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The poem ‘Last Words’ by Sylvia Plath is an extraordinary poem because it reflects on death. “It belongs to the art of elegy, less by choice than by some desperate, pathetic necessity (p. 170)” Says Gale in his analysis of the book.
An elegy is a kind of mournful or reflective poems. ‘Last Words’ is a unique elegy. Its main theme is seeking peace in death.
The poet separates herself from the world of normal people who desire to live hence avoid talking about death and tries to find some spiritual peace by trying to figure out what she would wish to be or what she wants done to her in death. It’s very mysterious.
In the first stanza, the persona’s expectations are clearly laid out. It is from this stanza that we see the conscience of the persona being directed towards death. In the persona’s mind, we see the desires that she may be in sarcophagus that will still give her the view of the people still alive. (The persona view death as a transformation of conscience and the tiger-sarcophagus is literally a ‘flesh eating stone’ and implies the change of self, according to Ted Hughes’s criticism.) This is a way of revealing the fear that lies within her, that is the fear of death.
Maybe it is her wish that she may know what those who remain behind will be thinking about her then and in the days that he lives. It could be a way to try and navigate people’s minds to see what they think about someone, or a desire that the person knows what is expected of them while they live. He says “I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit”, which connotes the desire to live a good life so that she might be remembered in the days when she is dead. (Stanza 1, Line 10). This goes way into the future because she refers to those who are not yet babies, that is, those who will come.
The sarcophagus that she wishes for is made of stone as usual and this shows that it will last a long time, even for the future generations. Even the body is preserved (mummified-the Egyptian way) so that the future generation that he says are not even babies yet are to come and know something about her.
However, the persona does not overlook the fact that his mirror is clouding over, that is, the time on earth is reducing. This realization must have been the one that evoked the thought of death in the persona’s mind. She says that she has a few more breaths and the mirror will reflect no more images. And the flowers and the faces of people will not be seen, “will whiten to sheet.” It might have been a prediction of the death of the poet- Sylvia. This poem shows that there might have been reasons why the poet thought that her life was going to end.
The first stanza reflects on attitudes of the living towards the dead. It sets pace for the second stanza. After knowing that the persona is conscious of death, and the things that she has to do in preparation for death, the writer has concluded well with the entry into the death itself. She gives a good exit into the material world and gives us an excellent entry into the world of death. Consider the excerpt;
"My mirror is clouding over --- A few more breaths, and it will reflect nothing at all. The flowers and the faces whiten to a sheet. "
The last statement pushes us to the world of death. “The mirror has stopped reflecting. The few more breaths are over and the flowers and the faces have whitened to a sheet.” This extract from the poem ca only connote death, hence welcomes the second stanza.
The second stanza shifts the attention from the worldly life and conditions and takes us into the death itself. Even as the stanza begins, we see the fear that the poet or the persona displays. “The comfort that the human world displays is put aside as the persona gets into the world of spirits where there is so much uncertainty. Everything associated with the life force can only ray the spirit that has possessed the material her after she dies.” According to Ted Hughes, The poet was looking into the reasons why Egyptians were forced to take material possessions into the tomb.
“These things bear the imprint of the owner’s ego and shine a spiritual light that guides and comforts the deceased through the loneliness of the land of the shades and to one of who ‘hardly knows oneself’ serves as a reminder of the earth. This provides the connection between the future generations and the ancient spirits, thus ensuring the fertility of the seed of that death plants in the future generations.” He explained.
Gale argues differently. He attaches a different function to the mention of the face of Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of love and fertility. The goddess has been artfully invoked to bring out the irony since the desired state is death and not love. The face of Ishtar is used to compare death and love. The persona compares the darkness felt in death and the shine of the small things to the face of Ishtar-death is better than what the face of Ishtar offers:
It will be dark, And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar.
Sweetness has been used in the poem to paint a certain picture. It carries an unnatural connotation of preservation but at the expense of life. It is so costly; it is paid for with life. The sweetness referred to in the poem is actually death.
In Gale’s criticism, the poet has displayed a strong will to move her poem from love as much as possible. The image she creates is not of love or blood hurt but the escape of spirit breath. (pp. 168-169) this poem earns authority thereby bringing out the tone that highlights control of the success or failure it is bound to bring forth.
As much as the persona seeks to understand death and convinces a reader that she is death conscious, we can also see that it carries with it a heavy connotation of the desire to live and therefore tries to investigate the mysteries that are associated with death. This can be true since the element of fear is the one that is brought out in the first line of the second stanza. However, the persona finally convinces a reader that she has found peace in death. The poem ends on a convincing note that the persona finds peace in death.
‘Last Words’ is a very unique elegy since it addresses the subject of death in a way that is simply extraordinary. The way the poet juxtaposes death and peace, and sweetness and death is rather intriguing. In normal human life, this juxtaposed items contrast so widely.The juxtapose brings out irony in a very creative way, how a human would wish for death in the name of seeking peace. This peace is mystic. The poem also seeks to connect the living and the dead.
The language employed is very figurative and connotes a certain idea or draws an image in the reader’s mind, for example, the use of the sarcophagus shows that the persona wants the body preserved. The sarcophagus is a stone and it can last. The 11th, 12th, and 13th lines of stanza 1 are metaphoric. They are used to mean death.
It has a very sarcastic tone. The writer ridicules sweetness and life in general by trying to convince us that peace can only be found in death, and so is sweetness. This is quite cold. The persona must have gone through some ups and downs to have such thoughts. About the author/poet, the life experiences of Sylvia must have triggered such cold emotions in her and most of her poems were such reflections. This might have been a prediction that the life curtains were about to fall on her as she did not live long after this. It’s a masterpiece.
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