Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath


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Sylvia Plath was an American poet, short-story writer, and novelist. She also is known for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which details her struggle with depression.Early yearsSylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to middle-class parents. Her father died around the same time; she never fully recovered from the shock of losing him.Sylvia attended Wellesley High School, and was a straight-'A' student. She continued to write poems and short stories, and had achieved modest success by the time she entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950.A danger signalIn 1953, Sylvia Plath attempted suicide with sleeping pills after her junior year at college. In 1955, she graduated from Smith College summa cum laude. The same year, Plath won the Glascock Prize for her poem, Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea.Plath earned a Fullbright Scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England, where she continued to write, and publish some of her work in the student newspaper, Varsity. They were married in June 1956.Great promiseAfter Plath received her master of arts degree from Cambridge, they moved back to Massachusetts, where she taught at Smith College from 1957 to 1959. The couple then moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Plath attended seminars with poet Robert Lowell. When the couple discovered that she was expecting, they moved back to the United Kingdom.The couple settled in Court Green, North Tawton, a small market town in Mid Devonshire. It was there that Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus, in 1960. Their separation was mainly attributable to her mental illness and Ted's infidelities. The couple did not divorce.A wintry endWith the worst winter on record and the struggles Plath endured trying to support two small children, her depression returned worse than ever. She committed suicide in February 1963, just two weeks after The Bell Jar’s publication.Sylvia Plath's remains are buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire.Two years after Plath's death, Ariel, a collection of some of her last poems, was published. That was followed by Crossing the Water and Winter Trees in 1971. In 1981, The Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, was released, which made Sylvia Plath the first poet to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.


PLATH, Sylvia

(b. 27 October 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts d. 11 February 1963 in London, England), poet who achieved fame after her suicide with the 1965 publication of Ariel her life and works resonated with feminists who saw her as a victim of patriarchal culture.

As a child Plath lived in coastal Winthrop, Massachusetts she wrote of her enduring attraction to the geography of her youth in a 1963 essay, "Ocean 1212-W" (included in the 1977 prose collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams), in which her appreciation for the sea resides in part in its metaphoric potential: "like a deep woman, it hid a good deal, it had many faces, many delicate, terrible veils. it spoke of miracles and distances if it could court, it could also kill."

Plath's father, Otto Plath, had immigrated to the United States from Prussia in 1901 and received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1928, becoming a professor of biology at Boston University (BU). Plath's mother, Aurelia Schober, was Otto's student in an advanced German-language course at BU. They were married in 1932. After Otto Plath's death in 1940, eight-year-old Sylvia and her younger brother moved inland to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Aurelia Plath supported the family as a teacher of clerical skills.

The separation from her "seaside childhood" and the loss of her father are configured in Plath's later work with romantic emphasis: she was exiled from paradise. Those years, she states at the end of "Ocean 1212-W," "sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine white flying myth."

After distinguishing herself at Gamaliel Bradford High School, from which she graduated in 1950, Plath entered Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, on a scholarship. A perfectionist, her obsessive will to succeed—academically, socially, and creatively—is evident from her college journal entries. She had begun writing poetry at an early age, and revered the form and its modernist practitioners such as W. H. Auden. She aspired to be a serious poet but relentlessly pursued the writing of popular fiction as a legitimate way to support herself as a writer.

Plath had success publishing her short stories in women's magazines while at Smith work written to be salable, it gives little indication of her later distinction. In 1953 she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle in New York City. Tall, blonde, and attractive, Plath modeled as a teenager. As an intern she was photographed for the magazine, a seemingly natural projection of its smart, all-American-girl mien. The images belie the fact that Plath suffered frequent bouts of self-doubt and depression at this time after her return home she attempted suicide. The experience and her subsequent hospitalization in a psychiatric facility are recounted in the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963). In this work the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, looks at the limited options available to her as a woman in 1950s America and concludes, "The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from." Esther's psychic reintegration is largely effected in the novel through a throwing off of societal expectations one way she does this is by taking control of her reproductive capabilities through birth control. Writing in Life magazine (21 November 1971), Martha Duffy called the novel "a major text for women's liberation" that revealed Plath to be "a kind of naive prophet" whose instincts were demonstrably feminist.

After her recovery Plath returned to Smith and graduated with honors in 1955 with a B.A. in English. She then traveled to England and attended Cambridge University on a Fulbright Fellowship. There she met the poet Ted Hughes, whom she married in London on 16 June 1956. She returned with Hughes to Massachusetts, where she taught English at her alma mater in 1957–1958. During this time she attended Robert Lowell's poetry workshop in Boston. The economic boom in the postwar United States had yielded to individuals the pleasures and torments of individual preoccupation, and during the 1950s and 1960s mainstream poetry moved from the restrained and objective (the formalist) to the personal and subjective (the confessional). Lowell is considered to have launched the confessional school with his 1958 book Life Studies Plath's Ariel is perhaps the most famous text to issue from this school.

From 1959 Plath and Hughes lived in England they had a daughter in 1960 and a son in 1962. Plath's first book, The Colossus and Other Poems, was released in Great Britain in 1960. Her letters and journal entries from this time show her as frequently subordinating her own poetic ambitions to those of Hughes. In October 1962 Plath separated from Hughes and moved with their children to London the breakup was precipitated by Hughes's adultery. Most of the poems published posthumously in Ariel were written during Plath's estrangement from Hughes in the final months of her life, in a fever of productivity. "I am joyous … writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast.… Terrific stuff, as if domesticity had choked me," she wrote on 12 October 1962.

In her poetry Plath moved from the traditional verse forms that characterize The Colossus to free verse and a fuller, more idiosyncratic exploration of subject and an unleashing of a frequently dark emotional sensibility. Rage, rivalry, grief, and despair propel the poems in Ariel. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of the book, "so powerful is the art that one feels an unsettling elation as one reads the lacerating lines." The poems issue from a distinctly female condition the images presented are emanations of the predicaments and realities, as well as the emotional undercurrents, of Plath's life. They can be seen as partaking in the revolutionary ethos of the 1960s in their themes: the dismantling or abandonment of outmoded constructs the shedding of externally imposed constraints that limit the self the possibility—indeed, the necessity—of remaking and rebirth. The last lines of the title poem of Ariel are representative of the book's emotional thrust: "And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning."

Duality is a commonplace in Plath's work literary critics and biographers alike have explored the motif of psychic division that runs through her writings, the "true" self at variance with the "false." Such opposition becomes more than a literary conceit in Plath when one considers her in light of the women's movement, incipient in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Plath produced her mature work. Writing about the social and cultural milieu of the time, the author and activist Betty Friedan, in the introduction to The Feminine Mystique (1964), took note of the "strange discrepancy between the reality of [women's] lives and the image to which we were trying to conform." In her autobiographical works Plath would exemplify what Friedan referred to as the "schizophrenic split" in the female psyche of educated American women, the fault line underlying the conventional gender role.

The image of the father is primary in Plath's work, as suggested by the title of her most anthologized poem, "Daddy." The paternal image takes on historical and spiritual dimensions in the poetry, extending from father and husband to fascist, devil, and god. The harsh realities of the twentieth century—of a world, as she writes in "Daddy," "Scraped flat by the roller / Of wars, wars, wars"—seemed to preempt for Plath the state of grace for which she yearned. In a short story, "Mothers," written in 1962, the protagonist mourns the "irrevocable gap between her faithless state and the beatitude of belief." God, in his absence or profanation, is a precondition of the Ariel poems, which posit a "heaven / Starless and fatherless, a dark water" ("Sheep in Fog"). Critics have castigated Plath for her appropriation of Holocaust imagery in the Ariel poems, primarily "Daddy," in which the oppressor is portrayed as a Nazi and the speaker as a Jew bound for "Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen."

