Articles for ‘Plath’

Reading Aloud: Plath and Hughes

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

In an iconic incident commemorated in the film 'Sylvia', Sylvia Plath was able to recite parts of Ted Hughes's poems when she first met him. Memorization and reading aloud have always been vital parts of the experience of poetry, but they may at present be as neglected as they have ever been. On this page graduate student Adam Crothers and the Cambridge Authors team have put together what we hope might be some thought-provoking suggestions and quotations, relating to Hughes, and then Plath. Memorizing and reciting poetry enhances our experience of it, and may make us think differently about it; and it's good practice for both memory and voice.

I. Hughes: By Heart

Hughes was a great advocate of memorisation and reading aloud. Here graduate student Adam Crothers introduces some of his key words on the topic.

In a letter to his sister, Olwyn, written in 1952 during his first year at Cambridge, Ted Hughes writes of a conversation with his tutor, the Classicist Anthony Camps, about the English Tripos. They agreed that the syllabus was too wide, and led to 'opinions about literature', rather than 'a real knowledge':

I aired my belief - the old bards used to have to learn huge set tomes and become so intimate with them, that they became part of their mind. And just as one thinks with adopted ideas, so, if one studied say, just Shakespeare for 3 years intensely, it would be thereafter your mind, and an anchor for all other reading or art. (Letters, p. 15)

This idea - that intimate knowledge, repeated reading, and memorization, led to something very substantial - stayed with Hughes throughout his life. In 1988 it prompted him to write the following to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education:

What kids need, say I, is a headfull of songs that are not songs but blocks of achieved & exemplary language. When they know by heart fifteen pages of , a page of Swift's , etc etc, they have the guardian angel installed behind the tongue. They have reefs, for the life of language to build and breed around.  A 'globe of precepts' and a great sheet anchor in the maelstrom of linguistic turbulence - (now we're really at sea!). (Letters, p. 546)

This is Hughes proposing the memorising of poetry not as busywork, and not as exam preparation, but as a grounding in the better uses of the oft-abused English language, a way of preserving a link to that language's power. Having laid some groundwork in the anthologies The Rattle Bag and The School Bag, edited in collaboration with the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Hughes put together an anthology of poems-for-remembering that was published in 1997 as .

A key component in the experience of poetry, both as poet and as reader, is reading aloud, as Hughes advises in a letter to Plath:

Beethoven composed singing and roaring and walking very fast and so did Dostoevsky - not singing but vociferating. So read aloud a lot, and read aloud poetry as you walk to and fro in your room timing the metre to your steps. This would be ideal, but you'll think it too ridiculous. (Letters, p. 51)

Whether or not this is good advice, it seems that speaking a poem aloud was an important part of Hughes's compositional process: for this reason if no other, it is worth paying close attention to the actual, heard sound, as opposed to the imagined, seen sound, of his poems. This may be helpful in anchoring one's mind in Hughes's own 'achieved & exemplary language', even if the process might end up emphasising that some of the poem's powers are greater when being read than when being remembered.

One might consider one of two stanzas from the poem 'Shells':

Shells white, shells brown, sea-shells
Or, cast bare, gleam dry. (You can find the whole stanza in Birthday Letters or in Collected Poems, p. 55)

Listen to the repetitions in this poem: of words, like 'shells', but also of sounds. The 'm' of 'Tumbled' is picked up by 'Swarm', 'foam' and 'gleam', a hum of oceanic ambiance running through the background of the poem. Perfect rhymes, like 'cry' rhyming with 'dry', mingle with half rhymes (shells / shoals / hauls, and the echo of the final syllable of 'curiosity' with the perfect rhymes). The word 'screech' picks up on the 's' sound while distorting the 'sh', the screech of the shells fitting in with a sound pattern yet also deviating from it. In poetry, the sound of the word and the word's meaning are not separate things, and a pattern of sounds helps the reader to experience the poem and to remember details of that experience.

