'Poem for a Birthday' to 'Three Women': Development in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath

Critic: Eileen Aird
Source: Critical Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1979, pp. 63-72. Reproduced by permission
Criticism about: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), also known as: Victoria Lucas, Mrs. Ted Hughes
'Poem for a Birthday' to 'Three Women': Development in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath,

[(essay date 1979) In the following essay, Aird examines Plath's rapid creative development after the publication of The Colossus. Challenging "the oversimplified and rather sentimental theory" that motherhood inspired Plath's artistic growth during this period, Aird cites Plath's remarkable commitment to her work and the influence of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Theodore Roethke.]

Critical discussion of Plath's poetry is understandably focused on the magnificent late poems with occasional forays into the earlier exercises of The Colossus--and they were precisely exercises in style and image by a poet identifying her subjects. It therefore seems useful to pay some attention to the question of development, to the nature and timing of the transition from The Colossus to Ariel and to the poetic and biographical factors affecting this development. 'Poem for a Birthday' initiates the transitional period which ends with 'Three Women.' It is significant that these are her two longest poems, 'Berck-Plage' being the only other one which begins to approach their expansiveness of structure and imagery. The theme of pregnancy and birth in 'Three Women' is foreshadowed by the opening section of images of hibernation, storage and growth in 'Poem for a Birthday,' and in both poems realistic presentation merges into a symbolic opposition between creativity and destructiveness. The individual experience of the woman who conceives, carries and gives birth to a child is emblematic of a world of natural growth and patterned progression in stark contrast to the technological destructiveness of the world of 'bulldozers, guillotines and white chambers of shrieks.' Ted Hughes's famous account of the development of Sylvia Plath's poetry relates the two major accelerations of quality and command to the birth of her two children. This would date the transitional stage from mid-1960 to early 1962. The chronology of development revealed by the poems themselves does not entirely bear out his analysis. It indicates a longer period lasting from October 1959 up to June, 1962 and in the work of a poet who developed at the speed of Sylvia Plath months are significant. If we are looking for biographical factors, and I introduce them only to counterbalance the widely held acceptance of Hughes's account--there is a much more precise correlation between the breakdown of their marriage and the writing of the great poems. In a letter to her mother written on 7 November 1962, immediately after moving into the London flat she said: 'Living apart from Ted is wonderful--I am no longer in his shadow.' The whole letter is over-elated and many of the subsequent heavily edited letters are much gloomier. Her own analysis however cannot be disregarded and it does go some way to suggest the much more complex relationship between circumstances and poetic processes that one would expect than the over-simplified and rather sentimental theory of childbirth as the stimulus.

'Poem for a Birthday' and 'Three Women,' then, mark off a period of rapid change and development in Sylvia Plath's poetry, characterised not only by the movement from written exercises on the page, stylish, crystalline and static, to dramatic poems which need to be spoken aloud--a movement of which she was herself very conscious--but also by an increasing richness of imagery and a confident statement of subject.

The world of The Colossus is, for the most part, an external one of landscape and situation into which the personal is rarely allowed to erupt. The emphasis is too firmly on manipulation of both subject and form to make a contained statement, what we are given are neat, aesthetic glimpses of potentially dramatic situations. A case in point is a poem like 'Point Shirley,' an elegy for the poet's dead grandmother heavily influenced by Robert Lowell's early style. So self-consciously clever is the language that real grief and loss is ironically excluded from the poem. The simple domestic image at the beginning of the second verse, 'She is dead / Whose laundry snapped and froze here,' which does direct us very appropriately to an individual human reality, is immediately negated by the verbally vigorous but emotionless description of the sea. This is academic poetry of a high order but the emphasis is on structure rather than statement. In the last nine months of her life craftsmanship becomes the vehicle of expressiveness, there is a complete unity about the poems. Nevertheless there was still a feeling even in the mature work that some subjects were not suitable for poetry and this was one of the reasons she gave for turning to the novel: a form which she defined without apparent irony as appropriate for female concerns:

Poetry I feel is such a tyrannical discipline, you've got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you've just got to turn away all the peripherals. And I miss them! I'm a woman, I like my little Lares and Penates, and I like trivia, and I find that in a novel I can get more of life, perhaps not such an intense life, but certainly more of life . . .
This is a revealing statement not just in terms of The Bell Jar but also of the late poetry which found a way of including those household details and using them as a stepping-off point for the wider concerns--'A Birthday Present' begins with a woman making pastry, 'Mary's Song' with a woman cooking the Sunday lamb, but in both poems the secure, protected world of kitchen and house very quickly gives way to an inner world of violent and tragic dimensions.

