Who is Sylvia Plath?

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, by Carl Rollyson, St Martin’s Press, RRP£19.69/RRP$29.99, 319 pages

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, by Andrew Wilson, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20, 448 pages

Sylvia Plath: Poems, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, Faber, RRP£14.99, 136 pages

Sylvia Plath photographed in front of Notre Dame, Paris, in 1956

“I have done it again,” declares Sylvia Plath in the opening line of one of her most famous poems – the tour de force that is “Lady Lazarus”. “One year in every ten I manage it.” What the speaker manages every decade is, like Lazarus, to return from the dead. Now, 50 years after this poem was composed, Lady Lazarus has done it once more, arising for a fresh generation of readers, as Plath has done regularly since her suicide helped transform her from poet to cultural phenomenon.

The last time Plath was big news was 15 years ago, when her husband Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters, the collection of poems he wrote to her ghost. When Birthday Letters came out, Plath had already been dead for 35 years – five years longer than she had lived. At the time of her death, in February 1963, Plath had published some poems in The New Yorker; her first collection, The Colossus, had been very well received three years earlier. Hughes was better known, in no small part thanks to Plath’s efforts as his agent, publicist and typist. It was Plath who submitted his collection Hawk in the Rain to the New York Poetry Center’s prize in 1957; winning it kick-started Hughes’s career.

In September 1962, after six years of marriage and two children, Plath and Hughes had separated over his affair with Assia Wevill. “Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad,” Plath wrote to her mother. In two months she produced some 40 poems that would become the Ariel collection: “I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

She was right, but these unstoppable, brilliant, raging, triumphant poems were not sufficient to sustain her through the crisis of separation and becoming the single parent of two small children during one of the coldest ever English winters. Plath was isolated, furious, betrayed, flu-ridden, and then her great poems began to be returned by timorous editors. Her novel, The Bell Jar, was published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” that winter; it was met with tepid praise. Anti-depressants were in their infancy. On February 11 it all got the better of her. In the early hours of the morning, having opened a window in the children’s room and left them with bread and milk, she sealed off the kitchen with towels and cloths, turned on the gas in the oven, and lay her head inside.

Plath died intestate, leaving Hughes with a manuscript she called Ariel; he published it two years later. It led to instant fame and, because many of the poems appeared to be directed towards him, Hughes was under fire, too. Hughes’s version of Ariel omitted 12 poems that were, he said, “aimed too nakedly”, a decision that triggered accusations that Hughes was silencing Plath. Others claimed she had traduced him in her suicidal madness, driving him away with her possessive outbursts. The battle over who was to blame would rage for another 30 years, as Plath and her writing became a casus belli in the battle of the sexes.

The Ariel poems were so remarkable because women poets had never written like this before: they are personal, raw, incantatory. But they are also informed by Plath’s talent, and years of hard graft: her virtuosity is on display throughout. Poems such as the unforgettable “Daddy” used the rhythms and imagery of a nursery rhyme to reject, defiantly, the father figure who would infantilise her. Imagining marriage as being shackled to yet another “Fascist”, the speaker symbolically kills off the men who have held her back: “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two/ ... Daddy, you can lie back now./ There’s a stake in your fat black heart/ And the villagers never liked you./ They are dancing and stamping on you./ They always knew it was you./ Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

In 1965, this was electrifying stuff, a call to feminist arms, and Plath became a heroine, giving voice to women’s frustration – but also to their tenderness, and maternity. If the Ariel poems vibrate with outrage, they also seek an escape hatch, trying to rise above the meanness of rage.

In 1967, after wrangling between Hughes and Plath’s mother Aurelia, The Bell Jar was published under Plath’s name. Hailed as a woman’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye, it is an excoriating satire of 1950s America and the double standards of its gender roles. Informed by Plath’s own traumatic experience in 1953 of depression, electric-shock therapy and attempted suicide at the age of 20, it tells of a young woman trying not to fall apart in a world that pulls her to pieces. Its heroine, Esther Greenwood, spoke for young women, articulating their anger, paralysis and fear with intelligence and humour. It is because of Plath’s status as a lightning rod for our culture’s attitudes towards women that the cover to Faber’s 50th anniversary edition of The Bell Jar, published earlier this year, caused such controversy. Some felt the young woman applying lipstick against a pink background demeaned the book (and its readers); Faber argued that the cover symbolised Esther’s struggle with 1950s ideals of femininity.

