The days with the manuscripts were long. I would walk in boldly, hoping to conquer her hand before it conquered me. “Lady Lazarus” made my stomach twist, or perhaps it was a quickened breath, an ache in the shoulders? I don’t pay enough attention to my body to remember. My eyes rushed over the words, and the text was flung aside. It was like vomiting. Reading “Berck-Plage” was another kind of experience, slow and deep. I allowed meanings to multiply as I held her revisions in my head. My eyes moved back and forth from her handwriting, spastic and frenetic, to the calm of the printed poem in its book form. Though I imagined her mind working furiously, I repeated her process in slow motion. How do I reconstruct the process of another writer, knowing how hidden my own process is to me? I write this as if to Plath herself, as if to expose the assumptions of which she would be too habituated to be aware. Of course, I might in the end just be speaking of myself, since my reading is necessarily my reading.
I am uncomfortable right now. Are you? What right do I have to speak of myself when speaking of Plath? If it is a question with which I am struggling, it was a concern for Plath herself. I, feeling more like a voyeur than a scholar, sifted through her college essays, neatly catalogued at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. All over, I found echoes of my own confusion about the place of subjectivity in criticism. In one paper on Dostoevsky, she begins, as if apologetically, “I would like to make an explanation of my personal biases and ideas which do not properly belong in the main body of the paper.” The “personal biases” that interest her are striking. “It was this conviction of oblivion after death, this disbelief in God and immortality,” she writes, in an academic manner, “that reassured me when I” (and here I experienced a wave of nausea) “ attempted, after two months of despair and reasoned premeditation, to commit suicide.” This introduction to her paper (which she herself calls an “extraneous personal preface”) is most remarkable for not having been remarked upon. No note in the margin from a professor. No criticism of the method. No praise of honesty. Nothing. There seems to be no protocol for this type of criticism.
Subjectivity has always been at the heart of feminist criticism. Recognizing that a male has spoken as if his experience were universal forces women to confront the limits of the universality of experience. This recognition is specifically linked to criticism. As Jane Tompkins writes in her essay “Me and My Shadow,” “It is chummy this ‘we.’ It feels good, for a little while, until it starts to feel coercive, until ‘we’ are subscribing to things that ‘I’ don’t believe. There is no specific reference to the author’s self, no attempt to specify himself.” “We” has potential to silence any individual whose thoughts do not fall into the norm, which is to say, it has the potential to silence anyone.
The importance of subjectivity is not merely an external critical attitude by which one may approach Plath’s work. Instead, it is internal to the logic of her writing. In her essay “An Intractable Metal,” Helen Vendler criticizes Plath for “her scrupulous refusal to generalize, in her best poems, beyond her own case.” But her refusal to generalize is the result of recognizing that her subjective gaze and the objective world around her cannot be divorced. In a 1953 villanelle entitled “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” the speaker confronts the constructive power of her gaze: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; / I lift my lids and all is born again. / I think I made you up inside my head.” Though the title of the poem attributes an abnormality or madness to the speaker, this powerful version of subjectivity is common in Plath’s poetry and journals. She cannot herd others into her subjectivity, nor can she make anyone else her subject. Is this regrettable? Why should it be? For whom would she wish to speak? In a sense, her incredible following has shown that, without “generalizing beyond her own case,” she has succeeded in articulating the experience of others.
Returning to “Berck-Plage”: “These children are after something, with hooks and cries/ And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults,” someone had typed up to publish in The Collected Poems. I could imagine quite clearly a gang of children hounding some unattainable (perhaps because non-existent) treasure in the sand. And she watching, with the remorse of one who knows she can’t fix anyone’s failings. What are the failings of these children? Is she speaking about failure in general? Do we all fail before we even begin, before we can even recognize our faces in the mirror?
I looked to the revision. Yes, there it was. But it began with a question: “Who are these children/ Digging with hooks and sticks?” And then: “My heart is not large enough to graft back their losses.” Crossed out. “So many absences.” Crossed out. “…Too small to bandage these absences.” Crossed out. “The absences.” A loss, an absence. I thought of fathers, of Otto Plath who died when Plath was eight years old. I read on to find him there. “These empty sleeves, these empty trouser legs.” Yes, it is a man that is absent. Yes, it is a man that is a fault. Fault. I read it again. “My heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.” Yes, an absence feels like a lack and a failing.
One might imagine that if one lost one’s father at a young age, one might internalize that loss as one’s own failing. I can say this. You can consider its merit. We will both feel quite comfortable.
But what if, instead, I wrote the following: My father died when I was five years old from a rare form of cancer, and though I feel uncomfortable introducing that loss into this introduction, I cannot deny that my inner life, and therefore my writing and reading process, has been shaped by the sight of his pallid and hollow face in the hospital bed set up in our living room on the night he passed away. I can say this. Will you consider its merit? Do you still feel comfortable?
Why do I introduce the topic of my own father’s death? The parallel to Plath’s life is not significant because our lives are similar and therefore can explain each other; the parallel is significant because it necessarily informs my reading of Plath’s texts.
Reading the Journals
At the same time I was reading Plath’s journals, I happened to pick up the second volume of Anais Nin’s early diaries. She writes:
To console myself I read Eugenie de Guerin until I found this: ‘But I observe that I hardly make any mention of others and that my egotism always occupies the stage. I keep saying I do this; I have seen that, have thought so and so, leaving the public in the background after the manner of self-love; but mine is that of the heart which knows only how to speak of itself…’ Thus things that I never say, I am not able to and yet which I have thought and vaguely explained, Eugenie expresses so charmingly…”
I found that my experience reading Plath mirrored Nin’s experience reading de Guerin. I fear my heart, too, “knows only how to speak of itself.” Though a diary makes no attempt to generalize or include its potential audience, it nevertheless makes possible the inclusion of someone who may, herself, relate to the desire to speak of herself. Anyway, to whom does the right to universalize belong? Plath need not speak for me. She has spoken to me.
I’ve paid attention to Plath’s journals, not to scavenge their pages for clues as to how to read her poetry, but as meaningful texts in their own right. I have found beautiful moments in those pages, full of lyricism and discovery. They have shaken me with empathy, despair, joy, anger, laughter. They have moved me. But even beyond personal interest, scholars have begun to see the importance of serious study of journals and diaries. As Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff write in the introduction to their collection of essays on women’s diaries, Inscribing the Daily, “Because the form and content of the diary are so adaptable and flexible, the study of diaries brings into play issues of historical, social, and self-construction; exchanges between reader and text; and connections between, and differing effects of, published and manuscript diary records.”
