Red Comet: the Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
by Heather Clark
Jonathan Cape / Penguin Australia
Published December 2020
And like the cat I have nine times to die.— Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’
and forge my life anew…— Sylvia Plath, letter to Olive Higgins Prouty, 22 January 1963
I’ve been reading Sylvia Plath for more years than she lived.
It began in my last year of school, studying poems from her posthumous collection Ariel (1965). This was before the internet’s easy access to photos, biographical details and fandom, so my focus was on reading and rereading the poems. The pages of my copy of Ariel are falling from its spine, covered with pencilled notes. ‘There is a charge’, Plath writes in one of her most celebrated poems, ‘Lady Lazarus’, and there was always a charge for me.
Around the time Plath was writing the poem she replied to a letter from a new poet, advising: ‘let the world blow in more roughly’. The blade-edged lines, repetition, perfect rhyme and hard monosyllables of ‘Lady Lazarus’ are threaded with resonance that winds through the poem like a bomb’s wires:
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.
This charge – stampede, cost, accusation, blast and thrill – grew to a very large charge when, five years later, I began my PhD with a focus on Plath’s work. The charge for me was still about and through the poetry.
The large charge of Plath’s work has an uncanny aspect. Plath ‘haunts our culture’, writes Jacqueline Rose in her scintillating book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Plath and her poet husband Ted Hughes played what their friend the literary critic Al Alvarez called ‘spooky games’ to enhance their access to the daemonic. Horoscopes, a Ouija board and openness to the incantatory, ritual and alchemical aspects of poetry were part of their practice. Alvarez reports Hughes saying of Plath: ‘Her psychic gifts, at almost any time… were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them.’
In 1992 I travelled to several US libraries to explore archival material as part of my doctoral research. In the Neilson Library’s Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in the middle of winter, I laid out the drafts of Plath’s meticulously-numbered late poems alongside one another on a row of desks. I walked from draft to draft. My research opened into a poetic apprenticeship. I saw the grit that met Plath’s talent, watched poems unfold through the alchemy of inspired drafting and careful and brilliant craft. I saw behind the body of her published work a ghostly body of lost and found drafts, false starts, the roots from which poems grew. I witnessed an archive of painstaking making, and beyond that, in photos and keepsakes, fleeting glimpses of the human being.
When the library closed, I walked with my then-partner to see 337 Elm St, the large colonial house whose attic apartment Plath and Hughes rented in 1957-8 when she returned to Smith to teach. As we counted the houses and looked for a street number, the owner appeared from the garden, asking what we were doing. I knew biographers and readers had tried and failed to gain access to the attic over the years, and he seemed weary and hostile. Apologetically, I started to say that a writer had lived here, many years ago. I know, he said. It was my house then too. But as he listened to me, something shifted. You’re her daughter. A statement. Something in me reminded him of her, perhaps no more than my unplaceable accent. He didn’t take my no for an answer and we found ourselves climbing the small staircase to the attic.
He showed us through the apartment. All our conversation was askew – I knew a lot about Plath from my research and from Plath’s detailed journal entries, so I was familiar with some of the anecdotes our host proffered. This was the kitchen window where she placed her baking to cool. Oh yes, I said, the lemon meringue pies. This confirmed his belief. No denial could reduce his conviction that I was Plath’s daughter rather than one in a long line of readers, scholars and poets moved by an affinity with her art. I remember asking about Ted Hughes, and his response. He was hard to know.
Back in the library, my time running out, I sifted urgently through drafts and letters, shopping lists and locks of Plath’s baby hair. I wanted to feel I’d seen everything, understood it, and done justice to what I was entrusted with. I wanted to piece it all together. One night, between days making sense of the shape of a poem’s drafts, I dreamed that Plath phoned me. I picked up the receiver of a large black telephone and heard the clear trans-Atlantic voice of her last recordings, explaining to me where some of the pages I needed were. The next day, I found they were just where she’d said. I sat looking at photos of Plath in the library where she studied, a scholarship student who waited tables at the dorm house she lived in, serving the more prosperous students, and where she later taught. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but its spectral presence was irresistible.
Sylvia Plath holds her baby daughter Frieda. Behind her is a poster of the goddess Isis from Athanasius Kircher’s 1652 Oedipus Aegyptiacus. We cannot see the print’s title Magnae Deorum Matris. Out of frame too is the camera’s eye, and the eye behind that.
Isis leans between mother and child, a bridge. The photo is all eyes – Plath’s steady gaze, Frieda’s rounded expression of newborn surprise, Isis’s half-closed eyes regarding the baby. A photo of its time, it’s oddly angled, slightly out of focus, provisional and flawed in the way a modern selfie – the best of a slew of shots, the most flattering filter – rarely is.
Plath wrote to her mother Aurelia Schober Plath in 1960: ‘We are going to have a lovely engraving of Isis from one of Ted’s astrology books blown up to cover one of the sidewall panels’. In August she sent her this photo. A year later, Plath wrote to Aurelia and brother Warren Plath that Frieda ‘says “I-see” for Isis and points to the picture.’
