On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz—the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet—made conversation difficult.1 Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air.2 In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.
On arrival at the Women’s Union—the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review—Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction.
Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.”3 Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,”4 “Is this the better or worse half?”5 Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond.6 From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).7
By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review.8 When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier.9 He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers.10 On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes—who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company—and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.11
Plath recorded this encounter—now one of the most famous in all literary history—in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover—she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs—she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth.12 Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room—in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley—and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face.13 As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.”14 Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”15
Hughes left his mark on Plath and her reputation too. After her suicide, in February 1963, as her estranged, but not divorced, husband, he became Plath’s literary executor, the guardian of her writings and, in effect, responsible for how she was perceived. A great deal has been written about the way Plath’s posthumous journals were edited; since they were first published in abridged form in 1982, questions have been raised about Hughes’s influence and motivation. At what point did editorializing (the understandable deletion of information because of repetition or legal problems) mutate into the altogether more sinister act of censorship? What part did he take in excising certain sensitive parts of the diaries? Why did he destroy one of the later journals? In his defense, he said he did so because he didn’t want his children, Frieda and Nicholas, from his marriage with Plath, to read them. “In those days,” he claimed, he “regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival.”16
Sylvia viewed Ted as something of a colossus, and to this day his enormous shadow obscures many aspects of Plath’s life and work. The sensational aspects of the Plath-Hughes relationship (from that intense first meeting, through to their marriage only four months later, to the birth of their children, followed by Ted’s infidelity, their separation, and then Sylvia’s death at the age of thirty) have dominated the cultural landscape to such an extent that their story has taken on the resonance of a modern myth. In addition, Hughes’s determination to market Ariel—a volume of poetry that was published in 1965, three years after Plath’s death—as the crowning glory of her poetical career has caused her other work to be marginalized. In Hughes’s view, the poetry she wrote toward the end of her life was the most important; anything that came before was a mere dress rehearsal. Stories, letters, journal entries, poems—hundreds of them—were nothing more than “impurities,” “by-products” of a process of transformation.17 Hughes cited the backstory of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to draw an analogy between Plath’s long-imprisoned creative talent and its sudden liberation during the writing of the Ariel collection. Her poetry, he said, was the “biology” of Ariel, the backstory of the airy spirit who was once trapped in the pine until she was set free by Prospero.18
The implication is clear. Plath, as a poet (perhaps even as a woman), did not exist—so the argument goes—before she created these late poems. During the process of crafting them, she finally becomes, in the words of Robert Lowell, who wrote the introduction to the American edition of Ariel (published in 1966), “herself.”
Lowell’s essay set the tone for Plath studies for the rest of the twentieth century. In writing Ariel, Plath “becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another ‘poetess,’ but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines . . . The voice is now coolly amused, witty, now sour, now fanciful, girlish, charming, now sinking to the strident rasp of the vampire—a Dido, Phaedra, or Medea.” The work is distinct because of its “controlled hallucination, the autobiography of a fever. She burns to be on the move, a walk, a ride, a journey, the flight of the queen bee. She is driven forward by the pounding pistons of her heart . . . She herself is a little like a racehorse [the collection’s title is a reference to the name of a horse Plath used to ride], galloping relentlessly with risked, outstretched neck, death hurdle after death hurdle topped . . . Suicide, father-hatred, self-loathing—nothing is too much for the macabre gaiety of her control. Yet it is too much; her art’s immortality is life’s disintegration.”19
It is one thing for Hughes to argue that the writing that came before Ariel was a product of Plath’s “lesser and artificial selves”20 and quite another to believe that her “mature” work only began in 1956. Yet in his introduction to Plath’s Collected Poems, this is the date that Hughes gives as the year in which Plath started to move away from the “juvenilia” he associates with her early years. It also happens to be the year in which the couple met.
