blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "The Colossus"

Robert Phillips

This hatred of men and the unhealthiness of her mental condition continue to ground the figures of "The Colossus." The speaker’s identity here hinges on a broken idol out of the stream of civilization, one whose "hours are married to shadow." No longer does she "listen for the scrape of a keel / on the blank stones of the landing." Man, personified by a ship, has no place in her scheme. The marriage to shadow is a marriage to the memory of the poet’s father, and therefore to death itself. The pull toward that condition is the subject of "Lorelei" as well as the central symbol of "A Winter Ship." That she perceived the nature of her own psychic condition is clear not only in the identification with the broken idol of "The Colossus," but also with the broken vase of "The Stones." Plath makes a metaphor for her reverse misogyny in "The Bull of Bendylaw," where she transmogrifies that traditionally feminine body, the sea (note the article, la mere), into a brute bull, a potent symbol for the active masculine principle. The bull, as in all Palaeo-oriental cultures, is a symbol of both destruction and power. Yet, as with many of Plath’s symbols, there is a complexity beyond this.

From "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972).

Margaret Dickie

"The Colossus" is Plath's admission of defeat and analysis of her own impotence. . . . Plath transfers elements from the myths and rituals of the dying god to the colossus figure and elaborates them with references to Greek tragedy to make her poem a complicated, often enigmatic, study of her own failure. . . .

Plath selects the ancient role of the female who mourns the dying god, or the heroine who tends the idol, and brings it into her poem as felt experience. In fact, it is so fully felt that its classical and mythical references become entangled in a confusion of meaning. The colossus is a statue, a father, a mythical being; he is a ruined idol, "pithy and historical as the Roman Forum," and at the same time a figure whose great lips utter "Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles," an echo of Hughes's language. The persona in the poem crawls over him, squats in his ear, eats her lunch there - intimate activities that hardly seem the rites of a priestess. The colossus himself is both a stone idol with "immense skull-plates" and "fluted bones and acanthine hair," and at the same time a natural wilderness covered with "weedy acres" and "A hill of black cypress." Much remains beneath the surface in this poem, and much on the surface appears confusing.

The fact that the statue is addressed at one point as "father" has caused most critics to link this poem with Plath's own father and her poetic treatment of him; but nothing in this poem demands that single interpretation. Perhaps the colossus is not the actual father but the creative father, a suggestion reinforced by the fact that the spirit of the Ouija board from which Plath and Hughes received hints of subjects for poems claimed that his family god, Kolossus, gave him most of his information. The colossus, then, may be Plath's private god of poetry, the muse which she would have to make masculine in order to worship and marry. The concentration of mouth imagery to describe the colossus also points to his identification as a speaker or poet. The persona has labored thirty years "To dredge the silt from your throat," although, she admits, "I am none the wiser." She suggests, "Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, / Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other." In the end, she says, "The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue." No messages came from the throat, the mouthpiece, the tongue of this figure; this god is silent, yet the speaker feels bound to serve him. The sense of servitude and of the impossible task of such service reflects the creative exhaustion Plath felt during this period. Her statement at the end that "My hours are married to shadow" may be an admission that she is married, in fact, to darkness and creative silence, rather than to the god of poetry who could fertilize her. Her fears also center on the catastrophe that produced the crumbling of the idol: "It would take more than a lightning-stroke/ To create such a ruin." This admission, enigmatic if the statue is her father or a dying god, recalls Plath's early poetic concerns about creative paralysis and the sense of a collapsing order.

from Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Eileen M. Aird

In 'Daddy' she addresses the dead father in the following way: 'Ghastly statue with one grey toe / Big as a Frisco seal', and this image recalls the title-poem of the earlier volume in which the father-daughter relationship is treated through the medium of an archeological metaphor. As in 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' the meaning of the poem lies not on the surface but through the accumulation of allusions and suggestions. The image of the devotion of great effort to the cleansing and repairing of a massive statue, a task which has already occupied thirty years yet seems no nearer completion, and which engrosses and subjugates the persona, whose humorous derision is underlain by a total commitment to her task, is fascinating and powerful in itself. However it seems impossible to separate meaning and metaphor without doing the poem a serious injustice for its menace lies in the skillfully maintained balance between the concrete situation with its appropriate visual details and the relation of these details to the underlying emotion. The last three lines of the poem, for instance, contain much more than a particularly striking image:

My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

This final image has considerable pathos and beauty and is imaginatively in unity with the growing despair of the earlier verses, but read in conjunction with the line which immediately precedes it, it is also a statement of the submission of the restorer to the broken statue and her acceptance, indicated in the word 'married', that there can be no escape from this memory into a more vital relationship. In such a life everything must be shadowy, blank, lonely, but she accepts her isolation almost with fervour.

