interactive learning Home  |  Add to Favourites  |  Feedback  |  Help
time for skoool
Print page Print page
 exam centre - leaving cert   « back 

Relevant BackgroundThemesPoetic Techiques | Imagery

Sylvia Plath [1932-1963]

Relevant Background

  • Sylvia Plath was born in Boston USA. She grew up in a well-off middle class home on the coast.
  • Sylvia's early years were influenced by the living near the ocean. ‘I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own.’
  • Her experiences of family life caused her to feel inner conflicts and pain.
  • Her father Otto died when she was eight. His Polish-German origins and unnecessary early death from a leg problem troubled her later in life. In addition, depression was widespread in her father’s family.
  • Due to her mother’s influence, Sylvia tried to live up to an old fashioned feminine ideal of perfection and purity. While keeping up this front as an adult, Sylvia rebelled against the conservative role she was expected to play. The consequent inner conflicts are revealed in her poetry and letters.
  • Plath hid her lack of confidence behind a mask of strident energy and brilliant achievement. Though she was an outstanding student, Plath never fulfilled the very high expectations she set for herself. She experienced self-doubt and depression. However, to the world she presented a carefree, offhand attitude. She pushed herself relentlessly at work.
  • Much of Plath’s poetry reveals her struggle against herself and the world.
  • Plath suffered a nervous breakdown in Smith College, Boston, after intense overwork in 1953. She was given bi-polar electro-convulsive shock treatments; a horror alluded to in the poem ‘Elm’ of 1962. This treatment further damaged her sanity, and she attempted suicide. Six months in a private hospital set her on her feet again, but she never fully recovered. Depression and the threat of insanity remained a problem. 
  • Plath also went to university in Cambridge, England after she won a  scholarship in 1955. 
  • Her writings outside the syllabus showed she was angry about double-standard behaviour in society. Plath claimed for herself the right to as much sexual freedom as men had in the repressed and smug 1950s society. She declared she was in favour both an erotic and intellectual lifestyle.
  • When she met Ted Hughes, a Cambridge poet, she felt that life with him would be ideal in a physical and aesthetic sense. The two were married in London on Bloomsday 16 June 1956.
  • Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes returned to Boston in 1957. Sylvia worked for one unhappy year as a lecturer in the cold arid atmosphere of Smith College. Despite her self-criticism, others regarded her as a successful teacher.
  • For a while after her marriage, Sylvia focused so much Hughes’ poetic work that she found it difficult to develop her own poetry. She was recognised for being the wife of Hughes rather than for her own poetry. During this early part of her marriage, she wrote such poems as the satirical ‘The Times are Tidy’ and the philosophical  ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’.
  • Sylvia was beginning to have doubts about Hughes’ love for her. She needed constantly to be reassured.
  • Sylvia turned to part-time work as a secretary in a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts, copying out patients' histories, which often included dreams. She also secretly resumed therapy with the woman psychiatrist who had helped her after her earlier breakdown in 1953. This influenced her poetic writing. 
  • At this time, 1959, Plath and Hughes concentrated intensely on helping each other’s poetic writing.
  • Plath’s poetry became more confessional in style after she attended a seminar run by the American poet Robert Lowell.
  • From 1959, her poetry began to evoke her intensifying mental illness.
  • Under Hughes’ influence, they moved to England in December 1959 at a time when Sylvia was writing good poetry—she had written the material for The Colossus and Other Poems which she got published in October 1960 in England. This book was well received.
  • When they left Boston Sylvia was five months pregnant with her first child, Frieda. During her pregnancy with Frieda in 1960, Plath devoted much physical energy to home making in her London flat. Privately, she felt fatigued and barely able to keep on living. She was reluctant to reveal her distress.
  • Plath’s writing became both an escape and a burden.
  • In February 1961 a new pregnancy ended in a miscarriage that left Sylvia feeling depressed. At this time she wrote the poem ‘Morning Song’.
  • Plath and her husband moved to a medieval farmhouse in Devon, in the South of England, in the autumn of 1961. At that time she composed ‘Finisterre’, based on a memory of a holiday in France and ‘Mirror’.
  • Personal jealousies, differences between British and American views of gender roles, rural isolation and a return of Sylvia's depression created complications in her marriage.
  • After her son Nicholas's birth in January 1962, Plath began to realise Hughes was unfaithful; she expressed herself through increasingly angry—and powerful—poems. It was during the following April that Plath wrote  ‘Pheasant’ in opposition to her husband’s game shooting and ‘Elm’, which dealt with his infidelity and other subjects.
  • In June 1962 Plath started beekeeping and was briefly overjoyed with it. Her father had been a beekeeper and had written two books about bees. In July 1962, Sylvia confirmed Ted's affair. That month she began ‘Poppies in July’.
  • Sylvia and Ted separated in October 1962 despite sharing a visit to Ireland that September where they met a number of prominent Irish poets.
  • Consequently, Plath became very depressed and became addicted to sleeping pills
  • In the following month of October 1962, Plath wrote at least 26 of the Ariel poems. She wrote about her beekeeping in the poem ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. That poem referred to her brief time as a beekeeper but was also an expression of her unhappy inner thoughts and feelings.
  • The magazines to which she sent many of these poems refused them, adding further to her depression.
  • Caring for her children and friendships with other women became increasingly important to Plath.
  • In December 1962, Sylvia Plath left Devon, took the children with her to London and moved into an apartment once occupied by WB Yeats.
  • As Plath tried to make a new life for herself, very bad winter weather added to her depression. She hated being without a telephone, had bouts of illness and had the hassle of caring for her two infants.
  • As she became increasingly depressed, she composed the poem ‘Child’ in January 1963.
  • She committed suicide by sleeping pills and gas inhalation on 11 February 1963.
  • Most of the poems dealing with her mental trauma were published after her suicide in 1963 in the volumes Ariel, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees.
    These comments shed further light on the Plath:
  • She was a bright, intelligent, and determined young woman with a need to succeed; she had a burning desire to write.
  • She dreamed of the comfort of a home of her own where she could belong and be loved for herself.
  • She worked very hard, pushing herself relentlessly, whether in her studies, her teaching, in her relationships or her writing.
  • In its blend of amusing self-criticism and potent rage, her work anticipated the feminist writing that appeared in the later 1960s and the 1970s. But her work also transcended feminism.
  • Her work often reveals a harsh, demonic, devastating inner-self.
  • Plath was a self-revealing poet, but do not ignore her craft. Don’t pay too  much attention to her personal history or legend while you ignore her art.


