Sylvia Plath inspires us all in various and wonderful ways. She is in many respects a form of comfort to us, which is something that Esther Greenwood expresses in The Bell Jar, about a bath: "There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them. Whenever I'm sad I'm going to die, or so nervous I can't sleep, or in love with somebody I won't be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: 'I'll go take a hot bath.'" We read and remember Sylvia Plath for many reasons, many of them deeply personal and private. But we commemorate her, too, in very public ways, as Anna of the long-standing Tumblr Loving Sylvia Plath, has been tracking, in the form of tattoos. (Anna's on Instagram with it too, as SylviaPlathInk.)
The above bath quote is among Sylvia Plath's most famous. It often appears here and there and it is stripped of its context. But I think most people will know it is from her novel. Just the same is "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. // I am I am I am." The "I am I am I am" is twice in the novel, but less well realized, perhaps, is that it appeared originally in her poem "Suicide Off Egg Rock." The quotes appear everywhere: on shirts, underpants, other clothing, posters, blank journals, pins, etc.Amazon) for the first time in years and some of Plath's most famous quotes are in there. But yet when you see them on the Internet they are so completely removed from their original intention. And usually, also, from the date on which it was expressed. So I have selected nine to explore just as a way to remind us that these snippets are part of a larger text.
1. "Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted."
This quote comes from a letter Plath wrote to Eddie Cohen, circa 11 September 1950. It was within the first month or so of their correspondence. She was within a fortnight of going to Smith College, too. It is possible she was replying to Cohen's 8 September 1950 letter to her which is dominated by his thoughts on the negative things going on in the world; how all clocks are at one minute to twelve; the terror and fear in which people are living at the time about war, about murder, and other uncertainties.
2. "If they substituted the word 'Lust' for 'Love' in the popular songs it would come nearer the truth."
This is entry 27 in the journals, written circa September 1950. In the aforementioned letter from Cohen, he asks Plath if she heard popular songs such as "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" and "Show Me The Way To Get Out Of This World ('Cause That's Where Everything Is)". These songs do not have much to do with lust or love, but Cohen's prompts might have had an effect of Plath. She writes this after the phone rang and she spoke with a male. A few days days later she left for Smith.
3. "I desire the things that will destroy me in the end."
This is entry 63 in the journals, written circa 29-30 March 1951. Plath was in Wellesley at this time, about to go visit Marcia Brown in New Jersey and as well to visit New York City for the first time. On the 29th she went on a bike ride with Yale freshman Perry Norton. That evening she has "H. Somers" in her calendar, which she reveals in the previous entry was a "hen party". The journal entry 63 starts with writing about taking a quiet walk down the street at night that seems both recollections of a real walk but also a creative, fantasy stream-of-consciousness piece. There are seeds of fighting against expectations and society, something that would shine through loudly ten years later when she wrote The Bell Jar. In fact it was on this day, during the afternoon with Perry as related in entry 62, that he quoted his mother as saying "Girls look for infinite security; boys look for a mate. Both look for different things."
4. "I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between."
Sylvia Plath wrote the above in entry 70, circa April-May 1951. She was just back from her first spring vacation at Smith, had visited New York, and wrote notes on the experimental film by Dali. (See Dating Sylvia Plath's Journals for more info on the film. The entries following this one are poems.) Plath was in the early days of dating Richard Norton, too. The next entry is a poem, "Geography Lesson" written before a Botany exam. She had quizzes in that class on 12 and 19 April. It might be the later since her poem "April 18" appears a few entries earlier. She had seen Richard Norton the previous weekend, and at school had had an art meeting, studio club, and an English theme due on "The Imagery in Patterns", which is held by Lilly Library. Patterns was a 1921 book by Amy Lowell. (Plath got an A- on the paper.) This quote is another concept that appears in The Bell Jar in the scene where Esther says, "If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days."
5. "I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can't be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head...let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences."
This comes from the journal entry (188) written on 14 May 1953. Originally it was two, until I realized that the "let me live, love,..." was the end of the entry. A really powerful one, here. On the 14th of May Plath had science class, had bells duty in Lawrence House, work for an hour at Press Board and worked on a write-up for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. That evening she ushered for the play Ring Round the Moon (which was also the subject of her Gazette write-up). After the play she went for a walk and wrote one hell of a beautiful, philosophical journal entry. Other famous quotes, "Is anyone anywhere happy?" and "I want to love somebody because I want to be loved" are in here. She was sort of on the outs by this point with Myron Lotz. Richard Norton was a dead-end. She had recently, too, been wined and dined in New York by Ray Wunderlich. And at the same time while all this was happening, she was in preparation mode for the Mademoiselle Guest Editorship, which involved clothes buying, advance reading and interviews, and shifting around end-of-year exams. It was a chaotically busy time.
