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Essay

I’D WALKED PAST THE HOUSE in the morning—halting every other step as though to check my watch or tend a shoelace, eyes sidelong, slithering, gaping—but I’d managed to keep myself away in the afternoon. Now, under cover of dark, I was back again, to spy, to stand across the street in my hooded coat in the shadow of a lamppost and try to make out what was inside.

The house I’m reconnoitering is 23 Fitzroy Road, and I don’t imagine it looks very different than it did in 1962. Cleaner perhaps, less frayed, the paint tidier. Fifty years ago it would have been of a piece with the rest of London away from the grand boulevards and monuments: Georgian terraces and Victorian rows gone seedy, brick blackened by London’s infamous “fog” of pollution, cream-colored stucco soured and stained, and inside the smell of paraffin heaters, coal, and rising damp—the pall of the sometime nexus of the world.

There are trains in the distance and the slop of water in Regent’s Canal and, just across it, squawks and keening from the London Zoo. But it’s quiet here. It’s late November and the sidewalk’s veiled in rain, enough to muffle the scrape of my shoes as I sidle left, southward, to look harder. A cab has stopped down the block at the corner. I can hear the tick and spin of the engine and a door slam, but no one’s coming this way.

The flat that preoccupies me constitutes the two upper floors of number 23’s four stories. I can see light on the fourth floor, dim and indirect, probably from the back room, the one that overlooks the garden, the children’s room. The room I can actually see, the one overlooking the street, would have been her bedroom.

The floor below—where the living room, study, and kitchen were—is completely dark. So once again, I’ve been thwarted. With a light on and, with luck, no curtain or shade drawn, I could have seen inside, maybe have determined whether the front room is the living room or the kitchen; with luck, it would be the kitchen where her new stove had stood, out of whose opened oven the gas billowed and poured. She’d just had it delivered.

Sylvia Plath had two great ambitions: to marry Ted Hughes and to become a poet of the first rank. She accomplished both, rendering for herself a consequential life by anyone’s estimation, even if the life was much made by the death.

My own ambition requires no genius and little labor. It is merely to scope out this flat, but I’ve failed again. It’s just circumstance—no one’s home, or they’ve gone to bed; they’re reading or watching Jeremy Paxman in that back bedroom—but maybe it also follows from dishonesty, from impure intentions. I won’t or can’t admit to myself how morbid, even squalid, my motives are on this quest; that I want, almost lasciviously, to feel—really, to see—how it was; her head in the oven, the children upstairs napping, their door sealed with tape against the fumes; Plath downing the gas—is there nausea, or does one simply black out? How does she look? Has her hair (usually bound) fallen free? In the mortuary Ted Hughes saw that she’d turned completely white, bleached; saw that they’d put a dress with a frilly collar on her—and, as the gas seethed, upstairs the sweet humid breath of children asleep, the blush on their cheeks, the sun leeching in through the window, facing southeast into the February sunrise. It had been early, eight o’clock or so.

I would like to make something—write something here and now—lyrical and capacious out of this. It has all the ingredients: youth and promise, children and loss, creation and death. But what drives me here twice in one day and thrills me is tawdry, my appetite for it both prurient and sentimental: the oven, the corpse and coroner, the children crying from the window to be let out of their room. I want the precise location, the sight and smell of every detail, leaving nothing—despite my claim to love art, indeed to be an artist myself—to the imagination.

 

There’s a blue plaque on the facade of 23 Fitzroy Road commemorating W.B. Yeats’s residence there as a boy. When in 1962 Plath found out an apartment there was vacant, she lunged: she and Ted Hughes lived around the corner and knew the neighborhood; it was, she said, the home she always wanted, Yeats’s house. Securing the lease was to her a sign of great things, of her poetic ambitions’ realization. Now the building is more famous as the place where Plath killed herself than as Yeats’s home, though there’s no monument to that fact. I wondered who lived in the flat now, if importuning Plathites rang the doorbell and asked to be shown around, and if the present occupiers’—co-tenants of a ghost, of self-murder—reaction was furious or resigned or if they answered the door at all. I wondered where that stove had gone; if, absurdly, hungrily, there might still be just the faintest trace of gas.

Of course you might argue—and I certainly would—that I could get more from the poems, the ferocious despair of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” the sorrow and pity of Hughes’s Birthday Letters, language flayed by rage and affliction, sharp and brutal, implacable and overbearing as prophecy. But it’s the poems I can’t face. They tell it too true. It’s the poems that leave nothing to the imagination. So I stand aslant, a voyeur on the other side of the street. I want to know everything, but I don’t want there to be any consequences, any fingerprints left behind, mine or theirs.

 

When Plath’s father fell ill when she was nine, she prayed, and when he died, she said, “I’ll never speak to God again.” That is not, by my lights, childish precocity or petulance but what anyone with a heart would say. Why should we speak to one who ignores us, who looks away; and how, in any case, would we do this—with what prayers or hymns—knowing what we had come to know? It’s a rare child—a genius child—who could keep such a vow, undertake such a vast renunciation. We should admire this purposefulness, this ambition, which became for her a faith.

