Jon Rosenblatt

Jon Rosenblatt: On "Ariel"

. . . A poem like "Ariel" possesses power and importance to the degree to which the horseback ride Plath once took becomes something more—a ride into the eye of the sun, a journey to death, a stripping of personality and selfhood. To treat "Ariel" as a confessional poem is to suggest that its actual importance lies in the horse- ride taken by its author, in the author's psychological problems, or in its position within the biographical development of the author. None of these issues is as significant as the imagistic and thematic developments rendered by the poem itself. . . .

. . . "Ariel" is probably Plath's finest single construction because of the precision and depth of its images. In its account of the ritual journey toward the center of life and death, Plath perfects her method of leaping from image to image in order to represent mental process. The sensuousness and concreteness of the poem—the "Black sweet blood mouthfuls" of the berries; the "glitter of seas"—is unmatched in contemporary American poetry. We see, hear, touch, and taste the process of disintegration: the horse emerging from the darkness of the morning, the sun beginning to rise as Ariel rushes uncontrollably across the countryside, the rider trying to catch the brown neck but instead "tasting" the blackberries on the side of the road. Then all the rider's perceptions are thrown together: the horse's body and the rider's merge. She hears her own cry as if it were that of a child and flies toward the burning sun that has now risen.

In "Ariel," Plath finds a perfect blend between Latinate and colloquial dictions, between abstractness and concreteness. The languages of her earlier and her later work come together:

White  Godiva, I unpeel— Dead hands, dead stringencies.

The concreteness of the Anglo-Saxon "hands" gives way to the abstractness of the Latinate "stringencies": both the physical and psychological aspects of the self have died and are pared away. Finally, the treatment of aural effects in the poem makes it the finest of Plath's technical accomplishments. The slant-rhymes, the assonance (for example, the "I"-sound in the last three stanzas), and the flexible three-line stanzas provide a superb music. . . . the vortex of images sucks the reader into identifying with a clearly self-destroying journey. On a literal level, few readers would willingly accept this ride into nothingness. But, through its precise rendering of sensation, the poem becomes a temptation: it draws us into its beautiful aural and visual universe against our win. As the pace of the horseride quickens, the intensity of the visual effects becomes greater. The identification of the speaker with the world outside becomes more extreme; Plath's metaphors suggest a large degree of fusion between disparate objects, as in the lines "I / foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." The ride across the fields suddenly turns into an ocean voyage. The body then fuses with the external world. As the speaker's merger with the sun is completed, so is the reader's merger with her: the process of identification within the poem generates a corresponding identification on the part of the reader. If the speaker will be destroyed in the cauldron of energy, the sun, so the reader will be destroyed in the cauldron of the poem. The poem entices us into a kind of death—the experience of abandoning our bodies and selves.

From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.

Jon Rosenblatt: On "Daddy"

"Daddy" is, of course, Plath's most extended treatment of the father symbol, though it is by no means her best poem. The rapid, often wild succession of elements relating to the father are not entirely integrated into the poem. It opens with a reference to the father's black shoe, in which the daughter has "lived like a foot," suggesting her submissiveness and entrapment. The poem then moves to a derisive commentary on the idealized image of the father ("Marble heavy, a bag full of God") and summarizes his background: his life in a German-speaking part of Poland that was "Scraped flat by the roller / Of wars" (A, p. 49). The daughter admits here, for the first time in the poetry, that she was afraid of him. Yet all these references are merely introductory remarks to prepare the reader for the fantastic "allegory" that is to come. As Plath describes it in her note: "The poem is spoken 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 other—she has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it."

Plath's real father was not a Nazi, and her mother was not Jewish. The historical references, however, allow her to dramatize her rebellion against the oppressive father. The entire poem may seem to have stretched the permissible limits of analogy. This piece of "light verse," as Plath called it, constantly shifts between grotesque, childish flights and allusions and deadly serious rage toward the father-Nazi. On one hand, Plath characterizes her situation in terms of nursery rhymes, recalling the tale of the old lady in the shoe; and on the other, of Jews being taken off to "Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" (p. 50). The father is a "Panzer-man," but he is also called "gobbledy-goo." German and English intermix grotesquely:

I never could talk to you. 