In Egyptian astrology, magician and healer Isis (originally Auset, or Aset) was associated with childbirth, love, creativity and ambition as well as sovereignty, power and agency. Isis ruled those born at several times of the year, including 18 – 29 October. Plath was born on 27 October 1932. The Isis myth survives in fragments, so any overarching story is a weaving, a confection. Some pieces were inscribed on the walls of the pyramids’ burial chambers. Later, Plutarch wrote De Iside et Osiride, a story of dismemberment and repair.
When Isis’s brother Set murdered her husband Osiris, she, fuelled by love and grief, collected and reassembled his scattered parts. Only one, Plutarch writes, was lost: ‘Of the parts of Osiris’s body the only one which Isis did not find was the male member, for the reason that this had been at once tossed into the river, and the lepidotus, the sea-bream, and the pike had fed upon it’.
Isis used her powers to create a phallus for Osiris and conceive their child, Horus. Yet nothing she could do caused Osiris to return to life. Isis is haunted not only by her husband’s loss, but by the flash and failure of almost-resurrecting, almost re-membering him. Among other magical and healing practices, Isis made and distributed effigies of Osiris. Grief and trauma fuelled her power – from the dark comes the forging of craft and art – an alchemy important to Plath, too.
One of Plath’s biographers, Carl Rollyson, sees Plath as an embodiment of Isis, calling his biography American Isis. For Rollyson, Plath embodied Isis’s traits – creativity, maternity, vision: ‘She wanted to be an ideal mother and wife – but with her power, her magic, intact.’ And she was a ‘genre breaker and cross-cultural heroine.’ Rollyson’s ‘Isis-like Plath encompasses characteristics that would seem to be at odds.’
Plath identified with Isis. She often mentioned cooking and household tasks in her letters and journals, and told her psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher (also known as Barnhouse) she got satisfaction from ‘hanging out a clean laundry in the apple orchard’. Yet Plath had no love of housework, coming to realise ‘domesticity was a false cloak for me’. Even in her last days, though, she performed the selfless labour of creating an orderly, nurturing home for the wellbeing of the household.
In Red Comet, Heather Clark’s exhilarating thousand-page biography of Plath, we glimpse all the tensions of this Isis-identification. Clark finds within them a human figure, the desperately ill, shatteringly brilliant young mother and poet. Clark describes Plath’s friends Clarissa and Paul Roche arriving, in the last days of her life, at the flat she shared with her small children to find it ‘spotless. The beds were made, the children scrubbed’. Yet Plath opened the door in a dressing gown, ‘so ill she seemed to be mixing up nights and days’.
Being Isis – holding it all together, beds made, children fed, the momentum and bracing magic of rising before dawn to write poems that have become iconic – was both the making and unmaking of Sylvia Plath. But the Isis myth is significant beyond the affinity Rollyson astutely argues for. The history of Plath’s biographies is one of the assemblage of fragments, shards of story, myth and memory.
Biography is the Isis of genres. A form passionately invested in collecting the scattered evidence of a life, it searches for remains and patches them together. Driven by its own forms of love and grief, its projections are often deflected by a veneer of fact and truth. Richard Holmes – the biographer of several Romantic poets – imagines the biographer trailing moonily behind an ever-receding subject (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer). In an interview he expresses the biographer’s pleasure in terms of resurrection – the Isis magic of life-giving – ‘I found how intensely I enjoyed bringing someone back to life’.
Holmes speaks of a moral or jurisprudential element in the desire ‘to give someone a fair hearing, to do them justice’ and tells the story of finding Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s initials, which the poet inscribed in 1789 on the wall of Pixies’ Parlour, a sandstone cave in the cliffs of the river Otter. Fan after fan of the poet visited the cave wall Coleridge was said to have written on:
they crawled in and they must have re-carved the initials each time so they were still there. So it wasn’t the original carvings, but it was in the same place, and I suddenly thought, that’s actually how biography works. It’s not an individual carving – biographies take place cumulatively on the subject.
The violent image of carving evokes some of the intensities involved, not all empathic, nor conscious of the moral and formal questions Holmes emphasises. Biography may set about to repair and remember, but it does so with a blade, and is never without casualties.
Biography conceals its limitations. It is inexact, provisional and more about the biographer’s eye and I than it tends to acknowledge. In The Silent Woman Janet Malcolm explored the contradictory biographical accounts of Plath. At that stage, there were five biographies. There are now more than thirteen including Red Comet, and numerous shorter memoirs authored by friends and acquaintances. Malcolm found ‘a kind of allegory of the problem of biography in general’ and concluded that biography goes around dressed up as a respectable activity, when in many ways it is deeply unethical. It is the ‘medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped in full view of the world’.
It’s burglary, the biographer,
like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.
It’s intrusive, but pretends not to be:
The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the whole enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity…
And it’s invasive, stalking its prey for a look, a snapshot:
The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre… a kind of collusion [exists] between [the reader] and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.
The collective body of Plath biography (Malcolm calls it an ‘industry’) was bloated then, and continues to expand. For Malcolm, the ‘organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and magnification of society’s fundamental and incorrigible nosiness’. This was 1993, before household internet and social media. Now, fame and celebrity quickly swell into pathological oedema. Bloating is a disease driven by and expressing inflammation, and inflammatory cultures of social media soundbite posturing and fakery are the deep fried chicken and soft drinks of literature.