'The Colossus' has the direct, conversational tone of the later poems and it is written in the five-line verse which Sylvia Plath was to use most consistently in Ariel, in fourteen out of the forty poems, although in this first volume only six poems have five-lined verses. The earlier tendency to choose the esoteric or archaic word has now disappeared, although the rather unusual 'skull-plates' is also used in another poem of this group, 'Two Views of a Cadaver Room'. The verses are not rhymed and the line lengths follow no regular pattern; the poem is by no means formless but is much less strictly and rigidly controlled than those poems written two years earlier. In this greater elasticity can be seen the forerunner of Sylvia Plath's later style which she admitted was much closer to the rhythms of spoken English than that of her earlier poetry,

from Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird

Suzanne Juhasz

Even in a poem like "The Colossus," in which the poet is exploring a very private, very personal experience, her relationship with her dead father whom she both adores and hates because he died, because he is dead and still influences her life, she needs at this point in her career to generalize even mythicize the experience to control it and therefore to write about it. (From later poems on the theme, such as "Daddy," we get a clearer picture of the devastating strength of, her emotions. But in this poem they are modulated by their symbolic form.)

The father is seen as a great but broken statue, a ruin from some former time: "O father, all by yourself / You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum." The poet is laboring, as she has been for thirty years, she says, to get him "put together entirely / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed"—to bring him back to life or to put him into perspective, either way means freeing herself from his power. Plath’s characteristic irony (yet another method of distancing) is here directed upon herself :

Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in morning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.

This strange scene is put into its "proper" context: "A blue sky out of the Oresteia / Arches above us." There is again the mockery: we are like some characters out of a Greek drama, not real people at all; but there is also the epic dimension that the vision gives to these actors. The poet is not only Sylvia Plath, she is a type of Electra, the daughter who avenged the murder of her father, Agamemnon. They become more than themselves when identified with the devoted daughter/dead father archetype. Finally, the very setting itself helps to supply the story:

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, Out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

The scene, being a symbolic construction, is meant to be translated into a psychological and emotional vocabulary: I am yoked, dedicated to death, observes the protagonist. The giant statue is mythic and larger than life, but in being so it is also the past—it is irrevocably dead and cannot be reconstructed. But it has become her only home. She lives in its shadow and views the living world from its perspective. Her own life, as she sees it, is therefore a living death.

from Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, a New Tradition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Copyright © 1976.

Grace Shulman

"The Colossus" represents a turning point in her poems about the father, about the gods in her mythology, and about what she spoke of as her "death," the failed suicide attempt of 1953. After "The Colossus," those themes are objectified, or developed presentatively, with minimal description. "The Colossus" itself exhibits a rather sassy, defiant attitude toward the stone ruins addressed as father. Where "Ouija" called forth a god, "The Colossus" portrays another creature entirely: "Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, /Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other." Most striking are the ironic, mock-heroic effects; antithetical to the damaged stone mass, the speaker performs small, domestic labors: "Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol/I crawl like an ant in mourning/Over the weedy acres of your brow . . ."

"The Colossus" is more successful than "Electra on the Azalea Path" because of its frankly unsentimental view, enforced by withheld emotion and by a preposterous, wildly humorous central image. If the massive image here is inaccessible, like the earlier figures, the speaker is irreverent, and is, in fact, weary of trying to mend the immense stone ruins. Plath is still very far from her outcry of 1962, "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." She is, however, at this point, turning from the stone wreckage of another being to the ruins of her own. The movement is vital, for it indicates her wish to leave death--her father's actual death and her own dramatized death--for new life.

From "Sylvia Plath and Yaddo" in Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. Copyright © 1985 by Paul Alexander.

Jon Roseblatt

Plath imagines that the Colossus, which once dominated the harbor at Rhodes, is her father’s dead body, now lying broken in pieces on a hillside. The father's "ancient" power and size have been destroyed through time. The Colossus image embodies both the poet's fear of the stonelike, resistant force of the patriarch and her admiration for the colossal power that her father once possessed. The broken statue indicates, as "Point Shirley" did, that the dead man cannot be recovered through piecing him, or the poet's memories of him, together again, although the poet continues to gaze in fear and love at him.

