Sylvia Plath: Reception: The First Ten Years and After

Words dry and riderless

The indefatigable hooftaps while
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

—Sylvia Plath, ‘Words’

The anticipated arrival of an Australian au pair on the morning Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty would have brought a young companion into the poet’s life. By so magniloquently and spectacularly rejecting companionateness or sorority did she celebrate, through her obeissance to what Alvarez has called the Savage God, suicide, solipsism and loneliness, love-lornness?

Although one of the Lonely Crowd, did Sylvia Plath destructively endeavour through her suicide to reaffirm her “inner-directedness” in an age of the “other-directed”, endeavour to perform and enact her “presentational self as being original and, ironically, self-possessed in an era when originality or individuality was (as it still is) at a premium?

Sidney Swith suggests that “We are born individuals but become copies.” Sylvia Plath was perhaps an original who was simultaneously a copy. After all, she did mime the rites of the Savage God, suicide, in, a compulsive, repetitive gesture so reminiscent of the pre-and main-line romantics, of say, someone like Novalis (1772-1801) who has written, “Life is the beginning of Death; Life is lived for the sake of Death”.

Not for Sylvia Plath the Audenesque “common sense” or “sanity” that Margaret Atwood in the epigraph to this present essay affirms while implicitly criticising those who choose to “come to a sticky end.”

Sylvia Plath was in many ways a deeply disturbing poet, definitely not someone geared toward sociability or gregariousness, which she frequently saw in her “confession” as a weakness—something unoriginal, noncreative, essentially “prattle”.

On the other hand, she was aware of that “lack” within her that as one of the Second Sex (Beauvoir) she had had to endure in a patriarchal culture. She was simultaneously aware of that Heideggerian moment—the Open Decision, Authenticity, arrived at through Sorge (care) that enables one to throw his/her being, into question through angst, anguish, through which one discovers their radical finite nothingness, as Being-toward Death. A Smith College Summa cum laude, Sylvia Plath perhaps chose “authenticity” over “prattle” or “chatter”. Was she perhaps a victim, inter alia, of her high-class literary education, someone taken (in? with?) the “ideology” of the Modern? A fierce hostility to settled and unimaginative bourgeois life is a feature of nearly all major modern European writing and, as Irving Howe has noted, rapidity of change (and its concomitant novelty), “indeed the absolute triumph of the principle of change within European culture is a dominant aspect of literary modernism”. As Howe remarks, “Daniel Bell has spoken of a new sense of time, which came to dominate the modernist art and the result would be the thrust toward restlessness and hunger for novelty, that obsession with progress (in modern culture) as an end in itself…” Plath’s restlessness and hunger for novelty (culminating in at least two previous attempts to commit suicide before her final “successful” one) perhaps had a family history, or psychological causes, but it is also possible that for someone who wrote a paper on the Double in Dostoyevsky for her English Honours course and who was familiar with modern and romantic literature, she had imbued herself with the reigning ideas of mainstream modernism and also with some elements that that movement had shared with romanticism. It is perhaps the Germanic/Teutonic strain in Plath (her father was from the Polish Corridor, her mother from Austria) or possibly the romantic vein in her work that could be traced back to predecessors like Novalis or Heidegger but related also to a contemporary writer like George Steiner. And, like John Keats, she too was “half in love with easeful death” (how “easeful” is it to gas oneself into oblivion?) and, after her own manner, she had called death not only “soft” but also hard names “in many a mused rhyme.”

Sylvia Plath’s own attitude towards that “half-love” for “easeful death” always remained, on the evidence of her work, profoundly ambivalent, ambiguous and even schizophrenic, self-divided. As Alvarez has suggested, it may be possible that she had not really wanted to die the morning she “entombed” herself in her kitchen (shades of Poe’s Ligeia) and committed suicide.

In the event, life followed art in her successful attempt in the morning of February 11, 1963. For she had already playfully visualised (and distanced from herself, “objectified”), actually “witnessed” the “devoutly wished for” event, had a “test drive”, so to speak, in one of her last poems, ‘Lady Lazarus’ (1962):

Soon, soon…

It was an accident…

—(‘Lady Lazarus’)

