The work of the confessional poet Sylvia Plath relates closely to issues that are the concerns of audiences today, forty years after her death. The relevance of her poems lies in the fact that, despite her cultural context of America and Europe in the 1950s and 60s, she writes about issues such as male/female relationships, power and the role of women in society in ways that resonate with readers living in a contemporary world of inequality and conflict. On the surface her poems might not engage “ fools”, those who do not look beyond the privileged image of Plath’s madness.
However, “ sages”, those who look beyond the superficial, will see Plath’s power and artistry in her poetic text construction – which she worked at constantly. While it is possible to read Plath’s work from an author-centred position, examining the way her poems were affected by her shaky mental health, a world-context-centred reading is much more rewarding. In this way the enduring strength of her use of language and historical allusion can be appreciated just as much as it is possible to examine her representations of unequal power relationships in a way which make her poems universally relevant.
Continuity exists between Plath’s context and our modern context that women are represented as a disadvantaged and often ignored power group. Generally, Plath can be read on these two levels: the surface and the subtext. “ Mushrooms” can be read quite simply, as a poem that describes this often neglected or ignored fungi but it can also be seen that the mushrooms might also represent women as a disadvantaged, often ignored, power group. In “ Mushrooms”, she might easily be talking about herself.
As she tried to fit the ideal stereotype of the 1950s wife and mother she probably felt the strain of not having enough time to write – which had always been a consuming passion for her. She sees the need to change her circumstances when she writes that mushrooms are “ Perfectly voiceless, … ” and “ Bland-mannared, asking / Little or nothing. ” Readers today can see a different, deeper meaning in the final stanza if they look at the poem from a feminist perspective.
When Plath writes: We shall by morning Inherit the earth. Our foot’s in the door. She might well be looking at the future progress of the women’s movement. Also relating to feminism, in “ Burning the Letters”, Plath writes about her own existence, although the subject is probably the act of burning manuscripts of Ted Hughes, her husband, after they had a fight – “ This fire may lick and fawn, but it is merciless: / A glass case”. She represents herself as a fire that is overwhelming, and merciless against men.
Then she shows that she is like a glass case, beautiful yet very fragile. Many women might be like this, with a ferocious attitude as many wives are, yet they easily get hurt because they cannot overcome the unequal power relationships that exist in society with many marriages ending in divorce. In a different time, as she was in one of her rare happy moods, she writes in “ Morning Song”, “ I’m no more your mother Than the cloud that distils a mirror to deflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand” trying to illustrate that the dire happenings may be erased in an instant. Possibly Plath wanted her readers to see that although depression may be an incredible influence, it is forgotten when joyful things happen – in Plath’s case, the birth of her child. Many people now may relate to this to women’s emotions on the birth of a child and their feeling that, as individuals, they are somewhat “ effaced” by that birth, because they become consumed by the new role.
Later on in Plath’s life, a terribly dark poem, “ Daddy” is the work produced from the wrath of Plath towards men, in particular her father and her husband. Even in our modern era, four decades after Plath’s era, ambivalent relationships exist widely in society. She incorporates many frightful allusions, such as torture by the Nazis: “ A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw” to vampirism, “ If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—- The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,” to represent her feelings about these men, both of whom have harmed her in some way. Feminists can relate to this poem in a different way, to see the poem as a protest poem against the gender relationships as “ Daddy” is about revenge that she wants to impose with a “ cooing tenderness” (Alvarez) on Ted Hughes and even her dead father. A continuity of violence in relationships exists from Plath’s time to the present and readers can relate closely to this with stories or their own experience.
Such examples include but are not limited to domestic violence, feminist issues and divorce settlements. In “ Lady Lazurus”, Plath combines the historical and bibliographical allusions with an extensive use of craft to produce a poem that is relevant to the western society during the 20th century. Death and gender issues arise in our modern society, and “ Lady Lazarus” relates to this using Plath’s story as the example. Another poem which also has references to death is “ Cut” by using a metaphor to represent the wound.
Using a physical scar as a metaphor, she explains the mental scar she possesses. Such a poem relates closely to people with mental illnesses, in particular, depression cases. Plath engages sages and not fools due to her exquisite craft and historical allusions. Extended metaphors are often used, and to understand her poem thoroughly, one must appreciate the historical events Plath alludes to in the subtext. Such work is not possible for fools as they do not look beyond the surface.
From reading Plath’s poems, we can come to the understanding that her work is not only relevant in terms of her social and cultural context, but that it is also relevant in our current social and cultural context. Plath although not regarded as a feminist, can be read from a feminist perspective, and thus relating her poems to our modern society. Therefore Plath’s work was greatly relevant in her era, and is still relevant now due to the continuity of the feminist movement.