A Poem to Be Sick By

If I’m feeling gloomy, trapped by the confines of daily life, I like to read Sylvia Plath poems. For some reason it makes me feel better to read them.  I have no idea why reading such angry and angst-filled poetry does so. Maybe it’s like listening to sad and beautiful music.

Her poems “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are well-known for a reason. They temporarily crack open the bell jar we all live under. But there’s another poem from that same period, the fall of 1962, a few months before she died, that I love. It uses similar techniques to “break glass.”

The poem captures the feeling of being ill with a high fever: “Fever 103.”

Just count the amazing images used to describe feeling so heated from fever that the speaker is no longer purely human.  Below you will find both a video version and a text version.

One thing about poetic images. There are a lot of wonderful 20th century poems that use images of pop culture that are remembered by fewer and fewer people. It’s a sad fact that what makes the poetry immediate and vivid can also be what ages it. For readers who don’t know what Isadora’s scarves refers to in the poem, let me share this before you listen to the poem.

Isadora Duncan was an American modern dancer–very famous– who bought a new open (like a convertible) car. She was given to dressing dramatically, so she wore a long scarf that blew out of the car, trailing after her. Unfortunately, it caught on a wheel and killed Duncan.

Duncan death


Isadora Duncan death


Without further ado, listen to Plath’s marvelous voice reading this exquisite poem. Be sure to listen for the movement from Hell to Paradise.

Fever 103′


by Sylvia Plath


Pure?  What does it mean?

The tongues of hell

Are dull, dull as the triple


Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus

Who wheezes at the gate.  In capable

Of licking clean


The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.

The tinder cries.

The indelible smell


Of a snuffed candle!

Love, love, the low smokes roll

From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright


One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.

Such yellow sullen smokes

Make their own element.  They will not rise,


But trundle round the globe

Choking the aged and the meek,

The weak


Hothouse baby in its crib,

The ghastly orchid

Hanging its hanging garden in the air,


Devilish leopard!

Radiation turned it white

And killed it in an hour.


Greasing the bodies of adulterers

Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.

The sin.  The sin.


Darling, all night

I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.

The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.


Three days.  Three nights.


Lemon water, chicken

Water, water makes me retch.


I am too pure for you or anyone.

Your body

Hurts me as the world hurts God.  I am a lantern–


My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.


Does not my heat astound you.  And my light.

All by myself I am a huge camellia

Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.


I think I am going up,

I think I may rise-

The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I


Am a pure acetylene


Attended by roses,


By kisses, by cherubim,

By whatever these pink things mean.

Not you, nor him


Not him, nor him

(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)–

To Paradise.


20 October 1962


Filed under Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

27 responses to “A Poem to Be Sick By

  1. Mom

    I LOVE that you posted both the written poem AND her reading it. These were two very different experiences for me…sort of the black/blue or white/gold dress epidemic! I swear there were different words when read and heard! Did she actually write like this with a temp like that?
    Hoosier side note~ Isadora (with or without her demising scarves) was a frequent house guest of a wealthy Indianapolis family. Their son was a budding playwright. I don’t know whether he was any good, but he was quite “well to do.” Unfortunately, as a young fighter pilot, he was shot down over France and didn’t get far in his theater career. 🙁

    • Mom, what a fabulous anecdote. Was Isadora friends with the family or with the playwright? Was it something more? I haven’t read her bio since I was 11, so I’m pretty sure it was a cleaned up version.
      Re the poem: I love that you mentioned that about it being two different poems (love the dress analogy, too). There are two things I think about that. for one thing, there are phrases in the read version that were cut from the final poem. Like when she says “Oh auto-da-fe.” She was conjuring up the Inquisition, but ended up deciding maybe the Hiroshima was enough drama. I have copies of her draft versions of the poem that are stored at Smith College, and on those you can see how she decided to get rid of a few flourishes. Also, the way you heard it differently might be that her voice expands and connects words in interesting ways that my flat reading-to-my-self doesn’t do. And then that voice. She sounds like she’s a wise nearly elderly woman. As far writing with the temperature, all of the Ariel poems that she wrote that last fall were written when she was sick, just getting sick, or nearly sick. She ran a temperature a lot and then in the dead of winter it got even worse. She had poor medical care in England and didn’t even have a telephone, so she was very isolated. I think her evening wine was what kept her going. the probability is that she was suffering from an untreated sinus infection.

      • Mom

        Kinda hard to speculate about the two, but it’s been rumored that she and Booth Tarkington were “friendly.” When she performed here in the teens, the mayor was quite open about arresting her and running her out of town if she started tearing off clothes, gyrating and calling it “art.” Oh my what a time to live in!

        • It’s so hard to remember that my grandparents were alive in those days and that their worldview was colored by that kind of “prudery.” hah

  2. Funny you read Plath’s poetry when you’re feeling gloomy, Luanne. Me, I like to listen to some 80’s music. 🙂

  3. cough cough cough

  4. I don’t know what I enjoyed more: your post or your exchange with your mom 😉 I loved hearing Plath’s voice. It is a very different experience from reading from the page. And since I’m not a poet, I’m always curious how poems should be read, especially when they have line breaks that seem to be different from how a person would normally speak (hope that makes sense).

    • LOL, well, I can’t take “credit” for this Mom as she is a Mom to all bloggers. My own mom is pretty busy taking care of my dad right now. But go check out “Mom’s” blog–it’s fascinating. Marie, that makes perfect sense about line breaks. You see a break on the page, but often times the poet doesn’t stop there when she reads the poem. It can be more like an almost imperceptible pause or it can be a meaning that translate better when read on the page because you see that last word hanging there. I guess the experience of hearing a poem is a LOT different from reading a poem on the page!

  5. One image that I found remarkable (there were many) is: The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss. I stopped reading there and took time to let my imagination run away with me and then to allow my body to have a good shudder.

  6. Great poem. I loved her reading of it, and I agree with the above comments about how different the poem appears when you hear her reading it–I mean different as far as the pauses or lack of, as well as the word differences between the two versions. The images are so vivid.

    As far as Isadora Duncan–did you ever see the movie with Vanessa Redgrave? I saw it as a child on TV, long before I knew anything about her, but all I really remember about the movie was Redgrave’s performance and the scarves!

    And–if you were feeling sad and gloomy, I hope you’re feeling better now!

  7. Wow – took my breath away to hear her read her own work. I loved it! Thanks so much for posting – I really wasn’t familiar at all with this one…and I had forgotten the scarf story about Isadora Duncan. Geez. Amazing story.

  8. I love Plath, she had such an economy and power with words. And her poems were cathartic as well. As far as Duncan, holy cow I didn’t realize she died that way! Talk about awful.

  9. I had no idea about Isadora’s scarves! What a gruesome end, goodness, and to think I always dreamt of driving a convertible with a nice, long scarfe blowing in the wind behind me…but not now, yikes o_O Luanne, I love your analysis of Plath’s poem. For me, it is music everytime when I’m blue. Usually something like Nirvana or Guns & Roses. Does it every time, lol 😀 I’ve finally managed to get the WIP Blog Tour Stop post up, what a week! Really hope you are happy with it, and thanks again so much for tagging me: Have a great weekend xoxox http://sherrimatthewsblog.com/2015/03/07/an-early-spring-blog-hop/

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