Margaret Dickie

Margaret Dickie: On "An Octopus"

Her sensitivity to detail might suggest an interest only in surfaces, but she had a clear sense of the limits of detail and an awareness that not all external marks could be so clearly seen. In "An Octopus," for example, which moves through eight pages toward the compliment that "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact," Moore was more interested in capaciousness than in accuracy. Over and over, she insisted that there is no way to accurately measure the twenty-eight ice fields she detailed. At the start, the "octopus" is described as "deceptively reserved and flat"; "Completing a circle" around it, she claimed, "you have been deceived into thinking you have progressed."


The "octopus" is unapproachable, a place where all our observational skills are unreliable and even water is "immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks." Spotted ponies, "hard to discern," fungi "magnified in profile," inhabit a landscape that is tricky, changeable, and impossible to accurately fix in view. She pictured the octopus-glacier "'creeping slowly as with meditated stealth, / its arms seeming to approach from all directions.’"


Here is no "deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness'" in the description of nature but rather a constant iteration of the impossibility of "relentless accuracy" in seeing and capturing anything in language, although she refused to resolve "'complexities which still will be complexities / as long as the world lasts.'" "An Octopus" is a view of the inscrutability of nature imagined by a woman and as a woman. The glacier is "of unimagined delicacy," "it hovers forward 'spider fashion / on its arms' misleadingly like lace." It is "distinguished by a beauty / of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home,’" "odd oracles of cool official sarcasm," which nonetheless differ from the wisdom of those "'emotionally sensitive'" whose hearts are hard.


Hovering forward with arms approaching from all sides, this imagined glacier would appear to be the very image of the engulfing mother, yet unlike Whitman’s old crone out of the sea this feminized landscape is imagined not so much as personally threatening but as stalwartly resistant. Its mysteries are those of "doing hard things," of endurance, of unimaginable resistance to the poet's imaginative grasp. They are mysteries appreciated and confirmed here by this woman poet who imitated them.


From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Margaret Dickie: On "Ariel"

A poem that moves from "Stasis in darkness," "substanceless," to the "cauldron of morning" cannot be adequately described as an expression of suicidal impulses, although Plath's use of that word demands explanation. The arrow and the dew, although in apparent apposition, do not reinforce each other. The arrow kills, the dew is killed; the arrow at one with the red eye is its apotheosis, while the dew is consumed by the sun. The dew, like the child's cry melting and the unpeeling dead hands and even the foaming wheat and "glitter of seas," symbolizes all that will be overcome or sacrificed in this arrow's drive into morning. But the speaker, identifying with the arrow, presents herself as no sacrificial victim on the altar of any god. The arrow, like the horse, "God's lioness," absorbs the power of the avenging God: "at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye," it is associated with the fury that lit the holocaust.

The sexual implications of this imagery reinforce this reading and develop as well its use in "Purdah." The female speaker here identifies with the horse, a symbol of masculine sexual potency which, as the arrow, becomes a phallic image that drives into the eye, the circle associated with female sexuality. Far from a desire to transcend the physical, "Ariel" expresses the exultation of a sex act in which the speaker is both the driving arrow and the receiving cauldron. "God's lioness" in "Ariel" calls upon both strands of the female mythological lioness: as an arrow she is associated with battle, and in her merger with the sun she absorbs its fertility. Destroyer-creator, masculine-feminine, the spirit with which the speaker identifies in "Ariel" is whole, entire in itself. The fires that burn in honor of and through this spirit are emblematic of its passion and ecstasy.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "Wintering"

She is able, in "Wintering," to accept also the activities of women who "have got rid of the men,/ The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." Knitting, tending the cradle, harboring life in her body-bulb, she will survive. The bee sequence tells of the search for a female identity in a world without men, without stings, without knives. It is "the room I have never been in," where the "black" is bunched "like a bat." The speaker now enters with her "torch," lighting "appalling objects," "Black asininity. Decay./ Possession." This open confrontation with the blackness at the center of her own existence, and not associated with some outside threat, is the source of her tentative recognition that she will survive. For once she is totally on her own -- a painful recognition which reflects Plath's own situation.

