Sylvia Plath: A Search for Self

Sylvia Plath: A Search for Self

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Sylvia Plath: A Search for Self

      The collective body of Sylvia Plath's poetry demonstrates definitively her mastery of her craft. Plath has been criticized for her overtly autobiographical work and her suicidal pessimism, however, close study reveals that her poetry transcends categorization and has a voice uniquely her own. As Katha Pollit concluded in a 1982 Nation review, "by the time she came to write her last seventy or eighty poems, there was no other voice like hers on earth" (Wagner 1). In works such as "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," and "Morning Song," Plath relates her own painfully experiences in the form of dramatic monologues using a persona who eventually triumphs over adversity by regaining the self that had been lost before the struggle of the poem.


     According to Plath, the narrator of "Lady Lazarus" has "the great and terrible gift of being reborn . . . she is the Phoenix, the libertarian spirit" (Wagner 71). In compact three-line stanzas, the speaker sardonically comments on her unique ability and its implications. Her tone demonstrates her boredom towards the attention paid to her by "the peanut-crunching crowd." Unlike the Biblical Lazarus who is called forth from the grave by Jesus, Lady Lazarus is able to resurrect herself and so avoids the polarities of God and Lucifer. Neither of these figures is able to exact punishment for the atrocities that man heaps on man, so the speaker transfigures herself by reducing her body to ashes and reviving her life through flame. As Leonard Sanazaro points out, "This willfulness to arise and devour humankind in the form of a self-fulfilled deity points up the impotence of the traditional concepts of good and evil" (Wagner 90) Lady Lazarus transcends these boundaries.


     The imagery used throughout the poem is associated with the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in concentration camps during World War II. Plath addresses the inhumanity of the situation, using such phrases as "A cake of soap,/A wedding ring,/A gold filling" to represent a human being. Plath also alludes to the medical experimentation that was practiced by the Nazi doctors. Plath has often been criticized for relating her hardships to that of the Jews. After all, she grew up in a relatively stable and affluent home and received an excellent education; her suffering was in her mind. Plath said specifically that her poems had come:

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out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say that I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle and a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind. I think personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn't be a shut-box and mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on. (Wagner 90-91)


Thus, to Plath, it is natural to compare the psychological torment of Lady Lazarus in establishing her self with the physical pain of the Jews who serve as ritual victims. As Barbara Hardy comments, "The poetry constantly breaks beyond its own personal cries of pain and horror, in ways more sane than mad, enlarging and generalizing the particulars, attaching its maladies to a profoundly moved and moving sense of human ills" (Wagner 3). The speaker, however, reverses the passivity inherent in this comparison to the Jews in her transmutation at the close of the poem.


     Plath compares the resurrection of Lady Lazarus to a circus sideshow, "the big strip tease." Frederick Bruell elaborates on this correlation using Baudelaire's poem "La muse venale." In it, the poet is pictured as a starving acrobat or clown who must stifle his own tears with laughter in order to amuse a vulgar crowd; he must repress his feelings and prostitute his art for the sake of the mob in order to be their entertainer and victim simultaneously, thereby revealing to the poem's reader, in so far as he resists identification with the mob, what has happened to a sensitive person. (Wagner 151) Similarly, Lady Lazarus allows herself to be scrutinized by a crowd of spectators but points out that there is a "very large charge/For a word or a touch/Or a bit of blood." Thus, she becomes their victim.


Criticism concerning Plath's confessionist tendencies focuses on this poem because of the close parallels between Plath's experiences and those of Lady Lazarus. At the age of ten, Plath was involved in a swimming accident and nearly drowned as the narrator explains, "The first time it happened I was ten./It was an accident." At the age of twenty, Plath attempted to commit suicide by taking a large dose of sleeping pills and hiding in the basement of her home. She describes this experience in a letter to "E" saying, "I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion . . . I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell, banging my head repeatedly on the ragged rocks of the cellar in futile attempts to sit up and, instinctively, call for help" (Plath 131). The description by Lady Lazarus of her first suicide echoes Plath's ordeal. These similarities, however, should not diminish the power of the poetry. As Laurence Lerner states, "It is the miracle of a poem like 'Lady Lazarus' that though it seems a wild and inherent outpouring of terror and self-hatred, it also has the true control of art" (Wagner 66). So, the poetry may not be discounted simply because the events described by the dramatic personas are similar to those of Plath's life. This tendency, however, may be understood in light of her powerful voice. Katha Pollit explains it best when she says, "Her voice, once she found it, was too strong, too strange, not to have struck a note of challenge, her life too brief and intense not to have been packages as that of yet another doomed female genius" (Wagner 68).


