The Perils of Fame: Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney
—Ted Hughes, quoting Sylvia Plath
One of our most powerful stories is that of the misread person, judged and condemned by everyone, ultimately unseen. We make the narrative worse with our ridiculous social media, the lack of circumspection as persons and reputations go crashing down in the flames of righteousness and vindictive gossip. How little justice really results from our cries for justice, our certitude, our raging egos, our “likes,” how much could in a better world remain open to nuance, ambiguity and doubt. How little mercy we show each other, how little forgiveness. But social media only amplify human tendencies that have always been with us, wherever two or more are gathered in the name of anything. Consider the problem of fame, one of the most universal human desires and one of the most disastrous, how it underlies literary ambition, the “fair guerdon” praised by Milton. Consider also the paradox that literature requires solitude, not only for its composition, but for access to the deeper waters of inspiration, beyond ego and its siren calls. Writers thrash in the arms of this paradox, wanting to say something that will speak to future generations, wanting the opportunities that fame affords without being destroyed by the judgments that follow it. The position is impossible.
One could argue that Sylvia Plath was destroyed by fame even before she became famous, though her most enduring fame was achieved after she committed suicide on February 11, 1963. She became famous not for herself, not even for the fierce, exacting beauty of her best poems, but as a figure easily misread by what she had called “The peanut-crunching crowd”—a martyr, an icon for feminists, a cautionary tale, a bitch-goddess. None of these judgments has touched the reality of her person or the reasons her poetry stands out in comparison to the writing of others.
Plath was not a poet of suicide any more than Homer was a poet of sailing. She was smart, ambitious, hugely talented, disciplined, complicated. She suffered from depression, but depression did not define every day of her life. Finally, she was every bit as much a mystery as you and I, untouchable by the facts of her life, no matter who mines and exhibits them. Anne Stevenson’s 1989 biography, Bitter Fame, excelled because it was written by a poet of Plath’s stature and generation, but it was probably compromised by Plath’s sister-in-law, Olwyn Hughes, who did not know her well and wanted to defend the reputation of her brother, Ted. The massive new biography by Heather Clark, Red Comet, represents a fuller picture, more thorough research and freedom to quote from papers unavailable to earlier writers, but does it get any closer to the “truth” about Sylvia Plath? I doubt it. Clark’s laudable program is to rescue Plath from the critical residue of the past 60 years—the misrepresentations, judgments, opinions, assumptions, misreadings. On the whole, she succeeds in making us care, if we had not already cared, about Plath’s brilliance and its place in the world. But one must still be cautious when reading the poems in this biographical light. Like all the best poetry, like life itself, Plath’s poems cannot be fully or conveniently explained as phenomena.
When in 2004 Plath’s daughter, the artist and poet Frieda Hughes, collaborated on a “Restored Edition” of her mother’s most famous book, Ariel, she wrote in her measured Foreword, “Since she died, my mother has been dissected, analyzed, reinterpreted, reinvented, fictionalized, and in some cases completely fabricated. It comes down to this: Her own words describe her best, her ever-changing moods defining the way she viewed her world and the manner in which she pinned down her subjects with a merciless eye.” But why do we want to think we know the person who wrote the poems? What is it that sends us probing for certainty we cannot have?
Ted Hughes edited the Ariel manuscript after Plath’s death and published two different versions in England and America. It became a bestseller and one of the most influential poetry books of the century. Hughes had removed some poems, added others left on Plath’s desk, like the much-anthologized “Edge,” which is often read as a sort of suicide note. He said he wanted to make it the best book he could, and of course the peanut-crunching crowd still second-guesses his motives. Whatever one thinks of individual poems, the book made by Ted Hughes gives Plath’s suicide greater prominence, while Plath’s own manuscript couches her most nightmarish poems in a broader, more life-affirming narrative. As Frieda Hughes put it, “My mother described her Ariel manuscript as beginning with the word ‘Love’ and ending with the word ‘Spring.’”
As a lyric poet of genuine magnitude, Plath is often compared to Emily Dickinson—a major writer by any measure, and also to some extent a mystery. Like Dickinson, she is not everyone’s idea of a genius. But rereading her poems, trying to see them freshly, trying to do them justice, one can be amazed by her technical prowess, her daring, her conceptual leaps, even while flinching at some of her more controversial choices. Read her bee poems again, or “The Moon and the Yew Tree” or “Poppies in October,” which ends, “O my God, what am I / That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers!” Louise Glück’s flower poems contributed to her winning the Nobel Prize, but she has had a luckier life than Plath with time to develop and change. One can’t help wondering what more Sylvia Plath might have accomplished as both novelist and poet had not events—which we do not really understand even now—led to her death on that dark cold morning in London.
