2013 - “Plath’s provocative imagery serves to highlight the intense emotions expressed in her poetry.”
Plath’s poetry can be shocking to read, at first. This is largely due to her choice of provocative imagery and the depth of intense emotion felt and expressed through her poetry. She looks at dizzying highs and terrifying lows in terms of her own mental health, all the while using captivating and provocative imagery to express her intense emotions. I fell the best poem to illustrate this are “Morning Song”, “Child”, “Poppies In July”, “Mirror” and “The Arrival Of The Bee Box”. I found myself captivated by all her work, as she bared her soul to the public. Such honesty, coupled with her provocative imagery, must be respected.
In the poem “Morning Song”, Plath examines and comes to terms with the mix of feelings she experiences as a new mother. It examines her struggle to come to terms with being a mother, having only recently miscarried. The poem opens on the image of “a fat gold watch”. This image provokes many thoughts in the readers mind, it can be seen as a sort of reward for her 9 months of service, bringing this baby into the world. It can also be seen as a simile for the precious heartbeat of her newborn baby, set going by the love and affection she has for the baby. This imagery allows us to feel the love and natural instincts that Plath feels as a mother, despite her despair. However, in the same stanza, Plath makes use of harsh imagery, “the midwife slapped your footsoles” to portray the cold and harsh world that Plath felt she was bringing her newborn into.
Plath later describes her baby as a “new statue… in a drafty museum.”, which is a difficult image to comprehend, but can be portrayed to show her disconnection from the baby, that Plath doesn’t immediately feel motherly, and is underwhelmed by the birth of her child. It’s almost like she doesn’t have a warm fuzzy sensation in her heart, due to the arrival of her baby.
Her lack of connection to her baby is also expressed through a great memorable image: “I am no more your mother Than the cloud that distills the mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand.” The baby is like a puddle made by the mother, the cloud. The puddle reflects the cloud in the same way the baby and mother are alike. But now that the baby is born the cloud is blown away.
We see after, when Plath appears to be home, that the atmosphere of the poem is much warmer and loving. We see this through the “flat pink roses” suggesting wallpaper in her home. We see Plath settling into motherhood at this point, as she listens out for the tender “moth-breath” during the night. The far sea she hears, shows us the ease that Plath is beginning to feel, as this image is one of a calming nature.
The moment that the child begins to cry, the poet gets up to feed it. She rushes to feed her child, comparing herself to a cow that needs to be milked. The image of herself as “cow-heavy” introduces a light-heartedness to the poem that wasn’t present at the start. The self-deprecation lightens the atmosphere of the poem and suggests Plath feels more comfortable with the role of mother.
In the poem “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, we see Plath struggle with control over her own inner turmoil. The poem opens with the image of the bee box that she bought “I ordered this, this clean wood box, square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift”, it hints that she feels that she is responsible for her emotions as it is her body and mind that created her thoughts and turmoil. Plath describes this box with claustrophobic and oppressive terms, showing how claustrophobic she feels amongst her own dark thoughts “The box is locked, it is dangerous...there are no windows...there is only a little grid, no exit”.
In the third stanza of the poem, Plath links the bees in the box, which are a simile to her thoughts, to slaves “The swarmy feeling of African hands/Minute and shrunk for export”. This highlights her struggle with her thoughts, mental health and emotions, it as is she saying that she is a slave to her own thoughts, and that they are aggressive with no break, constantly swarming around her head “angrily clambering”.
Plath later seems to ponder how to release these “bees” without bringing any harm to herself, this shows her fear towards the “bees”. She compares them to a “Roman mob, small taken one by one, but my god, together!”, again linking them to her thoughts and emotions, that individually they are easy to cope with and process, but once they all build up, it becomes overwhelming for her. This highlights the overwhelming thoughts and emotions that Plath dealt with on a regular basis, giving us a great insight into the turmoil that she suffered through.
Plath later considers her power in the situation, and how she could easily kill the bees. This is a rather disturbing image, but shows Plath struggle with the concepts of control and power. “They can die, I need feed them nothing. I am the owner” This again links to her dealings with her thoughts, and how she felt that theoretically she could diminish her thoughts into nothingness.
At the end of the poem, Plath sees no reason the “bees” would even bother with her as she sees herself as “no source of honey”, this moment is a powerful moment in the poem, as it is the most soul-bearing and honest line. It shows that she sees no goodness or sweetness in herself.
The final line and image of the poem is also a powerful image. “The box is only temporary” Plath sees the box, as nothing permanent, only a temporary solution. This however, can be read on a much darker tone, as maybe Plath will escape the life of turmoil that she lives, or maybe much simpler, that her thoughts will be released through her artwork.
The poem “Poppies In July”, acts as a projection of Plath’s mind and depressing negative emotions. There is an atmosphere of self-destruction in this poem, a stage of depression so deep that it shocks the reader to see that level of depth of one’s darkest emotions. The poem opens with an image of instant juxtaposition “Little Poppies, Little Hell Flames”, this image shows us that Plath cannot see beauty in anything, as she sees the poppies as hostile hell flames. She sees them flickering like flames, but as she reaches her hand into them, she feels nothing “I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns”. This image shows us the level of grief and despair she has towards the breakdown of her marriage, she feels numb, even in her attempts to do feel pain, she feels nothing more than her heart break.
