(Picture courtesy of www.sylviaplathinfo.com)
I read with sadness in today’s NYTimes Books section that Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, died by hanging himself on the 16th of March. Nicholas was a fisheries biologist in Alaska, who was said to have suffered from depression for many years.
His mother, the famed poet and Bell Jar author, Sylvia Plath, died by suicide when Nicholas was a baby, following an affair by her husband, Ted Hughes, with Assia Wevill. Ms. Wevill, Nicholas’ stepmother, then killed herself and her four year old daughter six years later.
I came to love Sylvia Plath in college when I studied her poetry. I enjoyed her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, but I found the real treasure in a collection of her short stories, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Ironically, Ted Hughes wrote the introduction and appears to have had some say in the reverse chronological organization of the stories, prose, and diary excerpts. Moving backward from the stories she completed in her blackest time before her death, to the stories of her youth was brilliant and profound. It redeemed her, restored her, and had the feel of an end of life flashback. The final story is about a father who keeps bees (like her own father had) and his death. Sylvia Plath is written as having almost resented her own father for his death in her youth, and that comes across in the final lines of the story:
“Father,” she said in a small pleading voice. “Father.” But he did not hear, whithdrawn as he was into the core of himself, insulated against the sound of her supplicant voice. Lost and betrayed, she slowly turned away and left the room. That was the last time that Alice Denway saw her father. She did not know then that in all the rest of her life there would be no one to walk with her, like him, proud and arrogant among the bumblebees.” (327)
I have some audiorecordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poetry on cassette tapes. (I have nowhere to play them now, but that’s beside the point.) On the tapes, side one was recorded several years before her death; side two just several months before her death. The drop in octave of her voice is chilling–as if the life was gone while she still breathed.
And here I am going on about her when it was her son who died.
What a tragic legacy.