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Ariel in Life and Death : BITTER FAME A Life of Sylvia Plath <i> by Anne Stevenson (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 384 pp.) </i>

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To write the life of the poet Sylvia Plath in any form other than a “pathography,” to use Joyce Carol Oates’ apt word, may well be impossible. In the 26 years since her suicide, the circumstances surrounding her death by carbon monoxide poisoning--together with the youthful breakdown anatomized in her autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar,” and the ferocity of her poems, especially those in “Ariel"--have fueled the imaginations and sympathies of a broad readership. She and her fellow poets, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, have formed in the minds of many an unholy trinity whose lives attest to the truth of the superstition--at least as old as Plato--that madness and poetry cannot be disentangled. For readers who, for a variety of reasons, believe passionately in this fusion, pathography is apt to slide into patholatry.

To her credit, Anne Stevenson, in “Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath,” avoids such slippage. Plainly, she admires Plath’s work. Plainly, too, she understands that mental anguish contributed to Plath’s artistic productivity, especially the “astonishing blaze of creative power” in which she wrote her last poems. But she does not propose either that Plath’s poetry caused her madness or that her madness created her poetry. Nor does she make the ethically even more dubious suggestion that the unquestionable brilliance of the poems redeems their grisly price.

The outlines of Plath’s life suggest nothing of the turmoil and torment she felt in it. The first of two children born to middle-class parents of German background, she grew up in Massachusetts, was an honor student in high school and at Smith College, and then attended Cambridge University on a Fulbright grant. There she met and married another promising poet, Ted Hughes. After a couple of years in the United States, one of which Plath spent teaching at Smith, they settled permanently in England, where their two children were born. The satisfaction these circumstances might have brought, however, was repeatedly undercut: by her father’s death when she was 8; by attempted suicide and four months of treatment in a mental hospital while she was in college; by her husband’s faithlessness, both imagined and real, which caused her to end their marriage; and finally by her suicide on Feb. 11, 1963.

In trying to account for an ending one can only perceive as tragic, Stevenson has chosen to read Plath’s life in conventional psychological terms, although her “diagnosis” remains murky. Repeated references to “divided being” recall R. D. Laing’s work on schizophrenia, but just as often she mentions “depressed” and “manic” extremes, suggesting bipolar depression, a diagnosis apparently supported by the doctor who was treating Plath when she ended her life. Stevenson makes this bipolarity her controlling metaphor. As early as high school, “Sylvia had a rare, infectious capacity for exultation--as great a gift for rapture as she had for misery.” Indeed, in Stevenson’s view, there were two Sylvia Plaths: “the outer Sylvia, characterized by Robert Lowell as ‘a brilliant tense presence, embarrassed by restraint,’ and the inner woman, fraught with fears and aggressions.” And although at one point Stevenson claims that “the writer was beginning to identify with the woman, the woman with the writer; there could be no true distinction between them,” her later evaluation is more sinister: that Plath had projected “the ‘desired image’ (the required image) of herself as Eve--wife, mother, homemaker, protector of the wholesome, the good, and the holy, an identity that both her upbringing and her own instinctive physical being had fiercely aspired to. Now her submerged and subversive self, utterly true to itself, utterly detached, completely the artist, turned on the Eve scenario and judged it a deception.” This second self, which Stevenson labels “the real one, the poet,” is not merely distinguishable from the woman but actively writing poems “bereft of all normal ‘human’ feeling.”

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The portrait that emerges through Stevenson’s words--of a woman driven by ambition, intolerant of frailties in herself or anyone else, wholly self-absorbed and equally self-righteous--is not attractive. But neither is it unsympathetic or unappreciative. In her able reading of Plath’s poems, in particular, Stevenson--herself a poet--reveals her awareness of Plath’s unique and stunning gifts. In places, indeed, she seems willing to permit Plath’s mental fragility to excuse the ethical questionableness of some of her work, for example, the use of Nazi imagery in her best-known poem, “Daddy.”

Nonetheless, Stevenson’s approach may well incur the reproval of the audience most instrumental in keeping Plath’s work alive. Some feminists, working largely from Plath’s own testimony, have interpreted her experience as a pure redaction of female victimization: The woman poet immured against her will and self-interests in marriage and motherhood by the husband who systematically undermined and overshadowed her. Stevenson’s attempts to sketch the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the relationship--and especially such statements as: “It was Ted who persuaded Sylvia to be true to her gift rather than to her ambition"--will likely infuriate the Ted-bashers.

I, too, am a feminist, but I am less troubled by this biography’s attempts, not always realized, to be thorough and fair than I am by its conventionality. Familiarity with feminist and biographical theory might have led Stevenson to a more sophisticated and nuanced reading of this troubled and troubling life. The memoirs by three of Plath’s friends, which occupy about 50 pages of appendixes, add little because Stevenson has already quoted their most relevant passages at length. More accessible notes and a substantial index would have been more useful. Clearly, however, “Bitter Fame” is not aimed primarily at scholars of modern poetry. As an introduction to the life and work of a poet of unsurpassed originality and intensity, it serves the general reader well.


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