by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in Southern Review, July 1973. Reprinted in New Heaven, New Earth.

I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god. . . .
Plath, Mirror

Tragedy is not a woman, however gifted, dragging her shadow around in a circle, or analyzing with dazzling scrupulosity the stale, boring inertia of the circle; tragedy is cultural, mysteriously enlarging the individual so that what he has experienced is both what we have experienced and what we need not experience—because of his, or her, private agony. It is proper to say that Sylvia Plath represents for us a tragic figure involved in a tragic action, and that her tragedy is offered to us as a near-perfect work of art, in her books The Colossus (1960), The Bell Jar (1963), Ariel (1965), and the posthumous volumes published in 1971, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees. This essay is an attempt to analyze Plath in terms of her cultural significance, to diagnose, through Plath’s poetry, the pathological aspects of our era that make a death of the spirit inevitable—for that era and all who believe in its assumptions. It is also based upon the certainty that Plath’s era is concluded and that we may consider it with the sympathetic detachment with which we consider any era that has gone before us and makes our own possible: the cult of Plath insists she is a saintly martyr, but of course she is something less dramatic than this, but more valuable. The “I” of the poems is an artful construction, a tragic figure whose tragedy is classical, the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature—as in the poem “Mirror,” the eye of a little god who imagines itself without preconceptions, “unmisted by love or dislike.” This is the audacious hubris of tragedy, the inevitable reality-challenging statement of the participant in a dramatic action he does not know is “tragic.” He dies, and only we can see the purpose of his death—to illustrate the error of a personality who believed itself godlike.

newheaven2The assumptions of the essay are several: that the artist both creates and is created by his art, and that the self— especially the “I” of lyric poetry—is a personality who achieves a kind of autonomy free not only of the personal life of the artist but free, as well, of the part-by-part progression of individual poems; that the autobiographical personality is presented by the artist as a testing of reality, and that its success or failure or bewilderment will ultimately condition the artist’s personal life; that the degree to which an audience accepts or rejects or sympathetically detaches itself from a given tragic action will ultimately condition the collective life of an era; and that the function of literary criticism is not simply to dissect either cruelly or reverentially, to attack or to glorify, but to illustrate how the work of a significant artist helps to explain his era and our own. The significance of Plath’s art is assumed. Her significance as a cultural phenomenon is assumed. What needs desperately to be seen is how she performed for us, and perhaps in place of some of us, the concluding scenes in the fifth act of a tragedy, the first act of which began centuries ago.


Lawrence said in Apocalypse that when he heard people complain of being lonely he knew their affliction: “. . . they have lost the Cosmos.” It is easy to agree with Lawrence, but less easy to understand what he means. Yet if there is a way of approaching Plath’s tragedy, it is only through an analysis of what Plath lost and what she was half-conscious of having lost:

I am solitary as grass. What is it I miss?
Shall I ever find it, whatever it is?

(“Three Women”)

We must take this loss as a real one, not a rhetorical echoing of other poets’ cries; not a yearning that can be dismissed by the robust and simple-minded among us who like that formidably healthy and impossible Emerson, sought to dismiss the young people of his day “diseased” with problems of original sin, evil, predestination, and the like by contemptuously diagnosing their worries as “the soul’s mumps, and measles, and whooping-coughs” (“Spiritual Laws”). Emerson possessed a consciousness of such fluidity and explorative intelligence that any loss of the cosmos for him could seem nothing more serious than an adolescent’s perverse rebelliousness, at its most profound a doubt to be answered with a few words.

These “few words” in our era are multiplied endlessly —all the books, the tradition at our disposal, the example of a perpetually renewed and self-renewing nature—and yet they are not convincing to the Sylvia Plaths of our time. For those who imagine themselves as filled with emptiness, as wounds “walking out of hospital,” as the pronouncements of a practical-minded, combative, “healthy” society of organized individuals, are meaningless. Society, seen from the solitary individual’s viewpoint, is simply an organization of the solitary, linked together materially— perhaps, in fact, crowded together but not “together,” not vitally related. One of Plath’s few observations about larger units of human beings is appropriately cynical:

And then there were other faces. The faces of nations.
Governments, parliaments, societies,
The faceless faces of important men.

It is these men I mind:
They are so jealous of anything that is not flat! They are jealous gods
That would have the whole world flat because they are.

