Printer Friendly

Drying is an art that I do exceptionally well.

As a poet, Sylvia Plath does not easily fit into conventionally established categories. She weaves a rich imaginative tapestry of her own, an intricate pattern of interrelations, which, allegedly, prevent her poems from closing on a definite meaning, and bring us in the proximity of mysterious and lost zones of experience. "The world of her poetry is one of emblematic visionary events, mathematical symmetries, clairvoyance, and metamorphoses. Her poetry escapes ordinary analysis in the way clairvoyance and medium-ship do" (Ted Hughes; apud Bassnett 1987: 36). The dramatic aggressiveness of her imagery derives, to a large degree, from the intrinsic tension of the inner and outer forces that organize her imaginative space and give it an essentially dynamic identity. Her poems are proper "language events" (cf. Friederich 1969: 103) that celebrate a "reality" in the making, the coherence of which is ultimately given by the direction of the movement inherent in them.

An alternative reading is proposed in the following pages, which privileges, from the beginning, neither any particular image, nor any of its associated meanings. No definitive conclusions can therefore be drawn from the nocturnal dominant of Plath's apocalyptic imagery, nor from the sense of dread, or the Kafkaesque suggestiveness of some images persistently reiterated in her poetry, since most of them bring forth diverse and incongruous meanings (Smith 1970: 98). We cannot totally

sympathize with those critical approaches, which though underscoring symbolic action, unnecessarily reduce Plath's poetry to the projection of a creative psyche only (cf. Bassnett, 1987: 54). While going for symbolic images, we do not take them for final products, rather for sites, where man's deepest and most organic urges that tend to express spontaneously into language and external pressure (historical, cultural, etc.) fashion and balance one other (cf. Durand 1977: 48-49; Burgos 1988: 31). Their specific dynamism permanently threatens the identity of writing, diverts it from a mechanical genesis; by the virtualities they open, they select linguistic materials, figure and gradually give them a meaning, along certain chosen itineraries (schemes), a meaning that is always man's fear of the devouring time (cf. Burgos 1988: 156). Symbolic images set up a new mode of perceiving the world and establish new relations between words and reality. They mediate between man and the world, and may "conduce us to the origin of the human being" (Bachelard 1978: 7). The poetical space that symbolic images configure ultimately remains unlimited and open, although oriented. In it, norms are permanently denied; it is a space of continuous becoming. Moreover, symbolic images are not empty, transparent forms, they have their own thingness: the text shapes them, but they also condition it.

We shall take full advantage of a suggestion made by Ted Hughes namely that Sylvia Plath's "separate poems build up into one long poem" (apud Bassnett 1987: 36, emphasis added). This unique "poem" of Plath remains unuttered; all we can do, as readers, is to approximate its horizons, as closely as possible, from what is expressed in separate poetic works. Rather, our aim is to uncover the creative mechanism, the poetical ratio hidden in images in its gradual structuring, to identify the atemporal in-forming principles that govern their coherence, impose a particular convergence upon them, and guide reading along certain obligatory imaginative itineraries. Our reading complies with the symbolic fractures inherent in her poetry: by mapping the spaces of the text, at all its levels--phonic, rhythmic, lexical, syntactic, rhetorical, logical--by following each line of force, beyond the turn of experience, toward what conditions it, we shall attempt to awaken what otherwise remains latent in her work. Poetry like Plath's is simultaneously a way of living, for it gives an answer to the individual's presence in the world, and gnosis: through it, the poet attempts to "stimulate," or to "balance" reality in order to gain a unitary understanding of the world, either by giving, or by discovering meaning in it (Burgos 1988: 165). For Plath, analogies between life experience and art are not mere pretexts; with her, the autobiographical import weighs heavily with truth.

What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?

The important thing is the aesthetic form given to my chaotic experience, which is, as it was for James Joyce, my kind of religion, and as necessary for me... as the confession and absolution for a Catholic in church" (Plath 1975: 211). Aware of the founding powers of language, she searches for an answer to her almost paralyzing dread of finitude, in the Verb. It is in this attitude that we should seek for the deepest sources of an ars poetica, which insists on the poet's capacity of modelling and keeping in check her experiences. For her, the poetic space is the realm where all personal conflicts could be resolved: "I think my poems come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing else except by a needle or knife or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying" (apud Alvarez 1970: 64). Plath understands the poetic process as an attempt to transform reality, by imposing on it the superior order of her artistic insight. The world, which opens, thus gets its proper measure, and is the place where one's truth emerges: "Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and re-loving of people and the world as they are and as they might be. A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world" (Plath 1998: 270-271). The vision that glorifies a poet in complete control of her means of expression is admirably illustrated by "The Snakecharmer," a poetical piece inspired by Henri Rousseau's La Charmeuse de Serpents: "As gods began one world, and man another,/So the Snakecharmer begins a snaky sphere/With moon-eye, mouth-pipe. Pipes green. Pipes water./ Pipes water green until green waters waver/with ready lengths and necks and undulating./and as his notes twine green, the green river/Shapes its images around its songs..."

The desire to imaginatively 'conquer and domesticate' new realms is also the source of a metaphor for the very act of making poems. The bees converting pollen to honey in the "bee poems," or the blind pianist's able fingers giving life to the "tumult of keys" in "Little Fugue," are as mysterious as is the poet's channeling her emotions and raw materials into the powerful images of poetry: "I like black statements/the featurelessness of that cloud, now!/White as an eye all over!/At my table on the ship./He felt hot his food./His finger had noses of weasels./ I couldn't stop looking./He could hear Beethoven:/Black yew, white cloud,/The horrific complications./Finger-traps--a tumult of keys."

