Sylvia Plath’s poetry, as many researchers have pointed out, is strewn with pictures of the holocaust. The influence of her personal life on her poems is self-evident as many of her works are semi-autobiographical in nature.
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The influence of her father, Otto Plath, in her poetry is unmistakably clear (Butscher 3). Otto’s life and especially his death right before Sylvia’s eighth birthday left a profound imprint on her imagination and nurtured her style as a poet. The presentation and the poetics of torture so evident in Plath’s poetry, I believe, has stemmed from her personal life and her ancestry.
The connection between the private and the public that Plath so subtly made in her poetry has been critiqued handsomely in poetics research. Plath used her private live as a medium to make it a public show, where the personal dissolves completely, to form a ludicrous public show of the body (Butscher 11). Therefore, in this essay I will discuss Plath’s poems, Daddy and Lady Lazarus, where she uses death to recreate the self.
Both the poems are of confessional nature, are semi autobiographical, and meddle in the private life of the poet. The paper is arranged in three sections. First, it discusses the life and philosophy of Sylvia Plath. Second, the essay discusses the style of Plath’s works. Thirdly, it will discuss two of her poems that demonstrate a public show of the private life.
The first aim of the essay is to understand life of Sylvia Plath. She was an American born writer and poet of German origin. She was educated in America and then married the British poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and had two children. Her adult life was strewn with bouts of depression and her inclination to commit suicide.
She finally committed suicide in 1963. Plath gave birth to a new genre of poetry, which has been termed as confessional poetry. Both the poems discussed in the essay are confessional in nature with distinct features of the personal life of Plath being projected in the text.
The political and worldview of Plath must be mentioned in order to understand her poetry. Plath worldview was mostly influenced by postmodern philosophers like Nietzschean (Peel 42). Her political and worldview are intermingled not only her direct usage of political stance in her poems especially in Ariel but also demonstrates her fight with the “Other” in order to establish self-identity.
Many critics have viewed this fight as a personal and political battle that is distinctly her political view. The influence of the existentialist philosophy is also apparent in her search for self-identity through nullification of the other.
One of the biggest influences on Sylvia Plath’s poetry was Otto Plath, her father whose life must also be brought under the microscope to understand how far the influence of her father on her poems was, or were they actually a misinterpretation of too casual reading. Otto Plath was a German born in Polish Corridor. He then migrated to America in 1901 and settled in Boston with a teaching position at the Boston University (Butscher 6).
Plath’s mother, Aurelia, was an American of Austrian origin. Both of Plath’s parents grew up speaking German until the First World War when the surge of the patriotic Americans ended this (Travis 278). Both of Plath’s parents lived their adult life in America, especially during the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. He died of a gangrenous toe, and during the process of amputation, he died. These facts of Otto Plath’s life are distinctly suggested in the poem Daddy written in 1962:
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
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In the waters off beautiful Nauset. (Plath Line: 9-13)
Plath compares her father’s toe with that of a “Frisco seal” and describes it to be grey in color directly indicating to her own father’s gangrenous leg as well as to his German origin.
Therefore, in a strict play of the private incidents such as the death of her father with gangrene and his German lineage are presented in the poem to actually demonstrate Plath’s abhorrence for her ancestry and therefore making a public show of it. There are other distinct references of her father’s German origin in the poem as in stanza eight of the poem we find mention of manifestly Austrian particulars: “The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna / Are not very pure or true” (Line 36-37).
Germany and Austria are two nations that share a common language, but are distinct. More importantly, Otto Plath does not seem to have any connection with Austria and the relevance of the lines in Otto’s life becomes unclear, as they are not explained further in the poem.
Images of oppression and the holocaust are replete in the poem as Plath uses words and phrases to describe the destruction in Nazi Germany: swastikas, barbed wire, fascists, brutes, devils, and vampires. Though apparent reading of the poem with little thought into its inner meaning would suggest that Plath’s poem is a “runaway train barreling through one psychic nightmare after the other” (Platizky).
Plath’s forceful vindictiveness against the father relates as a paradoxical need to return to him: “get back, back, back to you” (Line 59). However, on closer reading proves to be a conscious attempt to recreate a space for self, creating an identity that breaks away from the psychological imprint the father has on the poet.
Clearly, the poet wants to disassociate herself from the memories of her father whom she still loves and misses. This can be seen as a process of creating a self-identity through repeated emphasis of the pronouns such as “I” or “my”. In a way Plath clearly demarcates the demonic imagery of the patriarchy through the description of the holocaust and creating an identity of self where the self is the victim – “I think I may well be a Jew” (Line 40) – of the autocratic patriarchy.
Therefore, according to Roger Platizky, the poem can be read as a “psychological victory of the self over the other” (106). In the end, by metaphorically killing the father, Plath successfully kills the memory of him and creates her independent self. The poem demonstrates the recreation of the self through the death of the father figure.
Lady Lazarus too is a holocaust poem. Death again forms an integral part of the poem as has been observed in Daddy. Death in Lady Lazarus is projected like an art that her torturer, Herr Doktor prevents.
The poem tells the story of a woman on whom the Nazi doctor was performing experimental medication to resurrect her from death. The image of the doctor is that of the Nazi dictator. Here too we get significant reference to “foot” and “Jew”. In a way, Plath identifies with art as a means of prostitution – a means of earning – and death as the way of reviving the self. Theresa Collins points out that Plath uses the holocaust imagery to present the “controller’/controlled” relationship (156).
Mathew Boswell studies both the poems and writes that in both these poems Plath uses the imagery of the holocaust to describe the torture being inflicted on the narrators and it was through death (55). Lady Lazarus is a means of representation of the cannibalistic attitude of the Nazis thorough the strip shows that Lady Lazarus performs and her suicide in the end is a victory over the patriarchal control over the female flesh.
The speaker of Daddy internalizes the process of being a victim while externalizing her heritage. The speaker assumes a Jewish identity though there is mention of the mother in the poem. The poem initially sets to show the narrator as the victim of the torturous nature of the father figure and metaphorically compares him to the Nazis. The imagery of the holocaust sets the clear image of a torturous father in the mind of the readers.
The narrator takes the position of the victim in this poem, as was seen in case of Lady Lazarus, and talks of the overbearing figure of her father whose presence was crushing her identity. Therefore, there is a clear attempt to segregate the torturer from the victim with persistent repetition of the ‘you’ that recurs in the rhyme scheme of the poem. The narrator addresses Daddy, as the narrator calls to him, while she emphasizes on their separateness (Travis 278). There is no “we” in the poem it deals in only “you” and “I”.
Creation of a separate identity, of the self in the two poems is clearly demonstrated through the metaphor of death. Plath wrote both the poems just a few months before she committed suicide, and therefore, the idea of death was used a trope to show that the independent self can only be created by killing either the self or the other. Death becomes the main theme in both these poem through which one realizes the true self-identity.
Boswell, Matthew. “‘Black Phones’: Postmodern Poetics in the Holocaust Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” Critical Survey, vol. 20 no 2 (2008): 53-64. Print.
Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tuscan, AZ: Schaffner Press, 2003. Print.
Collins, Theresa. “Plath’s Lady Lazarus.” Explicator vol. 56 no. 3 (1998): 156-158. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. Daddy. 12 October 1962. Web. <https://www.internal.org/Sylvia_Plath/Daddy>.
Platizky, Roger. “Plath’s Daddy.” Explicator (1997): 105-107. Print.
Travis, Isabella. “‘I have always been scared of You’: Sylvia Plath, perpetrator trauma and threatening victims.” European Journal of American Culture, vol. 28 no. 3 (2009): 277-293. Print.