Sylvia Plath and the line between self-expression and self-harm.

The relationship between “genius” and “madness” has been discussed in both artistic and psychological circles for thousands of years, dating as far back as 384 BC when Aristotle stated “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” (Wist, 2004)  However, the link between seemingly innate creativity and mental illness has only been closely observed in the last few hundred years; some may argue this was brought about by the birth of the Romantics in the late 18th to early 19th century. The Romantic poet Lord Byron once wrote “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched” (Jamison, 1993). This contrast between “gaiety” and “melancholy” is reminiscent of the conflicting emotions associated with bipolar disorder which Lord Byron himself was suspected to have suffered from (Hankir, 2011). A recently coined phenomenon aptly named “The Sylvia Plath Effect” describes poets, especially female poets, as being more susceptible to mental illness than other types of writers. Female poets were also found to be more likely to suffer from a mental illness than any other professional women, such as politicians, doctors or artists. Mood disorders are especially common among female writers, but the susceptibility extends to panic attacks, general anxiety, eating disorders and drug abuse (Bailey, 2003).

Bipolar disorder is one of the most common mental health conditions said to inspire creativity. This is likely due to the episodes of manic energy experienced by the individual, thus sparking intense, productive creative spells (Hankir, 2011). Mood disorders in general, primarily depression and bipolar seem to be unusually common among those with artistic temperaments. A study conducted in the USA using a sample of creative writers, gathered their data and stated that 38% of the sample had been treated for a mood disorder at some point in their lives compared to the 9.7% in the US population as a whole (Anderson, 2008).

Although this connection between creativity and mental health has been identified, it is not certain whether this creativity benefits or harms the individual’s wellbeing. For many years, the creative arts have been utilised in therapy and rehabilitation for those suffering or recovering from mental illness. However, a study conducted in Sweden in 2013 (S Kyaga, 2013) found that those who creatively write for a living had a higher risk of anxiety and mood disorders as well as being almost twice as likely as the general population to commit suicide. Due to such conflicting evidence, it is difficult to know whether creative expression is a healthy and cathartic exercise or simply an act that exacerbates negative thoughts and emotions. However, the answer could be found purely on an individual basis where people react differently to the act of writing dependent on their unique experiences and genetics.

The 20th century poet Sylvia Plath was famed for her style of confessional poetry and notorious for her struggle with depression and tragic suicide at the age of thirty in 1963 (Wagner-Martin, 1990). Since only two of Plath’s works were published during her lifetime, The Colossus (1962) and The Bell Jar (1963), Plath’s following in the literary community and within popular culture predominantly grew posthumously following the publication of her poetry collection Ariel (1965). Once the news of Plath’s suicide became common knowledge, The Bell Jar became a book purchased and analysed by the masses, all following her string of mental health issues and trying to “solve” and “work out” the reason behind her death. Throughout Plath’s catalogue of work, her obsession with death, destructive emotion and the macabre appeared frequently. As Plath’s poetry was intensely autobiographical, the primary themes of her work hinted at her unstable mental state for many years as well as revealing intimate details about her turbulent personal life. Plath’s work explored her damaged relationship with her parents, her volatile and seemingly violent marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, her unstable role as a mother as well as her own distorted image of herself. Many of these themes resonated with a large female audience as the poetry continues to be popular and treasured to this day. However, as a literary figure, Plath has been deeply stereotyped and labelled as a ‘crazy girl’ who her saintly husband ‘put up with’ and who needlessly endangered her own children. This stereotype further extends to Plath’s loyal readers, as Emily Van Duyne (2017) states “We end up with another now well-tested literary trope: Plath the crazy girl, and the crazy girls who love her, all of whom are seen as young, starry-eyed fools in need of scolding.” This stereotype is not only acutely sexist, conforming to the concept of female ‘hysteria’, but blatantly ignores evidence regarding Plath as a woman, wife and mother.

It would be understandable to view Sylvia Plath’s writing as a therapeutic and cathartic exercise for the poet, with readers assuming that since so much unbridled and raw emotion is poured into her poetry, it somehow pours out of the woman herself. However, it is equally, if not more valid to assert that the act of writing poetry was similar to a form of self-harm for Plath, with her work seemingly exacerbating and justifying her distorted mind state.

Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts to parents Otto and Aurelia Plath, but her childhood was blighted by the death of her father when she was eight-years-old (Poetry Foundation). This trauma greatly informed her future work as a poet which often explored their complex relationship. In particular, Plath’s poem “Daddy” (Plath, Ariel) is a piece of work through which she was able to kill the memory of her father by transforming him into various bestial creatures to express her anger and anguish. Plath’s father was a German immigrant which Plath plays upon throughout this poem as she compares her fear of her father to the fear the Jews had of the Nazis, “I have always been scared of you. / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue.” Reminiscent of Freud’s Electra Complex (Exploring Your Mind, 2018), Plath also hints at the similarities between her controlling and authoritarian father and her husband who she claims shares her father’s “Meinkampf look”. Her father’s death deeply impacted her mental health throughout her short life as Plath suggests in “Daddy” that he was a significant reason behind her suicide attempt in 1953, “At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you.” According to one of Plath’s childhood friends Phillip McCurdy, Plath also attempted slitting her own throat when she was ten, due to the overwhelming grief she experienced after her father’s death (Wilson, 2013).

As well as a Nazi, her father is portrayed as a “vampire”, a “brute” and a “devil” within the poem. Otto Plath’s death was a result of severe diabetes and gangrene which led to his entire leg being amputated (Wagner-Martin, 1990). This image of her father still haunted Plath as frequent references are made to the “foot”, “black shoe” and “one grey toe” within the poem, although they are all hidden in metaphor. This deeply emotional and honest work demonstrates Plath’s ability to transform her trauma into literature, however from a reader’s perspective, this piece seems to simply delve deeper into the wealth of complex, unhealthy and unaddressed emotions Plath had regarding her father. Instead of bringing Plath a sense of closure, the piece seems to exacerbate her own anger and confusion, resulting in outright futility, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” The whole poem stands as a protest piece towards her father, attempting to fool the reader and perhaps herself, that Plath has finally let go of her resentment, yet it is reminiscent of the line from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much” (Shakespeare, 1992).

The first symptoms of Plath’s severe depression began during her undergraduate studies at Smith College. In August 1953, Plath attempted suicide by swallowing forty of her mother’s sleeping pills and crawling into a small space underneath her house. Plath was reported missing and three days later, after a widespread search involving the police, bloodhounds, reporters and volunteer groups, Plath was found by her mother and hospitalised. The nurse on duty at the time described Plath as “more dead than alive” (Wagner-Martin, 1990). In Plath’s brutal poem “Lady Lazarus”, she explores the “art” of dying which she confesses to doing “exceptionally well”. This glorification of suicide transforms the narrator of the poem (Plath herself) into an elevated, God-like being to be praised and admired “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air”. This poem has not rationalised the senseless act of suicide but instead convinced her of its heroic qualities. She has invented herself as a martyr of the patriarchy.

Although this was Plath’s first documented suicide attempt, it is suggested in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar that Plath had previously attempted to drown herself as well as committing other acts of self-harm. Following Plath’s attempted overdose, she was sent to McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts where she spent six months receiving treatment with electro-shock therapy (Wagner-Martin, 1990). In one of Plath’s diary entries, dated June 20th 1958, she wrote “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative – whichever is running at the moment dominates my life floods it” (Plath, 2000). This is Plath’s poetic description of bipolar disorder – her most common diagnosis among psychologists. The duality Plath describes here is perhaps reflected in how acquaintances often perceived her “pleasant and otherwise unexceptional” despite her severe clinical depression (Steiner, 1974). Having made a recovery, Plath returned to Smith and graduated in 1955 with the highest honours before earning a grant to study at Cambridge University in England. Whilst there, Plath attended a party where she met fellow poet Ted Hughes and after a whirlwind romance the two were married four months later in 1956 (Middlebrook, 2004).

