Sylvia Plath Poems
Antagonism in ‘The Rival’
Antagonistic relationships are as human as harmonious relationships, perhaps even more so. ‘The Rival’, a powerful poem by acclaimed American poet Sylvia Plath, centers around a universal theme of rivalry and conflict, masterfully depicting the complexity of the state of being against someone. Literally, the poem describes the similarities between a so identified ‘rival’ and the moon, while figuratively, it portrays this same rival as something more than human. The form of the poem follows a stanzaic structure consisting of four stanzas whose lines vary in length and ending. Throughout these four stanzas, Sylvia Plath utilizes a collection of paradoxes with the purposes of exploring a theme of antagonism and the conflicting feelings one might experience towards a superior adversary. The contrasting ideas that appear all through ‘The Rival’ serve to highlight the natural animosity that characterizes rivalry and portray the less talked about involuntary admiration for the greater individual.
Structurally, the poem is not significant, while the narrative voice is, as the speaker’s contrasting tone towards the rival, spiteful yet awed, resembles the conflicting emotional response an individual may experience when confronted by a superior adversary. The poem’s structure is stanzaic, consisting of four stanzas, the first three of which are made up of five lines, while the last one only has two lines. The narration, a much more interesting aspect of this particular poem, is admirable in the fluctuating tone of the speaker, who takes on the persona of someone who was wronged by a so called ‘rival’. The contrasting characterization of this rival between lines 1 to 3 of the first stanza, and lines 1 and 2 of the second stanza, perfectly illustrates this variance in tone. In the first stanza, particularly in line 3, where Plath writes, “Of something beautiful, but annihilating.” she attributes negative qualities to the rival, however these are second to its admirable features. In lines 1 and 2 of the second stanza, on the other hand, Plath writes that the moon, like the rival, “abuses her subjects”, thus ascribing a malevolent quality to it, and furthers the unfavorable characterization by stating that, again in comparison to the rival, the moon, when day comes, “is ridiculous”. In this divergent characterization, the rival is first described as an attractive individual, even when its destructiveness is recognized. Later on, in contrast, the rival is depicted as an abusive force, which is “in the daytime”, possibly signifying when clearly seen, absurd and laughable. This is significant, as it creates a tone of admiration towards the rival on the first stanza, and a dissimilar tone of resentment and critique in the second stanza. The effect of this changing, contrasting tone on the theme of antagonism is important, as it reinforces the idea of a contradictory, complex response to a rival, which is further developed in the poem’s literal and figurative meaning.
The poem’s literal meaning suggests that a rival has similar qualities to the moon, while the poem’s figurative meaning, a much more important feature, elevates this same rival to a supernatural being. On a literal level, the poem is focused on the resemblances between the rival and the moon. On a more profound, figurative level, the poem depicts the rival as something more than human, whose almost ethereal characteristics are both admired and rejected. In the fourth line of the first stanza, for instance, Plath compares the rival to the moon with the words “Both of you are great light borrowers”. Through her choice of diction in the use of the word “both”, Plath attributes the same quality of “light borrower” as the moon to the rival. This is significant, as the power to borrow light goes beyond any human capacity, which places the rival on a supernatural plane. Moreover, as it implicitly suggests the power to create darkness, it brings to mind a quality of evil and wickedness. Plath’s diction is also relevant in this line in the use of the word ‘borrow’. Borrowing implies a certain connection between individuals, as well as an assumption by the lending party that the borrowing party will take care of whatever has been shared. Possibly, Plath chooses this word instead of a more traditional ‘taker’ to hint at the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the rival, suggesting that they were close prior to being enemies, which makes their confrontation even worse. Likewise, Plath’s employment of the word “light” is noteworthy, as it could provide insight into what or who has been borrowed. Connotatively, the term light brings to mind a sense of joy and contentment, or something or someone who provides guidance and direction. This could mean that the rival has taken the speaker’s happiness and comfort, likely in the form of a person. Arguably, Plath’s intention in utilizing these two words is to develop the figurative meaning of the poem by subtly representing the relationship the speaker and the rival used to have, and touching on the quality and importance of that which the rival took. The effect of giving the same status to the rival and the moon, suggesting that the rival, like the moon, can be a great light borrower, has a dual impact on the audience’s perception of the rival; the reader is both awed by the rival’s supernatural abilities, and horrified at its mysterious and likely evil power. Similarly, the effect of the diction utilized to describe this capability on the reader’s understanding of the conflict between the speaker and the rival is remarkable, as it hints at a possible cause for its initiation and provides a feasible explanation to one of the reasons why the speaker might have such a contrasting view of the rival.
Another instance in which Plath depicts the rival as a supernatural being through the figurative meaning of the poem is in the first line of the second stanza, where she writes that the rival’s first gift is “making stone out of everything”. Through this clear allusion to Medusa, a monster in Greek mythology who possesses the power to turn those who gaze into her eyes to stone, the author gives the rival a fantastical, eerie quality. This is of considerable importance, as it reinforces the speaker’s perception of the rival as a powerful being with admirable yet detestable attributes. The audience can infer that the speaker admires the rival’s power based on Plath’s use of the word “gift” to introduce this capability, as it suggests that it is something to be desired or craved. At the same time, readers can deduce that the speaker rejects this ability as “making stone out of everything” is indicative of death and destruction. The effect of this allusion on the characterization of the rival is profound, as it aids in Plath’s portrayal of the speaker’s antagonist as an adversary whose superiority is both awe-inspiring and loathsome. This contradictory image of the rival, and the impact this has upon the audience’s understanding of it and the idea of conflict, is further constructed through a number of literary devices, the most relevant of which are paradoxes.
Plath employs paradox throughout the poem to develop a theme of antagonism and explore the complex dual reaction one might experience towards a rival. An example of this can be found in the first stanza, where Plath begins the rival’s characterization through a metaphorical comparison of the rival and the moon. In line three, Plath describes the impression the rival has upon the speaker with the words, “Of something beautiful, but annihilating”. The diction she employs is significant in her choice of adjectives, as their connotative meanings construct a seemingly irreconcilable image. The word ‘beautiful’ connotatively suggests that the rival is fair, kind and virtuous, while the term ‘annihilating’ has contradictory connotations of malevolence and evil. This is remarkable as in making the speaker address both the positive and negative attributes of its rival, Plath emphasizes the intricacy of antagonistic relationships where opponents cannot be completely dismissed as flat, one dimensional, cruel characters with no laudable qualities. This has an effect on the theme of antagonism, as by depicting the speaker’s contrary perception of the rival, Plath explores the idea that antagonistic relationships are made harder to bear by one’s inability to disregard the positive attributes of the opposing party. This, in accordance to the possible interpretation of the ability to ‘borrow light’, where the diction is indicative of a certain level of acquaintance and a loss of something or someone valuable, could arguably be a consequence of the speaker’s previous amiable or even close relationship with the rival.
Sylvia Plath’s “The Rival”, is an admirable poem that discusses one of the most impactful human relationships, rivalry. Through a masterful employment of literary elements, notably the use of paradoxes to present a contradictory image of the rival, the poet explores a theme of antagonism, centering on the complexities of an individual’s response to a superior adversary. The narration, specifically the fluctuating tone of the speaker towards the rival, is also of critical importance in developing this theme, as it portrays how the speaker, who arguably represents all those who have been wronged, perceives its rival, who likewise embodies all adversaries. Similarly, the figurative meaning of the poem highlights this theme by further characterizing the rival as a complex being who the speaker, although aware of its detestable attributes, cannot help but admire. Arguably, this theme is connected to Plath’s life experiences, and could refer to the relationship she had with her husband’s mistress. If so, it is possible that they were close before being rivals, which would explain the speaker’s conflicting feelings. Regardless, “The Rival” is a masterful exploration of antagonism and should be held in high regard because of the honest depiction of how individuals are affected when in conflict with others.
A Marxist Approach to Sylvia Plath’s Poetry: Reading “Morning Song” and “Female Author”
Sylvia Plath is known for being a prominent female poet of the 20th century whose work often focused on feminine aspects of life such as motherhood, as well as the challenges of being an educated, aspiring female author in the patriarchal 1960s in which female domesticity was expected. Thus, the poetry of Sylvia Plath is most commonly associated with feminist critiques that serve as negative commentary on this time period. However, the broad, at times vague, writing style of Plath also leaves room for other schools of critical theory to apply their interpretations. For example, since Plath’s work indeed focuses on her feminine role in the family unit, a Marxist interpretation can be applied. In an early work, “The German Ideology”, Marx describes the patriarchal family unit as a branch of the larger, capitalistic society. As such, the various roles within the family are “divisions among the individuals cooperating in definite kinds of labor” (Marx 654). In an additional, related essay, “Capital”, Marx describes an alleged fetishism of commodities in which the human worker is devalued in exchange for the monetary potential that is the product of his or her work. The poetry of Sylvia Plath indeed illustrates a particular division of labor within a family unit—during a patriarchal period of history—in which what the worker can produce becomes more valuable than the labor of the individual.
A division of labor is seen clearly in “Morning Song”, Plath’s poem that centers on the theme of motherhood. The tone of the poem emphasizes pride in the speaker’s accomplishment of bringing new life into the world, while at the same time illustrating a distance the speaker seems to place between herself and her new baby, as she states that “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand” (l. 9-11). While a feminist critique would see such tones as a commentary on female oppression and a resistance to the expectations to conform to domesticity, a Marxist reading would instead view the speaker as a member of the family participating in “the natural division of labor existing in the family” (Marx 654). The female speaker possesses the natural, biological means of bearing children, and as such bringing forth a new generation of workers that will be necessary in the capitalist society. The infant in the poem, therefore, represents a commodity: a physical property that contains “useful qualities” (Marx 666). The first line of the poem gives credence to this notion, as she describes her baby as a valuable object—a “fat, gold watch” (l. 1). The use-value of the infant is his exchange for work in the future, thus continuing the cycle of production, and as a commodity he is “independent of the amount of labor required to appropriate its useful qualities” (Marx 665). This idea explains the speaker’s aforementioned claim that she is “no more his mother”, as she separates herself from the labor involved in her production, such as lying awake at night to listen for his cries before “stumble[ing] from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In [her] Victorian nightgown” (l. 13-14). Though the evidence is subtle, this poem that on the surface seems to be an illustration of societal gender roles is just as easily interpreted as an illustration of a natural division of roles that does not intend to oppress, but rather provide for the continuation of the capitalist system.
