Critics still talk of Sylvia Plath as a suicidal poet: a poet whose suicide was the more or less inevitable putting into action of values and attitudes actually endorsed in her poetry. A critic can go so far astray, for example, as Richard Howard in Alone with America (and Howard is by no means as extreme as some) and claim that ‘the very source of Sylvia Plath’s creative energy was her self-destructiveness’.1 As evidence of this, Howard mentions ‘Tulips’ (Ariel, p. 20),2 saying that this poem, together with her other late poems, displays ‘the pride of an utter and ultimate surrender’.3 But it is a strange surrender that says
I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
In fact, ‘Tulips’ is not a poem of surrender, but of recall from surrender, of coming back to life.
Howard’s thesis leads him into doing some curious footwork indeed. For example, he quotes the final stanza of the early poem ‘The Eye-Mote’ (C.14) to support his contention — a contention which is, let me add, partly true — that Sylvia Plath’s poetry expresses a wish ‘to reduce stimuli to an equilibrium, to cancel out tension, to return to the inanimate condition’.4 But significantly he omits from his quotation the penultimate line, which is the very line that states explicitly just what Plath’s wish actually is. ‘What I want back’, Plath says, are ‘Horses fluent in the wind’, referring us back to the picture in the first stanza of
a field of horses, necks bent, manes blown,
Tails streaming against the green
Backdrop of sycamores.
This hardly looks like the inanimate condition.
Such misreading of the poetry looks more like sensationalism than serious criticism. Plath’s tragic desire ‘to cancel out tension, to return to the inanimate condition’ — to commit suicide, in other words — is in itself held in tension by other aspects of her complex sensibility. A loose, confessional approach to her poetry inevitably does this less than justice. In her best work she brings to bear on the ambiguities of her experience very great resources of courage and honesty, a penetrating self-awareness, and a coherent, unifying, and articulating imagery. These qualities are hardly the hallmarks of suicidal withdrawal as it is defined in her poetry. The brutal directness and apparent openness of the verse are accompanied by a quite extraordinary objectivity — and by that I obviously do not mean a clinical impersonality. I mean the capacity to make subtle and precise judgments, evaluations of even her most private and immediate sensations. She was able, in the fullest sense, to see herself; and not since Emily Dickinson has a poet in English given such a wholly serious, moving, yet strangely collected understanding of what it is to be a woman.
Sylvia Plath’s self-exploration led her to recognize early that she, like everyone else, had two sides; and in her poetry she regarded the peculiarly intense struggle between these two sides for control of her destiny with remarkable clarity. We can approach her understanding of this struggle by looking at two strands or constellations of images which run through all her published poetry, and which correspond to the two sides of her awareness of herself. One constellation embraces images of silver or whiteness, snow, the moon, bloodlessness, sterility (and particularly the childless woman, such as the nun, the spinster, the mannequin), the hospital, the plaster-cast.5 All these images suggest a state towards which she is constantly drawn, and they are summed up in their perfection by the ubiquitous image of the mirror. The second constellation is the antithesis of all that: colour and darkness, roundness, the big belly of pregnancy, the pinkness of babies or the blood-red of poppies and tulips, fertility, the mother in contrast to the spinster, Mary in contrast to the nun, and natural creatures such as trees, birds and horses. (The title of her book Ariel was also the name of her horse.) Unlike those of the first group, which are frozen into immobility, images of the second group are always on the move. No matter how much it attracts her, the first group represents something which Plath consistently judges as negative. But whatever the second group represents is ambivalent; and the image that best captures the ambivalence is that at the heart of several very impressive late poems — the beehive.
Sylvia Plath’s mature poetry registers her longing to share in the mirror’s nun-like purity, with its freedom from the ambiguous creativeness and destructiveness of the beehive. This purity is the great simplification, the effacement of all tension and difference. Suicide is always represented by these images. But for all its attraction, such a state is judged as sterile, non-vital, anti-woman and anti-human. Far from endorsing suicide, the poetry gains its strength and painful vitality from an ultimate rejection of it, even when compared with a life that is well-nigh intolerable.
The earliest written collected poem in which the image of the mirror appears is ‘All the Dead Dears’ (C 27), where it is already associated with death:
From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down…
There is something appealing about the ‘mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother’: their maternalism seems to be calling the girl home, until we reach the words ‘hag hands’ which give them the rather Gothic threatening aura which is further intensified by the echo, in the next line, from Webster. It is not until the slightly later poem, ‘Lorelei’, that we find the significance of the mirror more fully realized. This too is a somewhat Gothic and immature poem, but it establishes the significance of the mirror definitively. The Lorelei, ‘promising sure harbourage’, live beneath the river’s ‘bland mirror-sheen’; and the poem ends
O river, I see drifting
Deep in your flux of silver
Those great goddesses of peace.