Justin Clemens suggests that biography is murderous, a practice conjoining ‘the celebratory revivification of outstanding personages with a form of second murder’. Bound in its knot of contradictions are the ‘hagiographical and envious, pragmatic and prurient, exemplary and identificatory’.
If biography is to its subject as Isis to Osiris, the more polarising a subject, the more she has been dismembered, the larger the scale of the work, the more dazzling the magic, needed to repair her. Plath is often compared with celebrities who died young. Carl Rollyson’s biography begins with the assertion that ‘Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of literature’. When Princess Diana died, an article in the New Statesman proclaimed that she had ‘taken her place in the holy trinity of immortal blondes’ with Plath and Monroe. Never mind that the dark-haired Plath was platinum blonde for a single summer.
Plath is a scattered subject. Jacqueline Rose positions Plath as a ‘shadowy figure’ who is ‘execrated and idolised’ as she ‘hovers between the furthest poles of positive and negative appraisal; she hovers in the space of what is most extreme, most violent, about appraisal, valuation, about moral and literary assessment’. She ‘stirs things up.’
Biographies juxtapose competing views of particular events, moments and aspects of Plath’s life. Red Comet, over a thousand pages, takes in all the other Plath biographies before it. Scholarship is meant to work like this, as is legal precedent. Biography is like a party game where each person adds to a story, repeating and elaborating on what has come before. Or a set of Matryoshka dolls, each containing the previous versions. Each doll is a kind of effigy, like those the grieving Isis made of Osiris.
Some biographies compile and sample back-knifings and dismemberments of the young poet. The most abusive of the many biographies of Plath is Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson. It was commissioned by Peter Davison, a former lover of Plath’s who became a publisher and minor poet. Heather Clark comments that in publishing it Davison, whose relationship with Plath was in some ways competitive, and whom Plath effectively dumped, ‘had the last word’. Clark says plainly that Bitter Fame is ‘co-authored by Olwyn [Hughes]’ (Ted Hughes’ sister), something (almost) acknowledged in Stevenson’s bizarre prefatory note: ‘I have received a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes, literary agent to the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Ms. Hughes’s contributions to the text make it almost a work of dual authorship.’ The homophone ‘duel’ suggests itself.
The body of Stevenson’s biography can’t contain its own vindictiveness, with several bilious appendices swelling from its body. Stevenson also wrote poems, and shared superficial biographical characteristics with her subject. Plath emerges from the book infantilised and flattened between the panes of stimulating and vivacious ‘exceptionally gifted girl’ and ‘complex, completely self-absorbed, stubbornly ambitious American’ a bitter preface presents.
Here is Dido Merwin, wife of the American poet W.S. Merwin, in a bursting appendix. Of Plath’s preference for buying new things (‘morale-boosting toys’) when she and Hughes were setting up their first home, Merwin writes: ‘if the Hugheses elected to go splurging on a posh cooker, refrigerator, and bed, what the hell?’ She has strong opinions about the small corner Hughes’ desk occupied. Hughes himself liked it. Jonathan Bate, author of an unauthorised biography of Hughes, says ‘he looked back on this cubbyhole as one of the best workspaces he ever had.’ But the Merwins, who were travelling, offered Hughes their place as a workspace. Within weeks, glowers Merwin, ‘Plath was also installed’. This wasn’t because Plath needed space to write as much as her husband did (this is the 1950s, after all), it was because she was ‘a natural appropriator’.
Plath’s responses are ‘Strindbergian’. When Hughes agrees to accompany Dido Merwin to a peace march a couple of weeks after Plath’s delivery of their first child Frieda, Merwin puts his reluctance to stay out long down to Plath’s ‘abreactions’ when Hughes went anywhere, rather than to his concern for his family. Vengeful and vituperative (just two adjectives from the ‘v’ section), Plath is married to a man of ‘unselfconscious benevolence’, ‘if anything, too nice’ to his wife. Merwin reports phoning to advise Plath, after Hughes left their marriage to explore his relationship with Assia Wevill. ‘I delivered a completely fruitless spiel to the effect that almost anyone could be brainwashed into becoming an adulterer and liar if you went on long enough implying that that was what they were’. Sooner or later, they’d ‘get the hell out’ or ‘console themselves’. Merwin ‘reminds’ Plath that ‘KGB-like restrictions, censorship, interrogations and surveillance’ would ‘make a refugee of anyone’. And what did the ill-mannered Plath have to say in response? She hung up!
The excess of this memoir is in some ways not as disturbing as Bitter Fame’s account of Plath’s late poems as ‘penetrating the furthest reaches of disdain and rage… bereft of all normal “human” feeling.’ ‘Daddy’ exemplifies an ‘extreme attack of frenetic overkill’ – a sentence that could be up for the same award it gives Plath. The poems, Stevenson (or her invisible doppelgänger) says: ‘have caused enormous pain to the innocent victims of her pen.’ This kind of misunderstanding of what poetry is and can do is common, but strange from a poet. And perhaps this wasn’t a poet’s view, considering Stevenson’s thanks to Olwyn Hughes for her contributions to discussion of the Ariel poems.
