“Mad Girl’s Love Song”: Sylvia Plath and the Work of Mourning.
The first half of my title is from one of Sylvia Plath’s earliest published poems, the villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” published in the August, 1953 issue of Mademoiselle magazine. It is poignantly prophetic in its portrayal of a young woman’s desire for some imaginary demon-lover, a lover who drives her to distraction and then abandons her. The reader has a feeling that in this poem the young Sylvia Plath is more involved with practicing a strict poetic form—experimenting with the technical intricacies of the villanelle—than with any deeply felt experience, but these themes of love, betrayal and loss were to haunt her later life and writing. Although this is no doubt a poem about a fictional lover, and the “madness” of its title is meant to convey the delirium associated with youthful passion, the title could nevertheless serve as an analogue of her later mental instability and how this drove her into the creation of various other “songs” or poems. The poem ends in disappointment and darkness due to the failure of the lover’s return, akin to the black despair that was to afflict Sylvia Plath later in life.
From this very early publication, through the poems she wrote in those frantic months just before her suicide in 1963, many of Sylvia Plath’s poems are marked by a sense of loss, and at times anger because of this loss. The death of her father when she was only eight years old seems to have left her with a deep psychic wound, a wound that manifested itself in both a profound sorrow and a deep resentment, as if her father had abandoned and betrayed her. Some few years later, in 1955, the imaginary “you” of this early poem was to take on the reality of a grand passion when, having won a Fulbright Fellowship to Newnham College, Cambridge, Sylvia met the up-and–coming poet Ted Hughes at a party. He was real enough, but somehow “imaginary” as well, her very own Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Their first meeting has become legendary by now: when she first meets Hughes at the party she recites some of his own poetry to him, and when he kisses her on the neck she sinks her teeth into his cheek. Plath recorded this incident in her journal, in which she refers to Hughes as a “colossus,” the title she was to choose for her first volume of poetry. The fact that the title poem in that volume is about her father, a poem about the (even if ambivalent) renovation of a powerful figure for posterity, is an indication of how the two men became fused (or con-fused) in Sylvia Plath’s consciousness, or rather sub-consciousness, very early in her relationship with Ted Hughes. Just as her father had hurt her into early expression, so too her “substitute” father, Hughes, would play a similar role. He too betrayed and abandoned her, hurting her into those frantic last poetic utterances such as “Daddy,” and “Lady Lazarus,” for which she is best known.
The publication in 1998 of Hughes’ posthumous volume Birthday Letters (deliberately and necessarily posthumous because of the revelatory nature of the poems) reveals just how much he understood, even if retrospectively, how much Sylvia’s chronic memorial to her father had affected both the stability of their marriage and his wife’s mental equilibrium. They played out a psychic drama in which Otto Plath (Sylvia’s father) played the third party in what was a virtual ménage a trois. Time and time again as Hughes’ poems survey their marriage, Sylvia’s father recurs as a nightmarish figure, an ogre, an evil spirit that haunted her dreams and interfered with her mental stability. Eventually, Sylvia Plath would also come to this realization. Her poem “Daddy” portrays her father as an evil spirit, indeed a vampire, whom she has to “kill” if she is to regain any psychic peace. What caused the brilliant young student-poet who penned the plaintive “Mad Girl’s Love Song” to become the mentally unstable woman who wrote the shrill and cathartic shout of a poem such as “Daddy”?
The psychological dynamic between Sylvia and her father (or, one might say, the “lack” of her father) is crucial for an understanding of her growth as a woman and a writer. As if to underscore this connection, a recent find under the floorboards of her old house in Massachusetts is a note written when she was aged eight which reads: “Daddy, I got some ink on my fingers.” Well, indeed! To understand her psychic voyage from young writer to her suicide in 1963, two key texts will help us. One is Sylvia Plath’s only published novel (although another unfinished one has come to light) The Bell Jar (1963), which she described as “autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past” (Plath, BJ, 293) and written under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The other text is Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” from which the other part of my title comes. Freud’s examination of the psychic work of mourning (or, more importantly, the failure to mourn) and its differentiation from the pathological state of melancholia sheds much light on the plight of Esther Greenwood, Plath’s fictional alter ego in The Bell Jar, and by extension on Plath herself.