(“Three Women”)

And, in a rapid associative leap that is typical of her poetry—and typical of a certain type of frightened imagination—Plath expands her sociological observation to include the mythical figures of “Father” and “Son,” who conspire together to make a heaven of flatness: “Let us flatten and launder the grossness from these souls” (“Three Women”). The symbolic figures of “Father” and “Son” do not belong to a dimension of the mind exclusive, let alone transcendent, of society; and if they embody the jealous assumptions of an imagined family of “parent” and “child,” they are more immediate, more terrifyingly present, than either.

“Nations, governments, parliaments, societies” conspire only in lies and cannot be trusted. Moreover, they are male in their aggression and their cynical employment of rhetoric; their counterparts cannot be women like Plath, but the creatures of “Heavy Women,” who smile to themselves above their “weighty stomachs” and meditate “devoutly as the Dutch bulb,” absolutely mute, “among the archetypes.” Between the archetypes of jealous, ruthless power, represented by the Father/Son of religious and social tradition, and the archetypes of moronic fleshly beauty, represented by these smug mothers, there is a very small space for the creative intellect, for the employment and expansion of a consciousness that tries to transcend such limits. Before we reject Plath’s definition of the artistic self as unreasonably passive, even as infantile, we should inquire why so intelligent a woman should assume these limitations, why she should not declare war against the holders of power and of the “mysteries” of the flesh—why her poetry approaches but never crosses over the threshold of an active, healthy attack upon obvious evils and injustices. The solitary ego in its prison cell is there by its own desire, its own admission of guilt in the face of even the most crazily ignorant of accusers. Like Eugene O’Neill, who lived into his sixties with this bewildering obsession of the self-annihilated-by-Others, Plath exhibits only the most remote (and rhetorical) sympathy with other people. If she tells us she may be a bit of a “Jew,” it is only to define herself, her sorrows, and not to involve our sympathies for the Jews of recent European history.

Of course, the answer is that Plath did not like other people; like many who are persecuted, she identified in a perverse way with her own persecutors, and not with those who, along with her, were victims. But she did not “like” other people because she did not essentially believe that they existed; she knew intellectually that they existed, of course, since they had the power to injure her, but she did not believe they existed in the way she did, as pulsating, breathing, suffering individuals. Even her own children are objects of her perception, there for the restless scrutiny of her image-making mind, and not there as human beings with a potentiality that would someday take them beyond their immediate dependency upon her, which she sometimes enjoys and sometimes dreads.

The moral assumptions behind Plath’s poetry condemned her to death, just as she, in creating this body of poems, condemned it to death. But her moral predicament is not so pathological as one may think, if conformity to an essentially sick society is taken to be—as many traditional moralists and psychologists take it—a sign of normality. Plath speaks very clearly a language we can understand. She is saying what men have been saying for many centuries, though they have not been so frank as she, and, being less sensitive as well, they have not sickened upon their own hatred for humanity: they have thrived upon it, in fact, “sublimating” it into wondrous achievements of material and mechanical splendor. Let us assume that Sylvia Plath acted out in her poetry and in her private life the deathliness of an old consciousness, the old corrupting hell of the Renaissance ideal and its “I”-ness, separate and distinct from all other fields of consciousness, which exist only to be conquered or to inflict pain upon the “I.” Where at one point in civilization this very masculine, combative ideal of an “I” set against all other “I’s”—and against nature as well—was necessary in order to wrench man from the hermetic contemplation of a God-centered universe and get him into action, it is no longer necessary, its health has become a pathology, and whoever clings to its outmoded concepts will die. If romanticism and its gradually accelerating hysteria are taken as the ultimate ends of a once-vital Renaissance ideal of subject/object antagonism, then Plath must be diagnosed as one of the last romantics; and already her poetry seems to us a poetry of the past, swiftly receding into history.

The “I” that is declared an enemy of all others cannot identify with anyone or anything, since even nature—or especially nature—is antagonistic to it. Man is spirit/body but, as in the poem “Last Things,” Plath states her distrust of the spirit that “escapes like steam/In dreams, through the mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can’t stop it.” Spirit is also intellect, but the “intellect” exists uneasily inside a prison house of the flesh; a small, desperate, calculating process (like the ego in Freud’s psychology) that achieves only spasmodic powers of identity in the constant struggle between the id and the superego or between the bestial world of fleshly female “archetypes” and hypocritical, deathly male authorities. This intellect does not belong naturally in the universe and feels guilt and apprehension at all times. It does not belong in nature; nature is “outside” man, superior in brute power to man, though admittedly inferior in the possibilities of imagination. When this intellect attempts its own kind of creation, it cannot be judged as transcendent to the biological processes of change and decay, but as somehow conditioned by these processes and, of course, found inferior. Why else would Plath call a poem about her own poetry “Stillborn” and lament the deadness of her poems, forcing them to compete with low but living creatures?— “They are not pigs, they are not even fish. . . .” It is one of the truly pathological habits of this old consciousness that it puts all things into immediate competition: erecting Aristotelian categories of x and non-x, assuming that the distinction between two totally unconnected phases of life demands a kind of war, a superior/inferior grading.

