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Sylvia Plath

“How you insert yourself,

Between myself and myself,
Scratch like a cat”.
“Cold Glass”

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Sylvia Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the older child
of Otto and Aurelia Schoeber Plath. Her father was professor of German and
entomology (a specialist on bees) at Boston University; her mother, a high
school teacher, was his student. Both parents valued learning. In 1940 Otto
died of complications from surgery after a leg amputation, and Aurelia's
parents became part of the household to care for the children when she
returned to teaching.
Sylvia's interests in writing and art continued through her public school
years in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and at Smith College, where she attended
on scholarships. Her extensive publications of poems and fiction led to her
selection for the College Board of Mademoiselle magazine in 1953. The
depression that was endemic in her father's family troubled her during her
junior year; when her mother sought treatment for her, she was given bi-
polar electro convulsive shock treatments as an outpatient. In August 1953,
she attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Recovered after six
months of intensive therapy, Sylvia returned to Smith and her usual
academic success. A senior, she wrote an honours thesis on Dostoyevski's
use of the double and graduated summa cum laude in English; she also won
a Fulbright fellowship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. In the fall
of 1955, she sailed for England.
Plath studied hard but her life in England was also sexual. As her
writing showed, she was angry about double-standard behaviour, and
claimed for herself the right to as much sexual experience as men had. She
believed combining the erotic and the intellectual possible, and when she
met Ted Hughes, a Cambridge poet, she felt that life with him would be
ideal. The two were married in London on 16 June 1956, accompanied by
Sylvia's mother.
After a honeymoon in Spain, the Hugheses set up housekeeping. Sylvia
passed her examinations while Ted taught in a boys’ school; in June they
sailed for America. The next year Sylvia taught freshman English at Smith;
in 1958 and 1959 they lived in Boston and wrote professionally. Ted's first
poem collection, The Hawk in the Rain, won a major poetry prize; Sylvia's
promise that she would make him a success seemed fulfilled. Unfortunately,
giving such single-minded attention to Ted's work meant that developing her
own voice as a writer was difficult. She visited Robert Lowell's class in
poetry writing, where she met George Starbuck and Anne Sexton; Sexton’s
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work became an inspiration to her. Plath worked part-time as a secretary in
the psychiatric division of Massachusetts General Hospital, transcribing
patients' histories, which often included dreams. She also resumed therapy
with the woman psychiatrist who had helped her after her breakdown.
The years in the States convinced Ted that he needed to live in England.
After an autumn at Yaddo, the writers' colony, Ted and Sylvia sailed for
London in December 1959. Sylvia was happy: she was writing good poems
(she had written 'The Colossus' at Yaddo, where she had discovered
Theodore Roethke’s poetry), and she was five months pregnant. Soon after
Frieda’s birth on 1 April 1960, they began looking for a country house to
escape cramped, expensive London. In late summer of 1961, they moved to
Devon, where Sylvia was ecstatic about their centuries-old manor house.
Before that time, however, they wrote efficiently (sometimes in the
borrowed study of poet W. S. Merwin), and Plath was able to finish most of
The Bell Jar. Influenced by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia's
novel narrated a woman's life from adolescence, ending with a positive
resolution of rebirth.
Ted wrote programmes for the BBC and became a Faber author, in
contact with T. S. Eliot and other important British poets; Sylvia was
publishing new kinds of poems, content that William Heinemann had
contracted to publish her book, The Colossus and Other Poems. Its
publication in October 1960 was well received, and Alfred Knopf published
the collection in the States.
Personal jealousies, differences in American and British views of
gender roles, and a return of Sylvia’s depression complicated the Plath-
Hughes marriage. Despite their happiness when Sylvia became pregnant
once more, after an earlier miscarriage, the marriage of two aspiring writers
living in an isolated village with an infant and little money was difficult.
After Nicholas’s birth in January 1962, Sylvia faced the fact of Hughes’s
infidelity, expressing herself through increasingly angry--and powerful--
poems. In contrast to such work as “The Rabbit Catcher” and “The
Detective,” her radio play for the BBC, ‘Three Women,” is a beautifully
wrought, sombre poem about maternal choice.
Plath had learned to find joy in her women-centred world, and the care
of her children and friendships with other women were increasingly
important. But she could not tolerate male irresponsibility. Living with the
children in lonely Devon, Plath wrote many of the poems that later appeared
in Ariel. Her so-called October poems, written during the month after
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Hughes had left her, are among her most famous: “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,”
“Fever 103,” “Purdah,” “Poppies in July,” “Ariel,” and others. The
magazines to which she sent these poems did not accept them; although the
New Yorker magazine had a First Reading contract, its poetry editor refused
all her late work except for a few lines.
