Letters from a Young Poet

By Emily Cooke

Feb/Mar 2019

The final correspondence of Sylvia Plath

Emily Cooke


STEADILY ACCUMULATING over the fifty-six years since Sylvia Plath’s death, the abundance of books, scholarship, reportage, gossip, and errata about the poet (not to mention material to do with her husband, Ted Hughes, or the adjacent subfield that has grown up around Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath) can seem excessive. The uninitiated may be excused for not comprehending the reason for it all. Everyone else may be forgiven for their fatigue.

The diehards, of course, make no apology. The devotee, the obsessive, is perpetually and unapologetically hungry for anything that will provide a more complete understanding of the life as much as the art, a chance of more comprehensive identification. With Plath, the feeling is unaffected by the quantity of material, which, though vast, was for many years limited: The diaries were abridged, the letters selected. The poems are only so many poems. Hughes admitted in an early introduction to Plath’s journals to misplacing or destroying their final volumes (he was fuzzy on the details)—the pages, in other words, that Plath wrote during the last months of her life, and the account that promised, to the appetitive student of her biography, some answer for how and why we lost her. For all that has been written by and about Plath, the whole picture was not available, and you were forced to piece it together.

Or that was how it felt to read Plath in the late ’90s, when I first encountered her. Since then, most stuff that was withheld has been released. The unabridged diaries appeared in 2000. The first volume of the full correspondence, edited by Peter K. Steinberg, an archivist, and Karen V. Kukil, the curator of the Plath collection at Smith College, appeared two years ago. (If the acknowledgments are any evidence, a small army of Smith students worked on transcribing and annotating the documents.) The letters’ second volume, which just came out, begins in October 1956, eight months after Plath met Hughes and four months after she married him, and ends weeks before she killed herself, in 1963. Affectionate, detailed, chatty, braggy—verging on grandiloquent—about her gifts, the dispatches are overwhelmingly addressed to her mother, Aurelia Plath. Other recipients include friends, editors, in-laws.

Appropriately, given that they follow the arc of a marriage, the letters are filled with what Plath calls at one point “domesticalia.” The exhaustive reports on furniture, cooking, renovations, and real estate aren’t thrilling, but neither are they boring, being possessed of a kind of homely tactile truth that is revealing and hypnotic in its way. For a dinner party in December 1957, when Plath was teaching at Smith, she “tossed off a sponge cake” from a recipe her mother had sent her. “Made my little parfait with 6 egg yolks, maple syrup & 2 cups of heavy cream, frozen, mixed up a delicious spaghetti sauce, a French salad dressing, a salad of lettuce, romaine & chicory & scallions, garlic butter for French bread, and the clam-and-sour-cream dip I learned from Mrs. Graham. . . . We served sherry & hot potato chips & this dip for beginning & then you should see how nice our round table looked, if a bit crowded, with my lovely West German linen cloth (pale nubbly yellow). . . . I’ve never made a meal for 6 before, just 4.” On occasion, the mundane stories suggest a kind of unsettling foreknowledge. “We picked up a baby bird that looked in its last death throes,” she told her brother, Warren, later that summer. “We had it for a week, feeding it raw ground steak, worms, milk . . . and got enormously fond of the plucky little thing. . . . But when it ran, it fell, & looked to be badly injured. Its leg stiffened then . . . & it sickened, choking & pathetically chirping. . . . Finally, we figured it would be mercy to put it out of its misery, so we gassed it in a little box. It went to sleep very quietly.”

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Most notable among the many hundreds of pages of this volume, however, are fourteen previously unpublished letters addressed to Plath’s analyst, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who began treating Plath in 1953 at McLean Hospital, where she was hospitalized for some months for depression. As eloquent a portrait of domestic enchantment and its rapid corruption as any, the Beuscher letters, a kind of collection within the collection, offer a concentrated record of Plath’s bleak final year and confirmation of her superlative creative powers. That they were private documents meant for a single reader, mostly composed during agonies of varying intensity and in the hope of some therapeutic relief, seems only to heighten their power as literary objects. In Plath’s appeals to Beuscher she is plainly desperate for help, yet the rhythms of her sentences, her bitter humor, and the flamboyant performance of her plight reveal the artist at work as much as the woman in pain.