Trustful of her own creative powers and abilities, Plath chooses to face her own dread directly, by creating a female figure ("rising lioness," "Virgin") with which she obviously identifies. Ascensional schemes, specific of this symbolic journey, along which, we frequently come across images of light, dramatize the desire of the lyrical self to become whole--a struggle that seldom completely succeeds in producing positive effects: "All by myself I am a huge camellia/Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush./I think I am going up,/I think I may rise--/the beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I// Am pure acetylene/Virgin/Attended by roses" ("Fever 103"). The purification that accompanies the upward movement manifests itself as sublimation of flesh, through mutilation, self-laceration, or fire. Significantly, the protagonist also possesses satanic attributes, which only points to Plath's precarious condition as a writer. For someone, who seems to be doomed to live a dangerous existence, the capacity to imagine is constitutive of, or substantiates, her individuality; the creative moment gives her a brief respite from the fear of complete annihilation. It is Plath's particular manner of responding to the challenges of life, her way of actively engaging in action; it marks her wish to re-gain a power (imagination?) mankind has lost, through continuous degradation. It is however interesting to point out that Plath does not resort to the religious solution; divine transcendence plays no important creative role in organizing her imaginary.

The poet celebrates movement and change now: "Eternity bores me,/I never wanted it./ What I love is/the piston in motion--/My soul dies before it" ("Years"). The first symbolic itinerary that we will follow prolongs schemes of impetuous, disorderly movement. It also brings together images of the horse, and fantastic cavalcades: "And the hooves of the horses,/their merciless churn./And you, great Stasis--/what is so great in that!/They enter as animals from the outer/Space of holly where spikes/Are not the thoughts I turn on, like a Yogi" ("Years"). The train, the "monstrous animal," is a major image of linear, inexorable movement, in late poems; only it juxtaposes with a destination, i.e., death that totally reverses its meaning. "The engine is killing the track, the rack is silver,/it stretches into the distance./It will be eaten nevertheless./ Its running is useless" ("Totem"). "How far is it?/ How far is it now?/The gigantic gorilla interior/ Of the wheels move, they appall me--/The terrible brains/Of Krupp, black muzzles/ Revolving the sound/Punching out Absence! Like cannon." ("Getting There")

The Other that assaults on the speaker's sense of identity frequently figures as huge, and disproportionate. So are the ripe huge berries, the birds wheeling overhead, "Nigger-eye/ Berries cast dark/Hooks--/Black sweet blood mouthfuls" ("Ariel"); "The earthen womb/ Exudes from its dead boredom./Black bat airs/ Wrap me, raggy shawls,/Cold homicides" ("Nick and the Candlestick"); "Clownlike, happiest on your hands,/Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,/ gilled like a fish..." ("You're"). Here, even flowers look threatening and horrendous. "The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.../their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds./they are subtle: they seem to float though they weigh me down,/Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color." ("Tulips")

Male figures, demons of possession and dependency, the female victim fights with, usually build by accumulation. So does the pictorial image, echoing Dali, of "The Colossus": "Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol/I crawl like an ant in mourning/Over the weedy acres of your brow/To mend the immense skull-plates and clear/The bald, white tumuli of your eyes." The morbid geometrisation in the portrait of the patriarchal figure, in "The Colossus" or "Daddy," is obvious. With Plath, monumentality seems to link with the conquest of some space. The grotesque, enormous figure that gradually takes imaginative shape in "The Colossus" not only produces a feeling of dread that paralyses the speaker, it also fills in the space, thus, ironically, annulling any movement. In "Daddy," the young woman defeats her paralyzing terror through allegorical representation, and overt rebellion. Evoking resurrection, the poem however foregrounds the heroic stance. The visionary immolation of the God-figure of the father, which blends images of vampire, statue, Nazi officer--figuring other patriarchal structures that marked the history of the twentieth century --, in "Daddy" is meant to break the chains that make her the perpetual victim; it is an exorcism meant to restore the balance of life. Offered only the silent forgetfulness of death, the speaker turns defiant. There is some pride in her tenacity: "Beware/Beware/Out of ash/I rise with my red hair/and eat men like air" ("Lady Lazarus"). Along this symbolic itinerary, we come across the "terrible mother," who devours her own offspring: "Mother of other ness/eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorway" ("Poem for a Birthday"). Plath's imaginary also figures a rich bestiary of ferocious animals and birds of prey, which most likely descend from Frazer's Golden Bough, bloodied chicks, and quartered rabbits, swarming bees ("The Bee Meeting," "The Arrival of the Bee Box"), all of them being embodiments of an ominous force, the Other the self has to confront with. So are the images of the devouring sun ("a red eye, cauldron," in "Ariel"), of the menacing and predatory sea, or of the wind: "Steadily the sea/Eats at Point Shirley" ("Point Shirley"); "[T]he wind/Pours like destiny, bending/Everything in one direction... " ("Wuthering Heights"). The moon (another portentous image of the Other) governs this first visionary scenario of Plath. Alluded in "Insomniac," the moon's hostility is then amply developed in "Ariel." The aggressive and destructive background remains obstinately nocturnal. "All the morning/the morning has been blackening" ("Sheep in Fog"). "This wood burns a dark/Incense" ("Dark Wood, Dark Water"). "The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper,/Blue-black, with much-poked periods of stars" ("Insomniac"). "The trees of the mind are black." ("The Moon and the Yew Tree"). With Plath, blackness ostensibly delineates a space of stasis; associated with water, it becomes an initiation into the rigor mortis. Plath's water is always a mare tenebrum. It possesses no lustral clearness; on the contrary, it is intensely blueblack, the abyssal color; it is a direct figuration of nothingness: "A flower left out./My bones hold a stillness, the far/Fields melt my heart./ They threaten/to let me through a heaven/ Starless and bottomless, a dark water" ("Sheep in Fog"). The poet's awareness of the fundamental dissociation and separation of things remains central to her vision of the world. In "Ocean 1212W," she confesses: "I saw coldly and soberly the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin. I am I" (Plath 1979: 120). Bodies and objects break into pieces, and in doing so, each of them seems to live a life of its own. In "The Applicant," people, seen as the Other, are described as crippled, and as dismembered bodies, a junk heap of miscellaneous parts, given a shape by clothes only. Often, the speaker of the poems perceives herself as fragmented, with no sense of a complete human being--a sign of inner split. "Now I break into pieces/that fly about like clubs./These are my hands, my knees" ("Elm").

