Sylvia Plath wrote some of her best poems in the months just before she killed herself. She was under enormous stress that winter, living alone with her two small children while her husband pursued another relationship. She had been clinically depressed for years and had attempted suicide before. In reading about her there seems to be a consensus that suicide was somehow an essential component of her being. Does her birth chart support this notion?
Apparently her husband, Ted Hughes, thought so. He had some exposure to mainstream astrology, as evidenced in this quote from a published letter to his sister:
Sylvia is born the 27th October, has Mars in 24 of Leo, and the last degree of Aquarius rising, with Saturn in 29 of ♑, on the cusp of the twelfth, which is suicidal, – especially opposite Mars in the 6th (via http://www.astro.com/astro-databank/Plath,_Sylvia; emphasis mine).
Let’s look at both of these testimonies he mentions, starting with Saturn. Plath's birth chart appears in the gallery below (October 27, 1932 in Boston, MA, 2:10 p.m. EST; 29.21 Aquarius Asc).
Saturn is Lord Ascendant and also rules houses 11 and 12. It is essentially strong in its own sign of Capricorn and will maintain that strength throughout Plath’s life. In fact, as the planet with the most essential dignity, Saturn is also the Lord of the Geniture. Because it joys in the 12th, Saturn has accidental dignity as well.
The 12th is the house of self-undoing--surely the reason Hughes cites this as testimony for suicide. But there are many positive qualities that a dignified Saturn here could signify, self-restraint being one possibility. We could argue that Saturn’s placement in the 12th is protective rather than harmful.
As for Saturn being opposite Mars, this is an outright error. Mars is indeed in the sixth house, the house opposite the 12th, but it is in Leo. Being in Leo Mars cannot aspect Saturn in Capricorn, as the two signs do not behold each other.
There is significance, however, in the mixed reception between Mars and Saturn. (As Hughes was working from modern ideas of astrology, he wouldn’t have known this.) Saturn (Lord Asc, ‘Me’) exalts Mars, which takes Saturn into detriment: Mars stuff harms Plath, bringing her down. Thinking of Mars as the natural ruler of anger, passion, and violence, this fits with what we know of her.
What other natal testimonies help us to understand Plath's depression and suicide? Some birth charts offer up easy and obvious testimonies, but hers doesn't seem to. There are no facile answers, but there are some things which, together, give us a picture of her inner turmoil.
Let's start with more on the receptions:
* The Moon exalts Saturn, which takes the Moon into detriment. These are both ‘Me’, showing mixed feelings about herself. The two also have conflicting priorities: the Moon hates Mars, which Saturn adores.
* Mercury and the Moon also disagree about Mars, with Mercury taking the Moon (by reception) into fall.
* The Moon and the Sun have negative mutual reception by fall, an expression of self-loathing.
* The Sun and Mars are in positive mutual reception from within fixed signs, reinforcing each other. As the Sun, Plath loves or is ruled by Mars stuff, which energizes her.
There’s a good bit of exalting and falling here, showing extremes. As for temperament, Plath is melancholic, with coldness predominating; there’s nothing much in the chart to warm her other than Mars.
What about fixed stars? There are many at play here, but this one is dominant: the Part of Love (20.39 Aries) is exactly conjunct Uranus (20.52 Aries) and Neptune (by antiscion, 9.36 Virgo/20.25 Aries), on the star Baten Kaitos in the constellation Cetus (the Sea Monster). Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The Part of Love, ‘super-Venus,’ signifies all the best stuff of life: ‘abundance squared’, as my teacher would say. Super-Venus is adjoined to Uranus, Venus’ own father. Saturn castrates Uranus, by which act Venus is born. Her love/abundance potential is therefore tied directly to the father principle—significant because she loses her own father when she is just 8 years old. (One of her most famous poems is titled “Daddy”!) Neptune, the Earth-shaker, adds emotional intensity. Baten Kaitos is the belly of the Sea Monster sent by Neptune to devour Andromeda. Together these create a dramatic picture of joy and attachment mixed with pain, confinement, and loss. This seems to fit with what we know of Plath and her work, doesn’t it?
Consider her own words, quoted from Plath's journals in this Poetry Foundation article about her (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/sylvia-plath):
It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.
It’s very likely that Plath suffered not from unipolar depression but from bipolar disorder, for which no effective treatment was yet available, as this article points out.
This leads to a discussion of oppositions in Plath’s chart. Two of these are the Moon (8.30 Libra) opposing Venus by antiscion (23.38 Virgo/6.22 Aries) and Venus (23.38 Virgo) opposing the Part of Spirit (25.00 Pisces). In each case, ‘Me’ is in direct conflict with Venus stuff--love, her own womanhood, or other women (her husband’s affair was a major stressor for the last two years of her life).
Finally, the Part of Necessity, ‘super-Mercury,’ falls on the fixed star Facies, in the Archer constellation (Sagittarius). Necessity is where the shoe pinches, the one choice that rules out all other choices. Facies is associated with blindness and death. Blindness seems relevant metaphorically in that a person who suicides has become unable to see any way forward except through death.
I wonder about the significance of Plath’s tight conjunction of the South Node and Jupiter in detriment. Jupiter is natal Lord 10, her vocation and public persona. Her work is forever seen in the light of her suicide, which this conjunction somehow seems to capture. The South Node afflicts an already ill-at-ease Jupiter by diminishing and limiting it.
In the next post I will talk about Plath’s unfolding charts at the time of her father’s death, a watershed event which seems to have triggered her depressive tendencies.
Photo credit: Sylvia Plath By Giovanni GiovannettiGrazia Neri (httpswww.flickr.comphotossynaes5110600085) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The photo appears again below.