Sylvia Plath belongs to that curious band of poets—it includes Chatterton, Keats, Rimbaud—whose fame is inextricably bound up with their lives. Rimbaud apart, they died prematurely, in the full flower of their talent, “just as he really promised something great, if not intelligible,” as Byron said of Keats. But Plath’s case is more extreme than that of the others. Chatterton committed suicide when he was starving to death and became, as a result, the Romantic symbol of the rejected artist. But at least he didn’t write about the act. Neither did Hart Crane or Hemingway or even, in so many words, Virginia Woolf. For Plath, death, and the rage and despair that attend it, were her subject, and she followed the logic of her art to its desolate end. Her last poem, “Edge,” is literally her own epitaph. Her life and work are not just inextricable, they seem at times virtually indistinguishable.
Although Plath began writing in the 1950s and never relinquished the discipline and detachment she acquired in her apprenticeship, her work has been overtaken by more contemporary, less choosy attitudes: by the Warhol concept of art as news, as a form of celebrity, of art for gossip’s sake. It is as good a way as any of avoiding the full effect of what she wrote. Most people know about her broken marriage, her outrage, her suicide, but I wonder how many of the thousands who fervently identify with the intensely autobiographical heroine of The Bell Jar have ever bothered with the difficult, unforgiving, oddly detached late poems.
Plath’s case is complicated by the fact that, in her mature work, she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick, everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images which seem impenetrable at this distance but which could mostly be explained in footnotes by a scholar with full access to the details of her life. Her extraordinary last poems are concentrated and fast-moving; the images develop one from the other, eliding and expanding with the authority and directness of a peculiarly dazzling dream. I think she was able to take these aesthetic risks because the stuff she was transmuting was made up of the commonplaces of her everyday life, glassily clear and obvious to her. Her poetry was a kind of alchemy, turning dross into gold.
Unfortunately, the mundane details of Plath’s life are hard to come by. She died in February 1963, having published one volume of poetry, The Colossus, and her novel, which was written under a pseudonym and not much noticed at the time. Ariel, a modified version of a selection she had made of her late poems, appeared in 1965 to great acclaim. In 1971, The Bell Jar was published in the US and became a best seller. In the same year, two further selections of her later poetry appeared, but it was another ten years before the Collected Poems was published and won her, posthumously, the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In 1975 came Letters Home, a heavily edited and abridged selection of her letters to her mother. In 1982, the journals which she had kept from her youth until the last days of her life were published—but only in the US, only in excerpts, and with the crucial last couple of years missing. The novel she was working on when she died disappeared.
The tantalizing way in which the work dribbled out over the years, combined with the vivid use Plath made of her experience and the sanitized hints that could be pieced together from Letters Home and the journals, created a great need for a full biography. Plath’s writing had provided her own version of her life and there was no way of checking artistic license against the hard facts. But a fullscale biography meant unlimited access to written materials, and because Plath died intestate the rights to these were controlled by the Hughes estate. That meant, in effect, by her sister-in-law Olwyn Hughes, since her husband Ted Hughes has steadfastly refused to be involved in the biographical wrangling. Olwyn Hughes, however, seems to have been unwilling to cooperate with any biographer who did not share her point of view.
The experience of Linda Wagner-Martin seems to have been typical:
Olwyn was initially cooperative, and helped me in my research by answering questions herself and referring me to others who could be of assistance. As Olwyn read the later chapters of the book, however, and particularly after she read a draft of the manuscript in 1986, her cooperation diminished substantially. Olwyn wrote me at great length, usually in argument with my views about the life and development of Plath. Ted Hughes responded to a reading of the manuscript in draft form in 1986 with suggestions for changes that filled fifteen pages and would have meant a deletion of more than 15,000 words.
Of necessity I continued to correspond with Olwyn Hughes in order to obtain permission to quote at length from Plath’s works. But on every occasion Olwyn objected to the manuscript, frequently citing Ted Hughes’s comments (although…Ted Hughes refused to be interviewed directly for the book). I did make many changes in response to these comments. However, the requests for changes continued, and I concluded that permissions would be granted only if I agreed to change the manuscript to reflect the Hughes’s points of view. When I realized that this tactic would continue indefinitely, I had to end my attempt to gain permission to quote at length if I was ever to publish this book.
