The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
By Heather Clark
What becomes a legend most? As suggested by the old black-and-white Blackglama fur ads, featuring Lena Horne, Diana Vreeland and Cher, among others, legends are people who have soared beyond fame or celebrity into a more rarefied, inaccessible stratosphere.
Today’s media-fixated, Kardashian-dominated world is filled with all sorts of legends, from the elevated to the base, but I can think of few poets who fit into this category. The exception is Sylvia Plath, who, with her perfect blond pageboy, wide smile and cinched-waist dresses, looked less like a proper poet and more like Doris Day.
By now, many of us are familiar with the rough outlines of her saga: the shining promise; the death of her adored father when she was 8; the titanic ambition and extraordinary persistence (in 1950, the summer before Plath started college and after more than 50 rejections, Seventeen magazine accepted her short story “And Summer Will Not Come Again”); the attempted suicide during her time at Smith; the Fulbright to Cambridge, where she met the broodingly handsome Yorkshire-bred poet Ted Hughes (“my black marauder,” as she called him), whom she soon married; the birth of their two children, Frieda and Nicholas; the couple’s single-minded devotion to their art and conviction about their respective talent, followed by Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill and Plath’s taking her life in February 1963 at the age of 30 during what was famously London’s coldest winter of the century. In the intervening decades she has become a protean figure, an emblem of different things to different people, depending upon their viewpoint — a visionary, a victim, a martyr, a feminist icon, a schizophrenic, a virago, a prisoner of gender — or, perhaps, a genius, as both Plath and Hughes maintained during her lifetime.
One would think there is little to be added, if only because of the avalanche of books — biographies, meta-biographies, pathographies (to borrow Joyce Carol Oates’s term), memoirs, critical studies, letters, journals, novels — that have been published about Plath since her suicide (which, for some people, is the only thing they know about her). In the last few years alone, two fat volumes of her correspondence have been published and parsed by a whole raft of reviewers (including me). And yet, just as one is wondering whether there can possibly be anything new to be said, here comes Heather Clark’s “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath” hurtling down the chute, weighing in at more than 1,000 densely printed pages.
My response to receiving the galleys during this grim and surreal season was a mixture of fatigue — not her again! — and anticipatory pleasure at the thought of losing myself in the issues the book was likely to bring up rather than the ones being repetitively posed by the glaring dilemmas of our day: the merging of creativity and pathology that informed Plath’s character; her evolving artistic style, which began, in the poems that make up “The Colossus,” her first collection, as formal, meticulously crafted and owing much to influences such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot and culminated in the shockingly direct, even raw voice that defines the posthumously published “Ariel,” which derived some of its free-associative and colloquial immediacy from D. H. Lawrence, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton; and the way in which her marriage with Hughes first bloomed and then imploded.
Indeed, as Plath and her complex, much analyzed legacy fade with the passing of successive generations, and her work grows more removed from the cultural mainstream, now seems a prime moment to revive her tale and try to bring all of its elements together, without a preconceived agenda, as in, for example, Anne Stevenson’s “Bitter Fame.”
As Clark, a professor at the University of Huddersfield, in England, and the author of a book about Plath’s and Hughes’s poetry, explains in her poignant and closely argued prologue, she believes that Plath’s “life has been subsumed by her afterlife” and that depictions of her as “a crazed, poetic priestess are still with us.” Drawing upon unpublished material, including Plath’s diaries and calendars, extensive archival holdings, and “previously unexamined police, court and hospital records,” Clark is at pains to see Plath clearly, to rescue her from the reductive clichés and distorted readings of her work largely because of the tragedy of her ending. “I hope to free Plath,” she writes, “from the cultural baggage of the past 50 years and reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.”
This last is a sizable claim for a biographer to make on behalf of her subject and I imagine that not everyone will agree with it even after reading this scrupulously researched, tirelessly detailed account. And yet, there is no denying the book’s intellectual power and, just as important, its sheer readability. Clark is a felicitous writer and a discerning critic of Plath’s poetry, though once in a while she leans toward the overly generous in her assessment of a specific image or the effectiveness of a given poem.
