Analysis of ‘A Life’ by Sylvia Plath

A Life

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet. She has written short stories, novels and stories for children. She is credited for advancing confessional poetry as most of her poems had an element of her in it. Her huge work can be categorised as the early stage, middle stage and the third stage. She had progressed steadily over these stages and most analysts say that the poems of the third stage are her best poems. The third or the final stage of poetry was written from 1960 till her suicide in 1963. The poems written in this period were intense with incredible images and deep insights. ‘A Life’ was written on November 18th, 1963 and is one such poem which has sterile quality.

‘A Life’ is an eight stanza poem which is ambiguous but has a pastoral quality to it. It seems as if a painting has come alive and the poet is asking the reader to understand what the painting wants to convey. She begins by asking someone to touch the painting and not to worry if it shrinks like an eyeball. The egg-shaped area is as clear as tear and in that the past can be seen. The landscape is that of flowers and immovable thread work. If the glass over the painting is flicked it would chime but the people inside the painting will not hear the sound and will not answer. These ‘inhabitants’ are light as a cork and every one of them are busy.

The waves in the painting have frozenand are mild as if bowing in a single file. They are not tumultuous waves standing high like raised horses. Overhead there are clouds that look like Victorian cushions. The family in the painting has ‘valentine-faces’ and this might appeal to an art collector as they ‘ring’ the truth. In some other places the landscape is bright with light. Then there is a woman who is in a hospital and is walking in a circlewith her shadow dragging behind her. The hospital is white looking like a moon or a white paper as if it has ‘suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg’.  The woman lives alone with no attachments. She is compared to a foetus in a bottle with no ties to the outside world. Then there is house and a flattened sea. The woman has many ‘dimensions to enter’ and sorrow and anger is taken off and she is all alone. For this woman the future is the screeching seagull and her nurses who attend to her are age and terror. She ends the poem where a drowned man who is weary of the cold ‘crawls up out of sea’.

There are many pastoral images in the poem but there is a mention of a woman and finally a drowned man indicating suffering and death respectively.  There are thirty five lines with no specific rhyme scheme. The meter is also varied and number of lines in each stanza changes. Alliterations is used in certain lines; ‘trespassing in bad temper, Chinese chime’. Many similes are used to bring in the imagery as in ‘light as cork, As Victorian cushions’. Waves and clouds are personified. The sea is used as an extended metaphor. They waves are bowed indicating that she always had to be submissive in her life. Like the reined horses she does not raise against anything even when there were conflicts in her. She was disturbed by her father’s persona and her husband but she had to be docile to them. Sylvia Plath might have spoken for herself when she wrote about the woman dragging her shadow.

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