Sylvia Plath


The blood jet is poetry,/ There is no stopping it”:
Wellesley’s Sylvia Plath (WHS 1950)

By Beth Hinchliffe 

     For decades, students across the country have come to know Sylvia Plath through second-hand lectures, textbooks, or even the movie of her life starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

But here in town, we learned about her in Room 206 at Wellesley High, the same classroom where my teacher and mentor, the also-legendary Wilbury Crockett, had been her teacher and mentor a generation before.

     So I knew her not as a distant, one-dimensional mythic figure; not just as the tormented poet of Ariel, or the suicidal 20-year-old narrator of the novel The Bell Jar, or the discarded wife who killed herself at 30.

     No, I knew her as the teen who once brought the whole class to Mr. Crockett’s house and woke him up at dawn to prove her point about the words she had used to describe the sunrise. I knew her not as the fictionalized Bell Jar narrator, but as the broken, empty girl whom Mr. Crockett used to visit at McLean Hospital, bringing Scrabble pieces to try to get her to spell words when she couldn’t even read. I knew her not as the scathingly fierce poet of those blazing last months, but as the “brilliant” student who worked diligently piling Mr. Crockett’s desk with hundreds of poems and stories, some of which brought her national awards when she was still in her teens.

     Mr. Crockett introduced me to Sylvia’s mother, saying he felt we would have a special bond. And we did. Aurelia Plath became a dear friend and confidante from that first meeting until the day she died, more than 20 years later. Sitting in her worn living room at 26 Elmwood Road, the same one where “Sivvy” grew up, holding Sylvia’s own glorious and enormous cat Sappho on my lap and looking at Sylvia’s artwork still on the walls, I would have tea and Austrian sweets with Aurelia, and she would share the cherished triumphs and the deepest heartaches of her daughter’s life and death.

     And since Sylvia had lived only three streets away from me, I knew others who had been her friends, too. There was Mrs. McGowan, who lived next door, who watched her nestled in the branches of the apple tree in her front yard, writing, always writing. And Duane Aldrich, who lived across the street, who tried to be a father to her the 1953 summer of her paralyzing depression following a stint as Guest Editor at Mademoiselle Magazine. He led hundreds of town Boy Scouts and neighbors in the frantic search for her when she disappeared during her subsequent suicide attempt (a days-long search featured on the front page of The Boston Globe which ended with her brother finding her burrowed into a crawlspace under their sunporch, having swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills).

     Sylvia’s Wellesley friends Perry Norton, Phil McCurdy, and Gordon Lameyer remembered her walking across Weston Road to Perrin School, sitting cross-legged in a booth at Howard Johnson’s (on Central Street, where Alta Strada is today), lying on the beach at Morses Pond (her favorite spot every summer day), playing tennis at the Hunnewell Courts, and biking to the Fells Branch Library (“my second home”) or Hathaway House Bookshop (today’s Stuart Swan in the square). They also remembered her “almost frightening” talent, her mercurial brilliance, and the dichotomy between the bright “golden girl” and her haunted secret self.

     When Sylvia left Wellesley, she crossed into the world where critics and fans would eventually re-invent her as a “suicide goddess,” or a feminist martyr. People across the world now know her story, how after graduating from Smith College (with more honors and prestigious publications than any student had ever received) she won a Fulbright Grant to study at the University of Cambridge in England. There began a famous and doomed romances, when she married Ted Hughes, who later became England’s poet laureate (portrayed in the movie Sylvia by Daniel Craig, the current James Bond).

     Seven intense years later, years filled with writing and passion and the very beginnings of success for both, the marriage was over, leaving Sylvia in London with two small children and one of the most astonishing bursts of creativity chronicled in literary history. In a few rage-filled months, she left behind the poems that would make her name, create her image, craft her legacy. Bitterly volatile, anguishingly personal, fueled by the darkest terrors of her past and present, poems like “Daddy” (“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”) and “Lady Lazarus” (“Out of the depths I rise with my red hair/And I eat men/Like air”) blazed onto the page in a frenzy. Published after her 1963 death in a collection called Ariel, they were seen as her suicide note.

     Aurelia told me that at first she was told that Sylvia had died of pneumonia, and only learned later that her daughter had tucked her children in bed, left them milk and bread, sealed the cracks of their door with towels, then laid her head on the open door of her oven and turned on the gas.

     Back home in Wellesley, Aurelia arranged for a memorial service at the Unitarian Church, which she and Sylvia had attended, and asked Sylvia’s friend and fellow poet Anne Sexton to organize the readings.

     The people who had known and loved her in Wellesley were left with the emptiness, and the questions. The high school started a Sylvia Plath Creative Writing Award, and its recipients have included Nina Shope, who has published her own book to critical acclaim and says, “I remember thinking how amazing it was that Plath went to Wellesley High School and lived in town. I’m still very proud to have an award named in her honor.”

     But soon, Sylvia no longer belonged just to Wellesley. More posthumous writings emerged, each publication elevating her reputation until her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize 19 years after her death. The Bell Jar, which had been published under a pseudonym to practically non-existent critical reaction a week before she died, soared to best-selling status on both sides of the Atlantic once it was revealed to be autobiographical. Never out of print since the first edition 59 years ago, it has become a classic of adolescent angst, rediscovered by each generation of students, and taught in universities in countless countries, through countless translations.

     But Sylvia the Myth (which developed based on the way her life, death, and writings intersected) eclipsed Sylvia Plath. So Aurelia brought out her own best-seller, a collection of Sylvia’s Letters Home, to try to remind readers of the touching reality of this brilliant young woman.

     What is left, finally, is the genius of her poetry. A critic noted, “hers is one of the voices by which future generations will seek to know us.”

     The tribute which meant the most to Aurelia came from A. Alvarez, one of the most respected British poetry critics, in an essay published less than a week after Sylvia’s death. Scarcely anyone knew her name then, but Alvarez had seen and been bewitched by the Ariel poems, and he grieved their creator. In this essay, he told the world that her writing “represents a totally new breakthrough in modern verse, and establishes her, I think, as the most gifted woman poet of our time.

     “The loss to literature is inestimable.”

(Reprinted from WellesleyWeston Magazine)