'Shells' sounds beautiful, but ugly sounds can also be memorable, and thus beautiful in their own way. The poem 'Lineage' begins thus:

In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Wing
Who begat Bone
Who begat Granite
Who begat Violet
Who begat Guitar

And so on. Rhyme does not help the reader to remember the list of begettings; and rhythmically the unpunctuated lines simply repeat the same structure, by a rhetorical figure called . The poem eventually breaks away from this mould, but this still would convince nobody that a memorable pattern of sound had been established. Are not these words - Scream, Blood, Eye, and so on - interchangeable? Perhaps, and yet their order is their order, and the reader is expected to respect this. This might seem frustrating, as if the poem is trying to get away with something. But by reading the poem aloud, by reminding oneself that this is a coherent audio-visual experience rather than a typed list, one might become more alert to the possibilities of 'Lineage'. 'Who begat' becomes a drone (not unlike the murmuring 'm' already detected in 'Shells') against which the names of the begotten are clear and bright notes, as might emerge from that capitalised, anthropomorphised 'Guitar'. This apparently ugly and ramshackle composition creates the sonic context against which it plays its music. Once the reader becomes accustomed to inviting this process, giving the poem the opportunity to make itself heard, 'Lineage' and other such texts show that while regular rhyme and metre can make a poem powerful and memorable, there remain other techniques: poets like Hughes master as many as they can, and combine them with great subtlety and skill. Reading poems aloud, and memorising some poems or even handfuls of lines, is a way of sensitising the mind to these different techniques, enhancing the experience of reading and writing poetry, installing that 'guardian angel' to watch over one's encounters with literature and with language.

Further Reading

Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid (London: Faber, 2007)

The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes (London: Faber, 2003).

Further Thinking

1. Adam Crothers suggests 'Shells' and 'Lineage' as two Hughes poems with very different mnemonic characteristics, and different effects when reading aloud. Give them a try - and tell us your findings.

2. Then, of course, you could find other things to memorise and recite. You could try a speech from a Shakespeare play, alongside a Shakespeare sonnet. What differences between them emerge in the process?

II. Plath: 'Daddy' in Different Voices

The wonders of Youtube mean that you can hear Hughes and Plath reading their own poetry. What predictable and less predictable qualities do you observe?

Sylvia Plath's voice, reading 'Daddy' or 'Lady Lazarus', is particularly striking. This is partly because of the poet's life-story: her death overhangs the poems, and her voice seems like a voice from the dead. (Amazingly, you can find Tennyson's voice on Youtube as well. The faint recording (from 1890) has a deathly quality, but there isn't quite the same chill as there is with Plath.)

Another reason why the recordings are so striking is her accent. In the U.K., people hear American voices all the time, but they probably aren't that sensitive to the implications of accent. For example: when British audiences hear the voices of the actors in the Harry Potter films, it's reasonable to think that they can quickly (though appearances can be deceiving) form assumptions about the geographical origins and the social background of the speakers. They might be able to discern some different American accents, but they aren't so tuned in. It must work the other way around as well. In Plath's case, though, a lot of modern English speakers can recognise that this is an accent that they don't hear very often: a respectable New England voice, speaking with the formality and correctness that characterizes both British and American English of the 1950s. No glottal stops here.

Given the way that readers today appreciate the raw emotion of Plath's poetry, the voice might not seem to fit obviously with a poem like 'Daddy'. Perhaps it indicates that raw emotion might not be the key quality to appreciate in a finely wrought poem? Do you think her way of reading it has special authority to guide our interpretation? How does it affect the way you look at this, or another poem?

There are other places in the Cambridge Authors website where you can consider questions like this. For example, the issues of regional accents and dialects are considered in an interview with Stephen Logan in the Wordsworth section. In the case of 'Daddy', why not try a few experiments. Read it out yourself in different ways: which bits are difficult to get right? Does this tell you something about the poem? Consider also whether your own voice, with its characteristics of location and background: what difference does it make to the poem when read out loud? What difference does a male voice make?

Further Thinking

There are already lots of suggestions here about how to make use of recordings of Plath's voice. You could extend it to other poets, perhaps those who have distinctive regional qualities (for example, Seamus Heaney, or Robert Burns). Please tell us what you have found by adding a comment below.

If you find yourself interested in some of the issues raised here, you might enjoy hearing Stephen Logan speaking about Wordsworth, regional accents, identity, and criticism in the Wordsworth section.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was an American poet.
Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729) is a satirical essay about Irish poverty, that notoriously, but ironically, recommends that Irish children could be sold as food. Hughes's suggestion here must be deliberately controversial, or humorous.
A poem by T.S. Eliot, and by no means one of his best known; Hughes is not opting for the obvious examples.
The 101 poems here include extracts from longer works and Shakespeare plays. The selection is very thoughtful, including some extremely well-known, and some more obscure works. By Heart would be an excellent aid to getting in to memorising and reciting poetry.
The repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of several successive clauses, sentences, or lines.
Relating to the memory; used as a noun, a mnemonic is something, often a phrase or rhyme, that we use to help us remember things.

