‘The Colossus’ was first published in 1960 in Plath’s collection Colossus and Other Poems. In the poem, the speaker focuses on The Colossus of Rhodes, a statue built in 280 BC. It is 98 feet tall and depicts Helios, the Greek sun god. The statue existed for fifty-four years and was destroyed in an earthquake in 224 BC. Plath, as is often the case, uses the statue as a beautifully multilayered metaphor.
Explore The Colossus
The statue, which is based on a real creation from Rhodes in 280 BC, is in ruins. The speaker is a caretaker of sorts. She tends to the statue, sometimes expressing irritation or exasperation with it and other times relishing in its presence. As the poem progresses it becomes clear that the poet is using this caretaker/deceased statue relationship to depict her own relationship to her deceased father. Despite the fact that the boat’s keel is never going to scrape on the shore, she still curls up in the statue’s ear and takes in his presence.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The Colossus’ Plath engages with themes that include suffering, death, and relationships. The relationship between the speaker and her father/the statue is incredibly important in the larger landscape of this poem. Everything, from the classical allusions to the focus on death and loss, stems from that relationship. The father might be dead, but the speaker is the one who is suffering. She’s stuck in a pattern where she can’t get away from her father’s death and the fact that he’s never coming back. While she realizes this, she can’t stop trying to put him back together and bring back a time in her life
Structure and Form
‘The Colossus’ by Sylvia Plath is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, known as quintains. These quintains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that the poem is written in free verse. But, despite its name, this does not mean that the poem is entirely without form. Poets use half-rhyme, as well as other literary devices in order to give the poem a feeling of rhyme/rhythm without having to restrict themselves to a pattern.
Plath uses several literary devices in ‘The Colossus’. These include but are not limited to examples of an extended metaphor, imagery, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, metaphor, is the most important technique at work in the poem. Generally, the image of the statue and its destruction is read as a metaphor for a woman grieving the death of her father. She sits with him, cares for him, and expresses varying degrees of emotion as she tries pointlessly to put him back together.
There are also several examples of alliteration in ‘The Colossus’. These are seen in the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For instance, “Pieced” and “properly” in line two of the first stanza as well as “ladders” and “lysol” in stanza two. These examples help to increase the rhythm and rhyme in a poem, especially when that poem is written in free verse.
Enjambment is another important technique in this poem. Its seen a few times as the poet cuts off lines before their conclusion and creates a new stanza or line. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second stanza.
Clearly, imagery is crucial in ‘The Colossus’. Plath is known for crafting complex, moving images that are equally beautiful as they are disturbing. This poem is no exception. One of the best examples comes from the last stanza with the lines: “ Counting the red stars and those of plum-color. / The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue”.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I shall never get you put together entirely,
It’s worse than a barnyard.
In the first lines of the poem the speaker addresses “you,” the Colossus of Rhodes. She alludes to the statues destruction and the fact that never again will it be returned to the state it was in previously. The pieces are scattered and glue certainly won’t do the job. The speaker is very aware that she’s only caring for remnants.
The imagery is so poignant in these first lines and becomes even more so as the metaphor slowly starts to reveal itself. Readers should also take note of the neologisms in this stanza. These, including “Mule-bray,” are supposed to bring the image of the animal to mind as well as the sound that it makes. She’s describing the statue as making these noises. They’re all, oddly, coming out of its mouth. These sounds are “bawdy” and animalistic. Its not something the speaker admires, in fact, it comes across as disturbing and even somewhat sexual.
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
I am none the wiser.
The speaker continues to address the statue, posing a suggestion that the state considers itself an “oracle”. This is a curious suggestion and is followed by a related line accusing the statue of having delusions of grandeur. She knows it considers itself godlike and as above and beyond humankind in some way. But, this is immediately contrasted with the speaker’s depiction of her everyday job. She has to clean the statue, as it is unable to do it itself. This is far from a godlike existence, something she is no doubt aware of. S
he has to “dredge the silt from” the statue’s throat. As if to prove that the state is nothing like the persona it presents, she describes how she is “none the wiser” from the time she’s spent with it. Her constant contact with this “godlike” statue hasn’t rubbed off on her. She hasn’t learned anything about the future.