Plath’s marriage to Hughes was passionate and volatile with Plath describing “holocaust nights with Ted in London” (Plath, 2000). The two often wrote poetry to one another as well as about each other; many of the poems in the original version of Ariel were written about Hughes, and his collection of Birthday Letters (Hughes T. , 2002) contained poems dedicated to Plath, published over thirty years after her death in 1998. “The Rival”, a powerful poem taken from Plath’s Ariel collection, has been interpreted in multiple ways by readers and scholars alike. Many believe the poem alludes to Hughes as the antagonist of Plath’s life, “You leave the same impression / Of something beautiful, but annihilating.” This interpretation seems consistent with the destructive nature of their relationship as Plath compares her husband to the moon, a “light borrower” who “abases (his) subjects”. This metaphor may extend to her poem “Edge”, Plath’s last written poem in which she describes a dead woman’s body as “perfected”. As Plath describes the natural world’s response to the woman’s death through use of vivid imagery, the stark statement, “The moon has nothing to be sad about,” is jarring and quite literally breaks the flow of Plath’s writing. If this symbol once again represents Hughes, from whom Plath was estranged at the time of writing, it gives an interesting insight into Plath’s feelings of bitterness and betrayal. In his deception, Hughes has lost the right to mourn Plath’s death. The description is consistent with Plath’s canon of work and her history of honest, somewhat brutal depictions of human nature and those closest to her. Throughout Plath’s collected journal entries, she makes repeated claims that Hughes both emotionally and physically abused her, once writing “I took myself in leash and washed my battered face, smeared with a purple bruise from Ted and my neck raw and wounded too” (Plath, 2000). Within these journals, Plath also claimed that she once suffered a miscarriage as a result of Hughes’ beatings and that he often expressed his desire that she were dead. There is little question that if these events did take place, they would have caused disastrous damage to Plath’s already fragile mental health and may justify the claims of many Plath scholars, that he played a key part in her desire to kill herself.  Despite their violent marriage, the downfall of their relationship seemed to occur as a result of Hughes’ chronic infidelity. His close friend and fellow poet Al Alvarez once stated that Hughes was “constitutionally incapable of being faithful in a marriage” (Duyne, 2017). 

In May 1962, the Canadian poet David Wevill and his German wife Assia, who too was artistically inclined, were invited to spend a weekend with Plath and Hughes in their home in Devon. Soon after the visit, Hughes and Assia began an affair that would prove fatal for both Plath and Assia Wevill. According to one of Assia’s work colleagues at the time, she said of Hughes “You know, in bed he smells like a butcher.” During September, Hughes took Plath on holiday to Ireland, however on the fourth day of the visit he disappeared, secretly meeting Assia in London before flying out with her for a pre-arranged trip to Spain, where he and Plath had spent their honeymoon six years previously (Yehuda Koren, 2006). When Hughes returned, he and Plath had an explosive argument which resulted in Plath’s sprained thumb and Hughes’ face covered in “bloody claw marks”. Hughes refused to leave his mistress and the relationship between Plath and Hughes finally ended (Duyne, 2017). Less than a year later in 1963, Plath committed suicide by placing her head inside a gas oven, whilst her children Frieda and Nicholas slept in the next room (Middlebrook, 2004). Prior to her death, Plath was made aware that Assia was pregnant with Hughes’ child (that she would later abort) (Middlebrook, 2004). Plath’s poem “A Secret” is seemingly inspired by Hughes’ imagined reaction to the news. Despite Plath appearing to remove herself from the narrative of the poem, focusing on Hughes’ and Assia’s conflicting desires for the fate of the baby, Plath’s anger and bitterness bleeds through, “An illegitimate baby… Do away with the bastard.” Many times throughout the poem, it is unclear what is being said by Hughes and what is in fact coming from the poem’s omniscient narrator, Plath herself. This blurring of their voices and desires may reflect their remaining emotional entanglement despite their separation. 

Since Plath’s suicide, Hughes has been hounded by fans of Plath and feminist critics blaming him for her death. In one instance in the 1970s, a group of Plath’s readers attended one of Hughes’ poetry readings, chanting “murderer” (Kean, 2017). As a result of this negative attention, Hughes resigned to never publicly talking about Plath, and sustained this silence until a month before his death, in which he released his poetry collection Birthday Letters (1998). The book contained eighty-eight poems all dedicated to Plath, finally responding to their widely discussed and politicised marriage. However, this does not end the controversy surrounding Hughes. It is well-documented that Hughes burned Plath’s journals documenting the last two years of her life (Foer, 1998), leading many to assume his guilt surrounding the circumstances of Plath’s death. It may also be significant to note that in 1969, six years after Plath’s suicide, Assia Wevill also killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura. Wevill felt that in Hughes’ eyes she would always be tainted by Plath’s death meaning he would never marry her. According to Wevill’s suicide note, she feared she would never be able to love another man and her child would not survive without the love of her mother. Wevill’s paintings and most of her poetical works did not survive (Yehuda Koren, 2006). Although this may simply be a coincidence, one can’t help but notice the similarities between the disappearance of Wevill’s work and the destruction of Plath’s journals.