The Tragedy Paper: Continuity and Change

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

The paper taken by Sylvia Plath has been a fixture in the course from the beginning, even though literary criticism, and studying it at Cambridge, have changed a great deal. Here you'll find a variety of perspectives on this paper, partly so you know in more detail what Plath was up against, but also as a way in to thinking about things that change, and things that don't, in the academic discipline of English.

First, Professor Stefan Collini from the Faculty of English gives an overview of the history of the paper and its relationship to the Cambridge course. Second, you'll find a number of Tragedy papers to browse - including the very first, the one taken by Sylvia Plath, and a much more recent one. Finally, you'll find some reactions - from a student and a teacher - to these papers and what they tell us about the changing subject.

1. The 'Tragedy' Paper at Cambridge (Stefan Collini)

When English first began to be taught as a subject in British universities in the late nineteenth century, the main focus was on the history of the language and on biographical and contextual information about past authors. Attention was concentrated on the earliest periods, especially Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature, and on the Teutonic roots of the language as it related to earlier forms of the Germanic and Norse languages. Cambridge, exceptionally, did not establish a separate degree in English during this period, and when it finally did so (beginning in 1917), intellectual fashion had moved away from this historical and philological model, helped by the reaction against all things German in the course of the First World War. Part of the thinking behind the self-consciously innovative Cambridge course was the aspiration to encounter great works of literature at first hand and to connect post-medieval English writing to its inheritance from the Classics and to its relations with the Romance-language literatures of France and Italy. As a result, one of the distinctive papers in the new English Tripos was to be deliberately 'comparative' - a 'special subject in the general history of literature, ancient and modern, in connection and comparison with English literature' (as the regulations put it).

Tragedy had, of course, been the pre-eminent genre of ancient Greece, and its standing was perpetuated by the priority which Aristotle assigned it in his . The founders of the English Tripos therefore decided that it would be the ideal topic for the new comparative paper, enabling students to study some of the greatest works in English alongside their peers from Classical and European literature. But Tragedy was also accorded a kind of supremacy in the aesthetic theory of I.A. Richards, one of the earliest teachers of the new course. (Richards devised the approach known as 'Practical Criticism' which became a hallmark of 'Cambridge English', and his theories had considerable influence on the nature of English studies at Cambridge in the 1920s and beyond.) Richards argued that Tragedy was 'still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed' (this quotation is from his The Principles of Literary Criticism). In particular, he claimed that Tragedy constituted the most powerful expression of that 'balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities' (this phrase is originally from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria) which he saw as the supreme value of aesthetic experience.

Tragedy was thus the topic specified for the 'comparative' paper in the earliest years of the English Tripos, but it embodied so many of the values of the new course that it was not to be a merely temporary element. In 1926, as part of a wider re-organization of teaching in the university, the modern two-part Tripos was introduced, and the new syllabus for Part II made Tragedy, as a subject in its own right, one of the compulsory elements (alongside other papers which have also survived in recognisable form to this day, such as Practical Criticism, the English Moralists, and the History and Theory of Criticism). Thereafter, through successive reforms of the syllabus, Tragedy remained a central and obligatory element in the Cambridge English course, one particularly associated with the work of several of its most famous teachers such as F.R. Leavis, Muriel Bradbrook, and Raymond Williams.

2. Tragedy Papers, Past and Present

Here you'll find four sample Tragedy papers.

1. 1919 (tragedypaper1919) - the very first that was set.

2. 1926 (tragedypaper1926) - from the year the course split into two parts, and Tragedy became integral to Part II. This paper is also notable for its brevity!

3. 1957 (tragedypaper1957) - the one Sylvia Plath took.

4. 2008 (tragedypaper2008) - bringing us into the present day.

Have a look at these: What changes can you see? Do you think the modern one is easier or harder than the older ones? What sort of knowledge and preparation do they seem to expect of the students taking them?


1. The Student

Final year undergraduate Kate O'Connor wrote this just after taking her own Tragedy exam.

Studying the tragedy paper was an incredible opportunity to think about literature with massive amounts of freedom. It definitely needed to come at the end part of an English degree, because otherwise the amount of choice would have been bewildering. I found that the compulsory Greek and Shakespearean elements helped to secure certain themes, such as violence, or women, or tragic structure. Then, you could set these ideas loose on any medium (novels, visual art, cinema, music), any historical era, and use them to think about anything from politics and philosophy, to nuclear war and comedy. The name of the course seemed like a kind of trick, because I never found a permanent definition of 'tragedy', but went on a kind of wild goose chase, learning about these other things on the way. The most exciting thing for me was finding the differences (and the similarities too) in the way people choose to talk about incomprehensible things, like death, through history.

