"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s the tally of “my lusts and my little ideas,” wrote 17-year-old Sylvia Plath of the journals in which she confessed her judgments, her “test tube infatuations,” her story notes, her cake baking, her dreams and her fears from the age of 12 until days before her death by her own hand at the age of 30. Plath’s characterization of her journal stands in stunning contrast to the monumentally revealing document she created: more than a thousand pages scattered through various handwritten notebooks, diaries, fragments and typed sheets, the sum of it an extraordinary record of what she called the “forging of a soul,” the creation of a writer and a woman whose many veils and guises have succeeded in forestalling anyone from knowing who she really was, despite her lifelong quest to discover the answer for herself.
“You walked in, laughing, tears welling confused, mingling in your throat. How can you be so many women to so many people, oh you strange girl?” Plath asked herself in the summer of 1952 when she was about to enter her junior year at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Now, with the English publication of Plath’s unabridged journals this spring, we are closer than ever to knowing the real identity of this disappointed wife and bereaved daughter, this suicidal mother of two, this poet of electrically charged perceptions and amplified imagination, this woman “enigmatical/shifting my clarities,” this Lady Lazarus who evolved out of her own inner torment, the record of which now opens fully, or almost, before us.
The publication of these journals is a watershed event. They allow us, for the first time, to see this dazzlingly, maddeningly fragmented woman as an integrated being. The Plath that emerges here is paradoxically at once saner — less a creature of willful mental excess — and more buffeted by forces beyond her control. Those forces, it seems tragically clear, were not just familial, but chemical. Almost from the day she died, readers and scholars, faced with the huge, faceless enigma of her suicide, have been perplexed and thwarted by Plath’s mental condition. The unabridged journals and other new information, some of it reported here for the first time, lend credence to a little-noticed theory that Sylvia Plath suffered not just from some form of mental illness (probably manic depression) but also from severe PMS.
The idea that Plath’s demons had a biological basis, far from being reductive, only increases her stature as a poet and a human being. She wrested her art from great darkness.
In the fall of 1962, during the final flood of creativity that preceded her death by a few months, Sylvia Plath alluded to her first suicide attempt in “Daddy,” now her most widely recognized poem. “At twenty I tried to die,” she wrote, “…But they pulled me out of the sack,/ And they stuck me together with glue.” Four decades since Plath killed herself on the morning of February 11, 1963, it seems more accurate to say that she’s been stuck back together with paper. Tons and tons of paper: her own posthumously published poetry collection, the fierce and mythic “Ariel,” an encoded autobiography which indeed, as she predicted, made her name; the softened “corrective” of the dutiful, chirpy “Letters Home” edited by her mother, Aurelia Plath; her Pulitzer-prize winning “Collected Poems,” which builds inexorably from polite surface poise to crackling, incinerating force; a smattering of fairly neutral stories and telling journal fragments in “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”; and her journals, published in heavily edited form in 1982 that, depending on whose side you were on, made Plath appear either mad or victimized.
All of Plath’s work, including her three additional poetry collections, remains in print. But even more voluminous is the critical response her writings have generated — about a dozen biographies and “recollections” and hundreds of articles, critical studies and cultural commentaries.
What’s most noticeable about the veritable industry of books and articles about Plath is that none of them succeed in creating an integrated portrait of their subject. She is variously portrayed as a fragile, brilliant immigrant’s daughter scarred by overarching ambition and her father’s early death; a righteous proto-feminist shrugging off husband, children and the crippling reins of culturally prescribed domesticity; an unreasonable perfectionist whose outrageous demands alienated everyone who crossed her path; a devoted wife and mother shattered by her idolized husband’s betrayal; and an unbalanced artist who would use and sacrifice everything, including her own life, to serve her art.
By her own admission Plath was a woman of many masks, someone who felt it necessary to reveal only facets of herself in any given situation, social or professional. Her husband, the late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, wrote in the introduction to her 1982 journals, “I never saw her show her real self to anybody — except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.”
