Re-reading of ‘A Birthday Present’
Re-read ‘A Birthday Present’. By means of close analysis of the language of this poem, demonstrate how Plath achieves her effects in this poem, and by means of BRIEF reference to one or two other poems, say how typical of her writing you find it.
Plath’s poem ‘A Birthday Present’ creates binary oppositions of images by using antithesis.
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An example of antithesis in this poem is when the narrator asks, “is it ugly, is it beautiful?” The adjectives ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ are opposing images. The structure of this phrase is mirrored in the line below when the narrator asks, “has it breasts, has it edges?” These two images are opposite as when we imagine ‘breasts’ they are round and smooth and not sharp like an ‘edge’. By using this linguistic device Plath creates a ‘seesaw’ effect between positive (‘beautiful’) and negative (‘ugly’) lexis. Plath uses this device of conflicting lexis throughout the poem creating a tension.
Furthermore, it can also be said that Plath uses these binary oppositions on a more subtle level to create the theme of good vs. evil. This theme can be seen in some of Plath’s other poems. Take ‘Face Lift’ or ‘Morning Song’ for example, the theme of good and evil is represented by the images of babies she juxtaposes with those of death. The same binary opposition of images is used in ‘A Birthday Present’ when the narrator says, “White as babies’ bedding and glittering with dead breath.” Again the two juxtaposed images are of death and babies. It can therefore be said that this theme is typical of Plath’s writing and is probably influenced by the miscarriage she suffered prior to writing these poems.
Another device that Plath employs for a specific effect in this poem is her use of the personal pronoun ‘you’. The narrator questions, “Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?” and, “Must you kill what you can?” Many other writers use this device to achieve the desired effect of involving the audience as it addresses them directly. However Plath also has another motive. On first glance one may assume that the narrator is questioning the present as it is the apparent focus of the narrator throughout the poem. However, considering the number of references to God throughout the poem, (“My God what a laugh!”, But my god, the clouds are like cotton.”) one could assess that the question is actually aimed at God.
Moreover, the theme in ‘A Birthday Present’ of questioning God can be linked to some of Plaths other poetry. Plath’s father died when she was a young child. From studying her life I found out that she loved and idolised her father. In her poems ‘Daddy’ and ‘Full Fathom Five’ Plath makes subtle suggests that she now sees her father as a God-like figure. In ‘Full Fathom Five’ she writes, “You defy other Godhood. I walk dry on your kingdom’s border”, when talking to her father. This could therefore be evidence that although she may seem to be addressing the birthday present with questions in this poem she is really questioning to her Dad. The theme of Dad arises in many of Plath’s poems and so this poem is typical of her writing.
Like many of Plath’s other poems she uses personification in ‘A Birthday Present’ to make an inert object appear to have a life of its own. The narrator is describing the present when she says, “I feel it looking. I feel it thinking”. The two verbs are actions that only a living person could do. Plath, however uses them to make the present in the poem come alive. The literary device of personification is typical to some of Plath’s other poems. One example is in her poem ‘Cut’ where she personifies her thumb by referring to it as ‘Little pilgrim’, ‘Saboteur’ and ‘Kamikaze man’, before reminding us at the end of the poem that it is just a ‘Thumb stump’. This is therefore a device that Plath uses typically in her writing.
In conclusion, many of the themes and ideas found in ‘A Birthday Poem’ can also be found and mirrored in Plath’s other poetry. She also uses a range of literary and linguistic devices in this poem that is typical of her writing.