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

“I felt I’d come home”: Sylvia Plath and France

Julie IRIGARAY

Résumés

Cet article utilise un large éventail de sources afin de comprendre la relation de Sylvia Plath avec la culture française. Il passe en revue ses nouvelles, ses articles pour des magazines, ses poèmes sur la France ainsi que ceux de Ted Hughes. En une année, Plath a effectué pas moins de quatre voyages dans la capitale française. Les études précédentes se concentrent presque exclusivement sur les séjours de Plath à Paris, mais l’écrivaine a exploré d'autres régions et s'est profondément imprégnée de la culture française, à tel point qu'elle comptait s’installer en France un jour. Plath a voyagé dans des régions aussi diverses que la Bretagne et la Dordogne, le nord de la France et la Côte d'Azur, ou la Normandie. Presque tous ces lieux ont inspiré un texte (« Finisterre », « Stars Over the Dordogne », « Berck-Plage », « The Matisse Chapel »). La passion de Plath pour la France a trouvé son expression dans sa passion pour les arts, du cinéma à la peinture, en passant par la littérature. Sa connaissance de la littérature française a été largement négligée par les chercheurs, malgré le fait qu'un poème comme « Pursuit » cite directement Jean Racine. Cet article cherche à rectifier cet état de fait en analysant les livres de littérature française préservés dans ses archives.

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1. First impressions of France

1Plath’s fascination for all art forms inevitably led to an encounter with French culture. She studied French up to college level, and as this article will demonstrate, Plath was well-read in French literature. Having studied art in school and at Smith College, Plath developed an interest in the artists Georges Braque, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Both Kathleen Connors and Fan Jinghua detect the influence of French artists on Plath’s poems. Jinghua argues that the 1953 poem “To Eva Descending the Stair” draws from Marcel Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase (209), and Plath mentions Raoul Dufy, Georges Seurat and Henri Matisse in the sonnet “Midsummer Mobile” (Connors 94-95).

2Cinema is probably the French medium par excellence, and as a genuine connoisseur of auteur cinema, Plath valued the artistic dimension more evidenced in French films than commercial American films (Bundtzen 138). The French films Plath watched are eclectic: from Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Château de Dé to Jacques Tati’s Jour de fête, from Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc to Julien Duvivier’s Le Petit monde de Don Camillo, the list includes silent films and encompasses various genres: auteur and popular films, films starring famous French actors (La ronde with Simone Signoret, Le jour se lève with Jean Gabin) or films with literary connections (Le Plaisir is a 1952 adaptation of three Guy de Maupassant short stories; Les Enfants du Paradis’s screenplay was written by poet Jacques Prévert; and Fanny was adapted from the eponymous Marcel Pagnol play by the author himself). In Cambridge, Plath saw Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and La Belle et la Bête, which impressed her greatly. Circa 1961, she saw Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, with a screenplay by writer Marguerite Duras. For Bundtzen, Resnais’s film “encouraged Plath to venture opportunistically into recent history for terms of imagery to heighten her reader’s emotional response”—in other words, to use the imagery of the horrors of WWII (Hiroshima, the Holocaust) for her Ariel poems (142-143). The last French film Plath may have seen is François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, a reminder that Plath died just as the Nouvelle Vague emerged.

3On her way to England where she would spend two years as a Fulbright student, Plath’s ferry briefly stopped in Normandy. She described her afternoon in Cherbourg as a comforting experience: “I felt I’d come home” (Letters vol.1 963). She revelled in the landscape, the inhabitants and the way of life: “I can see why the French produce painters: all was pink and turquoise, quaint and warm with life” (Letters vol.1 963). For Tracy Brain, the language Plath uses when describing France in letters home is “the language of picture postcards, writing of France in exactly the reassuring touristy way one would expect of a young American abroad for the first time.” (49) Assuming that Plath only wrote these comments to please her mother can seem a bit extreme. But Brain is right when she asserts that the poet’s “[p]raise of Europe cannot be made without a critique of its antithesis – American commercialism and size” (49). Plath was impressed by the more authentic way of life adopted by the Normans, as she added: “What a joy to be away from eightlane highways and mass markets” (Letters vol.1 964). But Cherbourg was probably very different from her hometown in Massachusetts, so Plath’s comparison with home is no doubt hyperbolic. At that time, she had an idealised vision of France, but her successive trips made her more lucid about this country.