Despite the intentions, however, the capitalist society that encourages fetishism of commodities is as equally dangerous to one’s emotional and mental health as is the oppression of women through the sex and gender system. As represented in “Morning Song”, the laborer is separated from his or her production and as a result, the worker is devalued to nothing more than a machine. Plath further exemplifies this occurrence in “Female Author”, in which the hard work of the speaker, a female author, is separated from her production. The first line states that all day the speaker “plays chess with the bones of the world” (l.1), suggesting a long, laborious work day, and further into the poem Plath creates an image of the painful process of labor, in which “blood reflects across the manuscript” (l. 10). Despite the physical investment in her labor, however, the poem closes with the speaker “retreat[ing] / From gray child faces crying in the streets” (l. 13-14). One can conclude that these gray child faces are the products of her labor, now materialistic commodities, and “we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labor embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labor; all are reduced to…human labor in the abstract” (Marx 667). In other words, the aforementioned bloodshed that Plath describes as part of the labor process is irrelevant in relation to the material value of the finished product, and the laborer therefore is reduced to merely a machine. The dark, morbid tone in this poem is associated with the beginnings of Plath’s mental demise, and this gives further credence to the Marxist interpretation: such dehumanizing treatment of workers from this culture of materialism can realistically lead to a mental breakdown that is rooted in feelings of exhaustion and a lack of appreciation.
Indeed, both the feminist commitment and Marxist criticism find oppression in Plath’s poetry; in contrast, however, the Marxist interpretation does not strictly focus on the oppression of women, but rather comments on the oppression of all workers, in which a materialist culture places greater value on the production than the labor involved. Plath illustrates in “Morning Song” how such fetishism of commodities demands a division of labor that is based on “natural conditions” (Marx 671) and then creates a distance between the laborer and the finished product. Thence, “Female Author” exemplifies the effects of such dehumanizing divisions, in which the worker becomes both physically and mentally exhausted. Ultimately, the primary shared characteristic between the Marxist and feminist critiques of Plath’s poetry is the relationship with a New Historicist outlook, as both interpretations look beyond strictly the text to find this greater commentary on society expressed in the work.
The Power of Language: Comparative Analysis of Plath’s “Words” and Atwood’s “Spelling”
In the two poems, “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood and “Words” by Sylvia Plath, words are described in terms of power: the power to create, to penetrate, to move, and to destroy. Both poets invoke images of words as connected to time and forces of nature, as active outside of the speaker, and, as having a presence which continues to live, grow, and affect its environment. Both poems also employ violent and shocking images of death, destruction, and decay. Whereas Atwood’s poem has a hopeful “rising from the ashes” tone to it, Plath’s poem holds a more bleak and dark feeling in which the wound inflicted by the force of cutting words never fully heals but penetrates and lingers.
Atwood’s poem “Spelling” links three timelines by using women of different ages and times and connects the feminine to the power of words and the violence of being silenced. The first timeline is set in the present moment between a mother and her daughter. The child is still very young and “plays on the floor”. The image of childhood is further represented by the primary colors of “red, blue & hard yellow”. This girl child is “learning how to spell”. By connecting this very young female with the process of learning language and how to create words Atwood is pushing the time line of the poem into the future. Not only is the little girl learning to create words, she is “learning how to make spells”. The image of “spell making” invokes mental pictures of witches, magic, and mysterious powers. There is a transformation at the end of the first stanza. Atwood casts a poetic word spell and turns a verb into a noun with a twist; the infinitive verb “to spell” changes into the present tense “spelling” and again into the noun “a spell”. Subtly shifting the verb tense creates layers of double meanings. This metamorphosis further reinforces the images of change, witchcraft, creativity, and power, and connects them to women, words, and word- crafting. The second and third stanzas build the image of writing as a creative process and tie it to motherhood. The image of color and family in the present is contrasted against the isolation and darkness of women writers from the past. By contrasting the two images, attention is drawn to the importance of community, continuity, and the passing on of knowledge from mother to daughter. This constructed image of family is so unlike the women of the second stanza who “closed themselves in rooms”, “denied themselves daughters”, and “drew the curtains” to write in isolation and secrecy.
Next, Atwood connects the idea of writing with the use of, and implied addiction to, a powerful drug, such as heroin, when she says the purpose of this dark isolation was to “mainline words”. This word play also creates another connection between the female and the narrative, the heroine, and the image of a powerful force, the drug. The third stanza continues with the pairing of motherhood and idea of using words to create. Although Atwood writes “a child is not a poem” this statement itself plants the seed that a poem, like a child, is gestated, grown, and then, with great labor, birthed by the author. By saying that a piece of writing is not a child she in fact draws attention to the ways in which they are similar. After the poem has come into the world it continues to exist and to grow, to be heard, and to be interpreted in different ways, perhaps for millennia. The images of family, birth, creativity, and safety, is again contrasted against the imagery of violence and war in the fourth stanza with the shocking images of women being tortured and killed. She describes a woman in labor with her “thighs tied together by the enemy” not only to kill the mother and child but also to stop the creative process. Here Atwood is continuing her linking of women creating and birthing children with women as creators of powerful language, as well as language itself as a powerful force. The next lines, again going back in history, summon up the “burning witch”, naming her “Ancestress”, and connecting her to the long line of women who came before her, as well as those who came forth from her. The woman’s “mouth covered by leather to strangle her words” uses the silencing of words to demonstrate how powerful those words are. The image of the witch brings the poem full circle back to the present moment of the child “learning to spell” and again connects the female with the powerful imagery of the creator.
Atwood emphatically states at the end of the fourth stanza that “A word after a word after a word is power” again giving the reason that the witch was denied her voice was because to speak, and to spell, is to have power. The fifth stanza continues with the vivid description of the burning body and “the point where language falls away from the hot bones”. Here the body, the flesh of the woman, the burning witch, is the language itself. The woman, the witch, the child, and the power of the body to create and be created is language and is “truth”. Even after the woman has been destroyed, her words silenced, still “the word splits & doubles & speaks the truth”. The word is the beginning, it is the embryo, it is the creative cycle started anew. This is the image of the creative and the created, the spelling and the spell, the linking of the power of words and the power of women. Atwood says “the body itself becomes a mouth”. The body, the created, the physical, now speaks its truth. The last line of this stanza tells us that “this is a metaphor” and here Atwood uses metafiction to draw the reader’s attention back to the process of writing and the creation of words and poetic images. The final stanza asks the reader the question “how do you learn to spell”. This question not only takes the reader back to the beginning of the poem, back to the image of the child ” learning to make a spell”, but also asks the parallel question of how do you learn to be powerful, how do you learn to use your power. She answers her question and says that by writing your “own name first, your first naming”. This idea of naming ties closely with the power to self-identify; to say who you are. Atwood connects all women through history, all women to words, to knowing and claiming our identity, and to the power of creation, right back to the beginning.
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Words” also deals with the power of the spoken word and the way in which it moves in the world. In this poem Plath uses layers of images, words with double meanings, and metaphors to express the force and the impact that words can have on others. The title of the poem “Words” not only raises the reader’s awareness that the writer is writing about words in a conceptual way but it also immediately juxtaposes the title beside the first word of the first stanza, “Axes”. This pairing of “Words” and “Axes” creates an image of words as weapons as well as tools. There is a force that is felt when the word “Axes” is spoken aloud; a distinct sharp cutting sound and an echoing repetition that sonorously captures and reinforce the imagery of echoes, and rings, that ripple throughout the poem. The second line completes what the first line has introduced. She writes “After whose stroke the wood rings” which creates an image of the axe as chopping at the tree but it also eroticizes, and softens, the action by using the word “stroke”. There is also a double meaning created by “wood rings”. On the one hand it can mean the rings of wood inside the tree which mark its age or it can mean the verb to ring and that the tree is reverberating with the force of the axe’s stroke. The third line establishes that the wood is ringing with sound waves that move out and away from the trees creating “echoes”. Plath repeats the word “echoes” immediately at the start of the fourth line not only emphasizing the word itself but also creating an echo by repetition. The idea of “echoes traveling” conjures up impressions of sounds moving through space with force and energy. Plath uses the metaphor “like horses” to describe this energy and tie it in to the mental picture of logging, nature, and power. When all these images are placed one on top of the other in combination with the title “Words” there is a suggested connection between the concepts of destruction, force, energy, sound, rings, and waves, and that all of these things are released from the action of one person swinging the axe, or speaking the words.
The vision of trees being cut down continues but this time from the tree’s perspective, from the internal. “The sap” is what a tree naturally releases to heal wounds and this line reinforces the idea of the “axes” as weapons which are damaging and the tree as the victim. The second line says “Wells like tears”. When taken in the context of the axe and the tree one can read it that the sap is coming upward to fill the cut but it can also be read as “wells” of deep internal waters and that the person who has been wounded by the words is weeping “tears” from the pain. “Wells” meaning rising waters that are being forced up from an internal pressure and “wells” that are dug deep into the ground. The rest of the stanza continues with the water metaphor, “like the water striving to re-establish its mirror over the rock. There is a subtle creation of the ring imagery which ties the poem visually back to the first stanza, the tree’s rings, the sound ringing, and now the water rings which are created from the rock breaking the surface tension. Plath personifies the water by using the word “striving”. The water tries to re-establish its peace, its calm external “mirror” after the rock has penetrated and disturbed its surface. The mirror can be read as the idea of identity and the way in which the world sees us. The rock is connected to the axe, or the word, which is breaking the surface and is now contained inside the pool of water. She writes “Over the rock/ That drops and turns”. This creates a mental picture of the rock which broke the surface now falling through the water. The next line ” A white skull” introduces the image of death and decay indicating not only a great passage of time but also the damage that words can do in terms of a destructive force. The rock “turns” into a skull that is “eaten by weedy greens”. The skull sits at the bottom of the pool of water, covered by the weeds, hidden from sight and yet still it remains. The final stanza re-addresses the power of words. They are now described as “dry and riderless”. This dryness is in contrast to the water images of the previous stanzas and suggests that something has changed. Perhaps in the past the words had seemed driven and personal and now they are de-personalized yet “indefatigable”. At the same time that the words are running free and unfettered, there is “a life” at “the bottom of the pool” who’s fate or “fixed stars” is being controlled. This idea of fate governing a life being contrasted with the image of free horses, perhaps representing free will, gives the poem a feeling of isolation and confinement.