Setting the short life and “blazing art” of Sylvia Plath beside the work of a more fortunate poet, in some ways the luckiest of all poets, Seamus Heaney, may at first seem very strange. But as different as these two writers were, they were both caught in the webs of fame. Plath, born in 1932, was an American who fashioned a mid-Atlantic voice. Heaney, born seven years later, began very much within a local habitation in Ulster, eventually becoming a beloved international figure. Her life was unlucky, his the opposite. Heaney maintained a close friendship with Ted Hughes, who was called by many a kind and considerate man, by others a monster and destroyer, even a murderer. I doubt Plath ever read a poem by Heaney, but he read and wrote perceptively about hers. Another connection between them came via their mutual friend Robert Lowell and is more difficult to pin down, a probing quality in voice and phrasing, the very material of their distinct voices. Plath’s early poem called “Letter to a Purist” might have appealed to Heaney, who also felt affection for the impure, the guttural, the earthbound. Here is Plath:
O my great idiot, who
With one foot
Caught (as it were) in the muck-trap
Of skin and bone,
Dithers with the other way out
In the preposterous provinces of the madcap
Agawp at the impeccable moon.
Her stance is affectionate, intelligent, her phrasing as impeccable as that moon. The tug between heaven and earth exists in a lot of poetry, beautifully irreconcilable. Heaney feels it more plainly in “The Guttural Muse”:
A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.
Plath’s most famous and controversial poems—“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Edge”—have a confronting audacity and attack that Heaney never aspired to, even in poems dealing with Ireland’s tribal violence. Heaney’s poetry is genial and what we call “sane,” easier to love. Plath has often been victimized by profound misogyny, something she rightly sensed in her own lifetime and which has never really disappeared. Heaney has the usual male prerogative, an entré to the world of politics that Plath more often touched in her fiction. His career was fostered, and so was hers—not just by Ted Hughes, but also by editors and friends. He lived to the age of 74, she died at 30, and one wishes both had lived longer. The difference hurts.
Another reason I compare these two poets is that I’ve just read the new books about them. Heather Clark’s biography is authoritative and huge—more than nine hundred pages on a short life. Cutting a hundred pages of redundant details would not have hurt. I remain unconvinced that every high school date or term paper needs to be taken as a key to her story. But the biography’s final two hundred pages compel attention, and the final sentence (which I’ll get to later) might be the single most beautiful thing ever said about Sylvia Plath.
R. F. Foster’s book On Seamus Heaney, published in Princeton University Press’s Writers on Writers series, comes to just over two hundred slender pages, and is one of the most elegant works of criticism I have ever read. Foster, a historian who published a superb two-volume life of W. B. Yeats, has paid tribute to Heaney by the care with which he shapes his brief study. But his little book, like Clark’s gargantuan one, intends at least partly a defense of the poet against his detractors. Heaney might have been easier to love, less troubled, luckier, but we would not care about him if he had not, like Plath, made the most of his gifts in the time he was given.
Both Plath and Heaney admired Yeats, a poet who could do almost anything, who forged a position both public and private in verse of uncompromising authority. Plath died in a house where Yeats had once lived. Heaney lived just a year longer than Yeats, and as an Irish poet, albeit a Catholic Ulster one, could not have ignored the heights of his forebear’s accomplishment. Such ambitions imply the strongest regard for and faith in literature, its global efficacy no matter how humble its origins.
When I first read Plath as an undergraduate in the 1970s, she was already set aside by judgment, either the misogyny dismissing her as a madwoman, calling her poems hysterical, or the feminism that made a martyr of her. She could not really be read “on her own merits,” if that is ever possible. At that time, Heaney was unknown to most American readers. I found his work on my own and felt as if the poet were speaking on my behalf. How many millions of women have by now felt the same about Plath?
