I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And what do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life.
~Sylvia Plath, from her journal
Sylvia Plath died on this day, February 11th in 1963 at the age of 30. For one loved by so many (even today) she seemed desperately alone. In many ways, she felt closer to her books and writers of another age like Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence than the human beings around her. Ironically, she is known as one of the originators of confessional poetry and her writings still resonate with many who feel trapped inside of their own minds.
Sylvia Plath wrote Lady Lazarus only a few months before her death, and in retrospect, we mourn the deaf ears and blind eyes the poem must have fallen on. Plath fused the experience of her earlier attempt at suicide with a criticism of the public’s sensationalistic, dehumanized interest in the disclosures after the Nazi holocaust.
I have done it again. One year in every ten I manage it-- A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade, My right foot A paperweight, My face a featureless, fine Jew linen. Peel off the napkin O my enemy. Do I terrify?-- The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? The sour breath Will vanish in a day. Soon, soon the flesh The grave cave ate will be At home on me And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die. This is Number Three. What a trash To annihilate each decade. What a million filaments. The peanut-crunching crowd Shoves in to see Them unwrap me hand and foot-- The big strip tease. Gentlemen, ladies These are my hands My knees. I may be skin and bone, Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman. The first time it happened I was ten. It was an accident. The second time I meant To last it out and not come back at all. I rocked shut As a seashell. They had to call and call And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls. Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call. It’s easy enough to do it in a cell. It’s easy enough to do it and stay put. It’s the theatrical Comeback in broad day To the same place, the same face, the same brute Amused shout: ‘A miracle!' That knocks me out. There is a charge For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge For the hearing of my heart-- It really goes. And there is a charge, a very large charge For a word or a touch Or a bit of blood Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. So, so, Herr Doktor. So, Herr Enemy. I am your opus, I am your valuable, The pure gold baby That melts to a shriek. I turn and burn. Do not think I underestimate your great concern. Ash, ash-- You poke and stir. Flesh, bone, there is nothing there-- A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.
23-29 October 1962
Rather than focus on the irredeemable past, our best service to Plath’s memory is to take the lessons presented and help those who are currently battling mental illness and depression. It’s easy to overlook people who suffer within their own minds. They are hiding from us on purpose.
God help us to be awake today and truly sensitive to those around us, to whom a word of kindness could mean quite literally, everything.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
American poet and novelist whose best-known works are preoccupied with alienation, death, and self-destruction.
Plath published her first poem at age eight. She entered and won many literary contests and while still in high school sold her first poem to The Christian Science Monitor and her first short story to Seventeen magazine. She entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1951 and was a cowinner of the Mademoiselle magazine fiction contest in 1952. Plath enjoyed remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, but she also suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honours in 1955 and went on to Newnham College in Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright fellowship. In 1956 she married the English poet Ted Hughes. For the following two years she was an instructor in English at Smith College.
In 1960, shortly after Plath and her husband returned to England, her first collection of poems appeared as The Colossus. Her novel, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” Strongly autobiographical, the book describes the mental breakdown, attempted suicide, and eventual recovery of a young college girl and parallels Plath’s own breakdown and hospitalization in 1953. In 1962 Plath and Hughes separated.
During her last three years Plath abandoned the restraints and conventions that had bound much of her early work. She wrote with great speed, producing poems of stark self-revelation and confession. The anxiety, confusion, and doubt that haunted her were transmuted into verses of great power and pathos borne on flashes of incisive wit. Several poems, including the well-known “Daddy,” explore her conflicted relationship with her father, Otto Plath, who died when she was age eight. In 1963, after this burst of productivity, Plath took her own life.
Ariel (1965), a collection of her later poems, helped spark the growth of a devoted and enthusiastic following of readers and scholars. The reissue of The Bell Jar under her own name in 1966 and the appearance of small collections of previously unpublished poems, including Crossing the Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1971), were welcomed by critics and the public alike. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a book of short stories and prose, was published in 1977. The Collected Poems, which includes many previously unpublished poems, appeared in 1981 and received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize, making Plath the first to receive the honour posthumously. Plath had kept a journal for much of her life, and in 2000 The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, covering the years from 1950 to 1962, was published. A biographical film of Plath starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Sylvia) appeared in 2003. In 2009 Plath’s radio play Three Women (1962) was staged professionally for the first time.
Many of Plath’s posthumous publications were compiled by Hughes, who became the executor of her estate. However, controversy surrounded his editing practices, especially when he revealed that he had destroyed the last journals written prior to her suicide.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).