From a passing allusion to William Butler Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’ to a “double” view of herself as both subject and object to an almost throw-away, amused view of herself in “like the cat I have nine times to die” to an almost indulgent if also sardonically boastful enumeration of her suicide attempts (in “This is Number Three”), to a momentary realization that suicide first and foremost “annihilates” “each decade” (time, history), to veering round to noticing it as “a trash” that smashes (makes refuse out of) not only oneself but also the world into a million filaments (she says filaments, not “fragments”), to self-deprecation (in the witty “big strip tease” and again “I may be skin and bone”) to an almost desperate faith (enunciated in “Neverthless, I am the same identical woman”), Sylvia Plath performs, almost ludically, but also certainly, an acrobatic verbal feat that celebrates, ritualises (“This is Number Three”….“The first time it happened I was ten”) and “contextualises” suicide, takes a multiple-angle view of it and then somewhat desperately issues in a deprofundis: “Nevertheless, I am the same identical woman.” (How can a girl of ten also be the “same identical woman”—a Yeatsian paradox reminiscent of that poet’s ‘Among School Children’, which Plath here reinvests, resubjectives from a thirty-year-old woman’s point of view?). Self-sameness, spatio-temporal continuity, these are essential elements that “construct” an “identity”, genuineness, difference, the self.

The world and self are, at least in the lucidity achieved in a poem like ‘Lady Lazarus’, one rather than two, a “Unity of Being” that Yeats in his poem ‘Among School Children’ had related to Aristophanes’s great parable, in The Symposium, of the ‘blending’ “Into the yolk and white of the one shell” of the primal oneness. Thus in killing herself the speaker would also “annihilate” and “trash” the world or at least each decade (time, history) marked by an attempt at suicide followed by a “come back”. Again, in seeing herself as an object or spectacle for “the peanut-crunching crowd” she would separate herself in her pain, solitude and passivity from those others who, as it happens in the poem, may not be all that different from her after all. In fact, a reader of ‘Lady Lazarus’ may be one of the “peanut-crunching crowd”, a “voyeur” peeping, as if at a peep-show, into the agonies of the speaker in “Lady Lazarus”. This poem then undertakes a journey of self-recovery, a return, perhaps, to what Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, following a “friend”, (1930) has called “oceanic feeling”:

Originally the ego includes everything, later it detaches from itself the external world. The ego-feeling we are aware of now is thus only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling. A feeling which embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the external world. If we may suppose that this primary ego-feeling has been preserved in the minds of many people…It would co-exist like a sort of counterpart with the narrower and more sharply outlined ego-feeling or maturity, and the ideational content belonging to it would be precisely the notion of limitless extension and oneness with the universe…’oceanic’…I can imagine that the oceanic feeling could become connected with religion later on…

In this psycho-cultural context, it is interesting to note that in her autobiographical piece “Ocean 1212-W”, Sylvia Plath evokes/recalls her earliest memories of the “ocean”, in her case, the Atlantic:

My childhood landscape was not land but the end of the land—the cold, salt running hills of the Atlantic.

….Breath, that is the first thing. Something is breathing. My own breath ! The breath of my mother? No, something larger, farther, more serious, more weary. So behind shut lids I float awhile—I’m a small sea captain, testing the day’s weather— battering rams at the seawall, a spray of gunshot on my mother’s brave geraniums, or the lulling shush-shush of a full mirrory pool; the pool turns the quartz grits at its rim idly and kindly, a lady brooding at jewellery….The mother pulse of the sea made a mock of such counterfeit. Like a deep woman, it had a good deal; it had many faces, many terrible veils. It spoke of miracle and distances; if it could court it could also kill. When I was learning to creep, my mother set me down on the beach to see what I thought of it: I crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the wall of green when she caught my heels.

In symbolic, memory-laden, ‘Proustean’ prose, Sylvia Plath, who had once described herself as a “sea-child”, not only brings out the profound impact that the Atlantic had on her in her childhood, when she saw the “many faces” of the ocean, its “many terrible veils”, but she also evokes a strong sense of “oceanic feeling”, that fluid boundary between self (or ego) and nonself that had interested, among others, Freud and Wallace Stevens. “Ocean 1212-W” was the telephone number of her maternal grandparents; Slyvia Plath made her first telephone call on this number when she was a child. The Schobers, Sylvia Plath’s maternal grandparents, lived at Point Shirley, Massachusetts, where they had a house overlooking the beach. Sylvia Plath had a free run of the beach as a child and she here associates “land’s end” with “oceanic feeling,” with dissolution of the boundaries between self and non-self, with a “deep woman” that “hid a good deal.” The ocean had as many faces, many terrible veils (wails?) as Sylvia Plath had. The Atlantic “spoke of miracles” and distances, enchanting, remote, unknown. In ‘Lady Lazarus’ the speaker speaks of the “miracle” of a “resurrection” that is and is not (the suicide has not in fact died) and the seemingly irreducible distances between self and the world. The sea “could court” but it “could also kill”; it had a double or multiple aspect that Sylvia Plath, a “deep woman” herself, had.

