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Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study by Tim Kendall

Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study
by Tim Kendall

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Though biographical sensation has often diverted attention from her work, Sylvia Plath remains one of the finest lyric poets of the twentieth century, argues Professor Tim Kendall, Academic Director of Arts and Culture at Exeter and author of Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. Here, he recommends the best places to start (or return to) with Plath, from a fresh look at Ariel to illuminating an oft-overlooked, brilliant appendix in her unabridged journals.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study by Tim Kendall

Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study
by Tim Kendall

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Tim Kendall

Tim Kendall has taught at the universities of Oxford, Newcastle, and Bristol before becoming Professor and Head of English at the University of Exeter. He is the author of the defining critical work Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study (2001). His other publications include Modern English War Poetry (2006), The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (ed.) (2007), and The Art of Robert Frost (2012). He is co-editor of The Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney (forthcoming). He was Producer of the BBC documentary Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar (2018).

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It seems silly to start off with the question ‘Who was Sylvia Plath?’ given the sheer level of her fame, so I’ll ask a slightly different one. Quite apart from the image everyone has of her in the popular imagination, the biographical sensation, why should we read Sylvia Plath?

She’s one of the finest lyric poets of the last century. I distinctly remember the revelation that came after getting hold of the Faber Selected Poems around the age of 15 or 16. What I loved most about her poetry were her landscapes. She has always seemed to me first and foremost a landscape poet (which is also a convenient way for me to duck away from the biographical industry surrounding her work). I’d go to the stake defending Plath’s poetry.

Is part of that defending her against the ‘biographical industry’ you mention?

Almost from the start, fascination with Plath’s biography has tended to obscure the artistry of the work itself. That’s undoubtedly true. But when you think about the relationship between art and life in Plath’s case, it’s very hard to take a purist view and pretend that the biography doesn’t matter. She herself is alchemizing life into art—in The Bell Jar of course, very obviously, and also in the poetry itself.

“It’s very hard to take a purist view and pretend that the biography doesn’t matter. She herself is alchemizing life into art”

You constantly need to be aware of her life to understand how she turns it into great art, so I wouldn’t want to be too damning about biographical speculation. At the same time, most of us probably groan whenever we see another new story about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in the newspaper. Clearly, there’s an audience for it, or else no one would report on it. But what more could we possibly be told that would help to illuminate the work itself?

Moving on to the work itself, your first choice, The Bell Jar, tells the story of Esther Greenwood’s summer internship at a fashion magazine, but it’s woven throughout with fictionalized threads of Plath’s own life. Tell us about this book and why you chose it.

It’s a wonderful novel, one that’s been very important to a vast audience. It also speaks to our age with particular urgency owing to its interest in women’s rights, the sexual double-standard, and so on.

The Bell Jar is the first complete demonstration of a myth that runs throughout so much of Plath’s great poetry: the myth of death and rebirth. That’s set out very clearly in the novel: Esther has a kind of symbolic death; she goes through a suicide attempt, and subsequently struggles to be reborn into something glorious, new and vibrant. At the end of the novel, her recovery is rather tentative. The extent to which she has come out the other side and escaped from her depression and trauma is unclear.

“The only problem with rebirth, of course, is that you have to die first”

What’s interesting in this respect are three or four moments in the novel where Esther refers to the fact that she now has a baby. For example, she tells us early on, “last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sun-glasses case for the baby to play with.” Somehow, between the end of the novel’s events and the time of Esther writing it, she has accomplished the very thing which she insists throughout the novel she can’t or won’t do; that is, settle down, have a baby, and (potentially, at least) be in a secure, stable relationship with a man. It’s a sign that Esther’s recovery may have been more complete than the novel elsewhere wants us to accept.

There is also, of course, the name ‘Esther Greenwood’ itself. It highlights through homonyms the presence of this myth: ‘Esther’ evoking ‘Easter’, and ‘Greenwood’ the symbol of spring. (And Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas—Victory of Light.) So, in prose, Plath begins to explore a myth which we catch over and over again in Christianity and paganism, and which will go on to dominate the poetry she writes in 1962. The only problem with rebirth, of course, is that you have to die first.

