Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath
Edited by Ted Hughes, 1981
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
They were poised to become the royal couple of English poetry, Ted Hughes and the handsome young Massachusetts girl he had married: Sylvia Plath, a brilliant poet in her own right. She had already published one book, The Colossus and Other Poems, before she turned thirty. Hughes was celebrated for several. In a moment of clairvoyance Plath had confided to her diary that she would be “The Poetess of America (as Ted will be The Poet of England and her dominions).”
This did happen, as it turned out. But the marriage had its ups and downs. In a dichotomy typical of the age, Hughes was on the one hand a traditional working-class English husband who expected the socks darned and a purblind eye to infidelity, and on the other a mentor who recognized Plath’s potential for greatness. Plath herself was not an easy woman. Together there would be a house, children, and professional acclaim, but by 1962 Hughes had left Plath, perhaps temporarily, for a beautiful poetry groupie from Israel, Assia Wevill. Plath was already subject to depression, most probably bipolar, and did not survive. Some of the poems she wrote in the last months of her life were published a few years later as Ariel, incorporating the title and much though not all of the content of a manuscript Plath had prepared before her suicide. This volume created a sensation. An awful lot of nonsense was written about it, begetting a subspecies of critical faddism in the form of the “Plathitude.” A more decorous phrase for this faddism at the time was “the myth of Sylvia Plath,” hard to define but consisting more or less in clashing images of Plath as a martyred innocent and Plath as a madwoman. Plath’s late poems were influenced by poets of the confessional school such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton but were even “madder” in feel than theirs, due to Plath’s violent and surreal imagery and the lengths to which she went in attacking real people. The lion’s share of the fury was directed at Ted Hughes. Plath compared herself to a Jew in the concentration camps and Hughes to a Nazi, “a model” of her strict German father, “a man in black with a Meinkampf look/And a love of the rack and the screw.” Hughes made the decision to publish much of Plath’s work after her death. Though some of the most vitriolic poems were held back until after Hughes published his version of Ariel, many were not, and Hughes promptly became a villain of the emerging feminist movement. He turned executorship of Plath’s estate over to his sister Olwyn, who hadn’t liked Plath. Plath’s mother Aurelia tried to save her daughter’s reputation by the publication of her “letters home,” and succeeded only in sealing Plath’s image as a neurotic but one with legitimate grievances against 1950s America. These had been spelled out in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, the title a metaphor both for depression and for the stifling conformity of her generation’s culture. It followed from all of this that the sensational elements of Plath’s personal story would remain fresh for a long time; some would say, well past their time.
Since then both Ted Hughes and Aurelia Plath have died. Olwyn Hughes is past eighty. Plath herself would be well into her seventies today. A sense of perspective can be gained by considering that she is the exact contemporary of Philip Roth, who is not now known best for Portnoy’s Complaint. Inevitably, the soap opera elements of the story decrease in fascination, including Plath’s infatuation with D.H. Lawrence and castoffs from psychoanalytic thinking (mostly Freud, some Jung), Hughes’ with myth and occultism, and each with a doomed mockup of the other. We are left with the question of whether this was an ordinary, flawed first marriage whose end was rendered tragic by Plath’s depression, Hughes’ infidelity, and the timing of Plath’s poetic maturation — Janet Malcolm’s conclusion in her problematic, but overall convincing study of Plath’s afterlife, The Silent Woman — or whether there was something much worse going on in the form of either or both parties’ bad behavior. In the absence of any evidence other than hearsay that Hughes was a wife beater and rapist (as Aurelia Plath may have hinted, and others such as Assia Wevill may consequently have hinted to her, both perhaps inspired at least in part by Plath’s specific infatuation with Hughes’ dark side), or that Plath was a psychotically jealous and vengeful harpy (the burden of Dido Merwin’s memories and those of some of Hughes’ male friends), one can pine for more; or one can look at the available evidence and call it proof enough that the behavior of Plath and Hughes was fairly typical for two mutually obsessed, narcissistic poets barely in their thirties. Which is to say it could have gotten rather bad, but perhaps not memorably so compared to that of Robert Lowell to Jean Stafford, or Anne Sexton at times to her family.