Alone with her children in a London apartment during the brutally cold winter of 1962–1963, Plath ultimately enacted in real life the drama that unfolds in Ariel—she killed herself by inhaling the fumes from her gas oven. Thus sacrificed on the altar of domesticity, her work, including her life as she portrayed it in her prose writings, was seen as a rationale for feminists demanding a radical societal overhaul. In this view Hughes, who became the poet laureate of Great Britain in 1984, was the embodiment of patriarchy, reviled for his role in Plath's life and as the executor of her estate. Plath is buried in Heptonstall Churchyard in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, England. Her gravestone, repeatedly defaced by Hughes-bashing fans outraged that she was buried under her married name, was eventually replaced by a simple wooden cross. In retrospect Hughes was an invaluable proponent of Plath's artistry, and her influence can be seen throughout his work.

Because the suicidal impulse in the Ariel poems was carried over into the poet's life with such seeming inevitability, the life and work became blurred. Plath's language, strikingly contemporary yet underpinned with archetype and myth, now issued from a woman dead at thirty, who had left behind a considerable autobiographical record in the form of letters and journals. Plath herself became a myth, the subject of cult-like obsession and the object of public consumption: books by and about Plath proliferated beginning in the late 1960s. Prurient interest in her suicide ensured her posthumous fame.

In his foreword to Ariel, Lowell stated that in her poems Plath "becomes herself … something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created." And in the end that is her legacy—poetry that both attests to and conveys the transforming power of art. Ariel is a singular creation, rooted in but transcending its time.

Plath's life and work have been the subject of endless commentary. Of the numerous biographies available are Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), and Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (1999). See also Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994). For the literary context see Robert Phillips, The Confessional Poets (1973) Elizabeth Hardwick, "Victims and Victors," in Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974) and Leslie Ullman, "American Poetry in the 1960s," in A Profile of Twentieth-century American Poetry (1991). Critical takes on Plath's work are Paul Alexander, ed., Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath (1985), and Harold Bloom, ed., Sylvia Plath (1989). Feminist appraisals are Paula Bennett, "Sylvia Plath: Fusion and the Divided Self," in My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics (1986), and Janice Markey, A New Tradition? The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich (1988). An epitaph by the literary critic A. Alvarez is in the Observer (London, 7 Feb. 1963).


Early Life

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the first child of Otto and Aurelia Plath. Otto was a German-born entomologist (and the author of a book about bumblebees) and a professor of biology at Boston University, while Aurelia (nee Schober) was a second-generation American whose grandparents had emigrated from Austria. Three years later, their son Warren was born, and the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, in 1936.

While living there, Plath published her first poem at age eight in the Boston Herald’s children’s section. She continued writing and publishing in several local magazines and papers, and she won prizes for her writing and artwork. When she was eight, her father died from complications after a foot amputation related to long-untreated diabetes. Aurelia Plath then moved their entire family, including her parents, to the nearby Wellesley, where Plath attended high school. Around the same time as her high school graduation, she had her first nationally published piece appear in the Christian Science Monitor.


Jennifer Egan

I read The Bell Jar as a teenager and was enthralled by it. I had never encountered a narrative voice so much like the one inside my head: fluttery, self-conscious, goofy, melodramatic. Plath and I were alike, I was sure, yet what I retained from The Bell Jar was mostly a sense of the narrator's irrepressible effervescence. Her suffering, and the foreshadowing of tragedy, made less impact. I felt the same kinship with Plath reading her diaries from her early years at Cambridge, when she met Ted Hughes, which I encountered a few years later. By then I was mature enough to muse over how Plath's self-dramatising highs and lows could have devolved into pure horror, but I never found the clear link between her exuberance and what followed. It occurs to me only now that my confusion about Plath's fate may have partly inspired my first novel, The Invisible Circus, in which a teenage girl tries to solve the mystery of her older sister's suicide: a lively, charismatic girl who threw herself from a cliff. Phoebe, my protagonist, runs away from home in search of the link between the exuberant sister she remembers, and her inexplicable end.


Sylvia Plath never got over her first love

Plath's relationship with Ted Hughes initially seemed like a fairy tale: Two immensely talented writers met at a party in Cambridge and were married almost immediately. Plath and Hughes both wrote about their initial meeting, and it was clearly a seismic event for both. (Plath described Hughes as "That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me.") But it wasn't a simple case of love at first sight for Plath, because she was still pining for her first love — someone she never quite got over.

As The Stranger reports, Plath's private journals reveal that even after spending a night with Hughes shortly after their first meeting, she ran off to Paris to meet a man named Richard Sassoon, a Frenchman she'd met while still attending Smith College — but Sassoon never showed up for their meeting. She searched desperately for Sassoon in the age before cell phones but couldn't find him — and so returned to England, where she married Hughes a few months later. Author Andrew Wilson believes that if Sassoon had kept their appointment, Plath would have married him instead — changing the course of their lives forever. In Plath's case, that might have meant a life that extended years or decades more.


Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the 20th century. By the time she took her life at the age of 30, Plath already had a following in the literary community. In the ensuing years her work attracted the attention of a multitude of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death. In the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates described Plath as &ldquoone of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English.&rdquo Intensely autobiographical, Plath&rsquos poems explore her own mental anguish, her troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, her unresolved conflicts with her parents, and her own vision of herself. On the World Socialist web site, Margaret Rees observed, &ldquoWhether Plath wrote about nature, or about the social restrictions on individuals, she stripped away the polite veneer. She let her writing express elemental forces and primeval fears. In doing so, she laid bare the contradictions that tore apart appearance and hinted at some of the tensions hovering just beneath the surface of the American way of life in the post war period.&rdquo Oates put it more simply when she wrote that Plath&rsquos best-known poems, &ldquomany of them written during the final, turbulent weeks of her life, read as if they&rsquove been chiseled, with a fine surgical instrument, out of arctic ice.&rdquo Plath has inspired countless readers and influenced many poets since her death in 1963.

In the New York Times Book Review, former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky wrote, &ldquoThrashing, hyperactive, perpetually accelerated, the poems of Sylvia Plath catch the feeling of a profligate, hurt imagination, throwing off images and phrases with the energy of a runaway horse or a machine with its throttle stuck wide open. All the violence in her work returns to that violence of imagination, a frenzied brilliance and conviction.&rdquo Denis Donoghue made a similar observation, also in the New York Times Book Review: &ldquoPlath&rsquos early poems, many of them, offered themselves for sacrifice, transmuting agony, &lsquoheart&rsquos waste,&rsquo into gestures and styles.&rdquo Donoghue added that &ldquoshe showed what self-absorption makes possible in art, and the price that must be paid for it, in the art as clearly as in the death.&rdquo Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Thomas McClanahan wrote, &ldquoAt her most articulate, meditating on the nature of poetic inspiration, [Plath] is a controlled voice for cynicism, plainly delineating the boundaries of hope and reality. At her brutal best&mdashand Plath is a brutal poet&mdashshe taps a source of power that transforms her poetic voice into a raving avenger of womanhood and innocence.&rdquo

Born in 1932 in Boston, Plath was the daughter of a German immigrant college professor, Otto Plath, and one of his students, Aurelia Schober. The poet&rsquos early years were spent near the seashore, but her life changed abruptly when her father died in 1940. Some of her most vivid poems, including the well-known &ldquoDaddy,&rdquo concern her troubled relationship with her authoritarian father and her feelings of betrayal when he died. Financial circumstances forced the Plath family to move to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Aurelia Plath taught advanced secretarial studies at Boston University. Sylvia Plath was a gifted student who had won numerous awards and had published stories and poetry in national magazines while still in her teens. She attended Smith College on scholarship and continued to excel, winning a Mademoiselle fiction contest one year and garnering a prestigious guest editorship of the magazine the following summer.