Though Plath’s journals are not explicitly intended for publication, it seems to me that Plath very well could have envisioned the publication of her journals. She does, after all, read Virginia Woolf’s journals, and hopes to achieve a similar degree of literary fame. As Lynn Z. Bloom argues in an article included in Inscribing the Daily, “[F]or a professional writer there are no private writings.” In one of her earliest journal entries (one not included in the Unabridged Journals), Plath writes (addressing her journal), “Who knows—someday you might be in print.” Notably, this comment follows a description of reading “my big book of Wanda Hazel Gag’s Diary and drawings,” which she sees as “an inspiration!”
Though journal writing creates a private space, it also paradoxically creates the possibility for an intrusion on that space. In another early entry (from 1947), Plath complains that one of her male friends stole her diary in the middle of the night and surreptitiously read from it. He sulked the next day, troubled to find an unflattering portrait of himself included in a recent entry. Through this incident, Plath becomes aware that converting the mind to the material of a page makes the private, if not public, at least available to the public.
Am I like that boy who voyeuristically intrudes on her privacy? Am I not also reading with the suspicion I might find myself inscribed in her book? What unhealthy game am I playing by deriving pleasure from her horrors? A game Plath is drawn to, as well. “One night,” Plath recounts, “late, we walked out and saw the lurid orange glow of a fire down below the highschool. I dragged Ted to it, hoping for houses, in a holocaust, parents jumping out of the window with babies… What unleashed desire there must be in one for general carnage.” Perhaps such a desire for “general carnage” comes from a desire to see something ugly from within reflected without. A desire for a moment of recognition, like staring into a mirror, finding the grotesque, and nodding my head. “Yes, that is I.” Watching a fire, writing a dark poem, reading the suicidal poet’s journal—is there a difference?
“The world is blood hot and personal,” Plath writes in her poem “Totem.” Yes. And so, too, is reading Plath. Blood hot. Personal. It scorches.
A Divided Self
Access to Plath’s journals, letters, and semi-autobiographical works has encouraged a slew of scholars to write biographies of Plath, not to mention a number of fictionalized accounts of her life, including a novel and a movie. Biographers have drawn unreservedly upon the texts she left behind, as if they could lead to one unequivocal narrative of the life, and more importantly (for many, it seems) the death, of Sylvia Plath. Others, most notably Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, have argued that the Plath of which we speak is not a person per se, but a textual entity. As Rose insists, “In this book… I am never talking of real people.” She depicts Plath as a figure that we can only access as mythological, as symbolic, as representative, as some specter of our cultural and literary use of her. Critics, then, see the events of Plath’s life as either central or marginal to the reading of her oeuvre.
I realize that I have been writing as if Plath is undeniably speaking of herself in “Berck-Plage.” I might argue (against myself) with the objection that Plath would not have encouraged an autobiographical reading of some of her poems. When introducing “Daddy,” for instance, on a radio broadcasting for BBC, Plath claims, quite simply:
The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.
I cannot, then, easily read each poem as a clue to Plath’s biography or vice versa. But neither can I ignore her biography altogether; it asserts and reasserts itself. How can I say anything about Plath’s writing without somehow saying something of her, as a person? As Laura (Riding) Jackson so aptly puts it, “What is literary criticism, properly, but understanding a work as a human work, the purposeful linguistic production of a certain human somebody?”
Even in naming her (Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Hughes, Sylvia Plath Hughes, Mrs. Ted Hughes), I have already begun to engage in a construction of her life and death. I am thinking, now, of the controversy over Plath’s grave, which bears the name “Sylvia Plath Hughes.” On several occasions in the 1980s, those who involved themselves in what they saw to be a posthumous battle between Plath and Hughes literally chiseled away his last name, presumably to do what they think she would have wanted done, to erase any connection with him. Though I am not particularly concerned with the name on her headstone, I am interested in the way these different names suggest that Plath can be, and has been, conceived of in different ways, as the wife of Ted Hughes, to take one possible example, or as a martyr, to take another.
To say I am “undeniably” speaking of Plath does not answer the question, “which Plath?” Plath’s journals suggest that she, too, sees a divide within herself. In one entry, she describes spending the day sketching with Gary Haupt, whom she dated in 1956, at a café in Paris: “his sketch—light and whimsical and airy, and mine—heavy and structured in simple shaded geometric forms and designs: funny, but both reverted to deeper sides of personality more outwardly suitable to the other.” Plath implies that each has an outward personality that masks a deeper one. Plath appears “light and whimsical and airy,” but through her sketch, she reveals that her inner state is quite the opposite.
If Plath sees such a division between her “light” side and her “heavy” side, so does Plath’s mother, as well as many of the others who knew her. While Aurelia Plath was certainly aware of her daughter’s heavy and troubled writing (Plath often sent her mother drafts of recently composed poems), she insists, “The only Sylvia we—my son and I, for example—knew was the Sylvia revealed in her own letters and in my commentary of Letters Home… She was merry and witty…” Letters Home (a collection of letters from Plath to her mother) was, at least in part, published to convey to the public Plath’s “other” side. After its publication in 1975, Aurelia Plath writes to Hughes’s sister Olwyn, “The follow-up of letters and phone calls echoed one note consistently: ‘Thank you for bringing out this book. This is the Sylvia we knew.’” Aurelia Plath sees her daughter’s letters as emblematic of Plath’s genuine mirth, which is often lost in the bleakness of “Daddy” and the memory of her suicide.
In her journals, Plath makes note where her letters to her mother do not convey the entirety of her experience. “Wrote a letter to mother which gave her the gay side,” she writes in her journal while she is in Paris. The “gay side” is revealed in the journal entry, which begins, “Up betimes feeling fresh and gay and luxuriating in croissons and morning coffee; talked briefly with Giovanni at the doorway; he is dear and warm and friendly; no problems there, so pleasant.” In her letter, she probably does not mention her sentiments of loss for her former beau, Richard Sassoon, included in the same journal entry: “the moon was far off and sad over the dark cruel buildings and in my room I cried in black velvet on the yellow bedspread.” Plath’s feeling that she presents an idealization of her experience in her correspondence with her mother is repeated in one of her post-therapy journal entries, in which she attempts to digest what she and Ruth Beuscher have covered in their session: “One reason I could keep up such a satisfactory letter-relationship with her while in England was we could both verbalize our desired image of ourselves in relation to each other.” The desired image of their relationship is one of “interest and sincere love” without feeling “the emotional currents at war.” It is the weight of warring emotions that define Plath’s second, hidden self.
While Plath’s “light” self is social, her “heavy” side is deeply private. In college, she writes of a night in which she reconnects with her old roommate and finally allows herself to verbalize, or make social, her inner turmoil:
I had been withdrawing into a retreat of numbness: it is so much safer not to feel, not to let the world touch one. But my honest self revolted at this, hated me for doing this. Sick with conflict, destructive negative emotions, frozen into disintegration I was, refusing to articulate, to spew forth these emotions—they festered in me, growing big, distorted, like pus-bloated sores.
