The Other Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems

edited by Ted Hughes
Harper and Row, 351 pp., $17.50; $7.95 (paper)

The habit of reading Sylvia Plath’s poems biographically is so common that one forgets how many of them are dramatic monologues, how many are spoken by imaginary characters who have no obvious connection with the poet. The new, long-awaited edition of The Collected Poems brings together many such pieces, balancing the unmediated lyrics.

The most elaborate of the monologues is the highly effective Three Women, in which Plath interweaves the speeches of a mother, a secretary, and a university student all responding to the experience of pregnancy. Here the poet discloses the separate dispositions of the introspective women by steadily shifting images which convey their veering moods through subtle parallels and contrasts. What fascinates the author is the way each speaker wholly redefines herself according to the experience. With no external narrative, Plath manages to give haunting embodiment to three lives at the same, supreme turning point.

Reading and rereading the many monologues, one must be struck by the poet’s genius for using physical bodies as emblems of inner character. Not through Balzacian physiognomy but through the manipulation of the body as an object, she expresses her preoccupation with selfhood and personality. In the monologues Plath regularly brings the speaker’s thoughts to a focus on this theme. Not all the attempts come off. But in “Face Lift” it is plain that the woman hopes a new skin will produce a new person:

Now she’s done for, the dewlapped lady
I watched settle, line by line, in my mirror—
Old sock-face, sagged on a darning egg.

A secondary motif of the poem is that of self-control. Not only does the speaker delight in the pathetic hope that appearance will transform reality; she also preens herself on having taken hold of the situation and by an act of will accomplished what she desired. (I believe the laboratory jar is an allusion to jars in which miscarried fetuses are kept.)

They’ve trapped her in some laboratory jar.
Let her die there, or wither inces- santly for the next fifty years,
Nodding and rocking and fingering her thin hair.
Mother to myself, I wake swaddled in gauze,
Pink and smooth as a baby.

At what seems to me the deepest level of her best poems, Sylvia Plath dramatizes the willed effort of the human identity to establish itself, to find a stable base, to grow and unfold. For there is a ferociously ambiguous environment standing against the hesitant first movements of the primitive personality. Things that look kind to it become cruel. Things that look dangerous become nourishing. Bewildered by the duplicity of people, clothes, food, domestic furniture, the infant self wavers between expansion and shrinkage.

At the same time, the tentative personality suffers the pressure of its inner, overwhelming moods and instincts. Hurting what it loves, grasping what it detests, the self learns anxious diffidence. Its multiple, conflicting desires threaten to frustrate the yearning for coherence. In America, where homogeneous cultural patterns are rare, and the individual must …

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