Book Review

“I know the bottom, she says”: Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence 2

On 5 February 1963, the day after she wrote her last known series of letters, Sylvia Plath drafted her last known poems, “Balloons,” about her children, and the profoundly unsettling “Edge,” which begins:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Since its appearance as the penultimate poem in Ariel (1965), “Edge” has often been read as a suicide note. But the Greek embellishments to these otherwise stark lines complicate that interpretation. Why does this woman wear a toga (whose “scrolls” suggest writing, as well as the folds of fabric)? Although the dead children referenced in the poem’s later lines frame the woman as Medea, “the illusion of a Greek necessity” undermines the poem’s bold assurance. As part of the second couplet, the line implies that her smile, and therefore her accomplishment, may be an illusion, even as the enjambed sentence, flowing like the toga’s scrolls into the third couplet, highlights “Greek necessity.” Despite the poem’s poise, its tone of calm finality, the line is insistently ambiguous: is the death necessary? And, if so, is the necessity “Greek”—a tragic inevitability?

The publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956–1963[1] will likely renew the debate about “the necessity” of Plath’s suicide, as well as clarify how she transmuted her life into art. Although by now Plath devotees know that the remarkable poems she wrote during the last seven months of her life were precipitated by her husband Ted Hughes’s adultery and abrupt exit from their marriage, that story was diluted over the years by Hughes’s gradual release of Plath’s poems, selective editing of Ariel and the journals, and portrayal of their shared life in Birthday Letters (1998), where he styles himself as an innocent bystander caught in the maelstrom of Plath’s psychodrama. And, although the 1975 publication of Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 by her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, gave readers a glimpse into Plath’s evolving state-of-mind after her discovery of Hughes’s infidelity, Aurelia softened the perspective by interjecting her own upbeat commentary and by heavily redacting the letters to remove Plath’s most agonized assessments of her plight—and of Hughes. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000), edited by Karen V. Kukil, remedied the situation only somewhat, given that, as Hughes confessed in the introduction to his and Frances McCullough’s 1982 edition of the journals, he destroyed the primary journal Plath kept during the last three years of her life, while another journal from the same period disappeared. While such a loss would be tragic for the legacy of any major poet, it is especially acute in Plath’s case. Although she had always mined her life when writing both poetry and fiction, during her final months the direness of her situation—emotional, physical, psychological, and financial—catalyzed her writing. As she tells Dr. Ruth Beuscher, her Boston psychiatrist, “All during my 6 years of marriage I wondered what to write about, my poems seemed to me like fantastical stuffed birds under bell jars. Now I get up at 4 a.m. every morning when my sleeping pill wears off & write like fury till 8, stuffing the babes with rusks & juice. I am doing a poem a day, all marvelous, free, full songs. Every thing I read about, hear, see, experience or have experienced is on tap, like a wonderful drink. I can use everything” (10/21/62).

In the absence of the journals from 1960–1963, the letters are all we have to understand what was “on tap” for the Ariel poems. Moreover, although Plath’s story is by now well known, it has been filtered through the perspectives of others: Ted Hughes, the Plath Estate (controlled for decades by his sister Olwyn, who, as this volume confirms, was possessive of Hughes and had an animus against Plath), Aurelia Plath, and scores of biographers and scholars. And although, as in the first volume, Plath modulates her tone depending on whom she addresses (whether briskly professional when writing to editors, determinedly confident when writing to her mother, or more open about her feelings when writing to friends and her psychiatrist), in these unabridged letters she is the one who controls the narrative. The letters in this new volume—particularly the full texts of Plath’s correspondence with her mother and the fourteen newly discovered letters to Dr. Beuscher—not only document what she experienced during her last months, but also resonate verbally and thematically with the poems. Announcing her discovery of Hughes’s adultery to Beuscher, for example, Plath echoes a line from “Elm” (written in April 1962), “I break up in pieces, cry, rave” (7/11/62). A few months later, repeating the first line of “Elm” (“I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root”), Plath writes more measuredly to her mentor Olive Higgins Prouty, “I shall forge my writing out of these difficult experiences—to have known the bottom, whether mental or emotional, is a great trial, but also a great gift.” Such correlations have the effect of casting raking light on a classical bas-relief. Whether documenting the years that led up to this formative crisis or exposing the anguish Plath suffered in the midst of it, this new volume of letters throws familiar elements of the story—and of Plath’s poems—into a stark new perspective.

