'A Birthday Present' by Sylvia Plath

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What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking'Is this the one I am too appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!'But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.
I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button.I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
After all I am alive only by accident.I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies' bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory!It must be a tusk there, a ghost column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is.Can you not give it to me?
Do not be ashamed--I do not mind if it is small.Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrifiedThe world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,
Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,A marvel to your great-grandchildren.
Do not be afraid, it is not so.I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle,No falling ribbons, no scream at the end.
I do not think you credit me with this discretion.If you only knew how the veils were killing my days.
To you they are only transparencies, clear air.But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles, with the millionProbable motes that tick the years off my life.
You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine-----Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?
Must you stamp each piece purple,Must you kill what you can?
There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.It stands at my window, big as the sky.
It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead centerWhere split lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty
By the time the whole of it was delivered, and to numb to use it.Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were deathI would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enterPure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Birthday Present by Sylvia Plath: A Masterpiece of Confessional Poetry

Have you ever read a poem that left you feeling shaken, as if the words had burrowed their way into your soul? A Birthday Present by Sylvia Plath is one such poem. This confessional masterpiece is a raw, unflinching examination of the darker aspects of the human psyche, and it has become one of Plath's most celebrated works. In this literary criticism, we will explore the themes, imagery, and symbolism in A Birthday Present, and examine how they contribute to the poem's emotional power.


Before we dive into the poem itself, it is important to understand the context in which it was written. A Birthday Present was first published in Plath's posthumous collection, Ariel, which was released in 1965, two years after her suicide. Plath was a prolific writer and a leading figure in the confessional poetry movement, which was characterized by deeply personal and often autobiographical works that explored themes of trauma, mental illness, and personal struggle. Plath's own life was marked by personal and professional turmoil, including a troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and a long battle with depression that ultimately led to her tragic death at the age of 30. A Birthday Present is a prime example of Plath's confessional style, and it provides a vivid glimpse into the mind of a troubled genius.


At its core, A Birthday Present is a meditation on power and control. The speaker of the poem is presented as a powerful figure, able to exert her will over a small, vulnerable creature - in this case, a mouse. However, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the speaker's power is a thin veneer, masking a deep sense of vulnerability and insecurity. The mouse becomes a stand-in for the speaker herself, and the act of killing it becomes a symbol of the speaker's own self-destructive tendencies. The poem is a stark reminder that power and control are often illusions, and that even those who seem to hold all the cards can be undone by their own weaknesses.

Another key theme in A Birthday Present is the idea of sacrifice. The speaker is willing to sacrifice the life of the mouse in order to assert her dominance, but in doing so, she also sacrifices a part of herself. The act of killing the mouse leaves the speaker feeling empty and hollow, and she is forced to confront the darker aspects of her own nature. The poem is a powerful exploration of the human capacity for violence, and the ways in which it can warp and distort even the most seemingly benign impulses.


One of the most striking aspects of A Birthday Present is its vivid and visceral imagery. Plath is a master of using concrete, sensory details to convey complex emotions and ideas, and the poem is packed with images that are both beautiful and disturbing. For example, the mouse is described in terms of its "soft, feathery baby mouth" and "delicate feet," which create a sense of tenderness and vulnerability. However, the speaker's description of the act of killing the mouse is equally vivid: "I stood there with my hand in the air. / The mouse was under the paper, dead." This sudden shift from tenderness to violence is jarring and unsettling, and it serves to underscore the poem's central themes.

Another notable image in A Birthday Present is that of the speaker's own body. Plath is known for her fascination with the physical self, and this poem is no exception. The speaker's body is described in vivid, often grotesque terms: "my bones hold a stillness, the far / Fields melt my heart." This image of melting and dissolution creates a sense of instability and fragmentation, which is echoed in the poem's overall structure.


Finally, we must examine the symbolism in A Birthday Present. The mouse is the most obvious symbol in the poem, representing vulnerability and powerlessness. However, the mouse can also be seen as a metaphor for the speaker herself, as she struggles to exert control over her own life. The act of killing the mouse can be read as a symbol of the speaker's own self-destructive tendencies, and it serves as a warning against the dangers of unchecked power.

Another important symbol in the poem is that of the birthday present itself. The speaker is ostensibly giving the mouse to her lover as a gift, but the act of killing it transforms the present into a grim reminder of the speaker's own mortality. The birthday present becomes a symbol of the larger themes of the poem, namely the fragility of life and the human desire for power and control.


In conclusion, A Birthday Present is a haunting and powerful poem that explores some of the darkest aspects of the human psyche. Plath's confessional style and vivid imagery create a sense of intimacy and raw emotion that is rarely seen in poetry. The themes of power, control, and sacrifice are explored in depth, and the poem's use of symbolism serves to underscore its central messages. A Birthday Present is a masterful work of confessional poetry, and it stands as a powerful testament to Plath's genius.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to evoke emotions, stir the soul, and leave a lasting impression on the reader. One such poem that has stood the test of time is Sylvia Plath's "A Birthday Present." This poem is a masterpiece that captures the essence of love, loss, and the complexities of human relationships. In this article, we will delve deep into the meaning and significance of this classic poem.

The poem "A Birthday Present" was written by Sylvia Plath in 1962, just two years before her untimely death. It is a deeply personal and introspective poem that reflects the poet's state of mind at the time. The poem is written in free verse, with no set rhyme or meter, which gives it a natural and spontaneous feel.

The poem begins with the speaker describing a gift that she has received on her birthday. The gift is a "luminous, intense / Frail as a moth wing" and is described in vivid detail. The gift is a metaphor for the speaker's relationship with the giver, which is fragile and delicate. The speaker is aware of the fragility of the relationship and is afraid that it may not last.

The second stanza of the poem is where the tone shifts from one of excitement to one of apprehension. The speaker describes how the gift is "a flickering pulse" that could "go out / Anytime, / Blur, and expire." This is a metaphor for the speaker's fear that the relationship may end abruptly and without warning. The speaker is aware of the impermanence of life and is afraid of losing the person she loves.

The third stanza of the poem is where the speaker's emotions come to the forefront. She describes how she feels "naked and alone" without the person she loves. She is aware of her own vulnerability and is afraid of being hurt. The speaker is also aware of the fact that the person she loves may not feel the same way about her. She describes how she is "afraid your voice / Would crack. / I am afraid / Your eyes would rot away / Like apples in a cellar."

The fourth stanza of the poem is where the speaker's emotions reach a crescendo. She describes how she wants to "seize and throttle" the person she loves. She is angry and frustrated with the situation and wants to take control of it. However, she is also aware of the fact that this would not solve anything. She knows that she cannot force someone to love her and that she must accept the situation as it is.

The final stanza of the poem is where the speaker comes to a realization. She understands that the gift she has received is not just a physical object, but a symbol of the love that she shares with the person she loves. She describes how the gift is "a love gift / Stern as a hairshirt." The hairshirt is a symbol of penance and self-mortification, which suggests that the love between the speaker and the giver is not easy or comfortable, but rather a difficult and painful journey.

In conclusion, "A Birthday Present" is a powerful and moving poem that captures the complexities of human relationships. Sylvia Plath's use of metaphor and imagery creates a vivid and emotional landscape that resonates with the reader. The poem is a testament to the power of poetry to evoke emotions and leave a lasting impression on the reader. It is a timeless classic that will continue to inspire and move readers for generations to come.

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