“Why did Virginia Woolf commit suicide?” asked American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) in a journal entry. “Or Sara Teasdale or the other brilliant women? Neurotic? Was their writing sublimation (oh, horrible word) of deep, basic desires? If only I knew.” Plath herself was a brilliant woman with a tested IQ in the genius range, and she too wrestled with sublimation of deep, basic desires. She further possessed a highly-creative, hypersensitive, ambitious, and tragically-neurotic mind. Her drive to succeed as a poet became so intense, even at a relatively early age, that the setbacks and rejections that most writers experience could plunge her into suicidal depression.
In a writing course at Smith College in Massachusetts, visiting instructor W. H. Auden criticized her poetry for being too glib. Soon after, she failed to gain admittance to a summer writing class at Harvard. These rejections, combined with other deep neuroses, so distressed her that she attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. The pills rendered her unconscious, but she survived only because she took too many and ended up vomiting them. She spent the next five months in a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. Other suicide attempts followed over the years.
In June 1956 she married the British poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998) and bore him two children. Her poetry and short stories gained some notice during the late fifties and early sixties, but not enough to satisfy her nor to generate a satisfactory income. After her seven-year marriage to Hughes collapsed in 1962 when she discovered that he was having an affair, she quickly produced a series of “confessional” poems thought to be her best work, poems such as “Daddy,” “Tulips,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” and more than twenty others. Yet now having to care for two infant children, and with her earlier poems still receiving only lukewarm attention and her novel “The Bell Jar” slow to find a publisher, she sank into depression accompanied by wild mood swings. Friends noticed that she seemed to be losing touch with reality. She began withdrawing deeper into a world of inner torment dominated by thoughts of failure, rejection, and betrayal.
On February 11, 1963, at her London flat in Fitzroy Road, after putting her two children to bed, she placed some bread and milk in their room and opened the window. She then put wet towels under the closed bedroom door and taped up the crack around the doorjamb. Downstairs in the kitchen she taped up the door and window in a similar fashion, effectively sealing herself in. At about 4:30 a.m. she opened all taps on the stove, put her head far into the oven, and soon died of asphyxiation. She was 30 years old.
Ironically, the recognition she avidly sought, found her after death. A collection of her later poems, titled Ariel, edited by Ted Hughes and published in 1965, brought her fame. In 1981, with publication of her Collected Poems, edited and with an introduction by Hughes, she became the first writer to be awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for poetry. A further irony occurred when one of her children, fisheries biologist Nicholas Hughes (1962-2009), hanged himself at age 47. Like his mother, he had long suffered from depression.
Anne Sexton (1928-1974) and Sylvia Plath had been classmates, auditing a writing seminar conducted in 1960 by the poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977) at Boston University. After each class, the two women would get together and talk. “Often, very often,” recalled Sexton, “Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicides [suicide attempts]; at length, in detail, and in depth…. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb. Sucking on it! She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail…. We talked death and this was life for us, lasting in spite of us.”
Sexton tried leading a normal existence, marrying young and having children. She said, “I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.” As a result, she had to be hospitalized and placed under psychiatric care. Her psychiatrist encouraged her interest in writing poetry as a form of therapy, and she turned out to have a gift for it. She eventually published eighteen books of verse and won numerous prizes, including a Pulitzer in 1967. Some of her poems dealt frankly with her recurring depression, emotional breakdowns, and attraction to suicide. But writing only ameliorated her mental problems. It did not cure them.
She continued to battle mood swings, depression, anorexia, insomnia, uncontrollable rages, and suicidal urges. Finally, in 1974 at age 46, in the words of biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook, “Fresh glass of vodka in hand, Sexton let herself into the garage and closed the doors behind her. She climbed into the driver’s seat of her old red Cougar, bought in 1967…. She turned on the ignition and turned on the radio.”
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was a close friend and rival of Robert Lowell, who exerted such a strong influence on the “confessional” poetry of Plath, Sexton, and John Berryman. Jarrell, however, is not classed among the “confessional” poets. Although he did not experience combat himself, perhaps his best poems deal with World War Two. Most college English majors are familiar with “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner.”
Jarrell dreamed of becoming the most important poet of his generation. He got off to a promising start, eventually winning a grant in 1951 from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and winning the National Book Award for Poetry in 1961. He never got a Pulitzer, however, like his closest associates, and over time he saw himself outdistanced by Lowell and, to a lesser extent, John Berryman. He found little consolation in being regarded as a first-rate poetry teacher and critic.
As he neared the age of 50, with his creative energy declining, his despair increased. In January 1965 he deeply slashed the wrist and bend of his left arm. This resulted in his being admitted to the psychiatric ward of a private hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for manic depressive psychosis. There he also underwent skin grafts and physical therapy for nerve damage. Five months after being released, at about 7:30 one October evening, he took a walk along the side of a highway facing oncoming traffic. As biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes, “Dressed entirely in black and walking at night along a four-lane highway, he lunged into the path of a car.” The Chapel Hill Newspaper reported the following day, “Jarrell’s head struck the right side of the windshield, breaking a large hole in the glass, and threads of his dark clothing were imbedded in the pane on the side of the car.”
“Jarrell’s death hit me very hard,” wrote John Berryman (1914-1972) shortly after the event. “The record is very bad. Vachel Lindsay killed himself. Hart Crane killed himself, more important. Sara Teasdale—quite a good poet at the end, killed herself. Then Miss Plath recently.”
Jarrell and Berryman had been friends and rival poets, and Berryman well understood the close association of madness with the poets of his generation. “You ask me why my generation seems so screwed up?” he said. “It seems they have every right to be disturbed. The current American society would drive anybody out of his skull, anybody who is at all responsive.”
Berryman was another of the mid-twentieth century’s so-called “confessional” poets who was influenced by the teachings and poetry of Robert Lowell. (Lowell, by the way, did not take his own life, though he probably experienced more manic episodes than his friends and disciples who did kill themselves.) Berryman, like the others, battled serious emotional problems, and also like them, his neuroses became a key element in his best poetry. His 77 Dream Songs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. Berryman believed that great poetry came from great suffering, even madness. “Mostly you need ordeal,” he said. “My idea is this: The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him.”
A chain-smoker, alcoholic, and compulsive womanizer, he suffered emotional breakdowns and attempted suicide on several occasions. The first time was in 1931 at age 17 when he threw himself down on railroad tracks before an oncoming train and was pulled off at the last moment. Then in 1943, at a particularly low point in his life, he stepped out on a high ledge and threatened to jump.
He finally succeeded on January 7, 1972, when he got up on the railing of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He sat down on the railing, leaned forward, and fell about 100 feet onto the mud embankment of the Mississippi River, his body rolling down the embankment 15 or 20 feet. The death certificate stated that he died from “multiple traumatic injuries.”