The poems of Sylvia Plath form a remarkable unity. Many critics have argued that they can be read as part of a story, with a meaning that transcends the meaning of the individual poems. In this article I will focus on the meaning critics have found in the poetry of Sylvia Plath as a whole.Ted Hughes has called Plath’s poems ‘chapters in a mythology’. Judith Kroll has studied this mythology, which is based on the works of Graves and Frazer. The mythology in Plath’s poetry is a mythology (literally) of her own. Because it applies primarily to Plath herself, her life (and death) are crucial to the interpretation of it.
In the second chapter of Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, called ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’, Richard Rorty uses the last part of a poem by Philip Larkin (1922-1985), Continuing to Live to clarify his ideas about the self. Rorty places Continuing to Live against the background of what he sees as the battle between poetry and philosophy. Philosophers seek the truths of life, eternal truths that hold for all ages and places, whereas poets celebrate individuality and contingency. Larkin however had found an eternal truth that dominated his life and his work as a poet. Death is the utmost truth that thought can never pass. It leaves ‘nothing to be said’.
The American poetess Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lost faith in God and eternal (revealed) truth when she was in her teens. This compelled her to find truth and meaning for herself, which she did in her poetry. For Dickinson poetry is the expression of thought (rather than feeling). She pushes thought to the extreme and to the conflicting consequences she presents in her poems. Sometimes she deliberately goes beyond the limits of thought (‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’). Especially In the poems where she handles the themes most important to her (God, religion, death, loneliness, but also her own position as a poet) we find the inconsistencies approaching logical paradoxes. But still they are all possibilities.