Anne Stevenson: 'The Dark Forces of Lust'
Plath at Cambridge

from New York Times, August 13, 1989, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Section 7; Page 1, Column 1;
Excerpted from ''Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath,'' by Anne Stevenson, published by Houghton Mifflin (A Peter Davison Book).
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By Oct. 2, 1955, Sylvia Plath was writing to her mother from Cambridge, a cloistered community sprawled gracefully along the fennish banks of the Cam. Sylvia was enchanted with its groomed courts and crooked streets. As a foreign graduate at Newnham College, she was an ''affiliated'' student and lived with other outsiders and older students in Whitstead, a small building set apart from the college, on Barton Road. In many ways, Sylvia herself stood apart at Cambridge. Dressed in archetypal American college clothes - sweaters, skirts, loafers - she seemed unaware that these contrasted oddly with the generally understated, if not dowdy style of other university women. Tall, slim (though not thin), good-looking rather than beautiful, she set off her vivid face with the jamlike smear of lipstick fashionable in those days. Her brown hair, streaked with bleached-blond strands, was shoulder length, tidily held back by a broad hairband or bandeau. She had come to Cambridge with a new set of white and gold Samsonite luggage, together with a bicycle she had imported, and was often seen pedaling furiously around the town, her black gown billowing out behind like an undisciplined shadow. However, no one at Whitstead knew anything about her 1953 breakdown, so Sylvia's peculiarities - her physical restlessness, her habit of sitting with one leg crossed over the other, impatiently swinging her foot while her hands locked and unlocked in her lap, the two thumbs ''stabbing each other with their nails'' (as another American student observed) - were regarded simply as the mannerisms of a very intense, very ambitious overachiever. Letters home during these first Cambridge weeks scintillate with enthusiasm, describing with characteristic bravado the men she met (she took an instant dislike to the ubiquitous ''fair-skinned, rather hysterical and breathless'' English girls), parties she attended, the ''activities'' she ''went out for,'' her triumphs on the stage. On Oct. 14, having met a ''tall, rather handsome, dark-haired chap, named Mallory Wober . . . a brilliant pianist'' reading natural sciences, she decided to make a list of activities through which she could meet influential people - theater groups, newspapers, political clubs - and start from the top. On Oct. 24 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Cambridge, stopping at Newnham on their way to open a veterinary laboratory. Sylvia described with American gusto their procession into the dining hall. Cycling to the Amateur Dramatic Club for a rehearsal later in the evening, she preceded the royal car (by a few minutes) in her red mackintosh, raising a titter from the waiting crowd. Such anecdotes, together with the mention of ''brilliant'' new men, showed her at the center of events and of male attention, and reveling in it. Just as when Sylvia had come back from dances in high school, she felt she had to share all these ''great moments'' with her mother. Yet there was something frenetic about all this joy, as if she had to cram it in hard before it got away. Indeed, toward the end of the autumn term Sylvia had begun to slump. The ''wonderful'' boys she had so ''enjoyed'' at first were far too young for her, hardly the sexually experienced sophisticates she had anticipated. She began to make unfavorable comparisons between the young men around her and Richard Sassoon, her first serious lover, who was spending the year in Paris and briefly visited her on Dec. 5. Certainly her journals for her first two terms in Cambridge show her as obsessed by Sassoon. Sylvia had told her mother she would be spending the holidays ''having a whirl in London and Paris with John, Nat, and Sassoon and Mallory,'' but in Paris she chiefly saw Sassoon. He escorted her to Notre Dame, showed her Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre, pointed out the ''painted whores'' in the Place Pigalle - these were of great fascination to Sylvia - and took her to a performance of Charles Peguy's ''Jeanne d'Arc'' at the Comedie Francaise. In the Louvre, the Winged Victory may have given Sylvia the image of the ''white Nike'' and other stony museum statues that haunt her late poems. On New Year's Eve they were rushing through France, sitting up on the overnight express. In one of her ecstatic highs, Sylvia scribbled in her notebook while Richard slept ''fitfully'' on her breast. As their train reached the Mediterranean at dawn, Sylvia must have achieved a cathartic crisis, a point at which, for her, death resurrected itself into life - eventually the leitmotif of her poems. Just as images of the sun rising would be central to ''Ariel,'' so, on Jan. 1, 1956, she was writing in her notebook: ''Red earth, orange tiled villas in yellow and peach and aqua, and the blast, the blue blast of the sea. . . . The Cote d'Azur. A new country, a new year: spiked with green explosions of palms, cacti sprouting vegetable octopuses with spiky tentacles, and the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea.'' The manic violence of this passage, with its powerful verbs and vivid colors, again prefigures Sylvia's mature writing. From Nice, Sassoon piloted Sylvia by motor scooter to Vence, where she was eager to visit what she calls the Matisse cathedral (in fact, a chapel); she crammed a description of it onto a postcard to her mother. Her