Sylvia Plath: Journals

(3937 words)
  • Anna Jackson (Victoria University of Wellington)

Sylvia Plath’s journal writings were first published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath in 1982, almost twenty years after the publication of Ariel, the poetry collection which made her name. In his introduction to this volume Ted Hughes, who edited the journals with Frances McCullough, presents them very much as the writing of the Ariel poet. In particular he emphasises the authenticity of the “self” presented in these journals:

Ariel and the associated later poems give us the voice of that self. They are the proof that it arrived. All her other writings, except these journals, are the waste product of its gestation…
A real self, as we know, is a rare thing. The direct speech of a real self is rarer still… When a real self finds language, and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event – as Ariel was. (Journals, 1982, xiv)

Many readers of the 1982 edition, however, felt that their access to “the direct speech of [Plath’s] real self” was marred by the amount of editorial intervention, particularly the cuts made to the text which reduced it to approximately one third of the original manuscript material. Reviewing The Journals shortly after its publication, Marni Jackson wrote, “What are really annoying are the long editorial shadows that fall over these pages” (Wagner, 305); more dramatically, Peter Davidson declared that the ellipses that indicate omissions “stud the text like angry scars” (Davidson), while Stephen Gould Axelrod called the editing a “scandal” (Wagner, 315). Most scandalous was the revelation in the introduction to the Journals that Hughes had “lost” one of the two last journals Plath wrote, and destroyed the other – “like a Jew in Nazi Germany” in Axelrod’s inflammatory terms (Wagner, 313) – so that no journal material exists for the period from late 1959 until her death in February 1963.

In 2000, a new edition of the diaries edited by Karen V. Kukil was published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 in the UK, and The Unexpurgated Journals of Sylvia Plath in the US. The two missing journals remain missing, but the omitted passages are restored along with sections from Plath’s journals that had been kept sealed from scholarship until Hughes made them available in 1998. Yet, almost twenty years after the initial outcry over the ellipses that seemed to so discredit the 1982 edition, the publication of this new edition was received as a less dazzling event than might have been expected. By now, much archival research had already been done to fill in the gaps left by the editing of the 1982 edition, most notably by Jacqueline Rose who had identified a consistent pattern of omissions of material relating to politics, sexuality, Plath’s own intense and frequent happiness, and her interest in and commitment to popular fiction and commercial publishing (The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, 1995). If, as Tim Kendall suggested in his review of the 2000 edition, readers would be “hoping for scandalous new revelations”, they were likely to be disappointed. In fact, many reviewers revelled in this disappointment. A Washington Post review summed the whole volume up as just another “thousand pages of Plath’s self-incriminating testimony”, while a Daily Telegraph review saw the new edition of the Journals as presenting once again the same image of Plath as a “tortured specimen preserved in her bell jar… forever young, forever anguished, forever betrayed by her man”. Even worse, according to a Times Literary Supplement editorial, its publication would no doubt set off another “Sylvia Plath week” in which “festivities dwell on her self-hatred and self-pity”, this being, according to the editorial, “the dominant tone” of the Journals.

There is, of course, far more to either edition of the Plath journals than such reviews suggest. Reviewers warned against mythologizing Plath from the first publication of Ariel, and even the TLS editorial repeats the warning that “the faithful won’t take any heed, of course” of any criticism of Plath. The dominant myth, however, has not been the romanticising myth the reviews warn of, but the popular culture myth of Plath as a victim of her own “forever anguished” personality, a myth consolidated by such reviews themselves. If the journals are read without a determination not to take any heed of anything outside this myth, however, they present a much more complex and interesting portrait of a life and a self, with considerable variations in tone from volume to volume, entry to entry, and even from paragraph to paragraph within the entry for a single day. The subject matter is equally rich in variety and interest, with entries on the “orange Japanese lanterns in [the neighbour’s] garden that used to crumple in your fingers with a dry, crinkling sound” (168), “the lyric abstrusities of Auden” (168), “mud, damp towards center, alive with the rustle and carapaced scuttle of green-black fiddler crabs” (296), “a dead black & white skunk with its four little feet crisped up” (366), “re-reading ‘Moby Dick’…whelmed and wondrous at the swimming Biblical & craggy Shakespearean cadences” (370), “an afternoon of drugged and agony-stitched sleep” (377), “my braided rug…the rich new blues and reds and red-and-black weaves I got with Shirley” (483), “a frigid grey morning, cold wet snivelling winds” (496), “reading Arthur Miller in Ted’s studio my footsoles scorching on the stove” (502), “a piece of pink-veined petrified rock” (503).