Plath’s autobiographical novel (a kind of feminine Catcher in the Rye) tells the story of the summer of 1953 in the life of a highly successful college girl who, after winning various other prizes, wins a competition to spend a month in New York as a guest editor on the popular magazine “Mademoiselle.” She is highly successful and popular, but there is something missing in her life that she cannot quite define for herself, a lack of fulfillment as if she were not living her life in the “real” world, but rather under a bell jar. When she returns home to Massachusetts, Esther learns of the first real academic disappointment thus far in her life: she has been turned down for a summer writing course at Harvard University. (Sylvia Plath was also turned down that same summer when she applied to attend the fiction class of the well-known Irish writer Frank O’Connor.) Esther shortly thereafter becomes withdrawn and suffers what was then usually called a “nervous breakdown.” Her symptoms are recorded as follows: loss of self esteem, sleeplessness, no desire to eat, indeed no desire to do anything: and, known only to herself, Esther also has a desire to kill herself. Her mother is convinced that her daughter’s condition has been caused by her disappointment in not being admitted to the summer writing course. It is true that not gaining entry to the writing course was certainly a big blow to Esther Greenwood’s ego (as it was to Sylvia Plath’s), and this news shortly after her return from New York is certainly a turning point in the novel. However, another climactic scene, one that could be termed the epicenter of the book, speaks more directly to the nature of Esther Greenwood’s pathology, and by extension, to that of Sylvia Plath.
After undergoing a series of electric shock treatments, and a few half hearted attempts at suicide (when Plath roughed out her novel she listed the various ways one could commit suicide), Esther Greenwood decides to seek out her father’s grave. We read the following:
“I thought it odd that in all the time my father had been buried in t“I thought it odd that in all the time my father had been buried in his graveyard, none of us had ever visited him. My mother hadn’t let us come to his funeral because we were only children then, and he had died in the hospital, so the graveyard and even his death had always seemed unreal to me.
I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect, [there is a great deal of ambiguity here] and start tending his grave. I had always been my father’s favorite, and it seemed fitting I should take on a mourning my mother had never bothered with.” (BJ 186, italics added.)
Esther then wanders around the graveyard trying to find her father’s grave, and when she discovers it the narrative continues thus: “Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death. . . I laid my face to the smooth marble and howled my loss into the cold salt rain” (188-89). Earlier in the novel, Esther records the following: “I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old” (82). This is the same age that Sylvia Plath was the year after she lost her father. After this cathartic moment in the graveyard, this conscious acknowledgement of her loss and the recognition of her deep sadness about not mourning her father, Esther makes her first serious attempt at suicide. Without any connective narrative explanation the next section of the novel begins: “I knew just how to go about it,” the “it” being the desperate act of suicide (189). Just as Sylvia Plath had done, Esther takes a bottle of sleeping pills and creeps under the crawl space beneath her house. But she is found alive, as was Sylvia Plath by her brother after two or three days. After psychiatric help and electric shock treatment, Esther “seems” to regain her equilibrium. As Plath puts it her poem: “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.” (Plath, CP 224.) In the novel, Esther then has herself fitted with a diaphragm and tells herself that it was now time, having made a recovery and won all the glittering prizes, “to find the proper sort of man.” It seems that Esther Greenwood has survived a serious psychological malady and has shaken off the demons that have afflicted her, the condition that was preventing her from fulfilling herself both as a woman and a writer. However, shortly before the close of the novel we read the following: “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (271) That possibility became a reality for Sylvia Plath.
If Plath (and Esther Greenwood) had had decent psychoanalytic therapy rather than the crude shock therapy that they received, the root cause of their psychological/pathological plight might have came to light. Sylvia Plath came close to curing herself when she wrote that graveyard scene. But Sylvia did not completely succeed in this exorcism, at least not until it was too late and she wrote poems like “Daddy.” A good analyst, Freudian or otherwise, might have got to the bottom of Sylvia Plath’s argument with her father, the incubus that was to haunt her the rest of her short life. Freud speaks to her pathological case in his essay when he distinguishes mourning from melancholia. Mourning is a normal stage in psychic life, indeed it is necessary for psychological health, whereas melancholia is a morbid pathological state. Although both mourning and melancholia share similar symptoms—dejection, irreparable feelings of loss, loss of appetite, lack of interest in the outside world, sleeplessness, etc. (all those symptoms endured by Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar), there is a fundamental and crucial difference in the two states.