Margaret Dickie: On "Stings"

In "Stings," . . . she and a man in "white smiles" remove the honey cells from the hive. Once again the queen bee does not show herself; if she exists at all, she is old, "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful." All that the speaker recognizes are "winged, unmiraculous women / Honeydrudgers," with whom she does not want to identify, although she wonders if "These women who only scurry" will hate her. In control now, she sees "A third person watching," who has nothing to do with the bee-seller and herself. He is "a great scapegoat," the person the bees attack. "They thought death was worth it," but the beekeeper refuses that death. "I / Have a self to recover, a queen," she admits, although again she does not find her but imagines her as a flying "red comet."

This curious choice between revenge on the man which means death and recovering a self which signifies life introduces a prophetic note into the poem.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "The Arrival of the Bee Box"

"The Arrival of the Bee Box" is more positive about this "clean wood box" that would be a coffin except for the "din" within, "the swarmy feeling." The owner wonders what would happen if she freed the bees; "I am no source of honey/ So why should they turn on me?" She resolves to set them free tomorrow. In the box imagery, with its rampant life, Plath begins to develop a familiar situation in her poetry: inner turmoil and outer form. To open the box is to open the possibility of attack by its contents, a warning she seems anxious to ignore.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "The Bee Meeting"

In the opening poem, "The Bee Meeting," the speaker herself seems uncertain about what is going on. Some village ritual is in progress, and while the speaker is included in it, she keeps looking for its ominous significance. Her rush of questions reveals her suspicions: "Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?" "No, no," she assures herself, "it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible." Although every detail causes her concern, she claims, "I could not run without having to run forever"--a feeling reiterated in her letters of this period, which detail her desire to face life alone and not to seek help by returning to her mother. Although she realizes that the villagers are hunting the queen bee, she feels somehow that she herself is attacked. She asks, in the end, "why am I cold?"

[. . . .]

In "The Bee Meeting," the scene is a village social; the speaker goes to hunt the queen bee in the company of the rector, the midwife, the sexton -- those public agents of marriage, birth, death, the world in which she must now define her identity. The queen bee eludes these searchers. "She is very clever," Plath says. But the villagers are actually helping to preserve the queen bee by moving the virgins who would kill her. Still, not very grateful, the queen rises, "The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her." Left behind, the speaker identifies at this point not with the flying bee, but with the empty box, an emblem of survival ("Pillar of white in a blackout of knives") and a possible coffin.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "Lady Lazarus"

Plath’s late poems are full of speakers whose rigid identities and violent methods not only parody their torment but also permit them to control it. The peculiar nature of the speaker in "Lady Lazarus" defies ordinary notions of the suicide. Suicide is not the joyous act she claims it to be in her triumphant assertion that she has done it again. Her confidence, at the moment of recovery, that her sour breath will vanish in a day and that she will soon be a smiling woman is a perverse acceptance of her rescuers' hopes, although she calls her rescuers enemies. The impulse of the speaker is the overwhelming desire to control the situation. She is above all a performer, chiefly remarkable for her manipulation of herself as well as of the effects she wishes to have on those who surround her. She speaks of herself in hyperboles, calling herself a "walking miracle," boasting that she has "nine times to die," exclaiming that dying is an art she does "exceptionally well," asserting that "the theatrical/ Comeback in broad day" knocks her out. Her treatment of suicide in such buoyant terms amounts to a parody of her own act. When she compares her suicide to the victimization of the Jews, and when she later claims there is a charge for a piece of her hair or clothes and thus compares her rescued self to the crucified Christ or martyred saint, she is engaging in self-parody. She employs these techniques partly to defy the crowd, with its "brute / Amused shout:/ 'A miracle!' " and partly to taunt her rescuers, "Herr Doktor," "Herr Enemy," who regard her as their "opus." She is neither a miracle nor an opus, and she fends off those who would regard her in this way.

