ever there was a poet within whose works one could count on finding examples
of the poet’s self it certainly would be Sylvia Plath.
Because almost all of her poetry is an unashamedly open window on her
life and feelings, almost all who have critiqued her work have labeled her a
confessional poet. Because her
life is so integral to her poetry, knowledge of her life is important toward
the understanding of her use of words and images.
“Few poets demand that we know as much about their lives as Sylvia
Plath does. Her intensely
personal poetry was often rooted in everyday experiences, the knowledge of
which can often open obscure references on cryptic images to fuller meaning
for the reader.” (Magill, 2593)
Birthday Present was the
first of about thirty poems written in September of 1962; about six months
before she committed suicide. I
believe it is important to realize that this was a very prolific month in her
life, and that the poetry written during this time may have been a result of
her definite decision to take her life. “With
her perfectionism and her ruthless zeal to excel in every activity, Sylvia had
always put herself under the greatest possible pressure.
When she was lashing herself forward, the idea of suicide could work as
an extra goad.” (Hayman, 132)
seems a very plausible explanation for such a effusion of poetry in one
month’s time. Thus, the first
of this flow of poems may have been both the result and the cause of her
suicide. The result of her
suicide in that she had mastered her will, so to speak, and made the decision
to kill herself. Though she had
not yet committed suicide, the fact that she was able to make up her mind must
have given her the “pressure” she needed to “goad” her into writing so
abundantly. When the pressure was
gone, when she could say no more, this frenzy of poetry could be construed as
that which ultimately caused her suicide.
writing A Birthday Present first during this month it is as though
Plath was attempting to convince herself that this was the best thing she
could do for herself. By putting it down in writing she was able to release the
gush of poetry that followed. Up
to now the veil that hides what is beyond death has caused some turmoil.
Even though she had attempted suicide about ten years previous, she had
in many ways found aspects of life that seemed to try to keep her on this side
of the veil. But now the decision
has been made. There is no more
struggle. It doesn’t matter if
what is behind the veil is “ugly” or “beautiful,” It doesn’t matter
whether it is rough or smooth. She
somehow knows that, “...it is unique, I am sure it is just what I want.”
mocks herself a little bit in the following lines, as though she is deriding
herself for looking for pleasure and completeness in trying to be the perfect
wife, mother, and daughter. She
sees that death has been there all along just waiting for her to make this
decision. While death waits it
watches her and thinks what a joke she has made of her life by pursuing this
I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking
the flour, cutting off the surplus,
this the one for the annunciation?
is the one who has worn herself out trying to be perfect, thus the black
eye-pits. She is the one who has
been scarred because her life was literally spent out in doing what was
expected of women. “A woman who
went to college between 1945 and 1960, [Betty] Friedan concludes, ‘could
hardly avoid learning ‘...not to get interested, seriously interested in
anything besides getting married and having children, if she wanted to be
normal, happy, adjusted, feminine.” (Bennett, 102)
is what Sylvia Plath tried to do, but somehow knew she could not, and would
never be able to do. “Like most
women in the 1950s,...Sylvia Plath appears to have accepted the basic
assumptions of this doctrine or ideology even though she knew that in many
respects they ran counter to the springs of her own nature.”
(Bennett, 103) By
dedicating herself to committing suicide she freed herself from this
principle; this need to adhere “...to rules, to rules, to rules.”
she is free to look at the veil and not really be concerned about what it
conceals. She does “...not mind
if it was bones, or a pearl button.” All
that she sees now is the fact that what ever is behind that veil “wants”
her. If the birthday present is
the freedom to express herself so prolifically in poetry, she does not care if
it is a great number of poems, or just a few.
In her mind she is living on borrowed time anyway.
She now sees that any inspiration given her since her last attempt at
suicide is a gift far greater than she wanted anyway.
do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.”
this poem can be seen as the gateway to Plath’s determination to kill
herself, we can also see in it her struggles to let go of those things that
keep her from suicide. “As the poem develops, the ‘mirrory variety’ of the
speaker’s existence becomes a tortuous self-consciousness, a self-watching
that makes every act compulsive.” (Bundtzen, 230) If suicide is an act of
killing one’s self then it is the self that needs to be convinced to give
that act. In Plath’s mind this
act is a gift to herself, and she must assure herself that giving it is the
right thing to do.
you not give it to me?
is as if she has two selves – a disembodied consciousness that thinks and
observes and a two-dimensional figure, a woman who performs her kitchen duties
like a robot.” (Bundtzen, 230)
One needs to convince the other that what is on the other side of the veil is
not something of which she needs to be afraid.
She does not want to make a big show of this suicide.
She does not want the act to hurt; either herself or others. She just wants to open the gift and go quietly.
will only take it and go aside quietly.
is hear that the poem seems to take a sudden turn.
It is as though the veils do not hide what is beyond death, but hide
what life has to offer; it seems to have hidden her potential. Veils that in
her mind keep her from realizing all that she could be.
“Not content with the stereotype of the victim, the poet
energetically celebrates her dissolution in these poems.
She begins in stark terror, realizing how much of her identity has been
jeopardized.” (Broe, 136)
To others it may have seemed transparent. But to her they are like “clouds...[of] carbon
monoxide,” and she was slowly killing herself anyway by breathing in these
clouds and “[f]illing [her] veins” with the poison.
“Sylvia Plath’s sense of entrapment, her sense that her choices are
profoundly limited, is directly connected to her particular time and place in
which she wrote her poetry. Betty
Friedan describes the late fifties and early sixties for American women as a
‘comfortable concentration camp’ -- physically luxurious, mentally
oppressive and impoverished.’” (Davison,
131) As part of convincing
herself that suicide is good, she has proven to herself that she was killing
herself anyway, so why not do it all at once.
it impossible for you to let something go and have it whole?
you kill what you can?
allowing all these veils to take her life from her a piece at a time she was
allowing herself to be bruised by each act.
Only she can give herself the gift of death in one whole piece.
Only then would each veil be lowered and death most likely revealed.
But that would be the present. All
the cares forced onto her by society and her own experiences would “slide”
away giving her a kind of rebirth, thus making the gift of suicide a kind of
birth day present.
passage of time has made it more apparent that Sylvia’s suicide was no
irrelevant accident. Though she
repeatedly used the imagery of death and rebirth, we can’t infer that she
had some crazy belief that she could survive suicide.
The right question is whether the literary flirtation with death could
– by serving as a safety valve – have saved her life.” (Hayman, 130)
these poems were written I do not think they were serving as a safety valve.
I rather think they were the direct result of her decision to take her
own life. It was no longer a
question of do or do not; rather, it was now a question of when, where, and how.
A Birthday Present was her way of saying to herself that she alone
would have to make the decision to kill herself.
And she used the poem to convince herself that she was allowing herself
to be killed little by little anyway. Why
not do it all at once, making it “pure and clean as the cry of a baby,”
because to allow herself to be killed by pieces would mean that once the present
of death did come she would be, “to numb to use it.”
My Life A Loaded Gun, Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Broe, Mary Lynn.
Protean Poetic, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980.
Bundtzen, Lynda K.
Plath’s Incarnations, Women and the Creative Process.
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983.
“The Self in the World: The Social Contact of Sylvia Plath’s Late
Poems.” Critical Essays on
Sylvia Plath. Ed. Linda W.
Wagner. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. 130-139.
The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath.
New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.
MaGill, Frank N., ed. Critical Survey of Poetry English Language Series. Revised Edition. Vol. 5. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1992. 2592-2603.