose grotesque physical breakdown is surpassed only by the final and resounding malfunction of the mind. In the villanelle the sixth, twelfth and eighteenth iambic pentameter lines repeat the first, while the ninth, fifteenth and nineteenth repeat the third.
The poem is riddled with anxieties about chance occurrences which seem, as though in a sort of counterpoint, to rear up threateningly between the moments of certainty asserted by the refrains. This is a tightly compressed poetic form, apparently only just managing the intense emotion of the content.
In this land of plenty, home of the suburban idyll, there is a hidden and horrible underbelly signified by families struggling under the weight of their suburban debt.
Again, the poetic form helps to reveal the claustrophobia of the situation. The poem bears com- parison with the work of the slightly earlier American poet Phyllis McGinley.
McGinley also focuses on life in the American suburbs and often uses the son- net or the rondeau — a form which, like the villanelle, is circular and repetitious. McGinley is just one of numerous influences in the Juvenilia: Other social and political concerns — about the Cold War, the nuclear threat and state violence — figure here. Again, this anticipates the interest of later poems.
What these poems lack, perhaps, is the confidence to step free of their influences of W. Auden, Stevens or Roethke, for example or to range far beyond the framework of conventional poetic form. The more accomplished poems of the later s show her evolution in both these respects.
The poems in the first part of the main body of the Collected Poems date, as we have seen, from Some of these look back to the themes and voices of the Juvenilia. It is evident, additionally, that Plath learnt from the feedback of editors, consciously changing her form and voice in order to secure a chance of publication. Moreover, she encountered a new range of influences and idioms when she left the USA for her Fulbright year in England in English influences The English influence is important to Plath for many reasons.
It allows her to immerse herself fully in a literature and culture which she has hitherto studied intensely, albeit from a distance, and it brings her into rich daily contact with a subtly different vocabulary and rhythm of speech.
The longer lines and directness of address in some of the poems produced in arguably reflect this. As Tracy Brain explains, Plath was particularly struck by some of the idiosyncrasies of the English language. Her entries in the Journals on and around the day of the St. In this letter Plath is specific about the shift in her poetic style that she feels herself to be undergoing: Yet the vibrancy and exuberance of the wilderness is tempered almost immediately by the bathetic comparisons.
Moreover, the jungle of the opening lines proves to be an illusion; this is a sterile, lifeless zoo with fossilised creatures, empty cages and festering animals hidden under straw. The image may have spoken particularly to Plath, whose later work shows an interest in the various forms of pretence which shape and sustain our world, and our complicity in maintaining these illusions.
The poem opens with a deeply personal perspective on the scene: Violent images hammer throughout: The emphasis on fecundity and male mastery of the natural world with concomitant subordination of the female also brings D. Lawrence to mind. In unpublished letters she writes of him as a mythical hero or divinity from another age: Plath indicates as much in the 17 April letter mentioned above. The natural world and the English tradition are not, then, used unproblematically.
Plath handles this new material critically, exploratively and always self-reflexively.
Plath had unsuccessfully submitted earlier versions of the collection to seven American publishers J Both use a curious mixture of passive understatement and sheer excitement, which is registered by sporadic exclamations: Both deploy mul- tiple parts or sections in order to explore complex or disparate issues and use images of fruit, flowers, seeds or trees as organic metaphors for an unsettled subjectivity.
In such manifestations of plant and animal life, he found the continuity of life and death and understood the organic nature of the universe. It is a vision Plath did not really share.
Out of this have emerged two poems she is satisfied with. This may be an old subject, but its treatment is entirely new. In the previous December, Plath had resumed therapy with Dr Ruth Beuscher and entries in the Journals indicate that this gave her the opportunity to assess the effect of the early loss of her father J — More dangerously, it implicates the self.
By the middle of October , Plath is back on the theme, albeit this time with a vision which is almost exaggeratedly displaced from the specificity of the scene and relationships in the earlier poem. Out of this frustration comes daring. She seizes the opportunity at last to speak back to this colossus, to express her anger and contempt: Her task is ceaseless, thankless and seemingly pointless. At one and the same time, the colour signifies danger, warmth and fertility.
The merciless conditions of the first section are the necessary grounding for the transcendence realised in the final turn towards the stars and the sunrise. This signifies not surrender but a recognition on the part of the speaker that her subject, and the resources she needs to make something of it, are to hand.
