Sylvia Plath Reads “Spinster” in a Rare BBC Recording
A subversive lamentation of how our compulsion for control empties life of love.
By Maria Popova
In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) entered several of her poems into an open call for submissions to the celebrated BBC series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. She kept trying. In the summer of 1960, exactly a decade after she had extolled writing as salvation for the soul in her beautiful letters to her mother, Plath finally made the cut — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast. She was soon invited as a regular guest. In the last two and a half years of her life, Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC, which are now collected in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the terrific archival treasure that gave us Plath’s thoughts on literature and life and her readings of “The Birthday Present,” “The Disquieting Muses,” and “Tulips.”
Among the poems she recorded for the BBC was “Spinster,” found in her Selected Poems (public library). Plath had written it in 1956 — the year of her steamy first encounter with the poet Ted Hughes, whom she would marry that same year and who would become the father of her children.
Plath intended the poem as a satire of obsessiveness and of how our compulsion for control limits our lives — the protagonist is a woman besotted with order who, as Plath explains in her BBC introduction, “would prefer, if she had the choice, a picture or a painting of the sea rather than the sea itself, because she finds motion, untidiness, and chaos too upsetting.” But there is something else the poem emanates, a sort of subversive elegy — at once a celebration of the buoyant autonomy of being single and a lamentation of the anguishing lonesomeness of feeling unworthy of love.
Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious April walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.
By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
Her gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower.
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.
How she longed for winter then! —
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock, each sentiment in border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.
But here — a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley —
A treason not to be borne. Let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.
And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.
Complement with Keats on the joy of singledom, then revisit Plath on privilege, free will, and what makes us who we are and how her formative job as a farm worker shaped her writing. For more beloved poets performing their work, see Billy Collins reading “Aristotle,” T.S. Eliot reading “Burnt Norton,” Lucille Clifton reading “won’t you celebrate with me,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” and Sarah Kay reading “The Paradox.”
Published April 27, 2016