Sylvia Plath

June 21, 2006


American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist
Given credit for being one of the founders of the confessional poetry genre
Suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout her life
Attempted suicide unsuccessfully twice until she gassed herself in her kitchen, ending her life at the age of 30


I Am Vertical
But I would rather be horizontal. / I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love / So that each March I may gleam into leaf, / Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed / Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted, / Unknowing I must soon unpetal. / Compared with me, a tree is immortal / And a flower-head not tall, but more startling, / And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.
Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, / The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. / I walk among them, but none of them are noticing. / Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping / I must most perfectly resemble them- / Thoughts gone dim / It is more natural to me, lying down. / Then the sky and I are in open conversation, / And I shall be useful when I lie down finally: / Then the trees may touch me for once, and the / flowers have time for me.

-I Am Vertical (in whole)

Soon, soon the flesh / The grave cave ate will be / At home on me 
And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. / And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three. / What a trash / To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments. / The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see.

Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real. / I guess you could say I’ve a call. 

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart- / It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge / For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. / So, so, Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek. / I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Ash, ash- / You poke and stir. / Flesh, bone, there is nothing there-
A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware.
Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.

-Lady Lazarus

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. / Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in. / I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly / As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands. / I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions. / I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses / And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty. / How free it is, you hae no idea how free- / The peacefulness is so big it dazes you, / And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves. / The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; / They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat, / And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes / Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me. / The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea, / And comes from a country far away as health.


I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed. / Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles / Proceed from your great lips. / It’s worse than a barnyard.
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, / Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other. / Thirty years now I have labored / To dredge the silt from your throat. / I am none the wiser.
Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol / I crawl like an ant in mourning / Over the weedy acres of your brow / To mend the immense skull-plates and clear / The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
A blue sky out of the Oresteia / Arches above us. O father, all by yourself / You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum. / I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress. / Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line. / It would take more than a lightning-stroke / To create such a ruin. / Nights, I squat in the cornucopia / Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color. / The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue. / My hours are married to shadow. / No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel / On the blank stones of the landing.

-The Colossus (in whole)

Love set you going like a fat gold watch. / The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry / Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue. / In a drafty museum, your nakedness / Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath / Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen: / A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown. / Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try / You handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons.

-Morning Song (in whole)

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries, / Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly, / A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea / Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries / Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes / Ebon in the hedges, fat / With blue-red jices. These they squander on my fingers. / I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me. / They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.


I ordered this, this clean wood box / Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift. / I would say it was the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby / Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous. / I have to live with it overnight / And I can’t keep away from it. / There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there. / There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid. / It is dark, dark, / Wit the swarmy feeling of African hands / Minute and shrunk for export, / Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out? It is the noise that appalls me most of all, / The unintelligible syllables. / It is like a Roman mob, / Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin. / I am not a Caesar. / I have simply ordered a box of maniacs. / They can be sent back. / They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are. / I wonder if they would forget me / If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree. / There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades, / And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately / In my moon suit and funeral veil. / I am no source of hiney / So why should they turn on me? / Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.

-The Arrival of the Bee Box (in whole)

First, are you our sort of a person? / 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? No, no? Then / How can we give you a thing? / Stop crying. / Open your hand. / Empty? Empty. Here is a hand.
To fill it and willing / To bring teacups and roll away headaches / And do whatever you tell it. / Will you marry it? / It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end / And dissolve of sorrow. / We make new stock from the salt. / I notice you are stark naked. / How about this suit-
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit. / Will you marry it? / It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof / Against fire and bombs through the roof. / Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty. / I have the ticket for that. / Come here, sweetie, out of that closet. / Well, what do you think of that? / Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver, / In fifty, gold. / A living doll, everywhere you look. / It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it. / You have a hole, it’s a poultice. / You have an eye, it’s an image. / My boy, it’s your last resort. / Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

-The Applicant (in whole)

You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot / For thirty years, poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you. / You died before I had time- / Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one grey toe / Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic / Where it pours bean green over blue / In the waters off beautiful Nauset. / I used to pray to recover you. / Ach, du.

Bit my pretty red heart in two. / I was ten when they buried you. / At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack, / And they stuck me together with glue. / And then I kenw what to do. / I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and screw. / And I said I do, I do. / So daddy, I’m finally through. / The black telephone’s off at the root, / The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two- / The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know. / Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart / And the villagers never liked you. / They are dancing and stamping on you. / They always knew it was you. / Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.


