Critical Analysis and Research on Sylvia Plaths poems Essay

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The literary tradition Plath is most closely associated with: Confessionalism, engenders robust biographical interpretation due to the innately self-revelatory idiom. Plath, even more so than other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton or Robert Lowell, explored the poetic possibilities of contemporaneous self-expression which involved intimate, sometimes deeply personal psychological and biographical revelation. This aspect, along with deftly executed figurative language, expressive and interesting prosody, and stark, often violent imagery distinguishes the poems of Plaths most well-known book of verse Ariel.

Plaths most famous poem Daddy enjoys myriad biographical interpretations, an understanding of which are as necessary as understanding the poems other dimensions: prosody, rhyme, image, and theme for a thorough reading of the poem. Interestingly, Plath her self noted, in a reading for the BBC, that Daddy was spoken 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 part Jewish. (Plath, Nos. 166-188).

These words express Plaths attempt to pace a narrative distance between herself and the speaker of the poem and seem to indicate that she felt such a distinction failed to be strongly apparent in the poem itself. This latter conclusion is understandable; close inspection of Plaths diary, biographies, and the lines of Daddy exhume a potent parallels between the events described in the poem and the events of Plaths life. Beginning with the most obvious parallel as well as the poems central theme of a girl with an Electra complex, Plaths journals reveal that she, indeed, suffered personally from an Electra complex.

While undergoing treatment with her psychologist Dr. Ruth Beuscher, Plath experienced a cathartic emotional climax during psychotherapy and recorded her subsequent Sylvia Plaths Poems Page -2- thoughts. Plath also noted that her father was an ogre and tyrant and that he kept a hidden Nazi flag in his closet which he occasionally paraded in front of while dressed in Nazi regalia. He wouldnt go to a doctor, wouldnt believe in God and heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home. Of her mother Plath observed, She suffered{¦ } bound to the track naked and the train called Life coming with a frown and a choo-choo around the bend.

(Plath Journal, 430) This latter turn of phrase (with its train imagery) informs the imagery of Daddy when Plath writes: An engine, an engine/ Chuffing me off like a Jew. Likewise, the Nazi imagery of Daddy conveys a sense of bleakest hopelessness, with Plath directly identifying her own childhood pain and loss of her father with the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis. I have always been scared of you/ With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. /

And your neat mustache/And your Arayan eye, bright blue. Although the poem expresses the dramatic revelation of an Electra complex, the poems opening lines foreshadow a strange inversion of powers; the admonition You do not do, you do not do/ Any more, black shoe portends or infers that the speaker has won a victory over her oppressor (s); taken at their full impact, the opening lines convey not only a release from the familial neurosis implied by the aforementioned biographical details, but a sinister hint at the poems ultimately suicidal themes.

The line in which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years, poor and white mean to strike to the heart of the poets entire life and not merely the Electra complex that is so obviously rendered. The shoe is all form of oppression and constriction, though throughout the poem there is a strong sense of male domination and patriarchal oppression. Of the poems that Sylvia Plaths Poems Page -3- concentrate on the family, those dealing with the father provide the clearest and most powerful example of Plaths divided conception of the universe.

(Rosenblatt 119) That said, the poem gains its most sinister and perhaps most powerful energies from deeply autobiographical confession. Lines such as In the waters off beautiful Nauset. /I used to pray to recover you. can only be interpreted as personal motifs, since Plath summered in Nauset with her family and often referred to this time period as the most gloriously happy in her life. Memory, in the poem, is like the child remembers: Daddy brilliantly enlarges the memory of Plaths father to legendary proportions.

Plath dramatizes the situation between daughter and father as if no time had passed since the fathers death: the emotional situation is still burning in her consciousness. (Rosenblatt 160) This constant tension between the ideal and the real the remembered and the present the child and the grown woman mirror the universal experiences of most people whether the specific biographical details are similar. In order to firmly establish the mythical impact of her private theater Plath employs heroic exaggeration via the imagery of the poem:

While most of the geographical references in Plaths poetry are to New England or England, Daddy refers to San Francisco in the lines Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco Seal / And a head in the freakish Atlantic. These lines identify the daddy in the poem as a colossus who stretches across America from the Atlantic to the Pacifica colossus even larger than the one described in The Colossus. (ANO194) Similarly, Plath demonstrates that her personal life, as a focused theme for her thoroughly crafted poetry, attains a mythical stature in the process.

This mythical resonance is prevalent in her poem medusa, which, while not as generally well-known as Daddy is actually a complimentary piece to the more famous work, with Medusa providing the maternal aspect of the Sylvia Plaths Poems Page -4- two parentally themed pieces: Medusa corresponds in Plaths work to Daddy: both represent the search for freedom from parental figures. (Rosenblatt 127) If Daddy drew upon events from Plaths life and juxtaposed them with sweeping images drawn from world history, Medusa presents a more directly mythological connotation.

