Al Alavrez’s painful memory of how he failed Sylvia Plath

Portrait of Sylvia Plath hanging in St Pancras Hospital. Picture: St Pancras Hospital

Portrait of Sylvia Plath hanging in St Pancras Hospital. Picture: St Pancras Hospital - Credit: St Pancras Hospital

Fifty year ago this week talented poet Plath took her own life in her Primrose Hill flat

In the last months of her life, the poet Sylvia Plath lived at 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, in a house formerly occupied by WB Yeats.

Her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes had collapsed when he left her for another woman, and she had a 10-month-old baby and a two-year-old toddler.

That winter was the coldest for a century, the pipes froze, the children were often ill, she had no phone and, as recorded in the last of Hughes’ Birthday Letters, she had to walk through the snow to make calls.

Small wonder that, plagued by insomnia, her recurring depression returned. But those months also saw a burst of creative energy. Rising at dawn to write before the children woke, she penned the 20-plus works that would secure her reputation when they were posthumously published as the Ariel poems.

According to her friend and mentor Al Alvarez, she “got in touch with her demons” which unlocked her creative genius.

During that awful winter, Sylvia turned to Alvarez for literary feedback.

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“She had been writing about this extreme stuff and there was nobody to hear. I was making critical sense of what she was doing. She came and read me those poems. She needed someone to respond when Ted was no longer available and I guess she trusted my judgment,” he said in 2007.

Alvarez’s own life was in a mess when he last saw Sylvia just before Christmas 1962. His marriage had failed earlier that year, and he was in a new relationship with Anne, now his second wife. Alarmed and frightened by her despair, he turned away from it.

“I failed her,” he later told Desert Island Discs. “I was 30 and stupid. What did I know about chronic clinical depression? She needed someone to take care of her and that was not something I could do.”

He said the sheer exuberance and quality of her poems blinded him to her precarious state.

“There was more liveliness and life in Plath writing about death than in the collected works of Philip Larkin writing about what a bitch it is to be alive.”

Two weeks before she died, he bumped into another newspaper literary editor, who had seen the final poems but returned them because they were “too extreme for my taste.”

Alvarez, however, did publish.

“The Observer was the only place that was publishing those late poems. They were hugely unexpected but emotionally violent,” he told the Ham&High.

At 4.30am on February 11, 1963 Plath left out bread and milk for her children, sealed the doors with wet cloths, then gassed herself in the oven. She was 30.