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Sylvia Plath: The life of a tortured poet

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Sylvia Plath would have turned 80 this month. Stylist looks at the life and on-going legacy of the tortured poet

Words: Terri White, Photos: Rex Features

It was the coldest winter in 200 years. The frost clung to the windows; the pipes froze and inside 23 Fitzroy Road in London’s Primrose Hill, American-born poet Sylvia Plath and her two small children battled sickness as they tried to keep warm.

But 30-year-old Plath wasn’t just fighting flu; the emotional strain of the last five months was weighing heavily upon her. After her husband, poet Ted Hughes, left her for another woman, she’d found herself plagued by the depression she knew all too well. Insomnia was her bedfellow once again and she’d been prescribed antidepressants while receiving daily visits from a nurse.

At 4.30am on the morning of 11 February 1963, Plath left out bread and milk for her sleeping children, closed the kitchen door, carefully sealed it with wet towels, turned on the gas and laid her head in the oven. By the time she was discovered less than five hours later, Sylvia Plath was dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. But in that moment someone else was born – one of the most famous female poets and enduring feminist icons of our time.

Plath’s suicide was not the first time she had tried to end her life. That was at the age of 20, following her very first descent into depression. It came after a difficult stint as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York in 1953 (later portrayed in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar).

ABOVE: Sylvia Plath pictured in 1954

Plath was crippled by insomnia and her inability to write a word. She was diagnosed as suffering from severe depression, and underwent her first course of the now controversial electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). The treatment traumatized Plath who shortly afterwards took fistfuls of sleeping pills, crawled into a hole under her house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and waited for the end.

She would later write of how she “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.” Two days later, with her family frantically searching unaware she was under their feet, Plath was discovered moaning and barely conscious.

While Plath’s creative crisis that summer may have triggered her breakdown, arguably it had been within her since childhood. Probably since the day, a week after her eighth birthday, when her father Otto died of complications from untreated diabetes. Upon being told the news, Plath vowed never to speak to God again and in her 1962 poem Daddy wrote: “At 20, I tried to die / and get back, back, back to you / I thought even the bones would do.” For the rest of Plath’s life, the depression was always there, waiting patiently for her.

Madness & Genius

Plath’s work and her mental illness have, in the 49 years since her death, become inextricably intertwined. The debate on how they fed each other has raged among scholars, feminists or otherwise: did her high intelligence leave her more susceptible to depression? Did her depression fuel periods of great creativity? At its most crude: is there a link between genius and madness?

In 2001, Professor James C Kaufman did indeed find a link – naming it the ‘Sylvia Plath effect’. He conducted a study of 1,629 writers, which revealed that poets and in particular, female poets, are more likely to exhibit symptoms of mental illness. In a second study of 520 high-profile American women, he again found that poets were more likely to have mental disorders than women of other professions such as journalists, politicians and actresses. “I think the same things that make people sensitive to problems in their life can also give people the kind of life insight that leads to being more creative,” says Professor Kaufman. “So the same factors that were ultimately personally harmful to Plath may have enriched her poetry.” For much of her life, Plath was able to balance depression and creativity, though there was clearly a connection between her periods of great productivity and her darkest hours.

'''Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences. ''' -Sylvia Plath

Melancholy Muse

From October 1962 to February 1963, the period between Hughes leaving and her death, Plath was prolific, writing more than 26 poems. Several of these were included in the 1966 posthumous collection Ariel and are considered her greatest works. They explore her pain over her father’s death, her difficult relationship with Hughes and the abandonment she felt over both.

Plath and Hughes met while at Cambridge. The attraction was immediate and their union instantly volatile. She later described their first encounter at a party: “I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me, bang smash on the mouth, and ripped my hair band off … and my favourite silver earrings. Hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck, I bit him long and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”

Their relationship – while lasting almost a decade and producing two children, Frieda, now 52, and Nicholas who died in 2009, aged 47 – was plagued by jealousy, professional competitiveness, insecurity, violent rows and infidelity.

Plath portrayed Hughes in Ariel as her oppressor and a man she loved in a macabre attempt to replace her father. She wrote in Daddy: “I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw. / And I said I do, I do.”

Many have seized upon this as ‘proof’ that Hughes’ behaviour was behind her suicide. However, while they had been separated for five months at the time of her death, many friends believed they would have reunited. Her death certainly devastated him. While grieving, Hughes wrote in a letter: “That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.” He went on to edit and publish the collection of poems Plath left behind, Ariel, though it’s worth noting that he faced some criticism for omitting certain poems. This victim/villain dynamic has been challenged by some who see Plath’s late poetry as evidence of her taking control of her marriage.

ABOVE: Sylvia Plath, her mother and two children in 1962.

Professor Lynda K Bundtzen, author of The Other Ariel points to the ‘bee’ poems Plath wrote in October 1962. “Why would any woman be writing poems about bees when her husband is leaving her for another woman?” she asks. “It turns out early October is when the drones are expelled from the hive for the winter, so I do think Plath is playing with the idea that she is not being deserted, but instead kicking out the useless drone.”

Feminist Icon

While Plath’s work expertly dissects her personal pain, part of her powerful legacy is that she spoke for every woman by undercutting gender norms in society. Plath perfectly articulated the tension between personal artistry and domesticity. She began a dialogue which rejected the notion of a mother and an artist as being mutually exclusive. “There was a lot of banality and absurdity about women’s lives in the mid-20th century,” confirms feminist poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont. “There were a lot of women ready to break out of a world that would have them considering nothing but the menu for the bridge luncheon next week. Plath explodes out of all of that. She resists it, although not without paying some psychological price.” American poet Emily Bobo describes Plath as a third-wave feminist: “She wasn’t just writing about herself,” Bobo argues. “She wrote about what it was like to be a woman and a poet. She wrote like a man, with all the entitlement of the title ‘poet’, but she did it without apology and fully, as a woman. That remains extremely powerful.”

Since her death, each generation of women has embraced Plath anew – finding truth, inspiration and a unique female perspective in her writing. Her influence is more potent and powerful now than she could ever have imagined when she lay her head down to die that cold February morning: “I write only because / There is a voice within me / That will not be still” she wrote. And that voice has never been louder.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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