The fifth letter of the Beuscher batch, dated March 27, 1962, registers her excitement about the birth of her second child, Nicholas—“dark, quiet, smily & very much a Hughes”—and the couple’s recent acquisition of Court Green, the Devon house they purchased in August 1961, which made Plath “overwhelmed & very proud.” “I have never felt the power of land before. I love owning bulbs & trees . . . I dig & prune & potter.” The couple hired a woman to do the chores Plath hated (“ironing, floor-scrubbing”), so Plath might limit herself to the housework she preferred (“gardening, cooking . . . & playing with the babies”). (Little mention of Hughes’s duties, though in one letter to Beuscher Plath mentions how he disliked her requests for chores.) Plath wrote in the morning, and in just two months finished the “serio-comic” manuscript that would become The Bell Jar, a novel she considered little more than “playing around” but nevertheless felt was an important creative step. In possession of a new house and a new baby, the pattern of her days as quietly rich as I, not so far now from Plath in age or inclinations, can imagine, she was at a peak of contentment—the “cow-like bliss” she would later recall from the excruciating distance of grief, when her life with Hughes was “a daily creation, new ideas, new thoughts, our mutual stimulation.”

“All that happy stuff” that Plath took such pleasure in recounting to her analyst began coming apart in mid-July, after she and Hughes received a visit from Assia Wevill, with whom Hughes soon became involved, and Wevill’s husband. To Beuscher, Plath locates the origins of the flirtation with horrible precision: Hughes and Wevill in the kitchen “t�te-a-t�te.” When Plath interrupted them, Hughes shot her a “look of pure hate.” The lineaments of what followed, as Plath relates them, are familiar to anyone who has betrayed or been betrayed. Hughes acted peculiar, lied, confessed, lied more—the fabrications, by Plath’s report, were “incredible & continuous.” His guilt made him mean. Though for a long while he resisted divorce, he continued to see to Wevill, and no contortion on Plath’s part seemed to change his mind.

After Hughes and Plath separated in September, Plath was at a nadir: lonely, afraid, burdened by sole care of two-and-a-half-year-old Frieda and nine-month-old Nicholas. The financial and legal cares alone were momentous. Plath confronted “a pile of police & library fines to pay, & a mountain of bills.” (Hughes apparently racked up a number of tickets on drunken jaunts.) Now that I have a child, the timing of their break strikes me with an awful new poignancy. I will never cease being shocked by how swiftly life rebuked her, how rapidly and irrevocably her state of fulfillment was destroyed.

Many of the letters to Beuscher are bookended by heartbreaking pleas: for a “good wise word,” “some good talk to carry me on,” “any advice about these other women,” “your help as a woman, the wisest woman emotionally and intellectually, that I know.” “Do write,” Plath begged in September, two months after the first revelation of adultery. “If only a paragraph. It is my great consolation just now, to speak & be heard, and spoken to.” Her eagerness issued in part from the recovery Beuscher midwifed when Plath was younger: “I still credit you, I think, with some vestige of supernatural powers which can transcend the factual lumps of experience and make them harmless, or at least, not seriously or permanently wounding.” Yet she was aware that her impulse to imagine Beuscher as so powerful was a young person’s feeling, a naive desire to hand over responsibility for one’s experience to someone else. That she didn’t—that, perhaps, Beuscher wouldn’t let her—signals her forcible maturation, the dread ripping away of illusions that real adulthood brings. “Ted made much better love while he was having these other affairs,” she admitted to the analyst, “& the tart in me appreciated this.” She felt that if her relationship with Hughes survived, she would need to come to terms with his being involved with other women in the future. She understood it might not survive.

Plath was reduced to entreaties partly because Beuscher did not always respond with the alacrity her patient hoped for. “Do answer this,” Plath begs or commands at one point. Elsewhere: “I’d be awfully grateful just to have a postcard from you saying you think any paid letter sessions between us are impractical or unhelpful or whatever. . . . It is the feeling of writing into a void that never answers, or may at any moment answer, that is difficult. I’d rather just have you say ‘shut up’ than feel my words dangling in space.” And: “Please just say it won’t work or you’ve a full schedule or something. I would be glad of that definiteness.” Beuscher did write back to Plath at least some of the time. An example of her counsel, tucked into a footnote in this volume, reveals her to be authoritative and wise: “First, middle and last, do not give up your personal one-ness. Do not imagine that your whole being hangs on this one man.” Plath thanks her, repeatedly, with harrowing gratitude.