As these entries suggest, Plath’s writing in the journal shares with her poetry the emphasis on sensuous details and on the writer’s own physicality. A fever, an itchy eye, a headache, a “drugged and agony-stitched sleep”, will be described in as much fascinated detail as the description of the cut thumb in her poem “Cut” or the fever of “Fever 103º”. One passage often quoted in writing on Plath’s diaries describes in particularly luxuriant detail the pleasures of nose-picking. Other passages describe the physical sensations of sunbathing, cycling at night and listening in bed to the rain. The pleasure of writing about the rain is one she tries to resist: in one short entry she mentions the rain but determines not to give in to the temptation not to write a poem about it, remembering what it said on one rejection slip: “After a heavy rainfall, poems titled RAIN pour in from across the nation” (9). The diary provides an outlet that does not require censoring. Two years later, she describes herself “in bed, propped up comfortably by pillows – listening to it spurting and drenching – and all the different timbres of tone – and syncopation” (123). She goes on in a descriptive orgy, a good four hundred words long, starting with the present rain and then more briefly reminiscing about rain in other Augusts.

The difficulty for her of not writing about the rain reflects how important the setting, and its weather in particular, was for Plath in framing her entries. Often, especially in the earlier entries, she will begin an entry with a description of the setting and of herself in it, as if picturing herself as the writer she needs to be: “And so you sit on the porch outside your room, looking past the white patterned fence, like a stiff wooden ruffle, which stands up around the gray floorboards”, (67) she confidently opens one entry, in contrast to the perhaps better known passage beginning, “God, who am I? I sit in the library tonight, the lights glaring overhead, the fan whirring loudly. Girls, girls everywhere, reading books. Intent faces, flesh pink, white, yellow. And I sit here without identity: faceless…” (26). Throughout the diaries, Plath’s feelings seem to be particularly attuned to the weather: “A chill clear morning. Yesterday’s anger has clearer, finer edges now” (416); “A heavenly, clear, cool, Sunday, a clean calendar for the week ahead, and a magnificent sense of space, creative power, and virtue” (486); “Got up in time for breakfast at 8 and the mail came early as if to reward us. Warm blowy gray weather. Odd elation” (528).

The strong feelings that are reflected in the descriptions of the weather and in the descriptions too of porches and fences, other girls, “the deathly pink, yellow and pistachio colored cars shooting by like killer instruments” after a bad day’s writing (285), a “pile of baby octopuses, their long legs tangled and twined like a heap of slippery worms” observed on honeymoon in Spain (262), are equally apparent in the striking rhythms of the diary entries, the urgent use of punctuation and sentence fragment, the rhetorical power of repetition. Here, too, we might see the voice of the Ariel poet. The sing-song rhythms of repetition in poems like “The Applicant” – “It can sew, it can cook,/ It can talk, talk, talk… / Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” – can be found in passage after passage in the analysis journal Plath kept when seeing analyst Dr Beuscher in 1958-9. This is how she portrays her mother’s hopes for her, or demands on her: “Get a nice little, safe little, sweet little loving little imitation man who’ll give you babies and bread and a secure roof and a green lawn and money money money every month […] Be sure he’s nice nice nice” (431).

If the writing in the Journals is, as Hughes suggested in 1982, so much the writing of the Ariel poet, perhaps it is not surprising that so many reviews of the more complete edition of the journals published in 2000 should have found little that was revelatory about them. One thousand pages of “direct speech of a real self” might be expected to offer much the same as 350 pages of direct speech, and even much the same as the 80 pages of direct speech given in Ariel. Yet despite Hughes’s repeated dismissal of the importance of genre and literary form in Plath’s writing – the Ariel poems he described as “just like her, only permanent” – Plath herself wrote with an acute awareness of genre. She wrote stories aimed at the Saturday Evening Post or Mademoiselle, she modelled the voice of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar on Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, she divided her poems into “book poems” and “non-book poems”, and in one journal passage thought through what it meant to describe a poem as “a New Yorker poem”. This interest in genre informed even her private writing, her letters to her mother, for instance, playing with the formal conventions of letter-writing with constant variations in how she addresses her mother and how she signs her letters off. Given Plath’s interest in genre and form it would be surprising if her journal writing was really indistinguishable from her poetry, and of course this is not the case. There is plenty in the 1982 edition of the Journals that might come as a surprise to readers expecting nothing more than self-hatred and self-pity, but the more complete 2000 edition gives a much more complex idea again not only of Plath’s interests and concerns, but also of her accomplished and continually developing use of the diary form. Along with the archival material, this edition has been referred to extensively by scholars such as Tracy Brain, Deborah Nelson and Robin Peel who, like Jacqueline Rose, have turned the focus of Plath scholarship away from the Ariel poems as the “real self” and “direct speech” against which her other writing must be measured and discarded as “waste products” and towards a renewed understanding of the political and cultural context in which she wrote and a recognition of her prose writing as having a status equal to her poetry. What I want to turn attention to now is what the 2000 edition of the journals reveals about Plath’s use of the journal form.