This fragmentation of the self may emerge from Plath's attempt to be a writer in a gender-polarized culture. She seems to have assigned herself the hopeless task of staying true to her vocation as a poet, while at the same time attempting to live up to the archetype of the competent, all-round woman. "My ideal of being a good teacher, writing a book on the side, and being an entertaining homemaker, cook and wife, is rapidly evaporating. I want to write first, and being kept apart from writing, from giving myself a chance to really devote myself to developing this 'spectacular promise' that the literary editors write me about when they reject my stories, is really very hard" (Plath 1975: 343). As a writer, Plath made strenuous efforts to locate herself to an androcentric culture.

Language enhances the dissolution of subjectivity; that is why Plath guides all her efforts to construct a meaningful self-presence. It looks as if she wished to make up for her fragmented existence, by investing herself in her texts: "Hope, when free, to write myself out of this hole" (Plath 1975: 466). Within such an imaginative context, the breaking of the mirror signifies destruction of either physical or spiritual composure of a life drawing to its end. "A disturbance in mirrors,/The Sea shattering its grey one" ("The Couriers"). "The sap/Wells like tears, like the/Water striving/to re-establish its mirror/Over the rock" ("Words"). Fragments stubbornly keep apart and deny any attempt to restore life to its original unity (reconstruction usually appears as a return to sanity from mental disturbance); clinical and technical imagery of surgery and mechanical spare parts is extensively used to indicate the failure of the attempt; recovery frequently turns into mere "patching." The corollary of this vision is a collage, or rather "implosive," technique (Bassnett 1987: 55), involving logically non-motivated spatial, meaning and situational juxtaposition of the poetic materials. It accounts for the abrupt transition and elimination of connectors. This creates "hallucinatory" effects and turns some of the poems into what one could call "absolute metaphors" (cf. Friedrich 1969:74). The elliptical notations in "The Couriers" are a good example: "The word of a snail on a plate of a leaf?/It is not mine. Do not accept it./Acetic acid in a sealed tin?/Do not accept it. It is not genuine./A ring of gold with the sun in it?/Lies. Lies and grief./ Frost on a leaf, the immaculate/Cauldron, talking and crackling/All to itself on the top of each/ Of nine black Alps./A disturbance in mirrors,/ The sea shattering its grey one--/Love, love, my season." The subtle typographic arrangement in other poems enhances their spatial configuration: stanzas are fragmented, logical transitions are superseded, and images tend to be autarchic. Still, out of the apparent disorder, a sense of whole emerges, for the unity of the poem relies heavily on this seemingly chaotic spatial arrangements. Time turns into space. We are now in a position to judge more adequately is what Plath meant in the statement, "what I fear most, I think, is the death of imagination [...]. It is that synthesizing spirit, that shaping force which prolifically sprouts and makes up its own world with more inventiveness than God, which I desire [...]. The world goes like a slack drum without meaning. We must be moving, working, making dreams to run forward, the poverty of life without dreams is too horrible to imagine" (Plath 1979: 260, emphasis added). This spatialisation of vision also accounts for the predominance of nouns over verbs. The result is an imaginative space of stasis, where duration is ironically denied. However, figuring an evil as one wishes, Plath exorcises its forces and turns it into an object of contemplation, deprived of the threatening halo. Her poems testify to the poet's struggle to override all the imagery of death and horror because figuring time in its dark aspects means that one is going to subject it to the possibility of exorcising it.

The last thing I wanted was infinite security

The visionary heroism of previous schemes seems never to be carried out to its ultimate consequences. We notice that the negative hyperbole, so amply represented, often provides a pretext for antithesis. The images that negatively reclaim the 'faces of time' are constantly opposed by others, which express the individual's flee from it. Ultimately, escape through defiant rebellion remains only a lure; the persona of Plath cannot completely free her from

the bondage of death, for the moment, at least: "I am not his yet" ("Death & Co."). No other images seem more appropriate for the sense of transience, of giving way to the dreadful night, than the burning up candle in "Nick and the Candlestick." Since the nightmarish reality continually assaults and threatens to destroy her as an individual, the poet has to look for other remedies of salvation in the spaces of the imaginary. Rather, she chooses to disengage; it is a sort of Achilles' proud withdrawal from battle. This does not mean she gives up, only this time she tries to conquer time and its agents from the inside, by operating on their very substance.