The reason why we don’t settle for this is that the art is memorable and Ariel, at least, increasingly timeless. Judith Kroll’s study of Plath’s work (Sylvia Plath: Chapters in a Mythology) was the first to dissect the work as a deliberate self-expression rather than the byproduct of Plath’s mental illness. Kroll’s book was, for its time, feminist, pointing out that some of the wilder themes and images in Plath’s poems made sense as an expression of matriarchal folk patterns (birth, death, renewal, symbolized by the phases of the moon). In one sense Kroll was in agreement with Ted Hughes, not the feminist’s favorite writer or husband, but certainly the person who had the most influence over Plath for her adult life and one who encouraged her to see her depression not in terms of mental illness, but in a mythic light, long on debts paid to the dark gods with the gift of shamanic vision in return. For him it didn’t hurt that he was to be her guide: the most popular myth associated with Plath-Hughes is a version of Galatea and Pygmalion. We may scoff now, but let us remember that Hughes lived every day with Plath (they were almost never separated) for the better part of ten years and knew well her terror of experiencing a breakdown, with the possibility of being hospitalized and subjected to electroshock as she was once in her college years. Shamanic myth provided an alternative by which Plath was free to admit her disturbance and also to fight it by reducing life and other people to archetypes, something she did compulsively anyway. “This docketing away of individuals as types did away with her having to bother about how they ticked,” complained Hughes’ friend Dido Merwin, but both Hugheses were addicted to it. It also provided both of them with an explanation for Sylvia’s rages, which were chronic and often directed against Hughes.
The intensity of Plath’s rages as described by Merwin and others is in keeping with her bipolar disorder, as is the peculiar effect they had on her. Whereas most of us are paralyzed by rage on that level, incapable of strategic action or elevated feeling, Plath’s manic tantrums were accompanied by an element of exaltation and even joy in her capacity for destructiveness — the “right” and “blasting” feeling “banging home” that she so often described in her journals, and which gave her the very un-English “self-justification” about her own bad behavior that Dido Merwin so especially deplored. This grandiosity in bile is not unheard of in people with bipolar disorder, but not all of them are as eloquent as Plath. Plath’s bragging about her rage makes even her episodes of understandable impatience with others’ rudeness, as in the famous tantrum with a Cambridge school friend who had scribbled in Plath’s books, less sympathetic: we are more apt to feel contrite toward someone who does not describe our scolding on multiple occasions as a “marvelous cathartic blowup,” “revenge,” “dealing with the J— myth,” etc. So it’s no surprise to hear that many of Hughes’ friends got very tired of Plath, and saw this behavior (“her running Hot and Cold Eumenidean Wrath,” in Dido Merwin’s words) as mere showing off. It’s no surprise that Hughes himself had not a clue as to how to handle Plath. When she wasn’t writing she was miserable; when she was writing she was, all too often, manic. Hughes’ own poems about Plath suggest that he encouraged her manic rage in the hope that it would help her to write.The consequences were as could be imagined, but it does not appear that Plath was afraid of them.
What neither of them knew was that the rage and the creative spurts had the same source, but one did not imply the other. Hughes did not guess that, of course. Nor did Hughes guess that when he was fed up with Plath, his strategy of pissing her off enough to make her let him go — to be played out again with Assia Wevill a few years later — would not work. In Plath’s case, perhaps, he should have known better. Hughes knew more than anyone about Plath’s private mythology of death and rebirth, a way of schematizing the world as seen through the prism of her mood changes. She responded to his humiliation of her as a sacrificial victim. If Hughes had killed her, her job was to die. Hughes was appalled, but it wasn’t such a stretch.