The impression given by the small paperback 1982 edition was of ten years of consistent journal keeping, with gradual but barely perceptible changes in tone and style as Plath grew older. In the Smith College archives, however, where the original manuscripts are kept, the first thing that strikes a reader of Plath’s journals is the physical difference between different volumes, from the carefully structured, neatly handwritten, hard-cover bound journal she wrote in while at Smith college in 1950, and the typed out loose-leaf pages she collected in 1962. Any published edition cannot of course replicate the experience of reading such different types of manuscript material, but the 2000 edition does carefully distinguish between the different notebooks or volumes that Plath originally kept, and because Plath’s own practises of numbering, ordering and organising the entries are retained the reader of the 2000 edition has a much more accurate sense of the differences between each individual journal Plath kept. It becomes apparent that Plath was far more concerned with structure, even in the supposedly formless genre of the diary, than the 1982 edition of the Journals had suggested.  

Plath started keeping a diary as a schoolgirl, when her mother used to give her a diary every year for Christmas. These were dated diaries, and the formal demands must have suited Plath at first, for she filled in each page to the allotted space, often finishing an entry with tiny writing to fit it all in under the right date. But her request in 1945 for an undated journal shows her approach to the genre was becoming more sophisticated. In the diary she kept from 1950 to 1953 as a student of Smith College, in a hardcover volume with LAW printed on the spine, Plath extends the principle of keeping irregular length with a practice she initiates of numbering, rather than dating, entries. This allows her to write two or more distinct entries on the same day, distinguishing entries not by the date on which they were written but by individual writing sessions or by separate trains of thought. She may even have written two entries at one sitting, the separate numbers heading them making the point at which she feels she has followed through one train of thought, narrative or associations, and is beginning a new one. An entry will often have a distinct theme which Plath will present, expand on, and return to in closing, and the following entry or sequence of entries may expand on a point made in the preceding entry. Perhaps the hard covers and large foolscap pages of the LAW volume may have suggested the formal structure Plath gives these entries.

But Plath also often kept temporary diaries, usually in typescript, covering distinct periods and with each typescript diary having its own coherence as a text. Each diary, kept up for two months or so, is headed up on nearly every page with the date and, less consistently, the title of the diary – “Cambridge Diary”, or “Sketchbook of a Spanish Summer”, for example. Where the entries go on for more than a page, she usually writes the date on each page, sometimes following it “…con”. While these scripts do not have the permanence suggested by the bound LAW volume, Plath has still taken care to maintain the diary format, and the typescripts do have the completeness of small books, or chapters. Each has a distinctive style and focus. The “Sketchbook of a Spanish Summer” of 1956 is full of vividly realised sensual detail, with an extravagant use of the semi-colon to pile phrase upon phrase, detail upon detail. The analysis journal she kept in 1958-1959 is strikingly different in style and tone, with the rhetorical devices familiar from some of the late poetry – and some of the passages from the Smith college LAW volume journals. Here we find the rhetorical questions, the short, terse, often grammatically incomplete sentences, the exaggerated imagery, the underlinings and exclamation marks. The short paragraphs Plath uses in this journal add to the dramatic impact of the material she deals with, in contrast with the much longer and more structured entries typical of the Smith college journals, which often conclude by modifying the argument or mood. For instance, a passage in the Smith college journal listing the disillusionments of growing up is revealed at the end of the entry (omitted from the 1982 edition) to have been an extended an act of procrastination in the face of the exam study Plath should have been doing. Longer paragraphs appear again in Plath’s journal of August 1957 – 14 October 1958, the only one of the three journals kept in book-form after her marriage to Hughes not to have been lost or destroyed after her death. Here, however, the long paragraphs are quite unlike the structured, essay-like paragraphs of the Smith college journal. Instead, the length of these paragraphs allows for a relaxed movement in and out of analysis-style introspection, the accumulation of sensuous detail as in the travel sketchbooks, and ideas for stories or poetry to be placed alongside each other. Where the Smith college entries often concluded neatly with a retrospective re-contextualising of the material in the passage, the 1958 entries often end by looking forwards: thoughts of her mother are “a beacon of terrible warning” (422); work on a bird story is “a beginning of a new life” (423); having written on such subjects as a groundhog and landowners, she is “eager for others” (399). These entries are full of dashes, as Plath moves from thought to thought, detail to detail, and full of colons as one half of a sentence looks ahead to the next half. The colon suggests a forward-looking urgency even to the determination expressed in the following passage to slow down and savour the moment:

