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2. The ‘Edge’ of Sylvia Plath’s Critical History: A Reappraisal of Plath’s Work, 60 years after

Sylvia Plath’s October 1962 Poems: “Things Are Resolving”

Gary LEISING

Résumés

Cet article se penche sur les relations intertextuelles entre les lettres de Plath et les poèmes qu’elle écrivit en octobre 1962. Si la lecture conjointe de ces écrits permet d’enrichir l’analyse biographique des poèmes, elle encourage également les lecteurs à considérer les modalités par lesquelles Plath a transformé sa vie et ses pensées quotidiennes en art. En pleine séparation d’avec son mari Ted Hughes, Plath écrivit la plupart de ses poèmes les plus célèbres, notamment ceux de Ariel. Par ailleurs, elle écrivit environ 25 lettres, regroupées dans le second volume de The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Dans ces textes, on lit des narratrices tiraillées. L’indépendance, personnelle et financière, et l’espoir d’une amélioration prochaine irrigue plusieurs lettres de cette période, tandis qu’Ariel, surtout dans la forme que lui donnera Ted Hughes, est marqué par un aspect sombre, en lien avec les dernières heures tragiques de Plath. Pourtant, en lisant les deux productions en parallèle et en s’interrogeant sur la structure que Plath avait donné à son recueil, on peut voir une tension entre l’écriture et la vie : tandis que sa vie va bientôt s’achever, les poèmes, comme les lettres, pointent vers une renaissance. La lecture comparée de ces deux corpus nous permet de mieux délimiter les personae que Plath invente pour chacun des textes.

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  • 1 For a discussion of the variations, see Marjorie Perloff’s “The Two Ariels: The (Re)making Of The S (...)

1In the middle of domestic upheaval, on 9 October 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, “I am a bore, but things are resolving. I see and see and see. Ted [Hughes] is home this week, packing for good” (Letters 851). Hughes moved out of their Devon home, Court Green, on the eleventh, and soon after Plath began her search for a place to live in London. But while still in Devon in October and November, Plath wrote many of the poems that would compose the manuscript of her second book of poems, Ariel. These are also many of the poems for which she is now best known, including “Ariel,” “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Cut,” and her sequence of Bee Poems. The ultimate collection of those poems into a book is a point of contestation, as Hughes removed some poems Plath intended to include, added others, and changed the poems’ order. In 2004, Ariel: The Restored Edition published the poems as Plath’s manuscript suggests she intended. Rather than ending with poems written during the last days of her life, the “restored” Ariel ended with those Bee Poems, culminating in “Wintering” and its final word: “spring,” as the hive of bees awaits the season of rebirth.1 This seems significant to note here, as “Wintering” was written on 8 and 9 October, the same day that Plath told Dr. Beuscher she was “resolving.” In fact, paying attention to the relationship among poems, letters, and events in Plath’s life during Autumn 1962 yields a deeper understanding of these poems, as does reading them in the order in which they were written—which is how they were presented by Hughes for Plath’s The Collected Poems. By attending to the poems written in October, I intend here to situate the public writing—that is to say, writing intended for publication, of Plath’s poems with the private texts of her letters to investigate her creative work’s context.

  • 2 Heather Clark’s biography provides the most authoritative accounts of Plath’s life because of the w (...)

2That October, as Heather Clark writes, “Plath wrote almost a poem a day—one of the most extraordinary literary outpourings of the twentieth century. In four weeks she would produce nearly as many poems as she had written in 1960 and 1961” (Clark 764).2 Using the borders of a month seems a little artificial, so it might be said that Plath’s prodigious output began one day earlier with “A Birthday Present,” written on 30 September. The day before writing that poem, she wrote several letters lamenting her collapsing marriage: To her mother: “It is horribly humiliating to be deserted”; to Kathy Kane: “The evenings are hell”; to Dr. Beuscher: “I think I am dying, I am just desperate. Ted has deserted me” (Letters 839, 841, 843). In that final letter, written on Saturday night, Plath writes about going into Hughes’s study to discover love poems written to his mistress, Assia Wevill. In these letters, she describes needing sleeping pills to get through the night, then work to keep her busy and, it seems, distracted from her desperation during the day. She also writes of seeking legal action against Hughes as he has been drawing money out of their joint account.

“Make notes”

3The first two poems she writes—“A Birthday Present” on 30 September and “The Detective” on October 1—are poems full of questions. This might be reflective of her uncertain mental state as her marriage collapsed especially since she imagines physical pain or death in both poems. In the first one, for example, she asks, “Must you stamp each piece in purple, / Must you kill what you can?” (Collected 207) The polysemous word “stamping” in purple may suggest a postmark, the cancellation of a stamp, or some other official mark on a document, or perhaps purple indicates the coloration of a bruise, of something violently pounded. In the murder being investigated in “The Detective,” there ought to be similar marks of injury, but instead, “This is a case without a body” (Collected 209). Its questions revolve around the domestic scene a 1960s wife may have been expected to inhabit: “Was she arranging cups?” “Was she at the window, listening?” (Collected 208) The poem obliquely points to the crime being committed by the husband as the investigator observes, “These are the deceits, tacked up like family photographs, / And this is a man, look at his smile, / The death weapon?” (Collected 208) But what is one to do about the situation of a murder that left no body behind as evidence? In the last stanza, the poem alerts us that the voice is a Sherlock Holmes addressing his “Watson,” ending with the directive, “Make notes” (Collected 209). Though it might not have been Plath’s intention as she wrote the poem’s last two words on 1 October, this poetic finale can be read as self-directive for the kind of writing she would do the rest of that month. That is, she makes notes in the form of her art on what has happened in her life and marriage while she provides some indication of what is to come.

