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Lady Lazarus

Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath—Bryn Mawr class of 1909, Vassar class of 1934, Smith class of 1955—educated women of three generations who achieved preeminence as poets. That sounds like a circumlocution. It is a circumlocution, but I feel I would betray the spirit of Moore and Bishop by calling them women poets. Moore was a feminist, a suffragette, a Woman Who Did.1 Although it appears that marriage was never one of her ambitions, as it happened she made the sacrifice or renunciation common among the women of her time who had a vocation. She was drawn to the avant-garde, to modernism in the making, and if her creations are strikingly impersonal (so that even a poem purportedly about her father turns out to be a fiction), that impersonality is not untypical of modernism. Utterly original, she was at once recognizable as a fellow spirit and equal among the likes of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams.

With Bishop we encounter an emancipated woman for whom men were only intermittently “in the picture.” In her youth she formed friendships with strikingly intelligent non-marrying women and their mothers: Margaret Miller and her mother, Louise Crane and hers, Marianne Moore and hers. She had modest independent means, and therefore was not subject to either of the conflicts between marriage and writing or between writing and a career—her desperate conflicts lay elsewhere. Plath, when she came to read Bishop, did so with great admiration: her “fine originality, always surprising, never rigid, flowing, juicier than Marianne Moore, who is her godmother….”2 Godmother is a good term for that relationship. But who would Bishop’s peers have been? They would have been anyone of her generation, regardless of gender. Robert Lowell was the poet she measured herself against, whose triumphs sometimes inspired in her a sort of generous envy and sorrow.

With Plath we encounter a character entirely different, a “poetess” who sees herself as the latest in a line of poetesses, and who sees her rivals in art as women. It is hard to imagine Moore or Bishop writing anything remotely like this:

Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America (as Ted will be The Poet of England and her dominions). Who rivals? Well, in history Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay—all dead. Now: Edith Sitwell and Marianne Moore, the aging giantesses, and poetic godmother Phyllis McGinley is out—light verse: she’s sold herself. Rather: May Swenson, Isabella Gardner, and most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich—who will soon be eclipsed by these eight poems: I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift, wanting only to train and teach it—I’ll count the magazines and the money I break open by these eight poems from now on. We’ll see…3

She was in her mid-twenties when she wrote this, and the eight poems which she had just completed were nowhere near her best, or her most celebrated, work. But as her reputation grew she retained the self-description: on October 12, 1962, the same day she composed “Daddy,” she wrote in a letter to her mother:

I miss brains, hate this cow life, am dying to surround myself with intelligent, good people. I am a famous poetess here—mentioned this week in The Listener as one of the half-dozen women who will last—including Marianne Moore and the Brontës!

Later the same month, in a letter to her brother and his wife:

…The critic of the Observer is giving me an afternoon at his home to hear me read all my new poems! He is the opinion-maker in poetry over here, A. Alvarez, and says I’m the first woman poet he’s taken seriously since Emily Dickinson! Needless to say, I’m delighted. 4

Less than four months later Alvarez wrote her epitaph in the Observer, beginning: “Last Monday, Sylvia Plath, the American poetess and wife of Ted Hughes, died suddenly in London.” Alvarez thought of Plath, he says, “as the most gifted woman poet of her time.”

It was a heartfelt tribute, and not an inappropriate one. If he had said such a thing about Bishop, it would have ruined her day, but he had told Plath as much to her face, and it made hers. Neither Moore nor Bishop seems to have traced her ancestry back through a line of women poets. Bishop only began taking an interest in Dickinson in the 1950s, when Thomas H. Johnson’s edition appeared, and even then, after she had decided that Dickinson was “about the best we have,” she could add, in a letter to Lowell, “she does set one’s teeth on edge a lot of the time, don’t you think?”5 Moore admired Dickinson but was never remotely influenced by her. Moore’s early influence, which she had to escape, was Swinburne. Ezra Pound had shared the same early infatuation.

Plath’s ambition to be a poetess, seen from one angle, looks of a piece with the general conventionality of her upbringing and early attitudes. In contrast to Bryn Mawr, where feminism was part of the fabric, Smith was presided over by men, and aimed to produce the kind of woman who would be a credit to her husband.

