Sylvia Plath (1932-1963):
Stars open among the lilies . . .
RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN delves into the love, loss and life of an extraordinary poet.
Sylvia Plath, who has been called the Marilyn Monroe of literature, killed herself on February 11, 1963 at the age of 31 by putting her head in the oven. She left two children behind, the manuscript of Ariel and barely without any recognition as a poet. It was only after her death that the poems written during the last days of her life were compiled and published under the title Ariel by her husband Ted Hughes in 1965. However, it was not until 2004, after Ted’s death, that the original version of Ariel, along with the original facsimile of Plath’s manuscript, was published with a foreword written by her daughter, Frieda Plath Hughes. In 2004, Diane Middlebrook came out with her book Her Husband, which in many ways revolutionalised the ways in which the Sylvia-Ted relationship has been understood in the past. As Middlebrook points out, there was a real significant romance between this couple, and the relationship shaped both their lives and poetic careers in major ways.
Middlebrook’s basic argument is, no matter how you look at it, Plath and Hughes were meant for each other in some “weird cosmic way”. Destructive the union may have been, but Plath and Hughes embarked on the marriage thinking they were meant for each other. As Plath and Hughes both said in their work, “while from the bottom of the pool fixed stars govern a life,” indeed, both believed that the stars had contrived to join the two. Both indulged in magic and astrology, and they believed their lives were predestined from the moment of conception.
Sylvia (2003), directed by Christine Jeffs, offers a non-biased and clear depictions of the issues that rocked the Sylvia-Ted relationship. In many ways, Sylvia, being a woman in the context of early twentieth century sharply patriarchal culture of the United States and Great Britain, constructed enough tropes for both of them to fall into; thus, driving the relationship to a destructive end. Setting aside any sense of vengeance or value judgments, Jeff’s film and Middlebrook’s book both point to the fact that, certainly Hughes was not the best husband. However, we also learn of Plath’s moodiness as well as Hughe’s, and the many difficulties that the couple had to face in their life together. For instance: their lack of money, both pursuing careers in writing, having two babies relatively soon after their wedding, Sylvia being stuck in a foreign land (England), Ted’s continual attraction and involvement towards the outside world and especially towards other women, and finally Sylvia’s earnest effort in paving a way towards Ted’s successful career as a poet; versus, Ted’s rather patronising and often undermining attitude towards Sylvia Plath’s poetry — all drove the relationship to a dead end, where Sylvia had no option but to end her life.
There is a scene in the film where Ted and Sylvia are having a conversation about Sylvia’s poetry and she says, “you know what my problem is? My problem is that, I have a husband who thinks he can tell me how to write poetry!” This statement precisely hits home the main issue that disturbed the union between Sylvia-Ted, and that was Ted’s lack of respect and acknowledgement for Sylvia Plath’s creative abilities.
It should be noted that Plath spent a great deal of her energy and time making sure that Ted’s work was published, read and constantly reprinted in various magazines and journals. Though Hughes clearly had the raw talent, it was Plath who in many ways was responsible that the talent was manifested in reality and recognised by the public. As trained at Smith College and Cambridge in English literature, Plath was well-equipped to function as a very sensitive and efficient literary agent for her husband. One may wonder, without her, whether or not Ted would have had the discipline to compile and send his work out in the first place, or mostly importantly, without her love and encouragement whether or not he would have actually believed in himself. Sylvia was Ted’s number one fan and on many occasions she prioritised his work, putting her own work aside.
However, as pointed out by Plath’s biographer Middlebrook, the intellectual and poetic connection was crucial between this couple in shaping their literary works and career. After Sylvia’s death, Ted spent a considerable amount of time publishing her writing and working with her manuscripts and journals. Finally, in 1998, before Ted’s death, he published his collection of poems Birthday Letters, a book dedicated to his children with Plath, Frieda and Nicholas. Reading through the poems on the pages of Birthday Letters, the reader feels Ted’s deep understanding of the trauma suffered by Plath. It is apparent from his words that her memories were with him until the very last day of his life. However, after Sylvia’s death, Ted married twice and had relationships with numerous other women. He went on to become the Poet Laureate and enjoyed a full public and private life. Sylvia at the end of the day remained only as a memory, only as a story to tell, “you are ten years dead. It is only a story. Your story. My story” [Birthday Letters].
