Classic Essays

Sylvia Plath: Stasis in Darkness

One of America’s most promising young poets, severed from her racial/cultural roots by the alien presence in the West, searched desperately to find those roots, then gave up in despair.

by Vic Olvir
from National Vanguard, No. 97, October 1983, pp. 7–14
transcribed by Matthew Peters

THIS PAST February 11 was the 20th anniversary of the suicide in London of the American poet and writer Sylvia Plath. Since her death a continuous stream of biographies, critical surveys, and memoirs — as well as earlier unpublished stories, letters, and journals by the poet herself — has issued from the publishers, finally allowing Sylvia Plath the fame and recognition she yearned for while alive. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.

Sylvia Plath’s reputation rests mainly with the poetry she wrote during the last 18 months of her life (although, indeed, she composed much fine work before that). A number of the later poems were collected in the volume Ariel, which was published a few years after her death. This book had a first-edition sale of 15,000 copies, unusually large for a work of poetry by a relative unknown. The public — the “peanut-munching crowd,” in her words — had become curious about the author and her work, and the Plath legend began to take shape. The poet Robert Lowell helped it along when he wrote, in the introduction to Ariel, that she seemed to him “. . . hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another ‘poetess,’ but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines.”

Sylvia Plath’s work is almost never discussed outside the context of her life, so intensely personal are the poems, and so inextricably tied to her life and death have they become. She was born in Boston on October 27, 1932, to Aurelia Schober and Otto Emil Plath. The father had emigrated from Grabow, Germany (in the Polish Corridor), at the age of 15. He had somewhat diverse early experiences in America but finally became a professor of biology and German at Boston University. His book, Bumblebees and Their Ways, can still be found in some large libraries; in the card catalogs his solitary listing precedes the numerous ones for his daughter.

Sylvia’s mother was a first-generation American of Austrian descent. She met Otto when she became his student, working on her master’s degree in English and German under him. When Sylvia was four the family moved to Winthrop, a Boston suburb near the ocean. (The sea figures greatly as image and metaphor in Sylvia’s poetry.)

The child was precocious, and to please her father she memorized the Latin names of dozens of insects. Once, while she was still a young girl, her mother read to her Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Forsaken Merman”; later, in her autobiographical “Ocean 1212-W,” Sylvia wrote that when she heard these verses she realized that she “had fallen into a new way of being happy.”

Otto Plath suffered failing health in the late 1930’s. He initially refused medical attention, so the disease — diabetes mellitus — first resulted in the amputation of his leg and finally, in 1940, ended his life. This event profoundly affected eight-year-old Sylvia. From that time until her own death the poetry and the writing seldom abated. “The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it,” she wrote in one of her last poems (“Kindness”).

When Sylvia was ten the family moved from Winthrop inland to Wellesley, and the girl’s precocity became even more evident, as she developed her skills in writing and art, winning numerous scholastic competitions. In 1950 Seventeen published both a story and a poem by her, her first success in this magazine after dozens of rejections.

Also in 1950 Sylvia entered the exclusive and expensive Smith College on a full scholarship. One of her close friends at this time later recalled her: “Sylvia was a remarkably attractive young woman. She was impressively tall, almost statuesque, and she carried the height with an easy assurance. . . . The face was angular, the features strong.” Another friend, Wendy Campbell, knew Sylvia a few years later, at Cambridge: “She seemed to be entirely collected and concentrated and in focus; and she was charming to look at. Tall and slender and delicate wristed, she had pale-honey hair, fine, thick and long, and beautiful dark-brown eyes. And her skin was pale gold and waxy, the same even colour.”

At Smith, Sylvia became an honors student. She pushed herself constantly and won both academic and social success. In the summer of 1953 a group of young women from all over the country were brought to New York as guests of Mademoiselle magazine, to help produce a college issue. Sylvia had been selected as a guest editor. While Sylvia worked on this magazine the managing editor, a Jewess, noting Sylvia’s German background, went “out of her way to penetrate Sylvia’s armor of distant congeniality” by needling her about the alleged horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. [1]

Sylvia returned to Massachusetts later that summer exhausted and depressed by her experiences in New York; her emotional state worsened when she learned that she had been rejected for a summer fiction workshop at Harvard. Her mother sent her to a local psychiatrist, who administered traumatic shock treatments. In August Sylvia left a note for her mother saying she was going for a walk, then jammed herself into a crawl space in the cellar and swallowed a large number of sleeping pills. Her disappearance was the cause of three-day headlines in the Boston press, with much speculation as to what had happened to “the beautiful Smith girl.”

She was, however, finally discovered in the cellar, an inch from death, and sent off to a private hospital, where a female Jewish psychiatrist administered more shock treatments and poured into the befuddled girl’s mind a liberal dose of Freudian dogma about incest, father-daughter relationships, etc. It was, of course, only by “working out these conflicts” that Sylvia could become well again. The story of her time in New York and the subsequent suicide attempt and hospitalization became the substance of her only published novel, The Bell Jar, now required reading for freshman English students on many campuses.

In her last three semesters at Smith, Sylvia published more poems and stories, won more prizes, and recaptured her old standard of academic excellence. Her English honors thesis was on the use of the “double” (i.e., a projection of some aspects, often negative, of one character’s personality onto another) in the work of Dostoevsky. The idea fascinated her; The Bell Jar is replete with doubles.

