When the Italian poet Amelia Rosselli took her life 33 years to the day that Sylvia Plath did the same, it was not her only tribute to the American writer, just her final one. Plath is often ranked second only to Emily Dickinson among American poets important to Italians—each was chosen by Mondadori for its prestigious Meridian series, Dickinson in 1997, Plath in 2002—and Rosselli translated many of Plath’s best poems. Perhaps her greatest contribution to Plath’s Italian appreciation was Rosselli’s fierce opposition to the “confessional” label, an argument she presented the 1980 article that is translated here for the first time.
Despite its Freudian title (perhaps an editor’s choice?) Rosselli’s “Instinct of Death, Instinct of Pleasure in Sylvia Plath” points out that the great majority of Plath’s poems treat subjects other than herself—some mystical, some domestic—but always contain the stark, sometimes chilling metaphors for which Plath is so well known. Though Rosselli warns against reducing the poet to a case study, she can’t resist accusing a capitalist society—“therapeutically ignorant and mechanistic”—for allowing Plath to die.
Rosselli would know. Like Plath, she sought relief from depression, emotional breakdowns, and paranoia in frequent hospitalizations. She, too, was given electroshock therapy, which left her with migraines. Each poet lost her father at a young age—Rosselli at 7, Plath at 8—and each violated what critics expected of a woman poet in the 1950s. Terms like “murderous” and “brutal” were used to describe their work, especially after their suicides.
Rosselli resisted the appropriation of Plath’s work by feminists, although she, like Plath, deliberately confronted gender barriers. No doubt Rosselli agreed with her fellow poet Armanda Guiducci, who wrote in Italian Women Poets (2002) that “when people speak of ‘women’s poetry’ they mean a sub-standard poetry, one that is unstructured or weak, pathetic, or sentimental. This roses and papier-maché poetry is normally compared unfavorably to ‘virile’ poetry, which we characterize as passionate, powerful, abstract, etc.” Is it this “virility” in Rosselli’s poems that awarded her the distinction of being the only female poet in Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo’s influential 1978 anthology Poeti italiani del Novecento?
Amelia Rosselli was born in 1930, two years earlier than Sylvia Plath, the daughter of Carlo Rosselli, a hero of the Italian Resistance during WWII, and Marion Cave, an English Quaker. When she was seven, Rosselli’s father and her uncle Nello were murdered by French fascists on Mussolini’s orders. Between 100,000-200,000 people attended their funeral. Amelia Rosselli’s life and work were marked by the traumas of her childhood and by her experience as a refugee and exile. When the Nazis invaded Paris, Marion fled with her children to London, and after the Blitz, to Larchmont, NY, where Amelia attended high school. Her mother’s death in 1949 drove Amelia into a severe depression compounded by the exoneration of her father’s and uncle’s assassins.?web/trang cá độ bóng đá hợp pháp For the rest of her life—in Florence, then Rome—she suffered psychologically and financially, afflictions that culminated with a leap from her loft apartment in 1996 at the age of 66.
Because political conflict had shaped her life, Rosselli adopted combat as a theme, titling one of her books War Variations, another The Libellula: Panegyric to Liberty (1958). But what distinguishes Rosselli’s poetry most is what Alessandro Baldacci calls “her orphan speech.” She aligns with no literary school and though she was active in the Communist Party after 1958, her poem “General Strike 1969” doesn’t use this triumph for women and workers to support revolution but to meditate on what “revolution” means to her.
In “Dialogue with the Dead,” Rosselli uses the language of war—massacre, battle, armed, street full of gas, rebel army, freedom, Pearl Harbor, airplanes that fire upon the crowd, horror of a bomb, and fortresses—but they are removed from their political contexts, the connection cut just as you might defuse a bomb. She rejects the rhetorical and the bombastic in favor of a private language that perhaps only she grasps. Rosselli called herself a “poeta della ricerca,” a poet of research in the philological sense. Her inventions of new words (stoppano), use of archaic words (egli), and dialect often caused critics to complain her poems were deliberately obscure and “imposseduta” (ungraspable, viz. Pier Paolo Pasolini). Her theme is combat, but if there is a war, it is with tradition and the false gods of religion and the state. Like Emily Dickinson, she is a “nobody” bereft of an audience.
Plath and Rosselli are both exiles from Contentment’s quiet Suburb. In fact, affliction has no home and that sense of impermanence is crucial to reading their work. It’s in this sense that Rosselli most resembles Plath (and Dickinson) a fierce stance on the margins the better to maintain artistic integrity. If they often write like hospital patients—many poems are written in hospital—it is without compassion for what ails them. They know death intimately, a guest who once visited and will again, who knows when?
Elizabeth Leake argues in After Words: Suicide and Authorship in Twentieth-Century Italy (2011) that an author’s suicide changes irrevocably how we read their work. Fascination with Rosselli exploded after her death. Plath’s mystique continues into its second half-century. Each poet has entered the literary canon, though Rosselli perhaps not as widely as Plath. As readers, we would do well to trust that which they left us, not a puzzle to solve or a psyche to dissect, but poems that match the trajectory of their splendid imaginations.
