Shadows of Sylvia

The other day I decided to visit a few bookshops in Cardiff in order to spend the money I won in the TLS Crossword competition. It seemed only right to use it that way. These days I seem to buying poetry books more often than anything else. I’m not sure what that means.

I treated myself to the collected poems of Derek Walcott, whose work I have never really looked at before. He hails from St Lucia in the West Indies, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. His poems are truly wonderful, full of allusions to classical history and mythology, but with a distinctive Caribbean flavour all his own.  Definitely money well spent.

One of the other books I bought was a collection of peoms by Sylvia Plath, called The Colossus. This is one of those smart editions from Faber & Faber that are just the right size to fit into your pocket for a long journey on train or plane. I have had Ariel for some time, and have been meaning to read more of her verse for a long time but somehow never got around to it.

The only two things that most people are likely to know about Sylvia Plath are (1) that she was married to another poet, Ted Hughes , and (2) that she killed herself in 1963 by putting her head in a gas oven. The manner of her death endowed her with a cult status, which was further amplified when the collection called Ariel was eventually published after her death. In fact The Colossus was the only collection of her poems that was published during her life.

Although it’s a very banal way to put it, Sylvia Plath led a troubled life. She had a history of mental illness and nervous breakdown. Her poems are mostly of a confessional nature, unsurprisingly bleak, but often searingly intense and shot through with vivid imagery.  It’s not exactly easy reading, but if it’s catharsis you’re looking for, go no further. She’s even good for a quote or two about astronomy. How’s this, for example, from the poem Years (which didn’t make it into the collection of poems I blogged about a while ago):

O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.

One of the things that spurred me on to read a bit more of Sylvia Plath was the news  that her son, Nicholas Hughes, had committed suicide at the age of 46; as a young boy he was asleep in bed when his mother had ended her own life. There was also a very moving story in yesterday’s Guardian by writer Jeremy Gavron, whose mother Hannah Gavron also took her own life, in circumstances very similar to Sylvia Plath, in 1965.

Of course there’s been a lot of rather morbid stuff written about whether Sylvia Plath was somehow responsible for the eventual death of her son, whether the propensity to suicide may be inherited, whether it was all Ted Hughes’ fault, and so on. I think all this tells us is that one person can never really understand another’s pain and the greater the pain, the greater the incomprehension also.

A few years ago when I was external examiner, I was on a train from Nottingham to Cambridge going to an examiners meeting at the University of Cambridge. I had a window seat near the front of the carriage on the right hand side. Just outside Peterborough, the train was on a curved stretch of track so I could see the line in front of us. There was a level crossing with the barriers down and cars waiting either side. I could see quite clearly a female figure standing in the middle of the crossing but as the train got closer to her she vanished from view, obscured by the train. I heard the train’s warning signal and, seconds later, the driver shouted out “Oh No..”.

There was a horrible thump and the train lurched as it travelled over something that had gone underneath. The gruesome sound of a human body being sliced apart by metal wheels is something I’ll never forget. The train came to a halt, and the driver opened the door to his compartment. Icould see that blood had sprayed over the driver’s window. The poor driver looked like a ghost. He said that when he sounded the alarm the lady had turned and walked along the track towards the train. She looked directly into his eyes as the train hit her.

Eventually, perhaps an hour later, transport police and an ambulance arrived at the scene and a replacement driver was brought to us; train drivers can never carry on after such an event.  Some even have to quit the job. A police chaplain came too. The police and ambulance people collected the remains, made measurements, interviewed various people who had seen what happened and declared it a suicide. We moved to the next station, March, and got off onto the platform, the front of the train quickly hidden from us by a large piece of white canvas.

There had been time for the transport policemen to talk to the passengers who were all, like me, rattled by the experience. They (the police) had been through this all before, they said. That particular level crossing was  a place people came to specifically for that reason. Nobody could say why there and not somewhere else. Apparently it’s the same on the London Underground. Some stations have many suicides of people jumping in front of trains, others virtually none. Who can say why.

Suicides are not as rare as you might think. In the United Kingdom each year about one person in ten thousand takes their own life; we’re actually quite a long way down the league table for suicide rates. Men are about three times as likely to do it as women. My cousin Gary did it about five years ago. There are several per week just at railway stations or on railway lines across the United Kingdom.

When I was told these facts I was completely shocked. It has never crossed my mind to take my own life, especially not in a way that seems designed to cause other people suffering too.  The time comes all too soon anyway.

This intriguing video features Sylvia Plath reading probably her most famous poem Lady Lazarus.

3 Responses to “Shadows of Sylvia”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I don’t think it’s *designed* to cause other people to suffer, but there often seems to be a need to make a statement by the action of suicide, often in front of witnesses, and train drivers take a disproportionate burden.

    In one sense we can never know somebody else’s pain, but plenty of people have survived genuine suicide attempts and spoken of what (so far as they are aware) drove them to it. I believe that external stress is a minor factor compared to internal stress, because plenty of people suffer similar external stresses to suicides whle remaining mentally healthy. The external stresses are then simply a ‘last straw’. The question is what causes such terrible internal stress. I have some speculations but I don’t think an astronomical blog is the place for them.

    For centuries the church regarded suicide as a serious sin, which I regret because there is no sanction against attempted suicides or their families in ancient Israel’s legal system, and believers hold that this system (in the Old Testament) is God-given. If your circumstances are so unbearable as to make you wish to give your life back to God, who is man to criticise?


    PS Ted Hughes’ mistress (and father of another of his children) also committed suicide.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Just to clarify a little: I think we can understand another’s physical pain much more than their emotional pain. I can certainly understand the wish of someone with a chronic painful illness to terminate their own suffering, although it’s a difficult thing when others are involved in the process because of the risk of coersion.

    People will probably think it’s morbid talking about death on a blog like this, but I’m not in the least bit afraid of death – I know I won’t be the first or last person to experience it when the time comes.

    I am, however, very frightened of pain.

    “Call no man happy until he knows the manner of his own death.”


  3. […] I mentioned Derek Walcott a week or so ago in post that turned into an item about Sylvia Plath and suicides. That wasn’t my original intention, but happened to be the way my mind went when I started to […]

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