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The last days of Sylvia Plath

Fifty years after her suicide, a new biography of the Boston-born poet--the first to draw on the recently opened Ted Hughes archives--reveals a period of absolute depression and stunning artistry.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Concord in December 1959, shortly before moving to England.

Photograph from Marcia Brown and Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Concord in December 1959, shortly before moving to England.

JULY 9, 1962: Sylvia Plath raced to catch the phone call before Ted Hughes could intercept it. She recognized the woman asking for him, even though Assia Wevill lowered her voice, pretending, Sylvia thought, to be a man. She had been on edge ever since Assia and her husband’s May visit to their home; to Sylvia, the attraction between Ted and Assia had been palpable.

Sylvia clutched the phone, blanched, then turned it over to Ted. This was the moment her life sped up, the second her poetry erupted like a Greek necessity and became palpably autobiographical. In her poetry, she described her defilement as words pouring out of the phone like mud. Court Green, the Devon, England, home she had created as a haven for their family and their writing, now seemed polluted: “O god, how shall I ever clean the phone table?”

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Aurelia Plath, then staying at Court Green, watched her fastidious daughter rip the phone line out of the wall, but it was too late. The poet felt infected, sensing the caller’s words were like a monster’s spawn percolating in her heart.

What Sylvia said on the day of the phone call — that she had never been happier with her husband, her children, her home, and her writing — was neither a ruse nor wishful thinking. Words were how she persuaded herself. Using words, she could create that blissful union with Ted, and with words she could demolish it. She could not, however, permanently secure herself with words, and her recognition that poetry was only a momentary stay against confusion undid her. She wanted more than words could give her.

AP Photo

An undated file photo of American author Sylvia Plath.

The magical property Sylvia ascribed to words is evident in the bonfire she proceeded to make of Ted’s papers — adding for good measure her second novel, in which he figured as the hero. These words had to be destroyed for her to continue composing her life and work. She demanded that Ted move out. He decamped for London, returning occasionally to see the children. Yet the couple continued to fulfill their professional commitments in London and elsewhere, not keeping their breakup a secret, exactly, but behaving like amicable husband and wife when they appeared in public.

Privately, Sylvia puzzled over what to tell people. Confiding in her friend Elizabeth Compton, she called Ted a “little man.” This sounded to Elizabeth like a cry over a fallen idol. Ted’s own mood can be gauged from a letter he sent to his sister, Olwyn, in the late summer. The “prolonged distractions” of the previous nine months had depleted his bank account and diminished his productivity. The problem, his letter indicates, had been the “awful intimate interference that marriage is.”

On September 24, Sylvia wrote her mother that she realized Ted “wasn’t coming back.” This realization seemed to liberate her: “My own life, my wholeness, has been seeping back.” “For a Fatherless Son,” written two days later, is foreboding: “You will be aware of an absence, presently.” Her happiness was temporary; her son’s smiles appeared as “found money.” She did not tell her mother about her crying jags and weight loss. She started smoking.

In October, the month she turned 30, Sylvia experienced a burst of inspiration resulting in two dozen of her most powerful poems. On the day she composed “Daddy,” she apologized to her mother: “Do tear up my last [letter]. It was written at what was probably my all-time low, and I have had an incredible change of spirit; I am joyous, happier than I have been in ages.” Ted seemed amenable to a divorce, and she was writing every morning at 5, a poem per day completed before breakfast.

This revival turned her toward London: “I miss brains, hate this cow life, am dying to surround myself with intelligent, good people. I’ll have a salon in London . . . I am a famous poetess here — mentioned this week in The Listener as one of the half-dozen women who will last — including Marianne Moore and the Brontes!” On October 16, she remained ecstatic, writing, “I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

By coming to London, Sylvia was going to best Ted Hughes at his own game. Peter Porter, a poet in their circle, concluded that Ted really left Sylvia because he could all too clearly see her rising star: “Leaving Plath must have been not just an imperative for someone who wished to love other women whenever it suited him, but also a move to defend his own talent from competition with a superior one.”

On destiny’s doorstep, Sylvia discovered her dream home: 23 Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill. She was alone as she read the plaque noting that W.B. Yeats had lived there. This was it. She immediately got to work securing a five-year lease and raced home to open her edition of Yeats’s Collected Plays, which obliged her with this passage: “Get wine and food to give you strength and courage, and I will get the house ready.”

Sylvia was hard hit in the second week of November when The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly rejected several of her recent poems — the very ones that would appeal to posterity. But she rebounded, assembling 40 of her best works into a manuscript with the title Ariel, and other Poems.

That fraught telephone call in July continued to gnaw at the poet, who in “The Fearful” (November 16) brooded on a woman who would pretend to be a man. The woman thinks that a baby would rob her of her beauty (Sylvia had heard that Assia, worried about losing her beauty, did not want children). “She would rather be dead than fat,” so fearful is this woman who has turned her body over to a man. After Plath’s death, Assia would have access to her journals and see firsthand how the poet had nailed her.

On December 14, two days after moving out of Court Green, Sylvia wrote her mother that she had never been happier. Even dashing about to get the electricity and gas connected, while her door blew shut with the keys inside, was transformed into a “comedy of errors.” She imagined Yeats’s spirit blessing her. And why not? Al Alvarez, poetry editor of The Observer, had just told her that Ariel should win the Pulitzer Prize. She had a study that faced the rising sun. At night she joyously watched the full moon from her balcony.

But by January 2, the snow began to pile up. Everything had turned to sludge and then had frozen. No plows swept through streets in a land that rarely saw appreciable snow. It seemed like England had been engulfed in a new ice age. Sylvia wrote dejectedly to her friend Marcia Brown that she felt “utterly flattened” by the last six months of life without Ted. She was lonely and feeling like a “desperate mother.”