Following an inner pattern, now Plath's protagonist attempts to avoid the confrontation with the immolating time, by retreating to the illusory safety of the protective places of quietness. She imaginatively lures Time to some place, where she can easily defeated it (cf. Durand 1977: 150). Conscious of her inability to live naturally, the Secretary, in "Three Women," finds in retirement her way out of the agony of life: "I shall move north. I shall move into a long blankness./I see myself as a shadow, neither man nor woman,/neither a woman, happy to be like a man, nor a man,/Blunt and flat enough to feel no lack. I feel a lack./I hold my fingers up, ten white pickets./See, the darkness is leaking from the cracks./I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life./I shall be the heroine of the peripheral." The new attitude materializes in images figuring the regression in time or to a secret place, the descent into an unknown world: "I am a miner. The light burns blue./Wacky stalactites/Drip and thicken, tears/the earthen womb/Exudes from its dead boredom" ("Nick and the Candlestick"). Along the same route, we come across the death-by-water theme: "Ouija" presents "a chilly god, god of shades" who "rises to the glass from his black fathoms," while in "Lorelei" the sleeping peace of the mundane world is broken by the song of the Rhine maidens' shapes, seen below the surface, which the speaker of the poem wants to join. Their underworld contains the promise of a life beyond worldly order. The image reappears in "Tulips," where the protagonist finally surrenders to the flower-sinkers: "Sacred and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley/I watched my tea-set, my bureaus of linen, my books/Sink out of sight, and water went over my head." This movement is also illustrated by images of seclusion and closing: "She has folded/they back into her body as petals/of a rose when the garden/Stiffens and odors bleed/from sweet deep throats of the night flower" ("Edge"). To protect herself from the destructive force of time, Plath covets the fostering shelter that gives her reasons or, at least, illusions of stability. The more aggressive and destructive the action of time is, the more the strategies of closing, and protecting, proliferate. Typically Plathian are the box, the hothouse, the womb, the bottle, the cave, or the hospital: "[H]ow sweet/the babies look in their hospital/ Iceboxes" ("Death & Co."); "Hothouse baby in its crib/the ghastly orchid" ("Fever 103"); "Bottle in which I live/Ghastly Vatican." ("Lady Lazarus")

These shelters however provide precarious protection, and no intimacy. The promise of security and refuge they give is short-lived and deceptive. The underworld remains damp, black, cold, bare, and menacing; the mood of seclusion is bleak. Nevertheless, in "Nick and the Candlestick," the assurance of safety, contained in the child's world of beauty and innocence, though not completely freeing the mother from the horror of her existence, can offer her some hope. The human being seems to be doomed to wander forever, to find safer and better-hidden places, at a regular pace. "Facing the task in herself deterred, recalled, Plath pleads to make the journey for which she is not ready, though eager" (Howard 1971: 420). In "Plaster" and "Paralytic," the dominant image is the one of confinement; the individual is entrapped within a cast, and unable to move. The image is but the counterpart of a similar and truly alienating personal experience: "Very depressed today. Unable to write anything. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness. I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers' beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life in this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass." (Plath 1998: 319)

The individual's presence in such spaces is usually accompanied by the feeling, or wish of emptiness, and is frequently associated with numbness and sleep, hibernation, and flatness; one could call it, as Annas does, the "Dionysian response," which entails the dissolution of the self into a sort of all-embracing Other (1988: 3). It is a world of coldness and blankness, in which the individual feels she has reached a state of complete nullity, and the self is often seen as the still, empty center of a whirling movement. A striking image figuring the inner devastation, which Plath sometimes uses for the making of her poems, is that of the menstrual blood: "Spiderlike, I spin mirrors/Loyal to my image,/ uttering nothing but blood--/Taste it, dark red!/ And my forest/My funeral,/And this hill and this/Gleaming with mouths of corpses" ("Three Women"). The spilt of menstrual blood is also symbolic of waste and unfulfilled femininity: "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children./ Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb/Where the yew tree blow like hydras,/The tree of life and the tree of life/Unloosing their moon, month after month, to no purpose/The blood is the flood of love,/The absolute sacrifice" ("The Munich Mannequins"). The speaker of Plath's poems often feels helpless and imprisoned, unable to talk with a world, significantly placed under the sign of the 'lilies of death' ("Crossing the Water"). In a similar manner, the hospital experience is envisaged as an immersion into pain, and loss of identity: "I am exhausted. I am exhausted./Pillar of white in a blackout of knives" ("The Bee Meeting"). "I only wanted/to lie down with my hands turned up and be utterly/ Empty" ("Tulips"). It is a state of null emotions, in which the self fades away, and is given the illusion of escaping from the circle of death: "How free it is, you have no idea how free--/The peacefulness is so big, it dazes you,/And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets./It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them/ shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet." ("Tulips")

Depersonalization, flatness usually appear as paper-cut or shadow, images that underscore the sense of insubstantiality and become emblems of a life on the verge of complete dissipation: "My hours are married to a shadow" ("The Colossus"). "Love is a shadow" ("Elm"); "A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle about a bald hospital saucer./It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper/and appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg" ("A Life"). In "Tulips," the speaker describes herself as "flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow/between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips." Similarly, the woman, in "The Applicant," is "naked as paper to start/ But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,/in fifty, gold." Flatness is also alluded to in the cubist design of "Crossing the Water": "Two black cut-paper people," in the "thin/Papery feeling" of "Cut": "my/Homunculus, I am ill./I have taken a pill to kill?", or in the blankness of men in "Three Women": "There was something about them like a cardboard, and now I had caught it." In "Winter Trees," the fog is "the blotter of trees." As an attribute of the Other, flatness is also seen as a source of spiritual and physical destruction; at least this is the image the Secretary has of her non-pregnant body. In "Three Women," flatness is identified with God, and is seen as part of a divine plan. Miscarried children are perceived as in a state of sacredness in death, which is, ironically, the holy state of perfection. The 'moon as diseased' is characteristic of this imaginative itinerary. Associated with the menstrual flow, the yew tree, and blankness, in "The Munich Mannequins," "The Other" and "Little Fugue," it signifies bareness and despair. Its baldness, in "Candles," "The Moon and the Yew Tree," "The Disquieting Muses," "The Colossus," "Love Letter," one of Plath's most striking images, connotes spiritual and physical blindness. It is consistently connected with extreme whiteness, which is indicative of infertility, disease, and alienation, usually antagonistic to the fertility of the female protagonist. Personified as woman--in "Poem for a Birthday," "The Rival," "Three Women"--the moon controls female power, and can affect one's identity. In "Thalidomide," the deformed child seems to have been acted upon by the barrenness of the moon. Its association with hospitals and illness, madness, grief, seas, and despair, reinforces the suggestion of anguish. The moon's realm is a sterile, hostile world of physical and spiritual torment, to which the poems inexorably move, as the poet increasingly claims kinship with the forces of blackness. "The moon has nothing to be ashamed about./Staring from her food of bone.// The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,/with a knuckle and terribly upset./It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet/With the O-gape of complete despair."

