Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life

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Whose life?

These two factors joined with her long-honed talent and increasing boldness to create the astonishing poems collected in Ariel , which, in their turn, came to govern her life. The critic and friend of Plath's Al Alvarez has said that "for the artist, nature often imitates art," and there are few artists of whom this is truer than it is of Plath.

She imagined herself marrying a demigod, a force "huge enough for me," and she married "Ted Huge" as he was known in Cambridge , a towering Pan figure with "pockets full of poems [and] fresh trout. In her sparse, haunting last poem, "Edge," Plath sketched a suicide. It is a stern and beautiful suicide: a triumph—more than a failure—of the will. The woman rendered resembles Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who dies with the asps at her breasts, stinging her to sleep.

She also resembles Sylvia Plath. Was Plath drugged by the lyric invitation of the poem? Or had she simply painted herself into a corner with this work, drawing, as it did so heavily, on her biography?


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She came as close to re-enacting her poem as one can in a small London apartment, without fanfare. I would like to go further than Al Alvarez and suggest that Plath's life was not only fuel for her work; it was part of that work. John Milton once said that a poet's life should itself be "a true poem. Plath's life, in contrast, is a sort of poem, tragic though it is.

She shaped it with the aesthetic perfectionism of a sculptor. She infused it with a playwright's drama: a college boyfriend remembers her penchant for corresponding in "hyperbole"; always "seeking a chance to dramatize her life. She took mad chances, marrying "the biggest seducer in Cambridge" and moving to his country. She studded her life with the bold risks of an expert gambler—plunging vertically down a mountain her first day on skis she broke her leg in two places.


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  5. In the end she lost, but her art did not. If "dying is an art," as she says in "Lady Lazarus," and she "does it exceptionally well," so is living, and she did that exceptionally well too. Not wisely, as Othello said, but well— artistically, dramatically, aesthetically.

    Plath, Sylvia: Further Reading

    Literary scholars, of course, tend to see life as an embarrassment to art; indeed, many sober works of Plath criticism begin with a ritual lament about the biographical hocus-pocus that has interfered with lucid contemplation of the poetry. But although Plath's poetry stands alone as well as any, it is damagingly puritanical to bar discussion of her life, as though the spirit of her poetry would be polluted by proximity to her fallen flesh.

    It is puritanical, too, to think that the life of a poet might not reflect the same rigorous aesthetic discipline as her writing—that it might not in fact constitute a kind of "performance art. It's in part because Plath's life already bears so many marks of fiction that it has lent itself so easily to formal fictionalization. As I write, a movie, Sylvia , is opening with Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath; a play called Edge is showing off-Broadway; and the second novel about Plath's life in only two years has hit the bookstores. Middlebrook's biography emerged the same month as the expanded edition of an older biography, by Linda Wagner-Martin.

    Finally, there's a new memoir, by Jillian Becker, a friend who knew Plath for a few months before she died. Narratives about Plath are almost as tempting to write as they are to read, precisely because their subject has already done so much of the work for us; the girl who complained that she could never come up with a plot when writing her own stories has given biographers, playwrights, filmmakers, and novelists a ready-made plot in her life. Not that these books resemble one another in more than a few strokes.

    The history of biographical writing on Plath is vexed; her biographers have had their names made, their health wrecked Anne Stevenson , and their hearts broken Emma Tennant in their endeavors; they have been turned into the subjects of biographical sketches themselves by Janet Malcolm, in The Silent Woman. And they have presented Plath as everything from a martyred feminist saint to a psychotic termagant to a happy homemaker.

    In fact, with fortunate exceptions, that has been the general progression of interpretation since the s. When Plath died, and the truth of her suicide and Hughes's abandonment first became known, the outcry among feminists and feminist sympathizers was immense. Hughes was demonized in poems by Robin Morgan, for example urging his castration and accusing him of murder; Plath's tombstone was vandalized repeatedly by those who did not want her husband's name on it "Sylvia Plath Hughes" ; the "anger" in "Daddy" and other poems was seen as representative of a generation of women; her books filled shop windows, and she was all but canonized.

    But this did not hold. Part of the reason is that Ted Hughes appointed his protective older sister, Olwyn, the literary executor of Plath's estate. Olwyn had despised her sister-in-law. She had "resented" Plath's "talent and beauty as well as her relationship with Ted," as Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of Hughes's and Plath's, described it: "Sylvia Everyone who wanted to write anything of any import about her had—or initially wished—to go through Olwyn Hughes. She granted permissions to quote; but she granted them at a price. It is in part for this reason that no foible of Plath's has been left uncovered, no spurned suitor left uninterviewed, and that an authorized biographer like Anne Stevenson has written of Plath as of a madwoman in the attic.

    Sylvia Plath

    It is certainly for this reason that we have an improbable rant like Dido Merwin's, which was expansively quoted in Stevenson's Bitter Fame. A London friend, Merwin assailed Plath for ignoring her advice to obtain home furnishings secondhand: Plath's "unexpectedly graceless rejection A fridge? Besetting insecurity? Because Plath desired a new stove?

