The Sunday Salon – History Repeats Itself

May 1962: The black force grew imperceptibly.  I felt panic-stricken – – – I had nothing to do with it, It controlled me.  “I can’t help it,” I cried, or whispered, and then in three great bursts, the black thing hurtled itself out of me, one, two, three, dragging three shrieks after it: Oh, Oh, Oh.  It was over.  I felt the great weight gone in a moment.  I felt thin, like air, as if I would float away, and perfectly awake.  I lifted my head and looked up.  “Did he tear me to bits?” I felt I must be ripped and bloody from all that power breaking out of me.  “Not a scratch,” said Nurse D.  I couldn’t believe it.  I lifted my head and say my first son, Nicholas Farrar Hughes, blue and glistening on the bed a foot from me, in a pool of wet, with a cross, black frown and oddly low, angry brow, looking up at me, frown-wrinkles between his eyes and his blue scrotum and penis large and blue, as if carved on a totem.  Ted was pulling back the wet sheets and Nurse D. mopping up the great amounts of water that had come with him.     ~ from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

March 23, 2009:  Nicholas Hughes, an evolutionary biologist and the 47-year-old son of writers Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes,committed suicide last Monday in Alaska, where he lived and worked studying stream fish. His sister, Frieda Hughes, told the Times of London of her brother’s death, adding that “He had been battling depression for some time.”    ~from a news article in Salon


I admit it- I was one of those young woman who was obsessed with Sylvia Plath.  I was only 15 when I read The Bell Jar for the first (of many) times.  I was in college when the book Letters Home was published, and I began to immerse myself in Plath’s life and times, the reality of her battle with depression, her failed marriage, her suicide in 1963.   As a young wife and mother, I too was struggling to find a way to keep my self intact while managing a home and family.   At that time (the mid-1970’s) women’s lives were becoming open to new and different opportunities, and I felt as if it should be possible to avoid Plath’s fate, to pursue my own dreams while still fulfilling the duties and expectations demanded of me by family and home.

Re-reading Plath’s poetry and journal now, from the perspective of 30 years, I’m taken aback by the raw pain and anguish evident in her poetry and journal entries.  I can’t believe I ever identified even slightly with such deep emotional angst.   But at one point, Plath’s life was oddly attractive to me – whether it was the mystique of the poet, the gift of her intellect, or just the lure of stark raving madness – I devoured every book about her I could get my hands on.

Happily, my life has turned out to be nothing like Sylvia Plath’s.  I’ve not discovered my husband’s infidelity and thrown him out of the house shortly before giving birth to our son.  I’ve not spent freezing cold nights in an upstairs London flat, wondering how to keep myself and two children warm and fed.  I’ve not struggled with feelings of inferiority about my work, while words and images continue to gnaw at my imagination begging to be set down in black and white.

But when the headline about Nicholas Hughes suicide popped up on the internet, I felt a wrenching pain in my heart.  All my information about this family ended with Plath’s suicide.  I’ve wondered off and on over the years what became of those two wee ones – Frieda and Nicholas, who were asleep in their cots on that bitter February in 1963 when Plath placed her head in the gas oven and went to sleep forever.   It haunted me quite a bit, actually, that she could, would do that with her helpless children just down the hall. 

Frieda, who is very close to my own age, is a poet herself. Nicholas  went into the scientific field, and was well respected by his colleagues in Alaska, many of whom had no idea who his mother was.   “He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right,”  a friend was quoted as saying.  “That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.” 

Still, how desperately sad that the legacy of the bell jar continued, snuffing out one more life in this troubled and talented family.  It is a legacy no mother could ever want to leave to her child.

Child, dated January 28, 1963, was written less than a month before Plath’s suicide. 

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with color and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate –

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,


Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.


Rest in peace, Nicholas Farrar Hughes.


The Sunday


13 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – History Repeats Itself

  1. Sylvia Plath isn’t my favourite poet. I even had to do a make-up paper because, in university, I had the temerity of criticizing one of her poems in a presentation. She was the favourite of the rest of the class and my prof! The thing is that I knew something about hell. A lot in fact. And I just couldn’t afford to be absorbed in the splashiness of her misery or I might not have been able to haul myself forward. Not that I realized all that back then. I just wasn’t a big fan and it seemed like I was the only one who wasn’t. I deeply respect and value honesty in recording the suffering of life, and there are many forms of suffering. But I am drawn to poets, artists, writers, etc who bring to that honesty a reaching for life through the darkness. We don’t only live for ourselves. I believe we live also for others. Our children, of course, but also others who need our example, our hope, our strength. So our life isn’t just our own. Our words are not just for us.

  2. Lillain, I was never a huge fan of her poetry myself – it was her life that fascinated me. Reading the poetry and journals now, the unremitting darkness is overwhelming.

  3. I’m not the only one then, who thought about those children, and when I heard about Nicholas’s death earlier this week, I admit I cried a little, because, as you so wonderfully put, the legacy of the Bell Jar continues. How terribly sad, for all of them, and for Freida, left behind now, too.

    I was fascinated by Sylvia Plath – I was 17 when I discovered her – and devoured The Bell Jar, and read Ariel. The poems were astonishing to me, nothing like the poetry I was forced to read in high school. I wrote on a recent post I did that discovering her voice was like discovering a part of myself I didn’t know I had. ONce I could admit to my own darker emotions, I could let go of my need for Sylvia, though I still admire much of what she did and accomplished. I’m reading Birthday Letters now, which is difficult because suddenly Sylvia is before me again, and their life together was so tumultuous. I begin to understand more about her from him, too.

    Thank you for writing about this, Becca.

  4. Becca, One of my dearest literary friends, Kate Moses, spent years researching and writing her novel Wintering, based on Plath’s Ariel poems. Through her I began to think a lot about Plath and so this news did strike hard last week. Very hard. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  5. I felt very similarly when I saw the notice about Nicholas Hughes’ death. I had always wondered how those children turned out. I’m actually a big Plath fan – I used to lecture on her work to the graduates and the power of her work knocked them for six every time. I would like to read her journals but have yet to do so; she is a most intriguing figure. I also warmly recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Plath and Hughes, The Hidden Woman. It is completely brilliant. Thanks for this post, Becca, and for saying what was unformed in my mind.

  6. I did not know about Nicholas’ death. How very sad. I also discovered Plath in high school- and even though I didn’t understand it all, her poetry resonated with me. I haven’t read any of her other works besides the Bell Jar. I instantly recognized that poem you quoted- it must have been among my favorites back when I owned a complete collection of her poems. I don’t know where that book has gone, but it is no longer in my library. Must amend that.

  7. Oh, yes, I went through a huge Plath phase: The Bell Jar, the poems (Ariel, in particular), the journals, even Hughes’ Birthday Letters after the fact. I think she touched a nerve in young women because she was so willing to expose her own…and I’ve always thought of those babies sleeping quietly down the hall, and the care she took to stop the gap between door and floor to protect them from her final anguish. And now, with Nicholas’ death, we realize that she couldn’t, after all. So sad.

  8. Becca, that’s a beautiful post. I read Bell Jar in the mid-70s, in a college course on women’s issues. It opened my somewhat sheltered eyes to the promise and challenges of the women’s movement. I still have the book on my shelf, and the recent news has made me want to re-read it.

  9. I have always been fascinated by the tragic destinies of people of genius, and that’s how I come to know of Sylvia Plath. I did read a biography but I cannot say that I read her work (just bits and pieces).

    You have written a such powerful post. The poem in the end is so fitting and beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s