And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas. / The child’s cry
Melts in the wall. / And I / Am the arrow,
The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.


The Bell Jar (1971)

Plath’s only novel
Written under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas
Published under Plath’s name after her death, despite the objections of her family


“I slid into the self-service elevator and pushed the button for my floor. The doors folded shut like a noiseless accordian. Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked.”

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the groud at my feet.”

“It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way Buddy Willard had? I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a doublt life, one pure and one not.
Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well.”

“I thought he must be the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.
I thought if only I had a keen, shapely bone structure to my face or could discuss politics shrewdly or was a famous writer Constantin might find me interesting enough to sleep with.
And then I wondered if as soon as he came to like me he would sink into ordinariness, and if as soon as he came to love me I would find fault after fault, the way I did with Buddy Willard and the boys before him.
The same thing happened over and over:
I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.
That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”

“And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.
Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon  -my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves”? – and from that day on my mother never had  a minute’s peace.

“Every time it rained the old leg-break seemed o remember itself, and what it remembered was a dull hurt.
Then I thought, ‘Buddy Willard made me break that leg.’
Then I thought, ‘No, I broke it myself. I broke it on purpose to pay myself back for being such a heel.'”

“The interior voice nagging me not to be a fool – to save my skin and take off my skis and walk down, camouflaged by the scrub pines bordering the slope – fled like a disconsolate mosquito. The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower.”

“I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”

“When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know.
‘Oh, sure you know,’ the photographer said.
‘She wants,’ said Jay Cee wittily, ‘to be everything.’
I said I wanted to be a poet.
Then they scouted about for something for me to hold.
Jay Cee suggested a book of poems, but the photographer said no, that was too obvious. It should be something that showed what inspired the poems. Finally Jay Cee unclipped the single, long-stemmed paper rose from her latest hat.
The photographer fiddled with his hot white lights.
‘Show us how happy it makes you to write a poem.’
I stared through the frieze of rubber-plant leaves in Jay Cee’s window to the blue sky beyond. A few stagey cloud puffs were traveling from right to left. I fixed my eyes on the largest cloud, as if, when it passed out of sight, I might have the good luck to pass with it.
I felt it was very important to keep the line of my mouth level.
‘Give us a simle.’
At last, obediently, like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy, my own mouth started to quirk up.
‘Hey,’ the photographer protested, with sudden foreboding, ‘you look like you’re going to cry.’
I couldn’t stop.”

“A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I couldnted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.”

“How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?”

“Then I thought I might put off college for a year and apprentice myself to a pottery maker.
Or work my way to Germany and be a waitress, until I was bilingual.
Then plan after plan started leaping through my head, like a family of scatty rabbits.
I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telepohne poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three … nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see single pole beyond the nineteenth.”

“Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.”

“I cracked open a peanut from the ten-cent bag I had bought to feed the pigeons, and ate it. It tasted dead, like a bit of old tree bark.”

“My favorite tree was the Weeping Scholar Tree. I thought it must come from Japan. They understood things of the spirit in Japan.
They disemboweled themselves when anything went wrong.
I tried to imagine how they would go about it. They must have an extremely sharp knife. No, probably two extremely sharp knives. Then they would sit down, cross their hands and point a knife at each side of their stomach. They would have to be naked, or the knife would get stuck in their clothes.
Then in one quick flash, before they had time to think twice, they would jab the knives in and zip them round, one on the upper crescent and one on the lower crescent, making a full circle. Then their stomach skin would come loose, like a plate, and their insides would fall out, and they would die.
It must take a lot of courage to die like that.”

“‘I will just sit here in the sun on this park bench five minutes more by the clock on that building over there,’ I told myself, ‘and then I will go somewhere and do it.’
I summoned my little chorus of voices.
Doesn’t your work interest you, Esther?
You know, Esther; you’ve got the perfect setup of a true neurotic.
You’ll never get anywhere like that, you’ll never get anywhere like that, you’ll never get anywhere like that.
Once on a hot summer night, I had spent an hour kissing a hairy, ape-shaped law student from Yale because I felt sorry for him, he was so ugly. When I had finished, he said, ‘I have you typed, baby. You’ll be a prude at forty.’
‘Factitious!’ my creative writing professor at college scrawled on a story of mine called ‘The Big Weekend.’
I hadn’t known what factitious meant, so I looked it up in the dictionary.
Factitious, artificial, sham.
You’ll never get anywhere like that.
I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights.
I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be a shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and the smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.”

“I was the only girl on the beach in a skirt and high heels, and it occurred to me I must stand out. I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on the silver log, pointing out to sea, like a sort of soul-compass, after I was dead.”

“I thought drowning must be the kindest way to die, and burning the worst. Some of those babies in the jars that Buddy Willard shoed me had gills, he said. They went through a stage where they were just like fish.”

“I thought I would swim out until I was too tired to swim back. As I paddled on, my heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my ears.
I am I am I am.”

“I brought my hands to my breast, ducked my head, and dived, using my hands to push the water aside. The water pressed in on my eardrums and on my heart. I fanned myself down, but before I knew where I was, the water had spat me up into the sun, the world was sparkling all about me like blue and green and yellow semi-precious stones.”

“I took up the silver knife and cracked off the cap of my egg. Then I put down the knife and looked at it. I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the center of empty air.
Joan and DeeDee were sitting side by side on the piano bench, and DeeDee was teaching Joan to play the bottom half of ‘Chopsticks’ while she plaed the top.
I thought how sad it was Joan looked so horsey, with such big teeth and eyes like two gray, goggly pebbles. Why, she couldn’t even keep a boy like Buddy Willard. And DeeDee’s husband was obviously living with some mistress or other and turning her sour as an old fusty cat.”

“I looked at Joan. In spite of the creepy feeling, ,and in spite of my old, ingrained dislike, Joan fascinated me. It was like observing a Martian, or a particularly warty toad. Her thoughts were not my thoughts, nore her feelings my feelings, but we were close enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own.
Sometimes I wondered if I had made Joan up. Other times I wondered if she would continue to pop in at every crisis of my life to remind me of what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.”

“Whether she knew it or not, Philomena Guinea was buying my freedom.
The thought of being under a man’s humb,’ I had told Doctor Nolan. ‘A man doesn’t have a worry in a world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.'”

“I decided to practice my new, normal personality on this man who, in the course of my hesitations, told me his name was Irwin and that he was a very well-paid professor of mathematics, so I said, ‘All right,’ and, matching my stride to Irwin’s, strolled down the long, ice-encrusted flight at his side.
It was only after seeing Irwin’s study that I decided to seduce him.”

“I felt the first man I slept with must be intelligent, so I would respect him. Irwin was a full professor at twenty-six and had the pale, hairless skin of a boy genius. I also needed somebody quite experienced to make up for my lack of it, and Irwin’s ladies reassured me on this head.Then, toI didn’t know and wouldn’t go on knowing – a kind of impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites.
By the end of the evening I had no doubts about Irwin whatsoever.
Ever since I’d learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending for five years and I was sick of it.”

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.
I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco’s diamond and the sailor aon the Common and Doctor Gordon’s wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of bean and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a gray skull.
Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them.
But they were part of me. They were my landscape.”

“And hadn’t Buddy said, as if to revenge himself for my digging out the car and his having to stand by, ‘I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther.’
‘What?’ I’d said, shoveling snow up onto a mound and blinking against the stinging baackshower of loose flakes.
‘I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther. Now you’lve been,’ and Buddy’s gesture encompassed the hill, the pines and the severe, snow-gabled buildings breaking up the rolling landscape, ‘here.’
And of course I didn’t know who would marry me now that I’d been where I had been. I didn’t know at all.”

“Beside me, Jody’s cheeks bloomed like god apples, and here and there in the little congregation I recognized other faces of other girls from college and my home town who had known Joan. DeeDee and Nurse Kennedy bent their kerchiefed heads in a front pew.
Then, behind the coffin and the flowers and the face of the minister and the faces of the mourners, I saw the rolling lawns of our town cemetery, knee-deep in snow now, with the tombstone rising out of it like smokeless cinmneys.
There would be a black, six-foot-deep gap hacked in the hard ground. that shadow would marry this shadow, and the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in the whiteness, and yet another snowfall erase the traces of newness in Joan’s grave.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am.”


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