She writes, “But my honest self revolted at this.” What is “this”? It is “not to let the world touch one.” She demands engagement with the world. She wants her private self to become social. And yet, Plath’s desire to find words that will touch on her private self is coded in violence: “What inner decisions, what inner murder or prison-break must I commit if I want to speak from my true deep voice in writing…” Some self will have to be killed for the other to be able to speak.
The Idea of Life
Consider the division between critics who see Plath as making impersonal claims in persona (“Daddy” is actually about a girl whose father was a Nazi) and critics who see Plath as making personal claims in her true voice (it is Plath herself who must “act out the awful little allegory” to overcome the betrayal she feels). This division between the impersonal and the personal is one with which Plath herself struggles. Her social side writes for the public, performs, and attempts to move outward to record the world objectively. Her private side writes from her own psychic experience that changes and replaces the world. In a sense, her two selves populate two disparate worlds. Caught in a daydream, Plath finds it difficult to return since the “equally real world in my head sucks me jealously back into dreams, reconstructions and projections.”
Unsurprisingly, it is writing itself that, for Plath, creates her private world. Trying to motivate herself to finish grading papers for the course at Smith College that she is teaching, she is sidetracked: “But I must get back into the world of my creative mind: otherwise, in the world of pies & shin beef, I die. The great vampire cook extracts the nourishment & I grow fat on the corruption of matter, mere mindless matter. I must be lean & write & make worlds beside this to live in.” The world is composed of matter, which is mindless, and it corrupts and kills. Plath, instead, looks to her writing to create other worlds where she can survive. In describing her poem “The Lady and the Earthenware Head,” Plath explains that the earthenware head signifies “the farflung words which link & fuse to make up my own queer & grotesque world.” Words create worlds. Though it is probably a slip of the pen, this slip seems significant to me: “Ted is right, infallibly, when he criticizes my poems & suggests, here, there, the right world.”
Survival in Plath’s private, alternative world can lead to the feeling that she is disappearing in the real, social world. It is her feeling of disappearance or non-existence that draws her back into the physical world external to herself. “I long for an external view of myself & my room to confirm its reality,” she complains in July 1958, in the middle of a journal entry that focuses on her feeling that she has been “rejected by an adult world, part of nothing.” In a slightly earlier journal entry, Plath says she “felt somehow nonexistent—had a sudden joy in talking to a grease-stained husky garage mechanic boy. He seemed real.” Plath usually scoffs at such superficial interactions. She speaks of small talk pejoratively—calling it “poverty-struck,” “laughable,” and “desperate.” Writing, however, can make her feel so “nonexistent” that she will suddenly proclaim, “Ted & I are introverts and need a kind of external stimulus such as a job to get us into deep contact with people: even in superficial contact such as smalltalk which is pleasurable.”
While Plath claims, as I discussed earlier, that her refusal to express her “destructive negative emotions” causes them to grow and become “distorted, like pus-bloated sores,” expressing them through writing seems to have much the same, if not greater, effect. This distortion through writing is Aurelia Plath’s primary concern in her essay, “Letter Written in the Actuality of Spring,” in which she discusses her daughter’s “violation of actual circumstances.” The essay seems to be as much a defense of those who may have been negatively portrayed by Plath’s work (Aurelia Plath included) than a reappraisal of the work itself. She remarks upon “Sylvia’s tendency to fuse characters and manipulate events to achieve her own artistic ends.” So nothing she writes can be taken as “truth”? So we’re left with a series of distortions that have no meaningful connection to the world Plath inhabits? Instead, I have been entertaining the possibility that such manipulations are part of Plath’s processing of the world, as a way to access the intangible that moves beyond the “merely actual.” Despite moments of doubt that lead her outside of her imagination, Plath consistently uses metaphor to navigate through her life, not merely as a tool of the artist applied consciously to a novelization of events, but as a daily routine that shapes, as much as it is shaped by, a person.
In Smith College’s rare book room, I sifted through random folders of catalogued papers, not knowing what might be useful or even relevant. Most of her class notes did not draw my attention, but suddenly something would seem pressing and I would begin scribbling notes. I came across a single sheet of paper that contained copied quotations from Carl Jung’s The Development of Personality. One quotation, in particular, seemed pertinent: “The problems of the inner voice are full of pitfalls and hidden snares … man breathes his own life into things, until finally they begin to live of themselves and to multiply; and imperceptibly he is overgrown by them…” Jung is interested in the “inner voice,” that which is private and personal. That voice contains “hidden snares.” I cannot help but think of Plath’s “The Rabbit Catcher”: “And the snares almost effaced themselves— / Zeros, shutting on nothing.” Without engaging this text on my own, but merely engaging with this quotation as I imagine Plath might have, I am interested in using the idea that “man breathes his own life into things” until “he is overgrown by them” as a way to read Plath’s notorious distortions and manipulations.
To make a metaphor of something is to breathe life into it. In her journals, Plath often uses literal, concrete objects as symbols for psychological processes. Sometimes she explicitly states the symbol and symbolized, as when she remarks, “Must get my hair cut next week. Symbolic: get over instinct to be dowdy lip-biting little girl. Get bathrobe and slippers and nightgown & work on femininity.” How she wears her hair relates, in her mind, to her attitude towards being a woman, rather than a girl. Other times, the symbolism, though only implied, seems quite direct. In one journal entry, an afternoon with Ted during which they sit “here in the calm cleared livingroom where we have our ordered teas,” makes her feel as if she “wrested chaos and despair—and all the wasteful accidents of life—into a rich and meaningful pattern.” The “cleared” room and “ordered teas” reflect, or perhaps determine, Plath’s feelings about her married life.
Plath’s attention to physical details around her is not always as benign as mentioning haircuts and ordered teas. In one particularly bleak instance, Plath describes a night of sleep and the morning after: “Blankets untucked and the insecurity of pulling at them for cover, for heat, and they plucking loose, sliding away. Woke, sheet wound in a thick noose around my neck. Sipped, aching, skin-tendered, my coffee while Ted’s upper lip gouted thick red drops and runs of blood: he cut it.” This imagery suggests violence, but the only agents of violence on the scene are a sheet and some unnamed, sharp object. Even before the violence of the “thick noose” of the sheet, Plath feels the slippage of a blanket in bed as “insecurity.” Plath is in the habit of brutalizing and internalizing images from her everyday life long before the Ariel poems that make such imagery famous. Compare, for example, such a journal entry to the kind of language that finds its way into “Cut”:
What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of a hinge
A flap like a hat,
Then that red plush.
Next to the imagery in Plath’s journals, “Cut” seems understated.
