Whether because we are wired by our cognitive circuitry or conditioned by our culture of cynicism, we tend to be profoundly incapable of recognizing that contradictory emotions, beliefs, states, and dispositions can coexist within a single person, at different times and even at the same time, complementing and enriching one another rather than canceling each other out. Can a life be lived with wholehearted exuberance and end by heartbreaking despair, without the fact of the latter negating the truth of the former? Hardly anything poses this question more acutely than the short, exuberant, and tragic life of beloved poet Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963).
In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize and before her journals were published, the world got its first glimpse of the turbulent and wildly creative inner landscape this troubled genius inhabited — Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963. Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.
In the introduction, Plath’s mother speaks of the “psychic osmosis” she shared with young Sylvia and cites a journal entry — for the beloved poet was among history’s most dedicated diarists — in which her 17-year-old daughter writes:
Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.
In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.
I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.
In a sentiment calling to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” teenage Plath adds:
At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.
I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.
Plath did get married and did have kids. To this, a necessary addendum: The hubristic assumption that her marriage was the cause of her tragedy — an assumption tragically common in our age of snap judgments and superficial impressions masquerading as informed opinions, with which people don’t hesitate to impale others whenever Plath and Hughes are mentioned — is a disservice to the seething cauldron of complexity that is a human life, to say nothing of the double complexity of human relationships; it is also an assumption that fails to account for the still barely understood neurochemistry of creativity and mental illness.
What is clear is that at seventeen, Plath is tussling with precisely those complexities that make a person, feeling out the boundaries of the self, that resident-alien of body and mind:
I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.
Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)
And yet, echoing Van Gogh — another complicated artist with a tragic end, who wrote to his brother: “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Plath wonders whether her reach for perfection will ever bear fruit and show on the outside:
Never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul — my paintings, my poems, my stories — all poor reflections…
Facing the overwhelming crossroads of young adulthood, Plath marvels at this unrepeatable moment in time:
There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…
Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…
That cause became writing, a sense of purpose that came naturally to Plath as she let her life speak. She captures its pull beautifully in one of her earliest poems, written around the same time, which her mother includes in the introduction to the book:
You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? …
I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.
Plath soon headed to Smith College, where her dedication to writing grew so all-consuming that it was immortalized in a cartoon pinned to the College Hall Bulletin Board, which read under the caption “Teen-age Triumphs”:
BORN TO WRITE
Sylvia Plath, 17, really works at her writing… A national magazine has published two of her brain children! — the real test for being a writer.
For her part, Plath loved the opportunity to live up to the cartoon’s proclamation. She wrote in a letter to her mother:
Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.
Your happy girl,
And work, work, work she did — a few months later, she got that coveted Mademoiselle internship, which catapulted her into the world of professional writing. In a 1955 letter to her mother, which captures biographer Andrew Wilson’s apt assertion that Plath was “an addict of experience,” she writes:
Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.
In July of 1956, Plath articulates her inescapable calling in another letter to her mother from a trip to Paris with her husband, Ted Hughes, whom she had met that February in their famous first encounter and had married by June. Twenty-three-year-old Plath writes:
… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…