Moving with the children to a London flat in December 1962, Plath
tried to make a new life for herself, but the worst winter in a century added
to her depression. Without a telephone, ill, and troubled with the care of the
two infants, she committed suicide by sleeping pills and gas inhalation on 11
February 1963, just two weeks after the publication of The Bell Jar (written
by “Victoria Lucas”).
That novel, and the various collections of her poems that appeared
during the next twenty years, secured for Plath the position of one of the
most important women writers in the States. The mixture of comedic self-
deprecation and forceful anger made her work a foreshadowing of the
feminist writing that appeared in the later 1960s and the 1970s. Like
Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, Plath's Bell Jar followed in 1965
with the posthumously published collection Ariel, was both a harbinger and
an early voice of the women's movement. As the posthumous awarding of
the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry to Plath's Collected Poems showed, her
audience was not limited to women readers, nor did her writing express only
feminist sentiments.
Plath's work is valuable for its stylistic accomplishments--it’s melding
of comic and serious elements, its ribald fashioning of near and slant rhymes
in a free-form structure, its terse voicing of themes that have too often been
treated only with piety. It is also valuable for its ability to reach today’s
reader, because of its concern with the real problems of our culture. In this
age of gender conflicts, broken families, and economic inequities, Plath's
forthright language speaks loudly about the anger of being both betrayed and
After she had graduated, summa cum laede, from Smith in 1955, she
went to Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship, and there she met
the poet Ted Hughes. They were married in London in June 1956. The
marriage was for six years a strong union of supremely dedicated writers.
Sylvia’s wholehearted enthusiasm for Hughes's work, which she sent off to
the competition that won him fame, was balanced by his steadfast belief in
her exceptional gift. They lived in Massachusetts (Cambridge, Northampton-
-where Sylvia taught for a year at Smith--and Boston), then in London and
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Devon. A daughter, Frieda, was born in April 1960, and a son, Nicholas, in
January 1962.
Sylvia Plath’s early poems--already drenched in typical imagery of
glass, moon, blood, hospitals, foetuses, and skulls--were mainly ‘exercises’
or pastiches of work by poets she admired: Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats,
Marianne Moore. Late in 1959, when she and her husband were at Yaddo,
the writers’ colony in New York State, she produced the seven-part ‘Poem
for a Birthday’, which owes its form to Theodore Roethke’s ‘Lost Son’
sequence, though its theme is her own traumatic breakdown and suicide
attempt at 21. After 1960 her poems increasingly explored the surreal
landscape of her imprisoned psyche under the looming shadow of a dead
father and a mother on whom she was resentfully dependent.
A fanatical preoccupation with death and rebirth informs her sad,
cynical novel, The Bell Jar, as it does her first book of poems, The Colossus,
published in London by Heinemann in October 1960, and by Knopf in New
York, in 1962. Plath’s mature poetry, too exalted to be merely
‘confessional’, frequently treats of this resurrection theme, together with a
related one which attempts to redeem meaningless life through art. Lines
like ‘I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light ('Witch Burning’), and
‘On Fridays the little children come / To trade their hooks for hands’ (‘The
Stones’) foreshadow the powerful, wholly convincing voice of poems like
‘The Hanging Man’, published posthumously in Ariel: ‘By the roots of my
hair some god got hold of me. / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert
Ted Hughes has described how Sylvia Plath underwent a searing,
‘curiously independent process of gestation' during the spring of 1962,
when, two months after giving birth to a son, she produced a powerful radio
drama, ‘Three Women’. The first deathly Ariel Poems appeared soon
afterwards with 'The Moon and Yew Tree’, ‘Little Fugue’, ‘Elm’, ‘Event’,
‘Berck-Plage’, and others. During the summer of 1962 her marriage to
Hughes began to buckle; she was devastated when she learned that he had
been unfaithful to her. Although she and Hughes travelled to Ireland
together in September, the marriage was by then in ruins, and in October she
asked her husband to leave for good.
It was after Hughes’s departure that Plath produced, in less than two
months, the forty poems of rage, despair, love, and vengeance that have
chiefly been responsible for her immense posthumous fame. Throughout
October and November of 1962 she rose every day at dawn to take down, as
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from dictation, line after miraculous line of poems like ‘The Bee Meeting’,
‘Stings’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Ariel’, and ‘Death & Company’, as well
as those heartbreaking poems to her baby son: ‘Nick and the Candlestick’
and ’The Night Dances’.
In December 1962 she moved with her children from Devon to London.
What she recognized as the ‘genius’ of her poetry temporarily restored her
self-confidence, but in January 1963, after the publication of The Bell Jar,
and during the coldest winter of the century, she descended into a deep,
clinical depression, and in the early morning of 11 February, she gassed
In the quarter-century following her suicide Sylvia Plath has become a
heroine and martyr of the feminist movement. In fact, she was a martyr
mainly to the recurrent psychodrama that staged itself within the bell jar of
her tragically wounded personality. Twelve final poems, written shortly
before her death, define a nihilistic metaphysic from which death provided
the only dignified escape.
