There have been several poems written expressing all the possible emotions a person can feel. When reading the title of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “A Birthday Present,” the reader is likely to interpret a positive connotation from the title and prepare him or herself for a poem evoking the emotion of happiness, excitement, or pleasure. Herein lies the paradox Plath creates with her poem entitled “A Birthday Present” which doubles as her suicide note. This morbid, gloomy, and depressing poem is a reflection of how she feels about herself and her life. Her first person narrative, which speaks to an unknown audience of one, presents a creepy sentiment of a desperate woman, at the end of her leash, calling out to someone for help. Furthermore, Plath clearly expresses the extent of her depression and her wish to die through her use of similes.
Plath wrote “A Birthday Present” in early October of 1962, three weeks before her thirtieth birthday and approximately four months before her suicide. During this time, she was facing bouts of severe depression due to her breakup with husband, Ted Hughes (http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/). At the time, she must have been thinking about her upcoming thirtieth birthday and facing a midlife crisis of sorts. Upon writing this poem, her thoughts were likely on her upcoming milestone birthday, as she began her poem:
What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, it is beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?
I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is just what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking
Plath knows death is what she wants for her birthday, but she wonders what the afterlife looks like. She feels as if death is closing in on her, spying on her in a way. Although she welcomes its intrusion, she is curious whether she will actually obtain what she is looking for in death. When taking into account the state of mind Plath was in when writing this poem, it is easy to see how it is intended as her suicide note.
Sylvia Plath’s first person perspective in her poem “A Birthday Present” assures the reader that the feelings she will illustrate are her own; however, the most harrowing thing about the poem is the element of truth that inevitably surrounds it. In lines 39-40, Plath foretells the way she plans on committing suicide:
But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.
Sure enough, she chose to kill herself by sticking her head in an oven and breathing the poisonous carbon monoxide fumes. This shows she had already made up her mind to commit suicide previous to writing the poem and possibly chose the method to perform the act as she wrote those lines. The fact that Plath went through with what she wrote about makes the poem more powerful. “The energy and violence of the late poems were acted out. What their author threatened she performed, and her work gained an extra status of truth. The connection between art and life, so often merely rhetorical, became all too visible” (Churchwell). As a reader, one must question the author’s intention when writing a poem. Is she writing this poem to spark the emotion of sadness in her reader? Was she upset at the time, so she wrote this poem to vent her emotions and sort out her feelings? Or does she really mean what she writes and plans on carrying through with her promise? When the ladder is the case, such as in this poem, it becomes more potent because, as a reader, you must prepare yourself to look into Plath’s soul and become acquainted with her depressed self, knowing she means every word she writes. The first person perspective in “A Birthday Present” gives a realistic nature to Plath’s view of self, which is only exasperated by the truth that surrounds it.
Another unnerving entity to Plath’s first person perspective is the unknown recipient to her poem; in other words, to whom is she writing? Lines 9-10 show the first sign that Plath is speaking to a singular being:
It must be a lusk there, a ghost-column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is?
At this point, who the audience is cannot be determined. I speculated that she might be writing to a friend or a family member. I figured with this she could be showing her self through the way she confides in those closest to her. Later in the poem, in lines 48-49, Plath reveals a bit more. “Must you kill what you can? There is this one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.” This gave me an idea that she was speaking to God, because of this extraordinary request, and since He seemed to be the only person who had the power to comply with this request. Plath’s self is shown here through the strong sense of spirituality that she has. From this, I developed the impression of a distressed woman, crying out to her god for help. She was begging her god to mercifully take her before she must take the situation into her own hands. Plath’s decision not to reveal whom she is talking to lends a mysterious element to the poem, and in the end, provides a glimpse of not only her desperate nature, but also her spiritual self.
Whether Plath is speaking to God in “A Birthday Present” can be debated, since earlier in Plath’s life, she had sworn off God. Upon her father’s death, when she was only eight years old, she said to her mother, “I’ll never speak to God again” (Folsom). To me, it appears her life has come full circle. Now that she sees death upon her horizon, she has once again turned to God to take her, as He took her father. Other critics disagree about whom she is speaking to in this poem. Lynda Bundtzen believes she is speaking to herself. “It is as if she has two selves – a disembodied consciousness that thinks and observes and a two-dimensional figure, a woman who performs her kitchen duties like a robot” (230). Bundtzen sees the poem as an internal dialogue between her two selves with her more daring and emotional side trying to convince her responsible maternal side to act out in a selfish way. By giving herself a birthday present, a selfish act, she would be freeing herself from life and the pain that comes with it. Another part of the poem that shows the ambiguity of whom she is speaking to comes in lines 47-48:
Must you kill what you can?
There is this one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.
There are only two beings that hold the power to follow through with her request, God and herself. Each reader must interpret for him or herself whom she is speaking to. Regardless of whom Plath is speaking to, her various selves can clearly be identified, which sheds light on the inner turmoil that resided within her, and her eventual decision to do away with herself.
Plath uses several similes to describe death and compare it to various peaceful images. The first of these are lines 25-26:
Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,
The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.
The “last supper” is a biblical allusion to Jesus’ last supper, which he ate with his apostles before his death. This gives a vivid illustration of Plath sitting down at a table with death preparing to die. A little later on in the poem, she imagines how comfortable death will be:
But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
She is contrasting her painful life with the comfort death will bring her. The imagery of clouds like cotton gives the reader a feeling that maybe Plath would be better off in heaven where she will be safe and comfortable. She concludes the poem with one more simile:
There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby
And the universe slide from my side
First, she uses a metaphor equating the knife used to cut her birthday cake as her suicide weapon. Then she uses a simile to describe the cut the knife makes into her. Plath sees the act of suicide as the right and proper thing to do. She compares it to the actions of a baby, thus portraying herself as an innocent, helpless soul that can only be saved by being removed from the universe. Through her use of similes about death, Plath is able to create a descriptive poem that enables her readers to understand the pain she feels on earth and the peace she believes will await her in death. It is easy for the reader to be taken off guard when reading Sylvia Plath’s “A Birthday Present.” By taking a joyous event, such as receiving a birthday present, and turning it into a morbid poem about the wish to die, Plath succeeds in stirring the emotions of even the most stoic readers. Her use of similes to compare the likes of death with peaceful images of clouds and birthdays serve to illustrate the realness of her feelings and her present deranged state. This poetic device is only trumped by the truthfulness of this poem discovered when months later when she follows through with what she wrote about by committing suicide.
Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations, Women and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: The
University of Michigan Press, 1983
Churchwell, Sarah. “Ted Hughes and the Corpus of Sylvia Plath.” Criticism. 40.1 (1998): 99.
Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s “Berck-Plage.” Jack Folsom. 1994. Temple University. 15
July 2006. http://www.sylviaplath.de/plath/jfolsom.html>
Neurotic Poets. Brenda C. Mondragon. May 2005. 15 July 2006.
http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/ > Plath, Sylvia. “A Birthday Present.” October, 1962.