When taking notes for a story she plans to write, Plath mentions the “askew distortions of the private eye.” Just as Rose alerts her readers that any psychoanalytical interpretation of Plath’s work or life have already been pre-empted by Plath herself (who was well versed in Freudian psychoanalysis), to point out that Plath distorts the occurrences of her life is to uncover patterns of processing that were never truly covered. I am interested, though, in the way that these distortions, in the act of writing and re-reading what she writes, become not just incongruous “violations of actual circumstances” for the “sake of art,” but deeply embedded codes that guide the way Plath understands herself and the world around her. As the quotation from Jung suggests, the life that Plath breathes into the world through her writing comes to have power over her.
I started keeping my first journal in fourth grade. Journal keeping arose from my need to verbalize my frustration, rage, and self-pity—emotions I sensed were unjustified and inappropriate. I did not understand why I felt the smallest suggestion of rejection so acutely, but neither could I prevent the illogical leaps my brain made. At summer camp, I sat on the sidelines of a dance party, writing in my notebook about what I called “The Brain Game.” It begins with something inconsequential, I ask a friend if she wants to go back to the cabin with me, let’s say, and she does not respond. Whether she hears me or not is irrelevant. I conclude that she must not like me. I mope on a bench near the action. Others pass by, laughing. I am outside.
“If only someone would approach,” I think to myself. Just one kind word would be enough, one invitation. I would smile and join the fun. After a while (how can I accurately count the minutes while waiting?), someone approaches, maybe it is a counselor. Sees my deep frown. “Are you okay?” I nod. What to say? Can’t she see I am not okay? “Come dance!” she says, laughing and wiggling a bit. Is she genuine? I shrug. She shrugs. Walks away. “Wait!” I think to myself. “Wait, I want to join!” But it is too late. And now I am berating myself, “Why did you say you were okay? Why didn’t you join her? You said one word would be enough. Now no one will come for you. No one will like you.” The hidden snares of the inner voice. And the frown grows, and no one knows what to say to the little girl closed in on herself. And in her mind, doubt and negativity spiral further from the surface.
“The Brain Game.” A cycle in which one self-effacing thought is not only allowed, but guaranteed to multiply. Why do I remember it so well? Because, of course, I was writing it down in my notebook. A notebook I could locate in three minutes if I returned to my childhood home right now. Whenever I go home, in fact, I invariably pick one of the journals up, return to some fretful or jubilant or mundane state that I otherwise would have left behind years ago. Sometimes I find satisfaction that old concerns are irrelevant or some hope for the future was realized. Often, I find that nothing much has changed, that I am stuck in the same cycles, repeating old defeats. But isn’t that, to some extent, the result of keeping and rereading the journals to begin with? It must be healthy to revise perceptions of the past, forget, forgive… and I am stuck looking backwards, rooted in words.
Plath leaves traces of her rereading all over her journals. In one entry from Plath’s days at Smith College, dated May 15, 1952, she writes, “But desiring human flesh, companionship— ‘How we need that security! How we need another soul to cling to. Another body to keep us warm! To rest and trust…’ I said so for Bob. I say it now again.” The quotation within this quotation comes from a journal entry written two years earlier. Plath’s reference for a feeling in the moment is not a vaguely remembered feeling from the past, but an exactly recorded and reread extract from her journal. At other times, Plath mentions directly that she has been rereading her journals, as in the case of her May 13, 1959 entry: “I read my notebooks on Spain.” The notebooks she mentions were written three years previously, on her honeymoon with Hughes in 1956. Other times, the traces are left in the margins of a page, as with her December 12, 1958 entry in which she asks herself “Why don’t I write a novel?” In the margin of the page she writes, “I have! August 22, 1961: THE BELL JAR.”
What effect does this rereading and remembering have on Plath? As Jacqueline Rose points out in reference to the role of memory in the formation of subjectivity, “Memory has two meanings—the personal recollection of a subject (something a subject retrieves as part of an ongoing narrative of her or his life), but equally, and in tension with that first meaning, something which works against subjectivity as narrative by constantly returning on itself.” On the one hand, it allows Plath to sustain a sense of continuity amidst feelings of division (divided, for instance, between periods of depression and elation). In one journal entry, after a particularly difficult spell of depression, she writes, “I am glad I wrote some of the sick naked hell I went through down in here. Otherwise, from my present vantage point, I could hardly believe it!” Her identification with past selves is mediated through her own journal keeping.
On the other hand, she often returns to the journal to mark a division with a past self. As her views and judgments change over time, a return to her journal can serve as a reminder of her old, false views. In a very early journal, her opinion of a boy named John shifts over the course of a two-week period. On July 22, 1949, she writes of John, “He’s too complex—such a loveable combination…” and then, written above that, “Aug. 5 what bull!” This tendency to reread and reevaluate, though it begins early on, does not stop as she grows older. In 1959, Plath writes, “I reread my notes about Ted’s children’s fables written three summers ago in Spain, how they should be a classic, and now see how obviously unsalable they were in such form, and hope my judgments have matured as I think they have.” I imagine that acknowledging past flaws in judgment would leave Plath to consider the possibility of flaws in judgment in the present.
More startlingly, there are moments in the journals when, rather than revise her positions in the present, she goes back to revise them in the past. In one of the earlier, troubled entries involving Plath’s sexuality (a scene with overtones of rape that provokes Plath’s ambivalence: “You pull away, disgusted, yet not disgusted”), Plath ends with the words, “And you hate him because he is a boy. And you won’t see him if he asks again”. Underneath these words, though, lie the traces of her original thought: “But you will see him if he asks again. You are a girl.” When I asked Karen Kukil about her methods of transcription, she said she included what she took to be Plath’s last intent in the text, with previous intents included in the notes at the end of the book. This decision does not seem obvious to me. What is erased says as much as what remains. After all, according to Kukil’s notes, Plath does see him again.
Plath writes that she would like to “relive a scene again & over, respeak it, forge it to my own model, and hurl it out, grit into pearl.” In a sense, Plath’s revisions do just that. To relive and respeak, though, is not necessarily to revise away from prior meanings. It can also mean a revising towards, and intensification of, those meanings. One incident can become a kind of mythology in the journals. When Hughes complains about a button that Plath has neglected to sew on his shirt and then compounds the problem by “telling Marcia and Mike that I: hide shirts, rip up torn socks, never sew on buttons,” Plath comes to see the incident as emblematic of the struggle in their marriage over traditional gender roles. When, two weeks later, she finally gives in, she writes that she is sewing on “The Button.” No longer a mere object, it has come to take on the characteristics of a proper noun. No doubt Plath’s idea to write a story about it, “The Button Quarrel,” solidifies the significance of The Button in her mind.