For instance, let us examine one of Plath’s lighter and more “positive” poems. This is “Magi,” included in the posthumous Crossing the Water. It summons up literary affiliations with Eliot and Yeats, but its vision is exclusively Plath’s and, in a horrifying way, very female. Here, Plath is contemplating her six-month-old daughter, who smiles “into thin air” and rocks on all fours “like a padded hammock.” Imagined as hovering above the child, like “dull angels,” are the Magi of abstraction—the intellectual, philosophical concepts of Good, True, Evil, Love, the products of “some lamp-headed Plato.” Plath dismisses the Magi by asking “What girl ever flourished in such company?” Her attitude is one of absolute contentment with the physical, charming simplicities of her infant daughter; she seems to want none of that “multiplication table” of the intellect. If this poem had not been written by Sylvia Plath, who drew such attention to her poetry by her suicide, one would read it and immediately agree with its familiar assumptions—how many times we’ve read this poem, by how many different poets! But Plath’s significance now forces us to examine her work very carefully, and in this case the poem reveals itself as a vision as tragic as her more famous, more obviously troubled poems.

It is, in effect, a death sentence passed by Plath on her own use of language, on the “abstractions” of culture or the literary as opposed to the physical immediacy of a baby’s existence. The world of language is condemned as only “ethereal” and “blank”—obviously inferior to the world of brute, undeveloped nature. Plath is saying here, in this agreeable-mannered poem, that because “Good” and “Evil” have no meaning to a six-month-old infant beyond the facts of mother’s milk and a bellyache, they have no essential meaning at all—to anyone—and the world of all adult values, the world of complex linguistic structures, the world in which Plath herself lives as a normal expression of her superior intellect, is as “loveless” as the multiplication table and therefore must be rejected. It is extraordinary that the original romantic impulse to honor and appreciate nature, especially mute nature, should dwindle in our time to this: a Sylvia Plath willfully admitting to herself and to us that she is inferior to her own infant! The regressive fantasies here are too pathetic to bear examination, but it is worth suggesting that this attitude is not unique. It reveals much that is wrong with contemporary intellectuals’ assessment of themselves: a total failure to consider that the undeveloped (whether people or nations) are not sacred because they are undeveloped, but sacred because they are part of nature, that and the role of the superior intellect is not to honor incompletion, in itself or in anything, but to help bring about the fulfillment of potentialities. Plath tells us that a six-month-old infant shall pass judgment on Plato; and in the poem “Candles” she asks, “How shall I tell anything at all/To this infant still in a birth-drowse?” It is impossible, of course, for her to tell the infant anything, if she assumes that the infant possesses an intuitive knowledge superior to her own. And yet, and yet . . . she does desire to “tell” the infant and us. But her “telling” cannot be anything more than a half-guilty assertion of her own impotence, and she will ultimately condemn it as wasteful. The honoring of mute nature above man’s ability to make and use language will naturally result in muteness; this muteness will force the individual into death, for the denial of language is a suicidal one and we pay for it with our lives.

Back from the maternity ward, resting after her painful experience, the most “positive” of Plath’s three women is reassured when she looks out her window, at dawn, to see the narcissi opening their white faces in the orchard. And now she feels uncomplex again; she is relieved of the miraculous pain and mystery of childbirth and wants only for herself and for her child “the clear bright colors of the nursery,/The talking ducks, the happy lambs.” She meditates:

I do not will [my baby] to be exceptional.
It is the exception that interests the devil.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I will him to be common.

It seems to us pitiful that Plath should desire the “common”—should imagine that her loving words for her infant are anything less than a curse. But her conviction that “the exception interests the devil” is very familiar to us, an expression of our era’s basic fear of the intellect; the centuries-old division between “intellect” and “instinct” has resulted in a suicidal refusal to understand that man’s intelligence is instinctive in his species, simply an instinct for survival and for the creation of civilization. Yet the “loving of muteness” we find in Plath is understandable if it is seen as a sensitive revulsion against the world of strife, the ceaseless battle of the letter “I” to make victories and extend its territory. Even the highest intelligence, linked to an ego that is self-despising, will utter curses in the apparent rhythms of love:

. . . right now you are dumb.
And I love your stupidity,
The blind mirror of it. I look in
And find no face but my own….