Plath’s dismemberment has been personal and professional. The very machinery of the production of the posthumous Plath oeuvre was ambivalent. Olwyn Hughes was a bizarre and tragic choice of literary executor for Plath, who died intestate with the completed manuscript of Ariel on her desk.
This new biography contends with all this. One of Heather Clark’s achievements is her meticulous compilation of evidence. Her commentary is spare, and painstaking assemblage does the work. Clark catalogues comments by Olwyn Hughes about her sister-in-law. Plath was ‘straight poison’, ‘a monster’, ‘hurtful and bloody rude’ and ‘a complete bitch’. She notes that the two met on just six occasions, never seeing one another again after a quarrel at a Hughes family Christmas in 1960. Olwyn Hughes’ combative correspondence with literary critics and biographers writing about Plath is well documented. In an obituary for Olwyn Hughes in The Guardian Jonathan Bate quotes her as warning: ‘If you’re going to write about Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia and not Ted, you can just fuck off.’
Another strategy of Clark’s is to add context rather than commentary. Clark contextualises Olwyn Hughes’ comments (made mostly in professional contexts) alongside similar encounters with her other sister-in-law, Joan, the wife of Ted’s brother Gerald. This kind of contextualising is a strength of Red Comet. Biographical narrative can function like the assembling of legal evidence to make a case. To use the analogy of evidence law, Clark uses what’s known in the law as ‘similar fact’ or propensity evidence – the contentious (and generally inadmissible) establishment of a pattern of related past misconduct of the accused – to strengthen her case. Again, she keeps her editorialising to a minimum.
There are other similar facts Clark does not have room to include. Bate’s biography describes Hughes’ girlfriend before Plath, Shirley, meeting Olwyn. Olwyn took Shirley’s hand, ‘examined her palm and said: “You have some very nasty moments coming.”’ Shirley was ‘chilled by an antagonism she could not understand.’
Part of the mishandling of Plath’s work is simple and dreary misogyny. It is often bound up with discussions of her appearance and manner which serve to diminish her achievement, with an accent by British observers on her American-ness. There is a growing awareness now of a complex set of questions about looking at people, especially women.
In the 1970s, Susan Sontag said of photography what Clemens claims of biography:
To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
Sontag calls the photographer a stalker, a ‘voyeuristic stroller’, the camera a ‘predatory weapon’. It’s almost half a century since Laura Mulvey wrote ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), an essay on cinema and the male gaze, the heteronormative masculine gaze that aims to empower straight men and position women as objects. Women, Mulvey writes, are all about their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.
The dismantling of this will enable a much wider awareness of the Faustian bargain of exchanging the possibility of being dubbed ‘beautiful’ (the small reward for a silent object) for the insults of ugliness and sexual derision that attend the woman who tries to be a subject, and especially to shatter her silence. A quick glance at the punitive photographing of outspoken or speaking women makes this clear. Along with irrelevant pontifications on or assessment of her physical appearance, photos can be used to remind women of their status as objects, often by way of disparagement or comparison with someone else who actually is beautiful.
In a brilliant section of her recent book Monsters, Alison Croggon writes refreshingly about the tyranny of sight – ‘that most impersonal and distancing of senses’ – as a means of valuing some people over others to maintain power imbalances. The possibilities of ‘less hierarchical, less possessive’ – and less superficial – ways of placing ourselves ‘in the world more modestly’ offer a radical expansion of freedom.
The emphasis on how women writers look oils a silencing machinery. Too late to stop her words, it can serve to diminish or distract from them, whether intentionally or not. Clare Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë insists on her subject’s ‘unattractive looks’ and Henry James took it upon himself to declare George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans): ‘magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous’. (No one has much to say about what Henry James looked like. When I think of Eliot, my first thought is not to assess her appearance, but: she wrote Middlemarch.)
Whether Sylvia Plath was or wasn’t ‘beautiful’ is much-discussed. Janet Markey, whose book A Journey Into the Red Eye aims to bypass a focus on images of Plath as ‘navel-gazing neurotic, oppressed victim’ by focusing on the poems, opens by describing her subject as ‘brilliant and beautiful’. Al Alvarez, the British poetry critic who championed Plath’s poetry and saw her in her last days (and was possibly her lover), includes a weird description in his portrait in his 1971 study of suicide, The Savage God, which begins with an account of Plath’s death. His account veers to discuss the odour of her unwashed hair when he saw her just before she died. In one of his poems in Birthday Letters, a collection about Plath published by Ted Hughes in 1998, he describes her: ‘Swaying so slender / It seemed your long, perfect American legs / Simply went on up.’
In The Silent Woman, Malcolm recalls squirming when Alvarez details (probably to ward off discussion of the sexual element in his relationship with Plath) why he couldn’t possibly have found Plath attractive as a woman – ‘a big girl with a long face’. Perhaps his additional remark about her being ‘so damn clever and full of feeling’ isn’t unconnected. Malcolm feels Alvarez has mistaken her for ‘someone who could listen without a pang to his discussion of women he didn’t find attractive’. She goes further, she feels ‘like a Jew who is tacitly included in an anti-Semitic conversation because nobody knows he’s Jewish.’ But Malcolm herself continues the discourse, commenting that Plath ‘isn’t my type either’ and that all her photographs ‘disappoint me’. This deflating discourse, though typically deployed more by older generations, persists.