Hughes, of course, has been the central figure and object of suspicion, even persecution, in the vitriolic 40-year-old controversy regarding the “real” Sylvia Plath. In the summer of 1962, the Hughes’ marriage broke down when Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. According to Hughes’ infrequent comments regarding his relationship with Plath, theirs had been a mutually creative, valuable symbiosis from the very start: “Our minds soon became two parts of one operation,” he told the Paris Review in 1995.
But things went very wrong, as his 1998 poetry collection addressed to Plath, the international bestseller “Birthday Letters,” attests. When they separated traumatically in September 1962 after six years of marriage, the couple were parents of a 2-year-old daughter, Frieda, and an 8-month-old baby son, Nicholas; Hughes moved to London, while Plath remained with the children at their house in the English countryside. With only sporadic childcare and often ill with fevers, flu and infections, Plath wrote the bulk of the “Ariel” poems in a seven-week rush during the pre-dawn hours before her children awoke. When Plath died, she was still legally married to Hughes, and the responsibility of conducting her literary estate fell to him. In 1969, Hughes’ lover, Assia Wevill, mimicked Plath’s suicide by gassing herself as well as the young daughter, Shura, whom she shared with Hughes. Hughes wrote to Plath biographer Anne Stevenson in 1989, “… I saw quite clearly from the first day that I am the only person in this business who cannot be believed by all who need to find me guilty.”
He was right. As Hughes slowly released her posthumously published works — which succeeded in winning for her an enormous readership as well as entry into the canon of American 20th century poetry, status she had decidedly not held during her lifetime — he was viciously attacked by scholars and critics, feminists in particular, who read the blistering “Ariel” poems and later the judiciously pruned 1982 journals as an indictment against him. He was controlling, egotistical, faithless and selfish; he had tried to shame Plath, a poetic genius, into sewing on his buttons.
Hughes has since been consistently criticized for his “censoring” and “stifling” of Plath through his editorial decisions, which notably included trimming and reordering the “Ariel” manuscript, thereby changing its tone and theme from one of transformative rebirth to one of inevitable self-destruction, and his most condemned deed of all, destroying Plath’s final journal from the last three months of her life. “I did not want her children to have to read it,” Hughes wrote in his introduction to the journals in 1982. Another journal, covering late 1959 through the fall of 1962, or the pivotal “Ariel” period, was said by Hughes to have “disappeared,” though it “may … still turn up.”
Hughes’ actions — destroying or losing Plath’s final journals and rearranging “Ariel” — represent a crux of moral ambiguity that readers and scholars have battled over for decades. Did his actions simply reflect, as he consistently maintained, his obligations toward his children? Or were they motivated by self-interest — an emotion which under the circumstances could be considered reasonable?
It is hard not to feel sympathy for a man who famously wrote of the lost journals, “In those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival.” Yet it is undeniable that by destroying them Hughes forever silenced the record of the process he considered so essential to Plath’s poetic achievement, and to Plath herself, of whom he wrote in 1971, “I feel a first and last obligation to her.”
Since the late 1970s, Hughes had maintained that all of Plath’s writings, no matter how private, were vital insofar as they shed light on the “true” Sylvia Plath. Plath’s central project and problem, Hughes believed, was the creation of herself. He likened Plath’s creative process to an alchemical one in which her immature writings, her highly mannered early poetry and the stiff stories into which she desperately tried to breathe life were “like impurities thrown off from the various stages of the inner transformation, by-products of the internal work.” “Ariel” and the related final poems, by dramatic contrast, were the voice of her true self, “the proof,” he wrote in the 1982 journal’s foreword, “that it arrived. All her other writings, except these journals, are the waste products of its gestation.” According to Hughes, the journals were Plath’s private record of her many camouflages, the stylistic personalities she tried on, the identities and defenses she assumed. The journals reveal “the day to day struggle with her warring selves.”
By 1998, Hughes had come to defer to the judgment of his children, who no longer needed his protection, about publishing the journals. “This was really Frieda’s and Nicholas’ decision in conjunction with their father,” said Karen Kukil, editor of the unabridged journals, in a recent interview with Salon. Frieda Hughes called Kukil, curator of Smith College’s 4,000-page Plath collection since 1990, in the spring of 1998 to ask Kukil to edit a complete, unexpurgated volume of all of her mother’s journals in the Smith library.
