Yesterday I talked briefly about reading the original U.S. publication of Sylvia Plath's Ariel. Today I'm going to talk a bit more about that book, along with the book I read for day 3:
Wait, what? you might say. Why a restored edition? What's wrong with the original?
A brief history. Plath was married to poet Ted Hughes, and their relationship, shall we say, did not end up so well--he began seeing another woman, they separated, Plath committed suicide. However, they were still married at the time of her death, and she left no will, so he inherited everything, including all literary rights to her work.
You can see why this might have been a problem. After kicking Hughes out of their Devon home, Plath produced an astonishing amount of work, much containing high levels of vitriol towards Hughes: "I have been drugged and raped./Seven hours knocked out of my right mind/Into a black sack/Where I relax, foetus or cat,/Lever of his wet dreams."
When she died, she left behind a much-rearranged manuscript of Ariel, and a separate set of poems she'd composed in the last few weeks of her life. Did she mean that Ariel, as she left it, was complete? Or would she have gone through it again, revising, reordering and retitling, as she'd done compulsively for her first collection, The Colossus?
Obviously questions we can't answer. What we do know is that two years after her death, Hughes published Ariel in Britain, then in 1966 a revised version in the U.S. (I've not read the British version). It became, for a book of poetry, a huge bestseller and launched a decades-long hatred of Hughes from the growing feminist movement.
But it was assumed that the book was published essentially as Plath left it. Hughes did admit to leaving out a few of the more "personally aggressive" (his words) poems against him, such as The Rabbit Catcher, as well as poems that were critical of others, such as Stopped Dead, which brutalizes Hughes' uncle, or in the British edition, Lesbos, which would have been offensive to friends of Hughes'. (It does beg the question of why, if he was so worried about people's feelings, he left Medusa intact, when it pretty much eviscerates Plath's mother.)
But here's the thing. Plath and Hughes had worked closely together all their married life, and Hughes, also an excellent poet, had a great respect for her work. Yes, he did remove some of the poems about him, and about his mistress Assia Wevill. But other poems--Daddy, The Applicant, The Swarm--are none too kind about him, and they all showed up in the original U.S. edition.
The true outrage began when Plath's Collected Poems appeared in 1981, containing all her published and unpublished work, including juvenilia and one of my favorites, the radio play Three Women. What caught attention was a note in the back from Hughes, pointing out that he'd altered the book from the way Plath had left it, and he included a list of the poems as she had them. What's more, he not only had removed and reorganized some of the poems in the manuscript, but incorporated later poems that she'd held separately.
Don't get me wrong--I don't think Hughes' behavior towards Plath was particularly admirable, nor his behavior towards the subsequent women in his life. But--he did 'fess up to this bit of editing, something he must have known was going to raise hackles, and something he could just as easily have left behind in his archives and not dealt with in his lifetime.
After his death, his and Plath's daughter Frieda brought out the restored edition in 2004 in an attempt to get people to simmer down. Frieda's introduction to the book is worth the price of the book itself. She refers over and over again to Plath as "my mother" and Hughes as "my father," yet grandmother Plath is simply referred to as "Aurelia," and auntie Olwyn Hughes as "his sister, Olwyn." This from the woman who has cried long and loud about the public appropriation of her private history, and yet she's igniting the fire.
However, having read both versions back to back, I cannot disagree with a statement she makes towards the end of the introduction:
"My father had a profound respect for my mother's work in spite of being one of the subjects of its fury. For him the work was the thing, and he saw the care of it as a means of tribute and a responsibility...
"Each poem is put into perspective by the knowledge that in time, the life and observations the poems were written about would have changed, evolved, and moved on as my mother would have done. They build upon all the other writings over the years in my mother's life, and best demonstrate the many complex layers of her inner being.
"When she died leaving Ariel as her last book, she was caught in the act of revenge, in a voice that had been honed and practiced for years, latterly with the help of my father. Though he became a victim of it, ultimately he did not shy away from its mastery."
This is a lot of background to get to the point where I compare the two books, but at this point, it's pretty difficult to separate the circus around Plath's life and death from the actual work. Yet, on reading the original published version followed by the "restored" version, I can't help but think that Hughes was on the right track.
Hughes' version tells a long, frightening, visceral, blistering--and at times, kind, sad, loving--story of a woman on a devastating journey that, ultimately, leads to her death. But the language throughout is spectacular, the best of Plath's work, full of surprises and dead-on, unexpected images: "This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary." "The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat./The fat/Sacrifices its opacity..." "By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me./I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet." "Words dry and riderless,/The indefatigable hoof-taps./While/From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/Govern a life."
That last line is the closing of the book as Hughes originally published it, far from the happier ending of Plath's manuscript: "The bees are flying. They taste the spring." It's an abrupt ending, and an abrupt change--even most of the somewhat happy poems in the collection have a sad undercurrent to them.
For much of her writing life, Plath was obsessed with writing fiction for women's magazines, which in those days was highly formulaic and dependent on a happy ending. Her early poetry, while going deeper, had a staid, plodding quality to it, as she struggled to emulate the great poets. But even as her poetry began to break new territory (and let's not forget much of her later poetry was rejected by editors who had no idea what to do with it and were made uncomfortable by it), she still held onto some of that self-training and rigidity of expectations.
Ariel, as she wrote it, had moments of unrestrained bile, poems in which the anger eclipsed the art, and a forced happy ending. Ariel, as Hughes published it, is a tour de force of anger and misery, love and despair, fighting for life against the odds and ultimately failing, and a phenomenal use of language.
What makes for a more compelling read than that?