I’m reading a number of Plath poems, but rather than explicate them, I’ll reproduce a paper I wrote about Plath in 2010 alongside a list of the poems I’m reviewing.
“ODE FOR TED,” 1956; “WREATH FOR A BRIDAL,” 1956; “VIRGIN IN A TREE,” 1958; “METAPHORS,” 1959; “LOVE LETTER,” 1960
“MORNING SONG,” “THE RABBIT CATCHER,” “THE OTHER,” “YOU’RE,” “DADDY,” “ARIEL,” “NICK & THE CANDLESTICK,” “LADY LAZARUS”
‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’
– Robert Frost, 1939
Nature plays a seemingly paradoxical role in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, as the locus of both the static, alienating landscape and the magnetic, transformative life cycle. The frustrating, ongoing mental estrangement from Nature that characterizes much of Plath’s work is punctuated by transcendent moments of union, in which the female body becomes a creative vessel for the mutative processes of sexuality, (re)birth, and death. In a journal entry from 1958, Plath writes, ‘The surface texture of life can be dead’, but there remain moments when ‘we burn clear of our shackles and stand, burning and speaking like gods’. Like Frost’s ‘piece of ice on a hot stove’, Plath’s poetry channels the dynamism of such experience into language, so that its latent heat may be felt even after the momentary ecstasy of the experience itself has melted away.
For Plath, Nature’s life cycle that can engage both mind and body with the world beyond ‘surface texture’, leading to physical and poetic (re)generation. Through the kinaesthesia of the life cycle and the transient unity of the female body with Nature that it provides, Plath locates a connection with the genesis of creative writing as well.
Tracing the arc of such epiphanic moments through Plath’s work reveals a distillatory poetics, in which the lingering representation is capable of transcending the fugitive nature of the moment it describes.
When Plath encounters Nature solely through the mind, her detachment from the space renders it two-dimensional, a threatening spectacle from which she is alienated. In ‘A Winter Landscape with Rooks’, the speaker sees the sun gives a ‘scorning’ glance at the ‘landscape of chagrin’, ‘all engraved in ice’. Plath herself termed the poem a ‘psychic landscape’, representative of her projection of feeling onto the natural world. In The Dialectics of Art and Life, Sylvia Lehrer observes that in exploring detachment from Nature, many of Plath’s early landscapes are in fact ‘mindscapes’, inextricably ‘linked with mind rather than body’. Indeed, in poems such as ‘Southern Sunrise’, Plath paints Nature as papery, unsubstantiated scenery; it is composed of ‘storybook villas’ like a ‘leaf-and-flower pen-sketch’. In ‘Spiders’, the speaker watches the performance of ants being ushered
Off-stage and infamously wrapped
Up by a spry black deus
The intellectualization of nature as a spectacle separate from the self leaves Plath dissociated from natural cycles. In ‘November Graveyard’, the ‘scene stands stubborn’, the trees ‘Hoard last year’s leaves, won’t mourn’, and the poet can only ‘stare, stare’ at the ‘hard-hearted emerald’ of the ‘essential landscape’.
Physically unengaged with Nature, the female body becomes, in Jacqueline Rose’s words, ‘rigidly, tragically circumscribed.’ In ‘Virgin in a Tree’, Plath rewrites the arboreal metamorphosis of classical virgins, envisioning it as an act of violence, rather than protection. In this ‘tart fable’, the punningly ‘chased girls’ who run from their own sexuality remain mere characters on the stage of Nature’s static landscape, and are therefore condemned to its threatening subjection. This metamorphosis is anything but dynamic; it permanently rigidifies the female form and wastes its fecundity, as, ‘Untongued, all beauty’s bright juice sours’. Plath ironically employs the language of the very rape the girls attempt to avoid to show how the virgin body is subsumed, rather than regenerated, by a Nature that ‘constricts | White bodies in a wooden girdle’ and ‘sheathe[s] the virgin shape | In a scabbard of wood’.
Plath, however, figures masculinity as sovereign over Nature, and it is through physical unity with man that she initially accesses Nature’s transfiguring powers. In ‘Ode for Ted’, the speaker posits herself as ‘adam’s woman’, and stands amazed at ‘[her] man’s’ effect upon the land:
For his least look, scant acres yield: each finger-furrowed field heaves forth stalk, leaf…
at his hand’s staunch hest, birds build.
