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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Jon Roseblatt: On "The Colossus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jon Rosenblatt Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 Jan 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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