A Life by Sylvia Plath

Posted by M ws On Wednesday, August 10, 2011 4 comments
Born on October 27, 1932 in Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. She studied at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge before receiving acclaim as a professional poet and writer. In 1956, She married fellow poet Ted Hughes and they lived together first in the United States and then England, having two children together: Frieda and Nicholas. Following a long struggle with depression and a marital separation, Plath committed suicide in 1963 by sticking her head in the oven. She was 30. Controversy continues to surround the events of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy.



The genre of confessional poetry is credited to Plath who is best known for her two collections The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In 1982, she became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously, for The Collected Poems. She also wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death. I have that book stashed somewhere in my study and have to read it again to fully appreciate Plath, one of my favorite poets together with Frost, Kipling, Wordsworth and Maya Angelou.

This poem, 'A Life', was written the same year she gave birth to her daughter. If you read her biography, you'll find that she was fearful of the future and old age. This is why she attempted suicide many times. She was a child prodigy, but she slid into deep depression and even attempted suicide when she got her first B in college. She finally succeeded when she put her head in that oven. Much as I find it quite painful to read her poems, there is somewhat a cathartic effect when I think about the words she uses. And then, I cannot help but be gripped by the magnitude of her pain that was brimming over - yet in silence and suffering.

I think Plath is talking about her time in a mental institution following her first suicide attempt in 'A Life'.

At the beginning of the poem, Plath is staring at the painting. She envies the life portrayed in the painting because it is so easily controlled "at their feet the waves bow in single file" and this detached way of living appeals to her - to be able to be content without thinking. Is that possible?

And then the contrast is slowly introduced. The element of loneliness and alienation creeps in slowly in stanza two with the use of onomatopoeia.

The other stanzas have a matter-of-fact tone and yet with such imagery that I do wonder about the significance of each. The diction, style and tone that she exudes is effortless, merging into one voice that can be Plath's alone.

However, by the end of the poem, we can see that the painting takes on a more dolorous tone. Slowly, the events portrayed in paint change direction and tone. The man coming out of the sea is "drowned", the seagull is "grey" and this is how she feels about her own future. Most depressing indeed. Could it be her mind was searching for the true love which has eluded her?

This stanza reeks of her deep grief and debilitating sense of loneliness:

A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle
About a bald hospital saucer.
It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper
And appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg.
She lives quietly

Such resigned loneliness - almost fatalistic in nature.

And the next part reveals how she feels trapped within...The use of 'no attachments' (sans umbilical chord?) and the simile of 'like a foetus in a bottle' reeks of death...The dimensions of her pain are amplified with the 'one too many dimensions' reference and how even though exorcised, she still withers away in her loneliness.

With no attachments, like a foetus in a bottle,
The obsolete house, the sea, flattened to a picture
She has one too many dimensions to enter.
Grief and anger, exorcised,
Leave her alone now.

Many of her struggles were to do with the idea of rebirth, and in the beginning of the poem, the alternate life within the picture seems like a rebirth for her, but by the end, you can see that she realizes that the same problems that followed her in one life, will translate to the next. So much sadness, so much grief...such a deep sense of resigned hopelessness...

The last stanza implies her fear of the future.She is internalizing her own struggles and perhaps projecting them unto the characters. The painting is a mirror of her soul, her demons, her fears, her past, her future, her life.

It is heart wrenching to read Plath. :-(  As such, I am not going to do a detailed analysis of this poem. Too depressing and yet, somehow, some of her thoughts mirror how I feel...Here it is - Plath's 'A Life'. Do leave a comment to share your thoughts. Have a restful evening.


A Life by Sylvia Plath

Touch it: it won't shrink like an eyeball,
This egg-shaped bailiwick, clear as a tear.
Here's yesterday, last year ---
Palm-spear and lily distinct as flora in the vast
Windless thread work of a tapestry.

Flick the glass with your fingernail:
It will ping like a Chinese chime in the slightest air stir
Though nobody in there looks up or bothers to answer.
The inhabitants are light as cork,
Every one of them permanently busy.

At their feet, the sea waves bow in single file.
Never trespassing in bad temper:
Stalling in midair,
Short-reined, pawing like parade ground horses.
Overhead, the clouds sit tasseled and fancy

As Victorian cushions. This family
Of valentine faces might please a collector:
They ring true, like good china.

Elsewhere the landscape is more frank.
The light falls without letup, blindingly.

A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle
About a bald hospital saucer.
It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper
And appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg.
She lives quietly

With no attachments, like a foetus in a bottle,
The obsolete house, the sea, flattened to a picture
She has one too many dimensions to enter.
Grief and anger, exorcised,
Leave her alone now.

The future is a grey seagull
Tattling in its cat-voice of departure.
Age and terror, like nurses, attend her,
And a drowned man, complaining of the great cold,
Crawls up out of the sea.

-written by Sylvia Plath-

4 comments to A Life by Sylvia Plath

  1. says:

    A Touch of Humour I think the description you have used - "heart wrenching", is most apt. It's how I feel every time I read about Sylvia Plath and her works. She was talented and gifted and I believe these were the very qualities that also caused her grief.

  1. says:

    masterwordsmith Dear A Touch of Humor

    Thanks so much for your heartfelt comment which means a lot to me. I was quite saddened that this post did not get any response because I simply love Plath's works. I agree with what you have shared and indeed, her giftings were the beginning of her undoing! Take care and do keep in touch!

    Have a wonderful week ahead!

    Cheers

  1. says:

    bayi I feel sad and excited every time I pick up my copy of Sylvia Plath's works. Sad because it's "heart wrenching" to feel what she felt. Excited because she was such a good writer and poet that her works awaken something in me every time I read them.

    Like you, masterwordsmith, I find few people interested in Sylvia Plath's works or if they do, they must be so sad that their sadness has silenced them! :)

    I keep a copy of Sylvia Plath's works close to me for reading every now and then. This is one of the ways I love spending my time.

  1. says:

    masterwordsmith Dear Bayi

    Thanks so much for your moving comment. My heart is greatly warmed knowing that I am not alone in the way I respond to Plath's beautiful and yet heart wrenching poetry. She remains an enigma to me.

    You are right. Poetry evokes different emotions in us depending on when we read them.

    I can't imagine life without poetry. Am very happy to know that we share the same perspective of Plath and poetry.

    Take care and do keep in touch.

    Best wishes

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