Alan Williamson

Alan Williamson: On "Ariel"

Consider the beginning of a much finer poem, "Ariel" itself:

Stasis in darkness.

Then the substanceless blue 

Pour of tor and distances.

The two near-spondees, rhyming, balanced around the insignificant pivot "in": a line could hardly contrive to have more "stasis," less forward movement to it. Moving ahead another five syllables, a hypothetical second line completes itself with the third occurrence of the rhyme--falling, yet again, on an abstract word denoting a privation of quality or presence. Thus, "blue" enters like the declaration of a second theme: because it is a quality; because it is formally unexpected; because it is only the second long vowel in the poem. The theme expands instantaneously, in a "pour" of long-vowel assonance and rhyme, then curiously sinks back under the first theme, as the velocity of the bolting horse melts concrete objects to an abstract blue of "distances."

This little sonata already contains the essential action of the poem. The second theme, of velocity, intensified quality, intensified selfhood, will be developed around the symbolic long i and the related long e, in what must be one of the most aurally spectacular passages in English poetry since Dylan Thomas:

And now I

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.

The child's cry


Melts in the wall.

And I

Am the arrow,


The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive 

Into the red


Eye, the cauldron of morning.

As in the mountain vision in The Bell Jar, the "I" is "honed" against the sun until it is "saintly and thin and essential." It is thrust to the end of the line, against unconditioned space; underscored with ideas of purification, expansion, intensity, and above all speed and daring ("White / Godiva," "unpeel," "seas," "child's cry," "flies," "suicidal," "drive"). But finally, at the crisis, "I" metamorphoses into "Eye," fuses with the cosmic, impersonal awareness, or sheer Being, of the sun itself. Specific identity--like specific perception in the opening stanza—"melts" in the "cauldron" of its own acceleration, back to a formless monism.

I have dwelt on this poem not only because it is a tour de force, but because its melding opposites reveal a side of Plath's ontological vision peculiarly relevant to her stylistic development. In a certain sense, as we shall see, the opening stanza we examined so laboriously contains the plot not only of "Ariel" the poem but of Ariel the book.

The philosophical vacillation between motion and stasis runs through all of Plath's late writing.

From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Alan Williamson: On "They Dream Only of America"

… How many movies have we all seen on the subject of runaway children who cross paths with a murderer – a subject whose appeal, surely, is to our own anxiety about the relation between normal venturesomeness and the completely out of bounds?

And hiding from darkness in barns They can be grownups now And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily – The lake a lilac cube.

When the children " can be grownups," the evidence of evil is at once "more easily" – and I think the missing word has to be "found" or "recognized." So that again it is precisely the recognition scene that is averted – averted by stopping time, freezing the journey of escape in an eternal present of pastoral beauty. And one notices how the same detail that makes the last line suggest an abstract painting also betrays the effect of psychic containment: the lake water held to the dimensions of a cube.

"‘They Dream Only of America’" is one of the most clearly structured poems in The Tennis Court Oath, possessing essentially a traditional double plot. The story of the children and the murderer reflects the shadowy story of the narrator’s friend, whose journey to lose himself in America, driving "hundreds of miles / At night through dandelions," becomes more and more terrible, as he takes everything that happens for a "sign" (presumably of impending evil, the broken leg mentioned in the last stanza). He ends, like the children earlier, paralyzed between alternatives of ecstasy and destructiveness: "There is nothing to do / For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it."

I do not mean to maintain that all interrupted stories in Ashbery can be ascribed to psychic censorship. Often, the uncertainties of paranoia, the elusivness of essentially nostalgic desires, provide more relevant explanations. My point is that it is the imitation of psychological tension – approach and avoidance, affirmation and denial – that gives Ashbery’s disjunctiveness a force far exceeding mere aesthetic novelty.

From Alan Williamson, "The Diffracting Diamond: Ashbery, Romanticism, and Ant-Art" (Chapter 6) in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1984) 121-122.

