Sylvia Plath

From Wikiquote
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Plath looking sideways
"I desire the things which will destroy me in the end."

Sylvia Plath (27 October 193211 February 1963) was an American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She was the first wife of Ted Hughes.


  • Being born a woman is my awful tragedy.
  • I am jealous of men. I envy the man his physical freedom to lead a double life.
    • Diary entry from 1951 in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 (New York: Anchor Books) as cited by Cordelia Jenkins in "The 'definitive account' of Sylvia Plath" Financial Times (November 13, 2000)
  • How frail the human heart must be —
    a mirrored pool of thought.
    • "I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt," quoted in the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (1975) as Plath's first poem, written at age 14
  • I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
    I lift my lids and all is born again.
  • I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the [US] government on a government grant. And I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met. Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later... We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on.

The Colossus (1960)[edit]

  • So many of us!
    So many of us!

    We are shelves, we are
    Tables, we are meek,
    We are edible,

    Nudgers and shovers
    In spite of ourselves.
    Our kind multiplies:

    We shall by morning
    Inherit the earth.
    Our foot's in the door.

The Bell Jar (1963)[edit]

  • It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
    • Ch. 1, Opening line
  • The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cars were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn't hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for the good it did me.
    • Ch. 2
  • There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them.
    • Ch. 2
  • I never feel so much myself as when I'm in a hot bath.
    • Ch. 2
  • There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.
    • Ch. 2
  • If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.
    • Ch. 5
  • What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.
    • Ch. 5
  • Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she'd had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn't know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
    • Ch. 6
  • I didn't feel like asking him if there were any other ways to have babies. For some reason the most important thing to me was actually seeing the baby come out of you yourself and making sure it was yours. I thought if you had to have all that pain anyway you might just as well stay awake. I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over — dead white, of course, with no makeup and form the awful ordeal, but smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was.
    • Ch. 6
  • Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.
    • Ch. 6
  • I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.
    • Ch. 7
  • So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.
    • Ch. 7
  • I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.
    • Ch.7
  • The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.
    • Ch. 7
  • Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn't, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another. I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.
    • Ch. 7
  • 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 ground at my feet.
    • Ch. 7
  • If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.
    • Ch. 8
  • "It's a tango." Marco maneuvered me out among the dancers. "I love tangos." "I can't dance." "You don't have to dance. I'll do that dancing." Marco hooked an arm around my waist and jerked me up against his dazzling white suit. Then he said, "Pretend you are drowning." I shut my eyes, and the music broke over me like a rainstorm. Marco's leg slid forward against mine and my leg slid back and I seemed to be riveted against him, limb for limb, moving as he moved, without any will or knowledge of my own, and after a while I thought, "It doesn't take two to dance, it only takes one," and I let myself blow and bend like a tree in the wind. "What did I tell you?" Marco's breath scorched my ear. "You're a perfectly respectable dancer."
    • Ch. 9
  • I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.
    • Ch. 9
  • "Does she know you love her?" "Of course." I paused. The obstacle seemed unreal to me. "If you love her," I said, "you'll love somebody else someday."
    • Ch. 9
  • They understood things of the spirit in Japan. They disemboweled themselves when anything went wrong.
    • Ch. 11
  • When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies. But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn't do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.
    • Ch. 12
  • Wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
    • Ch. 15
  • "I hate her," I said, and waited for the blow to fall. But Doctor Nolan only smiled at me as if something had pleased her very, very much and said, "I suppose you do."
    • Ch. 16
  • The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.
    • Ch. 18
  • How did I know that someday — at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere — the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?
    • Ch. 20
  • To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
    • Ch. 20
  • I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.
    • Ch. 20
  • There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice - patched, retreaded and approved for the road.
    • Ch. 20

Ariel (1965)[edit]

  • Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
    I have the ticket for that.
    Come here, sweetie, out of the 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.

  • 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.
  • Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

    Out of the ash
    I rise with my red hair
    And I eat men like air.

    • "Lady Lazarus"
  • I am inhabited by a cry.
    Nightly it flaps out
    Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

    I am terrified by this dark thing
    That sleeps in me;
    All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

  • I am incapable of more knowledge.
    What is this, this face
    So murderous in its strangle of branches? —

    Its snaky acids hiss.
    It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults,
    That kill, that kill, that kill.

    • "Elm"
  • The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
    White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
    It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
    With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
    • "The Moon and the Yew Tree"
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • "Daddy"
  • 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.
    • "Daddy"
  • Darling, all night
    I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
    The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss.
  • The blood jet is poetry,
    There is no stopping it.
  • 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 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
    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.

  • Axes
    After whose stroke the wood rings,
    And the echoes!
    Echoes travelling
    Off from the centre like horses.