What devices and strategies do these texts employ? Secondly, we need to consider what else these poems do that is not rooted in immediate recall of past personal experience. Yet the poem also looks elsewhere. In the second section, Auden and William Carlos Williams are implicitly referenced. What is the relationship, the poem asks, between private suffering and public responsibility? Creativity and self-creation A number of the poems in The Colossus the title poem among them are inter- ested in themes of creativity and self-creation.
Others are implicitly about the process of constructing and defending an identity. This poem is presumed to have been written in the USA when Plath returned there to teach after her two years at Cambridge. These stand literally for the modern capitalist age and metaphorically, perhaps, for the unrelenting pressures of the teaching year Plath was living through. The task here is to find a voice, to make a mark in an insensitive, hermetic world.
In the earlier poem the speaker is excluded and silenced. The speaker starts off with such high hopes; like a colossus, she dominates the domestic environ- ment, dwarfing the houses. Yet free of the local and familiar, she can make no sense of what she sees and hears. The biblical Tower of Babel signifies human arrogance and the impossibility of full communica- tion, an impossibility which the speaker concedes when, in the final stanza, she is forced into a retreat. As Plath commented in a recording of the poem she made for BBC radio: But it also draws attention to the frustrating uncertainty of waiting, in the figurative darkness, for that inspiration to strike.
Vicious though this moment is, compensation comes in the form of an enhanced and fabulous new perspec- tive. Crossing the Water Crossing the Water was first published, posthumously, in , though it con- tains poems which were mostly written between and that is, poems written after The Colossus but before Ariel. As in The Colossus and earlier works, these poems draw on a range of literary models, for example, T. These processes of transformation, translocation, even dislocation, though unsettling, are often welcomed as source of a cool, defamiliarising per- spective.
Images of glass, ice and still water dominate the collection. These motifs help to establish a tension between ceaseless movement or change and moments of frozen, often horrified, inanimation. Many of these poems invoke a sense of great tension, volatility or precarious equilibrium — natural, emotional or physical — which might give way at any moment.
Unnatural interventions into this scene are captured in the short third lines of stanzas one and three. The difference between active agency and passive acquiescence is crucial. Is it better to stay still or to risk change? However, having established this focus — a focus which zooms in from the cosmic to the individual — the poem cannot stop and rest. In stanza four, the vision shifts again, pulling us back vertiginously to show us the cold, hard stars before dropping us again into a freefall which returns us to the intimacy of the moment.
The voice of the poem is mutable and unpredictable. The final stanza of the poem, which one might read in the voice of either woman or both, expresses relief at the loss of the ageing and useless self, and pride in the act of self-creation or autogenesis that sees the adult giving birth to the child. The mirror in the final stanza, as we will see shortly in a number of other poems, does rather more than simply reflect the scene.
According to Stevenson, she was simultaneously working on the draft of The Bell Jar. There are various different ways of developing this insight. Vendler sounds a note of caution about taking the theme of the double or split self as evidence of schizophrenia: The emphasis here is less on split selves than on the fissures in the perfect surface which disclose the ugliness beneath: The poem works as much, if not more, as a contemplation of larger processes of change and accommodation than as evidence of a specific biographical problem.
A final and persuasive way of reading this poem is to consider it as an allegory of the creative process, and specifically of the experience of outgrowing one poetic style and finding another.
As the next chapter will show, debates such as this anticipate the arguments about authenticity which have been a hallmark of Plath criticism. Other poems in Crossing the Water pursue this idea. Constructed in two sym- metrical stanzas of nine lines each, it even takes on the physical properties of a mirror. This self-satisfied hermeticism, though, subtly gives way to something rather more creative and productive. It is as though the reflection exceeds the edges of the frame.
For M. Abrams, writing in the highly influential The Mirror and the Lamp, art can be either mimetic or expressive; its role is either to reflect what lies before it or to express what lies beneath. But what these poems are also beginning to do — and this becomes more evident still in Ariel and later poems — is to use language as a way of creating reality, meaning and subjectivity. Chapter 7 will show that recent Plath scholarship and theoretical work on confession more generally has been interested in the ways in which language constructs subjectivity and truth.
Beyond this, of course, the title looks back to the biblical story of the birth of Christ — as appropriate a setting as any, it would seem, to celebrate the arrival of the infant in the poem. These fright- ening emblems of silence offer a perpetual symbol of frustrated creativity and a dreadful warning of what might come to pass for the girl child.
As the text goes on to show, it is not that the poems are dead, exactly, it is that they lack life. The distinction is important. The falling rhythms and long melancholy lines, particularly of the final stanza, exemplify the loss of hope and corresponding abandonment of form. Early poetry 49 Displacement There is a recurring concern in this collection about dislocation; speakers fre- quently feel themselves to be out of place or out of time.