After one reply, Plath pronounces herself “cleared, altered and renewed” by the analyst’s advice. Yet if there is any magic at work it’s less Beuscher’s than Plath’s. She was impressively aware of her own psychological complexion, and her efforts to be equal to the series of blows she endured are remarkable. It’s common to see her relationship with Hughes as a doomed waltz, the two working and living so closely in lockstep that the eventual trip and fall was inevitable. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, adheres to such an interpretation in her introduction to this volume, perhaps because it allows her to understand the ugliness of some of her father’s behavior. The description may be fair enough about Hughes, yet Plath, confronted with Hughes’s unhappiness, showed a surprising willingness to alter the pattern of the relationship. Indeed, she practically turned herself upside down trying to suit herself to his desires, preparing to submit to all kinds of things that had once seemed unthinkable: “his having the odd affair, traveling, drinking”—a relationship “much different and freer” than what she had wanted or imagined as a bride.

It isn’t hard to see the self-reinventions as tragic, testament to the strength of the patriarchal order and women’s appalling willingness to hurt themselves, invert themselves, for men. But there is something more hopeful in them too. Plath desired for Hughes a chance at the project she found herself engaged in: transformation, the rare ability to “grow up, not down.” After the start of Hughes’s affair with Wevill, it took her only a matter of months to renovate her despair, to reimagine the meaning of what had happened, to feel some satisfaction in her new life, difficult as it was. Sometimes, she is able to trace the arc in miniature, in a single letter. “I am drowning, just gasping for air” becomes by the postscript an attempt at clearminded resignation. She welcomes the divorce as a “clean knife”: “I am ripe for it now.” She dreamed of a romantic reconciliation with Hughes for only a short while, after which her fantasies turned to her own career, her own creative and intellectual needs, and to imagining the kind of woman, set loose from a defining partnership, she might by herself become.

Some additions to the Plath catalogue have satisfied merely scholarly interest. In January, Faber published “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” a short story—really more of a fable—that Plath wrote while in college. The main character is a young woman on a train who discovers at the last possible moment that her destination is the “kingdom of negation, of the frozen will.” Publicity copy calls the story a parable of female agency, and it is easily mined for such readings. But though Plath’s talent gleams in the confident sentences and casually suggestive plotting, and the themes are ripe for interpretation and application to Plath’s other works (not to mention to her life), the story isn’t complex enough to be interesting in its own right.

The correspondence with Beuscher is a case apart. Readers expect to find in letters the writer at her least composed, Elizabeth Hardwick observed—“the charmer at his nap, slumped, open-mouthed, profoundly himself without thought for appearances.” But in Hardwick’s view, letters are really a forum for expressing the ideal self, the best place to “snip and shape” experience as we please. It follows that writing addressed to one’s analyst, which you might expect to display the least thought for appearances, to expose the writer at her rawest, would be the most crafted. Plath was quite aware of the energy the shock to her system unleashed, and she wasted no time in using it. There is a kind of gusto to unhappiness of a high order, a sublimity to the utter depths. In many places, these late letters share the imperious frankness and throaty rage of the poems that made Plath’s name:

He has junked me at the foulest time in the foulest way, living a lie & letting me live a happy one, till he got guts, i.e. passion, to break hotel sinks, burn curtains & go off without paying (as he did their first night) & say, “ta, ta, tough about the kids, but you did want them, didn’t you.” I have the consolation of being no doubt the only woman who will know the early years of a charming genius. On my skin. Like a Belsen label.

And:

Ted says he has been a hypocrite for at least the last 3 years of our marriage, I have been eating not real bread, but a delusion of love. He has nothing but shattering things to say of me, seems to want to kill me, as he kills all he does not want.

Certainly you can sense, in the lines’ rhythmic, alliterative authority—those l’s, those t’s—the relish she took in her own eloquence. She was delighted by the violent torrent of language her circumstances drew out of her, even as, in life, those circumstances defeated her.

I’ve written elsewhere about Hughes’s apparent inability to move beyond the primal scene of his split with Plath and her subsequent suicide, the stuckness he persisted in feeling despite the great number of poems he wrote, and the laxity exhibited by much of his later work. It’s perhaps too neat to contrast that account with an argument asserting the tensile genius of Plath’s small oeuvre, her extraordinary ability, faced with pain, to harness it. Certainly the comparison lends itself to an equally neat moral judgment I’d rather not indulge. Yet it’s hard not to notice that the wounded party had a talent for transcendence, an ability to meet her suffering, to rise above it, as the clich� goes, that was little shared by the party in the habit of wounding.

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