"I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf. / I've eaten a bag of green apples, / Boarded the train there's no getting off."
Plath was ambivalent about her role as a pregnant woman and a mother, and expresses such feelings through several poems. While she loved her children deeply, she felt trapped by the social expectation of motherhood that was predominant for women in the 1950s. She wanted to develop her professional writing career, and therefore chafed at her confinement during her pregnancy. This line from "Metaphors" suggests her disenchantment with pregnancy; she does not feel attractive or in control of her situation. There is a sense of resignation in her use of the term "means" and "stage," for they suggest that she has lost all autonomy and identity while the child within her grows. The poem is a powerfully realistic depiction of how pregnancy can be stifling to a creative and ambitious woman, and though she expresses more joy about motherhood in poems like "Child," the ambivalence reflected here is apparent throughout most of her works on the subject.
"I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed."
Many of Plath's most critically acclaimed poems deal with her father, Otto Plath, who died when she was eight years old. "The Colossus" is an early work of this sort, and details how Plath attempts to clean and repair an enormous status meant to represent her father and his monumental legacy. In these lines, she reveals the impossible task of attempting to determine his influence on her. Despite her best efforts, her remembrance of him brings more disappointment than joy. She cannot rid herself of him both because he is so immense and because she continues to recreate him in her mind. This conflict - between an unceasing effort and imperfect results - not only characterizes Plath's relationship with her father's memory in most of her poems on the subject, but also parallels the harsh ambivalence with which she approaches most of her major subjects.
"The future is a gray seagull / Tattling in its cat-voice of departure, departure. Age and terror, like nurses, attend her, / And a drowned man, complaining of the great cold, / Crawls up out of the sea."
In "A Life," the speaker lies in a hospital room contemplating a painting on the wall. The painting is full of beauty, ornament, and peace; the people within have "valentine-faces" and are "permanently busy" as they live and work next to the sea. There is a sense of calm and of purpose there. The poem then shifts to the woman in the hospital room and her very different situation. While she is also quiet, it is because she has been stripped of emotion and attachment. These quoted lines, which begin the poem's final stanza, suggest the intensity of her dread. The references to sea-images - the gull, the drowned man - hearken back to the sea of the painting, stressing how terribly her situation is worsened by lovely images of peace. The suggestion is that she would rather live in the stasis of the painting than in the chaos of life, which has a more ominous tone as reflected in these lines.
"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. / Even through the gift paper I hear them breathe / Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby."
In one of Plath's most famous poems, "Tulips," she writes of her experience in the hospital after an operation. These lines express the poem's central irony - the vitality of the flowers brings a depressing, obnoxious atmosphere. She has enjoyed a life in the hospital room, devoid of all obligation to family or herself. In effect, she has been able to ignore her identity. The tulips, both through their vivid color and suggestion of relationships, encourage her to choose life over a deathly stasis, and the extent of her depression manifests in her resentment towards them. By personifying the tulips here and through the poem, Plath relates the intensity of her conflict. Though she seems to choose life by poem's end, these lines are central in reflecting the depths of her ambivalence towards life and the world.
"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" is a poem that can easily resonate with many women. In it, a personified mirror un-judgmentally reflects a woman's changing appearance over the years. Here, the mirror admits the extent of its influence - the woman has had to face the truth of aging by looking at herself in the mirror's truthful face each day. What is most haunting about the poem is in fact the mirror's disinterested tone, which reminds the reader that time and truth do not care about our vanity and depressing concerns. Ultimately, we are left to our own devices when we want to find happiness in the face of tragic forces like time and death. These forces are particularly difficult for a woman in a patriarchal society, since a woman is defined so much by her beauty. In lines like these, the power in Plath's writing helps what could be a novelty poem become a harsh depiction of hopelessness and loneliness in the face of time.
"I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue."