She is squeezed and thus suffocated between the black- berry walls of the lane metaphors of funnels and alleys emerge repeatedly in these poems and figure the threat of personal diminishment , then threatened with expulsion into a dead sea.
A slightly earlier entry included in the main body of the Journals sketches out some ideas based on the visit to the moors and indicates an early plan to create a narrative using four voices J The Restored Edition presents for the first time the sequence of poems in the order Plath herself seems to have intended. However, the bulk of my argument will be based on my reading of the first published version. This is the Ariel that, for forty years, has been circulated, studied and discussed and the version which Plath criticism has, until now, taken as its focus.
The poems of the first edition of Ariel were mostly written, as Ted Hughes indicates in his introduction to the Collected Poems, between July and Christmas of Subsequently, Hughes was quite clear about his role in choosing and ordering poems for the volume. He explains that he chose most of the poems that Plath seems to have planned to publish in Ariel, adding a few others that she had begun to write after she considered the Ariel manuscript closed and removing those he considered, at the time, too painful and uncomfortable for surviving fam- ily and friends and presumably, as subsequent critics have complained, for himself.
She knew there were always new pos- sibilities, all fluid. For some, as noted previously, the early poems of The Colossus and Crossing the Water are only significant as groundwork for the subsequent achievement of Ariel. In the discussion which follows, I will implicitly evaluate the merits of such a reading, in part by assessing the qualities of the poems themselves, and in part by indicating their debt to or resolution of, the thematic and formal concerns of the earlier work.
How well does Ariel work as poetry, and what does it do differently or better than the previous poems? Together, these suggest reverberating sound which bounces from surface to surface and then carries across borders and into the unknown. This is both a literal conundrum she cannot see the way , a figurative one she is not sure where to turn for help and an aesthetic one — some sort of creative dead end has been reached.
In order to break through this crisis of expression, the poems must devise and exercise ever more ingenious, elliptical or forceful strategies. Diane Middlebrook cites this poem as a key example of the complex and equal rela- tionship between Plath and Hughes.
One effect of this trope is to suggest that the subject is somehow trapped in language, that the words echoing around her form an unbreakable barrier — almost like a bell jar — which offers no way out. We will return to this wider use of doubling or repetition shortly. The myth gives us the seeds of a tension which figures throughout Ariel between silence and voice. The classical myth also helps us to read the movement towards dissolution in Ariel, or the gradual erosion of self until little more than voice remains.
This and other mythological stories of desire, loss, pain and revenge provide a framework for the rest of the collection. This apos- trophe to the son is notable for its sinister and threatening images: With this background in mind, we can better understand the pervasiveness of the images of death, destruction and despair in the poem, and the desperate hope that this child might not only survive but also, somehow, be the salvation of others.
Daphne, who is fleeing her suitor, appeals to her father Peneus to save her from his approaches. He complies by turning her into a tree: During the drafting process, something changed: The lines try to take the law into their own hands. She forced the poem back into order, and even got a stranglehold on it, and seemed to have won, when suddenly it burst all her restraints and she let it go.
And at once the Ariel voice emerged in full, out of the tree. From that day on it never really faltered again. From the outset, the poem is explicit in its acknowl- edgement of, and more importantly its struggle with, trauma and despair.
Similarly, where earlier poems are unable to settle or rest, here the kinetic energy is concentrated in one place. The metaphor of the tree and the assumption of its voice offer her the strength and stillness to take on this task.
Other poems enact various practices of self-sacrifice or martyrdom or engage in some form of libation. This austere elegy opens with macabre and surreal images and offers a chillingly flat exposition of melancholia.
The disconnection, though, is less certain than the stanzaic structure suggests. Disparate parts of the poem are connected by specific threads, while the aural properties of the language form one par- ticular strand which ties together the whole, long lament. The sea, though archetypically the source of life and a symbol of fertility its cyclical tides, like the rhythms of the female body, are associated with the power of the moon , fails to deliver its promise: Overlooking the sea there was a large hospital for mutilated war veterans and accident victims.
The last four, in this order, were as Plath planned to close the volume. Moreover, the larger trajectory of the bee sequence, leading from isolation to community, innocence to experience, stasis and death to new life and hope, potentially casts the whole of Ariel in an entirely different light.
The rhetorical questions which recur throughout signal her unease and confusion. The initiation the frightened woman undergoes is tacitly likened to a wedding scene; she wears a veil and is attended by a vicar and a midwife who are witnesses to her defloration.
