Laying Blame: The Legacy of Sylvia Plath
Two years ago at Bennington College, I taught a course on the work of Sylvia Plath. I created the course in response to student requests and also because I had been thinking about Plath and talking about her with other poets and readers for years. In almost every conversation, the matter of her suicide was inevitably mentioned. I first read her poems while in college. Like many of my students, I was swept up in their drama and entranced by the persona speaking in registers I did not associate with the more measured, reasonable poems to which I had—up until that point—been drawn. In developing my class, I posed a question: Was it possible—even for a short time—to read and study her poems independent of her life story? How was it that we had come to see her creative work as a sort of extended suicide note, rather than as the work of an emerging poet whose career and output had been cut short by a tragic, early death?
I came into the classroom the first day of the term and found twenty-two young women sitting around a conference table. In front of them were the required books for the course. Some of them had their notebooks already open, pens ready. I remember pausing for a beat before saying, “Good afternoon, ladies,” which got a laugh. It was as though I had found myself at the Bennington College of fifty years earlier—before the men began to arrive. We all understood something about this class: Plath was speaking to a new generation, and mostly she was speaking to women.
The course I created was called The Problem of Sylvia Plath, a title that referred to an essay by my colleague April Bernard called “My Plath Problem,” which had appeared in Parnassus: Poetry in Review in November 1993. Her smart and engaging piece was a review of the biographies Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, by Anne Stevenson, and Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath,by Paul Alexander. In it, she summarized the two differing portraits of the poet’s short and sometimes dramatic life, each of which had been told to support a particular claim on her legacy.
It has been fifty years since Plath’s death, and this anniversary has brought with it the publication of two new biographies. Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, by Andrew Wilson, and American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath,by Carl Rollyson, both rehash the details of Plath’s life in an attempt, it would seem, to cast light on possible reasons for the poet’s suicide. Terry Castle, writing in the July 11, 2013, issue of the New York Review of Books, expresses dismay at this form of literary “ambulance chasing” but, in the end, uses her review as opportunity to judge Plath’s life and, further, dismiss her work. Castle takes her critique into new territory, suggesting that Plath is also to blame for the suicide of her only son, when she writers, “Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last.” (Nicholas Hughes, the adult son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, took his own life in 2009. He was a biologist living in Alaska and had been suffering from depression.) Castle’s distaste for Plath’s poems seems to find its source in the life Plath lived as much as in the work itself, which Castle describes as “making a sensation still (sometimes) among bulimic female undergraduates.” In reviewing these two recent biographies, she levies prim judgment of Plath’s sexual encounters and refers to her as a “Smith-girl nympho.” Clearly anticipating readers’ objection to this outdated and shaming term, Castle adds, “Sorry, fem-crits, but the 1950s pulp-fiction term seems oddly appropriate.”
What are we to make of criticism like this by Terry Castle and others who examine and judge the poet for, among other things, having been sexually active as a young woman? And why are we asked to consider what sort of mother she might have been (the worst sort, according to Castle, as she insinuates Plath had the ability to psychically poison and kill her son almost fifty years after her own death). Castle fails to acknowledge Plath’s long battle with mental illness, which led to bouts of depression, mania, and her eventual suicide. Instead, Castle refers to Plath as “crazy” and finds little compassion for a young mother who was often ill and who produced some of the most influential poems of the mid-twentieth century. Plath accomplished this despite her mental illness, not because of it, and managed to remain a working writer and poet during a time when the treatment for mental illness was inexact at best and sometimes downright primitive. Certainly Castle knows that women writers have long been judged for what they did with their bodies, for how they expressed their sexuality, for how they related to their families, and for their relative states of mental health rather than on the merits of their work. What sort of a father was John Berryman or Robert Lowell? Should their work be judged more harshly because their children may live or have lived unhappy lives? Do people have ready opinions about the sort of father Ted Hughes might have been? I suspect they don’t.