Professor Wagner-Martin went ahead and published anyway, with a minimum of quotation, a mildly feminist but otherwise careful and evenhanded account of the life. But she relied heavily on Letters Home, and Letters Home is as much a work of fiction as The Bell Jar. Plath had a highly ambiguous and defensive relationship to her mother. She was not willing to allow her to see anything but the bouncy, straight-As, Phi Beta Kappa golden girl, and the possibility of appearing a failure was not something she could tolerate. One of the direst aspects of the breakup of her marriage was that her mother was on hand to witness her humiliation: “The horror of what you saw and what I saw you see last summer is between us,” she wrote, “and I cannot face you again until I have a new life.”
The good girl image of Letters Home may have been appropriate to Plath when she was serving her apprenticeship as a poet and the aesthetic ideal was the Parnassian high style of Wallace Stevens, polished, marmoreal, referring only to itself. Plath wrote some beautiful poems in this manner and the skills she acquired in doing so were vital to her mature work. But there is only a tenuous connection between the good girl and the impassioned, highly original artist she became.
More important, the competent, positive image that Plath took such pains to construct for her mother’s benefit collapsed when her husband left her. Professor Wagner-Martin used this twist in the plot to point a feminist moral about male authority, marriage, and victimization. Apart from that, her portrait of Plath was admiring and forgiving in precisely the way official biographies are usually intended to be. The Plath estate thought otherwise and commissioned Anne Stevenson, an American poet living in England and the author of a study of Elizabeth Bishop, to write an authorized version. Ms. Stevenson, however, seems not altogether willing to take full responsibility for the outcome. She writes in an author’s note,
In writing this biography, I have received a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes, literary agent to the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Ms. Hughes’s contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship. I am particularly grateful for the work she did on the last four chapters and on the Ariel poems of the autumn of 1962.1
It might be reasonable to suppose that the agent to the estate of a best-selling author would want a biography that portrayed its subject in a good light. Far from it. The purpose of Bitter Fame is to correct the nice girl image projected in Letters Home and to present Plath as the engineer of her own destruction. In broad outline, the argument is simple: Plath was profoundly disturbed from the start, and her sickness increased exponentially over the years. The first chapter is called “The Girl Who Wanted to be God” and its first section ends:
By the time Sylvia was a senior in high school she was already dependent on writing and success in publishing for social survival. She was afflicted, not with too much sense of her own value, but with too little. Wherever she was, that little pronoun “I” which traveled around with her had to be bolstered, propped up by social approval, or she became, in her extreme words, a “zero,” a “hollow nothing.” Haunted by a fear of her own disintegration, she kept herself together by defining herself, writing constantly about herself, so that everyone could see her there, fighting and conquering an outside world that forever threatened her frail being.
Thereafter the picture builds steadily of a sick and fragile personality, probably borderline psychotic, subject to unreasonable and unreasoning rages and fits of jealousy, exaggerated enthusiasms and inky depressions, who spent her life secretly raging against a father who had abandoned her by dying when she was eight years old. From this perspective, her suicide, like her first attempt in 1953, becomes a final act of revenge, a vindictive evening of scores with the once beloved dead, and an act from which all the good will in the world could never have saved her. In case we miss the point, the book’s last chapter is called “Getting There” and it culminates in a statement by the doctor who was looking after her during her last months in London:
I believe, indeed it was repeatedly obvious to me, that she was deeply depressed, “ill,” “out of her mind,” and that any explanations of a psychological sort are inadequate…. I believe…she was liable to large swings of mood, but so excessive that a doctor inevitably thinks in terms of brain chemistry. This does not reduce the concurrent importance of marriage break-up or of exhaustion after a period of unusual artistic activity or from recent infectious illness or from the difficulties of being a responsible, practical mother. The full explanation has to take all these factors into account and more. But the irrational compulsion to end it makes me think that the body was governing the mind.