The breakdown of her marriage, has left Plath weary of the world, she hints at her struggle towards the end of the marriage, as her husband was having an affair “It exhausts me to watch you”, showing it was draining for her towards the end. She then makes use of bold and unusual imagery, that provokes us to feel unsettled, almost disturbed. “flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth, a mouth just bloodied, little bloody skirts!”. She uses the poppies at this moment to symbolise the woman Hughes had an affair with. It is the mention of blood that truly unsettles us and suggests violent thoughts Plath may have had.
The discussion of opiates towards the end of the poem, shows Plath desperation to escape the world of pain she is in at this moment in her life. “There are fumes that I cannot touch, where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?”. This image shows us the real extent of the emotions she feels, we can almost feel her frustration that the opiates cannot be inhaled, giving us insight to how desperately she wants to not hurt, following the end of her marriage. There is the possibility, that the mention of the “fumes”, could hint that she is already thinking of the permanent escape she will later use in life, that of gassing herself.
The sixth ‘stanza’ is truly a moment in the poem of complete anguish. The image portrayed in the this stanza, can be taken in different ways “If I could bleed, or sleep”. It can be perceived that this image suggests that Plath felt that if she were to bleed she could heal, or if she were able to sleep, she would feel relief, however we know a broken heart doesn’t bleed, and this suggests she has trouble sleeping, meaning that she cannot get a sense of relief, and that it will be a long and painful process to get over her broken heart.
It can also be perceived that Plath was referring to relief, in ending her life, by bleeding to death, or by overdosing on sleeping pills, a reference to her attempt as a child. It gives us the greatest insight of all her poetry, into her web of deeply depressing emotions, and how much she struggles toward the end.
The final line is a contrast between the bright red poppies and the “colourless” state of her mine. Red poppies generally symbolise death as they are the colour of blood. This may seem a very simple image but in light of her emotions they acquire a sinister context and are, therefore, even more effective that a more complex comparison and imaginative metaphor.
In the poem “Mirror”, Plath examines her issues and insecurities with growing up and ageing. In the opening line, Plath personifies the mirror, by speaking from the perspective of the mirror. It starts by saying it doesn’t have a preconceived idea of what it sees, that it only shows what is there. The image of the mirror swallowing whatever it sees, is a disturbing image “whatever I see I swallow immediately”, that shows that the mirror is all consuming of what it sees, almost like it feeds on Plath’s need for reassurance and her insecurities.
In the second stanza, the mirror refers to itself as a lake. As a lake, it represents itself as the depth of identity and Plath’s struggle to submerge her poetic self in an attempt to be the ‘perfect’ woman and housewife. “Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me, searching my reaches for what she really is.” This shows Plath’s inner struggle with her identity and the thought of her settling down, who she is, and who she feels she should be.
The image of Plath drowning the young girl in the lake. This image lets us see that Plath wasted her youth and beauty looking into this mirror and worrying about ageing, and not wanting to grow up. It also suggests that when she looks into the mirror hoping to see the beauty from her youth, she is unable, as all that is left after her wasted childhood, is an old woman. “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day”
In the second stanza we see the mirror takes pleasure in Plath’s pain. “She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands”. It sees her anguish and pain at the loss of her youth, as some sort of reward. It thrives on the tears Plath sheds at the sight of her fading youth, as she still feels, even as an adult, that she does not fit societal standards.
In the poem “Child”, Plath expresses her love for her child while also revealing her inner torment, and portraying the dark depressions that regularly engulfed her. This poem opens on a positive and loving image, with Plath describing her child’s eyes as the most beautiful thing in her life “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing”. The clearness of the child’s eye indicates that the child is still innocent. Plath uses the child’s eyes as a metaphor for her child, she sees her child as the only thing in her life without fault.
When Plath says she wants to “fill it with color and ducks, the zoo of the new”, she is referring to her wanting to fill her son’s life with beautiful experiences, both familiar, warm images and the exotic things in life that are waiting to be discovered by her son.
Plath later compares herself and her life to her son and his life, with the image “April snowdrop, Indian pipe”. These images contrast greatly, as “April snowdrop” is a flower often associated with life and hope, whereas “Indian Pipe” is associated with death and decay. This image provokes a sense of sadness in us for Plath, as she compares her life to a flower of death and decay.
Plath wants her child to only bear witness to images that are grand and beautiful “Pool in which images should be grand and classical”. Instead she worries about her child growing up only seeing her, a newly single mother, wrapped in the depths of depression.
The final line here seems to indicate that Plath felt she was inadequate as a mother. Her depression meant that she was unable to provide all the beauty that she wanted her child to witness, and so he would only see a “Dark ceiling without a star”
Overall, the poetry of Plath is full of pain and sorrow, but these are explored through powerful images that emphasise the profound feelings and emotions that the poet is experiencing.