And yet Sylvia was not without resources. She continued to write, finding time by putting daughter Frieda in nursery school for three hours a day and catching moments for composition while son Nicholas napped. It was a virtuoso performance that kept her going — for a while. She had something to prove. To give up the flat — even temporarily — when the writing was going so well meant becoming a patient again, the Sylvia of 10 years earlier.

Midway through the winter siege, Sylvia wrote to her mother, admitting flu-induced exhaustion but claiming she was pulling out of it. Sylvia leveled with Aurelia: She realized she had lost her “identity under the steamroller of decisions and responsibilities of this last half year, with the babies a constant demand.” How awful to realize that she was “starting from scratch” in this “first year” of her new life. Time was running out. “But I need time,” Sylvia told her mother.

Mixed reviews of The Bell Jar began appearing and did little to hearten Plath. To her neighbor Trevor Thomas, Sylvia complained about her incarceration in a flat with two children while Ted was free to enjoy his affair with Assia and travel.

Between January 28 and February 4, Sylvia wrote 10 poems. But she seemed to be turning in on herself: “People or stars / Regard me sadly, I disappoint them” (“Sheep in Fog”).

On February 3, Sylvia called Ted and invited him to lunch. His diary notations, written the week after Sylvia’s death, record that he remained with her until 2 a.m. They had not enjoyed such a good time since July, he remarked, as he listened to her read her new poems. Sylvia seemed to have regained her equilibrium, although she wept when he played with Frieda and embraced them.

The next day, according to Ted’s diary, Sylvia rang him from a public call box and demanded that he promise to leave England in two weeks. She could not work so long as she had to hear about him. The same day, she penned her last letter to her mother. “I just haven’t written anybody because I have been feeling a bit grim — the upheaval over, I am seeing the finality of it all,” she wrote. She saw no way out. “I shall simply have to fight it out on my own over here.”

Sylvia’s last two poems, completed on February 5, a Tuesday, perfectly express the plight of someone who seemed poised between life and death — between the airy buoyancy of the balloons her children played with, a world of wish fulfillment, and the finality of “Edge,” in which the inevitability of death is articulated with profound satisfaction. “Balloons” ends with a burst balloon, “A red / Shred” in the child’s “little fist.” “Edge” expresses a bitter but nevertheless peaceful acceptance: “We have come so far, it is over.”

***

NOTHING CHANGED IN SYLVIA PLATH’S LAST WEEK OF LIFE, and perhaps that is what bothered her. On Wednesday, still angry that Sylvia’s friends were spreading tales about his ill treatment of her, Ted wrote her a note and visited, announcing that he was going to engage a solicitor to stop the lies. She implored him not to do that. She was very upset, but not more so than on previous occasions, he wrote his diary. But she kept asking him if he had faith in her, and that seemed “new & odd.”

On Thursday, she sacked her au pair — why is not clear, although one version has Sylvia discovering her in bed with a man. Sylvia became so distraught that she actually struck the woman. Without other help at hand, Sylvia phoned a friend, the writer Jillian Becker, and asked if she and the children could come over.

 In Giving Up, Becker describes how the desperate visitor arrived around 2 p.m. on Thursday and announced, “I feel terrible.” Sylvia asked if she could lie down. Jillian led her to an upstairs bedroom while Frieda and Nicholas played with Jillian’s youngest daughter. At 4 o’clock, Sylvia came downstairs and said she would “rather not go home.”

 After dinner, Jillian watched her friend down several sleeping pills and waited until Sylvia slept. By 3:30 a.m., Sylvia had awakened and was weeping. For two hours she cataloged her woes — her father’s death, Ted’s betrayal, her mother’s judgment. Sylvia finally took an antidepressant and dozed off.

 According to Ted’s diary, he met Sylvia at the Fitzroy flat Friday night after receiving what he called a “farewell love letter” from her. In just two sentences, she announced that she was leaving the country and would never see him again. But what she really intended to do baffled him. When he demanded an explanation, she coldly took her note away from him, set fire to it in an ashtray, and ordered him to leave.

 On Sunday, Sylvia announced to the Beckers that she wanted to return home. Jillian’s husband, Gerry, drove her, and on the way Sylvia began to cry. He importuned her to return to his home, but she refused. He left her around 7 p.m., after she had fed the children and put them to bed. Then her doctor called to make sure she was all right.

 Near midnight, Sylvia rang Trevor Thomas’s bell and asked him for stamps. She wanted to get some letters in the post before morning. As he gave her the stamps, she asked him when he left for work in the morning. Why did she want to know? Just wondering, she replied.

 Not long after closing his door, Thomas noticed the hall light was still on. When he opened the door, Sylvia had not moved. He told her he would call her doctor. She did not want him, she answered. She was just having “the most wonderful dream.”

 It is likely that Sylvia was on an antidepressant. However, the euphoric sense of wholeness that is common in drug-induced states would wear off perhaps around 5 a.m., when Thomas could hear Sylvia still pacing above as he fell asleep. That wonderful but evanescent moment of transcendence, akin to what she experienced when writing poems, seeped out of her.

It was now February 11, and Sylvia Plath prepared to die. She left food and drink for her children in their room and opened a window. In the hallway, she attached a note with her doctor’s name and number to the baby carriage. She sealed the kitchen as best she could with tape, towels, and cloths. Then she turned on the gas and thrust her head as far as she could into the oven.

Adapted fromAmerican Isisby Carl Rollyson; copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC

Amerian Isisgoes on sale January 29. Carl Rollyson will read from from it at the Harvard Book Store on February 15. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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