Ariel: The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement, by Sylvia Plath, with an introduction by Frieda Hughes. HarperCollins, 211 pages, $24.95.
On the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, in the alleyway behind 23 Fitzroy Road in snowbound London, Myra Norris, a Health Services nurse who was scheduled to arrive for work at 9 a.m. but couldn’t get anyone to answer, looked up at the flat where she was supposed to be and saw them-two small children framed by a window, crying. Rushing around to the main street, the nurse persuaded a construction worker to break down the brownstone’s front door. In the kitchen of the upstairs flat, they discovered the body of a woman sprawled on the floor, her head in the oven, the gas still on. One floor up, they found her children sealed in their bedroom. In another room, on the desk where she worked, lay an unpublished manuscript entitled Ariel and Other Poems.
The dead woman was Sylvia Plath. Only 30 when she died, she’d lived a full life: She’d earned degrees from Smith College and Cambridge University; published one poetry collection under her own name (The Colossus) and one novel under a pseudonym (The Bell Jar); survived three suicide attempts (one of them serious); given birth to two children; and endured a seven-year marriage to the young British poet Ted Hughes. In July of 1962, that marriage had begun to unravel when Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair with their friend, Assia Guttman, who was married to the poet David Wevill. Had it not been for the affair, Plath’s marriage would certainly have continued-at least as far as Plath was concerned.
But as the summer and fall unfolded, Hughes unleashed a flurry of emotional abuse on Plath, who more than once wrote her mother that Hughes was trying to “kill” her with his actions. That’s one reason why many people sympathetic to Plath were unhappy when Hughes inherited her entire literary estate, including unpublished work like Ariel. It seemed bitterly ironic that the man responsible for Plath’s final deadly breakdown (there had been other breakdowns, to be sure, which Hughes knew about when he met her) would now own the copyright to all of her work.
In 1965, Hughes decided to publish Ariel in the United Kingdom, but when he did, he drastically altered the 40-poem manuscript Plath had completed and carefully arranged as of mid-November 1962. (The book, Plath noted, began with the word “Love” and ended with the word “Spring.”) Hughes omitted 13 poems, among them “The Rabbit Catcher” (a poem about a strained romance in which the woman feels she is being killed by the relationship), “Barren Women” and “Lesbos” (unhappy poems directed toward Hughes’ sister, Olwyn), “A Secret” (a vicious poem spoken by a woman who wants the man in her life “dead or away”), “The Other” (a poem in which the narrator’s rival is another woman) and “Stopped Dead” (an unflattering poem about Hughes’ uncle, Walter).
Generally speaking, Hughes removed poems that were personally aggressive toward him or his family. He replaced them with poems that were either emotionally neutral (like “Balloons” or “Years”) or potentially cast Plath in a bad light (like “Kindness” or “Edge”). Some but not all of the poems Hughes added came from poems Plath had written in the final weeks of her life. When Ariel appeared in America in 1966, Hughes-rather inexplicably-added “Lesbos,” “Mary’s Song” and “The Swarm.”
Hughes significantly altered Plath’s original vision of the volume and removed as many poems as possible that were offensive to him. Despite his actions, and because of an extraordinary core group of poems (“Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “The Applicant,” “Cut,” “Elm,” “Ariel,” “Fever 103Þ”-poems Hughes could not remove because they had been either published or accepted for publication), Ariel would go on to become one of the seminal volumes of poetry published in the 20th century, and Plath would take her place in the canon of American literature as one of the masters-arguably the most important woman poet since Emily Dickinson.
Now, almost four decades after its publication, Ariel has been re-released, presented exactly as Plath intended. The original Ariel has been available for years in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, so it’s hardly new to Plath scholars. What’s new is the introduction by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, who was not yet 3 when her mother died. Obviously, anyone familiar with Plath’s life and work will have enormous sympathy for Frieda and her brother, Nicholas. The image of those two children framed by the window that February morning is haunting, the pathos nearly overwhelming.
However, in Frieda Hughes’ introduction, there’s information presented as fact that is, at best, open to interpretation-at worst, it’s simply wrong. This is how Ms. Hughes describes the events that led to her parents’ separation: “On work-connected visits to London in June 1962, my father began an affair with a woman who had incurred my mother’s jealousy a month earlier. My mother, somehow learning of the affair, was enraged. In July her mother, Aurelia, came to stay at Court Green, our thatched black and white cob house in Devon, for a long visit …. By early October, with encouragement from Aurelia (whose efforts I witnessed as a small child), my mother ordered my father out of the house.”
First, Hughes’ decision to embark on an affair with Guttman had nothing to do with Plath’s reported jealousy. (Strangely, earlier boyfriends of Plath had never complained about her being jealous.) In fact, Plath probably sensed Guttman had designs on her husband, which-quite understandably, actually-sparked Plath’s concern. Second, Plath learned of the affair because Guttman kept calling Court Green and, on one particular day when Plath unexpectedly answered the phone instead of Hughes, actually disguised her voice as a man’s (as if Plath would not recognize Guttman, a close friend!) and asked to speak to Hughes. Plath captured the whole disturbing incident in “Words heard, by accident, over the phone”-an episode seemingly orchestrated by Guttman to reveal her affair with Hughes to Plath. Finally, Plath’s decision to end the marriage had nothing to do with her mother, whose advice, at this point in her life, she routinely ignored.
Later in her introduction, Ms. Hughes writes: “My father continued to see ‘the other woman’ … but she remained living primarily with her husband for two and a half years after my mother’s death.” What Ms. Hughes does not say is that, even though she never divorced Wevill, Guttman and Hughes continued their affair for a total of seven years and had a daughter together, Shura. Their affair finally ended when Guttman killed both herself and Shura in the same way Plath had-by turning on the gas in the kitchen stove. It’s said that Guttman killed herself beside a trunk of Plath’s unpublished manuscripts.
It’s understandable that Frieda Hughes-about 10 at the time of Guttman’s and her half-sister’s deaths-might be sensitive about this material, but leaving out certain information clouds the picture of the Plath-Hughes saga. Consider this detail: “It was many years before I discovered my mother had a ferocious temper and a jealous streak … and that she had on two occasions destroyed my father’s work, once by ripping it up and once by burning it.” What Ms. Hughes doesn’t mention is that in the second episode, when Plath built a bonfire in the backyard at Court Green and burned a lot of documents after learning of her husband’s affair, she also destroyed her own work, specifically a sequel she had written to The Bell Jar in which the heroine’s emotional distress is healed by her finding a supporting and loving man-now obviously a painful literary conceit for Plath since her marriage was falling apart. Nor does Ms. Hughes mention that in the years following Plath’s death, Hughes allowed one large notebook containing her final journals to go “missing” and destroyed a second one because, as Hughes would later say, he did not want his children to read what Plath had written about him.
Simply put, Ms. Hughes has produced an introduction to the new Ariel that continues the disparagement of Plath and the defense of Hughes that Hughes, his family and friends have carried on now for over 40 years. Plath may have been difficult, but Hughes’ roguish and flagrantly uncaring behavior in the final eight months of Plath’s life was not and is not defensible. His actions helped silence prematurely one of the great geniuses of American literature.
The introduction to a restored Ariel is not the place for Plath’s daughter to defend her father and attack her mother. Better to celebrate what is now more obvious than ever: Made up of poems that are so original in their style and so startlingly accomplished in their confessional voice that they helped change the direction of contemporary poetry, Ariel is a masterpiece.
Paul Alexander is the author of Rough Magic (DaCapo), a biography of Sylvia Plath, and Edge, a one-woman play about her.