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Symbols in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry Essay

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become (C. S Lewis). ” Literature has always been a main source for writers to express their feelings and the most common way is through poetry. Literary pieces can either be fictitious or fact based. The reason why writers choose to interpret their feelings and lives through poems is because it lets the writers merge a fact based incident with fictitious symbols and features which are, exaggerated forms of their thoughts.

Sylvia Plath, one of the most powerful American writers of the postwar era, has produced the most controversial and intense set of poems. Her poetry is characterized by symbols of despair, expressions of futility and frustration and death. With the most confound and complicated life, it is almost impossible to detach her biographical experiences from her poems. She was known to be a confessional poet. Confession, in literature, is an autobiography, either real or fictitious, in which intimate and hidden details of the subject’s life are revealed.

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Although her poems relate almost entirely to her life, the use of surreal and dreary symbols makes us question if it was only her distinguished style of writing or an interpretation of her life. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Otto and Aurelia Plath, with great talent, she excelled academically and began publishing at a very young age. Her father’s death in 1940 is said to have had a large impact on her life and later work. In 1955, she graduated summa cum laude from Smith and won a scholarship to study at Cambridge, where she met her husband Ted Hughes, a British poet.

The couple raised two children spending time in both America and England and separated in 1962. This was followed by the phase of her life during which she produced the most furious piece of work, which is now considered her most powerful work. In 1963, Plath committed suicide by inhaling gas from her kitchen stove. Although Plath lapsed into an episode of sever depression and attempted to commit suicide during her university life, which was a long time before her death, her works show significant change between her first and second book.

Her first collection of poetry was The Colossus, in which most of her rage was directed against her father. In ‘Electra on Azalea Path,’ Plath, employs imagery and a reminiscent tone to convey feelings of grief and guilt. The speaker conveys his frustration after the death of his father. The first phrase of the poem itself foreshadows the dreary contents of the poem. Through this poem, Plath suggests how she felt after her father’s death. It was as if she “went into the dirt” and into hibernation. The title of the poem refers to a Greek character, Electra.

The title is symbolic to Sylvia’s “Electra Complex,” which is a daughter’s libidinal feelings toward her father and her hostile and jealous feelings towards the mother (Freud). Plath conveys the abandonment she felt after hers father’s death, as she was never able to share her love with him. Her father was never affectionate towards his children. Plath felt an absence in her life, “as if you never existed. ” Electra holds a great symbolic value in this poem. In Sophocles’ Electra, her mother’s lover murdered the father and she seeks revenge.

This represents the guilt that Plath feels for blaming her mother at one point of time to her father’s death. The Colossus also contains poems with imagery of fetuses, pregnancy as prospect of self-annihilation. In her poem ‘Metephor,’ the speaker sounds as if she feels helpless and stuck with being pregnant. The choice of words express Plath’s feelings about pregnancy. She uses startling imagery to explore her attitudes. The reference of a pregnant woman to a fat elephant brings out a very negative picture.

In the line ‘I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,’ the color green is a symbol of sickness. This can be linked to Plath’s personal sicknesses. After her death, Hughes suggested that she had a gestation problem. Five months before her death, Plath wrote a collection of poems called ‘Ariel. ’ These poems render isolation and insecurity as threats with horrifying consequences. The most distinctive feature of Plath’s second collection of work is the predominance of the first person, the strangely inflected ‘I’, which is the main reason why critics see her as a confessional poet.

Although it was claimed that Plath was mentally ill at the particular time, it was when she produced her greatest works like ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘daddy. ’ Ariel can be seen as a collection of poems that are re-visions of the poems on The Colossus. While both the works emphasize brutality, the diction and tone in Ariel is darker. ‘Lady Lazarus,’ one of the poems in Ariel conveys messages of life, obsession and weakness. It can be seen as a description of Plath’s psychological journey.

The title ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a biblical allusion that connects to the book of John’s Lazarus of Bethany. Lazarus symbolizes Plath. Just as Lazarus was resurrected from the dead so was Plath reborn after each of her attempts to commit suicide. Plath uses the phrase ‘A sort of walking miracle, my skin,’ to point out at the times when she has been saved from death. She compares herself to a ‘Nazi lampshade. ’ This reference to the holocaust shows how like the Nazis, she imposes her will to die on her body, which suffers under her imposition like the Jews.

In the following stanzas, Plath uses crude phrases. During the time of her attempts to suicide, people ridiculed her for committing the sin of attempting suicide. Through the phrase ‘peel off the napkin O enemy. Do I terrify,’ she shows her frustration towards the society that looked at her with disgust. She wants the readers to look at her physical appearance that is an evidence of her conditions. ‘The grave’ in the next few stanzas is a symbol of death. The use of ‘Gentlemen, ladies,’ is a mockery of the society.

In this poem Plath considers dying to be something to boast about ‘Dying is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well. ’ The disappointment she feels when is not successful in her attempts to kill herself is symbolized in the phrase, ‘comeback in broad day…to the same place, the same face, the same brut…’ Plath ends the poem with the phrase ‘and I eat men like air. ’ Through this she claims that she has defeated all her enemies – the men in her life. ‘Daddy,’ her best work is a similar poem. In this too she uses symbols of the holocaust and the Nazis.

The speaker refers to her father as a Nazi and herself as a Jew. Throughout the poem, the speaker is haunted and trapped by the memories of her father. ‘Barb wire,’ ‘engine chuffing me like a Jew,’ ‘Fascist’ are all symbols of confinement. ‘Daddy’ in this poem can be seen as a reference to Plath’s own father or her husband. In her journal, Plath wrote ‘Dangerous to be so close to Ted day in day out. I have no life separate from his. ’ This suggests that she even fell trapped and confined under her husband. It is very difficult to distinguish Plath’s poems from her personal experiences.

However, by interpreting the poems by keeping in mind that they are based on her life, we ignore the ambiguity of it being her style of writing. Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Berryman, who wrote similar poems against the orthodoxies in which they had been schooled, influenced Plath. This could be one of the main evidences that prove her poems were just her interpretation of the suffering of people in general under the rules of the society. This ambiguity in the interpretations of the symbols in Plath’s poems is what has makes her work both controversial and appreciable.


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