Top 16 of the Best Sylvia Plath Poems

Sylvia Plath is one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most tragic. Being born in 1932 and living only 30 years before taking her own life, Plath is a poet who battled with the struggles of mental health from a very young age. Her first suicide attempt in 1953, when she was only 19 years old, became the inspiration for ‘The Bell Jar’. She spent the next six months in psychiatric care before returning to finish college.

Her poetry spans across themes of her own mental health, motherhood, family, and touches on her own relationships, especially that of her marriage to fellow writer, Ted Hughes.

Plath’s poetry is beautiful to read, heavy in theme yet incredibly skilled, it is obvious why she has become one of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century; her work touching and moving people long after her passing.

We had two of our team, Emma and Jack, give their take on their favorite 10 Sylvia Plath poems. Combining their thoughts, here’s the Top 16 Sylvia Plath poems.

 

Mad Girl’s Love Song

Summary from Jack
This poem is tragic and beautiful all at the same time. Plath explores unrequited love, sadly penning her heartbreak in quiet, melancholic stanzas. Chiming throughout is a refrain locked away in parentheses, Plath seemingly whispering to herself in a feeble act of self-comfort. While not delving into her own mental state to the same extent as many of her poems, Mad Girl’s Love Song gives the reader a little insight into the life of Plath. The poem manages to take her heartbreak and make it into something beautiful, shaping something lasting out of something that left.

 

Edge

Summary from Jack
Many critics argue that this is the final poem Sylvia Plath wrote in her life, written just 6 days before her suicide in 1963. This timing and theme of death which permeates throughout have lead to the poem being regarded as a suicide note. The poem begins by focusing on a dead woman, her body ‘perfected’ through death. Just days away from her own suicide, the chilling images of the ‘smiling’ corpse and sense of achievement the dead woman seems to have are deeply unsettling. One of her darkest poems, stemming from her deepest depressions, Edge is a moving depiction of the subtle distinction between life and death.

 

The Moon and the Yew Tree

Summary from Jack
For a period, Plath was writing one poem each day. Her husband, Ted Hughes, suggested she look out the window and write about the full moon setting over a nearby churchyard. This challenge stems one of Plath’s most renowned poems, dealing with her own difficult familial situation. Her dad, having died while she was very young, is represented through the un-comforting ‘Yew’. The ‘Moon’ takes on the form of her mother, cold and unaffectionate looking down upon her. The Moon and the Yew Tree reveals the dysfunctional Plath family, the bleak poem a presentation of her own isolation.

 

Morning Song

Summary from Jack
This poem explores the uncertainty of motherhood, with Plath writing Morning Song as a tribute to her 8 month old daughter, Frieda. There is a spectacular blend of emotions achieved within the poem – love, excitement, uncertainty all culminating into one. Knowing Plath’s own familial situation, it is obvious to see why she has doubts about being a mother. New motherhood is engendered by Morning Song, the ambivalence projected through the undulating tone.

 

Lady Lazarus

Summary from Jack
This poem centres on a macabre sense of humour, showing the dark tendencies of Plath’s writing. Having attempted suicide multiple times in her life and survived, Plath compares herself to the biblical figure of Lazarus of Bethany, who was raised from the dead by Jesus. The colloquial tone with which she addresses her own suicide attempts point to Plath’s depression, the casual nature of ‘I have done it again’ chilling to the reader. Lady Lazarus paints a bleak picture of Plath’s depression, each day yearning more deeply to end her life.
Summary from Emma
‘Lady Lazarus’ is another poem Plath wrote that speaks about death. The title makes this very clear as it refers to the Biblical character, Lazarus, raised from the dead by Christ. The speaker begins by comparing herself to a Holocaust victim, and telling the reader that she has been through a lot. She has died a number of times, but like a cat, she keeps coming back. The speaker has died so many times that it has become an art and those who watch her, spectators.

 

Tulips

Summary from Jack
After being hospitalised for an appendectomy, Plath wrote this poem about a bouquet of tulips that Ted Hughes had gifted her. Hughes himself noted that this poem was the first that she wrote “at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter. From then on, all her poems were written this way.” The poem balances the ease of death with the tulips voracious desire for life. Plath hates the tulips, ‘vivid tulips eat my oxygen’, not wanting to acknowledge reasons to live. Tulips marks a change in Plath’s writing, setting her on a course of destruction. The poem delicately balances ideas of life and death, ruminating on Plath’s own state of mind.

 

Poppies in October

Summary from Jack
Stemming from Plath’s classical employment of floral imagery, this piece is one that suggests many things simultaneously. Critics often argue about the exact significance of the poem, but yet all agree that it is a flawless piece of poetry. Much shorter than Plath’s normal verses, she explores life, death and grief, bringing together these themes in a poem full of imagery. The beauty of the poem lies in its ambiguity, with the melancholic tone giving way to a plethora of ideas.
Summary from Emma
On an initial reading, this piece seems to be a celebration of the bright red poppies that flower in October. But, there is more to this confusing text. It is, on a larger scale, about life and death and the contrast between these two. The speaker also seems to be interested in discussing the way in which flowers do and do not relate to women. 

