Agony Column Commentary


Love, Death and Poetry
Sylvia Plath in the Twenty-First Century
The Agony Column for April 13, 2004
Commentary by Serena Trowbridge

Sylvia by the sea.
This is not a review of Plath’s poems, since that has been covered so many times now in minute detail that I am reluctant to add to the myriad of views. Rather, this is a look at how this century sees the work of Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 – and it starts with a warning. There is a part of society’s collective consciousness that cannot leave alone those who die young and beautiful. A bright star is a bigger draw than a faded one, and few shone brighter, if briefly, than Sylvia Plath. Nearly forty-one years after her death, there is still a great deal of interest in her work, and particularly in her life, which sometimes sadly obscures her poetry. The recent film, Sylvia created something of a stir when it was announced, with the Hughes family clearly displeased. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s and Hughes’ daughter comments on the film in a poem entitled My Mother:

They think I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll….
The peanut eaters, entertained
At my mother's death, will go home,
Each carrying their memory of her,
Lifeless - a souvenir.
Maybe they'll buy the video.

These lines eerily echoes her mother’s poem Lady Lazarus:

The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot--
The big strip tease.

There is a curious intertextuality in the poetry and myths surrounding Plath and her family. Ted Hughes even warned his children of the interest their mother’s death would cause, in a poem, The Dogs are Eating Your Mother in the revelatory Birthday Letters:

That is not your mother but her body….
Now they batten
On the cornucopia
Of her body. Even
Bite the face off her gravestone,
Gulp down the grave ornaments,
Swallow the very soil.
So leave her.

I went to see the film and was uncomfortably aware of those lines; but I’m glad I went anyway. The film is the story of Plath and Hughes’ relationship, from when they met in Cambridge until Sylvia’s death in 1962. The press has given it differing reviews, but it was a reasonably balanced picture, not apportioning blame or criticising too much. The views that Hughes gave voice to in Birthday Letters were more or less absent though and I felt that Hughes was given a rather more unrelenting role in the relationship. I was also concerned by the general lack of interest Sylvia appeared to show towards her children in the film, which anyone reading You’re or Morning Song would instantly know to be untrue. The visual representations in the film were uncannily like the photos of Sylvia, Ted and Assia, and the landscapes and the bleakness of the winter in which Sylvia died are haunting. There is a lot about poetry in this film – unusually; the recent film Iris barely considered the author’s work at all, but here the characters talk about their writing and about poetry in general quite a lot, and most of the time it is both convincing and interesting. However there are no quotations from either Hughes’ or Plath’s poems due to the restrictions of the estate of the poets.

"...uncannily like the photos of Sylvia, Ted and Assia..."
Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia plays it well; she has the deadened, drowned eyes of Ophelia towards the end when the suicide is becoming inevitable, and she plays the final scene with such conviction that it seems that there really was no other way out for Plath. Sometimes the tendency to halt questioning is a fault in Hollywood films, but here perhaps it works at its best. The film both starts and ends with Sylvia lying down and staring ahead, like a passive victim, yet the film portrays her as active, positive, in control even in her own death. The conundrums are endless but the speculation will continue.

Kate Moses book Wintering will further feed the minds and imaginations of those who like to get under the skin and into the shoes of the writers they love. She looks closely at the psyche of Plath in a novel based on the poems in Ariel, Plath’s most famous collection, published by Hughes after her death. It concentrates on the period after the collapse of her marriage to Hughes, and looks at a young mother struggling with depression and the difficulties of writing whilst looking after two small children.

