Feb. 11, 1963—On her third and last suicide attempt, having carefully stuffed the pipes in her London flat so her two young children upstairs would not breathe in the fumes, 30-year-old poet Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven of her kitchen, turned up the gas, and died, achieving a kind of ghoulish immortality as a symbol of victimized rage.
For a long time, students of literature would have picked up on one word in that last sentence—“third”—as a mistake. But, if a new biography of the estranged wife of British poet Ted Hughes by Andrew Wilson is to be believed, Plath had not only tried to kill herself in August 1953—a full decade before her death—but even at age 10, two years after the death of her father.
Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted benefited from access to the obsessive record-keeping of Plath’s mother, Aurelia. While Hughes became an object of hatred to feminists for driving not merely one, but two of the men he took up with to suicide, it seems that, in Plath’s case, there already was a tendency toward self-annihilation of long standing.
I have written before about the fateful meeting between Plath and Hughes, a portent of the extreme emotions that would surface after his infidelity, their breakup and her death. Hughes, according to friend Al Alvarez’s account to The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman (1993), might have been a man whom women practically threw themselves at, but he had spectacularly bad luck with the two first, principal women in his adult life: both Plath and the woman he took up with and left his wife for, Assia Wevill, killed themselves over him.
In the years after Plath’s death, Hughes, as literary executor of her estate (they had not yet divorced at the time of her passing), had his sister Olwyn, as literary agent for the estate, control access to his dead wife’s work. Despite strenuous efforts to protect his and his family’s privacy—not to mention shape perceptions of their marriage—the surviving poet’s reputation took a hit from which, in a real sense, it never really recovered.
“To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes’ unfaithfulness,” wrote Malcolm. As for Hughes: “he has been cheated of the peace that age brings by the posthumous fame of Plath and by the public’s fascination with the story of her life.”
A few weeks ago, I stood in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in London and noticed the proximity of Hughes’ memorial there to that of two important influences on his work: Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot. As it happened, all three contracted first marriages that were train wrecks, and all would be haunted to the end of their days by the breakup of these relationships.
The inscription on Hughes’ memorial in perhaps England’s most hallowed tribute to its literary geniuses hints at a kind of peace found in nature: “So we found the end of our journey, So we stood alive in the river of light, Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.” For Plath, however, the end of life, in “Edge,” the last poem she finished, only days before her death in one of the historically worst winters England had ever faced, the end is something infinitely more harrowing, an almost hideous art form:
“The woman is perfected,
Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”