Lavers goes on to suggest that “the symbolic net which Sylvia Plath casts on the world of perception has above all a personal value”, that is, Plath’s themes and images are saturated with personal significance or symbolism. Lavers suggests that, “This code is extremely rigid, in as much an object, once charged with a given signification, never forfeits it: the moon, the snow, the colour black, always have the same function. But the attitude of the poet can vary and thus introduce some ambiguity; the colour red, the color blue, can play different parts in various contexts. The child as theme and the child as subject appears in very different guises”.
This framework gave Plath an opportunity to create a scale of values. It also gave her work a “destination” from the merely personal experience. Thus, there is “cultural imagery” in Plath’s poetry; “classical reminiscences, references to historical events, contemporary allusions, numerous Christian anecdotes and symbols, philosophical concepts, legends (such as that of the vampire) and superstitious (such as that of the cracked glass as a portent of death”.)
However, “the subject of the [Plath] poems is never anything but an individual experience...The primary object of experience is...explored at leisure and all its symbolic potentialities reviewed, only to organise themselves finally according to familiar categories, with man firmly in the centre”. Thus:
Nature, reality, the world, are only in appearance interrogated as potential sources of meaning; for this meaning has been chosen once and for all, and henceforth they will only be used for their expressive possibilities.
This makes Plath an idealist/projectivist, even perhaps a solipsist, but almost certainly a hermeticist or gnostic, perhaps like Yeats. Plath’s “speaking voice” always “remains individual”. Further, “Sylvia Plath’s particular way of experiencing life is shown to have been an interplay between the particular and the general...The juxtaposition of the sublime and the homely, the ‘poetic’ and the scientific (words like carbon monoxide, acetylene, ticker-tape, adding-machine)...reveals a constant and vivifying exchange between depth and surface”. There is, moreover, in the world of Sylvia Plath, “an intuition of kinship between poetry and death.” The major “theme of vulnerability” creates an impression of “an overall threat”...The mood is virtually always negative...and ranges from mere foreboding to hopeless revolt and utter despair”. Thus,
“The living flesh is felt as essentially vulnerable, a prey to axes, doctors’ needles, butchers’ and surgeons’ knives, poison, snakes and tentacles, acids, vampires, leeches, bats and bees, jails and brutal boots. Small animals are butchered and eaten, man’s flesh can undergo the final indignity of being cut to pieces and used as an object. The poet feels her kinship with “the aged and the meek/The weak/ Hothouse baby in its cradle” (“Fever 103°”).
As a result, subjects “and metaphors include a cut, a contusion, the tragedy of thalidomide, fever, an accident, a wound, paralysis, a burial, animal and human sacrifice, the burning of heretics, lands devastated by war, extermination camps: her poetry is a “garden of tortures” in which mutilation and annihilation take nightmarish protean forms...” This makes Plath’s poetry a mine of Gothic imagery, often shading off into the Surreal. And “on the psychological plane, the mind cannot but see a sign of its own fragility in this very multiplicity of symbols. Disintegration threatens, all the more because of a past history of breakdown”. There is imagery of “anarchic forces and centrifugal destruction”. This “obsession with catastrophe is in itself the most potent force of disintegration; it sometimes takes the form of revolt and despair, and at other times of almost an infatuation with death...it finally vitiates and destroys every foundation for hope.” Moreover, “in some poems”, Plath “seems to show an awareness of herself as primarily self-condemned...”.
Lavers enumerates “two of the numerous dangers which threaten in (Plath’s) poems (which) occur with a symbolic frequency”.
The first is the threat of stifling or strangulation, in which an obstacle stands between life and the person, finally destroying the latter; scarves, fumes, veils, placenta and umbilical cords, tentacles are found in “Fever 103°” or “Medusa”, for instance. The second is the threat of destruction by small enemies, outside or inside the body: bats and piranhas, bees....(‘Stings’)…
Further, “Death by fumes or carbon monoxide shows how the first threat is reducible to the second, since death is due to changes in the small units of the body”. Death, indeed, wears many “veils” or guises in Plath’s poetry; it is always ubiquitous and it circumscribes life. Lavers notes that, characteristically in Plath, “blood is almost always presented in a plural forms, as “the blood berries” (‘Ariel’) or a “bowl of red blooms” (‘Tulips’), as if the individual was made up of smaller units endowed with a spontaneity not necessarily in agreement with the conscious self”. Further, the “threat being interiorized means that one touch of decay can start a systematic degeneration”. Broadly speaking, then, “we can say that the dialectic of life and death is the sole subject of the poems.”
The poet’s existence is presented as a cosmic drama in which these two great principles are confronted and their struggle is expressed in patterns, whose structure is accordingly antithetic.
