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A world of pure pain: Sylvia Plath, photographed in 1961 (©Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)



He first departed; she for a little tried,
To live without him, liked it not, and died.


Sylvia Plath belongs with the tragic poets who died young: Marlowe murdered, Chatterton a suicide, Keats tubercular, Shelley drowned, Rimbaud a victim of bone cancer, Byron and Brooke from fever, Rosenberg and Owen killed in war. Her poetry and confessional novel The Bell Jar, her journals, two massive volumes of letters and numerous biographies reveal how the desertion of the equally charismatic poet Ted Hughes drove her to suicide. She had two small children, but could not bear to live long enough to see them grow up, and her death subjected them to lifelong trauma. Her daughter, Frieda, had shrieking tantrums when Hughes left, and her son Nicholas  killed himself in Alaska in 2009.

In “Daddy” Plath identified with Jews gassed in extermination camps. Like another suicide, Mark Rothko, her vivid portrayal of emotional states pulls us into a dark, choking, grave-like world of pure pain. If people had rescued her after she had put her head into the gas oven — and they almost did — she would have had, as with her previous suicide attempts, another harvest of poetic material and validation of her agony.

Most of Plath’s work, like Katherine Mansfield’s, was published posthumously, and more has been written about Plath than any other modern poet. Her reputation remains high, and there has even been a movie about her, Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

The second volume of Plath’s Letters begins with great happiness and poetic promise, and ends with the destruction of her marriage and her death. As Wordsworth wrote in “Resolution and Independence”, “But as it sometimes chanceth, from the might / Of joy in minds that can no further go, / As high as we have mounted in delight / In our dejection do we sink as low”.

In this volume she helps launch Hughes’s career with The Hawk in the Rain (1957), publishes her own first book of poetry The Colossus (1961) and, under a pseudonym, The Bell Jar (1963). Plath and Hughes had a stimulating residence at Yaddo; moved from Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had been teaching at Smith College, to London and then to Devon. When her marriage ended she flirted with the poet Richard Murphy and the critic Al Alvarez. These letters show Plath’s morbid obsessions, the genesis of major poems, and the jealousy of Hughes’s possessive older sister Olwyn, an egomaniac and bully who fanned the flames by calling Plath “a nasty selfish bitch”. The letters complement the biographies by Edward Butscher, Ronald Hayman, Anne Stevenson, Linda Wagner-Martin, Janet Malcolm, Paul Alexander, Diane Middlebrook, Andrew Wilson and Carl Rollyson, as well as many memoirs and the excellent life of Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. With thousands of minute and vivid details the two volumes present the fullest picture of Plath’s life.
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Plath was a perfectionist in teaching and motherhood. She typed and sent out all Hughes’s work, painted walls and floors, cooked, sewed, gardened, farmed, kept bees, rode horses, and handled their money and taxes. They were fiercely attracted to each other and had a gratifying sex life. She wrote, “I like all sorts of positions at a lot of odd times of day, & really feel terrific and made new from every cell when I am done.” She always believed Hughes was a great poet; was ecstatic, not jealous, when he became famous; and exclaimed, even after his betrayal, “Few men are both beautiful physically, tremendous lovers & creative geniuses as Ted is.”

Plath mainly wrote to family, Smith College friends, editors and publishers. Her voluminous letters are inevitably repetitive. The ones to her mother, 40 per cent of the text, are now uncensored but mostly contain glad tidings for home consumption. Other letters reveal the dark side of Plath’s life. There are a few characteristically morbid moments: a hunchbacked neighbour was “apparently born without parents of either sex” ; a house had a “kind of open cesspit that had obviously been used for drowning children”.

I noticed only four errors. The editors identify many well-known people — Dostoyevsky, Einstein — but ignore political events and poetic allusions, and do not explain puzzling passages. Why did Plath “pay to make sure of conceiving” a child? Why did she write a furious letter to Richard Murphy after visiting him in Ireland? The editors could have said much more about her younger brother, Warren, and noted that the poet Peter Davison had been her lover.

Plath needed a calm and devoted husband to control her frenetic energy. Hughes, the god that failed, both inspired and doomed her. A paternal figure, he replaced her dead father, who she thought had abandoned her in childhood by refusing to treat his diabetes and willing his own death. Hughes’s brutal rejection was a devastating repetition of her early trauma and she was forced to reprise the role of her sacrificial mother, martyred to a man. Assia Wevill was wild, exciting and even more worshipful. Humiliated and jealous, Plath tormented herself by reading Hughes’s “passionate love poems to this woman, this one woman to whom he has been growing more & more faithful, describing their orgasms, her ivory body, her smell, her beauty”.

At the same time, well aware of Plath’s perilous emotional fragility, Hughes cruelly condemned her as “brainless, hideous, had all sorts of flaws in making love”, and deliberately destroyed her anguished attachment to him. He said he wanted to kill her and wished she were dead. “True genius,” she realised, “must kill to get what it wants.”
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All Plath’s love, devotion, brilliance, intellectual stimulation, poetic success and beloved children led only to disaster. Hughes’s betrayal and desertion seemed to undo everything that was precious to her. The tide that swept them along was all the while moving towards Niagara. Her sudden realisation of what all the treacherous years were leading to and really meant was too tragic to bear.

The doomed Plath had everything to live for. Young and beautiful, intelligent and talented, with The Bell Jar (which would sell millions) published weeks before her death, she was at the height of her poetic powers and had a rising reputation, confirmed by grants and prizes. Swept along by her own creative surge, she produced the greatest poems in Ariel — often one every day — from the depths of her misery. She is quite explicit, in her last letter, about the reasons for her suicide. She feared being turned into a zombie and confined for the rest of her life in an insane asylum: “What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst — cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.” Despite her tragedy and his lifelong guilt — exacerbated when Assia gassed herself and their child in 1969 — Hughes benefited from her suicide. Liberated from her emotional burden and the need to support her, he was free to marry Assia and to repossess his children and house in Devon.

The volcanic core of Plath’s letters, an unusual long-distance epistolary psychotherapy, are 14 desperate and heartbreaking letters to Dr Ruth Beuscher, her psychiatrist and mother-confessor in America. After these letters were offered for sale for a staggering $875,000 by a Plath scholar whose biography had been aborted, controversial excerpts appeared in British newspapers. The letters were withdrawn after a lawsuit and are now in the Plath archive at Smith.

The sensitive introduction by Frieda Hughes, torn between love for her mother and loyalty to her father, tries to blunt Ted’s treacherous spear that penetrated Plath’s vulnerable heart. Plath portrays Ted as a monster — deceitful, oppressive, brutal and violent. She did not make her most serious charge in December 1961, when she thought appendicitis caused her miscarriage, and did not tell Beuscher about it until September 1962. Plath’s original statement — “we lost our second baby 4 months along last year . . . the doctors gave no reason for a miscarriage,  but as I had my appendix out 3 weeks later, it might have been that, or not” — is quite different from her subsequent agonising accusation, when she was wounded and furious, that “Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage”.

The Hughes Estate, representing his third wife, claimed the letters were “absurd”, but in the current #MeToo context her charge must be taken seriously. Without conclusive evidence and nearly 60 years after the events, it is difficult to know the truth. Winston Churchill observed that “History is written by the victors.” Hughes’s Birthday Letters, which created his version of her death, claimed his infidelity was predestined. But in Plath’s caustic response from beyond the grave the victim has the last wounding word.

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