Sylvia Plath: Poems

Sylvia Plath: Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Plath view nature in "Edge" and "Sheep in Fog"?

    In both of these poems, Plath recognizes nature's capacity for inspiring transcendence. However, the particulars of her representation are distinct between them. In "Edge," nature is evoked with the image of the moon, who "has nothing to be sad about, / Staring from her hood of bone. / She is used to this sort of thing. / Her blacks crackle and drag." The moon is untroubled by the seeming human tragedy of a dead woman, and Plath seems to relish this type of comforting disassociation. In "Sheep in Fog," nature is a bit more explicitly ominous; the hills "step off into whiteness" and people as well as stars "regard [her] sadly." Nature mirrors her depression, but also offers a thick blanket of fog to envelop her. It has the capacity to bring her to a heaven, but she fears what this heaven might hold. Though both poems present nature as capable of inspiring transcendence, she is more skeptical of that transcendence in the latter poem.

  2. 2

    Should Sylvia Plath be considered a confessional poet, or does her work challenge that designation?

    Plath is almost always grouped into the confessional poetry movement. M.L. Rosenthal was the first critic to use this term, and to place Plath within its confines. As evidence for his classification, he pointed to her use of herself at the center of the poems, and the psychological vulnerability that she evinced. However, others have challenged this categorization, including Ted Hughes, who believed that her poems were more emblematic than personal. Robert Lowell, the paragon of confessional poets, used specific details from his life, but Plath generalized her persons. Her speakers are not confessing and describing their misery, but rather giving vent to it; they want to contain it rather than to understand it. Plath herself explained that while her poems may have been born from her sensuous or emotional experiences, she was able to manipulate them with an "informed and intelligent mind." She wanted to demonstrate how the mind responds to terrible or extreme circumstances, oftentimes by exaggerating or manipulating things. Thus, Plath's speakers are not trying to confess anything or breakthrough into life again; they remain firmly ensconced in their situation, and avoid self-revelation. Her poems are much more than catalogs of her life, and in this way they are not as emblematic of confessional poetry as is often believed.

  3. 3

    In what way are Plath's poems elegies?

    An elegy is defined as a lament for the deceased or the permanently lost. In earlier centuries, many poets explored the elegy as a specific literary form. Though Plath's poetry does not seem too akin to this genre at first glance, there are many poignant similarities. She discusses her grief through semi-fictive selves, much like Spenser and Yeats did, and demonstrates aggression toward the dead, which is also seen in Yeats as well as in Auden. Some of her works are indicative of self-destructive mourning, also common in elegies written by Emily Bronte and Tennyson. Plath helps form the conception of the 20th century elegy; as critic Jahann Ramazani writes, she "[helps] shift the genre's psychic work from consolatory mourning to the violent, contradictory, and protracted work of melancholia." She is a wrathful mourner, as seen in poems like "Daddy." "Daddy" also uses another trope of elegies - the chorus of mourners. At the end of the poem, the villagers dance in madness and giddiness over Daddy's death. Plath's poetry, while fully a product of the 20th century, is very much indebted to the poets of centuries past.

  4. 4

    Explain Plath's debt to Anne Sexton. How does an understanding of this relationship help to understand her work?

    Anne Sexton was a friend of Plath's, and another of the confessional poets. Her poetry was even more frank, violent, and personal than Plath's, dealing with masturbation, incest, pregnancy, and domestic ennui. In fact, Plath may have used one of her earliest poems as a model for "Daddy." "My Friend, My Friend" was a poem from 1959 that Plath may have seen in the Lowell poetry workshop, or in its final form in The Antioch Review. Plath explained in a 1962 BBC interview how she was influenced by the "craftsman-like" quality and psychological intensity of Sexton's poem. "Daddy" borrows and slightly alters the rhythms, rhymes, and words of Sexton's poem. Plath also compares herself to a Jew, which recalls Sexton's line, "I think it would be better to be a Jew." There are other similarities as well. What this debt shows is that Plath was as much a literary as confessional writer, as interested in influences and models as in expressing her pain.

  5. 5

    How does the concept of purity manifest in Plath's poetry?

    Three of Plath's most famous poems, all from her late period, deal with the concept of purity as achieved through exorcism. "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," and "Fever 103" are all concerned with ridding the self of its demons, rather than simply reforming the self. Rebirth, an achievement of purity, can only be reached once the demons are exorcised. Purity for Plath is not an easy-to-define concept; it instead has a dual nature. It is firstly an integrated and holistic self that is unspoilt, perfect, and beautiful. This happens when the self is transformed and reborn. However, purity is also, as critic Pamela Annas writes, "absence, isolation, blindness, a kind of autism which shuts out the world, stasis, and death, and a loss of self through dispersal into some other." "Lady Lazarus" allows the speaker to achieve purity through suicide, while "Daddy" reflects purity achieved by exorcising the world of the demonic and the unpure (her father). These fantasies of retaliation all have the desperate and violent aim of purification, and see the cleanliness of purity only achievable through the violence of exorcism.

  6. 6

    What are the major elements/images/styles of Plath's middle and late stages?