The past exam papers show that these themes stay the same, but the sense that tragedy is a fixed, definite genre changes. The 2008 paper has one question comparing it to non-Western traditions, which makes you question the course itself, and how 'universal' its ideas are. This is extremely different from 1919. The students ninety years ago were asked about the 'Right use', or the 'abuse' of tragic techniques, implying there is a correct tragic form. There are also questions about 'men of genius', 'understanding of women' and 'normal citizens'. I think I would have found it difficult, and less interesting, to think that there are fixed ways to understand these things. There seems to be a massive difference in 1926, when students were asked to discuss their own opinions a lot more. They were even asked to write an imaginary chapter of Aristotle's 'Poetics', on comic relief. It'd be great if there were still questions which asked you to think so creatively. It's really strange to think about these papers in their own decade: for example the 1919 paper doesn't mention war or violence, maybe these questions were too painful? Also, all the earlier papers ask about the state of contemporary drama, whilst the 2008 paper isn't able to generalise about a particular modern style.

2. The Teacher

Raphael Lyne teaches the Tragedy paper every year, marks the exams sometimes, and even set it once.

The 2008 paper is very familiar of course. It has the current instructions to write very specific minimum amounts about Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, and the unusual option to write only one essay (or three) in the three hour exam. All these rules post-date any of the other sample papers. The questions are open-ended, designed to be narrowed down and answered with relation to specific material, rather than to be tackled as a whole. Key words like 'discuss', 'consider', and 'examine', and even questions which are just quotations with no embellishment, enable people to respond in lots of different ways. While all this is more or less predictable each year at the moment, I do think that 2008 was a strikingly broad paper, with very few questions asking about specific kinds of drama, and lots of questions allowing people to draw on whatever material they think relevant. On the whole I like papers that do this, since the students have plenty of specific stuff prepared, and are just looking for a question to get their teeth into.

It's so different in the 1919 paper. I find the requirement to write 5 answers quite bewildering. It's clear, though, that they're not the kind of critical, argumentative, ambitious, selective essays that today's students are taught to write. They're often factual (e.g. 'Write a short account of the end of the Roman theatre', q. 7) or explicitly ask for 'Notes', as in q. 9. The emphasis is more on knowledge and history than on anything social or emotional. The question about whether tragedies should be read or performed (q. 17) could be set today, though I don't think today's students would be asked to come up with a definitive answer to such a vast question. 1926's paper is a thing of beauty in its brevity, but in some ways, I must say, it strikes me as pretty bizarre. The third question, 'What merits can be dramas of Seneca be said to possess?' asks for a qualitative judgment that today's students rarely have to offer. This might be lamented - maybe it is important for experienced readers to stand up and say whether something is good, and why. This particular question, though, seems very slanted - at best you're going to be outlining virtues in the Roman tragedian Seneca that he could 'be said to possess' (not actually possessing). I also like q. 5 - 'Set out and pronounce upon the claims of the rite of the mass and of the antiphonal Chant to be the germ-cell of religious drama in the Middle Ages'. The term 'germ-cell' would not be welcomed in an exam paper now - too much to unpack; 'pronounce upon' sounds very pompous; and this might have nothing whatsoever to do with Tragedy.

Finally, 1957, the paper Plath took. It still looks very different from 2008, but at least now there are only four questions to answer. There is also a requirement to write about a varied range of drama - the sections cover different periods, and students had to write about at least two. It isn't as specific as the Shakespeare / Greek rubric today, though. In this paper some of the key words I identified above as eliciting critical arguments ('discuss', 'consider') are in evidence; the underlying assumptions about what students of literary criticism should be doing are more recognisable. It's interesting to see an emphasis on qualitative criticism here, and also lots of specific questions. Where today it is often up to the student whether to write about Shakespeare or Webster, about Hamlet or Macbeth, the 1957 paper gives a lot more guidance. Today's examiners are more wary, I think, about enshrining assumptions about what is worth writing about, and what isn't. Marking the Tragedy paper can mean reading about opera, painting, sculpture, television, cinema, novels, poems, photographs, from all over the world, as well as the more predictable tragic dramas; I'm glad that's encouraged and enabled in today's papers.

The greatest work of classical literary criticism, Aristotle's Poetics focuses most of all on tragedy, and on drama as a representation / imitation (the Greek word is mimesis) of life. Many highly influential ideas in literary criticism are ultimately derived from Aristotle.

