HER HUSBAND - Hughes and Plath - A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook
New revelations show Sylvia Plath's view of the stormy relationship which having separated from her husband and fellow poet Hughes only. Sylvia Plath's poems, “Full Fathom Five” and “Daddy” are both deeply personal poems which examine Plath's relationship with her father. male figures, specifically in her husband, the “vampire who said he was you” (72). Andrew Motion revisits the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath through Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband.
And yet we are drawn to the relation between art and life—and between art and death, as Plath herself was drawn to it, desperately, obsessively, and amorously.
Had she not taken her life after those dark, death-fondling poems of her final months, the ones she called "the best poems of my life," the ones that "will make my name," but lived on, coffee-sipping, into comfortable middle age, we might have thought, with some of her more unsympathetic biographers, that she was a literary crybaby, a poseur, an unscrupulous appropriator of other people's feelings. And she would have understood such a response. She, too, felt that all is play, all is poetic dalliance, that does not involve real stakes and exact a price.
If Plath could admit it, why can't we? Who ever said life does not—or should not—influence how we read our writers? Do scholars of Heidegger say as much?
Love, loathing and life with Ted Hughes
They owe a good deal of their opinion of him to his activities as a Nazi. If an artist's work can be eclipsed by life, surely it can be enhanced as well—even if this enhancement is monstrous. But her suicide was no career move. There was the matter, first, of Hughes's abandoning her in the fall of —no small matter, given Plath's unstinting adoration of him and the couple's total fusion of their artistic, professional, emotional, and domestic lives, a fusion Diane Middlebrook documents in the new biography Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, A Marriage.
Anyone who thinks that Plath was purely morbid or misanthropic should read her journal entries about Hughes in the first several years of their marriage.
They burst with light and love. He was her unrivaled hero almost until the day he left her for another woman. She beat and badgered herself to be "worthy" of him; she loved his scent, his size, his brain, his heart, his verse, his prose, even the "cruel streak" she thought she discerned in him.
It was all part of his mythic manliness in her eyes, his encompassing genius. If she was difficult and demanding at times, as seems obvious, it was because of her native volatility, and not because her love for him knew any bounds. When he left her, the sky fell. There was also her lifelong fascination with death. Her father had succumbed to diabetes when she was eight, and since then death had lived with her like a tempting friend whose hand she sought during moments of uncertainty.
When it looked at the ripe old age of twenty like she wasn't going to make it as a writer, she tried to fling herself into his arms; she tried too hard, swallowed too many sleeping pills, and vomited them up while unconscious, thus enabling her rescue, two days later, from a hiding place under the house. When she related this ordeal later—in her novel The Bell Jar, and also in poems, letters, and conversations with intimates—she lent it a terrible sensuality. These two factors joined with her long-honed talent and increasing boldness to create the astonishing poems collected in Ariel, which, in their turn, came to govern her life.
The critic and friend of Plath's Al Alvarez has said that "for the artist, nature often imitates art," and there are few artists of whom this is truer than it is of Plath. She imagined herself marrying a demigod, a force "huge enough for me," and she married "Ted Huge" as he was known in Cambridgea towering Pan figure with "pockets full of poems [and] fresh trout. In her sparse, haunting last poem, "Edge," Plath sketched a suicide.
It is a stern and beautiful suicide: The woman rendered resembles Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who dies with the asps at her breasts, stinging her to sleep.
Review: Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage by Diane Middlebrook | Books | The Guardian
She also resembles Sylvia Plath. Her dead Body wears the smile of accomplishment, The illusion of a Greek necessity Flows in the scrolls of her toga. Each dead child coiled, a white serpent, One at each little Pitcher of milk, now empty. Was Plath drugged by the lyric invitation of the poem? Or had she simply painted herself into a corner with this work, drawing, as it did so heavily, on her biography?
She came as close to re-enacting her poem as one can in a small London apartment, without fanfare. I would like to go further than Al Alvarez and suggest that Plath's life was not only fuel for her work; it was part of that work. John Milton once said that a poet's life should itself be "a true poem.
Plath and Her Father
Plath's life, in contrast, is a sort of poem, tragic though it is. She shaped it with the aesthetic perfectionism of a sculptor. She infused it with a playwright's drama: I am only thirty. And like a cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three. She took mad chances, marrying "the biggest seducer in Cambridge" and moving to his country. She studded her life with the bold risks of an expert gambler—plunging vertically down a mountain her first day on skis she broke her leg in two places. In the end she lost, but her art did not. If "dying is an art," as she says in "Lady Lazarus," and she "does it exceptionally well," so is living, and she did that exceptionally well too.
Not wisely, as Othello said, but well—artistically, dramatically, aesthetically. Literary scholars, of course, tend to see life as an embarrassment to art; indeed, many sober works of Plath criticism begin with a ritual lament about the biographical hocus-pocus that has interfered with lucid contemplation of the poetry. But although Plath's poetry stands alone as well as any, it is damagingly puritanical to bar discussion of her life, as though the spirit of her poetry would be polluted by proximity to her fallen flesh.
