Meltdown

Anthony Thwaite

  • Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson
    Viking, 413 pp, £15.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 670 81854 2

Writing a BBC Third Programme review of Donald Hall’s Penguin Contemporary American Poetry exactly a month before she killed herself early in 1963, Sylvia Plath praised ‘the inwardness of these images ... the uncanny faculty of melting through the leaves of the wallpaper, through the dark looking-glass, into a world which one can only call surrealist and irrational’. It was a process she could see happening in herself, to her own poems, and she welcomed it:

The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.

Yet at the moment when she killed herself, ‘the uncanny faculty of melting’ had become a meltdown. Plath’s doctor during her final months, Dr John Horder, wrote afterwards:

My judgment has always been that this was a very determined attempt to end her life ... I believe ... she was liable to large swings of mood, but so excessive that a doctor inevitably thinks in terms of brain chemistry. This does not reduce the concurrent importance of marriage break-up or of exhaustion after a period of unusual artistic activity or from recent infectious illness or from the difficulties of being a responsible, practical mother. The full explanation has to take all these factors into account and more. But the irrational compulsion to end it makes me think that the body was governing the mind.

The rehearsal of all this is painful. Anne Stevenson, against the odds, has written a decent and intelligent book. It is certainly the best book on Sylvia Plath so far – and it isn’t graceless to point out that most of the earlier books have been conspicuously unsatisfactory. But Bitter Fame carries its marks of constraint and difficulty as well. A prefatory Author’s Note acknowledges ‘a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes, literary agent to the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Ms Hughes’s contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship.’ The proof copy I was originally sent phrases it rather differently: ‘This biography of Sylvia Plath is the result of a three-year dialogue between the author and Olwyn Hughes, agent to the Plath Estate. Ms Hughes has contributed so liberally to the text that this is in effect a work of joint authorship. I have in particular to acknowledge her contribution to the biographical material in the last four chapters.’ Linda Wagner-Martin’s 1988 biography[*] reveals typographically, to anyone who examines it closely, that many passages were rewritten at a late proof stage, presumably under duress. Earlier attempts to write about Plath were either soured by authorial complaints against Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes and the Estate (e.g. David Holbrook, Edward Butscher) or have come to nothing (e.g. Lois Ames, Harriet Rosenstein). Most of the book-length literary criticism is unimpressive. There isn’t much to choose, for example, between Margaret Dickie Uroff (‘As they developed, Plath came to locate herself at the fulcrum, while Hughes stood back to explore the nature of the universe’) and Mary Lynn Broe (‘To discuss only Plath’s self-sufficient system of poetic devices – even her imaginatively textured combinations that move organically toward energy – is to indulge narcissistically a kind of contextualism with some blatant indifferences’). The militant feminists have raged against Ted Hughes as the holy monster of Plath’s life and death. More recently, feelings have been stirred up about a gravestone (or lack of one) in Heptonstall cemetery, and about the desirability of a memorial plaque or plaques to her in various places. Ted Hughes, usually totally reticent in these matters, was goaded into writing long public letters of exasperated explanation.

Against this background, it is difficult to read Bitter Fame without acknowledging a strong dose of prejudice, suspicion, even hostility. So much of Anne Stevenson’s material has already come filtered through the earlier biographical writing, Letters Home, the Journals (published in the United States but not in Britain), not to speak either of Plath’s own poems or what one might call the unpublished legends, that perspective is hard to come by. Stevenson in her preface comments that after the publication of Ariel in 1965 ‘many people, especially women, discovered in her work a shocking revelation of extremist elements in their own psyches. Plath became a spokeswoman for the angry, the disillusioned, the bewildered generations of the Sixties and Seventies. The tragedy of her suicide and the power of her last poems seemed to sweep the polarities of life and art (carefully separated by T.S. Eliot and the New Critics) into one unanswerably dramatic gesture of female defiance.’ Against this, Stevenson says that she wants to give ‘an objective account of how this exceptionally gifted girl was hurled into poetry by a combination of biographical accident and inflexible ideals and ambitions ... This book tries to comprehend Plath’s valiant, lifelong struggle with herself by reconciling the contradictory testimonies of her writings as well as the different views of those who knew her. What I have tried to do is to approach this extraordinary artist as I believe she herself would have asked to be approached – as a poet.’

