Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath #

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, 27^(th) October, 1932 to Otto, a Polish migrant and Aurelia Plath, of Austrian heritage. Both parents were academics, her father a biologist specialising in bees, was domineering, authoritarian and anti-social, dying of diabetes when she was eight. His early death traumatised her as she worshipped him. She prayed to God to save his life but when her mother told her he had died, she pulled the blankets over her head and swore never to talk to God again.

At ten she made her attempt at suicide - taking sleeping tablests. After days in a coma, under the stairs, her brother discovers her. She expresses her anger at being “dragged back to life”,

Even though her mother worked two jobs to support her and her brother Warren, Plath’s personal letters display an affectionate loving relationship, yet her journals reveal her hatred for her mother whom she blamed for her father’s death -

“She never loved Otto. She killed him. She is deadly like a cobra, What a luxury it would be to kill her; to strangle her skinny veined throat.”

Despite spending months in a psychiatric hospital after a second suicide attempt, Plath graduated summa cum laude, was accepted to graduate programs at Columbia, Oxford and Radcliffe and awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Cambridge where she performed outstandingly.

Though Plath was a good student, (winning scholarships to Smith’s College and Cambridge) she was a perfectionist and early already displayed signs of a fragile psyche; schizophrenia or some form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, perhaps from the early death of her father. When she failed to gain admission to a vacation course at Harvard University, she attempted to commit suicide with sleeping tablets. Displaying classic symptoms of Inadequacy she writes to friends,

I am no good academically, I am a bluffer, I wrote a thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses without having read it.

Experiences at Mademoiselle magazine and later in Cambridge further damaged her self esteem.
(Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol. I 1940 - 56. edited by Karen Kukil and Peter K. Steinberg, reviewed by John Carey - The Australian review, October 28-29, 2017.

Plath’s early relationships with boys and men allows readers in a very different era to understand the regime of repression and hypocrisy under which she suffered. Plath had a strong sexual appetite that she felt bound to deny and hide in the name of feminine virtue, respectability, thus of course, hypocrisy, even as she went out on countless dates with aggressive, sometimes assaultive men.

Every woman adores a Fascist”.

In the barbecue of life, women can can choose between CHOPs and SNAGs. They generally go home with the CHOPs and when it doesn’t work out, cry on the shoulders of SNAGs.*

Heather Clark claims that Plath held strong convictions on women’s response to partriarchial indomitablility.

“Neutrality, boredom become worse sins than illicit love affairs”, She informed her students in 1958.

“Be right or wrong, don’t be indifferent, don’t be NOTHING.”

The destroying angel that Plath became in her late work — “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air” — was her final triumph over these intolerable contradictions. Wilson reminds us why feminism is the indispensable context for understanding Plath’s work and reception. Adam Kirsch The New Republic

Sylvia graduated with honours and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, England. This is where she met Ted Hughes, an English Poet. Before they met, she had read and memorised some of his poems.

War of Words #

Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes at a party. She wore red shoes and her blonde hair was held back neatly by a red ribboned band. The giant of a young man, with seducer’s eyes and a humorous mouth, came over to her through the crowd and looked her hard in the eyes. He kissed her smash-bang on the mouth and when he bent to kiss her neck, she bit him on the cheek, drawing blood. With the blood weeping down his cheek, he swept the red band from her head and, pulling off her silver earrings, said: “Hah, I shall keep!”

She screamed inside, thinking:

“Oh, to give myself crashing, fighting to you.”

This was the meeting point of two the century’s greatest poets — a meeting described in the posthumously published journals and letters of Sylvia Plath. It’s also, of course, just one of the ways that meeting could be described.

She should have listened to Virginai Woolf:

“For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet.”

Ted Hughes, for one, claims Plath’s somewhat ecstatic version of their first meeting was ridiculously exaggerated.

“It owes more to the drama of the Plathian interior”, than to reality”.

Plath’s letters indicate that her preferred lover was another undergraduate, Richard Sassoon. She wrote to him a week after meeting Hughes,

“I now know how deeply, fearfully and totally I love you”.

When Sassoon failed to reciprocate, she married Ted Hughes who she claims “will make me a woman poet like the world will gape at”.

The Hugheses were married only four months after their tumultuous meeting. To all accounts they were deeply in love and committed to their marriage and their writing. Each sustained the other in an effort to write: each pursued a poetry that struck deep into what Ted Hughes called “the real self”, the one buried way beyond the rational, social self.

Heather Clark also claims theirs was a mariage not based on love, but lust fuelled by violent literary admiration - famously Plath bit his cheek, bloody scratches, slaps, sprained thumbs and shattered crockery were par for the course in their relationship.