Plath writes, “[M]an’s brain is a poor recorder, forgetful and vague.” But a journal is not at all forgetful, or at least not forgetful of whatever was recalled and recorded to begin with. In “Letter Written in the Actuality of Spring,” Aurelia Plath laments of her daughter, “I so longed for her to free herself from those memories.” Plath, though, cannot be free from any memory that fixes itself to the pages of her journals. After her suicide, Hughes destroys her last journal, claiming (in third person—a strange result of trying to maintain the illusion of being her unbiased posthumous editor), “in those days he regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival.” Might Plath have done better by burning her own notebooks rather than Hughes’ (an event that is depicted in her poem “Burning the Letters”)? Perhaps. But remembering, returning, and revising is as necessary for Plath as forgetfulness is for Hughes. Her identity depends on it. As she writes, “Here I am, a bundle of past recollections and future dreams.”
Or, in a more extreme sense, her life depends on it. She writes, “I feel myself grip on my past as if it were my life: shall make it my future business.” The past, as part of the alternative world she creates through her art, becomes a substitution for real life, which is the present. “I cannot live for life itself,” Plath declares, “but for the words which stay the flux. My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time.” Writing, which draws Plath to the past, is a way to stab at immortality, to “stay the flux.” I do not mean “immortality” in the sense that a famous author becomes immortal. Even if Plath’s writings were never read again, they would still be an (impossible) exercise in immortality. If mortality is the result of a constant movement forward, approaching death, then immortality might be achieved by moving backwards, back into life. Such backwards movement does not make the present insignificant, however. Instead, it lends the present its significance. “I must go in search of times past. Then all time present will be endowed with special form and meaning.”
I do not disagree with Rose when she claims that the Plath I have pored over is a textual entity. I have, after all, only accessed her through texts. But Plath’s relationship with herself is similarly textual. Who is she, but a mass of memory? What part of her memory is not touched by her texts, by journal entries she reread, poems she copied, ways to return to herself?
What, then, can I say of the relationship between Plath the person, Plath the poet, and the speaker in Plath’s poems? Rather than being either the Sylvia depicted in Aurelia Plath’s Letters Home who has tea with the neighbors and reminds herself to wash her hair, or the “true” Sylvia who frees herself from the limitations of formal verse and of her patriarchal confinement and, in her freedom, speaks with the courageous and defiant voice of the Ariel poems, Plath exists in the interaction between lived life and the page, since one invariably affects the other and vice versa. A bad morning can make a noose of a sheet, and rereading a journal entry about a noose can make a jailer of a husband. A poem that allows for the exploration of such despairing metaphors turns biography into myth. “Despair,” writes Plath, is “as deceitful as hope.” And a dramatic suicide turns myth back into biography. There is no place to settle.
Looking over the drafts of “Elm,” I feel myself involved in Plath’s negotiations with the page. She not only watches the tree with interest, but also with identification. In the first draft, the poem begins, “It is not easy, it is not peaceful/ It pulses like a heart on our hill.” When Plath replaces “it” with “she,” the elm suddenly becomes personified, a figure with which Plath can be in dialogue, a figure that can taunt or make demands of her. Once the parallel between the elm and Plath is established, the elm becomes ominous. The wind blowing through its branches become frightening: “She moans with it. She grows wolfish. / I cannot sleep then, she upsets me.” Is it the elm that causes Plath’s discomfort, or her own internal state that causes the wind blowing through the trees to sound “wolfish”?
By the third draft, this question is on Plath’s mind as well. She asks, and then crosses out, as if dismissing:
Do I need such a false relation?
She upsets me some way.
It is stupid, this relationship.
I am a person. She is my subordinate.
She is a tree, on my property.
Those dark lumps in the twiggy silhouette are pigeons.
She regards the elm as being the cause of her anguish, though she tries to reassert her agency by insisting, “I am a person. She is my subordinate.” It is too late. The elm speaks with “the voice box of such desolations.” It takes on the position of speaker of the poem: “You, too, find my murmur disturbing.” Whether the relationship is “false” or “stupid,” it has been established. The elm exclaims, “How your bad dreams possess and endow me!”
In “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals,” Ted Hughes writes:
Within a day or two of writing “Pheasant,” she started a poem about a giant wych elm that overshadowed the yard of her home. The manuscript of this piece reveals how she began in her usual fashion… But then we see a struggle break out, which continues over several pages, as the lines try to take the law into their own hands. She forced the poem back into order, and even got a stranglehold on it, and seemed to have won, when suddenly it burst all her restraints and she let it go.
Hughes marks this poem as the beginning of the Ariel voice, Plath’s true voice, which emerges not as an artist’s choice, but an act of rebellion in which “the lines try to take the law into their own hands.” This rebellion (words taking over and creating meanings that Plath could not have acknowledged before she began writing, while staring out of the window at the elm in her yard) is not unique to the Ariel poems. It is a rebellion intrinsic to Plath’s writing process, and through her writing, intrinsic to her life. For Plath, words have always taken over.
The Form of Confession
In the introduction to The Confessional Poets, which claims to be “the first book-length attempt at examining what has come to be a major development in American literature,” Robert Phillips writes, “Primarily I have commented on the subject of the poets’ work, rather than the form. For an introductory book, I felt that what a poet has to say is more important than how he says it.” Which is to say, when reading confessional poetry, content precedes form. This focus on content divorced from form seems to follow from the belief that confessional poetry is mimetic (it seeks to represent or imitate real, lived experience) and that the confessional poets impulsively and organically express a deep truth. That truth is unalterable, regardless of the form it takes.
Jo Gill, on the other hand, argues in “Anne Sexton and Confessional Poetics” that confessional poetry is poietic: it produces (rather than represents) truth. “Confession,” Gill writes, “is not an unpredictable symptom of unbearable emotion, it is a ‘ritual.’ The confession is generated and sustained not by the profundity of need or strength of compulsion, but by the discursive relationship between speaker, text, and reader—penitent, confession, and confessor.” If the “truth” expressed in a text is dependent on the text itself, form cannot be overlooked. It is no longer neutral, but rather informs the content of the confession. In this sense, genre is not coincidental with the content of the confession, but determines its limits. How does genre play into Plath’s confessions? How does she think about genre? How does it affect what she writes?
Plath’s assumptions about genre litter her journals. The various notebooks and stacks of typewritten sheets serve distinct roles at different times of her life, but they seem consistently to serve as a place to write about writing, to berate herself for her failings, create schedules or modes of discipline, and to record hopes for her success. These remarks reveal Plath’s attitude toward poetry and prose. Poetry, for Plath, is easy, while prose is difficult. In one journal entry, she prods herself to write for two hours every day. By “writing,” though, she seems to be referring to prose writing, since she remarks, “Only, when I do poems, it eats up the whole day in a slow lust which I can’t resist.” She must force herself to commit to prose, while poetry “happens” almost as if without her choosing it, or if she does choose, she does so with a kind of guilt.
