Sylvia Plath's 'Collected Poems': A Review-Essay

Critic: Marjorie Perloff
Source: Resources for American Literary Study, Vol. XI, No. 2, Autumn, 1981, pp. 304–13. Reproduced by permission
Criticism about: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), also known as: Victoria Lucas, Mrs. Ted Hughes
Sylvia Plath's `Collected Poems': A Review-Essay,

At last, almost twenty years after her death on February 11, 1963, here are the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. It is a book that should have appeared much sooner. By 1982, its publication seems somehow anti-climactic: witness the rather cool response it has received from newspaper reviewers. To reread Sylvia Plath today is to realize, somewhat ruefully, how different the early 1980s are from the early 1960s. Schizophrenia, of consuming interest to a generation brought up on R. D. Laing's The Divided Self, is now regarded either as a disease to be controlled biochemically or as part of a larger cultural phenomenon: Lacanian criticism, for instance, is more interested in unmasking the verbal strategies of "sane" discourse than in dealing with individual psychosis. Again, the feminist revolution -- the only real revolution of our time -- has put the "marriage plus career" problem at the center of Plath's writing in a rather different perspective; it is not that the problem has been solved, but Plath's stated desire to have "millions of babies" and her scorn for the "spinster bluestockings" of Cambridge and Smith is not likely to strike a sympathetic chord in women undergraduates today. Most important: Plath's rhetoric, at least the rhetoric of the poems she wrote prior to Ariel, now seems anything but revolutionary. Her controlled stanzas, heavy with assonance and consonance, her elaborate syntax with its inversions and subordinate clauses, her ingenious metaphors -- all these now look almost genteel, almost Victorian.

Nevertheless, Plath remains an extraordinary poet and The Collected Poems reveals a side of her we have not really seen before. In his brief introduction, Ted Hughes remarks: "Some time around Christmas 1962, she gathered most of what are now known as the `Ariel' poems in a black spring binder, and arranged them in a careful sequence. (At the time, she pointed out that it began with the word `Love' and ended with the word `Spring'. The exact order of her text is given in the Notes)." The list contains the following poems not included in Ariel (1965): "The Rabbit Catcher","Thalidomide","Barren Woman ","A Secret","The Jailer","The Detective ","The Other","Magi","Stopped Dead","The Courage of Shutting-Up"," Purdah," and "Amnesiac." Why did Hughes omit twelve of the forty-one poems that Plath had so carefully chosen for inclusion just a month before her suicide? Here is his explanation: 

The Ariel eventually published in 1965 was a somewhat different volume from the one she had planned. It incorporated most of the dozen or so poems she had gone on to write in 1963, though she herself, recognizing the different inspiration of these new pieces, regarded them as the beginnings of a third book. It omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962, and might have omitted one or two more if she had not already published them herself in magazines -- so that by 1965 they were widely known. The collection that appeared was my eventual compromise between publishing a large bulk of her work -- including much of the post-Colossus and pre-Ariel verse -- and introducing her late work more cautiously, printing perhaps only twenty poems to begin with.
What Ted Hughes doesn't say is that the "more personally aggressive poems from 1962" he chose to omit were those that expressed, most directly and brutally, Plath 's anger, bitterness, and despair over his desertion of her for another woman. Five of the poems on Plath's list ("The Rabbit Catcher","Thalidomide","The Other","The Courage of Shutting-Up," and "Purdah") eventually made their way into the collection Winter Trees (1971), but the rest are published here for the first time along with a number of other previously unpublished poems of 1962. As a group, these "Terrible Lyrics," as we might call them by analogy to Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets," are powerful works in which Plath the passive sufferer of "I Am Vertical " or "Last Words" (both 1961) becomes Plath the avenger -- Medea as well as Dido. (pp. 304-05)

Faced with so many poems (more than half the volume covers the poetry written prior to 1960, the year The Colossus was published in Britain), many reviewers of The Collected Poems have declared that too much attention has been paid to the Ariel poems, that the early work is just as important and as accomplished. I find this now-fashionable judgment wholly frivolous, for, as I have argued elsewhere [see CLC, Vol. 17], Plath's carefully constructed persona, the mask she presented to her adoring mother as well as to editors, professors, and friends, governed not only her domestic life but her poetry as well: until the summer of 1962, when Aurelia Plath [ Sylvia Plath's mother] became an inadvertent witness to the dissolution of the Plath-Hughes marriage, Sylvia Plath -- or "Sivvy" as she called herself in her letters home, never quite abandoned the carefully constructed voice that won her prizes and awards in all the right quarters, a voice her mother could and did approve of. Indeed, the early poems display a bewildering hodge-podge of influences: Hopkins and Yeats, Auden and Wilbur, Stevens and Thomas, and, a little later, first Lowell and then Roethke and Hughes himself. Influence is not quite the word here, for most of the early poems are merely imitative.... (pp. 307-08)

It is curious how impervious Plath was to what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Hers was not the struggle with the great precursor so as to clear a space for herself. Rather, when, in the last two years of her life, she finally came into her own, the adopted voices merely evaporated, and a new harsh, demonic, devastating self, only partially prefigured in such poems as "The Thin People" (1957) and "The Stones" (1959), came into being.