It was during her undergraduate years that Plath began to suffer the symptoms of severe depression that would ultimately lead to her death. In one of her journal entries, dated June 20, 1958, she wrote: &ldquoIt is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative&mdashwhichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.&rdquo This is an eloquent description of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, a very serious illness for which no genuinely effective medications were available during Plath&rsquos lifetime. In August of 1953, at the age of 20, Plath attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. She survived the attempt and was hospitalized, receiving treatment with electro-shock therapy. Her experiences of breakdown and recovery were later turned into fiction for her only published novel, The Bell Jar.

Having made a recovery, Plath returned to Smith for her degree. She earned a Fulbright grant to study at Cambridge University in England, and it was there that she met poet Ted Hughes. The two were married in 1956. Plath published two major works during her lifetime, The Bell Jar and a poetry volume titled The Colossus. Both received warm reviews. However, the end of her marriage in 1962 left Plath with two young children to care for and, after an intense burst of creativity that produced the poems in Ariel, she committed suicide by inhaling gas from a kitchen oven.

Timothy Materer wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, &ldquoThe critical reactions to both The Bell Jar and Ariel were inevitably influenced by the manner of Plath&rsquos death at 30.&rdquo Hardly known outside poetry circles during her lifetime, Plath became in death more than she might have imagined. Donoghue, for one, stated, &ldquoI can&rsquot recall feeling, in 1963, that Plath&rsquos death proved her life authentic or indeed that proof was required. . But I recall that Ariel was received as if it were a bracelet of bright hair about the bone, a relic more than a book.&rdquo Feminists portrayed Plath as a woman driven to madness by a domineering father, an unfaithful husband, and the demands that motherhood made on her genius. Some critics lauded her as a confessional poet whose work &ldquospoke the hectic, uncontrolled things our conscience needed, or thought it needed,&rdquo to quote Donoghue. Largely on the strength of Ariel, Plath became one of the best-known female American poets of the 20th century.

The writer A. Alvarez, writing in The Savage God, believed that with the poems in Ariel, compiled and published by Hughes, Plath made &ldquopoetry and death inseparable. The one could not exist without the other. And this is right. In a curious way, the poems read as though they were written posthumously.&rdquo Robert Penn Warren called Ariel &ldquoa unique book, it scarcely seems a book at all, rather a keen, cold gust of reality as though somebody had knocked out a window pane on a brilliant night.&rdquo George Steiner wrote, &ldquoIt is fair to say that no group of poems since Dylan Thomas&rsquos Deaths and Entrances has had as vivid and disturbing an impact on English critics and readers as has Ariel. . Reference to Sylvia Plath is constant where poetry and the conditions of its present existence are discussed.&rdquo Plath&rsquos growing posthumous reputation inspired younger poets to write as she did. But, as Steiner maintained, her &ldquodesperate integrity&rdquo cannot be imitated. Or, as Peter Davison put it, &ldquoNo artifice alone could have conjured up such effects.&rdquo According to McClanahan, the poems in Ariel &ldquoare personal testaments to the loneliness and insecurity that plagued her, and the desolate images suggest her apparent fixation with self-annihilation. . In Ariel, the everyday incidents of living are transformed into the horrifying psychological experiences of the poet.&rdquo

In Plath&rsquos final poems, wrote Charles Newman in his The Art of Sylvia Plath, &ldquodeath is preeminent but strangely unoppressive. Perhaps it is because there is no longer dialogue, no sense of &lsquoOtherness&rsquo&mdashshe is speaking from a viewpoint which is total, complete. Love and Death, all rivals, are resolved as one within the irreversibility of experience. To reverse Blake, the Heart knows as much as the Eye sees.&rdquo Alvarez believed that &ldquothe very source of [Plath&rsquos] creative energy was, it turned out, her self-destructiveness. But it was, precisely, a source of living energy, of her imaginative, creative power. So, though death itself may have been a side issue, it was also an unavoidable risk in writing her kind of poem. My own impression of the circumstances surrounding her eventual death is that she gambled, not much caring whether she won or lost and she lost.&rdquo

As a very young poet Plath experimented with the villanelle and other forms. She had been &ldquostimulated&rdquo by such writers as D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Theodore Roethke, Emily Dickinson, and later by Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. She has been linked with Lowell and Sexton as a member of the so-called &ldquoconfessional&rdquo school of poetry. Ted Hughes noted that she shared with them a similar geographical homeland as well as &ldquothe central experience of a shattering of the self, and the labour of fitting it together again or finding a new one.&rdquo

At times, Plath was able to overcome the &ldquotension between the perceiver and the thing-in-itself by literally becoming the thing-in-itself,&rdquo wrote Newman. &ldquoIn many instances, it is nature who personifies her.&rdquo Similarly, Plath used history &ldquoto explain herself,&rdquo writing about the Nazi concentration camps as though she had been imprisoned there. She said, &ldquoI think that personal experience shouldn&rsquot be a kind of shut box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant, to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau, and so on.&rdquo Newman explained that, &ldquoin absorbing, personalizing the socio-political catastrophes of the century, [Plath] reminds us that they are ultimately metaphors of the terrifying human mind.&rdquo Alvarez noted that the &ldquoanonymity of pain, which makes all dignity impossible, was Sylvia Plath&rsquos subject.&rdquo Her reactions to the smallest desecrations, even in plants, were &ldquoextremely violent,&rdquo wrote Hughes. &ldquoAuschwitz and the rest were merely the open wounds.&rdquo In sum, Newman believed, Plath &ldquoevolved in poetic voice from the precocious girl, to the disturbed modern woman, to the vengeful magician, to Ariel&mdashGod&rsquos Lioness.&rdquo

While few critics dispute the power or the substance in Plath&rsquos poetry, some have come to feel that its legacy is one of cynicism, ego-absorption, and a prurient fascination with suicide. Donoghue suggested that &ldquothe moral claims enforced by these poems now seem exorbitant,&rdquo adding, &ldquoThe thrill we get from such poems is something we have no good cause to admire in ourselves.&rdquo McClanahan felt that Plath&rsquos legacy &ldquois one of pain, fear, and traumatic depression, born of the need to destroy the imagistic materialization of &lsquoDaddy.&rsquo&rdquo Nevertheless, the critic concluded, &ldquoThe horrifying tone of her poetry underscores a depth of feeling that can be attributed to few other poets, and her near-suicidal attempt to communicate a frightening existential vision overshadows the shaky technique of her final poems. Plath writes of the human dread of dying. Her primitive honesty and emotionalism are her strength.&rdquo Critics and scholars have continued to write about Plath, and her relationship with Hughes a reviewer for the National Post reported that in 2000, there were 104 books in print about Plath.

