May 8, 2021

Plath’s Sad Path

“I simply cannot see where there is to get to.” —Sylvia Plath

A passion, a mad passion to write a novel had once ruled me. In my early twenties only, I had nothing to say nor a compelling story to tell. I, simply, wanted to create something beautiful with words.

Poetry, other people’s poetry, fueled the madness.  Poets were particle physicists, working their world—syllables, images, metaphors, rhythms, semantics—from the subatomic on up.  We prose writers, in contrast, were chemists, coarsely alchemizing what the poets had refined for us below. Vachel Lindsay, T.S. Eliot, John Keats, Andrew Marvel, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas (though it sounds hokey now I once sat in the Welsh countryside reading his poetry aloud [scared off a bunch of birds]) and other linguistic virtuosi were the demi-gods of the literary aether  whose inspired fires I inhaled.

No poet, though, had beguiled my soul more than American Sylvia Plath. Only a few books—most published after, having stuffed towels under the door to protect her kids in another room, Sylvia had gassed herself in the kitchen oven—but those books wormed their way into me and never left. I drooled over her images, assonances, metaphors, rhythms, everything.  Such as: “Loveless as the multiplication table” or “my church of burnt matchsticks,” or “A creel of eels, all ripples.” 

I used to make people, whether they wanted to or not, sit down and listen to me perform her poems, no matter how depressing they could be. Also, one of her books, Ariel, as in the physical paperback itself sitting on a shelf, had a major role in my coming to the Lord.

I hadn’t, however, thought much over the decades about Sylvia Plath or her work because they were part of my old life. But I just finished listening to a 45-hour audio book, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark.  I admit to freely skipping over sections. How many hours of this short life (despite the blazing art) can one endure: the breakdowns, the suicide attempts, the mental hospitals, the psychiatrists, the shock treatments, the infidelities (her husband’s)? No wonder her work was so dark and foreboding. I had loved it, not because of its darkness but because of its power.  Had Sylvia Plath, with her images, metaphors and sounds, written verse about Mary Poppins or the Madagascar mud crab, I would still have been drawn to her.

Though I remain in awe of the art, her poetry now leaves me cold, like a dead laptop. To read her verse is to view an exquisitely and finely crafted sculpture of a torture victim’s scars. You also don’t sniff out much, or a glimpse of, or even an aspiration to transcendence in Sylvia’s work.  This sad mortal was, shackled, incorrigibly shackled, to the ground that held her captive because every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other with a force varying directly as the product of the masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them.  She had no vision, no aspiration of anything above or beyond (it seemed) the moon, which hovered heavily over her poems.

It was a poem titled, in fact, The Moon and the Yew Tree, from which I pried out, like a tooth, the epigraph above: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to.” The line is powerful enough itself, indicative of a soul so lost that that she doesn’t know where to go once she gets directions. But coming, as I knew it did, from Sylvia’s Plath’s short, painful life, the line spoke pungently to me about what it means to live without a knowledge of God.

Yes, Sylvia had mental health issues (the death of her father when she was young is deemed a trauma that she never got over), but I still can’t help but think that if she had some kind of transcendent hope (other than her husband’s Ouija board and Tarot cards), her story might have been different.  But to struggle as much as she did here yet have no hope of anything beyond here?  The apostle Paul, quoting the Old Testament, noted the hedonistic philosophy summed up in “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32)*—the idea of enjoying a rip-roaring good time now because it all ends in oblivion anyway; but only, of course, “if the dead do not rise” (Ibid.), which thanks to Christ, they will.  In Sylvia’s case, especially in those last months, with financial, marital, family, professional and mental health problems pillaging her (she was supposed to have been committed about two days before she died)—all exacerbated by a combustible cocktail of anti-depressants, amphetamines, and sleeping pills in an age when mental illness pharmacology wasn’t well developed—Sylvia was in little dangers of a “rip-roaring good time” pre-oblivion.  To take your own life with your one- and two-year-olds asleep in a nearby room testifies to just how in need of something greater than herself this troubled woman was. 

Even believing in God’s goodness and love; even experiencing for yourself, personally, His goodness and love; and, finally, trusting in His self-sacrifice, which has forever revealed to us His goodness and love—even with all this, life can be hard, almost unbearably hard.  Sometimes, instead seeing that goodness and love we might for a while see only what Silvia saw: “the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.” But, by faith, instead of the blackness, we can see Jesus, “the light of the world” (John 8:12); and instead of silence, we can hear Jesus: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).  

Yet even then, when we see and hear Jesus, the slog can be all but intolerable. But at least we know our destination: “a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Heb. 11:16), the “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet. 3:13), as opposed to suffering here and yet never seeing “where there is to get to” when where there is to get to is where we, by God’s grace, could all be going.

*All Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Risen, is soon to be released by Pacific Press Publishing Association.