I catch up: each night, now, I must capture one taste, one touch, one vision from the ruck of the day’s garbage. How all this life would vanish, evaporate, if I didn’t clutch at it, cling to it, while I still remember some twinge or glory. Books & lessons surround me: hours of work…I shall ruminate like a cow: only that life end not before I am born: the windows jerk & sound in their frames. (328)

Perhaps the most distinctive of all Plath’s experiments with the diary form is the typed up notes on her neighbours that she kept in 1962. Whether or not Plath herself saw these notes as an experiment in diary keeping or simply as notes she might use for future works of fiction, they do represent an advance in the use of the diary form which is particularly interesting in terms of feminist theorising of the diary. Building on Mary Mason’s argument that a female tradition in autobiography is distinguished by “the real presence and recognition of another consciousness”, Judy Nolte Lensinck argues that the diary is the exemplary form for female autobiography, structured as it is around “relational cycles”. The “fragmentary, interrupted” form of the diary, with its structure built around the accumulation of individual entries, has likewise been described as feminine by many diary theorists. However, the diary form may resist “closure”, with its narrative not usually directed towards a predetermined ending, it does typically remain relentlessly linear, one dated entry following another. In her “Notes on Neighbours”, however, Plath has invented a new form of diary-keeping, which is not only structured around relationships with others and as piecemeal and fragmentary as the diary form always is, but also goes beyond the usual linearity of the diary by telling several overlapping stories independently of each other. For instance, from New Year’s day till May 7, 1962, Plath keeps a diary account of her relationship with the Tyrers, the warmth of her growing relationship with Marjorie and George tempered by her irritation over their daughter Nicola’s flirtation with Ted; meanwhile, she is also keeping a separate diary of her visits from the midwife, the longest and most detailed entries those describing the birth and surrounding events; while from February onwards she records her visits to neighbours Rose and Percy Key, right up to Percy’s funeral and Rose’s conversation, repeated to Plath, with the people who will buy their cottage from her. Characters who are central to one narrative appear briefly in another; the dramatic arc of Plath’s life as one narrative might represent it may be represented quite differently in another. All of Plath’s strengths as a writer are dramatically present in these vivid and emotionally moving accounts. In her description of the dying Percy Key, we see the extravagant confusion of metaphors that heightens the drama of many of her best poems:

Percy lay back on a heap of white pillows in his striped pyjamas, his face already passed from humanity, the nose a spiralling fleshless beak in the thin air, the chin fallen in a point from it, like an opposite pole, and the mouth like an inverted black heart stamped into the yellow flesh between, a great raucous breath coming and going there with great effort like an awful bird, caught, but about to depart. His eyes showed through partly open lids like dissolved soaps or a clotted pus. (672)

As vivid as her description of his physical distress, however, is her description of house in which he lay dying:

Tiny rooms, bright, modernish. The typical British wallpaper - - - a pale beige embossed with faintly sheened white roses, the effect of cream scum patterns on weak tea. Starchy white curtains, good for peeking from behind[…] Upstairs, a pink bathroom, floors all sealed with new lino, flounces and mirrors and chrome. A new cooker in the kitchen (the other hire purchase item), a cage of pistachio and pale-blue budgies creaking and whistling, up a step from the living room. (663-4)

Tim Kendall, reviewing the 2000 edition of the Journals, singles out the “Notes on Neighbours” as being “among the finest prose she ever wrote”, suggesting “the powerful novelist Plath might have become”. He is surely right in his conjecture. Luckily, while we cannot turn to the novels after The Bell Jar that Plath never went on to write, we can read her powerful prose in passage after passage of the Journals.

Works cited

All references to journal passages are to the 2000 edition, The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962, edited by Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)

Brain, Tracy, The Other Sylvia Plath (Harlow: Edinburgh Gate, 2001).
Davidson, Peter, “Sylvia Plath: Consumed by the Anxieties of Ambition”, The Washington Post, 18 Aril 1982.
Kendall, Tim, “Showing off to an Audience of One”, Times Literary Supplement (5 May 2000).
Nelson, Deborah, Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
Peel, Robin, Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics (London, New Jersey and Ontario: Associated University Presses, 2002).
Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago, 1991; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
Wagner, Linda, Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).

Jackson, Anna. "Journals". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 September 2011
[, accessed 30 May 2015.]