Plath’s Tragedy Paper: Journals and Letters

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

In her journals and letters, Plath leaves a vivid record of her studies at Cambridge. Her impressions of the Tragedy paper reveal, alongside her unique reactions, experiences likely to resonate with current English students. Like today's undergraduates, she reads Sophocles and Racine, and like today's students, she worries about her essays and exams about balancing her reading with her own writing and extracurricular life. Most strikingly, she records her reactions upon encountering memorable passages and texts - some might echo your own and some might surprise you. We have put these together partly as a link between the other two articles in the 'Plath and the Tragedy Paper' section: an analysis of tragic themes in her poetry, and some history of the paper itself. We also hope they might prove stimulating reading for anyone interested in the relationships between reading for pleasure, studying, writing, and life in general!

1. On staying up to read Macbeth:

'... we stayed up till two last night virtuously reading Macbeth.  Which was fine.  Went awestruck over old speeches: 'tale of sound and fury,' especially.' (Journals, 104.)

The 'tale of sound and fury' refers to Macbeth's speech in Act 5 Scene 5 that begins 'Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow'. It is indeed a speech to leave a reader awestruck, as Macbeth responds to the death of his wife by considering the meaninglessness of life. The quotation compressed by Plath is: 'It [life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.

2. On reading things for the first time:

'There are six exams in all, three required. Of these, two are on composition and criticism (general) and one on Tragedy! This is marvelous for me, because over the next two years I'll be reading tragedy from the classics up to the modern French playwrights, Pirandello, Cocteau, etc., which includes enormous hunks of literature I've never seen before.' (Letters Home, 186.)

'I am making slow progress in the wide fields of my ignorance, going on with French, reading modern tragedy (Strindberg, now), which is sheer delight, and going to study classical tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), which I have, shockingly enough, never touched.' (Letters Home, 209.)

Nowadays there are two required exams - Tragedy and Practical Criticism. Students still tackle this wide range of reading, from the Greeks to contemporary drama.

3. On essays, exams and student stress:

'... it is Saturday afternoon and I have all the academic reading and papers to do which I should have done two days ago...' (Journals, 107.)

'I am taking time early this sunny morning to limber up my stiff fingers in preparation for my Tragedy exam this afternoon and write you so you will know I'm still extant. Just. I have honestly never undergone such physical torture as writing furiously from 6 to 7 hours a day (for the last two days) with my unpracticed pen-hand.' (Letters Home, 314).

'It's disgusting to think that two years of work and excellent, articulate, thoughtful papers should be judged on the basis of these exams and nothing else.' (Letters Home, 315).

'Wednesday, 6 p.m. Tragedy exam all over; very stimulating and fair to make up for yesterday's two horrors.' (Letters Home, 315).

Even though hardly anyone doing Cambridge English writes two exams in a day now, and current students submit coursework essays as well as taking timed papers, it still seems to many that exam papers are a poor reflection of so much reading and thinking. There may be no perfect form of assessment, though. As you'll see in another article, Tragedy exams have the potential to be 'stimulating' as Plath herself found hers in the end.

4. On tragedy beyond the Tragedy paper:

'The constant struggle in mature life, I think, is to accept the necessity of tragedy and conflict, and not to try to escape to some falsely simple solution which does not include these more somber complexities. ... These thoughts are some of the intangibles I've been working out here, in the midst of the outer active, stimulating life. One doesn't get prizes for this increasing awareness, which sometimes comes with an intensity indistinguishable from pain.' (Letters Home, 202.)

Reading tragic literature is often thought to reveal something about life; perhaps these works explore a necessary part of human experience - it can't all be good - and enable us to think about it.

5. On the interplay of reading and writing:

'I am living at the University library from morning to night... enjoying my work, really, steadily reading tragedy now, the Greeks, then on through 2,000 years up to Eliot, concentrating on several major figures: Corneille, Racine, Ibsen, Strindberg, Webster, Marlowe, Tourneur, Yeats, Eliot; there are so many. This tragedy paper (only a 3-hour exam for all that) is a fine help on my reading.'  (Letters Home, 308.)

'Why, why, can I not be an for a while, instead of always teetering on the edge of wanting complete solitude for work and reading, and, so much, so much, the gestures of hands and words of other human beings. Well, after this Racine paper, this Ronsard purgatory, this Sophocles, I shall write: letters and prose and poetry, toward the end of the week; I must be till then.' (Journals, 110.)