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

 

It stuck in a barb wire snare. 

Ich, ich, ich, ich.

There is a line as startling and compact as this: "Every woman adores a Fascist"; but there is also the fatuousness of the lines following; "The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" (p. 50). And the end of the poem drops the carefully established Nazi allegory for a piece of vampire lore. Plath imagines that a vampire-husband has impersonated the dead Nazi-father for seven years of marriage, drinking the wife's blood, until she has finally put a stake through his heart (the traditional method of destroying the vampire).

"Daddy" is obviously an attempt to do away altogether with the idealized father; but it also makes clear how difficult a task that is. Daddy keeps returning in the poem in different guises: statue, shoe, Nazi, teacher, devil, and vampire. If the starting point of Plath's idealization of the father was the heroic white patriarch of "Lament," the end point is the black vampire of "Daddy." The father has been reenvisioned in terms of his sexual dominance, cruelty, and authoritarianism. Ironically, the father, who was mourned in the earlier poems as the innocent victim of deathly external forces, has himself been transformed into the agent of death. It is as if the underside of Plath's feelings toward the father had surfaced, abolishing the entire "epic" that she described in "Electra on Azalea Path" and replacing it with a new cast of characters and a new plot. The story is no longer the daughter's attempt to reunite with and to marry the dead father; it is now the daughter's wish to overthrow his dominance over her imagination and to "kill" him and the man who takes his place—the vampire in "Daddy," the Nazi in "Lady Lazarus," or the husband in "Purdah." Rebellion and anger supplant the grief and depression of the earlier poems.

From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.

Jon Rosenblatt: On "Lady Lazarus"

. . . The poem reflects Plath's recognition at the end of her life that the struggle between self and others and between death and birth must govern every aspect of the poetic structure. The magical and demonic aspects of the world appear in "Lady Lazarus" with an intensity that is absent from "The Stones."

The Lady of the poem is a quasi-mythological figure, a parodic version of the biblical Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. As in "The Stones," the speaker undergoes a series of transformations that are registered through image sequences. The result is the total alteration of the physical body. In "Lady Lazarus," however, the transformations are more violent and more various than in "The Stones," and the degree of self-dramatization on the part of the speaker is much greater. Four basic sequences of images define the Lady's identity. At the beginning of the poem, she is cloth or material: lampshade, linen, napkin; in the middle, she is only body: knees, skin and bone, hair; toward the end, she becomes a physical object: gold, ash, a cake of soap; finally, she is resurrected as a red-haired demon. Each of these states is dramatically connected to an observer or observers through direct address: first, to her unnamed "enemy"; then, to the "gentlemen and ladies"; next, to the Herr Doktor; and, finally, to Herr God and Herr Lucifer. The address to these "audiences" allows Plath to characterize Lady Lazarus's fragmented identities with great precision. For example, a passage toward the end of the poem incorporates the transition from a sequence of body images (scars-heart-hair) to a series of physical images" (opus-valuable-gold baby) as it shifts its address from the voyeuristic crowd to the Nazi Doktor:

[lines 61-70]

The inventiveness of the language demonstrates Plath's ability to create, as she could not in "The Stones," an appropriate oral medium for the distorted mental states of the speaker. The sexual pun on "charge" in the first line above; the bastardization of German ("Herr Enemy"); the combination of Latinate diction ("opus," "valuable") and colloquial phrasing ("charge," "So, so . . . ")—all these linguistic elements reveal a character who has been grotesquely split into warring selves. Lady Lazarus is a different person for each of her audiences, and yet none of her identities is bearable for her. For the Nazi Doktor, she is a Jew, whose body must be burned; for the "peanut-crunching crowd," she is a stripteaser; for the medical audience, she is a wonder, whose scars and heartbeat are astonishing; for the religious audience, she is a miraculous figure, whose hair and clothes are as valuable as saints' relics. And when she turns to her audience in the middle of the poem to describe her career in suicide, she becomes a self-conscious performer. Each of her deaths, she says, is done "exceptionally well. / I do it so it feels like hell."