When news broke earlier this year that the British publisher Faber & Faber intended to release those unabridged journals, the announcement engendered a flurry of speculation about what other Plath bombshells might be in the offing. Perhaps the disappeared journal would emerge, or more likely, all of the imagined juicy details of insufferable husbandly domination and adulterous calumny that Hughes had witheld from the journals in 1982 to save his own reputation. Hughes’ admission that he’d destroyed the journal had predictably nurtured the assumption among his critics that the editing of the journals had been for his own benefit, rather than to eliminate what Frances McCullough, editor of the 1982 journals, characterized as the less relevant material as well as “the nasty bits” that would have caused unnecessary pain or embarrassment to Plath’s surviving relatives, friends and colleagues.
Earlier this month, Faber & Faber released those journals in Britain (the American edition will appear this fall from Anchor Books). Unlike the 1982 journals, which were shaved down to about a third of their actual volume, Faber’s “unabridged” edition brings together every extant journal from 1950 onward. (The famously missing journal from 1959-1962 isn’t included.) The Faber edition is a meticulous preservation of Plath’s misspellings, grammar, spot illustrations, capitalization and punctuation, and an absolutely faithful rendering of her words — pure, unadulterated Sylvia Plath for the first time.
The unabridged journals include material that vindicates both the anti- and pro-Hughes camps. More importantly, they give Plath’s readers their first-ever opportunity to experience the uncensored breadth of Plath’s imagination in its richest medium, the private testing ground of her relentlessly self-reflective artistry. As the anti-Hughes camp had always protested, they contain material with scholarly rather than merely prurient value. But it is also obvious that much of the deleted material was justifiably censored to spare the feelings of Plath’s friends and family.
The volume includes in their entirety Plath’s two consecutive journals from 1957 to 1959, when Plath returned with Hughes from England to teach miserably for a year at Smith followed by a year spent living in Boston, where she resumed psychoanalysis with Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, who had treated Plath during her recovery from the 1953 suicide attempt. It was a time of revisiting old ghosts and old haunts. Plath uncovered first her scornful disdain for her Smith friends and colleagues (“Botany professors forking raw tongue with dowdy seat-spread wives” is one of her milder observations), and second her deep hatred and resentment of her “vampire” mother, whose death in 1994 presumably made publication of this vitally illuminating portion of the journals palatable to the Plath estate.
The unabridged journals confirm the anti-Hughes camp’s assumption that Hughes censored details about himself, but his elisions appear to be dictated by a concern for basic privacy rather than the need to conceal damning information. Nothing about Hughes that is new to the unabridged journals reveals him as any worse than he already had allowed himself to be seen in earlier books. It’s easy, though, to imagine why anyone, especially England’s future poet laureate, might have wanted to censor his wife’s nattering on about his “delicious skin smells,” infrequent hair washing and “hairy belly.”
To be sure, all of the major themes of the journals were present in the 1982 journals — among them, Plath’s precocious and unwavering ambition as a writer, which drove her mercilessly toward artistic growth and publication; her boy-crazy social whirl in college and her attendant preoccupation with the limitations of marriage and gender roles in the cramped cultural mind of the ’50s; the familial demons of her childhood — her father’s death from a complication of diabetes when she was 8, and her conflicted relationship with her widowed mother; the emotional, psychological and artistic enormity of her relationship with Hughes; and most compelling, her indefatigible struggle to wrestle control over her chaotic emotional life, what Hughes 20 years ago called “her will to face what was wrong in herself, and to drag it out into examination, and to remake it.”
And yet the 1982 journals didn’t feel whole. Despite Hughes’ stated intentions, Plath still seemed vague and fragmented, her poems only dimly illuminated. The 1982 journals felt figuratively as well as literally elliptical, and into those ellipses could be injected all sorts of strange and dark and terrible fantasies, possibly stranger and darker than the truth. “More terrible,” the Plath of “Stings” might say, “than she ever was.”