The half-century since Plath’s death has been marked by two new Plath biographies and an edition of her poems selected by Carol Ann Duffy. After her proudly woman-centred introduction (Plath was “a heroine to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Here was a uniquely radical, stylised poetic voice that claimed for its subject something which had not previously appeared in ‘the canon’ – the experience of being a woman”), it is disconcerting to find Duffy opening with two poems Plath wrote in the first flush of infatuation with Hughes. Certainly he shared this sense of his own centrality, famously designating all the poems that Plath wrote before she met him as “Juvenilia” in his 1987 edition of Plath’s Collected Poems. But given the contention and controversy that beset their relationship, and given Plath’s fury at Hughes when she died, it is not clear that Plath would have appreciated this structure; as if her life’s work began when she met Ted, when in fact she had been publishing since she was eight years old.

In his biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson insists that Plath should be read apart from her relationship with Hughes. But this is an equally artificial construct, forcing us to focus on the immature Plath and ignore all the work that makes her significant. There is no great writing to carry us along – neither Plath’s, nor Wilson’s. The prose is slothful and error-ridden: “Lady Lazarus” is even printed as “Lazy Lazarus,” a fine Freudian typo.

Carl Rollyson’s American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath tells Plath’s whole story; anyone seeking a fair-minded perspective would do better to read this account – but it also has its limitations and distortions.

Both biographers consulted Plath archives and the vast Ted Hughes archive at Emory University in Georgia; they conducted new interviews with Plath’s contemporaries (had she lived, Plath would have turned 80 late last year). It was not until 2003, hard as this is to believe, that a biographer stated that Plath committed suicide while in the grip of clinical depression, rather than some kind of hysterical female madness. Diane Middlebrook, in Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, a Marriage, was the first to be matter-of-fact: “Depression killed Sylvia Plath,” she stated. So obvious does this conclusion seem, it is hard to remember that it was once the subject of venomous debate. Neither Rollyson nor Wilson quarrels with this analysis; both suggest (and many would agree) that Plath showed classic symptoms of bipolar disorder; Wilson also leans toward a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. But both are also in the business, as their titles suggest, of returning madness and mythology to the tale.

Wilson is a pathologiser: his Plath is obsessive, compulsive, excessive. When Aurelia notes her baby’s changing weight and height, he calls it “obsessive curatorial zeal”: we might call it trying to be a good parent. Wilson admits that some of the young Sylvia’s histrionics might be the “typical behaviour of a teenage girl” but adds “what is interesting is that she did not grow out of this capriciousness”. Plath didn’t grow out of much: she died at 30. No one wants to be remembered for adolescent maunderings and one suspects that a writer as intelligent and acerbic (her IQ was in the genius range) would have hated it.

Rollyson is more admiring of Plath, and readier to do justice to her genius. He opens American Isis with the declaration, “Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” This is not a new observation: by 1994 it was such a cliché that it led me to write a PhD thesis examining our culture’s persistent equation of these women. It is also not a useful comparison, but Rollyson keeps returning to it, straining to parallel Plath’s life and marriage to Hughes with Monroe’s life and marriage to Arthur Miller. Rollyson’s mythical ambitions don’t end there: as his title states, he thinks Plath is an “Isis”, a comparison she herself made, as he notes. But Plath had a mythical imagination. She and Hughes represented themselves as acolytes worshipping a variety of goddesses and Plath also wrote poems and journal entries about Electra, Persephone, Ariadne, Venus and Christ, to name just a few. Rollyson takes this rather literally. When Sylvia’s family moved from the coast to the suburbs of Boston, Rollyson writes, “As angry as Coriolanus, a bereft Sylvia Plath went into exile.” She was eight.

Neither of these books captures Plath’s wit or charm, her mordant gallows humor or exuberant joys, let alone her somersaulting love of language. These are her saving graces even at her most narcissistic. Hughes wrote in Birthday Letters that Plath once launched into a tirade against England’s eternal “dinge” in the late 1950s. Demanding to know whether everything in the country was black because black paint is cheaper, she pronounced that she had discovered Britain’s “sole indigenous art-form – depressionist!” She would not have appreciated being reduced to a depressionist herself.

“I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light.” So ends Sylvia Plath’s “Witch Burning,” the penultimate section of her long “Poem for A Birthday”. She is indeed still a bit lost in the flames around her: but they are dying down, and one day she will, as she promised in her poems, rise out of the ashes: “I have a self to recover, a queen,” she knew. Eventually we will learn it, too.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia. Her new book ‘Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby’ (Virago) is published in June

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