In 1955 she graduated summa cum laude from Smith and went to Cambridge on a Fulbright Fellowship. In England she continued her academic excellence and also continued to cultivate a large number of male admirers. Early in 1956 she met Ted Hughes, then completely unknown, but today perhaps England’s best-known living poet. In June of that year they married.

Ted Hughes

When Hughes published his first volume of verse the following year Sylvia wrote in a letter to her mother that she was joyful that her husband’s book “is accepted first. . . . I can rejoice, then, much more, knowing Ted is ahead of me.” She published several poems about Hughes at this time, among them “Ode to Ted” and “Pursuit,” the latter full of ringing sexual imagery.

In 1957 they went to the United States, where both secured teaching positions (Sylvia at her alma mater). Soon feeling, however, that teaching interfered with their writing, they resigned their positions, moved to Boston, and supported themselves with odd jobs and an occasional fee for a published work. Sylvia also audited a poetry class at Boston University taught by Robert Lowell. There she met the poet Anne Sexton, and they spent hours at the bar of the Ritz Hotel telling each other about their respective suicide attempts.

Anne Sexton, like Sylvia, ultimately succeeded in self-destruction, but before that she recalled her friend and fellow poetess, describing her as being “so precocious and determined to be special . . . intense, skilled, perceptive, strange, blonde, lovely Sylvia.”

After Ted received a grant that permitted him a year of writing free of money problems, the Hugheses toured the United States and then returned to London, where they rented a small flat near Regent’s Park. In 1960 Sylvia’s first book of poems was published (The Colossus); in April she gave birth to a daughter.

In the following year Sylvia was operated on for appendicitis, and she also miscarried. An American edition of The Colossus appeared. Ted’s career was burgeoning, and Sylvia was writing regularly again. The Hugheses moved to a village in Devon, in the southwest of England.

A son was born in January 1962. In the summer of that year Sylvia discovered that Ted was being unfaithful to her. She fled to a neighbor, a good friend, and confided to her that “Ted was in love with another woman. . . . She wept and wept and held onto my hands, saying, ‘Help me!’” Sylvia told her friend that “Ted lies to me, he lies all the time, he has become a little man. . . . When you give someone your whole heart and he doesn’t want it, you cannot take it back. It’s gone forever.” [2]

A separation was followed by a divorce, and Ted moved to London. Sylvia stayed on in Devon, writing, fighting off sickness, tending to her children. She wrote as many as three poems a day and started a second novel. “I am a writer,” she wrote her mother. “I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.” But she also wrote: “I am fighting now against hard odds and alone.”

In December she moved to London, rejoicing that she was able to lease a flat in a house where Yeats had once lived. She continued to write poetry, and she did some readings for the British Broadcasting Corporation. The Bell Jar was accepted for publication. She was beginning to make important breakthroughs in her chosen field.

Early in February 1963, in the middle of one of the coldest winters in English history, Sylvia called it quits; the bell jar had once more descended. She carefully tucked her children into bed, returned to the kitchen, and lay her head down on the oven after turning on the gas jets. Her body was discovered the following morning.

Who was Sylvia Plath, and what significance — if any — do her life and death have for those of us who have some comprehension of the terrible, earth-shattering forces that have been loosed in this century?

Sylvia Plath was a German-American, acutely aware of her heritage, coming to age during the greatest and most ignoble hate campaign ever waged by one people against another. Given her sensitivity, and the perfectionism that was such a crucial aspect of her self-image, this circumstance in itself was sufficient to raise dark and disturbing clouds over her future.

In the beginning years of the hate campaign against people and things German, her father died. Sylvia, then and later, irrationally perceived this as a desertion in the face of the enemy — an enemy she never was able to identify, the unseen foe who distorted her life. One biographer, Edward Butscher, speaks of the “fierce rage Sylvia felt (and continued to feel unconsciously) towards her father precisely because he had died and abandoned her.” [3] Butscher, however, gives a purely Freudian interpretation to this rage.

Sylvia possessed to a great degree the German inwardness and seriousness, the qualities which have made the German most sensitive to the breaches and distortions in the Western Culture and have, in this century, pushed him into the role of that Culture’s primary defender. Ted Hughes wrote of his late wife in 1966: “She grew up in an atmosphere of tense intellectual competition and Germanic rigour.” And a critic wrote: “Her conception of herself, of her husband, and of her marriage were all overblown in a quite German way.”

This, then, was the central feature of Sylvia’s existence: being German was a thing of shame; it was to carry a blood guilt that somehow must be expiated. In her short story “Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit” (which is a vignette from her early life, with no attempt even to change names) she wrote: “That same winter, war was declared, and I remember sitting by the radio with Mother and Uncle Frank and feeling a queer foreboding in the air. Their voices were low and serious, and their talk was of planes and German bombs. Uncle Frank said something about Germans in America being put in prison for the duration, and Mother kept saying over and over again about Daddy: ‘I’m only glad Otto didn’t live to see this; I’m only glad Otto didn’t live to see it come to this.’”

“Sylvia,” writes Butscher, “had always been uneasy about her German background and the World War II decimation of Jews in Nazi Germany. Years later, as she searched for a persona with which to contemplate her dead father, her selection of a Jewish guise was almost automatic, a stroke of unconscious genius, precisely because the Jewish role offered both intense victim status and a sense of family. As a poet, she was Jewish in spirit: alienated from her environment and ceaselessly viewing reality through the telescope of an outsider, and not above the touch of hauteur only sorrow can bring.” [4]

That Sylvia was “Jewish in spirit” is Butscher’s fantasy. But it is true that she was “alienated from her environment” — precisely because the culture from which she sprang had been shattered and fragmented beyond recognition, victimized by a deadly bacillus that had broken the confines of its ghetto walls and was raging through the staggering shape of the West.

