Before her 'fond, final, infamous decay'

Moderately well known during her lifetime, Sylvia Plath became an international bestseller and a cult figure in the vibrant new women's movement following the posthumous publication of her "Ariel" poems in 1965. Black, icy, enigmatic, pared to the bone, charged with savage emotion, "Ariel" defied all the stereotypes of "women's" poetry.

Plath wrote those poems in a bout of creativity during the cold winter of 1962-63. She had come to London with her two small children, after her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, had left her and moved in with another woman. Plath wrote to her mother that the poems were the best things she had ever written, and she accurately predicted that they would make her name.

But on Feb. 11, the 30-year old Plath sealed up the kitchen in her flat, put her head in the oven, and turned on the gas. In the poem "Lady Lazarus," Plath famously wrote: "Dying/ is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well."

From the first, it has proved hard to separate Plath's achievement as a poet from her tragic fate as a woman. Did Plath die because she suffered from a mental illness or did her husband's betrayal force an impossible choice upon her - either to be a great writer or a good mother?

In 1981, "Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems" appeared, edited by Hughes. The long-awaited volume reprinted the poems Plath had published in her teens and 20s in The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, and The New Yorker. It also included for the first time some late poems that Plath herself had planned to include in "Ariel" but that Hughes had chosen to omit.

Hughes's high praise for Plath as one of the great poets of the 20th century was amply confirmed when "The Collected Poems" won a Pulitzer.

When selections from Plath's journals were first published in 1982, the book was greeted by rapturous reviews and howls of protest from Plath specialists.

The journals dated from 1950, when Plath was about to enter Smith College, to May 1962, when she gave birth to her second child. The editor was Frances McCullough, but it was Hughes's foreword that set the cat among critical pigeons. Hughes presented the journals as a kind of literary dross out of which his wife had made the gold of "Ariel."

Hughes said his only reason for publishing his dead wife's journals was to advance readers' appreciation of her achievement as a poet. But in his final paragraph, he noted that whereas there had been two volumes that covered precisely the last months during which she wrote the "Ariel" poems, he had deliberately destroyed one of these, not wishing his children to read it, and the other "disappeared." "In those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival," wrote Hughes.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hughes, along with his sister, Olwyn Hughes, who directed the Plath estate, were vilified, especially in American feminist circles. It was considered an outrage that the man who had betrayed, deserted, and driven Sylvia Plath to suicide, should be free to edit her work, destroy crucial documents, deny permission to quote to critics whose views he disliked, and all the while reap the huge profits accruing to Plath's work.

In 1998, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," a poetic recounting, of his first marriage and a dialogue with the dead Sylvia. The book again became a major literary event and sold in remarkably large numbers for a slim volume of poetry. Hughes's message, if one can speak so simply of a powerful and complex work, was that Sylvia had been the love of his life, his soul's companion, his body's delight, but she was also mad, and he had left her to save himself. Within about a year of the publication of "Birthday Letters," Hughes was dead.

The highly charged controversy that has swirled around Plath from the time of her death forms an important background for this new unabridged edition of her journals, scrupulously edited by Karen Kukil, the associate curator of rare books at Smith College.

This volume is an honorable and honest attempt to move beyond polemic, drama, and emotion, and provide the basic material upon which Plath's literary achievement can be judged. The text of the manuscripts has been respected as far as possible, sections omitted for various reasons from the 1982 edition have been included, and a large amount of supportive documentary material has been added, together with some helpful endnotes.

This edition includes two journals written between August 1957 and November 1959 that Hughes ordered to be unsealed in 1997 shortly before his death. The other journal from the "Ariel" months has still not reappeared and will no doubt cause a sensation if and when it does.

Plath used her journal not just to record and reflect on events in her life, but as a way to hone her craft as a writer and build up a store of material for published work. Especially in the early sections, Plath's precocious literary talent blazes off the page, and she perfects that brilliant mixture of lyrical description, mordant social commentary, and absorbed self-analysis that we find in "The Bell Jar."

No one has put Sylvia Plath down on paper better than she did herself, and the journals in this fine new edition are a good introduction to this difficult, complex, important poet.

Gillian Gill is the author of 'Mary Baker Eddy' (Perseus).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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