4“They taste the spring”

  • 3 Though the nodding, misshapen heads here are easily understood as depicting the protective gear wor (...)

5Two days later, Plath begins writing the sequence of poems she titled “BEES” when submitting them to Howard Moss at The New Yorker on 10 October (Letters 854). The first in that sequence, “The Bee Meeting,” is full of questions, too, beginning with “Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?” and ending with the curiously punctuated final question/statement: “Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold” (Collected 211, 212). We might read these poems as inspired by Plath’s own lessons in and attempt at beekeeping and find ourselves encouraged to do so by Ted Hughes’s introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a volume which includes Plath’s June 1962 journal excerpts about Devon’s beekeepers, under the title “Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers.” Hughes notes about Plath’s sketches of people from this time period: “What is especially interesting now about some of these descriptions is the way they fed into Ariel. They are good evidence to prove the poems which seem often to be constructed of arbitrary surreal symbols are really impassioned reorganizations of relevant facts” (2). The dichotomy Hughes establishes here seems false: can we not see the facts revealed in her notebooks as the source of a set of surreal symbols? Readers can bridge the gap between the characters described in mysterious ways and their actual personae. That is, the “nodding square black head[s]… knights in visors” are clearly the rector, midwife, etc. (Collected 211).3 As Heather Clark notes about “The Detective,” “Metaphor, history, and autobiography merge surrealistically” (766).

6Later, when Plath arranges the Ariel poems into a manuscript, she will conclude the volume with four of her five bee poems (omitting “The Swarm”). There will be, upon reflection, a “reorganization” of the poetry to point Ariel toward its theme of rebirth and, with the final word of “Wintering,” “spring.” But as she wrote these poems between 3 and 9 October 1962, it is difficult to think of the poems as constituted merely of “relevant facts.” For all the details we have of Plath’s life, especially those from her own hand in letters or her calendar, there is a paucity of details from these few days. There is a letter, quoted above, from Saturday night, 29 September, and only one more short extant letter until 9 October, when she wrote to both her mother and Dr. Beuscher. The page from her calendar with the week of 7-13 October is missing. And, of course, we have no journal entries from this month. The one letter written during the days she was writing the first drafts of the Bee Poems, on 7 October to Richard Murphy, includes a description of her writing process: “I am writing for the first time in years, a real self, long smothered. I get up at 4 a.m. when I wake, & it is black, & write till the babes wake. It is like writing in a train tunnel, or God’s intestine” (Letters 846). While Hughes may describe these poems as “facts,” we might think of the author’s description as much more imagined or recreated through the lens and craft of poetry in opposition to the documentary nature of journal. Likewise, in the poem itself the facts of the experience are transformed, not merely reorganized. Here are some comparisons between poem and journal entry:

Poem (“The Bee Meeting”)

Journal (“Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers”)

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers---

We crossed a little bridge to the yard where a group of miscellaneous Devonians were standing.

In my sleeveless summer dress I have no protection…. I am nude as a chicken neck.

I hugging my bare arms in the cool of the evening, for I had not thought to bring a sweater.

I am led through a beanfield. // Strips of tinfoil winking like people, feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers, / Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts. / Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string? / No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

We threaded our way through neatly weeded allotment gardens, one with bits of tinfoil and a fan of black and white feathers on a string, very decorative, to scare the birds, and twiggy lean-tos over the plants. Black-eyed sweetpea-like blooms: broad beans, somebody said.

The villagers are hunting the queen. / Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever. She is old, old, old, she must live another year (Collected 211-2)

The queen hates smoke. She might have swarmed earlier. She might be hiding. She was not marked. (“Charlie Pollard” 57-60)

7In the last pairing above, it is worth noting that the journal much more factually describes the process of the villagers opening hives in search of the queen bees, as a new queen would emerge and kill the older one. The villagers would move the new queens to different hives to preserve the old queens. While the fact might make one kind of practical sense here, if we think about the situation in Plath’s life at the time of its writing, we might see a more surreal and symbolic reading of “The Bee Meeting.”

8In late September Plath was alone at Court Green while Hughes was with Assia Wevill; Plath saw a solicitor in London about a divorce on 24 September. On 11 October, Hughes would move away from Plath for good. We might read the transactions of “a new queen” bee replacing the other as a metaphor for Plath’s biographical situation. The beekeeping villagers’ action at the poem’s conclusion leaves its speaker asking, “Whose is that long white box in the grove,” and we know literally that it is a hive, but the symbol here suggests a prison or a coffin. The speaker concludes feeling “cold” and alone (Collected 212). However, the poem foreshadows the potential for rebirth that concludes “Wintering” and may be a theme in Plath’s letters and poems from this month as “The white hive is snug as a virgin, / Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming” (Collected 212). She is pure and safe, not exposed like the bare-armed speaker, and she has protected her brood, humming, perhaps like the train through the tunnel in which Plath writes these poems. Plath might be positioning herself as both speaker and soon-to-emerge from the tunnel-like honeycomb queen.

