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SYLVIA PLATH'S PARADISE - LUMINOUS AND FRIGHTENING
(Her aesthetic creed of life through five poems)

Youliana Todorova

web

'Behind her poems there's a fierce and uncompromising nature. There's also a child desperately infatuated with the world. And there's a strange muse, bald,white and wild, floating over a landscape like that of the Primitive Painters, a burningly luminous vision of Paradise. A Paradise which is at the same time eerily frightening, an unalterably spotlit vision of death.'
Ted Hughes

'Writing is a religious act; it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be.'
Sylvia Plath

'Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.'
W.B.Yeats

The name of Sylvia Plath has created another myth in American literature. Her works are still an enigma to many of us (and will be, I believe). They make one wonder and ask himself/herself questions, therefore there is something in them that is worth reading and interpreting. In my opinion, this is the aesthetic beauty of her verse which is deeply rooted in life. Life itself - together with the ups and downs, with the triumphs and failures creates the aesthetic power of the poet's poems. Respectively, this power influenses to the utmost those who understand life in this light.

Already it has become evident that I don't have the intention to separate Plath's poems from her life. I accept that none of her poems is absolutely personal and unquestionably reflects what the poet felt the day she wrote it. I mean that with Sylvia Plath one can't be ignorant of the meandering line of her woman's thoughts and feelings, simply because, being a woman, she is much more dependent on them than a man is. So, this results in the poems which the reader has in front of him or her. To cut it short - what she aimed at in her life (as her journals show) became true. Plath aimed at perfection in her work as a poet - she reached it; wanted to surpass Adrianne Cecile Rich - time shows that, more or less, this happened; had the awareness that she was 'a genius of a writer' - her poems prove this. Thus the perfection she strived for so strongly somehow brought to her poetic world a kind of phenomenal aesthetic beauty.

From what I have read by Sylvia Plath I got the impression that the aesthetic beauty of her poems is a result, a final alloy, if I can say, obtained from pollar feelings: love and hatred, tenderness and rudeness, happiness and despair. This seems to be her aesthetic creed of life. Of course, the technique of her verse is the necessary indicator without which one might not recognise Plath's poetic alloy.

In my view, there are three aspects of S. Plath's aesthetic creed of life, namely: life is everything around a numan being; this everything is a vast and almighty area which demands human feelings so that it can be faced; if one's feelings are as strong as possible, this may lead to self-isolation and self-destruction. Let's now examine these aspects one by one. I'll try to do this having in mind five of Plath's late poems: 'Mirror', 'Lady Lazarus', 'Daddy', 'Ariel' and 'Child'. All these belong to 'Ariel' - the collection of verse which appeared after Plath's death in 1963. I have chosen these poems because, to my mind, they are the best evidence of the aesthetic beauty and creative power of her verse.

The poet is a human being. What the other see, hear, sense and taste - she/he sees, hears and tastes too. The only (though immense) difference is that the poet does this being, above all, a creative personality. That's why the life which is reflected in Plath's poems has, in the first place, this atribute - artistry. The five poems mentioned above lay before us the life of a 20-th-century woman: she has children, she grows old, she broods over her own personality and that of her father, she is alive. 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Daddy' go further: after life there comes anti-life or death which, according to the poet, is purer and more perfect than life itself. This seems to be 'the everything' of Plath's life. It's not much, I admit, but beneath it the volcano of emotions and experience is really exuberant. This same woman is able to love her children yet, in 'Child' she is ready to leave them motherless. She feels hatred for her father who made the mistake to betray her by dying when she was still an innocent and helpless child. She is not afraid to speak about death, to depict it, even to face it and delineate it as objectively as possible:

'I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.'

('Lady Lazarus')

One should admit that the picture of death is, at least, frightening. I t is as if the poet has been fascinated by the idea of death and life after death, perhaps. This is what the poem 'Lady Lazarus' tells about. The very first line of the poem lays open a dramatic situation, a scene where a young lady tells a story about death:

'I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it.'

This is shocking at first sight. Some kind of tension is established from the very beginning. Behind the simple words and the light form the seriousness of the experience described comes forth, so that one is bound to read on and on. The image of the dead lady comes then, some details to enliven the picture: her face is'featureless, fine Jew linen', there is 'the nose, the eyes, the full set of teeth'. Already the reader has asked himself/herself the question: is it possible? Some critics (like Holbrook, for example) interprete Plath's dark vision of death only from the point of view of psychology and psychoanalysis. Perhaps theis answer to this question will be that the poet's strong imagination and almost ill mind have resulted in such lunes. I don't agree with this opinion. It is beside the point that one should fully identify a poet's personality with the persona living within the poetic world. If Plath writes about death and dying, this means that something has made her do this. It seems to me that this something is the lack of love and understanding in life. When one loses his/her trust in the things and people around him/her, the way-out (at this moment, at least) seems to be suicide. Nobody has the right to judge about one's life. That's why what is found in Plath's 'Lady Lazarus' has high aesthetic value: suicide is something that we face in life. The poet pictures the Paradise, interprets it, gives it blood and shape, so that at the end of the poem the question of the reader seems to have changed: Is it possible that such a theme can be treated aesthetically, with such artistry?

