Almost eighteen years ago, on my first day of an A level English Literature course, I was told that we would be studying: Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire, Wuthering heights and Sylvia Plath's poetry. I didn't think that much of it at the time, but made a note of the books that I needed to buy.
A couple of lessons later, my teacher, a homely woman by the name of Mrs. Roberts handed out a poem called 'Daddy' by Sylvia Plath, who at that point was still unknown to me. I read it silently to myself, I read it out loud under my breath, and we all read it as a class, stanza by stanza. I was breathless, I had never been touched by poetry as much in my life as I was then.
"It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene.
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew."
I was intoxicated by the words, they strangled me, threatened me and yet comforted me because my life seemed better than she saw hers to be. Just reading that one poem was like somebody had held a looking glass before me, and smashed my own reflection under my very gaze. I was confused, because I loved my own father so much, and yet there was another person expressing such graphic resentment towards hers, and it was the graphical language that attracted me most.
We went on to read more, more poems made up of rich, gothic and morose words that seemed to criticise and evaluate society and modern life, as well as the poet and those she associated with. It was her light touch with words that delivered the hardest blows for me, she could say more in one line than many other writers could in an entire book. We explored 'Lady Lazarus', 'Ariel', Nick and the Candlestick' and the gorgeous 'Morning Song', which starts with the evocatively warming opening line: 'Love set you going like a fat gold watch'. I remember watching Mrs. Roberts' lips as she read that line for the first time, because some of the poems we studied she like to read to us before handing out the text. I was enthralled and captivated by the dark world and gloomy reality of Plath's vision. Looking back at some of my own work, I can see that I am heavily influenced by Plath's anatomical imagery.
Mrs. Roberts had mentioned on the first day she introduced us to Plath, that the doomed poetess had committed suicide, but it wasn't for another month or so until she told us how or why. My eyes were wide, and my mouth hung limply open as she explained in the detail and extravagance that only a literature teacher can. By leaving me the space of time to get to know the person behind the words and understand the meaning of her anguish, the cold details of the death of Sylvia Plath really disturbed and upset me.
On the 11th February it will be fifty years since the greatest poet I have ever read took her own life, and condemned herself to a legacy of poetic genius. It was not her lack of success as a writer which lead to her suicidal depression, but nonetheless, it is an ironic truth that Plath became far more appreciated and valued as a poet after her death, being one of the few posthumous winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982 for her 'Collected Works'.
I think that today is the perfect opportunity to recall why and how she took her own life, and what the implications were to the legacy of her work, her estranged husband Ted Hughes and the literary world as a whole.
Plath had never been emotionally stable, she had a history of depression and had meaningfully attempted suicide at least once before, consuming a bottle of sleeping pills and sneaking herself under the family home in Massachusetts, during the summer of 1953; where she remained for two days, until her brother Warren heard a groaning noise from under the floorboards and she was found in a semi-conscious state. It was that episode that she referred to in 'Daddy':
"At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue."
Following the attempt on her own life she spent a period of time in a psychiatric hospital, where she received both electroconvulsive therapy and barbaric insulin shock treatments, which induced a coma like state. She remained under hospital care for over six months and these 'treatments' would scar her for the remaining ten years of her life.
Plath's discomfort with her father's death just after her eighth birthday is well documented and cast a shadow of abandonment that she feared from that point on, and was undoubtedly what influenced her obsessive attachment to men. The hatred that she expressed for him in 'Daddy' was not hatred towards him as a person, but because of the resentment she felt at having him taken away from her at such a young age, a mental scar that was to be compounded by her absence from not only his funeral, and also his grave until she was twenty-six. The visit roused old memories and inspired her to write 'Electra on Azalea Path':
"Small as a doll in my dress of innocence
I lay dreaming your epic, image by image.
Nobody died or withered on that stage...
O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
Your gate, father-- your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
It was my love that did us both to death."
Plath made a point of expressing her animosity and malevolence towards her mother, both through the autobiographical central character of her novel 'The Bell Jar'; and in her own diary, where she blamed Aurelia for Otto's death, recording:
"I hate her hate her hate her ... I hate her because he [her father] wasn't loved by her. He was an ogre. But I miss him. He was old, but she married an old man to be my father. It was her fault. Damn her eyes."