It’s interesting that you head up the gap between the end of the novel and its writing. Plath wrote The Bell Jar in only six weeks after the birth of her daughter, Frieda Hughes.

And it’s worth remembering that she wrote it at a very happy time in her marriage. I think something of that comes across in the book. If The Bell Jar is a study of Plath’s own past, she writes from the security of having survived it. In a late letter to her mother, she says that what the suffering individual wants “is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there & knows the worst, just what it is like.” She’s able to write her witness account because of her current circumstance as someone who, as she sees it, has come through.

In one of my favorite parts of The Bell Jar, Esther imagines her former boyfriend, medical student Buddy Willard, teasingly postulating that a poem is “a piece of dust.” Beating him to the rhetorical punch, Esther responds:

So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.

It’s a witty retort, but does it also speak to the biographical fallacy that’s so often a trap in Plath scholarship? It’s as if, through her writing, she’s saying from beyond the grave that the work itself is the only thing that isn’t ephemeral.

That’s right. It’s a great moment of resistance in the novel too, isn’t it? This isn’t the adoring, doe-eyed girlfriend, looking up admiringly at this hunky medical student—it’s someone who’s prepared to overturn the traditional gender roles. Someone who’s prepared to fight for art against a rather philistine science, in this case.

The Bell Jar is viciously funny”

When we made the BBC documentary on The Bell Jar recently, the director, Teresa Griffiths, tracked down these amazing octogenarians who’d been friends or boyfriends of Plath. The theme they all kept coming back to, even 60 years after the fact, was the continuing impact of Plath on their lives. Here was a woman with an extraordinary energy and vitality. You get a taste of it in The Bell Jar: even in her depression, Esther has a lasting effect on everyone she encounters, and she’s certainly more than a match for Buddy.

It makes me think of the funny bravado of Plath’s meta-literary flourishes in the book, too. When Esther decides at one point to write a novel, she says:

My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.

There are also six letters in ‘Sylvia’, a little wink to the reader (or maybe just to herself, since The Bell Jar was first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas). Do readers underestimate the degree to which Plath can be clever and cheeky?

You’re absolutely right to stress its comedy. So much of Plath’s work is funny. Despite its subject matter, The Bell Jar is often a very funny novel. Even its idiom is comic: “steering New York like her own private car”; “anonymous young men with all-American bone structures hired or loaned for the occasion.” Perhaps we miss it because the pall of Plath’s biography descends across the whole work and reputation. But The Bell Jar is viciously funny. There are people still alive today who won’t talk about it because they were so badly hurt by Plath’s portrayal of them.

What I liked about the BBC documentary was the way it illuminated how packed The Bell Jar is with social critique written with an almost scientific precision. What does she have to say about mid-twentieth-century patriarchal society?

I always recall Esther’s reaction when her mother is encouraging her to learn shorthand so that she can become a secretary (for a man, of course): “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way.” Clearly, for its time The Bell Jar is a radical feminist text in that regard.

The caveat is that it’s hard to find a woman in the novel who’s entirely admirable. Esther is constantly looking around for a role model and failing to come up with one. It’s a feminist crisis, in a way, but it’s a crisis for Esther on a purely personal level, too. She has some idea of what she wants to be, but she has more of an idea of what she doesn’t want to be. And she is paralyzed by choice: choosing one path means turning away from all the others. So it’s a novel partly about having choice to an extent that previous generations of women mostly didn’t have, but at the same time, not having as much choice as the men.

Part of me wants to challenge the feminist resistance reading of, say, Esther refusing to learn shorthand. Of the 500 or so letters collected in the second volume of Plath’s letters, another of your choices, 230 are letters to Aurelia Plath, her mother. I remember reading some of these previously selected in Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 and feeling like I was seeing a completely different side to her: the Plath who played nice and performed the role of the cunning-yet-chipper ‘good girl’ or ‘good wife’ for her mother. Esther boldly refuses the role of secretary, but how many of Plath’s letters home are essentially about being that—a kind of secretary—for Ted Hughes?