rapture conspicuously excluded any mention of Sassoon, but the day was ''about the most lovely in my life.'' She found the chapel ''small, pure, clean-cut. White, with blue tile roof sparkling in the sun. But shut!'' Then, apparently, a miracle occurred. Although others were daily turned away, she had been chosen, she told her mother, set apart. As she stood crying with her face pressed to the barred gate, she heard a voice, ''Ne pleurez plus, entrez,'' and the Mother Superior let her in, ''after denying all the wealthy people in cars. I just knelt in the heart of the sun and the colors of the sky, sea, and sun, in the pure white heart of the Chapel.'' That ''pure white heart'' seemed to embody the radical purity she sought all her life to make permanent. Back in Cambridge on Jan. 10, she retained for a while the glow of confidence she had found in France with Richard; however, she was stunned, later in the month, to read a mocking review by one Daniel Huws of two poems she had published in Chequer, a student magazine. This setback would probably have affected her less were Sassoon not simultaneously distancing himself from her. Either during their time together in France or in a letter (now lost) after her return, he persuaded her that she must not contact him until he said so. He seems to have been quite open with her about other women in his life. Sylvia's long letters to Sassoon, some seemingly unposted, indicate that she doggedly refused to believe that their affair was over. Yet Sylvia must have doubted herself, for the pendulum of her ups and downs was again set in motion. It is clear that throughout February Sylvia was sinking into a very serious depression. Walking over the Mill Lane Bridge on Feb. 19, ''smiling that smile which puts a benevolent lacquer on the shuddering fear of strangers' gazes,'' she had been a target of some small boys' snowballs. These boys seemed to accuse her of the sickness, the oddness that shut her out of ordinary life. She was now sorry she had told her Cambridge followers about Richard in France, for all her admirers were now looking for company elsewhere. The girls at Whitstead - she knew it - were whispering of her madness behind her back. The unloving world was still closing in on her when Sylvia wrote to her mother on Feb. 24, deploring the lack of ''someone to bring me hot broth and tell me they love me.'' Her journal complains: ''Everywhere I heard bells, telephone not for me, doorbells with roses for all the other girls in the world. Utter despair.'' The next morning, on Saturday, Feb. 25, Sylvia went to see the university psychiatrist. To her relief, he was fatherly and sympathetic. Back after her session and feeling much better, she sent off a second, more positive letter to her mother, mentioning that she was going to a party that evening to celebrate the publication of a new literary magazine, St. Botolph's Review. That morning she had bought a copy from an American, Bert Wyatt-Brown (now an eminent historian), and read in it poems by E. Lucas Myers and Ted Hughes that impressed her more than any others she had seen in Cambridge. Returning to ask Bert where she could meet these poets, she had been told that they would be at the party that night at the Women's Union. The magazine's genesis took place in the autumn of 1954, a year before Sylvia arrived in Cambridge, when Myers, a young man from Tennessee and a cousin of the American poet Allen Tate, had come to Cambridge to study English with F. R. Leavis. Ted Hughes had by then graduated and was working at odd jobs, making enough money to return to Cambridge from time to time; when in town he stayed with friends and read in the library. As Myers recalls, Hughes was an inch or two taller than six feet and habitually clad in a brown leather greatcoat that had been issued to an uncle in World War I. ''His brown hair fell across the right side of his forehead and his voice modulated curiously at certain significant points in his speech,'' writes Myers. ''His eyes and mouth were powerfully expressive.'' Myers and Hughes, as well as Daniel Huws, were part of a large convivial group, mainly students, who met regularly at the Anchor pub (they had their own jazz band). When their magazine made its debut - and, as it happened, swan song - in February 1956, it was more like a pamphlet than a magazine, the deep crimson of its card binding like a rich lining under a plain ivory slipcover. Its contents page listed the five artists responsible for its creation, while the austere dignity of the design permitted no mention of a price. So it came about that on the very morning Sylvia Plath first went to see the university psychiatrist, teams of St. Botolph's supporters were selling the magazine throughout Cambridge. Sylvia excitedly read, admired and even, apparently, memorized several poems by Myers and Hughes, determined to meet these poets at the party that evening and force them to recognize her. Glad as she was to have ''a boy named Hamish'' along as an escort, she set out, dressed in the reds and blacks she favored for sexual conquest, in a mood to catch bigger game: ''I long so for someone to blast over Richard; I deserve that, don't I, some sort of blazing love that I can live with. My God, I'd love to cook and make a house, and surge force into a man's dreams, and write, if he could talk and walk and work and passionately want to do his career. I can't bear to think of this potential for loving and giving going brown and sere in me. Yet the choice is so important, it frightens me a little. A lot.'' Sylvia's account of meeting Ted Hughes at the St. Botolph's party is heatedly described in a long journal entry, written (with a bad hangover) the