ARIEL by Sylvia Plath. 85 pages. Harper & Row. $4.95.
On a dank day in February 1963, a pretty young mother of two children was found in a London flat with her head in the oven and the gas jets wide open. The dead woman was Sylvia Plath, 30, an American poet whose marriage to Ted Hughes, a British poet, had gone on the rocks not long before. Her published verses, appearing occasionally in American magazines and gathered in a single volume, The Colossus, had displayed accents of refinement, but had not yet achieved authority of tone.
But within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. Daddy was its title; its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father; its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, Daddy was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bale across the literary landscape.
Published last year in Britain, the last poems of Sylvia Plath sold 15,000 copies in ten months, almost as many as a bestselling novel, and inspired a vigorous new group of confessional poets. Published last week in the U.S., Ariel adds a powerful voice to the rising chorus of American bards (Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, Frederick Seidel) who practice poetry as abreaction.
Worms like Sticky Pearls. Outwardly, Sylvia's psychosis has standard Freudian trimmings. Her father, born in the Polish town of Grabow in East Prussia, became a professor of entomology at Boston University and is presented in her poetry as an intellectual tyrant with "a love of the rack and the screw." The mother of the heroine in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel published in England just before Sylvia's death, is described as a metallic New England schoolmarm. Little Sylvia tried to be Daddy's darling. At three she knew the Latin names of hundreds of insectswhenever a bumblebee bumbled by, the pretty little poppet would squeak: "Bombus bimaculatus!"
But when she was ten, Daddy died. It was the trauma of her life, or so she came to think in later years. At any rate, she became a compulsive talker, a compulsive learner, a compulsive writer. All through her teens she scribbled stories, plays, poemsmany of them sufficiently professional to be published in Seventeen and Mademoiselle. She won a scholarship to Smith, where she made straight A's. But her feelings took their revenge. At 19, after an unhappy month in New York City, she ran home to Wellesley, Mass., crawled under the front porch, hid behind a stack of kindling, and swallowed 50 sleeping pills. Three days later she was found, alive but in ghastly condition. "They had to call and call," she wrote later, "and pick the worms off me like sticky pearls."
Words like Missiles. A series of shock treatments put her back on her feet, but she needed "to be bolstered by someone," and a few years later she found that someone in Poet Hughes, whom she met during her Fulbright year at Cambridge. As a poet, Sylvia matured rapidly during her marriage; after the birth of her daughter Frieda, she found in the woman's world the subject she could call her own.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry