A postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair.
BY ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
She made sure to spare the children, leaving milk and bread for the two toddlers to find when they woke up. She stuffed the cracks of the doors and windows with cloths and tea towels. Then she turned on the gas.
On the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, a Monday, a nurse found the poet Sylvia Plath in her flat on Fitzroy Road in London, an address where W.B. Yeats had once lived. She was “lying on the floor of the kitchen with her head resting on the oven,” according to a local paper, the St. Pancras Chronicle.
Plath had killed herself. She was 30.
Because the death was a suicide, Plath’s family did not much advertise it, said Peter K. Steinberg, an editor, with Karen Kukil, of “The Letters of Sylvia Plath,” the second volume of which is to be published this year. And although she was a published poet who had received good reviews, and had determinedly made her way in a literary world dominated by men, the press did not pay much attention.
There were eight-line death notices in tiny print in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald. To find them, a sharp-eyed reader had to look under “H,” for Plath’s married name, Hughes. The notices were almost as terse as a headstone: of London, England, formerly of Wellesley, Mass., wife of Ted Hughes, mother of Frieda and Nicolas (her son’s given name mysteriously missing its “h”), daughter of Aurelia, older sister of Warren.
Plath’s hometown paper, The Townsman of Wellesley, falsely reported that she had died of “virus pneumonia.” It nodded toward her literary career, “as poet and author.” But it did not name her poetry collection, “The Colossus,” first published in 1960 to positive reviews in the British press, or say that her poems had been printed in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker.
In its Fleet Street sensationalism, the St. Pancras Chronicle’s report was more satisfying, and more truthful.
“Tragic Death of Young Authoress,” the headline blared, before subordinating her reputation to that of her husband. “Found with her head in the gas oven in the kitchen of their home in Fitzroy-road, N.W. 1, last week was 30-year-old authoress Mrs. Sylvia Plath Hughes, wife of one of Britain’s best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes,” the article said. It went on to say that her doctor had arranged for her to see a psychiatrist, “but the letter was delivered to the wrong address.” It ended with the coroner’s verdict that Plath had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and, to leave no doubt in the matter, “that she killed herself.”
At that moment in time, it was easy to see why she might have wanted to. She was estranged from Hughes after discovering that he was having an affair with another woman, Assia Wevill. On Dec. 28, 1962, just weeks before her death, Alfred A. Knopf, which had published her poetry, had rejected her novel “The Bell Jar.” Judith B. Jones, the editor who sent Plath the rejection notice, did not try to soft-pedal it.
“To be quite honest with you, we didn’t feel that you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” wrote Jones, who has been credited with rescuing the diary of Anne Frank from the reject pile and with discovering Julia Child. Jones said she had found the attitude expressed in the first half of “The Bell Jar,” about the young heroine’s adventures as a magazine intern in New York, “perfectly normal,” and had liked it well enough. As for the second half, Jones wrote, “I was not at all prepared as a reader to accept the extent of her illness and the suicide attempt.”
An editor at Harper & Row concurred with Jones’s assessment. In a letter addressed to “Mrs. Ted Hughes,” this editor wrote, a little more charitably, that the first part of the novel was “arresting, a fresh and bright recreation of a girl’s encounter with the big city — universal and individual.” But she added, “With her breakdown, however, the story for us ceases to be a novel and becomes more a case history.”
As she grappled with the rejection of editors and her husband, Plath spent her last months writing the poems that would secure her literary reputation.
Six days after she died, her friend, the literary critic A. Alvarez, predicted in The Observer that those poems, many of which were later published in her best-known collection, “Ariel,” would establish her as “the most gifted woman poet of our time.”
Thus it was in death that Plath found her literary due.
The public fascination with her death has hovered over her family. One of Warren Plath’s two daughters, Susan Plath Winston, recalled the surprise that she and her sister would feel when their aunt’s name appeared, for instance, in a snippet of “The Simpsons.”
Worse was when Plath’s son, Nicholas, a fisheries biologist in Alaska, hanged himself in 2009, at 47. Because of who his mother was, his death received front-page treatment. “Your family pain being literary/celebrity news is a bizarre place to be,” said Winston, a lawyer in Oklahoma City who represents victims of domestic violence.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston on Oct. 27, 1932. Her father, Otto Emil Plath, a German-born professor at Boston University, died when she was 8, and her mother, the former Aurelia Schober, made ends meet teaching in a university secretarial program. Biographers have linked Plath’s bouts of depression to the childhood trauma of losing her father, as well as to her own perfectionism and her mother’s smothering nature.
As a student at Smith College, Plath won a “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle magazine in New York in 1953, an experience that became the basis of “The Bell Jar.” Later that summer, she had a breakdown after being rejected from a writing course at Harvard. She received shock treatment, and then swallowed most of a bottle of sleeping pills.
She met Hughes, a future British poet laureate, at a party in 1956 while studying at Cambridge University on a Fulbright grant. (In describing the encounter in her journal, she wrote of biting his cheek so hard she drew blood; he pocketed her earrings.) They married within four months, a romantic union that was also a literary partnership.
It was after their separation in fall 1962 that Plath — jealous, feverish, addicted to sleeping pills and writing at dawn while her children slept — produced poems like “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” that helped make “Ariel” an exemplar of confessional poetry.
“The Bell Jar” was not published in the United States until 1971. (It had been published in England a month before Plath died, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, for fear, Kukil said, that its resemblances to real life would attract libel suits.) In 1982, she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
“Lady Lazarus” has been quoted so often it has become a kind of epitaph for Plath.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
Gloria Steinem, who was a year behind Plath at Smith College, published Plath’s BBC radio play, “Three Women,” in an early edition of Ms. magazine — “probably one of the reasons she was taken up by second-wave feminism,” said Kukil, the associate curator of special collections at Smith. “The Bell Jar” has risen from the ashes of rejection to become a perennial favorite of high school and college students. It spent 24 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 1971, and had sold nearly three million paperback copies by the 25th anniversary of its publication in 1996.
“I like to think she somehow helped to open up and legitimate female anger,” said Gail Crowther, author of “The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath,” among other books about the writer.
Plath made the object of much of that anger clear elsewhere in “Lady Lazarus.”