Exactly. When Letters Home came out, a lot of people were dismayed by Plath’s persona in those letters to her mother: very conventional, very conformist, very submissive to gender stereotypes. One answer to that is to say, ’Well, this isn’t the real Sylvia Plath—this is Sylvia performing for a particular audience, in this case her own mother.’ But these gender roles form an important part of Plath’s identity that she comes back to again and again in the Journals, The Bell Jar, and sometimes in her poetry as well.

She’s not simply rejecting convention—those gender roles are vital to her and to her identity, but they’re not in themselves sufficient. She can’t accept them, but they’re necessarily part of who she is.

So it’s a battle between two selves she can’t seem to successfully enmesh: genius and mother, writer and wife. We find this also in Plath’s Journals, which were life-changing for me when I first encountered them as a teenager. Her raw intelligence and self-lacerating ambition are unignorable: she’s often as vulnerable as she is vivacious, and she has a keen eye for natural beauty and human situations. Are there specific entries or sections that really stand out to you?

The Journals are, in their unabridged state, an astonishing body of work. We talk about how poets are born, not made, but what I always take away from every page of the Journals—and it’s a serious slab of a book—is the extent to which Plath was both born and self-made. They are a testament to the determination and sheer force of will that drove her to become the writer that she knew she was capable of becoming. She fought and fought and fought against all those things we’ve talked about—both social, patriarchal pressures and her own demons—in order to break through to become the kind of writer she knew herself to be.

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Before picking out a particular section from the Journals, I want to say how well edited they have been. This is true of the Letters as well. Much has been written about how Plath’s work has been brought to a public audience through the decades, not all of it complimentary, but in recent years she has been exceptionally well served. Karen Kukil and Peter Steinberg have both done a fantastic job.

I mention that because I want to talk about a part of the Journals that could easily have been omitted altogether by a less attentive editor: Appendix 15. Nobody reads appendices, so I don’t know how many people will even have noticed what’s there. Appendix 15 is a selection of character sketches of Plath’s Devon neighbors written in 1962. So these are very late—much later than The Bell Jar, obviously. We might look at them even more closely for that very reason, to find clues about the kind of novelist that Plath might have gone on to become.

“To me, this is Plath’s gift and her duty: to record, no matter what the cost to self”

I always come back to the ‘Rose & Percy Key’ sketch. Percy, Plath’s neighbor, is sick in the first half of 1962, and his illness is mentioned in several of Plath’s poems. But the journal more closely records his decline, with moments of fantastic candor on Plath’s part. For example, she writes at one point that Percy has had a stroke. Ted runs out to help; Plath stands by the doorway and hesitates, not knowing what to do. Ultimately, she goes across to Percy as well: “I thought I would stay and wait, and then something in me said, now, you must see this, you have never seen a stroke or a dead person.” That’s the writer’s compulsion. She forces herself to go over and have a look—to record in graphic detail, not necessarily for the audience but for herself, because she needs to see it.

A couple of pages further on, Percy is even more ill. Plath goes over again and she looks at him, fascinated and disgusted, and she writes, “His eyes showed through partly open lids like dissolved soaps or a clotted pus. I was very sick at this and had a bad migraine over my left eye for the rest of the day.” She experiences the pain of looking, but she has to look. She has to go. She has to dwell on these things. She not only witnesses them—she dwells on them in her journals subsequently. And she dwells on the cost of this witnessing: she’ll have a migraine the rest of the day. To me, this is Plath’s gift and her duty: to record, no matter what the cost to self. You find proof of this all the way through the Journals, but especially in those character sketches.

Often, the Journals are as much self-admonitions as records of her daily life: in one entry she writes, “Be stoic when necessary & write—you have seen a lot, felt deeply & your problems are universal enough to be made meaningful–WRITE—”. She’s a bit like a medical student, training herself in brutal, gruelling ways to see everything around her.