It’s not the “true self” of Sylvia Plath that comes rushing at you with vivid immediacy — at least not the true self as Hughes defined it, a Plath distilled into pure, ferocious, luminous essence. Nor is it the vague, half-glimpsed Sylvia Plath of the earlier journals, whose longings and crises and furies didn’t quite add up. Instead, it is the IMAX version of Sylvia Plath who appears from the very first pages of the journals — the exaggerated, high-voltage, bigger-than-life personality and imagination that no one, not a single one of her detractors or friends, has denied was consistently evident (if frequently hard to take) in the flesh.
This feverish Sylvia Plath floods the reader’s senses as her own were flooded throughout her life: on wave after wave of ecstatic or crashing experience, on sparkling details she seems helpless, at every moment, to ignore. “Eyes pulled up like roots” is how the poet Anne Carson characterized Plath, and the image carries its shock of authenticity. “I’ve talked to alumni who knew Plath,” says Kukil, “and they say that everything she did was at the same intense level. Everything she did, she experienced to the hilt.” “It’s getting so I live every moment with terrible intensity,” she wrote to pen pal Ed Cohn in 1950.
Twenty years ago, it may have seemed to Hughes and McCullough that preserving Plath’s rush of quotidian detail — the icebox cheesecakes she immortalized, the epiphany over a story in Cosmopolitan magazine that gave her the idea to write “The Bell Jar” (“I must write one about a college girl suicide … There is an increasing market for mental-health stuff.”), her obsessive bemusement about dog shit, the noting of the cold water and salt in which were soaked the sheets bloodied by her newborn son’s afterbirth, the 54 descriptions of what the moon looked like that minute — would diminish the impact of her unique genius in the journals rather than enhance it.
The opposite is true: It is the most ordinary details of Plath’s daily life that now give her such astonishing depth and balance and make her seem, within the thrum of her intensity, refreshingly sane and vibrant. Teeming as they are with prescient observations and, as Plath puts it, “foolishness,” the unabridged journals are no less her artistic “Sargasso” for the jumble of her “gabbling” — they are, in fact, more so. Plath’s is a personality integrated by cumulative effect. The details pull forward not just toward the poems, but toward a fuller and more distinct picture of the woman who wrote them: They add immeasurably to Plath’s artistic and psychological stature.
Even so, there are many passages whose previous excisions are understandable, lines and whole entries redolent with the whiff of taboo of one kind or another. Hilarious as it is to envision now, no doubt Hughes didn’t relish the idea of letting it be known that Plath had in 1958 — after he’d won the attention of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore with his first book — entered their poems in jingles contests run by food companies: “the dole pineapple & heinz ketchup contests close this week, but the French’s mustard, fruit-blended oatmeal & slenderella & Libby-tomato juice contests don’t close till the end of May. We stand to win five cars, two weeks in Paris, a year’s free food, and innumerable iceboxes & refrigerators and all our debts paid. Glory glory.” Some of the 1982 cuts were simply Plath’s caustic sniping and thinly disguised jealousies — there is a wonderfully sulky account of a lunch with fellow poets, drooling unattractive babies, and spilled tea that ends “Too much salt in a fruit salad. We ate, grumpily, and left.”
Much has been made of the journal episode of May 19 to 22, 1958, in which Plath records her shock and disgust at her discovery of Hughes’ feet of clay. On that day, her last day of teaching at Smith, Plath and Hughes had made plans to meet after her last class. When Hughes didn’t show, Plath had “an intuitive vision” that she would see him walking with a college girl on the campus; not only was she right, but the girl literally ran away and Hughes made no attempt to introduce her. Because the 1982 version of the journals left quite enough material to make Hughes look like a cad if not a downright adulterer and further piqued suspicions by inserting numerous [OMISSION] flags that glowed malignantly within the passage, many readers and critics have understandably assumed that the elisions would point directly to Hughes’ infidelity.