Similarly, the speaker in "Daddy" must purge herself of the evil surrounding her image of her father in order to find her own self. George Steiner has labelled this work "the Guernica of modern poetry" saying, "It achieves the classic art of generalization, translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all" (Wagner 1-2). Again, Plath has taken a situation that seems to mirror the circumstances of her own life and translated her feelings into a work of art. Her father, a professor of biology at Boston University, died when she was rather young of a combination of diabetes, gangrene, and broncho-pneumonia, but as Barbara Drake points out, "'Daddy,' perhaps the most personal and vituperative of the poems, escapes being what it might have become in a more truly 'confessional' treatment, a nasty harangue or the hacking of a helpless scapegoat" (Wagner 43).


Plath described this persona as "a girl with an Electra complex whose father died while she thought he was God" (Wagner 124). She purposely used the Nazi imagery to suggest that the girl was a mixture of the German and the Jewish races and so must resolve their conflict within herself. The childish wrath of the narrator supports this view of a God-like daddy who was overcome by death before his daughter could understand its implications. Just as James in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse holds on to his desire to kill his father long after he is old enough to comprehend the ramifications of such an act, so this persona continues to amplify the image that she had of her father as a very young girl. Indeed, she seems to juxtapose many of the characteristics of her father on the image that she has of her husband.


Ultimately, however, the narrator's close association of this image with her father has made it a part of her own consciousness. Thus, in destroying the persona of her father, she must destroy a part of herself. According to Guinevara Nance and Judith Jones, "Readings of the poem as a ritualistic murder have overlooked evidence that the father--whether purely an artistic construct or a derivation of the poet's father--is the fabrication of a persona who attempts to exorcise her childish view of her daddy" (Wagner 124). The "I'm through" at the close of the poem spoken by the narrator indicates that her struggle to regain self is complete, and the created effigy of her father has been destroyed.


Finally, in yet another narrative monologue that would appear to come from the pages of Plath's own experience, the mother of "Morning Song" must address the question of the reestablishment of her self following the birth of her child. This poem presents a unique perspective on the understanding of maternal love and the relationship between mother and child. The mother feels completely isolated from her child, as if s/he were a machine that has been set into motion. The baby is a mechanical thing, "a fat gold watch," which can only suggest that the mother is also an apparatus. As Marjorie Perloff suggests, "One might note, in the first place, that the poem turns the aubade convention inside out: the speaker's dawn is not one of love or joy but one of dimly felt anxiety--motherhood both frightens and fascinates her" (117).


Unfortunately, this poem is often used as a description of the way that Plath felt about her own children, not just immediately after they were born but throughout their lives. Such comparisons generally stem from references in the Bell Jar and in correspondence before her marriage suggesting that Plath wanted to escape domesticity and was worried that she would be unable to write after she married and had children. In fact, Plath was a very loving mother and took great care in the upbringing of her children. Letters sent home soon after the arrival of Frieda Rebecca do not echo the sentiments of "Morning Song:"


The baby is sleeping sweetly after her 2 p.m. feeding, her little hands in the most delicate attitudes. Her ballet-like gestures with her hands are one of the loveliest things about her. I have begun changing her diapers myself now and enjoy it immensely. She is very good and quiet and seems to like moving her legs about and being bare. (Plath, 376)


After the birth of her son, she was similarly gleeful.


     Instead of analyzing the poem in relationship to Plath's own experiences, a more successful approach is to compare the emotions described by the speaker in "Morning Song" to those expressed generally by new mothers. Modern studies of postpartum depression have shed some light on the frequently unusual reactions of mothers to their children shortly after birth, but at the time that Plath wrote this poem such studies were not common knowledge. The feelings that she captures in this poem are not meant to suggest that the mother dislikes the infant but rather that she is confused by the mechanical quality surrounding it.


     The sentiments expressed in these three poems reveal that Sylvia Plath was not merely a confessionist poet. Although the personas in each of the poems relate circumstances that are similar to those actually experienced by Plath, their struggle to regain self is a universal concern. Plath's art lay in her ability to transform her suffering into the powerful language of her characters, and thus to address her philosophy of rejuvenation to the world.


Works Cited and Consulted

Plath, Aurelia Schober. Letters Home. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Wagner, Linda. Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1984.
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