The book abounds in dramatic irony. Although the letters from July 1962 onward are harrowing, the previous 790 pages, despite the banality of the domestic details that snowball as Plath devotes herself to homemaking and motherhood, also exact a toll, for, like the audience of a Greek tragedy, readers know what lies ahead. More than the suicide, Hughes’s eventual betrayal retrospectively colors the first three quarters of the book, especially Plath’s glowing descriptions of their productive literary relationship and the praise she lavishes on him. The following passage, written when she and Hughes were still living apart due to her fears that their marriage would disqualify her for Fulbright funding, is typical:

It is heaven to have someone like Ted who is so kind, & honest, & brilliant & always stimulating me to study, think, draw & write—he is better than any teacher, even fills somehow that huge sad hole I felt having no father—I feel every day how wonderful he is and love him more and more. My whole life has suddenly a purpose; I am convinced he is the only person in the world I could ever love; my demands are so high—for health, brilliance, creativity, faithfulness—all those qualities that seldom, if ever, go together & he has all & much more. (11/29/56)

Literary peer, inspiration, teacher, father figure: Hughes shines at the center of Plath’s universe. As the book unfolds, Plath extols him as “the most wonderful man in the world,” “the male counterpart of myself,” “a saint,” “an absolute angel,” “huge,” “magnificent,” “a genius,” and “the greatest poet of our generation.” The religious metaphors are telling; as Plath confesses to her mother, her devotion to Hughes was all-encompassing, “I really feel I am one of those women whose marriage is the central experience of life, much more crucial than a religion or career or anything: and I have found the only perfect husband for me & so can write & work & do all the rest from a solid happy center” (5/7/57). The letters document their shared aesthetic and sense of vocation, his championship of her writing, his attentiveness during her bouts of illness or depression, his participation in childcare. Yet Plath and Hughes were also unnaturally close. No letters exist in this volume between them because, until he left the marriage, they were rarely apart.

While certainly no man could live up to such a vision of perfection, it’s also difficult, in hindsight, to ignore what the Greeks would call hubris: in idolizing Hughes, Plath sets herself up for a fall. But Plath’s story has also become a lightning rod for female readers because that “tragic flaw”—her faith in her husband, her belief that she could change him, and her hard work and self-sacrifice on his behalf—feel archetypal, a reflection of social expectations for women, especially in the 1950s. But the dramatic ironies that punctuate Plath’s letters also resonate so sharply because of the intensity with which she records her experiences. Readers may therefore have the uncanny sense of viewing Plath’s letters in stereoscope: of witnessing a life lived, in real time, through the vividness of her recounting, but also reading retrospectively, so that foreknowledge of what lies ahead hones her words to a double edge. Plath herself, who read tragedy at Cambridge and later crafted a month-long unit on the genre for her first-year composition students at Smith, would have understood such ironies. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments occur when Plath recognizes—and mocks—her own hubris. For example, her high expectations for teaching crushed by the grind of paper grading, she jokes to a friend in February 1958, “Every time I walk by [Smith’s] Paradise Pond on these whipping windy blue days I feel the blade of irony enter in, being a rather antique and fallen angel on campus, so to speak. Irony with a capital I in class of course.” Fallen as well are all hopes of an academic paradise for Plath (teaching is “Death to writing,” she tells her brother two months earlier).

The blade of irony enters Plath’s depictions of Hughes almost immediately after she meets him. In early April 1956, she tells her mother, “The most shattering thing is that in the last two months I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt.” As her confidence in the relationship grows, her myth-making intensifies: she styles Hughes as “a violent Adam, and his gesture is like a derrick; unruly, yet creative as God speaking the world.” Giddy with love, she speaks in tongues—and grows overconfident:

Daily I am full of poems; my joy whirls in tongues of words. There is a price, always, and the price I can pay: he is arrogant, used to walking over women like a blast of Jove’s lightning, but I am a match: I feel a growing strength, I do not merely idolize, I see right into the core of him, and he knows it, and knows that I am strong enough, and can make him grow. Strange, but all the women he has known and will know bother me not at all. I know myself, in vigor and prime and growing, and know I am strong enough to keep myself whole, no matter what. He is a breaker of things and people; I can teach him care, can use every fiber of wisdom I have to give him growing gentleness of others. (4/19/56)