But despite their obvious love and passion for each other, the marriage was to founder seven years and two children later, depending on which biography you read — that is, whether you are for Hughes or against — the reasons take two forms.

The first is that Sylvia, who was psychologically fragile, was extremely demanding and difficult to live with as a partner. ‘Sweet, loving Ted” bore most of the dreadfulness, with tenderness and forbearance but, with one terrible bout of petulance after another, climaxing in an episode in which Sylvia burnt all his work-in-progress and his precious volume of Shakespeare in a jealous tantrum, Ted had had enough. He began to look beyond his marriage for comfort.

The second is that Sylvia was forever frustrated in her need to write by the demands of her marriage and motherhood. Like all women of her time, she was wife and mother first, writer second. This was a war that went on within her, just as much as it was an external one.

In entries that cast her more as a 1950s homemaker than the feminist icon she became, she wrote:

“Make him happy: cook, play, read … never accuse or nag — let him run, reap, rip and glory in the temporary sun of his ruthless force.”

It was she who typed out Ted manuscripts and submitted them for publication and it was she who made it possible for him to write all day while she, as the woman in the partnership, had to snatch time when she could for her own talent.

The frustration led to deeper insecurity; psychologically fragile, Sylvia floundered; Ted betrayed her just when she needed him most; the marriage collapsed. She committed suicide in 1963.

The myth of Sylvia Plath bloomed quickly and sickly after her death. She was taken up immediately by what Olwyn Hughes (Ted’s sister) called “the libbers” as a feminist martyr, the housewife genius sacrificed on the altar of marriage, betrayed by a husband’s egocentrism and adultery.

She was the suicidal depressive, who flirted dangerously with the game of death, who had “tried it” three times, and had at last succeeded, leaving behind her a brilliant but sick poetics of death and annihilation.

Others saw her as a feminist hero, who had the courage to be unpleasant when women were supposed to be “nice”. She said it like it was, she who wanted “to live with no attachments, like a foetus in a bottle”, whose family’s “smiles catch on to my skin, little smiling hooks”. Here was a female voice speaking a female truth, shattering the “masculine” myth of devoted motherhood.

Her openess created poetry of a near-total exposure of private life.

And to others she was simply a great poet, who had committed the ultimate, romantic act of the great Poet. In the early hours of the morning of February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath walked into her kitchen, knelt in front of her gas stove, laid her head on a square of folded cloth on the oven door, and gassed herself.

Her two children, Frieda, 2, and Nicolus,13 months in their cots upstairs, each with a glass of milk and saucer of bread placed neatly beside them. They were found alive and unharmed some four hours later. There is some evidence she hoped to have been discovered before it was too late.

Just one year earlier, she had discovered that Ted was having an affair with another woman. The couple separated, with Plath moving from their Devon home to London with the two children, and Hushes travelling with his lover, Assisa Wevill, in Spain.

Plath, installed in a maisonette in London, had to endure one of the coldest winters ever experienced in Britain. With the children ill with flu and herself slowly succumbing to a debilitating depression and often unable to sleep, she would rise at 5 am to write.

In these circumstances, she feverishly turned out some of the most frightening poetry the English language has produced. These poems, published by Hughes after her death under the collective title of Ariel were to lift her into the English literary pantheon — and into martyrdom.

At this stage, Plath is in her prime, too. In this prime, she is forever young, intemperate, demanding, her legend as strong as ever. It sits there, with its power to haunt and hurt, as dangerous as ever.

You knocked the world off like a flower vase. It was the third time. And it smashed. (Hughes to Plath, after her death).

Jacqueline Rose, in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath argues that:

the psychological needs of critics, editors and literary executors often take a menacing, distorting role in producing the literary identity - a textual entity. ..There are limits to our knowledge…there is no direct access to the writer…except for the text.. we do not know Plath or Hughes except what they give us in their writing.

With due respect that is a narrow view of research. Most critics today unashamedly dig deeper into biography and motivation in personal correspondence and even psychiatric reports.

Robert Frost claimed that

being a poet is not a profession; it is a condition”.

Studies indicate that creative artists frequently have troubled childhoods

  • “artists can be gifted or happy; but not both”.

Plath’s diaries also show that their complicated seven-year relationship was frequently happy. She wrote often about her joy in finding “the big, blasting, dangerous love”.

In entries censored by Plath’s mother, Sylvia wrote brutally about her hatred for her mother, to whom she felt inescapably attached but whom she blamed for her father’s death. From The Guardian – London England

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