The poems of the last nine months of her life are marked by a complete unity of form and expressiveness and there are hints of this in a few exceptional poems in The Colossus, 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' in particular. Ted Hughes has commented very enigmatically on this poem as being 'one of a group of poems that she wrote at this time about her father . . . This poem, one of her chilliest, recounts a key event in her Vita Nuova.' Whatever the reason the poem has an urgent directness and sense of purpose which most of the early poems lack. It also has a very clear progression, a dominant feature of the later work which often rushes towards a conclusion which is also the climax of the poem. The complicated ambivalence of the relationship between father and daughter in the poem is established through the claustrophobic, wantonly erotic imagery of the opening verse:

A garden of mouthings. Purple, scarlet-speckled, black

The great corollas dilate, peeling back their silks

--but what is initially the abject subjection of the daughter, 'My heart under your foot, sister to a stone' argues itself into an acceptance of that subjection, even a transformation of it into exultant destiny: 'The queen bee marries the winter of your year.' The poem oscillates between the opposed images of the stone and the queen bee, an opposition which she was to return to frequently. The stone always represents a reduction to a core, stripped of all pretence and association, the low point from which a gradual ascent is eventually possible; its first important use is in the last section of 'Poem for a Birthday,' 'The Stones,' where the experience of the suicidal coma is such a reduction to a core, an elemental surviving self:

The mother of pestles diminished me.

I became a still pebble.

There are also significant references for this image in The Bell Jar, firstly in the skiing episode where Esther breaks her leg in a wild flight down a slope too difficult for her, which she sees as an attempt to recapture the protective safety of the womb: 'the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly,' and secondly at the end of the second section of the novel where having taken a large number of barbiturates--too many in fact, they make her sick--she lies down behind a stack of firewood in the basement expecting to die: 'The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.' In opposition to this static defence is the dynamic power of the queen bee. 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' needs to be read in conjunction with the late sequence of bee poems written in the autumn of 1962 where the queen bee is a symbol of female survival soaring triumphantly if murderously up:

Now she is flying

More terrible than she ever was, red

Scar in the sky, red comet

Over the engine that killed her--

The mausoleum, the wax house.

This vision is in turn one of a series of female images of almost magical power and autonomy beginning with the circus performer of a very early poem 'Circus in Three Rings,' written while she was still at Smith, and finding later expression in the avenging Clytemnestra of 'Purdah,' 'the pure acetylene virgin' of 'Fever 103°,' the vampire killer of 'Daddy,' the ascendant phoenix of 'Lady Lazarus' and the majestic 'God's lioness' of 'Ariel.' 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' is a very significant turning-point from the undirected extravagance of 'Circus in Three Rings' towards the powerful female images of Ariel. It finds some similarities in 'The Colossus' and 'Moonrise' and perhaps most importantly in an uncollected poem of the same time, 'Electra on Azalea Path,' but like them is still held in the strait-jacket of formalities.

