The Last Poem Sylvia Plath Wrote

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Feb. 11 2013 6:14 PM

The Last Poem Sylvia Plath Wrote

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Six days before she died, Sylvia Plath wrote two very different poems: “Balloons,” which evokes two children at play with inflated “oval soul-animals,” and “Edge,” which paints the image of a woman and two children in death. It is widely held that “Edge” is the last poem Plath ever wrote, though, as with many of the events of her final days, there is debate over sequence and intention.

Plath—a self-aware archivist concerned with the legacy of her papers, especially in the final months of her life—didn’t make it clear which poem she wrote last. In a journal entry, she notes that she submitted “Edge” and “Balloon,” along with a number of other poems, to The New Yorker on Feb. 4, though the handwritten drafts of the two poems are dated the following day.

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Ultimately it matters little whether “Edge” was Plath’s final poem, or just a very late one. Whenever it was written, “Edge” is about the very last of known experiences, about perfection achieved only after (and because) the subject’s brief candle has gone out. “The woman is perfected.,” it begins. “Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” Is this a reference to suicide? The significance of that “accomplishment” is evasive. But Plath seems to be hinting at an awareness of the way death certifies an artist’s memory, and tragedy can lead to recognition. It was likely not a coincidence that The New Yorker published seven of her poems in August 1963, a few months after Plath’s death.

As a teenager Plath often reflected upon death and its finality. “I don’t believe there is life after death in the literal sense,” she wrote in her journal in 1954. “I don’t believe my individual ego or spirit is unique and important enough to wake up after burial and soar to bliss … If we leave the body behind as we must, we are nothing.” But at the end of that same entry, an uncertainty appears: “Is that life after death—mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?” she asks. “Maybe. I do not know.”

“Edge” is an elusive poem. But if life after death really is “mind living on paper,” then Plath, certainly, is alive. You can read “Edge” in its entirely at the Guardian.

William Brennan is an associate editor at The Atlantic. His work has also appeared online at The New Yorker. You can follow him on Twitter.

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