Wilbur could not rescue Plath

Thanks to my daughter, who forwarded on this poem, about a meeting in which Richard Wilbur was recruited to encourage Sylvia Plath after a suicide attempt:

Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me.

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend Life,
of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love.

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Richard Wilbur

[The following note has been provided by Richard Wilbur:] “Edna Ward was Mrs. Herbert D. Ward, my wife’s mother. The poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was the daughter of one of Mrs. Ward’s Wellesley friends. The recollection is probably composite, but it is true in essentials.”

This vignette reminds me of a line from John Berryman, also in a poem (“Dreamsong 187”) that mentions Sylvia Plath:

It is a true error to marry with poets
or to be by them.

Which in turn reminds me that you don’t have to agree with the logical meaning of a poem or a line to find it haunting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.