2. Paris and the Côte d’Azur with Richard Sassoon

4Plath met Paris-born Richard Sassoon, who became her lover, in 1954. Educated at the Sorbonne, Sassoon’s posturing as the spiritual heir of controversial poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud fascinated Plath. The fact that Sassoon spoke French and was raised partly in Paris undoubtedly added to his appeal, as her letters reveal:

he speaks in french [sic] half of the time because he thinks I understand it: je t’adore… la vie est la farce à mêner [sic] par tous […] as a result of which my french [sic] is picking up and I am adding a few telling phrases to my rather meager previous store of ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’ and ‘merde alores!’ [sic] (Letters vol.1 737)

5At the beginning of their relationship, Plath is ecstatic about having met a man who appreciates “light wine, a volume of baudelaire or vigny or rimbaud {sic] and a nuit d’amour” (Letters vol.1 737). She indulged in the fantasy of the bohemian and cultivated Frenchman. Thanks to Sassoon, Plath discovered a wide range of French authors she would have never read nor studied otherwise as many of them were considered scandalous by American universities. But because of their tumultuous relationship, Plath associated the French capital with despair.

6Between December 1955 and the summer of 1956, Plath travelled to Paris four times. For her first visit to the city, Plath visited all the major tourist attractions: the Louvre, Sainte Chapelle, the Île de la Cité, Notre Dame, the Jardin des Tuileries, and the Champs-Elysées. The young man even brought her to Pigalle, the sex district. The couple stayed in Paris for ten days until they decided to pursue their romantic vacation south. On New Year’s Eve, they took an express night train to Nice, and Plath recorded her impressions of the trip in her journal. As for every French destination she discovered, it is the sun and the colours that struck her the most. She wrote upon seeing Marseille from the train: “At last, unbelievable, the moon on that sea, that azure sea I dreamed about on maps in sixth grade” (Journals 549). Going to the Côte d’Azur was a dream come true, and Plath considered the French Riviera as distinct from the rest of France:

A new country, a new year: spiked with green explosions of palms, cacti sprouting vegetable octopuses with spiky tentacles, and the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea. (Journals 549)

7Plath’s journals, the first draft of her discarded novel “Venus in the Seventh”, and the unpublished short story “The Matisse Chapel” reveal a fascination for the Mediterranean climate and landscape. In “The Matisse Chapel”, the narrator calls the Côte d’Azur the protagonist’s

first foreign country (England really didn’t count because they spoke the same language), and she had never before in her provincial Bostonian life seen palm trees […] or frivolous pastel houses or fields of crimson carnations thriving in mid-winter. (“Matisse Chapel” 1)

8When writing about the French Riviera, Plath uses the same imagery and symbols that epitomise the Mediterranean for her: the sea, the sun, the “exotic” vegetation (palm trees, cypresses, pines, cacti, olive trees), hills, and the villas’ vivid colours which she compares to fruits. The poem “Southern Sunrise” mentions “[t]hese storybook villas” that are the “[c]olor of lemon, mango, peach” along with “the round red watermelon sun” (Collected Poems 26). In Nice, she and Sassoon walked along the Promenade des Anglais, overlooking the “Angels’ Bay” of “Southern Sunrise” (Collected Poems 26). The two of them travelled on a Lambretta to the nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and Menton. They even stopped at Monaco and crossed the Italian border.

9The couple also travelled more inland, up to the village of Vence. Plath was looking forward to this trip for various reasons. First, Vence is the burial place of D.H. Lawrence, one of her favourite writers. Secondly, the village has strong artistic connections: painters Raoul Dufy and Marc Chagall sojourned there, and Henri Matisse designed the Chapelle du Rosaire in 1951. Plath was excited to visit the chapel she had read about for years, as is Sally, the protagonist of “The Matisse Chapel” who looks at the pages of a magazine dedicated to the chapel every time she is upset (“Matisse Chapel” 2). But the chapel became the scene of a bitter row between Plath and Sassoon. The monument was closed, so Plath walked away on the hill, while the mother superior of the convent opened the chapel for Sassoon. Plath was distraught that her lover visited it without her, and upon seeing her crying, the mother superior let her in as well. The last fragment of the short story covers the lovers' recriminations (“Matisse Chapel” 23). Plath and Sassoon departed on good terms, yet this incident foreshadows her disastrous trip to Paris in the spring of 1956.

10In March 1956, Plath travelled to the French capital to see Sassoon, but he had run away to Spain to avoid her, and a distraught Plath wandered around Paris on her own. This Easter 1956 trip has already been discussed by scholars and biographers (Dave Haslam 2020), though often reductively analysed through the prism of Plath’s unhappy love affair, or the tourist spots she visited, two angles that add nothing new to our understanding of her work. Yet it is necessary to draw conclusions from this trip. To begin with, Plath surprisingly never wrote any poems nor short stories about Paris, nor mentioned it in the drafts of her discarded novel Falcon Yard, which deals with an American travelling through Europe. Nonetheless, the French capital was visually inspirational as Plath produced various drawings throughout her stays there. This is reflected in the article “An American in Paris” Plath penned for the Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, where she describes her sketching endeavours: “Each morning we set out with sketchbook and a volume of Anouilh or Cocteau” (“American in Paris”). Plath came to associate the French capital with suffering, an element that deterred her future husband Ted Hughes from appreciating Paris.