It isn’t such a stretch, either, to imagine a Plath absolutely beside herself delight with the destructive potential of her “Jewish” poems for those she most had it in for at the time, Assia Wevill as well as Hughes. It would explain the childish gurgle and kvelling in her voice on not one but two occasions in her interview with Peter Orr of the BBC, when asked about her poems touching on “concentration camps and so on.” Plath sounds just like a little girl having brought off some delicious naughtiness and planning to stay six forever and ever. What is remarkable is that she did bring it off. In the England of the 1960s, a privileged German-American’s ascribing Jewish suffering to herself raised one of the first debates about what we now call cultural appropriation. It would have raised even more eyebrows if it had been clearer that Plath was making an analogy between Nazism and patriarchy that is now familiar, via Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin and others, and if it were more obvious that her chief target was not Otto Plath but Hughes. She was helped out by Hughes’ feint away from himself toward Plath’s father. This tied in neatly with the Freudian vogue of the times and allowed Plath to be humored as a female neurotic by those who disliked her extremism. Her friend A. Alvarez, who believed that Plath had not been well treated and who was taken to task by Hughes for intimating as much, would repeat the feint, only on a larger scale: his exposition of Ariel in The Savage God: A Study of Suicide began to sketch the image of the “poet of witness” that would later be taken up by Carolyn Forché, with Otto Plath standing in for Nazi Germany and Plath’s suicidality somehow allowing her the risk of empathizing with its victims. The irony is that by taking Plath literally as “a bit of a Jew,” all this only made it more obvious that however luridly she expressed it in “Daddy,” Plath had a point about patriarchy and women’s complicity in it. “Every woman adores a Fascist,” she wrote, and Janet Malcolm added: “Women have adored Plath for the Fascist in her, for the ‘boot in the face’ that, even as she writes of male oppression, she herself viciously administers to readers of both sexes.”
But Plath was also making fun of herself, as she did of her college self in The Bell Jar. Judith Kroll rightly points out that Plath’s early tributes to Hughes’ “banging virility” sound like nothing so much as Unity Mitford’s infatuation with Hitler. (Plath even looked a little like one of the Mitfords.) Meanwhile, it’s possible that these readings paved the way for George Steiner’s only slightly grudging admiration of Plath as a Holocaust poet, and that it was both Steiner and Alvarez (also Jewish) whom Irving Howe was scolding in his “partial dissent” from “The Plath Celebration.” (Interestingly, Jewish women minded less. Andrea Dworkin would give Plath her blessing by quoting “Daddy” as the epigram to one of her books. Adrienne Rich took Plath seriously well before that, and more recently Alicia Ostriker, Sandra Gilbert and Kalí Tal, to name just a few, have all celebrated her without reservations over “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus.” A number of Jewish women who knew Plath were deeply moved by these poems; Dr. Dorothea Krook of Cambridge would write that she always burned a yortseit candle on the day of Plath’s death.)
Today “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are no longer quite so outrageous as they once were. The Holocaust is anything but off-limits. Nor, in the era of trauma studies, is it forbidden to mention the Holocaust and the experience of a woman who might have been beaten or raped in the same breath. Whether this is good or bad depends on who you ask. It has had an uneven effect on the way each poem has worn. Powerful though it is, nothing can quite excuse some of the special pleading in “Daddy” (calling Daddy/Hughes a Nazi is one thing, “I may be a bit of a Jew” another, especially now that everyone says it). It’s unlikely that this poem, which really got to the English, could have had the same success without first appearing in a country whose familiarity with real Jews was limited and real Germans was taboo, and the Royal Family had themselves had German daddies. Like Basil Fawlty, Plath had “mentioned the war,” and that was good enough. “Lady Lazarus” is another story. Its personal vindictiveness is partly in the nature of a pre-emptive strike: if Ted Hughes was to be known as the poet whose wife killed herself or died in a madhouse, she’d have had something to say about it and on her own terms. But “Lady Lazarus” is a good deal smarter than “Daddy,” though it is also more vulgar (“My skin a featureless, fine/Jew linen”). Plath was well aware of the sensational nature of her suicide attempt in 1952, when she lay for three days in a coma in Aurelia Plath’s basement and national newspapers followed details of the search for her: “They had to call and call/And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.” Of course her suffering in a mental institution after she was found was not the same as that of Europe’s Jews, but the prurient underbelly of the 1950s sensibility did not make such distinctions, and that may have been Plath’s point. Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person,” published about the same time as Plath’s breakdown, hit exactly the same nerve at which awareness of what had happened in Europe met the village gossip’s heat-seeking sensors for petty scandal and tragedy: “This was the kind of thing that was happening every day in Europe where they were not as advanced as in this country… If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?” The poems sometimes represent a failure of proportion and even decency, but “Lady Lazarus” at least is not quite the moral failure it has been made out to be.