Hughes, in his role of editor, chose to confine a selection of fifty poems written before 1956 to a small section at the end of the volume, a gesture that almost feels like an apology or an afterthought. Defending his decision, Hughes said that Plath, had she lived, would have rejected these poems. Yet in the same paragraph, he added a number of reasons why he decided to include fifty of them in the Collected Poems. At their very best, he said, they possessed a lyrical quality that rivaled the poems she wrote later in life. They also showed, he added, traces of the “super-charged system of inner symbols and images,” that made up her creative universe.21 In the end, Hughes, like all editors, had to make a value judgment and selected what he thought were Plath’s “best” early poems. Yet for those “specialists” who really wanted to investigate the links between her late and early work, he said he would accompany the “juvenilia” with a list of poems, arranged alphabetically, of all the poems she wrote before 1956.22
There is only one problem: the list is far from complete. One of the missing poems is her 1953 villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” which Plath described as one of her favorites.23 The poem is written from the perspective of a young woman who is waiting for her date to turn up. When she closes her eyes, the “world drops dead” and she is forced to question whether her lover is real or a projected fantasy. Has she really just made him up inside her head, she asks herself. The form of the villanelle—the repetition of the first and third lines of the first stanza—lends itself to the peculiar intensity of the poem’s emotional content. The refrains echo throughout the poem like obsessional thoughts that refuse to be dispersed by the reality of the world around her. The mad girl of the title suffers from a double solipsism, imprisoned both within the boundaries of herself (when she shuts her eyes, the world simply disappears; when she opens them again, external reality is restored) and the confines of her feelings for her absent lover. In her journal, she recalled how she had been inspired to write the poem after a boyfriend, “Mike,” didn’t turn up for a date.24
The Mike she refers to is Myron Lotz, one of a myriad of Plath’s early boyfriends who, over the years, have been obscured by the “dark, hunky” presence of Ted Hughes. Yet these men—figures who have not been explored in any depth in any previous biography—influenced and shaped both Plath’s life and her work in a way that has not been fully appreciated. Although Hughes was “her husband” (as he once described himself in the third person),25 he was not the only man in her life: before she met him she had gone out with literally hundreds of men—some who were innocent dates, others who were more serious. As she said herself in an early poem, “Adolescence,” she knew she would never be able to confine her love to just one man.26 These men inspired both her poetry—for instance, Gordon Lameyer, who was unofficially engaged to Plath in August 1954, was the source of “Sonnet for a Green-Eyed Sailor”—and her prose: she regurgitated her toxic feelings for boyfriend Dick Norton by penning a vicious portrait of him as the unimaginative Buddy Willard in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.
Dick Norton (whom Plath dated between 1951 and 1953) became a symbol of everything Plath hated about the American hypocritical attitude toward sex. In an unpublished letter she wrote to her friend Ann Davidow in January 1952, Plath talks of her anger at learning that Dick was not a virgin (after pretending he had been). In the letter, she outlines how she did not object from a moral point of view but because she wished she could have enjoyed the same pleasures herself.27 Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as “insidious, malignant, latent.”28
Sex—or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it—played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to “drag” herself from one date to the next in “soggy desire.” The system, she added, disgusted her.29
If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College—one of America’s top universities for women—she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother—who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship—Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts—where she was forced to share a room with her mother—she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes.30 In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her “side of town,” and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.31
Plath’s struggle to come to terms with her self in all its many facets—a battle that, ultimately, she did not win—generated the peculiar set of psychological circumstances that inspired her greatest poetry. There is no doubt that writing was her outlet for venting the host of negative feelings that crowded within her. Although it is easy to interpret the Ariel poems as, in the words of Peter Davison, one of her lovers, a sign that she was at last finding “her real identity, for the first time, and the horror was like blood and afterbirth,”32 the truth is much more complex, and perhaps even more disturbing.
