Sylvia Plath

           

                        Died in 1963, age 30


When I was “happy” domestically, I felt a gag in my throat. Now that
my domestic life is chaos, I am living like a Spartan, writing through huge
fevers and producing stuff I had locked in me for years. I feel astounded
and very lucky. I kept telling myself I was the sort that could only write
when peaceful at heart, but that is not so, the muse has come to live here,
now that Ted has gone.

Reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems – the “stuff locked inside for years” – is like listening to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. The first time I read these poems I had no inkling of such a connection, indeed, at that time I found them somewhat irritating; the last angry ramblings of a very depressed woman with a serious grudge against the men in her life. Then again, it was years before I could feel the pathos in that final cry de profundis of the Pathétique, and move beyond my initial prejudice against a tormented homosexual, wallowing in self-pity and revealing, as does Plath, his suicidal tendencies. I’m indebted to Ted Hughes – he that “has gone” – for awakening my better understanding of the Ariel poems, and, by an extension that is of my own concoction, a better understanding of one the greatest symphonic masterpieces. Writing in the introduction to his late wife’s Journals, published in 1982, Hughes says, “There was something about her reminiscent of what one reads of Islamic fanatic lovers of God – a craving to strip away everything from some ultimate intensity, some communion with spirit, or with reality, or simply with intensity itself.” It’s exactly the same with the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th, in which the composer was consciously stripping away everything to reveal his soul. In both cases we see the artist naked, unplugged, stripped of the artifice and the protection of the masks we wear in everyday life, sent to a place – Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” – from which there is no return and from where the artist reveals her “self” in an outcry of such intensity, after which there is nothing more to say. Tchaikovsky died two months after completing his 6th Symphony, possibly by his own hand, depending on how one views his drinking a glass of unboiled, cholera-infected water; Plath died two months after completing the Ariel poems, dramatically and irrefutably by her own hand.

Her death was deliberately horrible in its symbolism. She was clearly aware of the tradition, in both truth and fiction, that prescribes a watery grave for the female suicide; Ophelia was “pulled from her melodious lay to a muddy death,” Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and sank to the bottom of a peaceful river in Sussex, and Argentinean poet Alfonsina Ströni swam out into the South Atlantic, until her limbs could take her no farther. Even so rational a soul as Mary Wollstonecraft tried to drown herself. But Plath rejected such a “peaceful” death – “peaceful” not for the suicide herself – drowning must be ghastly! – but “peaceful” for those of us who witness the “peaceful” repose of the drowned victim. By contrast, there’s nothing peaceful about gas. Wilfred Owen leaves us in no doubt of this, and I wonder if in her final days Plath brought to mind some of Owen’s most terrifying images recounting a comrade dying slowly of gas poisoning, “the white eyes writing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; the blood come gargling from forth-corrupted lungs….” That was the imagery of the First World War, which she may have learned from an early lover Richard Sassoon, who was related to Owen’s friend and fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon. And if not from Sassoon then without question from Ted Hughes, whose father – like my own grandfather – was one of a mere handful of survivors from the Yorkshire regiments at Gallipoli. Plath’s more personal imagery, however, was shaped by the Second World War and by her German father, who had died when she was eight. Above all, her strongest and most controversial imagery was shaped by the unspeakable atrocities from that recent war, which confronted her as a teenager and which gave new meaning to the word “gas.” The association of gas with the Nazi death camps was enough for the American penal system to turn away from what had been a traditional form of execution. How ironic that a female American poet would perform this method of execution on herself!

Many detect in some of the Ariel poems Plath’s dark elegy, setting the stage for her own self-slaughter, most violently in the poem Daddy. This was the first Plath poem I encountered. It was like a knee in the groin, especially as I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the poet was describing her own father as a goose-stepping Nazi:
 

I have always been sacred of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat moustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You –
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.

At the time I was teaching a poetry class, which was brought to its dramatic and premature end by one teenage student, who broke down in agonized tears. She had seen too much of her own father in Plath’s poetry to hide her deep-rooted pain and anger. Nothing like this had happened teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets. No young man had broken down brooding on his “dark lady.” Plath’s painful imagery goes further. Whatever anger she was expressing towards her father was recharged with equal fire towards her husband:

I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do. 

It’s hardly surprising that Ted Hughes, as inheritor of his wife’s intestate literary property, wanted to exorcise Daddy from the official Sylvia Plath canon.

But it was in her use of metaphors drawn from the Jewish Holocaust that the soon-to-be- silent voice of the poet shouted most harshly, and into many an ear where the sounds resonated too painfully:

I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew. 

