Analysis of Plath's "Last Words"
Sylvia Plath's poem "Last Words" involves the subject of the poet's death and burial. On the surface, the poem is a seemingly spirited meditation, spoken by the poet, on the theme of mortality and funerals. The poet imagines her death and burial and imagines the kind of burial she would like to have: "I do not want a plain box, I want a sarcophagus/With tigery stripes, and a face on it" (Plath, 1-2) and, in doing so, imagines herself as still in dialogue with the living world: "I want to be looking at them when they come" (Plath, 4). There is a sense -- reinforced by the first-person narration of the poem -- of the poet living on after death but in some strange netherworld where communication is given in images rather than words and where gesture in death emerges as a more profound mode of expression than communication in life. The poem represents an inversion of expected images and emotions with exaltation, euphoria, color, and excitement replacing the usual dark and morbid images of death which are prevalent in Western art and poetry.
The element of shock or surprise is a crucial aspect of many of Sylvia Plath's poems. In the case of her poem, "Last Words," the elements of shock and surprise are used effectively throughout the poem to generate a sense of exoticism, liberation, and even radicalism in the reader. In order to fully appreciate these aspects of the poem, it is necessary to regard the poem's diction with special interest in order to understand how Plath's word-choice provides a visceral and indelible impact on the reader. Upon close inspection, it becomes clear that much of the power created by "Last Words" emerges from Plath's robust and highly-stylized use of diction, which allows for the poem's more forthright theme of "self-eulogy" to emerge as something other than satirical or melodramatic. Through the use of carefully constructed rhetoric, Plath elevates what might otherwise be a merely personal theme to a level of universality.
In order to make sense of the transition from the overtly subjective stance of the opening line of the poem, to the poem's clearly universally intended (if somewhat obscure) closing line "And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar" (Plath, 26) the diction of the poem must be closely examined for "clues" as to at just which point the poem makes a leap from the subjective to the universal. The first stanza of the poem represents the poet in a contentious relationship with the world-at-large -- even in death:
I see them already -- the pale, star-distance faces.
Now they are nothing, they are not even babies.
I imagine them without fathers or mothers, like the first gods.
They will wonder if I was important.
The words "pale" and "star-distance" (6) contrast with the vibrant excitement of the earlier adjectives "tigery" (2) and "Round" (3) inverting the usual senses of death and life. The sense of colorlessness and emptiness is given to the living while excitement and completion are associated with death. Furthermore, the declarative line "I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!" (Plath, 10) marks not only a punctuated return to "life" by the speaker of the poem -- in mid-thought -- but also an ironic inversion with the words "sugar" and "fruit" (10) ironically contrasting the picture of pale emptiness which Plath has already associated with the living.
The close of the first stanza revisits the pale/vibrant dichotomy and "solves" it by fully imparting the sense of emptiness and death to the living: "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." (Plath, 11-13). Of particular importance is the fact that it is the faces and flowers which "whiten" (13) almost as though -- upon contemplation of one's own mortality -- the true nature of things can be imparted and in this true nature is seen that life is death and death is life.
The inversion of these certainties is both the theme and purpose of Plath's poem, "Last Words," which upon close study emerges as a poem which is not so much about the personal mortality of the poet, but about the death-in-life aspect of modern culture and modern society. This sense is made clear by the most surprising and stunning development of the poem, when -- in the closing lines -- the speaker of the poem reaches for comfort in death from the things of life. In other words, after setting up the sense that life is death and death is life in the earlier lines of the poem, Plath drops a bomb on the reader by fueling the final ascension toward universality in the poem with an invocation of the goodness of the material world. Just when the alert reader might have expected the speaker of the poem to turn from the world of "life" to the world of "spirit" -- Plath goes in the precisely opposite direction. Of the spirit she remarks: "I do not trust the spirit. It escapes like steam/In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can't stop it./ One day it won't come back. Things aren't like that." (Plath, 14-16).
The sudden shift back to the material world verifies that the death Plath has lamenting is "living death" where modern consciousness remains closed to its own potentiality and the energy and power of the world around it. "Things" are more powerful and more trustworthy than spirit: "They stay, their little particular lusters/ Warmed by much handling. They almost purr" (Plath, 17-18). The word-choice throughout these profoundly original and important lines completes Plath's formidable task in re-investing the world of life with passion; the words "warmed" and "purr" (18) are the antithesis to the sheet-white flowers and faces of the "dead" world. The poem's closing line "And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar." (Plath, 26) attains universality because it demonstrates the poems' shift from subjective perception to a perception which must be called visionary.
Plath, Sylvia. Crossing the Water; Harper Perennial, 1980.