Atwood and Plath both write about the power of words but in very different ways. Atwood speaks of self-identity as she connects women over time and links the creative process of writing with the creative power of the woman’s body. Her focus, although it uses shocking images, is quite intellectual in style whereas Plath writes from a more emotional and personal perspective about the power of words to wound and the way in which the words penetrate and stay in the deep unconscious mind.
Atwood, Margaret. “Spelling” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Volume 2 third edition W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York NY
Plath, Sylvia. “Words” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Volume 2 third edition W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York NY
The Problem of Female Identity: Restrictive Gender Constructs in ‘The Help’ and in Plath’s Poetry
Kathryn Stockett’s novel, ‘The Help’, and Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Morning Song’ can be closely linked together through gender constructs, especially those enforced upon women. With corresponding themes of motherhood, female identity and a patriarchal society, in both the novel and the poem, gender constructs are ultimately seen as restrictive for women, if not destructive. As the fates of specific characters and personas indicate, limitations of this sort can convince women of their inferiority, or even be linked to their downfall.
Motherhood is a theme which is not one-dimensional, as both positive and negative aspects of the role of the mother are shown in both ‘The Help’ and ‘Morning Song’. However, despite the positive associations with motherhood, both the novel and the poem show how the role ultimately restricts women from a career, and freedom outside of the home. In her poem, Plath describes herself as ‘cow-heavy’, which connotes images of a mother preparing to breastfeed for her baby, but also could signify that after she has given birth to her child, she feels a great burden on her as a mother; should she continue writing poetry? Why is her husband, Ted Hughes, not mentioned beyond her giving birth? The personal pronouns of ‘I’ and ‘my’ in the poem beyond the second stanza, signify the pressure on Plath as a mother, with no further mention of Hughes whilst she is caring for her child. The burden of motherhood is also visible in the character of Celia Foote in ‘The Help’, as she is unable to bare a child, and therefore feels as if she is inferior to the other women and a burden herself, exemplified by their exclusion of her as ‘white trash’. ‘Doctor Tate’, Celia’s doctor, is also responsible for her thinking of herself as a burden to Jonny, as she’s inconveniencing him by having a miscarriage, and she’s ‘ashamed’ of calling him up – ‘I can’t do it again’. It’s almost as if Celia’s fears of being a burden through her failure at baring a child are haunting her, and are embodied in Tate, who is described as a ‘snake’ and lets out a ‘sick hiss’, representing the corruption in the Garden of Eden, which could be interpreted as Celia’s own Eden of becoming a mother as being corrupted. The pressures of motherhood on both Plath and Celia can also be shown through Celia being depicted as ‘hysterical’, and Plath having a long history of mental illness, which only got worse after her giving birth to Freida, and eventually lead to her suicide at thirty. Back in the 1960s, little was known about mental illness and women were thought to be ‘hysterical’, which could be quickly fixed by ‘a pill’, which was a trendy and easy solution to their illness. Plath’s postnatal depression and recurring mental illness was most likely interpreted as hysteria, and this lack of understanding surrounding mental illness could well have led to her suicide. Similarly, if Celia wasn’t supported by her husband, unlike Plath, she may have well faced the same fate.
Although drastically shorter than ‘The Help’, ‘Morning Song’ can show many aspects of female identity depicted in the novel, as at first glance being a female is restrictive in society which makes finding an identity hard, but this arguably works to both their advantage, as it makes them strive to find their own independent identity. Skeeter in ‘The Help’, who is compared to an awkward mosquito, is depicted as not particularly feminine, as she is ‘tall and skinny’, and wears ill-fitting clothes: ‘Her blue skirt gaps open at the waist’; this signifies that she doesn’t quite fit into the typical female identity of the other housewives. Consequently, Skeeter can be arguably compared to Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, as to thrive in society both Scout and Skeeter has to behave less effeminate to avoid being pictured as weak – “Scout, I’m tellin’ you for the last time, shut your trap or go home … you’re gettin’ more like a girl every day!”. Similarly to Skeeter, Plath’s child is said to have ‘moth-breath’, which can be depicted as equally awkward as a mosquito, and as moths are creatures of the night, it could be Plath’s recognition that Freida will have to live in the shadows of male colleagues. However, despite this initial disadvantage, both Skeeter and the child are described as individuals, in turn giving them their own unique female identity as strong and independent, and due to their biological disadvantage, this makes them both strive to achieve beyond the constraints of being a female. The child’s initial weakness of being compared to a moth can be equally a strength, as to become a moth, a caterpillar must transform during its time in a cocoon, finding its own individual identity and in turn becoming stronger. This breaking out of the cocoon and becoming independent, can also be seen as breaking through the constraints of being a female in society, shown at the end of the poem as the child’s ‘clear vowels rise like balloons’ – she has found her voice in society, and she’s rising above criticism. Comparatively, Skeeter “discovers her voice and passion through collecting and publishing Black women’s stories of surrogacy and servitude” (Stephanie Crumpton). Skeeter is described as the least ladylike white woman, so she utilises the female identities of the black maid’s stories in order to find her own independent identity, in turn using her weakness to her advantage. Therefore, at a first glance the inferiority of women in 1960s America in regard to men can be seen as entirely restrictive, but at a second glance, this allows a select few women to strive even more to achieve their goals. Skeeter and the child ultimately find their female identity and strength as individuals, as they refuse, or are learning to refuse to follow restrictive gender constructs.
Patriarchy is arguably a woman’s worst enemy, and as depicted in ‘The Help’ and ‘Morning Song’, the female is seen as inferior in regard to men, which is extremely restrictive for women in terms of being taken seriously in a career whilst having a family. Plath’s struggle to remain writing as a poet whilst caring for her first child, Freida, can be compared to Minny in ‘The Help’, as Minny must juggle a family, a career and deal with an abusive husband simultaneously. Minny has a cynical view of men due to her husband, Leroy, failing to share to huge task of caring after their five children; ‘He gone forget these babies cause mens is real good at that’; and due to her fear of his violence: ‘I ain’t never gone get no work again, Leroy gone kill me’. The ‘personal is political’ is applicable in this instance, as both Minny and Plath are condemned to a life inside of the home taking care of their families, and they get abused purely because men are deemed to be the superior sex in society and politics, therefore making Leroy and Hughes’ actions acceptable in 1960s America. The influence of patriarchy on Plath’s ‘Morning Song’, can be seen in Plath’s ‘Victorian Nightgown’, which represents the restraints that are put upon women to cover up and look presentable. The nightgown can also represent the physical pressure that Plath feels as a mother, with the nightgown engulfing and suffocating her, just as the patriarchal world suffocates women with rules of how to behave, look and feel. This aesthetical pressure on women in 1960s American can also been seen in ‘The Help’, as at The Benefit, women ‘look like they’re dressed for church’, and Hilly’s ‘tight-fitted’ dress restrains her, and ‘ruffles clutch at her throat’. This can represent that Hilly is being suffocated, not just with the pressure put on her to look presentable as it’s her night, but also the pressure patriarchy places women to depict themselves as demure and elegant, rather than flamboyant like Celia, who is condemned to be an outsider by the women; ironically they enforce their own oppression. Further analysis of Hilly’s dress show that she’s playing an act of a demure woman, as ‘the only genuine parts … are her fingers and her face’, symbolising that she’s displaying herself as the perfect female role model for all the other housewives to follow. These restrictive gender constructs of conservativity upon women ultimately lead to their destruction, as they enforce these constraints upon themselves, and condemn those who do not follow suit as outsiders.
Gender constructs, as depicted in literature that reflects the mid 20th century, are indeed extremely restrictive upon women, particularly surrounding female representation in a patriarchal society, and in motherhood. Such restrictive constructs can most definitely lead to women’s downfall and destruction in society. However, when women are able to overcome these constructs, and find strength through their own independent female identity, 1960s American women find the strength and will to succeed, and overcome these restrictive, if not destructive constraints.
From Birth to Death in Sylvia Plath’s Daddy
Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” takes the reader through a journey from birth to adulthood in the life of the subject. Incorporating several strategies including imagery, sound and rhyme schemes, Sylvia Plath brings the reader through a journey as the subject deals with her father in various ways throughout the lifetime. Some interpret this poem as an autobiographical poem discussing Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her own father and certainly the personal aspects of the poem are compelling. However, the poem is intrinsically fascinating for the way that it depicts a particular father-daughter relationship as a dysfunctional one.
The first stanza is very child-like and incorporates sounds to depict the woman as a baby. The first two lines “you do not do, you do not do | Any more, black shoe” is a piece of doggerel that is reminiscent of a child cooing (note the repetition of “do” as in “do do do”) and a jump rope line “one two button my shoe” very popular among toddlers and children. The stanza ends with “Achoo” which is the sound of a sneeze, but is also echoed in the end of the third stanza where she incorporates the German “Ach, du.”
The second stanza depicts the relationship that the woman has to her father as a child and it’s the relationship that children have to their parents in the young years where their parents are imposing and foreign bodies. They can pick them up and feed them and clothe them. The declarative lines “Daddy, I have had to kill you” gives way to a description of the father as “marble-heavy, a bag full of God | Ghastly statue with one gray toe | Big as a Frisco sea!” This particular description is epic. Two statue images are in the poem with the second one referring to the statue from the Book of Daniel.