Newman considered The Bell Jar a &ldquotesting ground&rdquo for Plath&rsquos poems. It is, according to the critic, &ldquoone of the few American novels to treat adolescence from a mature point of view. . It chronicles a nervous breakdown and consequent professional therapy in non-clinical language. And finally, it gives us one of the few sympathetic portraits of what happens to one who has genuinely feminist aspirations in our society, of a girl who refuses to be an event in anyone&rsquos life. . [Plath] remains among the few woman writers in recent memory to link the grand theme of womanhood with the destiny of modern civilization.&rdquo Plath told Alvarez that she published the book under a pseudonym partly because &ldquoshe didn&rsquot consider it a serious work . and partly because she thought too many people would be hurt by it.&rdquo

The Bell Jar is narrated by 19-year-old Esther Greenwood. The three-part novel explores Esther&rsquos unsatisfactory experiences as a student editor in Manhattan, her subsequent return to her family home, where she suffers a breakdown and attempts suicide, and her recovery with the aid of an enlightened female doctor. One of the novel&rsquos themes, the search for a valid personal identity, is as old as fiction itself. The other, a rebellion against conventional female roles, was slightly ahead of its time. Nancy Duvall Hargrove observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, &ldquoAs a novel of growing up, of initiation into adulthood, [The Bell Jar] is very solidly in the tradition of the Bildungsroman. Technically, The Bell Jar is skillfully written and contains many of the haunting images and symbols that dominate Plath&rsquos poetry.&rdquo Materer commented that the book &ldquois a finely plotted novel full of vivid characters and written in the astringent but engaging style one expects from a poet as frank and observant as Plath. The atmosphere of hospitals and sickness, of incidents of bleeding and electrocution, set against images of confinement and liberation, unify the novel&rsquos imagery.&rdquo Hargrove maintained that the novel is &ldquoa striking work which has contributed to [Plath&rsquos] reputation as a significant figure in contemporary American literature. . It is more than a feminist document, for it presents the enduring human concerns of the search for identity, the pain of disillusionment, and the refusal to accept defeat.&rdquo

Letters Home, a collection of Plath&rsquos correspondence between 1950 and 1963, reveals that the source of her inner turmoil was perhaps more accurately linked to her relationship with her mother. The volume, published by Plath&rsquos mother in 1975, was intended, at least in part, to counter the angry tone of The Bell Jar as well as the unflattering portrait of Plath&rsquos mother contained in that narrative. According to Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker, &ldquoThe publication of Letters Home had a different effect from the one Mrs. Plath had intended, however. Instead of showing that Sylvia wasn&rsquot &lsquolike that,&rsquo the letters caused the reader to consider for the first time the possibility that her sick relationship with her mother was the reason she was like that.&rdquo Though Hughes exercised final editorial approval, the publication of Letters Home also cast a new and unfavorable light on numerous others linked to Plath, including Hughes himself. Malcolm wrote, &ldquoBefore the publication of Letters Home, the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms.&rdquo Plath&rsquos intimate letters to her family contain unguarded personal commentary on her college years, writing, despair, friendships, marriage, and children.

After Plath&rsquos death, The It-Doesn&rsquot-Matter Suit, a book for children, was also discovered among her papers and published posthumously. The story features Max Nix, a resident of Winkelburg, who happily acquires a modest &ldquowoolly, whiskery brand-new mustard-yellow suit.&rdquo Nicci Gerrard wrote in the Observer, &ldquoThere&rsquos no disturbance in the world of Winkelburg: even Max&rsquos desire for a suit is as shallow and clear as the silver stream that runs like a ribbon through the valley.&rdquo Despite the lasting impression of Plath&rsquos bleak art and early death, Gerrard concluded that &ldquosmall pieces of happiness like this little book remind us of her life.&rdquo

Plath&rsquos relationship with Hughes has long been the subject of commentary, not always flattering to Hughes. Feminist critics in particular tended to see in Plath&rsquos suicide a repudiation of the expectations placed upon women in the early 1960s. Further criticism attended Hughes&rsquos guardianship of Plath&rsquos papers, especially when Hughes admitted that he destroyed some of Plath&rsquos journals, including several written just prior to her suicide. Materer felt that Hughes&rsquos control over Plath&rsquos papers&mdasha right he exercised only because their divorce had not become final&mdashcaused &ldquodifficulties&rdquo for both critics and biographers. Materer added, &ldquoThe estate&rsquos strict control of copyright and its editing of such writings as Plath&rsquos journals and letters have caused the most serious problems for scholars.&rdquo

Since Hughes&rsquos death from cancer in 1998, a new edition of Plath&rsquos journals has been published, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962.This exact transcription of the poet&rsquos journals, from her earliest days at Smith College to the days of her marriage, has been published verbatim, down to her misspellings. &ldquoUncritical admirers of Plath will find much here that is fascinating,&rdquo noted Oates. &ldquoOther readers may find much that is fascinating and repellent in equal measure.&rdquo Oates concluded, &ldquoLike all unedited journals, Plath&rsquos may be best read piecemeal, and rapidly, as they were written. The reader is advised to seek out the stronger, more lyric and exhilarating passages, which exist in enough abundance through these many pages to assure that this presumed final posthumous publication of Sylvia Plath&rsquos is that rarity, a genuine literary event worthy of the poet&rsquos aggressive mythopoetic claim in &lsquoLady Lazarus&rsquo&mdashOut of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.&rdquo

Hughes once summarized Plath&rsquos unique personality and talent: &ldquoHer poetry escapes ordinary analysis in the way clairvoyance and mediumship do: her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them. In her poetry, in other words, she had free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests, shamans and Holymen.&rdquo The poet continued, &ldquoSurveyed as a whole . I think the unity of her opus is clear. Once the unity shows itself, the logic and inevitability of the language, which controls and contains such conflagrations and collisions within itself, becomes more obviously what it is&mdashdirect, and even plain, speech. This language, this unique and radiant substance, is the product of an alchemy on the noblest scale. Her elements were extreme: a violent, almost demonic spirit in her, opposed a tenderness and capacity to suffer and love things infinitely, which was just as great and far more in evidence. Her stormy, luminous senses assaulted a downright practical intelligence that could probably have dealt with anything. . She saw her world in the flame of the ultimate substance and the ultimate depth. And this is the distinction of her language, that every word is Baraka: the flame and the rose folded together. Poets have often spoken about this ideal possibility but where else, outside these poems, has it actually occurred? If we have the discrimination to answer this question, we can set her in her rightful company.&rdquo


Contents

Early life Edit

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. [3] [4] Her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath (1906–1994), was a second-generation American of Austrian descent, and her father, Otto Plath (1885–1940), was from Grabow, Germany. [5] Plath's father was an entomologist and a professor of biology at Boston University who authored a book about bumblebees. [6]

On April 27, 1935, Plath's brother Warren was born. [4] In 1936 the family moved from 24 Prince Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to 92 Johnson Avenue, Winthrop, Massachusetts. [7] Plath's mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop, and her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, had lived in a section of the town called Point Shirley, a location mentioned in Plath's poetry. While living in Winthrop, eight-year-old Plath published her first poem in the Boston Herald ' s children's section. [8] Over the next few years, Plath published multiple poems in regional magazines and newspapers. [9] At age 11, Plath began keeping a journal. [9] In addition to writing, she showed early promise as an artist, winning an award for her paintings from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947. [10] "Even in her youth, Plath was ambitiously driven to succeed". [9] Plath also had an IQ of around 160. [11] [12]

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath's eighth birthday, [6] of complications following the amputation of a foot due to untreated diabetes. He had become ill shortly after a close friend died of lung cancer. Comparing the similarities between his friend's symptoms and his own, Otto became convinced that he, too, had lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Raised as a Unitarian, Plath experienced a loss of faith after her father's death and remained ambivalent about religion throughout her life. [13] Her father was buried in Winthrop Cemetery, in Massachusetts. A visit to her father's grave later prompted Plath to write the poem "Electra on Azalea Path". After Otto's death, Aurelia moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1942. [6] In one of her last prose pieces, Plath commented that her first nine years "sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth". [4] [14] Plath attended Bradford Senior High School (now Wellesley High School) in Wellesley, graduating in 1950. [4] Just after graduating from high school, she had her first national publication in the Christian Science Monitor. [9]

