"Any writer, any artist, I'm sure is obsessed with death, a prerequisite for life."
- Anne Sexton
Is it true that all artists have an obsession with death? Events in the personal lives of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton contributed to their attitudes toward death which prevailed in their writings. Emily Dickinson led a very uneventful, eccentric, and reclusive life. Her isolation and her preoccupation with death led to the development of her romantic attitude toward it. Sylvia Plath was a gifted writer who suffered an extreme mental breakdown; this, in turn, led to an obsession with the theme of death in her poetry. Plath finally took her own life at the age of thirty-one. Similarly, Anne Sexton's eighteen- year career was abruptly ended by her suicide. Her poetry spoke with brutal honesty and painful intensity of what she knew about others, but could not understand in herself. Sexton's poems revealed a dark, unhappy world which was constantly overshadowed and even controlled by her desire to die. Seclusion, depression, an obsession with death, and even suicide were thus significant common factors in the lives of these three masterful poets.
Emily Dickinson spent years tending to her ill parents. Prior to their illness, Emily had been a student at Mount Holyoke for one year. Following the death of her parents, Emily continued her life as a recluse. Seldom leaving the confinement of her home, she became known as the Amherst legend: the woman in white, the eccentric recluse, and the half-cracked daughter of Squire Dickinson. The death of her parents, as well as the man she would have married, Charles Wadsworth, familiarized her with the anguish of losing loved ones. She wrote:
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
(pg. 46, Collected Works)
This poem begins by describing the poet's previous encounters with death. She then hints that those who part go to heaven, while those who are alive continue to live in Hell. In "My life closed twice," Emily Dickinson's attitude of familiarity toward death is revealed. Later, she developed an obsession with death. Emily's reclusive life had also fostered a depression which was evident in her poetry; no "happy," "contented" person could have had such insight and perception. It was obvious that thoughts of death were constantly on her mind:
To die -- takes just a little while --
They say it doesn't hurt --
It's only fainter -- by degrees--
And then -- it's out of sight --
A darker Ribbon -- for a day --
A crape upon the hat --
And then the pretty sunshine comes,
And helps us to forget.
The absent -- mystic -- creature --
That but for the love of us --
Had gone to sleep -- that soundest time --
Without the weariness.
(pg. 52 -- Collected Works)
These lines reveal Dickinson's obsessive attitude toward death. She believes that it will be painless; others will mourn her for a day or so, but as soon as the "pretty" sunshine rises, they will move on to new worries. She describes herself as the "absent -- mystic -- creature" that has finally gone to sleep, but will not experience the weariness one feels after waking up. Emily felt that dying would bring her peace, and she yearned for that everlasting sleep. She felt that life was intensely painful, and expressed the belief that living hurt more than dying in the first lines of one of her poems, saying:
'Tis not that Dying hurts us so --
'Tis living -- hurts us more --
(pg. 53 -- Collected Works)
Dickinson also had a tendency to refer to death as a lover:
If I may have it when it's dead
I will contented be;
If just as soon as breath is out
It shall belong to me.
Until they lock it in the grave,
'Tis bliss I cannot weight,
For though they lock thee in the grave,
Myself can hold the key.
Think of it, lover! I and thee
Permitted face to face to be;
After a life, a death we'll say, --
For death was that, and this is thee.
(pg. 154 -- Collected Works)
In order to achieve bliss, the poet believes that she will have to die; in the third stanza, she refers to death as a lover. Upon dying, she expected to come face-to-face with death, the "lover" who would finally bring her joy. It may be also be said that in a metaphorical sense, Emily believed that she was already dead; this is why she referred to her cottage as her grave in the following lines:
The grave my little cottage is
Where, keeping house for thee,
I make my parlor orderly,
And lay the marble tea,
For two divided, briefly,
A cycle it may be,
Till everlasting life unite
In strong society
(pg. 172, Collected Works)
Once again, death is referred to a companion in her cottage. She is maintaining the house for the time when death pays her a visit. Her attitude toward death appears to be very romantic, and death was often personified in her writing. Events in her life such as the death of her parents and Charles Wadsworth, in addition to her isolated and eccentric life, all contributed to her romantic, obsessive attitude toward death.
"Dying... is an art" ("Lady Lazarus")
Perhaps most people do not see dying as an art, but to Sylvia Plath, it was an aspect of art which she intended to master, and master it she did. Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath quickly advanced in the literary world, and published her first poem at the age of eight. Another critical event occurred at that age as well: the death of her father. As a result of her father's death, Sylvia was flooded with feelings of depression, scorn and thoughts of suicide, which generated her fixation with death. She wrote:
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you ,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two
I was ten when they buried you
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
This poem is a figurative drama about mourning, about the human impulse to keep a dead loved one alive in the emotions. At the time of her father's death, Sylvia saw him as a God. Not ready to be without a father, Plath was unable to let go of his memory. In order to get back to him, she felt as though she had to resurrect him and then kill him a second time. In real life, she first attempted suicide to reach him and then married a man who resembled him, all to no avail. The death of her father thus provoked Sylvia's obsession with death, and the poem "Daddy" plainly reflected that fact. One of Plath's most famous poems, "Lady Lazarus," further demonstrates her preoccupation with death:
I have done it again
One year in every ten
I manage it -
Here, Plath seems to be boasting about her previous encounters with death. The first death was her father's, which occurred when she was eight; the second encounter with death was her suicide attempt at age 19; finally, she successfully killed herself at the age of 31. Later in the poem, she revels in her suicide attempts (and possibly in anticipation of her actual suicide), saying:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've had a call.
