In a well-known 1962 radio interview with Peter Orr of the British Council, Sylvia Plath downplayed her achievements in 'The Colossus' by explaining that she was 'bored' with the poems. By this time, she had entered the period of freer forms and dazzling imagery that fueled 'Ariel,' a volume now securing her legacy.
Plath died at a young age and might have changed her mind about 'The Colossus' poems had she lived long enough to reevaluate them. Fortunately, her public sees a great deal of the collection's value, at least in terms of its refinement and precision. Even when disregarding its subject matters, 'The Colossus' can be viewed as a woman's treatise on the poetic art.
First published in 1960, 'The Colossus & Other Poems' offers forty titles, many of which were written at the Yaddo artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and published in such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Encounter. The poems do not follow a specific order, but are arranged to supply contrasts in mood. Several of Plath's best known poems, including 'Night Shift,' 'The Colossus,' 'The Disquieting Muses,' 'The Beekeeper's Daughter,' and 'The Stones,' can be found in this 84-page collection.
On the surface, Plath's early poetry looks naïve. Her stanzas are always flush left with capital letters. The number of lines per stanza is usually consistent. Her metrics are flawless. But when examining the poems repeatedly, it becomes clear that Plath's work has manifold meanings; how deeply we see is based on how deeply we're willing to look. Even in simple narratives like 'Sow,' 'The Bull of Bendylaw,' and 'Snakecharmer,' Plath seems to be winking at us through her underlying ideas on human relationships.
Perhaps the strongest element of Plath's verse is its compactness. For such a range of images and emotions, her poems are quite short, rarely lasting beyond two pages. By her mid-to-late twenties, Plath had already disposed of excess, working powerful ideas into taut lines and stanzas. She had also completely mastered techniques such as 'internal' rhyme, alliteration, and enjambment, helped by her love of Shakespeare, Donne, Yeats, Auden, and other immortals.
Plath's choice of 'The Colossus' as her focal poem is interesting, since female oppression does not seem a prevailing theme of this volume. 'The Colossus' is a poem of thirty lines, the first-person account of a woman who must serve as caretaker to the Colossus of Rhodes, a crumbling monument for god Helios. This poem foresees the later Plath of 'Daddy,' 'Lady Lazarus,' and 'The Moon and the Yew Tree,' where she openly rebels against a society that has confined women to limited roles.
Signs of the later Plath are also noticeable in poems such as 'Lorelei,' 'The Ghost's Leavetaking,' 'Full Fathom Five,' and 'The Stones.' These poems are intensely personal, stem from Plath's distinctly feminine voice, and seamlessly combine the real with the subconscious. The only factor working against this volume is the repetitiveness of Plath's imagery as her poems roll on: we are shown oceans, the Moon, and rocks a few times too many. Still, this can be forgiven with the variety of form and approach that Plath offers us. Even if we are looking at a sea or rock for the umpteenth time, we are never looking at it in exactly the same way.
'The Colossus & Other Poems' is too frequently judged as a testing ground for 'Ariel' rather than as a mature collection in its own right. The fact that 'Ariel' became a posthumous sensation hasn't helped 'The Colossus' at all, but it has luckily held its ground amongst readers. I have to claim myself as a member of the group who prefers these poems over 'Ariel.' As a person interested in new ways to utilize old ideas, I am fascinated by how Plath used strict forms as a foundation for her modern creative energies.
Those who have read 'The Colossus' may recall a Vintage softcover edition with blue and orange bars on its cover. In 1998, Vintage International made cosmetic changes; while the inside retains its large typeface, the cover is now in orange, black, and cream with a famous photograph of Plath sitting with her typewriter atop a stone barrier in Yorkshire. This edition and past releases are available just about everywhere, along with her 'Ariel' poems, prose, and published journals.