Malcolm’s more interesting comment is that ‘some people never really appear in their photographs.’ Then, that there is a self, Plath’s ‘Ariel persona’ we never see in the photos: ‘queen, priestess, magician’s girl, red-haired woman who eats men like air, goddess in white, woman in love, earth mother, moon goddess.’ That’s what’s disappointing – a discontinuity between the glorious performative speakers of the late poems and their author: the exhausted, heavily medicated, severely depressed single mother of two small children (who chose writing the Ariel poems over washing her hair). The whole point, though, is that the poems, not the poet, contain this undying, charged energy.
Clark’s biography refreshingly emphasises the extraordinary labour that produced the poems, but she doesn’t entirely avoid similar remarks. When the young Plath has an internship with Mademoiselle magazine, she comes to feel detached from the superficial lifestyle it celebrates. It is the time of the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and the juxtaposition is profoundly disquieting to Plath. The stuff the magazine promotes is also well beyond Plath’s means, something Clark follows with the comment ‘nor did she have the perfectly proportioned body of a model’.
Plath was savvy about these issues of celebrity and voyeurism. ‘Lady Lazarus’ depicts a ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ ‘shoving’ in to see ‘the big strip tease’ of the woman in pain. In her journal she recorded a dream encounter with Marilyn Monroe: ‘She gave me an expert manicure. I had not washed my hair, and asked her about hairdressers.’ Elsewhere in her journal she wrote: ‘Liz Taylor is getting Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds, who appears cherubic, round-faced, wronged, in pin curls and house robe – Mike Todd hardly cold. How odd these events affect one so.’
In ‘Stings’, the poem from which Clark takes her title, there’s a clear awareness of posthumous distortion, but also an escape from it:
They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her –
The mausoleum, the wax house.
Plath’s life story has ossified into a set of selves: ‘more terrible than she ever was’. The precocious young writer brought up with her brother by her intelligent but impoverished mother Aurelia after the death of her scientist father Otto. Her astonishing early publication success. Her suicide attempt in 1953 at 21 and her subsequent hospitalisation and ECT treatment. Her appetite for life, love and sex. Her marriage to Ted Hughes in 1956. The creative flourishing of their married years of books and babies. His infidelity and their separation. Her 1963 suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in her kitchen, her babies asleep nearby, cups of milk and buttered bread left by their beds. Her posthumous fame.
Each version of Plath’s life has its own angle. For earlier Plath biographers there have been obstacles to overcome in the form of difficulties getting permission, and sidestepping these has shaped the work. Andrew Wilson avoided questions of Hughes’s role by looking at Plath’s life before her marriage, in Mad Girl’s Love Song (2013). In Rough Magic (1991) Paul Alexander wrote a swashbuckling unauthorised biography, without quoting or focusing on the work, portraying Hughes as violent and responsible for Plath’s death. Ronald Hayman’s The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991) considers suicide’s imprint on Plath’s work.
It is remarkable that Red Comet, after so many biographies, extends Plath scholarship in several ways. The latest and largest Matryoshka doll, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography, its power lies in more than its heft. Some things have worked in Clark’s favour. Yes, she dealt with an Estate newly controlled by Frieda Hughes and had access to new materials – but her achievement exceeds this. Red Comet keeps its focus on Plath’s success in the context of how hard it was to be successful as a woman writer in her times. The scope of Plath’s unstinting work is extraordinary. Clark sees Plath’s life as ‘subsumed by her afterlife’ and makes a painstaking case for the extraordinary vitality of the writer’s life and work.
Early sections trace Plath’s family history back to reveal that Plath’s paternal grandmother Ernestine Kottke Plath died of tuberculosis in 1919 at the Oregon State Hospital (no longer called as it once was an ‘Insane Asylum’). She had been committed by her husband in 1916 for vague conditions including ‘overwork’. It’s hard to imagine this hidden intergenerational legacy not shaping Aurelia’s care of her daughter.
Clark’s overarching thesis is that depression killed Plath, abetted by inadequate and sometimes abusive medical care over a long time. For Clark, this includes Ruth Beuscher. Beuscher was a progressive and empathic young doctor who oversaw Plath’s treatment, including ECT, at the plush McLean Hospital. This was also, Clark notes, the hospital to which John F. Kennedy committed Jackie Kennedy after a fight about his infidelity. She also received ECT. Plath’s treatment was funded by her generous mentor, Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas and Now Voyager, who Clark presents as an unsung heroine of Plath’s life.
Clark is the first biographer to examine a number of ways in which Beuscher, Plath’s beloved doctor, later friend, was unprofessional in her transgression of doctor/patient boundaries. This included going shopping with Plath not long after the initial treatment ended, and advising Plath, later in life, to ‘keep [Ted] out of your bed’ and get a divorce. Given Plath’s devotion to Beuscher, this is a radical reading.
