“Even Amidst Fierce Flames / The Golden Lotus Can Be Planted” : On Sylvia Plath’s Legacy – Ennie Skurczak

JANUARY 1, 2020

CW: Suicide, depression, domestic abuse 

“A smile fell in the grass / 

Irretrievable!” (Sylvia Plath, “The Night Dances”)

Sylvia Plath, in both her life and death, is the object of fascination. Tall and easily identifiable by her “Veronica Lake bangs,” Plath was in love with literature. She saw everything as a perfect reason to write, and detailed her life through letters and poems. Plath remains, nevertheless, often solely recognized as “the writer who killed herself.” She is also remembered as the dead ex-wife of Poet Laureate Ted Hughes –– her suicide occurred only six months after the couple separated. Plath has been reduced to a victim of divorce; her entire existence has been linked to Hughes. 

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. She published her first poem at the age of eight, the same year that her father Otto Plath passed away. Plath’s artistic and poetic talents were immediately endearing, controversial and magnetic. All the while, she began to display symptoms of depression as a child, affected by her father’s death.  

Throughout her life, Plath strived to achieve: she wrote poetry and prose, painted, edited Mademoiselle magazine, graduated with highest honours, and mothered two children. She also suffered deeply. Her depression was a constant challenge, and was a theme in many of her poems.

The sap

Wells like tears, like the

Water striving

To re-establish its mirror

Over the rock”

 (Sylvia Plath, “Words”)

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were enamored with one another upon their very first encounter at Cambridge University in 1956. Plath was studying at Newnham College at the time, a women-only division of Cambridge University, to which she had received a full scholarship. On the day of their encounter, Hughes and his friends were celebrating the publication of the St Botolph’s Review, in which Hughes had published four poems.

Hughes’ poem “St Botolph’s,” published later in 1998, is dedicated to this first meeting. Hughes describes  Plath’s “long, perfect American legs,” her “balletic, monkey-elegant fingers,” and her face, which was a “tight ball of joy.” By the end of the evening, his cheek was marked with a “swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks,” a leftover from the hungry bite that Plath left on his cheek between secret kisses shared in the backroom.

When Plath wrote to her mother that night, sitting in a dorm room bed, she admitted that she was afraid of never seeing Hughes again. She claimed that Hughes was “the only man that I’ve met yet here who’d be strong enough to be equal with  –– such is life.” The couple was married six months later. By then, Plath had been published in multiple magazines. She helped Hughes with his own poetry. A letter to her mother from 1956 revealed how Plath had once devoted a day “to typing Ted’s first book of poems,” and that her “own book of poems [grew] well.” 

Their marriage appeared blissful. Plath managed to both succeed as a writer and as a mother to their children, Frieda and Nicholas. All that she set her mind to, she seemed to accomplish. She saved enough money to be able to dedicate a year to writing, and wrote her acclaimed novel The Bell Jar in six weeks. By 1961, Plath and Hughes had bought Court Green, a house in the English countryside.

Plath’s numerous personal and professional achievements made her seem capable of anything. It was thus a surprise to many when in February 1963, she committed suicide. Since then, her name has been linked to the abrupt ending of her life. Writer Sarah Manguso attended the same high school as Plath, decades after the writer’s death. She noted that when her class studied Plath, they spoke of her suicide, rather than her writing. 

Several questions commonly arise: “What happened?” ; “Why did Plath kill herself?” ; “How sad was she really?” Some have pointed to Ted Hughes. While residing in Court Green, Hughes and Plath met writers David and Assia Wevill. Hughes was drawn to Assia, and the two began an affair. When Plath discovered her spouse’s infidelity, she begged him to leave Assia. Hughes refused, and he and Sylvia ended their relationship in July 1962. Plath’s letters also indicate that Hughes had been physically abusive. In a letter from 1961, Plath admits that two days after Hughes had beat her, she had a miscarriage. 

In the six months between the end of her relationship and her suicide, Plath dedicated herself to her writing. She told her mother that she did not miss Hughes, and that she was happy to be separated from him because she could now write day and night. She claimed that she now felt like “a verb instead of an adjective,” and that “it [was] as if divorce was the key to free [her] repressed energy.” She seemed unstoppable, unaffected and unmoved.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted 

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty”

 (Sylvia Plath, “Tulips”) 

As Plath entered the winter of 1963 ––  one of the most brutal winters in English history –– her spirits began to fall. A month prior to her death, Plath wrote to her mother claiming that she just needed “somebody to cheer me up by saying I’ve done alright.” 

