Between sleeping pills and crying babies

March 28, 2020

…the cruellest blow comes when Plath discovers the poems that Hughes has been writing to his lover, and is unable to prevent herself from acknowledging their artistry. “Many are fine poems,” she writes to Beuscher on September 29, 1962. “Absolute impassioned love poems.” She quotes a line she cannot forget: Now I have hacked the octopus off my ring finger.

Which sounds more like one of the lines she was beginning to write, because Plath in her last weeks, in the cold London house, between sleeping pills and crying babies and an unrelenting flu, was being gripped and twisted by the wild poems that became the book Ariel. “It is like writing in a train tunnel, or God’s intestine,” she writes to the Anglo-Irish poet Richard Murphy. (“Lady Lazarus”: Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.) It all feels so unsteady, so precarious, so barely controlled. Was Ariel a breakdown, or an artistic consummation? Both, obviously. The great big chomping Ariel voice is intoxicated with its own power; it glitters and it damns.

The telling and retelling of this story will not end soon, because at the core of the Plath/Hughes nexus, the marriage of their talents, is a mythically compelling irony. He, full of agency, honouring his deep drives, etc., etc., does the boring thing: He has an affair. She, trapped and reduced and overwhelmed, does the remarkable thing: She writes a masterpiece. He, formerly the main character, exits shabbily sideways, while she explodes into an agony of authenticity. And then — hand in hand with winter, fever, and heartbreak — it kills her.

James Parker
The Haunting Last Letters of Sylvia Plath

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