These spaces are often seen as passages to another dimension of time yet, they are not the final destination. The quest for the inner bearings of the soul, the nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood, or the primordial unity of the beginnings, often figure as a journey towards a private place. The mirror is such a mediator between the ideal world of dream and the actual world of matter; it is a sort of Alice's magic looking glass, and functions as a Jungian lake of unconscious, in which the specular double is rescued. "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 faithfully./ She rewards me with tears and agitation of hands./ I am important to her. She comes and goes./Each morning it is her 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" ("Mirror"). Similarly, the snag in the dark lake of "Crossing the Water," alluding to the passing of King Arthur, reminds us that the voyage signifies the entrance into the world of magic. The journey backwards reveals itself as a ritual of initiation. Depersonalization no longer means dissipation; rather, it is merging, conciliatory fusion of the self with objects. Feeling outcast turns into "this in-feeling, this identification with light, trees, water, things, is another aspect of the new poetry--everything is listening, trembling, sentient. There is no sure object ground--stillness and motion, near and far, telescope upsettingly, they become one" (Plath; apud Markey 1993: 125-126). It is within this symbolic framework that Plath's "lithic impulse, her desire, her need to reduce the demands of life to the unquestioning acceptance of a stone" (Howard 1971: 415), or the experience of dissolution become meaningful. By depersonalizing the self, by apprehending it as a concrete inanimate object (a statue, a letter in a slot, a flowerpot, a dead stone, a pellet of skin and bone), the persona attempts to escape conflicts and fears by diminishing awareness. The speaker ceases to resist the compulsive 'darkness of the moon', and chooses to accept it instead, bringing the long struggle to an end. In "Poem for a Birthday," she longs to immerse her identity in the natural surroundings, to become part of them. Thus, she hopes she will be able to renounce all external or inner calls, and sink back into a state of utter nullity, of complete repose.

The cluster of images connoting merging also includes the spider, with its complex symbolism of binding. There is a deadly attraction in its image: "Multiplied in the eyes of the flies./They buzz like blue children/In nets of the infinite,/ Roped at one end by the one/Death with its many sticks" ("Totem"). The same umbilical relationship that binds daughter and mother together is evoked in "Medusa": "My mind winds to you/Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable..../ I didn't call you/I didn't call you at all./ nevertheless, nevertheless/you steamed to me over the sea,/Fat and red, a placenta/Paralyzing the kicking lovers." In "Poem for a Birthday," the speaker identifies with the subterranean animal that eats its way out in the bowl of the root, in an attempt to build herself a shelter from the depths of the self: "This dark house, very big./I made it myself,/Cell by cell from a quiet corner." Puzzlingly, the very materiality of bodies and objects seems to be shed and transcended through the self's merging with the data of immediate experience. Thus, the individual is given the illusion of escaping the cycle of death, and transforms herself into something bodiless, though not dispersed.

A syntax of reversals is the natural pendant of this imaginative movement towards harmony. At various levels of the poetic discourse, it shows in the reconciliation of contraries. Stylistically, this tendency materializes in the multiplication of assimilating, metaphorical processes, which draw together heterogeneous elements. The poet's vision of the world continues to be fragmentary; while adhering to reality, it is entirely subjectively motivated. Hence Plath's propensity for dense colors, the impression of perceiving objects closely, and the lack of formal precision, in her poems. The location of things is suspended, and the thick paste paradoxically renders them indistinct from one another. Emotion prevails over pictorial representation. The forms and contours of objects blur and, consequently, Plath's imaginative world looks rather amorphous. The super-reality the words create looks familiar, though strange, inviolable, often cold, and cruel. Textual proximity and equating parallelisms are instrumental in setting forth the confusion of the self and the outer world. Plath's pantheism, her belief in the soul's kinship with everything around it, originates from this assimilating drive. "I remembered everything.[...] They [the objects] were part of me. They were my landscape" (Plath 1972: 193-194). The vocabulary reduced to a few, closely related semantic fields also models on the same intention of minimizing differences. The tendency to coalesce things shows in the juxtaposition of images, and in the elimination of connectors. Hence the impression of disorder, often taken for the counterpart of mental derangement. "From poem to poem they have little principle of beginning or ending, but seem fragments not so much of a long poem as of an out-pouring which could not stop with the lapsing of the poet's hysteria" (Spender 1970: 202). The scarcity of objects that fill the imaginative space corresponds to the poet's inner void. The absorption of the individual into the world finally leads to the destructuring of impressions, the correlative of an inner reality, itself falling to pieces. Plath's poems thus depict an ambiguous space where the spirit has lost its anchor, and drifts away. The persona can never gain possession of a truly protective shelter. Despite its harmonizing processes, the syntax of the imaginary singles out the individual's inability to achieve a balance. The self moves in a closed space, and is ultimately left only with the impenetrable surface of things: "The photographic chamber of the eye/records bare painted walls, while an electric light/flays the chromium nerves of plumbing raw;/such poetry assaults the ego;/caught naked in the merely actual room,/the stranger in the lavatory mirror/puts on a public grin, repeats our name/ But scrupulously reflects the usual terror./Just how guilty are we when the ceiling/reveals no cracks that can be decoded?" ("Tale of a Tub")

