A Deeper Understanding of Sylvia Plath: Exploring How Society Marred a Promising Poet
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
“Sylvia Plath would have been a good poet even if she had not committed suicide, but not exactly the poet she has since become.”
George Stade’s preface to A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath states a large portion of what can be said about Sylvia Plath’s work and what a reader makes of it. So much can be derived from and alluded to with only a single statement. To say that Sylvia Plath, or Victoria, as known to loved ones has been a revelation to literature ever since she got published posthumously, is an understatement. Sylvia Plath is, and always will be a trailblazer whose name will exist on the lips of ardent lovers of literature for generations to come. But it makes you wonder what would have become of Plath, as we know her, had she acquired such critical acclaim while alive and breathing. As Stade rightfully states, “our knowledge of her suicide comments on the poetry as we read it”. It is quite likely that we find ourselves overtly fascinated by Plath’s writing as a consequence of her tragic death. What is it about humans that attracts us to suffering like a moth to flame?
Many great works of art and literature explore the edges of human experience while echoing our own existential angst. However, the creators of these great works often suffer in ways that aren't helped and can even be worsened by society. Plath’s poems circle around themes of melancholy, loneliness and death- masked at times by motifs of blinding optimism, wit and self-awareness. Her writing does an admirable job at nodding surreptitiously to anyone experiencing the pains of having a mind. Plath was innately pragmatic, and the dualistic nature of her writing, and her self at large had readers craving increasing doses of Sylvia. Especially in the days nearing her successful attempt at a suicide her work migrated into especially dark spaces. She was angry, addicted to her sleeping pills, and wrapped in an elusive state, left dreaming about her death. Her onset of depression, at the age of 20, was associated with overwork and failure to get into a Harvard writing class on which she had set her heart. After inflicting gashes on her legs and talking of suicide she was referred to a psychiatrist and was started on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which was the mental health “treatment” you received back in the 50’s. Plath adorned the black veil of depression almost all her life until it finally suffocated her.
Driven by circumstance, the only time she could really work on her craft was before dawn, “that still, blue, almost eternal hour…before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles,” as she phrased it for a BBC programme that never aired. The gender roles of her time failed her, only adding fuel to her anguish. Her husband, the celebrated poet Ted Hughes has often been thought to be a primary part of what drove her to commit suicide- with allegations of abuse, peppered with cases of infidelity. Plath was left to fend for her young children all by herself, in a land she didn’t even call her own.
It is safe to say that the poet was heavily underrepresented in her time. Plath was defined by her relationship to others- a daughter, a wife, a mother. Even after her death at 30, she was fervently referred to in a local paper as “wife of one of Britain’s best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes”. Plath's own accomplishments, which included a favourably received book of poems, “The Colossus”, went largely unmentioned here. Fancy your achievements being left out of your own obituary. You'd imagine that to be the one space we may call only our own. Plath doggedly sought publication for virtually everything she wrote and yet, crippled by the era she lived in, remained unpublished, leaving her without a literary career to savour.
We are compelled to think of Plath’s feminist and mental disposition had she been a poet in the age of technology, an age where women thrive as individual beings with their own voice and opinions. Her poetry may have acted as a catharsis of sorts, yielding to mental health discourse, and dare it be said- prevented her death. But alas, as is prevalent when it comes to Victoria Lucas, the “what-ifs” and “could haves” drive her existence to an omnibus of rhetoric.
While it is noble to celebrate the artistic contributions of those that have suffered in their time, it is also imperative that we provide artists with the means to prosper emotionally, mentally and financially, while still alive. In Plath's case, her personal background provides us with invaluable context, without which the art that is poetry would just be a bunch of words strung together, crying to be understood, much like we are. Despite her predicament, her ability to show us glimpses of ourselves in her writing is why Sylvia Plath remains, and will remain a literary light that never goes out.