The techniques have another function as well: they display the extent to which she can objectify herself, ritualize her fears, manipulate her own terror. Her extreme control is intimately entwined with her suicidal tendencies. If she is not to succumb to her desire to kill herself and thus control her own fate, she must engage in the elaborate ritual which goes on all the time in the mind of the would-be suicide by which she allays her persistent wish to destroy herself. Her control is not sane but hysterical . When the speaker assures the crowd that she is "the same, identical woman" after her rescue, she is in fact telling them her inmost fear that she could (and probably will) do it again. What the crowd takes for a return to health, the speaker sees as a return to the perilous conditions that have driven her three times to suicide. By making a spectacle out of herself and by locating the victimizer in the doctor and the crowd, rather than in herself, she is casting out her terrors so that she can control them. When she boasts at the end that she will rise and eat men, she is projecting her destruction outward. That last stanza of defiance is really a mental effort to triumph over terror, to rise and not to succumb to her own victimization. The poet behind the poem allows Lady Lazarus to caricature herself and thus to demonstrate the way in which the mind turns ritualistic against horror. Although "Lady Lazarus" draws on Plath's own suicide attempt, the poem tells us little of the actual event. It is not a personal confession, but it does reveal Plath's understanding of the way the suicidal person thinks.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "Tulips"

One of the few poems she saved from this period is "Tulips," written in March, 1961, about some flowers she had received when she was in the hospital recovering from her appendectomy. Actually the flowers are only the occasion for a remarkable psychological journey into and out of anaesthesia, the "numbness" the nurse brings her in "bright needles." The poem traces the stages by which the hospital patient sinks reluctantly into an anaesthesized "peacefulness," and equally reluctantly comes out of it, through repeating and reversing the imagery of the first four stanzas in the imagery of the last four so that the poem moves into and out from a central stanza with unusual symmetry.

The "too excitable" tulips and their explosions in the first stanza are what the patient awakes to finally in the last stanza, where she claims that the tulips "should be behind bars like dangerous animals." In the first, she has given her name and day-clothes away; in the last, she reclaims herself: "I am aware of my heart." In the second stanza, as she relinquishes herself to the nurses that "pass and pass," she is propped up "Like an eye between two white lids"; coming back to life in the penultimate stanza, she moves through the same stage where the tulips interrupt the air "Coming and going" and "concentrate" her attention. The nurses' tending in the third stanza is matched by the tulips' watching in the seventh. The sensation that her possessions "Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head" just before she succumbs to the anaesthesia in the fourth stanza is reversed in the sixth, when, awaking, she feels that the tulips "seem to float, though they weigh me down," "A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck." In the middle stanza she attempts, in Emily Dickinson style, to describe the state beyond consciousness: "How free it is, you have no idea how free-- / The peacefulness is so big it dazes you."

"Tulips" is an unusual poem for Plath because it does move inward toward a silent center and out again. The fear, shown in many of Plath's early poems, of losing control or the final reluctant relinquishment to unfathomable powers is absent in this process; where she claims, "I am learning peacefulness," "I only wanted/ To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty." Even more unusual than this acceptance of self-loss is the process of reversal, where the mind gradually takes hold again after the grim recognition that the tulips' "redness talks to my wound, it corresponds." The common strategy of Plath's poems early and late is for the mind to generate hyperboles that torment itself; but in "Tulips" this generative faculty has a positive as well as a negative function. "Tulips" is not a cheerful poem, but it does move from cold to warmth, from numbness to love, from empty whiteness to vivid redness, in a process manipulated by the associative imagination. The speaker herself seems surprised by her own gifts and ends the poem on a tentative note, moving toward the far-away country of health. Because she has so exaggerated her own emptiness and the tulips' violence and vitality, she must then accept in herself the attributes she has cast onto the tulips, which return to her as correspondences.

If the supersensitive mind can turn tulips into explosions, it can also reverse the process and turn dangerous animals into blooming hearts. The control of "Tulips" -- the matching of stanzas, the correspondences developed between the external object and states of consciousness -- marks a new stage in Plath's development. Her earlier efforts to train her vision outward, toward the landscape, and to concentrate on realistic details, as well as her very early apprenticeship in set forms combine with the Yaddo exercises in spontaneous associative creation to prepare her for her final poems, of which "Tulips" was the first example. In "Tulips" she develops a new persona. Though she is neither the public persona of Plath's moor-walker or seaside visitor nor the intensely private and fragmented identity of her surrealistic meditations, this speaker shares qualities of both. She is clearly in a hospital, responding to nurses, needles, flowers; but she is just as clearly engaged in an internal drama, reacting to a wild imaginative activity. The tension between outer and inner images is maintained (as it had not been in the early poems) by a tremendous artistic and psychological control.