'Dying
Is an art, like everything else...
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes...

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware,
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my hair
And I eat men like air.'

('Lady Lazarus')

What is most amazing throughout the whole poem is the absolute control, almost objectivity with which the poet writes about death. The comparatively short lines, the clear-cut rhythm seems to contribute to the whole idea - death and dying have their own logic and aesthetic beauty simply because they are around us, they are also 'life'. As A.M.Aird writes:

'Plath's originality lies in her insistence that what has been traditionally regarded as a woman's world of domesticity, childbearing, marriage, is also a world which can contain the tragic. Although it is a world which is eventually destroyed by death, her work is far from depressing because of the artistry with which she delineates her vision.' (Aird, 1973, p.13)

To sum it up - Plath is brave enough to write about the sad side of life. Her vision of death is frightening and at the same time it brings a high degree of dramatic experience. All this amounts to the high aesthetic value of her poems.

On p.3 I mentioned that, in my opinion, the second aspect of Plath's aesthetic creed of life is the following: life around us demands human feelings to face it. At first sight one seems to think about the persona in the five poems: she is desperate, alone and has lost her confidence in life. She speaks about death with control and her feelings are not very strong. That is only on the surface, I believe. What is found at the bottom of it is the real ocean - the responsibilty of the highly emotional personality for the world which becomes more and more loveless and humanless. Even such a calm and concrete poem as 'Mirror' reveals the intense feeling of the persona:

'I am not cruel, only truthful -
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate at the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles, I've looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart.

('Mirror')

Here the persona identifies herself with the concrete object. Just like the mirror she is able to reflect everything around her. Just like a person the mirror is able to feel and judge, to be sad and even desperate. It seems that the emotions of the poet are so strong that they almost overwhelm her - to the extent that she is one with the inanimate object she writes about. As a critic wrote this is the atmosphere of 'true soul', the apprehension of self as a concrete object, a thing. This almost complete fusion with the outer world is, I think, something unique in Plath's poems. It can be traced somewhere in her typical understanding of life, in the way she looks at the world.Ted Hughes seems to have interpreted this most successfully:

'What she was most afraid of was that she might come to live outside her genius for love, which she also equated with courage, or 'guts', to use her word. This genius for love she certainly had, and not in the abstract. She didn't quite know to manage it; it possessed her. It fastened her to cups, plants, creatures, vistas, people in a steady ecstasy. As much of all that she could, she hoarded into her poems.' (Holbrook, 1976, p. 279).

I think that there is a clue to understanding this in the poet's journals. She always writes about herself as totally dependent on the outer world, breathes through it, lives only in it. In her journals Plath writes: 'I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colours. /Plath, S., 1982, p. 176/ and further on: 'A god inbreathes himself in everything. Practise: be a chair, a toothbrush, a jar of coffee from the inside out; know by feeling it.' /S. Plath, 1982, p. 186/

I think that the best example of the poet's strong imagination is the poem 'Daddy' which represents an integral poetic body of love and hatred. E.M.Aird in her book 'Sylvia Plath' points out that 'Daddy' has the 'theme of intermingled love and hate'. /Aird, 1973, p.82/ What struck me most in this work was the position of the persona speaking. Evidently, this is again the young woman who blames her father for dying when she was still a child. Since then she has had him in her mind - like a model, a kind of God who is present always and everywhere. Without him the girl feels deserted and hopeless, moreover, she has the feeling of responsibility for such social events as the concentration camps in Dachau and Auschwitz.

'So I never could tell where you
Put out your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It struck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.'

('Daddy')

The dramatic feeling develops throughout the poem. With every line it gathers speed. The strong, simple rhythm, the full rhymes /'do - shoe', 'blue - you', 'you - through'/, the repetitive vowel sounds /'u' most/ contribute to this. The final lines bring in the dramatic decision of the heroine; her father is dead for the second time - in her heart, and this time the murderer is she. There is no more any link between the world of the dead and that of the living. 'The black telephone's off at the root,/ The voice just can't worm through'. This is the result of her inner suffering. According to Alvaretz 'When suffering is there whatever you do, by inflicting it upon yourself you achieve your identity, you set yourself free.' /Holbrook, 1976, p. 285/ The 'panzer-man' has finally taken the spell off the girl. She has achieved her spiritual freedom.