The necessary work of mourning eventually recognizes that the loved one is gone, is dead. Reality dictates this state of affairs. For a time the ego (the subject) refuses to believe this and clings to the beloved object (in psychological terms it is unwilling to divest its libidinal position), but eventually the reality principle gains the upper hand. This is a realization that the beloved deceased cannot receive the love directed toward him or her, nor can they give the love desired from them, even though memory and desire wishes this were so. Melancholia, on the other hand, although it is usually caused by the loss of a loved one, seems to be (in Freud’s findings) a loss of a more ideal kind—what the loved one represents more than what he or she actually was. In the case of the loss of a father, this would be the loss of feelings of reciprocal love, a sense of security, familial bonding, and so on. (In the novel, Esther ponders over all the things that might have been and what her father might have taught her had he lived.) Moreover, in contradistinction to grieving, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss, much of this sense of loss in melancholia is unconscious.
Whether Sylvia Plath would have been diagnosed as melancholic or not, she and her heroine Esther Greenwood as young women certainly manifested many of the symptoms. At the heart of Sylvia Plath’s argument with her father, a quarrel that contributed to her eventual suicide, is both a chronic guilt at not mourning her father properly (like Esther Greenwood she was not permitted at her age to attend the funeral—his death was not “real”), but also a profound resentment at him leaving her at the tender age she was. Freud has remarks on this syndrome as well. At times, in this pathological state, the subject not only suffers a great loss, but can also harbour a hatred for the lost love-object: “In [these] disorders the sufferers usually succeed in the end in taking revenge, by the circuitous path of self-punishment. . .” (Freud, 132-33). Freud goes on to remark on how such sado-masochistic tendencies can at times lead to suicide. It is within such a context that we can locate the roots of such poems as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” the former concerning itself with the “practice” of suicide, the latter with a revenge on the father and patriarchal power, and by extension the association of such power with fascism. When Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes at that party (her new “colossus”), she almost immediately displaced her libidinal investment in her father on him. Some years later, not long before her suicide, in her poem “Daddy” she seems to have come to an understanding of this transference: “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” (Plath, CP , 224.)
Ted Hughes would also betray and abandon her, a betrayal that would lead her to those last desperate days and poems published in the volume Ariel. Most of the last poems were written in October, 1962, and the early part of the next year, the most severe winter in England since the time of Keats and Shelley. Separated from her husband, Sylvia had moved by this time into a flat in a house in London once occupied by W.B. Yeats, which she felt would be a good omen for her writing. She was right! Despite the crippling cold and her depressive state, she got up each morning before dawn and before her children awoke to write her last poems, feeling, as she put it “like a very efficient tool or weapon.” These poems have an immediacy that gives the illusion of them having arrived alive like a new born baby, some of them such as “Daddy” with a vertiginous velocity, a momentum that seems dangerous. The poet Robert Lowell (whose poetry workshop Plath had attended in Boston) perhaps found the perfect metaphor for them when he described their movement as that of “the control of a skier,” suggesting a dangerous virtuosity that is always prone to a fall. Sylvia Plath “fell” on February 11th 1953 when she took some sleeping pills and put her head in the gas oven. There was no note (perhaps “Edge,” the last poem that she wrote on February 6th could serve), but she made sure that the door to her children’s room was made secure from the leaking gas and she left each of them, Frieda and Nicholas, a glass of milk by their bedsides, maternal to the last.
Her final poems seem to approach a coming to terms with her sickness, but perhaps also a recognition that she could not cure herself, and it was perhaps this awareness and the fear of the bell jar descending on her once again that led to that final act of “revenge.” There is something truly tragic in her and Ted Hughes’ story. “Tragedy” always has the signature of a “too-lateness” about it, and an “if only.” If only King Lear could have seen his daughter Cordelia’s sincerity. If only Macbeth had not listened to his wife. If only Blanche Dubois had not met Stanley Kolowksi. But Fate too is a prerequisite: as if these things have to happen. Ted Hughes records in an early poem in Birthday Letters how he believed that it was written in the stars that he and Sylvia Plath should be partnered by fate.
If only Sylvia had proper psychoanalytic treatment to rid her of the incubus of guilt with regard to her father: if only Ted Hughes had not left his distraught wife on the edge of a breakdown for another woman; if only he instead insisted that she seek help; if only that winter had not been so harsh and depressing, and so hard to be alone in; if only the telephone Sylvia Plath had ordered to be installed had arrived so that she might have called someone. If only . . . .
Sylvia Plath, in her final poems, and Ted Hughes in his volume Birthday Letters, both seem to have come to an understanding of their predicament, but it was too late.
Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. With a Biographical Note by Louis Ames and Drawings by Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971. (Plath, BJ)
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981. (Plath, CP)
Rickman, John. Ed. A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1957. (Freud).