Sylvia’s Final Symbols

In reading the Ariel poems, I’ve discovered some new “echoes” as I call Sylvia Plath’s repeated imagery. Beginning with Mystic, written on February 1, 1963 – ten days before her suicide – she begins to mention air/smoke, colors (deviating from her usual red/blue), rings, and window/mirrors.

Mystic mentions:

“The air is a mill of hooks.”
“The dead smell of sun on wood cabins”.
“The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats”.

From Kindness, written the same day:

“The blue and red jewels of rings smoke/in the windows, the mirrors”
“… with a cup of tea/wreathed in steam”

The same day, in Words:

After whose stroke the wood rings”

Three days later on February 4, she picks up again with Contusions (with no poems intervening):

“The mirrors are sheeted”.

In Contusion, she also falls back on her sea imagery, mentioning a pearl, a “wash”, “the sea sucks obsessively”, “the whole sea’s pivot”. She will mention water or the sea in the very next poem, Balloons, and Edge, her last two poems – so water literally obsessed her until the very end.

In Balloons, she mentions “invisible air drifts”.

In Edge, her final poem, all the images are new, except for one regarding the sea: “Each dead child coiled, a white serpent”.

The ideas of smoke and air lifting seems to have been particularly strong for her those last few days. I am still trying to unlock the meaning.

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  1. Mirrors, yes. The mirrors are sheeted. Terrifying line.

  2. Cara Ellison says:

    It truly is a terrifying line.

    I only just discovered the smoke/steam/air imagery recently though; I am going back through her older poems to see if it has always been there or if it was something that broke through during those last horrible days.

  3. Fever 103 is full of smoke/air – and then there’s the final line of Lady Lazarus! Which could be taken either way. She eats men as easily AS IF they “were air” – she’s just that voracious – or she eats insubstantial men, she picks bad men, men “like air”. I always wondered what she meant, love the double meaning in that last line.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    Ooh that’s an interesting question. I’ve been hung on that line for a while, but I always thought to myself, “what’s it like to eat air?” Like, every minute, like she needs one – can’t live without one.

    But I hadn’t thought of the possibility that they were insubstantial. Marvelous, glittering double-meaning, now that you’ve pointed it out to me!

    In Stings (October 6, 1962), she writes:

    “Though for years I have eaten dust
    And dried plates with my dense hair…”

    I wrote in the margin “echoes of Lady Lazarus.” That “eating men like air” and “eating dust” seems similar to me.

    I meant to document Daddy, The Applicant, and the Secret on the anniversaries of the days they were written (just this past week), but life intervened. However, I’ve been studying Medusa, which I think is one of her most explicit poems about her mother:

    “I didn’t call you.
    I didn’t call you at all.
    Nevertheless, nevertheless
    You steamed to me over the sea,
    Fat and red, a placenta

    Paralysing the kicking lovers
    Cobra light
    Squeezing the breath from the blood bells
    Of the fuchsia. I could draw no breath,
    Dead and moneyless,

    Overexposed, like an X-ray
    Who do you think you are?”

    Again, breathing is mentioned. And of course there is that wicked double meaning of the last line of that poem:

    “Off, off, eely tentacle!
    There is nothing between us.”

    She was a master of the double meaning.

    It is also noteworthy to my hyper-active eye that those lines are repeated – like the echoes she would mention in Words:

    After whose stroke the wood rings,
    And the echoes!
    Echoes traveling
    Off from the center like horses.”

    Daddy, Getting There, and A Secret all have repeating lines and “echoes” through the poem.

    One may dislike Sylvia Plath’s poetry as a matter of personal taste. But the fact that she was an absolute master of her craft can not be debated.

  5. God, she’s so brutal. In the middle of all of this powerful mythical imagery comes one question on one line: “Who do you think you are?”

    This woman was off-the-charts courageous. Who writes like that??

  6. Cara Ellison says:

    When I typed that line out, I actually *heard* her say it. I heard the indignant tone, the fury, all that suppressed rage. It was like she finally pivoted, in that line, and quit the symbolism, and looked her mom straight in the face and confronted her.

    Very naked, very powerful.

  7. Have you looked at Rabbit Catcher? I think that’s the name of it … seems to me there is a lot of wind and air in that one. I don’t have it in front of me. Would be interesting to see how far back that imagery goes … or if it was something that started to pop up in her last period of crisis.

  8. Her early imagery seems to have to do mainly with the ocean and with mirrors. Not a lot of air in it but I don’t think I have looked at it as closely as you have. It’s interesting that her one novel – THE BELL JAR – has, as its title, an image that is, in its very essence, a place without any air.

  9. Cara Ellison says:

    I have her collected poems in front of me (as usual). Rabbit Catcher has:

    “The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair/ Tearing off my voice, and the sea…”

    Excellent memory! I had forgotten that one.

    I’m trying to find out how far the wind/air goes back. So far, it looks like it was pretty new at the end of her life – and it is fascinating to speculate why.

  10. Cara Ellison says:

    I am not quite sure what to do with this bit of trivia yet but at the Last Psychiatrist, I was reading an article about zombies, and the fact that they are “canny”. The Last Psychiatrist says to imagine yourself looking in a mirror. Then the image in the mirror smiles – while you don’t. What kind of smile is it? Evil or benevolent?

    There’s something about this exercise that is driving me crazy and I’ll eventually figure it out and apply it to Sylvia but I wanted to throw it to you and see if you have any comments on it.

  11. There’s a Black Swan thing going on there too – that creepy moment when she sees her reflection move, and she doesn’t.

    Doubling. The double taking on a life of its own. I know Plath was obsessed with that Dostoevsky novel – wrote a huge paper on him, right? May have even been her thesis.

  12. Cara Ellison says:

    Ooh yes. I hadn’t ever connected it to the double – I was thinking more literally as “a reflection” which would go toward her obsession with mirrors. But you’re right – that’s a whole other tangent to explore. I’m actually still studying her poems for air references. It looks so far like they came in literally at the end of the her life – the last two months or so. I’m still studying though so I could be wrong about that. Fascinating stuff.

  13. I really think you’re right. Her early stuff is airless. A literal belljar.

    Once her marriage ended, it was all gusting wind and howling air.

  14. I wonder if Ted comments on any of this inadvertently in Birthday Letters.

  15. Cara Ellison says:

    Ah, I love the way you can put two and two together like that! Yes, the bell jar. I will need to re-read Birthday Letters to see if he says anything. God every time I think of “wet jewels” to describe Nicholas’s tearful eyes, I just want to curl up in a ball. Hold me.

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