Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems
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 forge the conscience of his race along with his own, the problem is aggravated. Plath carried further the experiments of Eliot and Lowell in handling the theme.
In fact, she created a vocabulary of images and gestures to convey the primal condition. For instance, she uses hooks, again and again, to suggest the mixture of seduction and menace offered by apparently neutral stimuli. In “Tulips” a hospital patient, sinking into a drugged nonentity of exhaustion, feels troubled by a family photograph which still requires her to be an individual. The smiles of the husband and child in the picture seem like “little smiling hooks.” But the image is quickly adaptable to other contexts. In a poem about picking blackberries, the curves of an inviting but sinister path, going down to the sea, are also “hooks” (“Blackberrying”).
Nets are another form of the image. They are hidden traps that work with deceptively pleasing sensations. In “Purdah,” a betrayed wife thinks of herself as wearing veils because she hides her true feelings from her husband. Moonlight is dangerous, for it encourages her to reveal emotion. So the moon rises with “cancerous pallors,” illuminating trees which in turn act like “little nets,” since the poet must evade the softening of landscape and not expose her “visibilities.”
The word “glitter” also belongs to this pattern of moral ambiguity, because, like the Latinate equivalent, “specious,” it suggests allurement and falsehood at once. In “Death & Co.” the poet combines the word with another, “plausive,” a rare adjective that can mean approving or specious. She implies that the person described is concealing real hostility and pretending to like somebody whom he wishes to make use of for his own purposes. Wearing hair that is “long and plausive,” he is “masturbating a glitter.”
Less precise imagery can generalize the effect. For Plath, any blank, shimmering, or curtained appearance attracts sinister implications. Baldness, the gleaming whiteness of the moon, call up dangerous ambiguity. One can too easily project hopes and fears upon a tabularasa. In “A Life” the poet draws a contrast between a work of art representing a contented family, and the reality of a woman cut off from other people, dragging her shadow around “a bald, hospital saucer.” On a bleak day in February, another woman, recovering from a miscarriage, looks out and sees the new year “hone its edge” on a bald hill, “faceless and pale as china” (“Parliament Hill Fields”). Both images refer to a way of life that combines isolation with loss of meaning.
Syntax, figures of speech, and modes of expression enrich Plath’s double vision of moral reality. Often she frames questions to bring out the doubtfulness of the signals from the environment, or the anxiety of the self trying to get a secure footing. So the brilliant colors of poppies in July trouble the poet. “Do you no harm?” she asks (“Poppies in July”); for if she lets down her guard and warms to the blossoms, she will be hurt. In “Getting There” the misery of holding the fragmented self together until the final release into death is conveyed by the allegory of a hideous journey in wartime, punctuated by the frantic question, “How far is it?”
To combine the various effects is not difficult for her. In “Mystic” the poet faces the irrational spasm of hopefulness which often strikes one during a season of well-earned despair. “The air is a mill of hooks,” she says as she considers the many, confusing stimuli that make life seem not only endurable but (perhaps!) promising. The hooks, however, turn at once into questions, partly because question marks look like hooks. Then the movement from ambiguous hope to uncertainty slips over into images of menace as the air-filling questions become flies, which kiss and sting at once. After a central section on religious experience, the poet closes with the world regaining significance. The sun blooms like a geranium, and she can say, “The heart has not stopped.”
Menace implies intention. It is easy therefore to attribute motives and minds to the things that encroach upon the self. In Plath’s work a radical sort of personification indicates a transfer of vitality from human beings to objects or abstractions. It is typical of the poet that in her language the hooks which threaten one should smile maliciously as they do so. But more striking personifications are available. In “Insomniac” the sleepless man dreads the approach of dawn:
Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,
Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.
This brilliant poem also brings out the fragmentation of the isolated, introverted personality. Rather than being strong and continuous, the self is a bundle of memories and painful feelings which the insomniac cannot organize. One thinks of the helpless panic of a child at his failure to withstand the mysterious strength of an unpredictable rage. Here the transformation is from vital to mechanical: the person is reduced to a set of mirrors producing an infinite regress.
His head is a little interior of gray mirrors.
Each gesture flees immediately down an alley
Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance
Drains like water out the hole at the far end.
Sometimes the interrogative mood determines the whole form of a poem, and Sylvia Plath composes a riddle. Instead of providing a resolution which satisfies the reader, however, she replaces suspense with a new, more concrete uneasiness: we are asked, “What is this disturbing presence?” The poem “Mirror” seems like an undemanding enigma: “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions,” says the reflecting surface; and then it tells us about the room it watches. But in the second half of the poem a woman tries to define herself by her appearance; and the mirror says,
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faith- fully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
The shape of the poem imitates the search for and achievement of selfhood: it moves in an accelerating advance from the leisurely calm of the mirror’s self-portrayal to the quick, sinister precision of the close-up of the fish.
Certain themes recur in the poems, to enlarge the meaning of the images and technical devices. Dismemberment suggests the difficulty of putting or keeping together the personality. The self can disintegrate, fly apart, or merely flake off. In the poem “In Plaster” the soulbody relation takes the shape of a fantasy in which the poet finds a plaster replica in the bed beside her. Although at first this new, “absolutely white person” takes care of the older one, gradually she alters and grows critical:
She let in the drafts and became more and more absent-minded.
And my skin itched and flaked away in soft pieces….
Under the impact of moral self-scrutiny the person loses shape; character dissolves in doubt.