In both cases, the statement works as an assertion of power and as a rueful recognition of error. Characteristically, though, this subservience is short-lived. In stanza seven we see the speaker gathering strength in order, like Lady Lazarus, to transcend the boundaries of her imprisonment. The poem presents a resurgent subject, rising, renewed, from the ashes.
Interestingly, it also develops the theme of the double, implic- itly encoded in the use of echoes, mirrors and other duplicating devices men- tioned above. This is embodied by the urgency of voice in both poems, by the vividness of the imagery and by the metaphoric and symbolic intensity which make any supposed gap between biography and its representation seem highly suspect.
Where these appear, they detail the grounds for despair, attenuate and thereby dissipate the energetic anger, and slow the whole poem down. The frequent assonance has a similar effect. Thus she is coerced into performing, while seeming to authorise and enjoy, a spectacular femininity. The concept of an emergent female selfhood. It is a reading which. What the two have in common is an image of transcendence — poetic, psychological, political — in which Plath finally takes off from, burns herself out of, whatever it was false self for Hughes, Hughes himself for feminism that had her in its thrall.
It also encodes broader commentaries on creativity and subjectivity in a social and political context. But her last, greatest poems culminate in an act of identification, of total communion with those tortured and massacred. Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews. The metaphor is inappropriate. The subtle difference, as he puts it, is that where others wrote about the Holocaust explicitly from the outside, she internalises and reproduces motifs, images and memories which were part of the collective consciousness or cultural memory of her time: Rather than casually produce an identification, it asks a question about identification, laying out one set of intolerable psychic conditions under which such an identification with the Jew might take place.
It is a transgressive poem which dares to think, and say, the inconceivable. This powerlessness emerges in the poem as a supreme failure of communication — and thus as the ultimate exemplification of one of the keynotes of the whole collection.
From being treated as a victim, it is a small step to identifying herself as one. In lines which have been troubling for many readers, especially feminist critics, the speaker embraces this identification of self as victim, becoming, in stanza ten, an apparently unashamed masochist.
Ariel and later poetry 63 Throughout the poem, the speaker remains, at bottom, passive. She is the victim, the failure, the one destined for the camps. It is only in the final line that the speaker manages to break free of the figurative prison of the opening stanza.
The poems leave all these possibilities open. Language is put to the test in the former, and stripped to the bone in the latter. The poem teaches the speaker that language is not, the first line notwithstanding, a tool or weapon which she can wield as she wishes.
Van Dyne points out that the speaker is effaced from this poem from the outset. This diminishing movement is exemplified in the form of the poem; eight of the ten two-line stanzas have a long opening line, followed by a falling shorter one. Yet against the odds, something does remain. In the final four stanzas, life unexpectedly and uncannily moves, speaks and acts in the guise of the bleeding roses, the scented night flowers and the staring moon.
Britzolakis adds that the image of the perfect dead woman may indeed be only an image: A number of important poems, as we will see in the next section, were moved into the posthumous collection Winter Trees The Restored Edition.
A tone of secrecy and suspicion characterises these omitted poems. The addressee, then, gives secrets away without actually voicing them. She is able to read the traces, to decode the signs. The reported dialogue, rhetorical questions, exclamations and emphatic repetitions thrust the reader into the middle of a heated debate. As the poem becomes increasingly surreal, chaotic and disjointed, our own certainty about what we are seeing and hearing becomes impaired. The poem is all the more effective for keeping its own secrets.
As readers, we end up desperately wanting to identify what the secret is in the hope that this insight will somehow lend coherence to the whole. The first person voice outlines the background and conditions of her incarceration. Indeed, imagination or fantasy become, themselves, grounds for punishment. His identity, it seems, depends on her imprisonment.
Hughes justified his omission of certain poems from his edition of Ariel on the grounds of their personal aggression CP It is possible to read the poem without recourse to biographical specificities — the relationship it explores is the symbiotic one between brutal guard and vulnerable prisoner.
However, some of the details and nuances of the poem invite a different approach. Bundtzen, for example, identifies the speaker as Plath and, implicitly, the jailer with Hughes. For Ford, this poem is not only about a real event, it is about language in the abstract. The poem begins in passive overhearing and thus with the speaker in the position of object but then transforms this into active representation with the speaker assuming the role of subject.
The final stanza displays frequent end- stopping, harsh alliteration, exclamation marks and ellipses, all of which break up the flow of language and convey the impression of intense emotion.