As Castle points out in her review, both recent biographies speculate about what might have happened had Plath never met Hughes, had the downstairs neighbor arrived earlier and interrupted Plath’s suicide attempt, etc. She is rightly dismissive of this pointless musing. The far more interesting speculation has not to do with the life of the poet but with the poems themselves. How would we read and think about the work had Ariel, Plath’s second and posthumously published collection of poems, been brought out in the form Plath herself had intended rather than in the version her estranged husband Hughes edited and rearranged after her death? In this first version of the book, Hughes added newer poems and an introduction by Robert Lowell, which ends, “I sensed her abashment and distinction, and never guessed her later appalling and triumphant fulfillment.” Suicide here becomes “fulfillment,” the final artistic act of a self-destructive young woman whose death seemed fated by the “fixed stars” in Plath’s haunting poem “Words,” the final poem in the 1961 edition.
This ghostly poem is pared down to grim essence. The heavy enjambment jolts the reader through the jagged landscape Plath created in which words, like weeds, are encountered years later. The poem seems almost to be written posthumously, the speaker similar to some in Dickinson’s poems who recount their own deaths and speak from the grave, startled to find themselves no longer among the living.
That Hughes reworked the manuscript, changing the general trajectory of the book, remains controversial among many readers, as the two versions of the same book have distinctly different shapes and create different narrative arcs. In 2004, Frieda Hughes, the poet’s surviving daughter, oversaw the publication of Plath’s original version of her second volume of poems. Called Ariel: The Restored Edition, this book is an attempt to reconcile with the past and bring to light the poet’s own vision for her work. Frieda Hughes’s introduction to the collection is a careful dance of mixed loyalties. She quotes her father as saying, “I simply wanted to make it the best book I could,” though, of course, by seeing this book into the world, Frieda Hughes clearly believed her mother’s version deserved to be read intact.
In Plath’s original version of Ariel, the book concludes with the series of poems often referred to as “the bee poems.” In these, Plath writes about her experiences as a beekeeper, which she began doing as a hobby while living in the Devon farmhouse she and Hughes shared. These poems enter a new tonal register, following such ferocious and annihilating poems as “Lady Lazarus,” “Medusa,” “The Rabbit Catcher,” and “Daddy.” This edition’s final poem, “Wintering,” is calm, the images less associative. The speaker in “Wintering” offers a narrative progression that is meditative and cleaves more authentically to a self that is not rarified by myth but grounded in the mundane:
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women—
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
While hardly triumphant, this poem is about survival. The winter is long—a season to endure—but the flowers and insects are beginning to stir. The questions in the poem suggest that this reawakening is not guaranteed, but the signs are there. Spring will come again.
In Plath’s original version of Ariel, we see the creation of a persona that is at once ferocious, accusatory, and self-negating. The speakers in the poems (they are, of course, multiple) are capable of rendering both stark beauty and also of tossing out ugly racial and ethnic slurs. The voices are sometimes humorous and sly, often utterly unlikeable. Of course, the larger persona of the Ariel poet is an artistic creation, a part of the self and nothing like the self at all. When Ted Hughes altered Plath’s original manuscript, that persona was eroded, and a new figure began to take its place. That figure is not Plath the young poet, a person with an aesthetic and artistic vision that found form in poems, but Plath the suicidal destroyer. Frieda Hughes attempted to go back in time to restore and repair, but like similar efforts by characters in Shakespeare’s late romances, that restoration, though enacted, cannot recover all that has been undone.
It is, these fifty years later, nearly impossible to extract Plath’s poems and fiction from the life she lived, nor can we blot out what we have gleaned from the biographies that have mushroomed up from her grave. Reading and understanding poems is more difficult and requires a greater investment of time and intellectual generosity than does the consumption of a salacious biography. In the class I taught on Plath, my stated goal was to see if we could hold the work at some distance from the biography and see what the poems were made of. I think we succeeded, through care and attention, if only for a short while.
Suicide is confusing. The act creates a void and stops time. When a friend, a family member, a colleague, or an acquaintance takes his or her own life, we search for a reason. Was it a way of punishing others? Had their heart been broken? Were they crippled by some devastating shame? While such guessing is natural, and while any number of situations may contribute to a person’s depression and unhappiness, sometimes when people are mentally ill and suicidal, they take their own lives. The cause of suicide is mental illness.
On this anniversary of Plath’s death, it bears remembering that she was a young woman with talent and aspirations who worked hard to write poems that would move, alarm, please, and disturb people. In this, she succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining. She was a mother and a wife and a friend. She struggled with mental illness, and that illness caused her to suffer. Her death hurt people who loved her. She wrote important poems and those remain alive.