The Tragic Aftermath in Sylvia Plath

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.

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