The second volume of Plath’s Complete Letters includes desperate letters asking Beuscher whether she’ll consider therapy by mail, given the logistical challenges of finding and attending a good therapist as a single mother: ‘please just say if it won’t work or you’ve a full schedule or something. I would be glad of the definiteness.’ Hearing from Beuscher she feels ‘clearer, altered and renewed’. What follows are incendiary letters describing the ‘nadir’ she was experiencing. Their voice is that of a patient and friend trusting utterly in the privacy of the communication. Are we the peanut-crunching crowd if we read them? In a discussion with Caroline Baum, Clark talks about the ethical dilemma of drawing on these letters, though they were already in the public domain, as permitted by Frieda Hughes.
Clark explores Plath’s last weeks in ways that bring us closer to the reasons she took her life. A cocktail of terror of institutionalisation, the sheer grind of being a single mother and freelance writer, and a slew of medications. It seems hard to imagine Plath simply wanted to die, given the many plans she described, and her ambition for the Ariel poems and the new poems after them. She imagined a Guggenheim Fellowship in Rome, new novels, and even a new husband (‘when I’m 50’), and she wrote to Prouty that she was keen to ‘forge [her] life anew.’
In her final letter to Beuscher, Plath says clearly: ‘What appals (sic) me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst – cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.’ To imagine that Hughes’ infidelity killed Plath diminishes her, reducing her life to one in his orbit, and diminishes the extent of her trauma and its symptoms. Plath and Hughes were getting on well, perhaps well enough to reconcile, though this seems more his hope than hers. In this last letter to Beuscher she describes Hughes as ‘a beautiful, brilliant, virile man’. This letter ends with quiet grit: ‘Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea.’
Plath is rarely given the benefit of hindsight, including advances in thinking about mental and emotional health. Her sexual relationships are often judged in terms of sexual mores of the time (her use of the word ‘pure’ through her work attests to her consciousness of the injustice of a double standard around women’s erotic lives). Things no one would think much of now are leered at and peered over. All the ways she was ahead of her time – such as her requesting that Olwyn and a friend not smoke in her small house when she was pregnant – are seen as neurotic. A line in Clark’s work, describing her friend Jillian Becker bringing her son Nicholas to her for a night feed, reminds me that not only did she breastfeed her children (less common in the early 1960s), but she was probably breastfeeding when she died. Perhaps in 1963 no one would have considered the impact of a new mother’s energy levels and hormones on her wellbeing.
Over and over, it is clear that people in Plath’s life were clueless about trauma. Peter Davison spent a few weeks with Plath in 1955. In case it’s not disturbing enough that we can read letters to her psychiatrist, Davison comments on their sexual relationship. In bed, Plath ‘played the big parts’. This, he reckoned, ‘got in the way of intimacy’. One day, though, she told him of her recent suicide attempt treatment and subsequent ECT treatment at McLean. He was ‘overwhelmed’, and took to his bed for two days. After this, Plath stepped back from him. Why? Because she may have felt she’d revealed too much, he reports.
It’s not hard to spot an alternative reading. Entrusting someone with painful mental health history isn’t easy. It’s intimate. Davison’s response and recoil eclipse Plath’s pain. This theme of the isolating effects of misunderstood depression recurs. Trauma is isolating. Solo parenting is isolating. Writing is isolating. At the end, Plath was relying on medication to power through, and considering all this, her productivity and achievements were astonishing.
Each Plath biography mentions the anti-depressants prescribed by her sympathetic GP Dr Horder, also a sufferer of depression, but few offer details. One of the achievements of Clark’s biography is her recontextualising of Plath’s death by looking closely at the medication she was taking. In perhaps the most revelatory section of Red Comet, Clark describes Plath’s regime of medication, none of it supervised by a psychiatrist.
The Nardil (or Parnate) prescribed by Dr Horder on 4 February, a week before her death, is a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor and, as Clark says, an upper. MAO inhibitors were prescribed for severe treatment-resistant depression. For her respiratory illness, she was on over-the-counter codeine. She took a sleeping pill, Drinamyl. This contained a barbiturate and an amphetamine. And she was taking medication for her fevers. As Clark calculates, she was taking ‘two amphetamines, one opioid and one barbiturate’, as well as whatever she was using for her respiratory illness. In particular, the antidepressant ‘could produce serious side effects when combined with phenylpropanolamine, a common ingredient in cold and flu medicine in Britain at the time’. As Dr Horder has said, the MAO inhibitor had the potential to ‘increase the patient’s energy, without improving mood’ in the first days of treatment.
There are many testimonies indicating that Plath seemed drunk, drugged, or otherwise affected, which are illuminated by Clark’s work. She phoned Ted, sounding drunk. One of his girlfriends at the time, Susan Allison, who was there when she called, remembers his saying ‘Take it easy, Sylvie.’ The images are there in Plath’s late poems, such as ‘Lesbos’:
Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap.