Nature enters the female body through unity with maleness, and the poem’s sexual overtones highlight the potential of the fertile womb to engage with Nature as ‘field’ and ‘nest’. Rose points out that ‘if there is a body of [Plath’s] writing’ there is also, ‘no less crucially, a body in her writing’. These physical and poetic bodies run parallel because ‘For Plath, words plunge into the body, and writing is a sexual act’. The transformative moment of congress with Nature that intercourse permits is even clearer in ‘Wreath for a Bridal,’ where earth and sky appear to ‘laud these mated ones’ in the ‘stark act’ of lovemaking, which
…set[s] the land
Sprouting fruit, flowers, children…
Let flesh be knit…
This exhilaration, however, melts away when male and female are in discord. ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ actually reverses man’s propitious effect on the land, as
…at his tread
Ambushed birds by
Dozens dropped dead in the hedges: o she felt
No love in his eye…
In ‘Rabbit Catcher’, too, the speaker sees the recalcitrant landscape as ‘a place of force’, and she struggles against the ‘wind gagging me with my own blown hair, | Tearing off my voice’. The female body returns to its place as stranger again in ‘Wuthering Heights’, a ‘tilted and disparate’ space where the sky itself ‘leans’ on her. Though Plath chooses to invite Nature into her body, she cannot control it, and must instead be content to ride the brief course of its exhilaration.
Plath entwines the transformation of physical intimacy with her desire for another natural metamorphosis: pregnancy. In a journal entry from 1959, Plath states that her failed attempts to become pregnant have ‘utterly thwarted’ her marital need ‘to express our love, us, through my body, the doors of my body’. Whereas pregnancy would be life-giving, infertility, she writes, would leave her ‘Dead to [her] woman’s body’. Judith Kroll, in Chapters in a Mythology, holds that in the ordering system of Plath’s poetic expression, ‘biological fertility is the province of the heroine.’ ‘Barren Woman’ is one of several poems that describe Plath’s fixation with infertility; in it, the sterile woman’s womb ‘Echo[es] to the least footfall’, and its only flowers are ‘Marble lilies’. This imagery mirrors the poet’s earlier ‘mindscapes’, where the woman remains divorced from Nature.
Such corporeal stasis lies in sharp contrast to the visceral and kinetic transformations that pregnancy eventually brings. In ‘Metaphors’, the speaker is both thrilled and terrified by the temporary new shape of her body. While she embodies the life cycle in being ‘A melon’, ‘a red fruit’, and a ‘cow in calf’, the persona also loses control; in the ‘psychic landscape’ of her own body, she is herself ‘a means, a stage’, for she has ‘Boarded the train there’s no getting off’. The simultaneous fear and thrill of carrying unborn life mirrors the experience of writing as well. In ‘Stillborn’, Plath elaborates on this connection, looking over her failed poems and giving the ‘sad diagnosis’ that, though ‘it wasn’t for any lack of mother-love […] still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start’. Pregnancy, like writing, carries with it both enormous potential and a terrible dread of failure.
A successful delivery, however, is utterly regenerative. As Plath writes in ‘Love Letter’, the female body blooms in pregnancy as it ‘start[s] to bud like a March twig’, and the speaker tells her child that it is ‘Not easy to state the change you made.| If I’m alive now, then I was dead’. If pregnancy links her to creation, it also makes her a Creator in her own right: ‘Now I resemble a sort of god | Floating through the air in my soul-shift’. Linking this (pro)creative power to writing, Plath states elsewhere: ‘writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world’. The image of herself as deity, however, also sets her ‘floating through’ an otherworldly space, likening her own rebirth through childbirth to a resurrection after death.
Religious imagery appears again in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, where the speaker becomes a Madonna, mother to a newborn child who is ‘the baby in the barn’. This spiritual feeling, however, begins to fade once the baby has left her body and she is returned to her ordinary shape. In ‘Nick’, the speaker gazes lovingly on the child and recalls the cleansing effect of his growth within her:
Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean
In you, ruby.
In contrast, the speaker now feels the emptiness of her womb, where ‘Waxy stalactites’ and ‘Icicles’ constantly reduce themselves, melting ‘Into the terrible well’. Like the formations in the empty cave of her womb, the shape of pregnancy melts away, leaving the speaker a mere woman again. ‘Love Letter’, too, ends with the image of the mother’s body, ‘Pure as a pane of ice’, suggesting both the intense purgation of the experience and its fugitive quality.
In ‘Morning Song’, Plath observes the separation of infant from mother after birth, seeing that ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’ and ‘your bald cry | Took its place among the elements’. Gazing at the infant, the persona makes a statement of both profound awe and separation:
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
The image of distillation links birth to writing once again, for the recording of a brief, powerful experience celebrates it even as the moment itself is effaced by time. Plath’s journal also reveals her feeling during the moment of labour that the world itself begins to spin:
I had my eyes squeezed shut and felt this black force blotting out my brain and utterly possessing me… I felt I must be ripped and bloody from all that power breaking out of me…a 10 day misery of my milk waiting a week…ended the grim parenthesis. Chairs and tables took their places, served once more.
As the moment of parturient transcendence melts and her body resumes its shape, objects, too, resume their places, and stasis replaces motion.