3. Ted Hughes and France

11The English poet Ted Hughes always showed a strong dislike of France and the French, as his letters demonstrate. After a trip to France with Plath in June-July 1961, he wrote to friends:

We spent two weeks in France, leaving Frieda [their daughter] with Sylvia’s mother, but I wish we had gone almost anywhere else. I’m sure now that I detest the French, France & everything touched by them. (Letters 184)

  • 1 Hughes blames the French for the English class system, RP pronunciation, and the decay of English p (...)

12Hughes’s aversion for the French is deeply rooted and strongly linked to his opinions on Englishness. Some of the theories he exposed in the collection of essays Winter Pollen to justify the superiority of Anglo-Saxon poetry and English culture over other European traditions are profoundly anti-French and based on inaccurate linguistic and historical facts.1 In light of these texts, Hughes’s dislike of France is based on the old historical Anglo-French rivalry. Paul Giles is particularly virulent about Hughes’s attacks on Plath’s American identity in his book Birthday Letters. As Giles points out, in this collection “it is always English values that make up the assumed moral focus of the narrative and American attributes that are seen as hyperbolic or otherwise off-center” (189). The poem “Your Paris” is based on their two trips to the French capital in the summer of 1956. Plath awkwardly chose to bring her new husband to the place where she had desperately wanted another man to love her only three months earlier.

13This poem is problematic on several levels. It opens with the line: “Your Paris, I thought, was American” (Birthday Letters 36). From the beginning, Hughes insinuates that Plath’s view of the French capital is biased because of her nationality. He mocks her “shatter of exclamations” and “ecstasies” when wandering through Parisian streets, and the fact that she only saw “Impressionist paintings / Under the chestnut shades of Hemingway, / Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein” (Birthday Letters 36). He looks down upon Plath’s appreciation of the city, adding: “I kept my Paris from you”. For Hughes, there is a “right” and “wrong” way to know Paris, and his is the right one. Throughout “Your Paris”, he adopts a patronising attitude towards Plath, forgetting that she had visited Paris more extensively than he had. The poem is a succession of oppositions between Plath’s so-called touristic view of Paris and Hughes’s World War II vision of it. Hughes asserts: “For you all that / Was the anecdotal aesthetic touch / On Picasso’s portrait / Of Apollinaire” (Birthday Letters 37). The use of the word “anecdotal” emphasises how trivial Plath’s artistic interests are, and why her appreciation of the French capital should be dismissed. His Paris, on the contrary, “Was only just not German. The capital / Of the Occupation and old nightmare” with “Collaborateurs barely out of their twenties” (Birthday Letters 36). Throughout the poem, Hughes strips Plath of any historical knowledge. A close study of Plath’s article “An American in Paris” shows that she was perfectly lucid about what she projected onto the French capital. She acknowledged associating Paris with artists, but she knew other travellers experienced the French capital differently: “What happens really? A different Paris for each pair of eyes” (“American in Paris”). She even complained about meeting Cambridge friends who dragged her against her will to tourist spots, more evidence that she did not idealise these places anymore (“American in Paris”).

14Upon returning to Cambridge after her first trip to Paris and the Côte d’Azur, Plath wrote in a letter that she found it “hard, coming back to the atrocious food, the damp cold, & the unsimpatico people (compared to the loving french [sic], who are kindred spirits)” (Letters vol.1 1080). Similarly, she concluded her Varsity article with a hint of bitterness: “we hacked out fourteen enchanted Parisian days and nights. Now, most spartan, most martyred, we return to cabbage and custard sauce and the little quays along the Cam” (“American in Paris”). Therefore, Hughes’s hostility towards France may also be a reaction against Plath’s criticism of the English’s cold temperament and the squalid living conditions of 1950s England. Lastly, Hughes’s resentment towards France may have been prompted by Plath’s past love life. By the second half of “Your Paris”, it becomes clear that Hughes associates Paris with Plath’s longing for Sassoon in the spring of 1956: “Your Paris / Was a desk in a pension / Where your letters / Waited for him unopened” (Birthday Letters 38). Although he only discovered it after Plath’s death, Hughes probably did not appreciate having been part of a love triangle. A copy of Plath’s Nouvelle anthologie française corroborates that by the time Hughes and Plath met, she was still in love with Sassoon. Plath annotated Paul Verlaine’s famous poem “Mon rêve familier”, in which the poet dreams of an imaginary woman who would be his ultimate love. She underlined the lines “Et qui n’est chaque fois ni tout à fait la même / Ni tout à fait une autre, et m'aime et me comprend”, adding in the margins : “Feb.28, 1956 - O Richard!” (717). Plath had met Hughes three days earlier. Jealousy played a part in Hughes’s dislike of Paris, but “Your Paris” also shows compassion for his broken-hearted wife abandoned by Sassoon: “What searching miles / Did you drag your pain?” (Birthday Letters, 38).

