Remembering one of the world’s most prolific writers over 50 years after her death.
I first encountered Sylvia Plath’s work during my final year Drama project in college. Like many of her admirers, I was struck by her ability to craft such disturbingly provocative images. Her depiction of regret, fear, guilt and despair— the elements of human experience that are very real yet tend to go unaddressed—have a tangible power. And they seem to resonate with so many.
Despite her literary genius, however, some still devalue Sylvia Plath. They choose to remember ‘a sad poet’, a wretchedly unhappy woman and author who tragically died by suicide aged 30 after a life-long battle with depression. But Plath was so much more than this. She was a mother, a fierce feminist who enjoyed bathing in the warmth of the sun; loved writing, bee-keeping and horse-riding and spoke candidly about her mental illness with unwavering courage.
Shortly after International Women’s Day 2021, I believe it to be a poignant time to remember Plath for the remarkable, resilient young woman that she once was. And how she constructed a speaker that looked forward with optimism at the possibility of renewal.
I have always been particularly drawn to Plath’s last body of work. Her Ariel collection: the poems she wrote during a turbulent separation from her husband Ted Hughes, are the ‘best of her life.’ Written some five months before her untimely death, these poems have attracted the attention of critics for decades and are often interpreted autobiographically as A. Alvarez notes, Plath made “poetry and death inseparable. The one could not exist without the other. In a curious way, the poems read as though they were written posthumously”. But is this true for all of her poetry? Or does this idea that Plath’s death was somehow ‘inevitable’, mapped out through her final burst of creativity, obstruct a fully comprehensive reading of this exceptional poet? I would argue that it does.
In Sylvia Plath’s original manuscript for the Ariel collection—published as The Restored Edition— there is a sense of hope and vitality in her arrangement. Plath disregards the poems “Edge” and “Words”, which concentrate on death and the effect of harsh words, preferring to end with the bee poems— “The Bee Meeting”, “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, “Stings” and “Wintering”. The intended structure of her collection demonstrates an engagement with life, a transformation towards hope, as we follow the speaker on her journey to self-discovery. And to assert her own identity.
From a once isolated, vulnerable woman presented in “The Bee Meeting” who has difficulty fitting in with her community:
The speaker emerges as a more confident individual in “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, as she gains responsibility for the bees she has ‘ordered’. Plath uses a beekeeping metaphor to represent an attempt at controlling one’s emotions. The speaker assumes a position of power here, a Pandora persona, and as keeper of the bees only she can decide whether to keep them locked away or set them free:
In “Stings”, the third poem in the bee sequence, the speaker’s confidence reaches its full potential. She deals with the bees with her bare hands, working with her partner to extract honey from the hive. Plath’s distinctly feminist voice comes into play as she identifies with the queen bee and alludes to the domestic roles they have both undertaken in serving their ‘hive.’ Refusing to conform to societies ideal, Plath indicates a need for a recovery of her own identity as a woman, poet and a single mother:
In Plath’s final poem, “Wintering”, she alludes to the idea of depression as seasonal. It comes and goes, following a similar pattern of hibernation as the bees. Winter involves a period of waiting and enduring—through cold days and dark nights— looking forward to the promise of a new season. Plath, therefore, concludes on an understated note of hope:
While Plath’s life tragically ended on the 11th of February 1963, her speaker can be remembered in a different light. As one who demonstrates a clear passion for life, a desire to renew her sense of self or even to be reborn in spite of her struggle. Her collection begins and ends with the depiction of new life.
Sylvia Plath’s work is intensely cathartic, a form of emotional expressionism, that deserves to be read and understood in its entirety.