( “For a Fatherless Son” )

The narcissi of the isolated ego are not really “quick” and “white” as children (see “Among the Narcissi”) but victimized, trampled, and bitter unto death. Plath’s attitude in these gentler poems about her motherhood is, at best, a temporary denial of her truly savage feelings—we are shocked to discover her celebration of hatred in “Lesbos” and similar poems, where she tells us what she really thinks about the “stink of fat and baby crap” that is forcing her into silence, “hate up to my neck.”

The poems of hatred seem to us very contemporary, in their jagged rhythms and surreal yoking together of images, and in their defiant expression of a rejection of love, of motherhood, of men, of the “Good, the True, the Beautiful. . . .” If life really is a struggle for survival, even in a relatively advanced civilization, then very few individuals will win; most will lose (and nearly all women are fated to lose); something is rotten in the very fabric of the universe. All this appears to be contemporary, but Plath’s poems are in fact the clearest, most precise (because most private) expression of an old moral predicament that has become unbearable now. And its poignant genesis is very old indeed:

And now I was sorry that God had made me a man. The beasts, birds, fishes, etc., I blessed their condition, for they had not a sinful nature; they were not to go to hell after death. . . .

(John Bunyan, Grace Abounding)

Nature as Object and as Nightmare

All this involves a variety of responses, though behind them is a single metaphysical belief. The passive, paralyzed, continually surfacing and fading consciousness of Plath in her poems is disturbing to us because it seems to summon forth, to articulate with deadly accuracy, the regressive fantasies we have rejected—and want to forget. The experience of reading her poems deeply is a frightening one: it is like waking to discover one’s adult self, grown to full height, crouched in some long-forgotten childhood hiding place, one’s heart pounding senselessly, all the old rejected transparent beasts and monsters crawling out of the wallpaper. So much for Plato! So much for adulthood! Yet I cannot emphasize strongly enough how valuable the experience of reading Plath can be, for it is a kind of elegant “dreaming-back,” a cathartic experience that not only cleanses us of our personal and cultural desires for regression, but explains by way of its deadly accuracy what was wrong with such desires.

The same can be said for the reading of much of contemporary poetry and fiction, fixated as it is upon the childhood fears of annihilation, persecution, the helplessness we have all experienced when we are, for one reason or another, denied an intellectual awareness of what is happening. For instance, the novels of Robbe-Grillet and his imitators emphasize the hypnotized passivity of the “I” in a world of dense and apparently autonomous things; one must never ask “Who manufactured these things? who brought them home? who arranged them?” —for such questions destroy the novels. Similarly, the highly praised works of Pynchon, Barthelme, Purdy, Barth (the Barth of the minimal stories, not the earlier Barth), and countless others are verbalized screams and shudders to express the confusion of the ego that believes—perhaps because it has been told so often—itself somehow out of place in the universe, a mechanized creature if foolish enough to venture into Nature; a too-natural creature for the mechanical urban paradise he has inherited but has had no part in designing. The “I” generated by these writers is typically a transparent, near-nameless personality; in the nightmarish works of William Burroughs, the central consciousness does not explore a world so much as submit pathetically to the exploration of himself by a comically hostile world, all cartoons and surprising metamorphoses. Plath’s tentative identity in such poems as “Winter Trees,” “Tulips,” and even the robustly defiant “Daddy” is essentially a child’s consciousness, seizing upon a symbolic particularity (tulips, for instance) and then shrinking from its primary noon, so that the poems —like the fiction we read so often today—demonstrate a dissolution of personality. As Jan B. Gordon has remarked in a review of Winter Trees (Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 2, No. 6, p. 282 ), Plath’s landscapes become pictorial without any intermediate stage, so that we discover ourselves “in una selva oscura where associations multiply endlessly, but where each tree looks like every other one. . . .” That is the danger risked by those minimal artists of our time whose subject is solely the agony of the locked-in ego: their agonies, like Plath’s landscapes, begin to look alike.

But if we turn from the weak and submissive ego to one more traditionally masculine, activated by the desire to name and to place and to conquer, we discover a consciousness that appears superficially antithetical:

Average reality begins to rot and stink as soon as the act of individual creation ceases to animate a subjectively perceived texture.

(Vladimir Nabokov, from an interview)

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being….