The Sylvia Plath papers are housed at the Lilly Library, Indiana
University, Bloomington, and at Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Ted
Hughes published selections from her journals (The Journals of Sylvia Plath,
ed. Frances McCullough, 1982) and some of the short fiction (Johnny Panic
and the Bible of Dreams, Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts, 1980);
Aurelia Plath published Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, Correspondence
1950-1963 (1975). Lynda K. Bundtzen, Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the
Creative Process, (1983). Steven Tabor, Sylvia Plath: An Analytical
Bibliography (1987). Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath, A Biography
(1987). Linda Wagner-Martin, ed., Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage
(1988). Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, (1989). Steven
Axelrod, Sylvia Plath, The Wound and the Cure of Words, (1990).

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Sylvia Plath’s poetry progresses from early to late, from
experimentation to maturity, just like the works of any poet. However, the
themes she presents in her works remains fairly constant throughout.
Plath's early works can be dated between 1955 and 1959. Plath wrote
some of the first Colossus poems when she was twenty-three and therefore,
her early poetry displays an amateur, experimental quality. Her early poetry
is collected in The Colossus. In these works, the sense of doom and death,
the use of subtle humour, and the display of emotional conflict are
identifiable themes.
Nearly all of Plath’s early poetry is death related. In “Temper of Time,”
Plath uses sombre terms to describe the landscape:
The Colossus was first published in 1960, but Plath wrote several poems
between this time and early 1962. This period may be termed transitional.
This was the time of the Hugheses’ two years in London and their first year
in Devon, a period ending with the break-up of their marriage.
During this time, the poet continued her efforts to develop her own
style. Plath gains more structural freedom and flexibility. She gains a
simpler, more direct verse and she uses rhythms and diction in a more
elementary manner. Her transitional poetry is generally over intellectualised,
humourless, and lifeless. In fact, the figures described in Plath’s transitional
poetry are colourless, two-dimensional, and have a cut-from-paper quality.
Collected in the volumes Ariel and Winter Trees, most of Plath’s late
poetry can be dated from the birth of her son Nicholas in January 1962, and
her suicide in February 1963. This period was a time of great creative
productivity for Sylvia Plath. What characterizes Plath's late poems from her
transitional poetry is their innate intensity combined with their ease of
composition. She found her true voice, which she struggles to find in her
early and transitional poetry. Plath abandoned her customary method of
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working slowly and laboriously to compose her poems. She now wrote at a
much faster pace, producing poem after poem. Plath's British collection of
Ariel includes thirty-five poems and her fourth collection of poetry, Winter
Trees was published posthumously.
Plath continues to thread her trademark themes of death and doom and
of emotional conflict through her late poetry. Much of this death imagery
seems to grow from Plath’s recollection of her sea childhood. In “Ocean
1212-W” she recalls how she could not watch her “grandmother drop the
dark green lobsters... into the boiling pot from which they would be, in a
minute, drawn-- red, dead, and edible. I felt the awful scald of the water too
keenly on my skin.” Death is red in” Getting There,” as it is in easily one
half of the poems in Ariel and Winter Trees.
The theme of conflict is as prominent in Plath’s later works as it is in
her early works. “In Plaster” expresses this theme in a kind of schizoid
manner. In “The Other,” the “I” and the “you” are interchangeable; “I”, the
speaker exclaims: “Cold glass”.
“How you insert yourself
Between myself and myself.
Scratch like a cat”.
This conflict is very complex and irresolvable. The despair, which it
engendered in the earlier poems, has now changed to resignation, expressed
in various moods.
In spite of the conflict and despair apparent in her late poems, Plath
does include several “baby” poems in her late poetry. The speaker addresses
the child in a loving manner. Perhaps, the mother's love may provide partial
relief from an otherwise unbelievable world. In “Child”, the child is
innocent, new, unacquainted with pain; his “clear eye is the one absolutely
beautiful thing. / I want to fill it with colour and ducks:
In “Morning Song” and “Balloons” and “For a Fatherless Son,” Plath
displays the loving and whimsical musings of mother to baby.
Although these poems seem very different from Plath’s death-related
poems, they are not. She allows the imagery of death to invade even these
upbeat works. In “For a Fatherless Son,” the child “will be aware of an
absence, presently, / Growing beside you like a tree, / A death tree, colour
Clearly, Plath has truly become a master of her form. Her poems are
controlled, powerful, incisive, and original. She grew from an amateur,
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experimental poet to a poet of experience, style, and controlled rhythm.
Although Plath died before many of her poems received due credit, her
works live on.
Perhaps Sylvia Plath’s most famous work is The Bell Jar. The Bell Jar is
a recording of a period of confusion, disintegration, and renewal in the life
of its protagonist and narrator, Esther Greenwood. This semi
autobiographical novel draws its materials primarily from the time of Plath’s
Mademoiselle guest editorship in 1953, through her subsequent breakdown
and attempted suicide, to the time when, she was rehabilitated enough to
return to college.
