BITTER FAME: A LIFE OF SYLVIA PLATH by Anne Stevenson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 413 pp., $19.95.
THE most disturbing thing about this exquisitely tactful biography of the poet Sylvia Plath is that Plath would have agreed with Anne Stevenson's thesis. Deeply divided by her contradictory desires for acceptance and solitary self-realization, in her 30 years Plath gradually prepared her consciousness for the arrival of ``a true daemon, an independent, energized center'' that spelled, along with the vocables of her last poems, the death of the poet.
Plath would have agreed, but we do not have to. When she committed suicide in her London flat - it had been W.B. Yeats's before her - the American-born Plath had just finished a series of poems that remain controversial to this day. In keeping with her superior critical acumen, Stevenson feels that, by the end, Plath's poems had ceased to struggle with the daemon. In a poem, now famous, called ``Words,'' Plath ``pursues the remorseless logic of her false metaphysic,'' Stevenson says, which cut her off from the world, her husband, her children, her mother.
Stevenson's reading of Plath's poetry is backed by 300 pages of densely documented biography. For Plath - whose human perfectionism was rooted as much in the liberal optimism of her home and education as in the romanticism of her vocation - to see words as mirrors after her long wrestling is clearly anticlimactic, a symptom of failure. Since her high-school days in Wellesley, Mass., in which her desire to be exceptional first manifested itself in the twin preoccupations with suicide and verse, Plath had been ``caught up in the hapless dualisms of the Romantics,'' says Stevenson. In rebellion against the natural order, she told her journal that ``I think I would like to call myself, `The girl who wanted to be God.''' The extreme self-consciousness of this, combined with the eerie preterit tense, foreshadows nothing but doom. In one of her best known poems, Plath had boasted that ``Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.''
And yet, as Stevenson shows, Plath succeeded where many of her peers failed. After 50 attempts, she broke into print in Seventeen magazine; she contributed to The Christian Science Monitor; she was an honor student at Smith College; she broke into the New York publishing world (a summer later memorialized in what to her was a ``potboiler'' and now almost a cult book, ``The Bell Jar''); she got a Fulbright to Cambridge; she made it in literary London; she married the just-arriving Ted Hughes (currrently poet laureate of England); she had two children.
Before Anne Stevenson, herself an American poet living in Britain, got Plath's London and Boston acquaintances to talk, biographers were torn between two sources - the bitter, demonic journals, and the sunnyside-up letters home published by Plath's mother. Stevenson resolves the complicated relationship she as biographer must play with Olwyn Holms, the sister of Plath's ex-husband and guardian of much hitherto inaccessible information on Plath, by giving Holms credit for ``almost'' dual authorship. With sympathy and tact, Stevenson drew out the complicated, frequently smoldering feelings of those who had known both sides of Plath: the girlish charm and the demonic arrogance.
The portrait that emerges from all available sources fully justifies Stevenson's conclusions. In Plath's last poems, she found a way to fulfill two ``warring subconscious drives'' that dominated her.
``In her unrelenting bid both for unqualified love and for complete self-realization,'' Stevenson writes, Plath learned to ``enfold'' her resentment in ``the gift intended to win love,'' the poem. In ``her finest work... she offered an exquisitely wrought, poisoned chalice.'' A ``surrealist of internals,'' Plath never accepted what ``most adult human beings have to learn: that they are not unique nor exempt from partaking in human processes.''
Plath is an icon - or was. For Anne Stevenson and now for her readers, Sylvia Plath is all too human indeed. One of the many balances Stevenson strikes in this almost perfectly pitched biography is that between life and art, as if in mockery of the subject. This book is a benchmark. Perhaps from now on, Plath will be seen for what I believe she was, a minor poet who suffered, through innocence or honesty, the fate that many major poets sharing her views of life and art managed to avoid.
But if Plath was a minor poet, ``Bitter Fame'' is a major biography - perhaps Plath's last, best bid for understanding.