College years and depression Edit

In 1950, Plath attended Smith College, a private women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts. She excelled academically. While at Smith, she lived in Lawrence House, and a plaque can be found outside her old room. She edited The Smith Review. After her third year of college, Plath was awarded a coveted position as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. [4] The experience was not what she had hoped for, and many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. Platt was a member of Phi Beta Kappa while at Smith, a respected, traditionally-academic sorority. [15]

She was furious at not being at a meeting the editor had arranged with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—a writer whom she loved, said one of her boyfriends, "more than life itself." She hung around the White Horse Tavern and the Chelsea Hotel for two days, hoping to meet Thomas, but he was already on his way home. A few weeks later, she slashed her legs to see if she had enough "courage" to kill herself. [16] During this time she was refused admission to the Harvard writing seminar. [17] Following electroconvulsive therapy for depression, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt on August 24, 1953 [18] by crawling under the front porch and taking her mother's sleeping pills. [19]

She survived this first suicide attempt, later writing that she "blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion." [4] She spent the next six months in psychiatric care, receiving more electric and insulin shock treatment under the care of Ruth Beuscher. [4] Her stay at McLean Hospital and her Smith Scholarship were paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make a good recovery and returned to college.

In January 1955, she submitted her thesis, The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoyevsky's Novels, and in June graduated from Smith with an A.B. summa cum laude. [20]

She obtained a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Newnham College, one of the two women-only colleges of the University of Cambridge in England, where she continued actively writing poetry and publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. At Newnham, she studied with Dorothea Krook, whom she held in high regard. [21] She spent her first year winter and spring holidays traveling around Europe. [4]

Career and marriage Edit

Plath first met poet Ted Hughes on February 25, 1956. In a 1961 BBC interview (now held by the British Library Sound Archive), [22] Plath describes how she met Hughes:

I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met. Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later. We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on. [22]

Plath described Hughes as "a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer" with "a voice like the thunder of God." [4]

The couple married on June 16, 1956, at St George the Martyr, Holborn in London (now in the Borough of Camden) with Plath's mother in attendance, and spent their honeymoon in Paris and Benidorm. Plath returned to Newnham in October to begin her second year. [4] During this time, they both became deeply interested in astrology and the supernatural, using ouija boards. [23]

In June 1957, Plath and Hughes moved to the United States, and from September, Plath taught at Smith College, her alma mater. She found it difficult to both teach and have enough time and energy to write, [20] and in the middle of 1958, the couple moved to Boston. Plath took a job as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit of Massachusetts General Hospital and in the evening sat in on creative writing seminars given by poet Robert Lowell (also attended by the writers Anne Sexton and George Starbuck). [20]

Both Lowell and Sexton encouraged Plath to write from her experience and she did so. She openly discussed her depression with Lowell and her suicide attempts with Sexton, who led her to write from a more female perspective. Plath began to consider herself as a more serious, focused poet and short-story writer. [4] At this time Plath and Hughes first met the poet W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend. [24] Plath resumed psychoanalytic treatment in December, working with Ruth Beuscher. [4]

Plath and Hughes traveled across Canada and the United States, staying at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York in late 1959. Plath says that it was here that she learned "to be true to my own weirdnesses", but she remained anxious about writing confessionally, from deeply personal and private material. [4] [25] The couple moved back to England in December 1959 and lived in London at 3 Chalcot Square, near the Primrose Hill area of Regent's Park, where an English Heritage plaque records Plath's residence. [26] [27] Their daughter Frieda was born on April 1, 1960, and in October, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. [26]

In February 1961, Plath's second pregnancy ended in miscarriage several of her poems, including "Parliament Hill Fields", address this event. [28] In a letter to her therapist, Plath wrote that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. [29] In August she finished her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and immediately after this, the family moved to Court Green in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. Nicholas was born in January 1962. [26]

In 1961, the couple rented their flat at Chalcot Square to Assia Wevill (née Gutmann) and David Wevill. Hughes was immediately struck with the beautiful Assia, as she was with him. [30] In June 1962, Plath had a car accident which she described as one of many suicide attempts. In July 1962, Plath discovered Hughes had been having an affair with Assia Wevill in September Plath and Hughes separated. [26]

Beginning in October 1962, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity and wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests, writing at least 26 of the poems of her posthumous collection Ariel during the final months of her life. [26] [31] [32] In December 1962, she returned alone to London with their children, and rented, on a five-year lease, a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road—only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat. William Butler Yeats once lived in the house, which bears an English Heritage blue plaque for the Irish poet. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.

The northern winter of 1962–1963 was one of the coldest in 100 years the pipes froze, the children—now two years old and nine months—were often sick, and the house had no telephone. [33] Her depression returned but she completed the rest of her poetry collection, which would be published after her death (1965 in the UK, 1966 in the US). Her only novel, The Bell Jar, was published in January 1963, under the pen name Victoria Lucas, and was met with critical indifference. [34]

Final depressive episode and death Edit

Before her death, Plath tried several times to take her own life. [35] On August 24, 1953, Plath overdosed on pills. In June 1962, Plath drove her car off the side of the road, into a river, which she later said was an attempt to take her own life. [36]

In January 1963, Plath spoke with John Horder, her general practitioner [35] and a close friend who lived near her. She described the current depressive episode she was experiencing it had been ongoing for six or seven months. [35] While for most of the time she had been able to continue working, her depression had worsened and become severe, "marked by constant agitation, suicidal thoughts and inability to cope with daily life." [35] Plath struggled with insomnia, taking medication at night to induce sleep, and frequently woke up early. [35] She lost 20 pounds (9 kg). [35] However, she continued to take care of her physical appearance and did not outwardly speak of feeling guilty or unworthy. [35]

Horder prescribed her an anti-depressant, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, [35] a few days before her suicide. Knowing she was at risk alone with two young children, he says he visited her daily and made strenuous efforts to have her admitted to a hospital when that failed, he arranged for a live-in nurse. Commentators have argued that because anti-depressants may take up to three weeks to take effect, her prescription from Horder would not have taken full effect. [37]

The nurse was due to arrive at nine on the morning of February 11, 1963, to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, she could not get into the flat but eventually gained access with the help of a workman, Charles Langridge. They found Plath dead of carbon monoxide poisoning with her head in the oven, having sealed the rooms between her and her sleeping children with tape, towels and cloths. [38] She was 30 years old. [39]

Plath's intentions have been debated. That morning, she asked her downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Thomas, what time he would be leaving. She also left a note reading "Call Dr. Horder," including the doctor's phone number. It is argued Plath turned on the gas at a time when Thomas would have been able to see the note. [40] However, in her biography Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Plath's best friend, Jillian Becker, wrote, "According to Mr. Goodchild, a police officer attached to the coroner's office, [Plath] had thrust her head far into the gas oven and had really meant to die." [41] Horder also believed her intention was clear. He stated that "No one who saw the care with which the kitchen was prepared could have interpreted her action as anything but an irrational compulsion." [39] Plath had described the quality of her despair as "owl's talons clenching my heart." [42] In his 1971 book on suicide, friend and critic Al Alvarez claimed that Plath's suicide was an unanswered cry for help, [39] and spoke, in a BBC interview in March 2000, about his failure to recognize Plath's depression, saying he regretted his inability to offer her emotional support: "I failed her on that level. I was thirty years old and stupid. What did I know about chronic clinical depression? She kind of needed someone to take care of her. And that was not something I could do." [43]