From the title, alone, the reader is set to expect a resonance with Greek myth. However, what ensues is an inversion of the technique employed in Daddy, which utilized a mathematically precise rhyme scheme and colloquial diction to elevate the personal to the status of myth. In Medusa, a well-known myth is used as a kind of anchor by which the personal can be magnified and universally comprehended. Plath imagines her mother as the Medusa, capable of turning all who look at her into stone.

Medusa paints the portrait of a similar figure: she observes the speaker from across the Atlantic; she has a hideous head that can apparently turn the self to stone; and she wishes to hurt the speaker. (Rosenblatt 127) One of the most interesting images in the poem is that of the Atlantic cable viewed by the poet as a barnacled umbilicus which keeps her tied to the stone world of Medusa with its God-ball,/Lens of mercies and Medusas stooges following the poet Dragging their Jesus hair.

This image also allows the infusion of biographical details, as in Daddy and in nearly all of the Ariel poems, as functional a part of the aesthetic as meter, rhyme, and diction. The reference in the poem to the umbilical attachment between the poet and Medusa identifies this figure as the mother. Plath also alludes to a visit that her mother made to England in the summer of 1962 in the line: You steamed to me over the sea. [¦ ]Medusa attempts to cast off the parental image and to attain personal independence.

(Rosenblatt 127) Sylvia Plaths Poems Page -5- The diction of Medusa is deliberately colloquial, conversational and punctuated by complex, corresponding imagery and figurative language. This alloy of disparate impulses, one toward the informality of a phone call or table-conversation, the other for the deep mythological reference and probing psychological confession, produces a brilliant and enduring poetic tension in Plaths Ariel poems.

Perhaps more than nay other single poem in the Ariel sequence, Lady Lazarus pushes the parameters of the poetic idiom described above. The subject of Lady Lazarus, like the subject of Daddy and Medusa is simultaneously autobiographical and mythological. In this poem, Plath conjoins her first suicide attempt with the Biblical story of Lazarus. And again, Plath produces a tension in diction by contrasting formal and colloquial language. Lady Lazarus defines the central aesthetic principles of Plaths late poetry.

First, the poem derives its dominant effects from the colloquial language. From the conversational opening (I have done it again) to the clipped warnings of the ending (Beware / Beware), Lady Lazarus appears as the monologue of a woman speaking spontaneously out of her pain and psychic disintegration. (Rosenblatt 40) Against the predominantly colloquial diction, complex Latinate terms and phrases are contrasted providing the voice of the establishment, of the enemy and the numb, indifferent, objective world.

The Latinate terms (annihilate, filaments, opus, valuable) are introduced as sudden contrasts to the essentially simple language of the speaker. (Rosenblatt 40) The prosody of Lady Lazarus, with its sporadic, nursery-rhyme like rhymes: I do it exceptionally well/ I do it so it feels like hell A wedding ring,/ A gold filling ventures near the territory of light-verse, but the poems themes and images are anything but light. The strain of the prosody and diction against the profound themes of suicide, Nazism, psychiatric and medical

Sylvia Plaths Poems Page -6- tyranny, and social-alienation is produced without poetic collapse due to Plaths unerring control of language: The inventiveness of the language demonstrates Plaths ability to create[¦ ] an appropriate oral medium for the distorted mental states of the speaker. The sexual pun on charge in the first line above; the bastardization of German (Herr Enemy); the combination of Latinate diction (opus, valuable) and colloquial phrasing (charge, So, so ¦ )”all these linguistic elements reveal a character who has been grotesquely split into warring selves.

(Rosenblatt 39) Lady Lazarus closes, like Daddy and Medusa with the affirmation of the speakers vengeful triumph over adversaries. This closing sting in many of the most successful of the Ariel poems suggests a rebirth for the fragmented self described in Lady Lazarus. The successful rebirth also indicates another, if secondary impulse, in the Ariel poems, that of communal identification or empathy.

It is as though poet, having undergone the vivisections of Daddy Medusa Lady Lazarus and other poems, can now empathize with others who have been similarly wounded. An ironic take on this aspect is the pome The Applicant, which substitutes the idea of salesmanship for compassion, admitting, however, that identification with the customer is a necessary component of selling. One of the more bitter poems in Ariel is The Applicant ( October 11, 1962), a portrait of marriage in contemporary western culture[¦ ]

Somehow all interaction between people, and especially that between men and women, given the history of the use of women as items of barter, is conditioned by the ethics and assumptions of a bureaucratized market place. (Annas 104) Plaths melding of colloquial and formal diction in The Applicant results in an ironically bitter observation on the consequences of human-objectification, a theme which upon close inspection informs nearly all of the Ariel poems.

Works Cited Annas, Pamela J. A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. New York NY Anchor Books. 2000. Plath, Sylvia. The Source of the Vampire and Frisco Seal in Plaths Daddy. ANQ 4. 4 (1991): 194-194. Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

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