Sylvia Plath (copied from the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud site)
Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell
Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright
One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel,
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,
But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.
Three days. Three nights.
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch.
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern —
My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise —
The beads of hot metal fly, and I love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean!
Not you, nor him
Nor him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) —
Comment (subject to change, as always):
The fever starts with a fire (“tongues”): “tongues of hell” nicely makes the Apostles and their ability to speak in any language through the Spirit the moral equivalent of what awaits us in hell. After all, what is purity? If you have to think about this question, you’re probably not someone who’s aiming to be pure.
In any case, our speaker boldly proclaims that the “tongues of hell” are “dull.” Her authority or lack of authority is now another question we have to address, along with the reality of purity. In proclaiming the “tongues of hell” “dull,” she mentions that Cerberus has “triple tongues” while wheezing at the gate. The curious thing is that Cerberus is “fat.” Our speaker seems dismissive of this, like as if Cerberus cannot lick a bone clean, or the tongues of hell cannot vaporize one completely because of his lack of power.
The problem is that Cerberus sounds fat because he is glutted; it’s a lack of will that prevents him from cleaning up completely. Yet she still moves on to a post-fire image like as if the fire external matters not (I say “matters” because she’s aware there is always an external fire, the question is whether it is man-made or not: “radiation,” “acetlyene”).
This could be a critical mistake of the speaker’s. She mentions “dull” three times, as if she had three tongues herself. “Aguey” surely refers to a fever; the crying tinder could mean that fire is only extinguished temporarily. She could be missing that the fever is what is left, right before a final, absolute condemnation.
We know the speaker wants to say the fire that matters burns internal. When she moves from smell to smoke, she’s the one producing the smoke. She worries that the smoke will snap her head back finally, as Isadora Duncan’s scarves. “Dull” has been replaced by “Love” – this smoke does come from something within, and has substance.
But it takes time for the one astray “scarf” to do the speaker any harm. Right now, her smoke rolls low, not aiming at anything high, thus “choking the aged and meek,” a “weak hothouse baby,” and an “orchid.” I think all these images are the same thing, the same thing as the “devilish leopard.” “Hothouse” you know is a greenhouse; “orchid” is absolutely a sexual reference; the leopard, in Dante, stands for incontinence. The question is how any of this is “aged” and “meek,” and the answer is that our speaker is beyond lust as something joyous in any sense.
Her slow strangling of the “devilish” was nothing compared to a still greater fire; “radiation,” for an hour, seems to be the ultimate purifier, having cleansed the leopard of its spots. Only – “radiation” greases “the bodies of adulterers,” creates ash, and brings darkness and sin once again.
“The sin, the sin” and a concern with purity began this half of the poem and now ends it. No purity has been found, and while our speaker worries about things that can kill her, she has destroyed any basis for judgment of her.
Now she moves to addressing some sort of beloved with “darling.” The first half was a dialogue almost with herself, justifying her actions no matter what they are. Now she is in action. Her internal fire is only flickering, though; she’s weighed down by something other than guilt – “a lecher’s kiss” implies that there is another force imposing on her.
She compares herself to Christ in the tomb in her adultery. Christ consumed nothing in the tomb but the whole of Biblical history was there. From sour fruit to the shedding of blood she moves, water all around. But water only “purifies” her by making her vomit. It’s almost safe to say she underestimated just how awful disloyalty and sin were.
Almost safe to say – her final pronouncement about her purity may not be ironic. She claims she is as pure as God, hurt because she is at a distance he can never bridge despite his closeness. We can defeat her argument and say that God could care less if He is loved – ultimately, what all will be asked on the Day of Judgment is whether we loved those around us, not the abstract Him.
We can’t dismiss her until we know the grounds for her newfound purity. The first half of the poem seemed to reject purity.
She calls herself a lantern. The use of “Japanese paper” immediately recalls “Hiroshima” – she’s glowing because she’s irradiated. Her skin is beaten gold; the ash has forged her, but lies outside her.
She calls attention to the “heat” and the “light” but drops the idea she is “fire” completely. She talks about herself only but says she is a “camellia,” a flower that in the East symbolizes Spring, longevity, and the beauty of marriage. She had rotted the orchid before: while she says the leopard was irradiated, we know her smoke wasn’t blameless. The destruction of the leopard mattered because of her incontinence, her willingness to choke a normal life, the entirety of the world.
I hypothesize we can use “camellia” to say that this is a very confused speaker. She understands there is no fire within her any longer, and contends there never was a fire without. That latter contention leads her to argue she is purity, she is Christ. Her grounds for arguing this are that the world hurts her, and she knows this because all the men she’s sleeping with don’t satisfy her. By herself she is stronger, more committed: in a burnt-out world, solipsism is the only truth.
So she “thinks” she is “going up,” she thinks she may “rise.” Inasmuch as she has been a fire, she has been a torch, and since she has never loved, her femininity – roses, kisses, cherubim – is meaningless to her. It has been only the vehicle for her to deliver her flame. Her inability to love and the fact she feels hurt a lot means she must be going to Paradise; no one, nothing here defines her.
What do we make of this poem as a whole? Even though I’m reading it as a pretty decisive condemnation of the speaker, the whole subject matter strikes me as trivial, and the mere existence of this poem means I have to take this speaker seriously. Ugh, here goes, let’s create a speaker to respond to this one: OK, you’re a slut. I’ll care if you let me buy you a beer, but you’re paying for the motel because I’m gonna have to go to the doctor the next morning after a night with you. You can read into all the stuff I enjoyed last night and write a poem about how your heart is/is not on fire, but I’m gonna be at the bar the next night looking for another idiot like you.
I think it is safe to say there are some subjects unworthy of poetry, and this is one. Our modern condition may merit an essay or two, but nothing like this. Cerberus is going to eat us alive whether we like it or not.