Throughout these lines, Plath develops her "madwoman" persona. Extremely successful throughout her life, Sylvia believes that she can also die exceptionally well. She does not mean that she has literally died, of course, but rather that she has already killed herself in a figurative sense. Because she was not accustomed to enjoying normal, everyday life, this type of "virtual" death was all the more real to her; it was, paradoxically, the only thing she could do to make herself feel truly alive. Plath also expresses her sense of empowerment in this poem:
Out of the ashes
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
In these lines, Sylvia is essentially her female self and her immediate impulse is to rise like a flame from the ashes of a false life to consume the males. "Lady Lazarus" strongly reflected Sylvia's attitude towards death. In this poem, as in life, she talked about suicide in much the same tone that she used for any risky activity that pushed the normal limits: a
tone that was urgent, even fierce, yet altogether without self-pity. She seemed to view death as a physical challenge that she needed to overcome. She spoke of suicide with a wry detachment, and without any mention of the suffering or drama inherent in the act. Toward the end of her life, Sylvia began to write more and more insistently, as if she knew the end was drawing near.
I do not stir
The first makes a flower
The dew makes a star
The dead bell,
The dead bell.
Somebody's done for.
("Death & Co.")
All of Plath's early poems had insisted in different ways that she was able to overcome her pain; however, in this one, she was beyond anyone's reach. She was done for; the bell was tolling for her. Within the last few days of her life she wrote "Edge," which was specifically about the act that she was about to perform:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity...
This poem is one of great peace and resignation, as if she had accepted the logic of the life she had been leading and had come to terms with its terrible necessities. Illness, loneliness, depression and the demands of two small children were too much for her. Early Monday morning, February 11th, 1963, Sylvia Plath went down to her kitchen, sealed the doorways and windows as best she could with towels, opened the oven, laid her head in it, and turned on the gas. With her successful suicide, she marked her name in big block letters over the world of poetry.
Anne Sexton's life and work are an open wound of confession: confessions of love, regrets, desires and fears. Haunted by mental illness and personal torment, Sexton's poems speak openly of a dark and unhappy world. Anne spent most of her life battling mental illness, and much of her poetry reflects that. The intricate play of rhyming sounds and repetitive rhythms forms a structure for work that focuses primarily on deep introspection and unhappiness. Sexton's childhood had not been a happy one, as her father had abused her both physically and verbally; these events contributed to her depression. After she married, her husband began taking business trips and Anne could not cope with being alone. Eventually, at twenty-eight, she attempted suicide and was hospitalized. This event spawned both her writing and her preoccupation with death. Sexton became
avidly suicidal; death was always on her mind. She truly believed that there was an evil within her, and that the only way to be rid of it was to die:
When I tell the priest I am evil
he asks for a definition of the word.
Do you mean sin? he asks.
Sin, hell! I reply.
I've committed every one.
What I mean is evil
(not meaning to be, you understand,
just something I ate).
Evil is maybe lying to god,
Or better, lying to love.
The priest shakes his head.
He doesn't comprehend.
But the priest understands
when I tell him that I want to pour gasoline over my evil body
and light it,
He says "That's more like it!
That kind of evil!"
(Evil it seems comes in brands,
like soup or detergent.)
("Is it true")
These few stanzas clearly reveal Sexton's madness. She wanted to pour gasoline over herself and light it, thus killing herself by burning (as the Church once killed so-called witches). In its entirety, this poem masterfully reveals the poet's anguish. Sexton believed that her loss of faith contributed to her evil; this makes it all the more ironic that the poet is discussing suicide with an enthusiastic priest, when suicide itself is a sin. The primary events in the life of Anne Sexton which shaped her attitude toward death were mental illness and her eventual breakdown; it was the absence of her husband and the responsibility for her two children which triggered her suicidal tendencies.
How did it die?
I called it EVIL.
I said to it, your poems stink like vomit.
I didn't stay to hear the last sentence.
It died on the word EVIL.
I did it with my tongue.
The tongue, the Chinese say,
is like a sharp knife:
without drawing blood.
("The Dead Heart")
The title of this poem reveals that the poet feels dead. Without a heart, one can neither feel nor function. Once again, the notion of being evil is developed. She killed the heart by calling it evil, and next she must kill herself. As she continued to write, Anne met Sylvia Plath and they soon became friends. The two women and another writer, George Starbuck, were in the habit of going to the Ritz for drinks. While there, Anne and Sylvia would speak of past suicides. Anne wrote that:
"Often, very often, Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicides; at
length, in detail, and in depth between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all,
the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked about
death with burned up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric
lightbulb. Sucking on it!"
