Sylvia Plath, Ariel

ArielAriel by Sylvia Plath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember being there for an argument about Sylvia Plath, almost 15 years ago now, between two women, one a more militant ideological leftist, the other a somewhat casual left-liberal with some traditional emotion intact. The militant one observed that Plath made her children milk and cookies just before gassing herself to death; she interpreted this as a satisfying gesture of defiance, a last parody of the gender role into which Plath had been forced, a final fuck-you flung at the patriarchy before the poet absented herself forever from its clutches. The militant’s interlocutor proposed instead that, while Plath was in great pain and indeed a victim of a punitive gender ideology, she nevertheless cared for her children until the end of her life simply because she loved them. For support, she quoted the line, “I have hung our cave with roses,” which seemed to clinch the argument.

For my part, I have always remembered that line of poetry, yet I didn’t read it in its context—the lyric “Nick and the Candlestick” from Plath’s famous and posthumously published 1965 collection Ariel—until the other day, and the context, it must be said, supports our militant anti-natalist:

The pain
You wake to is not yours.

Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs—

The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,

Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.

The cave-womb into which the speaker descends is a cold, murdering hell that abrades and consumes her body (“A piranha / Religion, drinking / Its first communion out of my live toes”), and all for the vaunted, even messianic “baby in the barn” who does not feel the pain of the mother as she bears him from the devouring dark. “The last of Victoriana”—yes, I can see the woman who wrote that line, unaware that the end of the icebox ’50s was just a few years away, intending the milk and cookies with a certain sarcasm.

And yet, what is the relation of art to life? No artist forces this question on us more than Plath. While I always liked her two most famous poems, this collection’s show-stoppers “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” I’ve always kept away from her because I didn’t want to be drawn into the whole morass, to have to read 5 or 10 biographies, each with some strained relation to the estate or personal ax to grind, to form a correct opinion of Ted Hughes, even to go into the life of Assia Wevill and all the rest of it. So much modern lyric poetry seems simply incomplete without such biographical investigation, a high price to pay for charged language, given that novels are so much more imaginatively free-standing. Armed, however, with Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, with its appealing derision of the very art of biography, I at last read Ariel, though I confess I read it not in the definitive edition but in the only edition I had to hand.

Definitive editions aside, “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” remain my main interest. The other poems are not without their intensities and fascinations: the maternal katabasis of “Nick and the Candlestick” is definitely my third favorite, “The Applicant” and “Lesbos” are incisive satires on ’50s domesticity, and the cycle on beekeeping, especially “The Bee Meeting,” is a perfectly rendered nightmare of Plath’s psychological predicament in trying to articulate her subjectivity in a killingly paternal language that renders her, like nature at large, an object: “they are hunting the queen,” “I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.” But these poems written in extremis offer as many private mysteries as shared illuminations to the common reader, and the famous lyrics remain the public summit of Plath’s poetry.

“Lady Lazarus,” with its short lines, its compressed and oracular utterances of the returned suicide, her taunts to father and devil and doctor and god, to all men who would comprehend her fatal vision with their reductions:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

And the famous infatuated j’accuse of “Daddy,” written in an Eliot-like occasionally-rhyming free verse that always returns, though never predictably, to the long-u sound, an unsettling assurance—it will happen again but we don’t know when—that captures the sensation of being fathered by such a presence as the man Plath evokes:

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.

Are these poems autobiographical? Are they political? That is, does she mean them? I assume that like all literature they are and are not autobiographical—writers build worlds in words out of the worlds they know, but words are never the world, only a slant, an approximation, a selection, a sensibility—and they are obviously political insofar as they protest on various levels, from the medical to the domestic, women’s suppression, a question of social division by its nature political. But to know if she means them beyond these truisms—that her father was Austrian and imperious, that she suffered under domestic constraint—let’s focus on a controversial aspect of both poems, their recourse to Holocaust imagery and identification with the Nazis’ victims. “Lady Lazarus”:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

More overtly, “Daddy”:

I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

Leaving aside that “I may be a bit of a Jew” is more or less the motto of modernism (even Eliot and Pound thought so; they were just upset about it, unlike Joyce and Mann—score again for the novelists over the poets), this brings us to the perennial question: what right does she have to this language? Janet Malcolm quotes skeptics:

There are critics who condemn Plath for appropriating the Holocaust for private purposes. “Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews,” Leon Wieseltier writes in The New York Review of Books (1976). “The metaphor is inappropriate…. Familiarity with the hellish subject must be earned, not presupposed.” The late Irving Howe, in his book The Critical Point (1973), writes, “There is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one’s father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews; something sad, if the comparison is made spontaneously.”