Esther, like Plath, was the American Girl. Esther grew up suburban,
with saddle shoes and ‘fifteen years of straight A’s’, attended an eastern
women’s college, received scholarships and spent weekends at Yale. At the
end of her third year, Esther receives a guest editorship for a New York
fashion-fiction magazine. The novel opens with twelve little editors, taking
advantage of their sponsors-- free lunches, free sunglasses cases. Four pretty,
intelligent, ambitious girls riding around in a taxi together, exploring New
Death is a conception for the mad virgin. She arranges an encounter
with death like one arranges a doctor’s appointment. Esther Greenwood
survives her several attempts at suicide, but another patient, a lesbian, hangs
herself because of it. The bell jar is a relief to the mad person, separating the
air she breathes from the air of the sane. The fluted glass allows the girl to
breath “fresh” air.
Babies are also present in and out of this novel, often representing
horror or desire. The girl stands under her bell jar “blank and stopped as a
dead baby.” But when death looked like the “white sweet baby” in the
womb, she plunged down to reach it.
“The babies perhaps represent Esther's desire to be reborn.”
The extremes of this semi autobiographical novel are those of the
poems, suicides, and childbirths. Before madness, Esther Greenwood is self-
made and self-sufficient. After the transformation into insanity, she is torn
between dying and being reborn.
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In the first poem, “The Bee Meeting” the speaker finds herself in the
midst of other people. The long, Whitmanian lines sprawl horizontally to
accommodate the crowd of villagers, “The rector, the midwife, the sexton,
and the agent for bees “and later” the butcher, the grocer, the postman,
someone I know.” There may be a pun in the title of this first poem (and in
the running title for the sequence) since the word “bee” itself refers to a
group of neighbours. In an interesting etymological loop, the word “bee,”
meaning a meeting of neighbours who unite their labours for the benefit of
one of their number (as in a barn raising bee or a quilting bee), is an allusion
to the social character of the insect. This sense of “bee” may account for the
fact that the villagers all appear to be doing something specifically to or for
the speaker and may qualify the speaker’s paranoid response to their
attentions toward her.
The place and time of the meeting suggest that the speaker is at a
transitional stage. She meets the townspeople “at the bridge,” a symbolic
place of connection between divided locales and, therefore, a site of change.
The way the speaker is dressed confirms the time of the year is summer, a
season traditionally associated with the final harvest that precedes decline.
Further, the sequence itself moves from summer to winter--and even beyond
since the final poem promises spring. Many readers are fond of emphasizing
that Plath’s Ariel began with the word “love” and ended with the word
“spring”, but none has stressed the significance of summer in this culminating
sequence. She began the Bee poems shortly after moving to the country
cottage she had dreamed of, giving birth to her second child, losing her
husband to another woman, seeing her first book of poems in print, and
finding a publisher for her first novel.
Clearly, the new volume of poetry would reap the sweet and bitter fruits
of these recent events. The Bee poems assess the speaker’s relation to her
neighbours, children, husband, other women, and herself, as well as her
place in history. The summer season hints that one phase of her life is
ending, and so it is an appropriate time for re-evaluation and change.
The most distinctive feature of “The Bee Meeting” is its gothic tone. If
this is a poem about transition, then the speaker finds change extremely
disorienting--even nightmarish. The speaker’s paranoia is conveyed through
her confused and incessant questions, inability to recognize familiar people,
stuttering repetitions, monstrous personifications, and obsession with
violence and death. Likewise, the bizarre setting is created through imagery
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and metaphors of violence, a mixed atmosphere of the ritual, the carnival,
and the funeral, and mythic allusions. These elements are intensified
rhetorically with alliteration, assonance, and dissonance. Noticeably, then,
the formal features that lend the poem its gothic tone are the staples of
Plath’s poetics of excess. In this expressionistic landscape the speaker must
begin to puzzle out her relationship to others. Significantly, the task
demands that she control her overactive imagination, that is, that she sees
through the thematic and rhetorical trappings of excess that she herself has
The poem opens and closes with questions and is riddled with questions
throughout. Of the eleven stanzas, all but two have at least one question and
most have more. Through much of the poem, the speaker tries to answer
them herself; but when the last line closes the poem with yet another
question, obviously it cannot be answered (at least not within this poem).
Consequently, it is the one inquiry in the poem that is not punctuated with a
question mark as though the atmosphere of enigma and uncertainty has been
naturalized in this perplexing setting, and the interrogative is now as
definitive an utterance as she can formulate.
Her first questions concern the people around her and what they are
“Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?”
“Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
“Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?”
“Is some operation taking place?”
“Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?”
“What have they accomplished?”
