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Seeing Sylvia Plath

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

As if I saw you that once, then never again.

“I had always just thought them unpublishably raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable,” Hughes once wrote to a colleague. But Al Alvarez, a poet and friend to both Plath and Hughes, saw through to the heart of the matter, explaining that Hughes may have lost Plath when she died, but he still had a powerful connection to her. “They were love poems,” Alvarez says. “Thirty years later, it was still happening—the ‘face in the window’ hadn’t gone away.” Indeed, as much as the story of Hughes and Plath is one of surpassing artistry, it is also one of the 20th century’s most searing love stories.

Born in 1930, Hughes grew up in England’s rural West Yorkshire, the youngest of three children of Edith and William Hughes. Hughes’ father was a carpenter and World War I veteran who had witnessed the wholesale slaughter of his comrades in battle; his mother was a homemaker. Hughes would later recall the landscape of his youth as a place where its residents lived in a constant state of mourning over the war to end all wars and where “disaster seems to hang around in the air.” “This was where the division of body and soul, for me, began,” he wrote in a 1963 magazine piece.

His family later moved to Mexborough, a small town in South Yorkshire, where they purchased a tobacco and newspaper shop. The son began writing in his teens; he was a tireless reader of Shakespeare, Blake, Lawrence and other British literary icons, as well as a devoted hunter and fisherman. He did well enough in school to qualify for Cambridge and, after a required two-year stint in the military, as a radio technician, he enrolled with the idea that he would study literature. As it turned out, he loathed deconstructing works he had no interest in. At least a recreational believer in shamans and dark forces, he claimed to have had a dream one night in which a burned and blackened fox materialized, placed a charred paw on an essay Hughes had written and said, “Stop this—you are destroying us.” He immediately switched to anthropology, learning the mythology of such creatures as the crow, owl and snake, which would later populate his works. His first poem, “The Little Boys and the Seasons,” was published just after he graduated in 1954 in the literary magazine Granta. In the year and a half before he met Plath, he worked on his writing and took odd jobs, even as a rose gardener and zookeeper, to support his very modest lifestyle.

Sylvia Plath and her younger brother Warren were raised in the Massachusetts coastal town of Winthrop. Her strongwilled father, Otto Emil Plath, had come to the United States from Prussia at the age of 16 and had earned a doctorate in entomology from Harvard. He was particularly dedicated to the study of bees, an interest his daughter would later share and images of which would surface prominently in poems collected in Ariel. Otto met Plath’s mother, the daughter of Austrian immigrants, at BostonUniversity, where he taught German. Aurelia had great ambitions for herself as an educator, but set them aside to play the dutiful wife and to raise her children.

Plath’s perception of Aurelia as controlling and demanding is well known to those who have read the largely autobiographical Bell Jar. As is her father’s death at age 55, when Plath was 8. Otto, who suffered from diabetes, reviled doctors so thoroughly that he refused treatment until he banged his toe on a dresser and his leg became infected; although the leg was amputated, it was too late. Plath was distraught over his death. Caught between an exacting mother and a feeling of abandonment by a father she adored, she set out on a consuming quest for perfection—as daughter, student, lover and wife. And as a writer.

The impossibility of her mission may have contributed to her first suicide attempt. Amodel student at SmithCollege, she was selected as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City, where she worked during the summer after her junior year, in 1953. She was elated, having been obsessed with writing since her first published verse about crickets and fireflies appeared in the Boston Herald when she was 8 years old. Even while in high school, she had gotten small pieces into such prominent publications as Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. But rather than being exhilarated by Manhattan, she claimed to have been enervated. “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo,” wrote her fictionalized counterpart Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Shortly after Plath returned home, she collapsed from depression. She was briefly institutionalized and given electroshock therapy. Later, she crawled into a dark, dirty space underneath her mother’s house, where she swallowed pills in an effort to kill herself.

She recovered sufficiently to graduate with honors in English and win a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge to study literature. When she set out in the fall of 1955 for England, she hoped not only to polish her writing and perhaps begin work on a PhD, but also to find a man. The man. “My God, I’d love to cook and make a house, and surge force into a man’s dreams, and write,” she confided in her journals not long after her arrival in England.

A few weeks later, she bought a just-printed copy of St. Botolph’s Review. In that slim volume, she discovered some particularly potent poems by a writer named Ted Hughes:

…he meant to stand naked

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