Her detestation is entirely unreasonable, and a clear sign of neurosis, as Aurelia was continually supportive of her daughter, having encouraged her to write from an early age and supporting her through the painful trails of mental illness. Referring to psychoanalytical theory, it is regarded that those whom we claim to hate are the very people we associate the most with; I feel that Plath rejected her mother because she saw so much of herself in her, as well as using it as a defense mechanism. By convincing herself that she hated her mother, she became immune to either her disapproval or eventual death. Plath took great care not to let another parent cut her as deeply as her father did by passing away before she had fulfilled her use of him.
It is widely acknowledged that Plath finally filled the gap left by Otto's death when she married the English poet Ted Hughes in Bloomsbury, London during the summer of 1956, after meeting him a year earlier whilst studying at Cambridge. It is worth noting that it is at this point that the main body of her adult poetry starts in her collected works (Faber and Faber, 1981). Her happiness was relatively short-lived, and as early as 1958 she began to doubt Ted's reverence after witnessing him taking intimate strolls around campus with young female scholars, at the university in Massachusetts where he was teaching.
They moved back to England and set up a home in Devon, but in July 1962 she discovered that Ted had been conducting an affair with an attractive German woman, Assia Wevill, (who herself had only been married two years to the poet David Wevill). After a short break in Ireland, an attempt to patch up the cracks in their marriage, Plath and Hughes separated in September. The following month, she experienced a powerful bout of creativity, writing over twenty-five poems, that would go on to make up the bulk of her posthumously published, critically acclaimed collection, Ariel. In the darkness of the early mornings, she scrawled out: "Stings," "Wintering," "The Jailer," "Lesbos," "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," "Ariel," "The Applicant," "The Detective," "Cut" and "Nick and the Candlestick", and many more in a machine-like haste.
In December, she moved back to London with Frieda and Nicholas, securing a desirable apartment at 23, Fitzroy Road in Camden, part of a building that once served as a home to the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, something which seemingly gave Plath a brief sense of positivity towards her future. But, the winter was cold, the worst that Britain had experienced for over sixty years, her and the children suffered with colds, but for Plath it developed into a severe bout of influenza in January. Alone, with two small children in the depths of a crippling winter, and the intermittent support of her friends, she fell deeper into depression. The publication in Britain of her first novel 'The Bell Jar', gave Plath little respite, as her American publisher had rejected the manuscript. On the twenty-seventh of January, Anthony Burgess posted a positive review of her book in The Observer which should have lightened her mood, but it appeared next to a poem by Hughes, and hurled Plath deeper into the furnace of depression. Shortly after this, she called her physician Dr. Horder, pleading with him that she feared that another breakdown was imminent. Evidently concerned, he immediately prescribed her anti-depressant medication and began to search for a hospital bed for her, after learning of her previous suicide attempts.
On February seventh, she packed a few belongings and took the children to with stay with friends Gerry and Jillian Becker, in nearby Mountfort Crescent. Her time there was spent bouncing between the two extremes she knew so well, dressing immaculately for dinner and eating with a good appetite, then spending half the night in crisis, relaying to Jillian her hatred for Ted, her mother and 'she', Plath never referred to Assia by name. She needed a large quantity of sleeping tablets at the start of the night, then after resting for just a couple of hours she would lie and call for Jillian. Her early morning depression was the hardest to surmount, requiring Plath to consume her 'wake-up' pills at least ninety minutes before she was capable of lifting herself out of bed. Jillian and Gerry were good to her, they never complained or remonstrated against what must have been a huge burden on the normality of their own family life.
Gerry took Frieda and Nicholas along with his own daughter to the zoo on Sunday, following a peculiar set of occurrences when Plath had briefly left the house carrying a suitcase that contained acocktail dress and hair curlers for some mysterious appointment. Whilst they were out, Jillian fed Plath with a hearty meal before she headed up to sleep for the longest period in four days. Finally waking at teatime, Plath declared that she felt quite better, and requested that she be taken home to Fitzroy Road. Naturally the Beckers tried to dissuade her, but she was indomitable with her demands. Gerry drove her back, returning home at eight o'clock and recounting to Jillian how Plath had wept for the whole journey back, yet refused his pleas to take her back to Mountfort Crescent.
Whilst Dr. Horder claims to have seen Plath on the evening of the tenth February, it is known for certain that Prof. Thomas was the last person to see her alive. Shortly before midnight she knocked on his door and requested a postage stamp, initially refusing to accept the money she offered him, Plath insisted that she must pay him, and forebodingly told him "or I won't be right with my conscience before God." She took her leave, but Thomas did not hear her walk away or climb the stairs; some moments later he opened his door again to find her standing in the cold, dark hall. Evidently concerned by her behaviour, Thomas offered to call the doctor, but Plath dismissed his suggestion, telling him that she had had "a wonderful vision." Some hours later, the professor was kept awake by her repetitive pacing backwards and forwards on the floorboards above his room.