The manuscript drafts from this poem reveal that Plath changed many of
these questions from straight declarative sentences apparently in order to
intensify the speaker’s confusion and disorientation. Her sense of alienation
from her neighbours naturally serves to emphasize her isolation, but this is a
larger point than we may at first realize. A central issue of the Bee sequence
is the speaker’s autonomy; the sequence, in fact, works to separate her from
others. In itself, isolation is not a problem; on the contrary, it is a state the
speaker must achieve in order to know herself, gather her resources, and
pursue a new direction. The anxiety and dislocation she experiences in “The
Bee Meeting” suggest it is the community of neighbours--not isolation--that
the speaker cannot tolerate. She receives their attempts to help her, well
intentioned though they may be, as assaults upon her. She feels vulnerable
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(“In my sleeveless SUMMARY dress I have no protection”), effaced by
their efforts to protect her.
“Here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.”
Forced to conform
“They are making me one of them”,
And yet finally betrayed
“The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove?
What have they accomplished?
Why am I cold”.
However, there is no evidence in the poem that the villagers actually
behave suspiciously. Instead, what should be obvious is that participating in
the collective life of the village has disastrous effects on the speaker; clearly,
she is not “one of them,” and thus she finds their attempts to include her
extremely threatening.
It is not only in her dealings with the townspeople that the speaker’s
perceptions are distorted and exaggerated. She views the setting with the
same expressionistic sensibility that informs her apprehension of the
villagers. Stanzas four and five depict a dangerous and frightening
Moreover, the metamorphosis into a plant concerns the definition and
boundaries of the human. One could change into a god or an animal
(categories believed to be the outside limits of the human), but these beings
are still sexually vulnerable. Only by relinquishing all claims to the human
can Daphne escape sexual assault. For the speaker of the Bee sequence,
however, such a metamorphosis is simply another conceit and one she must
give up in order to achieve the self-awareness and new self-definition of
“Wintering”. Significantly, then, the allusion occurs early in the sequence in
the two most technically wrought poems with their personifications, myths,
alliterations, repetitions, and what has been termed their “manic metaphor-
making”. “The Bee Meeting” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” By the last
poem, “Wintering,” the association between the woman and the plant is
merely analogous, not metamorphic. She is clearly human, knitting over the
cradle of her child (and therefore no longer like the virginal Daphne):
“The woman, still at her knitting,
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At the cradle of Spanish walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.”
One might be tempted to say that the baby is encased in the Spanish
walnut like Daphne in the laurel tree and that the woman too is becoming a
plant, no longer even able to speak. However, the walnut tree merely serves
the mother and child, by being fashioned into a cradle, in the same way that
the metaphor of the bulb serves the poet, by providing an image for her
hibernation. Her ability to control these plant metaphors attests to the
progress she has made since the beginning of the Bee sequence. These are
distinctions the earlier poems fail to make. Such restraint is still far off in
“The Bee Meeting” where personification and metamorphosis are employed
to heighten the speaker’s strangeness, vulnerability, and confusion.
The frequency with which readers of “The Bee Meeting” conclude that
the villagers fiendishly draw the innocent speaker into their demonic ritual
attests to the poem’s success in evincing the speaker’s point of view. Yet,
the townspeople appear menacing because her fantastic imagination distorts
perception. It is true, as nearly every reader points out, that the first list of
villagers includes the town officials--the rector, the midwife, the sexton, and
the agent for bees--and therefore suggests some sort of public ritual. Yet the
second list, an even more important one since it enumerates the people who
might be the central mysterious “surgeon” performing the ritual, is
noticeably composed of common, insignificant, and thus innocuous
characters: the butcher, the grocer, the postman, and most vaguely,
“someone I know.” Moreover, the setting of the mysterious ritual is
borrowed, like the Daphne imagery, from literature and thus gives the poem
self-conscious literariness rather than emotional veracity. The event is
modelled on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,”
in which the title character, like the speaker here, has a nightmarish meeting
with his neighbours in a shorn grove. That Plath wants to tap the literariness
of this allusion rather than merely its theme and mood is obvious in the more
playful, imbedded references to Hawthorn--the hawthorn tree in the grove
and the “scarlet” flowers that recall The Scarlet Letter. Like Young
Goodman Brown, the speaker of “The Bee Meeting” is a dubious judge of
the intentions of the villagers.
In some ways, her position in relation to the villagers is very much like
that of the bees. The townspeople do not intend to harm the bees; they
merely want to divide the hive into three hives and save the queen bee from

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the virgins. Yet the bees misinterpret the smoke (that is used to drive them
out so the hives can be moved):
“Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.”
Likewise, the queen hides from the people who are trying to help her:
“The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?”
The intensely lyrical quality of some of these passages (the long o’s that
almost seem to loop and curl like the smoke they are describing—
“Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove”
The long is that tighten and enclose the bees in a unity of sound--”The
mind of the hive”) again belies the speaker’s sympathetic identification with
the bees. Strategic repetitions further link the speaker to the bees; she says of
“They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear”
And have the queen,
“She is old, old, old.”
