Saturday, October 27, 2012

Author Birthday: Sylvia Plath

The Bull of Bendylaw

by Sylvia Plath

The black bull bellowed before the sea.
The sea, till that day orderly,
Hove up against Bendylaw.
The queen in the mulberry arbor stared
Stiff as a queen on a playing card.
The king fingered his beard.

A blue sea, four horny bull-feet,
A bull-snouted sea that wouldn't stay put,
Bucked at the garden gate.

Along box-lined walks in the florid sun
Toward the rowdy bellow and back again
The lords and ladies ran.

The great bronze gate began to crack,
The sea broke in at every crack,
Pellmell, blueblack.

The bull surged up, the bull surged down,
Not to be stayed by a daisy chain
Nor by any learned man.

O the king's tidy acre is under the sea,
And the royal rose in the bull's belly,
And the bull on the king's highway.

"The Bull of Bendylaw" by Sylvia Plath, from The Collected Poems. © Harper Perennial, 1981.

From today's Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of poet Sylvia Plath (books by this author), born in Boston (1932). She was an excellent student, and she went to Smith College with the help of a scholarship endowed by the writer Olive Higgins Prouty. One summer during college, she was chosen to be a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. She was only 20 years old, and she had already been published in Seventeen, Mademoiselle, The Christian Science Monitor, and other newspapers. Her summer started off well. She went to lots of parties and discovered that she loved vodka. But she was having trouble writing poetry and short stories, and she worried that she was a failure as a writer. Then she got notice that she had not been accepted for an advanced creative writing course at Harvard, taught by the writer Frank O'Connor. She was so depressed that she attempted suicide. Her benefactress, Olive Prouty, paid for her stay in a mental hospital and psychiatric care.

Plath returned to Smith and graduated with highest honors in 1955. She won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University, and there she met and married the poet Ted Hughes. In 1960, she gave birth to a daughter and published The Colossus, the only book of her poems to be published during her lifetime. It got minor reviews in various British publications. In 1961, she was excited to find an American publisher; she wrote: "After all the fiddlings and discouragements from the little publishers, it is an immense joy to have what I consider THE publisher accept my book for America with such enthusiasm. They 'sincerely doubt a better first volume will be published this year.'" And on the date of its publication in 1962, Plath wrote to her mother: "My book officially comes out in America today. Do clip and send any reviews you see, however bad. Criticism encourages me as much as praise." But The Colossus was even less noticed in America than in England; there were only a handful of reviews, many of them just a paragraph long.

Plath decided to write a novel based on her experience during the summer when she worked at Mademoiselle. She referred to the novel as "a pot-boiler" to family and friends, but she had high hopes for it. She won a fellowship to work on the novel, and the fellowship was connected to the publishers Harper and Row; but once she finished it, the editors there rejected it — they thought it was overwritten and immature. The Bell Jar was published in England in January of 1961 under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It got good reviews, but not great. A month later, Plath committed suicide.

Many people learned about Plath only after her death, reading her poems in obituaries and news stories. In the next couple of years, her poems appeared regularly in magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1965, a collection of poems called Ariel was published posthumously, and received major reviews in all the big papers and magazines. In Britain, Ariel sold 15,000 copies in its first 10 months, and Plath's popularity continued to rise. The Bell Jar was finally published in the United States and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for six months.

Sylvia Plath wrote: "Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."


  1. I'm collecting Bostonians, and I'm not sure I had realized she was born here. I remember being so taken as a teenager by her connection with Mademoiselle ... I used to look forward to the college issue long before I was in college.

    Hope you don't have too much trouble with the snowcane! Seems like we may be spared the very worst of it here, but I just got extra batteries for my Ipod speakers so I can "read" in the dark if necessary. :)

    1. Audrey - The Mademoiselle connection was always a big thing for me, too. Those were the days, lol! I went out to get batteries this morning, but it seems there are none to be had in the entire town... will head to Syracuse in the morning!

  2. A couple of years ago I listened to The Bell Jar through audio CD's. Forgot who the reader was. But it was very good. Saw the film (1979) too which I thought was quite well done. Thanks for this detailed bio of Plath, and for acknowledging her on her birthday.

    1. Arti - I have enjoyed Plath's poetry, but have yet to read The Bell Jar. It's on my Classics Club list, so I will get to it!

  3. I've not read any of her work, even though I do have The Bell Jar on my shelves. I just get so SAD when I hear about her, and see all that potential, but her spirit just couldn't withstand the disappointments I guess. It is such a waste of talent and a tragedy.

    1. Sandy - The Bell Jar is on my shelf, too! A couple of my daughters have read it and, since it's on my Classics Club list, I'll get to it before too much longer.

  4. "Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." - I love this.

    I really want to read her journals, letters etc. I do have them, but never got round to reading them. I still find her fascinating, even though I've moved past her poetry.

    1. o - I'm sure her journals would make for some fascinating reading. I'll get to them some day...

  5. I read the Bell Jar but have to admit to not caring for it. Regardless, it's so sad that she took her life.

    1. Staci - I've never read The Bell Jar, but I have my daughter's copy is waiting in my Classics Club pile!

  6. Such a sad ending to such a brilliant life. I need to read The Bell Jar. It has languished on my shelves forever!

    1. Kathleen - Mine, too! I'm planning to read The Bell Jar for the Classics club.

  7. The Bell Jar made me very sad, especially knowing that she ended her life soon after. Though I thought it was really good. The poem you shared above is beautiful. I found an old collection of hers a couple of years ago and found that I really like her poetry, too. That quote at the end, about writing, inspiring.

    1. Claire - I do enjoy Plath's poetry, but have yet to read The Bell Jar. It's on my list for The Classics Club.


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