9After “The Bee-Meeting,” Plath writes “The Arrival of the Bee Box” (4 October), “Stings” (6 October), and “The Swarm” (7 October). The latter appears in the typescript table of contents for Plath’s Ariel in handwritten brackets and omitted from the manuscript, perhaps because its imagery of Napoleonic warfare moves the poem too far away from the more personal tone of the other Bee Poems. These poems do, however, suggest a speaker moving forward rather than being hidden like the old queen in “The Bee Meeting.” The swarm trapped in the newly arrived “bee box” will find release the next day when the speaker “will be sweet God, I will set them free. // The box is only temporary” (Collected 213). Employing a theme Plath was to return to throughout October and November 1962, the apparently defeated and battered queen bee in “Stings” finds resurrection or rebirth in flight, in ascent, and in transcending the situation of the hive and beekeeping “engine” that trapped her. Early in the poem she is described as “Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful” (Collected 214). The speaker is described as similarly defeated by her life: “I have eaten dust / And dried plates with my dense hair. // And seen my strangeness evaporate, / Blue dew from dangerous skin” (Collected 214). Her suffering through the drudgery of domestic life predicts what she will write about in future weeks in “The Jailer,” the evaporating self harkens back to “The Detective’s” “vaporization,” and a line ending with dust followed by “my dense hair” may foreshadow the end of “Lady Lazarus,” “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair,” even in the rhythm of the last four words (Collected 247). As that poem and its Biblical antecedent suggest resurrection, so does the queen bee in “Stings”:

Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her—
The mausoleum, the wax house. (Collected 215)

  • 4 Heather Clark also points out that the slowed life of the beehive in winter “is dangerous terrain f (...)

10On 8 and 9 October, Plath would write “Wintering,” the poem that concludes both the Bee Poems and her Ariel manuscript. The poem moves through two seasons as it progresses from its title to its final word (“spring”). The speaker (and perhaps Plath herself) was associated with the bees in “Stings,” and that association continues in “Wintering.” Winter begins “in a dark without window / At the heart of the house” in an old wine cellar that seems like a grave: “This is the room I could never breathe in”4 (Collected 218). On the day she completes “Wintering,” Plath wrote two letters about her separation from Hughes, one to her mother and one to Dr. Ruth Beuscher. In both she expresses concern over her finances and a fear of being in Hughes’s literary shadow—“Ted is everywhere in the literary world, like T.S. Eliot.” (Letters 852) She worries here about how she will be seen or treated, even asking if her brother or aunt could be in England with her when the divorce goes to court. Her letter echoes the worry expressed in “Stings”: “Will they hate me, / These women who only scurry” (Collected 214). To her mother, she also expresses concern over the survival of her home and domestic life using her house and place settings as metonyms: “Everything is breaking---my dinner set is cracking in half, the health inspector says the cottage should be demolished, there is no hope for it” (Letters 850). Her letter to Dr. Beuscher ends with a line that recalls the skin image from “Stings” discussed above and foreshadows the torturous imagery of the poems she will soon write (“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “The Jailer”), as she says that she will bear the mark of her years with Hughes, “On my skin. Like a Belsen label” (Letters 853). “Wintering,” however, has no such suffering in its final version. Its subject comes straight out of Plath’s life and her efforts at feeding her bees with sugar:

Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in. (Collected 218)

  • 5 Interestingly and perhaps not coincidentally, she uses the word “boor” to describe Hughes’s behavio (...)
  • 6 Intriguingly, the reverse side of this poem is a typescript draft of The Bell Jar, Chapter 4. After (...)

11While the poem’s bees seem to be in a comatose state, Plath’s were more active, setting upon her as she expected Hughes’s friends to do: “Even my beloved bees set upon me today when I numbly knocked aside their sugar feeder & I am all over stings” (Letters 850). While the poem does not reveal a speaker suffering at the hands of her bees, the first, handwritten draft of “Wintering” does hint at the emotional suffering revealed in Plath’s letters. In addition to worrying that Hughes will keep too much money for himself and not provide for her or their children, she writes in both letters of the ninth with understandable jealously about Assia Wevill. Such fears resonate with the line “The men have only their sex & they eat too much honey,” (Wintering) which is replaced by “The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors5” in the final version (Collected 219). The first draft’s ending, too, differs from the final poem. Instead of the optimistic taste of the spring, Plath answers the question “What will they taste of[,] the Christmas roses?” with further questions at first: “Snow water? Corpses? Spring?”6 (Wintering) Crossed-out options show that even at first she worried over the conclusion. Though Plath does not strike out the first two questions, there are other options between corpses and spring, such as “Impossible spring?” or “What sort of spring” or the desperate-sounding, “O God, let them taste of spring” (Wintering) These lines lack the active indication of the bees’ recovery from their winter hibernation: “The bees are flying” (Collected 219). That the Christmas roses (which ought to suggest birth and resurrection being associated with Christ) might taste of corpses seems dismaying. In the first typescript of the poem (9 October), the typed last line’s three questions are repeated, but “Spring?” is crossed out and replaced with a handwritten “A glass wing?” A subsequent typed draft from that day then has that last question crossed out and we see the mention of a wing give way to attempted lines including “bees on the wing,” “A gold bee flying?” “Bee song?” (Wintering) Action and life appear. There is even one apparent false start at a sentence with the word “Resurrected” followed by a comma, clearly indicating a shift in thematic thinking from “Corpses? Spring?” (Wintering) Finally she arrives closer to the familiar ending of the poem and it appears she reinserts the page in the typewriter and types out the final stanza. Then a triple penmark strikes through the first three words to get to the conclusion she will retype in fair copy:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their firest
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
Snow water? Corpses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring. (Wintering)

12The next day, Plath will submit “BEES” and other poems to Howard Moss at The New Yorker, and they will not be accepted. She will write “A Secret” on the 10th, “The Applicant” on the 11th, and “Daddy” on the 12th, the day after Hughes moves out. It also on that day that she writes to her mother again, and her mood seems to have improved. On the 9th she begins to Dr. Beuscher, “I am a bore, but things are resolving” (Letters 851). The end of “Wintering” had resolved not to include corpses but to name the season of rebirth and the bees’ flight into its freedom. Likewise, on 12 October, she tells her mother,

  • 7 Similarly, she writes her brother and sister-in-law on the same day: “I have been through the most (...)