Very vividly Plath captures the way that reading intensely leads to some kinds of deprivation. Absorbed in her books, she is neglecting life, and her own writing.

Further Reading:

  • Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Selected and Edited with Commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber, 1975)
  • Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Dial Press, 1982)
ASCETIC - someone who observes an abstinent lifestyle.
STOIC - to be Stoic is to follow (to some extent) the teachings of Stoicism, a school of ancient Greek philosophy. One key aspect of Stoicism, and the one referred to by Plath here, was a belief in the importance of remaining consistent and impassive in the face of struggle

The Tragic Aftermath in Sylvia Plath

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

As undergraduate Robyn Drury's textual analysis suggests, reading elegies like 'The Colossus' and 'Electra on Azalea Path' helps us to ask productive questions about what we might mean when we speak of 'the tragic'. You are invited to follow her arguments about Plath's 'tragic aftermath', and, as you return to the texts yourself (both are readily available and frequently anthologised), to make up your own mind: should Plath's elegies ultimately be considered 'tragic'?

Introduction: Tragedy and Post-tragedy

If we consider the broad definition of tragedy given by the Oxford English Dictionary - a 'play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion' - then both of these elegies have much that is 'tragic' about them. In 'The Colossus' and 'Electra on Azalea Path', Sylvia Plath aligns her poetry with classical tragedy, evoking Greek mythology (the respectively) as a conduit through which she can express her own grief. These elegies trace the meeting-point between a canonical tradition of Greek tragedy (wherein a father is lost, and grieved for) and Plath's own deeply personal, confessional style, superimposing the grief of Plath's poetry (and of the loss of her own father) onto a classical tragic 'model'. This creates two works which simultaneously meet our expectations of tragedy and distance themselves from it, using tragic motifs but situating the poem firmly in what we might call a post-tragic setting.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition stresses that a sense of conclusion is vital in tragedy - but it seems that the 'fatal or disastrous conclusion' has already occurred in both poems before they even begin. They don't chart the death of a father figure, but rather, they explore its aftermath. In that sense, one could consider them to be somehow post-tragic. In 'Electra', 'twenty years' have passed, and it is 'as if you had never existed'. In 'The Colossus', twenty years becomes 'thirty', in which she has tried and failed to make sense of her own response to the death, labouring to 'dredge the silt' of confusion and reach a personal resolution. The 'silt' is a striking image here, suggesting a murky water that mirrors the narrator's psychological state of turmoil, with the act of dredging likening the arduous, physical process to her own process of grieving. This leads to the conclusion in 'Electra'  that 'It was my love that did us both to death'. This introduces a second tragedy for consideration: that involving the narrator's own death.

These poems chart the aftermath of the poet's personal tragedy and the emotional aftermath to the death of the father. Plath's own father died when she was a child, and she struggled throughout her life to come to terms with this loss, and to uncover her father's history. As such, the tragedy is double. That is, there is the tragic act itself (death) and the 'mourning' ('Electra') and grief that result, which become both an echo (like the 'ghost of an infamous suicide') and a second tragedy. In 'Electra', this comes from the seeking of 'pardon' from a source which can never give it: she 'knocks for pardon at / Your gate, father', but death keeps the gate firmly closed, and so this pardon can be neither given nor received. There is a similar lack of resolution in 'The Colossus': the narrator's hours 'are married to shadow', condemned to live with thoughts of a tragedy twenty years passed, and whilst she has finally stopped waiting for the 'scrape of a keel' on the landing - the sound of a ship, representing her father, returning to shore - she does not explain what has replaced this process. Instead, the poem ends by negating listening, creating a strange suspension between what was in the past and what is now. Indeed, there is no sense of future, no sense of a continuation of life, in either poem, only the assertion of the finality of death, to which the narrator finally reconciles herself.

The Tragic Hero and the Ordinary Man

The poems are not just concerned with an individual experience. The sense of scale in both pieces evokes notions of historical significance, as if this death will bring about the end of the world for more than just the grieving narrator. In 'The Colossus', the subject of the poem is evoked as being literally enormous: the 'sun rises' underneath his 'tongue', and she can 'squat' inside his 'left ear'; his brow spans 'acres' and his skull is 'immense'. The word 'immense' is particularly suggestive as it denotes not only size, but also suggests superlative qualities of character. So, Plath creates an extraordinary figure whose demise we might accordingly describe as tragic. Indeed, Plath emphasises the significance of the subject in both poems: in 'The Colossus' he is addressed as 'O father', the 'O' creating a sense of reverence (which recurs in 'Electra' too, in the 'O pardon' of line 44), and he is described as being 'as pithy and historical as the Roman Forum'. The subject of this poem is therefore one which commands reverence in the poet, occupying as significant a place in her history as the Roman Empire does in world history.

