Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She is most famous for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar and her advancements in confessional poetry building on the work of Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Plath has been widely researched and followed since her controversial suicide. She has gained fame as one of the greatest poets of her generation. Widely read throughout the world, Sylvia Plath has risen to iconic status because of her emotional poetry dealing with loss and depression, and has thus touched many people struggling with the same feelings.
In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Collected Poems.
Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 to Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober. Her mother had graduated second in her class from high school and served as valedictorian for her undergraduate studies at Boston University. She remained at Boston University to pursue her graduate studies in English and German. It was there that she met Otto Plath, a professor of German and Biology. Otto Plath served as one of Aurelia's teachers, and though he was married at the time (having been separated for thirteen years), the two fell in love. Otto received a divorce, and the two were married on January 4, 1932. Their first child, Sylvia, was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, a section of Boston, on October 27, of that year. She was a gifted and talented child, who learned to speak and write before most children her age. By the age of five she was already composing full poems. Her brother, Warren, was born in 1935.
The end of the 1930s saw the downfall of Otto Plath. He suffered from illnesses and complications for several years. He believed that he was suffering from lung cancer, and because there was no effective treatment for cancer at the time, he decided not to see a doctor. However, in 1940, Otto developed a severe infection in his foot, for which he had to see the doctor. The doctor told him that his leg would have to be amputated, and that Otto suffered from diabetes and it was now quite advanced because of years without treatment. Shortly after the surgery, Otto Plath developed gangrene and died on November 5, 1940.
Sylvia, then only eight years old, proclaimed, "I'll never speak to God again," when she was informed that her father had died. Her father's death was the catalyst to many poems that Plath composed both during her childhood and as an adult. She often believed that her father had committed suicide in a sense, because he could have prevented his long illness and death if he had only been treated. In 1941, Sylvia Plath had her first poem published at the age of eight. The poem, given the simple title of "Poem," was about "what I see and hear on hot summer nights."
With her father's death, and America's entrance into World War II, Aurelia Plath decided to take a position at Boston University. Aurelia moved Sylvia, Warren, and her own parents, now living with them, to the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Aurelia was deeply troubled about how to handle Sylvia's withdrawn and angry behavior. She decided to enroll Sylvia in the fifth grade again. She thought that it would lessen the stress in Sylvia's life if she reviewed material that was already familiar to her, and if she were near students her own age. Sylvia had started school two years early, and was thus, the youngest person in her classes.
In junior high, Sylvia submitted several poems for publication in the school newspaper and she even made drawings to accompany several of the poems. Her writing career continued to grow and find an audience as she attended Wellesley High School. She was vigilant in her efforts to publish her poems, as well as her short stories. In the August, 1950, edition of Seventeen, her story "And Summer Will Not Come Again" was published. Sylvia finished high school as the first in her class and finally saw one of her poems, "Bitter Strawberries," nationally published. The recognition she received for her writing was not easily gained. Sylvia sent out hundreds of submissions and met rejection letter after rejection letter. The stress she felt from these rejections often manifested itself as illness, most often as depression. However, she was usually able to overcome these bouts when a favorable response was given to her work.
Upon graduation, Sylvia was given a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her writing resume continued to grow as Sylvia worked diligently to get stories and poems published in Seventeen, Harper's, and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1953, Plath's ambitious efforts were rewarded when she was chosen as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City, which she won this with her submission, "Sunday at the Mintons."
The time in New York proved to be too much for Plath, and marked the beginning of her first breakdown. She once missed a lunch with one of the other editors, whose guest happened to be the poet Dylan Thomas. When Sylvia found out she had missed the chance to meet Thomas, she was frustrated and angry. She became obsessed with making up for this by meeting him. She began spending hours at his favorite taverns, she would wander the halls of his hotel building, and she began behaving very strangely. One of her co-editors recalls Sylvia's behavior, reporting that one night Sylvia came and asked to borrow a dress because she had tossed all of her own dresses off the roof of the hotel. It was during this time that Sylvia wrote her poem, "Mad Girl's Love Song."
Her return to Massachusetts and Smith College was marked by a very severe case of depression. Her mother became concerned when she noticed cuts along Sylvia's legs. When she asked her daughter how she got them, Sylvia responded by saying that she wanted "to see if I had the guts." Sylvia admitted to her mother that she had thoughts of suicide and felt like she wanted to die.
Sylvia's mother immediately sought help and Sylvia was taken to a clinic. She was treated with electro-convulsive shock therapy (ECT) along with counseling. Even though this helped for a period of months, on August 24, 1953, Sylvia attempted suicide by breaking into a locked box with medication inside. She wrote a note to her mother that she had gone on a walk and then she crawled under the front porch and into the cellar where she ingested 40 sleeping pills. For two days her family, friends and fellow townspeople searched for Sylvia, her disappearance making newspaper headlines. She was discovered August 26, when someone heard moaning coming from the cellar. She was barely alive and rushed to the hospital. She spent time in the psychiatric ward at Boston's McLean Hospital where she made a satisfactory recovery.
