Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963) was an American poet who was among the leading writers of the twentieth century. She is regarded as a pioneer in the genre of Confessional poetry, a term used to define poems which focus on the individual; her experience, her psyche, her trauma and the like. Her first poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960. Plath committed suicide, at the age of 30, on February 11, 1963, by placing her head in the oven with the gas turned on. Some of her best known poems were written in the months leading to her suicide. They were published after her death as part of her renowned poetry collection Ariel. Know about the poetry of Sylvia Plath by studying her 10 most famous poems including Mirror, Tulips, Daddy and Lady Lazarus.
#10 The Applicant
The Applicant was written by Sylvia Plath in 1962, the year before her death when she entered a period of high creativity and wrote some of her most famous poems. The poem puts the reader in the shoes of an applicant. It is ambiguous in the sense that it can be applied to a number of situations and more importantly the words of the speaker, or the interviewer, are such that they address a male at times and a female at others. The Applicant is renowned for its dark humor, its strong commentary on commercially-orientated society and for its bleak and humorous view of materialistically driven marriage.
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
#9 The Munich Mannequins
In this poem, Sylvia Plath recounts her experience on a trip to the German city of Munich. In early 1960s, fashion models were gaining popularity, especially those from Germany. Also, at the time, models were sometimes referred to as mannequins; hence the title The Munich Mannequins. The poem expresses Plath’s take on the superficiality in the world of fashion models. The poem begins with the above mentioned famous lines suggesting that just like inanimate mannequins, models can’t have children as they can’t risk their “perfection” by becoming pregnant. In another famous line of the poem, Plath refers to the conservative Munich as the “morgue between Paris and Rome”. The Munich Mannequins is popular for being a powerful commentary on the media created perception of an ideal female form and the perception of an ideal women, in general, in a male dominated society.
Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb
#8 The Colossus
This poem was published in 1960 as part of Plath’s first poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems. It is the most well-known work of the collection. The narrator of the poem is placed in the classical world and mourns her inability to put back together a toppled colossus. The colossus is a statue, a father, a mythical being; he is a ruined idol. Plath uses classical imagery throughout the poem to depict the situation and state of mind of the narrator. The poem is classified as Confessional poetry, like most of Plath’s poems. Confessional poems focus on the experience of the individual. The fact that the statue is addressed at one point as “father” has caused most critics to link this poem with Plath’s own father, though others believe it to be about her idea of a fallen father figure.
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
This poem was written on February 5, 1963. Six days later Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Edge, which paints the image of a woman and children in death, is widely considered to be the last poem written by Plath and some regard it as more of a suicide note. Consisting of ten two-line stanzas, the poem is abstruse in nature with the narrator being a woman who has recently committed or is soon to commit suicide. Dead children, coiled as serpents, have been folded by the woman in her body. The moon, is a witness to the scene but is not perturbed as it is “used to this sort of thing”. Edge remains one of Plath’s most renowned poems for being her last; and for exploring the relationship between art and life and death.
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
#6 Morning Song
Morning Song was written by Sylvia Plath shortly after the birth of her first child. It was first published in The Observer in May 1961; later it was included in her famous poetry collection Ariel. The poem deals with the complicated emotions of a mother on being suddenly responsible for a helpless human being. Plath steps outside conventions while expressing her feelings for her newborn child and presents a complicated emotional response for a mother dealing with her new responsibility. The dominant theme of the poem is the narrator’s ambivalence towards motherhood and how her maternal instincts awaken to overcome it. Morning Song is regarded as one of the finest poems on freedom of expression of an artist and it is among Plath’s best-known works.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
#5 Lady Lazarus
Lazarus of Bethany is a Biblical character who was restored to life four days after his death by Jesus. He is frequently used in popular culture in reference to restoration of life. In this renowned poem, the narrator is facing death for the third time. She faces death once every decade and has been revived twice. At the end of the poem, the speaker again experiences the unwanted rebirth. Plath uses the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes to represent the narrator’s rebirth. The poem ends with the speaker planning to eat the men, or doctors, who restore her to life to make sure they are not able to revive her when she again faces death at the end of the decade. A much quoted poem, Lady Lazarus is seen by critics as a confessional poem in which Plath uses her personal pain to illustrate much wider themes and subjects. Along with Daddy and Mary’s Song, Lady Lazarus is referred to as one of her “Holocaust poems” as she describes the narrator’s oppression with the use of Holocaust imagery.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Published in a poetry collection with which it shares its name, Ariel was written by Plath on her thirtieth birthday. Due to its motifs of birth and death, it is speculated by critics that the poem acted as a sort of psychic rebirth for the poet. “Ariel” was the name of the horse Plath rode at riding school and it is believed that the poem describes an early morning horse-ride towards the rising sun. By a feminist interpretation, the narrator undergoes a series of transformations through the poem in an effort to build a new identity. She starts by identifying herself as her oppressor, the stallion, symbol of masculinity and male dominance. She then transforms into an arrow to prevent her submission and kill her oppressor; and finally identifies herself as water, a symbol of femininity and purification. The repeated “i” sound in the poem represents the “I” of her identity. Ariel is renowned for its sensuous imagery; and for its varied and complex interpretations.
Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
In March 1961, Sylvia Plath was hospitalized for an appendectomy, a surgical operation to remove the appendix. She had miscarried just a short time before this operation. Plath wrote this poem on March 18th, 1961, about a bouquet of tulips she received as she recovered from appendectomy. Comprising of nine seven-line stanzas, the poem relates the tension between the speaker’s desire for the simplicity of death and the tulip’s encouragement towards life. The narrator treasures the whiteness and sterility of the hospital room as it allows her to ignore the complications and pains of living. But the tulips; which she equates with excitability, with loud breathing, and with eyes that watch her as she rests; demand that she acknowledge the vivacity of life. The narrator, however, considers them dangerous and alluring like an African cat and accuses them of eating up her oxygen. Known for its rich and strong imagery, Tulips is one of Plath’s most beloved and critically acclaimed poems.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
Mirror was written by Plath in 1961 but it was published posthumously, ten years later, as part of her collection of poetry Crossing the Water. In this short but famous poem, the narrator is a wall mirror in what appears to be a woman’s bedroom. The mirror, endowed with human traits in the poem, describes itself as “silver and exact“ and “not cruel, only truthful”. It is the only thing that gives the woman a faithful representation of herself and though she is disturbed as she looks at her aging self, she can’t help from visiting it over and over again every morning. Critics have speculated that the mirror in the poem provides the woman not only with her physical appearance, but also gives her a reflection of her mind, her soul, and her psyche.
I am not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
Daddy was written by Plath in October 1962, around four months before her death, and was published posthumously as part of the poetry collection Ariel. Containing sixteen five-line stanzas, the poem is narrated by a girl who has Electra complex, analogous to a boy’s Oedipus complex. It deals with the narrator’s effort to get over her complex emotions for her deceased father, who apart from suppressing her daughter, was also a Nazi. Plath uses dark and vivid imagery in the poem and controversially uses the Holocaust as a metaphor. Several critics consider the poem to be related to the writer’s complex relationship with her father, Otto Plath, who died shortly after her eighth birthday due to diabetes. It is also considered to be an articulation against male dominance. Daddy is the most famous poem by Sylvia Plath and one of the best-known of the twentieth century.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.