Mentor: Prof. Dr. Michelle Gadpaille
It was expected from a person as blazingly unique and strong willed as Sylvia Plath, to love as idiosyncratically and intensely as she lived. Something that was also just waiting to happen, was the transformation of Suzanne Verdal from a person to a muse in just one Leonard Cohen song. Women described in art are too often veiled in the notion of mystery, otherworldly aura, even if the art which describes them is written by themselves. But how do we find their identity under the carefully polished words? Is it even still there?
Throughout our lives we learn we cannot love a person and expect them to change. But we are also taught that love changes people. When we think of Sylvia Plath, we cannot avoid thinking about her suicide and her tragic love for Ted Hughes. The picture that is painted behind our eyelids is that of neurotic young woman, a troubled soul, a difficult human being. After reading some of her work, we soon realize that Sylvia Plath had that same picture of herself painted behind her closed eyes. The villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is an interesting breaking point in which the foundations of the poet’s own identity start to tremble. She loved so much, and got so little in return that she is no longer sure, if she is loving a real person or only a projection of her own fantasies and wishes. This does not seem new to the literary persona (for which it is safe to assume is the Plath herself, because she is known for her confessional poetry), as she describes darkness as arbitrary. A quick reading of the poem can classify this darkness as the night, or we can understand it as a reoccurring era of feeling disappointed and depressed, which is supported in Plath’s biography which includes many depressive episodes. It is easy to classify Plath as a poet who melancholic teenage girls go crazy for, but the experiences she described in her intricate ways are evergreen and relevant for anyone who has not given up on loving and living fully. Now we arrive at the most important question about the villanelle. Is classifying women who love intensely as “mad” justified, or should we point the finger to the loved men, who are unable to meet woman’s emotional needs? Sylvia Plath choosing the form of the villanelle for this poem is perfect because her ruminating thoughts about her own presumed madness are reflected in the refrain of the poem. Her thoughts become engraved in our minds. We start asking ourselves if she did in fact “make him up inside her head”. My best guess says no. We learn she does not expect much from this man. She wishes to be kissed, to be treated gently and for him to return to her. It really is the bare minimum for a romantic relationship. Let us think about what is expected of her. The poem being written in 1953 falls into a time era before the second-wave of feminism. We can presume that the men in Sylvia’s life would expect her to be a housewife, a mother, a so-called lady who is able to live as an educated career woman while also preserving the stereotypical femininity of the 50s. These are heavy social roles to carry, especially for an open-minded and forward-thinking woman such as Sylvia Plath. Sandra M. Gilbert in her work “A Fine, White Flying Myth: Confessions of a Plath Addict” writes:
Take an ambitious, intelligent, middle class young woman; impose the standard cultural expectations of niceness and beauty on her; don’t forget the fact that because she is an artist, she’s a bit mentally unstable to begin with; throw in some kids and a bad marriage for good measure; wait for the inevitable train wreck. (Gilbert 56)
Of course, at the time of Plath writing this poem she was not yet married, she had not yet even met Ted Hughes, but the point still stands. She probably already felt the pressure of society pressing down on her, the eyes of men expecting her to bend to their wishes, as all women do, even in their teenage years and early 20s. The question of the literary persona’s identity comes into play when we consider her cultural context. The feelings she is experiencing: the building of a person that might not be real, out of her longing, and the feeling of isolation are direct reflections of the subtle gaslighting imposed on her by the patriarchal society that ruined this young woman’s perception of love by making her believe that wanting completely normal interpersonal relationships that would enrich her and make her feel appreciated, is the sign of madness. The fact that she questions herself so thoroughly, repeating her suspicions at the end of almost every stanza lets us know that she has, to a certain point, internalized the subtle misogyny that was fed to her. She is not to blame. Young and impressionable women have done that before her and will do that for many years to come until the myth of an alpha male is dismantled.
To better understand this toxic dynamic, we can turn to long history of it reoccur in literature. The myth of an alpha male runs parallel with the myth of a mad woman. Edward Rochester and Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s narrator and her husband in the Yellow Wallpaper, Ophelia and Hamlet in Hamlet, Rebecca de Winter and Max de Winter in Rebecca or even the narrator of Taylor Swift’s Mad Woman (which I consider poetry) and the man in question, but I digress. Can anyone really pinpoint why these women were considered mad? Sure, some of them might have had some actual mental issues but I am sure that their husbands or lovers locking them up, denying them treatment, obsessively controlling them, abandoning them, leading them on or cheating on them did not help. These men of course are not considered mad for their mental manipulation and physical abuse, they are considered strong and troubled. They do not have to think about opening their eyes every day and feeling like their perception of reality as a whole has to be questioned on account of their normal human emotions. The fact is that the traits of an alpha male cannot let anyone in his presence to thrive or even develop. How can anyone stay sane next to a person who is unable to articulate emotions, have empathy, be vulnerable, admit their faults and change their opinion if proven wrong? On top of all that society tends to encourage these traits in men, and has been encouraging them for centuries. This has been going on for so long, we might have collectively forgotten, that the alpha male is a term used for a pack leader in the animal world, in a world devoid of complex emotions, and should not be applied to men after the end of the prehistoric era, when their basic animal instincts really stopped serving any practical purpose.
However, this is not the only problem that women have to deal with in order to keep their identity, and more importantly; to trust they are worthy of one. I always viewed the concept of women as muses as problematic. There is a dark side to female muses that needs to be mentioned. When we examine a male artist that considered a woman his muse, we must understand that women are already in a subordinate position to men to begin with. When they become a muse the power dynamic becomes even more obvious and it does not favor the woman. She becomes a vessel from which a man draws his creative power. She effectively becomes an object. A muse can be flawed, she can be unconventional, she can be praised for exactly these characteristics, but she must always become a caricature of herself. There is this need for a muse to be something that can be put on a pedestal, she is after all a helper on the way of the creation of great art. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book “The Second Sex” that:
“Men made women the “Other” in the society by putting a false aura of “mystery” around them.” (Zupan 79).
