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A world of pure pain: Sylvia Plath, photographed in 1961 (©Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)



He first departed; she for a little tried,
To live without him, liked it not, and died.


Sylvia Plath belongs with the tragic poets who died young: Marlowe murdered, Chatterton a suicide, Keats tubercular, Shelley drowned, Rimbaud a victim of bone cancer, Byron and Brooke from fever, Rosenberg and Owen killed in war. Her poetry and confessional novel The Bell Jar, her journals, two massive volumes of letters and numerous biographies reveal how the desertion of the equally charismatic poet Ted Hughes drove her to suicide. She had two small children, but could not bear to live long enough to see them grow up, and her death subjected them to lifelong trauma. Her daughter, Frieda, had shrieking tantrums when Hughes left, and her son Nicholas  killed himself in Alaska in 2009.

In “Daddy” Plath identified with Jews gassed in extermination camps. Like another suicide, Mark Rothko, her vivid portrayal of emotional states pulls us into a dark, choking, grave-like world of pure pain. If people had rescued her after she had put her head into the gas oven — and they almost did — she would have had, as with her previous suicide attempts, another harvest of poetic material and validation of her agony.

Most of Plath’s work, like Katherine Mansfield’s, was published posthumously, and more has been written about Plath than any other modern poet. Her reputation remains high, and there has even been a movie about her, Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

The second volume of Plath’s Letters begins with great happiness and poetic promise, and ends with the destruction of her marriage and her death. As Wordsworth wrote in “Resolution and Independence”, “But as it sometimes chanceth, from the might / Of joy in minds that can no further go, / As high as we have mounted in delight / In our dejection do we sink as low”.

In this volume she helps launch Hughes’s career with The Hawk in the Rain (1957), publishes her own first book of poetry The Colossus (1961) and, under a pseudonym, The Bell Jar (1963). Plath and Hughes had a stimulating residence at Yaddo; moved from Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had been teaching at Smith College, to London and then to Devon. When her marriage ended she flirted with the poet Richard Murphy and the critic Al Alvarez. These letters show Plath’s morbid obsessions, the genesis of major poems, and the jealousy of Hughes’s possessive older sister Olwyn, an egomaniac and bully who fanned the flames by calling Plath “a nasty selfish bitch”. The letters complement the biographies by Edward Butscher, Ronald Hayman, Anne Stevenson, Linda Wagner-Martin, Janet Malcolm, Paul Alexander, Diane Middlebrook, Andrew Wilson and Carl Rollyson, as well as many memoirs and the excellent life of Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. With thousands of minute and vivid details the two volumes present the fullest picture of Plath’s life.
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