Most of the work featured in this study guide comes from Plath's two major poetry collections – The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) and Ariel (1965). However, there are several others that date from either her early days at Smith College or the period between the publication of the two major volumes. Plath's poetry, along with the novel The Bell Jar, has situated her as one of 20th century literature's most formidably talented and fiercely imaginative writers. It is difficult to summarize the poems, as many of them suggest multiple meanings, but nonetheless, each has a particular topic that can help to differentiate between them.
The earliest poem discussed here is "Cinderella," a retelling of the fairy tale. Plath's adaptation focuses on the moment in which Cinderella hears the clock chime midnight as she dances with the prince. She is overcome and clasps him tightly.
"Metaphors" is a short poem that describes a pregnant woman through figurative language. The woman, uncomfortable and alienated by her large and cumbrous body, refers to herself as an elephant, and as a melon walking on two tendrils. She knows that although she feels unlovely and merely like a "cow in calf," there is nothing she can do about it.
"The Colossus" is a complicated and powerful poem that is understood to be about Plath's father, who died when she was eight. She depicts him as a mighty statue which she attempts to repair so he can speak to her. She stays in his ear at night to protect herself from the wind, and suggests that there will be no ship coming for her – she will remain in this ruin of memory forever.
"A Life" is about a woman in the hospital (perhaps after a suicide attempt) staring at a painting and looking at the immovable, happy inhabitants within. She comments that real life is more "frank" and unsettling. She has been exorcized of emotion and is wary of the future, which she compares to a "gray seagull" screaming and tattling.
In "Tulips," a woman recovers from an operation in the hospital. She is happy for the quiet and calm, and relishes the separation from her life's baggage (which includes her husband and children). However, a bouquet of tulips has arrived and brashly confronts her with its startling vitality, color, and life-force. Over time, she lets herself be brought back to life, by accepting the tulips.
"Mirror" personifies a mirror that spends its time staring at the wall across from it. A woman frequently looks in the mirror, but is distressed and overwhelmed by her reflection, upset at watching herself grow old.
"Daddy" is a bold and violent poem directed at Plath's father. Chanting in an almost nursery-rhyme manner, she compares him to terrifying patriarchal figures like a vampire, a Nazi, and a devil. Comparing herself to a Jew at the concentration camps, she details how she needs to finally be "through" with her father. At the end, she alludes to having placed her husband, Ted Hughes, in a similarly lofty position, and decides she must kill both him and her father.
"Ariel" concerns a woman who rides a horse through the countryside in the early morning, full of fire and energy. The rider feels herself becoming one with the horse as she flies into the hot sun. It may be about suicide or poetic creativity.
In "Cut," the speaker accidentally slices her thumb with a kitchen knife. Though initially excited by the pain and spectacle of her blood and skin, she eventually feels woozy and takes a painkiller. Some believe this poem is a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"Lady Lazarus" features a speaker telling a "peanut-crunching crowd" about her most recent suicide attempt. It was her third time. She claims that "dying is an art," and that she performs it well. She wants to die and be reborn like a phoenix.
"Sheep in Fog" concerns a solemn and slow horse ride through the fog, one morning in the countryside. It is a bleak poem in which the speaker confesses her fear of being admitted to a heaven that is devoid of stars and her father. She laments that people are disappointed in her.
"Child" is a poem directed to Plath's child, expressing delight in the baby's new experiences. However, it concludes on an anxious note, with Plath commenting that she hopes the child does not have to experience a "wringing of hands" and a dark ceiling "without a star."
In "Contusion," Plath speaks of color flooding to a bruise on a white body, then uses bleak images of doom and finality to create a haunting mood of resignation.
"Edge," Plath's final poem, describes a dead woman as "perfected." She delights in finding an end after traveling so far, and has two dead children coiled up within her. This poem, in its bleakness, seems to be an unfiltered view of her commitment to suicide.