Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

David J. Smith


This study explores the impact of changing definitions of confession on the critical reception and interpretation of the poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. In light of the ongoing criticism concerning "confessional poetry" in the forty-one years since Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) was published, it may seem difficult to justify yet another study of confessional poetry. However, the term has been so thoroughly assimilated into our critical vocabulary that we have lost an authentic sense of its meaning. "Confessional poetry" is in some ways an arbitrary term that has a very tenuous connection with the poetry it purports to describe. Even though the original sense of the term "confession" was a religious one, the term "confessional poetry" was coined in response to specific (and secular) poetic techniques employed by Robert Lowell in Life Studies. Over the past forty-one years, the connotations of the term have become increasingly wide-ranging. Poets as diverse as Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Sharon Olds have been called "confessional" poets---as have John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Frank Bidart, Jack Gilbert, and Louise Gluck. Despite great variation in the extent to which details of these poets' lives appear in their work, even the hint of an autobiographical element to their work often ensures that they will be labeled as "confessional" poets. Consequently, formulating any sort of standard criteria by which to evaluate "confessional poetry" has become very difficult. Further, in the cases of the poets in this study---Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes---we have often neglected to ask where, specifically, the "confessional" label originates. Since the appearance of W. D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle and Robert Lowell's Life Studies in 1959, the body of criticism surrounding confessional poetry has functioned as Hepworth and Turner's "external control" of its definition (albeit from many different perspectives). Ultimately, although the central requirements of confessional poetry remain the same---intimacy, a sense of guilt, and a difference in status between the confessor and the confessant---it is still impossible for critics to irrevocably determine what poetry is "confessional" and what is not.