Sylvia PlathBy Robert S. Robbins
Sylvia Plath is undoubtedly the most famous and widely read contemporary poet. At a time when the public has lost all interest in poetry and poets, Sylvia Plath is still a household name. Her popularity is probably due to the fact that the attention given to her biographical details emphasizes her genius while her mental illness prevents her from seeming too imposing and makes her a tragic figure. In this respect, Sylvia could be said to represent the greater tragedy of the poet in our society. The poet has been abandoned by the public and is reduced to a sad figure who can only achieve a sense of nobility through recognition of her tragic fate.
Sylvia Plath has been diagnosed with a manic depressive illness according to the fashion of the day but she was probably considered to be more seriously psychotic by her psychiatrists and family as this was the typical outlook at that time. However she apparently developed her own mythology to explain her bouts of depression and euphoria. This mythology is brilliantly explored in Judith Kroll's book Chapters In A Mythology: The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath. Judith Kroll speculates that Sylvia's genius lay in her ability to explore the dark corners of her psyche. Apparently Ted Hughes also thought so for he curiously remarked that Sylvia possessed the qualities of a shaman, "In her poetry...she had free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests, shamans, and Holy men.." Hughes introduced her to the book The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves which is a study of the mythological and psychological sources of poetry in paganism. Sylvia's interest in psychology led her to read the work of Carl Jung. At this point it is necessary to relate Jung's theories about the collective unconscious to shamanism. Jung believed that pagan myths are symbolic representations of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The shaman is a primitive medicine man who gains access to the underworld of the psyche and the realm of his tribe's mythos through an initiation which usually involves a ritual dismemberment and rebirth. Of course, the shaman does not undergo an actual dismemberment but rather a psychotic episode. Kroll sees Sylvia's references to witches and Greek mythology as examples of paganism. For example, she argues that Sylvia viewed her nervous breakdown as a shaman's dismemberment and rebirth through ritual death of the psyche and recovery, "The dispersed 'stones' of the speaker's shattered self are gathered together and reconstructed, reenacting the myths of Dionysus (who is alluded to in 'Maenad'), Osiris, and other gods who undergo dismemberment and resurrection."
The favorite mythological figure for poets is Orpheus, who could be thought of as a shaman. Orpheus figures in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, and in the films of the poet Jean Cocteau, Orphic Trilogy. Orpheus makes a descent into the underworld to retrieve the soul of his wife. This is quite typical of shamans who make the descent into the collective unconscious to find the world of the spirit. When Orpheus returns from the underworld without Eurydice, his anima?, he is dismembered by the Maenads and his head floats to the island of Lesbos where it prophesied day and night as an oracle. Sylvia Plath made frequent mention of oracles in her poetry. An oracle is inspired by the gods to speak cryptically and poetically of the sacred mysteries. These sacred mysteries are the secrets of the psyche which are not usually accessible to the conscious mind.
Judith Kroll attributes Sylvia's fascination with the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico to a profound direct intuitive identification with his hallucinatory landscapes, "For Sylvia Plath, the typical 'metaphysical' landscape provided a visual setting for the fixed, super-real, ominous, inaccessible drama of the psyche." She further praises Sylvia for an "openness to contact with the unconscious, developed to an extraordinary degree."
Kroll reveals that Sylvia Plath had read William James' book Varieties of Religious Experience, The Ten Principal Upanishads translated by William Butler Yeats and Shree Purohit Swami, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, and possibly some books on Zen Buddhism. This shows a keen interest in mystical experiences which Sylvia was probably familiar with from the manic phases of her illness. Ecstasy was Plath's favorite word according to Ted Hughes and Kroll notes that "Clearly she had the original sense of the word in mind, the sense of transcending herself, losing herself, standing outside of herself, in life." The moon is one of Sylvia's favorite poetic images and Kroll points out that the moon is in fact a conventional emblem of transcendent or enlightened mind, "The Moon also represents illumined mind in some of the writings which interested Yeats (such as works of Indian philosophy and mysticism) which Plath encountered through Yeats and also elsewhere."
