Writing about Death, Plath and Merrill

During our class presentations, I found some very interesting similarities between Renate’s poem, “Balloons” by Sylvia Plath, and the poem that I presented on, James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree”. The idea of a poet writing at the end of their life was present in both of our poems, and the poignancy and sadness associated with the coming of death was evident in both. In “Christmas Tree”, Merrill writes about his impending death, and the expectations that he has and that others might have. Merrill writes, “Brought down at last/ from the cold sighing mountain”, and says that he has been “cherished, kept warm,” perhaps by friends and family or critics. The tone of Merrill’s poem is nostalgic, it seems, but not necessarily depressing or conflicted. There seems to be some significance to the phrase “brought down at last”, and later, the description of his physical state, “the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals plowed back into the Earth for lives to come,” These lines seem to suggest Merrill’s reaction to his illness, as he died of complications related to AIDS. Additionally, I think the poem’s illustration of a family owning a Christmas tree and then getting rid of it as soon as Christmas is over alludes to the idea that Merrill’s reputation and body of work were seen as a part of his identity, and he hopes that his legacy will remain despite his physical death. Merrill also references his critics and perhaps his family and friends, in lines such as “it did help to be wound in jewels, to send their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep fragrant sables that cloaked me head to foot,”. I think these lines also refer to Merrill’s perception of himself in the eyes of others, and how his death is significant but also somewhat trivial because while he will die, his work will remain.

In comparison, “Balloons” seems to take on a more cynical tone, and perhaps that is due to the way that Plath died, by suicide, instead of a medical condition, like Merrill. Similar to “Christmas Tree”, “Balloons” was one of Plath’s final poems. She writes about the goings on in a home, writing, “Since Christmas they have lived with us, guileless and clear, oval soul-animals, taking up half the space,”. Her observational tone seems to realize certain changes or aspects of things around her, especially in reference to her children, when she writes “your small brother is making his balloon squeak like a cat. Seeming to see a funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,”. This line seems to describe a mother watching her child eat a balloon, and given what we know about parenting and child safety, it seems like the mother is not fully present and seems ambivalent about her children. The tone of ambivalence is evident throughout the poem, with Plath’s observation of “invisible air drifts, giving a shriek and pop”. As Merrill also frequently does, it seems that Plath is taking normal, everyday situations and attributing a sense of foreboding to them in order to help us understand her impending doom and detached sense. I think the use of a family and home in this poem is significant because it shows Plath’s evident lack of concern and emotional connection to her family and children, as well as the state of the home, which goes against the traditional female role of mother and homemaker.

The two poems, both written at the end of the poet’s lives, are at once poignant, foreboding, and observational. Both poets seem to reflect on their experiences but also have come to terms with their impending death, and they seem to reference outside relationships which will be affected by their deaths, which I think is an important aspect of both poems, given the lives lead by both Plath and Merrill.

69 thoughts on “Writing about Death, Plath and Merrill

  1. Sylvia Plath’s poems are full of violent and disturbed imagery. She is probably the only poet who was awarded Pulitzer Prize after her death. I agree that sadness associated with the coming of death is presented in both poems.

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  9. His personification of the mirror is something that I have not yet encountered. I think that the way the mirror interacts with the window is particularly interesting. In many ways the mirror seems to envy the window, for its ability to view life.

  10. As decades lengthen, this vision
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