Sylvia Plath’s 10 Back to School Commandments (1953)

plath commandments

Before her lit­er­ary fame, her stormy rela­tion­ship with Ted Hugh­es and her crip­pling bat­tles with depres­sion, Sylvia Plath was an enthu­si­as­tic stu­dent at Smith Col­lege. “The world is split­ting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy water­mel­on,” she wrote to her moth­er. “If only I can work, work, work to jus­ti­fy all of my oppor­tu­ni­ties.”

Dur­ing her junior year, she broke her leg on a ski­ing trip in upstate New York. The acci­dent land­ed her briefly in the hos­pi­tal and she wound up with a cast on her leg. Her mood dark­ened.

Psych­ing her­self out for her return to col­lege, she wrote in her diary a pair of lists.

plath commandments

The first list is a short series of rules about how to behave around her new beau, Myron Lotz. All three points are good advice for any­one who is utter­ly smit­ten, par­tic­u­lar­ly num­ber two – “I will not throw myself at him phys­i­cal­ly.” In the end, Plath’s rela­tion­ship with Lotz didn’t amount to much. She report­ed­ly com­mem­o­rat­ed him with­in her poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” with the refrain “I think I made you up inside my head.”

The sec­ond list is a col­lec­tion of “Back to School Com­mand­ments.” These com­mand­ments includ­ed ask­ing her Eng­lish prof Robert Gorham Davis for an exten­sion; con­sult­ing with her Ger­man teacher Marie Schnieders (“Be calm,” she writes mys­te­ri­ous­ly, “even it is a mat­ter of life & death.”); and com­plet­ing her appli­ca­tion to be a guest edi­tor for Made­moi­selle mag­a­zine. (She nailed that last task.)

The list’s final com­mand­ment comes off bleak­er than the mild­ly pan­icky moti­va­tion­al tone of the rest of the list. “Atti­tude is every­thing: so KEEP CHEERFUL, even if you fail your sci­ence, your unit, get a hate­ful silence from Myron, no dates, no praise, no love, noth­ing. There is a cer­tain clin­i­cal sat­is­fac­tion in see­ing just how bad things can get.”

via The Excel­lent Lists of Note book

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Sylvia Plath Read Fif­teen Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in 1962 Record­ing

Sylvia Plath’s Poet­ry Becomes Exper­i­men­tal Cin­e­ma in 1991 Film Lady Lazarus

On 50th Anniver­sary of Sylvia Plath’s Death, Hear Her Read ‘Lady Lazarus’

Sylvia Plath Reads “Dad­dy”

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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