    In Plath's middle stage, largely comprised of poems published in The Colossus and Other Poems, Plath gave vent to her tremendous imagination, focused on social and political issues, and delved into her consciousness. Some of her figures are immensely powerful and disturbing; she created both paternal and maternal figures of ominous and oppressive natures. Her female subjects search for identity and meaning. Many of her works are set in a domestic arena, and outside events seep through to permeate that arena with their horror.

    In the late stage of her writing, centered on the Ariel poems, Plath's poetic language grew furious and glorious, manifesting itself in elegies, nature poems, and intense dramas. She writes in a way that evokes tremendous emotion for the reader, by disturbing, terrifying, and provoking them to pity. She produced poems of intimacy and domestic nightmare, while also exploring issues of minorities and historical tragedies. Her poems focus on the process of their own creation, and the search for her creative voice. They are mournful, passionate, and violent, and tend toward the excising of a flawed and victimized self in the quest for transcendence.

  7. 7

    How does Plath use the setting of a hospital in her poetry?

    Two of the poems discussed in this study guide are set in a hospital room: "Tulips" and "A Life." Both poems treat a hospital room as a location of both great limitations and great peace. Both are about a woman recovering after an operation of some sort, or perhaps a suicide attempt (Plath attempted suicide in her early twenties). In "Tulips," the woman is bereft of any external attachments, and seems to delight in that fact. In "A Life," the situation is similar - the woman walks around listlessly in a circle and "lives quietly." In both poems, life outside the hospital room is always impending. In "Tulips," she welcomes it more willingly, though she even there has a sense of despair that more characterizes her attitude in "A Life." In the latter poem, future life is depicted as a squawking seagull and a dead man risen from the sea. The hospital, then, seems to serve as the ultimate refuge; it is a place of purity, of serenity, of independence from the tragedies and toils of life. It is an in-between space, and can even be conceived of as a heterotopia, Foucault's designation of a space that has dual layers of meaning, like a utopia nevertheless corrupted by "undesirables."

  8. 8

    When compared to earlier poems, how do "Contusion" and "Edge" reveal a shift in Plath's attitude toward life and death?

    These two poems are among the final ones that Plath wrote before her death, "Edge" being the very last poem written. Both of them are extremely bleak and lack any sense of hope for or faith in the future and humanity. However, though this theme is manifest throughout Plath's oeuvre, these poems do not show the ambivalence towards such feelings that the earlier poems do. They simply accept this bleakness as unalterable fact.

    "Contusion" describes a bruise made on the skin and ends with a series of images that suggest futility and finality: "The heart shuts, / The sea slides back, / The mirrors are sheeted." "Edge" begins with the image of a dead woman being "perfected," smiling in her triumph. Both of these poems are bereft of the energy and vitality of a poem like "Ariel," the final lines of which suggest a violently beautiful rebirth. "Lady Lazarus" is about suicide, but lacks the same hopelessness; the suicide seems to be a powerful purgative. "Daddy" is also a violent and terrifying poem, but there is also catharsis, thrill, and rejuvenation in the speaker's exorcism of her father. The two late poems, however, do not seem to possess any sense that death or even suicide have the potential of hope, rebirth, or meaning. Death is simply closure, an end. These two poems are some of the most depressing in Plath's oeuvre.

  9. 9

    What do "Metaphors" and "Child" suggest about Plath's view on pregnancy and motherhood?

    Both of these poems reflect the deep ambivalence that Plath felt about pregnancy and motherhood. "Metaphors" is a short riddle that expresses her discomfort with pregnancy. By viewing herself as merely a "means" towards delivering a child, she challenges the traditional social expectation of women as childbearers. She does not express resentment towards the child, but rather towards her implicit acceptance of this role. In "Child," the ambivalence is clearer, as she both expresses joy and anxiety for her child. Overall, Plath is extremely honest in her assessment of what pregnancy and motherhood can really be like; she avoids stereotype and platitudes.

  10. 10

    How does Plath approach the subject of her father in "Full Fathom Five," "Daddy," and "The Colossus"?

    Plath's father, who died when she was eight, looms large in her poetry. He is the major topic in the above-mentioned poems, and is treated differently in each even if his legacy produces great ambivalence for her on each occasion.

    In "Full Fathom Five," he is conceived of as a larger-than-life sea god whose memory Plath reveres and ruminates upon. She marvels at his immensity and hopes for his rebirth. Yet she is equally resentful at having been "exiled" from him; she can now only watch him from afar. There is also a suggestion of an incestuous relationship in this poem. She expresses a similar ambivalence in "The Colossus;" she works on the huge statue she has erected of him, trying to make him speak to her. She longs to piece him back together, but is fatigued and troubled by his refusal to help her in the effort. "Daddy" is markedly different in tone from these two poems. Her voice in this latter poem is vitriolic, mocking, bitter, and crazed. Her goal is not to rescue him, but to destroy him. He becomes here, more than in the other two, a representation of larger patriarchal figures. No matter how Plath tried to deal with her father's legacy, she was torn between both violent and creative impulses in her remembrance.