What was Sylvia’s conception of herself? At 17 she confided to her diary: “I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility. . . . I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. . . . I want, I think, to be omniscient. . . . I think I would like to call myself the girl who wanted to be God. . . . Never, never, will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul. . . . My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to. . . .” [5]

The above can be dismissed as the “overblown” musings of a hypersensitive adolescent; however, the entry also indicates a searcher, a Gothic quester, hungrily seeking the raison d’etre demanded by the complex currents of her emotions.

Young Sylvia

Sylvia strove for both honesty and strength in her work and in her life. She wished to create a superior world based on these values, at least within the perimeter of her own existence. It can, I think, be forgiven her that she was unable to cut through the propaganda fog of the 1940’s and 1950’s: few others of the time accomplished that.

“Perhaps the hardest thing I have to accept in life is ‘not being perfect’ in any way,” she said in a letter in 1955. And in 1958 she wrote in her diary: “I will kill with my mind, my ice-eye, anyone who is weak, false, sickly in soul — and so I have done.” [6] (Sylvia once told an English friend that “bullying” was the best way to get on in the world, especially in the literary world, where the nature of the beast is weak.) “I have a violence in me” (she continues in her diary entries of 1958) “that is hot as death-blood. I can kill myself or — I know it now — even kill another. I could kill a woman, or wound a man. I think I could.” [7]

A Cambridge acquaintance defines in this way the searching, exploratory side of Sylvia’s psyche: “Sylvia felt that a drawing back in the face of any aspect of life was nothing less than horrible, a voluntary courting of deformity. It disgusted her, filled her with an angry contempt. . . . Sylvia was serious and truthful and highly evolved . . . she explored everything that happened to her with precision and courage. . . .” [8]

But there was a persistent and agonizing hollowness at the core of Sylvia’s existence, an absence at the center. Clarissa Roche, an English literary acquaintance, noted: “In a curious way she seemed uncompleted. Like fragments of mercury racing and quivering toward a center to settle in a self-contained mass, the myriad ramifications of her personality sought a focal point.”

Her suicide resulted mainly from her inability to find that focal point. The poetry, early and late, is replete with closed doors, sheeted mirrors, trains going nowhere, purposelessness, and an optimistic fascination with the possibilities of death. “Sylvia Plath saw no end to the blackness of her world,” notes Eileen Aird, another biographer. The late work evidences a driven energy, a quick vitality and a controlled violence. “Her work,” a critic has written, “is as physical a manifestation as language can give of the tremendous yet vicious energies latent in American life.” [9]

The themes she returns to, though, are those of blockage, the inability to get where she wants to go, except perhaps through death:

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
(“The Moon and the Yew Tree”)

One of her best poems, “Ariel,” begins, “Stasis in darkness / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances,” and ends, “And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.”

Sylvia Plath was not cognizant of what, in fact, had taken place within the heart of her own Culture, and she had no apparent conception of the Culture as a living organism, one that could be damaged by an alien bacillus. Knowing this, and knowing what we now know about her, we should not be surprised that she envied the Jews. In a sentence from the short story “The Mother’s Union” (autobiographical, as usual) she is talking to the rector of a country church: “She hadn’t the heart to tell the rector she had been through all this pious trying ten years before, in comparative-religion classes at college, and only ended up sorry she was not a Jew.”

She perceived Jews as having that sense of racial and cultural identity somehow denied to her; apparent to her also was that this is something one is born into, not something easily acquired, as by conversion. She once told a Jewish acquaintance at Smith: “Everybody today seems so rootless. I know I do. Only the Jews seem to be part of something, to belong to something definite and rooted. I’d like to have that feeling. Maybe I’ll marry one someday and give birth at a plow in Israel.” [10] Sylvia was being pleasant to her classmate; she well realized that anything so far outside the purview of her own nature and being was impossible.

Sylvia did belong to something, but she was unaware of it — though she did make a few confused and guilt-ridden guesses in several of her later poems. But primarily it was through death that she saw herself transformed and reborn, pure and true. One of her biographers, Caroline King Barnard, felt that Sylvia’s preoccupation with death was “imaginative and metaphorical” and her attitude toward it “apocalyptic.” The same author has concluded: “Death in life, then, is Sylvia Plath’s vision, and earthly life is merely a prerequisite for death, often even a preparatory series of small deaths. As Robert Scholes observes, Sylvia’s ‘works do not only come to us posthumously. They were written posthumously. Between suicides.’” [11] A critic states that her poems “frequently perceive of death not as a suicidal ending but as the path to a transformed identity.”

This all sounds nicely philosophical, but it is evidence of total racial and cultural desolation, achieved precisely by cutting the Western artist off from her roots. Her search for identity, the inner contradictions and conflicts she was incapable of resolving, are what make Sylvia’s life and mind so tragically instructive.

Sylvia did not take herself lightly, nor would she take lightly the selection of her mate and the creation of her family. To her “the idea of family [was] absolutely essential.” [12] In overseeing its creation she could transform mere living into something beyond that. The perfect, strong, and pure world she craved could be constructed in her personal and family life.

