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ISSN: 0974-892X

VOL. XV & XVI
ISSUE II & I

Jul '21 & Jan '22

 

 

Sylvia Plath the Feminist Martyr Poet

Aju Mukhopadhyay, Pondicherry


Abstract

Sylvia Plath’s poetry was created out of her life. More the passion and obsession with death pulled her towards it sharper her poetry became. Already a cult figure especially after her suicide, she has been haunting the Gun Trotting American Culture as a Feminist Poet, a Feminist Martyr. In her lifetime only one book of poetry (The Colossus and Other Poems), one novel (The Bell Jar) and a few stories were published.

A scholar and poet, Sylvia’s life was intertwined with death. The moment she chose Ted Hghes as her life’s partner, later the Poet Laureate of England, she entered into her death trap. He became the nemesis of her life. She was utterly betrayed by him in life and was wronged after death.

She was a fine poet producing robust poetry with fine imagery and abundant metaphors. She was a poet of the occult. Though she lost his ailing father at the age of eight she had an Oedipal relationship with him, as if from birth. Sylvia Plath was a robust personality who fought valiantly against all odds in her life. On the whole she had a tragic life of only 30 years when she committed suicide.

 

 

The personality of the Poet

Sylvia Plath’s poetry was created out of her life. More the passion and obsession with death pulled her towards it sharper the poetry became. Her tumultuous poetry collection, titled by her Aerial, was published posthumously. It made her more famous than before. It turned every head towards her. Already a cult figure especially after her suicide, she has been haunting the Gun Trotting American Culture as a Feminist Poet, a Feminist Martyr. In her lifetime only one book of poetry (The Colossus and Other Poems), one novel (The Bell Jar) and a few stories were published. Upon her death, the bulk of her works were published. Some critics mentioned her poetry as vital, nasty, invincible, red-and-white poetry settled in a region of cultural near-­exhaustion.

The Fated Move 

Born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath, a scholar and poet, read the poetry of Ted Hughes in the first and only issue of the “St. Botolph’s Review”, a pamphlet, which she instantly liked and contacted them. On her first meeting with him in February 1956, she became infatuated and kissing Ted entered into her death trap. Of this man, later Poet Laureate of Britain, whom she married in June next, she wrote later in a poem addressing her father, “I made a model of you, /A man in black with a Meinkampf look / . . . . The vampire who said he was you /And drank my blood for a year, /Seven years, if you want to know / Daddy, you can lie back now.” (Daddy. Poems 224). She committed suicide seven years after her first meeting Ted Hughes on 11 February 1963.

Poet of the Occult

After marriage the couple made pleasant trips here and there. During one of their outings in 1959 Sylvia spotted her black-man; “Over a great stone spit /Bared by each falling tide, /And you across those white /Stones, strode out in your dead /Black coat, black shoes, and your /Black hair till there you stood (Man in black. Poems 119-120)  

From her childhood it seems that she liked the weird atmosphere; being obsessed with death she often invoked death in her poems. She mentioned the stars in many of her poems and referred to fate and zodiac, as if they had definite influences in the fulfillment of her undeclared vow of life.

From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life
(Words. Poems 270)

Married to Hughes she was initiated by him to Planchette, used for spiritualistic or telepathic messages. Her poem “Ouija” refers to a eerie situation where old gods suck blood-heat from her forefinger. In it we find “His talking whirlwind, abated his excessive temper / When words, like locusts drummed the darkening air.” (Ouija. Poems 77) She was often hypnotized by Hughes. It is said that even two days before her death she was so hypnotized by the Yorkshire poet and it is hinted that she was given chance to be a victim of her auto suggestion to commit suicide though no proof of such occult facts could be recorded.