It is in 'Poem for a Birthday,' heavily reliant on Roethke's structure and imagery though it is, that she first identifies both her subject and her voice. Roethke was such a fertile influence at this point in her development because she learnt from him that objective reality can serve as a medium to release the inner drama. 'Poem for a Birthday' acknowledges for the first time the supremacy of an inner world which earlier poems, 'Lorelei,' 'Full Fathom Five,' 'The Ghost's Leavetaking,' 'Ouija,' have only hinted at. The poems which Roethke collected in Praise to the End are the most direct influence on Sylvia Plath's poem which has the same structure of short sections connected by theme and imagery. More importantly Plath's subjects--madness, loneliness, sexual identity, family relationships, growth and searching--are very close to Roethke's in poems such as 'Dark House.' Sylvia Plath acknowledges Roethke as a major influence in a letter to her mother on 2 February 1961: 'Ted and I went to a little party the other night to meet the American poet I admire next to Robert Lowell--Ted [for Theodore Roethke]. I've always wanted to meet him as I find he is my influence.' Her debt to Lowell and Sexton is acknowledged later in October 1962 and is a much more general recognition of an exciting mode, a developing convention. For all its raw immediacy, its deliberate assault on the reader's sensibility, Ariel has a dramatic focus and personae which are pared away by Lowell and Sexton. This becomes very clear if we compare Lowell's own comment on the intention of Life Studies with Sylvia Plath's note on 'Daddy.' Lowell told an interviewer: 'there was always that standard of truth which you wouldn't ordinarily have in poetry--the reader was to believe that he was getting the real Robert Lowell!' whereas Sylvia Plath wrote of 'Daddy': '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 paralyse each other--she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.' Sylvia Plath's comment is not an evasion of the confessional aspect of the poem but an indication of the extent to which the personal is subordinated to a much more inclusive dramatic structure. Unlike Lowell Sylvia Plath was not writing a poetic autobiography but used personal experience as a way into the poem--this is further reflected in the reading response to Sylvia Plath which frequently begins at the level of autobiographical fact and then deepens into an awareness of the intellectual and tonal complexities of the poem. The real Sylvia Plath is far from present in the poetry and there is clear evidence of this in the comparison of the diary extract in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams in which she describes the meeting of bee-hive owners, on which the poem 'The Bee Meeting' is based, with the poem itself. Although the poem uses exactly the observed details of the diary--and Ted Hughes has explained that Sylvia Plath found it a useful discipline to describe people and places minutely in her diary--the whole mood and reference of the poem is transformed, the situation is changed from the humorous precision of the diary to a metaphor of alienation. Although her later work diverges from Roethkean structure and imagery he was seminal in showing her how to balance the personal and the general so that the poem is public rather than bafflingly private.

The purely literary influence of Roethke initiates the development towards poetic maturity but the biographical factors are also important. The whole of Sylvia Plath's life up to 1959 was one of academic distinction and ambition, she won prizes, gained A grades, conquered one goal after another, but after the year's successful but demanding teaching at Smith, with two degrees behind her and thoughts of graduate work to the fore of her mind she relinquished academic life in favour of full-time writing. The decision was obviously made under Ted Hughes's influence--he had given up the academic world much earlier--and it was an immensely courageous step for her to take, involving as it did the rejection of one of her most deep-seated values--any one reading her Letters Home of the mid-fifties cannot help but be impressed by her sheer tenacity and desire for success. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had decided that they would settle permanently in Europe, so she was also turning her back on her family and cultural heritage as well as on the obvious career towards which all her efforts were previously directed. At this point in the autumn of 1959, she was pregnant for the first time and 'The Manor Garden' which like 'Poem for a Birthday' was written at Yaddo indicates some of the ambivalence of fear and excitement which this generated in her; its final, very satisfying image is a brilliant rendering of this ambivalence:

The small birds converge, converge

With their gifts to a difficult borning

The period at Yaddo with its time for concentration and writing is a further factor: to be invited to Yaddo represented society's recognition of artistic merit and for Sylvia Plath such recognition always seems to have been more important than it is to Ted Hughes. Writing to her mother on 16 October 1962 she described her Ariel poems with tragic irony as: 'the best poems of my life: they will make my name.' The notion of success was one which she could not relinquish easily as a scholar, a mother, a wife or a poet.

'Poem for a Birthday' was completed during the time at Yaddo and the title is richly significant reminding us as it does of her own October birthday, the coming birth of her child and the metaphorical deaths and births which modulate into the final qualified recovery of 'The Stones.' For the first time in this poem she directly faced the task of relating individual to general experience. That individual experience is female, defined both biologically and experientially and the poem is a dialogue between the dislocated girl who is maenad and witch and 'the mother of otherness.' To be female in 'Poem for a Birthday' is to be protective and procreative: 'The month of flowering's finished. The fruit's in,' 'Here's a cuddly mother' but it is also to be demanding and possessive: 'Mother of beetles only unclench your hand: / I'll fly through the candle's mouth like a singeless moth.' This counterpoints the major theme of the poem which is the need to rationalise the disparity of childhood and adulthood. The tensions are resolved finally in a rebirth after suffering: 'We grow. / It hurts at first. The red tongues will teach the truth.'