The doctor, it should be noted, has things several ways but ends up by making the “body” decisive. If her final suicide was brought on by “brain chemistry,” then nothing and no one could have saved her and nobody bears any blame.
The doctor himself had done everything he could: he saw her regularly up to the very end, tried unsuccessfully to get her into a hospital, and arranged for help, both domestic and psychiatric. Despite all his precautions, “she slipped through the net” and, like everyone else involved in the tragedy, he was devastated. It is also clear from the evidence that by the end of her last weekend (she gassed herself around 6 AM on a Monday morning) she was, in truth, beyond help. The last person to see her alive was Professor Trevor Thomas, who lived in the flat below hers, and the person he saw sounds like someone undergoing a psychotic episode. She rang his bell around mid-night, asking to buy stamps and insisting on paying “or I won’t be right with my conscience before God” Ten minutes later he opened his door and found her still in the freezing hallway, standing as if in a trance. When he offered to call a doctor she refused, saying that she was having a wonderful dream, a marvelous vision.
Yet however far gone she was at the end, she also possessed enormous powers of recovery and was in touch with an incomparably rich inner world. Whence the power and beauty of her last poems, and also their extraordinary detachment. In her very last poem, “Edge,” she imagined her children dying with her (in life she took elaborate precautions to make sure they did not):
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
What matters here is not the Medea-like tragedy but the uncanny artistic detachment that allows the imagery to develop its own lucid, calm life. I can think of no better example of Coleridge’s description of genius at work:
unparticipating in the passions, and activated only by that pleasurable excitement, which had resulted from the energetic fervour of his own spirit in so vividly exhibiting what it had so accurately and profoundly contemplated.
“Edge” was written on February 5, 1963, six days before Plath died. Whatever else, it is not the work of someone who is “out of her mind” or governed by a rogue “brain chemistry.”
Bitter Fame’s other method of correcting the nice girl image of Letters Home is to demonstrate in detail how Plath’s psychological instability turned her into a monster. To this end, Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Hughes are unwavering in their singlemindedness. We are told of her “enormous hostility,” “egoistic fantasizing,” and “romantic self-aggrandizing,” that “she was indeed cursed.” We hear of her “exercising her talent for rewriting life to suit her audience,” “her latent paranoia,” “her psychological blindness,” and that she “was drawn to Peter [Davison] chiefly for reasons advantageous to herself.” When she took dancing lessons before going to Cambridge the authors cannot resist commenting parenthetically, “Alas, for all its medieval splendors, Cambridge was to have little to offer in the way of tango-dancing intellectuals,” and when Plath failed to find her boyfriend Richard Sassoon in Paris she is said to have been “missing Richard’s purse as much as his presence.” As to her famous, headlong marriage to Ted Hughes: “Clearly Sylvia wanted to secure Ted before he went alone to teach in Spain.” Of her often brilliant journals, they comment,
One side of her reached back for a harmonious home life and commercial success; another abandoned itself to moony fantasies, black, silent furies, or imaginary scenes of violence.
Plath’s own ambition was immense but she also believed passionately in her husband’s genius and worked hard to get his poems published, typing them up and sending them out continually. When his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, won the New York Poetry Center competition—for which she, not he, had entered it—she wrote delightedly to her mother to tell her the news, adding that his success would make life easier for her when her own work was accepted; this is described as “gloating.”
A little later we read, “As always when under attack (or imagined attack), Sylvia fought back viciously,” that “though not a ballerina, [she] nevertheless took pride in acting the prima donna throughout her life,” that she “could not resist the gratuitous dig,” (a nice one, that, in the circumstances), that “her ambition to produce a publishable story or poem seemed to cancel out any normal regard for people’s sensibilities, however dear to her the people were.” A friend of Olwyn Hughes is wheeled on to describe “the sheer quantity of distress Sylvia was capable of causing her nearest and dearest. Her aggression was relentless.” A friend of Ted’s grudgingly admits “she very evidently loves him in the self-interested and possessive way of which she is capable,” and Davison describes her “borderguard standards” and “pointed malice.” We also are told about “her gift for malice,” her “characteristically extreme language,” and her “irrational and uncontrollable rage.” There are three references to Plath as having been witchlike in her behavior.