All of which may be irrelevant to the inspiration of the poems. George Steiner missed the point in accusing Plath of “subtle larceny”: the larceny involved was not subtle at all. There is no doubt in my mind that Plath’s covering herself with Jewishness was specifically meant to appropriate the life and identity of her rival Assia Wevill. If Plath was disgusted with Hughes in 1962, she was murderous toward Wevill; Wevill’s biographers, not fans of Hughes, indicate that Hughes destroyed Plath’s final journal at Wevill’s insistance rather than his own, because Wevill could not live with the hatred toward herself that was expressed there. Yet it was Wevill who also insisted that Hughes publish Ariel, including some of the most explosive poems in it. Those poems, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” would for years be the ones by which Sylvia Plath was known. They may have been poems Assia wished she had written and now never could. Plath’s attitude toward the Holocaust was to grab it before Assia did, leaving Assia with nothing to write about. It may have been as calculated as that. Plath knew she herself could be terrible; moreover, she knew that a lot of the time she felt entirely entitled to it. This was one such time. Janet Malcolm points out that Plath is celebrated by women for her “not-niceness,” “her courage to be unpleasant.” Plath’s “not-niceness” extended to her willingness to do her very worst not to Hughes, who might be able to take it (and was, up to a point), but to Assia. If we remember that Plath was surely considering suicide when she wrote the poems, the horror escalates. The real Schrecklichkeit of these poems is that of the appearance of Plath, long hair trailing, one eye disfigured by her previous suicide attempt, like O-Iwa in Yotsuya Kaidan — already undead, in her own imagination — and ready to dispatch her rival without ceremony. In contrast to a literal comparison of Plath to a Jew, it’s an earned horror. (Given how much her own fate resembled that of O-Ume, the rival in Yotsuya Kaidan, it is remarkable how much Assia Wevill did not hate Sylvia Plath.)
At this point the time has come to be fair. Were it not for Ted Hughes, it is unlikely that Plath would have made a prolonged study of myth and folklore, and without this influence it is quite possible that Ariel would not have been Ariel. Myth was not the domain of women and particularly not of women scholars. Under Hughes’ tutelage Plath read quite a lot of original folklore as well as such things as The White Goddess, putting her in touch with a world in which story was what counted and people didn’t need to be nice at all; in fact you could get away with pretty much anything so long as the story was on your side. Folktales are full of the “devastating vulgar wit” of the revenge she carried out on Assia — to quote Plath’s unfortunate Cambridge friend, Jane Baltzell Kopp, regarding a confrontation between Plath and an even more unfortunate girl over British table manners. (When the girl asked Plath if she must carve up her eggs with a knife and fork, Plath replied: “What do you do with yours, swallow them whole?”) Plath especially liked the tales of the Aino people in Japan: “Marvelous untouched humor, primal: bang, bang, you’re dead.” The initial effect on her poetry would be imagistic rather than narrative, allowing wilder associations and less explanation. But within a short time her poems would start to tell their own stories. Stories of revenge are among the most vulgarly funny of all, excusing the “marvelous primal humor” of “Lady Lazarus” and its “bang, bang, you’re dead.”