Do tear my last [letter] up. It was written at what was probably my all-time low and I have an incredible change of spirit, I am joyous---happier than I have been for ages. Ted left yesterday, after a ghastly week, with all his stuff, clothes, books, papers. Instead of returning home to blueness & gloom, as I expected, I found myself singing, washing Frieda’s hair, rubbishing out junk, delighted. At last everything was definite, no more waiting, worrying, trying to decipher lies. It is over. My life can begin. (Letters 855)7

“I didn’t call you”

13On 12 October, the day Plath’s mood was improved, she also wrote what became one of her most well-known poems, “Daddy.” This poem, ending with its strong, assertion—“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”—is the first of her October poems not to include a question (Collected 224). Its declarative tone may reflect her (albeit temporarily) strengthened mood. On that day, she wrote five drafts of the poem, and, as with “Wintering,” made the most substantial changes to the poem’s conclusion. The first draft ends a stanza earlier than the final draft does:

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years if you want to know.
Daddy, daddy, lie easy now. (Daddy)

  • 8 On 18 October, Plath writes to Olive Higgins Prouty that “my six years of absolute love and trust h (...)

14After she moves to a typescript that reproduces the ending of her autograph draft, she first works on the last line. It becomes “Daddy, daddy, it’s over now,” then “Daddy, daddy, I’m through with you” (Daddy) She tries repeating “I’m through” twice, then, “Daddy, daddy, lie back” followed by what is, excepting a couple of words, the ending we know, calling the father a bastard (Daddy). Intriguingly, in a letter to her mother on 12 October, Plath writes that Hughes “has behaved like a bastard, a boor, a crook, & what has hurt most is his cowardice---evidently for years he has wanted to leave us & deceived us about his feelings” (Letters 855, emphasis added). We might expect that she wrote the poem first that day, given her practice of writing as soon as her sleeping pill wore off. But the connection between the letter and poem make the autobiographical nature of “Daddy” clear. The obvious connection between the “model of you” (Collected 224), the husband, and the absent father becomes clearer when we see the poem refer to father as “bastard” just as Plath refers to the husband in her letter. Likewise, the poetic description of husband as “vampire” who “drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know” squares with Plath’s letter revelation that Hughes had wanted to leave her “for years” (Collected 224, Letters 855). Finally, we might connect the vampire’s drinking of the poem’s speaker’s blood with the letter’s implicit connection between Hughes’s treatment of Plath and her health: “If only he had told the truth at the start, six months ago, for this summer, the flu, my weight loss, have really set me back” (Letters 855). She may have felt like a vampire’s victim, weakened from blood loss.8 However, just as the poem’s speaker is triumphantly “through” at its end, Plath is, too, now that her husband has moved out: “But I am full of fantastic energy, now it is released from the problem of him” (Letters 855). In the context of her poem and letter together, “Daddy” concludes being as much about Hughes as about Otto Plath.

  • 9 In particular, the line in “The Disquieting Muses” describing the ladies “With heads like darning-e (...)

15Four days after “Daddy,” Plath would write about her mother in “Medusa,” with opening imagery that recalls the surrealism of her earlier de Chirico-inspired poem also about her mother, “The Disquieting Muses.”9 That day she would also write two letters to her mother, both in desperate tones. The first implores Aurelia to “Write nothing to any of the Hugheses” (Letters 860) and the second asks for help: “I need someone from home. A defender. I am terrified of what will happen” (Letters 863). It is ironic that she asks for help in the letter while that day’s poem expresses a desire for disconnection. A few days later (21 October), she writes to ask her mother to stop contacting Plath’s neighbor Winnifried Davies about her. Perhaps this is part of what leads the speaker of “Medusa” to agonize over the mother who is “always there” even though “I didn’t call you. / I didn’t call you at all” (Collected 225). Those living close to Plath reporting back to Aurelia might be the “stooges” referred to in the poem. Plath also criticizes the constant communication between the two:

My mind winds to you
Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair.

In any case, you are always there (Collected 225)

16At the end of the poem, the speaker severs this umbilical connection: “There is nothing between us” (Collected 226).

  • 10 She writes the same message to her brother on 18 October: “I live on letters & have no other source (...)

17Ironically, as Plath expresses an implied desire for disconnection in her poem, she also writes two days later to her mother seeking connection. She complains that Hughes “made sure I was cut off from culture, plays, libraries, people, work, resources…” and that “I love & live for letters” (Letters 866)10. There is a tension between the letter of 18 October and the poems she writes in the week or so around this time. Asking for letters is asking for connection, but the endings of “Daddy,” “Medusa,” “The Jailer” (17 October), “Lesbos” (18 October) all explicitly reject connection with someone else. As “The Jailer” “fantasizes about liberation from a tyrant,” it also asks what its torturer would do without his victim as it concludes:

What would the light
Do without eyes to knife, what would he
Do, do, do without me? (Collected 227)

  • 11 Of course, we might wonder which piece of writing reveals the emotional truth. Is she funneling tha (...)