This connection between the speaker and the bees must be read
carefully, however, for its purpose is to separate her from the villagers every
bit as much as it is to associate her with the bees. She is like the bees
primarily in that she is unlike the townspeople. Further, the bees themselves
are similar to the villagers in some ways (in their group function, in their
hierarchy, in the threat they pose to the speaker). This point is more
important than it first appears. Many readers interpret the sequence,
especially the third poem “Stings,” as a work in which Plath attempted to
create an image of herself from the bees, whether as victimized wife (the
drudges) or victorious poet (the queen bee). Yet the larger success of the
sequence depends on the speaker’s recognition that the hive is an
unsatisfactory model for human social relations (indeed, the metaphor of the
hive amounts to a critique of heterosexual social relations) and that the bees
are outside of her, as everything that oppresses her is. Distinguishing herself
from her conceits makes possible the relationship to the bees she
acknowledges in “The Swarm” --”How instructive this is!” Here at the end
of “The Bee Meeting” she still confuses herself with the bees,
“Whose is that long white box in the grove . . . why am I cold,”
And experiences a foreboding of death (an early draft of this line read
“that coffin, so white and silent”. Yet, like the bees, she must learn that this
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is not “the end of everything.” By the last poem, she has established her
autonomy as well as her connection to the world; despite the fact that Plath
changed the sequence title from “The Beekeeper” and “The Beekeeper’s
Daybook” to “Bees,” the speaker is aware in the last poem that she is a
beekeeper not a bee. When she says in “Wintering,” “It is they [the bees]
who own me,” she does not mean that she cannot distinguish herself from
them--only that she is connected to them by their dependence upon her, a
relationship she assents to:
“This is the time of hanging on for the bees.”
Thus, the speaker’s rhetorical and emotional identification with the bees
in the first poem, like the other intensely imaginative elements, stems from
excesses that the sequence as a whole works to overcome.
Another aspect of “The Bee Meeting” that often diverts critical attention
from the speaker’s unreliability is the penultimate stanza in which the new
“Dream of a duel they will win inevitably, a curtain of wax dividing
them from the bride flight, the up flight of the murderess into a
heaven that loves her.”
The appeal of this stanza, of course, is that it prefigures the violence of
the bride flight in “Stings” and is consistent with the theme of vengeful self-
destruction that is said to monopolize Plath’s imagination. And, indeed, it
does foreshadow the third poem of the sequence in its vision of “recovering”
a queen, as “Stings” will say. However, much more important here is the
fact that the bride flight remains merely a dream. This poem ends with
exhaustion and uncertainty not, like “Stings,” with energy and self-
assurance. And, as might be expected, the speaker recedes even further into
the unreality she has been struggling throughout the poem to cast off.
The failure of her effort to distinguish between the real and the surreal is
anticipated in the opening of the final stanza which signals her defeat, “I am
exhausted, I am exhausted,” and confirmed in the last line where three
accusing questions give vent to her worst fears, “Whose is that long white
box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.” She sees
what appears to be a coffin, realizes something has ended, and feels the chill
of the grave already upon her. Yet the box, the sense of accomplishment,
and the iciness of death all derive directly from her own metaphor in the
preceding lines. When she claims to be a “Pillar of white in a blackout of
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The magician’s girl who does not flinch,” she is, in effect, conjuring up
her own box and stepping into it. Reneging on all the other images for her
the poem has contrived, this last metaphor makes passivity a performance
and tinctures the funereal atmosphere with the carnival. Embracing virginity
with a vengeance, she becomes the magician’s “girl”--both daughter and
assistant--who participates in the trick of sawing the Lady in Half. The box,
then, is the prop that makes the optical allusion possible.
She is the “pillar of white in a blackout of knives” because she is the
stoical girl in the box who remains unscathed even as the phallic knives
appear to pass through her, a variation of Daphne who becomes the
unfeeling tree in order to avoid Apollo’s sexual assault. The knives do not
cut her because they are merely a “blackout,” that is, an optical illusion. The
term is taken from the theatrical expression “blackout,” meaning to dim the
lights while a scene changes or, in a magician’s act, to allow a trick to be
accomplished under the cover of darkness; it is also a word that suggests the
magician’s occupation, “black art.” She is unflinching, not because she is
brave, but because she is in on the trick. The shock at the end of the poem
that inspires the final three questions is her surprising realization that she is
the only one left performing. “The villagers are untying their disguises,” but
the speaker is still caught in hers. While the townspeople were carrying out
their chores, and there is no evidence in the poem that they were doing
otherwise, the speaker has nailed her own coffin, so to speak, with her
fantastic imaginative constructions. Moreover, her role as the magician’s girl
associates her with witchcraft since it allies her with sorcery as well as with
The exhaustion she feels at the end of the poem makes her unable to
answer the last battery of questions. This is appropriate since the voice of the
poem is expert at heightening rather than allaying fears and uncertainties.
