How Sylvia Plath’s Secret Miscarriage Transforms Our Understanding of Her Poetry


In 2017, one of Sylvia Plath’s private letters, which had not previously been made public, included a startling revelation: Plath suggested that her husband, poet Ted Hughes, was responsible for their child’s miscarriage in February 1961.

Heather Clark’s recent biography on Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Flamboyant Art of Sylvia Plath, includes this new information. But no fellowship has yet contextualized the painful event as a way to reinterpret two of Plath’s most autobiographical poems, “The Rabbit Catcher” and “Thalidomide.”

As a scholar of 20th-century American poetry, I regularly teach Plath in my college classrooms and direct graduate theses on his works. For me, this new biographical information, along with Plath’s drafts and journal entries, reveals how she channeled this painful experience into her poetry.

Details of a miscarriage emerge

From February 18, 1960 to February 4, 1963, Sylvia Plath wrote a series of 14 intensely personal letters to psychologist Ruth Beuscher. In the letters—which span the most volatile era of Plath’s marriage, writing, and suicide—Plath touches on topics she hasn’t discussed with anyone else.

Academics didn’t learn of the letters until 2017 when they suddenly went up for auction, and a subsequent lawsuit ultimately attributed them to Smith College, Plath’s alma mater.

When Plath’s marriage dissolved – she and Hughes separated in September 1962 – she no longer had any reason to protect Hughes. On September 22, 1962, she wrote to Beuscher: “Ted physically beat me a few days before my miscarriage.

As Clark explains in “Red Comet”, one day in early February 1961, Plath, who was four months pregnant, answered the phone at her home in Devon, England. It was BBC influencer Moira Doolan on the other end, and Doolan seemed surprised to hear someone other than Ted answer.

For Plath, this response was proof of an affair. She began to tear her husband’s writings into long strips. She broke a mahogany table that belonged to Ted. Plath was furious that he was able to have an affair while being, as she wrote, so “unresponsive” to the “countless little umbilical cords” that bound her to her unborn child and 10-month-old daughter.

When Hughes found Plath in this rage, he began punching her repeatedly. Her unborn child, about four months old, died within days. Clark claims the miscarriage likely took place on Monday, February 6, 1961.

The two soon conceived again, and their child, Nick, was born on January 17, 1962. Plath died by suicide on February 11, 1963, having written the most important poems of her life in the six months before her death.

Most of these poems were eventually included in the collection “Ariel”, which was published posthumously in 1965. But it was not until 2004 that two of them – “Thalidomide” and “The Rabbit Catcher ” – appeared in an updated version. The former, known for its surreal imagery, was open to multiple interpretations. The latter was received as a poem that dealt directly with Ted’s infidelity.

While Plath addressed the subject of miscarriage in her radio play “Three Women” and the poems “Elm” and “Parliament Hill Fields”, the poems in “Ariel” seem to draw on her own personal experience of loss. of an unborn child.

A poem with new meaning

The once elusive “Thalidomide”, which was written after Nick was born, can now be read against the backdrop of the emotional roller coaster from his miscarriage to the birth of a healthy son.

Plath begins “Thalidomide” with the image of “O demi-lune”. In Plath’s manuscript drafts, which are available at Smith College, you can see that this image is the original title of the poem.

This moon is an omen of miscarriage. Letters that Plath exchanged with poetess Ruth Fainlight reveal that Plath considered this symbol to be directly animated by Fainlight’s poem “Sapphic Moon”, which is also about a miscarriage.

“Thalidomide” then graphically evokes the imagery of a lynching. Something was dismembered to look like a dark victim burned until its limbs were short and its face was “masked as a blank”. The deepest analogue is Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit”, and Plath alludes to the song when she writes, “Black fruits spin and fall”.

What about the title of the poem? There is no evidence that Plath ever took thalidomide, a drug developed in 1954 prescribed to treat several symptoms, including nausea and anxiety in pregnant women. However, she would probably have read about the horrors of its side effects if taken during pregnancy, which surfaced in 1962 when researchers and doctors discovered that more than 10,000 children had been born with missing or badly deformed limbs. to the women who prescribed the drug.

In the poem, Plath relates her experience to the fears of a pregnant woman taking thalidomide. She describes “indelible buds” and “shoulder blade joints” arriving with only “half a brain”. Plath herself was four months through the nine-month term when she miscarried.

Plath’s drafts also offer a window into his inspiration and creative process. Before deleting these direct references to her miscarriage, she originally described it as “that abortion” and “big abortion.” It’s “crying sin,” complete with images that depict an “eyelid-thin” fetus with “the smell of perilous sleep.”

Just 11 months after her miscarriage, Nick was to be born.

In one of her most haunting diary entries, she describes her birth: “I closed my eyes, to see and feel from within – a horror to see the baby before Ted told me it was was normal.”

At the end of “Thalidomide”, Plath writes: “The glass cracks, / The image / Leaks and aborts like fallen mercury. The imagery evokes a light bulb breaking, releasing mercury gas trapped inside.

And like that, the birth of a child replaces the toxic memory of a miscarriage.

The rabbit is dead

Two weeks before Plath began writing “Thalidomide”, on October 14, 1962, the British newspaper The Observer published an article about how the drug was tested on pregnant rabbits to show how it caused deformities.

“The Rabbit Catcher” – originally titled “Snares” – immediately precedes “Thalidomide” in Plath’s version of “Ariel”.

For the discerning reader, the old-fashioned saying that hovers silently behind this poem is the phrase “the rabbit is dead”, which comes from the fact that pregnancy tests in the 1920s involved injecting a woman’s urine into rabbits. Many people mistakenly believed that an injection that killed the rabbit signaled a positive test.

Among “birth pangs”, a “hollow” and a “holiday”, “The Rabbit Catcher” includes objects that look like umbilical cords. Plath talks about “traps”, “zeros, closure on nothing” and “threads”. The line “I always felt occupied with intent” was once read as anxiety over Ted’s sexual advances to others; it now reads as if Plath was reliving the process of delivering a lost child too soon. And the last line of the poem – “Constriction kills me too” – indicates Plath’s feeling as if she, too, were dying.

The lines of Plath’s early drafts are illuminating: “I was a flat character”, it was “a clean kill”, and it was all “Final, like a serious accident”.

Most powerful of all, Plath writes in an earlier version of what can only be understood as his description of Ted’s reaction: “It might give him the wrath of a morning.” This line depicts Ted as so emotionally superficial that the loss barely registers.

Is it any wonder that it was Ted Hughes who deleted these two poems before “Ariel” was first published?

At the time, only he knew about the deep family trauma they probed. And it wasn’t until the fully restored 2004 edition of “Ariel” that they appeared as Plath had intended.

Jason MillerProfessor of English, North Carolina State University

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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