18Likewise, the speaker of “Lesbos” offers an eternal farewell to her companion: “Even in your Zen heaven we shan’t meet” (Collected 230). The feeling of disconnection, however, need not be read as loneliness or dejection in the context of Plath’s life given the resolute tone of some of her letters of this time. On 18 October, she writes to Olive Higgins Prouty, “I feel happy and resolute now I am decided on a divorce” (Letters 869). That same day, to Aurelia Plath: “I need time to breathe, sun, recover my flesh. I have enough ideas & subjects to last me a year or more!” (Letters 865). In other letters, she discusses her plans to find a more suitable nanny than her current one; to find a place to stay in Ireland and write, or to earn money through appearances on radio shows. So perhaps the disconnections at the conclusions of these poems contain some positives as the poet thinks about starting a self-sufficient life of her own.11

“My health…is rapidly returning”

  • 12 This is on 19 October, though on 16 October she wrote to her mother about her “old fever of 101°” r (...)
  • 13 She writes Roche that she is “running a flickery 103° fever” on the 19th (Letters 872).
  • 14 “Greasing” might also recall the opening of a poem from a few days earlier, “The Jailer”: “My night (...)

19She also writes frequently at this time about her recent illness in connection with Hughes: “he left the week after I almost died of influenza last month” (Letters 872).12 The day after writing this to Clarissa Roche, she writes the poem “Fever 103°.” This poem recalls that illness while it describes her present health,13 as well as ironically commenting on her marriage. The fever licks at her like “tongues of hell” yet it will be unable to cleanse “the sin, the sin” (Collected 231). Is this the sin of the speaker or of another? As Plath was afraid of dying during that bout of flu, so the speaker feels close to sudden death, comparing herself to Isadora Duncan, “in a fright / One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel” (Collected 231). She describes her state with the same word she used in a letter the day before writing the poem: “I have been flickering off, on, off, on” (Collected 231; emphasis added). It seems like her fever is burning her into a pure state, ridding her of the husband she ironically addresses as “Darling.” Biographically, we might see the poem burning Hughes and his lover Assia Wevill away: “Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash” (Collected 231).14 The speaker is purified by the heat of this fever: “I am too pure for you or anyone” and “I / am a pure acetylene / Virgin” (Collected 232). She finds rebirth in her own feverish destruction and with imagery that prefigures that of “Lady Lazarus,” which she will start three days later. Images of the horrors of World War II appear here as they did in “Daddy,” and on 21 October Plath writes to Aurelia in defense of her extreme imagery:

Don’t talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff! What the person out of Belsen---physical or psychological---wants is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there & knows the worst, just what it is like. It is much more help for me, for example, to know that people are divorced & go through hell, that [sic] to hear about happy marriages. (Letters 875)

  • 15 See above for examples such as “grease” or “bastard.”

20Given how frequently similar or repeated language appears in Plath’s poetry and letters,15 it seems not coincidental that she writes about “hell” in the letter right after writing about the fiery hell of her fever. Of course, we should also recognize that the poem is a work of art; though it uses language in common with the daily communication of a letter, it transcends as a lyric. As Lucy Tunstall writes about this poem,

  • 16 It strikes me that this description could also fit the speaker of “Lady Lazarus” quite well, and Tu (...)

Plath’s speaker embarks on a spectacular display of physical suffering, disease and immolation all serving to purge the woman/artefact/patient/burlesque/performer/saint of her inessential identities as she ascends, theatrically, to paradise. (95)16

21The burning imagery with its references to both Hiroshima and the Holocaust will reappear directly in the final poem she finishes in October, “Lady Lazarus,” but also implicitly in one of the two poems she writes on her birthday, 27 October: “Ariel.”

22Both Heather Clark and Susan Van Dyne point out that “Ariel” is unlike the other poems written this month because it was “composed on fresh memo paper” rather than on the back of another typescript or autograph draft (Van Dyne 119). In this poem, Van Dyne argues, “Plath is the most reckless in enacting her poetics through the fiery transubstantiation of the female subject” (119). As Plath nears her birthday in 1962, there is a gap in her letter-writing. The nearly daily letters to Aurelia stop after 25 October and do not resume until 7 November (if all her letters were saved, that is, and the gap may be explained by the fact that Plath went to London to record a reading of “Berck-Plage” for the BBC). After having a new nanny help with her children, she writes that day that, “My health, with this young girl here, is rapidly returning. I have no cough at all, and no fever” (Letters 887). Plath was resolving herself into an admittedly less poetic and more secular transubstantiated person, as she wrote two days earlier about purchasing a new dress and a new hairstyle to be more fashionable. She seems aware of her power, as well, as she writes, “Ted may be a genius, but I’m an intelligence” (Letters 884). The thought of herself as “an intelligence” might inform the more powerful persona she adopts in the poems written in the last weeks of October. Kathleen Connors describes two of these as the speaker of “Lady Lazarus” “who consumes men” and “the fearless rider of ‘Ariel’, the Hebrew lioness of God” (123). This rider/lioness is shedding and remaking her identity as she, like Lady Godiva, “unpeel[s]” her outward self. It is worth noting the grammatical oddness of the Dickinsonian dash at the end of this line (“I unpeel—“), as it leaves us uncertain if she is unpeeling her clothing, her skin, or the next line’s “Dead hands, dead stringencies,” though that last option does seem ungrammatical. As the speaker leaves her domesticity and “The child’s cry // Melts in the wall,” this might be Plath abandoning her role of housewife (Collected 239). This especially seems so when we consider the following lines—“I / Am the arrow”—in contrast to The Bell Jar (Collected 239). There, we learn that Buddy Willard’s mother believes “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from” (Bell Jar 72). Plath inverts that adage to make the powerful woman into the arrow here, but she is an arrow that seems less substantial, renamed as

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning. (Collected 240)

  • 17 These include “Phaetons,” “Constancy,” “The Horses,” and “The Thought-Fox.”
  • 18 E.g., “Ted has said he would pledge £1,000 a year (a fortune to them, although can now earn twice (...)