Some critics were outraged, understandably many of them Jewish, and some with strong ties to Holocaust survivors. Even Seamus Heaney, a selfless champion of the artistic merits of his fellow poets, has called Daddy “…a brilliant tour de force… that remains, nevertheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances, and rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows, that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy.” This, however, provokes the question, “Did Plath want the reader’s ‘sympathy’?”

It’s a very touchy subject, and it may well be that we’re too close to the event to turn the Holocaust into a metaphor. But that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath did, audaciously wielding the power of metaphor to the extreme. This is not to say that the poet is free from all responsibility in language. Quite the contrary. But Plath’s disturbing use of imagery and metaphor is not a mere artistic pose, but rather a sincere attempt to reveal the self – at this point clearly a self in great torment. And that is exactly what marks a great poet, such as Plath – being possessed of an imagination beyond the ordinary scope, which, in Shelley’s words, “feeds on the aerial kisses of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.” It was “shapes” from the recent Holocaust that shaped the thoughts in the wilderness of Sylvia Plath’s soul during the last months of her life. And who’s to say that the personal Hell in which she found herself at that time was not as soul destroying as the Hell of any specific victim of the Holocaust.

It’s too easy to read Daddy and other similarly harrowing poems and focus on the language of the victim. For sure, one section of the feminist camp that has embraced Plath with such passion has exploited that language to the full, and directed much of its anger towards the unfaithful husband, Ted Hughes. Some have, or one especially impassioned soul has vented this anger on Plath’s grave. She’s buried at a 15th century church in Heptonstall, a tiny West Yorkshire village very close to where Ted Hughes was born, and just a few miles south of Emily Brontë’s grave in Haworth. As she was still legally married to Hughes at the time of her death, her tombstone was marked “Sylvia Plath Hughes.” On four separate occasions up until the 1980s the gravestone was secretly defaced, the name “Hughes” obliterated by a wrathful feminist’s hammer and chisel. Vengeance for the victim who could no longer defend herself! But Plath was not merely a victim. Great artists cannot be victims, no matter how sorry they may feel for themselves in their most petulant moments. Lord Byron, who had his own bucket load of petulant moments, left every future poet in no doubt about this, and, in her own way, Sylvia Plath assumed the mantle of Byron’s “Manfred,” accepting responsibility for her own destiny and salvation… or damnation! The chilling lines of Daddy that acknowledge the so-called victim’s own responsibility read,

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you. 

Not exactly what the orthodox feminist wants to hear.

It was in 1956, while she was studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship, that Plath met the man who has become the demon in her feminist apotheosis; the “man in black with a Meinkampf look.” Three years her senior, Hughes had recently graduated from Pembroke College and was eking out a living in London as a burgeoning Bohemian poet. He also maintained his literary connections to Cambridge, hence, his presence at the party, which brought the star-crossed lovers together, set them on a whirlwind romance, and saw them married two months later. She’d only been in England for a few months, and it must have struck her immediately as a very strange place. Indeed, England in the 1950s was a very strange place, and I count myself blessed that I was born in the 50s and came of age during the next decade. The America from which Plath came was also strange, but in a different, almost contrasting way. Plath’s New England American upbringing was middle-class, squeaky clean, protective to the point of being puritanical, and optimistic, often to the point of arrogance. One of Plath’s biographers, an American woman of her own generation and social class, has commented on how she herself was appalled by the crudeness of “Eisenhower’s America,” on how disgusted she was at having to date all those “crew-cutted boys.” In her novel The Bell Jar, Plath also showed her distaste for the typical post-war American male in the figure of “Buddy Willard,” an obnoxious, swaggering, self-satisfied jerk, who like most post-war jerks had not fought in the war. What was obnoxious about England in the 1950s was rather different. It was a depressed, gloomy, and largely very dirty place, still plagued by class-consciousness and a feeling of defeat, in spite of “winning” the war. It wasn’t until the 1960s that The Beatles, from without, and then Monty Python, from within, shattered the brittle structure of the English class system and, in the process, gave us something to smile about. But the talented artists that Plath encountered when she came to England were not smiling. It was the era of John Osbourne and the “Angry Young Man,” and just about everything of true artistic worth during this period was defined by this angry, cynical posture. Ted Hughes was not an especially “angry young man,” but he was a Yorkshireman, and thus a disposition to cynicism and melancholy was in his blood. It was in the air we breathed amidst those dark Satanic mills or upon those gloomy, wuthering moors! Hughes himself once said, “Nothing in Yorkshire is pleasant. It can never escape into happiness.”