Plath had used the Colossus image once before, in an apprentice poem called "Letter to a Purist" (1956), without identifying the statue with her father and without imagining that the statue had been broken into pieces:

That grandiose colossus who
Stood astride
The envious assaults of the sea
(Essaying, wave by wave,
Tide by tide,
To undo him perpetually),
Has nothing on you,
O my love,

O my great idiot, who
With one foot
Caught (as it were) in the muck-trap
Of skin and bone,
Dithers with the other way out
In preposterous provinces of the mad cap
Agawp at the impeccable moon.

In the much superior poem in The Colossus, Plath successfully uses the statue as a symbol for the father's vanished power. Instead of the awkward and arch language of the earlier poem ("essaying," "agawp," "as it were"), she finds a more colloquial, though still somewhat stilted, language with which to address her father:

I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It's worse than a barnyard.

While the first lines still imitate a literary source, Dylan Thomas's elegy for Ann Jones ("After the funeral, mule praises, brays"), the poem goes on to discover its own language of praise and contempt for the father. The central metaphor is ingeniously varied, as in the comparison of the eyes of the statue to "bald white tumuli" or in the conversion of the tongue into a pillar. By sticking to the fantasized situation--a young daughter's archaeological reconstruction of the father-statue--Plath gives a surrealistic quality to the metaphor. We seem to be at a halfway point between the psychic obsessions of an interior drama and the public concerns of the archaeologist. The poem is still split, though, between two objectives: the expression of a vitriolic contempt for the abandoning father and a rigid pride in his all-powerful, paternal authority. "The Colossus" is halfway to "Daddy" from the earlier "Letter to a Purist."

From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Steven Gould Axelrod

In much of her later poetry, Sylvia Plath sought to give birth to a creative or "deep" self hidden within her—a Wordsworthian "imaginative power" or Whitmanian "real Me." By unpeeling an outer self of "dead hands, dead stringencies," she sought to unveil and give voice to an inner "queen" or "White Godiva," a spirit of rebellious expressiveness. Although she may at least partially have achieved this goal in such celebrated poems as "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," and "Ariel," she more characteristically dwelt on her fears that she would fail—that she would be unable to reveal her "deep self," or that she did not in fact possess such a self at all. Plath's figures for these fears were the mirror and the shadow. While a number of critics—for example, Judith Kroll, Jon Rosenblatt, and Susan Van Dyne—have ably analyzed Plath's imagery of rebirth, none has focused attention on these images of incapacity.

In theory, the mirror should have provided Plath with access to an "abstract Platonic realm" of pure imagination: "and so to the mirror-twin, Muse" (J, pp. 117,194). But in fact, it functioned merely as an agent of anxious narcissism. It was an "egoistic mirror" reflecting an ugly outer being but no inner queen—a Baudelairean mirror of despair. Similarly, her shadows represented not an imaginative second world but the insubstantiality of creative nonbeing. At uncreative times, Plath felt that she was living in the "shadow" of others, usually male (L, p. 567). If the mirror in her poetry expressed "the corruption of matter, mere mindless matter," the shadow expressed "the deadness of a being . . . who no longer creates" (J, pp. 157, 164). Although the former emphasizes gross corporality and the latter thin evanescence, both are images of Plath's negative vision of herself and her world. Plath's tropes of mirror and shadow express the imaginative self-doubt that haunted her poetic career.

Plath's interest in mirrors and shadows probably originated in her work preparing her honor's thesis during her senior year at Smith College. This thesis, "The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevski's Novels," represented the most sustained intellectual inquiry she ever made. In researching the thesis, she read, among other "psychological and religious studies," James Frazer's chapter on "The Perils of the Soul" in The Golden Bough, Otto Rank's chapter on "The Double as Immortal Self" in Beyond Psychology, and Freud's essay on "The 'Uncanny.'" Each of these works had a lasting effect on Plath and helped shape her subsequent poetic expression. All three examined the literary and psychological significance of the "double," with the Frazer and Rank studies paying special attention to the figure's appearance as reflection or shadow.


As a writer, Plath liked to repeat old themes and recapture popular traditions, and she turned instinctively to ancient beliefs in the supernatural as an antidote to an overly socialized, superrationalized civilization. More to the point, she used these images as an antidote to her personal oversocialization and superrationalism; she used them as an outlet for her blocked emotions. But she powerfully revised such images, no matter how venerable and hardy, to fit them into motifs specifically applicable to herself. She made the shadow evoke what was for her the equivalent of spiritual essence—imaginative identity.