If Hughes’ influence on Plath should not be minimized, it also ought not to be overstated. Much of what Plath brought to Ariel and the stronger work preceding it was all her own. Her interest in painting and other visual arts stands out. While her eye was always by far the clearer, Hughes helped Plath again by stripping away the received language she had used to express it. But there were other verbal influences, Theodore Roethke important among them, and Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton, both of whom she admired (if with typical competitiveness). Though Hughes could only encourage Plath’s awareness of recent history, as an Englishman married to a more-or-less German, he had little to do with what she did about it. Probably no man could have helped much here. If myth study was not a territory that welcomed women, Steiner-land was even less in those days. The woman who broached the nexus between the two most decisively would not be Plath but Margaret Atwood, only seven years younger, who Plath would have gotten to know almost inevitably and with what feelings of envy, resentment, and admiration one can only imagine.
Plath does not go as far as Margaret Atwood eventually would. Atwood’s mining of folklore for answers to extremity is superior, though itself not unerring; by contrast Plath remains predictable and heavily atmospheric on actual political concerns, the literalism of her imagination restricting her vision of power structures to poles of depression and mania, Nazi and Jew, black and white. Plath’s role as female is that of victim, and her ammunition is fecundity. (It was always one of her trump cards against Hughes’ fan club — Dido Merwin as well as Assia and his sister Olwyn — that they were all child-free, in her words “this set of barren women.”) Her work is most grounded in the real world by her concern with biological childbirth and its closeness to death, “adhering to rules, to rules, to rules,” as she caricatured herself in “A Birthday Present.” Which is also to say that Plath was only thirty and the narrowness of her political vision even then open to subversion from within by her episodes of mania. Mania can take charge, rewrite the rules, and kill, though the killing is typically seen in terms of justified vengeance for a slight; it also tends to behave abominably, lending credence to her vision of “a great, stark, bloody play acting itself out over and over again behind the sunny facade of our daily rituals…the dark, cruel, murderous shades, the demon-animals, the Hungers.”
Since her condition was permanent though potentially controllable, it’s likely that the theme of death and rebirth would have recurred throughout her future work and kept her interested in myth. Enough of Hughes had rubbed off that during her separation from him, she continued to believe in magic and the occult; she may well have seen herself as an acolyte leaving her master in these arts. She cannot have overlooked the resonance between the title Ariel and Ariel’s departure from Prospero, a more generous view of Hughes than Plath was apt to convey in those times. “Fever 103” is famously about anguish becoming art: “[It] is about two kinds of fire — the fires of hell, which merely agonize, and the fires of heaven, which purify. During the poem, the first sort of fire suffers itself into the second.” The androgynous identity who emerges is a spirit of pure light, “a pure acetylene/Virgin,” more interesting than the schematized female who dominates so much of Plath’s sexual politics. The latter had gained complexity when it became impossible for Plath to ignore the existence of women other than herself, one more way in which Assia Wevill set her imagination free. But “Fever 103” represents the first instance at which Plath could imagine herself as female without any conventional associations of femininity. The coup is qualified by the conditions under which it was possible for her to imagine this: if one wishes to remain forever burning and forever young, there is only one way. (Plath may have expected to die of pneumonia at the time of writing, perhaps slightly vitiating the finality with which she planned to punish Hughes by her suicide; she may also have had in mind the symbolic death of her depression.)
The living death would be Hughes’. It is likely that Plath imagined Hughes pilloried by his contemporaries for bringing about her death, but less so that she guessed he would be imprisoned by his own obsession with her. It is with Plath’s afterlife through Hughes that her personal story takes on the Japanese flavor Elizabeth Hardwick first saw in her poetry (she cannily compared Plath’s aesthetic to Yukio Mishima’s). The story of the man trapped of his own free will in the artwork of a woman who had come to hate him is straight out of Edogawa Rampo, all the more so if it serves to maintain a vampiric relationship between the two after death — his control and molding of her, her domination and punishment of him, her rival’s falling in love with both of them and murdered by the two in concert, with occult and sadomasochistic undertones. It is not at all clear that Plath would have seen this as a bad thing.
