Literature Matters: RIP, Sylvia Plath

At 4am today I was up drinking coffee, fussing the cat, planning my day and thinking. Thinking about the early hours of another February 11th fifty years ago, when one of the 20th century’s greatest poets was also up planning her day… and planning to make it her last.

Did Sylvia Plath really mean to kill herself on that freezing cold morning in 1963? Folk have argued the point ever since, speculating that she did not; that it was a horrible misadventure, a misfired attempt to stage a ‘Lady Lazarus’-style resurrection from which she would arise, purged and purified, to begin her life anew. But I think the evidence on which this assumption is based can be read in quite the opposite way to show that (alas) she did indeed mean to end her life.

For a start she did not take an overdose, as she did for her first suicide attempt in 1953, but chose instead the common and more reliably fatal method of asphyxiation by domestic gas. For this to have been a gamble surely implies knowledge and calculation which Plath may not have possessed, or which may have been beyond her in her terminally distressed state: knowledge of how long it took a person to die in this way, and calculation of the time she would therefore need to switch on the gas in order to stand some chance of rescue. Given the imprecise nature of time-of-death estimations, even in modern forensic science, we cannot know exactly what time Sylvia Plath did turn on her oven; only that it was not a last-minute gamble but long enough before 9am for sufficient gas to have seeped down and stupefied her neighbour Trevor Thomas in the flat below. (Her remark to him, ‘I am going to die and who will look after my babies?’ also suggests that the decision to suicide was a done deal by the night of February 10th).

And she took advantage of a perfect ‘window of opportunity’: she would not lie long undiscovered, expose her children to excessive risk, or traumatise a friend, neighbour or her husband Ted Hughes with the finding of her body, because she was expecting a new nanny to arrive at 9am – a stranger who could loosely be termed a health-care professional, someone Plath may have felt would be better equipped to cope with such a situation.

Finally there is her note, the instruction to call her GP, Doctor Horder. The doctor would not have come equipped with the emergency life-saving equipment an amblulance crew would carry, but he was equipped with an understanding of how severely his patient had been suffering in the last weeks of her life; maybe she viewed Doctor Horder as a living suicide note, a trusted medical man more capable of explaining her final act than was Plath herself, in the grip of her dreadful desperation.

Of course, we can’t know – the only person who could tell exactly what happened and why is Sylvia Plath herself. My hunch is that she had simply had enough of living with crushing bouts of depression, exacerbated in the winter of 1962-63 by general ill-health, atrocious weather and the misery of her marriage breakdown. I do so wish she could have toughed it out longer… gone back into therapy, found lasting relief from the condition that blighted her life – spared everyone who loved her, above all her children, the pain of her premature death, and survived to enjoy the great fame that instead she received posthumously.

So I remember you today, Sylvia Plath, and raise a glass to your memory. Rest in Peace – or perhaps I should say, ‘Rage in Perpetuity’, fill the afterlife with your magnificent verse. Perhaps you’d like that better.


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