That, in fact, is the heart of Rosselli’s 1980 essay: a plea to appreciate Plath’s poetics as deliberate, crafted, and purposeful. She was prescient, anticipating a critical reassessment of the poet based on new access to her journals, letters, and manuscripts. Plath has become a model for young women writers, particularly to writers coping with mental illness. She clearly inspired Rosselli, who was one of the first to caution that, beyond biographical speculation or the mystique of suicide, it is the writing that survives.
by Amelia Rosselli?
translated by Lisa Mullenneaux
Rossana Rossanda, in her review of Lettere alla madre, published in 1979 by Guanda (Letters Home, Random House, 1975), imagined that the relationship between the poet Sylvia Plath and her mother was downright grim. It seemed to me then that Rossanda tended to politicize the matter to such an extent that she gave it a violently unliterary interpretation, skewed in part by a pseudofeminist and pseudo-psychological bias. Her article, published in “L’Espresso” November 4, 1979, was accompanied by beautiful and rare photographs, but it was misleading compared to the subject she tried ironically, if not cruelly, to analyse: that is, the mother-daughter relationship in post-war America. Her analysis was less misleading, however, if it’s understood in a socio-political sense. Except that this daughter was a brilliant poet, one of the best in this half century in a West troubled by “female crises,” and her mother was judged guilty, first for being American, then because there was a suicide (Plath, born in 1932 in Boston, took her own life in 1963 in London), and finally because mother and daughter showed their middle-class origins by wanting to fit in and aiming for success (as students, poor things!) in colleges, such as Smith in Massachusetts and Cambridge in England.
Who was Sylvia Plath? And who was her mother? Of the latter, Aurelia Schober, we know only that, born lower-middle-class, she had a passion for letters, but sacrificed her own ambitions in part to start a family with a Polish-German professor of biology and social psychology [sic], a meticulous observer of the life of the bees. If her daughter wrote 700 letters between the ages of 18 and 30, it was, as Aurelia Schober says, because “we could not afford long-distance telephone calls” and because Sylvia “loved to write”. Rossanda analyzed the forced optimism typical of Sylvia’s letters to her mother, written as many American girls do with the aim of boosting their widowed mothers’ morale, especially those letters written from age 20 – 24, but in a certain sense it is convenient for her to analyze the mother-daughter relationship only this way. She fails to mention that when Plath marries, the style of her letters becomes at times more peaceful and reflective, no longer dutifully cheery.
Plath should be studied not because she was a so-called typical American girl bent on success but prone to depressions and related attempts at suicide (also in fashion here in Europe), but instead for the self-defined scope and strangeness of her poetry, partly translated by Giovanni Giudici (Lady Lazarus e altre poesie, Mondadori, 1978).
Rossanda hits the nail on the head about Sylvia Plath’s unhappy-happy American youth (when the poet made an effort to hide her creative and artistic diversity in environments that little favored the eccentricity of her talent) but does not note that the semi-autobiographical novel by Plath (La campana di vetro, Mondadori, 1968; The Bell Jar, Heinemenn, 1963), written, sadly, for commercial reasons, was clearly repudiated by the poet herself, who warned her mother about it. Good for Aurelia—high school teacher, then secretary and shorthand typist—to seek after Sylvia’s death to remove it from circulation, not because, as Rossanda claims, it shows (in just one place) her daughter’s resentment toward her, but because the novel’s obviously commercial style and biographical sources contrast sharply with the high quality and enviable incisiveness of Plath’s poetry, even more amazing that her daughter would sell her talent for a few dollars in the hope of a bestseller.
In the whole novel there is only a single long sequence of psychological or literary worth, and it is the precise and honest description of a suicidal crisis, meditated in part unconsciously, by a 19-year-old girl during a hot summer in a boring little suburb of Boston. The rest, especially stylistically, is mediocre, but unfortunately, instead of studying deeply, even philologically, the stunning clarity of Plath’s four collections of poetry, it is fashionable in many countries to study her biography…. And it is also fashionable to dissect it for its feminist content, if only indirectly relevant to Plath’s poetic themes (it is her femininity that stands out rather in her semantic choices, the “practicality,” clinical and slightly chilling, of her metaphors).
Analyzing the four collections of Plath’s verses written between 1960 and 1962, it is obvious that the expedient classification usually given to her work—“confessional”—is unsuitable. Unfortunately, whether in the Mondadori editions, except the second volume (Le muse inquietanti e altre poesie, edited by Gabriella Morisco, translated by G. Morisco and A. Rosselli, 1985), or in other selected editions, or in more or less feminist magazines, the focus is on the two or three poems of about 50 in each collection, actually based on autobiographical elements. Plath’s most beautiful poems are instead those in which she transcends her self, and her petty “I”, domestic and troubled (studies, awards, career, husband, children, friends) disappears deliberately and by the author’s conscious choice in favor of far more urgent subjects and without the endless whining that has long plagued us both in supposedly rebellious youth poetry, stuck in its personal prison, and in certain vengefully feminist protests.