To be obsessed with a person’s work is not necessarily good for the work any more than it is for the person. The most neutral thing to be said about Hughes’ custodianship of Plath’s work is that it was very much Hughes’ version of Plath that he tended for the rest of his life, and he did tend it. To say that the journals are forever incomplete, the version of Ariel that he published very different from that Plath had in mind, and the release of Plath’s work on the whole inconsistent and frustrating, is to say that we can all hope our executorship not to fall to such an interested party; it is also to admit that just as Hughes need never have published or preserved the largest amount of Plath’s work or admitted to keeping some of it back, he need not have given us his cumulative portrait of Plath as a serious artist rather than a madwoman or, at best, the sacrifice to some dark god or other. About Ariel itself, he had this to say in his introduction to the first edition of Plath’s journals, a brief essay representing the first time Hughes had spoken in public about his dead wife and including the revelation that he had destroyed her journal from the Ariel period, so we wouldn’t be hearing about it from Plath. “One can compare what was really going on in her to a process of alchemy… I knew that what I had always felt must happen had now begun to happen, that her real self, being the real poet, would now speak for itself, and would throw off all those lesser and artificial selves that had monopolized the words up to that point… When a real self finds language, and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event — as Ariel was.”
Ariel is thus about Plath the person becoming Plath the poet, not about marriage, childbirth, infidelity, rage, madness, illness, violence, atrocity, nature, and healing, all as experienced in the worst year of Plath’s life. On one level it’s a tremendous disservice to the truth, compounded by Hughes’ observation to the effect that Ariel is valuable precisely because it is not self-conscious as art (“that strange vital substance which its language seems to be”). If one has read Plath’s journals and found out just how difficult writing was for her after her suicide attempt at twenty and treatment with electroshock, which destroys many of the subtle capacities of memory and cognition that go into creative work, one will not be long in reaching for a copy of Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Before we blow a gasket, though, we might consider the possibility that Hughes’ view of Ariel as “a strange vital substance” was not far from Plath’s intentions. Plath was much more interested in art and artifice than Hughes was, but also to a different purpose; whereas Hughes was a storyteller and his artifices followed the trail of his ideas, Plath was closer to the graphic artist’s ideal of spiritual discovery within artifice, so that the work’s ideas descend naturally from its shape. Some of her best-known poems are about the ability of art to make meaning out of nothingness and the difficulty of doing so. Her first mature poem was “The Colossus,” which describes her loss of her father in this context:
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed…
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of plum color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.
Once again one wonders what inspiration Plath might have found in Japanese art and literature if she had been exposed to it. The poet’s project in “The Colossus” is a familiar one — the “grieving process” (a term then not yet in use) compared to the creation of an artwork, such as a memorial statue — but what is strange about it is that the artist has lost the desire to complete the work, instead being content to make her home there. It is on the one hand a clever metaphor for maturation both in art and in loss. On the other hand its literalism opens up disquieting possibilities: it sounds very much as if this woman is living in her father’s actual, petrified body. After working ten years to recover her ability to describe the real world, the mature Plath began to use her painterly precision of language to confuse the boundaries between the objective and subjective. This allowed her to “write what she knew,” focusing on the creative process and the curious way her own mind worked, and yet began to put her in touch with an enormous palette of experience, far more than the “love and lookings” that she saw as the extent of what she knew firsthand.
Yet she was still hemmed in by her lack of interest in people as such. To take one example, we can contrast “Berck-Plage” from Ariel to “Among the Narcissi,” one of Ariel’s rejects. Both were inspired by the illness and death of one of the Hughes’ neighbors. The latter poem mentions the dying man by name, unusually for Plath. While the language and mood are already those of Plath’s Ariel period, the effect is quite different:
Spry, wry, and gray as these March sticks,
Percy bows, in his blue peajacket, among the narcissi.
He is recuperating from something on the lung.
