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In times of difficulties or stress, individuals look for a way to relieve themselves of their burdens by engaging their thoughts in some other activities. Whether it consists of talking to someone about their problems or completely ignoring them, these burdens may still actually become heavier over time and could become too much to bear. Sylvia Plath's way of coping with grief in her life consisted of writing poetry but over time, this would not suffice and that is why she ended her life.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932, Sylvia Plath was the first of two children to Otto and Sylvia Plath. Otto was a biology professor and an entomologist at Boston University; His specialty was in studying bees. Plath's family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, as Otto's health was deteriorating. Plath led a happy life until her father's death when she was only eight years old. Otto Plath died on November 5th due to complications arising from the amputation of a leg because of diabetes. He had become ill shortly after a close friend had died of lung cancer. Comparing his symptoms to his friend's, Otto believed that he, too, suffered from lung cancer and searched for help after it was too late. He plays a very important role in Plath's famous poems such as "Daddy" and "The Colossus." Otto's death left her daughter in grief and despair and his death would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Despite of such difficult times during her childhood, Plath excelled in school due to her academic and writing skills. At the age of eight and a half, her first poem was published in the Boston Sunday Herald. Until 1942, Plath had lived in Winthrop along with her mother and Warren, her younger brother, but now Aurelia decided to move to Wellesley. Due to her academic excellence, Plath earned a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton in September of 1950. In 1952, she won a fictional writing contest for Mademoiselle and earned a guest editorship for the magazine. Her experiences in New York City were disheartening and induced a serious mental breakdown which caused her to attempt suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills and crawling under her house. She survived and was sent to a rehabilitation center until February of 1953 when she returned to Smith College to graduate summa cum laude. Plath earned the Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University in England where she met Ted Hughes, her future husband. They were married in June 1956 and moved to United States where they began teaching. At a poetry course given by Robert Lowell, Plath met the American poet Anne Sexton; they both encouraged her to write about personal issues. As her poetry developed, it became more and more private. Frieda, her first child, was born in 1960 and her son, Nicholas, was born two years later. Her second pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage; this issue is addressed in many of her poems. In 1961, the family moved to Devon and lived a happy life. Her first volume of poems, The Colossus, was praised by many critics but they also suggested that she develop more of a personal voice. Plath succeeded in discovering her natural voice after she wrote "Three Women," a radio play.
In the beginning, Plath's marriage seemed to be working but after Frieda's birth, their relationship began to disintegrate. Plath finds out about Ted Hughes' affair with Assia Wevill and his infidelity leaves their marriage in ruins. This experience inspired much of Plath's famous poetry; she turned to writing more poems in order to cope with yet another breakdown. Left alone with her two children, Plath moved to a small apartment in London during the coldest winter in years. Desperately trying to escape reality, Plath began crafting several poems a day but soon she would not be able to hold the heavy burden.
On February 11, 1963, Plath left two mugs of milk and buttered bread by her little children, sealed the kitchen doors with wet towels and cloths, and gassed herself with carbon monoxide from the oven. She was found dead when Susan O'Neill Roe, a nurse who helped Plath take care of her children while she wrote poetry, was unable to enter the apartment upon her arrival.
Sylvia Plath's life was filled with loss and grief. Since her childhood, she lost her father, her husband, and her sense of motherhood. These burdens were too heavy to bear and she frantically tried to cope with them through her poetry. When that was not enough, she turned for Death for help. Through "Child," "Words," and "Edge," it is evident that Sylvia Plath's depression was caused by the discovery of her husband's infidelity, inspiring her to create her most well-known poems.
In "Child," Plath reveals her troublous times during her depression. The poem is told from a mother's perspective; we can assume it is Plath describing her child because we know her background. The title hints that the poem is a message to the child. The mother feels guilty for not being able to take proper care of her child and thus, gives a justification through this poem. The reason Plath writes these poems to her child is because she wants it to understand why she left. This poem is a way for her to communicate with them. It is interesting that Plath chose to write poems to her children instead of letters like many others would do.
The mother finds the child's eye to be the most beautiful thing and she wants to add more colors to it by giving the child all the happiness of the world. The narrator describes the eye to be "clear" because the child has not had any experiences yet; the child is pure and without any imperfections. Because it is not involved in the world's affairs, the child is able to "meditate" in peace; meditation is difficult because it is hard to clear one's minds of all thoughts. Plath might be jealous because the child is living peacefully while she cannot even sleep properly at night due to depression. The mother wants the child to experience things like "the zoo of the new." Plath uses the metaphor of a zoo because children usually enjoy watching animals and it could be a very memorable experience for them. Since this is dedicated to her child, Plath did not include the zoo because the animals are trapped and confined; she just wants her child to have what it deserves. The child is still very young because it is a "stalk without wrinkles." The mother believes the child deserves to see images that are "grand and classical" but goes on to say that she is unable to provide it with the happiness. Instead, she is giving a "troublous wringing of hands" which is obviously out of frustration towards her husband. The word "wringing" defines the tone of the poem as it explains how Plath was lost in thoughts that she accidently hurts her child. When people are stressed, they tend to indulge in thoughts that may cause even more harm. In Plath's case, she constantly thinks of her husband and unknowingly becomes ignorant of her child; these thoughts haunt her and make her unable to take proper care for her child.