6. "And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
This June-July 1953 entry appears in the book as Appendix 5 and was titled by Plath, "Letter to an Over-grown, Over-protected, Scared, Spoiled Baby." Believe me, I thought about putting this, and her 1 October 1957 "Letter to a Demon" in The Letters of Sylvia Plath. I find myself thinking about this quote maybe more than others. It is so powerful, and was written about a month or so before her first suicide attempt. And when I think about it, sometimes I turn it around to "The worst enemy to self-doubt is creativity." Do you think it holds up with the same or similar meaning? After this quote Plath says, without saying it, the same life-choices conundrum that comes into play with the fig tree metaphor from The Bell Jar: "you are paralyzed: your whole body and spirit revolts against having to commit yourself to a particular roll, to a particular life which Might Not bring out the Best you have in you." Had Sylvia Plath died in August 1953, this would have been her final journal entry.
7. "Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing."
The above quote is from a letter to Richard Sassoon written on 11 December 1955, the day after her crazy, famous wild ride on Sam, commemorated later in "Whiteness I Remember." Sylvia Plath did not keep a journal from the summer of 1953 until she was a couple of months into her Fulbright to Newnham College. The first "journal" entries at that time were in fact excerpts from letters written to Richard Sassoon. Thank goodness she saved them. Part of the reason I decided to include them in the Letters of Sylvia Plath is that they are all we have at the moment from those letters to Sassoon; another was because they provide incredible context to her epistolary life in the weeks and months before and after meeting Ted Hughes. On the 11th of December, she slept until 12 noon, read "Berenice" (presumably by Poe), and began Christmas letters to her mother, brother, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. She and Sassoon were reconnecting after being separated for a spell with Plath and Cambridge and Sassoon in Paris. Actually, Sassoon had gone off in early July and he virtually disappears from Plath's life for many months with nary a mention of him anywhere. She certainly wasted little time in dating other men between that summer and November. Well, it is interesting, and the important thing I remember about this journal entry is that it was actually a letter.
8. "Kiss me and you will see how important I am."
Written the Sunday night before Ted Hughes' life changed for ever, Plath, in her 19 February 1956 journal entry, is actually writing about what insecurities people have. She recalls a conversation she had with Winthrop Means. The quote begins, "But everybody has exactly the same smiling frightened face, with the look that says: 'I'm important. If you only get to know me, you will see how important I am. Look into my eyes. Kiss me...'." Plath writes, significantly, after this, "I too want to be important. By being different." And she was in the process of doing this by stopping all of the activities she did in the first term at Newnham, and disassociating herself from so many people. She was, it turns out, getting herself perfectly ready for the following Saturday night as Ted Hughes certainly learned how important Sylvia Plath was.
9. "What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination."
Written on the day of the infamous Saint Botolph's Review party, 25 February 1956, Plath here perfectly expresses the major concern of a writer or any other sort of creative person. I think there is a connection between this sentiment and the "worst enemy to creativity" being "self-doubt." That day Plath, sick with a cold and enduring a period of depression, visited Dr. Davy, a psychiatrist, for the first time and had a "long-talk" according to her pocket calendar. She read in Racine and had dinner with Winthrop, Nathaniel Lamar, and Jane Baltzell before meeting Hamish and getting blitzed on booze & Hughes. She was in the doldrums about Richard Sassoon, and yearned for mature people to whom she could admire. Some of the language in the journal entry would be re-used shortly in a poem. "I listen always for footsteps coming up the stairs and hate them if they are not for me" appear in "Pursuit": "The panther's tread is on the stairs, / Coming up and up the stairs." The famous quote, "What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination", is the start of the last paragraph she would write before meeting her future husband.
Some of Plath's most famous quotes were written just prior to momentous events in her life. Is there perhaps some relation to her thoughts and her experiences and how they would culminate in even bigger happenings? I find reading the full context around these quotes, not pulled out of their sockets, if you will, so much more enriching. And coupled with other documents like her letters and calendars and even academic papers, brings so much more to me and therefore I get more out of my practice of reading Sylvia Plath.
If you benefited from this post or any content on the Sylvia Plath Info Blog, my website for Sylvia Plath (A celebration, this is), and @sylviaplathinfo on Twitter, then please consider sending me a tip via PayPal. Thank you for at least considering! All funds will be put towards my Sylvia Plath research.
All links accessed 20 September 2021.