Books April 2004

Domesticated Goddess

"Dying is an art," said Sylvia Plath. But so is living, and she excelled at both—not that her biographers, with one wise and big-hearted exception, have noticed

Fall 1956: Sylvia Plath is typing a poem about a public execution. It isn't her poem; it is that of her new husband, Ted Hughes. She always types his poems and sends them to publishers. "Without Sylvia, Ted might have had to work in rose gardens ... for quite a few more years," his best friend once admitted. Hughes was still unknown then, and more inclined to work odd jobs in the great outdoors than to mail around manuscripts. In any case, in 1956 Plath is typing a poem, a poem about a bishop's being burned at the stake before the citizens of his town, a poem about the power of death—violent death—to win an audience for one's words. The poem's epigraph consists of the bishop's dying words; it is as striking as the poem itself: "If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached."

October 1962: four months before her suicide, at age thirty, Sylvia Plath is typing a poem about a mysterious "bee meeting." It is her own poem. Villagers are assembled to "hunt the queen." Almost imperceptibly their search assumes a new direction. They turn on Plath's speaker herself. There is a "blackout of knives" and, in an uncanny echo of Hughes's bishop, the slashed young woman intones,

I am the magician's girl who does not flinch,
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.

With a start we realize that the villagers have murdered her; she has acquiesced in her own killing—heroically, numbly, like the doomed bishop. The allusions to Hughes's poem are too numerous to ignore: rural execution, dumb-faced villagers in attendance, the victim's articulated refusal to flinch. And, possibly, the stygian suggestion that if you want to be credible, if you want your "doctrine" to be believed, you must be prepared to die for it. There is nothing like a cadaver to prove sincerity—or to seize the attention of the world.

Would we believe in Plath's poetry as much as we do had she not followed it with suicide? It's a distasteful question, and to answer it in the negative would seem to imply some untenable things: first, that she did well to kill herself, and second, that her poetry might not have made the grade without the violence in its history. Her poetry, as far as I'm concerned, is some of the most starkly gorgeous and audacious of all time; her gift for metaphor is unsurpassed in modern literature; and her honesty is searing, hard-won, and precise. If we could bottle her verse, it would be the strongest brew in the bar.

And yet we are drawn to the relation between art and life—and between art and death, as Plath herself was drawn to it, desperately, obsessively, and amorously. Had she not taken her life after those dark, death-fondling poems of her final months, the ones she called "the best poems of my life," the ones that "will make my name," but lived on, coffee-sipping, into comfortable middle age, we might have thought, with some of her more unsympathetic biographers, that she was a literary crybaby, a poseur, an unscrupulous appropriator of other people's feelings. And she would have understood such a response. She, too, felt that all is play, all is poetic dalliance, that does not involve real stakes and exact a price. "If it were death / I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes. / I would know you were serious," she writes (as though to herself) in "A Birthday Present." Death is authenticating.

If Plath could admit it, why can't we? Who ever said life does not—or should not—influence how we read our writers? Do scholars of Heidegger say as much? They owe a good deal of their opinion of him to his activities as a Nazi. If an artist's work can be eclipsed by life, surely it can be enhanced as well—even if this enhancement is monstrous.

But her suicide was no career move. There was the matter, first, of Hughes's abandoning her in the fall of 1962—no small matter, given Plath's unstinting adoration of him and the couple's total fusion of their artistic, professional, emotional, and domestic lives, a fusion Diane Middlebrook documents in the new biography Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, A Marriage. Anyone who thinks that Plath was purely morbid or misanthropic should read her journal entries about Hughes in the first several years of their marriage. They burst with light and love. He was her unrivaled hero almost until the day he left her for another woman. She beat and badgered herself to be "worthy" of him; she loved his scent, his size, his brain, his heart, his verse, his prose, even the "cruel streak" she thought she discerned in him. It was all part of his mythic manliness in her eyes, his encompassing genius. If she was difficult and demanding at times, as seems obvious, it was because of her native volatility, and not because her love for him knew any bounds. When he left her, the sky fell.

There was also her lifelong fascination with death. Her father had succumbed to diabetes when she was eight, and since then death had lived with her like a tempting friend whose hand she sought during moments of uncertainty. When it looked at the ripe old age of twenty like she wasn't going to make it as a writer, she tried to fling herself into his arms; she tried too hard, swallowed too many sleeping pills, and vomited them up while unconscious, thus enabling her rescue, two days later, from a hiding place under the house. When she related this ordeal later—in her novel The Bell Jar, and also in poems, letters, and conversations with intimates—she lent it a terrible sensuality.

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." She dreamed of "giv[ing] myself crashing, fighting," to him—and she did.

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.

"The woman is perfected," rings the chill, monumental first line.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga.

... Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

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? In any case, she placed two pitchers of milk next to her slumbering children soon after, taped up their nursery door, put her pale cheek against the stove after turning on the gas, and allowed the "odors to bleed / From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower," allowed them to bleed away her life. She came as close to re-enacting her poem as one can in a small London apartment, without fanfare.

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