I am incapable of more knowledge

At some point in her poetic career, Sylvia Plath may have felt that silence ("The Courage of Shutting Up"), rather than rebellion, was the true answer to the continuous assault of existence; yet not the silence of death, which no one can possibly reach, but the silence that only understanding can give. The muses, whose call used to be so strong once, are now "mouth-less" ("The Disquieting Muses"). Gone too, is the miraculous song that once made the world of dream and of daily experience converge. "Lady Lazarus," on the other hand, reveals the condition of a self-condemned to repeat endlessly the same cycle of death (suicide?) and rebirth, like an actor who has to play the same role, on and on. "Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels like real./I guess you could say I've a call.// It's easy enough to do it in a cell./It's easy enough to do it and stay put./It's the theatrical/ Comeback in broad day/to the same place, the same face, the same brute// Amused shout:/'A miracle!'" Totally caught up, she sees no possibility of escape; the ways and means she has used so far are no longer effective. Significantly, both the images of self-laceration, characteristic of the first itinerary, and those of fusion, characteristic of the second, seem to converge in what we might call the "resurrection" of being. Searching for rhythmical constants, within the familiar, even domestic space she continues to be attached to, Plath now tries to dominate time, through reconciliation with it. Her hope for personal salvation lies in the universal motion now. The need for re-birth is at one with the need to experience the world. For somebody, who has faced death, the cure is simply living. Time must be endured: "What is the remedy?/The pill of the Communion tablet,/ the walking beside still water? Memory?/Or picking up the bright pieces/Of Christ in the faces of rodents,/The tame flower-nibblers, the ones//Whose hopes are slow they are comfortable--/The humpback in his small, washed cottage/Under the spokes of the clematis./Is there no great love, only tender ness?/Does the sea// Remember the walker upon it?/Meaning leaks from the molecules./ The chimneys of the city breathe, the windows sweat/the children leap in their cots./The sun blooms. It is geranium./The heart has not stopped" ("Mystic"). This new symbolic route brings together schemes of temporal cycles, and images of the tree, which could be "an attempt to bring to consciousness the magic spirits contained in the world" (Uroff1980: 141), as well as images of swarming and multiplication, of vegetation cycles: "On their blotter of fog the trees/ Seem a botanical drawing--/Memories growing, ring on ring/A series of weddings/Knowing neither abortions nor butchery/[...] They seed so effortlessly!/Testing the winds, that are footless,/Waist-deep in history"// "The tree of life and the tree of life/unloosing their moons, month after month./To no purpose." ("Winter Tree")

Of particular significance are the images of fertility and birth, characteristic of the Wife's experience in "Three Women." Pregnancy here is seen as an inevitable outcome; it is consonant with the order of the world, an integration into its rhythms. The identification of the heavy body with the swollen seed emphasizes the suggestion that the decay and death of the old self is necessary for its re-birth to happen: "I am slow as the world. I am very patient,/turning through my time, the suns and stars/regarding me with attention./The moon's concern is more personal:/ She passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse./Is she sorry for what will happen? I do not think so./She is simply astonished at fertility." Along this itinerary, we come across, once more, the image of the mirror, now a reflection of one's attempt to conceive ("Childless Women"), even part of an image of pregnancy ("Morning Song"). Not a platonic ideal, but the ever-changing reality itself ("Mirror"), the mirror represents a state of normality and safety in "Brasilia." It is often associated with the child, who's genuine, and ever-expanding clarity, opposes mother's narrow world of loneliness. "Pool in which images/ should be grand and classical./Not this troublous/Wringing of hands, this dark/Ceiling without a star" ("Child"). The beehive, one of Plath's most complex symbolic images (see the bee sequence: "The Bee Meeting," "The Arrival of the Bee Box," "Stings," "Wintering"), not only brings together other major images, i.e., the moon, the tree, the stone, but also gives one of the most exquisite expressions of the idea that life is a permanent confrontation between stasis and death, purity and rebirth.

Searching for the very foundations of her own consciousness, Plath also evokes various histories, personal or universal, as well as great social convulsions, and a rich war imagery. "It is you the knives are out/At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon,/The hump of Elba on your short back,/ And the Snow, marshalling its brilliant cutlery/ Mass after mass, saying 'Shah'!" ("The Swarm"). She orders them in a history that acquires meaning, due to their global significance. It seems that by forcing the world to repeat itself, the writer hopes to bring reality back to its primeval condition. It is also true that Plath avoids trivialization of human agony, which such a direct relation between woman's abuse and mundane destruction may create, as she exposes here hierarchical powers of domination and oppression. However, beyond the apparently meaningless flowing of time, the poet discovers the very foundation of life's mobility. The self rises from the disturbing individual temporariness, in the light of which life is a mere flow towards nothingness, to the deeper meaning of existence, which turns to be perpetual revival. The experience of history gets a meaning imposed by time itself. Maintaining the self in the stream of time, the protagonist of Plath's poems wins her freedom; it is the freedom of the individual who discovers herself and recognizes herself in nature.

