Table of Content
-Analysis of youthful poems
-Obsession towards death
Winter Trees, The perfect complement of her work
-Her father’s spirit
-The Jewish holocaust
-Final conclusion. Her poetry nowadays
Life, love and death in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.-
Ana Mª Leiva Aguilera.
As Carmelo Medina Casado wonderfully says in his book Poetas ingleses del S. XX (P.257), “en el pasado hubo una tendencia a considerar a la poesía escrita por mujeres como de un estatus inferior”. His task had been “ infravalorada y hasta cierto punto abandonada”, something that of course, would not been a radical change, above all during the second half of last century. It resulted to be in some of the cases, as the present author, a heroine for their readers who end up to identify themselves with that mixed feeling which is going to appear in many of her poems and will be object of study in this task, together with her nihilist interpretation of life.
It would have no sense the simple method of quoting this author’s biographical data and some of her works. That would not focus on her literary labour. That is why I propose myself to comment both her life as well as her works, basing my references on her poems themselves.
My analysis’ methodology is going to have a double sense:
- On the one hand, there is a great amount of her biographical data, and it is going to help us understanding her poems.
-On the other hand, it will be the author’s unconsciousness itself that I will focus my interest on. I will look for it in every single poem, the one which is going to emerge in some of her verses even when the intention or general thematic of the poem is any other.
As perfectly says Ramón Buenaventura in his bilingual edition Ariel. Publishing House, Hiperion 2010, ,“la poesía no tolera más notas que aquellas que sirven para restablecer las claves que el poeta en el momento de escribir considera razonablemente comprensibles”, trying to describe those clues is, in part, the aim of this essay, bearing in mind that: ”el poeta no escribe para intermediarios”.
I am interested in valorising her work through the analysis of her great topics: love and death. As far as love is concerned, her work turns around violence of passion in two streams: on the one hand, the father-child like; on the other hand, the wife like. The vision of love she offers is more and more bitter and negative.
Historically it is necessary to place Sylvia Plath in the poetical movements of the United States and England during the 50s and 60s.
With nuances, it has been classified within the confessional poets who emerged in the United States. During the 60s, English poetry was clearly influenced by American poets.
English poetry from the 50s is attired by a limited public, rather intellectual, which has to make an effort to decipher its content. During the 50s they were monopolised by a movement characterised by the regret to foreign influences in English poetry, its urbanity, decorum and an emergence very retrained by emotions.
I think that we have no choice stabling a relation with the work of this artist and her life, since up to a point everybody write from experiences. In this sense her work cannot be separated from her tormented existence. As her husband said: “She transformed her life in art since her problems used to arise immediately from sensorial and emotional experiences she lived”. It is partly confessional poetry since she reveals us aspects of her mental disease, sexuality or hopelessness. Nevertheless, I cannot and should not classify her work as confessional like. At least not in the whole insomuch as in many other occasions she creates a character who is not herself.
Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932. Her father was a German immigrant, entomologist, expert on bees, topic which is going to appear in poems such as “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” where it appears:
In burrows narrow as a finger, solitary bees.
The queen bee marries the winter of your year.
(Poem 104 ,page 209. Complete Poetry. Sylvia Plat. Barthey Editores).
Also in “The swarm”, whose sixth stanza begins like that:
The bees babe got so far. Seventy feet high!
Russia, Poland and Germany
An in “The arrival of the bee box” ,
How can I leer them out?
It is noise that appalls me most of all.
The unintelligible syllables.
Or in “Stings” which begins this way:
hand the combs
The man in White smiles, bare handed.
Have a thousand clean cells between us.
Eight combs of yellow cups.
And the hive itself a teacup.
Sylvia was a brilliant student and wrote poems since she was a little girl achieving to publish her first poem when she was only eight. It was about what she heard and listened to during summer nights. Her father died that year, whom she dedicates a precious poem in Juvenilia titled “Endecha”:
The sting of bees took away my father
who walked in a swarming shroud of wings,
She moved with her mother and brother to a suburb in Boston:
A scowl of sun struck down my mother.
In spite of her father’s death she had good results at school and won every prize. I would like to make clear with this that she was not a depressive girl but extremely self-demanding. Nevertheless, a pessimistic character as in “Doomsday” when in the second stanza she says:
Our painted stages fall apart by scenes.
After her third college year she was accepted in a very exigent program to spend a month as journalist in New York but she could not enjoy that experience. Later on, she wished coming back to Boston to do a fiction atelier but was rejected. For such a self-demanding person as she was, this meant a catastrophic failure. Thus, being home alone, tried to suicide herself by having a bottle of sleeping pills that her mother kept. She was found after three days in her grandmother’s basement.
We can find indices or causes of the motifs which carried her to that in “Poem for a birthday” where she gives proves of how much affected she was because of her father’s death:
This is a dark house very big.