She will, however, approach the last enigma from another angle in the
second poem. “The Arrival of the Bee Box” must be understood as
responding to her demand in this first poem to know,
“Whose is that long white box in the grove.”?
A poem that moves from “Stasis in darkness,” “substanceless,” to the
“cauldron of morning” cannot be adequately described as an expression of
suicidal impulses, although Plath’s use of that word demands explanation.
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The arrow and the dew, although in apparent apposition, do not reinforce
each other. The arrow kills, the dew is killed; the arrow at one with the red
eye is its apotheosis, while the sun consumes the dew. The dew, like the
child’s cry melting and the unpeeling dead hands and even the foaming
wheat and “glitter of seas,” symbolizes all that will be overcome or
sacrificed in this arrow’s drive into morning. But the speaker, identifying
with the arrow, presents herself as no sacrificial victim on the altar of any
god. The arrow, like the horse, “God's lioness,” absorbs the power of the
avenging God: “at one with the drive/ into the red/ Eye,” it is associated with
the fury that lit the holocaust.
“Ariel,” the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume of the same
name is one of her most highly regarded, most often criticised, and most
complicated poems. The ambiguities in the poem begin with its title, which
has a three-fold meaning. To a reader uninformed by Plath’s biography
“Ariel” would probably most immediately call to mind the “airy spirit” who
in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a servant to Prospero and symbolizes
Prospero’s control of the upper elements of the universe, fire and air. On
another biographical or autobiographical level, “Ariel,” as we know from
reports about the poet’s life, was the name of her favourite horse, on which
she weekly went riding. Robert Lowell, in his forward to Ariel, says, “The
title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and
androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse.” Ted
Hughes, Plath’s husband, adds these comments,
“ARIEL was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly.
Long before, while she was a student at Cambridge (England), she
went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her
horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to
the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s
These two allusions, to The Tempest and to her horse “Ariel,” have
often been noticed and pointed out, with the emphasis, from a critical
perspective, being placed on the biographical referent. But there is another
possible referent in the title of the poem, which no one has yet noted,
although the poet, apparently, went out of her way to make reference, even
obvious reference, to it. I refer to “Ariel” as the symbolic name for
Jerusalem. “Ariel” in Hebrew means “lion of God.” She begins the second
stanza of the poem with the line “God’s lioness,” which seems to be a direct
reference to the Hebrew or Jewish “Ariel.”
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Plath’s obsession with Judaism and the Jewish people is clearly
indicated in many of her poems.
Indeed, some of the imagery, which informs the passage concerning
“Ariel” in the Book of Isaiah, appears to have been drawn on directly by
Plath for her imagery in her poem “Ariel.” In Isaiah we read,
“And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
with whirlwind and tempest, And the flame of a devouring fire”.
In short, then, the poet seems to be combining these three references to
“Ariel” in her poem, and creating a context where each of the possible
meanings enriches the others. She even seems to imply this when she says,
in the second stanza, “How one we grow.” Each of the three “Ariel’s”
contributes its part to the totality of the poem, and each of them merges into
the others so that, by the end of the poem, they are all “one.”
Now, of these three references to “Ariel,” the two that seem most
fruitful in terms of an analysis of the poem appear to be the autobiographical
and the Biblical In terms of the autobiographical overtones, the poem can be
seen as what apparently it is in fact—an account of the poet’s going for a
ride on her favourite horse. Each of the details she mentions with respect to
the ride (at least through the first six stanzas) can be seen as exact reporting
of what it is like to ride a horse. The last five stanzas of the poem obviously
move beyond the literal telling of taking a horseback ride and move into
something which partakes of the mystery whereby the rider experiences
something of the unity which is created between horse and rider, if not
literally, at least metaphorically. This change in the theme of the poem is
signalled both by a change in tone and by a change in technique, and
specifically by the break in the rhyme scheme.
In talking of the rhymes in Plath’s poetry, John Frederick Nims points
out that in The Colossus, Plath’s first book, she chooses to rhyme “atonally”
using one of several variations:
“In Ariel, the use of rhyme is very different. In some poems it is
ghostlier than ever. But more often it is obvious: rhyme at high noon.
The same sound may run on from stanza to stanza, with much
identical rhyme. “Lady Lazarus” illustrates the new manner. The
poem is printed in units of three lines, but the rhyme is not in her
favourite terzarima pattern. Six of the first ten lines end in an n-
sound, followed by a sequence in long e, which occurs in about half of
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the next twenty-two lines. Then, after six more a’s, we have l’s ending
eleven of fourteen lines, and then several r’s, leading into the six or
more air rhymes that conclude the sequence. Almost Skeltonian: the
poet seems to carry on a sound about as long as she can, although not
in consecutive lines.”
