The narrative of Sylvia Plath’s life that paints her as a tragic figure doomed by the shadow of her genius, as well as an all-consuming husband, endures to this day. But a new batch of previously unpublished letters showcases a different side of the poet, one defined not by the circumstances of her death, but by the whimsical, sensual and intellectual sides she exhibited in life.
As Dan Chiasson writes for the New Yorker, a newly released volume of her letters, carefully curated by Karen V. Kukil and Peter K. Steinberg, is marked by an unusual attention to the everyday. Take a chance encounter with the humble groundhog, which the prolific poet described in a note to her mother as a “strange grey clumpish animal” with a “stout waddly build.” It’s a precise image, one that’s rendered with similar incisiveness in the poem “Incommunicado” —here, the graceless groundhog “fatly scuttle[s] into the splayed fern.” Such descriptions—typical of the eclectic insights Plath offered in her correspondence—abound in the hefty thousand-page tome.
The comprehensive account, titled Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963, traces the later years of the author’s life, from her initial marital bliss with fellow poet Ted Hughes to the violent dissolution of their union and her suicide at age 30. (Volume 1: 1940-1956, published last October, covered Plath’s childhood and young adult years.)
The letters contain ample evidence of the inner turmoil evident in Plath throughout this period, particularly in a series of 14 letters sent to friend and psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher. The Beuscher notes, which surfaced last year and are now held by Plath’s alma mater, Smith College, delve even deeper into the devastation wrought by Hughes, who began an affair with Assia Wevill, the wife of a friend, in 1961.
Beuscher, then a psychiatric resident, first met Plath in 1953, the year she attempted to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills and hiding in the crawl space beneath her family’s home. The pair embarked on an unlikely friendship punctuated by in-person therapy visits and, after Plath and Hughes moved to London in 1960, overseas letters.
The most controversial comments in these exchanges revolve around Hughes, whom Plath said “beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage.” (Hughes’ widow, Carol, has refuted this claim as “absurd [and] shocking to anyone who knew Ted well.”)
Writing for the Daily Mail, the couple’s daughter Frieda added, “It was intensely painful to read this. In all my life with my father, I had never seen this side of him. What, I asked myself, would qualify as a physical beating? A push? A shove? A swipe?”
In another note, Plath stated, “[Ted] told me openly he wished me dead.”
With surprisingly high frequency, however, Plath’s accounts to Beuscher yielded to the poet’s burgeoning hopes for the future. In an October 21, 1962, letter composed soon after Ted officially moved out, Plath told Beuscher, whom she addressed as “Dr.,” “I was ecstatic. My life, my sense of identity, seemed to be flying back to me from all quarters. … I was my own woman.”
Even in her final letter to Beuscher—dated February 4, 1963, just days before her suicide—Plath spoke of the alluring appeal of an imminent divorce: “Now I shall grow out of his shadow, I thought, I shall be me.”
Ultimately, these thoughts failed to dispel Plath’s fear of “the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst—cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.” On February 11, she pressed towels under the kitchen door to protect her sleeping children and placed her head in a gas oven.
At the time of her death, Plath had published one poetry anthology entitled The Colossus and one semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Hughes, as literary executor of his wife’s estate, oversaw the posthumous publication of Ariel, her final (and in the view of many readers, her best) collection of poetry.
While the newly discovered correspondence reveal a vulnerable—and increasingly despondent—individual, it also captures the sheer sense of wonder Plath adopted in her approach to the world. “Her energy even when she is doing or observing the most ordinary things vaults off the page,” the Guardian’s Elizabeth Lowry marvels in her review of Volume 2, remarking, “[s]he has an uncanny ability to make the mundane strange.”