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Petra Whitelely
Sylvia Plath – the White Goddess of poetry


If we define the term genius as distinctive talent influencing an era, we shall find Sylvia Plath to be an undeniable genius of the poetry of the 20th century.

The autobiographical facts of her life have proved to be a morbid fascination to many and the reading and analysis of her work has been placed into the framework of her failed marriage to Ted Hughes, and her depression and suicide. When the movie industry decided to turn Plath’s life into a cinematic feature, her daughter, Frieda Hughes, objected to this constant portrayal of her mother as a suicide doll icon.

No other poet has sparked so much controversy and challenged definitions with the same force. Analysis of her work has often been confined to autobiographical interpretation and limited by political correctness and she has been branded as a confessional poet alongside Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell.

Yet neither Sexton's nor Lowell's work yields the same haunting power. The united imagery of a mythical system of inner landscapes Plath maps out and the outer landscapes she critiques, surpasses the method of confession and scopes of their poetry.

The strength of her voice- especially in her late poetry - her inventive use of language to maximise dramatic effect and the lingering eerie power of her verses render Plath much more than a poet that can be defined by a single term.

Our examination will show how Plath’s poetry cannot be restricted and defined in this way.

There are many ironies surrounding the way this poet is perceived and the shaping of her voice and vision. Although she had been adopted by the feminist movement as a symbol and example, her major influence was ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves. Many of his beliefs with regards to women were prejudiced and dismissive and a woman poet was nearly equal to blasphemy within the body and structure of his interpretation of mythology and poetical theory. Furthermore, many of Graves’ female figures represent a menacing and threatening presence to the poetic heroines that Plath voices. They are represented as usurpers of the identity of the males (father, then husband) - who are idolised and deified and only scorned for their abandonment (premature death, affair). The biographical elements serve not to confess, but to illustrate the psychological depth and truth that the mythology connects to and represents.

Plath juxtaposes the differing feminine qualities of those who challenge the nature of her motherhood with their barren state. She also uses these other-female protagonists as representations of her darker self – the rival psyche that repulses and fascinates at the same time with its threat of annihilation and promise of rebirth. The themes of death have overshadowed the themes of regeneration and rebirth in many critiques of her work, largely due to the interference of Ted Hughes in editing Ariel posthumously, cutting work out and rearranging poems in an order which smothers Plath's original intent. This has been rectified by the reinstated edition.

The difference between the two editions shows how the misconception of Plath’s work as the confessional poetry of a suicidal depressive took its hold on the imagination of the poetry-reading public and literary criticism milieu. The version edited by Hughes creates such a picture, whilst the restored Ariel presents the mythical transcendence of death and grief into regeneration of the female (it can also be said to apply to others in a situation of being oppressed by another) and her consequent empowerment in a vision unified with Plath’s adaptation of Moon-Muse mythology into her own.

Plath had often been criticized in her time for her burning ambition to be an artist (she studied visual arts before she took up English and literature) and a poet and a writer – this ambition was seen as far too masculine. Plath’s daring to challenge gender roles threatened the rigidity of the status quo, hence she was attacked for stepping out of line and not paying lip service to the male establishment, refusing to submit her craft to norms of what female poetry should be (sugary, submissive and presenting a fragile, eternal girl-child in need of protection). Even Sexton played it safe in subduing her tone and displaying lack of control (like women were supposed to) – unlike Plath’s full on tour-de-force voice, which left nothing unexposed. Her perfect linguistic control created a work of art out of each poem.

Graves’s emphasis on a poet’s path being the highest activity of a human being (for Graves as a man) and his Moon mythology,resonated with Plath and were the reasons why The White Goddess was such a great influence upon her work: however, she wholly adapted his concepts to her own vision, challenging the patriarchal system within his work, as well as society as a whole.
She demonstrated the state of being of a feeling, authentic woman, not the imagined femininity simultaneously idealised and abhorred by Graves and the society he reflected. She used his theory to expose the authentic being - to peel away the false selves from the true self. She took Graves’ ethereal teachings down to earth and made them relevant beyond the intellectual plane,stripping them of their pretentions.

