Robyn Marsack: On "The Colossus"

The significance of the statue is clear enough: an enormous figure, catastrophically removed from sight and irrecoverable in its original form. It is close to the small child's view of her wondrous parent -- and yet, the dignity of this colossal presence is severely compromised in the poem's first stanza: the giant sounds like a barnyard. I think this is the kind of phrase Ostriker had in mind with regard to 'reducing the verbal glow'.

Furthermore, the tone of the next stanza hovers between the lightly accusing and a wearied impatience: 'Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle...'. It is he, not she, who has set himself up as the interpreting voice. But she has colluded, spent all these years clearing his throat. What might this mean in terms of her own use of language?

You might like to look up her story 'Among the Bumblebees' (in Johnny Panic), which is very plainly an autobiographical account of the loss of a godlike father; he takes 'Alice' on his back as he swims, and shows her the secrets of bumblebees. The story opens: 'In the beginning there was Alice Denway's father. . .’; the echo of St John's gospel is deliberate: 'In the beginning was the Word ... and the Word was God.' The implications for Plath, and for women writers in general, of this linkage of male authority, godlike power and, as it seems, ownership of the language (although, of course, Mary bore the son of God, that is, the Word), is something that feminist critics have illuminatingly explored. Plath tended to link the father-figure with an oracular figure; let me refer you here to the poem 'On the Decline of Oracles', written in 1958 at the same time as 'The Disquieting Muses', both on paintings by de Chirico. The titles suggest a relationship between the disappearance of the male (and his voice) and the ascendancy of the female in her accusing silence.

Something of the sculptural quality of 'The Colossus' may derive from de Chirico's paintings as much as from the legendary Colossus: hisEnigma of the Oracle shows on the right a brilliant white head above a dark curtain, much taller than the draped figure on the left, which seems to contemplate a churning sea. Plath wanted to use as epigraph to her earlier poem a quotation from de Chirico--'Inside a ruined temple the broken statue of a god spoke a mysterious language' (Journals, p. 211). So we can see her working and reworking the notion that the dead father had something to say that she cannot grasp, and in both de Chirico's painting and 'On the Decline of Oracles' the message or expectation is related to the sea.

Let us look briefly at the opening of 'On the Decline of Oracles': can you see how Plath's art has developed from this, even in so short a time?

My father kept a vaulted conch

By two bronze bookends of ships in sail,

And as I listened its cold teeth seethed

With voices of that ambiguous sea

Old Böcklin missed, who held a shell

To hear the sea he could not hear.

What the seashell spoke to his inner ear

He knew, but no peasants know.

There is no explicit connection, after all, with de Chirico, and the mention of Böcklin seems entirely arbitrary. The poem seems to have begun with an event and then moved into exercise. In the end, the images become portentous, and lose any sense of personal association; they become pieces of a puzzle jammed into place. The first stanzas, however, I suspect arose from information in James Thrall Soby's study of de Chirico, when he discusses Böcklin's influence. A shrouded figure in one of Böcklin's paintings is reproduced in The Enigma of the Oracle.The Tuscan peasants, used to Northern painters who revelled in the Italian landscape, were puzzled by Böcklin's behaviour, as Soby recounts: ‘Toward the end of his life, for example, Böcklin had sat for hours in his garden, paralyzed and near death, but holding to his ears great sea shells so as to hear the roar of an ocean he could no longer visit.’ The landlocked painter's gesture must have had a peculiar poignancy for Plath, given her association of the loss of seascape with the loss of her father, but in this early poem she does not seem to dare to explore its meaning, so that the second half of the poem is abruptly impersonal. In ‘The Colossus', on the other hand, her associations float freely, and the structure of the poem is more fluid, less willed.

De Chirico, incidentally, commended Böcklin for exploiting the 'tragic aspects of statuary'--his own use of statues is more disruptive. The legacy of classical civilization for an early twentieth-century Italian painter was problematic in the same way as the legacy of Renaissance literature was for T.S. Eliot. Plath does not have this sense of responsibility to a tradition (it was not until she went to Cambridge that she felt its potentially inhibiting presence), as distinct from an art, nor is she bound by the particularly male aspect of creativity that sculpture in the main represents. In 'The Colossus' it is the particularly female role of housekeeper that she assumes in relation to this colossal, fallen figure. Even the word 'gluepot' suggests the inadequacy of resources to the task. Note that word 'tumuli', so typical of the thesaurus-using Plath; here its precise Latinity seems apt to the classical setting. (It also reminds me of Magritte's surrealist painting Napoleon's Death Mask, a blank-eyed blue head with clouds floating across it.) Why do you think she evokes the Oresteia here?

A blue sky out of the Oresteia

Arches above us. O father, all by yourself

You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.

I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.

Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered

 

In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.

It would take more than a lightning-stroke 

To create such a ruin.

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia 

Of your left ear, out of the wind,

 

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.

There is a pause for consideration from this industrious, hopeless, endless work of recovery, as though the speaker could step back from it all, gaze detachedly on the ruins as she once had on the Forum. How does the word 'pithy' strike you there? 'Acanthine' hair is both an exact description of sculptured curls which mimic the curved, acanthus-leaf carving above classical columns, and an echo from 'Full Fathom Five', where the seagod's hair extends for miles.

The strength of Plath's poem, it seems to me, is that it not only concerns the parent-child relationship, rooted in personal circumstance yet sufficiently unspecific here to allow readers to share the disturbance and pain inherent in the process of apparently unending search, but also that it can be interpreted in a wider sense of a culture's lost direction. Without making grandiose claims for the poem, I think that the sense of irreparable damage done by the two world wars in this century--'more than a lightning-strike'-- to an ideal of Western civilization, based on classical foundations, is certainly a presence in the poem. We will return to this matter of Plath's historical imagination.

Working against the 'stony' imagery, the unyielding coldness of the male colossus, are the involuntarily comic noises it emits, and then its fertility and colour by association. 'Cornucopia' gives us an image of the whorled shell of the ear: the horn of plenty in painting spills its fruit, and here we have the surprisingly luscious stars. Is this gesture, sheltering in the remains of something that once sheltered her, a move back into childhood, a terrible admission ('I crawl') of the need for security? We need to judge this in order to know how to read the close of the poem.

'And the long shadows cast by unseen figures -- human or of stone it is impossible to tell' -- Plath thus described de Chirico (Journals, p. 211). 'My hours are married to shadow': her days are given over to effort that makes no impression, the work of 'an ant in mourning'. It is not possible, I think, to see that as a fruitful effort, although one critic has valiantly maintained that the stone figure, while obstructive, is imperfect, and that the last lines should be read as those of a woman who is no longer content to wait. That seems to go against the grain of the poem: the speaker has given up waiting because she no longer hopes for rescue. There is a sense of exhaustion; the woman herself is perhaps only a 'shadow' of her former self. The landing stones are 'blank' of promise; she will not be setting sail.

From Sylvia Plath. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Robyn Marsack.

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