Readings of the events, the psychology and the poems march side by side, at some moments more easily than at others. Sylvia Plath herself was well aware of how events could be put to use, and, if she wanted, altered or fabricated, as in her account of finding a ‘Sacred Baboon’ on the beach at the age of two. There is nothing unusual about the alteration or fabrication of events: what is unusual is the degree to which she used them as vital elements in her psychodrama. Anne Stevenson deftly begins her first chapter with such a moment. Sylvia, aged 14, was highly praised by her English teacher for a group of poems, including particularly one called ‘I thought that I could not be hurt’. ‘Incredible,’ said a fellow teacher, ‘that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.’ What in fact had touched off the poem was that ‘the poet’s grandmother had accidentally smudged a pastel drawing of which Sylvia was particularly proud.’

The death of her father when she was eight years old was clearly the great wound of her early life, a loss – as she later saw it, a betrayal – to which all subsequent losses can be related. Even here, Sylvia’s first reaction was characteristic: ‘I’ll never speak to God again.’ (‘All her life,’ Stevenson comments, ‘Sylvia was given to using the phrase “never again” in circumstances she considered intolerable.’) Almost twenty years later, in her poem ‘Electra on Azalea Path’ (the name of the cemetery path by which her father’s grave lay), she wrote a conclusion which she almost immediately called ‘too forced and rhetorical’:

The stony actors poise and pause for breath.
I brought my love to bear, and then you died.
It was the gangrene ate you to the bone
My mother said; you died like any man.
How shall I age into that state of mind?
I am the ghost of an infamous suicide,
My own blue razor rusting in my throat.
O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
Your gate, father – your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
It was my love that did us both to death.

Stevenson comments that Sylvia ‘revised her life constantly to suit her art’. As one reads through the Collected Poems, alongside the Stevenson biography, the drawing-from-life and the revisions become more marked, almost wherever one turns: the illness of their Devon neighbour Percy, a fraught holiday with the Merwins in France, a telephone call, a visit to Ted Hughes by two American academics – all become the occasions of poems.

The suicide attempt, on vacation from Smith College in the summer of 1953, is crucial. It seems likely that the ECT treatment that followed it, as an attempted ‘cure’, affected her for the rest of her life. In most circumstances, evidently, she could carry on in her bright, efficient, clever, charming manner. ‘When the bell jar lifted,’ Stevenson writes; ‘she could be optimistic and happy, rejoicing in the radiance of the sun she loved. But the least misfortune was likely to bring it back: a rejection slip, a bad review, an imagined slight from a rival, competition from other women for her “man” or her deserved fame.’

It is with Plath’s arrival in Cambridge (England), and the first meeting with Ted Hughes in February 1956, that one begins to notice a deliberate adjustment, or correcting, of the record in Bitter Fame. For example, the tumultuous, ecstatic ‘crashing and fighting’ encounter with Hughes at the St Botolph’s Review party, as recounted in Sylvia’s journal, is severely modified by Lucas Myers, and it is reported that ‘Hughes himself has always said this account of their meeting was ridiculously exaggerated.’ Letters Home, the other existing source hitherto, is so relentlessly written at a high pitch of excitement, achievement, and the frenetic desire to impress her widowed mother, that I for one have never regarded that collection as other than an enormous monument to the filial bond, to ‘Dearest, darling, adorable Mother’. On its publication in 1975, I commented that ‘not only the voyeur and the gossip but the ordinarily sympathetic reader may sense here and there that the whole truth has not been permitted to emerge: dot-dot-dots come at crucial points, where one suspects an editorial decision has been made that certain names shall not be named, certain facts shall not be dragged out into the open. This is understandable – living people could be wounded – but such delicacy perhaps means that it is far too early, 13 years after her death, to present this kind of autobiography-through-letters, or indeed a proper biography at all.’ Well, 26 years after her death, from this point of view, still seems too early. There has been a shift of emphasis, not so much by Anne Stevenson, maybe, but (one senses) perhaps suggested by Olwyn Hughes, towards a demystification of Plath: hence the most unusual feature of Bitter Fame, which is the ‘additional material’, three substantial separate memoirs printed at the back of the book, by Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin and Richard Murphy. These are drawn on in the book by Stevenson, certainly, but their main force is to act as coda or epilogue, three discrete but linked addenda, all of them emphasising the role of Sylvia Plath as aggressor and catalyst, and of Ted and Olwyn Hughes as victims and largely passive agents.

