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Like a human thunderbolt: why Sylvia Plath’s art transcends her tragic story

Sylvia Plath’s extraordinary poetic gifts have been overshadowed by her death. A new biography sets that right

Photo: Penguin Random House

Last things first. As the poet Ruth Fainlight put it, “Everyone / knows the story’s ending.” On the morning of 11th February, 1963, aged 30, Sylvia Plath taped herself into the kitchen of her London flat, switched on the gas and rested her head on the drop-down oven door. Her preparations for death were measured and solicitous. She left her two small children in their bedroom with the door sealed and window open, with some bread and butter and milk. A scrap of paper in their pram contained a polite request, in capital letters, to phone the doctor who had prescribed her antidepressants. By the time Dr Horder arrived, she had been dead for several hours. Although he had been trying to admit Plath to a psychiatric ward shortly before her suicide, Horder pronounced himself “very surprised when I found she had done this.”

As well as her note about the doctor—which may or may not indicate that she had hoped to be found alive—Sylvia Plath left a black binder on her desk. It contained the groundbreaking collection, dedicated to her children Frieda and Nicholas, which she called Ariel. Plath had continued to write verse until six days before she killed herself (her final journal, kept until three days before her death, was destroyed by her husband Ted Hughes), and her last work has been eagerly interpreted by many readers as an announcement of how her life would end. Hughes sometimes endorsed that interpretation. He declared in 1998, shortly before his own death, that the title poem “Ariel” was “a prophecy of suicide,” a reading plainly invited by the last four lines: 

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning. 

Yet Plath herself described the work in comically downbeat terms as “Another horseback poem, this one called ‘Ariel,’ after a horse I’m especially fond of.” Read this way, the poem’s jagged, swiftly apprehended fragments of “heels and knees,” “neck,” “Thighs” and “hair” seem less concerned with violent abruption than with life viewed at breakneck speed by a speaker who gallops towards the morning sun. Plath’s vision of herself as a “White / Godiva” is exhilarated, triumphant. Hughes supplied the information that: “Ariel was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.”

What Hughes doesn’t mention is that this (December 1955) was the first time Plath had ever ridden a horse. As Heather Clark explains in her new biography, the unruly steed charged down the wrong side of a road while cars veered out of his way and women screamed. Plath, clinging to the horse’s neck, was chiefly struck by her own “power”; not least, perhaps, to command an audience. “I feel,” she wrote, “like one human, avenging thunderbolt.” In her later poem, the speaker is cast in similarly lethal terms: “And I / Am the arrow.”

“Plath’s last work has been eagerly interpreted as an announcement of her suicide. Plath herself was much more comically downbeat about it”

Biography neither resolves nor exhausts the possible interpretations of what is happening in “Ariel.” Knowing that Plath committed suicide soon after it was written does not get us very far in terms of understanding the poem’s images and formal contours. As for the title, the poet Robert Lowell remarked that “Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse.” The poet’s death by her own hand is one “truth” (Lowell told the American writer Elizabeth Bishop that Plath’s poems were “all about” her “suicide”); another is that the name “Ariel” is Shakespeare’s as well as Plath’s. Ariel is a sprite who begins The Tempest enslaved by Prospero, but who ends it liberated by his own transformative powers. Having effected magical changes in others, he is released and himself becomes, as Plath’s “Ariel” puts it, “Something else.” 

Plath more than once remarked upon her own “adjustment,” in language that suggests how she transmuted events in her life into “Something else.” Of her first suicidal episode, as a young woman in 1953, she wrote a year later that “I am really so adjusted to my attempt of last summer that I may even write my Russian paper on the theme of suicide.” Smith College, where she studied, commended her “beautiful adjustment” to life after that first attempt to die. The best evidence of a poet being well adjusted was her own sense of how to convert experience into art. Plath told her mother Aurelia what she felt had to happen before her own life could be made into literature: reality had to be subject to the poet’s “manipulation”; characters had to undergo a process of “fusion,” whereby they became “composite”; and the truth “rearranged.” 

“Rather than throw out an unsuccessful composition, Plath would try to find a form or shape in which it might work”

Biographers of Plath have often approached her works as if they amounted to nothing more than unmediated self-expression. The processes of transformation that she described to her mother may as well, in such accounts, not exist; or, if they are acknowledged, such processes are understood as obstacles to the truth that is the writer’s revelation of selfhood. But poems must be something other than sheer confessions in order to deserve the name of poems, as Clark recognises. While adducing a fuller range of source materials than has appeared in any of the numerous critical and biographical accounts of her subject, Clark is also at pains to stress Plath’s creative gifts and energies. The result is an appraisal that sees her as an author of growth and reinvention; not as a woman doomed to suicide, but rather as someone perpetually striving, as she herself modestly explained, to be “more successful in writing than I thought at first.” As Clark says, Plath’s commitment was “not to death, but to art.”

