February 11, 2019
Dickinson and Plath: Gaining Perspective on the Double Edged Sword that is Mental Illness
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56 years ago today, the renowned poet Sylvia Plath took her life. In honor of the poet, the following article is an essay written for an English class semester that compares the works of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath to further understand how mental illness may have influenced their art.
Massachusetts born and raised, both Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath are remembered for their emotionally driven poetry, laced with themes of individual crisis, and adorned with beautiful imagery.
Although a century stands between both authors’ works, their parallels beg for literary analysis. In comparing Dickinson’s “I think I was enchanted”, where she details her brush with insanity as a mesmerizing nature walk, and Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”, where she depicts her inner strife as bleak and hopeless, new light is shed on the double edged sword that is mental illness. We also gain an understanding of what it is like to disconnect from reality and view the world through the lenses of both Dickinson and Plath’s altered perspectives.
Poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, author of well over 800 poems, was born at the homestead built by her grandfather in Massachusetts on December 10th, 1830. The majority of Dickinson’s work was written during what the author Sharon Leiter regards in her analysis of Dickinson’s bibliography as a seven year “flood of creativity” beginning in 1858 (2006). In her book Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, Paula Bennett describes Dickinson as “restless with many aspects of sentimental thinking” (59) conveying her emotions through nature-themed imagery.
After her death in 1866, her sister Lavinia Norcross “Vinnie” Dickinson was so enamored and captivated by Emily’s work she preserved all of it – from semi-final drafts to the scribbles and scrawls on the edges of newspapers (Leiter 2006).
October 27th, 1932 marks the start of Sylvia Plath’s short life. Born in Boston, MA to German immigrants, both of Plath’s parents were educators. Her father, a biology professor at Boston University, and her mother a high school teacher. By eight years old, Sylvia Plath had already published her first poem in the Boston Traveller.
Although her poems are heavy, brooding with intensity, angst, and bitterness, it is worth noting that her letters took on quite a different tone depending on with whom she was corresponding with.
During her review in “I am more myself in letters”: Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence Meg Schoerkes describes Plath’s letters to her mother are described as cheerful to an almost monotonous extent, which corresponds with the lengths at which Plath went to – in her own words – “pretend that I am alright and doing what I’ve always wanted.” to reassure her mother that “her slaving at work has been worthwhile.” (162).
Repressing her emotions except for in her writing, her workaholic nature, and the heartbreak of her husband’s infidelity ultimately drove her to take her own life on February 11th, 1963.
Although both “I think I was enchanted” and “Mad Girl’s Love Song” are personal accounts of similar strokes of mental illness, the poems take on very different tones.
In “I think I was enchanted”, Dickinson’s cheerful, borderline manic regard of her disconnect from reality gives her experience an air of appeal and desirability. The lines “The Bees- became as Butterflies- / The Butterflies- as Swans-” (9-10) “‘Twas a Divine Insanity- / The Danger to be Sane” (26-27) makes the reader feel as though being “sane” is more of an issue than disassociating from our oh-so very bleak reality.
On the other hand, Plath drives home the darker side of disassociation through repeating the lines “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” (1) and “(I think I made you up inside my head)” (3) at the end of each stanza. Furthermore, she describes her emotions as an “arbitrary blackness” that “gallops in:” (5) akin to the cataclysmic imagery of “God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade: / Exit seraphim and Satan’s men: / I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.” (10-12).
While Plath and Dickinson both recount feeling distant, stuck in their respective worlds spun by twisted perspectives, we come to understand that mental illness is a double edged sword. Disconnecting from the world around you may not always feel like the spirited nature walk Dickinson depicts, nor will it necessarily damn the sufferer to the drab and dreary tomb Plath has mummified her emotions in.
Even though their points of view could not be any more polar, both poems allow us to understand what it is like to view the world from an altered perspective.
The psychotic episode described in “I think I was Enchanted” leaves the reader longing to taste the unadulterated euphoria of “Giants – practicing / Titanic Opera-” (15-16). We also catch a glimpse of the world through Dickinson’s eyes.
Based upon psychiatrists Patricia Harrison and Carol McLeod’s further analysis of Dickinson’s letters, poems, and reclusive nature, in A Comparative Content Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s Letters,the psychiatrists speculate that she suffered from some sort of panic disorder that was possibly comorbid with agoraphobia (4-5).
In his research article, student Mitchell Jones claims that Dickinson’s fascination with death also indicates an underlying depressive disorder (2017).
Perhaps the potential panic disorder that drove her to recede from her social life encouraged her admiration of nature, as she rarely left her house towards the end of her life. It could also be inferred that her depressive mindset increased her appreciation for the world around her, as the outdoors seemed to be her main source of positivity.
Our other poet, Sylvia Plath, had a history of depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harming prior to seeking treatment in 1963. Her failure to get into a Harvard writing class at 20 is said to have sparked her initial suicidal behavior.
On top of her workaholic tendencies driving her mad, Plath also appeared to suffer from mood swings. Her cheerful and bubbly regard of friends, family, lovers, and peers clashed greatly with the disturbingly dark nature of her poems and journals. We see how this has shaped her take on the world in excerpts of her writing, highlighted by Brian Cooper during his research in Sylvia Plath and the Depression Continuum, such as, “no matter how enthusiastic you are, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room.” and “I look down into the warm, earthy world… and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass.” (2003).
Plath’s perspective is one laced with criticism, bitterness, and negative self reflection. As a result, “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and much of her other works open the reader’s eyes to a very macabre point of view.
Both poets transcribe their mood swings and depressive episodes disconnecting them from reality, giving the reader a taste of their altered perspectives.
Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath are both revered for using poetry as a canvas to freely paint with their emotions.
Dickinson accents the dark themes consistent throughout her poetry with beautiful imagery driven by metaphors and personification, especially in her poem “I think I was Enchanted”.
Plath, on the other hand, invites the reader to indulge in a taste of her bitterness and pessimism through her poetry. In “Mad Girl’s Love Song”, the poet stresses her heartache and scorn through repetition, imagery, and symbolism.
In comparing these poems side by side, we see how Dickinson and Plath’s parallel lives and mental states – regardless of the prognosis – shed light on the double edged sword that is mental illness.
Dickinson’s work gives the reader an understanding of how depression and seclusion may further your appreciation of life’s simplest beauties, such as nature. Plath’s work brings much needed attention to the darker side of mental illness, such as the taboos of suicidal tendencies.
Both “I think I was Enchanted” and “Mad Girl’s Love Song” invite the reader to view the world through the poets perspectives clearly altered by their respective histories with mood swings and depression. Although the points of views expressed in these poems could not stand on further ends of the spectrum, with Dickinson delighting in the delirium of insanity while Plath grows cold and aloof alongside her emotions, their similarities beg for literary analysis.