1. Plath struggles against herself and the world.
Select from these examples to illustrate conflict in Plath’s poetry. Plath struggles against her inner and external worlds.
She fears emotional exhaustion:
‘Fear of total neutrality… this season of fatigue’ [Black Rook]
She railed at the smug conformity of contemporary culture:
‘Unlucky the hero born in this province of the stuck record’ [Times Tidy]
She is troubled by human frailty and vulnerability:
‘Your nakedness shadows our safety’ [Morning Song]

 She protests against the futility of history and war:
‘Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars’ [Finisterre]

She battles against a negative self-image:
‘An old woman rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish’ [Mirror]

She is embarrassed by her unwitting intrusion into a natural scene:
‘I trespass stupidly’ [Pheasant]

She is shocked by her powerful, violent and uncontrolled subconscious:
‘A wind of such violence will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek’ [Elm]

She battles against inner demons:
‘I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me’ [Elm]

She fights and surrenders to mental exhaustion:
‘I am incapable of more knowledge’ [Elm]

She is numbed by her failed relationship:
‘I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns’ [Poppies]

She battles against her deep fears:
‘The box is locked, it is dangerous I have to live with it overnight’ [Beebox]

She tries to fight off her neurosis so she can be a mother:
‘This troublous wringing of hands’ [Child]