Lucas Myers, in Cambridge in the mid-Fifties, was a self-styled ‘transatlantic innocent’, an American whose poems appeared in undergraduate literary magazines alongside those of Ted Hughes, a recent graduate. The two got to know one another, and for a time shared a hut (it ‘had served as a chicken coop a few years before’) let by a rector’s widow who, coincidentally, turned out to be a future mother-in-law of Anne Stevenson. Myers’s account is a measured meditation on how his best friend married the wrong woman: ‘I had expected Ted to preserve his freedom from everything but poetry and, if he were eventually to get married, to marry someone much like his present wife, highly intelligent but close to nature, a daughter of the English countryside.’ And he concludes:

It occurred to me and I may have said to Olwyn that Sylvia should have had the support of a close but removed woman friend in 1962 and 1963 who would have told her, ‘Give him some air to breathe and everything will be all right.’ But that thought was idle. Sylvia, by then, had acquired the technical mastery to write lasting poems, but the fuel at her disposal to propel the poems into being was the same substance that provoked her suicide. At cost to herself and her survivors, she doubtlessly attained what she wanted most from life, a permanent place in the history of 20th-century poetry in English.

Dido, then married to the poet W.S. Merwin, has produced, in her contribution, a steely-eyed, copper-bottomed putting-straight of the record. ‘What she needed was the reassurance of docile doppelgängers and supportive soulmates and yes-persons. It wasn’t her fault that she and I happened to be polar opposites.’ The whole account, with dates and places and names, is a ferocious taunt flung in the teeth of Plath’s ‘hagiographers’ by someone with an unexpectedly strong line in vitriolic comedy. Plath appears throughout as an utterly selfish, endlessly demanding, impossibly disruptive, terrifyingly rude sorceress, whose ‘conflicting drives and priorities of Medea and Emily Post’ reached an apotheosis during a holiday Sylvia and Ted spent at the Merwin farmhouse in France. I don’t question the authenticity, the truthfulness, of any of this, and no one can read Dido Merwin’s contribution without feeling both terror and pity. But her tone is so relentlessly bitter that it feeds back into Anne Stevenson’s book, harshly underlining rather than adding further illumination.

Richard Murphy gives a much more straightforward, much less partisan memoir of a visit Plath and Hughes made to the West of Ireland in the autumn of 1962, and of what followed. But even here I had a strong feeling that he, too, had been recruited – not by Anne Stevenson – to redress the balance. Again, I don’t at all question the truth of Murphy’s account: for what it’s worth, it chimes in very closely with my memory of what was told me at length about this episode by someone intimately concerned, only a few months after Plath’s death. What I question is the wisdom, in Anne Stevenson’s book, of giving 50 pages to these three witnesses for the prosecution.

Sylvia Plath’s ‘uncanny faculty of melting’ into the irrational became the strength of her poems. She had a wild, fierce idea of what she was doing, and was amazed and delighted by it. Less than four months before she killed herself, she wrote to Ruth Fainlight: ‘I am living like a Spartan, writing through huge fevers and producing free stuff I had locked in me for years. I feel astounded and very lucky. I kept telling myself I was the sort that could only write when peaceful at heart, but that is not so, the muse has come to live here, now Ted has gone ...’ These were the weeks that produced, in a torrent, the bee poems, ‘Daddy’, ‘Fever 103°’, ‘The Tour’ (‘O maiden aunt, you have come to call ...’), ‘Ariel’, ‘Nick and me Candlestick’, ‘Lady Lazarus’ and many others. They are poems written at a high pitch, without decoration, but fully under control. The ‘blood jet’ of her poetry stopped only when (in Dr Horder’s terms) she allowed the body to govern the mind. Her exhaustion, her depression, the prescribed drugs for that exhaustion and depression, rapidly followed a circular destructive route.

Much still remains obscure. Quite apart from the tactical mistake of the appendix material in Bitter Fame, there are gaps and blanks where one feels that a censor has been at work, even if it has been Anne Stevenson’s self-regulating censor: the crucial position of Assia Wevill in the final months, for example, would be almost impossible to grasp from the evasive way in which she is treated in these pages. Nevertheless, for the next several years this book will certainly be Plath’s standard literary biography. Beyond that, my guess is that it will be another fifty years before the story is fully and objectively told. This should surprise no one. If it took more than fifty years after Thomas Hardy’s death to get a satisfactory biography of Hardy, and more than seventy-five after Emily Dickinson’s death to get a satisfactory biography of Dickinson, the year 2040 doesn’t look too far off for the definitive Life of Sylvia Plath.

[*] Chatto, 282 pp., £12.95, 0 7011 3126 8.