(Wallace Stevens, “Motive for Metaphor”)

Where in Plath (and in countless of our contemporaries) the ego suffers dissolution in the face of even the most banal of enemies, in such writers as Nabokov and Stevens the ego emerges as confident and victorious. Yet we see that it is the same metaphysics—the same automatic assumption that there is an “average” reality somehow distinct from us, either superior (and therefore terrifying) or inferior (and therefore saved from “rot” and “stink” only by our godly subjective blessing). This is still the old romantic bias, the opposition between self and object, “I” and non-“I,” man and nature. Nabokov and Stevens have mastered art forms in which language is arranged and rearranged in such a manner as to give pleasure to the artist and his readers, excluding any referent to an available exterior world. Their work frees the ego to devise and defend a sealed-off universe, inhabited chiefly by the self-as-artist, so that it is quite natural to assume that Nabokov’s writing is about the art of writing and Stevens’ poems about the art of writing; that the work gives us the process of creativity that is its chief interest. Again, as in Plath, the work may approach the threshold of an awareness of other inhabitants of the human universe, but it never crosses over because, basically, it cannot guarantee the existence of other human beings: its own autonomy might be threatened or at least questioned. The mirror and never the window is the stimulus for this art that, far from being overwhelmed by nature, turns from it impatiently, in order to construct the claustrophobic Ada or the difficult later poems of Stevens, in which metaphors inhabit metaphors and the “weight of primary noon” is hardly more than a memory. The consciousness discernible behind the works of Nabokov and Stevens is like that totally autonomous ego imagined— but only imagined—by Sartre, which is self-created, self-named, untouched by parental or social or cultural or even biological determinants.

Since so refined an art willfully excludes the emotional context of its own creation, personality is minimal; art is all. It is not surprising that the harsh, hooking images of Plath’s poetry should excite more interest, since Plath is, always honest, perhaps more honest than we would like, and her awareness of a lost cosmos involves her in a perpetual questioning of what nature is, what the Other is, what does it want to do to her, with her, in spite of her . . . ? Nabokov and Stevens receive only the most incidental stimuli from their “average reality” and “obscure world,” but Plath is an identity reduced to desperate statements about her dilemma as a passive witness to a turbulent natural world:

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Grey as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.

(“Wuthering Heights” )

And, in “Two Campers in Cloud Country,” the poet and her companion experience a kind of comfort up in Rock Lake, Canada, where they “mean so little” and where they will wake “blank-brained as water in the dawn.” If the self is set in opposition to everything that excludes it, then the distant horizons of the wilderness will be as terrible as the kitchen walls and the viciousness of hissing fat. There is never any integrating of the self and its experience, the self and its field of perception. Human consciousness, to Plath, is always an intruder in the natural universe.

This distrust of the intellect in certain poets can result in lyric-meditative poetry of an almost ecstatic beauty, when the poet acknowledges his separateness from nature but seems not to despise or fear it:

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.

( Howard Nemerov, “The Blue Swallows” )

Nemerov shares with Stevens and Plath certain basic assumptions: that poems are “not the point” in the natural universe, and that the poet, therefore, is not in the same field of experience as the swallows. Poetry, coming from the mind of man, not from the objects of mind’s perception, is somehow a self-conscious, uneasy activity that must apologize for itself. In this same poem, the title poem of Nemerov’s excellent collection The Blue Swallows, the poet opposes the “real world” and the “spelling mind” that attempts to impose its “unreal relations on the blue swallows.” But despite Nemerov’s tone of acquiescence and affirmation, this is a tragic assumption in that it certainly banishes the poet himself from the world: only if he will give up poetry and “find again the world” has he a chance of being saved. It is a paradox that the poet believes he will honor the objects of his perception— whether swallows, trees, sheep, bees, infants—only by withdrawing from them. Why does it never occur to romantic poets that they exist as much by right in the universe as any other creature, and that their function as poets is a natural function?—that the adult imagination is superior to the imagination of birds and infants?

In art this can lead to silence; in life, to suicide.

The Deadly Mirror: The Risks of Lyric Poetry

Among the lesser-known of Theodore Roethke’s poems is “Lines Upon Leaving a Sanitarium,” in which the poet makes certain sobering, unambiguous statements:

Self-contemplation is a curse
That makes an old confusion worse.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The mirror tells some truth, but not
Enough to merit constant thought.