2. Plath’s poetry depicts her quest for poetic inspiration and vision:
In her early poems, like ‘Black Rook’, Plath sees inspiration as transcendent, something that would announce itself to her from the external world. Plath’s language implies that she awaits a visitation of beauty, like the Annunciation by the angel in the Bible. Plath longs for an occasional ‘portent’ or ‘back talk from the mute sky’. She doesn’t believe in religious epiphany; but she uses Christian language as an analogy to convey her longing. Her longing is for even brief moments of revelation from things, nature or the universe: 
‘As if a celestial burning took possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—Thus hallowing an interval otherwise inconsequent’.
Throughout the poem ‘Black Rook’, Plath uses ‘fire’ and associated words as an analogy for poetic inspiration or vision. See the extended note on this point in Imagery below.
In ‘Black Rook’, Plath is resigned to the fact that inspiration involves a ‘long wait’. The euphoria of inspiration is ‘rare, random’ and brief.

By the time Plath Wrote ‘Finisterre’ four years later, she had ceased to seek or discern enlightenment or any transcendent reality in nature and the universe: 
‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked … 
does not hear what the sailor or the peasant is saying –
She is in love with the beautiful formlessness of the sea’ [Finisterre] . 
Instead, she discerns:
‘Black admonitory cliffs’ and ‘Souls, rolled in the doom-noise of the sea’.
Plath’s perception of the world is therefore very bleak.

In the poem ‘Mirror’, the poet’s quest for beauty and vision has turned inwards. She gazes inwards towards the self. She seeks despairingly for enlightenment through self-examination. What she finds appals her:
‘A woman bends over me, searching my reaches for what she really is… tears and an agitation of hands’. 

In ‘Pheasant’, Plath declares her atheistic stance: 
‘I am not mystical. It isn't
As if I thought it had a spirit. It is simply in its element.’
However, Plath shows that not all her poems are bleak. She experiences the aesthetic beauty of nature. She enjoys the beauty of a natural creature in its environment: 
‘It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud, 
Settles in the elm, and is easy.’

In ‘Elm’ Plath probes her subconscious, and states she is saturated with self-knowledge. Plath experiences harrowing visions within the inner self. Plath invents a demon in her subconscious that gives her a very self-destructive vision:
‘I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?—
Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.’ [Elm]

In ‘Poppies in July’, Plath seems so emotionally exhausted that she has given up the rational pursuit of the truth or any kind of vision. She longs for drugged relief, for a ‘colourless’ state:
‘Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules’.

In ‘Child’ Plath has lost the capacity to find beauty for herself:
‘this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star’
But she feels a desire to provide visions of wonder and beauty for her infant’s eye:
‘I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new’ [Child]

3. Plath explores her own depression.
Plath is exhausted and aimless:
‘not seek any more in the desultory weather some design…
this season of fatigue’ [Black Rook]

Plath predicts her own fading away, destruction or ‘effacement’:
‘I'm no more your mother than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind's hand’ [Morning Song]

Plath uses a bleak landscape to portray her own despair:
‘This was the land's end: the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic,
Cramped on nothing. Black
Admonitory cliffs, and the sea exploding
With no bottom, or anything on the other side of it,
Whitened by the faces of the drowned.
Now it is only gloomy, a dump of rocks…
Bay of the Dead’ [Finisterre]

Plath reveals intense grief:
 ‘When they free me, I am beaded with tears’ [Finisterre]

Plath confesses her deep anguish:
‘She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands’ [Mirror]

Plath is very self-critical:
‘I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.’ [Pheasant]

Plath’s fears becomes ever more nightmarish:
‘I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me’ [Elm]
Plath reveals that she is inflicting suffering on herself: 
‘Is it for such I agitate my heart’ [Elm] 

Plath confesses the traumatic effect of electric-convulsive treatment:
‘I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires’ [Elm] 

Plath confesses that isolation and lack of love haunt her: 
‘I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love’ [Elm]

Plath reveals that she is becoming powerless to deal with her illness:
‘Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will’ [Elm]