The poem is lovely, poignant, and stilted; it is, one might say, English. It could be mistaken for one of the better poems by Anne Ridler. “Berck-Plage” is American in its sweep, in some ways very much like the contemporary poetry of veterans such as George Oppen, and European in the traumatic distance of its language. Whereas “Among the Narcissi” explains everything with the painful sincerity of, say, Aurelia Plath, “Berck-Plage” explains nothing and replaces exposition with images to suggest a world, or a century, of pain and grotesquerie, clearly linked to the recent wars. Its attack is on the eye and the emotions, the organs of desire causing the reader to do the job on himself (or herself) as they reach for clues:
I am not a smile.
These children are after something, with hooks and cries,
And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.
This is the side of a man: his red ribs,
The nerves bursting like trees, and this is the surgeon:
One mirrory eye—
A facet of knowledge.
On a striped mattress in one room
An old man is vanishing.
There is no help in his weeping wife.
Where are the eye-stones, yellow and valuable,
And the tongue, sapphire of ash.
In “Berck-Plage” Plath writes out of her own horror at the neighbor’s death and the sight of the French war veterans on the beach without concern for fairness or kindness. As Hughes would write, Plath had recognized that her “painful subjectivity” was her real topic; but it is not the kind of subjectivity that we are used to in “cries from the heart,” as Plath described conventionally engaged or topical poetry. It is a subjectivity created by the craft of seeing — seeing analytically, but artificially, as the graphic artist does and also the neurotic. To experience the chill of this subjectivity one does not need an artistic voiceover to tell us “This is all very sad, and you should feel a certain way about it because it is the fate of us all,” as is more the case in “Among the Narcissi.” “Among the Narcissi” is the work of an eye that watches itself seeing, while “Berck-Plage” makes us see as Plath chooses to. Which is not to confuse this with health, in every case. The old Cockney couple at the poems’ center might have been better served on a human level by a poem more like one of Ridler’s. Plath’s vision is again Continental in its aristocratic disdain for these petits gens in their stubborn decency (what Ursula Le Guin called “the boring goodness of ordinary people”), as if they could never be interesting except when their decency is given the lie by a danse macabre. Plath had no time for Woolf’s Mrs. Brown.
But the prosiness of “Among the Narcissi” is less than that of many earlier poems, and suggests yet another change that was taking place in the writer. Precisely the lack in Plath — her failure to see others as quite human, the more other they were — might have allowed her to become English enough to create fiction there. She had chosen a country in which her being “true to my own weirdness” might have been an asset in writing about others. Plath already had the English gift for caricature and funny-eldritch digression. In her last years her discovery of English dottiness, not the “Wicker Man” sort Hughes had put her in touch with but rather Stevie Smith’s and Saki’s type, was giving her more and more of the sentences whose oddness would lend Ariel so much of its unique mood and hints of mental derangement: “It is like being mailed into space, a thin, silly message,” she wrote on looking into the eyes of sheep in Yorkshire. The phrase sounds very different if one speaks it in an approximation of a British accent, less schizotypical and more funny. “A Birthday Present” is a poem firmly within the Ariel period in which we find Plath beginning to master the juxtaposition of her “weird” voice, an English grown as stripped of regional markers as Blake’s, with genuine British English of the sort Percy might have used. Before she learned to do this, Plath’s poems tended to say too much; the plot of “A Birthday Present” is itself melodramatic if taken literally, the abandoned Plath imagining her death as a birthday present sent to her by Hughes: “But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.” Too much in this spirit would be tedious, and one still understands Dido Merwin’s exasperation when Plath adds a touch of the surreal by particularizing the imagined “present”: “I would not mind if it was bones, or a pearl button.” Then, the already surprising “pearl button” — one imagines it neat and homely, quite English — is followed by “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year,” a note-perfect British English sentence in context, very much like one of Liverpool comedian Rob Wilton’s routines: “The day war broke out, my missus said to me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