Nature appears now as a field of forms and meanings where 'transcendence' releases itself. Yet, the term has no religious connotation; traditional Christian transcendence is usually mocked at, and, generally speaking, religious imagery plays only a minor role in Plath's poetry: "O God, I am unlike you/In your vacuous black/ Stars-stuck all over, bright stupid confetti./ Eternity bores me,/I never wanted it" ("Years"). Notably, the vision of God is one of enormity, which leaves no possibility of human fulfillment. The ecstatic insights of the mystic cause excruciating pain only. There are few instances when Plath gives a positive assessment of Christian symbols; most of them cluster in "Three Women": there the Wife describes herself as Mary, the new born baby as Christ and his temptation in the wilderness, while Christ's Passion and Sacrifice signify suffering, for the Secretary. The reason should be found in the poet's complex personal experience of institutionalized religion: "I think our little church very lovely--it has eight bell ringers and some stained-glass windows, but I must say the Anglican religion seems terribly numb and cold and grim to me.... All the awful emphasis on our weakness and sinfulness and being able to do nothing but through Christ.... But I do want Frieda to have the experience of the Sunday school, so I may keep up the unsatisfactory practice of going, although I disagree with almost everything" (apud Arid 1973: 75). However, Plath does not substitute the imaginary world for the real datum; she deepens the latter, or reads it differently, to re-cover lost layers of meanings. Distrustful of any positive knowledge, and "incapable of more knowledge" ("Elm"), willing to break the cycle of death and birth, she turns to the symbolical thinking of the archaic man. "We must fight to return to that early mind [...] the emotional feeling drenched of wonder goes in our minds, we must recreate it, even while we measure baking powder for a hurry-up cake. Practice: Be a chair, a toothbrush, a jar of coffee from the inside out; Know by feeling in" (Plath 1998: 182). Plath had always been interested in myths, only, at this moment, she seems to become fully aware of the structuring possibilities they offered to her poetic vision. Some of her late poems, "Lady Lazarus" in particular, display the characteristic features of the magic-religious time: periodicity, repetition, and eternal present (cf. Eliade 1963: 330). This would largely correspond to "the three-stage initiatory scenario" (Rosenblatt 1978: 27-30), with the only amendment that it is not 'annihilation' that Plath searches for now, but integration.


The poet's taste for concrete objects, and the denial of any reflexive thinking, derives from the same attitude. Though movement and color dominate their formal structuring, Plath's poems do not celebrate the object; her images are rather lived dynamisms. The present and the implacable periodicity of life become the primary truth of her poetry. Circularity is time's distinctive feature, and this is manifest in the cyclical, ritual structure of image movement, in some of the most important poems of her last creative period, such as "Ariel" or "Lady Lazarus," where the present functions as a mediator between contrary aspects: "[A] theatrical// Comeback in broad day/ to the same place, the same face, the same brute/ amused shout:/'a miracle'!"// And I, stepping from this skin/Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces/Step to you from the black car of Lethe,/ Pure as a baby." Elaborating upon repetition as the specific feature of time, and conceiving of it as an element of stability within temporal fluidity, Plath's poems now draw our attention by the obstinacy with which the same linguistic elements and themes are reiterated. The repetitive constructions, leitmotifs, refrains, strengthen the closing pattern of her poems. Thus, more than an answer to technical requirements, repetition proves to be a constitutive aspect of the poetic persona's Anschauung, a fundamental structuring principle of imagery. Images of death and birth (mummy/womb) combine: "O the beauty of usage!/The orange pumpkins have no eyes./These halls are full of women who think they are birds/this is a dull school./I am a root, a stone, an owl pellet,/ without dreams of any sort." The schemes characteristic of this attitude converge towards a coincidentia opositorum, in which one can also identify a mythic model, a totalization of contraries. Like Baudelaire, Plath frequently sees herself trapped between sets of mutually exclusive alternatives: good/bad, God/devil, joy /despair, etc. It is her 'normal' way of structuring her poetic universe, which involves splitting them into opposed, conflicting categories. Nowhere else is this more obvious than in "Daddy," a poem that sprang, as she confesses, from such differing tendencies: "Here is a poem by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly partly Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other--she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it." (apud Bassnett 1978: 88)

What the poet seems to retrieve from her inner pulsations is their vectorial force, which, tracing history, becomes meaningful through its running towards a unique destination. However, the association of images does not seem to lessen antagonisms. On the contrary, while strengthening their bonds, the poet underlines the antitheses in them, in a Manichean manner: between the victim and the victimizer, between love and hate. "I imagine him/Impotent as distant thunder,/in whose shadow I have eaten my ghost ration./I wish him dead or away./ That, it seems, is the impossibility. That being free./What would the dark/Do without fevers to eat?/what would the light/Do without eyes to knife, what would/Do, do, do without me?" ("The Jailer") In relation to her father's image, Plath repeatedly sees herself as his loving daughter, simultaneously loyal, and disloyal. "I made a model of you,/A man in black with a Minicamp look/and a love of the rack and the screw./And I said I do, I do./So daddy I'm finally through..." ("Daddy"). Similarly, the imagery of "Three Women" establishes the fundamental opposition of the poem between pregnancy symbolizing creativity, described in a progression of images drawn from vegetation cycles, and sterility, which stands for spiritual barrenness, imagistically associated with the human world, in all its most horrid aspects. "I am slow as the world. I am very patient,/Turning through my time, the suns and stars/Regarding me with attention./The moon's concern is more personal:/ she passes and repasses. Luminous as a nurse,// ... And now the world conceives/Its end and runs toward it, arm held out in love./It is a love of death that sickens everything./A dead sun stains the newsprint. It is red.// I lose life after life. The dark earth drinks them./She is the vampire of us all. She supports us,/fattens us, is kind. Her mouth is red./I know her. I know her intimately--/Old winter-face, old barren one, old time bomb.... "

