Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Some Thoughts on Sylvia Plath

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Some Thoughts on Sylvia Plath

Article excerpt

O vase of acid,

It is love you are full of...

Walking into class at Boston University one February in 1959,1 sat down next to a young woman who, like myself, had gotten there early. The chairs were in disarray around the seminar table, and the windows looked out on busy Commonwealth Avenue below. Robert Lowell was, as usual, a bit late, and most of the class on time, so there was always an awkward wait. There was little talk, a low murmur to the person most immediately proximate, but students did not interact easily. It was rather like going to church, edging into a pew, trying not to call attention to one's self, and waiting for the service to start. People said hello self-consciously but mostly sat and prepared themselves for what was to come.

The woman next to me was astonishing in her stillness. She appeared perfectly composed, quiet, almost fixed in her concentration. She was softly pretty, her camel's hair coat slung over the back of her chair and a pile of books in front of her. Her notebook was open, her pencil poised. Everything seemed neat. This was Sylvia Plath.

I had read her poem "Doomsday" when I was in high school. The poem had appeared in Harper's. I loved the music of it, the reckless nihilism. I had memorized the poem but had forgotten the author's name. The author's note had stated that Sylvia was a student at Smith. It had been inspiring to me that a young college girl had been able to write and publish this poem. The poem had stayed with me through college. I had always wanted to meet the author, a young woman who seemed to be living the literary life I craved. I had solaced myself on many a gray day by reciting grandly as I walked to and from school her lines: "The idiot bird leaps out and drunken leans / Atop the broken universal clock . . ." The poem ranked in importance to me with Frost's "Acquainted with the Night," a poem I still treasure, for I too had walked "out in rain-and back in rain."

After we had introduced ourselves, I somehow put the poem and the person together. Faltering beneath her intent stare, I said something about how much that poem had meant to me. But Sylvia was not interested in her "juvenilia." Nor in the juvenilia in Lowell's class. Focused on her own goals, she was pleasant but noncommittal.

We talked a bit before class from time to time, as we both got there early. Sometimes she seemed restless, agitated beneath that extraordinary stillness. She hardly interacted with the other students, her head bent in a book, pretending to ignore the comings and goings, the chair scrapings, nervous throat clearings, and so forth that accompanied the beginning of class. It was not that she wasn't polite: she was; but she seemed nervously preoccupied. I thought she might be worried about Lowell's opinion of her poetry, for a greater tension overcame her when he entered the room. She seemed inordinately serious, her head bent over her notebook. "Was she taking notes?" I wondered. Sitting next to her, I saw that she was scribbling, over and over, the ink marks digging at the page. Maybe she was doodling.

Her Journals from that time record how distant she felt from the class, but I think volcanic emotions lay beneath even the feelings of boredom. Outside of class she was already beginning to write The Colossus and other poems.

Sylvia had a neat, coed prettiness. She wore pleated skirts and buttoneddown pink long-sleeved shirts and a little pin; a kind of frozen woman student's uniform. Sometimes she would fold her camel's hair coat about her shoulders. She carefully positioned herself at the long table in Lowell's classes, often at the foot of the table directly opposite Robert Lowell. Her voice had a kind of rasped, held -in drawl to it, with the syllables clipped at the same time. Although she spoke softly, she seemed definite in her opinions. She had read almost everything, it seemed. Lowell's obscure references were not obscure to Sylvia; she was the best educated of the group. …

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