23This arrow’s flight and drive may be toward destruction in the sun, but in the context of these October 1962 poems and Plath’s life, it is also toward finding her own voice. The construct of Hughes as genius/Plath as intelligence suggests that genius might be the more desired appellation, but intelligence is stronger and more rewarding. As Clark suggests about this poem’s Godiva-speaker, “Plath may have imagined herself reenacting [Godiva’s husband’s] dare in ‘Ariel,’ stepping up to Hughes’s poetic challenge and proving to him that in her metaphoric nakedness she is empowered rather than humiliated” (793). While Clark traces allusions to other Hughes poems in “Ariel,”17 we can also see Plath accepting the challenge of being equal to Hughes in her letters. She worries about seeing Hughes and Wevill at literary parties in London; she worries about the money he might earn on his writing; and she worries about whether she can ever be in a relationship again. Clark notes that an early draft of “Ariel” placed a lover where the child appears in the final version, and the presence of a child suggests that the poem “is partly about the competing ‘drives’ of creativity and maternity” (796). Days earlier, Plath had written to Ruth Fainlight that she is “fascinated by the polarities of muse-poet and mother house-wife. When I was ‘happy’ domestically I felt a gag down my throat” (Letters 882). We see in her letters her jealousy toward Hughes and his lesser commitment to parenting; he is able to leave his family and has said that “he never had the courage to say he didn’t want children” (Letters 881). Hughes will survive and become wealthy on his writing, Plath’s letters suggest,18 but she also begins over the next month planning her own economic survival. Her survival, though, is not merely economic. In the context of this poem, her survival also entails the establishment of her own identity and voice. Sally Bayley writes about the use of the word “melt” here and in “Lady Lazarus,” where we see the “painful substitution of a melting body for the sake of an emerging voice” (249). Her survival as a mother and writer depends on her ability “to press on: to produce more words” (Bayley 249).

24Producing more words in the service of her art is what Plath does throughout October 1962. The first typed draft of “Lady Lazarus” is dated 23 October; the last 29 October. Its resonance with “Ariel,” then, makes sense, as first and final drafts bracket the writing of “Ariel.” When reading “Lady Lazarus” for the BBC, Plath provided the following introduction:

The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman. (Ariel 196)

  • 19 On 22 October she writes to Ruth Fainlight about their talk of being the “less-famous, or even infa (...)

25In all of the introductions she provided for this particular reading, Plath distances herself from the speakers of the poems, except when she tells us that “Ariel” is named “after a horse I’m especially fond of” (Ariel 196). Although my discussion has revolved around connections between Plath’s poems and her personal life (particularly her letters), we should also see how she converts the events and emotions of her life into art, particularly during this one month. As Van Dyne describes, it “is a richly significant aspect of all of Plath’s Ariel poems: how biographical events and earlier texts deeply interpenetrate each other in the composition process” (34). For this particular poem as well as for all of Plath’s work, it is imperative to remember that remaining strictly biographical presents the probability of over-simplified and incorrect readings: It is biographically false to assume that Plath indicates a regular cycle of suicide attempts with “One year in every ten / I manage it” (Collected 244). We do better to contextualize the poem among Plath’s life and writing from October 1962. If “Ariel” is about the potentially contradictory drives to be artistically creative and to be maternal, written at a time when she viewed herself as “intelligent” in contrast with the “genius” male19 leaving her life, then we might think of “Lady Lazarus” in similar terms. Rather than genius she is “good, plain, very resourceful,” all adjectives that, perhaps understand the speaker’s (and writer’s) power before her listening audience meets her in verse. We can see that “the published version of the poem brags that the voracious, terrifying self is unencumbered by her past,” Van Dyne argues, but “the manuscripts reveal the strain of reconstructing a self that could define itself in opposition to the dependent, derivative definitions linked to the strong male figures in her life” (58). This seems to accurately represent what happens in Plath’s life and letters: she struggles to create a life for her own unencumbered by anyone else. As she writes to her mother on 25 October, “I am going to London this week, partly, to face all the people we know & tell them happily & squarely I am divorcing Ted, so they won’t picture me as a poor, deceived country wife” (Letters 888). Tracy Brain writes that she “want[s] to reveal [Plath’s] poems as often being about subjects much larger than one woman’s autobiography” (6). Though connected to autobiography, “Lady Lazarus” is larger, in both content and tone. As Heather Clark writes, “No image is too grotesque or offensive for Plath—bad breath, corpses, Nazi lampshades made of human skin, maggots on wounds” (786). She is not afraid, as the source of the poem’s libertarian spirit, to offend, as she writes to her mother two days after writing the poem’s first draft, echoing and expanding on ideas cited above:

Now stop trying to get me to write about “decent courageous people”---read the Ladies Home Journal for those! It’s too bad my poems frighten you---but you’ve always been afraid of reading or seeing the world’s hardest things---like Hiroshima, the Inquisition or Belsen. (Letters 888)

26Plath may have been thinking of those three historical events because they appear in her earlier Ariel poems as well as in this one. The drafts include the line, “I may be Japanese,” and the final version is rife with Nazi imagery (the aforementioned lampshade or “My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen”) (Collected 244). The Inquisition might appear as the speaker, like a heretic or witch is destroyed by fire: “I turn and burn” (Collected 246). All of these sufferings involve immolation, which sets up the resourceful, intelligent, strong, and mythic woman’s phoenix-like resurrection.

