I’ve been thinking a lot about the comparisons between Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I read one directly after the other, which was entirely coincidental—or at least not conscious. At the end of my post on Ariel, I said that I was relieved to be turning my attention to Lowell because of the narrative regularity in his work. At the time, I had only read the first few poems in Life Studies, and had not yet gotten to a point where Lowell and Plath’s work started to feel connected. The poetic structure and topic of mental illness is similar in these two books, but with the similarities raises questions of the differences, the most important being the sense of, for lack of a better word, recovery.
Sylvia Plath is the iconic 20th century ‘sad girl’; some people refuse to see her for more than that. A few years ago, I had a poetry teacher who assigned “Lady Lazarus” for homework. She wanted to discuss it without mentioning suicide. To convince yourself that this poem is not about suicide, you must not only be a firm believer in ‘the death of the author’, but you also must ignore the content of the poem and the blatant allusion to the Biblical Lazarus who was risen, by Jesus, from the dead. When a classmate asked if Plath herself committed suicide, the teacher was incredibly reluctant to confirm. Her argument for not bringing it up was that viewing Plath in the context of her life (and death) glamorized suicide and encouraged young women in their self-indulgent sadness.
As far as I know, no one has linked their suicide to Plath the way that multiple people tied their murders to Salinger. And no one remembers Ernest Hemmingway or David Foster Wallace as ‘sad boys’ because they committed suicide. People, women in particular, like to blame Plath for posthumously becoming this icon. I think they do this because young women connect with her work on an emotional level—on their emotional level. However, I think those who blame her are often see her sadness as lacking maturity; I think those who dislike her do not want to connect to her work. The reason Plath’s work connects with so many young women is that it never matures; it never breaks out of the overpowering darkness and it is relatable because it allows others connect with her devastating hopeless and feel less alone.
I find this particularly interesting because literary people don’t read Lowell like they read Plath. In spite of being almost done with my BA in English, I know about Life Studies only from Kay Redfield Jameson’s memoire, An Unquiet Mind, about her struggles with bipolar. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Lowell’s work draws in and connects with people with bipolar the same way Plath’s does with depressed women; unfortunately, that is his only true demographic. I’m not sure that his work would hold the same power with people who are unfamiliar with mania.
In addition to not being able to connect to as wide an audience, people don’t read his work is because much of what is beautiful in his work; i.e. the interesting metaphors, the repeated words, the irregular end rhymes; is addressed in Ariel as well. In other words, the straight white men don’t want him because he’s too effeminate and emotional, and both the feminists and the people interested in mental illness already have Plath. However, Lowell’s work brings us to a level of emotional maturity that Plath’s doesn’t—possibly that Plath’s couldn’t. We get a sense of a person who was changed because of his inner suffering.
Life Studies takes the perspective of the aftermath of an intrapersonal war, where Ariel takes place in the middle of it; it takes the perspective of a person who cannot see that things will get better, and she thus became a casualty in her own inner war. Because of this, we do not get the remorse and self-aware change that we get with Lowell.
For example, the second to last section in “Life Studies” is written from the perspective of his wife whose life he destroyed with his mania. She tells the reader what he cannot tell from his own perspective—his drinking, his relationships with prostitutes, his absence as a father and husband—which shows self-awareness, and in the final poem in “Life Studies”, the narrator crashes. He ends the poem presenting an image that compares him with a skunk whose head got stuck in a sour cream can and can no longer spray; he is finally able to see suffering outside of himself.
Plath never crashed into self-realization. Even in The Bell Jar, we are never able to see a true change in Ester Greenwood. She goes from being depressed to being almost not depressed, but she never comes to any new knowledge about herself or the nature of pain. It never becomes not about her. This can be seen in Ariel too. The introduction of my edition is written by her daughter, Frieda Hughes. She writes, “In considering Ariel for publication my father had faced a dilemma. He was well aware of the extreme ferocity with which some of my mother’s poems dismembered those close to her…” She continues to list the people who caused Plath pain how she used that pain, without hiding at whom it was directed, in Ariel.
However, Frieda also writes of a possible hope. She says that her mother designed Ariel to begin with the word ‘Love’ and end with the word ‘Spring’. I this concept is painfully beautiful to me. The word spring inspires new beginnings; it inspires an ‘after’, which is never quite reached.
The first poem, “Morning Song”, begins with ‘love’, but it is not tender or hopeful. It begins, “Love set you going like a fat golf watch./ The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry/ Took its place among the elements.” (lines 1-3). The poem continues to describe her guilt for bearing a child into a world of harsh pain, from which she cannot protect it. We are thrust into Plath’s interpretation of that cold world for the duration book.
The final poem, “Wintering” holds a tinge of hope— I suppose hope—the most pessimistic kind of hope that can possibly be considered hope. It describes bees from winter to spring. It almost presents remorse, almost change, but it leaves with an unanswered question. She writes:
This is the time of hanging on for the bees—the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin
To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
I find that last line haunting—the idea of holding on to make up for loss, to make up for pain you caused. The poem continues. It established the comparison between bees and women, and how they are settled in the winter, but in the spring they can fly. She presents the question of whether the bees will last another winter: “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/ Succeed in banking their fires/ To enter another year?” (lines 46-48). Of course, the poem ends by turning to spring, the final line reading, “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” But spring never quite comes.
This poem must also be seen in the context in which it was written. Women as bees, hardly moving in the winter is a metaphor perfect for her times. Plath lived from 1932 to 1963, during three decades that were not very accommodating to female autonomy. Not just because of the use of the word ‘yellow’, this poem calls to mind the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which is the prime example of literature that contextualizes women and madness. Lowell was, after all, male. And he may have been written him out have literary history because of it, but it benefitted him in his lifetime. He was allowed to function autonomously in his society, which made returning to it, forgiving it, a lot easier for him than for Plath.
When talking about Sylvia Plath, the concept that she cut her career short is always presented— the idea of ‘what if Sylvia Plath wrote another book…’. I think the people who present that question are the same ones hungry for her to redeem her indulgent hopelessness. But it calls to mind a line from The Bell Jar, a line that that shows that Plath had accomplished what she set out to do.
In response to Esther Greenwood’s boyfriend Buddy Willard, a medical student, declaring that a poem is a piece of dust, she writes, “People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn’t see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn’t sleep” (57). This quote always stood out to me because it explains, directly, concisely, why she writes, and why most of us write: to allow ourselves to connect with others who share our emotions, regardless of time or distance or who our audience might be. And that is what she did: she wrote so that others who shared her pain could have it articulated. Rather than presenting growth and maturity, she allows us to have narcissistic sadness without shame, without denying it in the name of maturity; her work lets us feel less alone.