Sylvia was a poet of the occult. She always had intuitive feelings and suggestions and she was open to forces, it seems not friendly to humans. The situation could not be remedied as she wasn’t open to God; she never prayed nor invoked God; rather she denied God. She confirmed, “There is nothing between us.” (Medusa. Poems 226 ) The following lines from a poem, a beautiful poem, proves the point and it is one of the many with subtle hints and suggestions; “At owl-call the old ghosts flock / To hustle them off the lawn /From beds boxed-in like coffins /The bonneted ladies grin. /And Death, that bald-head buzzard, /Stalls in halls where the lamp wick / Shortens with each breath drawn.” (Old Ladies’ Home. Poems 120)

Life and Death Intertwined

Literature reflects life and time of the author, it covers his /her surrounding environment and people and it may cover many more aspects but sometimes ideas and thoughts of the creator rule over the other things and happenings of life. The poetry of Sylvia Plath is so intrinsically intertwined with her life that either is not complete without the other and both are guided by her ideas and thoughts, preconceived. She relates them through different image and, metaphor galore. Her poetry is full of suggestions and stories. Two very famous poems from her Aerial volume posthumously published and discussed variously are “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Both will reveal her life and ancestry besides her poetic technique and explain the cause of her poetic outburst.

Black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years . . . .
Daddy, I have had to kill you . . . .

I thought every German was you . . . .
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew . . .
I have always been scared of you . . .
And your Aryan eye, bright blue . . . .
Not God but a swastika . . .
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you . . .
I was ten when they buried you
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you . . . .
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
(Daddy Poems 222-224)

Such harsh words used against a father are usually unthinkable by any standard; below the culture of any educated person.  But they tell her story, her ancestry. Her father, Otto Plath, was a German from East Prussia, a professor and his wife Aurelia, once his student, was a German /Austrian. He died when Sylvia was eight years old. There is no direct mention of his oppression to any of his two children. On his death Sylvia got a document signed by her mother agreeing never to marry again and it is said that she looked after her children, especially Sylvia properly. Sylvia had a very strained relationship with her mother and she was very frustrated about her ancestry inducing her to write, “Every woman adores a Fascist”. Her Gypsy ancestry is reflected in her calling her father a Bastard and then there are references that show that they had no marked place of settlement, a Gypsy culture, causing her bewilderment at her state of being rootless. Her calling the father almost a Hitler as she described her husband by her reference to “Meinkampf”, a book written by Hitler, refers to the other background stories.

In 2012 “The Guardian” published a report referring to the then discovered FBI file revealing investigation against Otto Plath. It was found that he was a Pro-German; their sympathizer and so was considered ‘an alien enemy’ for which he was not given any official position for some time. He regularly suffered from depression. Ted Hughes complained that Sylvia suffered from recurring depression and was having an obsession for her father with oedipal complex. Although Otto died in 1940 when his daughter was eight, he exerted a lifelong hold on her, as if instigating her bitter tirade against him in her famous 1962 poem, Daddy. Her poems sometimes reflected her hysteric reactions to her birth and ancestry. Some references to her father’s life in her poems points towards her Oedipus relationship, as if from birth, with her father until her death, though only psychologically.

Quite some of her poems refer to bees and bee boxes; as if bees are suffocating inside a box or they are desperate to get freed. And the villagers are there to lock someone, may be her as they danced and stamped over her father’s body. Otto Plath, was an entomologist, specialist in bees. He had the hobby of bee keeping and dealing with bee-boxes.

Plath’s suffering variously in the hands of the male oppressors may have induced her to paint them as representatives of the Nazis while she, a Jew, was oppressed in millions. By allusions she almost brought back the scenes in Europe during the Second World War; it was not still far away then, not a dead past. Its reverberations were still heard as she was writing her nightmarish poems.                                                                 

Everything about Sylvia Plath is psychological; obsession, depression, intuition and repression as are reflected in her life and poems. Neither in her Nature poems nor in her Love poems elements of entertainment; gaiety or joy is ever witnessed. Even the presence of Tulips disturbs her, “Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise” (Tulips. Poems 161), Daffodils pleased Wordsworth and Tagore was always drenched in wet fragrant flowers but Plath was never in a mood to rejoice them.. Instead, Death is a very potent, morbid recurrence which often raises its head in her poems.