27The poem has a performative nature amid its depiction of the “world’s hardest things,” however. Its speaker is aware of “The peanut-crunching crowd” watching her “big strip tease” (Collected 245). The audience both enjoys and pays for their opportunity to witness this show. They respond with a “brute / Amused shout: // ‘A miracle!’” (Collected 246) As if she is a martyr or saint providing relics,

There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. (Collected 246)

  • 20 We might think, too, about the literal performances Plath is to undertake in London at the end of O (...)

28The speaker faces a moment of potential vulnerability—both nakedness and death—with courage and triumph. She slangly proclaims, “What a trash / To annihilate each decade” (Collected 245). The word annihilate suggests a total, apocalyptic destruction from which she can create: “Dying / Is an art” (Collected 245). This speaker possesses total control. The power of performing a show of rebirth, of recreating oneself echoes what Plath writes about in her letters as she prepares for life without Ted Hughes.20 She will put herself on show in social circles: “I am not going to steer clear of these professional acquaintances just because they know I am deserted, or because I may meet Ted with someone else,” she writes on 25 October, in between writing the first and final drafts of “Lady Lazarus” (Letters 888). Like the poem’s speaker who will not “stay put,” she embraces “the theatrical // Comeback in broad day / To the same place, the same face” (Collected 245-6). As her letter continues, “I am now so glad to get rid of him I shall just laugh” (Letters 888). We might think of her laughter as how Plath could enact Lady Lazarus’s rising from the ash to “eat men like air” (Collected 247).

  • 21 These questions come from “The Detective,” “The Courage of Shutting-Up,” and “The Bee Meeting”; the (...)

29Though Plath writes more of the Ariel poems in November 1962, it does feel as if “Lady Lazarus” marked the end of her prodigious, nearly-a-poem-a-day output that began with “A Birthday Present” at the end of September. She moved from poems built out of questions, interrogating the position of the self or speaker to a powerful assertion of self. “What was she doing” or “how about the eyes” or “Is it some operation that is taking place” give way to “I am a smiling woman,” “I am your valuable,” or “I rise” (Collected 208, 210, 211, 245, 246, 247)21 Though the speakers encounter suffering along the way, we might pinpoint transitions to moments of power early in the month’s writing: in the Bee Poems’ “I have a self to recover” or in the conclusion of “Daddy.” The poems portray genuine resilience in the mythical rebirth of “Lady Lazarus” or in the apparent recovery of purity and virginity in “Fever 103°.” However, there are also more mundane depictions of life overcoming suffering. Perhaps the clearest example appears in “Cut,” written on 24 October and dedicated to Susan O’Neill Roe, who cared for Plath’s children while she wrote as well as while she went to London at the end of the month. She wrote to her mother that “the children love her. Since she has come, my life has been joy” (Letters 887). There may be hyperbole in that statement, but it indicates comfort, satisfaction, and happiness despite her ongoing struggle. “Cut” can be read to depict this as well. In spite of the injury—“The top [of her thumb] quite gone”—it is a “celebration” (Collected 214). Even the throbbing pain and the blood loss reminds her she is alive as the poem nears its conclusion. Recalling the “I am I am” of Esther Greenwood’s beating heart in The Bell Jar, we feel

The balled
Pulp of your heart
Confronts its small
Mill of silence (Collected 236)

30Not only does the heart beat despite the injury, but in this painful time, the speaker seems more aware of its beating. Each beat is a confrontation against silence. So, too, this month’s poems confront silence, making both their speakers’ and Plath’s voices move from uncertainty to assertions of self, to powerful rising. We see this movement in both the poems and letters. It remains useful, however, to recognize that the relation between art and life is one of context rather than interpretation. That is, we understand Plath’s poems better when we consider the context of her life and letters and not because interpret them as merely representative of or reporting the facts of her life. To put it another way—and in something of opposition with a line from “Lady Lazarus”—the speakers of the poems and Sylvia Plath are not “the same, identical wom[e]n” (Collected 245).

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Bibliographie

Axelrod, Stephen Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Bayley, Sally. “Plath’s Journals.” Sylvia Plath in Context, edited by Tracy Brain. Cambridge UP, 2019. pp. 245-54.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. Routledge, 2001.

Britzolakis, Christina. “Conversation amongst the Ruins.” Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual, edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley. Oxford UP, 2007. pp. 167-182.

Britzolakis, Christina. Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Clarendon, 1999.

Clark, Heather. Red Comet. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

Connors, Kathleen. “Living Color: The Interactive Arts of Sylvia Plath.” Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual, edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley. Oxford UP, 2007. pp. 4-144.

Hughes, Frieda. “Foreward.” Ariel: The Restored Edition. Harper, 2004.

Hughes, Ted. “Introduction.” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Harper, 1979, pp. 1-9.

Perloff, Marjorie. “The Two Ariels: The (Re)making Of The Sylvia Plath Canon.” The American Poetry Review. November/December 1984, 13.6: 10-18.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Harper, 1981.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Harper, 1971.

Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Sylvia Plath Collection, Smith College. Box 8, folder 61.

Plath, Sylvia. “Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers.” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Harper, 1979. pp. 57-61.

Plath, Sylvia. The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963. Harper, 2018.

Plath, Sylvia. “Wintering.” Sylvia Plath Collection, Smith College. Box 14.1, folder 294.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Virago, 1991.

Tunstall, Lucy. “Plath and the Lyric.” Sylvia Plath in Context, edited by Tracy Brain. Cambridge UP, 2019. pp. 94-104.

Van Dyne, Susan. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. U of North Carolina P, 1994.

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Notes

1 For a discussion of the variations, see Marjorie Perloff’s “The Two Ariels: The (Re)making Of The Sylvia Plath Canon.” or Frieda Hughes’s foreward to Ariel: The Restored Edition.

2 Heather Clark’s biography provides the most authoritative accounts of Plath’s life because of the wealth of material—published and archival—that was not always available to previous writers. It is, however, worth noting that all present biographical criticism owes substantial debts to work such as Stephen Gould Axelrod’s Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words, Christina Britzolakis’s Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning, and Jacqueline Rose’s The Hauting of Sylvia Plath.

3 Though the nodding, misshapen heads here are easily understood as depicting the protective gear worn by beekeepers, in Plath’s oeuvre, they might remind us of the “heads like darning-eggs [that] nod / And nod” in “The Disquieting Muses” (Collected 75). The influence of painter Giorgio de Chirico on that poem and that image enlightens an investigation into surrealism in the work of Sylvia Plath. It is well explained by Christina Britzolakis in “Conversation amongst the Ruins” in Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual ed. Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley, Oxford, OUP: 2007.

4 Heather Clark also points out that the slowed life of the beehive in winter “is dangerous terrain for Plath, whose first suicide attempt occurred in the dark cellar of her Wellesley home” (Clark 769).

5 Interestingly and perhaps not coincidentally, she uses the word “boor” to describe Hughes’s behavior in a letter to her mother on 12 October (Letters 855).

6 Intriguingly, the reverse side of this poem is a typescript draft of The Bell Jar, Chapter 4. After getting food poisoning, Esther is sick in the bathroom and the images include “I let the cold water in the bowl go on running loudly,” “I could feel the winter shaking my bones… my head numb as a snowdrift.” Perhaps a source for the cold “snow water” in the poem’s draft? (Wintering).

7 Similarly, she writes her brother and sister-in-law on the same day: “I have been through the most incredible hell for six months, influenza, the lot, and amazingly enough, now that Ted has finally packed his bags & left for good (yesterday), I feel wonderful.” (Letters 858)

8 On 18 October, Plath writes to Olive Higgins Prouty that “my six years of absolute love and trust have been killed completely in three months,” which may depict her emotional life as the undead yet no-longer living victim of the poem’s symbolic vampire (Letters 868).

9 In particular, the line in “The Disquieting Muses” describing the ladies “With heads like darning-eggs to nod” may be echoed in the description of the “unnerving head” in “Medusa” as well as de Chirico’s depictions of featureless heads in his paintings (Plath Collected 75, 225).

10 She writes the same message to her brother on 18 October: “I live on letters & have no other source of contact with relatives & friends just now! Even a paragraph from you is a great tonic!” (Letters 872).

11 Of course, we might wonder which piece of writing reveals the emotional truth. Is she funneling that into the art of her poems, or does she share it in her letters? Is she keeping up a front of strength and resolve so as to not let down Mrs. Prouty or her mother?

12 This is on 19 October, though on 16 October she wrote to her mother about her “old fever of 101°” returning (Letters 860).

13 She writes Roche that she is “running a flickery 103° fever” on the 19th (Letters 872).

14 “Greasing” might also recall the opening of a poem from a few days earlier, “The Jailer”: “My night sweats grease his breakfast plate” (Collected 226).

15 See above for examples such as “grease” or “bastard.”

16 It strikes me that this description could also fit the speaker of “Lady Lazarus” quite well, and Tunstall does discuss that poem in her essay.

17 These include “Phaetons,” “Constancy,” “The Horses,” and “The Thought-Fox.”

18 E.g., “Ted has said he would pledge £1,000 a year (a fortune to them, although can now earn twice & thrice that at the turn of a finger) to cover our very basic running expenses” (Letters 870).

19 On 22 October she writes to Ruth Fainlight about their talk of being the “less-famous, or even infamous wives of famous husbands,” as if those were their limited identities (Letters 880).

20 We might think, too, about the literal performances Plath is to undertake in London at the end of October, reading a poem for the BBC and, as she writes Eric Walter White on 26 October, “I’m hoping to do a BBC recording, a recording for the Harvard Library at Albion House” (Letters 894). She will put on a show through her literary art.

21 These questions come from “The Detective,” “The Courage of Shutting-Up,” and “The Bee Meeting”; the assertions all from “Lady Lazarus.”

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Référence électronique

Gary LEISING, « Sylvia Plath’s October 1962 Poems: “Things Are Resolving” »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/17104 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.17104

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Auteur

Gary LEISING

Utica University, USA
gleisin@utica.edu
Bio: Gary Leising is Distinguished Professor of English and Director of General Education at Utica University in Upstate New York. In addition to publishing four collections of poetry, he has written reviews and essays about contemporary poetry in English, in publications such as the James Dickey Newsletter and Plath Profiles.

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