Alan Williamson on: "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

That moral and intellectual relativism is itself an issue in the poem is indicated, I think, by the dominant imagery of clothing. Of course, Lowell has used this imagery throughout, to denote human absorption in roles; but its exaggerated employment here underlines the fact that Lowell must now perceive people and situations through these roles and appearances, without the prophet's confident penetration to spiritual conditions. A further complicating factor is that the characters in the poem are all extreme, contradictory, sui generis - all Dickensian solipsists. Their relation to social processes is obscure and mystified, most of all to themselves; and taken collectively, they mirror the author's own confusion about the possibility of interpretive or moral judgments on society. Indeed, not the least solipsistic among them is the author.

The opening stanza reveals Lowell's subtle discomfort at his accommodated position, at the growing distance between his concept of himself and any of the roles he must or can play. He sees himself as an underground eccentric, wearing his pajamas most of the day; but this eccentricity - and the daily load of laundry - is made possible by a respectable job, though one so luxurious it hardly seems such: "Only teaching on Tuesdays." He "hog[s] a whole house" - a residential arrangement quite appropriate to his class and background, but clearly unnatural in terms of his own feelings. Lowell proceeds to invent a bizarre but appropriate analogue to his own paradoxical status:

even the man

scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,

has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,

and is a "young Republican."

(Perhaps this figure deserves to be interpreted more seriously, as Marcuse's vision of the superficially unexploited proletarian who pays for his comforts by a subtle regimentation extending not only to his politics but to his play - "a beach wagon" - and his sexuality - "a helpmate." But the archness of tone suggests that Lowell intends him - for the present, at least - mainly as metaphor.)

Within bourgeois community and responsibility, Lowell has found at least one vital center for his life, his baby daughter: "Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear." Yet even the daughter's importance is cheapened when it must be expressed through the irrelevant poetry of departure of advertising. This rhetoric bears out a dominant pattern of excess, especially of over-size - in Lowell's house, his teaching arrangements, the age-discrepancy between him and his daughter - a pattern that has some of the terror, if not the moral implication, of Macbeth's "giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief." At the very least, Lowell's exaggeration of his contentment is a subtle way of questioning it - of admitting that he is "selling" himself.

One reason, presumably, for Lowell's delayed parenthood is the very different kind of commitment that engaged his youth:

Ought I to regret my seedtime?

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statements . . .

"Ought I to regret my seedtime?" is the essential question of the poem: has Lowell's present ironic vision transcended, and so gained the right to reject, his earlier committed one? The question, for me, recalls one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "In seedtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." The proverb is relevant to more than Lowell's occupation, for the Devil is satirizing the conventional life-cycle, claiming that it is merely a mind-forged manacle designed to prevent man from ever enjoying his instincts, ever distinguishing his true self from his society's rationalizations.

Lowell's mature irony does indeed reveal disturbing, incontrovertible truths about his earlier self. His revolt was itself solipsistic, ineffective, merely bizarre, or at least society could make it seem so: the apolitical, Dionysiac Negro he was paired with was no better an objective correlative of his commitments than his fellow professors and Marlborough Street neighbors would be now. The phrase "telling off" makes his argument seem a sloppy emotional catharsis; just as, later, the comparison of the prison roof to "my school soccer court" would reduce his martyrdom to a compulsive repetition of childhood experiences involving authority, violence, and exhibitionistic attention-seeking (assuming that the reader makes the obvious connection with "91 Revere Street"). Of course, this too could be seen as part of society's mystification: prison makes the dissenter doubt his own manhood and judgment, since it reduces him to the dependence of a child.

At times, however, Lowell's irony backfires: the use of a technical psychoanalytic term like "manic" in a subtle descriptive context, however accurate it may be, suggests a complacent patness attained at some cost to richness of feeling and recollection.

