Authors: Carl Rollyson
Sylvia emerged from her “cow-state” and resumed writing in February, relieved that she could give Ted a respite from so much childcare. Although the night feedings depleted her, having babies, she told her mother, was wonderful, and she wished she could just go “on and on.” She felt reborn. Nicholas seemed more docile than Frieda had been as a baby. Frieda was now the household terror, tearing off pieces of wallpaper when she found a niche that fit her fingernail and uprooting bulbs. Sylvia tried to keep her daughter busy by showing her how to garden, a “pacifying pastime,” as she put it in a letter to Ann and Leo Goodman. Nicholas was proving to be a “true Hughes”: “craggy, dark, quiet & smiley.” Too much wet and windy weather in March, however, had Sylvia yearning for a full spring. Finally, her letters to Aurelia began to mention a novel, “something amusing.”
After a cold and sunless March, Sylvia, afflicted with chilblains (as she wrote the Roches on 12 March) and busy with expensive repairs to the house, looked forward to the spring and visitors, including (she hoped) the Roches and a BBC crew coming to interview her. Ted was taking day trips to London to see publishers and work on BBC programs. She was picking six hundred daffodils a week and taking them to market. Baby Nick, as Frieda called him, was sleeping in his pram among the daisies. Sylvia could not have presented a more idyllic picture for her mother, who was preparing to visit that summer. To the Roches, she offered a more sobering report on the toll the winter, which produced temperatures lower than forty degrees inside parts of the house, had taken on her. She was working, she told them, on a “grossly amateur novel” (
The Bell Jar).
Ted sent an enchanting May Day letter to Aurelia and Warren, likening the array of thousands of daffodils on their property to a “perpetual court-ball.” Sylvia, he said, was staggering with delight. Away from the “panic pressure” of the American poetry world, she was in her own element, writing extremely well. The house had given both of them a grounding utterly lacking in the unreality and fantasies of literary life, he concluded. Sylvia's calendar shows that she was painting moldings and other items in the children's playroom, baking, working in the garden, reading Dr. Spock, writing reviews for the
and working on a dramatic poem, “Three Women.” She was also developing a warm relationship with Elizabeth Compton and her husband, David, both admirers of Ted's work who were beginning to read Sylvia's as well.
Besides working on the house and in the vegetable garden, Ted took off twice a week to fish on the Taw River. He surely would have done so whatever the state of his marriage. But his participation in Sylvia's all-consuming domesticityâespecially after the initial excitement over Nicholas's birth and refurbishing of the houseâmay have given way to his sense of marriage as a “nest of small scorpions.” Writing to his brother, Gerald, in early May, Hughes went into considerable detail about his fishing expeditions, reminiscent of the boyish hunting days he had spent with his older brother. Ted did not mention the weekend visitors he and Sylvia had just entertained, David and Assia Wevill. To Aurelia, Sylvia described David as a “nice young Canadian poet,” and Assia as his “very attractive, intelligent wife.” Accounts vary as to what happened that weekend. To Sylvia, however, the attraction between Ted and Assia was palpable. Ted later told Olwyn his affair with Assia began in June, although David Wevill later told Olwyn he was not aware of the affair until Sylvia wrote to him in October.
Just the faintest hint of trouble may have been signaled in Ted's 24 May letter to the Merwins, in which he confessed he had “written nothing.” He said he was “quite content” to let the tension smooth itself out instead of “writing purely out of nerves.” Taking it easy that way, he hoped he might be able to “hear myself speak.” It is a common enough ideaâthe writer awaiting the arrival of his own voiceâbut the words, in retrospect, seem also to convey an undertow that perhaps Hughes himself did not yet appreciate. He may have exaggerated his dry spell, since his letters to Olwyn are full of news about his writing projects, but perhaps he meant “nothing” in the sense that he had not produced anything worth being called writing. Certainly nothing in the tone of Ted's letters approaches Sylvia's avowal in a 7 June letter to her mother: “This is the richest and happiest time of my life.” Apparently, her husband was beginning to see married life as an engulfment.