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    But there are other reasons for what one might call the pathologization of Sylvia Plath. America's love affair with psychopharmacology is one; innumerable essays have appeared tracing Plath's work to everything from clinical psychosis and bipolar illness to menstrual disorders. The most persuasive of these assessments are written by literary scholars who do not, like many of their colleagues, take as a starting point Plath's suicide attempts, her wilder Ariel poems, or even the attacks of jealousy for which she is so harshly judged in Bitter Fame.

    However unproductive, Plath's jealousy can hardly be considered unfounded; when Plath met Hughes, he was described to her as the biggest Casanova in town, and the way he seduced her with his girlfriend in the next room gave her no reason to doubt this appraisal.

    Nor does Hughes's life after Plath suggest that he was in any way inclined toward fidelity; he left Assia Wevill the married woman for whom he had left Plath for another married woman, and after Wevill gassed herself, in an amplified replay of Plath's suicide killing their child as well , he left his second married woman who, luckily, survived to propose to a young nurse, who remained his wife until his death and watched as he had numberless affairs, many of them extremely public, some simultaneous, and at least a few punctuated by promises of elopement.

    The more plausible doubts about Plath's mental stability relate to the jarringly different voices in her writings—the exhaustingly upbeat tone she employed in her huge correspondence with her mother the "Sivvy" letters, as Marjorie Perloff dubs them, published in Letters Home juxtaposed with the dark, cutting, often hostile persona in the Ariel poems that she wrote at the same time, sometimes about the same events.

    Critics have put letters next to poems and declared her nuts: Look at this ecstatic letter about sweet Ted's bringing her tulips when she was in the hospital, they will say. And now look at the poem "Tulips": the flowers "hurt" her; they are "dangerous animals"; the smiles of the speaker's husband and child "catch onto my skin" like "little smiling hooks.

    Or just a pathological liar? I don't think Plath was a pathological liar. Neither was she an overdutiful daughter, as has also been claimed, laboring—at the expense of truth and taste—to cheer her mother. She wrote these letters because it answered a basic need in her: to portray—and to feel— herself as being in control, capable, cheerful, resourceful, and happy.

    Anybody who imagines that she ran around ranting blackly like Lady Lazarus and "eating men like air"—or even wallowing catatonically like the speaker in "Tulips"—is absurdly mistaken. Looking at photographs of Plath, Janet Malcolm feels "disappointed" that she lacks Lazarus's "red hair" and an appropriately fierce expression.

    Plath didn't curse or cower in her daily life; she coped. She got up in the morning and told herself she was happy; otherwise she could not have accomplished all the child care, household duties, moves, mailings, meetings with editors, typing for Ted, horseback riding, knitting, German study, beekeeping, and writing in several genres that we know she did.

    And just as Plath told herself she was happy, and could keep doing this, she told her mother the same thing. That does not mean there wasn't a level at which Plath gave free rein to her doubts, at which she permitted herself to be pessimistic, to be brutal , to follow her fears, her fantasies, her darker intuitions, as far down or up as they would take her.

    It seems to me that the critics who call Plath schizophrenic are pretending that people are simpler than they are. But there is a further reason for the souring toward Plath in later biographical works. It is that any number of writers who set out to research her fell in love with her husband. Mainly female, and mainly intellectually iconoclastic, they came into contact with Hughes during their research and gravitated toward him as Plath had, probably for some of the same reasons: his shady sexual history, bad press, enormously articulate intelligence, love of women, carefully timed reticence, and strategically deployed loquacity.

    Usually Hughes left the dirty work of corresponding with Plath investigators to Olwyn, but when he chose, he could write a masterly letter: "When [Hughes] writes about Plath, he renders all the other writings about her crude and trivial," Janet Malcolm writes in The Silent Woman. Malcolm reprints a few incantatory examples; she also tells us she's on his "side" in the Plath-Hughes controversy. That is, she's on the side of "the Hugheses"—but given the surpassingly awful things she relates about Olwyn in the book, we can't quite believe it's because of her.

    Malcolm has seemingly fallen under Ted's spell—in much the same way as the English writer Emma Tennant before her.

    The Colossus By Sylvia Plath हिंदी में समझें

    An aristocrat by birth, Tennant approached Hughes in part because of her interest in Plath, but soon fell in love and into bed with him; she now figures among the photos of mistresses in Elaine Feinstein's biography Ted Hughes. Their affair proceeded for years in the late seventies, and Tennant was surprised to find one day that Hughes was also publicly cohabiting with a beautiful Australian, Jill Barber.

    Tennant's admiration continued nonetheless, and in she published a novel about the Plath-Hughes marriage that is a miracle of fawning bias in favor of Hughes and clumsy belittling of Plath. Sylvia and Ted drips with sentences like "[Sylvia] knows that kind Ted is right: for Sylvia is damaged and he is not. That same year, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Freida.

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    Sylvia Plath: just because she wrote about her life doesn't mean it's public property

    Two years later, Plath and Hughes welcomed a second child, a son named Nicholas. Unfortunately, the couple's marriage was failing apart. After Hughes left her for another woman in , Sylvia Plath fell into a deep depression. Struggling with her mental illness, she wrote The Bell Jar , her only novel, which was based on her life and deals with one young woman's mental breakdown. Plath published the novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

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