One such “miracle”, the miracle of a near-death and near re-birth, is evoked in cadenced prose by Sylvia Plath in “Ocean 1212-W”. Writing in 1962, Plath recalls how, as a crawler, she had nearly come to grief (or nearly fulfilled herself; it all depends on how one looks at this incident). The infant’s mother had set her down on the beach but the child “crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the wall of green” (interestingly the death-driven heroine of Plath’s first novel, The Bell Jar (1963), is named Esther Greenwood when her mother “caught (her) heels” in the nick of time, performed, that is, the “miracle” of the crawler’s “re-birth”. A pattern of near-death followed by the “miracle” of return to life, is retrospectively established by Sylvia Plath in “Ocean 1212-W”. In her death by suicide in the morning of February 11,1963, that configuration broke down, once and for all.

It is however intriguing that Sylvia Plath, so used since her childhood to the vastness of the ocean and also its hidden, masked destructive power, should have committed suicide within the narrow and bound confines of the kitchen of her London flat.

The child is the mother of woman in Sylvia Plath’s recollection of her infancy in “Ocean 1212-W”. In a way, the desperate faith of ‘Lady Lazarus’ (“Nevertheless, I am the same identical woman/The first time it happened I was ten”) is vindicated through Plath’s vivid/total recall here of her early days. Now the Yeatsian paradox of identity begins to make sense. The remembered infant who had crawled towards “the coming wave” and was “almost through the green wall” of the other, the sea, when her mother had caught her by her heels is one of Sylvia Plath’s many veils (wails). The speaker, or rather the “lead” voice, in ‘Lady Lazarus’ is another. She appears and reappears in various guises in a number of poems and in a move that at once feminises and parodies the Bible, she is Lady Lazarus, raised from the dead, not by a miracle performed by Jesus, but one performed by “them”, the doctors, friends, kin and enemies of the speaker. Here Sylvia Plath herself delivers a verbal “miracle” or a parable for the Age of Anxiety, a period of secularism and egalitarianism.

Ironically, however, the Sylvia Plath who locked and barricaded herself in her kitchen in her London flat and put her head in the oven did not only not return from the dead but also was voiceless, inaudible, in that nobody heard her cry out at the moment of her death. In fact, in The Savage God, it is not her voice but that of her friend and literatteur Alvarez which undertakes, in that book, the task of reconstructing the events leading to Plath’s death in the morning of February, 11,1963.

At least in this (romantic?) sense art has an articulateness and roundedness (the speaker in ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a walking miracle that returns to life, in a carnival environment, to retain her polyphonic voice until the end of—and beyond?—the poem). This “miracle” is denied to the suicide in real life.

In a grotesque parody of T.S. Eliot’s obiter dictum in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (“The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers from the mind who creates, the more perfectly will be the mind that digests and transmutes the passions which are its material”), Sylvia Plath’s last poems and her actual suicide confirm the imaginative, aesthetic, verbal articulateness of the former as opposed to the enforced silence and inarticulateness of the latter: the suicide. The mind which created poems like ‘Lady Lazarus’ or ‘Daddy’ was perhaps completely separate from the woman who had suffered. Sylvia Plath’s best poems achieve an impersonality and intensity which was some times perhaps far beyond her own original intention. But then it must be conceded that she had developed in her creative output the artistic means, control and a range of expression that enabled her to make a transition from the merely “confessional”, “personal”, or of only passing interest, to an impersonality of achieved and resonant, rounded form in her best poems. These “spasmodic/ Tricks of radiance, miracles,” of her finest poems, are perhaps what she would be best remembered by, not by the circumstances which led to and surrounded her tragic death by suicide.

T.S. Eliot, in “Tradition and Individual Talent”, suggests that:

the most individual parts of a poet’s work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

Yeats (whose one-time house in Primrose Hill, London, Plath had lived in in her last days), Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoyevski, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and countless other voices, even “counter-voices”, “assert their immortality most vigorously” in Sylvia Plath’s best poems, “give”, “lend” her a “voice” that is more than hers alone. And not only poets and writers, but also countless other voices from ordinary life resonate in the echo-chamber that a poem like ‘Lady Lazarus’ or ‘Daddy’ constructs.