The truth will out, emerging in the final stanza in the fragments of a name rising, like some dreadful phoenix, from the ashes. Written on 21 October , this was originally a longer, two-part poem. Here it is used as a symbol for something beautiful and lost that can never be recovered.
In other words, it includes poems that Plath wrote after she considered Ariel to be closed WP For others, though, the poems of Winter Trees play an important role in consolidating the concerns of earlier works, or in suggesting new directions — both thematic and stylistic — in which Plath might have proceeded to travel. More properly, the trees on the horizon deliver a sense of perspective and proportion. The speaking voice itself is curiously elided.
There is an implicit observer but no identifiable speaker. In this respect, the poem invites comparison with just a small number of others in the collection which also eschew the first person, or indeed any single or coherent subject position. Bundtzen observes that it was only from the third typed draft onwards that Plath revised the title: What courage it takes, the poem asserts, to stay silent under the threat of such violence.
When she protests Tereus violently cuts out her tongue to stop her proclaiming the truth of her violation. This is then secretly delivered to Procne. She, too, is silenced by the knowledge she acquires. Resistance can take many forms. It supplements, without supplanting, the biographical circumstances, too — the sense of vulnerability, suspicion and betrayal which a young wife and mother might experience on the bitter collapse of her idealised marriage.
Like Nelson, Tim Kendall reads the poem in terms of betrayal, though he sees the real traitor as not the surgeon, but the dead man father? The awful implica- tion — reified in the rabbit-snare mechanism — is that the more one struggles against violence or oppression, the tighter one is trapped in it.
More specifically, it forces I use the word intentionally a recognition of the potential relationships between desire, fantasy, violence and sexual identity.
She situates herself at the centre of the world — as a kind of Omphalos around which everything else circles. The poem invokes a by now familiar metaphor for femininity and fertility — the moon. In stanza two of her speech, the cold, echoing tapping of the typewriter keys simultaneously suggests a metonym for writing and demonstrates just how flat and inadequate is this sublimation of the desire to create. Throughout the poem, Plath is able to distinguish and explore the entirely different experiences and perspectives of the three women.
Alternatively, we might say that the poem illustrates the lack of agency of each of these women who are, in fact, unable to choose any particular route and must merely respond in the best way they can to the particular circumstances in which their gender and sexuality places them. The family home would be the place where a man could display his success through the accumulation of consumer goods.
Women, in turn, would reap rewards for domesticity by surrounding themselves with commodities. Presumably, they would remain content as housewives because appliances would ease their burdens. For both men and women, home ownership would reinforce aspirations for upward mobility and diffuse [sic] the potential for social unrest.
The relentlessly end-stopped lines spit out a catalogue of anger, resentment and despair.
Children, animals, husband and self — all are bitterly indicted. It was first published in England by Heine- mann on 14 January under the pseudonym that Plath had chosen, Victoria Lucas.
Diane Middlebrook explains that the decision to use a pseudonym was partly influenced by the apparently autobiographical nature of some of the material in the book; the false name afforded a degree of disguise and pro- tection. Vance Bourjaily gives The Girl in the Mirror as a provisional title. On its UK emer- gence, it received a smattering of applause, achieved reasonable sales and then disappeared from view.
As Middlebrook explains: Suddenly, Plath was marketable on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been read with a view to the insights it might offer into the working processes of the poet, and as though this were the real, authentic voice of the now-dead author communicating from beyond the grave.
Second time round, it was met with a chastened response from a hitherto neglectful readership. Is The Bell Jar merely a thinly disguised report of real events? The second, which relates to this, is the question of the structure, narrative voice and complex texture of the novel its use of specific metaphors and motifs — mirrors, mouths, babies, food, funnels or tunnels, costume and disguise and so on.
How effective are these in structural and aesthetic terms? Does it offer the autobiography of a single subject or does it portray a broader picture of cultural and ideological life in s white America? For Robert Scholes, it does all these things: It is a fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems. Judith Kroll indicates that Plath was working on the book during January However, she also suggests that the manuscript had been completed some months earlier, citing a letter from Plath to her mother of 20 November in which she explains that even though she had recently received a Eugene F.
The uncertainty about when, exactly, the book was written makes it difficult to assert any clear contiguities between sections of the novel and specific poems written at the same time. This literary model, coupled with the return home after two years of university and marriage in England, may have nudged Plath to revisit scenes from her past life. Rather than suggesting that this April poem influences The Bell Jar which, as we have seen, may well have been completed by this time , Brain usefully shows how the drafts of the novel influenced the poem.