It’s hard not to get caught up in Plath’s exuberance. Yet, her inflation of Hughes into a god (or, later, in letter after letter, into the perfect husband) feels unsettling, akin to the horror movie moment when the ingénue pauses in front of the basement door and viewers itch to shout: “Don’t go down there!” Plath’s blindness stings, given how, six years later, she was not only “bothered” but, in many ways, broken by Hughes’s sexual adventuring—and by having made him the center of her universe. Many of her later assessments of the relationship echo—or invert—her terms of praise from these early letters: “What can I do? . . . my marriage is the center of my being, I have given everything to it without reserve” (to Ruth Beuscher, 7/11/62); “I have been very stupid, a bloody fool, but it only comes from my thinking Ted could grow, and grow up, not down” (to Ruth Beuscher, 9/22/62); “Ted has reverted to pretty much what he was when I met him—‘the greatest seducer in Cambridge’ . . . His ethic is that of the hawk in one of his most famous poems . . . : I kill where I please, it is all mine. He was furious I didn’t commit suicide, he said he was sure I would!” (to Ruth Beuscher, 10/21/62). The violence that Plath once found seductive has turned deadly; Hughes’s remark (which Plath reiterates often enough to suggest that he made it more than once), not only adds a new layer of complexity to her suicide, but also heightens the tenor of her resolu­tions to survive—for herself, not to spite Hughes. Riffing on “mad,” she brags to Dr. Beuscher, “I am so bloody sane. I am not disaster-proof after my years with you, but I am proof against all those deadly defences—retreat, freezing, madness, despair—that a fearful soul puts up when refusing to face pain & come through it. I am not mad; just fighting mad” (9/22/62).

Before reaching the point of such brutal recriminations and determined resolutions, Plath’s letters document how hard she worked to grow as a poet, to amass publications, and to build a life—domestic and professional—with Hughes. Until their 1961 purchase of Court Green, the thatched house in Devon (which Plath, reluctant to leave the cultural mecca of London, called “Ted’s dream”), they moved almost every year: from Cambridge, England, to Northampton, Massachusetts (where Plath taught full time at Smith and Hughes taught in the spring semester at University of Massachusetts); to a tiny Boston apartment (to devote themselves to writing, although Plath also did part-time secretarial work); then, after a road trip across the U.S. and a Yaddo residency, they returned to London in December 1959 and found a flat in Chalcot Square, where Plath gave birth to their daughter Frieda in 1960.

As in the first volume, letters to her mother predominate. Although the existing journals register Plath’s mood shifts and self-doubts, the letters to Aurelia during the same years brim with optimism and news of literary submissions, acceptances, and rejections; descriptions of travels and of setting up housekeeping; and repeated praise of Hughes and emphasis on their mutual need to write. But balancing the roles of supportive wife and working writer was tricky, and Plath often priori­tized his career. Styling herself as Hughes’s agent, she typed his manuscripts, submitted his work to publishers, and dealt with his professional correspondence—all the while celebrating him as the better writer. After The Hawk in the Rain wins the New York Poetry Society’s first book prize, for example, she crows to Aurelia:

I am more happy than if it was my book published! I have worked so closely on these poems of Ted’s and typed them so many countless times through revision after revision that I feel ecstatic about it all. I am so happy his book is accepted first. It will make it so much easier for me when mine is accepted. . . . I can rejoice then, much more, knowing Ted is ahead of me. There is no question of rivalry, but only mutual joy & a sense of us doubling our prize-winning & creative output. (2/24/57)

While this letter testifies to their shared sense of endeavor, it also aligns with other points in the letters when, along with cooking and cleaning, she shoulders financial responsibilities (“I’m really the manager of the exchequer”) and, in their early years together, takes full- and then part-time jobs to stabilize their income (“I don’t care if he only gets a part time free-lance job this next year, I want him to write above all,” 3/26/57). After they return to England, Plath’s letters record her writing achievements: publication of her first poetry book, The Colossus; drafting The Bell Jar; securing a coveted “first reading” contract from The New Yorker for new poems. But domestic details proliferate as Plath and Hughes adjust to the births of Frieda in April 1960 and Nicholas in January 1962. Steeped in the lore of women’s magazines, Plath shares recipes, decorating schemes, and paragraph-long paeans to her vacuum cleaner, her Bendix washing machine, and (yes) her oven. She even types one long letter on a continuous piece of kitchen wallpaper to show off the pattern to her mother. While Plath records Hughes’s help with chores, care of Frieda, and Court Green gardening, his presence diminishes as she moors herself in motherhood. Echoing the first line of “Morning Song,” she confesses to Lynne Lawner, “An immense cowlike and cabbagey calm settled on me during the last months of my pregnancy and this half year of nursing Frieda Rebecca. I am just slowly surfacing. The whole experience of birth and baby seem much deeper, much closer to the bone, than love and marriage. Have one, it’s incred­ible” (9/30/60). Linking fertility with poetry, she describes Frieda as “a sort of living mutually-created poem” (1/4/61). But, after Nicholas’ birth a year later, Plath jokes to Ruth Fainlight “we are a baby farm with every convenience” and admits to her mother, “I do long to have a day or two on jaunts with just Ted—we can hardly see each other over the mountains of diapers & demands of babies” (2/7/62).