She — who despised weakness, thought herself easily able to kill, and shrewdly understood the art of bullying literary weaklings — obviously would not be satisfied with an ordinary man to father her children and co-create her family. “If only I could find him . . .” she wrote in her diary at 18, “the man who will be intelligent, yet physically magnetic and personable. If I can offer that combination, why shouldn’t I expect it in a man?” [13] Why not, indeed?

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Sylvia had many male friends while at Smith, and a similarly large number at Cambridge. According to Butscher, however, these boys for the most part were “bound to be on the polite, well-mannered side, dutiful towards women, and ever aware of the social amenities and the need to defer to women, especially in unimportant matters. . . . They were not Nazi enough for Sylvia, their eyes never growing hard ‘like cold steel’; and as a result they could never recreate the father-daughter tyranny Sylvia so desperately wanted.” [14]

Ted Hughes was of a different sort. Tall and blond, self-confident, talented and intelligent, a Yorkshireman of working-class parentage, he entered Sylvia’s life like thunder and lightning. Hughes was 25 when he met Sylvia at Cambridge, and he was a poet. (Hughes now owns an international reputation. “To read Hughes’s poetry,” says Contemporary Authors, “is to enter a world dominated by nature at its most brutal level.”)

A friend who knew both Sylvia and Ted at Cambridge made this observation: “They seemed to have found solid ground in each other. Ted’s gusto took more constructive forms and Sylvia had found a man on the same scale as herself. Her vividness demanded largeness, intensity, an extreme, and Ted was not only physically large, but he had a corresponding largeness of being. He was unfettered, he was unafraid: he didn’t care, in a tidy bourgeois sense, he didn’t care a damn for anyone or anything.” [15]

A September 11, 1956, letter to her mother has Sylvia saying: “I can’t for a minute think of him [Ted] as someone ‘other’ than the male counterpart of myself, always just that many steps ahead of me intellectually and creatively so that I feel very feminine and admiring.” She told friends that Hughes was “very simply the only man I’ve ever met whom I could never boss. . . .” And while we can safely dismiss Butscher’s attempts to shore up a rather simplistic Freudian “Electra” construction in his biographical subject, it may well have been true that “Sylvia relished the idea of being married to someone she could not dominate — who even might manhandle her if sufficiently aroused. . . .” [16] Sylvia, strong and magnetic in her own right, recognized in herself “traces of passive dependence: on Ted, on people around me. A desire even while I write poems about it, to have someone decide my life, tell me what to do, praise me for doing it.” [17]

Of course, this was not all of it. She perceived the marriage as an opportunity to create a microcosmic super-world, a family of superior beings soaring high above the multitudes. True, she needed a strong, guiding hand on her, but to some higher purpose, some glowing, transcendent goal. She was enthusiastic about her “big, handsome bearish brute of a man,” and “preached his virtues and the virtues of their creative life together — breeders of art and an eventual race of similarly gifted offspring.” [18] Her hopes were high, and she envisioned her future children rapturously: “I want a lot — as many as possible. God! Won’t they be marvelous — giants in the earth!” [19]

In her diary Sylvia makes some interesting comments on sex and childbearing, not the kind that are likely to be quoted on the feminist calendars:

“It is not when I have a baby, but that I have one, and more, which is of supreme importance to me. I have always been extremely fond of the definition of Death which says it is: Inaccessibility to Experience, a Jamesian view, but so good. And for a woman to be deprived of the Great Experience her body is formed to partake of, to nourish, is a great and wasting Death. After all, a man need physically do no more than have the usual intercourse to become a father. A woman has 9 months of becoming something other than herself, of separating from this otherness, of feeding it and being a source of milk and honey to it. To be deprived of this is a death indeed. And to consummate love by bearing the child of the loved one is far profounder than any orgasm or intellectual rapport.” [20]

When she was consulting physicians regarding the problem of becoming pregnant, she again wrote down her feelings:

“Suddenly everything is ominous, ironic, deadly. If I could not have children — and if I do not ovulate how can I? — how can they make me? — I would be dead. Dead to my woman’s body. Intercourse would be dead, a dead end. My pleasure no pleasure, a mockery. My writing a hollow and failing substitute for real life, real feeling, instead of a pleasant extra, a bonus flowering and fruiting. Ted should be a patriarch. I a mother. My love for him, to express our love, us, through my body, the doors of my body, utterly thwarted.” [21]

The foregoing is especially interesting in view of the fact that Sylvia has been elevated by some of her admirers to an exalted place in the pantheon of feminist heroines. To lump an honest and incisive writer like Sylvia Plath with the likes of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem is to throw garbage on her grave.

The mundane and seemingly purposeless life around Sylvia was plainly insufficient. She clung to Ted as to a life raft: with him it was that she would, she was confident, find meaning in life. Perfectionist and willing to sacrifice greatly to achieve the desired goal, she expected the same from those she chose as intimates, above all from her husband. Hughes, however, was all too human.

