The ‘Always’ and ‘Never’ Life of Sylvia Plath
By Karen Swallow Prior
inShare3 Feb 8 2013, 2:49 PM ET 10
“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time,” she wrote in The Bell Jar, “then I’m neurotic as hell.”
In the ninth grade, I took an elective course in Abnormal Psychology. I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist and had developed a morbid fascination with things like electroshock therapy, multiple personality disorder, and Sigmund Freud. Motivated by these interests, I checked out The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s fictionalized autobiography, from my high school’s tiny library. Alas, the book was the most darkly mature I’d ever read at that point in my life, and I was too tender an age to understand much but the work’s overwhelming despair. It would be many years before I would return to Plath. When I did, my interests were, thankfully, much more sane and humane.
Now, a few days before the 50th anniversary of her death at the age of 30, I can say I appreciate and admire Plath—her life and her work—even as I mourn for her, mourn for what could have been and what should have been for her as both a woman and an artist. I’ve come to understand better both the pain and the pleasures of Plath’s body of work, a corpus pruned to unnatural, Bonsai proportions by her own hand.
In both life and art, Plath seemingly embodied all the contradictions that plagued life for women of the mid-20th century, a time marked by a perplexing mixture of post-war pessimism and optimism, along with its phantom promise of across-the-board equality held out like a carrot on a stick, tantalizing and teasing to the point of torture for women as gifted and ambitious as Plath. Her life was a dialectic of such contradictions whose synthesis, tragically, was suicide.
Beauty and brains never existed less easily, perhaps, than in Plath. From her years as a student at Smith College to those of a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, Plath strove for both the life of an academic and that of the debutante. Her intelligence and attractiveness—along with an outward confidence—won over fellow poet Ted Hughes, to whom she was married mere months after meeting.
Yet, while she bragged about dating hundreds of men before marrying Hughes, her ostensible sexual liberation was belied by an intense, but sadly unfulfilled, desire for Hughes’ constancy in their marriage. The role Hughes’ failures played in Plath’s suicide is, understandably, the source of endless speculation and criticism.
During her marriage to Hughes, Plath held in tension the life of a serious writer, on the one hand, and that of a traditional wife and mother, on the other. They lived for a time in a quiet English village where she raised her children and bees, yet kept a workaholic’s hours, rising in the early darkness each morning to write, during the prolific periods, entire poems before breakfast. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time,” Plath famously wrote in The Bell Jar, “then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
The lack of a unified self was perhaps the very source of her poetry’s richness. Plath displayed all the evidence of a manic/depressive personality from her youth. Her mother said that the two words she used most often were “always” and “never,” a black-and-white, dialectical tendency that is reflected not only in her life, but even more starkly in lines from one of her most famous poems, “Daddy”:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
As is clear from “Daddy,” Plath wrote in a confessional style, one pioneered centuries earlier by America’s first published poet, Anne Bradstreet, who, in mixing piety and poetry in another seeming contradiction foreshadowed Plath’s paradoxical life as a woman poet. It is such paradoxes that distinguish Plath’s work. For example, like most great artists, Plath began in imitation, discipline, and rigorous adherence to traditional forms, then moved away from these toward creativity and originality. She labored first under an anxiety of influence—among these, Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden, and Anne Sexton—before finding her own distinct voice, a voice marked by the freedom that only the disciplines of meter, form, sound, and sense can bring.
Her poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (published, like “Daddy” in 1965 in the posthumous collection Ariel) beautifully reflects this rigorous discipline and a glorious liberation held in a tension that produces a sublimity far exceeding the sum of its parts:
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.
“The Moon and the Yew Tree” expresses yet another of the contradictions for the quintessentially modern woman: that of a deeply spiritual soul set adrift in a secular age.
Women can’t have it all, as we well know now. Perhaps Plath’s mistake was in wanting it all in a time naïve enough to promise she could. She was sufficiently wise, however, to be suspicious of such a promise, imagining in The Bell Jar that
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor … and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Gifted as she was and living in a world of either/or when she should have lived amid a world of both/and, Plath buckled under the burden of not doing so. Mental illness did the rest.
The brilliant and tragic life and work of Sylvia Plath offer a study of what was, and perhaps is still, best and worst for the female artist, indeed for all women. It’s as though all that is brightest and darkest about modern life was poured into this brief life and then exploded into brilliant bursts of poetry which consumed that which they were nourished by.