Sylvia Plath as a Confessional Poet

Sylvia Plath as a Confessional Poet

Sylvia Plath as a Confessional Poet


Sylvia Plath is a very famous poet of the 20th century American poetry. She has during a short span of thirty years of short life written a large number of poems which have attracted the notice of eminent critics and very devoted readers. She was born in 1932 in America. Her parents were immigrants from Europe. Her father’s name was Otto Plath who was a German and her mother’s name was Aurelia Plath who had migrated to America from Switzerland. Her father was a scientist and he had made great contribution to Etymology by his researches on Bumble bees. He was respected as a great scholar. She was very much fond of her parents.

From the very beginning Sylvia was a bright student who after her primary education went to the Smith College in America and graduated from there. From there she was awarded Fullbright Scholarship and went to England and studied at Cambridge University. It was there that she came into contact with Ted Hughes who was a famous poet of England. In 1956, she married him and both begin to write poetry according to their talents but Sylvia was under the influence of American contemporary poets about which a great critic was rightly deserved from a personal ritual process:

“I saw Plath as a poet who had attempted something essentially different from the contemporary writers with whom she was normally associated, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton. She linked private images and motifs into sequences that formed part of a coherent drama, a symbolic enactment. This dramatic approach was the key to her last poems, mainly collected in Ariel and Winter Trees, which take the reader into a world of heightened possibilities and fatal attractions. I conceived of her work as a poetry of personal process in which the central development was an initiation, a transformation of the self from a state of symbolic death to one of rebirth. Her death in 1963 cut off the life of a poet who had only just found a method for dramatizing the warring forces of her personal universe.”

The Works of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath considered writing a way of life. Her poetry is at once an expression of her personality and a clear statement of her suffering and outlook on life. In her diary, she has noted, I have powerful, physical, intellectual and emotional forces which must have outlets, creative, or they turn to destruction and waste.

” Creativity is thus directly related to her inner life and is looked upon as a factor nourishing her emotional and intellectual well being. Her life and work are symbiotic and her stories and poems mark, the various signposts which punctuated her life. This mutual dependence between life and art lasted all through her career.”

She wrote her first poem and first drawing in 1941 after the death of her father in 1940. From 1940 to 1953 she spent her time in various schools, where she received her primary and secondary educations. In 1955, she wrote her honour thesis at the Smith College and graduated from the same college in 1955-56. She came to England on Fullbright Scholarship where she achieved more academic subject. It was there that she marriage Ted Hughes on June 16, 1956. She spent her honeymoon in Spain. In 1957, both Ted and Sylvia went to return to America where she took up a teaching job in Smith College but she gave up this job in 1958 and decided to devote her life to poetry and writing other works. In 1958 she attended Robert Lowell’s poetry classes at Boston University. The same year she went on Camping tour with her husband.

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From 1960 to 1962 she gave birth two or three children one daughter and one son. Nicolas Parar. It was in 1961 that she finished her autobiographical novel the Bell Jar. In was in England that she separated from her husband in 1962. In spite of this shocking separation she continued to write at the top speed the poems of Ariel and Winter Trees. The Colosus and other poems had been published already in 1960. The second volume The Ariel was published posthumously. This poem raised in crowd of critics and admired with its irresistible poetic appeal.

The Personal and Autobiographical Element in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

The poetry of Sylvia Plath is full of autobiographical allusions. Her life and her personality overshadow her works. Her poetry seems to be the only reflection of her experiences fortunate and unfortunate but she has mostly described her feeling of despondence and aloofness. For example, on her parents she had written two very popular poems “Daddy” and “Medusa“. These poems were written just before she committed suicide in Feb. 1963. In these poems, she has given her honest feelings about her father and mother. She is so self-centered that she loses contact and perception of all other things and outer life.

The Themes in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

The first theme that strikes the readers is the theme of womanhood in almost all the poems of Sylvia, the speaker is always a woman. She describes the suffering of the woman in poems such as Rival, Medusa, The Other Widow, Less Wars, The Tour and Purda. In all these poems, the miserable condition of woman has been described very touchingly. In Lady Lazarus, she describes the suffering of woman with great sensibility. Therefore some critics call her a ‘feminists’ familiar but she does not take the cause of women like a feminist.