Plath has moments when she longs to escape her mind through drugs: ‘Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule, dulling and stilling’ [Poppies]

Plath also experiences anger and fear at her condition, comparing her inner demons to a new consignment of bees:
‘It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.’ [Beebox]

Plath reveals her mental torture two weeks before her suicide:
‘this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star’ [Child]

4. Plath explores aspects of childhood and childhood imagination:
‘the talking cat’ [Times Tidy]

Newness and vulnerability:
‘New statue in a drafty museum’ [Morning Song]

The sense of wonder: 
‘Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new…
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical’ [Child]

5. Plath conveys her negative views of heroism, war and shooting:
No modern heroes:
‘History's beaten the hazard’ [Times Tidy]
Surviving soldiers are victims, not heroes:
‘Left over soldiers from old, messy wars’  [Finisterre] 

Plath implies her husband is a villain for wanting to shoot the pheasant:
‘ You said you would kill it this morning. Do not kill it.’ [Pheasant]

 6. Plath depicts nature, often using it as a poetic device to reflect her own emotional and mental state:
The Rook represents ordinary nature, as it imposes order on itself:
‘On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain’ [Black Rook].

The lizard implies a dragon and the imagination, the cow conformity:
‘the lizard, himself withered…the cow milks cream an inch thick’ [Times] . 

The temporary cloud stands for a weeping Plath:
‘the cloud that distils a mirror’ [Morning Song].

The bleak, rocky landscape denotes Plath’s unhappy and rugged soul:
‘Black admonitory cliffs, and the sea exploding
With no bottom… the cliffs are edged with trefoils, stars and bells’ [Finisterre]

The pheasant stands for innocent and beautiful nature:
‘It is simply in its element … 
It's a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud’ [Pheasant] 

The elm represents the troubled inner self of Plath:
‘What is this, this face so murderous in its strangle of branches?’ [Elm]

The bees represent the inner demons of Plath:
‘It is dark, dark,  
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering’ [Beebox]

Poetic Techniques

Plath's work has a mixture of comic and serious elements; it combines various types of rhymes and half rhymes in structured and free verse. At times Plath’s persona is curt. Her poems are graphically morbid, hallucinatory in their imagery, but full of ironic wit, technical brilliance, and tremendous emotional power.
She is known for her controlled stanzas, heavy with assonance and consonance, her elaborate syntax with its inversions and subordinate clauses, her ingenious metaphors.
There are many detailed examples of the poetic techniques used by Plath illustrated in Arrival of the Beebox and Child on the Ordinary Level English web pages.

Sound Effects
The colour coding for sound repetition is as follows:
is the repetition of first letters
is repetition of vowel sounds.
Internal Rhyme or Cross Rhyme or Conventional (end of line) Rhyme
Internal Rhyme is a word or sound rhyming within a line
Cross Rhyme is a word or sound rhyming across two or more lines
Consonance, including sibilance [or sibilant sounds].
Consonance is repetition of consonant sounds. Sibilance is repetition of ‘s’ sounds
Consonance, Cross Rhyme and Internal Rhyme may incorporate Alliteration and Assonance.
Try to add your own further examples to those below.
If you refer to these techniques when answering on a poet, state their purpose in re-enforcing meaning or creating the language construct that a poem is. Present them as evidence of the poet’s craft. Always argue that the verbal music or sound effects add to the lyrical quality of the images and make the poem an impressive piece of art.

The following are sample analyses that you should try to repeat on other poems, especially if you have not studied the poems analysed:
Note the harsh sound effects, cacophony, achieved in the opening of ‘Finisterre’:
‘the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic,
Cramped on nothing. Black
Admonitory cliffs…’
The six ‘k’ sounds and the four ‘r’ sounds create the harsh effects. Other consonant sounds like ‘mped’, ‘n n’, ‘ng bl’, ‘dm’ and ‘ff’ reinforce the dissonant noise here. The discord in the sound technique here mirrors the ugly personification of the rocks.

