AN INTRODUCTION TO SYLVIA PLATH’S “ENNUI”
Few poets in the English language have been more widely read, or more wildly misinterpreted, than Sylvia Plath. Alternating waves of readers have seen her as a writer of courage, then as a figure of self-absorbed weakness. The meanings of her poetry and of her life too often have been evaluated solely in the light of her death. Some readers have even subscribed to the familiar notion that it was madness that drove her to create her most memorable work, madness that made it possible, a notion that is as anti-intellectual and antifeminist as it is inaccurate. No poet of the twentieth century worked harder to acquire the craft, skill, and knowledge necessary to create poetry, and the triumph of the later work can be fully appreciated only in light of those early efforts in educating herself and the ambitious writing program which she set for herself when she was young.
Sylvia Plath wrote “Ennui” during her undergraduate years and may have intended to publish it, as she placed her name and address at Smith College in the upper right-hand corner of the typed poem, a practice which she often followed with poems she considered good enough for submission to journals. However, she may have simply been identifying the poem for her teacher, Alfred Young Fisher, with whom she took a special studies course in poetry during the spring of her senior year in 1955. “It is difficult to realize how hard Plath worked to perfect her craft unless you read the poems written before 1956,” Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, wrote to us; “many of these poems, like ‘Ennui,’ deserve publication.” But the poem has remained unpublished, and we are grateful to the estate of Sylvia Plath for granting Blackbird first serial publication rights so that we might bring it to a wider audience. Plath’s original typescripts of her poem (including an earlier draft and the final finished version), which we’ve reproduced here photographically, are currently housed in the Sylvia Plath Archive of juvenilia in the Lilly Library at Indiana University under the label “Ennui (I).”
Anna Journey, Contributing Editor of Blackbird, discovered that this poem was unpublished, and brought it to the attention of our editorial staff, along with a number of additional reasons why it is a poem of interest. Her essay, “Dragon Goes to Bed with Princess: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Influence on Sylvia Plath” (forthcoming in Notes on Contemporary Literature), explores in detail how “Ennui” germinated from Plath’s creative response to The Great Gatsby, as evidenced by her handwritten notes in her personal copy of that novel (housed in the Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald at the University of South Carolina), as well as an essay Plath wrote on Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night . Fitzgerald’s lingering influence continued to produce echoes in Plath’s work, even in such a later poem as “Daddy,” whose last line may recall Dick Diver’s farewell to his dead father in Tender Is the Night. Plath’s broad range of allusions in “Ennui” also includes Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, “The Lady or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton, and “The Beast in the Jungle” by Henry James, as well as providing an indirect response to that “delicate monster,” Ennui, as it was famously described in “Au Lecteur” (“To the Reader”) by Charles Baudelaire, a poem whose sardonic tone matches Plath’s own.
In publishing Sylvia Plath’s “Ennui,” Blackbird wishes to recognize and celebrate the disciplined hard work she put into her early writing, work that made possible the astonishing achievement of her later poems, such as those in Ariel. Even in this early stage of her writing life, Plath exercised self-aware judgment. Another, entirely different poem titled “Ennui,” less polished and rather slight compared to the poem published in Blackbird, is also included in the archive at the Lilly Library and labeled as “Ennui (II),” but we’ve not reproduced that work here, as it seems Plath had wisely rejected the idea of publishing it herself. Encountering Plath’s youthful effort in the final version of her ironic sonnet “Ennui,” it is possible to read the “tea leaves” that foretell a poet’s future greatness and a fate that would bring her “arena crowds” of readers who would turn out to be anything but bored.