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Sylvia Plath: Epitaph for fire and flower

Michelle McGrane

"The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here …"

Sylvia Plath's "Tulips", written while she was recovering in hospital after an appendectomy, is the only poem I remember from high school, although I must have read hundreds. Some years later as I was recovering from an episode of depression, Plath's poetry was to inspire me to find self-expression through the written word. Today, with two poetry collections to my name, I continue to be fascinated by the woman, her life story and her extraordinary work.

Up until her death by her own hand in February 1963, Sylvia Plath was a distinctive, dedicated writer who produced a formidable quantity of poetry and prose. She brought a unique excitement, intensity and intimacy to her writing, combining personal experience with evocative symbolism and imagery.

As one of the definitive members of the "confessional" school of poets, Plath's innovations involved speaking the unspeakable - the taboo, the confessional, even, at times, the demonic. She wrote about the other side of ordinary life that included intimate and disturbing experiences involving female identity: suicidal self-hatred, mental breakdown, destructive love, and infidelity.

Sylvia was born on 27 October 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts to middle- class parents, Otto and Aurelia Schober Plath. Her brother Warren was born three years later. Otto Plath died in November 1940 from diabetic complications when Sylvia was nine years old. Her relationship with her father and the effect that his death had on her so early in her life has been the cause of much speculation. Some Plath biographers suggest that as a sensitive child she felt his loss keenly and began to feel less secure about her place in the big world he had left her in. Her childhood sense of abandonment was to surface throughout her adult life.

Sylvia began writing poetry as a child and her first poem was published in a Boston newspaper when she was eight and a half. She kept a record of her life, in the form of journals, from the age of eleven until her death at thirty.

Her journals and countless biographies detailing her life portray Plath as an intelligent, sensitive, model daughter, who unrelentingly strove for perfection in everything she did. She was popular at school and had an impressive academic record, earning straight As and winning the best school prizes. Contemporaries described her as an outstandingly bright and precocious girl who was determined to become recognised as a great writer.

In 1942 Sylvia moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, with her mother, brother, and maternal grandparents. She left home for college in Northampton, Massachusetts, on a scholarship in 1950, a tall, attractive young woman with expressive brown eyes and long light brown hair, which she usually wore in a bun. To onlookers she was a pleasant, pretty, imaginative girl. It appeared as if the world lay at her feet.

Sylvia was unusually disciplined for her age and appeared to succeed effortlessly at everything that she turned her hand to, belying an underlying sense of insecurity and intense unease. She suffered a breakdown at the end of her junior year of college. The breakdown was preceded by her first suicide attempt in August 1953, when she took such a quantity of sleeping tablets that she lost consciousness and was discovered only two days later. She described her experience of this time as, "A time of darkness, despair, disillusion - so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be - symbolic death, and numb shock, then the slow rebirth and psychic regeneration …"

Sylvia went on to attend Newnham College at Cambridge University in 1955, where she studied English on a Fulbright scholarship and met her future husband, the strikingly good-looking and compelling British poet, Ted Hughes. Both Plath and Hughes were rebellious, isolated, and gifted - by all accounts there was an instant mutual attraction. In her journal, Sylvia describes her first meeting and subsequent kiss with Ted at a party at St. Botolph's, Cambridge, as being passionate and brutal. "(He) kissed me bang smash on the mouth … and when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face."

Plath and Hughes were married in 1956. After Sylvia graduated from Cambridge, they went to America, where she taught English at Smith for a year. She sat in on classes at Boston University given by "confessional" poet Robert Lowell, and later was to credit Lowell and fellow poet, Anne Sexton, for their breakthrough into the personal in poetry. She cited them as influences on her work. It was during this time that she began to write the earliest poems included in her poetry collection The Colossus.

In 1959 the Hugheses returned to England for good, settling first in London and then in a peaked thatched country house in a village in Devon. The house, Court Green, was set in an orchard of apple trees and Sylvia threw herself into country life with verve, taking up bee-keeping, gardening, and horse-riding.

1960 was a landmark year for Sylvia. Her first child, Frieda, was born and her first book, The Colossus, was published. Two years later, in January 1962, under less harmonious conditions, Sylvia gave birth to her son, Nicholas. She begins her poem "Elm", written in April 1962, with the line, "I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root …"

Later that year, the marriage broke down. Sylvia and Ted separated six years after they were married. As a woman dedicated to her art, Plath had struggled to balance her overwhelming roles as mother and supportive wife to up-and-coming Ted, with her burning desire and determination to become a recognised literary voice and talent in her own right. The knowledge that becoming successful would be difficult because she was a woman writer angered Plath. She believed in her poetry and was determined to succeed despite the odds against her.

"Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through" is the last line from one of Plath's most famous poems, "Daddy", written in October 1962. Her biographers make much of the fact that both her writing and her life were strongly influenced by two dominant male figures in her life - her father and her husband.