By early summer 1962, the strain on the marriage surfaces in her poems (“The Rabbit Catcher,” “Event”) but not in the letters, where Plath still portrays country life as “a little Eden,” verdant with “thou­sands of daffodils” and “70 apple trees” (5/5/62). The fall therefore feels sudden. On July 11th Plath writes to Dr. Beuscher about her discovery of the affair Hughes had begun with Assia Wevill, who sublet the Chalcot Square flat with her husband. From this point on, the volume makes for excruciating reading, especially the letters to Beuscher, which bare intimate details of the marriage and Plath’s anguished self-analysis. The revelations of psychological cruelty and even physical abuse (“Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage,” 9/22/62) are explosive—so much so that early reports of the Beuscher letters spurred Twitterites to induct Plath into the #MeToo movement. Seeking balance, Frieda Hughes, in a lengthy foreword, steps in to do damage control. While it’s true, as she notes, that Plath does not make the claim anywhere else in the letters of Hughes beating her soon before her miscarriage in February 1961, it’s also important to acknowledge the physical violence that Plath describes in the journals and letters, from her first meeting with Hughes (when he snatched off her earrings and headband and she bit his cheek, drawing blood, in return) to a general assessment she makes about the marriage to her brother Warren, “Oh we have rousing battles every so often in which I come out with sprained thumbs & Ted with missing earlobes, but we feel so perfectly at one with our work & reactions to life & people that we make our own world to work in” (6/11/58). The letters also make clear that Hughes’s treatment of Plath after she discovered his affair was often cruel, most notably in September 1962, when he fled their save-the-marriage trip to Ireland for a holiday in Spain with Wevill: “Ted lasted four days. He left while I was in bed one morning saying he was going grouse shooting with a friend. I haven’t seen him since. He left me with all the baggage to carry back . . .” (9/22/62). In this and subsequent letters, Plath rails against Hughes’s lies and her lack of agency—“I can’t stand the feeling of being left, passive. I need to act”—and alternates between lamenting the loss of her husband and vilifying him in language familiar from “Daddy” as “a vampire on my life, killing and destroying all,” “utterly brutal,” “a bastard,” “an ego-Fascist,” and a torturer (“Why in God’s name should the killing of me be so elaborate, and the torture so prolonged!”). All the while she never abandons her belief in his literary genius, even when she rallies (“I shall be a rich active woman, not a servant-shadow. . . . Ted may be a genius, but I’m an intelligence”).

As Frieda Hughes notes in her poignant reflections on reading the Beuscher letters and deciding to allow their publication, “while my father does not come out of these letters as a saint, neither does my mother; in my view, they are both flawed and impassioned human beings. . . . They both suffered, they both made mistakes, they were going through the same kind of hell that literally thousands of other couples go through every day.” Plath is, indeed, no saint—it’s hard, for example, not to cringe when reading her cavalier letter to her editor at Heinemann in which she insists she does not defame the people whom she transparently fictionalizes (and mercilessly satirizes) in The Bell Jar, although she clearly knows the novel will hurt them: “My mother is based on my mother, but what do I say to defame her? She is a dutiful, hard-working woman whose beastly daughter is ungrateful to her. Even if she were a ‘suing’ mother, which she is of course not, I don’t see what she could sue here.” The Plath-Hughes version of hell is familiar in some respects: the trajectory from shock to acceptance, the awkward­ness of child visitation, the division of property and mutual friends, and the couple’s flattening of one another into stereotypes: the nagging wife, the husband suffocated by domesticity. But the intertwining of Plath and Hughes’s professional and personal lives also made their break atypical. In particular, Hughes’s adultery became a public humili­ation for Plath; her move in December 1962 from Court Green back to London was not solely due to her abiding loneliness and difficulty finding an au pair in the country, but was also a gesture of social defiance (“I flogged myself up to London every other week, doing odd jobs on the BBC etc. & facing all the uproar that occurs when somebody as famous as Ted starts acting scandalous—especially hard as in our work we meet all the same people” [to Marcia B. Stern, 1/2/63]). As for “balance,” this book helps restore it. Apart from Plath’s version of Ariel (which Frieda Hughes, to her credit, published in 2004 as Ariel: The Restored Edition), readers have not, until now, been able to hear Plath’s own, unadulterated rendering of the dissolution of her marriage and struggle to regain her sense of self.

