How the Horror is Constructed in Plath’s Poetry
Any true representation of horror, the sickening realization of the hideous or unbelievably ghastly, seems something of an impossibility. How can one speak the unspeakable? How can unimaginable terror and revulsion ever be recreated? Yet writers of Modernist literature, reflecting on the anxiety of the ominous, whirlwind world around them, have developed astute strategies for representing a sensation that is, if not exactly akin, then as close as will ever come to horror itself. The poetry of Sylvia Plath is one such example, employing visceral use of metaphor and metonymy, using colour and synasthesia to create an atmosphere of absolute morbid terror, with cinematic techniques emphasizing the nakedness of her personal revelation. Revealing an intense fixation on death, suicide and haunting, Plath explores with vivid, unrestrained vigour the terror and violence of a freak show world shrouded in darkness.
Plath’s use of metaphor and metonymy is a potent device for conveying the nightmarish peculiarity of the world. Ghoulish imagery of death and decay presents horror in its most powerful metonymic form, such as in “All the Dead Dears,” in which Plath describes a decrepit skeleton in vivid detail- “the ankle-bone of the woman has been slightly gnawed”- and her suicide attempt as described in “Lady Lazarus” eschews romanticism to present a ghastly image of her saviors who “had to call and call/ And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls,” a gruesomely vivid display of death and decay that is both shocking and repulsive to the reader. Similarly, a fixation on ghosts and haunting pervades her work; for example, in “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” a clay replica of a face refuses to vanish and the effigy haunts the woman eternally.
One recurrent metaphor for expressing horror throughout Plath’s poetry is the image of bees. In “The Bee Meeting,” the protagonist identifies with the old queen bee who virgins dream of killing, creating a terrifying sense of the tension of waiting for defeat. Similarly, “The Beekeepeer’s Daughter” uses the insects to create a sexual atmosphere with portentous foreshadowing of shame and tragedy, and “The Arrival of the Bee Box” presents bees as an ominous, terrifying force that the protagonist nevertheless resolves to release. Plath’s use of metaphor is often distinguished by a deliberate inversion of historically or socially accepted meanings. In “Aftermath,” Medea, generally accepted as a contemptible figure, becomes the domestic and nurturing “Mother Medea” who “moves humbly as any housewife,” reversing the original characteristics and depicting her as a victim of society. While this inversion reveals feminist undertones to Plath’s imagery, reversal of meaning takes on a sinister form through the use of the smile as a symbol of malice, inspired by D H Lawrence’s short story Smile. Creating an uneasy, menacing atmosphere of horror, the smile recurs throughout Plath’s poetry as a “death weapon” in “The Detective,” one of the two sinister faces of “Death and Co.” and in the sense of danger surrounding the protagonist in “Berck-Plage.” In “Edge,” the dead body “wears the smile of accomplishment;” smiles are also maliciously displayed during a sinister ritual in “The Bee Meeting,” creating an uneasy atmosphere, a surreal environment of horror.
Plath’s poetry employs incisive use of colour to evoke different sensations in the reader, creating an atmosphere of horror through particular hues rendered to connote a sense of revulsion. Black, the traditional colour of death and mourning, represents in Plath’s poetry not only such typical portents, but also sinister aggression and destructiveness, notably in the repetition of blackness all throughout “Little Fugue,” where “death opened, like a black tree, blackly,” and in the “black shoe,” “man in black” and “fat black heart” in “Daddy,” creating an atmosphere of terror. Similarly, the “black sea” described in “Point Shirley” creates a menacing augury of doom, and “Nick and the Candlestick” introduces the environment of a cavernous room full of inconsolable terrors, an innocent baby trapped in the darkness of a guilty world.
Yet white, generally the antithesis of darkness, is also used to draw negative connotations, often conveying violence and dread. In “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, the moon is “white as a knuckle and terribly upset,” a counterpart to the yew tree, who’s message is “blackness – blackness and silence.” The white towers in “Totem” signify butchery, and in “The Bee Meeting” the queen bee is confined in a “long white box,” reminiscent of a coffin, both drawing unsettling connotations with death, and “Three Women” presents a nightmare world made up of “white chambers of shrieks” and “those terrible children who injure sleep with their white eyes,” an utterly horrific image of menace and fear.
In this sense, colour works in a synaesthetic effect, wherein two or more modes of sensation are experienced through the stimulation of sight, resulting in intensely shocking images that are as visual as they are verbal (1). In fact, much of Plath’s poetry is structured around cinematic techniques, highly evocative of German expressionist film or even horror film, employing techniques such as flashbacks, slow-motion, leitmotif, close-ups, and rapid changing of scenes. This can be seen in “Berck-Plage,” which shifts with alarming speed from a scene on the beach to a morbid burial scene of a neighbour, with internal and external conflicts counterbalanced. Similarly, “Getting There” juxtaposes a wartime train journey to a concentration camp with scenes of personal inner turmoil, contrasting vignettes to heighten tension and powerfully building to a climax with the hypnotic intensity of a Bergman film (1).