Sylvia Plath passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning on February 11th 1963. Her final poems were published posthumously in 1965 in a collection titled Ariel. The poems reveal the heavy weight of her depression; in her poem “Daddy,” in which Plath describes her life after her father’s death, Plath writes: 

“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”

Plath’s suicide marked her third documented attempt. She had been a patient in psychiatric hospitals. She had received shock treatment. Her novel The Bell Jar, published a month before her death, is partially based on Plath’s own life. The novel discusses 19-year-old Esther Greenwood’s experiences with depression, electroshock therapy, her attempts at suicide, and her sentiment that no one understands how she feels.

When Assia Wevill commited suicide in a manner similar to Sylvia Plath’s in 1969 –– killing her daughter Shura in the act –– Hughes became the modern day Bluebeard. Fans of Plath gouged his name out of her headstone, and declared that Hughes was a murderer. 

Trying to decipher why Plath committed suicide is irrelevant; Plath took her life as a result of a mental health disorder. The popular obsession with Plath’s suicide has transformed her into an aesthetic symbol for the “sad girl.” Her depression has become a poetic trope, rather than an indicator that she was suffering. Her white bikini top has been fetishized. The name “Sylvia Plath” has become displaced from the writer. Aestheticizing her death diminishes the severity of her suicide, and erases her incredible achievements. Today, critics and fans casually discuss artists’ suicides, as if it is inevitable for creatives to be depressed. Their deaths are romanticized, and considered as a part of their artistic process  –– the creative mind becomes destined for tragedy.

 “O my God, what am I 

That these late mouths should cry open

 In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers” (Sylvia Plath, “Poppies in October”)

In 1998, two decades after Plath’s death, Hughes released a collection of poetry titled Birthday Letters. Nearly all of the poems in the collection are dedicated to Plath, describing moments in their relationship. Hughes references Plath’s suicide in the collection, but he does not discuss how her suicide affected him. 

Frieda Hughes, their daughter, is now a poet herself. In 2003, she published the poem “My Mother” as a reaction to the BBC’s film about Plath. The poem begins with the line: “They are killing her again.” Hughes mocks the false legacy that now follows her mother: “My buried mother / Is up-dug for repeat performances,” a “Sylvia Suicide Doll” who will “die at will / And die, and die / And forever be dying.”

Sylvia Plath’s grave remains at the St. Thomas A. Beckett Churchyard in Heptonstall, England.  Words from Wu Cheng’en’s novel Monkey are inscribed upon her gravestone: “EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES / THE GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED.” 

Works Cited

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. Tucson, AR: Schaffner Press, 2004.

Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Last Letters.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, September 19, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/05/sylvia-plaths-last-letters.

Crawford, Anwen. “The Letters of Sylvia Plath and the Transformation of a Poet’s Voice.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, December 9, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-letters-of-sylvia-plath-and-the-transformation-of-a-poets-voice.

CSU Archive, Sylvia Plath, Image, Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed Jan 1 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sylvia-Plath

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. Faber & Faber, 1998.

M., Joe D., Nava Atlas, Melinda Jane Harrison, and Dorothy Sundbye. “The Tragic Relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.” Literary Ladies Guide. Accessed December 14, 2019. https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-musings/relationship-sylvia-plath-ted-hughe/.

Manguso, Sarah. “You’ll Love Her! She’s Crazy!” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 19, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/youll-love-her-shes-crazy.

Pierre, Summer. “Sylvia Plath’s Last Plan.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, December 6, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/sylvia-plaths-last-plan.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. Faber & Faber, 1965.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Edited by Frances McCullough. Harper Perennial, 2005.

Staff, Harriet. “Why Did Sylvia Plath Die? .” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed December 14, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2015/02/why-did-sylvia-plath-die-.

Waldman, Katy. “A Lost Story by Sylvia Plath Contains the Seeds of the Writer She Would Become.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, January 9, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-lost-story-by-sylvia-plath-contains-the-seeds-of-the-writer-she-would-become.

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