Even In Her Earlier Poems, Sylvia Plath Displays An Unhealthy Preoccup Essay

ation with sex, madness, morbidity and obscurity.


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There seem to be a number of common themes running through all of Plath’s poems, which encapsulate her personal attitudes and feelings of life at the time she wrote them. Of these themes, the most prevalent are: sex, madness, morbidity and obscurity.

The whole concept of sex to Plath appears to be a very disturbed and resentful one. This is conveyed strongly through the poem Maudlin (a poem about self-pity) in which Plath evokes her bitterness toward masculinity with the aid of the two characters, the Virgin and Jack. Jack is described as having a “crackless egg” and being “navel-knit” (ie: cold hearted and impregnable). He is given an arrogant, macho image too: “With a claret hogshead to swig, he kings it”. Plath’s sourness becomes apparent when Jack’s lifestyle of luxury is compared to the repressed and disturbed life of suffering which the “sleep-talking virgin” leads. The idea of sleep-talking evokes her pain and suffering, leaking from her subconscious. Her torment does not end on the inside however, according to Plath who describes further physical and mental torture endured by women who painfully beautify themselves for the pleasure of men like Jack: “at the price of a pin-stitched skin fish-tailed girls purchase each white leg”. Furthermore, Plath justifies the virgin’s choice to endure the pain: “The sign of the hag” (the virgins fear of aging).

Another poem which is strongly sexually orientated, but in a more mechanical and lustful sense, is Night Shift. The brute physicality conveyed through onomatopoeia in the poem impregnates the feeling of primeval sexuality in which violence is interlaced. This overall effect arises as a result of the images conjured up by words and phrases such as, “heart, beating, drumming up, sound, ground, pounding, thudding source, vertical tonnage of metal and wood; stunned the marrow, greased machines.” Her feelings toward this kind of intensely physical experience appears to be one of oppression arising from the male’s pleasure and female’s pain. It is this bitterness toward males, which has been re-echoed here as in Maudlin.

Plath’s second obsession is with madness. The clearest example of this is found in Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper. The paranoia, constant delusions and obscure perceptions described in the poem convey a deranged fear, which has arisen as a result of her insanity. The tortuous and enigmatic adjectives used to describe furniture (“knotted table and crooked chair”) illustrates the obscurely twisted perception of Miss Drake as she clumsily “lifts one webbed foot after the other”, pretending she is a duck, “her bird-quick eye cocked askew”. The paranoia conveyed as “she edges with wary edge” through the “perilous needles” which “grain the floorboards and outwit their brambled plan”, clearly shows her fear which is exacerbated from the impression given that she is small and vulnerable, “footing sallow as a mouse”. This and her detailed observation of the “furred petals” almost incites sympathy for her as this mad woman is “ambushed” and panic stricken by the “bright shards of broken glass”.

Another disillusioned idea that Miss Drake has is that she is important. This is first noticed in the title, which grandly encapsulates a mad woman stumbling to tea in a mental institution but is reverberated through, “No novice in those elaborate rituals” and the fact that she is wearing “purple” (a royal colour). The question that needs to be asked is whether Plath is sympathetic or mocking Miss Drake. By depicting her as a feeble woman being ambushed by splinters in the floor, one might be tempted to assume that Plath is sympathetic toward Miss Drake, but having considered the banal diction and lack of emotion and lyrical phrasing, it seems that Plath is more scornful than compassionate. The concept of morbidity is another commonly found subject found in Plath’s poetry. In Suicide off Egg Rock, Plath draws us into the mind of a man as he jumps off a cliff into the sea. All of the scenes that this man sees as he falls are pictured as incredibly ugly and painful, reflecting his state of mind and his perceptions. Images such as “the hotdogs split and drizzled”, “children were squealing”, “he smoldered, as if stone-deaf” and “everything shrank in the sun’s corrosive ray” are offensive and agonizing, thus helping the reader appreciate and relate to his pain and punishment, which is described as “a machine to breathe and beat forever”. “Ochreous salt flats, gas tanks, factory stacks”, “his blood beating the old tattoo”, “a mongrel working his legs to a gallop hustled a gull flock to flap off the sandpitt”, “his body beached with the sea’s garbage” and “flies filing in through a dead skate’s eyehole” are all ugly and unnatural images with an intensely negative undertone and a feeling of self-loathing.

With this view of life, it is quite possible to understand why this man wants to kill himself. Yet at the end, just before he hits the sea, Plath suddenly twists the whole poem on its head by saying, “the forgetful surf creaming on those ledges”. By adding this beautiful phrase at the end, Plath includes a cruel irony: after searching for so long for something positive and being unable to find it, he finally sees something possibly worth living for.

All of Plath’s poems contain some kind of obscurity but Resolve is the most interesting as it centres around making common images appear obscure. When “two water drops poise on the arched green stem of my neighbor’s rose bush” as “a milk-film blurs the empty bottles on the windowsill”, it is unclear how these two things are connected until one realises that they aren’t meant to be related. It is this random obscurity that Plath seems to be obsessed with in Suicide off Egg Rock, where the man sees many obscure images as he falls and is “rippled and pulsed in the glassy updraught”.


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