This gave men the excuse to treat women as something other than human. Something that is so profoundly different to them that can only be evaluated through the means of praising or despising. Women became something to form an opinion about in the same way we form opinions on abstract concepts like love or freedom, instead of seeing women as a people. And what is taking a muse other than prescribing someone a false persona, so they can serve the purpose of art completely?
Leonard Cohen fell in love with Suzanne Verdal, a beautiful dancer from Montreal and wrote one of his most famous songs. Suzanne is this whimsical creature, so earthly and yet so ethereal, she is the ultimate muse. She stimulates the artists’ mind and his body, which creates a deadly combination that is needed firstly to fall in love and secondly to write about it. As a muse should not be, she is never conquered. She floats just a few metaphysical centimeters out of reach, just enough to feed the mystery. It is almost as if she is aware of her role and purpose in this man’s mind and she probably was. It is hard for a beautiful and a smart woman to be unaware of the effect she can have on an artist. Being a muse is also something many women strive for. It is like a badge of honor: you are enigmatic enough to be immortalized in art. If we get the title of a muse and we cannot be praised for what we are, we want to at least be praised for what someone thinks we can be. More than that, we start to believe the illusion. We can purposely feed into the fantasy, make ourselves mystifying, deciding to show some parts of our personality and hide others. It is a way of reclaiming the power that is being taken from us. It is a coping mechanism, a wall around our true identity and it can even be a euphoric experience. But a muse will never be human. We saw Zelda Fitzgerald sacrifice her talents and her copyright to be the perfect wife and muse to Scott Fitzgerald and we saw Suzanne become a name we attribute to Leonard Cohen, while most people will ask “who?” when hearing the mention of Suzanne Verdal. Suzanne is a symbol, she is the woman that became millions of women over time, when everyone who heard this song and adored it, thought of their own Suzanne, or thought of themselves being admired in the same way as she was.
Men will never get tired of muses or mad women. The two archetypes even blend perfectly. Mad women are the perfect muses. Cohen in “Suzanne” tells us that: “you know that she’s half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there” (Cohen 22). They are attracted to them like moths to a flame. It is the pull of something that is able to destroy you that is stronger than any stable and peaceful relationship. It is however not sustainable. The flame is beautiful, but for a man that needs to be burnt by it to feel alive, a muse is just a match that will be thrown away when she serves her purpose. It is the moment of being burnt out when the woman looks around her and questions how much of her true self was loved, how much of herself there is left, and if she did in fact make everything up? In this type of relationship both parties are delusional to some extent. The man is unable to perceive the woman as a being similar to himself, and the woman believes that he is able to do that. The woman presenting herself as a persona is not always the case with muses. Sometimes she is just the “mad girl” who shows everything she is because she is too authentic to compartmentalize parts of her personality. That alone is considered mad in most cases and usually also considered unlovable. Men who pin the “alpha male” title on their chest and men who repeatedly look for muses, are unable to truly love any complex woman, but they do want to use them for their own feeling of power, aliveness and for their creative pursuit. Either way, when playing this game, the only outcome for women is losing. Losing their true selves, losing their energy, losing their lovers. There is no happy ever after in this type of a relationship. Even when Sylvia Plath seemingly broke the curse, tamed the alpha man and presumably made him love his Mad Girl Muse, he grew tired of her when he realized that being fascinated by an unusual woman and being strong enough to love her are not the same thing. Suzanne Verdal and Leonard Cohen never became lovers. The spell was too fragile to withstand something so earthly as a human touch.
We can clearly see that the prevailing theme of both of these works is love, but love that is unreachable, unrealized to its full potential. Romanticized, but not romantic love, love that is being questioned over and over. The main thing that holds this love afloat is the inability of it ever being long term. Suzanne does not exist outside of her pier. She is frozen in time because only nostalgia mixed with love can make people absolutely perfect. The Mad Girl’s lover is her big “might have been” and her whole perception of herself and her world view is being shattered because of it, while he is unbothered and decided to never return. Both of these women are defined by men. We feel the male gaze expressed through the Mad Girl who is starting to internalize it, and we are aware that we are only seeing Suzanne through Cohens eyes. These two women, nevertheless, existed as independent entities, as people who were neither completely mad nor completely perfect, as people who could probably saw their lovers for exactly what they were and would love them for it if given the chance. The true identity of muses and mad women lies somewhere in between these faux extremes that leave no place for a nuanced existence. Somewhere beyond the men, who were unable to cope with them long term, and who justified their exploitative actions with grazing their cheeks or longingly staring into their eyes while probably saying something cliché along the lines of them always having Paris.
Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne” Sodobni angleški literarni tokovi (Modern Developments in English Literature) 2020-2021: Script of Readings, edited by Michelle Gadpaille and Tomaž Onič. University of Maribor, 2020.
Gilbert, Sandra. “A Fine, White Flying Myth: Confessions of a Plath Addict”. The Massachusetts Review, 1978.
Plath, Sylvia, Mad Girl’s Love Song. Mademoiselle, 1953.
Zupan, Katherine. Philosophy for Breakfast. Flying Finish Press, 2012.
Sara Nuša Golob Grabner
Sara Nuša Golob Grabner (1994) živi in ustvarja v Mariboru, kjer študira umetnostno zgodovino in angleško književnost ter jezik. Deluje kot fotografinja, pesnica, pisateljica, urednica in umetnostna zgodovinarka.