In this poem Plath reveals what she meant when she said that the manipulative mind must control its most terrifying experiences. The speaker here, responsive to inner and outer compulsions, is able to handle her situation. As the inner tensions intensified in the last months of her own life, Plath was forced to create a persona much more rigid than the speaker of "Tulips." At this point, however, rigidity is what she scorns.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "The Colossus"

"The Colossus" is Plath's admission of defeat and analysis of her own impotence. . . . Plath transfers elements from the myths and rituals of the dying god to the colossus figure and elaborates them with references to Greek tragedy to make her poem a complicated, often enigmatic, study of her own failure. . . .

Plath selects the ancient role of the female who mourns the dying god, or the heroine who tends the idol, and brings it into her poem as felt experience. In fact, it is so fully felt that its classical and mythical references become entangled in a confusion of meaning. The colossus is a statue, a father, a mythical being; he is a ruined idol, "pithy and historical as the Roman Forum," and at the same time a figure whose great lips utter "Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles," an echo of Hughes's language. The persona in the poem crawls over him, squats in his ear, eats her lunch there - intimate activities that hardly seem the rites of a priestess. The colossus himself is both a stone idol with "immense skull-plates" and "fluted bones and acanthine hair," and at the same time a natural wilderness covered with "weedy acres" and "A hill of black cypress." Much remains beneath the surface in this poem, and much on the surface appears confusing.

The fact that the statue is addressed at one point as "father" has caused most critics to link this poem with Plath's own father and her poetic treatment of him; but nothing in this poem demands that single interpretation. Perhaps the colossus is not the actual father but the creative father, a suggestion reinforced by the fact that the spirit of the Ouija board from which Plath and Hughes received hints of subjects for poems claimed that his family god, Kolossus, gave him most of his information. The colossus, then, may be Plath's private god of poetry, the muse which she would have to make masculine in order to worship and marry. The concentration of mouth imagery to describe the colossus also points to his identification as a speaker or poet. The persona has labored thirty years "To dredge the silt from your throat," although, she admits, "I am none the wiser." She suggests, "Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, / Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other." In the end, she says, "The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue." No messages came from the throat, the mouthpiece, the tongue of this figure; this god is silent, yet the speaker feels bound to serve him. The sense of servitude and of the impossible task of such service reflects the creative exhaustion Plath felt during this period. Her statement at the end that "My hours are married to shadow" may be an admission that she is married, in fact, to darkness and creative silence, rather than to the god of poetry who could fertilize her. Her fears also center on the catastrophe that produced the crumbling of the idol: "It would take more than a lightning-stroke/ To create such a ruin." This admission, enigmatic if the statue is her father or a dying god, recalls Plath's early poetic concerns about creative paralysis and the sense of a collapsing order.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Margaret Dickie: On "Black Rook in Rainy Weather"

The rook in Plath's poem, arranging and rearranging its feathers, seems like the fastidious spinster in comparison with Hughes's hawk. It is an object set out on the landscape for no particular purpose, because Plath's real desire is "some backtalk/ From the mute sky." Neither rook nor sky speaks, but the walker is very wordy, full of parenthetical phrases ("Although, I admit, I desire," "At any rate, I now walk"), concerned not with the actual landscape but with her own thoughts. She finally reattaches these thoughts to the landscape by saying,

                    I only know that a rook

Ordering its black feathers can so shine

As to seize my senses, haul

My eyelids up, and grant


A brief respite from fear

Of total neutrality.

The rook, then, is just a ploy, a common bird which serves only as the focus of a vision. No master-fulcrum of violence in this landscape will ever compare to "that rare, random descent" of radiance that hallows "an interval / Otherwise inconsequent."

[. . . .]

[Yet] "Miracles occur," she suggests hopefully. The fear of total neutrality can be relieved by poetic vision . . . .

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.