A novelist's vision of a poet.
In many ways the novel seeks to interpret Plath’s poems in a very concrete way, but the stream-of-consciousness style prose combined with rich, textured language make it a delight to read. It is what might be termed interpretative biography; without largely changing the facts of Plath’s life, and whilst remaining true to what we can perceive of her personality, it builds a novel around the poems. The reader cannot fail to feel involved as Plath veers from poetic triumph to catastrophe in the last and coldest winter of her life. I have just discovered that Kate Moses has also written about a new theory of Sylvia Plath’s life: that PMS drove her to suicide. This theory has been knocking about since the publication of her unexpurgated diaries and the pattern of her moods can apparently be traced throughout. This theory has been reinforced by examination of her poems and their recurring themes, including blood, female fertility and metaphors for ovulation. If you want to find out more, you can read Kate Moses' article on

Theories seem to collect around Plath, just as they have around other beautiful and interesting high-profile women who have died young, including Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe. These include that Ted Hughes murdered her – directly and deliberately, or indirectly with his infidelity. In fact Plath was appropriated by feminists in the Sixties and Seventies, as an example of what could happen to a woman’s creative and productive side if she married and had children. Since her poems tend to have a female/feminine slant and fitted in with what angry feminists had to say at that time, her life was therefore also used as a metaphor for the evil that men could do. Hughes was reviled and blamed entirely for her death in some circles. I have to say that this theory has by now been largely discounted. This is partly because feminism has moved on and no longer relies so much on scapegoats and examples, but also because it is easy to see that, in marrying and having children, Plath was doing what she wanted and what, at least for a while, made her happiest. Hughes, however, kept his silence until 1998 when he published his own version of events, in Birthday Letters, with a cover designed by Frieda, an artist and poet in her own right.

Plath and Hughes.
Ted Hughes was an enormously successful poet whose success was just beginning when he met Plath, winning a prize for his first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain. Before becoming poet laureate in 1984, he wrote prolifically, producing powerful poems about life and death often represented by nature, the landscape, animals and other natural images. The lowering landscape of his Yorkshire roots never left his writing, despite his time spent studying in Cambridge. Initially he started a degree in English Literature but, finding this increasingly stifling, he switched to study archaeology and anthropology, which clearly suited his creative interests.

His poetry seems magical, concentrating on and evoking dark, mysterious, powerful forces in the world and examining what we don’t understand rather than what we do. Later in life he turned to the classics, producing his own versions of Tales from Ovid, Alcestis and a number of similar works. Birthday Letters was one of the fastest selling books of poetry of all time, though this may have been related to it’s subject matter. Nonetheless it is as masterful and evocative as all his other work and set the seal on his lifetime’s achievement shortly before he died of colonic cancer. There is a mine of information about Hughes and his work at Earth|Moon: A Ted Hughes Website.

Frieda Hughes has now published two volumes of poetry, Worraloo and Waxworks. The latter is a fascinating collection of poems based on a range of characters, from Medusa to Cinderella, and her writing owes a lot to her artistic talents, as well as to her poetic heritage. There is more interesting information on Frieda Hughes’ work at Smith College's Poetry Center Frieda Hughes biography.

If this has sparked your interest in Plath’s poetry (and we should be concentrating on her writing) then you can listen to recordings of her reading her poems, recorded by the BBC and broadcasters in the US from 1958 to 1962. There is something guttural and haunting about her voice, as though foreshadowing the events of her life, but hearing her read her own poetry is an unmissable experience. I found it slightly spooky to be sitting here in 2004 listening to a poet reading about suicide (Lady Lazarus) forty years after her death. If you’re in for spooky experiences though I would thoroughly recommend you go to the BBC Out Loud Lady Lazarus reading.

If you are interested in reading what she says about her poetry then have a look at Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of her short fiction and non-fiction prose edited and introduced by Ted Hughes. This includes, among many other fascinating pieces, a short piece entitled A Comparison, in which Plath compares the work of the novelist with the work of the poet:

"If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand: it has roads, detours, destinations; a heart line, a head line; morals and money come into it. Where the fist excludes and stuns, the open hand can touch and encompass a great deal in its travels."

There are also a number of other excellent on-line resources I would recommend, including: Anja Beckmann's Sylvia Plath page, and The Sylvia Plath Forum.