And yet in 'Electra' there is a sense of confinement: the remains of her father are in a 'cramped necropolis', and his presence is reduced to a headstone, which is set 'askew by an iron fence' - there is no immense being, just an ordinary death. The reduction of scale in 'Electra' opposes the expansion of 'The Colossus': whilst the latter poem treats death as a spectacular natural phenomenon, embodied in the environment (like the setting sun), 'Electra' shows death as an ordinary occurrence, something that happens to all until 'the dead / Crowd foot to foot, head to head' - death is the ultimate common experience, overcrowding the graveyards. Plath even reports her mother's words that her father died 'like any man'. One might consider how this affects a 'tragic' reading of the elegies: if an ostensibly extraordinary figure dies, is it more tragic than the death of someone ordinary? Plath herself grapples with these questions through her exploration of scale, the fluctuation between the poems suggesting the anxieties and ambiguities involved in any attempt to lace her father into a kind of tragic canon.

Tragic Canons and Traditions

In 'Electra', Plath admits that she does indeed seek to locate him within this . She writes that 'I borrow the stilts of an old tragedy', that she is 'the ghost of an infamous suicide', and these lines prompt a reading of the poems as superimpositions of an 'old' form onto a new poetry in order to invoke the gravity of the tragic canon. 'Stilts' are structures that support and elevate, and the 'ghost' the repetition of a past event in a contemporary setting. Here the story of Electra provides this supportive subtext for the poem. In Sophocles, Electra is introduced as she mourns the death of her father, who has been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, and Aeschylus deals with this murder, in his Oresteia, to which Plath deliberately links 'The Colossus' by quoting the title of this trilogy therein. The grief at the loss of a father can be set alongside Plath's own work, with poems such as 'Daddy' evoking a similar anxiety at the struggle to come to terms with paternal death.

This struggle is evident in the self-consciousness of the poems. The narrator refers directly to the literary forms in play in the poems:  In 'Electra', the poet lays 'dreaming your epic image by image' - imagining the father's recreation in another canonical literary form, the , so that the poem seems to call into question its own validity as a work of art: it represents the stage of 'dreaming', before the poet's thoughts are assimilated into the 'epic' that Plath imagines. Similarly, in 'The Colossus', Plath addresses her father as an 'oracle', a 'Mouthpiece of the dead': but it is the poem that suggests itself as a mouthpiece, a conduit of both tragic rhetoric and of Plath's attempt to exorcise the demons of her own loss (although she is ultimately unsuccessful, left 'none the wiser'). Once again, we find a temporal tension: the poems are located in the present, but looking back to the past for reference and also suspended in a state of future anticipation - waiting in 'Electra' for assimilation into the epic, and in 'The Colossus' to achieve paternal communication.


These poems occupy an unusual tragic space and time. The 'twenty' or 'thirty' years of passed time, in which little happens except for the narrator's own contemplation of events, distance the reader from the subject of the elegy, and draw them instead to the narrator and her own personal tragedy, beginning the day he died, when she 'went into the dirt'. And so the tragedy is double: it exists as both action and aftermath. This is given yet more complexity by the superimposition of the poems onto an existing tragic model - the story of Electra and Clytemnestra - which suggests the death of a father before Plath has even spoken of it. The poems are bound up with tragedy in three different temporalities: the classical past, the narrative past, and the 'mourning' present.

Further Reading and Thinking

It would be ambitious, but very worthwhile, to work out what you think this concept of 'Tragedy' might include and exclude. Shakespeare is a great place to start: what do Hamlet and Macbeth (or any other plays conventionally called 'tragic') have in common? Greek tragedies - in translation for most of us - can seem very alien to the modern reader, but they're not that hard to read once you get used to them. Not many plays actually survive from 5th century Athens, and these are by only three playwrights. Aeschylus's Agamemnon (the first play of the Oresteia) is a great place to start. Sophocles is famous most of all for Oedipus the King. Euripides takes things to wilder extremes: have a look at The Bacchae.