The controversy around Sylvia’s death and actual role played by Ted has been a longstanding debate among literary historians and critics. Plath’s journals and her own writing, along with Ted’s verses in Birthday Letters perhaps describe the relationship between the couple with earnest honesty. Plath started keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her first year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath (editor, Frances McCullough). In 1982, Smith College acquired Plath’s remaining journals, though, Hughes sealed some volumes including the final one. During the last years of his life, Ted started working on a fuller publication of Plath’s journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to
Karen V. Kukilat Smith College. Kukil finished editing the journals in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly released material.
It must be noted that, Ted faced criticism for his role in sealing and destroying Plath’s final journal. Ted claimed to have destroyed Plath’s last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death, in order to protect their children! In the foreword of the 1982 version, he wrote, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”
The project of coming to terms with Sylvia’s death and Sylvia’s representation of her husband and their relationship had been a lifelong struggle for Ted. However, one cannot forgive him for destroying his wife’s final journal and wiping out the very last words that came out of Sylvia Plath’s pen. Ted’s insensitive role as a husband not only murdered Sylvia’s corporal body, but the patriarch in Ted saw to it that even her very last words were annihilated. Thus, Plath has been removed from the grand narrative of time both in material and spiritual terms by her husband. What remains of her is, his reconstruction and that of numerous literary critics’, fans’, journalists’, film-makers’ and teachers’ and students’. The real Plath, whom we could have hoped to recover from the last bit of her journal pages, are gone forever!
Sylvia’s attraction for Ted and their very first meeting had a definite violent sexual flare to it. Sylvia was attracted to the masculine ‘man’ that was Ted, her jaguar, “that big, dark, hunky boy.” After their first meeting, “[S[uch violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists. The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders. And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you.” Later after their marriage break up she wrote,
Panzer man, panzer man
Oh you, not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through
Every woman adores a fascist
a boot in the face,
the brute brute heart of a brute like you. [“Daddy”, Ariel]
It seems that the ‘man’ in Ted whom Sylvia loved appealed to her with a certain amount of force and violence; it is this brute force in Ted that Sylvia was attracted to. One may ponder why did Sylvia marry a man, whom she instinctively knew from the first meeting to be trouble? Why did she put up with the marriage and have two children; more importantly, why did she attempt to reunite with him even after he had cheated on her?
This predicament suffered by Sylvia Plath is actually a very common phenomenon for women universally. To some extent we all love a boot in the face. We all aspire in mastering the wild horse, the untamed masculine energy into our neatly constructed nest of home and family. However, what makes Sylvia Plath so extraordinary is her ability to write about the intimate issues that affect women’s psyche when they are in love with men under the backdrop of the patriarchal culture and value system. All along there was a split in Sylvia Plath, she wanted to be a successful poet and also wanted to be a happy homemaker, she wrote in her journals, “I am inclined to babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home where geniuses drink gin in the kitchen after a delectable dinner and read their own novels…”
Sylvia, after her marriage with Ted, suffered from spells of depression and low self-confidence about her own work. The entries in her journal testify to the acute dilemma she suffered from being in the predicament of performing as a loving wife and mother and an aspiring poet. The fact the she worked very hard to get Ted’s work published, gave birth to two babies, ran the household, and worked a job, left her with very little time to work on her own poetry. Perhaps, if Ted had reciprocated Sylvia’s efforts by publishing her work or had been more supportive in understanding the creative frustration suffered by Plath, the relationship could have been more productive. Sylvia kept lamenting in her journal about rejection of her poetry from various magazines, her lack of ability to think and write, and finally her frustration with being the wife of a successful poet whom she sometimes considered to be a better poet than herself.