You’re absolutely right. It goes straight back to The Bell Jar, doesn’t it? To Buddy Willard trying to show her fetuses in the jars, showing her the picture of the woman with a tumor who’s going to die soon. Buddy is of course showing off, but Plath herself absolutely wants to claim that ability to look, for herself and for her art.

It reminds me of a moment in Kipling’s autobiography Something of Myself (1937). He’s growing up in India, and a vulture has flown over from the nearby Towers of Silence and dropped a child’s hand in his garden. His mother is distressed and keeps him away, but all Kipling reports is “I wanted to see that child’s hand.” It’s exactly what Plath’s describing: the sense that, no matter how horrific, she needs to see it and know it.

So the Journals are essential not only for any reader of Plath, but also for any burgeoning young writer. Where do her diaries end? Can you talk a bit about Plath’s infamous ‘lost’ journals?

Absolutely. The character sketches of 1962 are exercises; they’re not a typical daily journal entry. Hughes admits to having destroyed her very last journal, and the penultimate one is missing. The belief is that it was deliberately taken from Hughes’s possession by someone. So, it may still be out there, and it may turn up one day.

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There’s been endless speculation and grievance over Hughes’s treatment of Plath’s manuscripts after her death. He confesses to destroying the final journal, in order, he says, to protect his children. Well, we can’t read it, and it’s hard to judge when we don’t know what he was protecting them from. Of course, we all wish that the journal had survived, but we can at least understand the dilemma.

The dilemma he faced was of course a familial one. I often remember a few lines of a poem by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, called ‘Readers’: “They called her theirs. / All this time I had thought / she belonged to me most”, which is just heartbreaking.

Absolutely. When we made the BBC documentary, we couldn’t have done it without Frieda Hughes’s blessing—and not merely blessing, but active support. The whole media circus tends to forget that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were more than a scholarly debate; they were real people who still have loved ones alive today. Plath was someone’s parent, someone’s sister, someone’s friend. That has been ignored too often through the decades; there is a callous voyeurism about so much that is written.

With that in mind, let’s discuss your fourth pick, the newly-published, two-volume Letters of Sylvia Plath. The first volume—a hefty 1,400 pages—spans her adolescence and early adulthood at Smith College, first suicide attempt in 1953, the events that inspired The Bell Jar, and taking up a Fulbright scholarship at Newnham College, Cambridge. The second volume begins the year Plath meets Ted Hughes and ends with her death. It contains compelling, unusual letters written by Plath to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, alleging abuse suffered at the hands of Hughes. Do we approach these kind of revelations differently now, given they’ve appeared when both Ted and Olwyn Hughes (the last executor of Plath’s estate before Frieda Hughes) are no longer living?

This may sound like evasion, but having read those letters to her psychiatrist, and those allegations about, for example, Ted Hughes’s behavior—what more is there to say or do? How can we ever know? Frieda Hughes addresses an impossible situation with grace and courage when she writes about her parents in the ‘Foreword’ to the second volume: “they are both flawed and impassioned human beings and I love them more for this.” For me, the important question is whether those letters should change the ways in which we read Plath’s work, and I’m not yet persuaded that they make any difference at all.

But what you can do, I suppose, is note that these letters her psychiatrist are written quite well. They’re so different in style and tone compared to most of the others.

They are, although many of the reviewers went straight for them because they’re the most obvious place to generate lurid exposés about the Hughes-Plath marriage.

When I first read Plath’s Journals, I remember thinking that they could be split in two halves—before Ted, and after Ted—each with what I thought were radically different writerly personalities. Do we notice similar shifts as she develops her epistolary personality?

You know, I’m fascinated by that, because this hadn’t occurred to me before. People have remarked on how the Collected Poems begins in 1956, as if Hughes turns up and suddenly Plath starts writing poems that we need to pay attention to—a matter of cause and effect.