Anne and Sylvia glorified their suicide attempts and spoke of them with pride. Anne's statement that "Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem" is manifestly true. A suicide defies the laws of nature and development; it halts the life process. On the other hand, every poem is a fresh new beginning, a medium in which feelings, thoughts, and desires can be articulated. Anne asserted that speaking of death stimulated her and made her real, but she admitted that such a fascination with death sounded strange and sick, and that many people would never understand it. Another event which reignited a longing for death in Anne Sexton's case was the news of Sylvia Plath's suicide. This event led to Anne's poem "Wanting to Die":
Since you ask, most days I cannot remember
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage
Then the almost unnamable lust returns
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun
But suicides have a special language
Like carpenters they want to know which tools
They never ask why build.
Twice I have so simply declared myself
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.
In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.
I did not think of my body at needlepoint
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone
Suicides have already betrayed the body.
Still-born, they don't always die,
but dazzled, they can't forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.
To thrust all that life under your tongue!--
that all by itself becomes a passion,
Death's a sad bone; bruised you'd say,
and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.
Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped up moon!
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,
leaving the page of the book carelessly open
something unsaid, the phone off the hook,
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.
This poem fairly screams with Sexton's intense desire to die, as she admits to having an "unnamable lust" for death. She also discusses the "special language" of suicides, explaining that those who attempt it do not wonder about why they are doing it; instead, they want to know which tools or methods to use. The line "Suicides have already betrayed the body" is very insightful. The person who commits suicide is literally betraying their body. They are giving up their life, and in the process destroying the bodily organs which keep them alive, whether by means of a gunshot, drug overdose, or other means. Sexton's morbid fascination with death is evident throughout this piece. She describes death as "...a drug so sweet / that even children would look on and smile," and later in the poem she reinforces this complex image of sweetness, children, and naturalness by mentioning still-born babies, who are naturally dead before they are born. Anne also refers to death as having a feminine persona. In the eighth and ninth stanzas, she states that death is waiting for her, that is, waiting to free her from the prison of life. This poem generates in the reader both a feeling of somber depression and a simultaneous empathy for the poet. Interestingly, this revealing poem was written in response to Sylvia Plath's suicide. A year later, Anne wrote another poem entitled "Sylvia's Death." The middle stanzas of the poem reveal Anne's jealousy of the fact that Sylvia had completed a successful suicide:
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and then the quiet deed?
Sexton calls Plath a thief for "stealing" the death that she had wanted for so long. She describes the times they drank together and talked of old suicides. The "quiet deed" is obviously suicide. Later in the poem, Sexton reveals that death has always been a part of her; it has been hiding, waiting to come forward:
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides...
Anne Sexton's attitude towards death obviously went beyond fascination and into the realm of obsession. She both loved death and hated it. The need to commit suicide had been growing in her for years; for a while, she managed to battle it back through her poetry. Unfortunately, in 1974, the battle ended. She went, with a glass of vodka in her hands, into her garage, climbed into the driver's seat of her old red car, and turned on the ignition and radio. Anne Sexton would no longer be jealous of Sylvia Plath.
"We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women"
- Adrienne Rich
Clearly, Emily Dickinson was not actively suicidal in the manner of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, but the fact that she had a fascination with death that verged on obsession is apparent in her work. The three writers' similar attitudes toward death was unmistakably reflected in their poetry. Dickinson's "My life closed twice" and Plath's "Lady Lazarus" are obvious examples of each writer's fascination with the theme of death. Dickinson and Plath had both suffered almost unbearable pain when their dearest loved ones were taken from them by death. The death of Emily's parents, and the later death of Charles Wadsworth, were seminal events in Dickinson's life. The death of Otto Plath, Sylvia's father, was a very traumatic event for her, and led her to write "Daddy," one of her most well-known poems. Moreover, Dickinson, Plath and Sexton all shared an obsession with the inevitability of death, and each had the ability to powerfully articulate her feelings. Isolation played a prominent factor in the life of Dickinson, whereas mental illness was an issue in the lives of Plath and Sexton. For Anne Sexton, there was no single event in her life which shaped her attitude towards death; in her case, the causative factors were primarily growing up in a dysfunctional family and being very sick. Dickinson had never married, but the man she would have married had been carried off by death; this would seem to be an obvious cause of her poetic tendency to embrace death as a lover. On the other hand, Plath saw death by suicide as an act of power, and it was a constant theme in her poetry. Finally, Sexton was enthralled with death; in a very real sense, she saw her death as a greater achievement than her life. Ironically, if Plath and Sexton had not committed suicide, they would not have been as intriguing. Similarly, had Dickinson not lived as a recluse, she would not have been so fascinating. As noted above, Anne Sexton stated that artists needed to have an obsession with death as a prerequisite for life; while it cannot be proven that this is true for all artists, Sexton clearly spoke the truth of her own reality, and might well have spoken for Dickinson and Plath, as well. The poetry of these three disturbed yet engaging writers will never be forgotten, and neither will their obsession with death.