Plath’s most famous poems were written in the last two years before her death, shedding the ornate, consciously artistic works of the past in favor of distressed, forceful confessional verse. Plath’s nakedness of self-revelation exposes a personality tormented by obsession with death and darkness. In “The Applicant,” Plath meditates on the absurdity of human physical existence, creating horror through her bitterly ironic description of life as a freak show that is tragic, poisoned by illness and misery. She presents a catalogue of deformities and deficiencies- “Do you wear/A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, /A brace or a hook, /Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch, /Stitches to show something’s missing?” and the speaker- an employer, perhaps a guise of God? – must decide whether the applicant is suitable for the task of conforming to abnormalities, to be “our sort of person.” This creates a sense of a culture of deformity- that those with something missing, something wrong with them are united in their deficiency, using black-comic vivid language to convey psychological disorder through physical ailments. Plath employs a rhythmic liveliness to emphasise the horror, and images of death pervade the poem, most notably in the suit, described as “black and stiff, but not a bad fit,” an allusion to both a straitjacket and a coffin, conveying a stifling environment of living death, emphasizes through the morbid warning “believe me, they’ll bury you in it.”
This microcosm of life as a freak show is a technique Plath repeats in “Lady Lazarus,” in which the protagonist has gained grim notoriety as a fair ground freak for her ability to survive death. Just as the Biblical Lazarus rises from the dead, the protagonist is trapped in a cycle of perpetual resurrection to life, reflecting on Plath’s own brushes with fatality, firstly as a result of a childhood mishap (“The first time it happened I was ten/ It was an accident”) and her first suicide attempt at age twenty (“The second time I meant/To last it out and not come back at all.”). The speaker takes a ghoulish, ironic pride in her achievements, conveyed through the famous fragment “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else/I do it exceptionally well,” an ironic glamourisation of death that recapitulates the central horrific morbidity of the poem. The horror is persistently emphasised through the jarring, rhythmic repetition of incantations (“I do it so it feels like hell/I do it so it feels real” and “It’s easy enough to do it in a cell/It’s easy enough to do it and stay put”), and the reader cannot help but notice the final posthumous irony of the poem- that Plath’s final suicide attempt was one that she could not in fact rise from.
Perhaps the clearest representation of horror in Plath’s work can be seen in “Daddy,” a hysterical wrath of hatred directed towards her father and husband. Considered both an act of transference and an exorcism of pain, the poem progresses with a stabbing rhythm, intense energy mounting towards a final explosion of murder, the chilling incantation “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two/…/Daddy, you can lie back now./There’s a stake in your fat black heart/…/ Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”
“Daddy” epitomizes one of the core disputes about the use of metaphor in Plath’s writing- the presence of Holocaust imagery, with Plath developing a preposterous fiction of her father as Nazi and identifying herself with a Jewess consigned to the barbaric and relentless cruelty of a deathcamp. Plath creates a horrifying environment of war through her vivid descriptions of “the Polish town/ Scraped flat by the roller/Of wars, wars, wars,” the rolling, repetitive sound creating a sense of intensely oppressive dreariness. Metonymic symbols such as the swastika directly hurl in the horror associated with the Holocaust, and her speculative descriptions of herself being “like a Jew” or “a bit of Jew” suggest parallels between her own suffering and that which occurred under Nazism, an insinuation that many critics have disputed. As Leon Wieseltier has argued, “Auschwitz bequeathed to all subsequent art perhaps the most arresting of all possible metaphors for extremity but its availability has been abused,” but Jennifer Rose makes a distinctive connection between metaphor, fantasy and identification, and suggests that Plath is posing a question- is any experience ever merely your own, or must it be universal.
Plath creates a phantasmic scenario of Nazism, endowing her father with a “neat moustache” and “Aryan eye,” becoming increasingly more mimetic of a typical Nazi as the poem progresses, until she recovers her father in the image of her husband, “a man in black with a Meinkampf look.” A sense of terror is created through this image, likening him not only to Hitler but periodically the Devil (“a cleft in your chin instead of your foot/ But no less a devil for that, no”) and a vampire (“The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year”) driven home through the childish expression of fear “I have always been afraid of you.” The narrative voice oscillates between adult outrage and childish sobs, between nursery-rhyme imagery and descriptions of brutal murder, pulsating in an irregular rhythm with some repetition of sound but not discernable pattern, confirming that this piece is a naked outburst of fury rather than the carefully crafted works of her earlier years. It is this honesty, then, that perhaps underscores the horror most chillingly.
If one is left reeling with shock from Plath’s poetry, her furiously concentrated expression of horror has reached its desired effect, instilling terror and revulsion through speaking what is essentially the unspeakable.
(1) Markey, Janice, A Journey Into the Red Eye: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath- A Critique, 1993, London, the Women’s Press
(2) Dr Barry Spur, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, 1992, Australia, Fast Books
(3) Stevenson, Anne, Bitter Fame, Mariner Books; 1st Mariner Books Ed edition (June 16, 1998)
(4) Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, 1992, Harvard University press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
(5) Rose, Jacqueline, ‘This is not a biography’, London Review of Books, Vol 24, No 16, 22 August 2002
(6) Britzolakis, Christina, Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning, 1999, Oxford University Press
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