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Seeing Sylvia Plath

A new movie rekindles curiosity about the poet's life, love and suicide at age 30

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The party was in full swing. As many as 100 guests, most of them students, crowded the second-floor hall of the Women’s Union at England’s University of Cambridge the night of February 25, 1956. Ajazz band played, some couples swirling to the combo’s rhythms while other revelers mingled, sipped brandy, flirted—and quoted verse.

A half-dozen friends had just published the first, and what was fated to become the last, issue of their literary magazine, St. Botolph’s Review, named after the rectory where some of the contributors lodged. Co-publisher Lucas Myers, an American then studying in England, was dancing with his date, Valerie, when a young American woman in red shoes and wearing a lot of lipstick approached and introduced herself as Sylvia Plath. “My girlfriend retreated, and Sylvia began to quote some of my poems, which had appeared in the review,” says Myers, 72, a retired civil servant who now lives in Sewanee, Tennessee. “I was surprised by the directness of her approach, and flattered but quizzical about her reciting my poems.”

Then, Myers says, Plath asked which of the other young poets was Ted Hughes; she said she admired his work. In her journal, Plath recalled the moment differently: “That big, dark, hunky boy . . . whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room . . . came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes.” Either way, says Myers, “This party was full of noise, music, people drinking. It wasn’t a tea party. And it had consequences.”

Two lives and perhaps the course of contemporary poetry were forever altered. Plath recounted in her journals that she and Hughes slid away into a remote alcove where “he kissed me bang smash on the mouth,” then ripped off her red hair band and silver earrings, declaring, “Hah, I shall keep [these].” When he moved his lips to her neck, she wrote, she bit him, hard, on the cheek, drawing blood.

Shortly afterward, an overwrought Plath wrote her mother, Aurelia, describing Hughes as a brilliant poet and a “large, hulking, healthy Adam, half French half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God.” But having fallen so completely, she also felt destined for “great hurt.”

Just four months after the party, Hughes and Plath were wed, bringing together what would become two of the most influential forces in 20th-century English-language poetry. In homage to such collected works as The Hawk in the Rain and Crow, books in which Hughes characteristically explored the mythic powers of nature, he was named poet laureate of England in 1984. In her best book of poems, the posthumous Ariel, and her one novel, The Bell Jar (1963), Plath broke through barriers of traditional form and symbolism, and unleashed personal demons with a chilling candor rarely seen before or since. By doing inner battle with the expectations and limitations of her times and her gender (“My tragedy is to have been born a woman,” she once wrote) and by taking her own life in 1963 at age 30, Plath also became a symbol of a changing time when women’s voices would finally and truly be heard.

Even today, a full 40 years after Plath committed suicide, students, writers, scholars and biographers remain fascinated with Plath and Hughes. Her Husband, a book by Diane Wood Middlebrook that uses material from the Hughes archives at EmoryUniversity to explore their marriage, is due out this fall, as is his Collected Poems. And a movie, Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and British actor Daniel Craig as Hughes and directed by New Zealand’s Christine Jeffs, premièred last month. Just as Nicole Kidman’s 2002 film The Hours boosted Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway onto the best-seller list almost 80 years after its first printing, Sylvia will likely spark renewed curiosity in—and debate about—the work and fates of Plath and Hughes.

The film draws upon Birthday Letters, a book of poems published in 1998 by Hughes, who died of cancer at age 68 just months after its publication. Hughes was terribly private and often defensive about his relationship with Plath. It is widely assumed that only because he knew his end was near did he allow publication of the poems, which exhibit an introspective honesty more commonly associated with Plath. In them, the poet speaks directly to his late wife. In “St. Botolph’s,” he recalls their meeting:

I see you there, clearer, more real

Than in any of the years in its shadow—

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