“Even amidst fierce flames/ The golden lotus can be planted” — Sylvia Plath
The name Sylvia Plath has become synonymous with depression, madness, suicide, the Electra complex and many other negative terminologies. Worse still, she has been called the ex-wife of poet laureate Ted Hughes, which not only subordinates her voice but also undermines her contributions in the very same field. Plath was much more than these tags — she was the “golden lotus” amidst “fiery flames”.
A “blighted female genius”, Plath was a radical feminist in many ways. She revolutionised the role of “female poets” through the mode of confessional poetry. Dealing with moments of extreme individual experience, these poems established the female voice in the male-dominated field of literature, and society at large. This un-domestication triggered a dialogue about female sexuality, desires, trauma and so on, which were, until then, suppressed or treated as non-existent elements. With a not-so-average IQ of 160, she proved the myth of women’s lower intellect to be scientifically wrong. It was bold reasoning, that threatened all the baseless arguments and excuses that society created to control women.
While the theory of “genius often goes hand in hand with madness” is a crucial angle in Plath’s case, its all-engulfing nature is troublesome. Plath had a very intimate relationship with poetry and literature, a majority of which remains unexplored. The relatability of her poems has two significant effects on readers; it either inspires them or frightens them. The former comes from the acceptance of the situation, while the latter stems from denial.
Music among other forms of art has been deeply affected by the life and works of Plath. Lyricists have fallen back on Plath’s unique concepts time and again to produce songs that are either dedicated to her or are loosely based on the themes she dealt with in her poetry.
On the occasion of Plath’s 58th death anniversary, let’s revisit seven such songs that were inspired by the literary mastermind.
Songs inspired by Sylvia Plath:
‘Bell Jar’- The Bangles
‘Bell Jar’ featured in the 1988 album of the pop-rock girl band The Bangles called Everything. Written by the band’s drummer Debbi Peterson and lead guitarist Vicki Peterson, the song alluded to Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. “What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour—it’s a potboiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown…. I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar,” wrote Plath to her mother.
The protagonist of the novel Esther Greenwood reflected Plath’s overwhelming experience in the big city, where she felt that she was trapped in a bell jar, gasping for breath. The Bangles song sketches a similar character of a girl who feels lonely and alienated from her surroundings. Although she chooses “Living in a bell jar” secluded, she is soon suffocated and is determined to find ways to set herself free.
‘Colossus’ -Of Montreal
This Lousy with Sylvianbriar track by the indie rock band Of Montreal was released in 2013. The song refers to a poetry collection by Plath published in the year of 1960. In fact, it was the only volume of poems that Plath witnessed being published, as the rest were printed posthumously. Though the collection deals with diverse topics and has a no-nonsense air about them, the poem ‘The Colossus’ is rather emotional. A complex poem, it channels Plath’s sorrow after her father’s death through the image of a statue. Plath lost her father at the tender age of eight, an event that left a deep scar in her mind.
Of Montreal’s frontperson Kevin Barnes said of his own connection to Plath, “I had been reading a lot of her poetry when I was making this record, and she sort of haunted the album” during an interview with the Rolling Stone. The song is not exclusively about Plath’s father as the poem but refers to her family indirectly. The line “Baby, your family, they are just losers” sounds a bit personal, however. “It’s not really meant to be an insult. It’s more of an observation. When you have people who have loser relatives or loser parents, they have to come to terms with that” explained Barnes.
‘Crackle and Drag’ – Paul Westerberg
One of Plath’s last two poems before her death was ‘Crackle and Drag’, the other being ‘Edge’. Plath, a victim of depression and bipolar disorder, showed suicidal tendencies since her college days. Though she was saved from previous attempts, the last one proved fatal. Plath sealed her house and was found dead with her head in the oven, and her children still inside the house. The poem is laden with imagery of death, a foreshadowing of the gruesome event that was to follow.
Composed for the 2003 film Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, the song did not feature in the film. One of the greatest tracks of the American musician Paul Westerberg’s solo career, the song is a beautiful reflection on Plath’s life and suicide: “Now they’re zipping her up in a bag/ Can you hear her blacks crackle and drag.” The catchphrase refers to the static caused by long and “black” funeral curtains as they drag against the floor. There are two versions of this song; one is acoustic and another a heavy pop version. The original take is certainly our preference.
‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’- Carol Anne McGowan
Plath’s 1953 poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ was a personal favourite. She wrote it during her Smith College days and it was originally published in a New York-based women’s magazine named Mademoiselle. A villanelle, the most powerful line in the poem is the refrain “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead/ I think I made you up inside my head.” A poem about lost love, it also outlines the themes of schizophrenia. Though written long before she met her husband Ted Hughes, the struggles she faces on being lovelorn, echoes the same kind of emotions she felt when her relationship with Hughes went awry. Though there are a number of religious images and allusions, Plath destroys them in the last few stanzas, suggesting that religion was mostly useless to women and only had the interests and values of men in mind.
Hence Plath is vulnerable and radical at the same time. The song by Carol Anne McGowan is the only instance where the lyrics are taken directly from Plath’s poem. Set to a serene tune, McGowan’s delivery infuses a haunting, eerier quality to the song.
‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing’- Lana Del Ray
The American singer Lana Del Ray’s song ‘Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me To Have — But I Have It’ was released in 2019 as a single to promote her album Norman Fucking Rockwell! Originally titled ‘Sylvia Path’ the song is a tribute to the poet. Lana Del Ray called it a “fan track” in an Instagram premier.
The lyrics deals with family, religion, complex romantic relationships, alcohol addiction, the burden of fame and her “journey to sobriety.” Del Ray’s approach to the song is completely different from the other songs discussed in this article. Her stance within the music is much more personal as she relates to Plath and her struggles. Del Ray’s voice, coupled with a mild piano and elegiac tune creates a sombre mood.
‘Dance In The Dark’- Lady Gaga
The song is from Lady Gaga’s 2010 EP, The Fame Monster. The song talks about the intimate experience of two people in a bedroom. During her work with the Mac AIDS fund, Gaga came across many women who were conscious of their bodies. In her song, she thus featured a girl who is embarrassed about her body image and prefers to turn the lights off during sex. The song also draws inspiration from Gaga’s track called ‘The Sex Monster’. Through the song, Gaga extends her sympathy to these women showing that she understood their feelings and why they feel the way they do.
The song references Plath in a part, along with other artists such as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Princess Diana, Liberace and others who met a tragic end. “These lyrics are a way for me to talk about how I believe women and some men feel innately insecure about themselves all the time. It’s not sometimes, it’s not in adolescence, it’s always,” said Gaga during an interview.
‘Mathematics’- Little Boots
The English electro-pop singer and songwriter Victoria Hesketh, aka Little Boots, wrote this song along with Joe Goddard and Gregory Kurstin. Released in 2009, the song was inspired by Plath’s poem ‘Love Is a Parallax’. The poem suggests a relativist viewpoint as it reads “Perspective betrays with its dichotomy: train tracks always meet, not here, but only.”
Similarly, in Little Boot’s song, math is a metaphor for love. The lyrics talk about Leonardo Fibonacci, the Italian mathematician and the Samian philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras used music as an important organising tool in his society. As Aristotle quoted Pythagoras, “There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacings of the spheres.” The song advances along this line. The reference to Plath is prominent in the lines where Boots says “… yet love/ knows not of death nor calculus above/ the simple sum of heart plus heart” as if completing the sentence where Plath left off.