This “binary” opposition is presented in terms of a “code” or system:
The life-principle is colour, pulsating rhythm, noise, heat, radiance, expansion, emotion and communication. Death is the other pole, darkness, stasis, silence, frost, well-defined edges [knives, arrows] and the hardness of rocks, jewels and skulls, dryness, anything self-contained and separate and which derives its positive attributes from some other source, instead of generating them freely—for death is absence, nothingness.
The positive side of this antithetical system is life, and the
...natural symbol of life is “the beautiful red” (‘Letter in November’). It is the colour of blood, the life-fluid, which expresses emotion by its pulsating centre, the heart, in its turn comparable to a wound which reveals life, or to the mouth, which kisses and screams. Colour comes as a “gift, a love gift” (“Poppies in October”), “the heart opens and closes/ Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me” (‘Tulips’) with essential exuberance and generosity in several poems, flowers like tulips and poppies evoke this centre of energy: “Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds (‘Tulips’)”
“Redness” gains, in Plath’s poems, through it being contrasted with a neutral “colour” like “white”:
But the poet’s reaction to the violent affirmation of life against a neutral background of white [the nurses’s uniform in ‘Tulips’, ‘snow’ elsewhere] varies according to (Plain’s) degree of vitality, humble thankfulness when life manifests itself in the desert of depression and daily chores (‘Poppies in October’) or despair at not being able to experience its bite and burn any more (‘Poppies in July’) and the consequent wish for sensation to be finally dulled (the poppies here are a conveniently dual symbol, evoking life but containing death).
In this context of torpidity or ennui, most disturbing of all is the call of life when vitality is at a low ebb; for it cannot be responded to. The individual feels unable to cope with the demands from life, the latter in turn threatens with disintegration and appears as malevolence:
Even through the gift paper I could hear them...
...African cat... —(‘Tulips’)
Here..., whiteness, the anonymous life in hospital and needle-brought unconsciousness are preferred as a refuge.
Lavers also sees the moon as “white...also an absence of colour”, and “the perfect symbol” of “death, for it shines in the night, its light is borrowed, its shape regular, well-defined and self-contained and its bald light turns everything into stone”, as if the moon were Medusa. According to Lavers, in poems like “Medusa”, “Elm”, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, “Childless Woman”, “The Rival”, “The Munich Mannequins”, “Paralytic” and “Edge”, they “form a constellation, which obviously transcends any personal application;...” But that is the precise point, for instance, in a poem like “The Moon and the Yellow Tree”, where the drama does indeed “transcend any personal application” in quest of a more fulfilling, if not consoling, conception of life and death. Lavers, however, buttresses her argument by suggesting that “Flat” is used, as in “Tulips”, to express a superficial contact with life, when shapes seem two-dimensional, as they do in moonlight”. Further,
...it also points to childlessness—rather as an elected state than when due to sterility—a state both ridiculous (‘The Rival’) and guilty, since it makes passion its own end:
The blood flood is the flood of love,
The absolute sacrifice
It means: no more idols but me,
“me, me and you.”
The moon is also a suitable symbol for sterility because of its circular shape, the most perfect of all, and because it rules the flux of menstrual blood. In the later, death- is in the midst of life, which is cut from its rightful end, according to Sylvia Plath...
Consequently, “the feeling of guilt for a self-seeking life is so strong that it sometimes involves the notion of children.” On the other hand, as in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘Berck-Plage’, the candle in Plath’s poems, “symbolises the warmth and fragility of personal life”. Moreover, “Religion, especially as it appears in tender images of mother and child”, seems to offer a refuge against the bald and white moon, as in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, or “Mary’s Song”, but the poet belongs outside, with the latter. Moreover, “the symbols of possible intimations of a transcendent reality behind the world, clouds, are always depicted as far and high, and indifferent”, as in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, “Gulliver” and “Little Fugue” according to Lavers. The “stiffness” is associated [in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”] with the blue colour, having a very ambiguous value in this code...” Further, the idea of a sacrifice as the central notion of religion has deeply impressed the poet; sacrifice, either of the heretics, or of the most precious and most innocent, the golden child (in ‘Mary’s Song’), the tortured Christ in ‘Elm’ or his suicidal’ ‘awful God-bit’ in “Years”. As a result, in an “identification in which sadism attributed to the deity is fused with as masochistic drive, the idea of redemption actually has death as a consequence, as appears in “Brusilia”. But “if actual existence can be considered a superiority, individualized existence means separateness which has...a negative value”. Hence, “the desire, expressed in an open or latent manner in many poems, for a transfiguration which will dissolve the limits of the self, this same “old suit, bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes” (‘Totem’).” This transfiguration “can be achieved in orgastic ecstasy, and in the horse’s gallop we find a double symbol, for the utmost experience and the pulsating rhythm of life, and for the dispersion of the individual into the ‘substanceless blue’ (“Ariel”, “Years”, “Words”, “Elm”). However, “Fever 103°” indicates that guilt feelings and a desire for expiation and purification may have determined this choice of a metaphysical framework. Their origin was probably multiple and ancient; this appears when comparing “Daddy” and “Little Fugue...”. “Actually, it is remarkable that in this universe ideas are never felt to be life-giving, intellect is therefore no help” (“The Moon and the Yew Tree”, “Nick and the Candlestick”). This anti-intellectualism can only cause depression, since every enduring reality is thereby interpreted as participating in the nature of death, knowledge is therefore condemned: in Three Women, the male world is “flatness from which ideas, destruction/ Bulldozer, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed/Endlessly proceed...,” and the surgeon lives among cut-up bodies in “Berck-Plage” he is one mirrory eye’ and surrounded by “glittering things”. In this context, it is “only normal and highly significant...the ever-changing face of the mirror is still used as a symbol for life which is preferred to fixity; the shattered mirror is then a metaphor for death”, as in “Contusion”.