The sardonic voice of the speaker in ‘Lady Lazarus’ avers:


“A miracle !” —(‘Lady Lazarus’)

“Dying”, may be an art for someone “special” like Sylvia Plath, but for most it is, like everything else, unexceptional and voiceless. Plath may have had a “call” as a gifted poet, but whether she had one as a suicide is dubious, ironically, theatrically, stated. Did the real-life London housewife and grasswidow, Sylvia Plath “do it so it feels real” or did she do “it so it feels like hell”? Did she attempt suicide to escape from a zombie-like existence? If, as Alvarez hints, she perhaps did not really want to die the day she ended her life, did she then actually succeed in “doing” the “art” of “dying” exceptionally well or rather did she botch it up, timed it badly, which would be the case if she had not really intended to die.

In another poem, from her 1965 collection, Ariel, “The Munich Mannequins”, Plath observes and notices the facade, the contemporary domesticity and innocuousness of a post-war Munich. The war-time nastiness is disguised, hidden from the speaker’s view in the much-touted economic miracle of post-war West Germany (FDR):

O the domesticity of those windows

The snow has no voice. —(“The Munich Mannequins”)

In death by suicide, Sylvia Plath suffered the fate of “voicelessness”, for “snow” (death) “has no voice”. Dying “may be an art”, but unlike art, actual death has no “comebacks”, “theatrical” or otherwise, and therefore it has the finality of “voicelessness”, a mute limbo. The “black phone”, a recurring figure in Plath’s work, signifies a breakdown in communication. Art assumes an audience (“scene”) and a performer (“act”) but in her suicide, Plath perhaps did not “perform”; she actually did it, without a direct “audience” to watch. “Doing it exceptionally well” in front of an audience and then “coming back from the dead” (a sort of Lazarus-cum-Houdini act) to tell It Like It Is, Baby, might partake of the art—art-ificiality—of the whole event but the “real thing” may be far less dramatic/theatrical, far less of a dare or boast. In real life, Sylvia Plath tried suicide once too often. Alvarez’s interesting conjecture is significant here:

Why, then, did she kill herself? In, part, I suppose, it was “a cry for help” which fatally misfired. But it was also a last desperate attempt to exorcise the death she had summed up in her poems. …And this is precisely what the poems did: they bodied forth the death within her. But they also did so in an intensely living and creative way. The more she wrote about death, the stronger and more fertile her imaginative world became. And this gave her everything to live for.

Why then did life imitate art in Sylvia Plath’s case? Alvarez surmises:

I suspect that in the end she wanted to have done with the theme once and for all. But the only way she could find was to act out the awful little allegory once over. She had always been a bit of a gambler, used to taking risks. The authority of her poetry was in part due to her brave persistence in following the thread of her inspiration to Minotaur’s lair. And this psychic courage had its parallel in her physical arrogance and carelessness.

Alvarez’s (patriarchal?) “voice” here muses over the “voiceless” (female?) fate of Sylvia Plath, the suicide:

She gambled for the last time, having worked out the odds were in her favour, but perhaps, in her depression, not much caring whether she won or lost. Her calculations went wrong and she lost.

Alvarez continues pondering over the consequences of Sylvia Plath’s terminal act:

It was a mistake then, and out of it a whole myth has grown. I don’t think she would have found it much to her taste, since it is a myth of the poet as a sacrificial victim, offering herself up for the sake of her art, having been dragged by the Muses to the final altar through every kind of distress. In these terms, the suicide becomes the whole part of the story, the act which validates her poems, gives them their interest and proves her seriousness. So people are drawn to her work in the same spirit as Time magazine featured her at length, not for the poetry, but for the gossipy, extraordinary “human interest”. Yet just as the suicide adds nothing at all to the poetry, so the myth of Sylvia as a passive victim is a total perversion of the woman she was. It misses altogether her liveliness, her intellectual appetite and her wit, her great imaginative resourcefulness and vehemence of feeling, her control. Above all it misses the courage with which she was able to turn disaster into art. The pity is not that there is a myth of Sylvia Plath, but that the myth is not simply that of an enormously gifted poet whose death came carelessly, by mistake, and too soon.

In the above, Alvarez apparently rejects the dangerous Shelleyan myth of an isolate, pallid, death-driven poet, an Adonais. Yet Alvarez himself died a few years ago by taking his own life. However, the point remains: Plath the artist could have, would have, moved on beyond Ariel, had she outlived her final attempt at suicide.

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