The poem has no basic pattern and is written in free verse. The structure relates to the "troublous wringing" because the poem is disorganized; the lines are not justified and the lengths are not equal. It seems like the mother desperately wanted to explain her situation because the poem consists of only two sentences. Again, the structure is "troublous" because she just wanted to quickly justify her actions. When someone withholds a thought for a long time and is allowed to share it with others, the person most often would randomly blurt out things with no sense of structure or flow. This poem is similar in the sense that the structure reveals how frustrated Plath had become. Because Plath does not explain the reasons for her frustration in this poem, we can predict that she will write more poems explaining her situation. She goes on to do just that.
In "Words," Plath describes the long-lasting effects of words and how pernicious and wounding they could be. The topic of the poem is only stated once in the title and remains unmentioned in the entire poem. The first stanza of the poem describes what the problem is and how effective they are. Plath uses the metaphor of the sound of an axe in the woods to describe the echoing effects of words on a person. At first glance, it is unclear why Plath uses "Axes" to describe words but after reading it multiple times, the reader can understand the main purpose of the poem. This poem is intended to be for people that do not generally think before they speak. In an indirect way, it seems as if it is referring to Ted Hughes. As the wood "rings" after a stroke of the axe, the words ring in one's ears and this jarring sound causes a lot of mental disturbance. Just as echoes can be heard after the axe is struck, the echoes that the words leave behind last for a long time. These sounds could affect a person so much that they could constantly ring in the ears and may cause them to lose control. The words that Plath talks about could refer to the words about her husband's infidelity; they caused such an effect that the echoes never die out because they are like "horses" that keep running for a long time without getting tired.
The second stanza of the poem describes of the way to handle grief. In order to cope with these words, "the sap wells like tears." Plath indirectly reveals that her emotions were so stirred that she resorted to crying like the sap that runs from the trees while they are being cut. Tears are like water trying "to re-establish its mirror" by letting out their emotions. A "mirror" let one see one's reflection so the water is trying to go back to what it truly is. Similarly, letting out one's emotions helps one go back to being their true self and reflect who they truly are. Tears are a way to cope with grief because no matter how sad a person might be, tears will almost always make the burden much lighter to bear. Because we know Plath's history, we know that even tears did not help her find peace because she had to resort to death as the final and only option.
The last two stanzas of the poem describe how one can learn to adapt to their circumstances and ignore their grief. Time heals everything and life becomes much simpler later on. In certain situations, it may seem impossible to escape from the pain but as time goes by, situations become much easier to deal with. Just as weeds grow by something which has been left unattended, words will be "eaten by weedy greens" as time will pass by. These words may be overused and the person learns to adapt to them; the echoes eventually die out even though it make take a long time to do so. As time does the healing, when a person hears the same words later on, they realize that the words that had once caused them so much grief are now "dry and riderless." The hoof-taps that showed unflagging vitality have now come to a stop because time did the healing. The narrator of the poem realizes that certain experiences are meant to happen because "fixed stars govern a life." Only fate can decide what will happen and there is no way to change its course. The irony behind this poem is that even though Plath realizes that time can heal everything, she gives up in her life and does not allow time do its magic. If she had let time heal the scars in her life, she could have been able to keep moving forward by learning to forget her past. This explains that tears and time cannot always be sufficient enough to wounds to fade away.
In "Edge," Plath foreshadows her death because this was the last poem she wrote before killing herself. According to her, the only way left to deal with her problems was by turning to Death. The title suggests that it is the end of the world and there is nowhere left to go; she is stuck; there is only one thing left to do - plunge. She has now given up in her battles and is exhausted from this long fight. It is ironic that "her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment" because she was unable to win in her battles over self-identity. She seems to be smiling because she is resolved in her decision. This is a poem of defeat. Her struggle was a long one and she can no longer continue on. Plath compares herself to "bare feet" that are saying "We have come so far, it is over" because her struggle to continue on was not successful. She has been through a lot in her life since her childhood and now is the time to give up; now is the time to lie down and rest. She fought hard for her husband but there was no point in continuing on as it is the "fixed stars that govern a life." No one can change their fate even by putting in a lot of effort into it. Although she did not literally kill her children along with her, Plath states that she is leaving with her children because "each dead child [is] coiled..one at each little pitcher of milk." Plath wants to take her children with her because they mean a lot to her. As the mother is going to die, her children will also die with her since she will not be there to provide "pitchers of milk." She tucks in her children as "petals of a rose close when the garden stiffens." Clearly, she adores her children because they are beautiful and fragile like rose petals but there is no other alternative besides death ("Edge Analysis"). Death is inevitable but Plath took this too seriously and justified that she could commit suicide right now since she was to die later on anyways. It would not make a difference if she died right now or later and that is why "the moon has nothing to be sad about." The "moon" could refer to death or Assia Wevill, Hughes' mistress. Because of her beauty, Assia had put other marriages in jeopardy and that is why Plath believes that "she is used to this sort of thing." She compares Assia to a witch in black clothes since she was evil enough to break up someone else's marriage.
The structure of this poem is not properly organized. It is written in free verse and each stanza consists of two lines. The poem itself is quite short and this could show her exhaustion from the long battle for her husband; because she is tired, she cannot say much at a time. She has put down her weapons and has finally "folded."
Understanding Sylvia Plath's poetry was quite difficult. Without any references, it would be very difficult to understand what she is writing about but after the research about her life, her poetry became much simpler to understand. She listened to Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton's advice by developing more of a personal and private voice. Although this makes it difficult for the readers to understand them, her natural voice illuminates the meaning of her poetry. I decided to pick poems from the end of her life to show how much her husband meant to her and how devastated and lonely she had become when he left her. Through these poems, we can clearly see how her husband's infidelity affected her mental state and also her poetry. It was this loss that led her to depression and, eventually, to death.
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