Since Plath’s death, Hughes has also been responsible for publishing the majority of her work. This alone raises many ethical dilemmas, but one of Hughes’ most criticised decisions was removing several poems from Plath’s original manuscript of Ariel (Hughes F. , 2004). Nearly all of the thirteen poems removed by Hughes’ alluded to his treatment of her. One such poem, “The Jailor”, which was published many years later in Ariel: The Restored Edition (Plath, 2004), seems to compare Hughes’ treatment of Plath to a jailor’s treatment of a prisoner “And he, for this subversion, / Hurts me, he / With his armour of fakery, / His high cold masks of amnesia.” In the various poems written about Hughes, Plath often presented herself as a victim or suppressed figure, not dissimilar to the Nazi/Jew metaphor in “Daddy”. According to Charles Newman’s interpretation (1971), in “personalising the socio-political catastrophes of the century, (Plath) reminds us that they are ultimately metaphors of the terrifying human mind.” Therefore, Plath uses history “to explain herself” within her poetry.

Ariel (Plath, 2010), Plath’s most notable and praised work, was written during the last five months of the poet’s life in which she experienced an intense creative episode (Wagner-Martin, 1990). During this period, Plath wrote in a letter to her mother Aurelia, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.” (Plath, 1999) In January 1963, ten months prior to her death, Sylvia consulted her GP regarding her worsening depression. The episode had been triggered by the end of her relationship with Hughes and caused her constant agitation, suicidal thoughts and an inability to cope with daily life (Cooper, 2003). Despite these mental obstacles, Plath continued to write daily and record poems for the BBC. One of the most concerning themes found within Plath’s Ariel collection is her frequent glorification of death. The inevitability of her suicide is evident to her, as if she were a character in a Greek tragedy fated to die from the beginning. Plath’s own self-awareness is obvious in her poem “Edge” (Ariel, 2010) in which a “perfected” dead woman lies with a “smile of accomplishment”. The way in which Plath approaches the theme of death is morbidly obsessive. She is adamant to experience and accomplish it herself, with each of her poems a steppingstone towards her goal. Through her poems, Plath developed an unhealthy understanding and attachment to death, justifying her own thoughts of suicide. Evidence for this is perhaps found within Plath’s poems “The Rival”, “A Birthday Present” and “Poppies in October”, all of which are from her Ariel collection. The three poems vary in theme, subject matter and style, however all share references to “carbon monoxide”, the very gas that poisoned and killed Sylvia Plath. As the poems in Ariel were all written in the months leading up to her death, these references seem too obscure to be coincidental. This suggests that not only was the concept of suicide present in Plath’s mind months before she saw it through, but the specific method of death. The very fact that Plath incorporated this into her poetry seems to imply that her writing was a way of making sense of her darkest thoughts, and despite this attempt to reason with them, poetry eventually acted as justification for these thoughts. Plath’s friend and fellow poet Al Alverez viewed her suicide as “a last desperate attempt to exorcise the death she had summoned up in her poems.” (Alverez, 2002)

However, Plath’s true intentions remain an ongoing debate; many wonder whether she actually intended to commit suicide or whether her actions were simply a cry for help. Plath’s ‘suicide note’ simply read “Please call Dr. Horder” (Atlas, 2017), Plath’s GP at the time who had been seeing her daily. It seems illogical for Plath to have written this believing that by the time someone read it, she would be dead. Considering her previous suicide attempts, it would be reasonable to assume that Plath herself was uncertain about the outcome of this one. As Alverez stated “She gambled for the last time… Her calculations went wrong and she lost.” (Alverez, 2002)

Despite her inevitable demise, the element of fear seems non-existent in Plath’s writing, as if she has explored the subject through poetry in such depth, that it now seems as familiar as an old friend. After Plath’s nervous breakdown in 1953, she regained her strength through writing poetry and relied on it as an outlet for her suffering. However, her poetry found its strength in Plath’s own private misery and cyclical thoughts of suicide, death and depression. Plath was caught in a paradoxical situation in which her poetry was necessary for her sanity but her insanity was needed for her poetry. Denis Donoghue (1981) made a similar observation, believing Plath’s poems “offered themselves for sacrifice.” However, Donoghue, perhaps unsympathetically said of Plath “she showed us what self-absorption makes possible in art, and the price that must be paid for it.”