Sylvia Plath certainly believed she could escape into happiness when she married Hughes, and she must have felt something very liberating in the presence of a man quite unlike any she had met before, either amongst the clean crew cuts of puritan New England, or the toffee-nosed twits of priggish Old England. Here was a brilliant young poet with the physique of a rugby player, who spoke unashamedly in the virile, unaffected accent of his native West Yorkshire, at a time in England, moreover, when a regional accent was most definitely a social stigma. Plath must have seen in him a combination of the dignified, intellectual pride of Jane Austen’s “Mr. Darcy” and the dark, primal passion of Emily Brontë’s “Heathcliff,” perhaps with the image of Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the two roles. Hughes and Olivier shared the same bearing of a refined aristocrat with gypsy blood.

The escape into happiness came to a catastrophic end when Plath separated from Hughes, after learning he was in love with another woman. For a few months – the Ariel period – she lived alone in the Devon house they had bought together, then lived her last two months in a London apartment, the second floor section of a house once owned by W.B. Yeats. It was here that things finally fell apart, that the center could not hold, and that mere anarchy was let loosed…from the kitchen gas cooker. Plath had left her two small children asleep in a sealed room, so they would not be gassed, and she provided bread and milk for when they awoke.

Plath had attempted suicide when she was a twenty-year-old student, taking an overdose of pills and crawling under her mother’s house. Because she’d allowed time on that occasion for discovery and salvation, some have argued that her actual suicide was another cry for help, which went horribly wrong. Perhaps. However, this position undermines the brutal finality of the Ariel poems and fails to appreciate the sea-change that Plath had undergone in the ten years between failure and success as a suicide, especially during the last four years of her life, when she was living in England. Late in 1962 she recorded a poetry reading for the BBC, a selection of four Ariel poems, including the notorious Daddy. The transformation in her character was observed by one listener, who wrote “…these bitter poems were beautifully read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences …. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased.” She had adopted Blake’s maxim about the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom, but it was a dark, negative road that would lead logically to suicide. Perhaps in that final moment, before she leapt into the void, she embraced Byron’s “Manfred” and said, “It is not difficult to die!” If this is so, she has answered all her critics, including the kind-hearted Seamus Heaney: “Sympathy NOT required!”

Her death in February1963 didn’t arouse too much sympathy, because at the time not many people knew anything about this rather obscure, expatriate American poet whose publications amounted to little more than a slim, pocket paperback. Her death did not create the international shockwaves that would come from the death seven years later of another American expatriate in London. Perhaps Sylvia Plath should have postponed her suicide until after she’d met Jimi Hendrix! But for those who knew and loved her, Plath’s death was an earthquake, high on the Richter scale and with numerous aftershocks spanning three decades. The most devastating shock occurred six years on from Plath’s death when Assia Wevill, the beautiful woman for whom Ted Hughes had left his wife, killed herself in a precise reenactment of Plath’s ghastly suicide. But there was more. She and Hughes had a child. Before killing herself, Wevill gassed to death her two-year old daughter. No sealed room, no bread and milk. The ceremony of innocence was drowned! To those who already saw Hughes as Plath’s “murderer,” this new horror consigned him to the lowest circle in the pit of Hell. Yet whatever guilt may be dumped on Hughes’ soul for his handling of the breakup with Plath and the events that followed, it would be cruel to feel no compassion for the man. He must have wandered in a wilderness of such torment, that perhaps only insanity provided refuge. Holocaust imagery must have assaulted his mind on a daily basis. His attempts to stay aloof and maintain his privacy were only modestly successful, and he probably envied the aging “Heathcliff,” bitter, yes, but at least alone and untouchable in his possession of “Wuthering Heights.”

The aftershocks continued as Plath’s celebrity grew, and along with it the demand for her writing. Shortly before her death, Plath had published in Britain her “autobiographical” novel The Bell Jar. Narrated by “Esther Greenwood,” a clear extension of Plath herself, the novel tells of a bright young woman’s futile struggle to break through the glass barrier of male economic and social hegemony in “Eisenhower’s America,” in which struggle she is stifled by her own over-protective mother, who accepts with almost malevolent passivity the abominable status quo. “Esther’s” struggle ends in a successful suicide that mirrors the suicide Plath attempted as a college student. Plath knew that the presumed parallels between fact and fiction would cause her mother enormous distress, so the first British publication appeared with the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” This changed after her death, but Hughes felt confident that, with publication restricted to Britain, Aurelia Plath would be spared the pain of a prurient readership looking too closely into the parallel lives of “Esther Greenwood” and her daughter. Then in 1971 the novel appeared in the United States, where it has assumed cult status, in some way parallel to J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the quintessential American statement of young male angst.