It was precisely her mother, Aurelia, who publicly opposed the exploitation of Sylvia’s poems by feminist movements in the United States after her death. Robert Lowell, the founding poet of the “confessional” style with whom Plath briefly studied, in his mature years moves beyond his former autobiographical bias for a more reflective and universal style (in this case, as well, following a move to Kent, England).
An issue that is constantly overlooked when investigating the causes of Plath’s tragic end is her perhaps excessively optimistic attempt to reconcile a full married life with creative activity, broadly understood. Plath was too convinced that family and artistic creation could coincide: she chose a mentor for companion rather than a husband, the now famous poet Ted Hughes. From my acquaintances in the London literary and university community, I learned that the failure of Plath’s marriage was caused, especially in its final phase, by an intolerable climate of competition that had slowly enveloped the two. Both her friend Alvarez (author of the book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, Random House, 1972) and Ted Hughes abandoned Plath, one in one way, the other in another, when she carried out a second suicide attempt.
Artistic research at the highest level of intensity, such as Plath’s, is in and of itself a mortal risk. Unfortunately, every artist knows this well from the beginning of her vocational experience, just as every woman knows that married life, housework, children, support for her husband (not of the same profession, if possible!) and economic independence can’t always coincide with the full realization of a creative vocation. We can study as much as we like Plath’s adolescence, letters, and biography without ever finding anything but double and deforming “mirrors”. Her verse speaks more clearly and is more honest. Let’s stop insisting on the poems titled “Daddy”, “Lady Lazarus”, “Lesbos”, “Edge”, “Death & Co.”, “Three Women” (a radio drama)—which are these days all chosen in a sort of late frenzy for the psychological, horrid, private, hidden cause—and remember instead that all of Plath’s best poems use titles that are poetically neutral or ambiguous such as “The Manor Garden”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Frog Autumn”, “Parliament Hill”, “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”, “Apprehensions,” “Mystic”, “Amnesiac,” “Thalidomide”, “Ariel”, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, “Little Fugue”. From the titles and their underlying themes alone, one would guess that Plath is mystical and at the same time concrete in her use of metaphors, as in her dry musical language, a worthy follower of Shelley and Keats, or of Blake and Dickinson….
If we really need to comment on Plath’s letters and life in a psycho-biographical sense, we can only add that it is certainly not her mother, Aurelia, who must be held accountable, as has been repeatedly done, for that inevitably successful suicide of 1963. We see this “inevitability” in the progressive hardening, like stone shards, of the last poems: as if Plath herself was aware of the need to solve her excess life by decanting and distilling it to its essence. Her early experiences with psychiatrists and 1953 electroshocks had frightened her even if not inflicting physiological damage (let’s hope). In London in 1963, a more authentic solution would have been more money and the will to replace the old and outdated psychiatric hospital with a psychologist. Let us not forget the fundamental (probably) unexplained problem that Plath lost her father when she was nine [sic: eight] years old, and never found a surrogate.
And so, to her badly or never resolved childhood problem is added the adolescent trauma of psychiatric hospitals and electroshock, a double trauma not resolvable through the “confessionalism” of those few but bitter poems of redeeming intent, which in fact diminish in quality and are “traces” of the trauma to be dealt with. A problem even less resolved by a novel written for commercial reasons. Thus, perhaps there is only one reading that can be gleaned from the letters and biography of a poet of such unusual talent: we can, by symbolically accusing “the mother,” accuse through her a society that is therapeutically ignorant, mechanistic, and, what is worse, reckless in its capitalist type of matriarchy: but that applies to Italy and England as well, where one would hope that in the 1990s social forces can save one in time, even from suicide and (to finally get to the point) from the excesses of critical attention.
 Those who actually killed and those who had commissioned the killing of the Rosselli brothers were exonerated by the Italian High Court in 1949. Critic Lucia Re writes: “For Amelia Rosselli, who as an adult continued to cherish her father’s memory and legacy,…this lack of any semblance of real justice was extremely troublesome and painful as well as a decisive factor in the development of her political awareness and her own vision of herself and of the events of her life.”
 This essay first appeared in Nuovi Argomenti, 43-46, May-August, 1980, and was reprinted in Poesia, Oct. 1991, 4?(44), 2-12. For Rosselli’s translations of 19 Plath poems see Amelia Rosselli: L’opera poetica, Ed. S. Giovannuzzi, Milano: Mondadori, 2012, 1161-1182.
Top Image: Amelia Rosselli
Lisa Mullenneaux's poems and essays have appeared in American Arts Quarterly, Stone Canoe, The Fourth River, the Tampa Review, the New England Review, and others. She teaches writing for the University of Maryland UC.