The nose that twitches, the old
tolerable now as the nose on the face
Put up with until chagrin gives place
To a wry complaisance —
Dug in first as God’s spurs
To start the spirit out of the mud
It stabled in, long-used, became well loved
Bedfellows of the spirit’s debauch, fond masters.
The 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death has come and gone and I’ve done nothing to recognize it. It’s probably just as well. It’s rather morbid to celebrate the anniversary of a death, especially a suicide. But I thought it would be good to reflect a little on Plath’s poetry, looking particularly at “The Companionable Ills” and what it might say to those of us who struggle with chronic illness.
First, the poem…
The Apostle Paul, who struggles with a mysterious “thorn in the flesh” throughout his life, wrote of how he prayed repeatedly to be relieved of this ailment. Instead of being healed, he received the word from the Lord — “my grace is sufficient for you.” He finds a measure of peace to continue pressing forward.
The poet here, however, does not find peace in “old imperfections”, but comes to find them “tolerable”, familiar as the nose of her face. Over time, the distress of chagrin is replaced by a “wry complaisance”, or ironic acceptance. In spite of herself, she learns to live with it.
When illness first strikes us, we may, like the poet here perceive it as a painful stab from “God’s spurs”. While the Apostle Paul didn’t blame God for his “thorn in the flesh”, he did see it as a way to keep him spiritually humble. In essence, his illness was redeemed by the grace of God.
“The Companionable Ills” suggests, however, that chronic illness leads the poet to impurity, being in bed with the wicked intent of “the spirit’s debauch”. There is no peace or redemption to be found within the bounds of the poem.
So, what does this say to us?
On the one hand, “The Companionable Ills” is a very realistic perspective on chronic illness, particularly illness that effects the mind and the spirit as much as (or more than) the body. People with serious mental disorders: clinical depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and the like can easily give up and give in to their illness.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. By the grace of God, we can embrace the faith (like Paul). Faith may not produce physical healing. But faith does bring spiritual peace, in Christ. And Christ is a much better companion for us than our ills.