Up to now we saw the development of the poet's emotion. In general, she has been overwhelmed by her feelings towards the world around her. Love and hatred are as strong as possible in her heart. This leads to self-isolation and total self-destruction. To my mind, this is the third aspect of Plath's aesthetic creed of life. Not that she recommends it to the reader but that's what seems to be her way-out, her act of reconciliation. Her short life and her death prove this. Perhaps this fact can be explained by the development of her creative personality. She told much through her poems. Spoke about love, passion, loneliness and hatred. This seems to present a whole, cyclic development which has no need to be repeated in a weaker speed. It had its triumph and ended there, sending the most dramatic and meaningful thoughts to those who stay. 'Lady Lazarus' shows the meachanism of this voluntary self-destruction. Its logic is the following: when one can't find his/her place in the outer world, it's better to be silent for ever. Death btings in perfection and purity.

Perhaps it is necessary to make a small parallel between Sylvia Plath and another poet of her generation, though not so gifted and famous: Anne Sexton. It seems that her heroine has the same personal problems: loneliness, isolation, fascination with death. Yet, Sexton is less emotional than S. Plath, less exceeding in her confession, I would say. Almost never does she go beyond the limit of the conventional. As I.Hassan points out, 'she has a narrower cultural focus' /Hassan, 1974, p.69/ which explains the lower degree of the tragic in comparison to S. Plath.

Anne Sexton has a poem similar to Plath's 'Mirror'. The title is 'Three Green Windows'.Unlike Plath Sexton does not identify herself with the object. She is still herself - the lonely woman. Again there is isolation from the world, despair (though not so strong) and life's endless pain. Yet, the poet leaves some hope - she still believes in herself. Perhaps her way-out won't be self-destruction (though time showed just the contrary).

'I have misplaced the Van Allen belt,
the sewers, and the drainage,
the urban renewal and the suburban
            centers.
I have forgotten the names of the lit-
            erary critics.
I know what I know.
I am the child I was,
living the life that was mine.
I am young and half asleep.'

('Three Green Windows')

Finally, I would like to comment on two of Plath's poems which, to me, seem to embody a phenomenal aesthetic beauty. These are 'Ariel' and 'Child'. The first one, I think, shows the vision of a painter. It is not hard to imagine the picture suggested by the poem in its minute details. There is everything in it: motion, sound, colour. Again the form is totally dependent on the content itself - the rhymes are functional, as if the three-line stanzas follow the pace.

'Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Shadows
Something else

hauls me through air -
Things, hair;
Flakes from my heels.
..................................
And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.'

('Ariel')

In 'Child' things are different. Here the poet speaks to her little son - her last tender link with the outer world. Unlike Sexton's 'Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman', Sylvia Plath accomplishes the progression of the poem from absolute tenderness to utter despair. It seems to me that all the love and warmth which was absent in her other poems was spared only for these twelve lines of beautiful verse.

'Your clear eye is the one absolutely beau-
                             tiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate -
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Little

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.'

('Child')

This is also part of her aesthetic creed of life - the last feeling of love of the heroine is put in words to her dear little child. Whatever happens to her from this moment on doesn't matter. Her child is taught the last lesson by his mother - to look after the stars in life.

It is difficult to put a full-stop after Plath's meaningful and intense sentences. Suffice is to say that I was totally involved while reading her poems and trying to elaborate on them. Again I find it necessary to use the words of her husband Ted Hughes who wrote in the forward to Plath's journals:

'When a real self finds language, and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event - as 'Ariel' was. (Plath, 1982)

 

 

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Aird, E.M. Sylvia Plath. Biography. 1973.

2. Butscher, E. Sylvia Plath.

3. Hassan, Ihab. Contemporary american literature. New York: Frederick Ungar Publ. Co, 1983.

4. Holbrook D. Poetry and existence. University of London, The Athlone Press, 1976.

5. Klernan, R.F. American writings since 1945. A critical survey. New York: Frederick Ungar Publ. Co, 1983.

6. Plath, Sylvia. The journals of Sylvia Plath. New York: The Dial Press, 1982.

7. Simpson, L. Studies of D. Thomas, A. Ginsgberg, S. Plath and R. Lowell. New York: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1978.

 

 

© Youliana Todorova
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 15.09.2002, № 9 (34)