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February 11, 2015

“Dying / Is an art, like everything else.”


“Lady Lazarus” is one of the best-known poems by the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.

It includes the oft-quoted lines:

       “Dying
        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 a call.”

This famous passage has a link to February 11th, but not because Plath wrote it on that date. She wrote the poem in October 1962.

The link is that on February 11, 1963 Plath turned art into reality by dying — at her own hand.

She stuck her head in the gas oven in her London flat and killed herself.

Plath had tried to commit suicide before but survived, a fact reflected in the dark humor of “Lady Lazarus.”

If you are a fan of Plath and her her poetry, you may know the story of why she was feeling suicidal again on that February day.

In 1956, after winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College in England. There she met the British poet Ted Hughes and married him the following year.

It was, as they say, a troubled marriage. And, Plath and Hughes could both be described as troubled people.

Hughes was a philanderer and (allegedly) abusive.

Plath suffered from periods of severe depression. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression and possibly bipolar disorder.

In September of 1962, Hughes abandoned Plath and their two young children, Nicholas and Frieda, to live with a beautiful German expatriate named Assia Wevill.

The anguish Plath felt inspired some of her best poems, including “Lady Lazarus.”

And, in January 1963, Plath’s highly-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was published (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), putting her on the verge of worldwide fame.

A month later, on February 11th, Plath killed herself.

Ted Hughes has been vilified ever since by feminists and many other people, though he also has his defenders.

Given her depression problems, Sylvia Plath might have committed suicide regardless of how Hughes treated her.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that in 1969, following six turbulent years with Hughes, Assia Wevill also committed suicide — after killing the daughter she and Hughes had together.

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