next day. None of the St. Botolph's crowd had met Sylvia before, but they had read several of her poems in university magazines and on the whole disapproved of them. Sylvia disciplined her verse in the manner approved by Sassoon, who had once written to her that he preferred ''les pyramids du mal'' to ''les fleurs du mal'' because man had made them. Myers believed more romantically that poetry ''should come down on the poet from somewhere.'' Only Ted in the group had not commented. At the St. Botolph's party Sylvia was determined to meet Ted Hughes, force for force, to ''melt'' the walls between them. After ''slobbing around'' with Luke, she moved on through the crowded hall. The next day she wrote in her journal: ''Then the worst thing happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes. I started yelling again about his poems and quoting: 'most dear unscratchable diamond' and he yelled back, colossal, in a voice that should have come from a Pole, 'You like?' and asking me if I wanted brandy, and me yelling yes and backing into the next room . . . and bang the door was shut and he was sloshing brandy into a glass and I was sloshing it at the place where my mouth was when I last knew about it. ''We shouted as if in a high wind, about the review, and he saying Dan knew I was beautiful, he wouldn't have written it about a cripple, and my yelling protest in which the words 'sleep with the editor' occurred with startling frequency. And then it came to the fact that I was all there, wasn't I, and I stamped and screamed yes . . . and I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.'' Although the general configuration of this story is true, most of the yelling and stamping seems to have been a drama of the Plathian interior. This was how she envisaged giving herself ''crashing and fighting'' to her ideal lover. (Hughes himself has always said this account of their meeting was ridiculously exaggerated.) Certainly Hughes must have been taken aback by this energetic, extremely excited, very drunk American girl who could quote his poems verbatim. He kissed her and she bit him, but at such a party the incident caused little stir. He was amazed, attracted enough to want to see her again. The next day she wrote: ''And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you. The one man since I've lived who could blast Richard.'' After the party, Sylvia had no idea whether she would see Hughes again. She had crept back into Whitstead at 3 in the morning after more adventures, including climbing with Hamish over the Queens College gates so the two could make love in his room. The next morning, having written down the whole story, she recoiled: ''Somehow these sluttish nights make me have a violent nunlike passion to write and sequester myself.'' Such a reaction was predictable. For Hughes, Sylvia immediately (on Feb. 27) wrote a full-page poem, which she called ''Pursuit,'' about ''the dark forces of lust.'' What it invoked, in fact, was not so much lust as her own libidinous double, the deep self full of violence and fury she was suppressing under her poised and capable appearance. What seems peculiar about Sylvia's swing from violent vampire to virtuous nun is that most of her ''bad'' behavior was quite innocent. She was 23 years old, had gone to a party where she had drunk too much and clutched at a man she was attracted to. No one in Cambridge - not even the Victorian dons who so alarmed her - would have been surprised. But Sylvia, nervous lest people condemn her, feared they had found out she was really a whore, a vampire, a nymphomaniac - all the things, in fact, she loved to imagine she was, while acting the part of a nice, bright, neat, gushy American student. Although Sylvia had been violently attracted to Ted, the whole experience was too dreamlike to build hopes on, and, in any case, she still held to the habit of longing for Richard Sassoon. On March 6 she wrote in her journal, ''I got a letter from my Richnd alive - extending to the ecstasies of ''fury and death'' in Sassoon's lovemaking. Near the end she summed up in an astonishing revelation what she considered her purpose in living: ''I am inclined to babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home where geniuses drink gin in the kitchen after a delectable dinner and read their own novels and tell about why the stock market is the way it will be and discuss scientific mysticism . . . well, anyhow, this is what I was meant to make for a man, and to give him this colossal reservoir of faith and love for him to swim in daily, and to give him children; lots of them, in great pain and pride.'' Love, with its tribulations, was Sylvia's chief preoccupation in that most fraught of Marches. Ted had returned to Cambridge and, having inquired as to the whereabouts of Sylvia's room in Whitstead, tried to wake her by throwing stones at her window, but got the wrong window. (In any case, Sylvia was out drinking with Hamish.) The next day (March 10), on the way back from a second appointment with the psychiatrist, she ran into Bert Wyatt-Brown and learned that ''HE'' was back: ''A huge joy galloped through me. . . . Please let him come,'' she prayed in her journal, ''let me have him for this British spring. Please, please . . . and give me the resilience & guts to make him respect me, be interested, and not to throw myself at him with loudness or hysterical yelling; calmly, gently, easy, baby, easy. . . . Oh, he is here; my black marauder; oh hungry hungry. I am so hungry for a big smashing creating burgeoning burdened love: I am here; I wait; and he plays on the banks of the river Cam like a casual faun.''

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