Although Plath’s harsh portrayals of Hughes will likely gain the most attention from reviewers, the book’s real distinction lies in the clarity of her writing. As in the Ariel poems, she writes from the depths of crisis with precision, emotional acuteness, and dashes of black humor (“Ted arrives once a week like an apocalyptic Santa Claus,” 2/4/63). And, as in Ariel, Plath’s fury is often tempered by moments of pathos, as when, in the aftermath of the Ireland debacle, she finds in Hughes’s study “sheafs of 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, saying in a world of beauties he married a hag, talking about ‘now I have hacked the octopus off my ring finger.’ Many are fine poems. Absolutely impassioned love poems—and I am just dying” (9/29/62). The pacing and tension between her emotional torment and sober recognition of the poems’ literary merit are wrenching and pitch perfect. Likewise, Plath makes equally keen assessments of her own work. In one of her last letters, written three days after she had drafted “Kindness” (“The blood jet is poetry / There is no stopping it”), she remarks, “I don’t think any good poet wishes to be obscure. I certainly don’t; I write, at the present, in blood, or at least with it. Any difficulty arises from compression, or the jaggedness of images thrusting up from one psychic ground root.” Better than any literary critic, Plath sums up the Ariel poems’ emotional tautness, rapid associations, and fusion of personal experience with literary archetypes ranging from the Greeks to Yeats—and with blood-drenched history. Her world disintegrating, Plath felt the connection was justified. In the wake of writing poems such as “Daddy” and “Fever 103°,” she rebukes her mother: “Don’t talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff! What the person out of Belsen—physical or psychological—wants is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there & knows the worst, just what it is like. It is much more help for me, for example, to know that people are divorced & go through hell, than to hear about happy marriages. Let the Ladies Home Journal blither about those” (10/21/62).

While the publication of this volume won’t quell the debate over analogies Plath makes in the poems between her suffering and the Holocaust, it’s clear in letter after letter that she felt besieged. The toll was physical as well as emotional: high fevers, insomnia, a twenty-pound weight loss, and prolonged exhaustion from the labor of maintaining Court Green, and then, in the midst of a punishing winter, of settling with the children into the new London flat: “Everything has blown & bubbled & warped & split—accentuated by the light & heat suddenly going off for hours at unannounced intervals, frozen pipes, people getting drinking water in buckets & such stuff—that I am in a limbo between the old world & the very uncertain & rather grim new” (to Marcia B. Stern, 2/4/63). Although in this letter and another written on the same day to her mother Plath shows her will to survive—anticipating much-needed visits from Stern and other friends, hatching plans to get by financially by renting Court Green—in the book’s last letter, also written on 4 February, a week before her suicide, she voices profound self-doubts and fear of incipient breakdown. Paralleling her experience of paralysis with the freeze stalling London, she assesses her affect, and the bleak poems she had recently written, with characteristic lucidity, telling Dr. Beuscher: “I keep slipping into this pit of panic and deepfreeze. . . . I am living on sleeping pills & nerve tonic & have managed a few commissions for a magazine & the BBC and poems very good but, I feel written on the edge of madness.” With the recognition of her error in making Hughes “both idol & father,” her confidence falters:

I am, for the first time since my marriage, relating to people without Ted, but my own lack of center, of mature identity, is a great torment. I am aware of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up. If I could study, read, enjoy people on my own Ted’s leaving would be hard, but manageable. But there is this damned, self-induced freeze. I am suddenly in agony, desperate, thinking Yes, let him take over the house, the children, let me just die & be done with it. How can I get out of this ghastly defeatist cycle & grow up. I am only too aware that love and a husband are impossibles to me at this time, I am incapable of being myself & loving myself.

Despite her doubts, Plath was self-possessed enough to understand that her defeatism was a cycle—and to seek help (from Beuscher here, and also from a new doctor, “a woman psychiatrist,” whom she was scheduled to see the following week). And, up until this point in the volume, righteous anger, love for her children, and firm confidence in her writing help to sustain her. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that Hughes chose to conclude his version of Ariel with new poems—“Paralytic, “The Munich Mannequins,” “Contusion,” “Edge,” and “Words”—whose stasis suggests finality—and tragic necessity—not the nadir of a cycle. Plath’s own choice to close her manuscript with “Wintering,” in which the bees awaken from the stasis of hibernation to “taste the spring,” repeats the archetypal cycle of breakdown and renewal that determines the plot arc of The Bell Jar, and which she insisted on as the ending of The Colossus: “The whole experience of being broken and mended . . . seems to me the way I would like to end the book” (to Judith B. Jones, 4/5/61). Although Plath herself missed the chance to be mended in the winter of 1963, the publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2 should renew readers’ appreciation of her achievement—and mend some of the damage done by her twentieth-century editors.
[1] THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA PLATH, VOLUME 2: 1956–1963, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. Harper. $45.00.