Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer prize for her collection of confessional poems posthumously, after she committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Throughout her life she was clinically depressed, always aware of death. Understanding her psyche is an undertaking for a psychiatrist, which I am not. But perhaps Astrological Psychology could throw some light on this dark subject.
What stands out in Plath’s chart is the plethora of planets on the YOU-side, like a tent blown to the right by a strong wind, held down by three pegs: Saturn, the North Node and Uranus. In childhood, she had a great need for others, especially for their praise.
Yet the North Node points her in the direction of asserting herself. With so many planets on the other side, the pull to do what is right for her must have been unbearable at times. Perhaps this is why she wrote confessional poetry, advancing the genre considerably. In her journals, which she kept from age eleven, and her poetry published posthumously, Plath could pour out her soul. The North Node is in Pisces, so Plath’s self-assertion was of a creative nature. She was still a child when her first poems were published. It was second nature to her to write poetry. She also showed promise as an artist winning an award in 1947 when she was fifteen.
Her North Node is opposed on the Encounter Axis by jovial Jupiter. She had many adventurous relationships, and eventually married Ted Hughes, also a poet. Although she mostly presented a pleasant amicability when with others, she looked at them with an ‘icy eye’. One can imagine the unease she must have felt when, despite all the planets on the YOU-side, she was often unable to relate to others as if she were in that bell jar – the title of her semi-autobiography. I found reading it quite disquieting, as if I, like her, couldn’t breathe freely in the confined space.
The second opposition between Saturn and Pluto on the Relationship Axis is probably what underlay her lifelong dislike of her mother. She would write loving letters, pretending that all was well, even when she was falling apart. Perhaps Saturn couldn’t endure the powerful impression Sylvia made on the social scene, thanks to Pluto in that area?
It is noteworthy that Ronald Hayman calls his biography The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath rather than the other way around. She certainly had a death wish throughout her life and finally made her wish come true. And with the Moon as her strongest ego planet, she must have felt everything intensely.
In addition to the two oppositions running through her core, her consciousness was opposed seven times by age 14. Towards the end of her life, Plath wrote in one of her prose pieces that her first nine years “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle.” Perhaps all the oppositions in her consciousness played a part in her sense of being cut off from life and the accompanying constant unease she experienced which led to clinical depressions and the first of several electroconvulsive treatments in 1953 after her first suicide attempt failed. It seems that her downward spiral was due to not meeting the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in New York and not being accepted for the Harvard writing seminar. She slashed her legs to see if she had the guts to commit suicide. She did. A few months later, she crawled into a dark, hidden space in the cellar of the house and took an overdose of her mother’s sleeping pills. She described her mindset at the time: she “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.”
The Earth in Plath
With a surplus of earth in her temperament Plath’s early poems already showed her typical imagery: personal and nature-based depictions featuring the moon, blood, hospitals, foetuses, and skulls, as well as landscapes. As her friend and fellow poet Alvarez points out: “…she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick—everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed.”
What made the Mercury in Plath so lethal? Why did Plath have such a strong and persistent death wish? Is it because Mercury is in Scorpio – that sign ruled by Pluto’s death and rebirth – aided and abetted by Plath’s Sun also in Scorpio? Is it because Mercury is involved in so many structures of her consciousness? It has no fewer than five aspects, playing a key role in most of the aspect figures in her chart: two Dominant Learning Triangles and one Small Talent Triangle. She was a highly intelligent student excelling academically at both Smith College in Boston and later at Cambridge University (through a Fulbright Scholarship). Her IQ was a mind-blowing 160. Yet although she performed well, it seems it wasn’t good enough for her. With her strong cardinal drive, she pushed herself to perform become even better, despite her ongoing anxiety. Where Mercury is in the 9th house of higher learning, the Sun is in the 8th house. Perhaps Plath believed she had to pay her dues to her father whose death darkened her mind throughout her short life.
Her Sense of Self-Worth
Born in Boston, Sylvia grew up in an academically oriented family. Her father, of German heritage, was an entomologist and a professor of biology at Boston University who wrote a book about bumblebees. With Pisces in the 1st house, Plath asserted herself creatively as a child already: she danced for her ailing father to get that pat on the head, often succeeding – she was his favourite child.
Then came the unexpected in the form of a Uranus conjunction in 1942 when she was eight. Her first poem was published in the children’s section of a Boston magazine, and her father died. Did she start feeling that she was good enough to be published, but not good enough to keep her father alive? Death started haunting her, as Alvarez states about the poems she wrote in her late twenties: “She seemed convinced (…) that the root of her suffering was the death of her father (..) who abandoned her, and who dragged her after him into death.”
