Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
— Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus” from The Collected Poems
Sylvia Plath indeed died memorably as foreshadowed in a poem written in the final months of her life. A renowned American poet, she was married to the celebrated British poet, Ted Hughes, and committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven.
On the night of February 11, 1963, Plath's children were sleeping in another room where she had set out bread and milk for them. Plath then taped the door frame and stuffed the gap underneath the door with towels. Finally, she turned on the gas and rested her head on a folded cloth on the open oven door.
The final acts of Sylvia Plath's life were to make sure her children, two-year-old Frieda and one-year-old Nick, would be safe and fed. While she was going about ending her life, her husband was in another flat in London with another woman.
Recently discovered unpublished letters from Plath to her psychiatrist Dr Ruth Barnhouse alleged that she suffered physical and psychological abuse from Hughes. One letter, about events on September 22, 1962, revealed that he beat her while Plath was pregnant and two days later, she miscarried their second child. They separated that very month. Another letter sent the next month alleged that Hughes told her that he wished she was dead.
These letters are part of a collection by a feminist scholar, Harriet Rosenstein, of correspondence between Plath and Barnhouse, particularly in the year leading up to her death, during which Plath discovered that her husband was having an affair with a friend of theirs, Assia Wevill. In addition to his well-known infidelity, these allegations of abuse bring a new dimension to understanding Plath and Hughes's failed marriage and the final months of Plath's life.
A Literary Union
Plath's only novel The Bell Jar, semi-autobigraphical, was published in January 1963, less than a month before her death. Posthumously, her poetry collection Ariel (published in 1965) gained her mainstream recognition which Plath had predicted, writing to her mother, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.”
Carol Ann Duffy, another prolific woman poet, wrote that Plaths poems were uniquely feminist. Plath wrote in the confessional style of poetry primarily about “the experience of being a woman”. Plath believed that it was important to “control and manipulate her experiences…with an informed and an intelligent mind” in her poetry. By doing so, she shed the influence of confessional poets preceding her such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, and found her distinct voice.
Plath and Hughes's relationship is legendary in the literary world. They married in 1956, four months after their first meeting at Cambridge University where she was a Fulbright scholar. They had a fruitful literary union – writing poetry together every day in the first years of their married life.
They heavily influenced each other's work though they drew from entirely different subjects. Hughes's poems were deeply rooted in nature and relied particularly on symbolism. Plath's writing, on the other hand, was about her life experiences. She also morbidly obsessed over death in many of her poems. An excerpt from one of her most famous poems, “Daddy”, revealed her anguish at her father's death, her first suicide attempt, and her meeting Ted Hughes.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
Hughes soon went on to publish his first collection of poems, Hawk in the Rain, which won him widespread acclaim. Plath was still relatively unknown in the literary world outside poetry circles. Depression and suicidal tendencies resurfaced, exacerbated by her marriage falling apart, with Hughes leaving her for his then-lover, Wevill.
It was at this time, during the last months of her life, that she produced prodigious work. The Collected Poems went on to win her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Plath was 30-years-old when she killed herself.
This was not her first suicide attempt. As referenced in “Daddy”, Plath had taken a large number of sleeping pills at the age of 20 in her family home. She had been subsequently treated with electroconvulsive therapy and had been struggling with depression since adolescence.
Feminists and fans alike have taken up Plath's cause since the 1970s – her gravestone has had repeated attempts to have Hughes's name obliterated from it and Hughes was publicly denounced as a murderer during his lifetime. Hughes had multiple affairs, often around the same time, and many believed that her husband's callous cruelty and infidelity drove a depressed Plath to take her own life.
When Wevill killed herself in a similar manner as Plath; it was déjà vu for Ted Hughes and the public six years later. This time, however, there was another casualty – her four-year-old daughter with Hughes, Shura. At the time, Hughes was involved with other women, including Carol Orchard (who he later married), and Wevill had been facing public backlash for her alleged role in Plath's suicide.
On behalf of his estate, Hughes's widow, Carol, denied the claims of physical abuse by her late husband towards his first wife, saying they are “as absurd as they are shocking”. It is however difficult to treat Ted Hughes as an innocent party in Plath's suicide. Thanks to the recent discovery of these letters, Hughes's abusive behaviour to Plath is documented but other such behaviour may have escaped the public eye. Wevill's subsequent suicide suggests repeated abusive behaviour on the part of Hughes.
Hughes's actions had tragic consequences for Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill and Shura, and his children with Plath who lost their mother at a very young age. His personal reputation was all that suffered; in death, Plath's legend surpassed him in fame. According to Hughes's friends, he lived the rest of his life in the shadow of Plath's fame, shouldering the burden of public-directed guilt. Hughes continued to have a distinguished career regardless, being made Poet Laureate in Britain in 1984.
His actions in the years since Plath's death have also been criticised. Hughes destroyed Plath's final journal – saying it was in the best interests of their children. As executor of her estate, Hughes was also accused of editing and reordering her collections of poetry and journals to his wishes in addition to restricting access to her papers.
For years, Hughes kept silent. He finally spoke about this troubled relationship with Plath in a collection of poems, Birthday Letters, published in 1998. He died later that year at the age of 68. In 2010, a previously unseen poem by Hughes, “Last Letter”, relates his recollection of the events leading up to Plath's suicide. It begins:
What happened that night?
Your final night.
Plath's story illustrates the consequences of domestic abuse and mental illness and highlights the impunity of men to get away with repeated abusive behaviour. Her legacy will always be defined by her depression and eventual suicide, and now too by the revelations of domestic abuse. This is a shame in the light of Plath's poetic genius. She inspired poets, particularly women, of her time and later generations to write in their own voice as she did. Much of her best work was written in the final, desperate months of her life. In life and in death, Sylvia Plath was as exceptional as her poetry.
Maliha Khan is a freelance journalist.