 

Cut

Summary from Jack
The psychological fascination on a seemingly common kitchen accident project a deep sense of mental disturbance within Plath’s Cut. The hyper-focused imagery of the skin hanging loose after Plath accidentally cuts herself is extended throughout the poem, transmuting the slight accident into something of huge proportions. The vivid, chaotic images which seep through the poem are a reflection of her own suicidal tendencies. This strikingly dark poem giving insight into Plath’s psychological deterioration.

 

Ariel

Summary from Jack
The chaotic horse ride, contrasted against the peaceful opening line, gives this poem a sense of complete disorientation. The speaker is plunged into a blurred world, riding Plath’s horse, Ariel, in a frenzied scene. Unable to hold on completely, the speaker seemingly begins to lose little pieces of herself, shedding, changing and ultimately transforming through the uncontrollable journey. The panicked chaos of the poem is often understood as a representation of Plath’s own life, spiralling out of her control.
Summary from Emma
Ariel,’ the title poem for Plath’s collection of the same name, is one of her most popular. It describes an intense and terrifying experience in which the speaker is stuck on a horse, sprinting towards the sun. There is a lot more to it than the simple fear and lack of control the situation suggests. The rider goes through an emotional and mental transformation as she is carried towards the sun, and more metaphorically, towards death. This poem was one of Plath’s last and would be shortly followed by her suicide.

 

Daddy

Summary from Jack
This poem is vastly considered as one of the pinnacles of Plath’s poetic achievements. The brutality of her verse and raw anger as the poem progresses is impossible to ignore. You have to split out the words as you read, Plath infusing her poem with such fury that it bubbles tumultuously under each line. Daddy addresses Plath’s father after his death but is not a poem of mourning. Instead, Plath details their complex relationship, drawing upon dark imagery of the holocaust to represent her own entrapment. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most impassioned, Daddy is one Plath poem everyone should take the time to read.
Summary from Emma
‘Daddy’ is perhaps Sylvia Plath’s most famous poem. It is the second on this list to reference the holocaust and compares a father figure to many things, including a Nazi officer and a vampire. It is considered to be semi-autobiographical, giving the reader, and Plath scholar, insight into the relationship between the writer and her own father, Otto. By the end of the poem the speaker claims that she got revenge on her father and her husband, killing them both. She is now able to set them to the side and clear her mind.

 

November Graveyard

Summary from Emma

This poem includes some of the major themes within Sylvia Plath’s works, solitude and death, as seen through the use of natural images. The poem takes place in a cemetery in the month of November. It discusses how there is really nothing present in the land beyond the physical. It is winter, therefore all the plants are dying, but not willingly.

They cling desperately and uselessly to their foliage. Just as the plants attempt to maintain life into the winter, so too does humanity seek something after death. The speaker goes on to say that there is nothing magical about the cemetery, in fact, it is just a physical location, without any attachment to those bodies within its grounds.

 

Winter Landscape with Rocks

Summary from Emma

Winter landscape with rocks’ describes one speaker’s state of mind through the metaphor of a dark, almost lifeless landscape. The speaker takes note of how fluidly a river runs through the different parts of a watermill. It goes past all obstacles and enters a dark pond. It is a dreary place, but there is some life there. A swan enters the scene and its purity at that moment strikes the speaker. It is out of place within the narrative, but at the same time makes sense.

Plath’s speaker, who is likely the poet herself, moves through the landscape and speaks to her listener, addressing the frozen nature of her heart. The poem speaks to a feeling of confinement and isolation which were on Plath’s mind in a number of other poems on this list.

 

Sting

Summary from Emma
This poem is one of five in a sequence that focuses on bees. In this text, the speaker describes the changes she experiences as she contemplates the life of a queen bee inside an old hive. It is a larger metaphor for her life as she buys bees and then begins to worry about the choice. She sees its faults and wonders if there is even a queen inside it at all. The poem progresses through the possibilities she faces in life until it comes to the point where she decides enough is enough. She will no longer fear the future and will instead embrace her own power as a human being.

 

Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea

Summary from Emma
This poem takes place almost entirely in an imagined world within the speaker’s head. The summer house that she and her lover travelled to is being sealed up. All the memories of their time there are disappearing and she thinks back to how happy she used to be. The poem presents Sylvia Plath with an opportunity to discuss her own failing relationship with her husband, Ted Hughes, and the good and bad times. It concludes with the speaker forcing herself to acknowledge the reality of her world, and leave behind the fantasy.

 

Walking in Winter

Summary from Emma
Unlike other poems on this list, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Walking in Winter’ does not discuss a traditionally “natural” landscape Instead, it is focused on the nuclear landscape. One that is often referred to as winter-like. Plath makes great use of her reader’s senses in the text. She speaks on the taste of metal in the air and alludes to the feeling of the cold, dark sky. These elements come together to form a picture of a world entirely hostile to humanity, but which came into being through human hands. The context in which the poem was written is clearly influential.  It was certainly inspired by the Cold War fears of the early 1960s.

 

Crossing the Water

Summary from Emma
This piece is an extended metaphor comparing the crossing of two different kinds of borders. The first, and more tangible, is that between Canada and the United States. This is a boundary created by human beings, and crossed daily, from one side to another. The other border the speaker is interested in discussing is that between life and death. One must also travel from one side to the other, but there is no way to come back across. It is a much more permeant crossing. Death is a theme that comes up frequently within Sylvia Plath’s works, and the dark imagery within ‘Crossing the Water’ certainly evokes a terror of what’s on the other side.
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