Plath, Wilbur, and “Good Spirits”


by Isabella Wai



The Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium assembled some of the leading authorities on her in Oxford, England from October 25 to 29, 2007. Among the featured speakers were A. Alvarez, Steven Gould Axelrod (University of California at Riverside), Christina Britzolakis (University of Warwick), Lynda Bundtzen (Williams College), Langdon Hammer (Yale University), and Linda Wagner-Martin (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Because of health reasons, Diane Middlebrook (Stanford University) could not deliver her talk as scheduled. The symposium was jointly sponsored by Oxford University, The University of Indiana, and Smith College.


On display in glass cases in the Rothermere American Institute Library at Oxford are Enid Mark’s interpretive illustrations of the poetic portraits of Sylvia Plath by Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, and others. At the conference, there were lively exchanges about who owns what or whom or who knows Sylvia Plath best. Some challenged Ted Hughes’s endorsement of Wilbur’s “Cottage Street, 1953” as “the single truest best thing about her, the best most accurate page”* about his wife. One of them questioned if Wilbur has overlooked the celebratory tone in Plath’s poetry while another thought that Wilbur was part of the Boston circle of poets and should have known Plath well. Langdon Hammer and Gail Crowther (Lancaster University) were among those who expressed admiration for Wilbur. In his essay “Plath’s Lives,” Hammer seems to have pinpointed Sylvia Plath’s ironic perception of Wilbur as the “published poet in his happiness” in “Cottage Street 1953,” which is “evocative and beautiful” to Crowther.


Isabella Wai (Auburn University) delivered a paper to explore if Sylvia Plath in some way moved toward some of the positives that Wilbur represents. Encouraged by signs of “affections” in Plath’s final poems such as “Nick and the Candlestick,” Seamus Heaney in “Indefatigable Hoof-taps” adds a positive note about her: “we are surely reading work by somebody who wrote with the hope that good spirits were choosing her for their instrument.” Perhaps these signs of affections give Plath a resemblance to Edna Ward, to whom Wilbur pays tribute in “Cottage Street, 1953.” While Nicholas Ruddick (University of Regina) disagrees, he praises Wilbur’s final line about Plath’s style--“In poems free and helpless and unjust”--as “a technical masterstroke.” The discussion about this poem continues after the symposium. Highlights:


 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.


Gail Crowther, Doctoral Student, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, United Kingdom: “Cottage Street, 1953” by Richard Wilbur is indeed an evocative and beautiful poem remembering both Sylvia Plath and his mother-in-law, Edna Ward. However, Ted Hughes’s comment that it is “the single truest best thing” about Sylvia implies some kind of structuralist authenticity that I believe actually encourages the invasive readings of Plath that he himself so despised. To infer there is a true reading of a self (in the same way that he refers to Plath’s Ariel voice as her “true” self; her true” voice) is to imply there is a fixed answer to the question “who was Sylvia Plath?” It implies there is a truth there waiting to be found.


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.


  How does Hughes’s endorsement of “Cottage Street” reflect his own relationship with Plath?


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?


Ruddick: The poem covers a lot of time, from the Cottage Street scene in 1953 through Plath’s suicide in 1963 and the death of Edna Ward in 1968 up to the narrative present. It simultaneously represents, by a kind of artful superimposition, Sylvia the “pale, slumped daughter” before her poetic career had begun and Plath the posthumous legendary poet of Ariel.


  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?


Ruddick: 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 her brilliance.

  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.  

  Has Wilbur overlooked the celebration in Plath’s work? Do the signs of affections give her a resemblance to Edna Ward, whom Wilbur praises in “Cottage Street, 1953”?


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 New England tradition, helps to bring these temperaments together.




            *See Dale, Peter. Richard Wilbur in Conversation with Peter Dale. London: Between the Lines, 2000. 33.


** Kathleen Connors, visiting scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington and Sally Bayley of Oxford’s Jesus College (co-director of the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium) are co-editors of Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (Oxford University Press, 2007). 



Copyright © 2008 by individual contributors: Answers

Copyright © 2008 by Isabella Wai: Questions, Introduction, and Illustrations

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