I made it myself
Once I was ordinary
Sat by my father´s bean.
4.- The beast
He was bullman earlier.
King of the did my lucky animal.
As it is made clear her brief and intense life, her previous attempts of suicide, her tormented love make practically impossible for me to fall in the psychological side within this analysis.
She was subdued to electroshock treatments which only increased anguish. She ended up in a psychiatric of Harvard University. This phase of her life was registered in The Bell Jar, a novel which signed with a pen name being afraid of her mother’s reaction. It was a very difficult year but her proud and strength helped her to endure it and finished her college years achieving a grant for her studies in Cambridge.
As we can perfectly appreciate in the BBC film devoted to Sylvia Plath, in 1956 she met Ted Hughes, an exceptional poet, the man of her life, tall, masculine and mysterious. They married three months later. Hughes became very soon in a successful poet, praised in England and in the United States while Plath kept writing but without such a success. The couple moved temporally to the United States, where they alternated teaching and writing. Later on they travelled to Spain and installed themselves in a small fishing village of Benidorm. They moved then to Boston and when they were waiting for their first child, they decided that it would be better the birth to take place in England. They installed themselves in London in 1960 and it was then that Sylvia signed a contract for the publication of her first book The Colossus and Other Poems.
Once they had their child, Sylvia got pregnant again but had an abort. Then she had a child. She wrote prose, poems and an autobiographical novel which she published with a pen name. All this would have been considered as a full success by anyone but not by her.
Hughes had womanizer fame and as he finally moved with another woman, Sylvia was not able to assimilate it. She remained alone with two children, writing some verses which would place her among the best poets of the 20th century. But I would not want that these reasons, together with the soon death of her father, can serve us to present to this author as another woman victim. I prefer to denominate them as echoes, something which appears in her poem “Words”. It begins like this:
Axes after whose stroke the Wood rings,
And the echoes!
Safely, what is true is that both her separation as her father’s death marked her in such a way that it was very difficult to overcome that situation as it is expressed in “Poppies in July”
If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!
Ted Hughes has collected 244 poems chronologically, all of them written by the author between 1956 and 1963, adding a selection of 50 previous juvenile poems. The poems recognised by her husband under the title of Complete Poetry. They had different phases of creation. The first ones were Juvenilia, which were qualified by Ted Hughes as “marked by her youth, full of symbols and images”. They were written three or four years before 1956. Hughes himself adds that “many of them were exercises of lessons for her professor of Language and English Literature”. Among them, we can quote: “Bitter Strawberries”, “Family meeting”, “Cinderella” which is a good example of how Plath dominated alliteration:
The prince leans to the girl in scarlet hells
And at the end,
She hears the caustic ticking of the clock.
Among these I find very interesting “Metamorphoses of the moon” where she talks about
Cold moons withdraw
And even philosophical questions:
For most exquisite truths are artifice.
Also “Sonnet to Satan” is one of the poems in which the influence of French symbolists is appreciated, more concretely Bodelaire. Satan is not seen as father of sin but as the rebel who struggled God and he is the one who denies that order is in heaven.
In darkroom of your eye the moonly mind
Some results to counterfeit eclipse
bright angels black out over land
under shutter of their handicaps
It ends like this:
O maker of proud planet´s negative,
Obscure the scalding sun till no clocks move.
Another poem of this period and devoted to love was “Trio of love songs” from which the author recognises her mother, who resembles in an intentioned manner to Emily Dickinson’s works as it is shown in her final stanza:
My love for you is more
athletic than a verb
agile as a star
the tents of sun absorb.
Also the selection of poems which the author entitled as Ariel, published by Hughes in 1965. Two years later since the author’s death, they begin with the word love of “Morning song”.
Love set you going like…
And they end by the word spring in “Greenhouse”,
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
This indicates that it is the work of someone who fights for rebirth, who does not want to let herself dying even though she would try to kill herself on her darkest day
Winter is for women-
The woman, still at veer knitting.
“Ariel” is a poem written by the author when she turns into 30. The title is taken from the horse which Sylvia used to ride in a riding school.
Of the neck I cannot catch.
In “Ariel” Plath is sarcastic, challenging, convincing. The book is composed by 43 poems and reflects the author’s vision in the last weeks of her life. Now in her poetry, she turns the tide towards a more confessional like style. Here is where she has been attributed with the influence of Anne Sexton; according to what Ted himself recognises in the prologue of “Complete Poetry”.
If logically it is difficult to imagine what happened in the morning of the 11th February 1963, what came across her mind, her poems can do the task which was devoted to her children, the ones the babysitter saw crying in a window. Plath looked for her mind in each line of her poems, in her whole work. She cultivated the macabre art of death. At the end, as the poem “Ariel” manifests, there is only grief, broken lives as the ones of her children.
Stasis in darkness
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
God´s lioness/How one we grow
Pivot of heels and Knees
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot cath.