The goal of writing prose for two hours every day is a daunting one for Plath. While writing poetry is a pleasure, a “slow lust,” writing prose can be painful. She writes in her journal, “Prose writing has become a phobia to me: my mind shuts & I clench.” This phobia comes from a fear of failure. When she sends out her work to journals and publishers, her worries about how they will be received reveal how much public reception shapes her view of herself as a writer. Mail for Plath always offers the possibility of hope and the probability of disappointment. She writes, “No mail. Who am I. Why should a poet be a novelist? Why not?” That there is no mail signifies a deferral of judgment on her abilities as a writer. Without that judgment, she cannot call herself a success or a failure, and is therefore left with the question, “Who am I.” But even in that questioning, her self-proclaimed status as a poet is secure. From an early age, Plath’s notion of herself as poet is reinforced by concrete successes (she published her first poem at the age of eight). She is paralyzed by the title of novelist. Writing for Plath is always directed towards an end external to herself, whether it be a career, fame, publication, recognition—she is never writing only for herself.
At another point in her journal, Plath writes, “It is tempting to cling to the old lyric sentimental stuff: the prose shows how far I am behind.” Once again, poetry is couched in the terms of temptation, while writing prose provokes self-doubt. Plath’s description of her poetry as “old lyric sentimental stuff” exhibits her implicit devaluing of poetry relative to prose. Though she sees herself as a poet, she would like to be a novelist. She writes that she “began realizing poetry was an excuse & escape from writing prose.” One of the reasons she values prose over poetry is that she sees the formal aspect of poetry to be limiting: “It is a very healthy antidote, this prose, to the poems’ intense limitations.” Her desire to write prose comes not only from a desire to make her writing freer, but to make her life itself freer: “If IF I could break onto a meaningful prose, that expressed my feelings, I would be free. Free to have a wonderful life.” The repeated and capitalized “if” suggests that Plath finds the prospect of writing meaningful, expressive prose daunting, and perhaps unlikely.
Another reason she values prose over poetry returns to the issue of her writing having, ultimately, an external destination. She writes, “Must agonizingly begin prose—an irony, this paralysis, while day by day I do poems—and also other reading—or I will be unable to speak human speech, lost as I am in my inner wordless Sargasso.” Prose, it is implied, is human speech, while poetry is “inner” and “wordless.” I take “human” to mean something like “social.” Prose can communicate among people, rather than being trapped in the body that produced it. I take “wordless” to mean something like “silent.” Poetry is inaudible because it cannot communicate.
This attitude toward prose and poetry cannot be divorced from Plath’s ideas about gender. Plath feels that prose is more masculine, while poetry is feminine. While the former is hard, the latter is soft: “How my voice must change to be heard: brash, concrete. Away with blue moony soup-fogs.” Again, though Plath is directing her own writing, she has internalized what she sees to be the demands of the outside world that will (or will not) read her. Her voice must change not explicitly so that her writing will be better, but so that it will “be heard.” That she is a woman does not preclude her from writing in a way that is “brash, concrete,” just as a man can write a “soup-fog.” She, in fact, comments on Robert Lowell’s work that it is “good in his mildly feminine ineffectual manner.” To write in a feminine fashion is “ineffectual.”
Prose could, of course, be a “soup-fog” and poetry could be “brash.” It is not just tone, though, that makes the former masculine and the latter feminine. It is also the content. As Plath explains, “I can not draw on James’ drama: war, nations, parachute drops, hospitals in trenches—my woman’s ammunition is chiefly psychic & aesthetic: love & lookings.” The lyric poem is feminine in that it often takes up “woman’s ammunition,” that is, the internal or interpersonal world, a world of intimacy. Prose, on the other hand, deals with the concrete, external reality and that reality’s drama. This difference in content is a refrain in Plath’s journals. She senses that her work does not move beyond herself, and yet she feels that to write anything worthwhile, she must engage with the external world, with other people, with the dramatic action that is not “psychic.”
Plath’s feeling that she should be writing outside of herself relates to her fear of being perceived by men as too feminine (i.e., emotional or sentimental). In an early entry (while she was still at Smith college), Plath writes in the second person, “You talk a little fliply, a little too wisely, just to cover up so you won’t be accused of sentimentality or emotionalism or feminine tactics.” This feeling that she is being judged for her “feminine tactics” does not disappear with time. Five years later, she writes of her friend Gary Haupt, “[H]e scorned my mind as female and illogical and slightly absurd.” Poetry is “sentimental stuff,” too feminine, and unheard (or inaudible) to the Garys of Plath’s world, who will dismiss it as “illogical.”
Plath’s conception of poetry as feminine and prose as masculine might also relate to her mother and father. While her father wrote concrete books about zoology (he was an expert on bees and wrote Bumblebees and Their Ways in 1934), her mother gave Sylvia birthday cards with rhyming poems enclosed. Perhaps it is just because Plath herself was well-versed in Freudian psychology that she so perfectly exemplifies the Electra complex. As Plath describes the complex (in relation to the speaker of “Daddy”), “Her father died while she thought he was God.” This dynamic might be one reason for her valorization of concrete prose (which her father wrote) over sentimental poetry (which her mother wrote). She writes, referring to herself in second person, “You wish you had been made to know Botany, Zoology and Science when you were young. But with your father dead, you leaned abnormally to the ‘Humanities’ personality of your mother. And you were frightened when you heard yourself stop talking and felt the echo of her voice, as if she had spoken in you…”
Poetry for Plath also complicates the issue of identity. While prose is concerned with the external world, the “surface texture of life,” poetry faces inward. This inward facing, while cultivating the “I,” also complicates it by allowing it to multiply. Plath writes, “My voice halted, my skin felt the pounds & pounds pressure of other I’s on every inch, wrinkled, puckered, sank in on itself. Now to grow out. To suck up & master the surface & heart of worlds…” When she writes prose, she is “outside,” in the world, her voice moves in the social (“human”) world. Because she is not focused on “I,” only one exists, the one that perceives and masters. Poetry, on the other hand, is an “inside” endeavor. Her social voice is “halted” and becomes “wordless.” She is intensely focused on herself, and that focus creates a surfeit of “I’s.” While Plath frames this inward movement, this wordlessness, this complication of identity negatively (“wrinkled, puckered, sank in on itself”), poetry is a temptation for Plath. She desires it. All over her journals she is trying to convince herself that she doesn’t. Or perhaps, more accurately, she desires it and she does not desire it.
Both “Berck-Plage” and Plath’s notebook entry published as “Rose and Percy B” in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams describe the death of her neighbor Percy Key. Looking at Jack Folsom’s “Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage,’” Susan Gilbert’s “On the Beach with Sylvia Plath,” and Ted Hughes’s introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, two tendencies in the scholarship make themselves clear. First, while all three scholars mention the notebooks and the poem, they do not draw a generic distinction or suggest a comparison of any kind. Second, they all assume that the notebook served as a pre-poetic exercise before the drafting of the poem. The first tendency seems limited; the second tendency, more baffling, seems simply wrong.