Her scrutiny of the Plath archives identifies several deleted scenes, specifically some relating to the feminisation and thus mockery of Buddy Willard. In addition to identifying these internal connections, it is helpful to look at other possible external influences. This metaphor plays a crucial role in the narrative.
It emerges first in the guise of a story Esther reads when confined to bed after the Ladies Day lunch poisoning episode.
The Ladies Day staff send a consolatory book with a Get Well card which Esther clearly finds ridiculous. Esther opens her copy of the gift book, The Thirty Best Stories of the Year, and reads the story of the fig tree. What she is seduced by are the aesthetic qualities of the tree — its solidity and abundance. The fig tree motif emerges for the second time a little later when Esther pictures herself faced with numerous choices: Spoiled for choice, Esther is unable to make a choice.
Her editor, Jay Cee, later says of Esther at a photo shoot during which the young women are required to dress up to demonstrate where they have come from and what they aspire to be: There are several points to make here. The first is that Esther, because she has to choose just one of these figs or life choices — each of which seems to cancel out the others — finds herself unable to do anything.
Wurtzel reads this scene within the context of s ideals of femininity: The reverse side of such metaphors, as we will see in a moment, emerges in images of evacuation, poison, sickness and bile.
The Ladies Day lunch which is the catalyst for the gift of the book sets in train a complex set of associations.
Her enthusiastic and detailed descriptions of food and eating throughout the novel indicate the importance of food and more broadly of satisfying her own physical desires to her sense of self but also show her to be transgressing ideals of femininity: After the ECT, Esther rewards herself with the longed-for breakfast egg — itself, of course, a sym- bol of new life and hope BJ —3, Throughout The Bell Jar, there is something simultaneously sexual and ritualistic about food and eating BJ This is true both of the world of the New York magazine, and, later, of the hierarchical spaces of the mental institution.
Narrative voice The narrative voice of The Bell Jar is one of its greatest strengths. In the opening scene alone we have a voice which is simultaneously detached from what it sees and detached from itself but also wholly implicated.
The first few paragraphs move from events of national — indeed global — import the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who had been charged with betraying nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union to the effect this has on the vulnerable self. The peanut image is no mere atmospheric detail.
Later in the novel, peanuts are again associated with death when Esther helps herself to some peanuts from a bag she had bought as bird food another sign of her punishable gluttony? The first paragraph sets up a tension between involvement self-willed or enforced by others; the distinction is unclear and dissociation.
This establishes a pattern which recurs throughout the novel where Esther seems, in turn, separated from the world around her, separated from others again and again, she returns to her difference from the other guest editors, other college girls, other family members, other mental patients and, crucially, separated from herself.
The fractured time frame of the novel helps to sustain this duplicity. The immediacy of the opening lines gives way to a much broader and long-term perspective as the protagonist looks back on past events.
It is clear that she has survived the experience she has just introduced. Moreover, she now has a baby. This very obvious sign of conformity to the idealised feminine role common in mid-century America comes to seem startling in the light of the ostentatious disavowal of any interest in babies throughout the rest of the novel.
In like manner, the bravado and apparent honesty of the opening lines of The Bell Jar mask a less reliable narrator than at first appears. This allows Esther to obtain a degree of critical distance on her self and her world, and it constructs a space in which irony can flourish. It is often the case that in the guise of exposing others for example, in chapter 11 where Esther describes her encounter with her first psychiatrist, Dr Gordon she exposes herself BJ The Bell Jar uses successive images of doubling in myriad ways.
The opening scene alone, as we have seen, sets up a distinction between the Esther of then that summer in New York and the Esther of now the mother figure who is looking back on the past. Ethel Rosenberg forms a kind of double to Esther. Both women, one might argue, suffer for their nonconformity to the feminine ideals which dominated Cold War America. Both are portrayed as outsiders or alien others.
It is her interpretation or misinterpretation of femininity which is perceived to be at fault. I must say that it goes against the grain to avoid interfering in the case where a woman is to receive capital punishment. Over against this, however, must be placed one or two facts that have greater significance.
The first of these is that in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character; the man is the weak one. She has obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring. This is seen most clearly in chapter eighteen where Esther sits in a clinic waiting room before her appointment for the fitting of a contraceptive device. He masquerades as a pure, wholesome and sexually inexperienced young man — thus as her equal — while actually having already slept with another woman BJ Each in turn, like the figs on the fig tree, offers an alternative model of adult femininity.
Which will Esther choose to emulate? There are other already rejected doubles, too: And there are male doubles: