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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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Late that same year, 1958, the couple moved to Boston and, at his urging, attempted to live solely off their writing. But she could not muffle the inner voice that insisted they needed a steady paycheck and so finally took a part-time job as a receptionist in the psychiatric clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital—the same clinic where she had been a patient in 1953. By the end of 1958, she had resumed therapy, wrestling mostly with unresolved issues about her parents.

The next year marked a turning point for Plath the writer as well as for Plath the mature woman. She sat in on a workshop at BostonUniversity with poet Robert Lowell, where she befriended Anne Sexton, a suburban housewife who successfully celebrated in poetry a woman’s experience. From Lowell, whose book of poems Life Studies persuaded her that it was acceptable to write about one’s mental illness, Plath learned she could give voice to her darkest inner fears. And by reading Sexton’s work and becoming her friend, Plath was emboldened to embrace such quintessentially female themes as motherhood, a subject rarely handled in poetry. Later in the year, on a cross-country vacation, Plath became pregnant. This time she felt ready.

Weary of America, the couple returned to London, arriving in January 1960. They found a grim little flat near Regent’s Park, which Plath transformed into a passing semblance of American-style comfort. Shortly afterward, she submitted a collection of poetry to British publisher William Heinemann Ltd. and was rewarded in just a week with a contract for her first book, Colossus and Other Poems. She was elated. And having endured a pregnancy that had thoroughly drained her strength and spirits, a fact she hid from even her closest friends, Plath gave birth April 1 to her first child, Frieda. “I have never been so happy in my life,” Plath told her mother.

To her many roles, she now added the part of the perfect mother. Hughes helped with cleaning, shopping and child care, but most of the domestic chores still fell to Plath, who weathered cycles of exhaustion, illness and depression. “The baby’s feedings and keeping the house clean, cooking, and taking care of Ted’s voluminous mail, plus my own, have driven me so I care only for carving out hours where I can start on my own writing,” she wrote ten weeks after childbirth.

In early 1961, strained by the demands of motherhood and chronic money woes, Plath once again revealed a streak of scorching jealousy. Hughes had met with a woman at the BBC to discuss producing children’s programming. Plath had spoken to the woman on the phone and mistakenly assumed that she was quite young. When Hughes returned to the flat, he found that Plath had burned drafts of his latest work. For a writer, it was the ultimate violation—as Plath surely knew. Shortly afterward, she miscarried what would have been her second child.

Yet in the midst of these personal crises, Plath began to produce poems of greater emotional depth. She also began mining the woman’s perspective in ways that she previously had not, a perspective that would grow more dominant as her work evolved. In “Morning Song,” for instance, she celebrated new motherhood:

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry

Took its place among the elements.

She also made real progress on The Bell Jar. Writing the longer prose work gave her a comforting sense of continuity. She and Hughes took turns using a small study lent them by W. S. Merwin, Plath taking the morning hours and Hughes the afternoon. As cooperative an arrangement as it was, it was hardly ideal, and in the summer of 1961, wanting more privacy, Hughes and Plath sublet their apartment to David Wevill, a young Canadian poet, and his wife, Assia, and bought their first home, what might generously be called a fixer-upper, in Devon, about 200 miles from London. Plath particularly loved the house’s yard, where she gardened and established a bee colony, and the couple luxuriated in a serenity they were certain would also foster creativity.

But the pastoral peace was soon broken. After the birth of their son, Nicholas, on January 17, 1962, Plath was felled by postpartum depression. And the worst was yet to come.

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