Instead, the reinstated omissions make clear that what really upset Plath was Hughes’ open display of vanity — that on her special day, he put his own ego (only figuratively stroked by the fleeing, thick-legged co-ed in Bermuda shorts) ahead of hers. Hughes, “whose vanity is not dead, but thrives,” “a liar and a vain smiler,” definitely comes out looking all too human, but the edited version had made him seem truly sinister. It’s ironic that in this memorable instance Hughes cut references to his vanity (and his saggy pants and greasy hair and the universally condemnable smarminess of his “heavy ham act … ‘Let’s make up’”) presumably in order to assuage his self-regard, and yet by doing so he planted in the minds of Plath’s readership the seeds of his early-and-often abuse of Plath’s faith in him.
The journals were Plath’s magic cauldron, the receptacle where she stewed the observations that would help her give shape to her life in its myriad desired guises. It can be seen burbling away in her eavesdropping on an adult cocktail party at the summer home of the Mayos, a family for whom she worked as a mother’s helper during the summer of 1951: “What were they talking about? What was the subtle line that marked you from entering a group such as this? … I can hear the voices coming up to me, laughter, raveled words. Up here, on the second floor porch, the air blurs the syllables and continuity of conversation like sky-writing …”
Other previously omitted passages illuminate Plath’s apprenticeship in her life as well as her art to the degree that their previous removal now seems peculiarly shortsighted. Among the themes fleshed out by the unabridged journals are Plath’s ongoing struggles with the concept of marriage, which she both feared as stultifying to her creativity and desired for its sexual and emotional intimacy.
Related to that is her “hatred” of men, oft-cited by critics. That hatred now appears more accurately as an envy borne of the frustratingly confining ’50s-era sexual mores that made it impossible for Plath to seek the experiences she wanted, to be as sexually free in her thought and actions as men could be. Plath also easily articulates the polarity between her desire to mother versus her protectiveness of her professional ambition — belying the theory circulated in some circles that Plath’s ambivalence toward motherhood was not quite normal.
The unexpurgated 1957 to ’59 entries reveal the depth of Plath’s awkwardness with people, as opposed to the outward “golden girl” gaiety typically ascribed to her. While teaching at Smith, Plath instituted a program to compel herself to interact. “People: eyes & ears not shut, as they are now,” she coached herself, “I apart, aware of apartness & a strange oddity that makes my coffee-shop talk laughable — we are inviting people to dinner: four a week, 16 a month: I shall not go sick or nervous or over-effusive …”
Throughout the early years of the journals, Plath’s lack of experience is sometimes cringingly obvious, her early attempts at hammering the episodes of her life into fictional or poetic shape hilariously sophomoric. During her college years, Plath often recorded her life in scenes addressing herself as “you” or in a frequently self-congratulatory third person: “Outwardly, all one could see on passing by is a tan, long-legged girl in a white lawn chair, drying her light brown hair … Tonight she will dress in the lovely white sharkskin hand-me-down dress of last summer’s employer and gaze winningly at her entranced Princeton escort …” On the occasion of the end of a brief infatuation, Plath threw herself with full intensity into a melodramatic chunk of doggerel:
The slime of all my yesterdays
Rots in the hollow of my skull:
And if my stomach would contract
Because of some explicable phenomenon
Such as pregnancy or constipation
I would not remember you.
She was not unaware of her early failures. In fact, wherever the craft of writing was at issue Plath was notoriously hard on herself. But what the young Plath lacked in experience she made up for in imagination and most decidedly in will. At 18, she scolded herself: “I am a victim of introspection. If I have not the power to put myself in the place of other people, but must be continually burrowing inward, I shall never be the magnanimous creative person I wish to be. Yet I am hypnotized by the workings of the individual, alone, and am continually using myself as a specimen.” Her journals are rife with her exhortations to get over herself and get on with the work beyond. “God, to lift up the lid of heads,” she bemoans in 1958.
And yet despite her constant efforts to “flay” herself into the writer she knew she could be, the most fluid writings in Plath’s journals are those in which she is unself-consciously subjective, getting straight to the business of telegraphing her thoughts and feelings without sculpting them into something suitable for the Saturday Evening Post, the Christian Science Monitor, or — the twin heights of her literary Olympus — the New Yorker and Ladies’ Home Journal.
