The 'Always' and 'Never' Life of Sylvia Plath

"If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time," she wrote in The Bell Jar, "then I'm neurotic as hell."

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In the ninth grade, I took an elective course in Abnormal Psychology. I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist and had developed a morbid fascination with things like electroshock therapy, multiple personality disorder, and Sigmund Freud. Motivated by these interests, I checked out The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath's fictionalized autobiography, from my high school's tiny library. Alas, the book was the most darkly mature I'd ever read at that point in my life, and I was too tender an age to understand much but the work's overwhelming despair. It would be many years before I would return to Plath. When I did, my interests were, thankfully, much more sane and humane.

Now, a few days before the 50th anniversary of her death at the age of 30, I can say I appreciate and admire Plath—her life and her work—even as I mourn for her, mourn for what could have been and what should have been for her as both a woman and an artist. I've come to understand better both the pain and the pleasures of Plath's body of work, a corpus pruned to unnatural, Bonsai proportions by her own hand.

In both life and art, Plath seemingly embodied all the contradictions that plagued life for women of the mid-20th century, a time marked by a perplexing mixture of post-war pessimism and optimism, along with its phantom promise of across-the-board equality held out like a carrot on a stick, tantalizing and teasing to the point of torture for women as gifted and ambitious as Plath. Her life was a dialectic of such contradictions whose synthesis, tragically, was suicide.

Beauty and brains never existed less easily, perhaps, than in Plath. From her years as a student at Smith College to those of a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, Plath strove for both the life of an academic and that of the debutante. Her intelligence and attractiveness—along with an outward confidence—won over fellow poet Ted Hughes, to whom she was married mere months after meeting.

Yet, while she bragged about dating hundreds of men before marrying Hughes, her ostensible sexual liberation was belied by an intense, but sadly unfulfilled, desire for Hughes' constancy in their marriage. The role Hughes' failures played in Plath's suicide is, understandably, the source of endless speculation and criticism.

During her marriage to Hughes, Plath held in tension the life of a serious writer, on the one hand, and that of a traditional wife and mother, on the other. They lived for a time in a quiet English village where she raised her children and bees, yet kept a workaholic's hours, rising in the early darkness each morning to write, during the prolific periods, entire poems before breakfast. "If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time," Plath famously wrote in The Bell Jar, "then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days."

The lack of a unified self was perhaps the very source of her poetry's richness. Plath displayed all the evidence of a manic/depressive personality from her youth. Her mother said that the two words she used most often were "always" and "never," a black-and-white, dialectical tendency that is reflected not only in her life, but even more starkly in lines from one of her most famous poems, "Daddy":

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.

As is clear from "Daddy," Plath wrote in a confessional style, one pioneered centuries earlier by America's first published poet, Anne Bradstreet, who, in mixing piety and poetry in another seeming contradiction foreshadowed Plath's paradoxical life as a woman poet. It is such paradoxes that distinguish Plath's work. For example, like most great artists, Plath began in imitation, discipline, and rigorous adherence to traditional forms, then moved away from these toward creativity and originality. She labored first under an anxiety of influence—among these, Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden, and Anne Sexton—before finding her own distinct voice, a voice marked by the freedom that only the disciplines of meter, form, sound, and sense can bring.

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Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

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