It is puritanical, too, to think that the life of a poet might not reflect the same rigorous aesthetic discipline as her writing—that it might not in fact constitute a kind of "performance art. It's in part because Plath's life already bears so many marks of fiction that it has lent itself so easily to formal fictionalization. As I write, a movie, Sylvia, is opening with Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath; a play called Edge is showing off-Broadway; and the second novel about Plath's life in only two years has hit the bookstores.
Middlebrook's biography emerged the same month as the expanded edition of an older biography, by Linda Wagner-Martin. Finally, there's a new memoir, by Jillian Becker, a friend who knew Plath for a few months before she died. Narratives about Plath are almost as tempting to write as they are to read, precisely because their subject has already done so much of the work for us; the girl who complained that she could never come up with a plot when writing her own stories has given biographers, playwrights, filmmakers, and novelists a ready-made plot in her life.
Not that these books resemble one another in more than a few strokes. The history of biographical writing on Plath is vexed; her biographers have had their names made, their health wrecked Anne Stevensonand their hearts broken Emma Tennant in their endeavors; they have been turned into the subjects of biographical sketches themselves by Janet Malcolm, in The Silent Woman.
Love, loathing and life with Ted Hughes | Books | The Guardian
And they have presented Plath as everything from a martyred feminist saint to a psychotic termagant to a happy homemaker. In fact, with fortunate exceptions, that has been the general progression of interpretation since the s.
When Plath died, and the truth of her suicide and Hughes's abandonment first became known, the outcry among feminists and feminist sympathizers was immense. Hughes was demonized in poems by Robin Morgan, for example urging his castration and accusing him of murder; Plath's tombstone was vandalized repeatedly by those who did not want her husband's name on it "Sylvia Plath Hughes" ; the "anger" in "Daddy" and other poems was seen as representative of a generation of women; her books filled shop windows, and she was all but canonized.
But this did not hold. Part of the reason is that Ted Hughes appointed his protective older sister, Olwyn, the literary executor of Plath's estate. Olwyn had despised her sister-in-law. She had "resented" Plath's "talent and beauty as well as her relationship with Ted," as Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of Hughes's and Plath's, described it: Everyone who wanted to write anything of any import about her had—or initially wished—to go through Olwyn Hughes.
She granted permissions to quote; but she granted them at a price. It is in part for this reason that no foible of Plath's has been left uncovered, no spurned suitor left uninterviewed, and that an authorized biographer like Anne Stevenson has written of Plath as of a madwoman in the attic. It is certainly for this reason that we have an improbable rant like Dido Merwin's, which was expansively quoted in Stevenson's Bitter Fame.
A London friend, Merwin assailed Plath for ignoring her advice to obtain home furnishings secondhand: Plath's "unexpectedly graceless rejection Because Plath desired a new stove?
But there are other reasons for what one might call the pathologization of Sylvia Plath. America's love affair with psychopharmacology is one; innumerable essays have appeared tracing Plath's work to everything from clinical psychosis and bipolar illness to menstrual disorders.
The most persuasive of these assessments are written by literary scholars who do not, like many of their colleagues, take as a starting point Plath's suicide attempts, her wilder Ariel poems, or even the attacks of jealousy for which she is so harshly judged in Bitter Fame. However unproductive, Plath's jealousy can hardly be considered unfounded; when Plath met Hughes, he was described to her as the biggest Casanova in town, and the way he seduced her with his girlfriend in the next room gave her no reason to doubt this appraisal.
Nor does Hughes's life after Plath suggest that he was in any way inclined toward fidelity; he left Assia Wevill the married woman for whom he had left Plath for another married woman, and after Wevill gassed herself, in an amplified replay of Plath's suicide killing their child as wellhe left his second married woman who, luckily, survived to propose to a young nurse, who remained his wife until his death and watched as he had numberless affairs, many of them extremely public, some simultaneous, and at least a few punctuated by promises of elopement.
The more plausible doubts about Plath's mental stability relate to the jarringly different voices in her writings—the exhaustingly upbeat tone she employed in her huge correspondence with her mother the "Sivvy" letters, as Marjorie Perloff dubs them, published in Letters Home juxtaposed with the dark, cutting, often hostile persona in the Ariel poems that she wrote at the same time, sometimes about the same events.
By the end of after another move and extensive travel, the couple moved back to London. The couple had their first daughter, Frieda, on April 1st, The next year, Plath miscarried their second child. It was later revealed in a letter to her therapist, that Plath wrote about Hughes beating her two days before the miscarriage. Intheir son Nicholas was born. And this is when things got complicated.
A few months after meeting Assia, Plath and Hughes took a holiday in Ireland. On the fourth day, Hughes disappeared to London to meet Wevill, with whom he embarked on a 10 day trip through Spain, the same place where Plath and Hughes had honeymooned. Upon his arrival back home, the marriage unraveled when he refused to end his affair with Wevill.
Plath and Hughes separated in July of Just before and several times after, Plath attempted to end her life.