The entire symbolic procedure of death and rebirth in "Lady Lazarus" has been deliberately chosen by the speaker. She enacts her death repeatedly in order to cleanse herse1f of the "million filaments" of guilt and anguish that torment her. After she has returned to the womblike state of being trapped in her cave, like the biblical Lazarus, or of being rocked "shut as a seashell," she expects to emerge reborn in a new form. These attempts at rebirth are unsuccessful until the end of the poem. Only when the Lady undergoes total immolation of self and body does she truly emerge in a demonic form. The doctor burns her down to ash, and then she achieves her rebirth:

Out of the ash 

I rise with my red hair 

And I eat men like air.

Using the phoenix myth of resurrection as a basis, Plath imagines a woman who has become pure spirit rising against the imprisoning others around her: gods, doctor, men, and Nazis. This translation of the self into spirit, after an ordeal of mutilation, torture, and immolation, stamps the poem as the dramatization of the basic initiatory process.

"Lady Lazarus" defines the central aesthetic principles of Plath's late poetry. First, the poem derives its dominant effects from the colloquial language. From the conversational opening ("I have done it again") to the clipped warnings of the ending ("Beware / Beware"), "Lady Lazarus" appears as the monologue of a woman speaking spontaneously out of her pain and psychic disintegration. The Latinate terms ("annihilate," "filaments," "opus," "valuable") are introduced as sudden contrasts to the essentially simple language of the speaker. The obsessive repetition of key words and phrases gives enormous power to the plain style used throughout. As she speaks, Lady Lazarus seems to gather up her energies for an assault on her enemies, and the staccato repetitions of phrases build up the intensity of feelings:

[lines 46-50]

This is language poured out of some burning inner fire, though it retains the rhythmical precision that we expect from a much less intensely felt expression. It is also a language made up almost entirely of monosyllables. Plath has managed to adapt a heightened conversational stance and a colloquial idiom to the dramatic monologue form.

The colloquial language of the poem relates to its second major aspect: its aural quality. "Lady Lazarus" is meant to be read aloud. To heighten the aural effect, the speaker's, voice modulates across varying levels of rhetorical intensity. At one moment she reports on her suicide attempt with no observable emotion:

I am only thirty. 

And like the cat I have nine times to die. 

This is Number Three.

The next moment she becomes a barker at a striptease show:

Gentlemen, ladies, 

These are my hands.

Then she may break into a kind of incantatory chant that sweeps reality in front of it, as at the very end of the poem. The deliberate rhetoric of the poem marks it as a set-piece, a dramatic tour de force, that must be heard to be truly appreciated. Certainly it answers Plath's desire to create an aural medium for her poetry.

Third, "Lady Lazarus" transforms a traditional stanzaic pattern to obtain its rhetorical and aural effects. One of the striking aspects of Plath's late poetry is its simultaneous dependence on and abandonment of traditional forms. The three-line stanza of "Lady Lazarus" and such poems as "Ariel," "Fever 103°," "Mary's Song," and "Nick and the Candlestick" refer us inevitably to the terza rima of the Italian tradition and to the terza rima experiments of Plath's earlier work. But the poems employ this stanza only as a general framework for a variable-beat line and variable rhyming patterns. The first stanza of the poem has two beats in its first line, three in its second, and two in its third; but the second has a five-three-two pattern. The iambic measure is dominant throughout, though Plath often overloads a line with stressed syllables or reduces a line to a single stress. The rhymes are mainly off-rhymes ("again," "ten"; "fine," "linen"; "stir," "there"). Many of the pure rhymes are used to accentuate a bizarre conjunction of meaning, as in the lines addressed to the doctor: "I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern."

