Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips: On "The Bee Meeting"

The Bee Meeting" opens with a vivid imaging of the poet’s vulnerability before the hive. In the poem, all the villagers but her are protected from the bees, and she equates this partial nudity with her condition of being unloved. In the symbolic marriage ceremony which follows, a rector, a midwife, and she herself—a bride clad in black—appear. She seems to remember that even the arrows which Eros used to shoot into the ground to create new life were poisoned darts. And just as her search for a Divine Father was tempered by her fear there was none—that God would be nothing more than, say, the Wizard of Oz, a little man with a big wind machine—so, too, her search for consolation from her earthly father creates an intensity of consciousness in which she no longer has any guarantee of security. Eros for her is ever accompanied by the imminence of death. (I am reminded here of the frequent word play, in Italian literature, between amore [love] and morte [death]). Certainly every mythology relates the sex act to death, perhaps most clearly in the tale of Tristan and Iseult. In nature, the connection is even more explicit: Always the male bee dies after inseminating the Queen. Plath’s personal mythology anticipates this. If the central figure of authority, the Queen, is her father, then the daughter/worker must die after the incestuous act, as she does at the conclusion of "The Bee Meeting" and as Plath did at the conclusion of her suicide attempts. The long white box in the grove is in fact her own coffin, only in this light can the poem’s protagonist answer her own questions. "What have they accomplished, why am I cold.")

Robert Phillips: On "Lady Lazarus"

She fears, in "Sheep in Fog," that her search will lead instead to a "starless and fatherless" heaven, carrying her into dark waters. Such dark waters are the subject of "Lady Lazarus," a much-quoted poem in which Plath compares herself to that Biblical figure once resurrected by Christ (and to a cat with its nine lives) because she has been "resurrected" from attempted suicide three times. The poem is also an act of revenge on the male Ego:

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

From "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972).

Robert Phillips: On "The Colossus"

This hatred of men and the unhealthiness of her mental condition continue to ground the figures of "The Colossus." The speaker’s identity here hinges on a broken idol out of the stream of civilization, one whose "hours are married to shadow." No longer does she "listen for the scrape of a keel / on the blank stones of the landing." Man, personified by a ship, has no place in her scheme. The marriage to shadow is a marriage to the memory of the poet’s father, and therefore to death itself. The pull toward that condition is the subject of "Lorelei" as well as the central symbol of "A Winter Ship." That she perceived the nature of her own psychic condition is clear not only in the identification with the broken idol of "The Colossus," but also with the broken vase of "The Stones." Plath makes a metaphor for her reverse misogyny in "The Bull of Bendylaw," where she transmogrifies that traditionally feminine body, the sea (note the article, la mere), into a brute bull, a potent symbol for the active masculine principle. The bull, as in all Palaeo-oriental cultures, is a symbol of both destruction and power. Yet, as with many of Plath’s symbols, there is a complexity beyond this.

From "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972).

Robert Phillips: On "Daddy"

Finally the one way the poet was to achieve relief, to become an independent Self, was to kill her father’s memory, which, in "Daddy," she does by a metaphorical murder. Making him a Nazi and herself a Jew, she dramatizes the war in her soul. It is a terrible poem, full of blackness, and one of the most nakedly confessional poems ever written. From its opening image onward, that of the father as an "old shoe" in which the daughter has lived for thirty years—an explicitly phallic image, according to the writings of Freud—the sexual pull and tug is manifest, as is the degree of Plath’s mental suffering, supported by references to Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen. (Her references elsewhere to hanged men are also emblems of suffering; in Jungian psychology, the swinging motion would be symbolic of her ambivalent state and her unfulfilled longing as well.) Plath confesses that, after failing to escape her predicament through attempted suicide, she married a surrogate father, "a man in black with a Meinkampf look" who obligingly was just as much a vampire of her spirit—one who "drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know." (Sylvia Plath was married to the poet Ted Hughes for seven years.) When she drives the stake through her father’s heart, she not only is exorcising the demon of her father’s memory, but metaphorically is killing her husband and all men.

"Daddy" is a poem of total rejection. When she writes that "the black telephone’s off at the root," she is turning her back on the modern world as well. Such rejection of family and society leads to that final rejection, that of the Self. Her suicide is everywhere predicted, in poems of symbolic annihilation such as "Totem" and in statements of human fascination with death. In "Edge," to be dead is to be perfected! Her earlier terror at death, thus, becomes a romance with it, and her poems themselves are what M. L. Rosenthal calls "yearnings toward that condition." Freud believed the aim of all life is death, and for Plath life was poetry. So by extension, poetry for her now becomes death, both conditions inseparable. She as much as says so: "The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it."

From "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972).