Crossing the Water (1971)[edit]

  • These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
    I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
    To the hills' northern face, and the face is orange rock
    That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
    Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
    Beating and beating at an intractable metal.
  • These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.
    They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
    Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
    If they missed out on walking about like people
    It wasn't for any lack of mother-love.
  • Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
    Searching my reaches for what she really is.
    Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
    I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
    She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
    I am important to her. She comes and goes.
    Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
    In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
    Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
  • I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
    An elephant, a ponderous house,
    A melon strolling on two tendrils.
    O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
    This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
    Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
    I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
    I've eaten a bag of green apples,
    Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Winter Trees (1972)[edit]

  • You said you would kill it this morning.
    Do not kill it. It startles me still,
    The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing

    Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.
    It is something to own a pheasant,
    Or just to be visited at all.

    I am not mystical: it isn't
    As if I thought it had a spirit.
    It is simply in its element.

    That gives it a kingliness, a right.

Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (1976)[edit]

  • Don't talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff! What the person out of Belsen — physical or psychological — wants is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like.
    • Letter to Aurelia Plath (August 21, 1962)

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000)[edit]

Karen V. Kukil, ed. Anchor Press, ISBN 0-385-72025-4

  • I talk to God but the sky is empty.
    • Draft of letter to Richard Sassoon (February 19, 1950)
  • I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love's not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person. But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I'll ever have. And you cannot regard your own life with objective curiosity all the time.
    • (July 7, 1950) [1]
  • It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: After a heavy rainfall, poems titled RAIN pour in from across the nation.
    • (July 6, 1950)
  • With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can't start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It's like quicksand... hopeless from the start.
    • (July 8, 1950)
  • The blood of love welled up in my heart with a slow pain.
    • (July 17, 1950) [2]
  • Frustrated? Yes. Why? Because it is impossible for me to be God — or the universal woman-and-man — or anything much. I am what I feel and think and do. I want to express my being as fully as I can because I somewhere picked up the idea that I could justify my being alive that way.
    • 1950 entry, quoted in Gayle Wurst, Voice and Vision: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1999), p. 158
  • If I didn't think, I'd be much happier; if I didn't have any sex organs, I wouldn't waver on the brink of nervous emotion and tears all the time.
    • 1950 entry, quoted in Kate Moses, "The Real Sylvia Plath," (June 1, 2000) [3]
  • Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.
    • Draft of letter to Richard Sassoon (December 1955), quoted in Joyce Carol Oates, "Raising Lady Lazarus," The New York Times (November 5, 2000) [4]
  • I must get back my soul from you; I am killing my flesh without it.
    • Draft of letter to Richard Sassoon (March 1, 1956)
  • I am made, crudely, for success.
    • (April 22, 1958)
  • Ironically, Henry James' biography comforts me & I long to make known to him his posthumous reputation — he wrote, in pain, gave all his life (which is more than I could think of doing — I have Ted, will have children — but few friends) & the critics insulted & mocked him, readers didn't read him.
    • (April 22, 1958)
  • I desire the things which will destroy me in the end.
    • Journal entry from July 1950 – 1953, p. 63 of the original, p. 55 of the collection
  • The abstract kills, the concrete saves.
    • (January 7, 1959) [5]

Quotes about Sylvia Plath[edit]