In an equally astonishing poem, “Event,” a husband and his embittered wife are in bed, back to back. Disillusionment has changed her view of him and of herself. As she lies there, she senses her angry feelings emanating from the creatures and things of the house and neighborhood. The moonlight is a “chalk cliff / In whose rift we lie….” Coldness and whiteness loom against the heat of private emotions. The wife imagines herself walking around like a needle in the groove of a record, as she goes over and over the suppressed recriminations. She has been transformed by the “event”—i.e., his treachery. Even more—in her eyes—has his nature been changed. “Who has dismembered us?” she asks, referring both to their falling out and to the disintegration of their separate characters.
During such crises the role of the will grows important. The person fears that any relaxation of control will leave the components of the self without cement. To hold them in place, when forces within and without are tearing them apart, requires constant effort. Even death must be arranged ahead of time. In a faultless monologue, “Last Words,” the speaker is an ancient Egyptian planning her own burial. Through the instructions she indicates the self she means to become in death; and the poem ends,
They will roll me up in bandages,
they will store my heart
Under my feet in a neat parcel.
I shall hardly know myself. It will be dark,
And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar.
“Things” here refers to the domestic objects that will accompany the body: cooking vessels, rouge pots, etc.—more reliable than the spirit. Plath’s poetry abounds in such articles. She sets her tremendous agons in humble locations, often indoors—kitchens, bedrooms, offices.
It is a short step for her imagination to replace parts of the self by equivalents or by things. In “The Applicant,” one of Plath’s masterpieces, prosthesis, the substitution of artificial parts of the body for real ones, suggests a lack of authenticity—false, incomplete, corrupt character—along with dependence. It suggests the interchangeability of the meaningless parts of abortive personalities. In the poem a monstrous marriage broker is bringing together a token man and an inchoate woman. It opens unforgettably:
First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,…
The poem brings out the risks faced by true selfhood. Here a male nonentity is given vital substance through his connection with a chosen female who exists only to serve him. By implication, the social order that saw fit to join them would move against a woman who was authentic, a person in her own right. This danger in turn has an underside; for a number of poems carry the further hint that society may not be quite mistaken in its reaction, and that to assert one’s own identity is in truth to menace or destroy others.
In “The Stones”—a controlled triumph of nightmare vision—doctors make prosthesis their occupation. The hospital or factory (a mental institution) is a “city of spare parts,” and health here means a surrender of intrinsic personality. Almost like Frankenstein’s monster, the individual is reassembled, newborn into the fake harmlessness of compliant normality: “My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber.” The theme emerges more lightly in “Tulips,” as the speaker, drugged in a hospital bed, loses her hostility along with her character: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.” There is a hint here of the ruthlessness of authentic responses. The tulips trouble her because they induce her to respond as a person, and she is afraid of the destructiveness that may be released if she gives way.
At this stage the principle of the double, or total prosthesis, moves into the foreground of Sylvia Plath’s imagination. Instead of letting the split between dangerous and benign impulses remain an internal affair, the poet sometimes represents it as opening between herself and a shadowy figure, created to receive blame. There is a communal aspect to the concept. Socially or politically, the victim of oppression is linked to a tyrannical community or government just as a mistreated wife is bound to an unfeeling husband. Yet sufferers may teach cruelty to their masters. The victim can be a prosecutor, too, once she embodies the regime or the spouse in Another.
The speaker of “In Plaster” first accepts the humble ministrations of her new, white companion, who seems a benignly blank version of herself. But since the replica is only a projection, she has the underlying defects of her original; and these soon appear. For the white figure tires of good works, turns censorious, and at last reveals malice. The speaker then complains, “She wanted to leave me, she thought she was superior.” However, instead of being tolerant and good-natured, the speaker reacts with a plan to collect her own strength and abandon the Other first. “And she’ll perish with emptiness then,” says the poet vindictively.
Drawing out the implications, one may say that the martyr invents a torturer in her own image. Neither could exist without the other. (One thinks of a daughter requiring a father to be childishly enraged so she may complain of his injustice.) Eventually, therefore, the parts of oppressor and oppressed become reversible, like Lucky and Pozzo in Waiting for Godot.
Such a confusion of roles between victim and persecutor is barely intimated in “Death & Co.” Here the poet is visited and feels threatened by two evil men. One has the “scald scar of water” and reminds her of a condor. The scar suggests a victim, and recalls the scars of Lady Lazarus. But the condor is certainly a bird of prey. The second man “wants to be loved,” and is a helper in the mysterious, criminal enterprise. But the poet refuses to be taken in; she will not “stir.” Yet she ends with the words, “Somebody’s done for.” Is it the poet, or one of the dangerous but vulnerable men, who is done for? Is she destroying them, or are they destroying her?
Possibly, then, the tormentor was correct all along? It is a masterstroke of irony for the poet to join the opposed characters of victim and avenger in one. That is the accomplishment of “The Applicant.” Again, in “Lady Lazarus,” deservedly the best known of Sylvia Plath’s poems, the two roles are united. Here the victimized speaker shows her rage at first only by her tone. But at last she drops the disguise of passive sufferer and turns into nemesis. The doctors who have revived her are persecutors, Nazis, even Lucifer. Now, therefore, the tyrant, the social order, the male state that tortured the victims of the Holocaust, are themselves savagely threatened.
The poet becomes her own prosthesis. Instead of imagining an Other on whom to smear the hostilities and inadequacies of her inner nature, she will die as the outer, beguiling social person and be reborn as the vengeful “true” self. The role of martyr gives way to that of assassin. Like a phoenix, the speaker will come back:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.