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The Unbearable

Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College
Sylvia Plath, Yorkshire, England, 1956

Especially enlightening in this regard—and unmatched in previous Plath lives—is Wilson’s discussion of Richard Sassoon, the small, dark-haired, Jewish, intensely cosmopolitan Yale student (born in Paris, raised in Britain, and a distant relation of Siegfried Sassoon) with whom Plath fell wildly in love in 1954 and remained erotically obsessed for the next two years. While he has attracted some interest as the poet’s last major boyfriend before Hughes, Sassoon till now has remained an enigmatic figure in the Plath story. Still alive at time of writing, he has never spoken publicly about his and Plath’s relationship (and told Andrew Wilson that he “never will”). Nonetheless Sassoon seems to have cooperated with the biographer in some degree, allowing access to letters and indeed to an unpublished and seemingly autobiographical short story, “The Diagram,” written about his time with Plath.

Cynical, witty, worldly, and intuitive, Sassoon was the opposite of the tall, chiseled all-American beefcake hunks who had until then been Plath’s somewhat juvenile predilection. Yet Wilson is convinced that he was the man “who would help her free herself from her conventional morality, liberate her sexually, and expand her intellectual horizons.” (One of Sassoon’s letters quoted here suggests, indeed, that along with reading Plato together, erotic spanking was a part of their experimental lovemaking.) And it’s Sassoon who provides Wilson with the striking “what if” with which Mad Girl’s Love Song concludes.

Now wistful counterfactuals are a staple in Plath biographical narrative. (What if Hughes had not gone to the party at St. Botolph’s where he and Plath met? He hadn’t planned to. What if Plath’s downstairs neighbor had smelled gas coming from her London flat on the morning of February 11, 1963? He didn’t.) Yet still astonishing is the realization that Plath’s sexual and intellectual fixation on Sassoon continued for some time after she’d met Hughes in Cambridge. Not only that, but when she first had sex with Hughes, in London on March 23, 1956, she was on her way to Paris to meet Sassoon for a long-awaited tryst. (She had already written to Sassoon about the drunken meeting with Ted, apparently in an effort to make Sassoon jealous.) When she arrived in Paris and discovered that Sassoon—annoyed by her coquettish attempts at emotional blackmail—had decamped for Spain and declared their relationship over, she was distraught.

A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”

And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?

One has little time for existential ruminations while reading American Isis. In contrast with Mad Girl’s Love Song, Rollyson’s book bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut. Thus Rollyson’s tormented-genius Sylvia experiences “burst[s] of inspiration” that climax in “a crescendo of poetic outpouring.” When she encounters Hughes, the “love of her life,” on the “Cambridge campus” he “might as well have stepped right out of a Brontë novel.” (“Plath seems to have intuited the triumph and tragedy of mating with such a man.”) Later, after she’s married him and they begin a joint teaching stint back at Smith, she has “start-up problems” adapting to lecturing. Luckily, she will be reassured by the studly Ted, who reminds her she’s “a poet on the go.” (“Thank God she had a man who understood the demon in her.”)

At a certain point a reader learns just to sit back and enjoy it. This is a diverting, gossipy, and perfectly serviceable Plath biography. Not that it has much in the way of intellectual gravitas. Rollyson’s attempts to portray Plath as an archetypal Isis-figure (hence the title) or as a troubled American sex goddess à la Marilyn Monroe are not successful. (He’s also written a life of Monroe.) But unlike the slow-moving Wilson, Rollyson seems to grasp that Plath’s life was short. He doesn’t waste time getting to the essence of things. And however slapdash, he can write with emotional insight:

The typical criticism of Plath…held her poetry to be overwrought, both in terms of technique and of temperature. The reader who withdraws from her work cries out, as she does, “They must take you back!” But Plath’s great achievement is precisely her refusal to be temperate, to exercise the restraint the British deem “good form.” Just as understatement can be a powerful literary tool, overstatement, like an optometrist’s overcorrection, can compel greater perception.

Granted, both he and Wilson fall victim at times to the “Plath Effect”: a tendency to plunge into bathos like Plath at her baleful worst. Describing the young poet at Smith, her dancing and fornicating with one randy bow-tied youth after another, Wilson suggests that she regarded them all as literary characters “created from the rich gloop of her imagination.” Parnassian gloop, no doubt. But a dedicated Plathian might be forgiven for thinking also of that unlovely “muck funnel” in Plath’s “Words Heard, By Accident, Over the Phone” from 1962:

O mud, mud, how fluid!—
Thick as foreign coffee, and with a sluggy pulse.
Speak, speak! Who is it?
It is the bowel-pulse, lover of digestibles.