In a nine lined juvenile poem three lines are, “While from the moon, my lover’s eye /Chills me to death / With radiance of his frozen faith. (To a Jilted Lover. Poems 309).  In another juvenile poem we find, “Drama of each season /Plots doom from above, /Yet all angelic reason /Moves to our minor love.” (Trio of Love Songs. Poems 316) She did not select such poems for publication, they were written before her marriage. During her juvenile period too she wrote poems about the dead, titled “The Dead” (Poems 320) and “Danse (sic) macabre”. There is no Nature in her poem, “Natural History” (Poems 71).                                                                                                             

Like “Daddy” “Lady Lazarus” is another most famously infamous of her poems, discussed and critiqued  by many critics. It does not concentrate on her father but on her own life, particularly her suicide attempts and their ramifications involving the common onlookers whom she calls peanut-crunching crowd, calls them irresponsible voyeurs. Here she poses herself as the most vulnerable female protagonist of the story, the victim of the male dominated patriarchal society.

Obsession with Suicide

Beginning most dramatically she writes without a mention of the subject, “I have done it again, /One year in every ten /I manage it-“ (Lady Lazarus. Poems 244). And going further she writes, “The first time it happened I was ten. /It was an accident. / The second time I meant /To last it out and not come back at all. /I rocked shut . . . . (Lady Lazarus. Poems 245)                

It has been hinted that during her childhood she sailed sometimes with her uncle and during one of such outings she was abused incestuously as a child that shocked her for the rest of her life. But no record of Sylvia’s suicide attempt, voluntary or accidental, was discovered at ten. Whatever it was it was known to her, surely.

The cause for her second deliberate attempt to suicide was in her highly depressive mood in 1953 for being rejected in some entrance class, referring to her studies.

On August 24, 1953, she left a note for her family that she had gone on a walk but actually swallowed around 40 sleeping pills. She later claimed that she’d been smashing her head on purpose. Later she raged in a hospital with hatred towards the people who would not let her die. Rather they dragged her back into the hell of sordid and meaningless existence, she complained. But for her feverish activities and writing excruciating poems her suicidal experiment was published in as many as 253 newspapers with wide-wide circulation as far as in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Florida. She became more popular. That much about her suicide attempt at 20.

Then she goes on writing, “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. /I do it exceptionally well . . . .  /It’s easy enough to do it and stay put. / It’s the theatrical / Comeback in broad day / To the same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout:” (Lady Lazarus. Poems 245-246)

Jeering and taunting at the peanut-munching, voyeur and curious crowd she writes further,
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge . . . .
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor
So, Herr Enemy

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby . . . .

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
(Lady Lazarus. Poems 246-247)

Her mocking at the public and the devil, the God and the enemy, warning them, addressing in German Herr or Mr. rings in the air and in the last stanza, eating men like air, is a feminist revenge; a final warning.

The mention of her body parts and other remains seems ominous, as if pointing to her last or third suicidal attempt which she might have conceived with a slight hope of somehow getting rescued. But alas, it could not be for what she did was very concrete arrangement for immediate death without any chance of rescue, excuse me, even by Jesus as she denied him too. She knew. It has been suggested, that if she crawled into the “grave cave” of Lady Lazarus again, she might not be saved.

Heather Clark, the poet’s biographer in her Red Comet writes in her epilogue, suggesting otherwise that Plath’s doctor at the time, John Horder, believed her calculations too precise: He was one of the first to arrive at Fitzroy Road that morning and observed the care Sylvia had taken to seal off the kitchen. (Her method—Plath turned on the gas oven, made a pillow with a towel and laid her head on the oven door—was common in that era.) Plath had told some friends that Hughes wanted her to kill herself, but there was no record.  Much of the epilogue contends with Hughes’s enduring guilt.

She was terrified of herself. On January 27, 1963, she showed up crying in her downstairs neighbor’s apartment, telling him, “I don’t want to die. There’s so much I want to do.” She still wanted more life, and the meta-life of more writing. To Dr. Beuscher she wrote, “I am scared to death I shall just pull up the psychic shroud & give up.”

She was scared to death of death, of death by her own hand, as if by some Greek prophecy, which would cut her off from the life she so desired.

The relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes:

Ted Hughes (Edward James Hughes- 17.8.1930 to 28.10.1998) was the most Licentious man, rarely found. He became deliberately infidel to Sylvia Plath who gave up her habit of boy hunting ever since she married Hughes; she too was very alive to sexual desires. Women were very fond objects to Hughes. He indulged enjoying them; writing joyously at the cost of his wife. For Plath it was a challenge that pushed her creation faster; bitter and better but that pulled her to death too. But Plath never mentioned desire for any other man whilst in a relationship with Ted Hughes whom she liked with all her heart and wished earnestly to depend on. In fact her journals rarely flare up anything negative about his character at all – Hughes was her only nemesis; her downfall and death.    

After four years of free-roaming they settled in London. During the time Plath published her first collection of poems, The Colossus, finished her novel, suffered a miscarriage and went on holiday with Hughes to recover. Beating by her husband was said to be the cause of her miscarriage. From here things started to deteriorate; motherhood exhausted Plath, domesticity was stifling her; she lost weight, spawned fevers, grew manically jealous of Hughes’s fanfare of female students. Pushed, Hughes was happy to leave; he shuffled between the two women for some time.

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life  by Jonathan Bate, a biography speaks a lot truth. The book features several other women who claimed to have had relationships with Hughes including his first serious girlfriend, Shirley, from his university days at Cambridge. Sir Jonathan concludes that Plath’s death at the age of 30, and Hughes’ subsequent guilt, were “central to the rest of his life.” (BBC News)

Ted Hughes harmed Sylvia Plath even after her death

It has been observed that after Plath’s death Hughes censored and cut out a lot of her work. He even destroyed the final volume of her journals, leaving no comment at all on her death until the summer of 1998 when he published Birthday Letters, finally speaking out about his ‘uncontaminated’ feelings for Plath.

The collected Poems has a total of 224 poems plus 50 from her juvenile period. It is said that she wrote about 400 poems. It is understood that many of the poems where Sylvia wrote about her relationship with Ted were not published. True that editing and publishing Sylvia Plath by Ted Hughes was inimical to her interest; it harmed her literary interest and the readers lost chance to read many good poems by her.

Instead of getting possibly the strongly worded satiric and passionate poems written by Sylvia on her last days, we get such subdued but beautiful lines as if from a weakling, “The dew / Of the Magnolia, / Drunk on its own scents,/Asks nothing of life.” (Paralytic. Poems 267) And the pathetic, “Feet seem to be saying: / We have come so far, it is over,” (Edge Poems 272)

To strengthen his position one may say that Ted Hughes was honoured as the Poet Laureate of UK for fourteen long years in spite of his activities. However, Sylvia’s honour was posthumously preserved by the US by selecting her for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1982 after publication of her Collected Poems.

Conclusion

Sylvia Plath was a scholar and poet of rare quality. Not only “Unusual” as Hughes commented on his edited book by her but she was extraordinary. Her life and poem combined made her what she was.
A scholar from her school days, she entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1951 and was a co-winner of the Mademoiselle magazine fiction contest in 1952. At Smith Plath achieved considerable artistic, academic, and social success. After winning a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University in England she got married.

She was one of the most brilliant poets with superb imagery, metaphor and subtle, intuitive suggestions in her poetry. She often rhymed her poems which had good rhythms all along like any good poet of any time. Her poems have occult quality creating eerie atmosphere. Her poems are often satirical, full of irony and straight in its form and approach. She is one of the remarkable feminist martyr poets after the Second World War. Notwithstanding the criticisms she received for the harsh language and revealing statements in her poems she received appropriate awards and rewards for her genius. Sylvia Plath was a robust personality producing robust poetry in her life. Her relationship with her only husband was really tragic. It rarely happens but it happened. Both of them have gone but time is there to judge who did the most enduring job.

 

Notes and References

The Guardian, 1912. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/17/sylvia-plath-otto-father-files)
Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Knopf, 2020). Heather Clark. US. Knopf. 2020
Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Knopf, 2020). Heather Clark.US. Knopf. 2020
BBC News. (https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-34378064

 

Work Cited

The Collected Poems. Sylvia Plath. Ed: Ted Hughes. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1981. Paperback