In the prison scenes Lowell's vision of anomalies and disconnections becomes still more intense and maddening. The pervasive costume imagery absorbs - though with a grimmer irony than usual - so palpable a reality as the New York slums: "bleaching khaki tenements." The prisoners, defined by garments ranging from "rope shoes" to "chocolate double-breasted suits," are worlds unto themselves, and worlds full of self-contradiction. One, Abramowitz, carries pacifism to a cosmic extreme, yet clearly has his own problems about aggression and masculinity (he is called a "flyweight" and urgently wishes to be "tan"). Lowell can finally dismiss his point of view with a rather sneaky reference to Eden and the Fall. Nor can Lowell feel much common cause with the other war protesters, one of whom belongs to a sect the Catholic C.O. has never even heard of Still less, of course, is there a feeling of unity among the prisoners in general. Indeed, the prisoners' interactions reveal to Lowell another, equally important kind of disunity; the ethical contradictoriness of our society, which punishes the aggressive conformist for his acquisitiveness while bearing down on the eccentric for his dislike of force, but allows the persecution of the eccentric by the conformist to go on in prison just as it does elsewhere.

Something unanticipated happens in the poem, however, when Lowell focuses on the last prisoner: "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke."

. . .

One difference is technical. Where, before, hesitancy and the sense of disconnectedness expressed themselves in abstention from eloquence, halting metrics, submerged or doggerel rhyming, now the lines become emphatically iambic, the rhymes prominent, regular, stately; there is a touch of the surging periodicity of Lord Weary's Castle.

We are led to look for a reflection of this increased intensity in the moral content of the lines. One insight that becomes very clear is the real power of money and violence cutting across all claims of value and principle in American life. Morally repudiated and condemned to die, Lepke is still czar, still "segregated" into privilege like a Southern white, still given "things forbidden the common man." Further, these things are exactly what the conventionally respectable desire: the American Way of Life, an unexamined jumble of consumer goods, piety, patriotism. As the scavenger earlier identified with these things against his own class interests, Lepke identifies with them against the whole legal and moral tenor of his life; unless, of course, one cynically concludes that the law and public life are themselves so pervaded by this doublethink that their ostensible values are meaningless.

For Lepke, as the citation from John Foster Dulles would suggest, is a symbol of at least one aspect of American public life. He has organized, bureaucratized, depersonalized individual murder; America, in the "tranquillized Fifties," has done the same thing with its power to annihilate mankind. Lepke is "lobotomized," has had certain electrical connections in his brain severed (whether literally or metaphorically is not to the point here). America, too, has "lost connections," between its values and its acts, the fiction and the reality of its motives, the news and the appropriate emotional reaction; it too "drifts" toward its fate, unable and unwilling to change. (Rightly considered, the phrase "agonizing reappraisal" was as grotesque when spoken by Dulles as when applied to Lepke.) America, too, is "calm," "tranquillized" as Lepke is "lobotomized"; but in both cases the calm may be merely the psychological effect of an overwhelming, inescapable fear of execution or nuclear annihilation. And here Lowell's analogy carries an especially frightening implication; for in Lepke's single-minded concentration on death, his attitude seems to change from terror to fascination to love. Death becomes an "oasis," the only escape from fear. A number of radical writers have seen such a Dr. Strangelove psychology in the attitude of Americans toward the bomb; and we remember that both Freud and Marcuse predicted a resurgence of the death instinct in very advanced civilizations.

The concluding phrase, "lost connections," seems to reflect not only on Lepke and official America, but on the poet himself. For he too, at the beginning, suffers from an inability to connect his inner identity with his social roles; and an inability to go beyond an inclusive, defensive irony to the patterned vision of social processes that might allow him to locate himself, and reopen the possibility of political engagement. This vision arrives with the symbol of Lepke; and it is important that Lepke is a symbol, while the other characters, because of their obscure or mystified relation to society, remain unbudging, fruitless particulars. The return from observation to symbolism, like the more intense metrics, and like the vision itself, suggests a kind of breakthrough or change of heart in Lowell - one that, I believe, is mirrored in the structure of Life Studies as a whole.

From Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1974 by the Yale University Press.