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
The speaker also spends the third stanza in order to describe more what her job is like. She is a hard worker. She moves up “little ladders” (alliteration) while carrying “pots and pails” (also alliteration). The rhythm in this line mimics the day in and day out nature of her work. She does the same thing over and over again.
She uses a simile in the second line to compare herself to an “ant”. She’s quite small in comparison to the statue. Even though it’s in pieces, it is still quite large. While she might have been mocking the statue at first, now she uses the word “mourning” to convey something else. She does feel the sorrow of some sort for the statue. She’s grieving. This is an important part of the extended metaphor.
The following lines are filled with imagery. She describes the statue’s “brow” and the weeds that are growing up and through the stone. Its a constant process— removing the plant life and hauling around pieces of stone. Readers might take note of the death-like imagery in these lines. The words “skull-plates” and “tumuli” (burial mounds) certainly bring loss to mind. The statue, as a metaphor for the woman’s lost father, is bringing out the emotion in her.
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
There is an interesting allusion at the start of the fourth stanza. Here, she refers to “Oresteia” Aeschylus’s tragic trilogy, one more classical reference that keeps the poem in the right atmosphere. It is also used to describe the sky above the scene in all its grandeur. It’s in the second line that the metaphor really starts coming through clearly. She refers to the statue as “father”.
The eighteenth line of the poem contains another simile. She tells him that he is “pithy and historical as the Roman Forum”. This is yet another ruin and another of a classical nature. The use of the word “pithy” in this line is curious. It’s not entirely clear why Plath chose to use it, but one might speculate that it has to do with the larger metaphor. The Forum might be a “pithy” way of describing her father/the statue.
This stanza concludes with the speaker returning to talking about herself. She describes taking a break from her normal duties to have her lunch. She sits on the “hill of black cypress”. This adds to the dark, death-like atmosphere and the pervading contrasts between the world of the statue and normal everyday life.
There is a good example of enjambment in the movement between the last line of this stanza and the first of the fifth. These additional dark images of death only further the mood the poet is trying to create. The use of the words “fluted” and “acanthine” bring the poem back to the motif of classical images. Both of these refer to a kind of classical column style.
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
In the fifth stanza of ‘The Colossus,’ the speaker picks up the line she started at the end of the fourth stanza. These lines are used to depict for the reader the true grandness of the statue. It reaches out, revealing the depth of the speaker’s pain. The ruin is such that a lightening stroke would be required to “create” something similar. She even depicts the ear as large enough to “squat” in. The shape of the ear canal resembles a “cornucopia” or a curved cone-shaped basket that’s usually depicted with bountiful, recently harvested items. This is juxtaposed against the rest of the poem which is about desolation and death.
The speaker appears to gain something from the time she spends there. She sits there, out of the wind.
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
On the blank stones of the landing.
In the sixth and final stanza of ‘The Colossus,’ the speaker continues describing what it’s like when she “squats” in the statue’s ear. She counts the “red stars” and the “plum-color” stars. This lovely imagery and perhaps related to the next line which mentions the statue’s “tongue” and the sunrise. Despite the light and the warm colors, the speaker describes are how hours are “married to shadow”. She is stuck where she is. She’s in the shadow of her father’s death, trapped by it in a miserable, unending way.
The last two lines bring in a boat. She refers to the “keel” or the ridge that’s at the bottom of the boat that scars against “the landing”. She is no longer waiting to hear the arrival of a boat or wondering if someone (perhaps her father? Or someone to take her away from her “marriage”?) is going to turn up. It is important to refer back to the beginning go the poem at this point. She already stated that she can’t put her father/the statue back together again but she can’t stop trying.
This poem, which focuses so emotionally on Plath’s relationship with her father is one of a kind. But, there are other poems that address father/daughter and father/son relationships in different, but still important, ways. For example, ‘My Father Would Not Show Us’ by Ingrid de Kok, ‘Elegy for My Father’s Father’ by James K. Baxter, and Plath’s own ‘Daddy’. The latter is one of Plath’s best known, most commonly studied, and disturbing poems. In it, she lays out her relationship with her father, and her opinion of him, through a series of metaphors and similes that never fail to ingrain themselves on new reader’s minds.