I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
One of the most potent anecdotes about Plath’s death is from the testimony of her downstairs neighbour, Trevor Thomas, the last person to see her alive. She came to his flat just before midnight: ‘there she was, looking very odd indeed as if drugged or doped and faraway, out of this world.’ Her voice was ‘slightly slurred’. She asked for postage stamps, was insistent on paying ‘or I won’t be right with my conscience before God.’ Clark describes opening the door ten minutes later to find her still there in the hallway, with what Thomas called ‘a kind of seraphic expression on her face.’ He offered to get the doctor and she said: ‘Oh no, please don’t do that. I’m just having a marvellous dream, a marvellous vision.’
Yet alongside pharmaceutically-induced, putrid or marvellous dreams there was clarity. Janet Frame received over two hundred ECT treatments, administered, like Plath’s, without anaesthetic, during her time in a New Zealand asylum. Each of these was, she wrote in An Angel At My Table: ‘the equivalent, in degree of fear, to an execution.’ In hindsight, it’s obvious Plath experienced what we would now understand as medical trauma, but there was no name for it then. Nor was there a name for the post-traumatic symptoms that plagued her. While Plath biographies trace the curve of the whodunnit, circling through blame and motives, Clark makes the case that depression killed her.
This is helpful, but depression is a loose term, not unlike the hysteria which, earlier in the twentieth century, was a dominant diagnosis. Depression was part of something larger for Plath, as is clear from the poems, letters and testimony from those last months. Now, we can spot some of its complex causes. Then, it was often simply seen as some kind of personal weakness or trait.
We can’t know this from her journals. Those covering the last months of her life were destroyed or lost, in a dismemberment hideous as Osiris’s. Will any part of the missing journals ever turn up, perhaps with the lost novel with the working title Double Take, Double Exposure or, more weirdly, The Interminable Loaf (‘hellishly funny’, Plath told her brother)? Amidst grief, jealousy, turmoil and the complexities of suicide bereavement, her work may have been destroyed, but it’s possible someone kept it safe; that its vanishing after her death was protective, not destructive. Another novel was Falcon Yard. It was based on the ecstatic start of her relationship with Hughes and Plath wrote about its central male figure: ‘How to lead Pan into world of toast and nappies?’ After Hughes began his affair with Wevill, Plath burned it in the back garden while her distressed mother looked on.
As well as depression and the side-effects of medication, though, Plath had incredible grit. One of Plath’s favourite descriptions of herself was ‘tough’. The methodical way she drafted and worked on her poems, her letters, task-lists and parenting are a masterclass in mixing determination with talent. And the tape with which she sealed off the doorway so the gas would not reach her children must have, Clark points out, been specially purchased. Plath didn’t wander into death.
Clark shows that Dr Horder was preparing Plath for a stay in a psychiatric unit. The nurse who arrived on 11 February, the morning Plath took her life, and who found her, was not there so much to help with the children as to look after them while Plath was in hospital. For Plath, the spectre of unknowable psychiatric treatment and institutionalisation would have been terrifying. She spoke and wrote often of the barbaric treatment she received as an inpatient. There were no words at the time for much of Plath’s experience: sexual assaults that weren’t recognised as such, post-traumatic symptoms, domestic violence (this is harder to weigh, and Clark is careful with the subject) and medical trauma. Clark doesn’t use the language of trauma and retraumatisation, but lights the direction towards it.
Red Comet is extraordinary, except for a slightly disappointing reading of Plath’s work. There can be a blurring between the facts of her life and the action of her novel The Bell Jar, and there is much more to say, perhaps beyond the scope of an already-vast biography, about particular alchemy by which Plath transmuted her experience into poetry. Plath’s work to make her poems’ ‘I’ a place to transcend and transform experience is central to understanding her work, and in the last weeks of her life she said in an interview: ‘personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience.’
But Clark shows the terror of Plath’s last days, and the way her grit, under the pressure of illness and medication, was ultimately used to save herself from this worst fear.
‘We think back through our mothers’, Virginia Woolf wrote. As part of my research, I looked at Plath’s annotated copies of Woolf. ‘[H]er novels make mine possible’, she wrote. Not Plath’s daughter, I see in her life, and Woolf’s, the impact of pain for which there were not the words we have now. Plath’s contemporary Adrienne Rich has written about the speaking the unspeakable:
Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language – this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.
Doing my PhD at the same time as five years’ intensive psychotherapy, I discovered language for otherwise elusive conditions, named symptoms and trauma. I understood that neither Woolf nor Plath had the benefit of the acknowledgement this language gave me, and started to learn the subtle (and less-than-subtle) language of the body psychiatrists such as Bessel van der Kolk see as communicating trauma, and paving a path beyond it. Without it, Plath felt in herself ‘cowardly withdrawal’, something ‘appalling’, an introjection of others’ ignorant understandings of her.
The spectral phone call symbolises the conversation in my head with Plath. Many poets dialogue with Plath. Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Wintering’ shares a title with Plath’s poem as it explores love as ‘another language’. Stuart Barnes’ ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ remixes Plath’s poem. Maria Takolander reimagines the confessional and speaks with Plath in the first sequence of Trigger Warning. Kevin Young writes about the power of archival drafts, including Plath’s, as a way of understanding the creative process. Vijay Seshadri discusses Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ with Young in a New Yorker podcast, considering the poem’s ‘sonic body’ and the way, over forty years of reading her work, he can sometimes ‘catch’ the poems’ music.