As for the poems: “The Rival” is called “malevolent exorcism,” “Mystic” “the poem…of an uncompromising child,” and “The Jailer” is “frenetic overkill.” In “Event” and “The Rabbit Catcher” “she was making her self-justifying and unforgiving case in much the same terms as henceforth she would use to sow ‘the seeds of the myth of her martyrdom.’ ” “Fever 103°,” “Purdah,” and “Lady Lazarus,” “penetrating the furthest reaches of disdain and rage, are bereft of all normal ‘human’ feeling.”
But perhaps the cruelest dig of all is the comment on her pathetic, passing fantasy of having her mother move to Devon to be near her after her marriage failed: “Clearly Sylvia, with her long-term future as a writer in mind, was angling for a babysitter as well as a supportive mother (and typist) who would live close at hand.”
In more than 350 pages of disparagement, nothing is said of Plath’s charm, which was considerable, or of her quizzical intelligence and profound love of poetry, or of her courage and resilience in her last ghastly months.
But Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Hughes’s contribution to the demythologizing of Sylvia Plath is mild compared to the twenty-five-page memoir by Dido Merwin, which is quoted extensively in the text and printed complete as an appendix to Bitter Fame. Mrs. Merwin, we are told without any irony at all,
had been brought up in what could be termed the English intellectual Squirearchy. However scanty her formal education, her conditioning had bestowed on her the advantages of an insider in the Georgian circles among which her family moved…. Given her innate sense of belonging (something Sylvia never had), Dido easily attracted the attention of poets by admiring them and amusing them and, above all, by her love of poetry.
It is obvious there would have been no love lost between an English dilettante with an eye for poets and a hard-driven, insecure, and in some ways naive American professional writer like Plath. Whatever real or imagined outrages took place, Mrs. Merwin’s memoir is a work of sustained and quite astonishing venom and what is most tasteless about it is not that it should have been written about someone who can no longer defend herself but that it should be published in a biography commissioned and approved by the Plath estate.
Since her death, Plath has become a feminist cause, canonized as a great woman artist who was abused, put upon, and betrayed by men. In every respect, this is the crudest sentimentality and I suspect Plath, who liked men and trusted them, would not have appreciated it. Although she had close women friends in her last months—Elizabeth Compton, Winifred Davies, Susan O’Neill-Roe, Ruth Fainlight, Clarissa Roche, Jillian Becker (none of whom, apart from Mrs. Becker, is given much space here)—Bitter Fame demonstrates in great detail that, both living and dead, Plath had a great deal more to fear from her own sex than from any man.
Ted Hughes himself has wisely kept his distance from this deconstruction of his wife’s reputation:
I have read through the text simply to check, and if necessary correct, the limited number of facts about which I feel I can be reasonably certain. That leaves the main bulk of the book to other people’s reports, opinions, and interpretations, for which I take no responsibility.2
In the troubled circumstances, this is the sanest response. Hughes has been much abused by the lunatic fringe of feminism. They have picketed him with placards blaming him for his wife’s death and have so frequently defaced Plath’s gravestone, trying to eliminate her married name, that she now lies in an unmarked grave. His crime is to have left her for another woman, although, if the evidence Bitter Fame amasses of her possessiveness, jealousy, and insecurity is only fractionally true, he seems to have been motivated less by treachery than sheer despair. I myself have always believed, as Robert Graves wrote of another tragic couple, “the hazards of their love-bed/Were none of our damn business.” Couples break up all the time and precipitate young marriages often lead to precipitate mutual unhappiness. Plath herself was sufficiently aware of this truism to seek help once a week from a therapist when she and her husband were in America.