Now up to the seventh stanza of the poem (and continuing on through
the remainder of the poem once the transitions has been made in the seventh
stanza, “White / Godiva, I unpeel— / Dead hands, dead strigencies”), the
rhyme scheme has been, for the most part, “regular” in terms of the slant
rhymes Nims has suggested, each stanza having two lines which rhyme,
given Plath’s approach to rhyme. “Darkness” / “distance,” “grow” /
“furrow,” “arc” / “catch,” “dark”/ “Hooks,” “mouthfuls” / “else,” “air” /
“hair,” “I” / “cry,” “wall” / “arrow,” and “drive” / “red.” It is true that the
rhymes do not all fit the categories Nims has set forth, although some of
them do. Where the rhymes do not fit his scheme, another scheme, equally
justifiable, could be suggested—one which the poet apparently used equally
often, here as well as in other poems in Ariel. For instance, in the case of the
rhymes “darkness” / “distance,” the rhyme works on the duplication of the
initial “d’s” and the final “s’s”; in “arc” / “catch,” “arc” ends in the
consonant “c” which is picked up as the initial letter in “catch” (also the
sequence “ac” in “arc” is reversed in “catch” to “ca”); the “k” in “dark” and
“Hooks” carries the rhyme for the lines ending in these two words; in the
“wall” / “arrow” rhyme Plath has apparently worked the words so that the
letters of the one word become inverted and duplicated backwards in the
letters of the other, thus “w” begins “wall” and ends “arrow” and the double
“1” in “wall” is duplicated by the double “r” in “arrow,” each of the double
consonants following the vowel “a”; and the initial “d” of “drive” goes with
the final “d” of “red,” and so forth.
But, to show the change in theme in the Godiva stanza, Plath breaks the
rhyme within the stanza itself, while, and at the same time, she joins this
transitional stanza to what has gone before and to what will follow by
interlocking its rhyme with the dangling or unused line in both the preceding
and following stanzas. Thus “heels” from the preceding stanza is made to
rhyme with “unpeel” in the Godiva stanza, and “seas” of the following
stanza is made to rhyme with “stringencies.” The unity of the poem as a
whole has thus been maintained while the shift in its theme is signalled both
thematically and structurally by a shift in the rhyme scheme.

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In addition to this rather complex patterning of rhyme, Plath also has
her own alliterative-devices to bind together individual lines and, at times,
larger units of her poems. In “Ariel,” for instance, we find lines like, “Pour
of tor and distances,” “Pivot of heels and knees,” and “Of the neck I cannot
catch.” In each of these lines, the internal rhyme (“pour” / “tor”) or the
alliteration (“cannot catch”) or the assonance (“heels and knees”) creates a
kind of music, which takes the place of exact or even slant rhyme.
On at least two other occasions, then, Plath has set forth similar
experiences to the one she details in “Ariel,” and in each case she has
communicated her experience in terms of horses and horseback riding. All
demonstrate a desire to have her reader feel, if not see, the unities of the
interconnected emotions, which she is attempting to express in these poems.
Particularly in “Ariel,” she is careful to link the thematic and rhyme devices
already mentioned to an overall structure, which suggests the special kind of
fusions that she intends. The poem is written in three line stanzas, and, in the
sense that two of the lines in each stanza rhyme, the poem might be
considered to fall into a loose terza rima. Another way in which the form
works to complement the meaning is in the stanzaic form itself. The very
fact that the stanzas are tri-fold parallels the tri-fold allusions to horse, Ariel
in Shakespeare, and “Ariel” as a reference to Jerusalem, Therefore, the
stanzaic structure as well as the structure of the individual stanzas
corroborates the theme of the poem.
But perhaps the most important structural, as well as thematic, line in
the poem is the last line, which is also the final stanza of the poem. This line
is important in a three-fold way: first, the “ro” of “cauldron” is inverted to
“or” in “morning,” thus continuing the duality of the double, and here
internal, rhyme that occurs throughout the poem, but at the same time
tightening the rhyme even further into the space of a single line; second, the
words “eye” and “morning,” carrying as they do the overtones of “I” and
“mourning,” at once incorporate the personal activity (riding a horse) with
the communal concern of the Biblical passage (where “Ariel” comes to
signify the whole history of the Hebrew race and the suffering, the
“mourning” so immediately identified with that history); and, thirdly, the
word “cauldron” mixes all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of
melting pot of emotion, history and personal involvement. Thus, the poem
takes on the richness and complexity we have come to expect from the poet,
and, not without reason, stands as the title poem of the book. As A. Alvarez
has said, “The difficulty with this poem lies in separating one element from
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another. Yet that is also its theme.” Indeed, Plath seems to have always had a
similar difficulty in separating one element of her life from another. But,
that, too, was also, and always, her theme.

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