Then again, it would be impossible for a work as voluminous and all-embracing as this one not to have its flaws. Despite its bulk and extensive scholarship, which Clark carries lightly, there are a few sections that lag — particularly the discussions of Plath’s juvenilia, none of which sounds especially remarkable, and the blow-by-blow reconstruction of her rather manic dating life before meeting Hughes. I was also struck by Clark’s strange disinclination to credit earlier accounts, such as Diane Middlebrook’s “Her Husband” (2003), which was the first book to examine Plath and Hughes’s union as an initially propitious (albeit ultimately damaging) one for both of them. That said, “Red Comet” (the title is taken from a poem of Plath’s called “Stings”) is nothing short of mesmerizing, bringing the reader inside a much-told but uncommonly intriguing narrative that has all too often been the object of fierce partisanship. Instead of depleting my interest in Plath, the book stimulated it further; I found myself going on to read two books of critical essays about her right after I was done reading it.
Clark has divided her biography into three parts, each of which takes up a significant portion of Plath’s life and is in turn subdivided into chapters with titles that are picturesque (“O Icarus”) or thematic (“The Problem of Him”). Although Plath’s father is famous — or, perhaps, infamous — as the abandoning and tyrannical parent in what is her signature poem, “Daddy,” which the critic Helen Vendler once derogated as a “tantrum of style,” this is the first time he comes into view as something other than a blurry, demonized character in his daughter’s psychological and poetic landscape.
Otto Plath was of German origin but therein any similarity to the Nazi figure he is transmuted into in “Daddy” ends. (Plath would be much criticized in the years to come for appropriating Holocaust imagery for her own use, although, as Clark points out, “the theme was in the air by the early 1960s, finding its way into poems by Geoffrey Hill and Anthony Hecht, among others.”) He was “a committed pacifist who renounced his German citizenship in 1926,” Clark recounts, “and watched Hitler’s rise with trepidation.” Those looking for biological cues to Plath’s mental problems might note that Otto’s mother, Ernestine, was remembered by him as “a rather melancholy person,” and that she was committed in 1916 to the decrepit Oregon Hospital for the Insane for depression or possibly senile dementia; she died there, alone and neglected by her family, three years later.
Otto immigrated to America in 1900 at the age of 15, where he would eventually pursue his early interest in entomology, obtaining a doctorate in biology at Harvard in 1928 and becoming a popular professor at Boston University. Along the way, he had a short-lived first marriage, which seems to have left him deeply embittered about women. (According to Aurelia, Otto’s second wife and Sylvia’s mother, his first wife “had left him after only three weeks for sexual reasons.”) Plath, who wrote a series of poems about bees, including one called “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” described her father to her psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, as “a brilliant professor” and a “great man” before turning on him in her dire late poems.
Aurelia Schober was the demure daughter of a German immigrant and “had hoped to become a writer once,” as she told an interviewer. She met Otto, already in his mid-40s, in one of her graduate German classes. When they married in January 1932, Aurelia was a teacher of both English and German at Brookline High School, but she gave up working at her husband’s request, the better to devote herself to being a homemaker.
Plath’s birth that October was followed by the birth of her brother, Warren, three years later. “Sylvia sought out Otto’s attention,” Clark writes, “in an attempt to become his ‘pet,’ just as she believed Warren was Aurelia’s.” Yet in the last four years of Otto’s life, which were plagued by ill health for which he refused to see a doctor, Plath had little direct involvement with him. “She would play the piano, draw and recite poems she had memorized or written herself.” (Plath was reading and writing at 5.) “Sometimes she would leave poems under his napkin at dinner. Her dying father was her first audience.”
Aurelia, who was vilified both during and after her daughter’s life, is another beneficiary of the evenhandedness that is one of this book’s singular virtues. Clark envisions Aurelia with both empathy and clarity, salvaging her from the almost uniformly negative portraits that appeared in the wake of her beloved “Syvvie”’s death, and which were contributed to by Plath herself, particularly in the fictionalized rendition of her mother in her only novel, “The Bell Jar.” Although Aurelia was undoubtedly a complicated and thwarted person, Clark does not buy into the view that she was Medusa-like, the source of both Plath’s overweening drive and her lethally self-destructive impulses: “Aurelia, the story goes, put so much pressure on her daughter to excel that Sylvia felt the only way to win her mother’s love was to outperform herself again and again; because she could not sustain this cycle, she had no choice but to give up.”