Even though she was happy enough to be Mrs. Hughes and see her husband succeed as a poet, without receiving even the minimum recognition for her own poetic work left her feeling creatively barren, “that’s why I could marry him, knowing he was a better poet than I and that I would never have to restrain my little gift, but could push it and work it to the most, and still feel him ahead. I must work for a state in myself which is stoic: the old state of working and waiting. I have had the most unfortunate hap: the bright glittery youth from 17 to 20 and then the break-up and the dead lull while I fight to make the experiences of my early maturity available to my type writer.” Even though Sylvia dreamt of producing “a book shelf of books” with Ted and “a batch of brilliant healthy children,” the fact that she could not write up to her own expectations after her marriage remained a lingering dark shadow in her journal pages.
The final words of Plath did not come until her break up with Ted in 1962 following Ted’s involvement with another woman who eventually became pregnant with Ted’s child. This is when Sylvia started living in London alone with her two children while working on some of the most significant poems of Ariel. It seems that finally getting out of a marriage where Sylvia was clearly deprived of her emotional needs, though extremely painful for her, gave her some independent space and freedom to explore her unique voice in poetry. When Sylvia writes in “Daddy”, “the tongue stuck in my jaw, it stuck in a barbed wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich. I could hardly speak…” and ends by saying, “Daddy, daddy you bastard, I’m through,” she is actually saying good bye to patriarchy. At this point of her life, she had reached the point where the socially imposed norms and desires of femininity and masculinity started to seem absurd to her, thus she begins “Daddy” by declaring that she has clearly outgrown her old ways, “You do not do, you do not do, any more black shoe, in which I have lived like a foot for thirty years poor and white barely daring to breath of Achoo.” Ariel, though written during the darkest days of Sylvia’s depression, is laced with a wonderful sense of love, magic and hope. In her original manuscript she had arranged the poems in such a way that the first word of the book appeared to be ‘love’ and the book concluded with the word ‘spring’. She ended her book with a desperate quest and hope,
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
Unfortunately her hive did not survive. She died prematurely with a lot of pain in her heart. The pain of her broken nest, the pain of her lost love, the pain of her never becoming the powerful poet she always secretly desired, but never wholeheartedly believed that she was. Living and operating in a male-dominated literary circle can often break a female poet’s morale, making her feel inadequate because of her inherent feminine experiences and expressions. The Pulitzer Prize that Sylvia was awarded and the world wide celebration of her life and poetry after her death is of no comfort to her. The world today has recognised the sophisticated literary mastery, the deep personal narrative and unconditional honesty that makes Sylvia Plath into a legendary poet, whom history will always remember; but the human Sylvia, the living Sylvia died, her last days spent alone with two young children, little money, the coldest winter London had seen in decades. However, there is something spiritual about Plath being able to leave it all behind, her ties with the world, even her children and departing for the unknown, the mystical, the only Real realm — death.
Apart from Sylvia’s feminist zeal, the profound solitude and spiritual plain reached by her words makes her into an extraordinary poet. At the end of the day, she was a poet of loneliness, she was to hear the murmurs of fishes under the water, sense the round flat darkness of the leaves of water flowers, scream with the scathing moon, and ride the indefatigable horses that were her words, “dry and riderless”. Running through the verses of her poetry, laced with a sense of melancholy and malignity is a sense of wonder, a spiritual link that ties the Orion’s belt to the loaf that she baked and the blood that ran inside her veins. If Sylvia Plath is to be compared with any Bengali poet’s poetic temperament, then it would most certainly be Jibanando Das, because both poets lived farthest among the stars and died longing to hear the inaudible tunes of mystery,
Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.
Middlebrook, Diana, Her Husband Hughes and Plath: A Marriage, Little Brown Book, Great Britain, 2004.
Plath, Sylvia, Ariel, Harper Collins Publisher, UK, 1961.
Hughes, Ted, Birthday Letters, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1998.
Kukil, Karen V, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Anchor Books, New York, 2000.
Jeffs, Christine, Sylvia, Focus Features, 2003.
Rubaiyat Hossain is a film maker and researcher.