Today’s righteous and right-thinking would no doubt agree: cultural appropriation, etc. For his part, George Steiner, in the essay “Dying is an Art” (also quoted by Malcolm, collected in Steiner’s Language and Silence) disagreed:

Sylvia Plath is only one of a number of young contemporary poets, novelists, and playwrights, themselves in no way implicates in the actual holocaust, who have done most to counter the general inclination to forget the death camps. Perhaps it is only those who had no part in the events who can focus on them rationally and imaginatively; to those who experienced the thing, it has lost the hard edge of possibility, it has stepped outside the real. […] In “Daddy” she wrote one of the very few poems I know of in any language to come near the last horror. It achieves the classic act of generalization, translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all. It is the “Guernica” of modem poetry. And it is both histrionic and, in some ways, “arty,” as is Picasso’s outcry.

For Steiner, Plath, like Lowell before her, was a poet of witness, one who, from a position of a certain social privilege however complicated by gender or mental illness, recorded and identified with history’s victims, refused to shut her eyes against the horror, a horror in which she magnanimously, not selfishly, found an image of her own agonies. If we leave the argument at this level, taking the poems perfectly seriously, taking them as if she means them, then I tend to agree with Steiner on principle. Yet his defense, except for the crucial qualification “histrionic,” renders the poems too solemn. Steiner implies as much when he usefully notes the critical atmosphere that, along with modern history, inspired Plath’s surreal imagery: she wasn’t just educated in the Age of Eliot but also the age of Eliot’s baroque influences, all that exaggeratedly gruesome Webster and riddlingly grisly Donne.

Tone is impossible to fully formalize by the critic while also being in some way what matters most in literature, which is why academic literary study always seems slightly hopeless, from the New Criticism to the digital humanities, marvels of analytic technique that can isolate and arrest everything in poetry or prose but tone. Yet consider that “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” were written around the same time that Susan Sontag was theorizing camp. Their speaker seems to know that she is going too far, that nominating herself a concentration-camp victim is, like Dickinson’s blasphemously calling herself “the Queen of Calvary,” a self-aware and at least slightly self-amused performance as mad diva:

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Which brings us back where we started: would such an author feed her small children the final meal she’d ever provide for them as a gesture not of love but of hate? I answer this question with two others: first, what if we talked honestly about what it’s like to be alive? and, second, what if we admitted that art is the only place we can have this talk? Art, because it is only virtual, only potential, because it is an utterance under the protection of “just pretend,” lets us acknowledge the facts we’re not supposed to acknowledge if we want to keep the world going: that “[e]very woman adores a Fascist,” or that, for instance, a harried mother, an ambitious artist, a woman with a history of depression, living in a foreign country, married to a philanderer, enduring the depth of winter, may well have moments where she absolutely holds her children in contempt—which isn’t to say, either, that she doesn’t love them too. From “Morning Song”:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

There is no yes-or-no here, in life or in art; in art, as in dreams, gestures mean more than one thing. To reduce the children’s final meal to maternal plenitude without ambivalence is mere sentimentalism; to reduce it to political militancy without tenderness is, well, mere sentimentalism turned upside down. And mutatis mutandis, so with Plath’s Holocaust imagery: that she knows it’s a half-ridiculous and somewhat offensive arrogation doesn’t mean it isn’t also how a person might feel, does feel. How a person might feel and does feel, not how a person ought to feel according to one or another sentimentalist, is the type of truth poetry exists to tell.