During a grim winter afternoon at Smith during her teaching year, Plath has coffee alone in the coffee shop of her youth and notices “music souping from jukebox, melancholy, embracing.” On a trip to Paris in 1956, Plath writes of walking along the Seine’s right bank when a masher in a “lowslung” black car “oozed alongside while he begged me to come for a ride.” And three months later, on her honeymoon in Spain, every detail of her notes shimmers with sensory vividness. This makes a perplexing contrast to the handful of short stories she fretted over from that time.
A particularly terrible story idea is the one for “The Day of Twenty-four Cakes,” the plot of which emerged during the weeks prior to the dread Smith teaching year, a time when Plath sensed the creative silence her return home was going to impose on her. In the breathless paragraph that outlines the story (Plath characterizes the potential audience as “Either Kafka lit-mag serious or SATEVEPOST aim high”), Plath’s heroine sounds like nothing less than a naked reflection of her own desperation: “Wavering between running away or committing suicide: stayed by need to create an order: slowly, methodically begins to bake cakes, one each hour, calls store for eggs, etc. from midnight to midnight. Husband comes home: new understanding.”
Plath’s stilted admonishments to herself to lift up the world in tweezers and examine it from every angle, to make it “gem-like”, “jewel-like”, “diamond-edged,” “diamond faceted,” “jewelled,” “gem-bright”, “glittering” could not bully her work into taking on those qualities. And yet those qualities, so evident in her later poetry, were quite obviously within her grasp. Her innate gifts, ultimately imposed successfully on her poetry, do indeed exist like gems buried in their crudest form in the journals. In the unintentionally funny 1952 passage “… night thickening, congealing around her in her loneliness and longing like an imprisoning envelope of gelatin …” one can hear the echo of 1962′s “A Birthday Present,” in which she repurposed the word “congeal” to much better effect:
… It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center
Where spilt lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of a close reading of Plath’s journals is the thrill of watching the laboratory of her mind at work, watching her coax her raw materials toward their concentrated final form. And knowing that once she got her “self” going — her electrified intellect, that piercing imagination — that she would unleash the unstoppable poetic force of a runaway train. Yet until the point when her true self took flight in “Ariel,” Plath was plagued by the “fatal” feeling that “I write as if an eye were upon me.” That eye may now be ours, the audience she literally dreamed of, but while Plath was alive, the unabridged journals make agonizingly clear, the eye was her mother’s.
Plath’s real feelings about her mother are no longer cushioned by careful edits that subvert her sharp opinions. It is no longer a matter of Dr. Beuscher giving Plath “permission to hate your mother” or Plath admitting hatred “for … all mother figures.” Plath unhesitatingly states that she hates — as well as pities and desires the approval of — her mother, and in turn feels her mother’s envy and lack of unconditional love. “What to do with her, with the hostility, undying, which I feel for her? I want, as ever, to grab my life from out under her hot itchy hands. My life, my writing, my husband, my unconceived baby.”
Aurelia Plath had no self; she lived for and through her children. From Sylvia Plath’s infancy, her primary parent’s selflessness gave Plath no model for a self that could maintain its autonomy or exist beyond meeting other people’s needs. What Plath had instead was one big boundariless, free-floating ego, a self utterly dependent on the inflation by the selfless parent, and all psychic roads, ultimately, led right back to Sylvia. Plath spent her entire adult life trying to trace the ego boundaries for herself that her mother neglected to impose. “She is, in many ways, like an empty vessel,” Perloff said of Plath in an interview with Salon. “It’s really no wonder that she erupted with all these strong feelings and reactions, the guilt and the rage and the incredible hatred that comes out, first, in ‘The Bell Jar.’”
Plath understood that her mother lived vicariously through her daughter and her daughter’s achievements, and that Plath’s own 1953 breakdown and suicide attempt was in large part a reaction to her unhealthy “union” with her mother: “I lay in bed when I thought my mind was going blank forever and thought what a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat which could never be big enough to protect me from the world. But I was too nice for murder. I tried to murder myself: to keep from being an embarrassment to the ones I loved and from living myself in a mindless hell … I’d kill her, so I killed myself.”
