February 11, 2003

I just haven’t written anybody because I’ve been feeling a bit grim. . .I shall simply have to fight it out on my own. . . . The children need me most right now, so I shall try to go on for the next few years writing mornings, being with them afternoons and seeing friends or studying and reading evenings….I am going to start seeing a woman doctor…which should help me weather this difficult time. —Sylvia Plath, February 4, 1963

The quotation above is an excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s last letter to her mother. She was living in a house in London once occupied by William Butler Yeats. She had her two children with her, Frieda, almost three, and Nicholas, who had just turned one. She’d decided to end her five-year marriage to poet Ted Hughes. She had suffered terrible emotional anguish during its decline, and the upheaval of moving her household from the country to the city took place during the most severe winter England had seen in decades. She insisted to her mother that now that she’d decided to change her circumstances she was joyous, happy, and doing the best work of her life. Nevertheless, the grimness crept up on her again, and forty years ago today, a week after she wrote that last letter home, she was dead by her own hand.

I first heard about Sylvia Plath when I was in college, a few years after her death, while her reputation as a melancholy cult figure was building. I was attracted initially by the qualities she seemed to have that I so longed for in myself. She’d been a guest editor at Mademoiselle, living in New York and participating in the sophisticated world of big city culture. She was popular, a successful writer who had been published in the fashionable magazines I read. I thought her marriage to another writer and her life in an English cottage with him and their little family sounded terribly romantic, despite its tragic end. I went to the library and read all of her fiction that I could find and even, very briefly, entertained the idea of becoming a Plath scholar, the one who would collect and edit her prose work.

I never had much of an interest in Sylvia Plath’s poetry. I find it difficult, edgy, angry, even now when I am better able to appreciate its artistic achievements. It’s her life I’m still drawn to. I’ve read the biographies, the memoirs, the analyses, all by other people and some of it quite controversial. I’ve read her own autobiographical oeuvre, the letters home that her mother published in 1975 and the journals that have recently been published in as complete a form as is possible (several volumes were lost). This is, of course, material that she wrote with the expectation of privacy or at least a very narrow audience of intimates.

Sylvia’s relationship with her mother was conflicted and difficult, as was mine with my mother. Her relationship with her father was even more problematic, because he died when she was only eight, and while it appears that during those eight years Sylvia experienced a great deal of happiness with him, she apparently perceived his death as an abandonment, and a good deal of her poetry seems to be a working out of her rage.

I can’t help thinking of Sylvia today. Were she still with us she’d be seventy, a dowager feminist poet like Adrienne Rich or Maxine Kumin. When I write about them I refer to them formally, as Rich and Kumin. With Plath, though, I appropriate her given name. Perhaps it’s because she left us so young, perhaps it’s because I feel a certain affinity for someone who suffered some of the same psychological sorrows I have.

Sylvia Plath’s reputation as an artist is founded on the poetry she wrote in her final six months. Today I read a prose piece, “Snow Blitz,” her account of the storm that began on the Feast of Stephen (Boxing Day in England) in 1962, seven weeks before she died. It must have been found among her papers, because it was published for the first time in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, the collection of her prose work that Ted Hughes edited in 1977 and which I bought in Scotland in 1990. As a personal essay or even a journalistic report it’s really not very good, especially by today’s standards for literary nonfiction. But in it I hear the cadences of good prose that I learned from teachers educated the way Sylvia Plath was. I hear myself the way I wrote at twenty-five.

In the essay she describes the difficulties of living through severe winter weather in a city that experiences it very seldom. She muses on what it will be like to live through more snow blitzes. “My children will grow up resolute, independent and tough, fighting through queues for candles for me in my aguey old age. While I brew waterless tea — that at least the future should bring — on a gas ring in the corner. If the gas, too, is not kaput.”

Alas, the gas was not kaput that winter, because that’s what she used to effect her death, after sealing off the children’s bedrooms with tape. By all accounts her children have grown up resolute and independent.  Frieda is a well-regarded artist and writer of children’s books, although her poetry has not been well-received. Nicholas is a marine biologist who lives and works in Alaska. Both their parents are gone now, unleashing even more speculation on their lives and their relationship. No doubt these children have had to be tough.