In truth, Sylvia did not have one coherent identity; rather, her self was constructed of a number of different personalities, some quite at odds with the others. “Most of us who knew Sylvia knew a different Sylvia,” wrote her friend Clarissa Roche. “This is partly because she was secretive and devious and selective, but I think too it was because aspects of her character were dispersed. In a curious way she seemed uncompleted. Like fragments of mercury racing and quivering toward a center to settle in a self-contained mass, the myriad ramifications of her personality sought a focal point.”33 At times, Plath thought of herself as a figure approaching near-mythical status. “She herself had the imagination to view herself in many mythic guises, such as Eve or Alice in Wonderland, metamorphosing into other roles but always engaged in some type of ritual of initiation,” writes boyfriend Gordon Lameyer in an unpublished memoir. “I liked to see her as [a] combination of opposites: a Nasikaa who wanted to be a Calypso, a Dido who verged on being a Circe, an Artemis who was not far from becoming an Aphrodite.” In the same autobiography, Lameyer recalls the words of a friend of his who had attended Cambridge and who had heard that Plath had been described like “a time bomb that seemed always about to explode.”34
Plath had a compulsion to use herself as a kind of Anatomical Venus, opening up her psyche for all “the peanut-crunching crowd” to see.35 In 1951, she accompanied Dick Norton, then a student at Harvard Medical School, to a dissection room, where she witnessed at close quarters the dismemberment of a number of corpses. In The Bell Jar, she described the bodies as smelling like old pickle jars,36 and in her poem “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” she compares the black cadavers to “burnt turkey.”37 While on a visit to the university, Plath also saw a couple of dead, malformed babies floating in formaldehyde, a detail she incorporated into The Bell Jar.38 Like one of the cadavers on the slab or the dead babies in their bottles, Plath presented herself to the world as a specimen, an experimental subject that opened itself up to be investigated, probed, and dissected. She once said that she would die if she could not write about anything apart from herself,39 yet ultimately she had to filter everything—even extremes such as the Holocaust—through herself.
“Sylvia Plath is an example of the egotistical sublime: her subject is herself, her predicament, her violent Romantic emotions,” wrote the poet Craig Raine.40 This is true only up to a certain point. I would argue that she is more abject than sublime, more modern than romantic: her self is the site of all the horrors in the world. She carried around within herself a kind of black hole that sucked many into its path. Many of those close to her witnessed that being near the periphery of her creative vacuum was a dangerous prospect. Ted Hughes wrote to Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, in March 1963 about how her daughter often punished the people she loved most.41 Even worse was the fact that Plath viewed those near her as subjects that she could transpose—often in fairly undisguised ways—directly into her work. It’s not surprising, then, that the figure of the vampire fascinated Plath—it manifests itself in her poetry (“Daddy”) and in her journals (where she casts her mother in the role of the parasitic undead). One of Plath’s many uncompleted stories—“The Fringe-Dweller,” inspired by Henry James’s “The Altar of the Dead”—centers on a girl who, like a vampire, constructs her identity from scraps and fragments of secondhand experience around her: films, books, overheard conversations, strangers. She feels she is at the point of becoming an authentic self, yet she never quite realizes it, and finally, at the end of the story, she awakens and discovers that she is inside a coffin. In effect, she has constructed her own grave.42
Another classic myth that has resonances when applied to Plath’s life is that of Frankenstein’s monster. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the summer of 1953, Plath felt that she had been reborn, a living lady Lazarus. This, together with a botched ECT treatment—when she felt like she was being electrified—transformed her into both the creator of the monster and the horrific creature itself, one of the perfect doubles with which she was so obsessed. It is this experience—more than any of the betrayals or marital infidelities that came later—that was central to the development of her poetic vision. Her disturbing, horrific, transgressive voice started to find expression in her work many years before Ariel and late poems such as “Edge.”
In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the “edge.” She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.43
This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche. Mad Girl’s Love Song will trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors—the real disquieting muses—conspired against her. Although a great deal has been written about Plath, this is the first book that concentrates exclusively on her life before she met Ted Hughes, a period that has been given scant attention in other biographies. In addition, I had access to a number of previously unavailable archives (some in private hands) and I interviewed a wide range of friends and lovers who have never spoken openly about Plath before. As Ted Hughes admitted, the public tended to regard Sylvia’s story as a kind of “mysterious dream,” a tabula rasa on which they could project their own fantasies and desires.44 With this in mind, I have tried to avoid relying on secondary sources such as other Plath biographies, drawing instead on primary materials (letters, diaries, memoirs) and interviews with those who knew Plath.
In 1948, sixteen-year-old Sylvia wrote a poem (still unpublished) called “Neither Moonlight nor Starlight.” In it, she tries to address the reasons why she feels compelled to write (even at this young age she was prolific). Finally, she states that there was a voice that raged inside of her that would never be “still.”45 While this book cannot answer that question completely—the source of creation is still very much a mystery—I examine some of the origins of Plath’s unsettled and unsettling voice, a voice that, fifty years after her death, still has to the power to haunt and disturb.