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.