The sound effects in the second stanza of ‘Finisterre’ are a mixture of sharp and mournful sounds. The lamenting effect is achieved by the use of long ‘e’ sounds, the various long ‘i’ sounds, the long ‘o’ sounds and the ‘u’ sounds. Sharp and unpleasant effects are achieved with the short ‘e’ sound found in the word ‘death’. This sound occurs particularly in the first and sixth lines. The spelling of these consonant sounds varies and is not a reliable guide. You have to use your ear to catch the verbal music effects. Select part of this stanza to illustrate mournful musical effects, especially the fifth and sixth lines.

‘The cliffs are edged with trefoils, stars and bells
Such as fingers might embroider, close to death,
Almost too small for the mists to bother with.
The mists are part of the ancient paraphernalia ---
Souls, rolled in the doom-noise of the sea.
They bruise the rocks out of existence, then resurrect them.
They go up without hope, like sighs.
I walk among them, and they stuff my mouth with cotton.
When they free me, I am beaded with tears’.

Note the cross-rhyme involving ‘mists’ above and the ugly ‘udge’ sound below. Meaning is also reinforced by the assonantal ‘ea’ in the next example. The ‘n’ sound achieves consonance, echoing the impact of the waves:
‘The sea cannons into their ear, but they don't budge.
Other rocks hide their grudges under the water’.

Note the examples of assonance in ‘Morning Song’. Note the short ‘e’, the long ‘i’, the short ‘a’ and the long ‘a’ and the ‘u’ sounds. Note also the cross-rhyme of ‘our’. These repeating sounds capture the emotion of the adults and the cry of the newborn:
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls’.

Another type of repetition particular to Plath is the way some poems end with a repetition, an internal rhyme:
‘These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill [Elm]
Let be, let be’ [Pheasant]
‘But colourless. Colourless’ [Poppies]

Line rhyme supports meaning in many of Plath’s poems. Some of her poems are in free verse and therefore lack rhyme pattern.
Read the notes about rhyme inArrival of the Beebox andChild on the Ordinary Level English web page. There rhyme is clearly connected to meaning.

In ‘Black Rook’ there is a regular recurring line rhyme. In each of the eight stanzas, the pattern is as follows: r, k, n, l, nt . Thus, while there isn’t line rhyme within the stanzas, the apparently random pattern of the first stanza is replicated exactly in the other seven stanzas. This may connect to one theme of the poem by suggesting that the present is chaotic, but that there may be ‘some design' overall that will eventually become obvious.
In ‘The Times are Tidy’, there is also an uneasy pattern, not fully in accord with the key word of the title. The second and fifth lines of each of the three stanzas rhyme. The line endings of the second stanza are a faint and imperfect image of the first stanza: rn, rd, ss, rns, d; re, rd, s, n, rd. The third stanza is different, though both the second and fifth and the third and fourth lines rhyme. The rhyme scheme attempts to be orderly, but like Plath herself, it refuses to be ‘tidy’.

Many of Plath’s expressions echo everyday speech, giving those poems a light and easy rhythm. Consider the opening of ‘ Pheasant’:
‘You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it.’
‘Poppies in July’ is also a good example:
‘Little poppies…little…hell flames,
Do you do…no harm?’
The repetition of ‘little’ and the addressing of the question to the poppies give the voice in the poem a natural feeling. The words in the quote are everyday words and are mainly monosyllables. The first line has three beats; the second has two. In the quoted example … indicates the end of a beat.
The beat varies a lot in this poem and extends to five and six beat lines:
‘ that…wrinkly…and clear red…like the skin…of a mouth’.
The varied beat shows the erratic nature of Plath’s emotional state.

In ‘Mirror’ , the diction is mainly everyday, but the effect of the lines is sombre. The long five beat rhythm of the final two lines reverberate with the heavy burden the poet carries within her as she meditates on her subconscious terrors:
‘In me…she has drowned…a young girl…and in me… an old woman
Rises…toward her…day after day…like a terrible…fish.’