With Uranus in the 2nd house, Plath had to innovate a sense of self-worth, one that didn’t depend on a man – initially her father – but what she could do well, as suggested by the Uranus/Mars trine: write poetry. It is understandable why, after her death, she became a goddess for the Feminists. It is also what Plath’s Venus at the apex of the Small Talent Triangle yearned for.
Feeling the need for more self-worth as a female, she could rush to Pluto in the 5th house to make a powerful impression on the social scene. On a mundane level, she certainly stood tall at 5ft 9 inches, and preferred her men even taller. On a higher level, Pluto trined Mercury, thus forming the base of her constantly developing talent. Then she would think, I am still not good enough, and long for further achievements in her self-worth. This Dominant Learning Triangle moves retrograde so that its lessons would have to be learnt again and again.
Her Uranus is fortunately also blessed – in the second Dominant Learning Triangle – direct this time – by a leonine Mars trine: her impressive work. Mars would fire up her Mercury, and vice versa. Periods of contentment didn’t last for long. Soon she would long for an even greater sense of self-worth. She kept on thinking and writing, hoping to avoid any future discord. Her journals from 1952 to 1962 make up a massive volume.
There is no doubt that the man she married, Ted Hughes, whom she met in Cambridge in 1956 when her age point was on the cusp of the 5th house, became her Mars in the flesh. She writes: “…he was “a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer” with “a voice like the thunder of God.” They wrote poems to each other and married in June of that year. The man she had wanted, finally appeared, as she wrote in Colossus: “Counting the red stars and those of plum-color/ The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue./My hours are married to shadow./No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel/On the blank stones of the landing.”
The couple travelled to Spain after their marriage in London and then returned to Boston. Plath taught at her alma mater, Smith College, but soon found that it did not leave her enough time to write. She then took a job as receptionist in the psychiatric unit of a hospital and attended creative writing courses in the evening presented by the poet Robert Lowell. She openly talked about her suicidal tendencies with him. Plath’s fellow confessional poet and friend Anne Sexton encouraged her to write from a more female perspective.
Late 1959 during the North Node trine, Plath and Hughes were at the Yaddo artist colony after travelling across Canada and the United States. It was here that she learned what gift the North Node in the first house was offering her: “to be true to my own weirdnesses”.
Sylvia and Ted then moved back to England. With her age point now in the area of creative self-expression, Plath gave birth in April 1960 to a daughter, Frieda, who would later become an artist and a writer. A few months later, her consciousness hit the low point of the 5th house. It was also when she published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus, filled with themes of death, redemption and rebirth. Her work would henceforth move into a more surreal landscape with a dark sense of imprisonment and looming death, overshadowed by her father. Was she pre-empting the encounter with Pluto the next year?
In 1961 as her age point encountered Pluto, she had a miscarriage. In a letter to her therapist, she claimed that Hughes had beaten her two days before this miscarriage and that he had wished she were dead. Yet Plath went on creating, now finishing her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and having a son, Devon Nicholas. But there would be more suffering and death. Pluto’s Scorpionic sting put an end to her marriage: Hughes had an affair with a beautiful woman, Assis Wevill, and Plath separated from him, not without a suicide attempt, this time by driving her car off the side of the road.
When her age point was on the cusp of the 6th house in 1962, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity. Most of her work, the poems which posthumously earned her a great reputation, was done at that point.
The Saturn opposition to Pluto in 1962 – the year before her death – came in the form of a mother who tried to block the publication of The Bell Jar. In a letter, Plath justified her book to her mother: “I think it will show how isolated a person feels when suffering from a breakdown. …. I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.”
But soon Plath was unravelling and fell into a depression “marked by constant agitation, suicidal thoughts and inability to cope with daily life.” Alone again and facing one of the coldest winters in London with her two often sick children, Plath fell into a fatal depression. She described her despair as an owl’s talons digging into her heart. She suffered from insomnia and lost 20 pounds. She finally put her head in a gas oven and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Plath’s gravestone bears an inscription of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, often quoted to her by Hughes: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” Plath grew as she suffered through Pluto’s refining fire; the one that can turn lead into gold.
Ariel’s Disappearing Act
Plath’s reputation is largely based on the poetry collection Ariel, 40 poems written in less than two months after the breakup of her marriage. They are poems of anger and despair, of love and vengeance. Says a critic: “Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme Her two most angry poems Daddy and Lady Lazarus fuse fear, love and hate with her self-identity.”
Feminists believed Plath was speaking up for them, as a “symbol of blighted female genius”. Some of them threatened to kill Hughes in Plath’s name, based on her poem The Jailor in which the speaker condemns her husband’s brutality. Writer Honor Moore sums up Plath’s search for self-worth: “Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified.” Here was also a woman who, like Ariel, that prankish spirit in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, could disappear at will.