Rollyson uses similar metaphors when he describes Hughes as having “glommed onto” Plath in their famously sticky love-clench at the Cambridge party in 1956. And when he relates the traumatic episode that inspired the aforementioned poem, he topples over into Plath’s own language of sepsis and festerings, treacherous quicksand, and bags of flesh ripped open. Having answered by mistake a phone call meant for Hughes from the seductive Assia Wevill, Plath suddenly realized that Wevill and Hughes were having an affair. Rollyson describes how Plath was seen to

rip the phone line out of the wall, treating it like a monster’s threatening tentacle. It was too late, and the poet felt infected, sensing the caller’s words were like a monster’s spawn percolating in her heart.

What to make of it all after half a century? From one angle Plath had only herself to blame for the rhetorical excess she provoked—and still does provoke—in readers. She was crazy, after all. Even fifty years on, the gruesome mental suffering that she wrote about continues to pierce and frighten and exasperate.

In her defense: Plath used the pain as best she could. Though attempts over the decades to see her as a protofeminist oracle fail to convince, it has to be said that Plath’s writing captured the central and most disturbing psychic component in the lives of conventional middle-class American heterosexual women of the 1950s and early 1960s: a toxic, typically unconscious longing—sadomasochistic in structure—to be both adored and degraded, cherished and abjected, by a powerful man resembling one’s father. The fantasy contaminates (and sickens) any number of now-canonical Plath poems: “Electra on the Azalea Path,” “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” “Medusa,” “Cut,” “Daddy,” “The Jailer,” “Lady Lazarus”—all those kitsch near-masterpieces that make the poet a sensation still (sometimes) among bulimic female undergraduates. Plath exposed, as no one had before, the quintessential “nice girl” sex-anguish of her time: a mode of female desiring as incoherent, narcissistic, passive-aggressive, and self-canceling as it was misogynistic, daddy-obsessed, and morbidly heterosexual.

But one shrinks at the ugliness and hysteria of the vision. Most off-putting, to my mind, is the way Plath made a repugnant and meticulously curated longing for death feel sexy and sublime. At least, that is, for a minute or two. Like Sylvia and Ted colliding at St. Botolph’s, Eros and Thanatos not only lock eyes in Plath’s poems, they’re already so far gone—so mad and humpy with crazy love—that we know they’ll end up killing each other. One doesn’t wish to remain too long in close proximity.

Nor is there much to moderate this appalling pull toward the grave. In a characteristically generous essay about the last poems—particularly those Plath wrote in Devon in October 1962, just after Hughes left her, but before she went back with her children to London—the Irish poet-critic Eavan Boland proclaims Plath a “superb” (and unheralded) “nature poet,” one who discovered in motherhood, domesticity, and the English autumn countryside a brief yet influential respite from the inner landscapes of vileness and putrefaction. In poems such as “Night Dances” and “Nick and the Candlestick,” Boland suggests, the solitary “young woman,” nursing her infant child, “did something radical to the perspective of the nature poem: she stopped addressing nature and she became it.”

Yet such assertions must somehow ring hollow. The foregoing says more about Boland—a writer who very much believes in kind hearts, good fellowship, and a poetry of healing and communion—than about Plath. The child addressed in “Nick and the Candlestick,” Plath’s infant son, may be “the baby in the barn,” the winter changeling, but the speaker’s otherwise dirge-like incantations hardly suggest that Nature has any maternal gifts for us, her blighted sons and daughters:

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

The earthen womb
Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs

Wrap me, raggy shawls,
Cold homicides.
They weld to me like plums.

Philip Larkin, Plath’s psychological opposite in virtually every respect, came closer to capturing the Plathian essence: the shocking necrophilia and refusal of life. After her brilliant yet overschooled poetic apprenticeship, wrote Larkin in a 1982 review of the Collected Poems, Plath found her real subject matter in “variously, neurosis, insanity, disease, death, horror, terror.” (He considered “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” from 1956 to be the turning-point poem.) But the insanity and horror were requisite for the overall vision; they are deep and inalienable sources of the poet’s fever dream. For Plath, Larkin suggests, to grow up was to grow madder and madder. The mania within—caustic, ever-amplifying—could not be separated from the mature work. Thus her later poems were, Larkin wrote,

to the highest degree original and scarcely less effective. How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow.

Unlike Larkin’s own poetry—or so one in turn might venture—Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.

It will come as no surprise that I’m one of those who will always be turning away from Plath. Or trying to. I find her tasteless, grisly—unbearable, in fact—precisely because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity. She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave. That the infant “Nick” addressed in those final poems from Devon, the very poems cited as “nature poems” by the kindly Boland, hanged himself in 2009 seems only the latest malignant turn of the Plathian screw. A respected fisheries biologist—he taught at a university in Alaska—Nicholas Hughes had apparently done everything possible to distance himself geographically and psychically from his parents’ cursed history. (Most of the people who worked with him knew nothing of his family story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said afterward to have been “lonely” much of his life and depressed by his failure to find love. His mother was by then long dead—he had never had any memory of her—yet even so I couldn’t help wanting to kill her.


On Sylvia Plath October 10, 2013

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