Along the Moon-mythology, and its trinity of personae concepts and its motifs of The Moon-Muse-Goddess mourning her dead consort/God, the crucial conflict with the rival and the consequent rebirth/transcendence of death, runs the theme of metamorphoses i.e. as in Poem for a Birthday. Plath uses it as demonstration of a mythical process of recovery and growth of the true self from the traumas that subdued or stunted it. The evolution of her poetic voice corresponds to the theme as a whole – Plath lived her poetry and the life and vibrancy of her poetry stand out.This was not a mere hobby or career, it was her calling. If the Moon-Muse is the matrix of her poetic system, then metamorphoses is the process of rebirth of the stricken Moon, where the evolution of the poet’s voice reflects the themes in the synchronised organic process of the poetry and its artistic expression.

Plath’s poetry, although rooted in mythical concepts, is nevertheless a poetry that could not be labelled as spiritual New Age for a mind in need of categorisation. Her imagery is deeply rooted in reality, be it domestic or found in nature. She has also an uncanny ability to create nature out of the domestic and vice versa.

She has been criticised for delving into subjectivity far too much and especially for the post WWII and Cold War times; to some it represented self-indulgence. We propose that these critics are wrong. Plath was a dedicated pacifist and many of her poems address the wreckage of militant mindsets and subsequent warfare, her concerns about the threat of nuclear war were passionately addressed in her work.

Many of her concerns were communicated subjectively via her poetry – but this way can very well serve in a much better way than the disconnected- many times condescending poetry - that preaches verses of the world’s ills out of the pulpit above the congregation, playing the part of self-appointed speaker for righteous conscience and saviour of the human race. If the reader can identify and relate to the speaker of the poem, more self-consciousness and awareness is brought to the world in that individual consciousness affected by such work, without the reader being alienated or patronised by fashionable rhetoric and sanctimonious prophets of poetry.
Another element which distinguishes her poetry is her background in visual arts, it infuses her work – which is a rich, textured combination of words and expressions and the use of surreal imagery adds to the strength and flexibility of her voice.

Her poems which used holocaust imagery (Daddy and Lady Lazarus - the best known examples) were maybe the most controversial, with the issue being politicised as much as possible. Yet what Plath conveyed is the inaccessibility of memory of trauma, the fragmentation of psyche that extreme situations inflict and the linguistic and metaphorical impossibility of the experience as a whole to reach the whole truth and legacy of such events in art/literature etc.

She also targeted the moral apathy to suffering - the voyeurism of pain. The critique levelled at this particular work resembled the critique fired at William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice which depicted the experience of a non-Jewish victim of the Holocaust. Along with 6 million Jewish people, 5 millions perished alongside them (Romani people, Polish Catholics, communists, anarchists, and homosexuals- those who did not fit into the social- Darwinism etc). The derailment of history into political arena has played the major roles in why she was so attacked.
It was not the use of imagery – although it was the bull’s eye – it was an attack on humanistic position itself. If we de-politicise these views it is patently obvious that Plath’s intentions were humanistic concerns and nothing of the kind suggested by her critics.

The novel she published before her death, The Bell Jar, became iconic by its description of a breakdown in an honest, existential way,and the sharp satire of society and sexual politics running through it. The novel also became symbolic for those who tried to neutralise Plath's challenge of the status quo by attempts to categorise and trivialise readers of her novels as highly-strung 'over-ambitious' young women, simultaneously deviant of their rightful social roles and thus doomed for suicide, killing sprees or ripe for normalisation back into the fold of the predetermined gender roles. This was evident in literary critiques and the way this particular novel has been used in films when referenced as the reading material of the dysfunctional heroine.

If we read poetry of various important poets henceforth, we will find the legacy of Plath in their work – poetry has not been the same since and she has been a pioneering spirit of this art as much as T.S. Eliot.

Her effect on poetry indeed attests to her special status in the canon of literature. Her use of language is electric and could not fail to impress itself upon her readers’ minds, together with the striking imagery and visuals, her vision, her unique and original voice and its power.
She has also paved the way for many female poets to create their art with courage, a non-conforming attitude and authenticity. She has shown that the predominantly male literary establishment had a force to reckon with. From the beginning of the written word, women were not afforded the same opportunities – be it education or possibility of publishing – the only themes they could explore were religious experience or maternity. Each new door has been cautiously opened. When Plath burst on the scene she kicked the figurative door wide open. And that is what a true artist does.






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