I would say more of children, not only the child who is determined to snub God for eternity or the children crying at the fourth floor window, but of a photograph. Plath and Hughes, both handsome, were much photographed and, by 1960, famous both individually and as a couple. That year, a photographer who’d made an appointment for a session arrived at their home, and it was clear to him that they’d been fighting. But the shoot went ahead and produced what is the most intriguing photograph of them I know. It doesn’t, perhaps, tell us much about poetry or genius or even Plath’s or Hughes’s individual lives, but it seizes upon a moment that we’ve all occupied or narrowly escaped.

They look like children or, at most, teenagers: he’s just shy of a smirk, covering his knowledge that he’s in over his head, that he’s been caught out, shame faced; she’s pouting, affronted, too stunned to cry, but the vastation’s breaking through. They have gone too far this time. They have gone somewhere from which they cannot return—not together.

The marriage was meant to be perfect, and yet, as Plath wrote in a poem just after meeting Hughes, “One day I’ll have my death of him.” That might have been part of the plan, or a manifestation of an inbuilt aspect of Plath’s character, a tragic flaw pressing her toward her fate. Close friends noted her capacity to hurt and harass Hughes—to overstress the marriage—not just obliviously but almost willfully, in order, as one put it, “to create the conditions to write the Ariel poems.” Her choice of Hughes, a heartbreaker with no small gift for betrayal, only furthered her life’s project. Thus the fulfillment of Plath’s first ambition led to the fulfillment of the second, the first having served its purpose and been undone. The poems came as the marriage crumbled. Once settled on Fitzroy Road, she and Hughes separated.

Perhaps that analysis goes too far, the product of a view from across the road, the perspective flattened so that only the myth and melodrama can be made out, literally far-fetched. Of course, Plath herself always went too far, especially in the Ariel poems, the apotheosis of her ambition, which becomes at that point indistinguishable from her being in toto, from any other point it might have. She fastened, for example, onto the Holocaust in a way that, had she not been a genius—had her art not been so insistent—would strike us as pretentious, not to say preposterous, given a life untouched by the Holocaust or even by Judaism. But the issue was and remains not a question of “who owns the Holocaust” but (as Jacqueline Rose has put it) who owns it as metaphor.

It was this that Plath took possession of and which in the end, in her suicide, she bent back upon itself, transfiguring Zyklon B, the shower rooms, and the crematoria into domestic coal gas and a household appliance. Yet it remained apotheosis: “And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies, / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.” Those lines are from “Ariel,” the title poem of the collection, written the previous autumn. They are a statement of intention, a manifesto for her paramount ambition, upon which she put the seal in her last poem, “Edge,” written five days before her suicide: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”

 

Ted Hughes kept his own counsel for thirty years. We had to wait that long for his Birthday Letters, poems about him and Plath, written mostly in the second person as though to Plath, poems we don’t so much hear as overhear. It’s clear—as she set the final pieces of her life in place, as he womanized and lost himself in his own talent—that he had indeed worried about her; we might say fretted about the state of her soul, her salvation, the supplications and compacts she was prepared to make:

You were like a religious fanatic
Without a god—unable to pray.
You wanted to be a writer.
Wanted to write? What was it within you
Had to tell its tale?

‘God is speaking through me,’ you told me
‘Don’t say that,’ I cried. ‘Don’t say that.
That is horribly unlucky!’

(“The God”)

Yet a few poems later Hughes accuses himself of abetting all this, and it’s generally agreed that he indeed showed her how to bring violence and fury to her poems. The namesake of Plath’s poem “Ariel” was a horse, equine, but Hughes immersed her in the canine: foxes, hounds, and especially wolves, their stealth and rapacity. And what better emblem of ambition could there be than the wolf? Of course Plath had that itch already, lupine appetites for glory and self-annihilation. In “The Manor Garden,” the first poem of her first book, The Colossus, she’d written of “two suicides, the family wolves.”

That’s not to say that Plath didn’t instruct Hughes. They taught each other mostly by mutual affliction: fierce attachment and offhand betrayal, self-sacrifice and indifference, narcissism and ferocious projection. One day Hughes came home late to take over the babysitting and Plath went berserk, smashing his mother’s heirloom dining table with a hammer. “Marvelous,” he said, “That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems,” and urged her on. Later, he would have his doubts, the hourly toll, the burrowing regret:

Deep in the cave of your ear
The goblin snapped his fingers.
So what had I given him?

The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth.

(“The Minotaur”)

This is black magic, and Hughes knew he had a hand in it. It left as its spoor a story that’s irresistible, that we can believe in, take on faith in lieu of faith: the dead poet, the lost children, the haunted, hollowed spouse. We need them, and when we summon them, they come.