15The position of “The Gypsy” in Birthday Letters suggests that Plath and Hughes travelled to Reims around 1961, maybe on their way back from a trip to the south-west of France. Hughes is adamant: “Not the first time I’d seen Rheims. The last. / I shall never go near it again” (Birthday Letters 116). In this poem, he describes their encounter with a Roma woman who tried to sell religious pendants to them, and how she told Plath when she refused to buy something from her: “‘Vous / Crèverez bientôt’” (Birthday Letters 117). The woman has “Bitter eyes / Of grappa-dreg revenge, old Gallic malice”, another cutting remark to the French (Birthday Letters 117). In the rest of the poem, Hughes explains how he tried to annul her curse on Plath, who died less than two years later. France is once again associated with bad memories. Before meeting Hughes, Plath repeatedly wrote in her letters and journals that she wanted to live in France at some stage. After her marriage, she never mentioned this possibility again. This project probably never saw the light of day because living in France was out of the question for Hughes.

4. Final trips to France

16Plath did not only travel to Paris or fancy Côte d’Azur like the average tourist. During her second stay in England (1959-1963), she resumed her French trips and travelled to regions as diverse as Brittany and Dordogne, Normandy and northern France. Almost all these places inspired a poem.

17In June 1961, Plath and Hughes were invited by their friends WS and Dido Merwin to their house in the Lot region. They arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer and drove down the coast to Berck. The couple then crossed Normandy, passing via Rouen and Mont Saint-Michel, before arriving in Brittany. The poets finally headed down south to the Lot for two weeks, visiting Dordogne as well.

18“Stars Over the Dordogne”, written in 1961, could be set anywhere: the only evidence that the speaker is in Dordogne is the reference to “this hill, with its view of lit castles”. The Dordogne region is renowned for its medieval castles and prehistoric sites, like the Lascaux caves which Plath visited. The speaker is intrigued by the difference between the stars at home and those in France, and the constellations she struggles to recognise. She is looking for The Big Dipper, the English equivalent of The Plough. As Brain points out, this poem “focuses on the situation of the American as alien”, as well as positioning “any British reader unacquainted with the term Big Dipper as outside” (68). This way, Plath makes us reconsider national identities. The stars Plath is “used to are plain and durable”, she believes they “would not wish for […] the mildness of the south” because “They are too puritan and solitary for that” (Collected Poems 166). She adds that “Such a luxury of stars would embarrass me” as she is used to the restraint of her puritan New England origins and of the English, as opposed to American excessiveness (Collected Poems 166). Plath even attributes a north-south divide – in other words, an England-France one – to stars. Brain sees in this poem a potential English-speaking countries alliance against France, or a Franco-American coalition against England based on their common history against England and their republicanism (68). The cultural divide remains unclear. There is a sense of displacement throughout the poem as Plath remains ambiguous about place: she mentions “home”, but this could be both her home in London or her American one (Collected Poems 165). Brain notices that “the speaker identifies with the stars that drop from the sky and land in places they have not chosen and do not know. Her home is as much a state of mind as a place.” (67) When a star falls, “it leaves a space, // A sense of absence in its old shining place”, the way Plath did every time she moved to a new country or a new location (Collected Poems 166). She admits lying “back to my own dark star” with her eyes closed to “drink the small night chill like news of home” (Collected Poems 166).

19“Finisterre”, written in September 1961, is anchored in a specific location. Based on Plath’s letters and upon looking at a map of the region, the Hugheses probably first explored Douarnenez, before heading to the edges of Brittany: west to reach the Pointe du Van, then south and west to the Pointe du Raz. The two pointes are separated by la Baie des Trépassés (called “the Bay of the Dead” in the poem), and Plath encountered the statue of Our Lady of the Shipwrecked (Notre-Dame des Naufragés) in Plogoff, near the Pointe du Raz. Plath calls the Finistère department “the land’s end: the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic, / Cramped on nothing”, a metaphor that is self-evident by looking at a map. The cliffs are “[a]dmonitory” because they are “[w]hitened by the faces of the drowned” (Collected Poems 169). Brittany has a long history of sailors spending most of the year in Newfoundland to fish cod or along the coast to catch sardines, many of them ultimately dying at sea. The mood of “Finisterre” is melancholic. The speaker explains that the mists “bruise the rocks out of existence, then resurrect them. / They go without hope, like sighs.” Ultimately, “When they free me, I am beaded with tears” (Collected Poems 169).

