Both ‘You’re’ and ‘Morning Song’ capture the eagerness of the expectant mother with ‘Morning Song’ in particular displaying a fierce pride in the child and a sense of protectiveness. However, although motherhood can be viewed as a powerful, creative female force Plath does not always portray it as an unambiguously blessed state and in poems such as ‘The Manor Garden’ she fears the pain of childbirth and the awesome responsibility of rearing a human being with the attendant uncertainties about the future that this brings with it. At her least positive, for example in ‘Tulips’, Plath views her children as restraints or ‘hooks’ holding her back. Her final poem ‘Edge’ remains ambiguous and it is not clear whether she kills her children or protects them by reabsorbing them into her body.
Plath is, however, more forthright in her condemnation of daughterhood. Concentrating mostly as she does on her father the absence of mother figures from her poems is significant in itself but when mothers do appear they are often distant (as in ‘Edge’), cold, uncaring or treacherous. As with children and fathers, mothers can be stifling and restrictive too and at points in her poetry she chooses to cast off all elements of family in an attempt to find freedom.
Finally, Motherhood and pregnancy are also metaphors for literary creation and Plath seems to have view her ability to create poetry as linked to her ability to create life.
Plath focuses on two distinct roles for men in her poetry: men as fathers and men as husbands. Sometimes these are impotent and useless objects of scorn, as in ‘Lesbos’ while at other times they are brutally violent and threatening as, for example, in ‘Cut’ and ‘Daddy’. Even when Plath writes excitedly about the opposite sex as she does in ‘Pursuit’, there is still an undercurrent of violence and conquest perhaps reflecting Plath’s own tumultuous relationships. Fathers are worse still, revealed as suffocating, controlling figures, most notably in ‘Daddy’, sucking the life out of their children and ruining their lives. Plath’s occasional desire for these dominating father figures, for example in ‘Daddy’ where she makes a model of her father in order to marry him, reinforces the link between the opposite sex and violence established in poems like ‘Pursuit’ and implies a self-contradictory, disturbed psyche torn between two incompatible aspects of man.
Daddy, Little Fugue, Lesbos, The Applicant, Tulips, Pursuit, The Jailer, Purdah, The Rabbit Catcher, Full Fathom Five, Suicide off Egg Rock, The Hermit at Outermost House, Sheep in Fog, The Munich Mannequins, Mary’s Song
Life and Death
Although Plath clearly has a fascination for death she planned Ariel so that the first word in the collection was ‘Love’ and the last word ‘spring’, which suggests at least a partial thirst for life again, perhaps, revealing a contradictory and torn aspect to her personality. Her positive descriptions of flowers, which are often symbols of life, her pleasure at times with her children, the desire for rebirth and change in ‘Ariel’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ all reflect this hopeful element in her poetry and, indeed, in some of her bleakest poems such as ‘Tulips’ and ‘Stones’, the female personas eventually choose life over death. In Edge, the most obviously suicidal of the poems, death is not something to be sad about but, in a way, perfects the woman.
Nonetheless, Plath’s poems do predominately contain a yearning for a death or obliteration, even in circumstances that are not obviously intolerable, e.g. ‘Insomniac’ or ‘Poppies in July’ and it is impossible to deny that we should be concerned by the ambivalence she shows to living throughout her work. Possibly influenced by the threats of the Cold War and the recent spectre of the Holocaust, Plath views death sometimes unflinchingly and sometimes fatalistically: as an inevitability that is not to be solaced by the false consolations of religion.
Tulips, Ariel, Lady Lazarus, Stones, Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper, Spinster, The Hermit of Outermost House, Death & Co, Cut, Edge, Full Fathom Five, Suicide off Egg Rock, Insomniac, Poppies in July, Daddy, Mary’s Song, The Thin People, By Candlelight, The Bee Meeting, Maudlin, An Appearance, Elm, The Burnt-Out Spa, A Birthday Present, Water, Face Lift, Medallion, The Stones, The Manor Garden
Plath appears to be partly obsessed with the idea of a divided self, her college thesis was entitled ‘The Magic Mirror: The Dual in Dostoyevsky’ and this perhaps accounts for some of the contradictions present in her poetry. Characters or personae often embody aspects of both the passive and the active, the alive the and dead, the desire to be free with the need for restriction, and so on.
Frequently Plath depicts female personae who are in some way under attack but remain resolute and sometimes even angry in the face of obstacles. Plath’s concept of self is one defined by conflict which is created by the clash with (usually male) elements of control. In many ways, then, Plath is a subversive poet depicting the oppression of women and offering various new definitions of the female self formed through struggle. The sinister, menacing appearance of stereotypically ‘female’ items such as a fridge or a mirror, for example in ‘Mirror’ and ‘An Appearance’, or the ridiculing of acceptable female behaviour in ‘Lesbos’ attack the constrictive nature of the 1950s image of the happy housewife and imply that Plath was a woman struggling against the role that a patriarchal society had created for her.
Plath attacks the material values of modern Capitalist society, e.g. the superficiality of beauty in ‘Mirror’, and, as such, she frequently finds respite in nature, for example in ‘Poppies in October’, ‘Among the Narcissi’ and ‘Letter in November’.
However, this is not always the case as often speakers seem
to feel threatened by natural elements within their poems, as in ‘The Moon and
the Yew Tree’, ‘The Bee Meeting’ and ‘
Mirror, Poppies in October, Letter in November, Among the Narcissi, The Moon and the Yew Tree, The Bee Meeting, Wuthering Heights, Suicide off Egg Rock, Finisterre
Plath made extensive use of myths, folk tales and fairy stories in her poetry to give her work more resonance and deeper meaning. A clear example of this is the poem ‘Daddy’ which echoes the Greek myth of Electra and, thus, the Electra complex as defined by Freud. This theory of sexual development explains how young girls develop their first sexual urges for the fathers and feel a sense of competition with their mothers for the affections of that man.