Following Plath's death Edit

An inquest was held on February 15 and gave a ruling of suicide as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. [44] Hughes was devastated they had been separated for six months. In a letter to an old friend of Plath's from Smith College, he wrote, "That's the end of my life. The rest is posthumous." [33] [45] Plath's gravestone, in Heptonstall's parish churchyard of St Thomas the Apostle, bears the inscription that Hughes chose for her: [46] "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted." Biographers variously attribute the source of the quote to the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita [46] or to the 16th-century Buddhist novel Journey to the West written by Wu Cheng'en. [47] [48]

The daughter of Plath and Hughes, Frieda Hughes, is a writer and artist. On March 16, 2009, Nicholas Hughes, their son, hanged himself at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska, following a history of depression. [49] [50]

Plath wrote poetry from the age of eight, her first poem appearing in the Boston Traveller. [4] By the time she arrived at Smith College she had written over 50 short stories and been published in a raft of magazines. [51] In fact Plath desired much of her life to write prose and stories, and she felt that poetry was an aside. But, in sum, she was not successful in publishing prose. At Smith she majored in English and won all the major prizes in writing and scholarship. Additionally, she won a summer editor position at the young women's magazine Mademoiselle, [4] and, on her graduation in 1955, she won the Glascock Prize for Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea. Later, she wrote for the university publication, Varsity.

The Colossus Edit

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

By the time Heinemann published her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems in the UK in late 1960, Plath had been short-listed several times in the Yale Younger Poets book competition and had had work printed in Harper's, The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. All the poems in The Colossus had already been printed in major US and British journals and she had a contract with The New Yorker. [52] It was, however, her 1965 collection Ariel, published posthumously, on which Plath's reputation essentially rests. "Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme." [9]

The Colossus received largely positive UK reviews, highlighting Plath's voice as new and strong, individual and American in tone. Peter Dickinson at Punch called the collection "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse". [52] Bernard Bergonzi at the Manchester Guardian said the book was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso quality". [52] From the point of publication she became a presence on the poetry scene. The book went on to be published in America in 1962 to less-glowing reviews. Whilst her craft was generally praised, her writing was viewed as more derivative of other poets. [52]

The Bell Jar Edit

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel-her mother wanted to block publication-was published in 1963 and in the US in 1971. [34] [53] Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add color—it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown. I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar". [54] She described her novel as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past". [55] She dated a Yale senior named Dick Norton during her junior year. Norton, upon whom the character of Buddy in The Bell Jar is based, contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the Ray Brook Sanatorium near Saranac Lake. While visiting Norton, Plath broke her leg skiing, an incident that was fictionalized in the novel. [56] Plath also used the novel to highlight the issue of women in the workforce during the 1950s. She strongly believed in womens' abilities to be writers and editors, while society forced them to fulfill secretarial roles. [57]

Double Exposure Edit

In 1963, after The Bell Jar was published, Plath began working on another literary work titled Double Exposure. It was never published and the manuscript disappeared around 1970. [58] According to Hughes, Plath left behind "some 130 [typed] pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure." [59] Theories about what happened to the unfinished manuscript are repeatedly brought up in the book Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study by Luke Ferretter. Ferretter also claims that the rare books department at Smith College in Massachusetts has a secret copy of the work under seal. [58] Ferretter believes that the draft of Double Exposure may have been destroyed, stolen, or even lost. He presumes in his book that the draft may lie unfound in a university archive. [58]

Ariel Edit

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

from the poem "Ariel", October 12, 1962 [60]

The posthumous publication of Ariel in 1965 precipitated Plath's rise to fame. [4] The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. Robert Lowell's poetry may have played a part in this shift as she cited Lowell's 1959 book Life Studies as a significant influence, in an interview just before her death. [61] The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its dark and potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as '"Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus". [61] Plath's work is often held within the genre of confessional poetry and the style of her work compared to other contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass. Plath's close friend Al Alvarez, who has written about her extensively, said of her later work: "Plath's case is complicated by the fact that, in her mature work, she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick—everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images that seem impenetrable at this distance, but which could mostly be explained in footnotes by a scholar with full access to the details of her life." [62] Many of Plath's later poems deal with what one critic calls the "domestic surreal" in which Plath takes everyday elements of life and twists the images, giving them an almost nightmarish quality. Plath's poem "Morning Song" from Ariel is regarded as one of her finest poems on freedom of expression of an artist. [63]

Plath's fellow confessional poet and friend Anne Sexton commented: "Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicide, in detail and in depth—between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb, sucking on it. She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail, and her description in The Bell Jar is just that same story." [64] The confessional interpretation of Plath's work has led to some dismissing certain aspects of her work as an exposition of sentimentalist melodrama in 2010, for example, Theodore Dalrymple asserted that Plath had been the "patron saint of self-dramatisation" and of self-pity. [65] Revisionist critics such as Tracy Brain have, however, argued against a tightly autobiographical interpretation of Plath's material. [66]

Other works Edit

In 1971, the volumes Winter Trees and Crossing the Water were published in the UK, including nine previously unseen poems from the original manuscript of Ariel. [34] Writing in New Statesman, fellow poet Peter Porter wrote:

Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath's control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel. [67]

The Collected Poems, published in 1981, edited and introduced by Ted Hughes, contained poetry written from 1956 until her death. Plath was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. [34] In 2006 Anna Journey, then a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath titled "Ennui". The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, was published in the online journal Blackbird. [68] [a]

Journals and letters Edit

Plath's letters were published in 1975, edited and selected by her mother Aurelia Plath. The collection, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, came out partly in response to the strong public reaction to the publication of The Bell Jar in America. [34] Plath began keeping a diary from the age of 11 and continued doing so until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her first year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1982 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough, with Ted Hughes as consulting editor. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Plath's death. [69]

During the last years of his life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath's journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Plath 2000). More than half of the new volume contained newly released material [69] the American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a "genuine literary event". Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)." [4] [70]

And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.

from "Kindness", written February 1, 1963. Ariel

As Hughes and Plath were legally married at the time of her death, Hughes inherited the Plath estate, including all her written work. He has been condemned repeatedly for burning Plath's last journal, saying he "did not want her children to have to read it." [71] Hughes lost another journal and an unfinished novel, and instructed that a collection of Plath's papers and journals should not be released until 2013. [71] [72] He has been accused of attempting to control the estate for his own ends, although royalties from Plath's poetry were placed into a trust account for their two children, Frieda and Nicholas. [73] [74]

Plath's gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by those aggrieved that "Hughes" is written on the stone they have attempted to chisel it off, leaving only the name "Sylvia Plath." [75] When Hughes' mistress Assia Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura in 1969, this practice intensified. After each defacement, Hughes had the damaged stone removed, sometimes leaving the site unmarked during repair. [76] Outraged mourners accused Hughes in the media of dishonoring her name by removing the stone. [77] Wevill's death led to claims that Hughes had been abusive to both Plath and Wevill. [78] [43]

Radical feminist poet Robin Morgan published the poem "Arraignment", in which she openly accused Hughes of the battery and murder of Plath. Her book Monster (1972) "included a piece in which a gang of Plath aficionados are imagined castrating Hughes, stuffing his penis into his mouth and then blowing out his brains." [79] [77] [80] Hughes threatened to sue Morgan. The book was withdrawn by the publisher Random House, although it remained in circulation among feminists. [81] Other feminists threatened to kill Hughes in Plath's name and pursue a conviction for murder. [39] [79] Plath's poem "The Jailor", in which the speaker condemns her husband's brutality, was included in Morgan's 1970 anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement. [82]

