Plath, Wilbur, and “Good Spirits”
by Isabella Wai
The Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium assembled some of the
leading authorities on her in
On display in glass cases in
the Rothermere American Institute Library at
Do you think
“Cottage Street, 1953” is, in Ted Hughes’s words, “the
single truest best thing” and “the best most accurate page”
about his wife?
Kathleen Connors,** co-director of the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium: How fascinating, Wilbur on Plath! A couple issues: many Plath scholars know more about Plath (as revealed in bios, essays, books, etc.) than her children, which may not be that surprising. Accuracy, however, is another issue: locating the so-called “truth” about Plath is not, in my mind, something one can obtain (or about anyone, for that matter), but as an archivist, my personal experience is that one can learn more about her by visiting the archives, as they have such huge amounts of information, getting you closer to a biographical “truth” of sorts. But even the texts written by Plath can be interpreted in more than one way, of course.
Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology,
Rather, I would like to see Wilbur’s poem regarded as yet another representation of Plath, not necessarily true or best (after all that would surely be such a subjective hierarchy) but a depiction of a particular girl at a certain time in a certain place by a certain person. Furthermore, the poem should be added along side Plath’s own voices in her poems, prose, letters and journals; biographies written about her, vignettes, memoirs, biographies, images, recordings, interviews, to encourage an intertextual reading of a woman who was not one thing, but many things to many different people.
Professor Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina: I have insufficient evidence to confirm Hughes’s judgment, but I do feel that “Cottage Street, 1953” is a very fine poem, in which Wilbur pays an ambivalent tribute to another, possibly greater poet, as different from himself almost as Death is from Life.
Hughes’s endorsement of “
Professor Bruce Michelson: University of Illinois: That sounds like a nice compliment from Hughes about Wilbur’s insight into Plath’s personality and artistic legacy--but wow, the complexities of that notorious relationship between Plath and Hughes, with all those tangles of overt and ulterior motive that keep the Plath-Hughes biographers in delight, and the recriminations and self-serving “spin” that show up in Hughes’s writings and offhand post-mortem remarks about her--anyway, all of that should make us cautious about taking Hughes’s comment on “Cottage Street” at face value. For me, the poem remains poignant about the three people in the foreground--Plath, Edna Ward, and Wilbur himself; and about certain inherently unspeakable mysteries within our own choices and feelings about human experience--why and how we choose to affirm life, or reject it--and how hard it is to speak to one another truly about those feelings.
Does Wilbur’s poem do justice to Plath?
The poem covers a lot of time, from the
How does Wilbur manipulate this “artful superimposition”?
Ruddick: Wilbur solves through manipulation of verb tenses the problem posed by the inevitable difference between the speaker’s perspective on Sylvia in 1953 and his view of Plath in the narrative present. The simple present (e.g., Edna “bends” rather than the expected retrospective “bent”) implies a past action freezing into a tableau that persists into the present (and will continue into the future). It suggests not only that the speaker’s recollected impressions remain vividly present in his memory but also that there is a strong continuity linking his feelings and thoughts then and now. When the speaker says, “I am a stupid life-guard,” he did not form this metaphor of his relation to Sylvia using the benefit of hindsight, but felt helpless embarrassment at the time and continues to feel it undiminished into the present.
The past perfect tense is used of Sylvia the “slumped daughter” to suggest that ten years before her suicide she was already in the limbo of the lost. The Sylvia of 1953 “has wished to die” and the speaker retrospectively acknowledges that even as early as this she must already have been “immensely drowned” if she were to undergo her sea-change (q.v. Ariel’s song in The Tempest) into a rich and strange being with pearls for eyes—the great poet Plath.
In the final two quatrains, the future tense formed by the modal “shall” applied to the verb appears attached to a third person: Edna Ward “shall die,” Sylvia “shall study.” This unusual formation (we expect “would”) suggest not so much a future state of being as a requirement mandated by Necessity. Sylvia could no more escape her poetic fate than Edna could evade mortality.
How well does Wilbur’s phrase “brilliant negative” describe Plath?
The oxymoron “brilliant negative” encapsulates Wilbur’s
ambivalence about Plath. On the one hand he acknowledges
that she plumbed the depths while he waited in the safer shallows. “The
genteel chat whereby we recommend/Life” is nicely ironic.
“We” seem in denial of the necessity that Sylvia accepted: that
dusk will end day, that death will terminate even the most graceful and
courageous life, that Sylvia “must” write her poems “free and
helpless” (i.e., she cannot help but write them, no one can redeem her
from what they will cost). On the other hand, “eyes of pearl” are
blind, and Sylvia’s sense that she is “condemned to live” is
unnatural, as is her predecease of a woman of her mother’s generation.
However sympathetic to her plight we may be, we will feel affronted by her
negativity, lamenting more truly that we are condemned to die. While the poem’s
death-by-water imagery is obvious, the death-by-fire allusions are more covert:
Edna’s “phoenix fire-screen” suggests an object protecting
the genteel lady against the flames of passion and hell, while promising a
resurrection very different from the one delineated in “Lady
Lazarus.” Moreover, Plath’s “large
. . . refusal” hints at the “gran rifiuto” of the Inferno (iii.60). The poem’s last
line is a technical masterstroke: it can only be properly scanned if there is a
strong stress, not on the expected last syllable, but on the penultimate (the
negating prefix): únjust. Wilbur’s final
emphasis, then, is on Plath’s negativity, not
Mr. Wilbur, has Sylvia Plath moved toward some of the positives represented by you? Do you agree with what Seamus Heaney, encouraged by signs of “affections” in Plath’s final poems such as “Nick and the Candlestick,” says about her hoping to write as a chosen instrument for “good spirits”?
Richard Wilbur: I hope that Seamus Heaney was right in thinking that she was on the way to doing so.
Michelson: When Wilbur called Plath’s poetry “brilliant negative,” I think he intended to celebrate the vividness, the vitality in her best work--and I think that Heaney is also recognizing, in that energy, something like an inherent pleasure in the color and drama of ordinary experience, no matter how awful or pointless it might seem.
Ruddick: I think I can answer this question very
briefly. No, “Nick and the Candlestick,” fine and terrible poem
that it is, does not in my view raise an affirming flame. Far from it: the
speaker has (culturally) regressed to a cave and (psychologically) to a womb.
As a mother, she should feel existential justification in nurturing an infant
totally dependent upon her; in this case, she concludes that ontologically she
is totally dependent on her infant, “the one/Solid the spaces lean
on.” There are only two ways out of this cul-de-sac, and we know the
route that Plath took.
overlooked the celebration in Plath’s work? Do
the signs of affections give her a resemblance to Edna Ward, whom Wilbur
praises in “
Michelson: Plath, Ward, Wilbur--in those encounters in the early
fifties, all of them were latter-day New Englanders with a general cultural
connection to Calvinist austerity, intellectual precision, and darkness; and
also a more specific and immediate link--Robert Frost. Edna Ward’s
husband Herbert Ward had been one of the first publishers of Frost’s
poetry; the Frost influence was very powerful among aspiring poets, especially
in the Amherst-Northampton regions, when Plath was an
undergraduate at Smith; and Wilbur’s long and close relationship to Frost
has been written about often by others. Frost’s cool, incisive, and witty
“acquaintance with the night” resonates in Wilbur’s poetry,
and in much of Plath’s as well. In any
case, a poised intensity, shadowed by a long
Dale, Peter. Richard
Wilbur in Conversation with Peter Dale.
** Kathleen Connors, visiting scholar at
Copyright © 2008 by individual contributors: Answers
Copyright © 2008 by Isabella Wai: Questions, Introduction, and Illustrations