Consider this excerpt from Plath’s notebook: “July 2: Percy Key is dead. He died just at midnight, Monday, June 25th, and was buried Friday, June 29th, at 2:30. I find this difficult to believe… I have written a long poem ‘Berck-Plage’ about it. Very moved. Several terrible glimpses.” Plath then goes on to describe the scene of death at the Key’s house and the funeral that followed. Plath writes, “I have written.” She does not write, “I will write” or “I am in the midst of writing.” The drafts themselves are dated, in her hand, “June 30 1962.”
The chronology is significant. If I determined that the notebook entry had been written first, I would think of the poem as an expansion or revision of some initial reactions to an event in Plath’s life. Since, contrarily, the dated notebook reveals that the poem came first, I must think of the notebook as a kind of revision. While the poem attempts to negotiate questions of self in relation to others and allows for the exploration of ambivalences, the journal entry attempts to generalize beyond the self and construct a singular narrative from the ambivalences expressed in the poem.
While the journal entry depicts only the events surrounding Percy Key’s death, “Berck-Plage” begins with images drawn from memories of a vacation to France with Hughes. As Hughes writes, “In June, 1961, we had visited Berck-Plage, a long beach and resort on the coast of France north of Rouen. Some sort of hospital or convalescent home for the disabled fronts the beach.” These memories are recontextualized in the frame of the loss and mourning of the poem. Though Hughes claims that the scene on the beach “was one of her nightmares stepped into the real world,” this claim is made almost a decade after the event and, more importantly, as an introduction to the poem. Perhaps the two took a lovely stroll down the beach, with Plath’s own discomfort serving as a silent, psychic backdrop to her perception of the event, a discomfort that may have been exaggerated in retrospect. In the original draft, Plath writes, “We have two legs, each of us, and we move smiling.” The “we” here might be she and Hughes, a young, healthy married couple, enjoying their summer vacation. She switches, however, to first person to describe her discomfort, despite her smiles: “I carry my twangling apprehensions.” Though she is accompanied by another, it is a private “apprehension” that moves her to envision the scene as one where she moves alone.
To write of “we” is not to write of the other. It is to assimilate the other until he is virtually indistinguishable from the speaking voice. Once Plath introduces the priest and the mackerel gatherers, though, she must acknowledge and describe the other. The difficulty of doing so is a refrain throughout her journals. She sees observation of others as crucial to writing: “I want to know all kinds of people, to have the talent ready, practised, ordered, to use them, to ask them the right questions.” This description strikes me as problematic. How can she expect to know anyone if she approaches all people as tools for her use? Plath similarly criticizes herself, complaining in her journal that her interest in other people is not one of “pure intrigue with the unique otherness of identity.”
Whether or not it is fair, her self-criticism is indicative of her complicated relationship with others. Even though she feels that good writing requires a knowledge and understanding of others, she feels burdened by social obligations, calls dinner engagements a waste of time, and complains of “a curious desperate sense of being locked in” among her neighbors. Paradoxically, she believes that to come in contact with others, she needs to move more deeply into herself. She commands herself, “First know myself, deep, all I have gathered to me of otherness in time & place.” Conversely, she poses her failure to connect with others as a result of her own lack of self-definition: “So little myself all other identities threaten me.” She can, then, find others and otherness in herself, but when confronted with the otherness of the world external to her body, she fears she will not be able to find or define herself.
It is this tangled relationship with the other that makes it so difficult for Plath to describe those she witnesses. In the journals, her descriptions of people, whether acquaintances or strangers, are often judgmental and negative. As an example, I offer her unflattering description of people seen on a beach: “bandy legged, paunchy staring hairy men; very pale fat woman in dark glasses and florid two piece yellow flowered bathing suit rubbing lotion into double layered fat of midriff; old woman in vile pale lavender suit washing toes warped with bunions in wash of waves on shore.” That description continues for four more lines.
This tendency to focus on the “vile” in the external world is repeated in “Berck-Plage.” As Jack Folsom puts it, “Plath envisioned grotesque, surrealist transformations of what she had actually seen, as if she herself were doing Chiricoesque painting or a Fellini film.” The second section of “Berck-Plage,” in particular, seems to draw on the grotesque. The priest’s boot becomes “the hearse of a dead foot.” Lovers in the dunes are replaced with “obscene bikinis.” The ocean is “a green pool”—green because it is “sick with what it has swallowed.” The landscape, with its weeds, is “hairy as privates.” These images make me feel nauseated and uncomfortable. I am embarrassed—for myself and for her. If the scene is, as Hughes writes, “one of her nightmares,” the nightmare is a view of otherness, obscene and sickening, which, even more frightening, she feels has inhabited her body. If I, on encountering her description, feel an obscenity moving in me, has she not succeeded in entering the other (me), as much as the other has entered her?
In the final draft of the poem, the mackerel gatherers are described as those “who wall up their back against” the priest. “They are handing the black and green lozenges like the parts of a body.” They, then, form a community that rejects or is merely unaware of the priest, a community that continues to carry out its function, without fear or disgust of the dead fish, without Plath’s association of fish with “parts of a body.” While Plath is drawn to envision “grotesque, surrealist transformations,” the mackerel gatherers are not, are instead (as was included in her first draft) “simple, the way we would all like to be.” In subsequent revisions, Plath seems unable to settle on a description of the mackerel gatherers. They are “dressed in a washed, good blue, signifying graces” in one version, “thick and dark and would appear sinister” in another. Their faces are “absolutely blank” or “honest” or “potato-colored.” None of these descriptions appear in the final draft.
Throughout the rest of the poem, Plath’s struggle to describe others and to define herself in relation to them inhabits the space of grief and mourning. How do others grieve? Is her grief like the grief of those around her? Is her grief even worth mentioning? How do those who are left behind relate to one another and to the absence created by the death? Plath negotiates these questions through her revisions and rewritings. In the first draft, Plath describes Rose Key, Percy Key’s wife, as “theatrical, ” as she stands with her “black pocketbook and her three black-hatted daughters” at the cemetery. Plath distances herself from Rose Key and the scene of the funeral, as if she were an audience of some drama, Rose Key’s grief an act for Plath. In this first draft, though, Rose Key is also “necessary among the flowers.” Though perhaps distancing herself from the rituals of mourning (especially those she sees as empty theatrics, like “the fatuities of the priest” who is “sorry and dull”), she also acknowledges the widow’s grief, unique among the mourners and “necessary.”
As Plath revises, she revises away her judgment of Rose Key as “theatrical.” The final draft reads:
The widow with her black pocketbook and three daughters,
Necessary among the flowers,
Enfolds her face like fine linen,
Not to be spread again.