Sylvia Plath said of her artistic method: 'I think that personal experience shouldn't be a kind of shut-box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.' The relevance of this to the late poetry is abundantly clear but the process begins with 'Poem for a Birthday' where private experience--breakdown and the reasons for it, clinical treatment, pregnancy--is extended through the images which accumulate layer upon layer until it becomes a metaphor for suffering throughout the natural and the human world. The attempt to communicate the 'real Robert Lowell' emerges in Life Studies as a painfully accurate analysis of one man's dilemmas which gains universal significance through the depth and detail of its treatment. Sylvia Plath's method is essentially different, rather than delineating the individual in a recognisable cultural context she uses the private to gain access to the universal by ruthlessly mythologising her own experience and in doing this moves a long way from autobiography--'Lady Lazarus' is not Sylvia Plath but a mythical character of suffering and rebirth, ultimately a type of the tragic poet of Yeats's 'Lapis Lazuli.'

If both the themes and the images of Sylvia Plath's poem are closely influenced by Roethke's the ending is markedly different. Typically Roethke's poems end in a moment of revelation even if it quickly falls back into the old state of waiting: the end of the quest is an organic awareness of wholeness, of the full recovery of identity. Although the image of the vase reconstructed at the end of 'Poem for a Birthday' recalls Roethke the mood is far from elated or affirmative:

Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.

My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.

I shall be as good as new.

To be 'as good as new' is to have lost the tragic intensity which characterised the earlier sections of the poem and is very close to the ending of Lowell's 'Home after Three Months Away': 'Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.'

The sense of reduction and nullity points forward to the fear of the static in Ariel, the constant search for the dynamic: 'What I love is / the piston in motion-- / My soul dies before it.'

'Poem for a Birthday' explores the metaphoric complexities of a series of balanced opposites--fertility/sterility, child/adult, day/night, death/life, animal/human, illness/recovery--and the poems in Crossing the Water continue this exploration. Sylvia Plath's own analysis of some of the poems in this volume is penetrating: bewailing their lack of dynamic accuracy with the self-mocking irony she employs with such brilliance in Ariel, she indicates the gulf between poetry as craft, the period of The Colossus and poetry as necessity, the period of Ariel. The poems, she says, are like those pickled foetuses of The Bell Jar, specimens for learning not the real living being and yet:

It wasn't for any lack of mother-love

O I cannot understand what happened to them!

They are proper in shape and number and every part.

But to be 'proper in shape and number and every part' is no longer the keynote of authenticity, the period of villanelles, of elaborate rhyme schemes and regular stanzas is over but the absolute confidence and daring of Ariel has to be worked for and many of the poems in Crossing the Water elaborate a world which is no more than gothic. The title-poem for instance is little more than a playing with images of darkness and silence relieved by characteristically lyrical moments: 'A little light is filtering from the water flowers,' 'Stars open among the lilies.' To take her own criteria of judgement this poem is not relevant to Hiroshima or Dachau, it remains in a private fantasy world although it is visually and verbally attractive. A much more accomplished poem is 'Insomniac' but this still lacks the fusion of elements which distinguishes the great poetry; it is never more than descriptive of a hollow world, it fails to evoke it despite the deliberate metaphorical violence:

Night long, in the granite yard, invisible cats

Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.

What she did achieve for the first time in Crossing the Water, however, was the wry, mocking humour which in Ariel frequently allows her to maintain the balance between public and private by deflecting interest from 'the needle or the knife.' 'In Plaster,' which owes something to Sylvia Plath's observations of a fellow-patient when she was recovering from her appendectomy, is wry, brilliant, humorous in its portrait of the relationship between cast and patient. The persona of the poem is mocking but by the end of the poem we see that there is a complex balance between command and dependence in the relationship and in the last verse that mockery merges into a defiance which is the flimsiest of disguises for the sense of helpless dependency which lies beneath it:

She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,

But she'll soon find out that doesn't matter a bit.

I'm collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,

And she'll perish with emptiness and begin to miss me.

In the end the mocker himself is mocked and his earlier contemptuously pragmatic acceptance of the cast gives way to an awareness of the superior consistency of his partner; the word-play in the last line indicating that an uneasier intellectual wit has replaced the confident laughter of the beginning--humour as a mode of experiencing has become wit as an attempt to control.

