The Intolerable, I Guess

A new biography goes deep on Sylvia Plath.
Collage illustration featuring Sylvia Plath, bees, moons, wedding rings, and rising waters.

Sylvia Plath wrote her first poem, two lines about Christmas titled “Thoughts,” when she was five. She was just eight—it was the year after her father died—when her first published poem appeared in the Boston Herald. For Plath, success was a lifelong skill in itself, separate from writing. Such was her professionalism, her touch with editors, publishers, and committees, you could fairly say she discovered Ted Hughes and made him famous. She read his poetry before she met him, in the first and only issue of the Saint Botolph’s Review, a pamphlet he and his Cambridge friends started in 1956 to publish each other’s work. She bought a copy for one shilling and sixpence from Hughes’s friend Bert Wyatt-Brown. Soon she had pedaled her bike furiously back through the February fog to Wyatt-Brown’s station outside a pub, demanding to be told if he knew Hughes and Luke Myers, whose poems had taken her head off, and had made her feel her own poems were precious and slight, “smug and little.”

Wyatt-Brown invited her to the magazine’s launch party that night. It was the party where she got “very very beautifully drunk,” as she wrote in her journals, and, as a way of making an impression, bit Hughes on the cheek hard enough to draw blood. At our historical remove, the match looks fated and starstruck, like Shakespearean tragedy. She had resisted the pull of marriage or even commitment to previous long-term boyfriends—there were many; she was boy-crazy, and approached dating with the vigor of a sport—in order to focus on her career. She knew domestication and children would steal time from her writing. But Hughes was the first man she respected as her intellectual equal or better. She was tall, and he was taller, an imposing, strong-chinned presence (Anne Sexton nicknamed him Ted Huge), so attractive he reportedly once made a woman throw up. Within four months of the party they had married in a secretive ceremony—Plath was afraid to lose her Fulbright scholarship—and later that same year, when she heard about a first book contest jointly sponsored by Harper?and the New York Poetry Center, she entered Hughes’s manuscript, The Hawk in the Rain, not her own. She had a feeling he would win, and he did.

In her comprehensive new biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Knopf, 2020), scholar Heather Clark goes deep into Plath’s closest relationships—with her mother, her psychiatrist, her mentors and benefactors, her long-term correspondents and on-and-off boyfriends—but deepest on her great tempestuous love with Hughes. The image on the cover is a photo of Plath gazing up into Hughes’s eyes, with a look of admiration and conspiratorial understanding—but you’d have to be familiar with the photo to know, as Hughes is cropped out. She loved him with the voracious passion she had for life in general. “She wanted to do everything herself, you see,” Plath’s midwife Winifred Davies said. “She wanted to ride. And she wanted a cow so she could learn to milk. And she wanted bees so she could keep bees.” Plath’s friend David Compton called her “an enormous enthusiast for everything.” She worshipped the clean, sunny beaches of her native New England, but also loved the moors where Hughes grew up—the ideal exterior setting for interior drama. She also loved to eat, and after Plath and Hughes visited W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido at their farmhouse in France, Dido complained that Plath polished off for breakfast what she’d planned to serve for lunch. (Plath was pregnant with her second child at the time.)

There were two sides to Plath, Plath who was obsessed with doppelg?ngers and doubles. There was the joyful hedonist who took such sensual pleasure in living, in birds and in trees, theater and art. She loved “the thinginess of things,” and treated books with talismanic importance. She also loved drinking and sex and called herself “a good tart” in a letter to Ruth Beuscher, the doctor she grew close to at McLean Hospital, where she received shock treatment following her suicide attempt in 1953. Her ambition was part of her hunger for existence—she once wrote in her journal, “My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time.” This Plath, who saw publication as a form of afterlife, was determined and persistent. In 1959, she was on a road trip with Hughes in the American West (in Yellowstone, their car was attacked by a bear) when she learned via letter that Knopf had rejected her manuscript, an early version of The Colossus. Her mother, Aurelia, suggested she consider revision, but Plath refused, writing back: “PLEASE don’t worry about my poetry book but send it off … I also have gone over it very carefully and am not going to try to change it to fit some vague abstract criticism … You need to develop a little of our callousness and brazenness to be a proper sender-out of mss.” She almost always, in her letters to Aurelia, emphasized happiness and put up a brave front, as though impervious to rejection.

But Plath also had a vulnerable, defeated side, laid bare in the privacy of her journals. When she lost the 1959 Yale Younger Poets prize to George Starbuck—her former drinking buddy, if the term can apply to martinis at the Ritz—she found the irony awful: the editor said her poems were too “rough,” when she’d worked so hard to break herself of technical perfection, what Plath herself called “archaic cutie tricks,” at the expense of emotional force. She had wanted her poems to be more like Hughes’s. “Will I ever be liked for anything other than the wrong reasons?” she wrote in her diary; “I have no champions.” Of course, she had many, throughout her life. She published poetry, fiction, and criticism regularly in high-profile publications such as The Atlantic and?The Observer; she had a coveted first-refusal contract with The New Yorker. But defeat came and went like a mood: the tides of failure. For Plath, success often felt like a failure—like the wrong success, too commercial or obscure; success insignificant, compared to her husband’s; success badly won; success too late.

It was arguably Plath’s rejection from Frank O’Connor’s fiction class at Harvard in 1953 that set off the depressive episode that almost killed her. She was on her way home from an exhausting summer internship at Mademoiselle in New York City (a summer lightly fictionalized in her only published novel, The Bell Jar) when she got the news. O’Connor later said he thought Plath too advanced for the beginner-level workshop, but she didn’t know this. She was supposed to be working on her senior thesis, on Ulysses. But she was overcome with a malaise she couldn’t think through, an inability to read. Esther Greenwood, her counterpart in The Bell Jar, has a parallel struggle with Finnegans Wake:

I squinted at the page.

The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.

I decided to junk my thesis.

Plath, too, abandoned the paper on Joyce, eventually submitting a thesis on doubles in Dostoyevsky instead.

It was an interesting experience to read Red Comet during quarantine. Clark’s publisher was not printing physical galleys, and I don’t use an e-reader, so I had my advance PDF, an 1,152-page document, printed and bound in two unwieldy, 8x11 volumes. I couldn’t comfortably read them in bed or on the couch; I read them sitting at our kitchen table, over many nights and weekends of the sad, un-summery summer. Like Esther in her fictional room, and like so many others in the year 2020, I had intermittent difficulty focusing. I’m not normally prone to headaches, but through much of the spring and summer, a tingling knot of pain was lodged at the back of my skull. I found a chart online about the 20 or so known varieties of headache; mine was almost certainly a tension headache, associated with stress and depression. It was, in a way, difficult to read about Plath during this time, especially when I reached the biography’s third and final section; I had a panicky awareness of the clock ticking down, a despair that I couldn’t save her. In another way, the struggle gave me purpose; it was intense, but kind of comforting, to read about someone who suffered more than me during what has been the most anxiety-ridden period of my life.

Red Comet is almost a week-by-week telling of Plath’s life story. Chapter 2 contains a full page about Plath’s first words and pseudo-words: at 8 months, her lexicon included “Mama, dad, bye-bye,” and “tick-tick,” and at 15 months, she’d announce “ga-ga” if she wanted attention. In Chapter 3, we get a list of the 10 Girl Scout badges she earned in May of 1944. Later, we learn the details of many a date night with many a minor character. In Chapter 8, we learn one Constantine took her to “a Russian bar on 14th Street” in New York, where they danced, she in a black velvet suit, and drank Moscow mules. This onslaught of information can make for tiresome reading, though the gossip is occasionally fun; Yoko Ono makes a brief appearance in Chapter 13. At times, the book feels more like a resource for fact-checkers, like a guide to the abundant existing material on Plath, than a book you’re meant to read from cover to cover. (I couldn’t help but notice the “FOR REFERENCE ONLY” watermark in the background of my galley.) It doesn’t help that Clark’s prose can look a little lifeless compared to both Plath’s and Hughes’s, which she quotes from frequently. Both poets were given to hilarious overstatement. Plath complained in a letter of the couple upstairs: “They live like pigs … They are unbelievable & don’t deserve to live.” (Clark’s comment is “Sylvia’s nastiness was out of all proportion.”) Their writing is full of vivacity and style. In a letter to his sister Olwyn about American bread, Hughes called it “de-crapularised, re-energised, multi-cramulated, bleached, double-bleached, rebrowned, unsanforised, guaranteed no blaspheming.” He closed, “There is no such thing as bread.” To his brother Gerald he wrote, “The food, the general opulence, is frightening. My natural instinct is to practise little private filthinesses—I spit, pee on shrubbery, etc, and have a strong desire to sleep on the floor.”

Red Comet does stake some new ground, though it’s difficult in a field that already includes over a dozen biographies in addition to Plath’s own copious journals and letters. As Clark notes in the prologue, her book incorporates certain recently discovered and previously unpublished letters (including several to her psychiatrist) and other archival materials, such as a portion of a lost novel, which Clark stumbled upon misfiled in an archive. She also claims to be more interested in tracing Plath’s “literary and intellectual development” than other biographers, who have pathologized the poet and fixated on the macabre. As a critical biographer, Clark is rather too credulous, too reverent of Plath’s early writing. For example, Clark calls a description in a 1943 letter to her mother of a book Plath had just read “the earliest surviving example of Plath’s literary criticism.” (She was 11.) If other biographers have treated Plath’s suicide as inevitable, it seems equally silly to read her grade-school verse as though her literary fame were inevitable. However, Clark’s expository close readings of Plath’s late poems can be striking, insightful, and even thrilling. She boldly compares “Ariel” to Hughes’s poem “The Thought-Fox,” a likely influence on Plath: “But horses are larger, stronger, and faster than foxes; Plath’s poem is the stronger of the two, the one with the more intensely rhythmic momentum, the more resounding final crescendo.” (I agree—it’s the Hughes poem that now looks slight.) She writes of the “uncanny impression” that “Edge,” Plath’s last poem, gives of “having been written posthumously.” “The woman is perfected,” the poem’s first line reads—“not perfect, perfected,” Clark notes, “like a work of art, an experiment, something controlled.” The poem is “self-elegy,” grafting “the world of de Chirico onto Yaddo’s garden,” “a poisoned arrow aimed at Hughes.” In fact, whatever new territory the book covers, Clark is at her best when trained on the parts of Plath’s life that have already received the most attention: her documented two suicidal episodes, a decade apart, and the literally feverish period of productivity in late 1962 and early 1963, when she was afflicted with recurring flus and an infection that nearly cost her her thumb, and when she wrote the unforgettable poems that appear in Ariel, published after her death.

In a chapter titled “The Hanging Man,” Clark recounts the circumstances surrounding Plath’s incredible first attempt at suicide—incredible because she failed, or because she succeeded, depending on which side of Plath was in question, the side that wanted to die or the side that wanted to live. On August 24, 1953, she left a note for her family, claiming she had gone on a walk, then swallowed around 40 sleeping pills. She passed out in a crawlspace in the basement that was hidden behind a pile of firewood. She was “missing” for two days. “An astonishing 253 newspaper articles published about Plath’s disappearance that August appeared as far afield as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Florida,” Clark writes—“a media frenzy.” It’s remarkable that Plath was still alive on August 26, when the family and Plath’s friend Pat O’Neil heard a dog howling outside the house and realized, “all of us at the same instant,” in O’Neil’s telling, “that the dog was trying to tell us something.” It was Sylvia’s brother Warren who found her behind the firewood. She had vomited up the pills, but kept banging her head on the ceiling of the crawlspace and falling back into unconsciousness. She later claimed she’d been smashing her head that way on purpose, and in the hospital raged with “a hatred toward the people who would not let me die, but insisted rather in dragging me back into the hell of sordid and meaningless existence.” The gash on her head was infected and crawling with maggots when they saved her. “They had to call and call,” Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus,” “And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.”

In January of 1954, Plath was released from the hospital. Warren was driving her back to college at Smith when the car spun out in a blizzard. After rising from the ashes of the crawlspace, the thought of death now unwished for, out of her own control, seemed cruelly unfair, the act of “malicious gods.” “This can’t happen to us,” she thought; “we’re different.” Different why? Because we are we, not them. Any person is the only self. There was much left to do and experience—Plath had once written, in a letter to her mother, about throwing on clothes in preparation for a last-minute blind date, “all the time ranting … how never to commit suicide because something unexpected always happens.” A few years later she was traveling around Europe and building a life with Hughes, her “genius husband” and ame s?ur, whom she felt she was designed for: “I love his good smell and his body that fits with mine as if they were made in the same body-shop to do just that.”

Though Plath was in many ways unconventional for her time, she was not interested in an open marriage. When, in mid-1962, Hughes embarked on an affair with the glamorous Assia Wevill, the shock of the betrayal, the dissolution of Plath’s Eden, was too much to bear. It puts me in mind of the letters Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to Robert Lowell after he left her alone in New York with their 13-year-old daughter; he’d met a woman at a party in London and moved in with her “instantly, that night.” Hardwick could not fathom this abandonment. “You are going, irrevocably, to an emotionally crippled life, chaos, withdrawal,” she wrote in a scathing missive. “We are utterly miserable, unbelievably wounded. I do feel as I say again that this is like a death.” Hardwick’s turmoil only worsened when she found out Lowell was writing poems about the breakup of their marriage, many of them drawing from the language of her letters: “I have never tried to deny my grief and pain and my love for you. For me at least the amputation will probably always hurt, but I am resigned to that. The recent shocks have added something new. I don’t know what to call it—the intolerable, I guess.”

Mutual friends encouraged Plath to let the affair blow over; such dalliances were normal, they said. They didn’t believe it was really the end of the marriage. But she could not forgive Hughes this profound rejection—he seemed monstrous to her now. “I feel I am mourning a dead man,” she wrote to Olive Higgins Prouty, the wealthy novelist who funded Plath’s scholarship at Smith and sent her regular checks for years. Hughes was “the most wonderful person I knew, and it is some stranger who has taken his name.” Their children, Frieda and Nicholas, were then a toddler and an infant. Hughes and Plath had always shared parenting duties so they both could write—acquaintances marveled that he willingly changed “nappies”—but abruptly the sacrifice, the burden of their care along with Plath’s, seemed too much for Hughes. “I’m aghast when I see how incredibly I’ve confined & stunted my existence,” he wrote in a letter to Olwyn. The affair was a kind of tantrum, the expression of a sudden desperate need for personal freedom, for escape.

One night, feeling “deserted” and “mad with this solitude,” Plath looked through the papers in Hughes’s study at Court Green, their home in Devon. He was in London at the time. There were “sheafs of passionate love poems” he’d written for Wevill, describing “their orgasms, her ivory body, her smell, her beauty,” as she wrote in a letter to Dr. Beuscher. They must have been torture for Plath to read, but “Many are fine poems,” she admitted. Plath herself was waking at 4AM to write in the dark till the children got up. In a letter to the poet Richard Murphy, she wrote, “It is like writing in a train tunnel, or God’s intestine.” Elsewhere she called that time the “still, blue, almost eternal hour before cockcrow, before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman.” Later that winter, she wrote to her mother, “Ted never liked blue, & I am a really blue-period person now.” Color had always been important to her. The first stanza of “Ariel”: “Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.” Hughes, like everyone else who read them, found these “dawn poems” astonishing. “She’s like a woman on fire,” he told a friend at the time; “They’re extraordinary. The best things she’s ever done.” They could speak hatefully of each other—she called him an “apocalyptic Santa Claus”; he spoke of her “particular death-ray quality”—but their respect for each other’s work until the end, their far apart ends, I find heart-breaking.

Plath wasn’t in her right mind. She knew she was writing “on the edge of madness.” She had moved with the children into a flat on Fitzroy Road where W.B. Yeats, one of her favorite poets, had lived. She was cold all the time—it was a notoriously frigid, unusually snowy winter—overworked, undereating, and taking a dubious cocktail of medications including codeine and an early antidepressant (which, like many antidepressants still in use, can initially increase the risk of suicide). 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—but death might also offer a release from all that fear. If she did it, she could stop imagining it. Which side would prevail? She feared her resolve, what she perceived in her poems as her godlike power, a resolve that could serve or betray her. She knew, if she crawled into the “grave cave” of Lady Lazarus again, she might not be saved.

Some have speculated that Plath expected to be rescued, as she had been before. But “the information now available,” Clark writes in her epilogue, suggests otherwise. 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,” Clark writes, “and he would never forget 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 and family that Hughes wanted her to kill herself, but this is not corroborated and is hard to believe. Much of the epilogue contends with Hughes’s enduring guilt. (Clark’s devotion is to Plath, but she doesn’t demonize Hughes, like the fans who repeatedly scratch his last name off her gravestone.) “It doesn’t fall to many men to murder a genius,” he said to one friend. “I don’t ever want to be forgiven.” Time became dilated for him, warped: “Immediately after Sylvia’s suicide, he ‘felt it had happened a month ago.’ A month later, he wrote the Merwins, he felt it had ‘happened yesterday.’” There are some indications the couple were on the verge of a reconciliation, but Plath may have been too proud to allow this or hope for it. “I depended on a resilience in her that I was too blind to see wasn’t there,” Hughes wrote.

But perhaps the resilience was there—she’d just turned her resilience against life. In an essay in Seduction & Betrayal (1974), Elizabeth Hardwick observes, “Committing suicide is desperation, demand for relief, but I don’t see how we can ignore the way in which it is edged with pleasure and triumph in Sylvia Plath’s work.” In “Lady Lazarus,” she continues, suicide is “performance,” “an assertion of power, of the strength—not the weakness—of the personality.” Lady Lazarus—“I am your opus”—is no victim.

In her 1962 poem “Elm,” Plath wrote: “I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” Thanatos was lurking like a predatory owl in the hole of a tree. Even at her weakest, Plath knew her strength, her attraction to control. She was right to be frightened.

Originally Published: October 26th, 2020

Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory (FSG, 2020) and The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018). She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her writing has appeared in the New York Review of...