Sylvia Plath’s Joy
It is fifty years since Sylvia Plath killed herself, in her flat in London, near Primrose Hill, in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived. She was thirty-one. Her two children, Frieda, age three, and Nicholas, barely one, slept in the next room. Plath jammed some rags and towels under the door, then turned the gas on in the oven and laid her head inside. She was separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who had betrayed her; raising the children was left almost entirely to her. She wrote several dozen of the most extraordinary poems in the English language within the span of a few months, before the children awoke at dawn.
The care with which she prepared her own death scene, leaving out mugs of milk for the children, is the work of a person whose talent for hospitality never left her, though it took a macabre turn. This care extended to her book. On her writing table, she left a black spring binder that contained a manuscript she had completed some months earlier, “Ariel and Other Poems” (she had scratched out alternate possibilities: “Daddy and Other Poems,” “A Birthday Present,” and “The Rabbit Catcher”) and, beside it, a sheaf of nineteen additional poems that she had written since. Hughes published a book he called “Ariel,” derived from the manuscript, with the newer poems added, in 1965. Robert Lowell, who contributed a forward, is said to have exclaimed, when he opened and read the manuscript, “Something amazing has happened.”
The feeling that “Ariel” is a discovery, a revelation, has never really faded. For me, it is the great book of earliest morning—the “substanceless blue” of predawn, as the gathering light reveals a world of sense—data previously obscured. Many poets have prized that hour of the day for its clarity, for the clamor of the dawn chorus, or because of its vestigial associations with prayer. Plath took these essentially languorous, and deeply male, associations and added her own stopwatch urgency. Here is “Ariel,” her great title poem, in its entirety:
There is nothing else like this in English; it is, I think, a perfect poem, perfect in its excesses and stray blasphemies (that “nigger-eye”), which make Plath Plath—that is to say, dangerous, heedless, a menace, and irresistible. The greatest thing in it, though, is a detail whose uncanniness will strike any new parent: “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall.”
The feeling of being inside the addled sensorium of a new mother—prey to the wild swings of mood, the flare-ups of unforeseen tenderness and rage—is inextricable from Plath’s sense of the urgency of passing time, time that, in “Ariel,” she runs toward and into, not away from or alongside of, as poets are supposed to do. That “child’s cry” was a cry, of course, for her, for Plath. In the most straightforward way, it brought “art” and “life,” those bedraggled abstractions, into real conflict. To master it in an image that brilliant is only a temporary solution, and so the poem careens to a close upon the word “suicidal,” an odd figurative occurrence of a word whose literal meaning Plath took very seriously.
“Melt” is the genius stroke. She uses it elsewhere, too, to describe the sound of crying. In “Lady Lazarus,” one of her best-known poems, Plath calls herself a “Pure gold baby / that melts to a shriek.” What makes “melt” so good in “Ariel,” though, is its materiality: the child’s cry from the adjoining room happens inside the wall, not in Plath’s ear or the child’s mouth. It is one of many details in “Ariel” that bring Plath’s surroundings to life; probably, there is no more vivid rendering in poetry of what it is like to share a small house or apartment with young children. (Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” is an important antecedent.) The Plaths’ house in Devon and their flat in London are brightly present in this poetry: the rose curtains, the kitchen knives, the “soft rugs / The last of Victoriana.”