Alan Williamson: On "Daddy"

Archetypally, Plath's father is represented either as godlike but fragmentary, protean, inaccessible ("The Colossus," "Full Fathom Five," or else as the dark father, the Nazi and torturer. That this latter image is archetypal, the biographers, I hope, have made clear enough: in life Otto Plath, far from being a Nazi, left the Kaiser's Germany partly because he was a militant pacifist. Possibly the image stems from Plath's early anger at her father as a Prussian "autocrat"; yet her longing for him is so evident, in The Bell Jar and elsewhere, that one's mind is drawn more to the traditional etiology of masochism. In place of what is really feared--abandonment, indifference--malignity or persecution is substituted, both because it implies concern, or at least involvement, intention, on the part of the other, and because it constitutes a very high degree of presence. Nothing is so unlike the inaccessibility of a corpse as the intrusiveness of a tyrant, a jailer, a torturer. In an oblique way, "Daddy" seems to acknowledge all this. At a point in the poem when the Nazi theme has reached a pitch of hysterical inarticulacy ("the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you"), the father's real image suddenly comes to mind, and there is a comic incongruity:

You stand at the blackboard, daddy, 

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

The speaker seems suddenly half-aware that the fantasy image needs defending, and the true grounds of reproach—as well as a much more loving underlying feeling--slip out:

But no less a devil for that, no not 

Any less the black man who


Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

The father's negative omnipresence, while it conveys a truth about the state of obsessive mourning, also expresses an unappeased wish on the part of the hurt little girl whose voice can still be heard here.

[. . . .]

[T]he vampire mythology of "Daddy" . . . confirms the Laingian presupposition that intimacy saps one's limited stock of vital forces, threatens one's very being. But, by a deeper logic, if men are the undead, it means that they are the dead: the "dead lover," the dead father, returning in his death-denying disguise of omnipotent will. To find love a negative, obliterating experience is thus to feel reunited with the father. Insofar as the "blood flood" signifies menstrual blood, it is also to become one with the barren moon-goddess, the evil father's consorts In this overdetermination, we come very near the core of the masochist theme in Plath's work.

"Daddy" represents a vengeful literary assimilation, after the separation, of Plath's marriage to the same complex, and the same ritual. To reproduce the (masochistically transformed) image of the father, she has chosen a man for his dominating, sadistic qualities, regarding even his sexuality, like Marco's or Irwin's, as a torture instrument:

And then I knew what to do. 

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look


And a love of the rack and the screw. 

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I'm finally through.

And yet the opening premise itself ("I made a model of you") implies the possibility that she has merely imagined him this way, or else made him this way by her will to respond only to this element in him; and thereby has, in a sense, destroyed him, or at least the relationship ("If I've killed one man, I've killed two"). It is, after all, the destruction of the model that makes the voodoo rite of exorcism effective. There is a burden of guilt as well as abusiveness to this passage, which can only be glossed over if it is to be read as a straightforward attack on the husband's character. Rather, the poem, here as in the passage quoted earlier, wavers near the Jungian therapeutic point at which the archetype becomes so inflated that it can no longer be imposed on a living, or even a dead, person. If the separation is not completed, it is perhaps because the archetype is occasioned by an absence, not a presence; so that, grim as it is, it alone offers the possibility of connection. As Holbrook has pointed out, the concluding rhyme-word "through" means not only through with the father in his vampire disguise, but through to the father where he actually is--in the grave.

It should be clear why--without denying Plath insight into the social harmfulness of supermasculinity as an ideal--I disagree with a radical feminist interpretation of her work. Its burden, on the more intimate level, seems to me not sexual "oppression" but the ambiguous attractions a more-than-human Other may hold for ego weakness in either sex. Plath's writings describe a complex of feelings in which (as in the masculine Madonna complex) the other sex does not easily ‘scape whipping. If men are figures of indomitable will, they are morally beyond the pale--as in the lines from "Three Women": "It is these men I mind.... They are jealous gods / That would have the whole world flat because they are." But if they are not gods, the note of sexual contempt for "small" men quickly becomes audible. It was Plath's strength, and a good deal of her despair, that she realized--if not precisely this--the possibility that deep conflicts among her conscious and unconscious values and wishes might have made her unhappiness almost inevitable.

From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright © 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.