In "Daddy", one of Plath's most famous and vitriolic poems, she decides she must kill her father in order to rid her consciousness of his insidious influence and disruption. She compares him to a devil, a vampire, and, most controversially, a Nazi. The multiple uses of this imagery in these lines -"Luftwaffe", "swastika", "Fascist", "Meinkampf look" - add a problematic element to the poem, especially because they implicitly fashion her as a Jew (something she explicitly does elsewhere in the poem).
Nevertheless, Plath is not merely trying to shock or upset; she is far too clever for that. The assumption of Holocaust imagery is a way to unsettle the reader's complacency, but it is also a way to evoke the harshness of a patriarchal society. There is no better example of entrenched, violent, and purist masculinity than Nazism. In many ways, her use of imagery like this makes the male figure of her father a larger expression of the paternalistic forces in society. Plath's strong metaphors are a way of processing her profound anguish over her tormented relationship with her father, her discontent in being a woman in the male-dominated literary world, and her despair over her husband's (in the poem, he is the "man in black with a Meinkampf look") infidelity. The metaphors may be unsettling, but they are extremely effective and profound.
"What a thrill - / My thumb instead of an onion."
In "Cut," Plath writes of the excitement she felt when she cut her thumb while trying to slice an onion. These opening lines are startling by suggesting that the violence brought "thrill." The word is open to interpretation - it could suggest fear and awe - but the rest of the poem indicates her great interest in confronting her flapping skin and dripping blood. The journey of the poem involves her eventual wooziness and disenchantment with the wound, which reflects the ambivalence with pain and the body that permeates most of her work. She is intrigued and excited by mutilation, but likewise disgusted and anxious about it. In this metaphor of the cut thumb lies a reflection of her complicated feelings on death, and that complication is introduced in this very first line of the poem.
"And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas. / The child's cry / Melts in the wall."
In this quote from "Ariel," Plath expresses her desire to meld with nature as she rides through the dewy fields on her horse one morning. The poem was written during a period of creative fecundity for Plath, and stands as one of her most important works. She uses stunning imagery to suggest how she and her horse fuse into one being to experience a powerful rebirth. This poem has often been discussed in terms of her creative process; it is possible that she is detailing how she has broken free from the constraints of her imagination (problems with her father, marital issues, the pressure of being a female poet, motherhood) to achieve transcendence. The line about the child is also telling, for it expresses Plath's desire to avoid being tied down to the realities of life, which she often represents as her children. This cry of unadulterated joy is unique both in the poem and in Plath's oeuvre overall.
"The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see / Them unwrap me hand and foot - / The big strip tease."
In these lines from "Lazy Lazarus," Plath viciously vilifies the people who have crowded to watch her suicide and rebirth. The existence of a crowd accomplishes several purposes. The first is to reinforce her idea that suicide is an "art" to her, one at which her facility has brought her fame. Further, the existence of the crowd reminds the reader of how plagued the speaker (who can certainly be understood as Plath herself) was by the pressures of other people. Finally, it makes a general criticism of the human voyeuristic tendencies that can affect a woman who simply wants to live alone. This poem achieves a great synthesis of confessional language and extreme metaphor, largely because of the way she describes the crowd in lines like these.
"Each dead child coiled, a white serpent, / One at each little / Pitcher of milk, now empty."
This line from Plath's final poem has long puzzled critics and readers because it suggests a potential desire to take her children with her into death. Although she took precautions to ensure that they were safe when she took her own life, her mental illness and her extreme despair may have led to her to contemplate the terrible crime of murdering her children to save them from the difficulties and tragedies of existence. Of course, such an autobiographical reading ignores her great facility for metaphor. The suggestion could simply reflect her sense of completeness in death, or the joy that Medea felt when she killed her children (one of her many Greek allusions). "Edge" is a chilling, haunting poem that is also beautifully and tightly controlled in its tone and imagery. It expresses the mindset of a young woman of immense creative power who cannot bear any longer the torments and toil of her existence.
Sylvia Plath: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sylvia Plath: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
It is not outlandish to assert that Plath's poetry might in fact be her crowning achievement. Bold, visceral, moving, evocative, wrenching, perplexing, and gorgeous, her many poems run the gamut from simple and charming to terrifying and violent....