In the early morning hours of Monday, February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath brought food and drink into the bedroom of her two sleeping young children. She opened a window in their room and attached a note with her doctor’s name and phone number to a baby carriage in the hallway. She then went into the kitchen and sealed it off with tape and wet towels. She turned on the gas and put her head into the oven.
It was a sad ending for a woman who had struggled for much of her life with mental illness. She was 30 years old. But with the critical and popular success of Ariel, the posthumously published collection of poems written during the last months of her life, Plath’s suicide became one of the most mythologized events in the history of 20th century letters. The grim event of 50 years ago is inextricably bound up with Plath’s legacy as a poet.
In recognition of that fact, we mark the anniversary with a recording Plath made at the BBC studios in December, 1962, of one of her most celebrated poems–one she had only recently written, called “Lady Lazarus.” The version Plath reads contains two lines that were cut from the published poem. (You can open the text in a new window to read while you listen.) “Lady Lazarus” is a disturbing poem, with imagery from the Holocaust grafted onto personal–one might say narcissistic–revelations of suicidal obsession. The sinister, malevolent tone is especially chilling when you hear it in Plath’s own voice:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
For more on Plath’s life and her complicated and contentious literary legacy, and to hear another of her readings, see our October 27, 2012 post, “For Sylvia Plath’s 80th Birthday, Hear Her Read ‘A Birthday Present.’”