By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Sylvia Plath (1932-63) was a prolific poet for the few years that she was active before her untimely death, by her own hand, aged just 30. But what are her greatest poems? A few titles spring to mind, but it’s not easy to reach a consensus on, say, Sylvia Plath’s top ten best poems.
But we like a challenge here, so we’ve suggested ten of Plath’s finest and most famous poems, along with a little bit about each of them.
For a good edition of Plath’s poems, we recommend the Collected Poems.
1. ‘Lady Lazarus’.
Lazarus is the man in the New Testament who is raised from the dead by Jesus. Plath gives the name a twist in this poem, one of Plath’s finest poems, by linking it to her numerous suicide attempts. ‘Lady Lazarus’ contains the famous line ‘dying is an art’, among many other haunting and memorable lines and images.
Plath wrote ‘Lady Lazarus’ in October 1962, only a few months before her suicide. (Plath would kill herself in February 1963, in a London apartment she had decided to rent because W. B. Yeats had once lived there. As she suggests in ‘Lady Lazarus’, she had attempted suicide previously at roughly ten-year intervals.)
The poem is about resurrection – but implicit within its title, and Sylvia Plath’s reference to the man whom Jesus brought back from the dead, is the idea of annihilation or extinction, a theme that is never far away from us with a Plath poem. Another important aspect of ‘Lady Lazarus’ – which is alluded to in Plath’s reference to the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ – is the idea of suffering as spectacle, a theatre of cruelty to which people might pay to see: what the novelist J. G. Ballard, less than a decade later, would call the ‘atrocity exhibition’.
One of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems, ‘Daddy’ controversially links the father in the poem to a Nazi officer, and references the Holocaust. (There are also references to the Holocaust in ‘Lady Lazarus’.)
Variously seen as a highly autobiographical ‘confessional’ poem and as an extremely loose fictionalised account of Plath’s own relationship to her father (an entomologist and bee-expert who died when Plath was just eight), ‘Daddy’ continues to generate much discussion amongst Plath’s readers and critics.
The poem has often been interpreted as Plath’s attempt to kill her father, symbolically, and to free herself from his memory. Many critics have also viewed the poem from a psychoanalytic perspective: Plath was keenly interested in the writings of Sigmund Freud.
In this haunting poem, Plath uses the moon as a symbol for both her melancholy and for her mother, with the yew tree taking on the masculine role of her father.
The poem was written in Devon, at a time when Plath was trying to write a poem every day – when she was struggling for inspiration one early morning, Hughes suggested Plath write about the view from their bedroom window, which overlooked a nearby churchyard.
The moon is often feminine in poetry, while the yew tree represents the masculine, the father figure, and death. The yew is, after all, a tree often found in churchyards, as was the case with the one that inspired the poem.
This poem makes far more sense when one realises that its title, ‘You’re’, also acts as the first word of each of the statements in the poem. The meaning of the poem also becomes clearer when we realise that ‘You’re’ is a poem about pregnancy and the unborn child Plath is carrying (in that case, Frieda, Plath’s daughter with Ted Hughes, born in 1960). The poem is among Plath’s more buoyant and hopeful poems.
The succession of images we are presented with here are a remarkable feat of the imagination as Plath dreams her unborn child into being through a variety of unusual and arresting comparisons. The idea of the child being more distant than Australia (despite being within her womb at the time of writing) hints at Plath’s complex and conflicted attitudes to childbirth and motherhood.
5. ‘Morning Song’.
Although we haven’t arranged this selection of Sylvia Plath’s best poems in any kind of chronological (much less preferential) order, it seems fitting to follow ‘You’re’, a poem about pregnancy, with ‘Morning Song’, a poem about a mother tending to her new-born child.
‘Morning Song’ is about a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby, and so doesn’t celebrate the beauty of the sunrise or an aesthetically pleasing landscape as seen at dawn, like some of the poems on this list.
