- 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.
- "Mad Girl's Love Song" (1953) from Collected Poems (1981)
- What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
- "Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices" (1962), a radio play published in 1968
The Colossus (1960)
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)
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.
- This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
- 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.
- 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.
- Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss.
- Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
- The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
The woman is perfected
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
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.
After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Off from the centre like horses.
Crossing the Water (1971)
- 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)
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)
- 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)
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 (1950-02-19)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.
- I must get back my soul from you; I am killing my flesh without it.
- Draft of letter to Richard Sassoon (1956-03-01)
- I am made, crudely, for success.
- 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.
- I desire the things which will destroy me in the end.
- Journal entry from July 1950 – 1953, page 63 of the original, page 55 of the collection
Quotes about Sylvia Plath
- 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)
- Sylvia Plath at the Academy of American Poets site
- The Poetry of Sylvia Plath
- Sylvia Plath at the Modern American Poetry site
- The Bell Jar quotes analyzed; study guide with themes, literary devices, teacher resources