Stone, stone, ferry me down there. (C 22)
The last line echoes Theodore Roethke, but the significance is wholly Sylvia Plath’s. From this point on, the mirror is inseparably associated with peace. It represents the great simplification, ‘Deranging by harmony/Beyond the mundane order’. This drastic harmony is infinitely attractive. But it is also a derangement of the ‘mundane order’ of life, a kind of ‘disorder’ or disease, because it can be achieved only through death.
There is little point in tracing this image in any detail through the poetry. Once its significance has been established in ‘Lorelei’, it remains virtually unchanged to the end. This consistency of significance is characteristic of Plath’s poetry, and is probably at least partly accounted for by the fact that all her collected poems were written within only seven years. The immense change of tone and movement that occurred after The Colossus did not change the significance of the constantly recurring images. However, the images do combine with others to form constellations, acquiring a rich allusiveness which gives even the toughest and most direct of her poems resonance and complexity.
A frequent image for sterility in Plath’s poetry is the machine, like the ‘mathematical machine’ on which the spinster of the ‘Two Sisters of Persephone’ (C 63) calculated each sum until she ‘Turned bitter/And sallow as any lemon’. In ‘Magi’ (CW 40) this machine is reduced to a mathematical table. In ‘Getting There’ (A 43) it expands to become a train grinding across revolution-torn Russia. In ‘Daddy’ (A 54) it shrinks, with superb and bitter economy, to ‘an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew.’ In the early Stevensian, ‘Night Shift’ (C 11) the town at night is disturbed by the machines in ‘Main Street’s/Silver Factory’ which are ‘the blunt/ Indefatigable fact.’ The men who tend them seem to be consumed by them. That these prodigious and futile machines which ‘stunned the marrow’ operate in a silver factory seems no coincidence. In ‘Mirror’ (CW 52) the mirror says
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
The blunt indefatigable fact again, but here its destructiveness is stressed further.
At the end of ‘Blackberrying’ (CW 24) the poet walks with a Keatsian sensuousness through an intensely ambiguous ‘honey-feast of the berries’ until she abruptly comes out onto the sea. The sea appears to her as
nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.
After the decaying but rich fertility of the blackberries, the sea is mysterious, impressive, but sterile.
Another form of mirror, or mirror-image, is of course, the echo. In ‘Small Hours’ (CW 46) the poet pictures herself as an empty museum with pallid marble lilies, echoing ‘to the least footfall’. It is a picture of chilly and glittering emptiness, in which she is ‘Nun-hearted and blind to the world’. We encounter those echoes again in one of her last poems, ‘Words’ (A 86) where their ‘indefatigable hoof-taps’ are ‘dry and riderless’. The words themselves, of the title, which had once sunk into her mind the way a stone sinks into a pool or an axe bites into living wood, ‘Govern [her] life’ as stars control our destinies. And this now despite the fact that the water of her withdrawal and indifference has striven ‘To re-establish its mirror’ over the hurt. The sterile purity of the nun in ‘Small Hours’ recurs also in ‘Tulips’. In ‘Candles’ (CW 41) the candles are ‘Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry’. In the early poem ‘Spinster’ (C 68) winter, in the habit of a nun,
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock
is an unequivocal image of sterility. In ‘The Munich Mannequins’ (A 74) she says ‘Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children./ Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb.’ In another late poem, ‘Childless Woman’ (WT 16) the woman’s death-like sterility is yet again linked with the mirror-image in a way reminiscent of ‘Gerontion’: ‘Spiderlike, I spin mirrors’. Finally two male versions. ‘Gigolo’ (WT 14) is a Narcissus, for whom
All the fall of water [is] an eye
Over whose pool I tenderly
Lean and see me.
And the more sinister partner of ‘Death & Co.’ (A 38) is seen ‘Masturbating a glitter’.
The point that perhaps needs stressing about the state consistently represented by this group of images is that although Sylvia Plath’s attitude towards it is frequently, characteristically, ambivalent, the state itself is not. It is always deathly. The second group of images, however, does define something ambivalent in itself, and Plath’s attitude towards it, and thus towards the mirror-state, varies accordingly.
‘Wintering’ (A 68), one of the bee poems, most neatly demonstrates this ambivalence. It is winter, and the poet describes her hive:
This is the room I have never been in.
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
But the torch and its faint
Chines yellow on appalling objects —
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
The beehive becomes an image of her own mind, inhabited by creatures which, in their darkness, unknownness, seem to be a threat to her, pressing obsessively on her consciousness. However the poem continues:
The cold sets in.
Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen
Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women.
At the mention of snow (which clearly belongs to the first family of images, as it can only receive the dead) her attitude toward the bees changes. Instead of being appalled by them, she now identifies with them, as a fellow-woman, worker-bee, queen-bee, in their common struggle against the mindless blank of winter. When she realizes that the horrible black huddle has been forced on the bees by the impersonal, destructive snow, that it is their way of surviving, they lose their horribleness. Her true antagonist is recognized as being not the bees, which are actually trying to preserve life, but the venter itself. The poem ends, then, on a hopeful note. The winter of her own discontent and fear has been broken; and in the last line the bees are no longer huddled in blackness, but flying. ‘They taste the spring.’ By facing the threat within herself, and judging it against the invitation of annihilation imaged by winter and its snow, she becomes able not only to accept her life, but to affirm it.
The other outstanding poem of this group is ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ (A 63). In this poem the bees are even more invisible, even more unknown and threatening:
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export.
Black on black, angrily clambering.
She decides that she has ‘simply ordered a box of maniacs’, as potentially destructive as a Roman mob. The box and the bees, with their appalling ‘unintelligible syllables’, are again an image of the mind; her problem is how to cope with them. She could simply reject them, send them back to wherever they came from. Or she could kill them: ‘I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.’ But the solution she finally settles on is to open the box, stand right back, and set them free: ‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free./The box is only temporary.’
When I first knew this poem I took this to mean that the poet was possessed of something she could not handle, and with a wonderful coolness she had decided to put an end to it. The box, meaning her mind, her life, was only temporary anyway. In other words, I saw this as a suicidal poem.
I am now convinced that this is the wrong interpretation, even though something of it lingers on in the poem’s ambiguities as a kind of sombre undertone, a hinted possibility, reinforced as it is by the ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ that she wears to avoid getting stung. But if one thinks of the natural condition of bees, the condition in which they perform their functions of breeding, creating and storing honey, one realizes that that condition is freedom. Not sealed in a box, under ‘a little grid, no exit’ like a prison. Sealed in this way, the box does not represent the poet’s own life which she has decided to end, but an unnatural state of repression within her. It is, she now realizes, only temporary. In exercising this power to liberate the repressed contents of her mind, to decide, like a merciful God, her own destiny, she also becomes, like honey, ‘sweet’. Thus ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ is not suicidal. Despite the very intensity of her threat and horror, the poem moves to a fuller understanding of what is natural and creative, and thus to the tone of relief so evident in the last couple of lines. I would just like to note in passing the very obviously alert intelligence and the mature, almost bemused self-awareness, which accompany and facilitate this movement.
It is, in fact, after completing this group of bee poems that Sylvia Plath wrote the poems which form the basis of her current popularity: ‘The Applicant’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Ariel’, ‘Death & Co.’, ‘A Birthday Present’, ‘Daddy’ and ‘The Munich Mannequins’ (A 14, 16, 36, 38, 48, 54, 74). All these seem to have a total recklessness, an unmediated nakedness of utterance. But they are not all of her best poems, nor do they account for the whole of her complex sensibility at this time. Beside Lady Lazarus we must put the lonely mother, trying to pick up the pieces of her broken marriage, in such moving poems as ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ (A 40), ‘Child’, ‘Mystic’, ‘By Candlelight’, ‘For a Fatherless Son’, ‘Lesbos’ and ‘Mary’s Song’ (WT 12, 26, 28, 33, 34, 39).6
But before looking very briefly at these last poems, there is more to be said about the group of images to which the beehive belongs. Most important of all, unlike a mirror, a beehive is alive: you can feel and hear it living. But it is also frighteningly mysterious: you cannot normally get into it or see inside it. This quality of unknowness (not exactly unknowableness) is imaged by darkness, and is equated with threat. (In both ‘Wintering’ and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ the alleviation of threat coincides with an act of coming out into the open: i.e., the bees leave the blackness of their hive.) In all of Plath’s poetry, the more threatening anything becomes, and the less she feels herself able to cope, the blacker, literally, things are. White or silver never threaten, openly. They allure, invite, entice, like the poncy lover of ‘Death & Co.’ or ‘Gigolo’. Total blackness, on the other hand, represents unalleviated threat by something alive: the bees, for example; or the unidentifiable bird in ‘Elm’ (A 25) which is ‘Looking, with its hooks, for something to love’. The early ‘Man in Black’ (C 54), a negative ‘Idea of Order at Key West’ cum ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, prefigures this. The man dominates ‘the shove/And suck of the grey sea’ by his capital negation. In her late poetry he turns into the
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
— into ‘the black man’ standing ‘at the blackboard, daddy’ (A 54).
In between the silver and the black — both non-colours and both potentially destructive — are the gradations of health. Gold, the colour of honey, is cheerful, fruitful. Pink, baby colour, the lightest blood colour, is joyful, celebratory, reassuring. The red of poppies can be ‘A gift, a love gift’ (‘Poppies in October’, A 29) though, like tulips, it can trouble her too (‘Poppies in July’, A 82). The queen-bee at the end of ‘Stings’ (A 65) takes off over ‘the engine that killed her — / The mausoleum, the wax house’ (i.e. over the hive, the waxworks, the empty museum of ‘Small Hours’) like a ‘red/Scar in the sky, red comet’. In her resurrection she directly prefigures Lady Lazarus who, in her red hair, rises out of her own ash to eat men ‘like air’. As it approaches darkness, red becomes more ambiguous. In ‘The Munich Mannequins’, the menstrual ‘blood flood is the flood of love,/The absolute sacrifice./It means: no more idols but me’: Plath’s irony focusses on the sterility of the deliberately non-fertile womb. In ‘The Other’ (WT 22) when the poet scratches in her rage ‘like a cat’, ‘The blood that runs is dark fruit’. In ‘Kindness’ (A 83), written in the last week of her life, ‘The blood jet is poetry,/There is no stopping it.’ In ‘Contusion’ (A 84), written in the same week, the ‘dull purple’ of a bruise becomes ‘the whole sea’s pivot’, the utterly crucial evidence of life in contrast to the rest of the body’s ‘colour of pearl’. But, being a wound, it is also ‘The doom mark’, it points the way to death as well as testifying to life. ‘Contusion’, like ‘Kindness’ with its jetting, unstaunchable blood, is thoroughly ambiguous.
One can elaborate also on this group of images, tracing the way the individual images combine, like those of the other group, into sudden and frequently startling new configurations, while still retaining their basic significance: e.g. the wonderful opening stanza of ‘By Candlelight’ or the tormented complexities of ‘Thalidomide’ (WT 31). For despite the apparent colloquialness of her speech, her poetry is actually structured around a relatively small number of recurring, inter-relating images which provide her with a way of speaking meaningfully about her experience, and which give her work coherence and a kind of continuing logic. One suspects that if she had lived, she would have soon needed to enlarge on, or in some way further ramify, these images, if she were to avoid falling into repetition or a private shorthand. And there is evidence in what was written after the bee poems that she was moving in this direction. But in her work as it now stands, her imagery divides into the two quite distinct groups I have described, corresponding to the two contrary states of the human soul, so to speak. On the one hand, the mirror and its sterility, toward which she felt varying degrees of suicidal attraction; on the other hand, all that is coloured, three-dimensional, active, its most complex embodiment being the beehive. Images in this group may embody something external to the poet, or something internal; something creative or something destructive; something positive and joyful or something negative and threatening; and the more threatening, the darker. But above all, images of this group always represent something alive, even if the life of that thing is a threat to the life or the peace of the poet herself. Images of this group have nothing to do with suicide.
We have seen how the ambivalence of this life is explored and to some extent resolved in two of the bee poems. In ‘Tulips’ (A 20), a curiously misunderstood poem, Sylvia Plath acts out her exploration with great precision. The poet is in a hospital bed (actually recovering from an appendicectomy) ‘learning peacefulness, lying by [herself] quietly/As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.’ It is, not surprisingly for this mood, winter, and she comments on ‘how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.’ She has cut herself free, and is drifting peacefully towards non-existence: ‘I am nobody…’, ‘I have lost myself…’, ‘I have let things slip’, ‘I am a nun now, I have never been so pure’, ‘I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.’ The rhythms drift and slip with such complete absence of effort or exertion that it is easy to overlook the technical near-virtuosity of the poem. However, forcing themselves with abrupt brutality on the poet’s diminished consciousness are the tulips, too red, ‘too excitable.’ They are alive, she can ‘hear them breathe/Lightly…like an awful baby.’ They demand that she come out of her thoughtless drift into oblivion. In this way they threaten her achieved and deadly simplicity, they ‘should be behind bars like dangerous animals.’ But the point of the poem is that tulips, like dangerous animals, are alive, they speak, as it were, for life: ‘Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds’, she admits. So, by the end of the poem, the poet has been jolted out of her fatal drift toward non-existence, and becomes aware of her heart as ‘it opens and closes/Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love’. And though health is still far off, she is facing the right direction. So in this poem, in a particularly clear way, the two opposing images are collided; and out of the collision a judgment is made in favour of the complications and brutalities and imperfections of life, and against the immensely attractive simplification of non-life.
