Essay: Re-engaging Plath Through Her Pen-And-Ink Illustrations by Sneha Subramanian Kanta


“…and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more. . .” “…and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more. . .” – Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (July 1950 entry)

The prototype of Sylvia Plath quite straddles only a pointed framework in academia and otherwise. Often we realise – her work, seen through the lens that places it in the genre of ‘confessional’ poetics with an underlining of dark undertones through ink spilled over her life and literary skill, I aim to re-look at this simplistic analogy. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath mentions; “The challenge for her biographers has been to puzzle out the relationship not merely of her life to her art, but her art to her death.” (Gill. 3) There is only a select section of her poetry that is made popular, notwithstanding the semantic pitfall of the term, along with her tragic suicide in a London flat in 1963. More often than not, her suicide serves as an interlude to analysing and contextualising her work. Not known to many, Plath engaged with drawing as both; a form of expression and catharsis.


Withens, the setting of Wuthering Heights.

With my archival study, I aim to initiate a beginning into the need for re-examining Plath as an artist, primarily taking into account her pen-and-ink illustrations alongside her literary offerings. There are enthralling perspectives a more thorough foray into her artwork suggests, and I seek to recreate a newer leeway into approaching a study its myriad paradigms.

Cambridge: a view of gables and chimney-pots

It is intriguing to take note, at this point, “she chose to pursue a career in literature despite her passion and talent for art, yet continued to draw illustrations to accompany her writing for her own pleasure.” (The Telegraph) She used the simple pen-and-ink media to practice her illustrations. In a letter to her mother, Aurelia, dated March 1958 she observes; “I’ve discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of the primitives like Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Paul Klee, and De Chirico. I have got out piles of wonderful books from the Art Library (suggested by this fine Modern Art Course I’m auditing each week) and am overflowing with ideas and inspirations, as I’ve been bottling up a geyser for a year.” (Popova)


Plaster tenements, Benidorm, Spain

Plath found a deep source of inspiration from primitivism, which must explain her reason for utilising the form of succinctness for her exercise. There are resonances between her art form of poetry and illustration. “…her poems move towards a mode of surrealism, replacing narrative sequence with a series of hallucinatory images, in language marked by a new rhythmic and colloquial freedom.” (Gill 9) There is an immediate, intimate association that the illustrations of Plath bring – each of her drawings are an exemplar of intricateness and her own distinct, personal voice.


“I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”– Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

During her honeymoon with Hughes and other subsequent travels, Plath retreated to pen-and-ink, once again to take notes of her voyages. The observational technique overrides all else in the vibrant, talkative immediacies of her drawings. The antithetical element of a detached yet vividly personal memoir is largely present in her fascinating artwork.

Tabac opposite Palais de Justice, Paris

In the same vein as some of Plath’s lesser known pictorial poetry and “the conscious patterning” (Basnett 38) of rhythms and sounds, fused in personal experience, her drawings exhibit a more kaleidoscopic way of ‘seeing’ the world around us.  It is observed by critics about Plath’s poems, “The overall impression is of a slightly overdone painting, with just a little too much conscious ornament.” (Basnett 38)

benidorm ii
The Market, Benidorm

It is the experience of everyday that forms the clay for writing the immediate, of sensory and empirical perceptions. There is largesse in terms of the intermingling of the self-hood, in what it meant to be a woman, as expressed in Plath’s illustrations with predominant figures of the domestic sphere and daily life. There is a marked envelopment with still life that one can etch




in Plath’s pen-and-ink drawings. In the section titled ‘The Many Sylvia Plaths’ in Basnett’s book, she observes, “We lack a critical vocabulary precisely because our society lacks any definition of power which transforms rather than coerces.” (Basnett 5)

fruit plate
Fruit Plate

There is a surrealistic manifestation in the drawings of Plath – a closer study would emphasize on this mode of her engagement with art. In a letter to Ted Hughes, 1956, she writes, “My latest ambition [is] to make a sheaf of detailed stylized small drawings of plants, mail-boxes, little scenes, and send them to the New Yorker which is full of these black-and-white things —“(Popova) and “to stick in the middle of a story to break the continuous mat of print; they print everything from wastebaskets to city-street scenes.”

“I know a little about how much a simple thing like a snowfall can mean to a person.”- Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (July 1950-1953 archives)


 Cows in the Grandchester Meadows (drawn separately)

There is an intense articulation Plath derives in making sense of the world through nature and the abundance and varieties of natural resources around her. In the same letter as above, addressed to her husband, she writes, “Yesterday, right after lunch, I took my sketch-paper and strode out to the Grandchester Meadows where I sat in the tall grass amid cow dung and drew two cows; my first cows.”(Popova) She equates drawing as giving her more peace “more than prayer, walks, anything.”(Popova)

french cat
Curious French Cat

In re-imagining Plath’s place as an artist, her illustrations assume an important position. They are inextricably linked to the life of the woman that was, and continues to captivate long after, hitherto.


Sneha Subramanian Kanta

1. Gill, Jo. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS. 2006. ISBN 13-978-0-521-60685-1


3. Popova, Maria

4. Basnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath. MACMILLAN EDUCATION LTD, London. ISBN 0-333-36780-4. 1987.

5. Plath, Sylvia. Fiesta Melons. The Roguemont Press Exeter. 1971. (referenced through the University of Plymouth, Rare Books Room)6. Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Anchor Books. 2002. 978-0385720250


Sneha Subramanian Kanta is a GREAT scholarship awardee, with a second postgraduate degree in literature from England. Her poem ‘At Dusk With the Gods’ won the Alfaaz (Kalaage) prize. She is co-founder of Parentheses Journal, a venture that straddles hybrid genres across coasts and climes. Her work is forthcoming in VIATOR project, former cactus, Verdancies and elsewhere.

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