The transformation of the "Sivvy" who wrote "The Ghost's Leavetaking" and " A Winter's Tale" into the Sylvia of " Tulips" or `"Cut"" or "Medusa" has been discussed often enough, and I won't dwell on it here. Rather, I want to take a closer look at the poems of anger and outrage written in 1962 when Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair with someone else. The first of these poems, "The Rabbit Catcher," is dated May 21, 1962, and evidently refers to the brief interval when Plath and Hughes were still living together despite her discovery of his infidelity. "The Rabbit Catcher " oddly inverts the imagery of Lawrence's "Love on the Farm": in both poems, the woman who speaks identifies with the rabbit her husband has killed, but whereas in Lawrence, the caress of "his fingers that still smell grim / Of the rabbit's fur" produces instant sexual arousal, in Plath, the same incident, as viewed by a female poet, not just a female speaker, spells only death.... (pp. 309-10)

In the next poem, "Event," the woman who cannot sleep in the hours before dawn perceives the marriage bed as a kind of tomb: "The moonlight, that chalk cliff / In whose rift we lie / Back to back." In this landscape, everything is frozen, petrified: "the stars -- ineradicable, hard," the "apple bloom [that] ices the night" -- even "The child in the white crib" who "Opens its mouth now, demanding," has a "little face ... carved in pained, red wood." The loved baby is an intolerable reminder of its unloving father:

Love cannot come here.

A black gap discloses itself

On the opposite lip.

A small white soul is waving, a small white maggot.

My limbs, also, have left me.

Who has dismembered us?

The dark is melting. We touch like cripples.

The poem avoids self-pity by focusing so sharply on effect rather than cause; there is no circumstantial detail here, no rehashing of the events and bitter words that precipitated the current crisis. The poem's very reticence, coupled with its explosive anger, has a painful effect on the reader: Hughes becomes a kind of shadow ("Who has dismembered us?") and since one can't fight shadows there is only a "black gap," a gap measured by Plath's new staccato lines and straightforward syntax.

"Burning the Letters," dated August 13, 1962, takes us to a further stage of anger and despair. It might have been an embarrassing poem: what, on the face of it, is more maudlin than the image of a woman burning the love letters of the man who no longer wants her? But Plath renews this tired theme by treating the letters as if they had a life of their own even as their author and recipient are transformed into objects. Thus the letters have "white fists" (they can strike and hurt); they rattle in the wastebasket; inside their "cardboard cartons the color of cement" they become "a dog pack / Holding in its hate / Dully." The dog pack, moreover, brings to mind the image of hunters ("a pack of men in red jackets"), and the very postmarks have "eyes," eyes that burn like wounds inflicted by the hunters.

As the letters "melt and sag" in the fire, the poet remarks: "here is an end to the writing, / The spry hooks that bend and cringe, and the smiles, the smiles." But she knows very well that there is really no end to it. As she "flake[s] up papers that breathe like people ... fan[ning] them out / Between the yellow lettuces and the German cabbage" of her garden, they appallingly come back to life: "a name with black edges / Wilts at my foot." A condolence card of sorts -- condolence for her loss, for her lover's "death," but also the name of the other woman, the "Sinuous orchis / In a nest of roothairs and boredom -- / Pale Eyes, patent-leather gutturals!" (Assia, the other woman was part German, part Russian). When the rain begins to fall, it brings no relief; on the contrary, it "greases my hair, extinguishes nothing." There cannot, in fact, be any relief for the pain:

My veins glow like trees.

The dogs are tearing a fox. This is what it is like --

A red burst and a cry

That splits from its ripped bag and does not stop

With the dead eye.

And the stuffed expression, but goes on

Dyeing the air.

Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water

What immortality is. That it is immortal.

The weary, self-correcting repetition in the last line tells us that burning the letters has changed nothing. The eyes of the postmarks, like the dead eye of the fox, cannot be erased from consciousness. (pp. 310-12)

In "The Fearful," the surrender to death that becomes prominent in slightly later poems like " Paralytic","Sheep in a Fog," and "Contusion" is still held in abeyance. For the speaker of this poem still cares; she is still a fighter, protecting her own from the "Stealer of cells." She is the avenger of "Purdah" (October 29, 1962), who declares:

And at his next step

I shall unloose

From the small jeweled

Doll he guards like a heart --

The lioness,

The shriek in the bath,

The cloak of holes.

As a group, these "Terrible Lyrics" of 1962 thus extend Sylvia Plath's range and heighten the pathos of her work. We see her as more than the schizophrenic whose earlier suicide attempts prefigure her final successful one, the Lady Lazarus who has "done it again" ("Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well"). Rather, she becomes the outraged wife, a modern Medea who gave everything and was nevertheless betrayed. What an irony that the publication of these poems has depended precisely on the man who is their subject. What an irony that in "burning the letters," Sylvia Plath really could not destroy them or their legacy. Even as carbon, scattered around the cabbage patch of the poetry world, they continue to punish the dead poet. (pp. 312-13)
Source: Marjorie Perloff "Sylvia Plath's 'Collected Poems': A Review-Essay," in Resources for American Literary Study, Vol. XI, No. 2, Autumn, 1981, pp. 304-13. Reproduced by permission.

Gale Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism
© 1999 The Gale Group. All rights reserved.