SYLVIA PLATH (1932-1963)
Sylvia Plath is considered a ‘confessional poet’, a poet whose poetry deals with emotional and spiritual difficulties and psychic state of mind. ‘Confessional Poetry’ is concerned with alienation, death, self-destruction, madness, suicide, failure, family relationships and so on.
She was born in Boston. Her mother was of Austrian origin and her father of German descent. Sensitive and intelligent, she was considered a model daughter and an ideal student by her teachers. She wrote her first poem when she was only eight. She was popular at school because she earned straight A’s, won many awards and prices and a scholarship to enter Smith College. By that time, she already had an impressive list of publications and while at Smith she wrote over four hundred poems. She did well at school and both sexes appreciated her company. However she was obsessed by the idea of perfection in everything she attempted and when her father died, her inner world was shattered with it. She had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills. As a consequence she was treated with electroshock and psychotherapy. After a period of recovery, she graduated from Smith College summa cum laude. After graduating, she won a scholarship to enter Newham College in Cambridge and moved to England with the aspiration of both a cultural and social promotion. She met the poet Ted Hughes at a party, and they married. They had a son and a daughter but the marriage broke apart because Ted proved unfaithful. She went to live to London with her children, but her life was hard also because she was low of money. At the age of 30 she committed suicide in her London flat by turning on the gas jets.
WORKS: All her works deal with the dramatic and painful situations of young women, rebels and maladjusted characters. The ghost of oppressive male figures characterises her production. Among her works we may mention: The Colossus, The Bell Jar, Ariel, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees.
FEATURES: Sylvia’s life and career was affected by her relationship with her father, by her obsession of perfection and by a profound existential anguish. Her father died when she was only eight but her relationship with him was marked by very strong and conflicting feelings and he continued to have an influence on her even after his death. She was linked to him by a special relationship of love and hatred. She was scared of him, hated him because he appeared to her as bigoted, violent and oppressive. She felt a victim of him but she was very fond of him, too, and she felt attracted by him. Perhaps in her many attempts of suicide there was the wish to be reunited with him, as she says in a poem, Daddy (At twenty I tried todie / and get back,back, back to you), in spite of the fact that he was for her the embodiment of persecution and violence.
Actually Sylvia had troubles with her husband, too, whom she charged with being violent. She was in continuous competition with him because she wanted to become a great poet, and also envious of his success. She was frustrated because the care of the children and of the house didn’t’ let her much time to devote to poetry and writing. When they separated, she was seen as the scapegoat of the ordinary woman’s destiny, the victim of male cruelty, the deceived and deserted wife who had to care after her sons by herself. Victim of a male dominated society, she became the emblem of feminism.
THE IDEA OF PERFECTION obsessed her all her life long. She wrote in her diary: “Never, never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul – my paintings, my poems, my stories – all poor, poor reflections.” When she wrote a poem or a novel she had always near her both the mono lingual and the synonyms and contraries dictionaries. Her contemporary critics underlined that her language seemed to be regulated only by the rhyme, the metre and the etymology that limited the “voice”. Sylvia herself, accepted this criticism because she, too, was never satisfied with the results she obtained. In 1960 she wrote that “ my poems are perfect in style, numbers and everything else…….. but they don’t live….. they are dead.” When she realized that, she decided not to use the dictionary any more and to write without a pause. The poems written after, Ariel ,Winter Trees, Crossing the Water, became creative and fertile.
The idea of perfection concerned the body, too. She needed to draw everybody’s attention on her; she needed to be always the cleverest and the most beautiful. Her seduction weapons were the ever used red-fire lipstick, the platinum blonde dyes of her hair, the elegant dresses and the beauty treatments.
SUICIDE: Death is a key word in Plath’s poetry: it is seen not only as a separation and total negation, but also as the only truth and a means through which we can reach, going beyond the limits of life, a sort of ultimately knowledge (Yeats’s idea of the Superman). She felt attracted by death and saw it as a ritual to get rid of her obsessions. In Lady Lazarus she wrote: “Dying is an art, like everything else, I do exceptionally well …… I guess you could say I’ve a call.”So suicide is the natural destiny of a life spent chasing perfection, narcissism and self-destruction. In her Diary she wrote :” I can’t tolerate the idea of being ordinary….. I’d like to define myself as the girl who wanted to be God.”
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful
The eye of the little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Sono esatto e d’argento, privo di preconcetti.
qualunque cosa io veda subito l’inghiottisco
così com’e senza ombre di amore o disgusto.
Non sono crudele, ma soltanto veritiero
quadrangolare occhio di un piccolo iddio.
Il più del tempo rifletto sulla parete di fronte.
E’ rosa, macchiettata. La guardo da tanto tempo che la sento
un pezzo del mio cuore. Ma lei appare e scompare.
Visi e oscurità continuamente ci separano.
Adesso sono un lago. Su me si china una donna
cercando in me di scoprire quella che realmente è.
Poi si volge a quelle bugiarde : alle candele o alla luna.
Vedo la sua schiena e la rifletto fedelmente.
Mi ripaga con lacrime e un agitare di mani.
Sono importante per lei. Anche lei viene e Va.
Ogni mattina il suo viso si alterna all’oscurità.
In me lei ha annegato una ragazza, e in me una vecchia
sale verso di lei giorno dopo giorno , come un pesce mostruoso.
In this poem Sylvia gave voice to her mirror to face the problem of ageing. Her obsession of perfection concerned the body, too. She needed to draw everybody’s attention on her and to feel the most beautiful. She used red-fire lipsticks, platinum blonde dyes of her hair, elegant dresses and beauty treatments. The mirror was very important for her. The emphasis on youth in modern society has elevated the mirror to the state of ‘a little god’.