Other poets have written about searching for Plath in the material world. In 2018, poet David Trinidad heard of an auction of Plath’s and Hughes’s things, including a table Plath bought when she moved into the London flat, once Yeats’ home, where she lived in the last months of her life. Wondering whether he might bid on it, he noticed a similar table in the film Remains of the Day, and took it as a sign. He started to believe ‘the table was destined to be mine’. He bid, then was outbid.
These days every piece of Plath’s ‘hair or her clothes’ sells for sums that would have made the life of the not-yet-famous Plath much easier. Last year, at a Sotheby’s auction, individual letters sold for up to 30,000 GBP. Fame is but a fruit tree, sings Nick Drake, the young English folk singer who took his life in 1974: ‘so very unsound. It can never flourish ‘til its stock is in the ground.’ He went on: ‘Safe in your place deep in the earth / That’s when they’ll know what you were truly worth.’ In ‘Amnesiac’ Plath writes of ‘money the sperm fluid of it all’.
Days later Trinidad was contacted by the auctioneer, asking if he was still interested in the table. The sale had fallen through. He bought it, and it arrived, with its ‘powerful vibration’. ‘I’ve joked with friends that I might put my Ouija board on it and see what happens, but I don’t know that I’d ever have the nerve.’ Proximity and evasion, affinity and fear. As Holmes says, the subject always recedes.
It’s not the body of Plath that continues. Not her table, her letters, the lock of baby hair in an envelope. The charge is in the words. Words on the page are no longer spoken, until the reader gives them breath. They are no longer connected with Plath’s breath, just as the words in Plath’s poem ‘Words’ no longer have human riders directing them. Dry and riderless, they continue, indefatigable.
Plath writes about a tension between after-breath peace and the pull of life. ‘If only the wind would leave my lungs alone’, Plath writes in ‘Who’, a section of ‘Poem for a Birthday’ (1959). In a later section, ‘Witch Burning’ the speaker inhabits ‘The wax image of myself, a doll’s body’. She becomes ‘a dartboard for witches’. Brightness ‘ascends my thighs’. In ‘Stones’, she is in ‘the city where men are mended’, ‘the city of spare parts’. People have ‘hunted the stones, taciturn and separate’ and now heated pincers deliver ‘Volt upon volt’ and ‘catgut stitches my fissures’: ‘My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.’
In life, Plath’s breath was often a hurdle. Her sinus pain would confine her to bed, and she suffered from heavy colds and respiratory illness, including in the days before she died. Free now of breath, Plath’s words continue. Ghost words, they transcend the writer, the body and the gaze.
Clark takes her title from one of Plath’s bee poems, ‘Stings’. In a death-and-resurrection image, the speaker is aligned with the queen bee, flying ‘red / Scar in the sky, red comet’. Sliced at ‘red’, the line itself is severed, scarred, but red moves from injury to transcendence, attaching itself to the queen comet, flying ‘Over the engine that killed her – / The mausoleum, the wax house.’ A sense of Clark’s ethical intention to free Plath from the mausoleum runs through the work.
Late in Red Comet, Clark compares the equine imagery in two late Plath poems, ‘Ariel’ (written October 1962) and ‘Words’ (February 1963). For Clark, the ride in ‘Ariel’ from ‘stasis in darkness’ past ‘dead hands, dead stringencies’, into ‘red eye, the cauldron of morning’ is exhilarating. In ‘Words’, words that travel off from the centre, like echoes, like horses, end up ‘dry and riderless’. Clark senses a diminution in poetic energy from the more exuberant from ‘Ariel’ to ‘Words’, expressive of a dimming of Plath’s own energy.
For me, the change is about the rider, the writer. ‘Ariel’ sees the speaker/writer unpeeling ‘dead hands, dead stringencies’, ignoring a child’s cry that ‘melts in the wall’ to canter into ecstatic and erotic creativity. By ‘Words’, the rider has become one of the dead stringencies. Now words go on without and beyond the rider who rode and wrote them. Years later, they continue. They may be ‘dry’, but they are released from the writer, they are free from the control of the rider, and they have the ‘riderless’ music, magic and onward momentum of their ‘indefatigable hoof-taps’, that great flourish of a phrase blossoming against the poem’s spare lyricism.
The poem ends with a contrasting image: ‘fixed stars/ govern a life’. Fixed stars – some kind of predetermined fate – direct the rider’s life, and Plath might have felt they directed hers, but even as this plays out, the words travel on, their charge continues.
The Bell Jar is deathless, too, like its protagonist Esther, who tries to kill herself. Its ongoing sales are in the millions, and it is widely read. When Esther’s suicide attempt doesn’t succeed, she describes ‘the old brag of my heart: ‘I am, I am, I am.’ Plath’s very large charge goes on. Plath was attuned to eye as well as ear rhymes, and would have seen in Isis the verb to be: ‘is…is’. The Sylvia Plath who asked other people to put out their cigarettes, who ate more than her fair share of the Hughes Christmas dinner, and didn’t wash her hair in her final days fades and flickers. But the Sylvia Plath who wrote (as she knew she was) the poems that would make her name –
She is, is.
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