20References to death and resurrection are sprinkled throughout the poem, maybe because Brittany is a land deeply rooted in Catholicism. The monumental statue of Our Lady of the Shipwreck inaugurated in 1904 was both commissioned to commemorate the men dead at sea and the sardine crisis of 1902. Plath understood that the resigned inhabitants handed their fate to the Virgin Mary to protect the sailors when she writes: “A marble sailor kneels at her foot distractedly, and at his foot / A peasant woman in black / Is praying to the monument of the sailor praying” (Collected Poems 169). During this trip, Plath was confronted with the sorrow of Breton women who have lost their husbands and sons at sea for centuries. She probably saw some of them wearing the traditional black costume, and she was familiar with the series of Paul Gauguin paintings on the subject (La belle Angèle, La ronde des petites bretonnes, Paysannes bretonnes). Yet the Lady of the Shipwreck “does not hear what the sailor or the peasant is saying” because she is too absorbed by her contemplation of the sea (Collected Poems 170). In his analysis of Plath’s poetic landscapes, Tim Kendall argues that in this poem, “Human concerns seem trivial amidst such an elemental conflict between sea and land” and that “‘Finisterre’ confronts the natural world alone” (45). Although the first two stanzas focus on Brittany’s threatening landscape, this statement needs to be interrogated in light of the second half of the poem. In the last stanza, Plath stops musing about the landscape or the fate of drowned sailors to interact with the locals. As “Finisterre” demonstrates, she understood the history and cultural differences specific to each French region, and used these experiences in her writing.

21“Berck-Plage” is the last poem inspired by Plath’s Atlantic trip. Written in June 1962, this long poem divided into seven parts was triggered by the illness and death of her Devon neighbour, as well as her visit to Berck, a seaside town located in northern France. The first three parts of the poem take place in Berck, before Plath moves on to Devon and her neighbour’s agony and death in the other parts. Facing the English Channel, Berck was heavily bombed by the Americans and the British during the Liberation, subsequently destroying its seafront. When Plath stayed there for a few hours, she could admire the remains of the blockhouses built as part of the Atlantic Wall on the beach. No doubt that with her German-Austrian background and her strong historical consciousness, Plath was receptive to this environment. After the war, Berck became a popular seaside resort for the working-class. Berck was also a therapeutic seaside resort with maritime hospitals for the convalescent. As Hughes explained in the notes of Plath’s Collected Poems: “Overlooking the sea there was a large hospital for mutilated war veterans and accident victims – who took their exercise along the sands” (Collected Poems 293).

22The contrast between the beauty of the beach and history is evident in the first parts of the poem. In “Berck-Plage”, the speaker is struck by the frivolity of the families holidaying and the wounded men recovering among them. Although she declared in a 1962 essay that her “poems do not turn out to be […] about the testament of tortured Algerians, but about the night thoughts of a tired surgeon” (Johnny Panic 92), Plath could not ignore the veterans from the Algerian War on the beach. “Berck-Plage” is about healing physical and moral wounds. For Jack Folsom, this poem reflects Plath’s “concern for physical and psychic survival in the face of suffering and death” (522). He also believes that “the spectacles of the maimed French war veterans at Berck-Plage and of Percy Key, the cancer-ridden English Everyman next door, were to become emblems of her own struggle to confront death and defeat its power to poison the mind” (522). It is true that from the beginning, the speaker seems irritable and complains: “How the sun’s poultice draws on my inflammation” (Collected Poems 196). She finds the acid colours of the sorbets sold on the beach aggressive. The speaker also suspects that the girls selling them are hiding something: “Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding? / I have two legs, and I move smilingly” (Collected Poems 196).

23Unlike the invalids surrounding them, the speaker can walk, and she encounters an amputated priest facing fishermen. The men are gathering mackerels, “handling the black and green lozenges like the parts of a body” (Collected Poems 196). Even the fish are compared to body parts. Later, the priest’s “black boot has no mercy for anybody. / Why should it, it is the hearse of a dead foot, // The high, dead, toeless foot of this priest / Who plumbs the well of his book” (Collected Poems 197). The language here recalls “Daddy”: “Daddy […] / You died […] with one gray toe” (Collected Poems 222) and “the boot in the face” (Collected Poems 223). Plath’s father was diagnosed with diabetes upon hitting his toe and discovering it turned black a few hours later. As a result, Otto Plath’s leg was amputated and he ultimately died of gangrene. The speaker cannot stop musing about “a green pool opens its eye, / Sick with what it was swallowed – // Limbs, images, shrieks. Behind the concrete bunkers / Two lovers unstick themselves” (Collected Poems 197). Once again, the image of body parts emerges, which recalls the mutilated man of “The Applicant”: “Do you wear / A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, / A brace or a hook, / Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch” (Collected Poems 221). Plath wrote this poem in October 1962, perhaps with the mutilated veterans from Berck in mind. In part 3 of “Berck-Plage”, Plath uses the same vocabulary as in “The Applicant” (“crutches”) and the same figure of a woman assisting an invalid or a dying man: “On the balconies of the hotel, things are glittering. / Things, things – // Tubular steel wheelchairs, aluminium crutches / Such salt-sweetness” (Collected Poems 197). Yet here, the speaker protests: “I am not a nurse, white and attendant, // I am not a smile” (Collected Poems 197-198). As Sandra Gilbert argues, the superposition of the convalescent over the healthy tourists on the beach acts as a memento mori (129). But life is stronger than sickness, war and death: the amputated priest is surrounded by swimmers in bikinis and lovers kissing behind a World War II blockhouse. This trip to northern France enabled Plath to reconnect herself with European history and more particularly World War II, a theme that resurfaces throughout her collection Ariel.