The first stanza is the woman’s perspective as a child with the childish sounds of ‘do do do” and “achoo,” but the second stanza is the establishing relationship with the father who is an imposing figure and would be an imposing figure regardless of his relationship with the narrator. In short, he is God bolstered by images of statues and seas.
The third stanza ends with the “ach, du” which introduces the incorporation of Nazi imagery into the poem. The fourth stanza hits that imagery pretty heavily since it talks about Polish towns and German tongue. The poet is depicting her father as the Aryan master with herself as a Polish victim of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust imagery is not meant merely to shock but to also invoke a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. This becomes even more apparent in the fifth stanza where she talks about how she could never tell where he put his foot/root. The doubling of the “oo” sound reminds the audience of a sigh. The last two lines of the stanza sound like a standard complaint between emerging adults and their parents. “I could never talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw,” are lines that work together in order to simply state the premise of this section of the poem.
The Nazi allusions return in the sixth stanza where the subject speaks of a barb wire snare and expresses her lack of communication with her father in the second and third lines: “ich, ich, ich, ich | I could hardly speak.” The repetition of “ich” has a double meaning. On one level, it’s the author asserting herself by saying “I” four times; however, the sound that the word makes in repetition is the choked up sound of someone struggling to speak but unable to get the words out. It also sounds a little like vomit. So when the stanza ends with the narrator talking about how the German language is obscene and how she thought that every German was her father, she is engaging in a discourse where her father is the tyrant that overwhelms her. He has lost his stature as a lake or statue and has become a bully that uses the German language to get his way.
The next three stanzas give the Nazi imagery in extremis. If her father is a Nazi, then she is a Jew. Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen are invoked in one line. The snows of Tyrol are invoked as well as the clear beer of Vienna. In the ninth stanza, Plath writes “I have always been scared of you,” placing the Holocaust into the realm of the personal relationship. At this point, the poem’s strategy starts to become clear. The personal is political and vice versa. As Sylvia Plath expresses a dissatisfaction with the father figure, the metaphors and imagery become extreme and based in Holocaust imagery with her father as a Nazi and her as a Jew. This is especially important to notes since even with her father as a Nazi she could have stated that she was a young Aryan girl or an American. She is the victim of her father.
The most compelling line for this poem is “Every woman adores a fascist” in the 10th stanza. The next two lines repeat that “oo” sound but surrounded by “B” and “t” sounds. The lines state “The boot in the face, the brute | Brute heart of a brute like you.” The oo sound of “achoo” which is open-ended and childish is now limited to the words “brute” and “boot” with their hard glottal stops. The “B” followed by the “oo” sound seems warm, but then it’s shut down by that end letter.
In the 12th stanza, Sylvia Plath skips 10 years between the death of her father at 10 and her first suicide attempt at 20. In the 13th stanza, she talks about being put back together and how once recovered, she “made a model out of you, | A man in black with a Meinkampf look.” And this circles back on the previous topics as Sylvia Plath plays out the classic Freudian scenario of always trying to end up playing out the original relationships and dating one’s parents in different forms. As the narrator is free of the father, the narrator is with another “fascist” man who imitates her father.
The 14th stanza is a recompilation of the pieces that have been brimming through the poem. “And a love of the rack and the screw. | And I said I do, I do. | So daddy, I’m finally through | The black telephone’s off at the root, | The voices just can’t worm through” Note how she is rhyming “through” with “through” in the doubling of the “oo” sound and the second line of “I do, I do” is both a recap of the opening lines of “do do do” and the frustration of the “ich ich ich ich” passage. She is momentarily regaining her childish origins even as she is self-identifying as a person who is merging with a man that is very much like her father.
In the last two stanzas, the husband of the poem reveals himself to be a vampire instead of a Nazi. He’s fearsome, but he’s not a massive historical force that is destroying everything. Instead of the master fascist, he is the bloodsucker who takes her life force until she stakes him through the heart. Once the symbolic vampire killing is over, she becomes the villagers who are dancing and stamping around the father figure (whether it is the literal father or the very paternal husband).
The last line “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” separates the “D” sound from the “oo” sound at the end. In between there is a B-T combination only with a short sound. The first part of the line is the “ah-ee” combination for vowels while the end of the line is the ‘oo” sound in the word “through”. In the middle is the phrase “you bastard” which combines the “oo” and the double “a-a” sound. The rhythm is staccato but it ends in a calming “oo” meaning that the woman in the poem has gone through a chaotic journey with her father’s memory and she needs to break it “a-a” and then relax in a soft word like “through” to end the poem, which also rhymes with Jew.
Thus, the poem which has Nazi imagery, allows for the author to engage in many stylistic methods in order to convey a soul at work with itself. Generally, the poetry is most in tune with the narrator when it has the “oo” sound (Jew, through, etc.) yet it conveys the fear of a distant father where communication between the narrator and the father might as well be Jew to Nazi. Finally, Plath changes the imagery from Nazi to vampire in order to convey that the husband carries much of the emotional baggage of the father, but he is not the father.
Poetic Destruction in “Conversation Among the Ruins”
Inspired by the 1927 Giorgio De Chirico painting of the same name, Sylvia Plath’s 1956 poem, Conversation Among The Ruins, is an ekphrastic sonnet structured as a story about author’s own failed relationship. The original painting, done in the surrealist style, is of an isolated, deconstructed domestic scene. Although Sylvia’s sonnet contains more turbulent action, the painting’s placement of the man and woman, in direct conflict with each other, speaks to the greater themes of her text, especially the more subordinate position of the woman. Through the use of symbolic imagery and alterations to the traditional sonnet structure, Plath chronicles the relationship’s deterioration and explores the dynamics between the destructive, dominant man and the wounded woman.
At first glance, the sonnet follows the traditional Italian 14-line arrangement with an octave and a sestet. However, this poem, both in structure and subject matter, is nothing like the commonly known Shakespearean love sonnets. It rejects ABAB and ABBA rhyme structure and avoids iambic pentameter altogether. Conversation Among The Ruins reads more like a descriptive monologue than a loving ode. Plath, with the use of “I”, is present within the poem, acting as both witness and victim to male destruction. From her destroyed femininity in the octave to the new separation of the doomed couple in the sestet, Sylvia subverts the classic love sonnet through her symbolic narration of failed romance.
From the beginning of the octave, the reader is placed inside the couple’s chaotic unraveling. Plath describes the man as “stalking with his wild furies,” citing the vengeful monsters of Greek tragedy. The man encroaches on her space, marked by feminine decorations such as “garlands of fruit” and “lutes and peacocks.” Sylvia’s language paints him as a purely destructive force. He brings with him a “whirlwind” and “ruins,” and, through the construction of each line, Plath describes their harmony falling quickly into chaos. As the man’s damaging masculinity continues to ravage their relationship towards the end of the octave, Sylvia decides to portray their love as “magic,” yet it disappears like “a daunted witch, quitting castle when real days break.” This intentional use of the witch imagery is another one of Plath’s acts of feminization against the cruel man. To her, their love has become like a persecuted witch, fleeing the comfort of a castle to avoid being spotted in the morning light. Although the witch is traditionally a powerful and feared character in literature, she almost always ends up a victim, destroyed at the hands of men who fear her power. This love that Sylvia has for the man is equally as vulnerable, and ultimately he, with his “stormy eye” is the one that drives it away, although Sylvia never reveals exactly what he has done. None of this is included in the original painting, but the skeletal house and the wasted ruin of landscape evoke similar emotions. Plath, throughout the octave, does not place very much attention on herself. Instead, she focuses on the man’s power, his ability to ruin her beautiful world. Although Sylvia is affected by his cruel actions, she refuses to place herself within the stereotypical trope of the female victim. She is an active observer within this poem, dwelling less on her own emotions and more on how a single man had the power to dismantle a loving relationship without any trouble befalling him.
Plath’s exploration of power is continued into the sestet. At this point in the poem, a volta has occurred between the two parts. The first half of the sonnet is Sylvia’s documentation of the relationship’s end, with each line narrating the man’s actions as he destroys the love they once shared. Now, the couple is in the aftermath of the destruction, quite literally amongst the rubble of “fractured pillars.” The tone of the poem shifts from turbulent action to an uncomfortable calm no different than the end of a storm. Like a confrontation on the battlefield, Plath directly addresses the man, the causer of her pain. Through her words, they become positioned like the two figures of the painting: Sylvia sits while he stands and faces her. This placement of bodies, the man looking down to the woman, emphasizes their dynamic of power. He is the one that who can destroy and be heartless while she is forced to remain at the table, to endure and witness without any ability to stop the pain he is afflicting. Sylvia uses more symbolic language to describe the aftermath. The man is unscathed, dressed like a gentleman in his “heroic” coat and tie. Plath, on the other hand, appears almost lost in time. Like a forgotten muse, she describes herself wearing “Grecian tunic and psyche-knot.” The psyche-knot, in this sonnet, has another meaning beyond the Greek hairstyle. Psyche, in Greco-Roman mythology, is the wife of Eros and traditionally known as the goddess of the mortal soul, who suffered through many trials so she could remain married to the god (Bolen 1). By depicting herself as a mortal woman in the face of someone more powerful than she, Plath emphasizes her own emotional vulnerability. She is powerless in the face of man she loves even as he hurts her. She describes their romantic times as a “play turned tragic,” keeping with the classical symbolism. Their relationship’s fate is ultimately sealed. Interestingly enough, Plath chooses to end her monologue with a question: “Which blight wrought on our bankrupt estate, what ceremony of words can patch the havoc?” By choosing to end the sonnet in this way, she suggests that perhaps their relationship can be salvaged, but her use of words such as “ceremony,” “patch,” and “bankrupt estate” refutes that assumption. The man has devastated their love beyond repair, not even the artifice of a good relationship can be recreated.
