As tragedy approaches, she is stricken, broken—and at the height of her artistic powers.
On October 13, 1959, a Tuesday, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother and brother from Saratoga Springs, New York, where she and her husband, Ted Hughes, were passing a couple of months at the Yaddo artist’s colony. “Greetings! As usual our main news is that we are wellfed. Every dinner seems bound to outdo the last. Last night it was juicy ham, pineapple (baked), sweet potatoes, corn, spinach, salad, hot rolls, butter, and deep dish apple pie.” On the same day, she made an entry in her journal. “Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star … Am dead already.”
Sylvia Plath, as everybody knows—but as she did not, on the autumnal Tuesday that she was writing about baked pineapples to her mother and about being menaced by gods in her diary—committed suicide on February 11, 1963. And as the destructive energy released by a suicide goes fissuring chaotically into the future—into family, friends, society at large—so it also blows backward into the past. It changes everything. It’s what makes the garden-variety bipolar shuffle I have rather cheaply highlighted above not human and sad-funny, but terrible. And it demands, as we contemplate the massive second volume of her collected letters—which begins in 1956 with the line “What a lovely birthday I had!” and ends a week before her death with “I am incapable of being myself & loving myself. Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea”—that we examine ourselves. Is there a way, we must ask, to read this stuff with anything other than a kind of souped-up literary prurience? Magnetized, breathless to the impending smash?