Explication of “A Birthday Present” by Sylvia Plath
For many readers, the draw of Sylvia Plath’s poetry is distinctly linked to her life as well as the desire to end her life. As Robert Lowell states in the forward of Ariel, “This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that a life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it” (xv). “A Birthday Present”`, written by Plath in September of 1962 and hauntingly recorded in her own voice on audio in October of that same year, is just one of the many poems that comprise the collection titled Ariel. Its allusion to suicide is unmistakable. Its main theme is the escape from life that death provides. Plath’s life as well as her desire to end it is well documented, primarily because she has chosen to record her tormented existence in her prose and poetry. M.D. Uroff states, “. . . she put the speaker herself at the center of her poems in such a way as to make her psychological vulnerability and shame an embodiment of her civilization . . . we should reconsider the nature of the speaker in Plath’s poems, her relationship to the poet, and the extent to which the poems are confessional” (104). The novel, The Bell Jar, chronicles her college years and first attempt at suicide, and her poetry, primarily in the collection in Ariel, provides glimpses into her state of mind. She interjects herself into her work so deeply that it is unmistakable that the speaker in the poetry is Plath herself. With that firmly in mind, explicating this poem becomes a quest into the months that preceded her taking her own life on February 11th 1963. A symbol used in the poem “A Birthday Present” is the veil: The veil and what it may conceal is a theme that permeates the poem in multiple forms. In line 1 when the speaker says, “What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?” The speaker continues in the successive lines to question not only what it is but for whom it is for. In line 16, “Now there are...
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