When I taught in Ireland in the 1990s, it was already fashionable in some quarters to dismiss Heaney as overrated. In Stepping Stones (2008), his marvelous interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney quoted a clerihew by the critic Edna Longley, no doubt teasing her husband Michael:
Is inclined to feel strongly
About being less famous
If the literary London of Plath’s final years was a pressure cooker of gossip and judgment, so was Ireland for much of Heaney’s career. The problem of early fame is that you have to develop in the public eye. Perhaps Plath was lucky not to have seen the figure she became—it might have curdled her ambition or driven her to some other hell of ego. Heaney lived with steadily increasing fame that soaked up much of his life, and he did so with admirable grace, never betraying his vocation even in the face of Ireland’s real political turmoil. Foster notes his “charisma, style, and accessibility,” his poetry’s “unique ability to speak to a wide readership while retaining its own independent mysteries.”
If Heaney had died at thirty, he would have been the author of two slender collections, Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969). These comprise an admirable beginning and include seminal poems like “Digging,” “Follower,” “Mid-term Break,” “Personal Helicon” and “Requiem for the Croppies,” work in which we can see his subtle blending of politics, autobiography and the Eros of embodied life. Foster and others have suggested that Heaney’s first four books form a single stage in his development, culminating in the archeological excavations exposing tribal violence, the bog as memory, in Wintering Out (1972) and especially North (1975). “The frisson of reading North in 1975,” Foster writes, “was unforgettable: a chill, and a recognition.” It was the same for me in far Northwest America. My bookish knowledge of Irish politics was insufficient, but I could already sense the importance of this poetry, somehow very much of its time and place, wary and unsentimental, but written in a way that allowed me into the experience. And there was Heaney’s running commentary on the position of the poet in our time:
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Foster knows the unspoken tensions Heaney had to negotiate, the jealousies, rivalries and chastenings. Steering a sane course through such societal demands took immense reserves of tact.
Heaney would have been an important poet if it all ended there, but he went on to publish Field Work, Station Island, The Haw Lantern, Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, Electric Light (which Foster finds thin), District and Circle and Human Chain. These books, plus his versions of Greek drama, his Beowulf, his fine selected poems, Opened Ground, and his essays put him on a global stage, where he moved with “benign authority,” as Foster puts it. “He was, as he himself once wrote uneasily, ‘steeped in luck’—a rare condition in a great artist. But a poet’s life—as Yeats famously said—is necessarily an experiment in living, and the river-like course of Heaney’s work was sustained against competing events and pressures in his own life and, above all, against an era of exceptional violence, brutality, and nihilism in his own country.”
In his Nobel lecture, “Crediting Poetry,” Heaney averred that “when a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life.” One finds in Heaney a sustaining narrative, despite his being fully aware of the worst that humans do. His work is very much on the side of life. Was Plath on the side of death? I don’t think so, and not only because of the way she structured her final book of poems. She made them, worked them, intended them to have the best life she could possibly give them. She was publishing regularly in the best magazines in the English-speaking world, had the attention of publishers and important critics like A. Alvarez, who would become one of her strongest champions. For a writer at her stage of development, she was already pretty famous, and she fought to make it so. As a woman artist, frequently prevailed upon to play the angel of the house, she experienced the profound frustrations of many women artists, her life sopped up with the needs of others, especially her children and her husband, who was himself experiencing a not-uncommon desire for freedom and escape. But she was productive, she was in every sense big with life. She was even, apparently, a better gardener than Ted. She desired the traditional roles given to women—sexual object and caretaker—and she railed against them in fury. Her position was not at all unusual for women in her time, and perhaps also in ours. She was judged as an angry woman, but her anger in the circumstances was a form of sanity.
A lot of sadness surrounds the life and death of Sylvia Plath. What caused her depression? As Clark and others have noted, some of it might have been hereditary. But the pressures placed upon her as a student at Smith College, her own frantic desire to be the star student, the great writer, and to win a husband at all costs, certainly took their toll. Worse still was a mismanaged course of electroshock treatment under the direction of a clueless male psychiatrist. When she vanished, Clark writes, “more than two hundred and fifty newspaper articles covered the search for the missing Smith beauty.” She was eventually found in a crawl space of her mother’s basement, having swallowed pills. But suicide wasn’t a regular habit with her, as it seems to have been with Anne Sexton, nor was she subject to the kind of mania that sent Robert Lowell into paroxysms of praise for Hitler. When she writes about that suicide attempt, or a version of it, in The Bell Jar, it is with an artist’s detachment, including a powerful critique of the society in which she was raised.