In Plath's shadow poems, this "most vital part" of the self is prevented from coming into being not only by the corporeal, factitious mask we see revealed in the mirror poems but also by external authoritarian figures. If the mirror poems dramatize a struggle that takes place wholly within the self, the shadow poems usually imply a conflict between the self and others. But again the poems vibrate with an inner contradiction: they figure the failure of figuration. Plath's "shadow" represents precisely what cannot appear in her mirror—the ghost of creativity. Shadow betokens the imaginative self that might have been but was forbidden to be, the defeated "deep" self.

In "The Colossus," the textual "I" states that her "hours are married to shadow"—that is, to the soul of the inanimate and oppressive father-husband who lives only in her remembrance (CP, pp. 129- 30). As a result, she herself becomes increasingly shadowlike. Indeed, she is the only shadow-being in the scene, since the "colossus" stands in the sun, making the shade that she lives in. Plath often equated "sun" with the "saying of poems" (L, p. 274), and darkness with creative dearth. She complained of living in the "shadow" of the powerful males she felt both tied to and intimidated by (e.g., L, p. 567). So often in the journals and letters, as in her poems, the "I" fails to make a shadow of her own: "apathetic about my work—distant, bemused, feeling, as I said, a ghost of the world I am working in, casting no shadow" (J, p. 221). Existence in and as a shadow in "The Colossus" thus represents the creative half-life that is, rather than the full life that might have been. The "I" does not possess her own shadow, her Own artistic identity, but is possessed by that of another. Frazer tells us that "injury done to the shadow is felt by the person or animal as if it were done to his body," and conversely, "it may under certain circumstances be as hazardous to be touched" by the shadow of another.

from "The Mirror and the Shadow: Plath's Poetics of Self-Doubt." Contemporary Literature 26:3. 1985. pp. 286-301.

Robyn Marsack

The significance of the statue is clear enough: an enormous figure, catastrophically removed from sight and irrecoverable in its original form. It is close to the small child's view of her wondrous parent -- and yet, the dignity of this colossal presence is severely compromised in the poem's first stanza: the giant sounds like a barnyard. I think this is the kind of phrase Ostriker had in mind with regard to 'reducing the verbal glow'.

Furthermore, the tone of the next stanza hovers between the lightly accusing and a wearied impatience: 'Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle...'. It is he, not she, who has set himself up as the interpreting voice. But she has colluded, spent all these years clearing his throat. What might this mean in terms of her own use of language?

You might like to look up her story 'Among the Bumblebees' (in Johnny Panic), which is very plainly an autobiographical account of the loss of a godlike father; he takes 'Alice' on his back as he swims, and shows her the secrets of bumblebees. The story opens: 'In the beginning there was Alice Denway's father. . .’; the echo of St John's gospel is deliberate: 'In the beginning was the Word ... and the Word was God.' The implications for Plath, and for women writers in general, of this linkage of male authority, godlike power and, as it seems, ownership of the language (although, of course, Mary bore the son of God, that is, the Word), is something that feminist critics have illuminatingly explored. Plath tended to link the father-figure with an oracular figure; let me refer you here to the poem 'On the Decline of Oracles', written in 1958 at the same time as 'The Disquieting Muses', both on paintings by de Chirico. The titles suggest a relationship between the disappearance of the male (and his voice) and the ascendancy of the female in her accusing silence.

Something of the sculptural quality of 'The Colossus' may derive from de Chirico's paintings as much as from the legendary Colossus: his Enigma of the Oracle shows on the right a brilliant white head above a dark curtain, much taller than the draped figure on the left, which seems to contemplate a churning sea. Plath wanted to use as epigraph to her earlier poem a quotation from de Chirico--'Inside a ruined temple the broken statue of a god spoke a mysterious language' (Journals, p. 211). So we can see her working and reworking the notion that the dead father had something to say that she cannot grasp, and in both de Chirico's painting and 'On the Decline of Oracles' the message or expectation is related to the sea.

Let us look briefly at the opening of 'On the Decline of Oracles': can you see how Plath's art has developed from this, even in so short a time?