Perhaps therapy helped her get in touch with some of her hidden drives and fears, but the more important influence, I think, was her husband’s own poetry. When they first joined forces Hughes was a far more mature poet than Plath. He was not only gifted with marvelous powers of observation, he also seemed in his finest poems—“An Otter,” “Pike,” “Hawk Roosting”—to be in direct communication with his deepest instincts, with the dark underside of his imagination. I suspect that Plath was inspired by his example to try to do the same and what she found was very hard to handle.
When her father died Mrs. Plath, we are told, “fastidiously spared” her children his funeral. So Plath never had the chance to mourn him properly and all her natural grief and outrage at the terrible loss festered unaired below the bright, hard-working, brittle surface she presented to the world. Her earlier poems kept resolutely to that surface. They were always elegant and stylish, sometimes brilliant, but only rarely and briefly did they manage to engage the forces that really shook her being. In their different ways, both Hughes and Robert Lowell broke through the aesthetic carapace of 1950s high style and tried to explore the volatile depths below. When Plath followed their example she tapped a great reservoir of pain that came roaring to the surface when her marriage broke up. As her biographer characteristically put it, Hughes
becomes a facet, in her psychodrama, of the huge figure of Otto Plath, who also “deserted” her. This, in essence, was one of the myths she propagated in the marvelously achieved voice of Ariel.
In the end, the myth matters a great deal less than the achieved voice. All the hardwon discipline of her long apprenticeship was taken for granted and what emerged was a free and utterly original voice of extraordinary range and power, a voice that shifted from ominousness, through anger, tenderness, and fear, to the stillness and desolation of her final days. In poems like “The Arrival of the Bee Box” and “The Applicant” she even managed to master the accents of those sophisticated London poules de luxe who had given her, socially, such a hard time—contemptuous, sardonic, arrogant, the voice of a woman who has ordered her own death from Harrods and is appalled to see the delivery van arrive.
The artistic achievement of these last poems makes nonsense of the idea of Plath as a passive victim, abused by men and circumstances. Only in the last few days of her life did her courage and resourcefulness give way to paralyzing depression. Up until then, despite her upset and her anger, she seemed intent on making a new start out of the end of her marriage and she talked about it as a kind of freedom: “Psychologically…” she wrote to Ruth Fainlight,
I am fascinated by the polarities of muse-poet and mother housewife. When I was “happy” domestically I felt a gag in my throat. Now that my domestic life…is chaos, I am living like a Spartan, writing through huge fevers and producing free stuff I had locked in me for years. I feel astounded and very lucky.
Perhaps Plath was whistling in the dark but she had the poems to prove she had turned personal disaster into a triumph. “I am a genius of a writer,” she wrote to her mother; “I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”
She was right, of course, and apart from the fact that she did not live to enjoy the success she wanted so badly, the only tragedy is that the cult of Sylvia Plath is based on the suicide rather than on the pure, disciplined, hard-edged poems that were more intolerant of weakness in herself than in other people. Bitter Fame apparently sets out to destroy the myth, to expose her feet of clay and cut her down to size—but it does so vengefully, as though the myth were a fabric of Plath’s own creation. It isn’t. It depends wholly on the power of her work and if she has been badly served by the myth, that is because the myth is a great deal less interesting than the astounding poetry she wrote.
September 28, 1989
The galleys I was sent for review have a somewhat different author’s note also worth quoting: “This biography of Sylvia Plath is the result of a three-year dialogue between the author and Olwyn Hughes, agent to the Plath Estate. Ms. Hughes has contributed so liberally to the text that this is in effect a work of joint authorship.” ↩
Not all the facts have been so carefully checked. A couple of the occasions I can personally verify are not accurate. The biographers say Hughes “camped on Alvarez’s sofa in England’s Lane.” I did not live in England’s Lane, nor did I have a sofa; he slept on a bed in the spare room. There is also a comment on motor accidents I was supposedly involved in which is purest fantasy. Where it comes from I do not know, but neither Ms. Stevenson nor Ms. Hughes bothered to check the relevant sources. ↩