Sylvia Plath’s Conversation Among The Ruins goes against the traditional English love sonnet. Within the poem’s 14 lines, she challenges conventional poetic structure by revoking iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme. She also chooses an unusual sonnet subject: the end of a relationship rather than the traditional romantic ode. She evokes the history of female oppression by making this man into a Greek god and a witch-slayer alike. Through her descriptive language, Sylvia Plath equates destruction with masculinity, and deconstructs idealized romance with each symbolic line. Plath turns the woman from Giorgio De Chirico’s painting, painted with her back against the viewer, from a helpless victim to a woman who is not afraid to share the story of her own romantic destruction.
Bolen, Jean. “Transitions as Liminal and Archetypal Situations.” Mythic Imaginations. 2004. http://www.mythicjourneys.org/newsletter_jul05_transitions_bolen.html
Hughes, Plath, and the Poetry of “Bleak and Disturbing” Relationships
Within the poetry of Hughes and Plath, the theme of human relationships is written of in varying and diverse manners. Plath’s work details relationships, such as the parent-child relationship, using powerful and intricate imagery, while Hughes conveys the theme using comparatively simpler, but more metaphorical language. Both poets seem to supply a complex view of relations, and although many may consider their portrayal as ‘bleak and disturbing’, there are certainly readings which could oppose this view.
Firstly, ‘Morning Song’, a poem illustrating the surreal period of time for the parents after the birth of a new baby, certainly portrays the relationship of parent and child in an ambivalent manner. The poem was written shortly after the birth of Plath’s first child Frieda, so could be read biographically- however, in many of Plath’s poems, personas are used to convey her views on different aspects of life- so, although a confessionary poem, the emotions are likely to be exaggerated. At a first reading, the relationship may seem disconnected and distant – but as with all Plath’s poetry, the symbolic and cryptically metaphorical language conveys deeper implications of the relationship.
The title of the poem, ‘Morning Song’, arguably does not seem to indicate any startling negativity concerning the relationship; on the contrary, both words seem to immediately evoke joyful, or even celebratory connotations. The time period of ‘morning’ could perhaps be metaphorically alluding to the idea of beginnings- the start of a whole life for the child, and the commencement of a different life for the new parents. Many readers would automatically link the idea of a new beginning, to the idea of hope, and the great possibility of happiness. Furthering this interpretation, the word ‘song’ evidently holds the idea of celebration and jubilance, and could be viewed as representative of a welcoming for the child. Alternatively, it could be interpreted that the title alludes to the cry of the new baby- if so, it does not seem to be representing it particularly negatively. The comparison of a cry to a song certainly seems to suggest an awe, or admiration from the point of the parent rather than anxiety or discomfort. However, perhaps a more bleak interpretation of the title could be formed if ‘morning’ is read as simultaneously suggesting the homophonic word ‘mourning’. In which case, it could be seen as implying a metaphorical death of the parents- their old lives fading away, as the birth of the child completely changes them. Although this idea could be seen as negatively representing the relationship, it is only a single, arguably tenuous interpretation- primarily, the title provides the reader with a light, hopeful first view of the poem- far from being disturbing.
However, within the poem itself many instances seem to present a more negative, and bleak representation of the relationship. Most pointedly, the speaker states: ‘I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement’. Certainly this seems to indicate the mother’s reluctance to accept her new responsibility, her attempt at distancing herself from the child, almost a rejection. By using such an abstract metaphor to describe their relationship, the sense of alienation is further enforced. The speaker’s comparison of herself to a ‘cloud’ which ‘distills a mirror’ could be read as the process of the mother caring for her child, which Plath sees to be a ‘mirror’ of the mother. The child grows older as the ‘mirror’ is further ‘distilled’ by the parents’ care and nurture. However, the as the mother sees her child, a mirror-image of herself when she was younger, it only ‘reflects’ and highlights, her ‘slow effacement’. In other words, as the child grows older, it only emphasises to the mother her ‘effacement’- how she is becoming more insignificant, essentially fading away into her old age, like the condensation which fades away as the mirror becomes clearer. If interpreted in such a way, it could be viewed that the mother is very much apprehensive to commence this new life with her child, viewing it as something which will only bring sorrow and disappointment, in highlighting to her her own mortality, and insignificance. Interestingly, Plath’s comparison of herself to a ‘cloud’ is seen frequently in other poems, for example, ‘Little Fugue’- it often highlights both a sense of obscurity or confusion, and the idea that she is a victim, particularly due to the white, pure colour of the cloud. The line ‘I’m no more your mother’ alone arguably shocks the reader and provides an unsettling view of this relationship- what with the implication of the mother being neglectful or uncaring, it could be viewed that this indeed provides a ‘disturbing portrait’.
At the time of writing, many critics took a feminist perspective on Plath’s poetry- the persona’s reluctance to accept her role as a mother may have been viewed as indicative of the excessive pressure put on women to enter into a life of domesticity and childcare. The identity of a female was arguably extremely limited in those years, what with the clear lack of equality in such a heavily patriarchal world- the poem could be seen as expressing Plath’s reluctance to be trapped in the confines of such an identity, an identity almost defined solely by motherhood. Rebecca Warren further notes that Plath’s poetry concerning motherhood is often read by feminists today as reflecting the conflict posed by individual creativity, and domesticity- so perhaps the detached portrait of the persona’s relationship to her child indicates the fear of losing her creative freedom, and is more complex than simply a ‘bleak and disturbing’ rejection of the child. Furthermore, the first line of the poem arguably dispels any negativity, perhaps even the first word- ‘love’. The speaker, addressing her new child, denotes that ‘Love set (it) going like a fat gold watch’, seemingly providing an upbeat, endearing start to the poem. Instantaneously, the idea of ‘love’ illuminates the poem with a kind of positivity and tenderness, implying the both the love between the parents, and the love they have for the child. Additionally, the simile of ‘like a fat gold watch’ is arguably endearing, perhaps alluding to the child’s healthy physical appearance, while the colourful adjective ‘gold’, connoting wealth and riches, seems to convey the child as being something precious and prized. Combined with the upbeat monosyllabic rhythm of ‘fat gold watch’, this opening line certainly seems to convey a sense of adoration and joy towards the new child. However, it could conversely be argued that it does, in fact, conjure a negative portrait of the parent-child relationship. Although the poet does state that ‘love’ is what brought the child into the world, which could seem positive, it is arguably an impersonal word, and distances the baby from the parent -instead it is linked to an abstract concept. Perhaps this furthers the sense of reluctance the mother feels to accept this child and to accept her new life- instead of linking the child with herself and her own responsibility, she relates it only with this abstract ideal. Furthermore, the idea that the child is compared to an inanimate object seems somewhat unsettling- as soon as a life begins, it is immediately assimilated to something with no life. Such a comparison also occurs later in the poem, when the child is described as a ‘statue’. It could be interpreted that this once again portrays the speaker’s apprehension to accept the child, and acknowledge the presence of this whole new life, in her life. It could be counter-argued that by the speaker addressing the child as ‘you’, it conveys her acceptance of the child’s existence and presence in her life, and somewhat subsides the sense of distancing. Additionally however, the fact that the child is compared to a ‘watch’ arguably presents the reader with an ominous and foreboding image- it could be interpreted that the speaker implies a stopwatch, representing the already diminishing time left in the child’s life. This is undoubtedly a ‘bleak’ and pessimistic view, perhaps indicating the speaker’s own concerns with mortality- the child only reinforces her preoccupations and fears of death, instead of filling her with hope for new life created.
Furthermore, the sense of alienation and distancing from the child is created in many other instances throughout the poem, furthering the negative and joyless representation of the relationship. The emotionless, synaesthesic description of the baby’s ‘bald cry’ does not evoke any sense of the parent’s awe at hearing their child for the first time, instead conveys it is being something empty, emphasising the lack of connection between the parents and child. Additionally, Plath describes the cry taking ‘its place among the elements’, which seems to separate the child from the human world, and associate it instead with something exterior and alien. The sense of discomfort and unease which the parents seem to feel is further enforced by the lines: ‘your nakedness/ Shadows our safety’. Here, it seems as if the presence of this new, fragile and vulnerable child in their responsibility seems to threaten their own security- their before structured lives have now been completely changed, and to feel comfortable again, they must adjust. The contrast between the words ‘nakedness’ and ‘safety’ emphasises the disquiet of the parents, as it highlights the change which has come over their life; the previous order and security, now tainted by the vulnerability of their situation. Furthermore, the word ‘shadows’, emphasised by the enjambment, seems to convey the looming anxiety and fear which the new child has caused the parents. However, it could also imply the ambiguity of emotion which the child has caused for the parents – shadows and darkness obscure and confuse, and in this way, the sudden presence of a fragile and innocent child in their care, has left them without clarity of emotion or of the situation. Although the sense of alienation and detachment from the child may seem to present a ‘bleak’ image of the relationship, it is arguably a considerably realistic portrayal- the birth of a new child is undoubtedly a large change, and the difficulty of becoming adapted to this is certainly not a ‘disturbing’ idea. Equally, the parents’ feelings of being less secure at having such a great new responsibility is certainly not an unsettling idea, nor ‘bleak- it is simply a normal, and arguably temporary reaction.
The parent-child relationship was also explored by Ted Hughes in his poem ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’. Similarly, it seems that the relationship has been portrayed in an ambivalent and complex manner and once again, the poem can be read biographically, as ‘Frieda’ was his first daughter with Plath. As with Plath’s poem, it is written in free verse, and is filled with vivid, intricate images. Firstly, the speaker’s first reference to Frieda, ‘And you listening’ immediately seems to show his love, and awe of his daughter. By composing the poem almost as if addressed completely to Frieda, through use of the ‘you’ pronoun, it is rendered considerably more personal and clearly shows his close relationship with his daughter. Comparatively, Plath addresses Frieda in the same way in ‘Morning Song’, and in both poems, this usage of ‘you’ seems to capture the intimacy of the parent-child relationship, through this direct addressal. Furthermore, this short, three word sentence is made even more distinct by Hughes’s use of end-stopping, allowing the description of Frieda to be strongly emphasised in its isolation. The awe and admiration of the speaker is certainly conveyed through such a great focus on this singular, simple action in the present moment.
