Sylvia was hard hit in the second week of November when The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly rejected several of her recent poems — the very ones that would appeal to posterity. But she rebounded, assembling 40 of her best works into a manuscript with the title Ariel, and other Poems.
That fraught telephone call in July continued to gnaw at the poet, who in “The Fearful” (November 16) brooded on a woman who would pretend to be a man. The woman thinks that a baby would rob her of her beauty (Sylvia had heard that Assia, worried about losing her beauty, did not want children). “She would rather be dead than fat,” so fearful is this woman who has turned her body over to a man. After Plath’s death, Assia would have access to her journals and see firsthand how the poet had nailed her.
On December 14, two days after moving out of Court Green, Sylvia wrote her mother that she had never been happier. Even dashing about to get the electricity and gas connected, while her door blew shut with the keys inside, was transformed into a “comedy of errors.” She imagined Yeats’s spirit blessing her. And why not? Al Alvarez, poetry editor of The Observer, had just told her that Ariel should win the Pulitzer Prize. She had a study that faced the rising sun. At night she joyously watched the full moon from her balcony.
But by January 2, the snow began to pile up. Everything had turned to sludge and then had frozen. No plows swept through streets in a land that rarely saw appreciable snow. It seemed like England had been engulfed in a new ice age. Sylvia wrote dejectedly to her friend Marcia Brown that she felt “utterly flattened” by the last six months of life without Ted. She was lonely and feeling like a “desperate mother.”
And yet Sylvia was not without resources. She continued to write, finding time by putting daughter Frieda in nursery school for three hours a day and catching moments for composition while son Nicholas napped. It was a virtuoso performance that kept her going — for a while. She had something to prove. To give up the flat — even temporarily — when the writing was going so well meant becoming a patient again, the Sylvia of 10 years earlier.
Midway through the winter siege, Sylvia wrote to her mother, admitting flu-induced exhaustion but claiming she was pulling out of it. Sylvia leveled with Aurelia: She realized she had lost her “identity under the steamroller of decisions and responsibilities of this last half year, with the babies a constant demand.” How awful to realize that she was “starting from scratch” in this “first year” of her new life. Time was running out. “But I need time,” Sylvia told her mother.
Mixed reviews of The Bell Jar began appearing and did little to hearten Plath. To her neighbor Trevor Thomas, Sylvia complained about her incarceration in a flat with two children while Ted was free to enjoy his affair with Assia and travel.
Between January 28 and February 4, Sylvia wrote 10 poems. But she seemed to be turning in on herself: “People or stars / Regard me sadly, I disappoint them” (“Sheep in Fog”).
On February 3, Sylvia called Ted and invited him to lunch. His diary notations, written the week after Sylvia’s death, record that he remained with her until 2 a.m. They had not enjoyed such a good time since July, he remarked, as he listened to her read her new poems. Sylvia seemed to have regained her equilibrium, although she wept when he played with Frieda and embraced them.
The next day, according to Ted’s diary, Sylvia rang him from a public call box and demanded that he promise to leave England in two weeks. She could not work so long as she had to hear about him. The same day, she penned her last letter to her mother. “I just haven’t written anybody because I have been feeling a bit grim — the upheaval over, I am seeing the finality of it all,” she wrote. She saw no way out. “I shall simply have to fight it out on my own over here.”
Sylvia’s last two poems, completed on February 5, a Tuesday, perfectly express the plight of someone who seemed poised between life and death — between the airy buoyancy of the balloons her children played with, a world of wish fulfillment, and the finality of “Edge,” in which the inevitability of death is articulated with profound satisfaction. “Balloons” ends with a burst balloon, “A red / Shred” in the child’s “little fist.” “Edge” expresses a bitter but nevertheless peaceful acceptance: “We have come so far, it is over.”
NOTHING CHANGED IN SYLVIA PLATH’S LAST WEEK OF LIFE, and perhaps that is what bothered her. On Wednesday, still angry that Sylvia’s friends were spreading tales about his ill treatment of her, Ted wrote her a note and visited, announcing that he was going to engage a solicitor to stop the lies. She implored him not to do that. She was very upset, but not more so than on previous occasions, he wrote his diary. But she kept asking him if he had faith in her, and that seemed “new & odd.”Continued...