Perhaps it is not just Plath’s position at the end of a once-energetic tradition and the circumstances of her own unhappy life that doomed her and her poetry to premature dissolution, but something in the very nature of lyric poetry itself. What of this curious art form that, when not liberated by music, tends to turn inward upon the singer, folding and folding again upon the poet? If he Is immature to begin with, of what can he sing except his own self’s immaturity, and to what task can his imagination put itself except the selection of ingenious images to illustrate this immaturity? Few lyric poets, beginning as shakily as the young Yeats, will continue to write and rewrite, to imagine and reimagine, in a heroic evolution of the self from one kind of personality to another. The risk of lyric poetry is its availability to the precocious imagination, its immediate rewards in terms of technical skill, which then hypnotize the poet into believing that he has achieved all there is to achieve in his life as well as in his art. How quickly these six-inch masterpieces betray their creators! The early successes, predicated upon ruthless self-examination, demand a repeating of their skills even when the original psychological dramas have been outgrown or exhausted, since the lyric poet is instructed to look into his heart and write and, by tradition, he has only his self to write about. But poetry—like all art—demands that its subject be made sacred. Art is the sacralizing of its subject. The problem, then, is a nearly impossible one: How can the poet make himself sacred? Once he has exposed himself, revealed himself, dramatized his fantasies and terrors, what can he do next? Most modern poetry is scornful, cynical, contemptuous of its subject (whether self or others), bitter or amused or coldly detached. It shrinks from the activity of making the world sacred because it can approach the world only through the self-as-subject; and the prospect of glorifying oneself is an impossible one. Therefore, the ironic mode. Therefore, silence. It is rare to encounter a poet like Robert Lowell, who beginning with the stunning virtuosity of his early poems, can move through a period of intense preoccupation with self (Life Studies) into a period of exploratory maneuvers into the personalities of poets quite unlike him (Imitations) and, though a shy, ungregarious man, write plays and participate in their productions (The Old Glory) and move into a kind of existential political-historical poetry in which the self is central but unobtrusive (Notebook). Most lyric poets explore themselves endlessly, like patients involved in a permanent psychoanalysis, reporting back for each session determined, to discover, to drag out of hiding, the essential problem of their personalities—when perhaps there is no problem in their personalities at all, except this insane preoccupation with the self and its moods and doubts, while much of the human universe struggles simply for survival.

If the lyric poet believes—as most people do—that the “I” he inhabits is not integrated with the entire stream of life, let alone with other human beings, he is doomed to a solipsistic and ironic and self-pitying art, in which metaphors for his own narcissistic predicament are snatched from newspaper headlines concerning real atrocities. The small enclosed form of the typical lyric poem seems to preclude an active sanctifying of other people; it is much easier, certainly, for a novelist to investigate and rejoice in the foreign/intimate nature of other people, regardless of his maturity or immaturity. When the novel is not addressed to the same self-analysis as the lyric poem, it demands that one look out the window and not into the mirror; it demands an active involvement with time, place, personality, pasts and futures, and a dramatizing of emotions. The novel allows for a sanctification of any number of people, and if the novelist pits his “I” against others, he will have to construct that “I” with care and love; technical virtuosity is so hard to come by—had Dostoyevsky the virtuosity of Nabokov?— that it begins to seem irrelevant. The novelist’s obligation is to do no less than attempt the sanctification of the world!—while the lyric poet, if he is stuck in a limited emotional cul-de-sac, will circle endlessly inside the bell jar of his own world, and only by tremendous strength is he able to break free.1

The implications of this essay are not that a highly self-conscious art is inferior by nature to a more socially committed art—on the contrary, it is usually the case that the drama of the self is very exciting. What is a risk for the poet is often a delight for his reader; controlled hysteria is more compelling than statements of Spinozan calm. When Thomas Merton cautioned the mystic against writing poems, believing that the “poet” and the “mystic” must never be joined, he knew that the possession of any truth, especially an irrefutable truth, cannot excite drama. It may be a joy to possess wisdom, but how to communicate it? If you see unity beneath the parts, bits, and cogs of the phenomenal world, this does not mean you can make poetry out of it—

All leaves are this leaf,
all petals, this flower
in a lie of abundance.
All fruit is the same,
the trees are only one tree
and one flower sustains all the earth.

(“Unity,” from Manual Metaphysics
by Pablo Neruda; trans. by Ben Belitt)

—not Neruda’s best poetry.

By contrast, Plath’s poems convince us when they are most troubled, most murderous, most unfair—as in “Daddy,” where we listen in amazement to a child’s voice cursing and rekilling a dead man, in a distorted rhythmic version of what would be, in an easier world, a nursery tune. An unforgettable poem, surely. The “parts, bits, cogs, the shining multiples” (“Three Women”) constitute hallucinations that involve us because they stir in us memories of our own infantile pasts and do not provoke us into a contemplation of the difficult and less dramatic future of our adulthood. The intensity of “Lesbos” grows out of an adult woman’s denying her adulthood, her motherhood, lashing out spitefully at all objects—babies or husbands or sick kittens—with a strident, self-mocking energy that is quite different from the Plath of the more depressed poems:

And I, love, am a pathological liar,
And my child—look at her, face down on the floor,
Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear—
Why, she is schizophrenic, Her face red and white, a panic. . . .
You say I should drown my girl.
She’ll cut her throat at ten if she’s mad at two.
The baby smiles, fat snail,
From the polished lozenges of orange linoleum.
You could eat him. He’s a boy. . . .

Though Plath and her friend, another unhappy mother, obviously share the same smoggy hell, they cannot communicate, and Plath ends the poem with her insistence upon their separateness: “Even in your Zen heaven we shan’t meet.”

A woman who despises herself as a woman obviously cannot feel sympathy with any other woman; her passionate love/hate is for the aggressors, the absent husbands or the dead fathers who have absorbed all evil. But because these male figures are not present, whatever revenge is possible must be exacted upon their offspring. The poem “For a Fatherless Son” is more chilling than the cheerful anger of “Daddy” because it is so relentless a curse. And if it hints of Plath’s own impending absence, by way of suicide, it is a remarkably cruel poem indeed. Here the mother tells her son that he will presently be aware of an absence, growing beside him like “a death tree . . . an illusion,/And a sky like a pig’s backside. . . .” The child is temporarily too young to realize that his father has abandoned him, but

one day you may touch what’s wrong
The small skulls, the smashed blue hills,
the godawful hush.

This is one of the few poems of Plath’s in which the future is imagined, but it is imagined passively, helplessly; the mother evidently has no intention of rearranging her life and establishing a household free of the father or of his absence. She does not state her hatred for the absent father, but she reveals herself as a victim, bitter and spiteful, and unwilling to spare her son these emotions. Again, mother and child are roughly equivalent; the mother is not an adult, not a participant in the world of “archetypes.”

So unquestioningly is the division between selves accepted, and so relentlessly the pursuit of the solitary, isolated self by way of the form of this poetry, that stasis and ultimate silence seem inevitable. Again, lyric poetry is a risk because it rarely seems to open into a future: the time of lyric poetry is usually the present or the past. “This is a disease I carry home, this is a death,” Plath says in “Three Women,” and, indeed, this characterizes most of her lines. All is brute process, without a future; the past is recalled only with bitterness, a stimulus for present dismay.

When the epic promise of “One’s-self I sing” is mistaken as the singing of a separate self, and not the universal self, the results can only be tragic.

Crossing the Water

Plath understood well the hellish fate of being Swift’s true counterpart, the woman who agrees that the physical side of life is a horror, an ungainly synthesis of flesh and spirit—the disappointment of all the romantic love poems and the nightmare of the monkish soul. Since one cannot make this existence sacred, one may as well dream of “massacres” or, like the Third Voice in the play “Three Women,” express regret that she had not arranged to have an abortion: “I should have murdered this,” she says in a Shakespearean echo, “that murders me.” “Crossing the water”—crossing over into another dimension of experience—cannot be a liberation, an exploration of another being, but only a quiet movement into death for two “black, cut-paper people”:

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

(“Crossing the Water”)

In most of the poems and very noticeably in The Bell Jar, Plath exhibits a recurring tendency to dehumanize people, to flatten everyone into “cut-paper people,” most of all herself. She performs a kind of reversed magic, a desacralizing ritual for which psychologists have terms— reification, rubricization. Absolute, dramatic boundaries are set up between the “I” and all others, and there is a peculiar refusal to distinguish between those who mean well, those who mean ill, and those who are neutral. Thus, one is shocked to discover in The Bell Jar that Esther, the intelligent young narrator, is as callous toward her mother as the psychiatrist is to her, and that she sets about an awkward seduction with the chilling precision of a machine—hardly aware of the man involved, telling us very little about him as an existing human being. He does not really exist, he has no personality worth mentioning. Only Esther exists.

“Lady Lazarus,” risen once again from the dead, does not expect a sympathetic response from the mob of spectators that crowd in to view her, a mock-phoenix rising from another failed suicide attempt: to Plath there cannot be any connection between people, between the “I” who performs and the crowd that stares. All deaths are separate, and do not evoke human responses. To be really safe, one must be like the young man of “Gigolo,” who has eluded the “bright fish hooks, the smiles of women,” and who will never age because—like Plath’s ideal self— he is a perfect narcissus, self-gratified. He has successfully dehumanized himself.

