Throughout an examination of Plath’s poetry, a reader will witness prominent themes of inadequacy and mental anguish. The poet’s lack of self-belief is primarily evident in ‘Mirror’, as the poet struggles to overcome her insecurities. Furthermore, Plath combats her darkest thoughts during ‘Arrival of the Bee Box’ and ‘Poppies in July’ as she confronts her inner demons. But such examples of Plath’s art should not be taken as representative of her entire body of work, which is in many ways distinguished by its lighter and more optimistic notes. While her poems are dominantly pessimistic and dark, they do not uniformly depict themes of death and destruction. In contrast to this assessment, poems such as ‘Child’ and ‘Morning Song’ celebrate the new life of her children rather than inevitability of death.
The first word of Morning Song is ‘love’. This sets the tone as the young mother responds to her new born infant’s cry, still unsure of her role. Deviating entirely from the subjects of decease and despair, ‘Morning Song’ is suffused with tenderness and love as the poem celebrates a new beginning, not just for the baby but for Plath as a mother. A common aspect of Plath’s poetry is feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, which are explored as the poet describes ‘staring blankly at walls’, unsure and confused by the world of motherhood. The final image is an optimistic one. It ends on a note of celebration, conveying her hope for the child’s future. ‘And now you try/ handful of notes/ clear vowels rise like balloons’. This poem is a strong piece of evidence, in proving that Plath’s dominating theme is in fact not death.
The poem ‘Child’ opens with a heartfelt expression of Plath’s love for her child, while tainted with self doubt, “your eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing”. This poem reflects the poet’s inner turmoil and portrays a strong sense of ineptitude. Such a poem reveals Plath’s sensitivity to the needs of her child. It tells of her wish to fill his eye with “colour and ducks” and create a beautiful, better place than this flawed world. Although the poem begins by celebrating the wonders of her child, due to harsh self evaluation, it ends with a startling image of Plath overcome by tears and agitation. The reoccurring theme of mental anguish is evident in the closing lines, as she doubts her ability to be able to create a world of ‘grand’ and ‘classical’ images for her child. Plath worries about this new innocent life being affected by her inner turmoil and this “ceiling without a star.” This poem lacks the staple Plath themes of fatality and annihilation, proving that there is more to Plath’s work than a meditation on darkness.
‘Mirror’ is one of Plath’s darkest, most haunting poems, which reflects the prevalence of her own self doubt and feelings of inadequacy. In contrast to addressing the matter of death, Plath offers a vivid and stark portrayal of emotional struggle and the dangers of self examination, particularly the modern pre-occupation with image. The poet returns to the mirror “searching my reaches for what she really is”; throughout a reading of Plath one can become accustomed to her unstable inner psyche, which continues to doubt her abilities. Reflectingher own esteem, the poem lacks any hope or respite; she ‘comes and goes’, always returning to be disappointed and unfulfilled upon encountering her own true image. The mirror is a voice of a society which values women only for their looks, rather than their capabilities. Plath was aware of these pressures to conform to the ideal housewife of the 1950’s, and therefore suffered tremendously due to her perceived failure. Thus, the prevailing theme of inadequacy and the torn mind of Plath continue to be a reoccurring aspect of Plath’s poetry.
In the ‘Arrival of the Bee box’, Plath expresses a desire to be in control of the dark aspects of her psyche. Plath felt that in order to be a true poet one had to explore one’s unconscious mind, delving into the darkest depths of the mind. Here, Plath regards the bee box as hidden aspects of the mind, the dark and mysterious parts the true poet must explore. “The box is locked, it is dangerous.” The poet’s fear of the bees suggest her fear of the demons deep within her own mind. Plath’s constant return to the box is symbolic of how desperate she is to succeed as a poet and to feel somewhat adequate. Similarly in ‘Mirror’, the speaker is drawn back to the source of her tears, ‘searching its reaches’ for self-acceptance. The theme of feeling inadequate is undoubtedly a prominent aspect of Plath’s poetry. In the closing stanza, the speaker decides she will confront her darkest fears, “Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.” In contrast to the theme of annihilation, Plath unleashes the “Roman mob” and concludes to the poem on a note of optimism with hope for the future. “The box is only temporary.”
While the title “Poppies in July” suggests a poem about the beauty and richness of nature, this is in fact one of Plath’s bleakest poems. The poem deals with Plath’s struggle with herself, a force she can’t describe because she can’t fully understand it. The poem is littered with intense, surreal imagery to convey common themes such as Plath’s anguish and turmoil. The ‘little poppies, little hell flames’ harass the troubled speaker and cruelly offer no release from the suffering that she must endure. Her pain has become so overwhelming that it has almost made her numb, so much so that she longs to feel something, anything at all. She describes how she puts her ‘hands among the flames’ but ‘nothing burns’. This numbness seems to be due not only to her mental anguish which followed her throughout her life but is particularly due to the realisation of her husband’s affair. Though these images and concepts are quite unnerving, the poem aptly describes the pain of heartbreak. I believe that Plath did not seek to create aspects of death with her poetry, but to unfold the truth of mental and emotional suffering, and she has done so perfectly in this poem.
Overall, Plath’s poetry is of emotional extremes and while there are brief moments of joy and optimism in her poems, the prevailing themes are mental anguish, and the persistent feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self-sufficiency. Although her poetry portrays a dark view of life, the poems represent only suffering and not its grim outcome of death. We must not forget that midst her struggle was the celebration of life and the love for her children.