In ‘Finisterre ’, the heavy four beat lines capture the sombre and depressed atmosphere:
‘Our Lady…of the Shipwrecked…is striding...toward the horizon’.
Many of the words have two or more syllables. This dull and weighty rhythm reinforces the depressing descriptions and the profound theological theme.
If you wish to make a comment on rhythm, link it to verbal music. Try to establish a connection between rhythm and the themes of the poet.

There are many contrasting tones used within Plath’s poems. Tone reveals the poet’s inner state when she wrote these poems. The tones reveal a lot about her personality. She could be ironic and melancholic, elated and sombre in the same poem. Note contrasts such as the morbid ‘the faces of the drowned’ and the delicate  ‘These are the pretty trinkets the sea hides’ in ‘ Finisterre’.
Here are examples of tone:

Droll and dreamy: ‘I desire…some backtalk from the mute sky’ [Black Rook]

Unassuming and modest: ‘I do not expect a miracle’ [Black Rook]

Resigned and tolerant: But let spotted leaves fall as they fall’ [Black Rook]

Flippant, ironic and cavalier: ‘those spasmodic tricks of radiance’ [Black Rook]

Scornful and sardonic: ‘Unlucky the hero, born in this province of the stuck record’ [Times Tidy]

Ironic,  Self-satisfied: ‘The cow milks cream an inch thick’ [Times Tidy]

Gentle and sensuous: ‘moth-breath’ [Morning Song]

Troubled: ‘The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars’ [Morning Song]

Bleak: ‘the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic’ [Finisterre]

Triumphant in an ironic sense:
‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked is striding toward the horizon’ [Finisterre]

Scathing: ‘Her lips sweet with divinity’ [Finisterre]

Light-hearted: ‘These are the pretty trinkets the sea hides’  [Finisterre]
Baleful, sinister: ‘Other rocks hide their grudges under the water’ [Finisterre]

Cold and impartial: ‘unmisted by love or dislike’ [Mirror]

Callous: ‘What ever I see I swallow immediately’ [Mirror]

Joy and wonder:  ‘The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling’ [Pheasant]

Horror:  ‘Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires’ [Elm]

Unbearable pain: ‘I must shriek’ [Elm]

Vile: ‘Little poppies, little hell flames’ [Poppies]

Vivid: ‘Little bloody skirts’ [Poppies]

Numb: ‘Dulling and stilling’ [Poppies]

Angry and frantic: ‘Black on black, angrily clambering’ [Beebox]

Tender, excited and charming: ‘The zoo of the new’ [Child]

Humorous and wacky: ‘Stalk without wrinkle’

Desolate : ‘Ceiling without a star’ [Child]


Plaths’ poems are dark and moody in their imagery, surreal, ironic, clever and emotional. Her poems contain starkly contrasting images such as the dark head and later the red and green body of the pheasant in the poem ‘Pheasant’.

Plath showed her fantastic imagination with her surreal imagery: 

‘Souls, rolled in the doom-noise of the sea’ [Finisterre]

‘The sea…whitened by the faces of the drowned’  [Finisterre]

‘The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren…
Her radiance scathes me’ [Elm]

‘All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf’ [Elm]

‘This is rain now, the big hush.
 And this is the fruit of it: tin white, like arsenic’ [Elm]

‘I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns.’ [Poppies]
Note the recurring images of trees: 
‘twigs’ and ‘spotted leaves’ [Black Rook]

‘I know it with my great tap root’ [Elm]

Note the recurring images of a mirror:
‘I am silver and exact’ [Mirror] 
‘the cloud that distils a mirror’ [Morning Song]

Note the recurring images of cats:
‘the talking cat’ [Times Tidy]
‘Your mouth opens clean as a cat's’  [Morning Song]
Note the recurring images of the sea:
‘A far sea moves in my ear’ [Morning Song]
‘Souls, rolled in the doom-noise of the sea’ [Finisterre] 
‘the beautiful formlessness of the sea’  [Finisterre]
‘These are the pretty trinkets the sea hides’ [Finisterre]
‘Is it the sea you hear in me, its dissatisfactions’ [Elm]

Note the recurring images of violent wind:
‘slow effacement at the wind's hand’ [Morning Song]
‘A wind of such violence will tolerate no bystanding’ [Elm]

Note the numerous birds mentioned or implied in Plath’s poetry:
Rook, Pheasant, Sparrow, Starling, Owl, etc.

