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Sylvia Plath

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american gorgon -reading medusa by sylvia plath
Added by: james reich
An analysis of Medusa by Sylvia Plath may be found at www.jamesreich.com/plath.html
Excerpt FROM a message to A. Mayers
Added by: Samuel Biagetti
But, on the subject of "Medusa" (how I do love the October poems!):

To understand the opening, it may be necessary, however backwards this may seem, to recognize the overall orientations of the entire poem.

To begin, the person whom the speaker is addressing, the "Medusa," seems to be across the Atlantic Ocean FROM the speaker. They give a number of clues this effect, such as "You steamed to me over the sea . . ." and, "Did I escape, I wonder? My mind winds to you, old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic Cable . . ." With this in mind, it makes sense that the speaker would see and observe the Medusa's visage FROM a "landspit," presumably a place where they can look out across the ocean.

Furthermore, the landspit is one of "stony mouth-plugs," which falls very nicely INTO one of the themes of the poem. The Medusa clearly has power over the speaker, and uses it to suppress their expression and movement: the speaker calls her "bottle in which I live," that is "paralyzing the kicking lovers" and "squeezing the breath FROM the blood bells of the fuschia." It makes sense, then, that the Medusa would appear above a spit of "mouth-plugs," evoking suffocation and the obstruction of speech.

The description of the Medusa'a "eyes rolled by white sticks" and "ears cupping the sea's incoherences" are of much less clear significance to me, but they convey a sense of the Medusa's discombobulation and dull, unreliable senses, which is borne out in such later accusations, such as, "I didn't call you at all. Nevertheless, nevertheless, you steamed to me over the sea . . ."

Finally, at the end of the first stanza begin the religious epithets ("God-ball, lens of mercies"), which continue throughout the poem. The Medusa's power and aggressiveness clearly have a large religious dimension: one of the means of sustaining communication she employs is stooges with "their Jesus hair" and "red stigmata"; the speaker asks "who do you think you are? A communion wafer?"; she is called a "ghastly Vatican"; it goes on and on. "Lens of mercies," specifically, seems to suggest that the Medusa has the power to judge the speaker. It is important at this point to remember two critical biographical facts behind this poem:

When it was written, Plath was living in Britain, though she had grown up in the United States -- which is, I would venture to say, a less secualar society than Western Europe. Also, the closest family member of Plath's who remained in America was her mother, who was raised Catholic, converted to Methodism, and remained religious her whole life. There are also connections between the Medusa and motherhood, such as the "placenta" and "Who do you think you are? . . . Blubbery Mary?" It would make sense, therefore, that the first stanza establishes that the Medusa is a religious entity, in America, probably her mother, who maintains power over the speaker FROM across the Atlantic by means of an enduring connection -- an "umbilicus."

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