Finally, "Lady Lazarus," like "Daddy" and "Fever 103°," incorporates historical material into the initiatory and imagistic patterns. This element of Plath's method has generated much misunderstanding, including the charge that her use of references to Nazism and to Jewishness is inauthentic. Yet these allusions to historical events form part of the speaker's fragmented identity and allow Plath to portray a kind of eternal victim. The very title of the poem lays the groundwork for a semicomic historical and cultural allusiveness. The Lady is a legendary figure, a sufferer, who has endured almost every variety of torture. Plath can thus include among Lady Lazarus's characteristics the greatest contemporary examples of brutality and persecution: the sadistic medical experiments on the Jew's by Nazi doctors and the Nazis' use of their victims' bodies in the production of lampshades and other objects. These allusions, however, are no more meant to establish a realistic historic norm in the poem than the allusions to the striptease are intended to establish a realistic social context. The references in the poem—biblical, historical, political, personal—draw the reader into the center of a personality and its characteristic mental processes. The reality of the poem lies in the convulsions of the narrating consciousness. The drama of external persecution, self-destructiveness, and renewal, with both its horror and its grotesque comedy, is played out through social and historical contexts that symbolize the inner struggle of Lady Lazarus.

The claim that Plath misuses a particular historical experience is thus incorrect. She shows how a contemporary consciousness is obsessed with historical and personal demons and how that consciousness deals with these figures. The demonic characters of the Nazi Doktor and of the risen Lady Lazarus are surely more central to the poem's tone and intent than is the historicity of these figures. By imagining the initiatory drama against the backdrop of Nazism, Plath is universalizing a personal conflict that is treated more narrowly in such poems as "The Bee-Meeting" and "Berck-Plage." The fact that Plath herself was not Jewish has no bearing on the legitimacy of her employment of the Jewish persona: the holocaust serves her as a metaphor for the death-and-life battle between the self and a deadly enemy. Whether Plath embodies the enemy as a personal friend, a demonic entity, a historical figure, or a cosmic force, she consistently sees warfare in the structural terms of the initiatory scenario. "Lady Lazarus" is simply the most powerful and successful of the dramas in which that enemy appears as the sadistic masculine force of Nazism.

From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.

Jon Roseblatt: On "The Colossus"

Plath imagines that the Colossus, which once dominated the harbor at Rhodes, is her father’s dead body, now lying broken in pieces on a hillside. The father's "ancient" power and size have been destroyed through time. The Colossus image embodies both the poet's fear of the stonelike, resistant force of the patriarch and her admiration for the colossal power that her father once possessed. The broken statue indicates, as "Point Shirley" did, that the dead man cannot be recovered through piecing him, or the poet's memories of him, together again, although the poet continues to gaze in fear and love at him.

Plath had used the Colossus image once before, in an apprentice poem called "Letter to a Purist" (1956), without identifying the statue with her father and without imagining that the statue had been broken into pieces:

That grandiose colossus who 

Stood astride

The envious assaults of the sea 

(Essaying, wave by wave,

Tide by tide,

To undo him perpetually), 

Has nothing on you,

O my love,

 

O my great idiot, who 

With one foot 

Caught (as it were) in the muck-trap 

Of skin and bone,

Dithers with the other way out

In preposterous provinces of the mad cap

Cloud-cuckoo,

Agawp at the impeccable moon.

In the much superior poem in The Colossus, Plath successfully uses the statue as a symbol for the father's vanished power. Instead of the awkward and arch language of the earlier poem ("essaying," "agawp," "as it were"), she finds a more colloquial, though still somewhat stilted, language with which to address her father:

I shall never get you put together entirely,

Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.

Mule bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles

Proceed from your great lips.

It's worse than a barnyard.

While the first lines still imitate a literary source, Dylan Thomas's elegy for Ann Jones ("After the funeral, mule praises, brays"), the poem goes on to discover its own language of praise and contempt for the father. The central metaphor is ingeniously varied, as in the comparison of the eyes of the statue to "bald white tumuli" or in the conversion of the tongue into a pillar. By sticking to the fantasized situation--a young daughter's archaeological reconstruction of the father-statue--Plath gives a surrealistic quality to the metaphor. We seem to be at a halfway point between the psychic obsessions of an interior drama and the public concerns of the archaeologist. The poem is still split, though, between two objectives: the expression of a vitriolic contempt for the abandoning father and a rigid pride in his all-powerful, paternal authority. "The Colossus" is halfway to "Daddy" from the earlier "Letter to a Purist."

From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by The University of North Carolina Press.