Sylvia Plath’s personal tragedy continued beyond her death. As previously mentioned, the woman Hughes left Plath for, Assia Wevill, also committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning six years after Plath’s death. She also killed their four-year old daughter. In addition to this, after battling with depression, Plath’s own son Nicholas killed himself at age forty-seven in 2009 (Green, 2009). As a child of the world’s most infamous and tragic literary relationships, many believe his mental health was somewhat defined by the lives of his parents. Since his suicide, Plath’s poem “Balloons” has adopted a far more poignant and prophetic tone. The poem, once again included in Ariel, is a tribute to her two young children and appears to be one of Plath’s most optimistic poems on surface level. In the poem, Plath describes her children’s joy in playing with the balloons that have been in their house since Christmas time. However, many readers believe the true meaning to be much more sinister. Balloons, ultimately temporary and fragile things, may represent happiness. As an adult, Plath is aware of happiness’s impermanence, however her two young children still maintain their youthful innocence and naivety. Although both of Plath’s children are present in the narrative of the poem, it is Nicholas who is holding the balloon “Your small / Brother is making / His balloon squeak like a cat.” Nicholas is too rough with the balloon and pops it, therefore destroying his childlike concept of happiness and being exposed to the reality of the world “He bites, / Then sits / Back, fat jug / Contemplating a world clear as water. / A red / Shred in his little fist.” Although it is obvious that Plath’s poetry was not the cause of her son’s fate, it is suggestive that through poetry she was able to connect with deep subconscious thoughts that perhaps, not even she was yet able to understand.

In exploring Plath’s mental illness, it is necessary to touch on the age-old debate of nature vs nurture. In light of Plath’s son’s own struggles with depression, it would not be unreasonable to assume some genetic connection between their mental health states. There has been research into the so-called ‘suicide gene’ which seems to increase the risk of suicide from one generation to the next (Coon, 2017). Although genetics do not solely determine a person’s mental wellbeing, scientific studies suggest it is able to influence it in significant ways. This genetic connection may extend to Plath’s father, Otto. Although he died from a fatal combination of gangrene and untreated diabetes, Dr Brian Cooper who has researched Plath’s genetic history extensively claims “the circumstances of his illness and death are strongly suggestive of depression” (Cooper, 2003). If this is correct, severe depression would have been present in three generations of Plath’s family, strongly implying that her mental health was not only impacted by her writing and marriage, but her genetic makeup. In order to examine Plath correctly and unbiasedly, it is important to recognise that although her writing seems to have been inflammatory to her mental illness, both her genetics and environment will have shaped it.

Ultimately, it is impossible to truly prove whether the poetry Plath wrote negatively impacted her mental health. It is even unlikely that she herself knew what came first, the poetry, or the depression. It is a mystery that is doomed to sit beside the many other questions that still haunt Plath’s readers 57 years after her death. For all we know, as retrospective onlookers, without the cathartic release of writing poetry, Plath may have lived a much shorter and more painful life. Perhaps it was the poetry that kept her alive for thirty years, before she finally succumbed to her suicidal thoughts. However, after examining Plath’s poetry beside biographical information, it is reasonable to surmise that a woman who suffered with bipolar disorder and wrote poetry with reoccurring themes of “cynicism, ego-absorption and a prurient fascination with suicide” (Poetry Foundation) may have been using the medium as a form of self-harm. Not only this, but her poetry confirmed her negative views instead of challenging them. By amplifying the difficulties in her life and indulging in her self-destructive tendencies through poetry, she avoided finding ways to understand and deconstruct her behaviour. In Plath’s case, the subject matter of what she wrote had physical consequences. Therefore, although we cannot prove it to be the truth, this surely implies that the act of writing poetry was a self-harming manifestation of Sylvia Plath’s mental illness. Plath’s work seems to transcend what we can and cannot prove for certain, and instead leaves the reader with an overwhelming feeling that Plath made poetry and death inseparable, one simply could not exist without the other.

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