When it comes to the letters themselves, like any of us, Plath adapts her manner to her audience. (This goes back to what I was saying about Letters Home.) ‘Who is Sylvia?’ She contains multitudes—with at least as many personae as there are correspondents. The Plath of Letters Home is vastly different from the Plath of the Beuscher letters, who is different again from the Plath writing to the Catholic priest Michael Carey (and sending him, of all poems, ‘Mary’s Song’!). She’s all these personae and more.

“The media circus tends to forget that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were more than a scholarly debate; they were real people who still have loved ones alive today”

Through the divorce from Ted, the identity that Plath had created for herself crumbles away. In those last few letters, you can see her struggle as she tries to look for what’ll happen next, looking for the new identity. Can I do this again? Can I still perform the rebirth? She realises that no, actually, this time, she can’t do it. To quote ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to.”

It’s interesting that you point out that the Collected Poems, your next choice, begins in 1956 when Plath met Hughes, as if to suggest this is the start of everything. How does her career as a poet begin, even before she meets Ted in 1956? How do we sketch her development—do we divide it into discrete phases?

There will be people who disagree quite strongly with what I’m about to say . . . What Plath most often wrestles with is a sense that, as the metaphor of a bell jar suggests, she’s seeing the world through glass. She’s trapped. She’s constrained. She knows that there’s something greater within her, but it can’t break through. She’s struggling; she’s puzzled. To borrow one of her titles as a metaphor, she’s writing ‘stillborn’ poems. Scholars like Christina Britzolakis have written powerfully about why they think that this breakthrough narrative isn’t appropriate, but it seems right to me, and it’s Plath’s own language to describe her development as a poet.

It’s always seemed to me that Plath develops in fits and starts. There’s no kind of linear progression; she goes through phases. She’ll try out one style for a period, and then she’ll fall silent, and then she’ll try out another one and fall silent. Like any apprentice poet, she’s experimenting, casting off styles as she goes. This even happens in the last year of her life. One of the great things about Collected Poems is that you can see exactly—to the day—when each poem was written. You can say, ‘Oh, that group of five poems goes together; they were all written in a week, and have this motif or image in common.’

“It’s always seemed to me that Plath develops in fits and starts”

An obvious case is those 1963 poems, which are very, very different from the 1962 poems we normally think of as the ‘Ariel voice.’ Compare ‘Ariel’ with ‘Sheep in Fog’, for example: they’re both poems about riding a horse on Dartmoor. Yet ‘Ariel’ is about accelerating into the red heat of the sun. It’s all passion and speed; it starts with stasis in darkness and ends with suicidal recklessness. A poem like ‘Sheep in Fog’ is the aftermath of that horse ride. She’s going back to a stable. It’s cold. There’s a sense of defeat, of despondency. It’s all over. There’s no rebirth, no energy. So, much like we think of an artist like Picasso casting off styles in different periods, Plath goes through phases of development. It happens in a very quick way. Really, there is no single ’Ariel style’, but four or five distinctive phases within it.

The idea of reading Collected Poems like a working poet’s draft-book is so fascinating. You also mentioned earlier that you primarily thought of Plath as a landscape poet. Could you say more about that?

The fundamental drama of so many of her poems comes from the isolated speaker being immersed in an alien landscape, what that landscape is doing to her, and how she interacts with it. The landscapes gradually become mindscapes and bodyscapes—or at least, the reader can no longer tell the difference. “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” Are we in Plath’s mind? Are we in a physical place?

On one hand, she’s clearly engaging with British Romanticism. You can’t really think about landscape without thinking about Wordsworth. But she’s also coming out of an American tradition: she has read Emerson, and she’s interested in the relationship between the seeing eye and nature; whether nature is benign, as Emerson might argue, because it is the work of God; whether you might receive illumination from it; or whether it’s potentially threatening and malign. Eyes in Plath are very often damaged or blind. You’ll notice ‘Ariel’ ends with “the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.” Even the sun gets an arrow in its eye, Harold-like, at that point. Remember the Journals: the fascinated horror of seeing Percy Key in his deteriorated state, with her description of his eyes’ clotted pus.