In 1989, with Hughes under public attack, a battle raged in the letters pages of The Guardian and The Independent. In The Guardian on April 20, 1989, Hughes wrote the article "The Place Where Sylvia Plath Should Rest in Peace": "In the years soon after [Plath's] death, when scholars approached me, I tried to take their apparently serious concern for the truth about Sylvia Plath seriously. But I learned my lesson early. [. ] If I tried too hard to tell them exactly how something happened, in the hope of correcting some fantasy, I was quite likely to be accused of trying to suppress Free Speech. In general, my refusal to have anything to do with the Plath Fantasia has been regarded as an attempt to suppress Free Speech [. ] The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and of mine), or for her memory, or for the literary tradition, I do not know." [77] [83]

Still the subject of speculation and opprobrium in 1998, Hughes published Birthday Letters that year, his own collection of 88 poems about his relationship with Plath. Hughes had published very little about his experience of the marriage and Plath's subsequent suicide, and the book caused a sensation, being taken as his first explicit disclosure, and it topped best seller charts. It was not known at the volume's release that Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer and would die later that year. The book went on to win the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and the Whitbread Poetry Prize. The poems, written after Plath's death, in some cases long after, try to find a reason why Plath took her own life. [84]

In October 2015, the BBC Two documentary Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death examined Hughes' life and work it included audio recordings of Plath reciting her own poetry. Their daughter Frieda spoke for the first time about her mother and father. [85]

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

from "Morning Song", Ariel, 1965 [86]

Sylvia Plath's early poems exhibit what became her typical imagery, using personal and nature-based depictions featuring, for example, the moon, blood, hospitals, fetuses, and skulls. They were mostly imitation exercises of poets she admired such as Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats and Marianne Moore. [51] Late in 1959, when she and Hughes were at the Yaddo writers' colony in New York State, she wrote the seven-part "Poem for a Birthday", echoing Theodore Roethke's Lost Son sequence, though its theme is her own traumatic breakdown and suicide attempt at 20. After 1960 her work moved into a more surreal landscape darkened by a sense of imprisonment and looming death, overshadowed by her father. The Colossus is shot through with themes of death, redemption and resurrection. After Hughes left, Plath produced, in less than two months, the 40 poems of rage, despair, love, and vengeance on which her reputation mostly rests. [51]

Plath's landscape poetry, which she wrote throughout her life, has been described as "a rich and important area of her work that is often overlooked . some of the best of which was written about the Yorkshire moors." Her September 1961 poem "Wuthering Heights" takes its title from the Emily Brontë novel, but its content and style is Plath's own particular vision of the Pennine landscape. [87]

It was Plath's publication of Ariel in 1965 that precipitated her rise to fame. As soon as it was published, critics began to see the collection as the charting of Plath's increasing desperation or death wish. Her dramatic death became her most famous aspect, and remains so. [4] Time and Life both reviewed the slim volume of Ariel in the wake of her death. [39] The critic at Time said: "Within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. 'Daddy' was its title its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, 'Daddy' was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bile across the literary landscape. [. ] In her most ferocious poems, 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus,' fear, hate, love, death and the poet's own identity become fused at black heat with the figure of her father, and through him, with the guilt of the German exterminators and the suffering of their Jewish victims. They are poems, as Robert Lowell says in his preface to Ariel, that 'play Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.'" [88] [b]

Some in the feminist movement saw Plath as speaking for their experience, as a "symbol of blighted female genius." [39] Writer Honor Moore describes Ariel as marking the beginning of a movement, Plath suddenly visible as "a woman on paper", certain and audacious. Moore says: "When Sylvia Plath's Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened [. ] Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified." [90] Some feminists threatened to kill Hughes in Plath's name. [39]

Smith College, Plath's alma mater, holds her literary papers in the Smith College Library. [91]

In 2018, The New York Times published an obituary for Plath [92] as part of the Overlooked history project. [93] [94]

Portrayals in media Edit

Plath's voice is heard in a BBC documentary about her life, recorded in London in late 1962. [95] Of the BBC recording Elizabeth Hardwick wrote:

I have never before learned anything from a poetic reading, unless the clothes, the beard, the girls, the poor or good condition of the poet can be considered a kind of knowledge. But I was taken aback by Sylvia Plath’s reading. It was not anything like I could have imagined. Not a trace of the modest, retreating, humorous Worcester, Massachusetts, of Elizabeth Bishop nothing of the swallowed plain Pennsylvania of Marianne Moore. Instead these bitter poems—"Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," "The Applicant," "Fever 103°"—were beautifully read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased. "I have done it again!" Clearly, perfectly, staring you down. She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, "Uncover, dogs, and lap!" [96]

Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the biopic Sylvia (2003). Despite criticism from Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of Plath and Hughes, that Plath was portrayed as a "permanent depressive and possessive person," she conceded that "the film has an atmosphere towards the end of her life which is heartbreaking in its accuracy." [97] Frieda Hughes, now a poet and painter, who was two years old when her mother died, was angered by the making of entertainment featuring her parents' lives. She accused the "peanut crunching" public of wanting to be titillated by the family's tragedies. [98] In 2003, Frieda reacted to the situation in the poem "My Mother" in Tatler: [99]

Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children

[. ] they think
I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll

In the 2019 film How to Build a Girl, Plath is one of the figures in Johanna's collage who "talks" to her. [100]

Poetry collections Edit

  • The Colossus and Other Poems (1960, William Heinemann)
  • Ariel (1965, Faber and Faber)
  • Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968, Turret Books) [101]
  • Crossing the Water (1971, Faber and Faber)
  • Winter Trees (1971, Faber and Faber)
  • The Collected Poems (1981, Faber and Faber)
  • Selected Poems (1985, Faber and Faber)
  • Ariel: The Restored Edition (2004, Faber and Faber)

Collected prose and novels Edit

  • The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" (novel, 1963, Heinemann)
  • Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (1975, Harper & Row, US Faber and Faber, UK)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (1977, Faber and Faber)
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982, Dial Press)
  • The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath's Smith College senior thesis
  • The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000, Anchor Books)
  • The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (2017, Faber and Faber)
  • The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (2018, Faber and Faber)
  • Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom (2019, Faber and Faber) [102][103]

Children's books Edit

  • The Bed Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake (1976, Faber and Faber)
  • The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit (1996, Faber and Faber)
  • Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001, Faber and Faber)
  • Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001, Faber and Faber)

The United States Postal Service introduced a postage stamp featuring Plath in 2012. [104] [105] [106] An English Heritage plaque records Plath's residence at 3 Chalcot Square, in London. [27]


Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor. They were married in January of 1932. Otto taught both German and biology, with a focus on apiology, the study of bees.

In 1940, when Plath was eight years old, her father died as a result of complications from diabetes. He had been a strict father, and both his authoritarian attitudes and his death drastically defined Plath's relationships and her poems—most notably in her elegiac and infamous poem "Daddy."

Plath kept a journal from the age of eleven and published her poems in regional magazines and newspapers. Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor in 1950, just after graduating from high school.

In 1950, Plath matriculated at Smith College, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1955.

After graduation, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she attended a party and met the English poet Ted Hughes. Shortly thereafter, Plath and Hughes were married, on June 16, 1956.

Plath returned to Massachusetts in 1957 and began studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later in the United States. She returned to England, where she gave birth to her children Frieda and Nicholas, in 1960 and 1962, respectively.

In 1962, Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Gutmann Wevill. That winter, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel.

In 1963, Plath published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. She died on February 11 of that year.

Plath’s poetry is often associated with the Confessional movement, and compared to the work of poets such as Lowell and fellow student Anne Sexton. Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme.