The poem envisions Rose Key as a face among flowers, alone in her grief. It is not until Plath returns to the scene in her journal that she envisions Rose Key as part of a group of mourners. Her journal reads, “The women led round, in a kind of goodbye circle, Rose rapt and beautiful and frozen…” In the poem, Rose Key is alone, outside, and other. In the journal entry, on the other hand, she merges with the community that supports her, including Plath.
Though it might be obvious why Rose Key’s grief is distinguishable from Plath’s, it is less obvious if, how, and why Plath’s grief might be distinguishable from the grief of the other mourners. In the first draft of “Berck-Page,” Plath includes herself in a general description of those attending the funeral:
Behind the glass of this car
The world purrs, shut-off and gentle,
And we are black and still, members of the party,
Lugging our small grief up behind the cart,
Our little negligible twinges, our small missing.
The “members of the party” feel only “negligible” grief, unlike Rose Key whose grief is “necessary” (if not “theatrical”). When she revises, Plath changes “we” and “our” to “I” and “my,” as if realizing that she cannot speak for the others and the extent of the emotional impact of Percy Key’s death on them. The last line of this excerpt (which becomes, “My negligible twinges, my small missing”) takes on a new significance. As a general statement about “us,” the line seems to convey a doubt about the funeral proceedings in general, and their ability to respond to the group as a whole. Once it primarily concerns the “I” of the poem, however, the line becomes a kind of confession of inadequacy, as if her “missing” were too small. In the final draft of the poem, Plath deletes the line altogether, as if deciding, finally, that her grief is not worth mentioning, though she still speaks from her own particular position, rather than the generalized “we”: “And I am black-suited and still, a member of the party, / Gliding up in low gear behind the cart.”
In the journal entry, the “we” returns. Rather than being a particular figure, or describing her particular grief, Plath generalizes the feeling of the funeral-goers: “The awful feeling of great grins coming onto the face, unstoppable. A relief; this is the hostage for death, we are safe for the time being… We left the open grave. An unfinished feeling. Is he to be left up there uncovered, all alone?” The journal entry leaves out mention of Plath’s personal grief, and instead presupposes a shared “unfinished feeling.” In prose, Plath avoids her tendency to separate herself from those of whom she writes. Still, the “relief” that follows from the thought “we are safe for the time being” seems far more particular to Plath’s focus on her own impending mortality and her desire to “stay the flux” than the generalized “we” would suggest.
What does loss look like? Does her grief have anything to say about loss in general? Does it have anything to say about that face, thin and sullen, in the living room, in the monstrous white bed, the face that was my father? Before the seventh—originally the eighth (one section was deleted after revision)—section of “Berck-Plage” describes Percy Key’s funeral, the fourth section describes the scene of Key’s death, the room where his body lies. This section of the poem reveals Plath’s ambivalence towards death:
A wedding-cake face in a paper frill.
How superior he is now.
This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.
Is he wearing pajamas or an evening suit
Under the glued sheet from which his powdery beak
Rises so whitely unbuffeted?
They propped his jaw with a book until it stiffened
And folded his hands, that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye.
Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
The pillow cases are sweetening.
It is a blessing, it is a blessing:
The long coffin of soap-colored oak,
The curious bearers and the raw date
Engraving itself in silver with marvelous calm.
In death, Key takes on a position of superiority. “Superior,” might literally mean “above,” in heaven. But it also suggests an advantage to death. It is a blessing for the deceased who escapes the mortal world, as well as for those who no longer have to endure the pain of seeing a loved one die. The date of the death, though “raw,” is also “calm.” The objects in the room are no longer tainted with illness. (When Plath visits Key while he is sick, she complains, “I had a revulsion at the cold herrings on cold toast, a feeling they took on the corruption from Percy.”) Despite these advantages, death is far from wholly positive. Though the deceased is “superior” and “complete,” completion is “horrible.”
While the poem allows for these contrasting views of death, the journal entry leaves room only for the common, negative association with death:
The end, even of so marginal a man, a horror… The living room where he had lain was in an upheaval—rolled from the wall, mattresses on the lawn, sheets and pillows washed & airing. He lay in the sewing room, or parlor, in a long coffin of orangey soap-colored oak with silver handles, the lid propped against the wall at his head with a silver scroll: Percy Key, Died June 25, 1962. The raw date a shock… The coffin on boards, words said, ashes to ashes—that is what remained, not glory, not heaven.
In this depiction death is only “a horror.” The same objects in the room, airing out, are no longer described as “sweetening.” The date is just a “shock.” While the poem admits a “soul” at the end of section six (seven in the original draft), the journal entry proclaims that there is no heaven (certainly nothing “superior” about the dead man), just “ashes.”
The revisions of the sixth section reveal Plath’s uncertainties about what having a soul might entail. In her first attempt, she writes, “As the soul marries itself to the flesh of a leaf.” This introduction of “the soul” complicates the notion of an eternal soul separate from the material world that can ascend to heaven once it is free from the body. Instead, the soul, by marrying itself to “the flesh of a leaf,” becomes part of the earth. Plath adds the word “lone” before “soul” to particularize this soul as specifically belonging to Percy Key. But then she seems to rethink the idea of the soul merely becoming part of the earth. The soul “kisses a leaf,” but marries “an absence.” Rather than defining a place for the soul to rest (in the earth, heaven, hell), Plath defines the soul’s stopping place by its lack of definition, its absence. But even “absence” seems too complete an idea for Plath’s questioning. “And the soul is a bride,” she revises. Who is the groom? He is “red and forgetful, he is featureless.”
Plath’s body lies in the ground, or what remains of her body, just bones. Does she have a soul? Is it married to earth or heaven or absence? Does she still live in her writing? Do the others still live, the neighbors or strangers she writes in and out of her perceptions? Do they (Plath, the others) live in manuscripts stored at Smith College? Poems published in posthumous collections? Do they live in revisions? Or is death, finally, just final? “There is no hope,” Plath concludes the poem, “it is given up.”
Though writing in both the poem and the journal entry of actual events in her life, the form of each informs Plath’s understanding of those events. If one understanding precedes the other, it is that which allows for ambivalences, which keeps Plath in her own particularized state, outside of any generalized identification with others, which admits to not understanding as much as it understands. This understanding of not understanding cannot satisfy Plath. She revises towards singularity and generalization. She revises towards a prose that she believes will be able to communicate to a public, to perform a community. But the community I have found in Plath and her readers is a community of those who find themselves outside, alone.
It is the poem that draws me in.
Sarah Schwartz is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at Brown University. Hailing from the Midwest, she has spent the last five years displaced, first on the West Coast, and now on the East Coast. Her poetry is forthcoming in Sun’s Skeleton and Catch Up.