The same symbolic tendency also accounts for the looming presence of the Doppelganger motif, a key element of Plath's imaginary; in the senior thesis written at Smith's, The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Dostoyevsky's Novels, she found in the Russian writer's treatment of the theme a vision congenial to her own. Her own approach seems to draw on James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Freud's A Neurosis of Demonical, The Uncanny, and Possession in the Seventeenth Century, and Otto Rank's The Double as Immortal Self in Beyond Psychology. In truth, doubling seems to be Plath's fundamental way of ordering aspects of the world. It is a hazardous way too, as she herself occasionally realizes, because it turns people, events, or concepts, with points of similarity, into fixed identities, and dynamic, or ambiguous entities, into static, monolithic ones. She increasingly uses the idea of the double as a mode of questioning the sense of division within the self: "I am reading several stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann; Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe, "William Wilson"; Freud, Frazer, Jung and others --all fascinating staff about the dividing off and becoming an enemy or omen of death or warning conscience, or a measure ego as symbolized in reflections (mirror and water), shadows, twins--by which one denies the power of death (e.g., by creating the idea of the soul as the deathless double of the mortal body" (apud Uroff 1980: 34). The speaker projects her forbidden psychic impulses on to the double. The selves clash violently, yet the newly unleashed power threatens to turn into intolerable punishment and persecution. Not surprisingly, the motif is used to evoke the "psychic death" that occurs in moments of creative and affective sterility. By filling in the space that separates between the self and its alter ego, she may attempt to recapture the lost pre-Oedipal oneness. "I smiled/the mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin./Two, of course there are two/It seems perfectly natural now--/There one never looks up, whose eyes are lidded/And balled like Blake's... " ("Death & Co"). Plath frequently envisions her protagonist as a doubled being, made up of an external self, clashing with a hidden, true self. In "Face Lift," two selves fight over the possession of the same body: an old one, and a new one, which the surgeon has constructed. As if reluctant to take an irrevocable decision, she sometimes equates herself with the former, at times with the latter. Rather than being the sign of some inability-Artemis, the androgyny, as defined from female, rather than a male, perspective, is shortly considered as a possible answer--this shows once more that the poet eventually favors movement over quiescence.

Sylvia Plath is one of those uniquely gifted writers, who, faced with her own nothingness, shaped her creative activity in view of this dramatic and exclusive encounter. The structuring processes at work in her poetry, often contradictory, ultimately converge upon the individual's placing herself within duration, in order to use its creative force and, thus, dominate it. The poem seems to be that place, where the dread of death and the wish to overpower it paradoxically reconcile each other, because, there, "[m]iracles occur" ("Black Rook in Rainy Water"). Writing lifts her from forgetfulness, to a vision of wholeness, to a meaningful relationship with the world. When illumination comes, at some privileged moments, not at the end of the quest, the factors that originally modulated her voice lose their fatality and negative connotations. Lured by the modelling power of a deeper truth of life, which only the creative act may substantiate, Sylvia Plath has left us the proof of her strenuous efforts to approach it, in her poetry. A modern Orpheus, she is a 'seer,' whose creative gift should be measured by the depth of her imaginative insights. Hers is great poetry, for it writes a memorable page of human despair and portentous scrutiny reminding us, once more, that art, the main function of which is to bring order to life, i.e., to make it human, represents a complex dimension of self-understanding. In the words of Marcel Proust: "Real life, life at last bare and illuminated--the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived--is literature." (1981, III: 931)


Alvarez A (1970) Sylvia Plath. In: Newman C, ed. The art of Sylvia Plath, pp 56-68. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Annas PJA (1988) A disturbance in mirrors. The poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Greenwood Press.

Bachelard G (1978) La poetique de la reverie, 9th ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Bassnett S (1987) Sylvia Plath. London: Macmillan. Burgos J (1982) Pentru o poetica a imaginarului. Duda G, Guies M, trans. Bucuresti: Univers.

Durand G (1977) Structurile antropologice ale imaginarului. Aderca MM, trans. Bucuresti: Univers. Eliade M (1963) Aspects du mythe. Paris: Gallimard.

Frazer J (1993) The. golden bough. A study in the magic and religion. Ware, Hertforshire: Wordsworth.

Freud S (1985) The Uncanny. The Pelican Freud library, vol 14, pp 339-376. Strachey J, ed. Strachey J et al, trans. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Friederich H (1969) Structura liricii moderne de la mijlocul secolului al XIX-lea pina la mijlocul secolului al XX-lea.

Fuhrmann D, trans. Bucuresti: Editura pentru Literatura Universala.

Howard R (1971) Alone with America. Essays on the art of poetry in the United States since 1950. New York: Atheneum.

Jung CG (1959) The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Hull RFC, trans. New York: Princeton University Press.

Markey J (1993) A journey into the Red Eye. The poetry of Sylvia Plath: a critique. London: Women Press.

Plath S (1972) The bell jar. New York: Harper & Row.

Plath S (1975) Letters home: correspondence, 1950-1963.

Plath AS, ed. London: Harper & Row.

Plath S (1979) Johnny Panic and the Bible dreams (Short stories, prose and diary excerpts). New York: Harper & Row.

Plath S (1981) The collected poems. Hughes T, ed. London: Faber & Faber.

Plath S (1989) The magic mirror. A study of the double in Dostoyevsky's novels. Snowdonia, UK: Embers Handpress.

Plath S (1998) The journals of Sylvia Plath. Hughes T, McCullough FM, eds. London: Anchor.

Proust M (1981). A remembrance of things past, vol 2.

Moncrieff GKS, Kilmartin T, Mayor A, trans. New York: Random House.

Rank O (1958) The double as immortal self. Beyond psychology. New York: Dover Publications.

Rosenblatt J (1979) Sylvia Plath. The poetry of initiation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Smith EL (1970) Sea imagery in the work of Sylvia Plath. In: Newman C, ed. The art of Sylvia Plath, pp 91-99. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Spender S (1970) Warnings from the grave. In:

Newman C, ed. The art of Sylvia Plath, pp 199-204. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Uroff MS (1980) Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. London: Urbana University of Chicago Press.

Remus Bejan

Ovidius University

Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to
COPYRIGHT 2013 Addleton Academic Publishers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bejan, Remus
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Date:Mar 22, 2013
Previous Article:The old dead love of death.
Next Article:Spring is a hard time to live through.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters