T.S. Eliot once said that the heart of a poet's job was "a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable". What matters to the writer--and reader--is not the "poetic feelings" or romantic experiences that went into the work, but the finished poem.
With Sylvia Plath, alas, the process has been reversed. Since her suicide in 1963 she has become a kind of cult figure, and most people see her poetry as a commentary on her personality and the lurid circumstances of her death. The situation has been complicated by biographies offering sharply contrasting views of her character--as martyr or manipulator--and by the fact that her estate, including the right to reproduce any of her writing, is controlled by Ted Hughes, her former husband, a key figure in the Plath saga, and now Poet Laureate.
Mr Hughes has edited Plath's "Collected Poems" but has tried to stay above the biographical fray, declaring, "I hope that each of us owns the facts of her or his own life." In practice he has kept the facts of his life with Sylvia quite closely guarded, even destroying one of her journals. He has often met authorial speculation with threats of legal action or refusal of permission to publish excerpts from Plath's work.
All this is a tangled tale, and the appearance of Ronald Hayman's book might seem to tangle it still further. However, Mr Hayman is a scrupulous and thoughtful investigator with several first-rate literary biographies to his credit, and his book offers a welcome new perspective. Balanced and concise, it begins with Plath's suicide and the events surrounding it, before analysing the way people and circumstances in her earlier life contributed to her fate.
Indeed, Mr Hayman seems to regard her death as something almost inevitable. "In my view, it's impossible to understand Sylvia Plath's life without understanding the long relationship with death which was eventually consummated in suicide." That word "consummated" sums up Plath's life-long fascination with extinction. In a sense she never recovered from the death of her autocratic father when she was eight. Addressing him in her harrowing late poem "Daddy", she declares that her first suicide attempt at 20 was an effort "to get back, back, back to you". Whenever the pressures of her life became intolerable, the thought of that release and refuge was close at hand. As Mr Hayman puts it, in a phrase that sends a shiver down the spine, "Death was always winking at her from a dark corner."
She inclined always to extremes. Encouraged by the mother she simultaneously adored and despised, she drove herself to excel at everything. In America in the 1950s this meant combining her literary ambition with glossy femininity and aspirations to be a model wife and mother. At university she got top grades, published poems and stories and tried out a series of male partners. Her aim, she wrote in her journal, was "to live hard and good with a hard, good man". When she met Ted Hughes at Cambridge in 1956 he seemed ideal--physically and intellectually imposing, her peer in poetic talent and ambition. In her journal she vowed to "try...my force against his." Within four months they were married. Now, says Mr Hayman, "she was committed to perfectionism a deux."
Such a union was bound to veer from one extreme of feeling to another. But Plath was shattered when, after six years and two children, Ted Hughes embarked on an affair with another woman. The crisis released an outpouring of pain and rage in her extraordinary last poems. Mr Hayman argues that Plath's late verse in particular marks a change in poetic direction, for which the traditional aesthetic distance between art and life no longer applies. Pace Eliot, the suffering woman and the creating mind were fiercely, even vindictively, allied, and a different approach is needed to appreciate her poetry's full effect.
Mr Hayman wants to demonstrate the connection between the life, death and work of Sylvia Plath. He also hopes the Plath estate will give readers more help in pursuing the connection themselves. Even without further biographical revelations, the clarity and intelligence of his book will go a long way towards illuminating the dark forces that impelled both poet and poems.
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