Although only Colossus was published while she was alive, Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to posthumously win a Pulitzer Prize.


Plath's landscape poetry, which she wrote throughout her life, has been described as "a rich and important area of her work that is often overlooked . some of the best of which was written about the Yorkshire moors." Her September 1961 poem "Wuthering Heights" takes its title from the Emily Brontë novel, but its content and style is Plath's own particular vision of the Pennine landscape.

The Colossus received largely positive UK reviews, highlighting Plath's voice as new and strong, individual and American in tone. Peter Dickinson at Punch called the collection "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse". Bernard Bergonzi at the Manchester Guardian said the book was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso quality". From the point of publication she became a presence on the poetry scene. The book went on to be published in America in 1962 to less-glowing reviews. Whilst her craft was generally praised, her writing was viewed as more derivative of other poets.


The Life of Sylvia Plath

With a large collection of poetry under her belt, Sylvia Plath is also known for the famous novel The Bell Jar. Suffering from depression, Plath ended her life very early on. After her death, her work began to rise in popularity and she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27th, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. As a young child, she was very creative. In 1950, Sylvia Plath received a scholarship to Smith College after she’d published a few pieces. During her time spent as a student, she began to work for Mademoiselle Magazine in 1953 as an editor. Unfortunately, this job only brought her happiness for a moment. Very shortly after she’d received the job, Plath attempted to commit suicide with sleeping pills. This incident landed Sylvia Plath in a mental health institute where she was able to receive the treatment she needed. She eventually returned to college and received a degree in 1955.

After Sylvia Plath graduated from Smith College, she’d began attending Cambridge University through the Fulbright Fellowship. During her stay in England, Plath met her future husband Ted Hughes. They were married in 1956, but unfortunately, had a very troubled relationship. A year later, Plath moved back to the United States to teach English at Smith College. However, her time spent in the U.S. was short, Plath moved back to England in 1959.

Upon her return to England, Plath was able to see her first poetry collection published in 1960 titled The Colossus. This was a very big year for Plath, because she also gave birth to her first daughter that she named Freida. A couple years later, Plath gave birth to her second child, Nicholas. Despite their appearance of a happy relationship, Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath in 1962 to be with another woman. This incident sent Plath into downward spiral. Channeling her depression into creativity, Sylvia Plath began working on her only novel titled The Bell Jar. The novel was then published under a pseudonym of Victoria Lucas.

Unfortunately, channeling her depression into creativity didn’t help Plath deal with her real life problems. Sylvia Plath died on February 11th, 1963 after she’d committed suicide. Although her life was short lived, Sylvia Plath has gone down in history as one of the most influential female poets. After her death, another poetry collection was published and Plath even won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. People continue to read and love her work today and she will forever be remembered for her inspirational work.


Sylvia Plath’s final goodbye

In the fall of 1962, the American poet Sylvia Plath left her cottage in the English countryside for London. She needed a fresh start. Her husband, Ted Hughes, had abandoned her for another woman, leaving her alone with their two small children. She found an apartment in London’s Primrose Hill neighbourhood—the top two floors of a townhouse. “I am writing from London, so happy I can hardly speak,” she told her mother. “And guess what, it is W.B. Yeats’ house. With a blue plaque over the door saying he lived there!”

At Primrose Hill she would write in the early-morning hours while her children slept. Her productivity was extraordinary. In December she finished a poetry collection, and her publisher told her it should win the Pulitzer Prize. She was on her way to becoming one of the most celebrated young poets in the world—a reputation that would only grow in the coming years.

Malcolm Gladwell.

But in late December, a deadly cold settled on England. It was one of the most bitter winters in 300 years. The snow began falling and would not stop. People skated on the Thames. Water pipes froze solid. There were power outages and labour strikes. Plath had struggled with depression all her life, and the darkness returned. Her friend, literary critic Alfred Alvarez, came to see her on Christmas Eve. “She seemed different,” he remembered in his memoir The Savage God.

“Her hair, which she usually wore in a tight, schoolmistressy bun, was loose. It hung straight to her waist like a tent, giving her pale face and gaunt figure a curiously desolate, rapt air, like a priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult. When she walked in front of me down the hall passage…her hair gave off a strong smell, sharp as an animal’s.”

Her apartment was spare and cold, barely furnished and with little in the way of Christmas decorations for her children. “For the unhappy,” Alvarez wrote, “Christmas is always a bad time: the terrible false jollity that comes at you from every side, braying about goodwill and peace and family fun, makes loneliness and depression particularly hard to bear. I had never seen her so strained.”

They each had a glass of wine, and following their habit she read to him her latest poems. They were dark. The new year came and the weather grew even worse. Plath feuded with her ex-husband. She fired her au pair. She gathered her children and went to stay at the house of Jillian and Gerry Becker, who lived nearby. “I feel terrible,” she said. She took some antidepressants, fell asleep, then woke up in tears. That was a Thursday. On Friday she wrote her ex-husband, Ted Hughes, what he would later call a “farewell note.” On Sunday she insisted that Gerry Becker drive her and her children back to their apartment. He left her in the early evening, after she had put her children to bed. At some point over the next few hours, she left some food and water for her children in their room and opened their bedroom window. She wrote out the name of her doctor, with a telephone number, and stuck it to the baby carriage in the hallway. Then she took towels, dishcloths, and tape and sealed the kitchen door. She turned on the gas in her kitchen stove, placed her head inside the oven, and took her own life.

Talking to Strangers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 640
Price: Rs 1,837

Poets die young. That is not just a cliché. The life expectancy of poets, as a group, trails playwrights, novelists, and nonfiction writers by a considerable margin. They have higher rates of “emotional disorders” than actors, musicians, composers, and novelists. And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates— as much as five times higher than the general population. Something about writing poetry appears either to attract the wounded or to open new wounds—and few have so perfectly embodied that image of the doomed genius as Sylvia Plath.

Plath was obsessed with suicide. She wrote about it, thought about it. “She talked about suicide in much the same tone as she talked about any other risky, testing activity: urgently, even fiercely, but altogether without self-pity,” Alvarez wrote. “She seemed to view death as a physical challenge she had, once again, overcome. It was an experience of much the same quality as . . . careering down a dangerous snow slope without properly knowing how to ski.”

She fulfilled every criterion of elevated suicide risk. She had tried it before. She was a former mental patient. She was an American living in a foreign culture—dislocated from family and friends. She was from a broken home. She’d just been rejected by a man she idolised.

On the night of her death, Plath left her coat and her keys behind at the Beckers’. In her book on Plath (everyone who knew Plath, even tangentially, has written at least one book about her), Jillian Becker interprets that as a sign of the finality of Plath’s decision:

“Had she supposed that Gerry or I would come after her during the night with her coat and keys? No. She had not expected or wanted to be saved at the last moment from self-inflicted death.”

The coroner’s report stated that Plath had placed her head as far inside the oven as she could, as if she were determined to succeed. Becker continued:

“She’d blocked the cracks at the bottom of the doors to the landing and the sitting room, turned all the gas taps full on, neatly folded a kitchen cloth and placed it on the floor of the oven, and laid her cheek on it.”

Can there be any doubt about her intentions? Just look at what she was writing in the days before she took her own life.

Body wears the smile of accomplishment…

We have come so far, it is over.

We look at Sylvia Plath’s poetry and her history and catch glimpses of her inner life, and we think we understand her. But there’s something we’re forgetting—the third of the mistakes we make with strangers.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Talking to Strangers’, by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Penguin Random House


Watch the video: The Extraordinary Love of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes


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