A. Alvarez visited the couple during this period and noticed that Sylvia no longer seemed the subordinate wife he took her for when they first met. Now, as he puts it in
The Savage God,
she appeared “solid and complete, her own woman again.” She was sharp and clear and in command of her household. The power, in short, had shifted to her. As she showed him around Court Green, Alvarez had the distinct impression that this was “
Sylvia wrote to Olwyn sometime in June, describing Nicholas's birth, his pacific demeanor, and his “Buddhalook,” which she found “endearing.” During a lunch, Elizabeth Compton remembered, Sylvia bounced Nicholas on her lap and said, “Just watch those eyes. He's such a greedy little boy. He wants his fair share.” To Olwyn, Sylvia described mowing and scything “like a black,” and being preoccupied with many other household tasks. In a letter to Elizabeth Compton a few months after Sylvia died, Aurelia evoked the scene: “the cobbled Court, the giant elmsâthe front and rear doors open so that one can see through from the court to the greenâwhere Sylvia mowed her bit of lawn and planted the flower beds and Frieda brought her toys out on the green to play.”
Sylvia was quite excited about, “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices,” set in “a maternity ward and round about,” suggesting that what occurs is as much in the mind as in a tangible place. Performed on BBC radio on 19 August 1962 “to great effect,” Ted thought, this haunting piece incorporates several aspects of Sylvia's psyche: a woman with child who feels a part of the world, as though she is a “great event”; a mother who in giving birth rages against the world of “flat” and “formless” men who plot destruction, bulldozing and guillotining their way to death, which becomes the woman's lover like a disease she carries with her; and a woman who wonders what it is she misses and feels “solitary as grass.” How shocking this prophetic piece is to read when set against the benign letters Plath and Hughes were writing at the time. While the calm and contented voice of Sylvia's correspondence is represented in “Three Women,” so, too, is her anguish and her anxiety that her life was about to miscarry. The “second voice” insists she can love her husband and that he will understand her and love her “through the blur of my deformity.” But she cannot be sure that, like starfish who can grow back missing arms, she can be “prodigal in what lacks me.” She remains suspended between hope and doubt. And for Sylvia, it would only get worse.
QUEEN ALSO OF THE IMMORTALS
The call that kills a marriageâPlath discovers her husband's infidelity;
The couple separates, and Hughes moves to London;
Plath moves to a London flat with her two children;
The Bell Jar
is published in England under a pseudonym;
Plath commits suicide.
9 July 1962: The double ring of doomâSylvia raced to catch the call before Ted could intercept it. To American ears, the harsh doorbell-like sound seemed insistentânot like the plodding, monotonous tones of an American phone. She recognized the woman asking for Ted, even though Assia lowered her voice, pretending, Sylvia thought, to be a man. She had been on edge ever since David and Assia Wevill's May visit to Court Green. Sylvia would later mythologize Assia as a Jezebel, a harlot queen, an evil woman bent on taking away her Ted.
Aurelia, then staying at Court Green, saw her daughter clutch the phone, blanch, then turn it over to Ted. This was the moment Sylvia's life sped up, the second her poetry erupted like a Greek necessity and became palpably autobiographical. Two days later, she could still write to Clarissa Roche, asking her to come for a visit as if nothing had happened. But in her poetry she described her defilement by words pouring out of the phone like mud. Court Green, the Devon home she had created as a haven for their family and their writing, now seemed polluted: “O god, how shall I ever clean the phone table?” Aurelia watched her fastidious daughter, a homemaker who believed in a spotless houseâthe same way she believed in impeccable poetryârip the phone line out of the wall, treating it like a monster's threatening tentacle. It was too late, and the poet felt infected, sensing the caller's words were like a monster's spawn percolating in her heart.
Ted talked into the phone briefly and hung up, but Sylvia believed he had summoned this speaking abomination: “It is he who has achieved these syllables,” she declared in her cryptic poem, “Words heard, by accident, over the phone.” “Now the room is ahiss,” wrote Sylvia, transforming the vowels and sibilant
s of Assia's name into a threatening noise. It is a scene from a 1950s science fiction movie, the imagination of disaster that Susan Sontag saw as a prevalent theme of the decade. The awful horror of being swallowed up resonates in the poem's last hysterical lines: “Muck funnel, muck funnelâ / You are too big. They must take you back!” The nameless “they,” Sylvia's being dragged into this swamp of feeling, dramatizes her engulfment by the terror of her decomposing marriage.
