Fever 103°

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. Incapable
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 make 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
Virgin
Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean!
Not you, nor him

Nor him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)——
To Paradise.

Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103°” from The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1966 and renewed 1994 by Ted Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992)

Writing Ideas

1. Write a poem imagining a different outcome for the speaker here. What would happen if—rather than rising up and dissolving to “Paradise”the fever broke, and the speaker got well?

2. Think back to your own experiences of illness. Recount a particular sickness, accident, surgery, or other anecdote related to your own health. Like Plath, try to describe not what happened, but how it made you feel. Try to write lyrically—expressing the emotional experience—rather than literally.

3. What other experiences drive you to a “feverish” feeling? Write a poem, for instance, that recreates some of Plath’s agitation, anger, or indifference as it relates to falling in—or out of—love.

Discussion Questions

1. Plath begins by asking what purity is. Does she ever answer this question? What role does this idea of purity play in the poem?

2. Identify some of the places in the poem that Plath uses repetition, either of sounds, rhymes or words. How does her use of repetition heighten the poem’s sense of delirium? What other effects does it have on your understanding of the poem?

3. Several passages in the poem make reference to Heaven and Hell (the “tongues of hell” and “Paradise”). What connection does Plath make between the experience of being ill and the ecstasy of religious fervor?

4. Which words or phrases in the poem best capture the experience of a high fever—and how?

5. In this and other poems, Plath uses her personal experiences of pain, illness, or grief to allude to larger catastrophes like Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Do you think this tactic works in a poem like “Fever 103º”? What are some of the risks involved in such comparisons?

Teaching Tips

1. Between the opening image of hell and the final image of paradise, the feverish speaker creates a tension in the text through juxtaposition, repetition, and sonic connections among contrasting images. After reading the poem with annotations on, looking up words, and reading about allusions (Cerberus, Isadora Duncan, Hiroshima, Virgin, et cetera) as necessary, have students write a list or create visual notes in the right margin that maps the images evoked by Plath’s language. Ask small groups of students to walk the rest of the class through their maps.

2. Play Plath’s reading of the poem twice. As students listen, have them use highlighters to color code threads of sound as they repeat throughout the poem. As patterns and variations emerge, have students discuss sonic connections between one image or idea and another; then share Kary Wayson’s audio discussion and have students share their responses to this approach to Plath’s poem.

3. Have students compare “Fever 103” to another of Plath’s poems. Compare her sonic techniques, her selection and arrangement of images, and other formal elements of her work. After looking at three to five other poems, ask students to make a claim about her work and support it in an essay supporting the claim with evidence from the text. “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Morning Song” are two longer poems that share similar elements. If students feel versed enough in her work, they may be interested in reading a Harriet blog conversation about her.

More Poems by Sylvia Plath