Her poem "Pursuit", written in 1956, is believed to be about her relationship with Ted Hughes and begins with the lines, "There is a panther stalks me down:/ One day I'll have my death of him …". Another poem written in May 1962 entitled "The Rabbit Catcher" ends with the lines, "And we, too, had a relationship -/ Tight wires between us,/ Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring/ Sliding shut on some quick thing,/ The constriction killing me also."

The controversy still rages around the Hugheses' marital breakdown, Ted's much-publicised extramarital affair with the beautiful Assia Wevill, and the effect that it had on Sylvia and her work. However, his collection of poems published in 1998, Birthday Letters, demonstrates the depth of his love for Sylvia and his guilt about her death. The volume contains eighty-eight poems written after Sylvia's death and has become one of Hughes's most famous and best-loved books. A few lines from Hughes's version of "The Rabbit Catcher", included in Birthday Letters, perhaps sums up a little of what he experienced: "You were weeping with rage/ That cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked/ Into some chamber gasping for oxygen/ Where I could not find you, or really hear you./ Let alone understand you."

Despite the possibility that artistically the marriage between Plath and Hughes was the best thing to happen to both of them, they both paid dearly for having met.

In December 1962 Sylvia moved herself and her children to London. She was intent on making a new life for the young family. While living in London with Frieda and Nicholas, she worked for the BBC and continued to write poetry and her only published novel, The Bell Jar. Published in 1963, The Bell Jar is an unflinchingly honest and haunting account of a young America woman's breakdown and treatment based on Plath's personal experience as a depressive. The book was to break down existing boundaries between fiction and reality. Ironically, The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas a few weeks before Plath's suicide.

The winter of 1963 was the coldest that London had experienced for more than a century. Freezing pipes and the heat and light going off at unannounced intervals exacerbated the situation. Sylvia suffered repeated attacks of 'flu and developed a sinus infection that, combined with her fragile mental condition and the full responsibility for the children, would bring her to her knees. Despite the care of a doctor and prescribed sedatives, she was unable to cope. In the early morning of 11 February 1963, Sylvia Plath killed herself with cooking gas, just as she was beginning to achieve recognition as a writer. She was thirty years old.

"Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well." These lines from Plath's poem "Lady Lazarus", written in October 1962, had proved to be eerily prophetic. A dark undercurrent of depression, suicide and death weave a haunting pattern throughout Plath's work and life, yet, paradoxically, in both her letters and her journals she often exhibited a great and authentic capacity for joy and love of life. As writer A Alverez said shortly after Plath's death in a published epitaph, "The loss to literature is inestimable."

Sylvia wrote the following lines in a 1958 journal entry: "My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time." Posthumous collections of her poetry - Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1971) - are recognised for their tremendous, forceful emotional power and technical brilliance. Her volume of Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, was published in 1981 and awarded the much sought-after Pulitzer Prize for poetry, which is rarely given posthumously. Translated and published in many countries, The Bell Jar sold even more widely than Plath's poetry.

After Sylvia's death, Ted continued his relationship with Assia, who was also to take her own life together with the life of her daughter by Hughes, Shura. Hughes went on to marry his second wife, Carol, and was later in his life awarded the distinction of Poet Laureate. In 1998 he died of cancer at the age of 68, some months after Birthday Letters came out.

Sylvia's work and life remain a source of extensive interest to a large following of writers and poetry lovers. She has been the subject of poems, biographies, and critical literary studies. Anne Sexton wrote Sylvia's Death and Wanting to Die after her friend's suicide, whilst feminist Erica Jong wrote a poem entitled "In Sylvia Plath Country". Biographer Diane Middlebrook has recently written a book based on the Plath/Hughes marriage entitled Her Husband, which has been greeted with mixed reviews. Forty-one years after Plath's death, her work continues to attract readers, and her life and death continue to be the topic of obsessive curiosity and public scrutiny.

Sylvia Plath was more than a poet, more than a wife, a mother, a depressive, a suicide. She was anything but ordinary. She may be viewed as an enduring feminist icon, or a tragic literary figure, but her permanent place in literature is secure and her reputation remains as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. The inscription on her gravestone in Yorkshire sums her life up poignantly for me: "Even amidst fierce flames/ The golden lotus can be planted."

Books by Sylvia Plath

The Colossus
Crossing the Water
Winter Trees
Selected Poems
(edited by Ted Hughes)
Collected Poems (edited by Ted Hughes)

The Bell Jar
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams

and other prose writings

For Children
The Bed Book (illustrated by Quentin Blake)
The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit

Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (edited by Aurelia Schober Plath)

  • Read Michelle McGrane's review of Sylvia: the Movie
  • Sylvia opened at Cinema Nouveau theatres on 13 August 2004. If you've seen it, let us know what you think!
  • Read poetry by Michelle McGrane

    LitNet: 19 August 2004

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