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Landscape is an element of continuity within Plath’s work. In any given period, there will always be a poem in which a speaker engages with, or is threatened or assaulted by, the landscape. “The horizons ring me like faggots”: her persona is encircled by landscape, which has the potential here to burn her up. Plath, I think, is much more interested in landscapes than most of the poets she’s often compared with—Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, for example. And Hughes’s relationship with nature is importantly different from Plath’s. When Plath positions herself in the landscape, she’s vulnerable in a way that Hughes’s predators really aren’t. Hughes is interested almost always in predators; Plath is sometimes interested in the prey—the pheasant which may get shot, the rabbits strangled by snares—and the prey may turn out to be herself.

Plath has at times reminded me a lot of Heaney, or even the theatricality of Berryman. But maybe I’m just biased because those are some of my favorite poets.

I love Berryman. You’re right to think of Berryman, but the relationship with Heaney is intriguing. Heaney, who is the most generous of readers, a celebrant who very rarely has a bad word to say about any poet at all—and yet one of the very few poets he criticizes is Sylvia Plath.

“Plath is dramatizing the Electra complex”

He praised her technique, acknowledging that “there is nothing poetically flawed about Plath’s work”, but in the end he couldn’t allow the references to Jewishness in a poem like ‘Daddy’, for example. He writes that though the poem is a “tour de force”, it “rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy.” I think he’s got it wrong, not least because he thinks that the poem is interested in winning his sympathy. He’s thinking of the ‘I’ in ‘Daddy’ as Plath writing in propria persona, but actually, the poem is another dramatic monologue. Plath is dramatizing the Electra complex: there’s supposed to be something absurd and ridiculous about the father being a Nazi and the mother a Jew.

Those phrases in ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’ are always, for me, hard to read. They seem to abolish all grades between different levels of suffering, saying ‘Look at me’. How should a modern reader approach them? It’s hard to get past their tastelessness. Even if we acknowledge that she isn’t the speaker of these poems, she is in some way accountable for them.

She is. It’s no good to write a racist poem, for example, only to claim, ‘Oh, but no, I’m not the speaker!’ That’s not quite what Plath’s doing.

I think there’s something more sophisticated going on in ‘Daddy’. She’s depicting a psychodrama of extremity. The story goes that she read ‘Daddy’ aloud to her friend Clarissa Roche, and they ended up in gales of laughter. Of course, one of the poem’s joys is that it deals with these taboo subjects through nursery-like rhythms and rhymes. ‘Daddy’ is made up of the ‘-oo’ rhyme (“You do not do, you do not do”) and the “-ck” rhyme (“freakish Atlantic”, “My Polack friend”). These two rhymes are of infantile pleasure and of disgust. Through the play of the two rhymes, you have the Electra complex, the love/hate relationship with the father. Of course, there are also other poems that handle the subject of the Holocaust more sensitively, like ‘Mary’s Song’, which I think is one of Plath’s greatest lyric poems. That said, I’m not sure that Heaney’s case for the prosecution is quite nuanced enough to take into account the complexities of ‘Daddy’.

Heaney’s remark reminds me a little bit of something that Philip Larkin says about Ariel—both get at this idea Plath is somehow untouchable and unreachable, beyond our comprehension or sympathy. Larkin writes that how “valuable” the Ariel poems are “depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow.” How far do you agree with that?

Not at all. I need to be careful what I say here, but I think there’s something gendered about these responses. Here we have Plath coming along and talking about particular issues relating to women’s experience and women’s suffering, and we have male responses that consider these subjects embarrassing or inappropriate. Not that Plath usually wanted to present herself as a victim, but often her subject is women’s victimhood by men and patriarchy—not merely by individual men (like a husband or father), but by a whole apparatus (like the industrialized war machine, which she opposed late in her life by supporting ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches). ‘Mary’s Song’ expresses very clearly the fact of the maternal experience being driven over, and written over, by these male, patriarchal, brutish and brutal war machines. The male poets who treated the writing of women’s experiences from these perspectives as somehow improper unintentionally put their finger on the problem.

