Sylvia Plath’s work is evidence of a disturbed mind Apr30

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Sylvia Plath’s work is evidence of a disturbed mind

The Arrival of the Bee Box is an extended metaphor that offers many interesting, provocative interpretations. The box can be seen as the poet’s work, her attempt to put order to chaos; the bees are her thoughts or, more specifically, her tormented mind. The box’s purpose is to contain its contents; without the latter the former is redundant – hence the tragic paradox of Plath’s life. What’s more disturbing is that the speaker has only herself to blame:     “I ordered this, this clean wood box”. Why, one should ask, would anyone will this? There’s clearly a compulsion at work: “I have to live with it overnignt/ And I can’t keep away from it.” The difficulty a reader may have is to understand why Plath invites this torment or perhaps we could ask why she is unable to resist it. What’s certainly evident in the poem is the terrifying notion that our mind is our enemy, that we carry around with us, inside in us, the very thing that threatens to destroy us.

Her attempts to understand the contents of the box – her mind – are necessarily influenced by the box itself. It is bizarre and disturbing: “Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.” The task of understanding is itself unsettling; after all, “The box is locked, it is dangerous.” Again we see the paradox: trying to understand can mean further harm being caused. Maybe it’s better to leave the bees alone, even though letting them out might allow for some relief? The curiousity is part of the problem; the poet is impressed and intrigued by that which disturbs her; the imagery she conjures is infectious: “It is like a Roman mob/ Small taken one by one, but my god, together!” If nothing else it is dramatic. She is far less interested in returning the box than opening it: “They can be sent back.” Her energy and enthusiasm is reserved for the releasing of the bees: “Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.”

The provocative imagery accounts for the larger part of the poem’s power. It is bizarre at times such as when she likens the box to “the coffin of a midget/ Or a square baby” but it can also be irresistible: “I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.” She is drawn to the chaos, to the mystery, to the dark force; it provokes her imaginative energies, like agitating a sleeping monster. She might be well advised to leave well enough alone but the provocation is undeniably strong. Even though she says “They can be sent back” neither she nor the reader expects that will happen. Hence, some kind of tragic denouement seems inevitable.

Plath’s themes can disturb insofar as she subverts them by means of her provocative imagery.  Child might have been, at best, a poem about a mother worrying about her ability to look after her child which is quite acceptable. What we find difficult to digest is the potency of her distress. A key image is “this troublous/ Wringing of hands, this dark/ Ceiling without a star.” It provokes the reader because our usual empathetic response is suspended; we might even feel shock at learning that the speaker identifies herself as the threat to her child. In The Arrival of the Bee Box she sees her own mind as endangering her very existence; here, there is an innocent child involved also, a “Little/ Stalk without wrinkle.” The child’s mother should be able to look into that “Pool in which images/ Should be grand and classical” but instead there is, as she wrote elsewhere, “black on black.” What provokes debate is the problem of deciding who the pool represents –  the poet or the child. When we consider Morning Song we might conclude that the pool is the child but when the mother looks into that pool she sees herself but instead of seeing “images [that]/ Should be grand and classical” she sees “this dark/ Ceiling without a star.” This, presumably, is what the child is in danger of becoming too simply by being her child.

In Morning Song, one of the strongest images again provokes this debate about the mother influencing the child. The child’s birth is a dubious affair; there is a vague sense of joy because any joy is corrupted by anxiety: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” Time’s passing is alluded to here and we might assume the poet is waiting, waiting, waiting…but for what? After all, “We stand around blankly as walls.” There is a problem with her response; she is deficient. This leads to doubt: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement at the wind’s hand.” This is the image I alluded to above; it is reminiscent of the “Pool in which images/ Should be grand and classical” in Child. The mother’s identity is evident in the child but this affinity is fleeting; the “wind” will rend the link and that division is ineluctable.

Plath’s themes are motherhood and mental anguish and the two are so inextricably linked as to imply that provocative imagery is a requirement to highlight that propinquity of the two. Unfortunately for her and distubingly for us, anything good is tinged with that “far sea” that threatens to annihilate her and everything that touches her.

R.H.