Again, the “child is, in principle, the fountainhead of all life and hope, His self is not yet bald and shiny”, he is “vague as fog”..., a vagueness imbued with infinite possibilities, before which the parents are humbled: “your nakedness/shadows our safety”. (“Morning Song”) He is “akin to the elements, the sea, the wind, the clouds ‘with no strings attached and no reflections’ (‘Gulliver’)”. The poet “acknowledges the freedom of her child: “I’m no more your mother...the wind’s hand” (“Morning Song”)”. In the child, innocence, which for the adult can only be obtained in forgetftilness, and annihilation, as in “Getting There”, “Tulips”, “Fever 103°”, is miraculously combined with individuality: “A clean slate with your own face on” (“You’re”). Consequently, in “the face of disintegration and universal dissolution in deceptive glitter, he is a plenum, the fixed point on which the envious spaces lean (‘Nick and the Candlestick’), heavy and precious as gold, a divine redeemer, as in “Morning Song” and “You’re”, by “an accumulation of metaphor”. The child is “like the tremendously compact and potent germ of a future universe, the absolute beginning of some ancient mythologies.” However, “the obvious justification of one’s existence which the child brings is not always potent enough to appease the guilt of the egoist, as appears in the poems on the childless woman or those which show the dead children as appendages to the dead woman” (‘Edge’). In “Fever 103°”, guilt actually evokes the image of a “spotted”, dying child whereas in “Nick and the Candlestick”, the blood bloomed clear in him. Consequently it might be said, “to summarise, that as a subject the child is positive, but that as a theme it is often combined with others which greatly diminish this positive value, and can even make it completely negative; the child-theme is then used to reinforce guilt, fear and despair”.
Much the same could be said “about another theme, that of the lulling context, of everyday life”: Kindness “supplies another necessary fluid”, or “poultice”, and busies itself “sweetly picking up pieces.” Love, in its beginning, evoked ‘a green in the air’, which “cushioned lovingly” the poet.
However, as a poet “who is capable of reading life on two levels at once”, Plath also sees the other aspect—”what happens when interest wanes and the endless stream of the symbols dries up?” The “environment of daily life, when evoked like an incantation in such circumstances, is no more than “dead furniture”, fragmented and powerless...” Similarly, “cooking, often the symbol of daily life, after supplying a delightful metaphor for the child successfully brought into the world, “O high-riser, my little loaf (‘You’re’) can elsewhere be resented as a degrading drudgery, which can make one unworthy of a revelation.”
Consequently, to “the maimed self, therefore, daily life cannot give back wholeness, only crutches, a frequent symbol (‘Berck-Plage’, ‘The Applicant’).” And, “death can actually be welcome, since it frees one from this useless lumber, useless, yet irreversibly acquired, for man is the prey of an ‘adding-machine’.” In “Lady Lazarus” the self is described as:
What a trash
To annihilate each decade
What a million filaments
These images, Lavers points out, “recall Baudelaire’s famous poems entitled ‘Spleen’ in which the self is similarly cumbered with things which no longer have meaning”. This “reflection, which alienates, the living self (and is a frequent theme in Existentialist literature) fits in the neo-platonic scheme...whereby degeneration into matter is the sign of an irreversible degradation.” The “proliferation of “things, things” (‘Berck-Plage’) is used in lonesco’s plays to the same purpose”. And “things are another aspect of death; in ‘Berck-Plage’ the dead furniture turns into nothing, like the corpse: the visible is an illusion and the invisible alone matters”.
