Sylvia Plath and I

Something terrifies me about Sylvia Plath and for a long time, because I love her, I kept overlooking it. I kept telling myself I was wrong – or I simply refused to acknowledge it and integrate it into my analysis of her and her beautiful poems. But there comes a point, when you love someone, when you must strip yourself clean with the truth: you must acknowledge the most terrifying parts of their personality, and somehow come to peace with them.

I’ve commented before how in Sylvia Plath’s poems, her only subject was herself. She could not invent fiction – she had to use her own life, and reflect and refract it out – a hall of mirrors, infinitely stating the same facts over and over and over again, in new and exciting ways, perhaps, but basically the same story. Sylvia Plath was Sylvia Plath’s most beloved subject, the only subject her brilliant mind found worthy of analysis. The ” I ” of her life was ever present, unrelenting.

This is where I stumble and try to make excuses or look the other way. But I won’t, not this time.

Sylvia Plath did not love anyone but herself. She could not bestow anyone but herself with the condition of humanity. If anyone had feelings, it was how those feelings affected her, or how they appeared to her. Others’ feelings had to process through the grinder of her imagination, to be spewed back in the hall of mirrors, and made to fit in the narrative of Sylvia’s life. She simply could not empathize. Everything that was not her was in opposition to herself.

This includes her children.

This terrifies me. It terrified me when noticed the language she used in poems about her children. They are nothings in the poems.

In Lesbos, she complains of “the stink of fat and baby crap”. Fair enough, motherhood is hard. But in other poems, the babies are nothing.

“Whatever these pink things mean” she wrote in Fever 103.

I notice I am avoiding what I really want to say, which means it must be very important.

I believe that Sylvia loved her children as things, but I also believe that she was prepared for them to die with her. I derive that from her poems. Particularly, the chilling, “Death & Co.” of November 14, 1962.

Two, of course there are two.
It seems perfectly natural now —
The who never looks up, whose eyes are lidded
And balled, like Blake’s,
Who exhibits

The birthmarks that are his trademark —
The scald scar of water
The nude
Verdigris of the condor
I am red meat. His beak

Claps sidewise: I am not his yet.
He tells me how badly I photograph.
He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital
Icebox, a simple

Frill at the neck,
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Then two little feet.
He does not smile or smoke.

The other does that,
His hair long and plausive
Masturbating a glitter
He wants to be loved.

I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.

Somebody’s done for.

I hate that poem. It is too vivid, too cold. The imagining of her children in the “hospital ice box”, the death gowns which are so vivid, and the “little pink feet” all conspire to give me nightmares. The last four lines have that sickly sing-song Mother Goose sound to them, like, “One for you…. one for you….and a death bell for you…and a death bell for you…”

What is this?

What is this? Is this an explanation? Is this some kind of fantasy, like the other death fantasies?

In “Edge” – her final poem, she wrote:

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose

The pitcher of milk – her breasts? The life milk has stopped, the babies are dead, she coddles them close.

Of course, she wrote other sweet, motherly poems for her children. “Child” is loving, but again regretful – she imagines leaving the child as a “dark/ceiling without a star.”

In no case did she imagine her children growing up to be happy adults – or growing up with her. In “For A Fatherless Son”, she describes the “absence…growing beside you like a tree.” It is ostensibly about the fact that Ted Hughes had left her and her child would grow up without a father. But the horror of that never came to pass – instead, the child grew up without a mother. The bittersweet lines of that poem leave a searing impression:

To have you grab my nose, a ladder rung.
One day you may touch what’s wrong
The small skulls, the smashed blue hills, the godawful hush.
Till then your smiles are found money

Again, notice that even in this poem, about the fatherless son, the poem is about the poet’s reaction to the baby’s smiles. Found money. Incidental happiness for herself – she doesn’t really reflect on the emotional component for the boy.

Before having babies, she ruminated obsessively about her fertility, mulling over having children, and the implications on her art. She saw childbirth as an inevitable, and she did want them when she finally got pregnant.

Later, she would think herself a better woman than her rival Assia Wevill because Assia had not yet – at that time – had children. To her mind, childbirth was the finish line – she’s “completed” when she’s given birth.

I said in the comments of a previous post that once she had children, she was done. I stand by that. I think that having children was something she wanted for herself but she didn’t really think of the little personalities that would grow under her care. She was more obsessed with motherhood than the real life fact of her children.

She was only thirty when she died. Maybe we can chalk up some of the self-obsession to simple immaturity. But to do that is to ignore the entire body of knowledge we have about Sylvia Plath. In Sylvia Plath’s world, only Sylvia could be hurt (“Daddy”). Only Sylvia knew the pain of abandonment by her father at age eight. In light of that transcendent life-defining event, why could she not see the pain she would cause her two babies with her abandonment of them? Because she could only see herself. Only the ” I ” mattered.