Success in writing meant, in her teenage years, composing stories, sending them into popular magazines, earning money and winning prizes. After her father Otto’s sudden death when she was eight, the Plath family was always on the brink of financial disaster. Sylvia, who described her childhood self as “dangerously brainy,” was competitive, determinedly upbeat and endlessly aspirational. She won praise from everyone for her top grades, can-do attitude and beautifully put-together appearance. Great things were expected of her, and she pushed herself remorselessly. Writing in the New Yorker on the 30th anniversary of Plath’s suicide, Janet Malcolm called her life “a signature story of the fearful, double-faced fifties.” Plath’s hardworking mother made a brittle joke that a “nervous breakdown” was something none of the Plaths could “afford to have.” When the 20-year-old Sylvia came home, exhausted, to Massachusetts after a prestigious but gruelling New York internship at Mademoiselle magazine and found herself unable to write (experiences recorded in her novel The Bell Jar, published a month before her death), she was diagnosed as depressive. A series of botched treatments followed and only made things worse, culminating in the horrors of electroshock therapy. It was perhaps the fear of this treatment being repeated in London in 1963, Clark suggests, that led to Plath’s suicide.

In 1955, a Fulbright scholarship brought her to chilly Cambridge and red-hot Ted Hughes (or Ted Huge, as Anne Sexton called him). The violent encounter of these two poets at a student party—she bit him on the cheek; he grabbed her scarf and earrings as trophies—was instantly the stuff of a shared mythology that each enjoyed stoking. One onlooker remarked that “they deserved each other” and wondered: “Would Sylvia tame and domesticate Ted… or would he rather liberate Sylvia’s previously repressed passions?” They married in London at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, on 16th June 1956—Bloomsday—with a stunned Aurelia Plath as their only witness. After a honeymoon in France and Spain, Plath’s mother initially still in tow, the couple returned to Cambridge, Plath to begin her second year at Newnham College and Hughes to teach at a boys’ school. An acquaintance described them as “almost incandescent with happiness.” But one of Plath’s Cambridge tutors also recognised this period as marking the inception of “the passionate rage which has since come to be recognised as the dominating emotion of her poetry.” 

Two years ensued of teaching and writing in Massachusetts; here, Plath suffered intermittently from writer’s block and depression (for which she again sought therapy), but also celebrated a series of ecstatic imaginative and poetic breakthroughs. The couple came back to England in 1960, where Plath gave birth (in London) to their daughter Frieda. Two years later Nicholas was born. By this time the family had moved to a farmhouse in Devon. Plath strove cheerfully to adapt but the births of her children provoked months of creative sterility and misery, and she was beset by memories of her dead father. Hughes’s infidelity eventually led the couple to separate in 1962, unleashing in Plath a torrent of bleak, taunting poems of malignity, torture, sacrifice and death. These victorious and appalling works made her name. 

But Plath’s late voice could be beautifully attuned to the natural world, too. She set the scene for one poem “Sheep in Fog” (1962) with a note explaining that “the speaker’s horse is proceeding at a slow, cold walk down a hill of macadam to the stable at the bottom. It is December. It is foggy. In the fog there are sheep.” The poem opens with hills that “step off into whiteness,” viewed by a speaker whose “bones hold a stillness.” She rehearses the dawning apprehension that someone or something finds her wanting (“People or stars / Regard me sadly, I disappoint them”), but her delicate, glancing powers of observation capture the road before her so as to gainsay that disappointment. Or rather, they capture it in such a way as to make the sense of something falling short of expectations (one line reads, in its entirety, “O slow”) an understated achievement in itself. This is not the much-vaunted voice of death-dealing vengeance; it is a masterpiece of another kind. 

Plath did not want anything she created to go to waste. As Hughes wrote in the introduction to her Collected Poems, “To my knowledge, she never scrapped any of her poetic efforts.” Rather than throw out a composition that for whatever reason had not proved successful, she would try to find another form or shape in which it might be made to work, turning it into something that, as Hughes put it, “had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.” Another habit of hers was to envision her individual poems as members of a group, perhaps even a family, gathered into a book whose name and internal configurations were always changing. Had she lived, she would have continued to adjust and to multiply the works she sometimes described as her offspring.

Unlike many who have written about Plath and Hughes, Clark does not make herself part of their story. Red Comet, more than a thousand pages long, patiently plots the short life that it documents. The tone is matter of fact, quietly sympathetic (not only to Plath), and non-sensational. Whole chapters are devoted to day-by-day reconstructions of a single month, often weaving in testimony from little-known sources. Clark’s is the first account of Plath that has been able to draw on all her surviving correspondence, either unpublished or newly discovered, and upon Harriet Rosenstein’s dozens of interviews with Plath’s contemporaries (preparatory to a biography that was never completed), held in the newly opened archive at Emory University. Clark also focuses more than others have done on the family background of Plath’s parents, Otto (who emigrated from Prussia to America at the age of 16) and Aurelia (neé Schober), whose parents were Austrian. This is an authorised biography: both the Plath and Hughes estates have permitted Clark to quote freely and directly from published and unpublished material, so she has no need to resort to paraphrase or half-remembered assertions. Red Comet is neither unduly reverential towards its subject, nor driven to fetishise the details of Sylvia Plath’s final days. It is a life in the fullest and best sense of that word. 

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark (Jonathan Cape, £30)

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