In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ Sylvia Plath made a decision to liberate the repressed contents of her mind, and the poems that followed seem to have a total recklessness, an unmediated nakedness of utterance. By way of conclusion I want to say a few words about what I see taking place in her last poems.
First, she is beginning to dispense with the by now highly sophisticated vocabulary of images which had enabled her previously to deal with her own private life in her poetry and which, up until this point, has been inseparable from her achievement. She becomes more direct. This is accompanied by a new immediacy of tone. In the last poems the toughness, the directness, the colloquial muscularity of the speaking voice all speak out against the abnegation, the effacement, of suicide’s icy or snowy repose. For example, the controlled fury of ‘The Applicant’, with its savagery directed against what today we popularly call male chauvinism, is anything but resigned. The tone of ‘A Birthday Present’ clearly contrasts with the loose, drifting suicidal first stanzas of ‘Tulips’. ‘Death & Co.’ has frequently been interpreted as prefiguring suicide. As I read it, it dramatizes the two forms in which death can come to one. ‘The one who never looks up’ is death the predator, the killer of babies, for whose carnivorous beak the poet, all of us, are ‘red meat’. The other is the would-be lover, the seducer, the death that wins you over to his side, suicide: the sterile lover, ‘masturbating a glitter’. He kills by freezing. But if ‘Somebody’s done for’, the poem’s tone of utter abhorrence makes it clear that it will not willingly be Sylvia Plath, even though she well knows that one of them will get her some day.
Absurd as it is, it still seems necessary to point out that ‘Lady Lazarus’ is not about or spoken by someone who is going to kill herself, but someone who has come back to life. ‘It’s easy enough to do it and stay put’; the miracle is the coming back. The poem proclaims a savage resilience in the face of death, and in the face of the ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer’ who would poke and stir her ashes, just to make sure she’s no more than ‘A cake of soap,/A wedding ring,/A gold filling’, the raw materials served up to ‘The Applicant’. In ‘Daddy’, with its bitingly mocking nursery rhymes and direct reference to the poet’s married life, it is not Plath who is being killed:
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two —
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
‘Daddy’ is a fierce exorcism. But to balance the picture, one should remember that she also said of her husband about the same time, after they had separated, ‘Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?’ (‘Mystic’, WT 26). And the answer she gives is
The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats,
The children leap in their cots.
The sun blooms, it is a geranium.
The heart has not stopped.
At the end of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, knowing now the annihilatory implications of mercury, we can understand the tribute she pays to her baby son as she says
Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
In ‘Mary’s Song’ (WT 39) the fire is destruction is what makes life precious. And ‘Ariel’ ends:
Am the arrow
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
If this impetuous vitality is suicidal as she says, it is suicidal in exactly the exhilarating way Marvell is (and with the same erotic implications) when he tells his coy mistress:
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Through the iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
It would be absurd, even callous, to underestimate the intense emotional suffering evident in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, particularly in that late handful of poems where the raw nerves seem shockingly stripped bare. The temptation to give it all up, to sink down with the Lorelei, ‘Those great goddesses of peace’, into their ‘flux of silver’ was immense. Finally, and tragically, it proved irresistible. But the nature of the poet’s death in no way alters the statements she made in her poems. The strength of Sylvia Plath’s poetry results from her finding and developing an imagery which enabled her to pass subtle and precise judgments on matters almost intolerably close to the bone — without sacrificing one atom of either personal immediacy or objective precision. In the poems themselves, the grand simplification of suicide, balanced against the excruciating ambiguities of life, is seen at heart to be a pallid effacement of human, and particularly feminine, vitality and potential. She has set us a painful and challenging example of what being honest can mean.
- Richard Howard, Alone with America, London 1970, p. 416.
- For convenience, I shall refer to Plath’s volumes of poetry, listed here roughly in order of composition, by the letters in parentheses:
The Colossus (C), London 1960, 1967.
Crossing the Water (CW), London 1972.
Winter Trees (WT), London 1972.
Ariel (A), London 1965.
All references are to the Faber editions.
- Howard, op. cit., p. 421.
- Ibid., p. 417.
- Further aspects of this collection of images are treated in Norman Talbot’s ‘Sisterhood Is Powerful’, New Poetry, Vol. 21, No. 3. Unfortunately I did not see this article until after the present essay was completed.
- Both ‘Lesbos’ and ‘Mary’s Song’ were included in the U.S. edition of Ariel, but not in the English one.