Adrian Poole's book Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005) is a good book to get you started in thinking about how to use the term. A.D. Nuttall's Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (Oxford, 1996) asks a key question and turns to the work of philosophers for a series of different answers. People studying the Tragedy paper in their final year at Cambridge - and those who teach them as well - tend not to end up with a Grand Theory of Everything Tragic! It's better to focus on the intersections of individual works with aspects of the larger ideas. This brings us back to Sylvia Plath. Her poems prompt tragic thoughts; they are part of a tragic story themselves. How do they, as poems, explore their own aspirations and limitations? And that, of course, is what Robyn Drury's article is about.

The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, first performed in 458 BC. It tells the story of the ruling family of Argos. King Agamemnon is killed by his wife Clytemnestra in the first play; she is killed in turn by her son Orestes in the second; and Orestes is haunted by Furies in the third. The second play features his sister, Electra, encouraging her brother. This part of the story is told in two other surviving Greek tragedies, by Sophocles and Euripides - so Electra is both part of the Oresteia sequence, and a separate play.
Canon is a useful word in literary criticism. It means a body of authoritative work that sets standards and defines terms. The 'tragic canon' would include the work of Aeschylus and Shakespeare for sure, but (as this article explores) it might struggle to accommodate Plath's poems. The concept of a canon is sometimes raised negatively, as something putting pressure on the present, and giving strength to old critical views. It has to be able to change: if new works cannot join and thus change the canon, then a canon is not a very useful thing.
Epic, like tragedy, is a literary term that has straightforward and much less straightforward definitions. It typically designates a grand story of an individual's achievements in poetic form - but there are many variations on this theme.

Sylvia Plath and the Tragedy Paper

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

One of the unique elements of the English Tripos is the Tragedy paper - a compulsory component of the third-year curriculum in which students think about the historically and generically various forms of 'tragedy' and 'the tragic'. But what, ultimately, is 'tragedy'? What is it not? Sylvia Plath's work provides a particularly appropriate platform for considering these questions, as notions of the tragic permeate her work in complex ways. While at Cambridge, Plath studied for the Tragedy paper and in her journals and letters you can find some of her impressions and experiences. Her own writing, furthermore, engages quite specifically with tragic genres and traditions. In this part of the Cambridge Authors Site you'll find three resources.

1. The Tragic Aftermath in Sylvia Plath

This essay by undergraduate student Robyn Drury looks at the ways in which texts and questions arising from the Tragedy paper feature in Plath's poetry.

2. Plath's Tragedy Paper: Journals and Letters

Here you'll find short extracts from Plath's own accounts of her Cambridge years, and the experience of studying tragic literature.

3. The Tragedy Paper: Continuity and Change

Here you'll find discussions of the Tragedy paper by those who have taught it and studied it. You'll also find copies of exam papers here, including the one that Plath herself took.

Sylvia Plath

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, USA on 27 October 1932, the daughter of Otto Plath (an immigrant from Germany) and Aurelia Frances Schober. She was a precocious literary talent: her first poem was published when she was only eight, and she had published a short story before going to Smith College, one of the most prestigious universities for women. Her writing and academic success continued there, but she also began to suffer from depression. This period of her life formed the basis of her novel The Bell Jar. After graduating from Smith she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study English at Newnham College, Cambridge from 1955 until 1957. During her first year she met Ted Hughes and after a few passionate months, some spent apart, they were married in June 1956. Her second year in Cambridge passed happily, living with Hughes and writing, and in 1957 she was given a teaching job back at Smith. In 1958, however, she and Hughes moved to Boston where he taught and she tried to write. She also worked as a secretary in a psychiatric clinic, and herself suffered from worsening depression, an experience which lay behind her story 'Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams'. During 1959 she worked with poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, which stimulated her writing again. In December 1959 she and Hughes moved back to London. Their daughter Frieda was born in April 1960, and their son, Nicholas, was born in January 1962. During these years most of Plath's best-known poems, including 'Daddy', 'Lesbos', 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Getting There' were written, and she finished The Bell Jar. Her marriage was breaking apart, however, and her depression was becoming even worse. On 11th February, 1963, Plath committed suicide.

Her life and her work are intimately connected, and not only in that there are numerous autobiographical elements in her writing. Her tragic story has been the starting point for many readers and critics, sometimes to the extent that interpretation of her work has been swamped by people seeking to take sides in interpreting her life. Nonetheless her work is brilliant, intimate, and cut off, as she was. Her novel The Bell Jar and her poems complement one another in their intense opening-up of personal experience.

The key Plath resource on this site is an examination of her work in the light of her academic experience in Cambridge. She studied the Tragedy paper - a cornerstone of the course from the very start - and resonances with the material she read for it can be identified in her writing.