It follows “that purification can be achieved in death, in which the scattered personality is seen as gradually withdrawing towards its vital centre, and abandoning its tainted externals, as in “Fever 103°”, in “Tulips”, and in Paralytic”... Similarly, echoes “are often used as a symbol of these externals, since they are a degradation of sound, a repetition travelling away from the original event.” Consequently, if “poetry and death can denounce the illusion of a comfortable life, cannot love bring about the same realization?” Love, in Plath, is “the supremely, ambiguous theme”. To begin with, “some poems, like “Daddy” or “Medusa”, whatever their actual personal associations, present love as something to be achieved in the teeth of opposition, in spite of the past or of terrific obstacles, as in “Getting There”. The “ten-yearly rhythm” of death [in “Lady Lazarus”] offsets the pulsation of life”. However, it “is true that “Lady Lazarus” ends on a note of defiance, and “Daddy” on the successful nailing down of the vampire, the undead, followed by compassion and a purified feeling for this other man, badly known, who was the vampire’s victim: Daddy, you can lie back now.” But elsewhere this forced marriage appears as a certain immolation: “Death opened, like a black tree, blackly” (‘Little Fugue’).
Yet in “A Birthday Present”, “love is hoped for, but the parcel is suspected to contain death instead”. And even “more tellingly, the ecstasy of love, which is suggested by the gallop of a horse, is always evolved in a strangely passionless manner, which leads one to suggest that a blue and transparent transfiguration is preferred to a more personal feeling, as being psychologically safer”. Thus, “in “Ariel”, the horse is indeed pulsation conquered on ‘stasis in darkness’; but it leads not to a fever of blood but to a pearly ecstasy: “I foam to wheat glitter of seas,” and a happily suicidal wish. We deal here with a sublimation, the idea of love rather than actual love. “Consequently, although a divine visitation is wished for in the midst of everyday life, and although the poet cannot help feeling some pride and some nobility in her calling, she always conceives it as another of those numerous disintegrating factors which threaten her, and incomparably the most potent and terrifying”. There is “another disturbing factor: a profound uncertainty about the possibility of reconciling womanhood and intellect...”
However, “among the dramatic and unexpected cuts which are such a striking features of her poems, some are particularly evocative.” For instance, in “Cut” they “perfectly express the highly complex reaction of the speaker, a mixture of fear, breathless fascination and narcissistic tenderness for her own body and a heightening of the intensity of perception conveyed by the clinically precise description in the opening lines. In “Ariel”, the cuts convert the final ecstasy and volatilization, and “Fever 103°”, admirably suggests the feeling of ascension and forgetfulness of all earthly involvements an effect very similar to that of the beginning in Baudelaire’s ‘Elevation’...Generally speaking, the cuts tend to induce a strong narrative tension,... “However, the general tone is very rarely purely elegiac, since...the effort to dominate experience and the fear of fighting a losing battle results in most poems being built on a feeling of duality and antagonism”. Yet, “the fact that we are always strongly aware of an individual voice, even from the midst of despair, is a testimony to the poet’s achievement.” This in spite of the “dolorist accent of many poems...a masochistic infatuation with death, in “A Birthday Present”, “Elm”, or “Lady Lazarus”, and a rather repellent familiarity with its gruesome aspect. For this passivity is necessarily that of the poet, who must experience reality with the utmost intensity even if he must be broken in the process—an attitude erected into a dogma by Rimbaud and the Surealists.” In Plath’s poems, there is “the essential ambiguity of the themes and the protean presence of death”.
Lavers tends overmuch to read Plath as a neo-platonic or even as a Gnostic poet, even though this aspect of Plath’s poetry may suggest yet another indebtedness, on the poet’s part, to Yeats’s poetry. A loosely antinomian structure is evident behind Plath’s poetry. It works, roughly, in terms of the following oppositions, which are not necessarily exhaustive or exclusive:
(a) Life x Death
(b) the Sea x the Land
(c) Nature x Culture
(d) Health x Sickness (“Madness” x “normality”)
(e) Flowers x artificial objects, largely related to modern technology: crutches, crotches, etc.
(f) Female x Male (self-exposure x the Male Gaze)
(g) Father x (Mother) (Daughter x Mother)
(h) Father x Husband (“Daddy” x the “Black Man”)
(i) Son x Father (Nicholas x Ted Hughes)
(j) Body (“silence”) x Events (language; speech)
(k) the public domain (“history”, “culture”) x the private domain (the family/”her” story)
(l) the living x the dead
(m) the dead x the living (“All those Dead Dears”, “Tulips”)
(n) the survivors x the living dead (e.g. vampires/blood-suckers)
(o) art x science (“Dying is an art” x gas, fumes, environmental/degradation)
(p) blood (vitalistic) x blood (violence)
(q) the colour red (“blooms”) x white (“snow”)
(r) the colour red (“blood”) x white (“death”, non-communication)
(s) the telephone x hooks, knives, arrows
(t) the colour blue (positive association) x the colour blue (negative or neutral association)
(u) purity x stain (“sullied”, “decaying”, “Dirty Girl”)
(v) the child x the grown-ups (father, mother)