It’s a pity that Sylvia Plath died when she was on the verge of finding her own humor. An outstanding essay on this topic, “Plath’s Comedy” by J.D. O’Hara, compares much of her humor to that of Samuel Beckett, which would ground her blossoming yet further in the British Isles. (Plath had in fact visited Ireland, with Hughes, during the last weeks of her marriage, and in her own words “fell in love” with it.) To find black comedy she didn’t have to go much further than her own Central European and New England roots; the latter had already helped to inform The Bell Jar, written in a voice that improves if one speaks it with Plath’s own Boston accent. (Plath said more than once that all her late work was written to be read aloud.) And it’s hard to imagine Plath not relishing the former as more and more of it was translated, especially the German variety of Grass, Böll and Brecht. But comedy of this sort isn’t an easy blend with the humorless Golden Bough brand of mysticism that she had imbibed from Hughes, and again one thinks of Atwood. The tone that is best able to take white European myth and atrocity seriously at one and the same time while also keeping a sense of humor is perhaps that of the Commonwealth. If Plath had discovered her own voice in this tone, it would have increased her identification with England but may not have been the only source for it. England was then a country just taking its first painful breaths after the physical battering it received in World War II, as a coda to the breaking of its soul in World War I. Here Plath had perhaps finally found a reflection of her own experience as a woman whose despondency was guessed at by very few. Her poems from severe illness in late 1962 sound like the voice of her adopted culture — this proudest of women writing with a trace of humor about her own humbling to the point of squalor: “Surely the sky is not that color,/Surely the grass should be rippling.” And: “Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.”
In Janet Malcolm’s words, Plath’s “relentlessly humorless vision of herself as the heroine of a great drama” is what we remember: and it lends itself to myth. But at the same time, Plath was putting aside some of the slavishness to myth found in early poems such as “Lorelei,” “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” “The Disquieting Muses,” and others dating back to her first collection. Since they provide more of a clue to Plath’s psychological process in the gestation of Ariel and some other late work, these poems are now better known than many of the best works of Plath’s final period. “Tulips,” “A Birthday Present,” “Getting There,” “Berck-Plage,” the “Bee” sequence, “Mary’s Song,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” and “Letter in November” are at least as important poetically as “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” or “Fever 103,” and more nuanced, with references to the European and other catastrophes (“It is Russia I have to get across, it is some war or other”) that are less dependent on personal hyperbole. The less Plath bothered about myth, the more successfully she created it. “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are not important chiefly for their debts to the Electra or Lazarus stories, as Plath introduced them to the BBC, but for their perfect aim at British and American neuroses and evasions about the war; anyone reading them can hear exactly what some kinds of chatter sounded like to a person whose sex and history exiled her from their classes, and while not everyone has enjoyed the experience, nobody has forgotten it. But “Getting There” and “Mary’s Song” touch on the war without any personal mythology at all; “Nick and the Candlestick” is a poem about motherhood, not fertility rites; and A. Alvarez was right to single out “Ariel” itself as perhaps Plath’s best poem ever (apart from its “Nigger-eye/Berries,” an ugly lapse): a metaphor for nothing other than itself, the poet’s ride across the moors creating the poem as disciplined inspiration creates art. If “Ariel” represented the truest direction of Plath’s future development, she might have ended up closest to the English metaphysical school.
This would be fascinating if true, for no school of English-language poets is more a group of storytellers. The art of Sylvia Plath represents an achievement for art rather than myth, and the art of a full life does change. Myth in its truest sense accommodates the changes of such a life. Plath’s debt to myth was in the way out that it offered from the plot of Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is in some ways the story of Plath’s life but did not need to be. Myth allowed her stories. Whether her difficulty in creating plots was due to her electroshock therapy or inherent in her individual gift, we won’t know, but there is a great deal of evidence that she took comfort in myth’s proof that no matter what, there would always be stories. The stories Plath explored in her young adulthood were borrowed at first and increasingly her own. To those reading her work in search of “the myth of Sylvia Plath,” the answer is that we don’t have it; it would have been written by herself, had she only had time.