In this way, the relationship is certainly not conveyed as ‘bleak’ nor ‘disturbing’, but entirely loving and tender. Notably, the entire poem is composed in the present tense, perhaps in order to vivify the moment and sentiments Hughes is writing of. The majority of ‘Morning Song’ is equally written in the present tense, and it could be argued that the purpose of this, in both poems, it to fully communicate the intensity of the actions and emotions experienced, by conserving them in the immediacy of the present moment. However, further into the poem, Hughes begins to compare his daughter to various images, which presents a different element to their relationship. Firstly, Hughes describes her as ‘A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch’. This could be interpreted as conveying the child’s wonder, and anticipation of the full moon coming into view, as she sits ‘listening’, ‘tense’ with excitement for its arrival. However, an alternative reading could be that the speaker is implying the impending maturity of his daughter that time will bring. The ‘tension’ which the speaker’s daughter is linked perhaps portrays the looming inevitability of her growing up and maturing into adulthood, something which the speaker seems to view with concern. He continues this theme by comparing her to ‘A pail lifted, still and brimming’. The idea of a ‘pail lifted’ perhaps conveys the beginning of her life- currently, she is only ‘lifted’- her childhood has only just been initiated. Although a sense of stasis is created through the word ‘still’, this is contrasted by the present participle of ‘brimming’, seemingly suggesting that the water is still moving on the surface, despite its apparent ‘stillness’. This could be read as indicative of the speaker’s knowledge that despite the fact that his daughter’s maturity is ‘brimming’ and inescapable, in the present moment, her childhood and innocence is ‘still’ and stagnant. Perhaps this is why Hughes composed the poem in the present tense- in order to solidify and preserve the sweet, infant state of his daughter.
The speaker’s apparent concern with the imminent maturing of his child could be linked to Plath’s ‘Morning Song’, and the speaker’s comparison of her new baby to a ‘watch’. In Plath’s poem, by linking her child to the image of a ‘watch’, it could be argued that Plath too is concerned by the inevitable passing of time, and thus the inescapable aging of her child. Both poets seem to be preoccupied by the idea of time’s inevitable progress, and the effect that will have on their children. Equally, in both poems the child is compared to inanimate objects. In Hughes’s case, it could be argued that he compares Frieda to a solid object, a ‘pail’, in order to convey his desire that she should be unchanging, and should be preserved as a child forever. However, in ‘Morning Song’, it seems that Plath tends to draw comparisons between Frieda and inanimate objects to convey the speaker’s reluctance to fully accept the child. Some may consider that both poets’ concern with time and the inevitable maturing of their children is in itself arguably ‘bleak’, perhaps even morbid in the case of ‘Morning Song’- they may view the poets as focusing purely on the negatives of having children, instead of simply treasuring them as they are. However, it does not seem possible to draw from this representation the belief that it is ‘disturbing’- it is arguably a natural and common fear for a parent to see their child so quickly growing up and changing. In fact, Hughes’ poem could even be considered touching, such is the love and tenderness shown towards his daughter, in his comparison of her to a ‘work’ of art.
Furthermore, within Plath’s poem ‘Little Fugue’ a significantly different perspective on human relationships is presented, particularly concerning the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife. Throughout the poem, using symbolic and cryptic imagery, the speaker seems to be attempting to reconcile the idea of her father in her mind, and recall his image. This poem is largely read biographically, as Plath herself experienced the trauma of losing her father at the age of eight, and her complex relationship with his memory is reflected in many of her poems.
Many may come to view Plath’s representation of relationships in this poem as ‘bleak’ and sombre, due to the speaker’s focus on her desperate attempts to communicate with her dead father, and her frustration at being unable to do so. The theme of obscurity runs throughout the poem, beginning with the statement ‘Cold clouds go over’. This could be interpreted as the mental haziness and blur which obscures the speaker’s memory of her father, as the ‘clouds go over’ the ‘yew’- which could be seen as representative of her father, due to its symbolism of both death and rebirth (linking to the idea of the speaker trying to regain her father). Such dimness of her father’s image is also implied through her description of the ‘featurelessness’ of her memory, emphasising it’s vagueness, while the use of exclamation mark at the end of the same line perhaps highlights her desperation and agitation. Her inability to reconcile her relationship with her dead father, or a clear idea of him in her mind, is further conveyed through the evident confusion of senses depicted throughout the poem. The speaker seems to compare her vagueness of memory to how ‘the death and dumb/ Signal the blind, and are ignored’, and such a simile clearly highlights the frustration felt through her impossibility of communicating with her father. Further into the poem, the speaker once again describes herself as ‘deaf’, causing the memory of her father to be but a ‘dark tunnel’. Whilst the ‘deafness’ emphasises the difficulties of communication, the image of the ‘dark tunnel’ reinforces the idea that the idea of her father in her mind is heavily obscured and indistinct. Additionally, through Plath’s use of synaesthesia in the statement, ‘I see your voice’ the idea of confusion and obscurity is heightened- such a mixing of the senses in this way clearly conveys the speaker’s strife to communicate, but ultimate inability. It could be argued that the portrait of the father-daughter relationship presented here is indeed ‘bleak’- it can be seen that the speaker still struggles to accept the death of her father, and her desperation to communicate or regain the memory of him, could be viewed as both sad, and unsettling. However, others may believe that although there is a hopeless desperation within the poem, it does not render the relationship ‘bleak’, but purely tragic.
Arguably, the relationship presented is too complex to immediately be judged ‘bleak and disturbing’. Despite the speaker’s wishes to regain the memory of her father, the image which we are provided with of him is dark and unsettling: ‘A yew hedge of orders/ Gothic and barbarous, pure German.’ As in many other poems, particularly ‘Daddy’ Plath seems to be inferring World War two here, and comparing her father to a perpetrator of the holocaust. The image of the speaker’s father as a ‘yew hedge’ once again links to the symbolism seen at the beginning of the poem, and conveys him as a restricting, controlling figure of authority. Further, by describing him as ‘barbarous’, the speaker clearly conveys the cruelty and inhumanity which she believes her father to possess. Perhaps this reflects Plath’s own resentment towards her father for being pro-Nazi at the time of the war, or, her anger and frustration at this death, which could have been avoided, had he not wrongly misdiagnosed himself. The poem seems to present an extremely conflicted view of the relationship: on the one hand, the speaker describes her father as an oppressive, evil figure which ‘Dead men cry from’, and on the other, the speaker conveys her utter desperation and toil to regain a clear memory of her father, or somehow communicate with him. Therefore, it would seem to simple to conclude the portrayal of the relationship as ‘bleak’- it is evidently multi-layered, complex and confused. However, it may seem reasonable to view it as ‘disturbing’- it is certainly an unsettling idea that someone is so obsessed by the memory of their dead father, despite condemning him as ‘gothic and barbarous’.
The final line of the poem, ‘The clouds are a marriage dress, of that pallor’, may lead many into further believing this relationship to be ‘disturbing’. Just as the speaker seems to be concluding her thoughts of her father, a different thread, presenting a different relationship, is woven in. The last stanza itself seems to portray the speaker attempting to reconcile and ‘arrange’ her thoughts on the subject, as she tells herself ‘these are my fingers, this my baby’. She seems to be acclimatising herself with her present life, before referring back to the ‘clouds’ of her memory. Once this ‘arrangement’ has been carried out, the speaker now seems to imply that her marriage, has taken on the same obscurity as the relationship with her father. The same ‘clouds’ that covered her relationship with her father, now cover the relationship with her husband. If read biographically, it must be noted that at the time of writing, Plath’s relationship with Hughes was beginning to break down- which could explain the confusion the speaker now seems to be viewing this marriage with. Alternatively, it could be viewed that the speaker has replaced the memory of her father, the ‘clouds’, with her husband, through the metaphor of ‘a marriage dress’. Her marriage has caused Plath to imprint Hughes onto the image of her father, in order to reconcile his memory in her mind. In other words, it could be seen that the speaker sees her husband, in some ways, as a ‘replacement’ for her father- in her attempts to recover and reach her father, she instead revived him in her husband. This could be linked back to the image of her father as a ‘yew’, the supposed tree of rebirth- for Plath, her father has been reborn in Hughes. Hughes himself is said to have always felt as if he was in the presence of Plath’s father, which arguably contributed to the eventual collapse of his marriage to Sylvia. Evidently this relationship, for many readers would be viewed as ‘disturbing’ and unsettling- however, such writing does arguably encapsulate the essence of the ‘confessionary’ genre, which many may admire as intense, and brave. Rebecca Warren notes that many of her poems detail ‘psychological pain’, and such pain is certainly conveyed in ‘Little Fugue’, stemming from the trauma of losing her father, and her desperation to regain him.
Finally, many moments of Hughes’ ‘Lovesong’ can be compared to ‘Little Fugue’, in the representation of the husband-wife relationship. Largely read biographically as a portrait of the destructive, intense, but passionate relationship between Plath and Hughes, its aggressively sexual tenor and energetically fast-paced structure certainly does not render the poem ‘bleak’. However, many may consider the violent aspects of the poem particularly ‘disturbing’. Such lines as ‘his words were occupying armies,’ ‘her laughs were an assassin’s attempts’, and ‘his looks were bullets daggers of revenge’ clearly convey the relationship to be that of ruthful antagonism and conflict. However, although this imagery of violence could be read negatively, and C.J Rawson’s assertion that ‘everybody knows that Ted Hughes’s subject is violence’ could be seen as affirming his unhealthy fixation on it, even within relationships, it could be viewed in a different light. Perhaps Hughes only uses violence in this poem hyperbolically, in order to exaggerate the passion between the couple- for example, comparing the man’s looks to ‘bullet daggers’ merely conveys the intensity and power of his gaze, not cruelty or anger. The violence imagery certainly causes the lines to be more potent and impactful, especially when coupled with the frequent enjambment, asyndeton, and rhythmic repetition of words such as ‘his’ or ‘her’, which provide the poem with a dynamic pace. Furthermore, arguably, certain moments in the poem place the relationship in a more positive light, for example: ‘love is hard to stop’. Hughes’s simple language, so contrasting to the complex and cryptic writing of Plath, conveys here the true depths and power of their love- however, simultaneously, it could be argued that there is the underlying implication that the couple wish for this love ‘to stop’.