Not that critics and readers hadn’t already suspected as much. In 1979 the literary critic Marjorie Perloff, author of some of the most influential articles on Plath, made the point that the shallow perfection of Plath’s early work and her later metamorphosis into the writer of the inimitable “Ariel” poems was traceable to Plath’s struggle to shrug off the burden of pleasing her mother, who had forfeited her own life for her two children, Sylvia and Warren. The deal, as Sylvia came to understand it, was that in return for their mother’s uncomplaining slave labor — their mother’s life — the children would feed back accomplishments. Plath became an achievement junkie, living for two and never sure of her mother’s love.
Given Plath’s awareness of her uncomfortable “osmosis” with her mother, it must have been horrifying for her, as Perloff points out, to realize that during the summer of 1962 “she had become … a ‘widowed’ young mother with very slender financial means — in short, she had become her mother. Even the sex of her two children — first a girl, then a boy — repeated the Sylvia-Warren pattern. Only now, one gathers, did Sylvia fully grasp the futility of her former goals. And so she had to destroy the ‘Aurelia’ in herself … In the demonic Ariel poems, she could finally vent her anger, her hatred of men, her disappointment in life. ‘Dearest Mother’ now becomes the dreaded Medusa.”
Her poetry leaves no doubt that Plath was indeed also obsessed with her father, but the trail of crumbs left in the journals leads elsewhere: Plath, who never failed to pointedly examine her own motivations, appears markedly resigned to her longing for her father. “My obsession with my father,” she says; “it hurts, father, it hurts, oh father I have never known.” You might say she “gets” her longing for her father, as she “gets” her fury at her mother.
What seems the most logical explanation for Plath’s enigmatic relationship with her parents is not that one or the other was her demon, but that due to circumstance she remained psychologically dependent on and victimized by both of them. Her father’s death left her not only with a hoard of unresolved grief, but it also left her defenseless against her mother’s unintended vampirish harm. She had only her mother to rely on until she began a second symbiotic relationship with Hughes. Plath’s depressions and rages, her restlessness and feeling of entrapment seem appropriate reactions, at least to a degree, to her family situation.
What is still hard for many of her readers to believe is that such an intuitive, perceptive and nuanced person as Sylvia Plath, who had at her disposal so many interior tools to understand her own traumas, would ultimately self-destruct. Yet the journals show, now more than ever, the extent to which she grappled helplessly with her high-strung emotional life, how tortured she was by her own intensity despite her desire to cultivate her “weirdness” and transform it into art. What is most constant about her inconstant emotions is her attempts to wrestle them down, to find a plane on which she could exist in relative psychic comfort.
There is a palpable urgency, even a poignant heroism, to Plath’s mission to understand — and to control by sheer self-discipline — her uncontrollable moods. The 1982 journals were not lax in highlighting this theme; “God, is this all it is,” Plath wrote in 1950, “the ricocheting down the corridor of laughter and tears? Of self-worship and self-loathing? Of glory and disgust?” And in 1951: “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad.” And in 1958: “I have been, and am, battling depression. It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative — which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”
Numerous times after her marriage Plath warned herself to learn to manage her own emotions, to keep her problems to herself, to “not tell Ted” despite her all-consuming neediness and her sense of his soothing effect on her nerves; in the unabridged journals, ironically just a month before the disillusioning May 1958 co-ed incident, Plath wrote of Hughes, “He is … my pole-star centering me steady & right.”
Despite Plath’s brittle hope that determination alone could steer her ungovernable emotions, the real key to her lifelong struggle with her mind may lie in a little-noticed medical theory — one that does not just shed light on her poetic obsessions, but that allows us to see something few have observed in the life of this scrutinized, tortured, impossible, frighteningly brilliant writer: courage.
Part 2 of “The real Sylvia Plath”: Did PMS kill Plath?
Hear Sylvia Plath read “November Graveyard” and other poems.
Hear actress Frances McDormand read from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”
Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.More Kate Moses.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)