This is not to say that Plath’s relationship with her mother was without deep-seated conflicts, as Aurelia tried to reshape it in the volume of unfailingly sunny correspondence from her daughter she collected in “Letters Home,” which was published in 1976 and quickly attacked as a misrepresentation. Clark is too subtle a psychological interpreter to unilaterally come to Aurelia’s defense, noting the pious and sugary streak in her character and the “mixed message Plath had heard since she was a child: Excel, but conform.”
But there is no doubt that Plath wasn’t simply a studiously groomed stand-in for her mother’s “unfulfilled literary ambitions,” as certain critics would have it; although she may have had a “penchant for martyrdom,” Aurelia did indeed make continuous sacrifices on her daughter’s behalf, from her unstinting financial generosity to her consistent solicitude. To make this into an unconscious bargain that was struck between the two of them, in which Aurelia expected huge returns on her investment — the perspective that Dr. Beuscher instilled in Plath and to which she readily responded, describing Aurelia as “a hideous parasite” in a letter she wrote her psychiatrist after Hughes had started his affair — is to fail to see the way in which symbiotic relationships work with the connivance of both parties, something Plath herself intermittently realized. “It was such a relief to go back and feel the responsibility slide off my shoulders on to my family’s,” she wrote to a college friend during a Christmas vacation in 1950. “I realize now, though, that mother can’t be the refuge that she was before, and that hit me hard.”
As one might expect from a book as comprehensive as this one, it is stuffed with heretofore untold anecdotes that illuminate or extend our understanding of many aspects of Plath’s life, not least the sense of desperation she conveyed in the months after Hughes left her for Wevill and she was living alone with two young children in a flat in Yeats’s old house in London. I’m not sure, given everything, that Plath was a particularly likable sort, admirable in many ways and extraordinarily brave as she may have been. A good friend of hers remembered her as a “networker” who went after influential literary men like the poet and critic A. Alvarez, with whom, in one of the book’s numerous revelations, she had a brief affair. (Alvarez acknowledged that he had a close relationship with Plath but always claimed that it was platonic.) She seemed to have few friends and her evident neediness alienated those to whom she hoped to ingratiate herself. Doris Lessing, for instance, who had inscribed a copy of “The Golden Notebook” “to Ted and Sylvia,” “spurned” Plath when Plath visited her a month or so before her suicide, “put off by Plath’s effusive praise and American gushiness,” and asked the mutual friend who had brought her by “not to bring Sylvia back.”
Clark’s talent for scene-painting and inserting the stray but illustrative detail (“By January 31, the date of her last surviving check stub, she had only 59 pounds”) contributes to create a harrowing picture of the narrow confines of the London that Plath had moved to with such high hopes, and the mushrooming loneliness and despair — as well as “the stigma she surely felt as a single mother” — that marked her last days. “She was becoming an object of pity — a difficult position for a woman with such pride.”
In her uninsistent but persuasive fashion, Clark offers her own theories about the events that led up to Plath’s decision to kill herself, which included a hazardous mixture of medication and Plath’s fears of being hospitalized and given electroshock therapy again (as had happened after an earlier suicide attempt).
Still, it remains something of a heartbreaking mystery that a woman this disturbed (her longstanding clinical depression seems to have shifted into a psychotic depression in her final days) was also able to produce the burst of crystalline last poems in the short period she did — poems filled with an icy rage but also possessed of a quite astonishing control. Plath herself felt, as she wrote Beuscher, that these poems were “written on the edge of madness,” and Clark astutely observes that “Edge,” the last poem Plath wrote, “gives the uncanny impression of having been written posthumously.” But there was also the “iron will to live,” as Plath described it to Clarissa Roche, a friend from Smith who visited her at Court Green, the house in Devon she had shared with Hughes for less than two years. If only that will had prevailed.
Originally Published in the New York Times