When Sylvia discovered that he had indulged himself in a few sexual dalliances, she wrote in her diary: “I made the most amusing, ironic and fatal step in trusting Ted was unlike other vain and obfuscating and self-indulgent men. . . . What I cannot forgive is dishonesty — and no matter what, or how hard, I would rather know the truth of which I today had such a clear and devastating vision from his mouth than hear foul evasions, blurrings and rattiness. I have a life to finish up here. But what about life without trust — the sense that love is a lie and all joyous sacrifice is ugly duty. I am so tired. My last day, and I cannot sleep for shaking at horror. He is shamed, shameful and shames me and my trust, which is no plea in a world of liars and cheats and broken or vanity-ridden men.” [22]

Sylvia fell victim — not merely to the sense of desertion caused by her father’s death and to the infidelities of her husband — but to the campaign of deception and distortion that has been waged fanatically for more than a century against the integral soul of the West. The health of a Culture will unfailingly reflect itself in the arts of the Culture. When the driving force behind a cultural organism becomes twisted to serve alien purposes, when the magical power behind its natural unfolding is reshaped and used by those who have no comprehension of its inner meaning or necessities, then a kind of death ensues, and a bizarre posturing and puerile flailing about plays counterpoint to a sense of blank deadness, of nothingness. Among the first to feel the effects are those with their inner antennae most sensitively attuned, the artists of that Culture, perhaps in particular the poets. “Poetry is the most ingrown and intense of the creative arts,” Sylvia once wrote. That some of the artists are in the front line of those mouthing the most preposterous egalitarian slogans proves only that propaganda does not have its primary effect on persons of low intelligence, but rather the contrary.

In a study of suicide the writer Alfred Alvarez notes that “[O]ne of the most remarkable features of the arts in this century has been the sudden, sharp rise in the casualty rate among the artists.” [23] Remarkable it may be, but it was certainly predictable. Life void of the vital purpose or meaning that only the cosmic consciousness of a high Culture can impart, particularly among the sensitives like Sylvia Plath, is a life that will seek out the transforming possibilities of death.

Alvarez writes of “. . . this absurdity, this bland sense of there being nothing more to life than life itself, as the foundation on which all modern art rests.” Exactly. And Sylvia Plath’s “death in life” poetry can be understood in this context. In this our unquiet century the West has been struck savage blows. It is not dying a natural death; it is being murdered, choking to death on a mountain of alien filth, and the artists are the first to choke. Again Alvarez: “[B]efore the 20th century it is possible to discuss cases individually, since the gifted artists who killed themselves or were even seriously suicidal were rare exceptions. In the 20th century the balance suddenly shifts: the better the artist, the more vulnerable he seems to be.”

These then were the awesome forces flowing through and around Sylvia Plath. Her German ancestry — which in another time and place could have saved her — made her doubly vulnerable. Sylvia was indeed sick. In her riveting and fascinating verse she made a few telling thrusts toward health, toward a true understanding of her condition, but they were insufficient. Living in a collapsing horror she “created rhythms more compelling and compulsive than anything contemporary poetry has known.” [24]

“Daddy” is one of her best-known poems. If it seems to be “sick,” it is; Sylvia, as noted, was a sick girl. The critic Robert Phillips described it as “full of blackness, one of the most nakedly confessional poems ever written.” On the other hand A. R. Jones believes that this and her other “last poems” achieve a “compulsive intensity not so much from their element of naked confession but from this assumption that in a deranged world, a deranged response is the only possible reaction of the sensitive mind.” Here is “Daddy” in its entirety:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time —
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I could never tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I could never talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An Engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Tarot pack and my Tarot pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat moustache,
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You —

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less the devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So, daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year —
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

In this poem a child (or a woman with a child’s mind) speaks to her dead father. Appropriately, the poem is cast into a nursery-rhyme cadence, with the jaunty and simple — almost soothing — rhythm of the sing-song lines contrasting sharply with the complex horror of the subject matter. As in some of her other poems, Plath also contrasts colors, assigning the bright and light shades to herself and her innocent dependence, and the blacks and grays to father and husband. Also, the soft oo sounds are juxtaposed with the harsh and gutteral ick and ack sounds: ich, back, black, sack, etc. The slick technical virtuosity of the metronomic lines couples with the thematic material — born of Sylvia’s frustrated bewilderment — to impart to the poem its hypnotic and startling effect upon the reader. “Perhaps never in the history of poetry,” writes poetry editor John Frederick Nims, “has the [rhyming] device carried so electric a charge.”

Otto Plath

There are, of course, numerous personal references. The foot and the toe in the first two stanzas refer to the gangrenous parts of her father’s leg, both amputated separately. The “Polish town” is Grabow, where Otto Plath was born. In the 11th stanza the “picture” Sylvia has is literally a photograph of her father (it appears on page 17 of Letters Home) — a no-nonsense, professorial Prussian gentleman staring out at the world before his blackboard.

“At twenty I tried to die . . .” is, of course, a reference to her first suicide attempt. The “man in black with a Meinkampf look” is Ted Hughes; his “love of the rack and the screw” is a humorous Plathian double entendre, not uncommon in her work. The telephone “off at the root” refers to an incident in August 1962 when Ted’s paramour called their home in Devon. When Ted got on the line an enraged Sylvia ripped the phone cord out of the wall. Combined with the next line (“The voices just can’t worm through”) it also becomes a doubly significant metaphor, both for her frustration over her inability to find her own roots and for her agonizing sense of guilt for being German: she has finally silenced both the barely audible voices of her ancestors in her blood, which never did come through as clearly as she wanted, and at the same time quenched the guilt which the sound of those voices always seemed to evoke.

In the penultimate stanza seven years is the length of Sylvia’s marriage.