Note also the recurring images of the moon, which was traditionally linked to mental illness.
In ‘Elm’ , surreal imagery about the frightening face of the moon is conveyed in everyday spoken English:
‘The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me…
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?’
The commonplace moon appears nightmarish to Plath. She projects her neurotic fears onto the moon as observed between the branches of the elm.
In ‘The Arrival of the Bee box ,’ Plath brilliantly interlinks madness and suicide in the surreal manner in which she refers to her beekeeper’s outfit:
‘In my moon suit and funeral veil’.
In ‘Mirror’ Plath uses the moon to denote self-deception:
‘Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.’

‘New statue. In a drafty museum’ [Morning Song]
‘moth-breath’ [Morning Song]
‘cow-heavy’ [Morning Song]
‘exploding…canon…doom-noise’ [Finisterre]
‘Souls, rolled in the doom-noise of the sea’ [Finisterre]
 ‘Little poppies, little hell flames’ [Poppies]
‘Little bloody skirts’ [Poppies]
‘it was the coffin of a midget’ [Bee box]
‘in its strangle of branches’ [Elm]

In a dramatic image, in ‘Finisterre’ Plath imagines the protruding rocks of a cape to be a hand:
 ‘the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic, cramped on nothing’. 

This personification is continued later in the poem with such quotes as
‘Other rocks hide their grudges under the water’.
In ‘Mirror’, the mirror—the "I" in the first line—is given the ability to speak, see and swallow, as well as human qualities such as truthfulness.
‘I am silver and exact.
I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful’

[This is an elaborate comparison and metaphor where some concrete object or process is used to illustrate an abstract reality, be it spiritual, emotional or philosophical]
In this example, Plath contemplates the transience of the mother-child relationship and the idea that a child is a separate individual. She compares mother hood to a cloud:
‘I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand’ [Morning Song]

Plath compares aging to a terrible fish:
‘and in me an old woman
rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish’ [Mirror]

‘Rook’  [Black Rook]
‘a wet black rook arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain’ is a symbol of how the ‘minor light’ of life can shine suddenly from banal objects. For Plath the rook ‘can so shine as to seize my senses’. The rook is an ordinary bird which serves to focus Plath’s vision. The rook is a ruse she chooses in order to instil patience in herself. She settles for its minor light while she awaits a more transcendent vision:  ‘
The long wait for the angel for that rare, random descent’ [Black Rook]
 ‘the stuck record… the mayor's rotisserie’ [The Times Are Tidy]
symbolise the monotony of the industrial age.

‘What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?’ [Elm]
This face of a personal demon is also the face of the moon in the tree. It is a lurid image, of Plath’s private horror. It is a symbol of Plath’s disturbed mind during the advanced phase of her mental illness. It also stands in its own right as a powerful visual image in a very evocative poem.

[An analogy is a simile or metaphor that functions as a parallel image. An analogy may involve an extended comparison] 
Plath uses both religious and fire analogies in the poem ‘Black Rook’.

Note the Christian register or diction Plath uses in this quote: 
‘As if a celestial burning took possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—Thus hallowing an interval otherwise inconsequent’ [Black Rook]
Note how the expression ‘as if’ signals an analogy and renders the religious language that follows metaphorical. ‘Celestial’ and ‘hallowing’ are religious terms that Plath applies to her humanist desire for clarity and illumination.