5. Plath and French literature

24Plath’s passion for France is intrinsically linked to literature. She studied French literature at Smith College, at Harvard Summer School, and at the University of Cambridge. The works Plath studied span from medieval to contemporary writers, and include all the genres. Plath’s level of French was impressive: she could sustain an hour-long conversation in French, owned several classic books in French, and even translated some writers – no less than Ronsard, Baudelaire or Stendhal – as a way to prevent her language skills from getting rusty. Plath’s reading of French literature has been widely overlooked by scholars, despite the fact that a poem like “Pursuit” directly quotes Racine. This paper is too short to examine all the French literature books Plath read, so it will focus instead on the ones that had the biggest impact on her writing.

25At the University of Cambridge, Plath picked a thorough course on European theatre that made her extensively research 17th-century French tragedies. She decided to write two papers on Jean Racine’s and Pierre Corneille’s plays. She read in the original French no less than six Racine plays: Andromaque, Britannicus, Bérénice, Bajazet, Athalie and Phèdre, for which she had a strong preference. Plath identified with Phèdre as Sassoon held her at arm’s length after her second trip to Paris. She wrote to him in March 1956: “More than anything else in the world I want to bear you a son and I go about full with the darkness of my flame, like Phèdre, forbidden by what auster [sic] pudeur, what fierté?” (Letters vol.1 1129). Racine’s heroine often alludes to her passion as a flame, and Plath directly quotes her here (“De l’austère pudeur les bornes sont passées”, act III, scene 1).

26Plath met Hughes on 25th February 1956. Although she admitted in her journal that “Pursuit” was inspired by Hughes, it was written for Sassoon (Journals 225). At the beginning of the poem, she quotes “Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit” (In the depths of the forest your image follows me) from act II, scene 2 of Phèdre. In this scene, Hippolyte, son of the King of Athens Theseus, confesses his love for Aricie. The princess loves him too, but Theseus forbids her to marry and to have children as they could claim his throne. Hippolyte and Aricie’s love is therefore an impossible one, and the young man ends up executed because of his stepmother Phèdre, who also nurtures an impossible love for him. In “Pursuit”, the speaker is stalked by a panther whose “greed has set the woods aflame” (Collected Poems 22), an animal animated by an extreme hunger that echoes Racine’s characters. Plath reverses the trope of the Renaissance sonnet and its decorative women by claiming agency over her own desires. The beloved woman becomes the beloved man, and the female speaker openly expresses her sexual desire for him. Plath’s poem deals with a theme that Racine could not explicitly explore as a 17th century writer: sexual arousal and lust. Her panther is thirsty for blood and “ransacks the land / Condemned by our ancestral fault” (Collected Poems 22), another characteristic of Greek tragedy where the characters are punished for their ancestors’ deeds. Plath’s interest in Racine’s play coincides with a moment of her life when her passion for two men was at its peak, and the figure of Phèdre’s tragic love echoed the end of her relationship with Sassoon.

27Similarly, Plath’s extensive study of 17th-century French tragedy familiarised her with the tradition of French poetry, and more specifically French metrics. Racine’s and Corneille’s plays were written in alexandrine metre, in other words in lines of twelve syllables, with ideally a caesura (or break) mid-way through the line. Influenced by poets like Marianne Moore, Plath had already experimented with syllabic verse. Yet traditional French poetry relied more heavily on rhymes and sounds, and the rhythm of the alexandrine metre is distinctive. In Cambridge, Plath also studied and translated Pierre de Ronsard. The quality of her translations is impressive: she chose to offer translations which are as literal as possible while respecting the original poem. Her translation of sonnet XIV gives an insight into the difficulties she encountered:

Qui vouldra voyr dedans une jeunesse,
La beaulté jointe avec la chasteté,
L'humble doulceur, la grave magesté,
Toutes vertus, & toute gentillesse:
Qui vouldra voyr les yeulx d'une deesse,
Et de noz ans la seule nouveauté,
De ceste Dame oeillade la beaulté,
Que le vulgaire appelle ma maistresse.
Il apprendra comme Amour rid & mord,
Comme il guarit, comme il donne la mort,
Puis il dira voyant chose si belle:
Heureux vrayment, heureux qui peult avoyr
Heureusement cest heur que de la voyr,
Et plus heureux qui meurt pour l'amour d'elle.