In reality, Otto Plath was an anti-Nazi, with little apparent interest in politics; he was, however, something of a stern, old-country paterfamilias, a “marble-heavy” colossus worshipped by his daughter. He was strong, he was German, and then he died and abandoned her, leaving her to walk alone through the gauntlet of anti-German hate. “And in her fantasies her father was pure German, pure Aryan, pure anti-semite,” writes Alvarez. The truth, I think, is that Sylvia, absorbing the propaganda, casts him as guilty because German, and herself likewise, both with a sin to expiate. She prays to recover him, she tries to find his (and her own) “root” but fails because there is no communication between the dead father and the girl, nor any longer, in the 1940’s, communication between the good Americans and the monstrous Germans. Very well; abandoned, she will take revenge: she will become “a Jew,” or at least “a bit of a Jew.”

Like Sylvia Plath, artist Gottfried Helnwein has a near-schizoid attitude toward Germany's National Socialists, producing images of that period ranging from the truly horrible to those bordering on an eerie reverence. Here his work Epiphany I, Adoration of the Magi (1996), in which the central female figure has a Plath-like intensity. -- K.A.S.

Most critics assume that because Plath takes a Jewish persona here, she wishes to cast herself as victim. But in the poem she also is a persecutor and a killer. Further, she never says that she is a Jew; she says she may be one. In fact, the whole poem is evidence that Sylvia had no good idea as to who she was, which is the main point of this critique. She also construes (mistakenly) National Socialism as being coldly technical and scientific (“gobbledygoo”), and she opposes it with her irrational artistic temperament.

The “child” who recites this poem is of course a grown woman, one who understands the polarity and the natural spiritual relationship between the sexes. She understands that the reason for male dominance (“male repression,” Butscher calls it) is “the security it engendered. It was not rape so much as an ordering of daily existence.” [25] And so the line, “Every woman adores a Fascist.” Sylvia certainly did, and the problem was that she was never able to find a “Fascist” who was sufficiently “pure or true,” a man with enough mastery over life to be a giver and not a taker, one who could protect her from the consciousness of an existence without purpose, or, more properly, one who could impart a pure and transcendent purpose to her existence.

She creates “a model” of Daddy in Ted Hughes: writer Margaret Dickie Uroff speaks distastefully of Sylvia’s “fascist sensibility” in her relationship to Hughes, and of “her desire to be controlled by an all-powerful figure of force.” [26] Hughes, however, disappointingly turns out to be not the proper “Fascist” of her deepest need, but simply another “vampire,” a taker. At the end of the poem Daddy and Ted become the same person; the “villagers” are both the inhabitants of Grabow and of Devon (the English countryfolk sympathized with the American girl rather than with Ted during the marital split).

She ends the poem by telling them that she is “through,” repeating an earlier line, where “voices just can’t worm through.” Through she is with Daddy and Ted, and doubly through with life, because when she “kills” them she also kills her last illusions; the “worms” connote the destiny of her corpse. The fury directed against the male in “Daddy,” and in her “Lady Lazarus” and other late poems, is not that of the embittered spinster or the man-hating lesbian, but of a woman who placed her life in the hands of men and found them wanting. The English writer Anthony M. Ludovici has pointed out that it is precisely women of this kind who become the termagants active in feminist politics. [27] Feminism is the end product of male decline, which in turn is the result of warped or eroding cultural forces.

Sylvia was bound to her own Culture, albeit unknowingly. If she had been a Jew she would not have had this problem of “Fascists” to contend with; much less would she have had to “kill” them with such inner torment. She hates Fascists because she loves them; because of their failure, she is “through.”

“Despite everything,” says Alvarez, “‘Daddy’ is a love poem.” And it is also a suicide note, one of many Sylvia left in her poetry in her last six months.

Sylvia’s pretension in this poem of possibly being a concentration-camp Jew in order to spite her “Panzer-man” daddy who did not have the strength to survive past her own childhood was successful in hoodwinking some critics (such as her former classics professor at Cambridge, a Jewess now resident in Israel). It angered others, however. Calvin Bedient, his fingers delicately gloved, writes of Sylvia’s “vanity mirror. When she writes as if she were as abused as a Nazi victim she climbs to self-importance over the bodies of the dead. She enters a moral sphere that her amoral personal imagination cannot apprehend.” Strong words. Joyce Carol Oates, presumably playing to her New York audience, is equally repulsed: “If she tells us she may be a bit of a ‘Jew,’ it is only to define herself, her sorrows, and not to involve our sympathies for the Jews of recent European history.”

The distinguished Marxist-Jewish social and literary critic Irving Howe is absolutely outraged. That this shiksa should exploit the Holocaust myth for her own purposes surely takes more chutzpah than he himself ever mustered when he sent his scribblings to the publishers. Howe froths at Sylvia’s “illegitimate comparisons to the Holocaust” and states bitterly: “There is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one’s father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews.” [28]

Another writer believes he has sniffed out an even greater rat. By claiming that Plath’s view of “the cycles of history” was the same as that of Yeats, which led the Irish poet “to a passive acceptance of fascism,” Jerome Mazzaro thinks that the purity Sylvia achieved through her “deaths” is tainted: “Yet, the new purity that she gains has accomplished exactly what Alfred Rosenberg had imagined for the German race: a superman who can challenge ‘Herr God’ and ‘Herr Lucifer’ by having gained self-discipline. She has, in effect, undergone the dehumanization that Radin finds common in aboriginal African deities, although [her poem] ‘Brasilia’ (1963) once more binds the dreaming back to Nietzsche and Germany by referring to its survivors as ‘super-people.’” [29]