Additionally, the final three lines of the poem arguably set the presentation of their relationship in a more positive, uplifting light, as Hughes describes the couple essentially becoming one, through their love: ‘In the morning they wore each other’s face’. This idea of uniting is reflected in the changing structure of the poem- the penultimate stanza is of two lines, perhaps representing the two lovers, and the final stanza, is of only one line, which could be viewed as imitative of the couple becoming one. To many, this may show the strengths of their relationship- however, the positive view is undertoned by the fact that their uniting is described as being paradoxically hostile: ‘In their dreams their brains took each other hostage’. Despite this powerful love which Hughes is conveying, it seems to be inextricably linked to the antagonism and hostility within the relationship- such a portrait of a destructive, conflicting relationship could be viewed as ‘bleak and disturbing’ by many. However, perhaps if read as a truly hyperbolic account of the relationship, many may consider this representation to be realistic, in its complexity. Certainly the critical readings of Hughes’s poetry have changed over the years- particularly following the suicide and of Plath, and the suicide and matricide of Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill, many feminists viewed Hughes as a cruel, controlling and monstrous figure. This certainly impacted the way his poetry was read, leading to many viewing such a violent portrayal of their relationship as ‘disturbing’.
The husband-wife relationship portrayed in ‘Lovesong’ can be linked to that within ‘Little Fugue’, especially if read biographically. Firstly, describing the couple’s tempestuous love, Hughes states ‘His kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried to’. This could be compared to the idea conveyed within ‘Little Fugue’, that the persona is so obsessive and preoccupied by the memory of her dead father, that she attempts to reclaim such a figure through marriage. Such a relationship results in the husband attempting to erase ‘her whole past’ and memories of her father, perhaps in order to make the relationship healthier. This could be read as Hughes’s attempts to normalise the relationship in trying to cause Plath to forget her father and the trauma he caused her, as he so often felt as if he were in the haunting shadow of him. Equally, the lines ‘Her embrace was an immense press/ To print him into her bones’, could be linked to the idea of Plath’s desperation to somehow regain her father’s memory, thus resulting in her ‘marriage dress’ taking the form of the ‘clouds’ of memory of her father. Plath’s wish to ‘print him into her bones’ could be viewed as her desire to overlay the haunting memory of her father, with that of Hughes instead- in order to have some kind of reconciliation, and resolution. To many, such a portrait of their relationship may indeed seem ‘disturbing’ and perhaps unnatural- but overall, even when not read biographically, the poems certainly present a complex, and conflicting view of human relationships.
Throughout these poems, it is evident that human relationships, both parent-child, and husband-wife, are presented by both Plath and Hughes as complex, and convoluted. There are many moments in the poetry of Plath which could be deemed as both ‘bleak and disturbing’, particularly concerning the disjointed relationship presented between father and daughter. Equally, in that of Hughes, the intensely aggressive and hostile presentation of a relationship presents a deeply conflicting view of a couple, which perhaps could be viewed as ‘disturbing’ by some. However, it seems it would be excessive to say that their poetry ‘offers an entirely bleak and disturbing’ view of relationships, since other moments of the poems, and the overall intricacy of the relations conveyed, renders the portrait too complex for such a general conclusion.
An Analysis of “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” explores the impact of time on individuals, specifically within the realities of aging and losing beauty; here, Plath speaks from an implied autobiographical perspective. As readers, we know that much of Plath’s oeuvre of poetry focuses on her lost youth and her gradual lack of beauty as she ages. Plath uses personification of the inanimate mirror to highlight how it is not the mirror that is problematic; it is her own reflection. The mirror is simply “not cruel, only truthful,” thus simply serving as an honest perception of her beauty. The use of the verb “cruel” displays how time can play tricks on people and make them feel undermined by their own reflections. Similarly, Plath’s poem “Facelift” also delves into the idea of her hating her inner and younger self.
Plath uses the theme of time within “Mirror” to investigate how everyone wastes time, in some form. She explores the idea of regret throughout time, pondering how she once spent her youth worrying about her aesthetic beauty and how she looked to others for validation. She looks in the mirror to search its “reaches for what she really is”; the use of this metaphor distinctively displays how Plath is confused about who she has become and how she has somehow managed to lose so much time. The use of the adverb “really” shows that Plath isn’t sure as to the person she ever was, physically or emotionally; she feels deceived by the way she once lived her life. Similarly, in “The Manor Garden,” Plath regrets ever becoming pregnant; this revelation brings to light that Plath has rarely ever been proud or liberated by the way she has lived her life, and instead is constantly ashamed of herself and regrets the way in which she led her existence.
Moreover, Plath explores how people can feel and become powerless, another major topic of her compositions. This theme of powerlessness is exhibited throughout “Mirror” to show how external forces can truly make people feel as though they have lost all control within their lives. The mirror is explained as “the eye of a little god,” as personification is used to display the vast power it holds over people. Plath uses the noun “god” to show not only how powerful the mirror is, but how frightening it can be; she personifies the mirror to exhibit how she feels that she is losing the power of controlling time, almost as though she is losing a battle against a thinking, living adversary. Similarly, in “A Sonnet To Time,” the watch is personified in order to display how inanimate objects have a strong force over people. Plath seems to be consumed with worry and anxiety about her loss of beauty; however, the theme of time is also used to represent the loss of herself and of the person she once knew. Within “Mirror,” the woman is observing not only her appearance, but also something much deeper; the woman is observing her mind and her soul. After being exposed to her true self, she rewards the lake “with tears and an agitation of hands.” Thus, she displays how aware she is of the distinction between both her exterior and interior lives. The use of the noun “agitation” highlights only how exhausted she is from meditating over her essentially false outer self of appearance, as opposed to her true inner self.
Another way in which time is represented throughout “Mirror” is through the idea of dependency on observing her attrition of beauty and life. When the woman is not around and the mirror has nothing but the wall to look at, the world is truthful, objective, factual, and simultaneously “silver and exact.” This facet of the poem displays how, without the woman, there is no corruption; however, when the woman is reflected in the mirror, the world becomes unsettled, complicated, and emotionally vivid. The use of the adjective “exact” indicates that, although the reflection is becoming a weapon of harm to the woman, the reflection is the unavoidable truth that cannot be eluded. Indeed, the mirror is no longer a boundary to the woman, but is actually a liminal and penetrable space. Similarly, in “Face Lift,” the autobiographical undertone suggests that Plath has always disliked her appearance and makes the world around her seem disordered, purely due to her lack of self-confidence.
Lastly, Plath uses the idea of nostalgia and reminiscence to explore the theme of time. Evidently, Plath feels nostalgic over the beauty she once held; she highlights how although she now feels the least beautiful she’s ever felt, she has always felt that way, at every stage of her life. As Plath “turns to those liars, the candles or the moon,” she hopes to seek validity in her once-beautiful appearance. The use of emotive language highlights this desire and exhibits how the nostalgia she feels is forcing her to lie to herself. The use of the noun “liars” suggests that Plath is aware that she no longer looks as she once did; however, it calms and reassures her to occasionally delude herself into believing in the presence of this vanished image.
Slyvia Plath’s Reinvented Lazarus
Sylvia Plath’s Reinvented Lazarus
“The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the Phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.” -Sylvia Plath, 1963 (qtd. in Curley 213)
One of Slyvia Plath’s final works of poetry, “Lady Lazarus,” reinvents the biblical story of Lazarus, where a loving deity uses his power for good. Instead, Plath uses this opportunity to exhibit her distaste for patriarchal oppression. An expression of her own suicide attempts, the poem takes on a menacing tone as the speaker struggles to find recognition among her male peers. As a whole, Plath uses decisive literary techniques to re-gender the male Lazarus and likewise convey her personal feminine energy.
In “Lady Lazarus,” Sylvia Plath deliberately uses literary techniques like intentionally numbered stanzas, consistent repetition, and psychoanalytic comparisons to establish parallels between herself and the speaker, likewise further intensifying her feminist message. Written in the few months preceding her final (and successful) suicide attempt, Plath’s poem outlines a woman’s multiple suicide attempts (“I have done it again”) and her subsequent experience being reborn, or resurrected from the dead (1). Interestingly, the poem consists of twenty-eight subtly rhymed triplets, mimicking the number of days in a normal, reproductive cycle. The undeniable feminine presence illuminated in the number of stanzas establishes a woman’s plight before the poem is even read. Furthermore, Plath’s conscious control of her stanza and meter underscores, as well as highlights, the problems with which women have no control: menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, divorce. To enhance the morbid aspects of the poem and add to the eery tone, Plath repeats images of dismembered body parts “skin,” “foot,” “flesh,” “bone,” ect. Similarly, she details the “peanut-crunching crowd” that rushes in to watch her suicides as if they were an act (26). Finally, her comparisons between Herr Doktor, who medically experimented with patients in Nazi extermination camps, and Herr Enemy, “who saved her life when she wanted to die” contribute to her later comparison between God and Lucifer, whereas good and evil all become one male entity that she aspires to “rise…and eat… like air” (Meyers 2; Plath 83-84). Essentially, Plath’s use of literary devices are only the start of her profound feminist message.
More compelling, however, is Plath’s ability to transform the biblical story of Lazarus from 2 John into a female martyr. In the Bible, Lazarus had died after enduring perpetual suffering and Jesus is asked by his sister Martha, who represents devout belief as opposed to religious contemplation, to resurrect him from the tomb. Indeed, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead so that the “people standing [t]here…may believe” (John 11:42). This blatant display of Jesus’s power does not merely highlight God’s dominion, but also benefits Lazarus and the surrounding crowd. The people who witnessed Lazarus’s return and renewal were simultaneously offered the promise of eternal life. In the Bible, Lazarus’ purpose was to illuminate Jesus’s powers and help convert the skeptical, onlooking Jews. However, the story does not take the opportunity to tell the reader how Lazarus felt when he was brought back from the dead, bound like a mummy with a piece of cloth used to keep his mouth sealed shut. In response to the lack of elaboration, Plath uses this chance to employ her creativity and assert an everlasting feminine presence.