Who would see at one with youthfulness,
Beauty in company with chastity,
Humble sweetness, solemn majesty,
All virtues and every gentleness:,
Who would see the eyes of a goddess,
And of our age the unique novelty,
Of this Lady contemplate the beauty,
Whom the common people call my mistress.
He will learn how love contracts and gnaws,
How he gives death to all who serve his cause,
Then seeing maid so fair he will aver:
Happy, truly, happy is the one
Who happily can see this paragon,
More happy he who dies of love for her.

(Theme and Version 26-27).

28From a technical point of view, Plath tried to render Ronsard's decasyllabic verse, and although her English version does not always display the same number of syllables per line (either nine or ten), one can notice her efforts. Weissbort believes that Plath’s metrical translations and her use of syllabic metre in her own poetry reflect her interest in rhythm (6). The rhyme scheme of the original poem is ABBA ABBA CCD EED and Plath respects it, though she is limited by the English language which forces her to use slant rhymes instead of the richness of the French rhymes. Evidently, rendering the rhyme scheme forced Plath to take some liberties with the source text at times, but her translations show how skilled she was. Consequently, Plath was not only imitating modern poets like Marianne Moore when she wrote syllabic verse after reading Racine, Corneille and Ronsard in Cambridge. Ronsard’s strongest influence on Plath’s writing is undoubtedly his use of metre and fixed forms: the poems she wrote at the time of her translations show a formality and an obsession for fixed forms (sonnets, odes) that the French poet nurtured. Plath was a very skilled poet who paid attention to craft, rhythm and diction, so her deep knowledge of French metrics and rhymes enabled her to play with these devices in her writing. Poems like “Lorelei”, “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor”, “Moonrise”, “Man in Black”, “Old Ladies’ Home”, “The Sleepers” or “Mushrooms” prove that syllabic verse was still an important component of her poetry in 1958 and 1959, well after she studied French literature in Cambridge.

29Plath’s favourite French literature genre was undoubtedly drama. She read between twenty and thirty-five plays, and attended at least ten plays written by French authors, many of them in their original language. Plath was very fond of Jean Anouilh’s work: she saw performances of Ornifle and Waltz of the Toreadors in Paris. She also enjoyed the work of another contemporary writer who was adapting Greek tragedies into a modern setting: Jean Cocteau. Plath read Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Jack, The Lesson, The Chairs, and Rhinoceros, and attended two of his plays in New York City in 1958 and one in London in 1960 starring Laurence Olivier. She was attracted to the sense of annihilation, the lack of purpose and meaning of the human condition portrayed in these plays. Her dark sense of humour made her appreciate Ionesco’s work as she repeated throughout her diaries and letters (Journals 442 and Letters vol.2 465-466).

30Surprisingly, Plath did not engage widely with French poetry. We have evidence that she read Baudelaire and Rimbaud in-depth thanks to her copies of the Flowers of Evil and A Season in Hell. Baudelaire and Rimbaud were the first poets who thoroughly deconstructed traditional French poetry, writing prose poetry and free verse after having experimented with fixed forms. By the time Plath read them, she was still writing formally in terms of structure and style. This, combined with their scandalous lifestyle, may have attracted Plath, who aspired to a less conventional life. Plath’s French edition of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil is heavily annotated, but unfortunately, these annotations are mainly underlined words or comments in the margins about the vocabulary she did not understand. It is therefore difficult to get an idea of what lines Plath found inspiring. However, Plath’s annotations in the introduction reveal what fascinated her about Baudelaire: his exploration of the human soul; his belief that man aspires to beauty and Good but that his sinful nature prevents him from reaching this goal; his ability to see the sublime in sordid material and characters like workers and prostitutes; his ferocious depiction of the modern, urban world; his direct treatment of physical love; and the role of the poet as a creator (Baudelaire vii-xxi).