Yet the memory of the female body as vessel remains an important source of power for Plath. In ‘The Other’, the speaker addresses a barren woman who has experienced sexual epiphany with her husband: ‘The stolen horses, the fornications | circle a womb of marble’. To compensate for the theft of intimacy, the persona lords her own fertility over her rival; only she has experienced the transformative exhilaration of birth: Navel cords, blue-red and lucent, |Shriek from my belly like arrows, and these I ride’. Whereas the speaker engages in the movement of the life cycle, the barren woman is locked in stasis and imagined in utterly inorganic terms. She is ‘old plastic’ or ‘cold glass’, and her menstrual blood is merely ‘an effect, a cosmetic’ within her fruitless body.
Like sex and pregnancy, which both empower and threaten the body, Plath figures the kinetic brush with death as equally regenerative. ‘A Birthday Present’ explores the fantasy of death as purification and rebirth. ‘If it were death,’ she holds,
…there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.
In several poems, the revivifying brush with death is closely associated with speed and motility. The poem ‘Stopped Dead’ describes the near-death experience of a car accident in both sexual and procreative terminology: the persona hears the ‘passionate hot metals’ of the automobile ‘writhing and sighing’ and the ‘squeal of brakes’ and wonders, ‘is it a birth cry?’ Plath reiterates this sensation in ‘Years’. Instead of ‘great Stasis’, it is wild, reckless, unshackling motion she desires:
What I love is
The piston in motion –
My soul dies before it.
And the hooves of the horses,
Their merciless churn.
The powerful motion of hooves in the near-death experience of ‘Years’ recalls the two equine symbols in ‘The Other’ – the sexual metaphor of the speaker’s ‘stolen horses’ and the ‘naval cords’ that she rides, thus linking sex, birth, and death through related imagery.
The title poem of Plath’s final collection, ‘Ariel’, describes a horseback ride that synthesizes the imagery of the entire life cycle in a single, exhilarating kinaesthesia. The poem begins with ‘Stasis in darkness’, but as the horse gallops forward, the speaker becomes one with the animal, instantly freed into ‘the substanceless blue’ by the ‘Pour of tor and distances’. The poem then races through the realm of the sexual through the yonic imagery of the ‘furrow’ that ‘splits and passes’, the sensation of the speaker’s own ‘Thighs [and] hair’ in motion, and the ‘Black sweet blood mouthfuls’ of exploding berries from the surrounding bushes. As the obligations that bind her to quotidian drudgery disappear, ‘The child’s cry | Melts in the wall’ and this lady ‘Godiva’ experiences an unshackling from the ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’ of ordinary life. Finally, the speed and recklessness of the ride thrust her towards death, allowing a euphoric sense of rebirth at the poem’s conclusion:
am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
In hurtling linguistically towards an imagined regeneration, ‘Ariel’ offers an amalgam of the transcendent experiences of Nature’s cycle that Plath explores throughout her poetic oeuvre.
Though seemingly an act of passivity, in allowing Nature to enter the female body, Plath locates a powerful creativity through the processes of sex, birth, and death. At the end of ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, Frost adds that poetry’s ‘most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it.’ In wedding the kinesis of the life cycle to a celebration of its very transience, Plath achieves a remarkable poetic dynamism. Though the price of each metamorphosis is the nullification of the former shape, Plath’s poetry embraces the very brevity of transformative experience, the dynamism of liminal space, and the ride upon the back of the melting moment.
Kroll, Judith, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1976)
Lehrer, Sylvia, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1985)
Oates, Joyce Carol (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)
Plath, Sylvia, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988)
— The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)
Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991)
Bassnet, Susan, Sylvia Plath (London: Macmillan, 1987)
Gill, Jo, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Hayman, Ronald, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2003)
Holbrook, David, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (London: The Athlone Press, 1988)
Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita, ‘Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes’, English Studies, vol. 71, No. 6 (December 1990): 509-22
Plath, Sylvia, Letters Home, 8th edn., ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and Faber, 1999)
Stevenson, Anne, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989)
Wagner-Martin, Linda (ed.), Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, 2nd edn. (London: Routledge, 1997)
 Robert Frost, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, in Joyce Carol Oates (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), p.178
 Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p.306 (abbr. Journals)
 Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), ll.7-8,11 (abbr. CP)
 Plath, Journals, p.205
 Sylvia Lehrer, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,1985), p.185
 Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991) p.116.
 Ibid., ll.1,13-15,18
 Plath, CP, ll.5-6,21-24
 Plath, Journals, p.500
 Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:Harper & Row Publishers, 1976), p.11
 Plath, CP, ll.31,1-2
 Plath, Journals, p.232
 Plath, Journals, 646-8
 Ibid., ll.24-5,20-21
 Frost in Oates, p.178.