It sets up a boys’ club of male poets who can write about the “universal experience” that entirely excludes her. Lastly, we have The Restored Ariel. How would you sum up the technical achievement of Ariel? What changes in the last months of her life in her writing?

Plath’s Ariel—that is, not the Ariel published posthumously in 1965, but the manuscript she leaves behind when she dies, was first published as The Restored Edition about 15 years ago. She had shaped it carefully. It’s a volume of rebirth and hope: it begins with the word “love” and ends with “spring.” We sometimes caricature Plath as some kind of doom-laden depressive. That’s absolutely not what the trajectory of Ariel conveys.

So why does Hughes change the order when publishing them for the first time, then?

The poems I mentioned earlier, written in 1963, are very different in style, and none are in Plath’s Ariel manuscript. Before her death, actually, she tells Hughes that they are the beginnings of a new book. But Hughes is in a difficult position when Plath dies. It’s not as if her reputation was then what it has since become. So what he does, essentially, is to create a Selected Poems out of what she’s left behind. As a result, all these different styles get bundled together. For example, a poem like ‘Edge’ is in there alongside ‘Ariel’ and ‘Fever 103°’, but it doesn’t belong at all. It’s colder, more detached, bloodless, marmoreal. Hughes’s concern is to assemble a really strong book, but it’s not coherent stylistically in the way that Plath’s manuscript was.

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If you look in Collected Poems—which first appeared in 1981—to Hughes’s credit he lists at the back the Ariel poems in the order that Plath arranged them. So it was already possible to recreate Plath’s Ariel, even though the Restored Ariel wasn’t at that point published. Take away poems like ‘Sheep in Fog’, ‘Gigolo’, ‘The Munich Mannequins’, and ‘Totem’—all wonderful, but belonging to a later period—and you see that what makes Ariel coherent is Plath’s obsession with rebirth and transcendence. So many of these poems begin in stasis or darkness, followed by some form of eruption or acceleration. In ‘Purdah’, for example, all is calm and exquisitely poised, and then suddenly, there’s an eruption of murderous vengeance. In ‘Fever 103°’, what begins as lying in bed with a temperature ends with a rather comical transcendence. These poems play and re-play this journey of death or stasis and then rebirth or sudden movement. Ariel is a triumphant collection. It’s not a book about depression; it’s a book about overcoming the odds and eventually emerging victorious, whatever you’ve been through. This is also true of a sequence like the Bee poems: the last of them, ‘Wintering’, ends with the line “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” The pattern recurs again and again.

So often in her Ariel manuscript, Plath is thinking about how to convey speed through line breaks and through imagery. This is beautifully done in the title poem, where the landscape is blurring around her as she hurtles through it. Even the line breaks and the shape of the poem on the page demonstrate the speed at which she’s flying through this blurred landscape.

That’s one of the first things that attracted me about Plath’s work: that sense of acceleration, of speed, of triumph, of transcendence that comes throughout those Ariel poems. And it’s absolutely what’s missing from those final poems in 1963. The colors have gone. Almost every Plath poem has a color in it—red usually, but also white, blue, and black. These last poems are almost completely washed out. Like ‘Sheep in Fog’, it’s a kind of aftermath poetry. All passion has been spent, she’s defeated, she’s exhausted, there’s nowhere to go, she’s trapped. Ariel—Plath’s Ariel—has a much more exultant atmosphere, and makes a louder boast as a result.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

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Tim Kendall

Tim Kendall has taught at the universities of Oxford, Newcastle, and Bristol before becoming Professor and Head of English at the University of Exeter. He is the author of the defining critical work Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study (2001). His other publications include Modern English War Poetry (2006), The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (ed.) (2007), and The Art of Robert Frost (2012). He is co-editor of The Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney (forthcoming). He was Producer of the BBC documentary Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar (2018).