31The parallels between Rimbaud’s and Plath’s lives are too numerous to mention here, but they contributed to Plath’s fascination for his work, as the passages she underlined in A Season in Hell demonstrate. Rimbaud wrote this book during a nervous breakdown, starting it while living in misery in London, and continuing it after his break-up with Verlaine. A Season in Hell is a report of what Rimbaud tried to achieve with poetry. He firmly believed poetry could change society, but confessed his failures as well as his artistic and sentimental disillusions. Plath shared Rimbaud’s disappointment and his ambition to accomplish great things with poetry as she underlined a lot of the passages that deal with inventing a new language or poetic techniques. The themes of hell and depression also struck a chord: Plath read A Season in Hell in 1954, only a year after her own breakdown. In the chapter “Night of Hell”, she underlined the opening line “I have swallowed a monstrous dose of poison” (Rimbaud 26-27), which echoes Esther Greenwood’s own suicide attempt by gulping pills in The Bell Jar. Plath also identified with Rimbaud’s desire to break away from society’s expectations. Both poets were precocious children raised by single mothers who pressured them to succeed academically and fit into a bourgeois or middle-class life. In the biographical notes of her edition of A Season in Hell, Plath annotated the sections where Rimbaud ran away from home as a teenager and decided to live as an outcast with Verlaine (Rimbaud x-xi). Finally, Rimbaud could not resign himself to a so-called “normal job” because he could not earn a living as a writer. He complained about this situation in A Season: “I have a horror of all trades” (Rimbaud 7). Plath underlined this sentence because she shared the same concerns in her diaries. One episode from The Bell Jar highlights the similarities between the two poets: the metaphor of the figs. Esther imagines her life as a fig tree where one fig represents being married and with children, another fig being a famous poet, another one being a brilliant scholar, or an editor, or a woman travelling the world and with a bohemian lifestyle (Bell Jar 73). The biggest thing Plath and Rimbaud had in common was that they could not content themselves with having an ordinary life, they wanted “to be everything”, as Jay Cee describes Esther (Bell Jar 97).

Conclusion

32Drawing on her poems, short story, newspaper article, journals, letters, and personal library, this article has highlighted Sylvia Plath’s attachment to France and French culture. Previous research almost exclusively focused on Plath’s love affair in Paris or the story behind the poem “Berck-Plage”, which is reductive. Unlike what Ted Hughes suggests in his poem “Your Paris”, Plath’s knowledge of France was not that of an average American tourist. She demonstrated a curiosity for French customs, and her advanced knowledge of French enabled her to speak extensively with locals throughout her various trips to France. However, even if Plath described France as her “home”, it remained an exotic elsewhere that she sometimes idealised, especially the Côte d’Azur. As “Stars Over the Dordogne” reminds us, home for Plath was either England or the United States. Plath wrote pieces inspired by almost every single region she visited: the newspaper article “An American in Paris” after visiting the French capital; the short story “The Matisse Chapel” based on her trip to the Côte d’Azur; the poems “Stars over the Dordogne”, “Finisterre” and “Berck-Plage” following her trip to the Lot via the Atlantic coast. Plath’s reading of French literature also had an impact on her personal development and her writing. She used some of the techniques and themes she found in French literature to boost her own work, like experimenting with syllabic verse or writing about passion in “Pursuit”. Although she never fulfilled her dream to settle in France, it is now impossible to deny the depth of Plath’s engagement with this country. In March 1956, she confessed to her mother her desire to “try spending a year writing, preferably in southern france [sic], Italy or Spain.” (Letters vol.1 1136) Considering how stimulating Plath found southern France’s landscape and architecture, one can only wonder at the works that would have emerged from this Mediterranean experience.

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Bibliographie

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Bonnard, Marie. “Berck : la plage inspiratrice” in “Inspiration au voyage”, 8th June 2017, Arte TV. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOMC3Nc3Ncc&ab_channel=%C3%89CLAIRBRUT. Accessed 17 July 2022.

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Notes

1 Hughes blames the French for the English class system, RP pronunciation, and the decay of English poetry after the Restoration because Charles II spent his eleven-year exile in France. He also believed Anglo-Saxon myths and Shakespeare’s “British” plays (Macbeth, King Lear) are truer to the English character than Greco-Roman myths and Shakespeare’s “Greco-Roman” plays (Timon of Athens, Coriolanus) (Winter Pollen 40-41).

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Référence électronique

Julie IRIGARAY, « “I felt I’d come home”: Sylvia Plath and France »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/17179 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.17179

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Auteur

Julie IRIGARAY

University of Huddersfield
julie.irigaray@gmail.com
Julie Irigaray is an early career researcher with a PhD in English Literature from The University of Huddersfield. Her research focuses on Sylvia Plath’s complex relationship with England and her transnational identity as an American writer with strong European connections. She was educated at Université Paris Cité, King’s College London and Trinity College Dublin. Her forthcoming publications include a book chapter on Max Porter and Englishness, and an article on the impact of Covid on the contemporary British poetry scene. She works as a creative writing tutor and is a published poet (Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, Nine Arches, 2021).

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