Tragedy Restoration


“Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well,” wrote Sylvia Plath a few months before committing suicide in 1963. Four decades later, she continues to haunt us, with new books and movies about her proliferating each year. While a whole industry has sprung up to dissect her life (and death), correspondingly little has been written about her work. Ariel: The Restored Edition finally puts the focus back where it belongs—on Plath’s poetry. Fetishists of the author’s tragic end can still savor the foreword (by Plath’s daughter, Frieda), with its unwittingly juicy tidbits about Plath’s troubled marriage to Ted Hughes. (Plath’s mother, it seems, urged her to kick Hughes out for his affair with Assia Wevill, as Plath did; Hughes, far from abandoning his wife, had hoped to make up before her suicide.) Yet it’s the scholars and admirers of Plath’s actual work who’ll benefit most from this edition of her magnum opus, which presents Ariel for the first time in its original form, just as Plath intended.

Before her death, Plath left a typed manuscript titled Ariel on her desk, along with the 19 poems she’d written after completing it. But when Hughes published Ariel in Britain two years later, he disregarded Plath’s MS, both changing the order in which she’d arranged the poems and replacing 14 of them with 13 of his own selection. (In the 1966 U.S. edition, he replaced 12 pieces with 14 others.) The extent of his alterations was revealed in 1981, when, in the notes to Plath’s Collected Poems, Hughes printed the contents list from the Ariel manuscript. While some of his editorial decisions are understandable—pieces that caricatured friends and family were cut from the published Ariel—others seem dubious. As Frieda Hughes admits in her foreword, her father omitted poems that he “considered weaker,” adding substitutes from among the 19 late pieces (plus one much earlier poem). In his defense, she reports him saying, “I simply wanted to make it the best book I could.” Yet in doing so, he made it into a different book—a mistake The Restored Edition aims to remedy.

And remedy it does: Not only are all the poems present, in Plath’s original order, but there’s a wealth of supplementary material, including a facsimile of the Ariel manuscript bearing the author’s handwritten emendations. It’s long been obvious that Hughes’s Ariel paints a grimmer picture of Plath than her version; in manuscript, the collection opens with the word Love and ends on spring, following a trajectory toward hope and renewal. (Hughes’s sequence closes with the implacably bleak pieces Plath wrote in her last days—sample image: “A white skull,/Eaten by weedy greens.”) What’s newly apparent, thanks to The Restored Edition, are the significant changes Hughes (and probably others involved in the publishing process) made within the text.

The notes, compiled by David Semanki, list every disparity between the Ariel manuscript and the Collected Poems, until now the authoritative edition of Plath’s oeuvre—differences that look trivial at first, but which do matter. Some clearly stem from carelessness in transcription; handwritten dots, an editorial symbol meaning “don’t delete,” were rendered as ellipses (twice!). Worse are errors of sense, such as natural where Plath had typed unnatural. The vast majority of the alterations, though, affect Ariel‘s distinctive system of punctuation, with which Plath deliberately controlled the rhythms and cadences of her poetry. By accident or intent, punctuation marks were dropped or inserted willy-nilly. In the past, textual critics have observed that Plath removed numerous exclamation points from her drafts to give the poems a cooler, more detached tone. Yet as Semanki shows, over 20 such deletions were ignored in the published version of Ariel, making it sound more frenzied and hysterical than Plath ever wished.

Perhaps most fascinating, The Restored Edition reproduces the complete drafts of the poem “Ariel,” from Plath’s first handwritten scrawls—all hurried strike-throughs and marginal jottings—to her typed attempts at honing the piece into its final, exquisite form. Watching her creative process at work is a revelation, one previously available only to researchers in the Smith College archives. The next step must be to publish facsimile drafts of the rest of the poems. But in the meantime, The Restored Edition offers ample testament to Plath’s art and provides the definitive version of what she called “the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

Frieda Hughes, Jorie Graham, and others read from the complete Ariel on November 30. See the Short List.