The words ‘miracle’, and ‘angel’ maintain the religious imagery, which becomes an extended metaphor for inspiration or artistic epiphany. Plath’s imagery, in the final two lines, suggests she is awaiting an Annunciation from an angel of the imagination.
The phrase, ‘those spasmodic tricks of radiance’, is also an image for how elusive and random inspiration is. This phrase shows that the religious terms are not used in a reverent manner, but rather in a flippant manner. The word ‘tricks’ is, if anything, disrespectful and mocking. Plath is prepared to settle for a trick of light in order to achieve a moment of transcendent beauty. She doesn’t have any faith that she will find a permanent beauty in her life. 
The metaphor ‘burning’, often used in religious imagery, refers to the impact of such a moment of insight, as Plath desires. The expressions ‘To set the sight on fire’, ‘incandescent’, and ‘flare’, extend this metaphor throughout the poem. In this way, the image of ‘burning’ is used as an analogy for the aesthetic pleasure felt at the moment of poetic inspiration or vision of beauty.
Plath’s imagery depicts those less than transcendent moments when something ordinary ‘can so shine as to seize my senses’.

‘like a fat gold watch’ [Morning Song]
‘The clear vowels rise like balloons’ [Morning Song]
‘like a terrible fish’ [Mirror]
‘love... it has gone off, like a horse’ [Elm]
‘like the skin of a mouth’ [Poppies]
‘It is like a Roman mob’ [Bee box]

 Apostrophe [direct address]:
‘You said you would kill it this morning. Do not kill it’ [Pheasant]
‘Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm’ [Poppies]

Paradox [apparent contradiction]
‘I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me’ [Elm]
‘I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns’ [Poppies]

Logic (argument)
Plath communicates by direct statement as well as by imagery and symbol. Some poems depend a lot on our ability to interpret the figurative language. But some lines contain a statement or argument that points to the theme and help us understand the imagery.
Many of the quotes for Themes above contain examples of such statements. Here is one such example:
‘I am not mystical. It isn't
As if I thought it had a spirit’ [Poppies]

In addition to various techniques of sound, tone and imagery, there are many examples of different language techniques found in Yeats poetry.

Compound Words:
‘moth-breath’ [Morning Song]
 ‘doom-noise’ [Finisterre]

Hyperbole (exaggeration):
Exaggeration is integral to poetry. The extravagance of Plath’s imagery is a striking feature of her imagery. This is a typical example of her extravagance:
‘It's a little cornucopia’ [Poppies]
At the end of the same poem, Plath exaggerates the amount of pheasants she would like to see:
‘But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill’ [Pheasant]
Balance [Antithesis]
In ‘Times Tidy’ Plath balances career versus adventure:
‘There's no career in the venture
Of riding against the lizard’.
In ‘Finisterre’, Plath contrasts and balances two contrasting states of the sea: 
‘the doom-noise of the sea …the beautiful formlessness of the sea’.
In ‘Child’ Plath contrasts and balances two types of aging:
 ‘wrinkle’ means to age poorly, ‘classical’ means to age well. 

There is an indirect reference to the story of the Tree of Knowledge from the Book of Genesis in the Bible in ‘Elm’ :
‘What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?—
Its snaky acids kiss’

Plath’s poems vary in form from free verse to lyrics to highly patterned stanza forms.
For example, in ‘Black Rook’ there are eight regular five-line stanzas.
In ‘The Times Are Tidy’ there are four regular five-line stanzas.
Morning Song’ has six blank verse three line stanzas.
Mirror ’ has two un-rhyming nine-line verse stanzas.
Finisterre ’ has four regular though unusual nine-line stanzas.
 ‘Pheasant’ has eight regular three-line stanzas, with the first and third lines rhyming.
In ‘Elm’ there are fourteen irregular three-line verses.
Poppies in July’ has seven irregular un-rhyming two line couplets followed by a single line.
 ‘Bee box’ has seven five-line stanzas followed by a single line.
‘Child’ has four three-line stanzas.

English Maths Irish Biology Chemistry Physics Business French German Geography Home Ec. Applied Maths
 Copyright © 2008 Intel Corporation Contact us | About skoool | skoool Awards | About Supporters | Terms of Use | Privacy & Security