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« In Which We Flay Ourselves Into Poets »

Sylvia Plath: Red and Blue


Sylvia Plath’s favorite color was red. When Ted Hughes left her for another woman, Plath installed a red rug under her writing desk. But she also loved red’s opposite, blue — and other polarizations. Upon Ted’s abandonment, she wrote to her mother:

It’s as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative — which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching and constricting my heart.

Plath’s duality — as a happy-go-lucky American girl and a deeply depressed, deathly ambitious writer — stirs up the darker parts of her audience. We either revile Plath for her cowardice or we celebrate her for her bravery. It depends on whether you look and see blue or red.

Born in Boston in 1932 to a German biology professor and his former student, Plath entered the school of hard-knocks at the young age of eight, when her father passed away. The day he died, she told her mother, “I’ll never speak to God again.” His absence would lead to poor choices in men and eventually to Ted Hughes. The disintegration of their marriage would confirm the first abandonment by her father. In “Daddy,” she writes, “Daddy, I have had to kill you . . . . If I’ve killed one man I’ve killed two / the vampire who said he was you / and drank my blood for a year / seven years, if you want to know.”

with her brother warren
Reading Plath is a bipolar experience. The Bell Jar’s depiction of Plath’s nervous breakdown in the summer of 1953 is certainly horrifying, but Plath’s observations on her peers both in and out of the mental institution are quite funny. The poems of The Colossus, her first collection, are traditional and revelatory. Her lyricism is beautiful but her diction is alien. Her personal writing seems like it was written by two distinct and separate women: the Plath that writes home to her mother that she’s doing fine and the real Plath — the blood red Plath of her journals. This is a woman who, after coming upon two teenage girls destroying a garden (the subject of her poem "The Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers”) she writes in her journal "I have violence in me that is hot as death-blood. I can kill myself or — I know it now — even kill another."

This is the Plath that will change you, the author of Ariel, and the author of these journals. In reading her journals there is no doubt of Plath’s talent, her ferocity and her courage. She is so close to the reader, you can hear her whispering and giggling in your ear, crying on your shoulder; you look behind you as you read the journals, sometimes in fear, sometimes in hope. There’s an ongoing struggle: Plath wants to be a mother-goddess, she wants to cook and clean and provide a safe-haven for her husband and her babies, but the poet in her can’t stand being in the shadows. Standing aside while Ted receives praise from T.S. Eliot and his ilk, being simply “the wife.” Meanwhile, Plath can’t find a publisher in the states for her novel, The Bell Jar. Her anguish in the journals is palpable.

The Lilly Library at Indiana University has about half of Plath’s materials—the other half belongs to Smith. If you are a student there, or a visiting academic, you can visit. Take a look at Plath’s manuscripts: fifteen drafts for one poem, “Wuthering Heights,” witty Valentine’s Day cards written to her mother when she was ten, letters and poems stained with coffee and spaghetti sauce. You’ll also find a box marked “HAIR.” In it, you will find about eight braids, thick and long, of Plath’s childhood hair. You can smell it. It smells like hair. The experience of opening this box must be similar to the experience of opening a tomb. 

Hughes’ last collection of poetry, Birthday Letters, is about his relationship with Plath. In the poem “Red” he describes his resentment of the ‘red’ side of Plath: ‘red was your color,’ and he tells us Plath insisted on decorating their bedroom ‘as red as a judgment chamber,’ or ‘a shut jewel case,’ with fabrics ‘ruby corduroy blood’ and curtains ‘sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.’ Red was the dangerous side of Plath, the powerful side Hughes could not control. “The blood jet is poetry,” she famously wrote, “there is no stopping it.”

her self-portrait Plath was torn between this side of her personality and the call to the calmer, domestic existence: the role of the wife and mother, Plath needed the right man to have both lives. She wanted the babies, the cooking. She wanted to be both muse and artist. Hughes prefers Plath’s blue side, her ‘guardian, thoughtful,’ and he ends this poem, the last in the collection, telling Plath ‘the jewel you lost was blue.’” It’s no surprise, then, that Plath wrote “Daddy,” her most recognizable poem, from her most celebrated collection, Ariel, when she was finally able to escape all the ties that bound her to her blue self: her mother, her bleach blonde hair, her husband.  

Plath terrifies many because, through her legacy, she remains very much alive. Thinking or speaking of Plath, relating to her, brings her immediately to life. Like many writers, she struggled, and like many of us, she wanted much out of life — so much that she found herself burning alive. In “Lady Lazarus,” she tells us “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” Her dramatic ending, if anything, is an honest answer to the promise and threat of power and violence throughout her work, the best of which was created in the struggle between two halves. Picture her, in the morning at 5 a.m., before her children were awake, floating on a concoction of ineffectual sleeping pills and coffee, bleary-eyed and exhausted; picture her typing away at the Ariel poems, watching the sun come up — watching the morning change from blue to red.

Jessica Ferri is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find more of her writing here. She last wrote in these pages about babysitting.

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Reader Comments (4)

man, i need to reread her. havent really since the days of feeling super melodramatic about her in high school.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersarah

I think that everuone can become a poet, we just need a inspiration moment, a painful moment, a little bit of Generic Viagra, anything that show us another face of the life, I don't know the most of the poet take them inspiration from that thing call love.

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAsh Williams

This is lovely. Thank you.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina
Did Sylvia Plath do herself in because Ted Hughes split with another woman? She was obviously and much more talented writer, in fact a genius. Did he leave her because he was having a "hot" affair or because he just could not stand putting up with her mood swings? Please let me know. Send me an e mail.

September 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJon Weiss

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