My father kept a vaulted conch
By two bronze bookends of ships in sail,
And as I listened its cold teeth seethed
With voices of that ambiguous sea
Old Böcklin missed, who held a shell
To hear the sea he could not hear.
What the seashell spoke to his inner ear
He knew, but no peasants know.

There is no explicit connection, after all, with de Chirico, and the mention of Böcklin seems entirely arbitrary. The poem seems to have begun with an event and then moved into exercise. In the end, the images become portentous, and lose any sense of personal association; they become pieces of a puzzle jammed into place. The first stanzas, however, I suspect arose from information in James Thrall Soby's study of de Chirico, when he discusses Böcklin's influence. A shrouded figure in one of Böcklin's paintings is reproduced in The Enigma of the Oracle. The Tuscan peasants, used to Northern painters who revelled in the Italian landscape, were puzzled by Böcklin's behaviour, as Soby recounts: ‘Toward the end of his life, for example, Böcklin had sat for hours in his garden, paralyzed and near death, but holding to his ears great sea shells so as to hear the roar of an ocean he could no longer visit.’ The landlocked painter's gesture must have had a peculiar poignancy for Plath, given her association of the loss of seascape with the loss of her father, but in this early poem she does not seem to dare to explore its meaning, so that the second half of the poem is abruptly impersonal. In ‘The Colossus', on the other hand, her associations float freely, and the structure of the poem is more fluid, less willed.

De Chirico, incidentally, commended Böcklin for exploiting the 'tragic aspects of statuary'--his own use of statues is more disruptive. The legacy of classical civilization for an early twentieth-century Italian painter was problematic in the same way as the legacy of Renaissance literature was for T.S. Eliot. Plath does not have this sense of responsibility to a tradition (it was not until she went to Cambridge that she felt its potentially inhibiting presence), as distinct from an art, nor is she bound by the particularly male aspect of creativity that sculpture in the main represents. In 'The Colossus' it is the particularly female role of housekeeper that she assumes in relation to this colossal, fallen figure. Even the word 'gluepot' suggests the inadequacy of resources to the task. Note that word 'tumuli', so typical of the thesaurus-using Plath; here its precise Latinity seems apt to the classical setting. (It also reminds me of Magritte's surrealist painting Napoleon's Death Mask, a blank-eyed blue head with clouds floating across it.) Why do you think she evokes the Oresteia here?

A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered

In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.

There is a pause for consideration from this industrious, hopeless, endless work of recovery, as though the speaker could step back from it all, gaze detachedly on the ruins as she once had on the Forum. How does the word 'pithy' strike you there? 'Acanthine' hair is both an exact description of sculptured curls which mimic the curved, acanthus-leaf carving above classical columns, and an echo from 'Full Fathom Five', where the seagod's hair extends for miles.

The strength of Plath's poem, it seems to me, is that it not only concerns the parent-child relationship, rooted in personal circumstance yet sufficiently unspecific here to allow readers to share the disturbance and pain inherent in the process of apparently unending search, but also that it can be interpreted in a wider sense of a culture's lost direction. Without making grandiose claims for the poem, I think that the sense of irreparable damage done by the two world wars in this century--'more than a lightning-strike'-- to an ideal of Western civilization, based on classical foundations, is certainly a presence in the poem. We will return to this matter of Plath's historical imagination.

Working against the 'stony' imagery, the unyielding coldness of the male colossus, are the involuntarily comic noises it emits, and then its fertility and colour by association. 'Cornucopia' gives us an image of the whorled shell of the ear: the horn of plenty in painting spills its fruit, and here we have the surprisingly luscious stars. Is this gesture, sheltering in the remains of something that once sheltered her, a move back into childhood, a terrible admission ('I crawl') of the need for security? We need to judge this in order to know how to read the close of the poem.

'And the long shadows cast by unseen figures -- human or of stone it is impossible to tell' -- Plath thus described de Chirico (Journals, p. 211). 'My hours are married to shadow': her days are given over to effort that makes no impression, the work of 'an ant in mourning'. It is not possible, I think, to see that as a fruitful effort, although one critic has valiantly maintained that the stone figure, while obstructive, is imperfect, and that the last lines should be read as those of a woman who is no longer content to wait. That seems to go against the grain of the poem: the speaker has given up waiting because she no longer hopes for rescue. There is a sense of exhaustion; the woman herself is perhaps only a 'shadow' of her former self. The landing stones are 'blank' of promise; she will not be setting sail.

From Sylvia Plath. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Robyn Marsack.

Return to Sylvia Plath