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.
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