Instead, we have Plath’s speaker (based on Plath, herself a mother to a small child when she penned this poem) stumbling out of bed ‘cow-heavy and floral’ in her Victorian nightgown.
6. ‘Poppies in October’.
Although this poem gives a nod to Plath’s own suicide attempts (the last of which, of course, tragically, was successful) in its reference to a woman in an ambulance whose heart is likened to the flowering poppies, it is, first and foremost, a poem in celebration of the bright red flowers.
This poem is also a good example of how Plath might be viewed as a belated modernist as much as she is a confessional poet: the imagery is elliptical, the expression taut, the poem almost imagistic.
One of Sylvia Plath’s most widely discussed poems, ‘Ariel’ describes an early morning horse-ride towards the sun, using imagery that is loaded with significance and suggestiveness.
As Plath rides Ariel through the dawn light, it is as if she is shedding her past self and become reborn as something else: the experience of riding the horse is almost transcendent. ‘I unpeel’, she tells us, likening herself to Lady Godiva, the eleventh-century Saxon noblewoman who defied her husband’s harsh taxation of the people of Coventry and rode naked through the streets of the town, according to legend.
Written in October 1962 (on her thirtieth birthday), just four months before Plath committed suicide, ‘Ariel’ became the title poem in Plath’s posthumous 1965 volume, publication of which was overseen (controversially) by Plath’s widower, Ted Hughes. (We’ve picked some of Ted Hughes’s best poems here.)
This poem, written just six days before Plath committed suicide in February 1963, was probably the last poem she ever wrote. Fittingly – and eerily – it’s about a dead woman, whose body has been ‘perfected’ in death (and, presumably, suicide).
Written in taut, terse, unrhymed couplets, this poem is one of many by Plath which reflect her interest in the colours of white, red, and black, which often suggest the three phases of the White Goddess, a concept invented by Robert Graves.
In the triple-goddess structure of Graves’s theory, white symbolises the virgin, red the mother, and black the hag or crone. All three are also related to the moon. In this poem, the white serpent gives way to the blood of the (red?) rose, before culminating in the ‘black’ of the moon herself.
9. ‘Waking in Winter’.
This may sound like a poem describing a natural scene, but in fact ‘Waking in Winter’ is about a nuclear winter, although it also reflects Plath’s time spent in various hospitals. Written in 1960 and infused with Cold War and environmentalist elements, ‘Waking in Winter’ offers a bleak vision of a post-nuclear winter where the sky doesn’t just look like tin – the whole atmosphere tastes metallic, too.
‘Waking in Winter’ examines the bleakness of a winter created by man rather than nature – of ‘destructions, annihilations’. This poem is one reason why critics have sometimes categorised Plath as a ‘Cold War Modernist’ as well as a Confessional poet.
10. ‘Crossing the Water’.
This poem gave its title to a posthumous collection of Plath poems published in 1971. The water being crossed in this poem is, first and foremost, the boundary between the United States and Canada – but this poem is also suffused with images of darkness and blackness which suggest that another boundary, between life and death, is also being summoned.
Again, we see the importance of the colour symbolism influenced by the White Goddess – here, the colour black, which looms large throughout the poem. The poem also demonstrates what a fine ear Plath had: the way the song of those ‘sirens’ turns into ‘silence’ in the final two lines is particularly fine.
About Sylvia Plath
The life – and death – of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) can sometimes appear to eclipse her poetic achievement, as well as her achievement in fiction (she wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, as well as a collection of short stories). But this is partly because so much of her work drew on her life for its subject-matter, especially her unflinching analysis of her own struggles with her mental health.
Plath is often grouped with the ‘Confessional poets’ – a group of (mostly American) mid-twentieth-century poets whose work engages with the darker aspects of their own lives, with the focus frequently on the poet’s own struggles with mental health issues. Plath attended a creative writing class led by the poet who helped to initiate the Confessional movement, Robert Lowell, in the late 1950s.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.