Many of the poems of Crossing the Water are precise forerunners in subject, tone and imagery of the achievements of Ariel and the obvious companion poem of 'In Plaster' is 'The Applicant.' Both are poems about marriage--'The Applicant' more obviously so than 'In Plaster' which only suggests it through the final identification of the patient as male and the cast as female, but the tone of 'The Applicant' has a ferocious humour which makes 'In Plaster' seem almost whimsical by contrast. It is clear that Sylvia Plath's description of 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' as 'light verse' is descriptive of a mode which contrives a highly sophisticated blend of the ironic and the violent. The tentative beginnings of this mode are present as early as 'Poem for a Birthday' in the constant perception of self in animal or doll-like images. There is a deliberate pretence at belittling the enormity of experience which makes it more accessible. When the poetry fails it is sometimes because the ironic perspective is missing. This is very rarely the case in Ariel or Winter Trees but it happens more frequently in Crossing the Water. In the poem 'Life' for instance there is too sharp a contrast between the amused affectionate description of an idealised even deliberately sentimentalised Victorian past and the rigours of the present:


Of valentine-faces might please a collector:

They ring true, like good china.

Elsewhere the landscape is more frank.

The light falls without let-up, blindingly.

A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle

About a bald hospital saucer.

It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper.

And appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg.

Although the poetry of Ariel constantly presses forward into extremes, they are contrived not confessional extremes. The much discussed ending of 'Lady Lazarus' is perhaps the best illustration of this with its images of transcending suffering both personally and aesthetically. Out of the ashes of the concentration camps and the emotional ruins of the suicidal patient rises the mythical phoenix affirming her identity as both female and poet. As in 'Fever 103°' the very experience of pain is the means by which the persona grows to a new power: the first statement of this is in 'Poem for a Birthday': 'We grow / It hurts at first. The red tongues will reach the truth.' The skill of 'Lady Lazarus' is exhibited by the tone of this ending which is ironic but without bitterness--we are out of the human world either of the voyeuristic onlooker or the concentration camp doctors and rising into the half-delirious visionary Paradise to which the 'pure acetylene virgin' of 'Fever 103°' aspires. It is a Paradise of autonomy and recognised identity, an image of completeness and completeness is one of the central subjects of Ariel. Crossing the Water achieves the ironic perspective but it fails to organise the opposites of Plath's vision into the drive towards perfection of Ariel.

A final demonstration of the distinction between the assurance and imagistic richness of the late poetry and the valuable experiments of the transitional period lies in a comparison of 'Candles' with 'Nick and the Candlestick.' Both poems start from the imaginative associations of a mother nursing her child by candlelight but whereas 'Candles' goes no further than a consideration of the passage of time which links the Edwardian grandparents with the new baby, 'Nick and the Candlestick' encompasses the painful world of the creative imagination and the potential dangers of the man-made world but is able to move beyond both in the affirmation of the mother's love for the child:

You are the one

Solid the spaces lean on envious.

You are the baby in the barn.

The last verse is an elliptical comment on the poem's structure for the baby is realised with detail and humanity at the heart of a poem which deals in abstractions. 'Nick and the Candlestick' is a very densely structured poem where each image, almost each word of the first half finds its echo in the second half and the joy of the ending does not evade the pain of the first half--baby and mother have not escaped from the subterranean cave only hung it with soft roses and the mercuric atoms still drip into the terrible well. The structure of 'Candles' in comparison is merely linear. Sylvia Plath's greatness lies not in the extremity of her subjects, although it is this extremity which may initially draw the reader into the poem, but in her handling of richly allusive images and this is the point of 'Stillborn' which recognises that formal structure must give way to the organic unity of associative imagery. The more one reads the poetry the less possible it is not to seek echoes in other poems. The poet who composed slowly and cerebrally with frequent recourse to the Thesaurus and dictionary and who delighted in the esoteric and archaic was involved in the intellectual discipline of analogy and alternative which paved the way for the apparently effortless flow of association and image. 'Nick and the Candlestick' is an extraordinary complex and intellectually difficult poem but that difficulty is not a high gloss imposed on the poem by a mind still confined by an academic tradition, it is the natural attribute of what Sylvia Plath called 'that unicorn thing--a real poem.'
Source: Eileen Aird, "'Poem for a Birthday' to 'Three Women': Development in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1979, pp. 63-72. Reproduced by permission.

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