It is fifty years since Sylvia Plath killed herself. She was thirty-one.
The tragic details of her death scene are well-known; the mugs of milk she left out for her two small children, the manuscript on her table entitled “Ariel and Other Poems.”
I had only been familiar with a couple of Plath’s more famous poems prior to buying ‘Ariel’ in a second-hand shop two years ago. I remember the feeling of shock and discovery when first reading Ariel. That feeling has never really left me.
Cold and warm pressure fronts meet in these poems to create complex and unpredictable weather. Familiar detail associated with domestic life and parenthood is spliced with the mythic and visceral.
Comfort and joy are quickly disrupted by the awareness that life is shot through with pain. Even the wonderful and joyful opening celebration in ‘Morning Song’ is accompanied by violence
Love set you ticking like a fat gold watch
The Midwife slapped your foot soles.
Later there is the delicate beauty in ‘All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses’. But it is the ‘flatness’ of the roses that evokes coldness and solitude as the tensed mother wakes to listen for her child’s breathing.
Summoned by a cry she stumbles from bed,
‘cow-heavy and floral/In my Victorian nightgown.’
Here is a difficult and very real situation, the absurdity and compassion evoked by the symbolic presence of flowers, the discomfort of ‘cow heavy’ alongside ‘Victorian’ which seems to encapsulate notions of duty, of designated roles carried out unquestioningly. Plath is working with a very complex set of symbols.
This is from Ariel.
I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Any parent will recognize the cry that ‘melts in the wall’. The transcendent and breathtaking beauty of ‘I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas’ immediately precedes this cry. An interruption of a state of mind has taken place, from suspension and stasis to a state of urgency, a call for action.
After the cry we have ‘And I/ Am the arrow’. An arrow is deadly, heedless and unstoppable. The feeling is of being inside the consciousness of the new mother. The child is calling for her and immediately her focus is altered. An internal world is interrupted, the childs demands simultaneously affirming, joyful and constricting. And there is that word, Suicidal. It is as if in the inexorable call to life is also a call to death.
This is from ‘Nick and the Candlestick’
Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean
In you, ruby.
You wake to is not yours.
The juxtaposition of the joy of beholding a sleeping child and ‘The pain’ is striking.
We get a sense in many of these poems of a life animated by children, their happiness, their demands, their balloons.
It is astonishing how elements of tenderness and celebration run concurrently and entwine with violent and visceral language. This unsettling combination is both beautiful and horrifying in that it allows an insight into the turbulence at the heart of Plath’s life.