Hughes maintained that the American publication of The Bell Jar was unavoidable, given US copyright laws concerning the foreign publication of works by deceased American citizens. There was, it seemed, a ticking clock: seven years from Plath’s death before the American publishing vultures could swoop with impunity. So, acting in what he deemed the best interests of his wife’s estate and of his distraught mother-in-law, Hughes authorized an American publication, before the vultures could gather. Mrs. Plath swallowed the bitter pill, dreading the clinical scrutiny that would inevitably follow the novel’s dissemination among her daughter’s American peers. With no living and loving daughter to reassure her, she felt the need to show the American public the “true” relationship that existed between mother and daughter. Hence Letters Home, a massive collection of letters Plath wrote to her mother, many of them revealing very intimate details about her relationship with Hughes and all, of course, suggesting an absent daughter’s unwavering devotion to a loving mother. Hughes was not happy about publishing such personal stuff, but he gave in for the sake of Mrs. Plath’s peace of mind. But to counterbalance what he saw as this one-dimensional persona of his late wife, he now felt justified in publishing her even more intimate Journals. The problem here, however, was that these Journals were subject to his editing, about which he was candid, to the point of discussing things he’d omitted and even things he’d destroyed, all done, of course, “to protect the innocent,” those at any rate not already drowned. His honesty won him no friends in those circles where he was already the devil incarnate, and contrary to his wishes, his efforts merely spawned fresh interest in the biographical details of Plath’s life.

To date there have been five biographies of Sylvia Plath, four of them shamelessly anti-Hughes in their thrust. The fifth was painfully crafted with the approval of Hughes and the Plath Literary Estate, for which association the unfortunate biographer was branded as a Quisling: an American female academic, of Plath’s own social milieu – the one “disgusted by crew cut boys” – who had now collaborated with the Nazis, with the man with the Meinkampf look! Nor did the poor woman receive much comfort from Hughes and his guard dogs at the Estate, which has seemed permanently doomed to a ham-fisted job of damage control.

Plath’s Letters Home and her Journals have been embraced with almost religious fervor by academia and by the literary world in general, especially in America. They also brought to Ted Hughes a tidy sum of money, enabling his sternest critics to see him further as the aging “Heathcliff” gathering his growing wealth at “Wuthering Heights” and hungrily awaiting the day when he would also be master of “Thrushcross Grange.” But he must have wished that neither book had been published. If only he could have sat down with Aurelia Plath as the concerned son-in-law whom she truly respected and said to her, “The Bell Jar and Ariel are both painful. But they speak with the authentic voice of Sylvia as a writer; the voice she wanted the world to hear. Let her speak to us through these alone.”

There’s a moment in Jane Austen’s Persuasion when the heroine Anne Elliot is shown a letter, written some years before. It’s an incriminating letter that erodes her favorable opinion of its author. Austen lets us know, however, what she thinks about such prying into private letters when she writes, “She [Anne] was obliged to recollect that her seeing the letter was a violation of the laws of honor, that no one ought to be judged or known by such testimonies, that no private correspondence could bear the eye of others….” Of course, Sylvia Plath’s biographers do not share Jane Austen’s sensibilities. (Actually, one does, but she was dragged through the mud.) For that matter, biographers as a breed feel they must ride roughshod over such sensibilities if they are to provide us, the reading public, with the muck we demand from biography, especially from the biography of a beautiful and highly intelligent young woman who commits suicide shortly after the collapse of her marriage. Until his death in 1998, Ted Hughes paid a high and unwilling price for the satisfaction of this demand, and it was, alas, futile for him to hope that “each of us owns the facts of his or her own life.” The best he could do came in his final year and from his own voice as a poet in Birthday Letters, the collection of highly charged poems in which he spoke openly and passionately about his love for Sylvia Plath.

Whatever the judgment of posterity on Plath’s greatness as a poet, she has become in our own age a cultural icon, especially for women, who for so long have been denied icons of intellectual stature. One critic dubbed her “the Marilyn Monroe of the literati.” The allusion has value, first because Plath herself was a very sexual woman, as revealed quite vividly in all those journal entries and letters – yes, even letters home to mum! – that should, perhaps, have remained inviolate. Secondly, for all the high-art authority of Ariel, which would seem to place her on the same shelf as Blake, Hopkins, and Yeats, Plath was fully in tune with the popular culture of her day. She was enthralled by the glamour and the tittle-tattle of Hollywood and its stars – the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Liz Taylor piquing her special curiosity – and she wrote with great relish for manifestly lowbrow popular women’s magazines. Perhaps, as she looks down from her assigned seat on Mount Olympus, she accepts with a stoical good grace the prurient muckraking to which she has been subject for the past forty years. And she would probably accept these indignities as a reasonable price to pay for immortality, for the attainment of her greatest desire: that others would “mouth her poetry.”


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