Plath’s mother, Aurelia, gets a lot of blame for Sylvia’s troubles, exacerbated by the way she is portrayed in the novel. Aurelia was devastated when Ted Hughes decided to publish The Bell Jar in the U.S. It had been a modest success in England, but the suicide made it more marketable, and he wanted to establish an income for their two children. Clark’s book is careful not to assign blame too easily in any of this. Aurelia was a loving mother who sacrificed a lot for her children, Aurelia was a demon of expectations—all of it is possible, and ultimately she comes across as a fine, intelligent, sad human being. Ted admitted that his infidelity (with multiple women) was a kind of madness and intimated that he and Sylvia might have reconciled. There were other contributing factors to her final “successful” suicide. Her overtures to other men, including Alvarez, were rebuffed, she and the children were often sick during the coldest winter of the century. She was taking a crazy cocktail of medicines, some for colds, some for depression, partly prescribed by a well-meaning doctor who did not know her entire history: “by early February, Plath was taking two amphetamines . . . , one opioid (codeine), one barbiturate (Drinamyl), as well as an unknown medicine for her respiratory illness. The interactions of these drugs alone could have significantly worsened her depression and anxiety. . . .” There was also the terror over her final weekend that she would be hospitalized again, including the specter of more electroshock treatment. Ted would blame everything, including himself, later writing to Anne Stevenson, “Her death was the remotest fluke, an unbelievably freakish sequence of unlucky coincidences.”
Did Plath intend to die? Did she wish to be rescued? Was her final act one of revenge or despair or love? There is evidence for all of it, and Clark recounts the facts and opinions in apt detail. One of many telling anecdotes occurs toward the end of her book:
Anthony Thwaite, Louis MacNeice and some other men were having a drink at a pub near the BBC Broadcasting House when Douglas Cleverdon walked in, “enormously shaken,” and told them about Plath’s death. One of the men at the table made an appalling remark (“women poets, what do you expect?”). MacNeice “rounded on the man” and told him to shut up. Thwaite felt “colossal shock” that this “quick,” “capable, social” person he had grown to know through her BBC work had committed suicide.
The death would receive notice at first only in a small parish newspaper, but a week later Alvarez published a tribute in The Observer, and as Plath’s work continued to appear in the magazines, with a large spread of poems the following summer in The New Yorker and the publication of Ariel in 1965, her fame grew and caught the second wave of feminism and surpassed it into the realm of myth. Ted Hughes had to endure not only the blame for her death, but the suicide of his lover, Assia Wevill, who took their daughter Shura as well. Was he guilty? Was he a monster of ego and rough sex? Was he a kind and loving father as well as a poet trying to keep faith with his art? We don’t really know, do we? And the saddest fact of all for this family is that Ted and Sylvia’s son, Nick, who grew up to become a marine biologist in Alaska, killed himself in 2009.
Somewhere between Anne Stevenson’s title, Bitter Fame, and Heather Clark’s Red Comet, we have the narratives of Sylvia Plath, best read not only as a cautionary tale but as a lesson in critical circumspection. Set those narratives aside as best you can when you read the work, including Three Women, her longish poem for voices broadcast on the BBC, which is full of gorgeous passages:
The streets may turn to paper suddenly, but I recover
From the long fall, and find myself in bed,
Safe on the mattress, hands braced, as for a fall.
I find myself again. I am no shadow
Though there is a shadow starting from my feet. I am a wife.
The city waits and aches. The little grasses
Crack through stone, and they are green with life.
Poets meet in the strangest places. Next to this fragment of Plath’s beauty I will put a piece of Heaney’s, from his poem “At the Wellhead”:
Your songs, when you sing them with your two eyes closed
As you always do, are like a local road
We’ve known every turn of in the past—
That midge-veiled, high-hedged side-road where you stood
Looking and listening until a car
Would come and go and leave you lonelier
Than you had been to begin with. So, sing on,
Dear shut-eyed one, dear far-voiced veteran,
Sing yourself to where the singing comes from . . .
He’s not talking about Plath, of course, but that doesn’t matter.
I promised to mention Heather Clark’s final sentence. If you don’t want to know it, stop reading now. The sentence is: “Let us not desert her.” It moves me right down to the ground to consider this, and all the ways people have tried to honor both her life and her work. The honor paid by these two books about important poets deserves honor in return.
 RED COMET: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.00.