Self-Creation and Self-Destruction: The Case of Sylvia Plath

Poet Sylvia Plath was unable to turn self-destructive feelings into creation.

Posted Feb 17, 2019

The poet Sylvia Plath was unable to turn creation into self-creation, the construction of new and valuable aspects of personality and emotion. Although much of her poetry is full of vibrant and beautiful images, there is another strain in her work that, I think, foretells her suicide at the age of 31. Strong drives to destruction as well as creation appear in many of her poems. There are new images of the ominous, deadly side of homely kitchen things and of living bodies and flowers. These images transform both the living and the deadly; they make death seem beautiful and life seem threatening.

The quiet, resigned rhythms of her lines contrast with the bitterness, resentment, and hatred in the words and the destructiveness behind the words, producing a strange excitement and vitality. But, while her destructive feelings are often fused into poetic creations, there is little working through of these feelings and little indication of any unearthing of the psychological sources of her concerns. For example, in one of the poems she wrote shortly before she took her life, "Edge," there are striking excesses;

Albert Rothenberg
Sylvia Plath
Source: Albert Rothenberg

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying;

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each Iittle

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag.

The poem begins with the beautiful, but chilling, lines:

The woman is perfected. Her dead/

Body wears the smile of accomplishment...

Looking at these lines retrospectively, with knowledge of her suicide shortly thereafter, we can, of course, see a clear statement of her intent. But this is not the excess I am talking about because there is poetic creation in the lines, despite their macabre tone. They are paradoxical and somewhat exciting; they stimulate a progression of thought. But soon after these lines, we find the following:

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed...

I believe these latter lines to be uncreative because, in them, destructiveness has become excessive and gotten out of hand. The children are returned into the mother's body simply because she can give no more. She and her breasts—the pitchers of milk—are empty and dried up. The children are enfolded back into her womb, back into the past, where they came from. They are destroyed simply because she is destroyed. Furthermore, they are called serpents, a name whose negativity is only slightly modulated in this context by the adjective "white." In parallel with the destructive excesses in these lines, the poetic images introduced are inconsistent and jarring. Serpents do not go with pitchers of milk and the petals of the rose do not close as some other flower petals do. It seems that the rose is used primarily because of its rhyme with "close;" such rhyme disjoined from meaning is distinctly unpoetic and uncreative. The images and metaphors are fragmented and the ideas expressed, destructive.

I call attention to these particular lines to show how precarious may be the balance between destruction and creation in art, just as the balance between self-creation and self-destruction may be precarious in life. Sylvia Plath begins her poem with an assertion of triumph over death, the "smile of accomplishment," but she cannot carry her triumph further. A sense of triumph over death is ordinarily associated with a subjective sense of freedom—for most of us, that is. But in this poem, there is no freedom; there is only the bringing of the children back to their origins, back to the past.

Albert Rothenberg, used with permission
Ted Hughes
Source: Albert Rothenberg, used with permission

There is reason to believe that the problem with destructive feelings contained in this poem closely reflected Sylvia Plath's problems with destructive feelings in her life. She committed suicide approximately seven months after her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, separated from her. Left with the total responsibility for the care of her two very young children, she seems to have been constantly embroiled in a struggle with hostile feelings toward them. Many of her unfinished poems—possibly unfinished because they were so painfully personal—during this period suggest such a struggle, and the circumstances of her suicide indicate it as well. Here is an excerpt from one:

She hates

The thought of a baby—

Stealer of cells, stealer of beauty—

She would rather be dead than fat,

Dead and perfect, like Nefertiti

Turning on the gas in the kitchen stove early in the morning while the children were sleeping nearby, she made no provision for protecting them from the fumes that took her own life. They survived by chance rather than design. It is impossible to know whether or not she consciously intended to murder her own children, but there is little doubt about the expression of such destructive feelings toward children in the poem "Edge." The "serpents" are white and are un-brutally enfolded into the mother, but they are murdered, nevertheless.

I believe that Sylvia Plath could not turn her destructive feelings into poetic creation in these lines because she was using poetry primarily to control rather than create. In other words, she attempted to express destructive feelings in poetic form in order to expel them and externalize them. Such an attempt at indirect expression functions only to control feelings rather than to change them. It strives for balance, a static rather than progressive state. Good poetry does not do this; it attempts to get beneath the feelings, to understand them, or to use them in a progressive way. The writing of good poetry involves the poet's freeing him or herself up from the past to some degree through attaining some understanding and a movement into the future. One of the sources of our own enjoyment of poetry is our vicarious identification with the poet's struggle for understanding and freedom. In the case of this particular poem, Sylvia Plath could not fully turn destructiveness into creation and could not free herself enough from the past to move toward the future. As we now know, this state portended her self-destruction.

Just as an excessive need to control interferes with turning destructiveness into creation in art, so it interferes with turning self-destructive feelings into a process of self-creation in life.