 

There are, besides all the photos, tapes of Plath, both interviews and readings of the poems, and I tracked them down. I listen to her voice, and it’s not, as I imagined, the voice of a contemporary—knowingly quizzical, overweeningly diffident, the voice of someone who on account of dying young stays young; who, transfigured into an archetype, is continuously reborn young in the manner young people are young just now; yet, for all that, grows wiser every year. No, it’s nothing so much as my mother’s voice, the voice of a well-bred young woman of 1950, educated at one of the Seven Sisters, possessed of a stamp we no longer much recognize, that of a poetess, a grand lady of highbrow art. She would have made an impression, if not a myth, no matter how she died.

I would like to feel some noble sentiments in response to her life and put them out into the world, but the truth is the world has no great need of them. It’s easy to write about the great and the legendary: their significance is self-evident and reifies with every repetition of these poems. All I have to do is piggyback my ambition on Plath’s, and I seem to myself to be saying something important; to become—at least a little—important myself.

It’s a tawdry business, ambition; fetid and corpse-cold, made of both greed and renunciation. It takes faith; you have to believe in yourself, people say. That is a faith I have, or a least a willing inclination towards it, but not enough to either fully embrace or abjure ambition. I suppose I lack the courage. And that—the want of courage—is what is wrong with my faith—all my faith—to begin with, as it is with my art. I won’t so much as cross the road for it, not for God or art or to grieve Sylvia Plath properly; to say—and that is all it would require—thank you, forgive me.

 

Perhaps Sylvia Plath had a third ambition: death. And because she had no God to bring her to it—no one to anoint her with suffering and release—it was a labor she had to take upon herself. Or that is how it may have seemed to her.

When I was a schoolboy, we were taught to write English papers—the teachers called them “themes” for some reason—using the criterion “What was the author’s intention and did he [it was always he] achieve it?” Later, in college, we were told this was precisely what we shouldn’t do; that we had no way of truly knowing what the author intended, and even if we did, that had no bearing on the meaning of the work on its own terms. They called this the “intentional fallacy,” and whatever you might think about it—that a poem stands whole, inert, and discrete from its maker—it does seem presumptuous to claim the ability (never mind the right) to apprehend a writer’s intentions, the meaning of her desire.

Perhaps in this case I could say instead, “What is the writer’s ambition and did she attain it?” But that only enlarges the question to include not only what she wanted for the poem but what she wanted for herself. The presumption and muddle only grow larger.

How we plunder the dead, not just their art (which is made for plundering, which breathes on account of being plundered) but their histories. And here I am now, ambitious to make a handsome essay, sonorous and consequential, tragedy wrung at very little expense from their tragedy. But Plath robbed her father, robbed the Jews, and robbed Hughes; and Hughes robbed her—if only to save himself, from himself. So what I do (what we all do) is not so very heinous after all. The achievement of our ambition under even the happiest of circumstances depends on exploitation and betrayal, on the lupine as much as the equine, on skulking and stalking as much as glorying forth. It is only the forgetting—of our debts, of our teachers and fellows, of our place in the larger story we are unwittingly writing—that is a sin, a crime against memory, against both past and posterity.

 

That night, standing on Fitzroy Road, I imagined I heard the water in Regent’s Canal and, just beyond it, the animals in the zoo. Or I think I did. It was as I was writing that it came to me that it could have happened, that I might have heard something, that it might have been the case. It would, at a minimum, be a pretty thing to say, and I am always out for the main chance or telling effect in my writing. I want that for it.

But then I read Hughes’s “Life after Death” in Birthday Letters. The night after Plath’s suicide he moved back into to 23 Fitzroy Road, and he and the children remained there together for some weeks. That surprised me. I would have thought—and in our time surely this is what experts would counsel—the children would have been hastily removed from the site of their trauma. And I cannot imagine that Hughes—for his own reasons, perhaps guilt among them—would have wanted to sleep there, in or near the marital bed, or anywhere close to the kitchen table, adjacent to the stove, where Plath had left the tidily stacked manuscript of the Ariel poems, yellow-eyed, the children born of her three wishes.

But sleep they did, Hughes says in “Life after Death,” he and the children, and they also heard the wolves howling at the zoo. I can’t tell you what Hughes wrote, however. His estate has embargoed any quotation from that one particular poem. I could be resentful; grouse and fulminate—not entirely self-servingly—that a work of art should not be silenced, severed from public discourse. But maybe the estate only aims to silence the likes of me, people who want to piggyback their own ambitions onto Hughes’s and Plath’s suffering. And there has been suffering enough. In the absence of the poem, maybe it’s good to be forced to attend to other things, other sounds, the seemingly empty but actually brimming stillness beyond failure or success. There’s enough of that, too: success, ambition, and fame. Fame, from the Latin fama, scarcely more than a vowel’s breadth from fames, hunger, greed; at best lack and longing, so close yet so far—standing outside, ambitious to be within—from something like love.

 

 


Robert Clark is the author of nine books, most recently My Victorians: Lost in the Nineteenth Century (Iowa). He lives in New York City. 

Correction: an earlier version of this essay described Plath’s poem “Ariel” as the first poem in her collection of the same name. In fact, it appears midway through. 

 

 


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