At nine the next morning Myra Norris, a nurse booked by Dr. Horder knocked on the main door of 23, Fitzroy Road; she initially had trouble entering the house, but was let in by Charles Langridge, a builder who was working in a neighbouring property repairing a burst pipe, damaged by the savage temperatures they were still experiencing. They immediately became choked by the unmistakeable sulphuric odour of gas and rushed up to Plath's flat on the next floor. Langridge smashed the door down and they discovered Plath's body sprawled out on the kitchen floor.
"The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We've come so far, it is over..."
(Edge- 5th February 1963)
Frieda and Nicholas were safe, she had executed the mechanical operation of ending her torturous existence with the precision of a truly committed person. In the small hours of the morning, at the time most common for suicides, she climbed the stairs to the top floor of her flat, left a breakfast of bread and milk for her beloved children, placing it by their high-sided cots, flung the window wide open and taped up the cracks between the frame and door, using towels to further protect them from the gaseous poison that would soon be flowing freely around the house. She returned to the kitchen on the middle floor of the house, lay down before the gas oven, folded a small towel and placed her head on it, with the gas taps turned on full.
Plath's death has become something of a contemporary mythology, it certainly elevated the status of her work, but also served to divide popular opinion. There is no escaping her literary genius, but researching this piece I have found great swathes of blame towards all involved. Some commenters on a recent Guardian article accused her of being a bad mother, for me it is clear that Frieda and Nick were the only two people she had ever loved without condition or compromise. The level she went to to protect them from the fumes illustrates this perfectly. Severe mental illness does not inhibit your ability to love or care for your children.
The majority of Plath fans point their finger at Ted Hughes for his part in her downfall, but it is important to remember that she had attempted suicide before even meeting him. Whilst his abandonment of her for Assia Wevill, certainly pushed Plath into a very dark space, countless women have survived such events; it's not pretty and it's not healthy, and although it was without doubt a contributing factor, his adultery was not the sole cause behind her manic depression and impeding suicide. I do not like Hughes, neither as a person, nor as a poet; I find him to be repulsively arrogant, and his poetic works to be greatly overestimated and pretentious. His writing benefited from her death just as much as hers did, except he was alive to enjoy it.
The cause of Plath's suicide could only be found within her own brilliant mind. She was the victim of the circumstances that went before her, which all contributed to and deepened her state of mental illness. Psychiatric 'care' in the sixties was still primitive and barbaric, Plath was aware of her state of mind, having previously alerted Horder that she feared the onset of another breakdown, it may have been the memory of the electroconvulsive therapy that she had experienced a decade before that drove her conclude that death was a more suitable conclusion. Regardless of how we hypothesise, we will never understand her frame of mind during those last few hours. Did she wake up at teatime in the Becker's house and decide to take her life that night? Was she uncertain, is that why she was pacing the floor above the professor's flat? Did she find peace on those final moments as she lay her head in the oven, or was she fearful of what to expect? Was it always gas, or did she plan to overdose on sleeping tablets again, but changed her mind for a more definite method? How the tears must have been streaming down her face when she closed the door on her children for the final time, did she hold them tightly?
She was buried in the Hughes home town of Heptonstall, Yorkshire on Saturday 16th February. Her grave is visited by thousands of people every year.At nine o'clock on Monday 11th February, I shall take a few moments to myself and respect the ghastly events which unfolded in that quiet suburb of north London fifty years ago. I shall picture the horror that unfolded for the unsuspecting Nurse Norris and Langridge, I will imagine the traumatic yet seemingly inevitable telephone conversation that informed Ted of his wife's death, I will cogitate the failings that Aurelia Plath felt, and the harsh reality of a second great loss. But most of all I shall think of the woman who suffered so much and yet created some of the most beautifully illustrative literature that has ever been written in the English language, one who has inspired me to be a better writer ever since my eyes first scanned the pages of her work.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call."
(Lady Lazarus- October 1962)
Anne Stevenson- Bitter Fame, A Life of Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath- Collected poems.
Gina Wisker- Sylvia Plath, A Beginner's Guide.
The Guardian- Love, Loathing and Life with Ted Hughes (March 2000)