Sylvia Plath probably had no real choice — in an existential sense — but to commit suicide. Her deed was strangely logical and quite proper, given the type of person and artist that she was. The resignation and total nihilism of her final poems are chilling: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment, / The illusion of a Greek necessity / Flows in the scrolls of her toga, / Her bare / Feet seem to be saying: / We have come so far, it is over.” (“Edge”)

Also: “Once one has seen God, what is the remedy? / Once one has been seized up / Without a part left over, / Not a toe, not a finger, and used, / Used utterly, in the sun’s conflagrations, the stains / That lengthen from ancient cathedrals / What is the remedy?” (“Mystic”)

For one alienated by lies from the basically non-rational consciousness of one’s race and culture, there is no remedy, neither for the mystic nor for the intense and brilliant poet, searching for a cause to serve. If she had been born earlier and into the land of her fathers, she should likely have found it; likely, too, to have been — as was the case with other well-known German women — a celebrity devotee of that man of mythic dimensions who ruled Germany for a brief period in this century.

But there was none of this. She was another victim in the war still being waged against the West. She went down in a creative blaze, but, unfortunately, without definitively fingering her destroyers.

It can only be devoutly hoped that in the future some of the more prideful and combative Western artists will seize the dagger pointed at their own hearts and plunge it where it properly belongs: into the vitals of the malevolent and smirking thing that destroyed Sylvia Plath and will destroy the future Sylvia Plaths until it is finally thrust into the graveyard of History.

NOTES

1. Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (Continuum, 1976), p. 104.

2. Elizabeth Sigmund, “Sylvia in Devon: 1962,” in Sylvia Plath: the Woman and the Work, edited by Edward Butscher (Dodd, Mead, 1977), p. 108.

3. Butscher, op. cit., p. 238.

4. Ibid., p. 174.

5. Aurelia Schober Plath, ed., Letters Home (Harper & Row, 1975), p. 40.

6. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough, eds., The Journals of Sylvia Plath (Dial Press, 1982), p. 213.

7. Ibid., pp. 237-8.

8. Wendy Campbell, “Remembering Sylvia,” in The Art of Sylvia Plath, edited by Charles Newman (Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 83, 86.

9. Jon Rosenblatt, Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation (University of North Carolina Press, 1979), p. 162.

10. Butscher, op. cit., p. 173.

11. Caroline King Barnard, Sylvia Plath (Twayne Publications, 1978), p. 107.

12. Butscher, op. cit., pp. 227-8.

13. Hughes, ed., op. cit., p. 15.

14. Butscher, op. cit., p. 95.

15. Campbell, op. cit., p. 184.

16. Butscher, op. cit., p. 207.

17. Hughes, ed., op. cit., p. 327.

18. Butscher, op. cit., p. 217.

19. Ibid., p. 193.

20. Hughes, ed., op. cit., p. 310.

21. Ibid., p. 312.

22. Ibid., p. 234.

23. Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Random House, 1972), p. 237.

24. Arthur Oberg, “Sylvia Plath and the New Decadence,” in Butscher, ed., op. cit., p. 179.

25. Butscher, op. cit., p. 338.

26. Margaret Dickie Uroff, Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (University of Illinois Press, 1979), p. 69.

27. Anthony M. Ludovici, Woman: A Vindication (Knopf, 1928).

28. Irving Howe, “The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent,” in Butscher, ed., op. cit., pp. 230, 232-3.

29. Jerome Mazzaro, “Sylvia Plath and the Cycles of History,” in Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, edited by Gary Lane (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 235

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9 Comments

  1. Arvin N. Prebost
    December 14, 2010 at 9:30 am — Reply

    The author of this article states that Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, “indulged in a few sexual dalliances.”

    Sort of like saying that Ted Hughes “had a few beers.”

    What’s the problem, just a few sexual dalliances!

    This will not do for me; sex is sacred and should be treated as such.

    Apparently, it was sacred for Plath, also.

    White Nationalists need to recover the sacred nature of sex and marriage. It could be that viewing it as sacred came from Christianity; regardless, women must not stop paying attention to their husbands after they have children, and men must not engage in any dalliances.

    This can also be taught, along with pride in one’s race. I don’t think it needs any religious foundation at all.

  2. Alex
    December 14, 2010 at 11:16 am — Reply

    Not surprisingly, race wasn’t any more sacred to Ted Hughes than sex was. His mistress, Assia Wevill, was a Jewess to whom not even life itself was sacred. She aborted in utero the first child that she and Hughes had, and in 1969 she murdered their four-year-old daughter.

  3. Andrew
    December 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm — Reply

    Arvin, I agree.

    From amateur genealogical and historical research done by my mother’s 2nd cousin, now almost 100, I recently learned that the mythology of my Viking ancestors revered sexual energy because it was a grand and beautiful mystery, like all of Nature for that matter.

    She said couples typically began their families shortly after betrothal and would formally wed a year or two later. Women were also property owners and a woman who had children by a previous relationship, assuming she had not dishonored the clan in some other way, was valued for her proven fertility, another sacred aspect of Nature. Whether professional historians would confirm my distant cousin’s views I don’t know

    Thank you, Alex, for the further information.

    The deep and tragic rift between White men and women must be healed. I sometimes wonder whether any of us alive today have completely escaped its poison. So much to ponder.