The typical criticism of Plath then held her poetry to be overwrought, both in terms of technique and of temperature. The reader who withdraws from her work cries out, as she does, “They must take you back!” But Plath's great achievement is precisely her refusal to be temperate, to exercise the restraint the British deem “good form.” Just as understatement can be a powerful literary tool, overstatement, like an optometrist's overcorrection, can compel greater perception.
Charged words were a tonic for Sylvia Plathâno matter whether they expressed her highs or her lows. What Sylvia said on the day of the phone callâthat she had never been happier with her husband, her children, her home, and her writingâwas neither a ruse, nor wishful thinking meant to deflect the tension between the couple that troubled Aurelia. Sylvia's moods rose and fell, day-by-dayâsometimes moment-by-moment, like the voices in “Three Women.” Words were how she persuaded herself. Wordsâas her poems reiterateâwere the very stuff of life to her: “[T]he blood jet is poetry.” Using words, she could create that blissful union with Ted, and with words she could demolish it. She could not, however, permanently secure herself with words, and her recognition that poetry was only a momentary stay against confusion undid her. She wanted more than words could give her.
The magical property Sylvia ascribed to words is evident in the bonfire she proceeded to make of Ted's papersâadding for good measure her second novel, in which he figured as the hero. All these words had to be destroyed in order for her to continue composing her life and work. That her immolation of his writing did not disturb Hughes suggests he understood what words meant to her. To see burning of the papers as merely an act of revengeâor even as the act of a disturbed womanâdoes not do justice to the kind of writer Sylvia Plath was. As her husband knew, she could live again only if she destroyed those words, which now seemed a lie. In “Burning the Letters” (13 August), Plath wrote of flaking papers that “breathe like people,” deriving a savage sort of energy from the fire in veins that “glow like trees.” This ignition of rising flames mingles with the sound of dogs tearing apart a fox, the image of a life consumed, its oxygen supply depleted. The papers memorializing the life were now merely particles of immortality, seeming to satisfy her even as her rage reddened the very air.
Sylvia demanded that Ted move out. The next day he decamped for London. He returned occasionally to see the children. An angry, humiliated Sylvia hated to see her mother witness her disintegrating marriage. Confiding in her friend Elizabeth Compton, Sylvia called Ted a “
man.” This sounded to Elizabeth like an anguished cry over a fallen idol. Sylvia had trouble sleeping. “Poppies in July” reflects her exhaustion and search for relief. The flowers appear as “little hell flames” and seem to emit a dark energy that the poet craves, picturing a mouth unable to “marry a hurt like that!” Sylvia had drawn blood when she first kissed Ted Hughes, and she had married a hurt like that. Now she craved an alternative, “liquors” that would dull and still her. During this time of turmoil, Al Alvarez wrote her two letters (dated 21 and 24 July), responding to her demand that he tell her frankly what he thought of her new poems. She could take any criticism he wished to offer, she emphasized. But all he could say was, “They seem to me the best things you've ever done. By a long way.”
On 21 July, Sylvia wrote to Irish poet Richard Murphy, asking if perhaps he could help arrange for a visit in late August for her and Ted. Apparently she still hoped that the marriage could be repaired. She “desperately” wanted to be near the sea and boats and away from “squalling babies.” The ocean had been the center of her life, and its appearance in Murphy's poetry attracted her. “I think you would be a very lovely person for us to visit just now,” she added, without explaining the crisis in her marriage.
Aurelia left for home on 4 August. She recalled in
“There was a great deal of anxiety in the air” as the conflicted couple bid her a stony good-bye, an epilogue to the “oppressive silences” between Sylvia and Ted that Aurelia had noticed from the beginning of her stay. Yet the couple continued to speak to one another. Indeed, they continued to fulfill their professional commitments in London and elsewhere, not keeping their breakup a secret, exactly, but behaving like amicable husband and wife when they appeared in public.