The poem starts with the mirror speaking of itself. It is personified and it tries to convince the reader that it is objective, “I have no preconceptions”, exact and detached, “unmisted by love or dislike”. It has no memories or ability to reason, it only swallows whatever it sees. It has no emotions, no feelings, it does not cast judgements, “ I am not cruel, only truthful “. It reflects what people really are. I don’t agree with it. According to me, it is cruel instead, because showing a person what he really is, may cause pain and despair. It enjoys the power it exercise over the woman, “ I am important to her” and it is proud of it. It is arrogant, too, and defines itself as “ the eye of a little god”. The last lines of the first stanza do not confirm that it is detached and objective. It is emotionally attached to the opposite wall, “ I have looked at it so long I think it is a part of my heart” , and it is even annoyed when someone or the darkness interrupt their relationship, “ But it flickers. Faces and darkness separate us over and over.”
The second stanza starts with the mirror comparing itself to a lake. The image of the woman who bends over it may refer to the Greek myth of Narcissus (a young boy who saw his reflection while he was drinking from a lake and fell in love with it. To better look at his image, he bent towards it and fell into the water and died.) The reference to Narcissus may mean that Sylvia is aware that looking at herself so long in the mirror is painful and dangerous. Unlike Narcissus, she does not like her image. Narcissus had drowned while he was handsome and young, Sylvia, on the contrary, thinks to be ugly and old. The beautiful girl she was once has disappeared into the mirror and it has been replaced by an ugly old woman, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises….” She is not satisfied of what she sees and turns away, “ I see her back …. She rewards me with tears…” and “then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon”, whose light is deceiving because they do not give a true image of what people really look like. The candles may be persons who lie to her. A lot of persons refuse reality and accept good judgment on them, even if they really know that it is not the truth. The poem ends with a simile, “like a terrible fish .” The terrible fish is the image of the old woman that comes out of the mirror as if to swallow her and pull her down. The main theme in the poem is the cruel process of ageing. She is getting older and she can’t accept it, she cannot accept the changes of the passing of time on her face and body. She is scared of the truth the mirror shows her “day after day .”
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
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.
Metaphors conveys Sylvia’s ideas about her pregnancy and new condition. Her body has changed and she is discomforted with it, The whole short poem is related to pregnancy and number 9 is a recurrent element. Pregnancy has got a 9 month term, the poem consists of 9 lines of 9 syllables each, the title contains 9 letters as many other terms: “syllables, elephant, ponderous and strolling“. The opening line is a riddle whose answer contains 9 syllables: A/WO/MAN/EX/PECT/ING/ A/ BA/BY.
The poem seems to start in a joyous way, but going on reading we realise that she is not satisfied with pregnancy, even if aware of its importance. She knows she is carrying something precious. The foetus is referred to as “red fruit, ivory, fine timbers….Money new-minted .” As every woman who is pregnant, Sylvia, too, feels physical discomfort at the body changes. The images she uses convey the idea of disproportion: “elephant, a ponderous house, a melon strolling on two tendrils ….a fat purse .” She feels the sense of growing and expanding and compares herself to a ‘loaf’ that rises in the oven because of “ its yeast .“
She links this condition to the loss of identity. Her body has become an object in which a separate being dwells , “ a cow in calf”, “a means”, sort of human incubator, “a stage”, important only during the performance. She also stresses the effect of pregnancy such as nausea and indigestion associated with her condition, “ I’ve eaten a bag of green apples .” The last lines reverse the joyous opening tone and she seems to resign herself to it: there is no turning back “Borded the train there’s no getting off.”
You do not do, you do not do1 Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor2 and white3, 5 Barely4 daring to breathe or Achoo5.
Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time — Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly6 statue with one grey toe 10 Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish7 Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue8 In the waters off beautiful Nauset9. I used to pray to recover you. 15 Ach, du10.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town11 Scraped flat by the roller12 Of wars, wars, wars. But the name of the town is common. 20 My Polack13 friend
Says there are a dozen or two. So I never could tell where you Put your foot, your root, I never could talk to you. 25 The tongue stuck in my jaw
It stuck in a barb wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak. I thought every German was you. 30 And the language obscene.
An engine, an engine Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. I began to talk like a Jew. 35 I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna Are not very pure or true. With my gypsy ancestress and my weird14 luck And my Tarot pack and my Tarot pack 40 I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you, With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo15. And your neat moustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. 45 Panzer-man, panzer-man, 0 You —
Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak16 through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute 50 Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, A cleft17 in your chin instead of your foot But no less a devil for that, no not 55 Any less the black man who
Bit18 my pretty red heart in two. I was ten when they buried you. At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. 60 thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue. And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you, 65 A man in black with a Meinkampf 19 look
And a love of the rack and the screw20. And I said I do, I do21. So daddy, I’m finally through. The black telephone’s off at the root, 70 The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two — The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. 75 daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping22 on you. They always knew it was you. 80 Daddy, daddy, you bastard. I’m through.
- not good enough 2.miserable 3.pale 4.hardly 5.sneeze 6.horrible 7.restless 8.turns from green to blue 9.ancient name of Cape Cod in Massachusetts 10. Oh, you (German) 11. her father was born in Grabow, the territory separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) to form the Polish corridor, so he was from a Polish town but he spoke German 12 bombing 13.Polish 14.strange 15.a word indicating a formal language impossible to understand 16.not pass 17.split 18.broke 19.title of Hitler’s biography 20.instruments of torture 21. (it’s the wedding vow) I’ve solved my problem 22.banging their feet