  4. MOB
    December 15, 2010 at 7:43 pm — Reply

    Sylvia Plath’s mother was Aurelia Frances Schober, daughter of Franz (Ameericanized to Frank) Schober of Austria, and his wife Aurelia Grunwald (Americanized to Aurelia Greenwood). “Esther Greenwood” is the name of the heroine in Sylvia Plath’s famous novel, The Bell Jar, in which her relationship with the mother she claimed she hated was portrayed. Plath’s mother was twenty-one years younger than her husband, Otto.

    Otto Plath had become alienated from his family because he chose not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents had intended him to be. He died in 1940, a week after Plath’s eighth birthday, of complications following the amputation of a foot due to untreated diabetes. Raised a Unitarian Christian, Plath experienced a loss of faith after her father’s death, and remained ambivalent about religion throughout her life.

    Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes, already a well-known poet, in June 1956 after a 4 month acquaintance; she was 24 years old and psychologically fragile, having been treated by shock therapy for depression a few years earlier. In June 1959 she became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter in March 1960. In February 1961, she has a miscarriage. Four months later she discovers her husband’s infidelity with chronically immoral Assia Gutman Wevil–both Sylvia and Assia are pregnant with Hughes’ child..

    January 1962, Sylvia and Ted’s son, Nicholas, is born, and in September they divorce. Three months later, In December 1962, Sylvia returns to their flat alone with their two children, aged 2 1/2 and 9 months; both are sick, and the pipes are frozen.

    On February 11, 1963 she commits suicide.

    Here, http://www.sylviaplath.de/plath/freedman.html, there’s an interesting article entitled “The Monster in Plath’s ‘Mirror’” written by William Freedman, in which he discusses Plath’s use of the mirror as a symbol of female passivity, subjugation, and Plath’s own conflicted self-identity caused by social pressure to reconcile the competing obligations of artistic and domestic life.

    He writes, “For many women writers, the search in the mirror is ultimately a search for the self, often for the self as artist. So it is in Plath’s poem “Mirror.” Here, the figure gazing at and reflected in the mirror is neither the child nor the man the woman-as-mirror habitually reflects, but a woman. In this poem, the mirror is in effect looking into itself, for the image in the mirror is woman, the object that is itself more mirror than person. A woman will see herself both in and as a mirror. To look into the glass is to look for oneself inside or as reflected on the surface of the mirror and to seek or discover oneself in the person (or non-person) of the mirror.

    “The “She” who seeks in the reflecting lake a flattering distortion of herself is an image of one aspect of the mirror into which she gazes. She is the woman as male-defined ideal or as the ideal manqué, the woman who desires to remain forever the “young girl” and who “turns to those liars, the candles or the moon” for confirmation of the man-pleasing myth of perpetual youth, docility, and sexual allure. As such, she is the personification–or reflection–of the mirror as passive servant, the preconditionless object whose perception is a form of helpless swallowing or absorption. The image that finally appears in the mirror, the old woman as “terrible fish,” is the opposite or “dark” side of the mirror. She is the mirror who takes a kind of fierce pleasure in her uncompromising veracity and who, by rejecting the role of passive reflector for a more creative autonomy, becomes, in that same male-inscribed view, a devouring monster.”

    It’s very true that sex is a powerful energizer–I’m tempted to say, the most powerful energizer of all. But for a sensitive 24-year old female, who needed the reliable warm kindness of a loving friend, partner, or husband–-the raw sexual behavior of Ted Hughes was surely traumatizing, unbalancing. And she had neither parents, religion, nor, most importantly, an identity of her own, to hold her up.

    On March 23, 1969, 41-year-old Assia Wevill took her own and her 4-year-old daughter Shura’s life by lying on a mattress in the kitchen and turning on the gas stove.

    On March 16, 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the son of Plath and Hughes, hanged himself at his home in Alaska, following a history of depression.

    As Hughes and Plath were legally married at the time of her death, Hughes inherited the Plath estate, including all her written work. Still the subject of criticism for the circumstances of his two wives’ suicides, Hughes published Birthday Letters in 1998, his own collection of 88 poems about his relationship with Plath, topping best seller charts. It was not known that Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer and would die later that year. The poems, written after her death, “are an account of a failure, circling round a missing centre, trying to find a reason for why she took her own life.”

    I can’t imagine. What could the reason possibly be….

  5. Fran
    January 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm — Reply

    Do you know of a college symposium or university class that will focus on the poetry of Plath? I live in NJ. Fran

  6. MOB
    January 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm — Reply

    Smith might be a good place to start searching.

    Coincidentally, there is this 1/10-14/2011:

    http://www.smith.edu/archives/courses.php

    This took place in 2008:

    http://www.smith.edu/libraries/fyi/plathconference.htm

  7. Rich
    September 10, 2011 at 4:14 am — Reply

    Great article.

  8. […] AUSTRIAN-BORN ARTIST Gottfried Helnwein (pictured) republished the National Vanguard article “Sylvia Plath: Stasis in Darkness” on his Helnwein-Theater Web site in response to NV Editor Kevin Alfred Strom’s use of […]

  9. […] AUSTRIAN-BORN ARTIST Gottfried Helnwein (pictured) republished the National Vanguard article “Sylvia Plath: Stasis in Darkness” on his Helnwein-Theater Web site in response to NV Editor Kevin Alfred Strom’s use of […]

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