Sylvia Plath

Slyvia Plath

Presented by Dani Stoe


I. Basic Biography

II. Confessional Poetry

III. Friendship with Anne Sexton

IV. Freudian Influence

V. Example of Her Poetry

VI. Works Cited










 Basic Biography


Though often viewed as either a feminist martyr or a tragic heroine, Sylvia Plath was in truth neither and, at the same time, a bit of both. While Plath's mental instability has often been attributed to her husband's mysogyny, it has also been suggested that she was not a great feminist [citation needed]. She was also not quite the doomed lunatic, as some would describe her. Plath was famous for the novel The Bell Jar, as well as poems such as "Ariel." Collections of her poetry were published after her death. They include Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, and The Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize. One of the ways that some critics have categorized her work is by labeling it as Confessional Poetry. This "confessional style" is extremely evident in her poetry that reflects on the taking of her own life.


Confessional Poetry


This type of poetry is of the personal or the "I". It began in the late 1950s and continued on through the early 1960s. Sylvia Plath is among the poets associated with this kind of poetry. Other notable confessional poets include Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and W.D. Snodgrass. Sexton and Plath were both highly influenced by Lowell's work. Confessional poetry started to address topics that up until then had not been openly discussed. Personal feelings about things like death, trauma, suicide and relationships began to be dealt with. The resulting poetry was nearly auto-biographical and even therapuetic for the author. Plath's poem "Daddy" is among the most well-known in confessional poetry.

Friendship with Anne Sexton
One interesting influence on Sylvia Plath's career was her friendship with fellow poet Anne Sexton. Although contrasting stories exist regarding the genuineness of their friendship, Plath and Sexton did spend time with each other during March and April of 1959. Both attended a poetry class offered by Robert Lowell at Boston University and enjoyed discussing their deaths over martinis at the Ritz-Carlton hotel's bar after class. Poet George Starbuck, who joined them on these occasions, wrote that they "had these conversations comparing their suicides and talking about their psychiatrists" (Trinidad 4).  However, as Sexton began an affair with Starbuck and had work published, Plath became jealous of her friend.  Simultaneously, Plath's work was not well received by both publishers and critics, upsetting her further.  Nevertheless, as Plath became more successful, she acknowledged she had been influenced by Sexton's work.  Plath's "Ariel" and Sexton's "The Starry Night" both celebrate suicide, the same topic which the women discussed at the Ritz.  After Plath's death, Sexton started to incorporate Plath's themes and Nazi imagery into her own work.  Despite communicating only sporadically between 1959 and Plath's suicide, both women were definitively influenced by their brief friendship, showing in their respective works.  
Freudian Influence:
Like many modern writers, Plath was greatly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. This manifests itself in Plath's frequent use of themes and images related to death and sexuality. To Freud, the aim of life is death, and Plath developed this in her poetry; she often writes about suicide and her attempts at it, and her poem "Daddy" is a poetic murder of her father. This poem also indicates a Freudian understanding of sexuality, likening her father to a shoe. The shoe in her poem is oppressive, as she writes of herself as living in the shoe like a foot. Freud's psychoanalysis would look at Plath's shoe image as a phallic image indicating an exploitative, sexual connection with her father. The conflict between sexual oppression and sexual connection reveals itself later in the poem again, when she writes of her father's death and her desire to commit suicide to get back to him. Using images of death and suffering from the Holocaust, she associates herself with the Jews oppressed by her Nazi father, connecting the death and sexuality of Freudianism.


Example of Her Poetry:







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 gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal


And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.


In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend


Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.


It stuck in a barb wire snare.

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene


An engine, an engine,

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.


The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.


I have always been sacred of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You----


Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.


You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who


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 knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look


And a love of the rack and the 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.





Works Cited:


Trinidad, David. "Two Sweet Ladies: Sexton and Plath's Friendship and Mutual Influence."  American Poetry Review. 35:6 (2006): 21-29.  full text


Poems from



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