Fifty years ago, on February 11th, 1963, at her flat in Primrose Hill, London, during one of the worst winters on record, American poet and author, Sylvia Plath, killed herself. Inhaling gas from her domestic oven, she ended the life of an extraordinary poet, bringing peace to her fractured mind. But in so doing created a legend – sadly leaving behind her two young children, Frieda and Nicholas. Her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, had left her the previous year for another woman, Assia Wevill.
Born on October 27th, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, Plath’s short life was plagued by doubt and personal demons, the disquiet growing with each passing year. Her father, Otto, a strict authoritarian, died when she was just eight years old. His rigorous attitude and death had a profound effect on his young daughter. The ‘man in black’ haunted her life and coloured her relationships, stalking her poetry with heartache and menace. The stark and plaintive Daddy being the most infamous example, which ends;
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
A keen writer from an early age – she began keeping a journal from the age of eleven – and an excellent student, she won many prizes for her writing and poetry. However, she suffered regular bouts of debilitating depression, attempting suicide as a result of one such episode in 1953. Despite this she graduated from college and, having earned a Fulbright scholarship, moved to Cambridge, England. In early 1956, while at Cambridge, she met Ted Hughes and was completely besotted with him. Following an intense courtship the pair married later the same year.
In 1957, the couple moved to the United States to teach. During this time Plath was almost certainly influenced by the writing of confessional poet, Robert Lowell. Confessional poetry deals with subject matter that is deeply personal to the author. Subjects such as depression and relationships, sex and death, the likes of which had never been treated in this way before. Often autobiographical, confessional poetry exposes the mind and soul of the poet. As a result it can be raw and revealing. In the hands of less gifted, less hard-working writers it can also be self-indulgent and pitiful. But in the hands of artisans such as Lowell, Plath and Anne Sexton (also influenced by Lowell) it is powerful, brutal and revelatory.
After two years the couple returned to England and Plath’s first collection of poetry, The Colossus, was published in 1960. It was to be the only collection published during her lifetime. She gave birth to two children by Hughes, Frieda in 1960, and Nicholas in 1962. As a vocational poet she continued to write prolifically, though the heavy, dark cloud of her illness was never far away.
A semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath insisted on this as she didn’t want her mother, Aurelia, and other thinly disguised characters within its pages, to know she was the author. Writing this extraordinary novel was like holding up a mirror to her own tormented life. It was this book, along with her posthumously published collection of poems, Ariel, that were to cement her reputation as one of the most original, eloquent voices of 20th century poetry. There is a passage in The Bell Jar which sums up Plath’s life as well as any other:
I knew I should be grateful to Mrs Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world-cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
Reading through the poems in Ariel again, I am still struck by the veracious beauty and imagery of the writing. Writing which celebrates the use of bold language, with courage and great skill. Difficult to digest at times – death being seen as a means of escape, for example – there is light within the darkness, impressions of tulips and children, bees and clean, fresh air. Here is The Arrival of the Bee Box from Ariel:
I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables,
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.
It is all but impossible to separate Plath’s life and death from her poetry and prose – so much having been written about both. But her writing does not suffer unduly from critical examination. It was/is quite exceptional, from a remarkable, though chronically disturbed, young woman. As for the bitter argument which runs that if you are ‘for Plath’ then you are – necessarily – ‘against Hughes’, it smacks of little more than childish name-calling. And intelligent, educated people should know better. Of course, their lives will be forever inextricably linked given their history, even after Plath’s death, with Hughes editing collections of her poetry. But, as poets – albeit very different poets – both had the touch of genius in their work, which guarantees its longevity.
The life and tragic death of Sylvia Plath serve as testament to the creative spirit, even in one so afflicted. Her legacy is that not only was she one of the most important and original voices in women’s poetry, but one of the most important and original voices in the entire canon of 20th century poetry.
The title of this piece is taken from Lady Lazarus, a poem from the collection Ariel. There was not much art in the death of Sylvia Plath, but there was a great deal of it in her work.