However Sylvia Plath is typically considered to be a morbid and suicidal poet rather than a mystic. Kroll argues that Sylvia was undergoing a religious crisis and she criticizes the typical misreading of the poem Mystic, "To see in the poem an attitude simply of despairing rejection, of sarcasm, or mockery toward mystical experience is to be oblivious to the evidence of religious crisis. 'Mystic' has nevertheless been taken as a poem which flatly rejects the mystical experience." She further criticizes the critics' understanding of mystical experiences, "Shrinks the mystical experience to a possible palliative considered by the poet Sylvia Plath who weighed and rejected it in her pride of torment. Such readers have a limited notion of what mystical experience is."
It is possible that Judith Kroll is reading too much spirituality into Sylvia Plath's poetry. Sylvia was also interested in existentialism and her intellect was coolly skeptical towards organized religion and she was attracted to scientists. Ted Hughes seems to have been mostly responsible for introducing Sylvia to Jung's "rising black tide of occultism" but as a gifted poet Sylvia should naturally be expected to have a mythopoeic imagination and her mental illness would have put her in the grip of powerful psychical forces that she must have struggled to understand.
Selected Bibliography - Books In My Collection
Underlined titles are not hyperlinks. PB = paperback, HC = hard cover
1. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness by Edward Butscher ISBN: 0-8164-9253-0 ©1976 The Seabury Press HC
2. Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Linda W. Wagner-Martin ISBN: 0-312-02325-1 ©1987 St. Martin's Griffin PB
3. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander ISBN: 0-670-81812-7 ©1991 Viking Penguin HC
4. Bitter Fame: A Life Of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson ISBN: 0-395-45374-7 ©1989 Houghton Mifflin Company HC
5. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 by Sylvia Plath ISBN: 0-06-097491-5 ©1992 Harper Perennial PB
6. The Haunting Of Sylvia Plath by Jacqueline Rose ISBN: 0-674-38225-0 ©1992 Harvard University Press HC
7. Sylvia Plath And Ted Hughes by Margaret Dickie Uroff ISBN: 0-252-00734-4 ©1979 University of Illinois Press HC
8. The Death And Life Of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman ISBN: 0-7509-3422-0 ©2003 Sutton Publishing PB
9. The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath ISBN: 0-06-090900-5 ©1981 Harper Perennial Library PB
10. Sylvia Plath selected by Diane Wood Middlebrook ISBN: 0-375-40464-3 ©1998 Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman's Library Pocket Poets HC
11. Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study by Tim Kendall ISBN: 0-57119-235-1 ©2001 Faber and Faber PB
12. Sylvia Plath: The Wound And The Cure Of Words by Steven Gould Axelrod ISBN: 0-8018-4374-X ©1990 The John Hopkins University Press PB
13. The Other Sylvia Plath by Tracy Brain ISBN: 0-582-32730-X ©2001 Longman, Pearson Education PB
14. Sylvia Plath: Modern Critical Views edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom ISBN: 1-55546-280-4 ©1989 Chelsea House Publishers HC
15. Chapters In A Mythology: The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath by Judith Kroll ISBN: 0-06-012457-1 ©1976 Harper & Row HC
16. Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams by Sylvia Plath ISBN: 0-06-095529-5 ©2000 Harper Perennial PB
17. Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait by Barry Kyle ISBN: 0-571-10698-0 ©1976 Faber and Faber PB
18. Ariel by Sylvia Plath ISBN: 0-06-090890-4 ©1966 Harper Perennial PB
19. A Closer Look At Ariel: A Memory Of Sylvia Plath by Nancy Hunter Steiner Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 06-127815-7 ©1973 Harper's Magazine Press HC
20. The Journals Of Sylvia Plath by Sylvia Plath ISBN: 0-385-49391-6 ©1998 Anchor Books PB
21. The Unabridged Journals Of Sylvia Plath by Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil ISBN: 0-385-72025-4 ©2000 Anchor Books PB
22. Sylvia And Ted by Emma Tennant ISBN: 0-8050-6675-6 ©2001 Henry Holt and Company HC
23. Wintering by Kate Moses ISBN: 0-312-28375-X ©2003 St. Martin's Press HC
24. Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook ISBN: 0-670-03187-9 ©2003 Viking Penguin HC
25. Ted Hughes: The Life Of A Poet by Elaine Feinstein ISBN: 0-393-04967-1 ©2001 W. W. Norton & Company HC