At Smith one used one’s education as a training for typing up one’s husband’s Ph.D. thesis—that was the standard fate of the alumnae. There is nothing odd about the obsession with marriage revealed by Plath’s college journals. That was in line with the prevailing ideology of the institution, and was the theme of Adlai Stevenson’s commencement address at Plath’s graduation in 1955. The highest vocation of women, this divorcé said, was to achieve a creative marriage, to be, as Nancy Hunter Steiner remembered it:

thoughtful, discriminating wives and mothers who would use what we had learned in government and history and sociology courses to influence our husbands and children in the direction of rationality. Men, he claimed, are under tremendous pressure to adopt the narrow view: we would help them resist it and we would raise children who were reasonable, independent, and courageous.6

Clearly not everyone in the class of ‘55 was of the same opinion. Here is Polly Longsworth:

I think we were in a condition of mind where we could hear Stevenson’s message—we’d been brought up on it—but not believe it. Smith had told us differently for four years. It was only later, when his words began to prove true, that most of us got mad.7

But Nancy Hunter Steiner remembers that

The speech was eloquent and impressive and we loved it even if it seemed to hurl us back to the satellite role we had escaped for four years—second-class citizens in a man’s world where our only possible achievement was a vicarious one.8

A part of the surprise with Plath is to move backward from an initial reading of Ariel to the discovery of this markedly conventional background. With Bishop, you feel that everything is of a piece—the poet at college was remembered for having done interesting, faintly rebellious things, like discovering that although cars were restricted there was no rule against going for rides in a horse and buggy, or like keeping a jar of Roquefort beside her bed and dosing herself with cheese last thing at night in order to render her dreams more vivid. With Plath one discovers that, when there was a rebellion at Smith against the campus warm-weather uniform of Bermuda shorts, button-down collars, and loafers, and some girls pioneered a look that consisted of bare feet and tattered jeans, not only was Plath on the side of the Bermuda shorts—she tried to bring the rebels before the Honor Board “for infringement of rules.” With Plath people seem to have remembered details such as the matching white and gold luggage with which she arrived at Cambridge; and for some reason what sticks in my mind is the “lovely pink knitted suit dress” which her mother brought along for her daughter’s wedding, “intuitively never having worn” and which Plath decided would do very well for her.

I know that we are told that both the letters to her mother and the journals are edited in different ways by interested parties to bring out certain characteristics at the expense of others. But no amount of editing can have been responsible for this striking dividedness—Plath’s conventional attitudes and shallow ambitions on the one hand, and the other self with its burning, mysterious purpose. When Plath talks of herself as a woman poet, as a poetess, this may seem un-hip even for its day. But it is possible to look at that un-hip self-definition, and see it as a source of her success.

To return to the point made at the start of this series, that something had held women back when it came to the writing of poetry, and that the problem might well have had something to do with the antiquity and prestige of the art: it might easily be that, like it or not, there was something masculine in the archetype of poet, with which it was difficult for a woman to come to terms. Dickinson found another archetype: she became a sibyl, and the price she paid for that was that she lived in a bottle. Moore armed herself as a rebel, and she found, as so many women have done, that eccentricity can be a good friend for a while, although in the end it exacts its price. The eccentric, in the end, invites you not to take her too seriously.

We can never tell whether Moore, a personality apparently perfectly protected, a connoisseur of every sort of armor, achieved what she did only at the cost of the suppression of what might be taken as womanly. We know that Bishop was extremely cautious with the deployment of her private life and tenderest emotions in her poetry. Bishop wrote some love lyrics, most notably that beautiful “The Shampoo” (which went round the magazines for two years before finding a publisher). One could guess, though, that she would have liked to develop more in this direction.

Plath had the right—of course she had the right—to abjure the male archetype, to try to revive the meaning of the word poetess. It was bound to be disruptive. There is an analogy between poets and priests here. A woman priest is not simply a woman exercising equal rights to do the same job as a man. Her doing that job profoundly changes the nature of that job, in the way that a woman becoming an engine driver does not. Women becoming priests upsets the symbolism of the whole religion or sect. In the Christian context, that is why it is so impossible to use the word priestess, since it comes with such a rich freight of pagan significance. It is odd that the word should retain its power to shock: “I dropped in at the butcher’s and there was our new priestess”—one would immediately suspect she was consulting the innards of a chicken. When Bishop and her col-lege friends sat doubled up with laughter at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s reading, with Millay wearing her long robe and clutching a curtain, what the girls were laughing at was a poetess, a woman imagining that a poetess must be something like a priestess.

  1. 1

    Becoming Marianne Moore,” The New York Review, April 24, 1997.

  2. 2

    Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), p. 163, quoting Plath’s Journals (Dial Press, 1982), p. 321.

  3. 3

    Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 126, quoting Plath’s Journals, pp. 211-212.

  4. 4

    Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, selected and edited by Aurelia Schober Plath (Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 466 and 476.

  5. 5

    Elizabeth Bishop, One Art:Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 333.

  6. 6

    Cited in Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 24.

  7. 7

    Cited in Paul Alexander, Rough Magic, A Biography of Sylvia Plath (Viking, 1991), p. 159.

  8. 8

    Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 25.

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