Sylvia Plath: Poems Summary and Analysis

"A Life"

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Summary

In this rather ambiguous eight-stanza poem, the narrator describes what seems to be a painting, which has both a lovely, pastoral quality and a depressive, sterile quality.

The narrator begins by instructing someone to touch a painting, and not to be concerned when it shrinks back like an eyeball. She tells the listener that the spot to touch is an egg-shaped special place that is "clear as a tear," and which contains the past within it. The painting further contains flowers and plants in its "windless" and immovable threadwork.

The narrator says that if the listener were to flick the glass over the painting, it would "ping" like a chime, but the persons within the painting will not register the sound. They will not answer, as they are "light as cork" and forever focused on performing their painted tasks.

Similarly, the waves in the painting never move, and continue to "bow in single file." They never grow angry and touch the people's feet, instead remaining immobile and "pawing like paradeground horses." The clouds painted in the sky are fancy and ornate like Victorian cushions. The family depicted has "valentine-faces" and would probably be appealing to an art collector because of their ring of solid truth, similar to that of fine china.

The narrator abruptly shifts her focus, saying that "elsewhere the landscape is more frank." In this other spot, there is unyielding, blinding light. A woman in a hospital moves in a circle, dragging her shadow behind her. This hospital is also white, blinding, and stripped clean, as if a blitzkrieg had happened there.

The woman in the hospital lives a quiet life, almost as if she had never had any ties to the outside world. The narrator compares her to a "foetus in a bottle." Where she once felt grief and anger, those feelings have now been "exorcised" from her. She is simply alone. For this woman, the future is a screeching seagull screaming of "departure, departure." Along with her nurses, the reality of age and fear serve as her constant companions.

The poem ends with the depiction of a "drowned man" crawling out of the sea as he complains of feeling a deep and pervasive cold.

Analysis

“A Life” is a poem that must be read several times in order to discern a possible meaning. Unlike “Child” or “Mirror,” which are relatively straightforward, “A Life” is rather obtuse and welcomes multiple interpretations. It was written on November 18th, 1960, about midway through Plath's career. It was not published in either of the two major collections, The Colossus and Ariel. “A Life” is usually understood to be a poem Plath wrote about her hospital visit and concomitant feelings after her 1953 suicide attempt, in which she swallowed sleeping pills and hid in a crawlspace in her mother’s home following electroshock therapy meant to treat her depression. Although “A Life” was written seven years later, its tone does support the idea of it as rumination on her hospital stay and recovery.

The poem begins with the narrator's instructions to behold something. She does not explicitly define the object as a painting, but the imagery suggests it. The listener is told to touch it, and comforted that it will not flinch or shrink away. The narrator insists it contains “yesterday, last year,” and the future, suggesting it is a reproduction of some kind. She notes that its glass can be flicked, but that the figures contained within will not move or “bother to answer;” they are “permanently busy" in pre-determined tasks. The waves (it must contain a seascape) are fixed and stalled, and the clouds are fancy. Finally, the people within are such that “might please a collector.” All of these instructions and descriptions speak to an artistic reproduction of some kind, potentially a photograph but more likely a painting, considering the large landscape described.

Even before the imagery grows more somber and intense, the speaker's tone implies a potential depression. She is almost envious of the figures in the painting, and of the environment they inhabit. What attracts her most is the promise of eternal stasis. The people have nothing to fear from waves that could assault them "in bad temper,” the clouds are “tasseled and fancy / As Victorian cushions" and hence will never threaten rain, and the people remain busy, "light as cork” and thereby unconcerned with worries. Things seem peaceful, purposeful, and most of all, consistent, unchanging.

This imagery stands in stark contrast to that of the last four stanzas, in which Plath abruptly shifts tone and subject. Before diving into these more intense images, she insists that they are "more frank," as though these uglier pictures are more honest than the utopia of the unchanging landscape.

She then creates the powerful image of a female patient walking aimlessly in a circle, “dragging her shadow.” The room is stripped of any color, and is compared to a place that has suffered “a sort of private blitzkrieg.” In a sense, she attempts to create the same kind of landscape as the first stanzas, repeating her activity over and over. However, here it reads as depressive and delusional, rather than productive and beautiful.

The distinction lies in the fact that the woman has no connection to the outside world, while the figures in the first stanzas are all part of a cohesive picture. The woman is compared to a "foetus in a bottle," an extremely disturbing and haunting image. Presuming that Plath is exploring the emotions of suicide - grief and anger - then even these emotions get washed away into the sterility of the hospital room. The woman has no individuality, no emotions, only loneliness and awareness of her aging body. She is not productive like the figures near the sea; she merely whiles away the days, too aware of the passage of time whereas they are able to distract themselves with pastoral beauty and active focus.

The last stanza is particularly evocative. For the narrator, the future is a seagull that squawks noisily of "departure," perhaps reminding her both that she will eventually die and that she has been thwarted in her attempt to expedite death. The seagull's cry also resonates as an ominous foreshadowing of future suicide attempts, considering both Plath's eventual suicide and her poem "Lady Lazarus," which is about multiple, triumphant suicides. The sterility of the room, therefore, does not deter her desire to die, but rather exacerbates the pain - similar to the way electroshock therapy was meant to cure depression but only pushed her further towards suicide.

The last line describes "a drowned man, complaining of the great cold, / [who] Crawls up out of the sea." Plath uses sea imagery in much of her poetry, but here it speaks to the waves of the early stanzas. In those, the sea existed only for its beauty - it would never strike people from anger. In this final line, the sea is bleak, foreboding, and physically threatening. The drowned man could represent that self that Plath tried to "drown" in suicide. His return is not promising or beautiful but instead only reminds him of how "cold" he is. The promise of a more beautiful sea is only a taunt, a reminder that the "more frank" existence is not fulfilling.