Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast. All book poems. Terrific stuff, as though domesticity had choked me.
—Sylvia Plath, letter to her mother, October 12, 1962
Sylvia Plath was the first woman poet I read, after Emily Dickinson: few women were in the canon, and Plath, a brilliant confessional poet, was not. I discovered Ariel after I read her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which was a best-seller in 1971. When I mentioned my enthusiasm to a professor, he disparaged her poetry as “second-rate.” In retrospect, he was a terrible teacher. The idea is to encourage interest in poetry, not squelch it. I mean it was Sylvia Plath, not Ogden Nash.
But my taste has changed, and I much prefer Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop these days, though Plath earned her place in the canon.
That said, there was a strange feminist suicide cult in the ’70s surrounding Plath (and the poet Anne Sexton, who also killed herself). Plath was a feminist icon: her life and death were used to illustrate the evils of “male oppression.”
Plath struggled with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide in college. She responded to therapy, medication, and shock treatment and went on to write poetry. She married the glamorous poet Ted Hughes, and they were a gorgeous couple.
But after Plath discovered Ted Hughes’ affair with their friend Alissa Wevill in 1962, he left her with their two children and lived with Wevill. Plath spiraled into manic-depression but did write Ariel. Then, in 1963, at the age of 30, she killed herself. And in 1969 Wevill killed herself and the four-year-old child she had with Hughes.
That is three too many deaths, isn’t it?
The biography of Plath at Poem Hunter says,
Feminists portrayed Plath as a woman driven to madness by a domineering father, an unfaithful husband, and the demands that motherhood made on her genius. Some critics lauded her as a confessional poet whose work “spoke the hectic, uncontrolled things our conscience needed, or thought it needed,” to quote Donoghue. Largely on the strength of Ariel, Plath became one of the best-known female American poets of the 20th century.
I no longer believe that women’s “madness” is a consequence of sexist society (chemical imbalance is often the problem), but I am horrified that two women involved with Hughes killed themselves.
And today I read a shocking article in The Guardian. In unpublished letters to her American psychiatrist and friend,
Sylvia Plath alleged Ted Hughes beat her two days before she miscarried their second child and that Hughes wanted her dead, unpublished letters reveal. The two accusations are among explosive claims in unseen correspondence written in the bitter aftermath of one of literature’s most famous and destructive marriages.
I do not jump to conclusions on the basis of an article in The Guardian. What she wrote in the letters may have been true, or she may have been in a psychotic state. There will be arguments on both sides. And I do not know enough about her or Hughes.
But it is very disturbing, and so I hunted up a poem by Plath, in honor of National Poetry Month. .
“Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
After Wevill’s death Hughes said that he thought he was attracted to and attractive to women with self-destructive traits. In fairness to him, he was a scholarship boy from a country background who’d been pushed into being the “great nature poet” of the time and fulfilling other people’s fantasies.
Certainly, he and Plath make Ogden Nash look like a better role model.
I do like Ogden Nash.
Yes, poets are high-strung and egotistical and it must have been a terrible marriage, whatever happened. Well, everyone will be examining the new letters and writing interpretations in The Guardian (and scholarly publications) and tragedy will be interpreted anew.
It *is* disturbing but like you I don’t want to jump to conclusions. Do we always write the truth in letters? No. Nevertheless I think Hughes was far from blameless. But there has been so much written about the couple and their lives over the years which has muddied the waters that I think it unlikely we’ll ever get near the truth. She’s still one of my favourite poets though.
Plath was great: very dark in those last poems, and what a tragic, brittle life. I read little Hughes, not because he wasn’t great, but because of an American bias in favor of Plath
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Plath’s son committed suicide several years back, so the depression seems to be genetic. But this is the first I’ve heard about Huges beating her. I’ll read the article but it seems doubtful although he must have been hell to live with. His sister guards the estate like a hawk.
I read about her son: it is common for suicide to run in a family, so you may be right about genetics. The whole story is tragic, whatever the interpretation or reality.
Samuel Butler on the Carlyles applies to Hughes and Plath as well: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”
There’s an interesting and sympathetic essay by Philip Larkin, “Horror Poet”, looking at the relationship between Plath’s life and her poetry. It doesn’t seem to be accessible on the ‘net, unfortunately.
Yes, some people seem allergic to each other in marriage. One wonders if life would turned out differently for the Carlyles if they hadn’t married, or if their personalities would have acted the same on others. Those letters of Jane are barbed and wicked! as for Plath and Hughes, what happened is tragic beyond imagination (which means people keep imagining it)! And then I start thinking of Princess Di, and that’s how morbidly these disasters capture the imagination, since it’s not at all the same.
We don’t have any of Larkin’s essays, alas, but I’ll find it one of these days.
Larkin suggests that the madness and the poetry were entwined in Plath and that she may have chosen the madness – consciously or not – as the price for the poetry. Larkin was doubtful if the cost was worthwhile.
An interesting aspect is that Larkin’s essay was published in 1982, when he’d been abandoned by poetry for several years, so he would probably have been thinking of his own situation as well as Plath’s.
Poor Sylvia! I doubt she chose the madness…but I’m sure Larkin’s essay is brilliant. Madness is SO overrated. I prefer her poems about bees, written presumably when she was NOT mad. I also read long, long ago that her anti-depressants were taking too long to kick in.
According to a wonderful memoir by the out-of=print novelist Nora Johnson, Sylvia at Smith was always the most brilliant person in the room, but I gathered she wasn’t much liked.