Although as a disclaimer Plath refers to her re-gendered Lazarus as “the speaker,” the parallels between the fictitious character and Plath’s own life are simply undeniable. Indeed, the autobiographical heroine of “Lady Lazarus” does not actually return from the dead and “the analogy is inexact,” as Jeffrey Meyers points out (1). But instead, Plath describes each of her suicide attempts and details what it felt like coming back from each close call. The “paradox of the poem,” as Meyers explains, is that for Plath, life itself is a type of death and she continuously returns from near death “in order to get dead once again” (1). She refers to suicide as a kind of art or a calling that she does “exceptionally well,” yet is consistently rendered unsuccessful (45). However, each failure allows her an opportunity to “demonstrate her powers of self-destruction and self-revival” (Meyers 1). Plath finds recognition in approaching the blurred line between life and death and then somehow drawing back to find life once again. Biographically, like the poem alludes to, Plath attempted suicide three times. One for each decade of her life, the first of three was an attempt at age ten to drown herself two years following her father’s death. The second attempt was instigated by a nervous breakdown during her junior year at Smith College, where she overdosed on sleeping medication and crawled into the crawlspace underneath her childhood home (“They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls”) (41-42). The third attempt, after her divorce to Ted Hughes, she tried crashing her car in the hope of finding peace in August 1962. It was not until February of 1963 that Plath successfully committed suicide by gas – as occurred in Nazi extermination camps. Similarly in “Lady Lazarus,” the speaker readily identifies with the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany and “equates her suffering with theirs” (Meyers 2). Plath compares herself to Jews many times throughout her poetry, psychologically justifying it on the grounds that her father was born in Germany as well as Ted Hughes’ new lover, Assia Wevill. The autobiographical quality of not only this poem, but the majority of Plath’s literature contributes to her struggle (and the struggle of all women) to gain accreditation in a male dominated society.
As previously stated, the majority of Plath’s poetry deals with a woman’s struggle to find autonomy in a patriarchal society. In contrast to the biblical story, Lady Lazarus’s resurrection by Herr Doktor produces a unique power struggle ultimately resulting in her destruction. Similar to Jesus, Herr Doktor displays his power in front of a crowd. However in contrast, he seeks to display his own power and achieve admiration from the onlooking “peanut crunching crowd” (26). Unlike Jesus, he does not offer any new life to the speaker or the crowd; he works for personal gain. In a humiliating scene, the speaker is “unwrap[pped]…hand and foot” by the male entities in the poem (29). By referring to this degradation as “the big strip tease,” Plath adds a sexual element that magnifies the male dominance over Lady Lazarus (30). As she is unwrapped, she becomes nothing more than a collection of body parts: a hand, a knee, skin and bone. She is transformed into Herr Doktor’s “pure gold baby,” his “opus,” and his “valuable,” essentially his personal possession (66-69). Furthermore, the scars the speaker refers to in line 58 represent a woman’s vulnerability to men, likewise symbolizing the pain of a male-dominated society. Yet, to counteract the omnipresent male dominance, the speaker exclaims she is “the same identical woman” and far more than simply a warm body provided to satisfy men (34). While Herr Doktor looks to make a spectacle of her suffering, she fights back, expressing her anger and aggression by asking the deity direct questions. Yet ironically by admitting her submission to this man (his “pure gold baby,” ect), she highlights the inevitability of women being forced to succumb to men’s power. The fight for power between the speaker and Herr Doktor is eventually given up by Lady Lazarus only to result in death instead of liberation. In essence, Lady Lazarus’s attempts to overcome a male-dominated world ultimately leads to her destructive art: dying. Only in the afterlife, rising from the ash, is she able to exert power over men (“I rise with my red hair / and I eat men like air”) (82-83).
In short, “Lady Lazarus” represents a mid-20th century woman’s struggle to define herself in a man’s world. By using elements from her own personal life in conjunction with carefully crafted literary devices, Plath is able to create a morbidly dark tone that mirrors ever-present feminine struggles. Yet, although the extremely confessional poem details the power struggle between men and women, the male presence is ultimately able to dominate the speaker and usurp her creative power. Only after death is the speaker able to take revenge on powerful and controlling males.
Curley, Maureen. “Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’.” Explicator 59.4 (2001). EBSCOhost. Web. 23 November 2015.
The English Standard Version Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry Volume 2. Ed. J. Ramazani, R. Ellmann, and R. O’Clair. New York: Norton, 2003. 612-614. Print.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 42.3 (2012). Academic OneFile. Web. 23 November 2015.
How Plath Presents the Cycle of Death and Re-Birth in “Edge,” and How Far Her Representation Is Typical of Her Concerns in ‘Ariel’
Plath often looks at the cycle of life from birth through to death: as death is a cycle, it may not be the end, but rather, a new beginning. In “Edge” one must take a journey with death showing that if one seizes life, then one can seize death and be re-born. In poems such as “Ariel” and “Lady Lazarus”, however, if one cannot seize the gift of life then death cannot be seized and is shown to be a lonely existence as in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”. Sylvia Plath presents a mother who is lying with her children in her poem “Edge”. Both the mother and children are “dead [bodies]” lying in a “rose…garden” after the mother has had to kill her own children. This is said to be based on the story of Medea, who in Greek mythology had killed her children so that she could rescue them from her husband and the children’s father. The mother in “Edge” “wears the smile of accomplishment” much as Medea would likely have done, knowing that her children are finally safe from the clutches of her husband who had betrayed her and posed a serious threat to her and her children.
In “Edge,” Plath presents gentleness to the death of the children, as noted by the persona who has “folded them back into her body” showing that she is in no way shocked by murdering her own children. Plath’s choice of “folded” implies a sense of beauty and almost a level of forgiveness of herself for what she has done, likely to be because of who is dying and who is killing; she knows that she had to do it because if she does not then her lover will and he will have no reason for killing them with gentleness. There is almost always a gentleness to the children in Plath’s poetry, like in “Morning Song” the baby’s first ever breaths “flicker among… pink roses” and in “Edge” the final breaths are taken with a “rose close”; the juxtaposition shows that every child is a thing of gentle purity, a “rose”. A running theme in Plath’s motherhood poetry is gentleness often using “floral” imagery, juxtaposing birth and death, and as the children lose their life the flowers are wilting and the “garden stiffens”.
Moreover, Plath presents the persona’s relationship with death is a journey that her “bare feet” must carry her through, metaphorically connected to marriage as a similarly arduous path. Much of the poem’s imagery is related to Medea, who, in Greek myth, killed her children to protect them. If the persona truly is Medea, then her journey with death could never be easy and would always cause a woman to be “empty”. However, Plath’s use of soft assonance show that once her journey is “over” there can be relief. The “O” assonant sound is calm and serene showing that although a journey may not have always been easy, once the journey with death is finally over, relief can ensue. The theme of relief at the end of a difficult journey toward death is shown throughout the Ariel collection, especially in the title poem. When the persona is initially thrown from the horse, the imagery is dark and violent with “hooks”, “shadows” and “dead hands” showing that the journey through the air to the unknown ahead is difficult and terrifying because there is nothing to tell the persona what is ahead. Yet, once the persona can see the end of the journey, the imagery becomes far more of “a thrill”. She is “the arrow” flying fast “through air”. Whereas in “Edge” the relief is soft, in “Ariel” the relief is powerful and energetic.
In many poems in the “Ariel” collection death is seen as an achievement. When the persona dies “her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment” and then finally “the woman is perfected”. Similarly, for the persona of “Daddy”, the death of her father, at first, left her weary and feeling defeated but it later became a victory for her as she suddenly found herself with power. However, for “Lady Lazarus”, “dying is an art”, which is so much more than just a victory; death as an “accomplishment” in Plath’s work shows that if death is the end anyway, why not make it a goal? It’s a nihilistic view point that lasts throughout all her work, even those that are not explicitly about death. Death for her personas is a goal and when they achieve it they are “perfected”. If death is an “accomplishment” then the personas often have a reason for that goal and that reason is that death is a deity, embodied by the moon.
This worshipping of the moon enhances the nihilism of Plath’s work, most often symbolised by the colour “black”. This symbolism is shown in “Edge” by “her blacks crackle and drag” and the “shadows” in “Ariel” and most prominently “The Moon and the Yew Tree”. Both “black” imagery and “moon” worshipping are major themes in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” making it possibly Plath’s most nihilistic poem. The “hood of bone” with a “planetary mind” who is to be worshipped by those whose goal is death and she is their memento mori. There is no escape from “the…despair” and that is why Plath’s personas choose to embrace and worship it. Although death may seem like the end, Plath presents it as more of a cycle, not an end but a new beginning. The act of death itself is similar for all of Plath’s personas; however, what comes after is not so simple. In “Edge” the persona’s re-birth is wholly unremarkable with nothing more than a “crackle and drag” which feels as though the persona is simply fizzling away; a new life, maybe, but not much of a re-birth. This, however, is completely juxtapose with “Lady Lazarus” who, “every ten years” puts on a “show”; the finale of her “show” ends with stunning phoenix imagery of her ending in flames and then rising spectacularly from the ashes.
The persona of “Edge” simply floats away in “sweet” bliss and her re-birth is soft. Yet “Lady Lazarus” “eats men like air”. For Plath’s personas, death is merely a minor inconvenience until the next life. Plath’s most significant treatment of death is that it is an illusion; it’s a beautiful mirage and a cruel Goddess. In “The Moon and the Yew Tree” death is something to strive for using nihilistic imagery. This nihilism and a sense of an almost masochistic need to die carries through her work, especially in poems like “Cut”, which shows a persona seeing pain and blood as a “thrill”. Those who call for death and worship her often get the chance to start again because while death is an end but is not necessarily the end.