SYLVIA PLATH

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.”

MIRROR

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.

SPECCHIO

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 .

METAPHORS
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.

DADDY

 

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.
 
  1. 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

DADDY was written in 1962 and published in 1965 in the collection ‘Ariel’. It deals with Sylvia’s relationship with her father.

Introducing a reading for the BBC radio, she  said:” Here is a poem by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter, the two strains marry and paralyze each .

Actually her father was not a Nazi and her mother  had no Jewish blood. Simply Sylvia finds in the Holocaust  a means through which she could express her inner conflicts, her private world of pain and love. She feels like a victim of the male dominance  exercised on her by the two men of her life: father and husband.

The title, Daddy, implies affection and may seem strange in a girl who ‘ hates’ her father. Actually she loves her father and she only wants  to free herself from his  strong influence .

The opening line starts with ‘ you’, addressed to her father. She compares him to a black shoe in which the foot (Sylvia) was not at easy,being it very tight. She was scared in front of him, “Barely daring to breathe or Achoo /l.5/ ….I never could talk to you /l.23/. The tongue stuck in my jaw /l.25…..I could hardly speak /l.28/ ….. I have always been scared of you /l. 41/.“ Yet, she wants to embrace him (“I used to pray to recover you” l.14). She hated her father because he appeared to her despotic, bigoted and oppressive, “marble-heavy”, cold and fearful, “ghastly statue .”  So she identifies him with all the Germans, “I thought every German was you”, and with a Nazi, “ With your Luftwaffe” (the German Air Force )/l.41/, , “and your neat moustache /l.42/ and your Aryan eyes,bright blue /l.43/,  ….. A man in black with a Meinkampf look (reference to Hitler’s biography) /l.65/ and a love of the rack and the screw (instrument of torture) /l.66/“. He is like a  German tank “Panzer-man,panzer-man, O You /l.45/” because like a panzer, he destroys everything  and everybody he touches.

She feels a victim of him just as the Jews were victims of the Germans. Thus she identifies herself with a Jew  who is being taken by train to a concentration camp: “ An engine,an engine /chuffing me off like a Jew / a Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen/.   I began to talk like a Jew. I think I may well be a Jew /ll.31-35/.”

Then her father his compared to the Devil : “ You stand at the blackboard,daddy/ in the picture I have of you/a cleft in your chin instead of your foot/ ( her father had a split in his chin as the devil is said to have a split in his foot), but no less a devil for that /ll.51-54/.”   Eventually he becomes a vampire and he is equated to her husband: “The vampire who said he was you/and drank my blood  for a year/ seven years /ll. 71-73/.” There is a strange coincidence here: she committed suicide 8 years after she had known  Ted Hughs,her  husband, and 8 years is the same amount of time she had lived with her father. Further, the first 8 stanzas are clearly directed at his father while in the last 8 her husband substitutes her father. As we have seen in Metaphors,numbers were important for her, then it can’t be only a coincidence.

Sylvia’s troubles come from the men of her life. Obsessed by the father, she tried to overcome her Electra complex killing the father’s image  and  marrying Ted: “ And I said I do,I do ( ‘I do’ is the wedding wow)/ So Daddy I’m finally through /ll.67-68/.” She knows that to overcome her Electra complex she has to kill him,metaphorically of course: “ Daddy, I have had to kill you / You died before I had time /ll.6-7/.” But she has got problems with her husband, who betrays her. Then she has to kill the husband’s image, too: “If I’ve killed one man,I’ve killed two /l.71/.”  Now she thinks she is free: “Daddy, you can be back now/There’s a stake in your fat black heart ( vampire can be killed only by a stake in their heart)/ll.75-76/ …. Daddy,daddy, you bastard, I’m through /l.80/.”  The last line sounds as a cry of triumph. But did she really fulfil  her wish?

The poems contains personal references . “I was ten  when they buried you (actually she was eight)/at twenty I tried to die”(her attempt of suicide) /ll.57-58/ ….but they pulled me out of the sack (her mental breakdown) / and they stuck me together with glue /ll.60-61/.”  She clearly tells us that she had tried to commit suicide because she wanted to get back to her father and to be buried near him,” At twenty I tried to die/and get back back to you/ I thought even the bones would do /ll.58-60/.”  Sylvia’s feelings and relationship with men, can be better understood analyzing ll. 48-50: “Every woman adores a fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/brute heart of a brute like you.”   Women are fascinated by cruel, violent and oppressive men. They want to be dominated. She was dominated by the Nazis of her life: her father and her husband. But though scared of them, she loved them.

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About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to SYLVIA PLATH

  1. Livia says:

    Oddio…. Sylvia Plath!!!! non ve l’ho mai raccontato, ma quando ho conosciuto il mio ragazzo gli ho regalato un libro di poesie della Plath, volevo spararmi un po’ la posa… e ci sono riuscita!!! =)
    Scusate se sono partita senza passare a salutarvi, ma ho passato i miei ultimi giorni di vacanze a letto con raffreddore, tosse e mal di denti…. l’aria di Avellino mi fa proprio male! 🙂
    Scherzi a parte, come sono andate le vostre feste? Tutto bene?
    A presto, un forte abbraccio,
    Livia.

    • rosariomario says:

      e meno male che non hai fatto come Sylvia. Il povero Ted è uscito dal primo incontro,si dice,letteralmente distrutto. Però Ted poi l’ha sposata. Chi vuole essere perfetta lo fa in tutto ahahah. Tu almeno hai aggiunto un tocco di romanticismo culturale.
      In quanto a me,tutto ok. Curati questa allergia avellinese, perchè non vogliamo perderti 🙂

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