The cosmos is indeed lost to Plath and her era, and even a tentative exploration of a possible “God” is viewed in the old terms, in the old images of dread and terror. “Mystic” is an interesting poem, on a subject rare indeed in Plath, and seems to indicate that her uneasiness with the “mill of hooks” of the air—”questions without answer”—had led her briefly to thoughts of God. Yet whoever this “God” is, no comfort is possible because the ego cannot experience any interest or desire without being engulfed:

Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?
Once one has been seized up

Without a part left over,
Not a toe, not a finger, and used,
Used utterly. . . .
What is the remedy?

Used: the mystic will be exploited, victimized, hurt. He can expect no liberation or joy from God, but only another form of dehumanizing brutality. Plath has made beautiful poetry out of the paranoia sometimes expressed by a certain kind of emotionally disturbed person who imagines that any relationship with anyone will overwhelm him, engulf and destroy his soul. (For a brilliant poem about the savagery of erotic love between lovers who cannot quite achieve adult autonomy or the generosity of granting humanity to each other, see Ted Hughes’s “Lovesong” in Crow,not inappropriate in this context. )

The dread of being possessed by the Other results in the individual’s failure to distinguish between real and illusory enemies. What must be in the human species a talent for discerning legitimate threats to personal survival evidently never developed in Plath—this helps to explain why she could so gracefully fuse the “evil” of her father with the historical outrages of the Nazis, unashamedly declare herself a “Jew” because the memory of her father persecuted her. In other vivid poems, she senses enemies in tulips (oxygen-sucking tulips?—surely they are human! ) or sheep (which possess the unsheeplike power of murdering a human being) or in the true blankness of a mirror, which cannot be seen as recording the natural maturation process of a young woman but must be reinterpreted as drawing the woman toward the “terrible fish” of her future self. Plath’s inability to grade the possibilities of danger is reflected generally in our society and helps to account for peculiar admissions of helplessness and confusion in adults who should be informing their children: if everything unusual or foreign is an evil, if everything new is an evil, then the individual is lost. The political equivalent of childlike paranoia is too obvious to need restating, but we have a cultural equivalent as well that seems to pass unnoticed. Surely the sinister immorality of films like A Clockwork Orange(though not the original English version of the Burgess novel ) lies in their excited focus upon small, isolated, glamorized acts of violence by nonrepresentative individuals, so that the unfathomable violence of governments is totally ignored or misapprehended. Delmore Schwartz said that even the paranoid has enemies. Indeed he has enemies, but paranoia cannot allow us to distinguish them from friends.

In the summer of 1972 I attended a dramatic reading of Plath’s “Three Women,” given by three actresses as part of the International Poetry Conference in London. The reading was done in a crowded room, and unfortunately the highly professional performance was repeatedly interrupted by a baby’s crying from another part of the building. Here was—quite accidentally—a powerful and perhaps even poetic counterpoint to Plath’s moving poem. For there, in the baby’s cries from another room, was what Plath had left out: the reason for the maternity ward, the reason for childbirth and suffering and motherhood and poetry itself.

What may come to seem obvious to people in the future—that unique personality does not necessitate isolation, that the “I” of the poet belongs as naturally in the universe as any other aspect of its fluid totality, above all that this “I” exists in a field of living spirit of which it is one aspect—was tragically unknown to Plath, as it has been unknown or denied many. Hopefully, a world of totality awaits us, not a played-out world of fragments; but Sylvia Plath acted out a tragically isolated existence, synthesizing for her survivors so many of the sorrows of that dying age—romanticism in its death throes, the self’s ship, Ariel, prematurely drowned.

It is so beautiful, to have no attachments!
I am solitary as grass. What is it I miss?
Shall I ever find it, whatever it is?

(“Three Women”)


  1. Since completing this essay I have come upon Roy Fuller’s complex consideration of Nietzschean “tragedy” and its relationship to the literature of the present day, “Professors and Gods,” in The Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 1973. He acknowledges that poetry in our time has lost much to the novel, but that it need not surrender entirely what the art of the novel forces upon the novelist—”a viewpoint not always his own and a regard for the situation of others.” Fuller’s distinction between the dramatized “tragedy” of the individual and the higher, more formal, and far more idealistic “tragedy” of the community is an important one, helping to explain why tragedy as an art form is so difficult and, in execution, so often disappointing in our time.

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