Past exam questions on Sylvia Plath


‘Plath makes effective use of language to explore her personal experience of suffering and to provide occasional glimpses of the redemptive power of love.’
Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of Sylvia Plath on your course.



‘Plath’s provocative imagery serves to highlight the intense emotions expressed in her poetry.’ To what extent do you agree or disagree with this assessment of her poetry? Support your answer with suitable reference to the poetry of Sylvia Plath on your course.


‘The poetry of Sylvia Plath is intense, deeply personal and quite disturbing.’ Do you agree with this assessment of her poetry? Write a response, supporting your points with the aid of suitable reference to the poems you have studied.



‘I like (or do not like) to read the poetry of Sylvia Plath.’ Respond to this statement, referring to the poetry of Sylvia Plath on your course.



If you were asked to give a public reading of a small selection of Sylvia Plath’s poems, which ones would you choose to read? Give reasons for your choices supporting them by reference to the poems on your course.


Sample Paper

‘It startles me still . . .’ Discuss Sylvia Plath’s relationship with the world around her. Support your points with reference to the poetry on your course.


Remember that all exam questions, whether explicitly stated or not, call for a Personal Response from you. What is your personal response to the poetry of Sylvia Plath? Did you enjoy studying her poetry? Could you identify with  any of the images or themes she explored or were they all too disturbing? Leave a comment here and remember that the purpose of this task is to learn from each other.


4 thoughts on “Past exam questions on Sylvia Plath”

  1. The poetry of Slyvia Plath provides many images and themes. Sylvia Plath is a very personal poet as is evident in poems such as ‘Poppies in July’. Plath appealled to me due to this personal quality in her poetry. Plath articulates every emotion and worry she feels and does this through her poetry. Due to this Plath’s poetry can come across as depressing. I belive that in order to fully understand Plath and the images and themes in her poetry you need to first learn about her life story which is also bleak and depressing. Although in my opion Plath is definitely one of the more appealing and interesting poets that I have studied as part of my Leaving Certificate.

  2. Overall I must admit that I really enjoyed the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Her open and personal poetry is what appeals to me most. She is so open about very personal issues in her life such as death, her kids and her marriage. We see in “Child” how she feels. This poem was written just a fortnight before she took her own life and it emphasises her emotional pain. While studying her poetry I never seemed to find myself loosing interest in class. There is always controversy in her poetry that grabs the attention of the reader. Overall Sylvia Plath is my favourite poet because of her personal references in her poetry.

  3. I agree with that statement that Sylvia Plath is intense, deeply personal and quite disturbing. Having read her biograpghy and studied her poems I find her to be a far more intriguing poet than any of the other poets I have studied on my Leaving Cert course. Due to her harsh childhood Sylvia Plath grew up with a severe case of depression. This may have been largely triggered by the death of her father at a young age. It carried on throughout her life and the separation and betrayal of her husband when she was married clearly sent her over the edge as she commited suicide not long after. Life did not seem easy to the say the least for her yet her poems strike me as being expressions of her own dispair for example in ‘Mirror’ Plath refers to the mirror as being “silver and exact with no preconceptions”. I think the mirror is a memory of her childhood as when we are children we have little opinion on how nice or how horrible something or someone is because that’s what they are and to a child it’s normal. As Plath’s childhood was traumatic this may be her description of how she used to be innocent, as innocent as a mirror with no opinions of you as a person, just the truth “I am not cruel only truthful”. As the poem goes on Plath then sees how she has developed over the years and now she sees herself as a drained hidious woman. To me it seems Plath notices that in her lies something terrible, her anger and sorrow throughout her life has lead to her feeling terrible on the inside and she cannot bring back the innocence of the young girl she once was and the happiness she once had before the death of her father but every now and then she catches a glimpse of her “she comes and goes each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness” but now sees herself on the inside through what she sees in the mirror on the outside “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish”. I think this poem vividly represents Plath’s mental state. I found it to be incredibly personal as she really exclaims her view of herself which I also think is admirable.
    In contrast, in the poem “Child”, Plath expresses her love for her infant and how she wants to ensure that her child has every opportunity to see the good things in life by showing him different colours and shapes and other things that develop a childs imagination. In this poem Plath uses a plant to represent her child’s perfection by referring to him as ‘stalk without a wrinkle’. Where a lot of this poem is of a mother’s love for her child she also discusses her personal issues she uses an image of twisting her hands in anxiety to convey her distress: ‘troublous wringing of hands’. She then tells us of her dark life by refering to it as a ‘ceiling without a star’ which shows Plath’s hopelessness. She concludes the short poem on a very unhappy note and ironically took her own life after writing the poem.
    As a poet she was mad but clearly a genius.

  4. Insightful, thoughtful and original – this is a great personal response Hannah with some ideas that have made me think about these poems in a new way, even after years of teaching them.
    I hope to see plenty more contibutions like this over the coming months! 🙂

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