The time in New York, followed by her subsequent suicide attempt, is depicted in her most famous work, The Bell Jar. After her stay in the hospital, it took Sylvia several months before she started writing again. During this time, she started bleaching her hair platinum blond, creating a "new persona" for herself. Sylvia went on to graduate from Smith college summa cum laude in 1955. Sylvia applied to several universities, including University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. Prior to graduation, Sylvia was informed that she had won the very prestigious Fulbright scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England. Her joy was even more complete when she won the writing competition for the Glascock Prize with her poem, "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea."
When Sylvia Plath entered the University of Cambridge, she concentrated on two things, her writing, and her social life. She dated often, but was not interested in English men. She went on a trip to France with an old friend with whom she wanted a serious relationship. When he informed her that he was dating someone else, she fell into depression again. While attending a launch party for the new Cambridge magazine, St. Boltophe's Review, she met English poet Ted Hughes. She was immediately attracted to him and asked to be introduced. When they met she quoted one of his poems to him and they began dating. Their relationship was a turbulent and passionate one. Ted Hughes was known as "the biggest seducer in Cambridge," but Sylvia ignored this fact.
The couple dated for only a few months before discussing marriage. Sylvia was worried that marriage would cause her to lose her scholarship so they were married in secret on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday) with Plath's mother in attendance. Later, Sylvia learned that she would not lose her scholarship and the couple went public with their relationship.
Sylvia was offered a teaching position at Smith College in 1957, which she took. She and Hughes lived and worked in the United States from July 1957 to October 1959. Hughes received acclaim and celebration in America for his novel, The Hawk in the Rain, and for the first time, Sylvia felt very jealous of her husband. He was widely accepted and loved in a country that had rejected her again and again. During this time, Sylvia took seminars in Boston with Robert Lowell and there she also met poet Anne Sexton.
The couple returned to England when they found out that Sylvia was pregnant. Their daughter, Frieda Hughes was born on April 1, 1960. The child was named after a paternal aunt whom Sylvia admired.
Sylvia and Hughes lived for a time in a small flat in London, but eventually settled in Court Green, North Tawton, a small market town in Mid Devonshire. They simultaneously worked on getting their poetry published. Her first collection of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in the United Kingdom in 1960. Ted's second book of poems was published and received excellent reviews. In February 1961, Plath suffered a miscarriage. She was devastated by this event and wrote seven poems in February, the month she lost the baby. These poems are "Parliament Hill Fields," "Whitsun," "Zoo Keeper's Wife," "Face Lift," "Morning Song," "Heavy Women" and "Barren Woman," the majority dealing with the subject of loss.
Their marriage was not a happy one. The couple fought often; Ted hit Sylvia and she would hit him back. Sylvia's mother came to England to watch her granddaughter so that the couple could get away and spend some time together. They traveled to France, where Sylvia wrote many poems. A few months later she found out she was pregnant again. It was during this time that she submitted many poems to The New Yorker and also her manuscript, The Bell Jar. On January 21, 1962, Sylvia gave birth to a strong, healthy boy they named Nicholas. However, she became very distressed to see that Hughes was distant towards the child, and seemed disappointed that the baby was not another girl.
Sylvia and Ted began associating with another literary couple, Assis Gutmann and David Wevill. Sylvia noticed immediately that flirtations were going on between her husband and Assis. Sylvia let her feelings be known through her poetry. The flirtations grew into a full affair and when Sylvia discovered it she became angry and bitter, resorting to violent behavior. The marriage fell apart with Hughes blaming it on her mental illness and Sylvia blaming it on his affair. Sylvia's exact illness was never diagnosed. Theories range from bipolar disorder (manic-depressive syndrome) to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Plath returned to London with their two children and rented a flat where William Butler Yeats once lived. She wanted to get back at Hughes for his treatment of her so she began another novel about an adulterous husband. Although Sylvia claimed that she was happier now that she was separated from Hughes, her outward behavior did not validate this claim. She had a very depressed winter in 1962, trying to deal with her first Christmas without Ted.
After a harsh Christmas, Plath knew she was lonely and depressed. She called on her friend Jillian Becker and sought refuge at her house in the country. The Becker home was everything Sylvia longed for, a house full of children, love, and kindness. It offered her and her children warmth and comfort. The weekend was a happy one, full of laughter and fun for the children. She ventured back to London on a Sunday.