The night she killed herself, she put a cup of milk and a plate of bread in the babies’ room, apparently not realizing that Nicholas, only nine months old, could not eat bread. She was unable to imagine being a baby, or recognize any helplessness that was not her own. She taped the door shut, so that the carbon monoxide would not seep into the room. I think she looked at their lives as “found money”. She didn’t want them to die – I do believe she loved them as best she could (perhaps, horrifyingly, in the way that her mother loved her). But she was not terribly careful that they would live. She did not leave them at a friend’s house, and then kill herself. She had been staying with a friend for several days, and then returned to her flat, and that night, killed herself. Why not leave the children with her friend if she was so concerned for them? Her death was not neat. She did not merely cut her wrists or hang herself – she chose a method of death that had the possibility of killing everyone around her. She chose an oven – just like the horror of the ovens she was so obsessed with in Nazi Germany. Ovens: instruments of persecution. She was both the Nazi guard, shouting orders, and the “bit of a Jew” “with [her] taroc pack and [her] taroc pack.” As the Jew in the oven, those around her would die too – her babies. Her elderly downstairs neighbor became very ill and nearly died.

That was an act of pure malice. It was her acting out some awful obsession with her father, dying as the Jew in the oven. It was the most tragic death of the 20th century.

The babies lived. One grew up and got married. One killed himself. He hung himself. There was no chance of him harming anyone else when he quietly took his own life.

Even now scholars are guilty of making Nicholas’s death another element of Sylvia, as if he had no ” I “, like Sylvia absorbed it all.

I spoke to Nicholas Hughes a few times two years before his death. I was talking to him about a book I was writing. He was very polite, soft-spoken, shy. I wanted him to make her exist. Make her seem real because to me, she’s otherworldly. His silence about his mother, yet his continued willingness to return my calls, puzzled me.

It was a weird dynamic. There were things that could not be spoken of, or thought, or named. The body of knowledge and denial remained between us, separating us but giving us something common – a thread of connection to test, ever once in a while.

I still have his number in my phone. I can’t imagine deleting it.


  1. Absolutely magnificent!

    I posted a few comments yesterday on your blog as Nice Guy. I have three or four blogs I read, but I seldom leave comments, but when I do I use FOMSG.

    Other than blogs, I read a lot, and this one of the best things I have read in quite some time. Very moving.

    I’m not a big psychology honk, but Narcissistic Personality Disorder is real. It is characterized by a lack of empathy and an inability to see others as more than mere objects. It is in my opinion epidemic in this country. If you have ever had to deal with a narcissist, you would understand the 24/7 never ending siege that they turn your life into.

    And I believe it is evil. Yeah, I used the E-word. CS Lewis writes about this extensively in “Screwtape Letters” and “The Great Divorce.” He calls it egotism. The ever expanding “I” that consumes everything in its path. (Or “eye” if you’re a Tolkien fan. He was after all a good friend of Lewis and they greatly influenced each other’s writing. I thought the imagery, the “i”, in the film was outstanding.)

    Plath was a vile human; her artistic talent only magnifies her crime. She quite literally consumed her son’s “I”.

    I only write this because it ultimately was the crux of my argument yesterday. Which was offered an interesting and rather ironic illumination by the gentleman in nominal agreement with me who kept stating that sex was the “goal” of any relationship.

    Precisely no.

    It is exactly that reduction of human beings to mere means to an end to which I object.

    And that process is started with the formulation: “Everyone who says or does or looks X is really just Y.”

    Humans stubbornly remain unquantifiable. Qualifiable yes. But that takes time and effort.

    And risk.

  2. Really great post, I agree that Plath is almost exclusively concerned with herself in her poetry, but maybe this does not have to be a narcissistic inability to empathise. Isn’t self-expression the essence of lyricism and lyrical poetry?
    French poet Mallarmé tries to erase the self from his poetry, of course he can’t completely. The result is cold, mathematical and sterile and beautiful in a very different way from Plath’s work. Our own experiences are all we have, when we “create” characters or “imagine” the feelings of others, this is invariably a product of our own experience. So lyrical poetry is the purest, the most direct.
    Finally, her poetry is a communication, it is not a closed off circle of introspection. In expressing herself she taps into something universal and allows the reader to look upon their own experiences with fresh eyes.
    maybe a reason we love plath and confessional poetry is our own narcissism, we love to go, “oh yes how real, that is how I feel things too”.

  3. This article is absolutely brilliant- beautifully written! The ending lines gave me the chills.


  1. […] I’ve mentioned before that I believe that once her children were born, Sylvia Plath was simply done with life. She was – to use her own word – “completed”. This “effacement” line feels like another twig of proof. The baby was born, and she was already disappearing inside herself, waving goodbye to him and to the world. […]

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