The Theme of Death in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

Throughout her poems, Sylvia Plath is obsessed with the theme of death. She had the first experience of death when her father died in 1940. She brooded over his death all her life. The love-hate drama on death is especially staged in the poem Daddy, Lady Lazarus and other poems as well. But death is not the halt. It is a door to another life, ‘a new heaven, a new earth’.

Sylvia Plath as a Confessional Poet

Sylvia Plath was writing her poems when Robert Lowell had started confessional movement in American poetry. She attended the classes of Robert Lowell and began to write poetry under his influence. Therefore she is called a confessional poet. About the development of confessional poetry, a noted critic says:

“With the publication, in 1958, of Robert Lowell’s immensely influential Life Studies, critics and reviewers were looking for a felicitous label to apply to this apparently ‘new kind of a poem. Professor M.L. Rosenthal was one of the earliest critics/reviewers to “invent” this description. As poetry editor, at one time, of the Nation and also Professor of English at New York University, he was in a crucial position to look for a “school” around Robert Lowell. This ascription to the work of not only Robert Lowell (although he had many styles, not just ‘confessional) but also Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton W. D. Snodgrass has stuck”, for it is a convenient marker for a certain kind of a poem.”

As Rosenthal points out, “many of the motifs and developments” present in a “confessional” poem include:

“…the alienation of sensibility by modern war and the technological displacement of human values, and the directions of (Anglo-American) poetry, particularly the Romantic and primitivist criticism of these tendencies, the emphasis on the individual as their victim, and the deliberate brutality of the speaking voice at the end of reinforce the impression of utter vulnerability. The fragmentation of the long poem is an aspect of alienation….”

In spite of the fact that Sylvia Plath shows confessional bent of mind, in her later poetry, she has surpassed confessional mode which restricts the expression of personal sad experiences which Sylvia Plath had the perfect ability to change into universal truths. She strongly believed that life is initiation, realization death and freedom from worldly problems. About her being as confessional poet there is general agreement.

The Imagery and Style of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is a metaphysical poet. Her mysticism is clearly reflected in her poems. Therefore, for expression of her mystic ideas in worldly experiences she takes recourse to symbolism and farfetched imagery.

The pattern in which Sylvia Plath chose to weave out her tapestry of poetry has all the accuracy of a master artiste, and brilliance of a natural craftsman. As necessary and as simple a method as breathing, her Art went all the way with her in the process of making exquisite pieces of beauty in her own inimitable pattern. The casual readers are left agape and breathless to keep pace with the intense urge of her style. It, however, goes to prove the one certain claim she makes to her posterity – her unrivalled mastery at the technical aspect of her poetry.

Though critics have differed in their opinion regarding her poetic theme and vision, they are unanimous in their views that to imitate Plathean pattern in negotiating the necessary theme is next to impossible for other poets. The question of imitation arises because there was a craze to imitate Plath’s form and diction when her poetry came to be widely known for the first time and had its full impact. Since then, the typical Plathean style has come to stay in some form or the other in the genre of American poetry – though, of course, in the superficial way, for two reasons mainly. In the first place, in poetic theme as well as in style, Plath sought excruciating depth: no simply elegance, but hard core meaning : which is difficult to grasp and handle for many a fancy poet. And, secondly, her style and her theme is so expertly and sophisticatedly interwoven together that if one wants to follow one, the other naturally follows suit. Hardly any aspiring poet would try to welcome the negative, demented, questionable nature of theme she indulges in. Hence, the word ‘inimitable’ applies aptly to her style.


Thus we find that Sylvia Plath is one of the greatest modern poets of America. In her short life of 32 years she has written large number of poems which show her maturity of thought and perception. A very eminent critic has rightly observed :

“What is of special interest to a student of literature is that Sylvia Plath is the most representative poet of her generation which was plagued almost by the same ills as herself. Her art is significant in the sense that very few poets could write as perceptively, as she did about such taboo subjects as madness, rape, incest etc. Her prose and poetry are true reflections of her life. The rare insights she offers into her mind only reveal the socio-pathological results of broken-homes, lack of love to children by parents, and the stress and strain which a competitive world impinges on an individual driving him or her during life-time. Her boldness and frankness coupled with her beautiful craftsmanship are unsullied, artistic records of a poet who suffered and wrote, wrote and suffered. Her work is not fictional but a transaction of actual world and hence the special appeal.”

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