On February 11, 1963, Plath made her children a snack of bread and butter. She opened their bedroom window, closed the door and put tape and towels under the doors to the kitchen and the children's bedroom. She then went into the kitchen and turned on the gas to the oven. She knelt in front of the oven and inhaled the gas until she died. A nurse arrived at the house, but was unable to enter. She tried at the neighbors, but they too did not answer as they were also suffering from the effects of the gas. Finally, she got in with the help of a construction worker and found Plath and the children. The children were fine because of the cold air coming in from the open window.
Plath was buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire in the Hughes family cemetery. In March of 2009 her son's life took a similar tragic turn, 46 years after his mother gassed herself while he slept. Nicholas Hughes hanged himself at his home in Alaska after battling against depression for some time. He was unmarried with no children of his own and had been a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Sylvia Plath eventually gained all the recognition in death that she had sought in life.
At Sylvia Plath's death, her husband Ted Hughes became the sole executor of Plath’s personal and literary estates. Many disagreed with this decision, claiming that Sylvia was in the process of obtaining a divorce from Ted Hughes, and thus, he should have no say in the distribution of her property. Her apparent desire for a divorce was never proven. It seems that she wrote letters to family and friends that stated she had begun filing for divorce, while at the same time telling other friends that she was hopeful for a reconciliation. If Sylvia had been in the process of divorcing Hughes, then his inheritance of her estate would have been disputed. Admirers of Plath were angered by this to the extent that the name "Hughes" was chiseled off of Plath's headstone. It has now been made tamper proof.
A major factor in the angry reaction over Hughes handling of Plath's estate was his destruction of her very last journal. It covered the period from the winter of 1962 to her death. Sylvia Plath was an avid diary keeper. She started writing in her diary at the age of 11 and completed several volumes until her death. The diaries that chronicled her life in college and onward were finally published in 1980, titled, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough.
In 1982, Hughes gave Sylvia's remaining journals to Smith College, where he sealed two of them until February 11, 2013 (50 years after Plath's death). However, Hughes decided to unseal the journals in 1998 and turned them over to his children, Freida and Nicholas. The children decided to pass the project on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her edits in December 1999 and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly unreleased material. Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a "genuine literary event."
In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously (for The Collected Poems). Hughes did much of the work in getting the rest of Sylvia's writings published, including the book of poems, Ariel. Many critics were angry with his apparent re-organization of the poems, claiming that he was changing the original intent of the book, and thus the feelings of Plath, herself. Hughes denied all these accusations, and truly tried to release as much of Plath's writing to the world as he could. He even persuaded Sylvia's mother, Aurelia, to agree to the publication of Sylvia's more controversial works. In Hughes's last collection, Birthday Letters, he finally speaks out about his lingering and intense feelings for Sylvia Plath. His daughter, Frieda, did the cover artwork.
It is through the poems in Ariel that Plath departs from her earlier style and makes her way into the confessional area of poetry. It is often thought that Robert Lowell's poetry—which was often labeled "confessional"—influenced Sylvia in her change of style. The impact of Ariel was dramatic. It was open and honest with its depiction of mental illness, loss, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Many continue to see similarities in Plath's work and her fellow poets, such as Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets.
- The Colossus (1960) ISBN 978-0375704468
- Ariel (1965) ISBN 0060908904
- Crossing the Water (1971) ISBN 0060907894
- Winter Trees (1972) ISBN 0571108628
- The Collected Poems (1981) ISBN 0060909005
- The Bell Jar (1963) ISBN 0060930187 under the pseudonym 'Victoria Lucas'
- Letters Home (1975) ISBN 0060974915 to and edited by her mother
- Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams ISBN 0060955295 (1977) (the UK edition contains two stories, the US edition does not)
- The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982) ISBN 0345351681
- The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath's Smith College senior thesis
- The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000) ISBN 0385720254
- The Bed Book (1976) ISBN 0064431843
- The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996) ISBN 057119060X
- Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001) ISBN 0571207561
- Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001) ISBN 057119589X
A number of 'limited edition' works were published by specialist publishers, often with very small print runs.
- Becker, Jillian. 2002. Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. London: Ferrington. ISBN 0312315988
- Hayman, Ronald. 1991. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0750934220
- Steinberg, Peter K. 2004. Sylvia Plath, Chelsea House Great Writers Series. ISBN 0791078434
- Wagner, Erica. 2001. Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of "Birthday Letters." Faber & Faber. ISBN 0571205267
- Wagner-Martin, Linda. 1999. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0312223234
All links retrieved January 15, 2020.
- Literary Encyclopedia biography.
- Sylvia Plath on Poets.org Biography, poems, related essays and links from the Academy of American Poets.
- Sylvia Plath Forum.
- Sylvia Plath's Gravesite.
- Sylvia Plath homepage by Anja Beckmann.
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