In alphabetical order by author or source.
  • I was rereading Plath the other day and she is a really an extremely fine, clever poet. In fact, I think Plath has turned out to be a much better poet than Hughes ever was. Of course he won all the prizes, and his name is on the stones in Poet’s Corner and OK, he’s pretty good, but not that good, whereas she gets better and better. ... Her early stuff wasn’t very good, but the poems after she left him – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she threw him out – were extraordinary. It’s funny when I reflect on back then, there were these two young poets I really liked, but at some point in those last few years, something shifted for her. What had happened was that Ted had gone on doing what he knew how to do, in a kind of slightly automatic way, whereas Sylvia had that one extraordinary year where she wrote non-stop. At that point she shot ahead.
  • Long after I had been reading her work I came across the recording of some of her poems she made in England not long before she died. I have never before learned anything from a poetry reading, unless the clothes, the beard, the girls, the poor or good condition of the poet can be considered a kind of knowledge. But I was taken aback by Sylvia Plath’s reading. It was not anything like I could have imagined. Not a trace of the modest, retreating, humorous Worcester, Massachusetts, of Elizabeth Bishop; nothing of the swallowed plain Pennsylvania of Marianne Moore. Instead these bitter poems—"Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," "The Applicant," "Fever 103°"—were "beautifully" read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased. "I have done it again!" Clearly, perfectly, staring you down. She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, "Uncover, dogs, and lap!"
    • Elizabeth Hardwick "On Sylvia Plath" The New York Review of Books (August 12, 1971).
    • The recordings in London (by the BBC) date from 1962. "I have done it again!", is the opening line of Plath's "Lady Lazarus". The quote from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens is from Act 3, Scene 6
  • I believe that the consciousness from which creativity comes is this intensity of focus that is the result of practice. Sylvia Plath wrote exercise poems. Writing poetry is itself a form of exercise, a discipline as much as it is a calling and an art. And a discipline always asks for exercise.
    • Shirley Geok-lin Lim in Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft by Bill Moyers (1999)
  • And yet when we think of Plath's death at dawn in an indifferent London it is homely Massachusetts that somehow comes back into view. The idea of death far away from home has a special pathos; embedded in it is the fantasy that the foreign place contributed to the death, perhaps was even the cause of it. Foreignness is threatening, dangerous: if only he or she had stayed home and not drunk that water, not taken that ancient bus over the pass, never ventured into that evil café.
  • The confessional poets like [Sylvia] Plath, whom I read later when they started calling me confessional, most of their stuff seemed contrived to me and not as greatly honest as it was touted to be.
  • Plath is an indefatigable graphomaniac who could write as fervently of colds, fevers, nausea, cramps and nosepicking as of an idyllic honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain; she is an inspired hater, and thrills to malicious descriptions of long-forgotten, nameless individuals whose bad luck it was to live near her, or to have met her socially. Yet Plath was always a severe critic of her real work, and considered the journal a place in which she could reveal herself without the strictures of art.
  • Like piranhas devouring their prey, Plath's thoughts rush, churn, thresh -- there is sheer demonic energy here, exhausting to observe and suggesting that Plath's primary motive for suicide might have been the extinguishing of this piranha-voice.
    • Joyce Carol Oates "Raising Lady Lazarus" The New York Times (November 5, 2000)
    • From a review of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 (New York: Anchor Books). Hughes habit of "nosepicking" is described as a "most unromantic penchant".
  • Anger has always played a role in poetry...What is relatively new for poetry is women expressing anger, which horrifies many readers because it is such an unfeminine thing for women to do. Women are supposed to be nice and courteous, and leave the violence to men. The anger in twentieth-century women’s poetry, beginning with Plath and continuing with Adrienne Rich and many others, especially Black women, has been thrillingly salutary, cleansing the air.
  • back in those times, even though women were all infected with a yearning for a wild freedom, they continued outwardly to rub SOS on porcelain, using caustic cleansers, staying, as Sylvia Plath put it, "tied to their Bendix washing machines." There they washed and rinsed their clothes in water too hot for human touch and dreamed of a different world. When the instincts are injured, humans will "normalize" assault after assault, acts of injustice and destruction toward themselves, their offspring, their loved ones, their land, and even their Gods.
  • There is a tendency to see this mother-daughter relationship as the source of Sylvia Plath's early suicide attempt, her relentless perfectionism and obsession with "greatness." Yet the preface to Letters Home reveals a remarkable woman, a true survivor; it was Plath's father who set the example of self-destructiveness. The letters are far from complete and until many more materials are released, efforts to write Plath biography and criticism are questionable at best. But throughout runs her need to lay in her mother's lap, as it were, poems and prizes, books and babies, the longing for her mother when she is about to give birth, the effort to let Aurelia Plath know that her struggles and sacrifices to rear her daughter had been vindicated. In the last letters Sylvia seems to be trying to shield herself and Aurelia, an ocean away, from the pain of that "psychic osmosis."
    • Adrienne Rich Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976)
  • With the bravado and despair of a young person, she tore apart the elegant poetic forms of the 1950s, and, using the raw language of everyday speech, she gave voice to the storms that raged inside her, thus freeing herself from the nightmarish visions that had long tormented her. In her novel The Bell Jar, she leads us into the dark corridors of the inner hell that led to her mental breakdown and brought her to the brink of her first attempt at suicide. It is a cruel, stifling world, whose black gates carry the inscription "no exit." Plath took the fact that she was the daughter of parents of German origin as the symbolic definition of her life. It was a fact that could neither be denied nor changed. In her poems, she called the father whom she loved, and who died when she was a child, a Nazi bastard. She, the Aryan child of the postwar generation, reimagined herself as symbolically Jewish, estranged, persecuted, rejected, and condemned.
  • In the 80s, Plath became a kind of feminist symbol of a victim, of what men can do to women; and the torment she endured is certainly part of the fascination for some. Not just in her life, or in her poetry, but after her death - since she was still legally married to Hughes, he inherited the Plath estate and was either careless with her work or protective of others' (and his own) feelings, depending on your view. He rearranged Plath's order of the poems in Ariel, for example, and added some of her bleakest at the end, such as Edge, which begins: "The woman is perfected./Her dead/Body wears the smile of accomplishment." Plath's order, on the other hand, was more hopeful - it began with the word "love" and ended with "spring". Hughes burned Plath's last journal, "lost" another, similarly "lost" an unfinished novel and instructed that a collection of Plath's papers should not be released until 2013.
    Her friends say that the victim image foisted on to Plath in the 80s never really fitted the woman, that Hughes was madly in love with her (as his near-death publication of Birthday Letters showed), and that she and Hughes in fact had an unusually equal relationship; but that is not to deny that being a woman and a writer in the 50s was difficult.

External links[edit]

Wikipedia has an article about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: