Cover of Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life by Linda Wagner-Martin
|Born: ||October 27, 1932 |
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
|Died: ||February 11, 1963 |
|Occupation(s): ||poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist |
|Nationality: || American |
|Literary movement: ||confessional poetry |
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Most famous as a poet, Plath is also known for The Bell Jar, her semi-autobiographical novel detailing her struggle with bipolar disorder. Plath and Anne Sexton are credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry that Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass initiated.
Since her suicide, Sylvia Plath has risen to iconic status.
Plath was born in Boston to a German father and an Austrian-American mother. She showed early promise, publishing her first poem at the age of eight.
Her father, Otto, a college professor and noted authority on the subject of bees, died of an embolism following surgery (complications from undiagnosed diabetes) on November 5, 1940. She was eight years old at the time, and, upon his death was quoted to have said: "I'll never speak to God again." The pain was carried with her throughout her life, indicated through her continual use of bees in her poetry as allusions to her father's life.
She continued to try to publish poems, and in August of 1950, her first short story, "And Summer Will Not Come Again" appeared in Seventeen magazine.
A self-portrait circa
Plath suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout her life. The nature of her illness remains the subject of much speculation. Theories range from bipolar disorder (manic-depressive syndrome) to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Smith College & McLean Hospital (1950-55)
She entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950, but in the summer of 1953, after her return from a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York, she experienced a severe episode of depression and was treated with a regimen of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and, subsequently, at the beginning of her junior year, on August 24, 1953, she made her first suicide attempt.
She was committed to a mental institution (McLean Hospital), and seemed to make an acceptable recovery, graduating from Smith summa cum laude in 1955, the same year she won the prestigious Glascock Prize competition for her poem "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea." She later depicted her breakdown in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.
University of Cambridge
Plath earned a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where she began her studies in the fall of 1955, and continued writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity.
Marriage to Ted Hughes (1956)
At Cambridge she met English poet Ted Hughes in February 1956. They married on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday), with Plath's mother in attendance.
Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States. Plath taught at Smith. They then moved to Boston where Plath sat in on seminars with Robert Lowell. This course was to have a profound influence on her work. Plath also met poet Anne Sexton during these seminars, and became friends with her. At this time Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and remained a lifelong friend.
United Kingdom (1959-63)
On discovering that Plath was pregnant, they moved back to the United Kingdom in December 1959. Frieda Hughes was born on April 1, 1960.
She and Hughes lived in London for a while before settling in Court Green, North Tawton, a small market town in Mid Devonshire. She published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus, in the United Kingdom in 1960. In February 1961, she suffered a miscarriage. A number of poems refer to this event. On January 17, 1962, after her determination to have more children finally paid off, she gave birth to a son, Nicholas Farrar, in their home in Devon.
Separation from Hughes (1962-63)
Her marriage met with difficulties, and they were separated in the fall of 1962, less than two years after the birth of their first child, Frieda. Their separation was partly due to her mental illness, which was exacerbated by the affair that Hughes had with a fellow poet's wife, Assia Wevill.
Plath returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas. She rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill (near Regent's Park), in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived; Plath was extremely pleased with this and considered it a good omen.
However, the winter of 1962/1963 was very harsh. Finding herself unable to cope, she rang her friend Jillian Becker and spent the last weekend of her life at the Becker household. The Becker home was warm and comfortable and equipped for children, the Beckers having three girls, the youngest, Madeleine, a baby of about Nick's age. She appears to have been happy that weekend, and resolved to return home on the Sunday.
On February 11, 1963, Plath gassed herself in her kitchen, ending her life at the age of 30. The new nanny arrived but couldn't rouse Plath's neighbor in the flat below, as he was under the effect of the gas. Plath's children were found in good health, if a bit chilled--she had taken the precautions of opening the windows in the other rooms, sealing their door off with tape, and sealing the kitchen door crack with dish towels. Her body was discovered that morning by a nurse scheduled to visit, and the construction worker who helped her get into the house.
It is thought that news of Assia's pregnancy with Ted's child contributed to her motivation for suicide. Assia terminated the pregnancy soon after Sylvia's death.
Plath is buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire.
Six years later, Wevill killed herself and her 4-year-old daughter in a manner that resembled Plath's suicide.
Rumors of her poverty in the last year of her life have been disputed by later books, particularly Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame. The neutrality of this biography is disputed, and it remains difficult to obtain an objective account of the relationship between Plath and Hughes.
Hughes as executor
Hughes became the executor of Plath’s personal and literary estates. This is controversial, as it is uncertain whether or not Plath had begun divorce proceedings before her death: if she had, Hughes' inheritance of the Plath estate would have been disputed. In letters to Aurelia Plath and Richard Murphy, Plath writes that she was applying for a divorce. However, Hughes said in a letter to "The Guardian" that Plath did not seriously consider divorce, and claims they were talking about a future together right up until her death.
Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, though he denied this. Examples usually cited are his censoring of parts of her journals, and his editing of "Ariel." This editing involved removing several poems, and rearranging the order in which the works appeared. Some critics argue this prevented what was intended to be a more uplifting beginning and ending of "Ariel," and that the poems removed were the ones most readily identified as being about Hughes. He also cut a deal with Plath's mother Aurelia when she tried to block publication of her daughter's more controversial works in the United States. In his last collection, "Birthday Letters," Hughes broke his silence about Plath. The cover artwork was done by Frieda.
Despite criticism and biographies published after her death, the debate about Plath's work resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes. An indication of the level of bitterness that some people have directed at Hughes can be seen in the history of people chiseling the word "Hughes" off her gravestone. Her headstone has subsequently been rendered more 'tamper proof.'
Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as "The Journals of Sylvia Plath," edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired all of Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2003 (40 years after Plath's death). During his last years of 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 Freida and Nicholas, who passed it 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. The publication was hailed as a "genuine literary event" by Joyce Carol Oates.
In 2006, Anna Journey, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered a previously unpublished sonnet titled "Ennui." The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.
In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously (for "The Collected Poems").
The extent of Hughes' influence has been a topic of great debate. Plath's poems are written as if in her own voice, and the similarities between the two poets' works are slight.
Plath has also been heavily criticized for her controversial allusions to The Holocaust, and is known for her shocking use of metaphor.
Plath's work has been associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets.
While critics initially responded favorably to Plath's first book, "The Colossus," it has also been described as conventional and lacking the drama of her later works.
The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more confessional area of poetry. It is possible Lowell's poetry--which was often labeled "confessional"--played a part in this shift. The impact of "Ariel" was dramatic, with its frank descriptions of mental illness in pseudo-autobiographical poems such as "Daddy."
- The Colossus (1960)
- Cut (1962)
- Ariel (1965)
- Crossing the Water (1971)
- Winter Trees (1972)
- The Collected Poems (1981)
- Poppies in July
- Morning Song
- Lady Lazarus
- The Bell Jar (1963) under the pseudonym 'Victoria Lucas'
- Letters Home (1975) to and edited by her mother
- Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977) (the UK edition contains two stories the US edition does not)
- The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
- The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath's Smith College senior thesis
- The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000)
- The Bed Book (1976)
- The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996)
- Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001)
- Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001)
- A number of "limited edition" works were published by specialist publishers, often with very small print runs.
- Sylvia Plath (2004, Chelsea House, Great Writers Series) by Peter K. Steinberg | ISBN 0-7910-7843-4
- Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook, Viking Adult 2003 ISBN 0-670-03187-9
- Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991, Da Capo Press) by Paul Alexander | ISBN 0-3068-1299-1
- Sylvia Plath: Method & Madness (A Biography) (2004, Schaffner Press, 2Rev Ed edition) by Edward Butscher | ISBN 0-9710-5982-9
- The 2003 film, Sylvia, tells the story of the troubled relationship of the couple.
- Hayman, Ronald  The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath London, Melbourne, Auckland Heinemann.
- Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters, by Erica Wagner.
- Linda Wagner-Martin wrote Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
- Jillian Becker: Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. The friend with whom Plath spent the last weekend of her life recalls their friendship. Ferrington, London 2002.
- "Sylvia Plath" is a song by Ryan Adams from his 2001 record, Gold.
- "Crackle & Drag" by Paul Westerberg from the 2003 album Come Feel Me Tremble.
- Psychobiographical chapter on the loss of Plath's father and the effect of that loss on her personality and her art contained in Schultz's Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press). For more info go to http://www.psychobiography.com
- The 1994 song by Canadian band hHead "Will" is about Sylvia Plath and her suicide.
When asked about her writing habits, Beatrice Lao quoted from her poem: 'Luscious lips of a Prada bag pout, Out springs a Plath poem, Recreating the sixties'. The Asian poetess carries drafts of her own poems in her bag.
In Kiss the Girls by James Patterson, chapter 46 contains this reference, as narrated by central character, Alex Cross. "I remembered a sad, powerful Sylvia Plath poem called "Tulips". It was about Plath's decidedly unsentimental reaction to flowers sent to her hospital room after a suicide attempt."
In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer observes a copy of "Ariel" and remarks, "Sylvia Plath - interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality ." (The word "poetess" has become uncommon in recent years: it is surprising that Allen used it, because he knew many people who would have deprecated it; perhaps, Allen is satirizing himself or his character. In the Nineteenth Century, women who wrote poetry were called "poetesses; women who did sculpture were called "sculptresses." In 2006, women who write poetry are called "poets," just as women who write novels are called "novelists."
In the movie Fight Club, Sylvia Plath is mentioned by the character performed by Edward Norton - which is referenced simply as the narrator - when he says, "In the Tibetan philosophy, Sylvia Plath sense of the word, we're all dying. But you're not dying the way Chloe is dying."
In the film Not Another Teen Movie, protagonist Janey says "I read Sylvia Plath, I listen to Bikini Kill and I eat Tofu. I am a unique rebel."
The song "The Girl Who Wanted to Be God" by the Manic Street Preachers from their 1996 album Everything Must Go is about Plath.
The song "Bloody Ice Cream" by Bikini Kill from their album, Reject All American is about Plath. The lyrics are: "The Sylvia Plath story is told to girls who write/They want us to think that to be a girl poet/Means you have to die/Who is it/That told me/All girls who write must suicide?/I've another good one for you/We are turning/Cursive letters into knives."
The singer/songwriter Ryan Adams has a song named "Sylvia Plath", on his second album, Gold, in which the singer imagines what he would do with Sylvia if they were to have met-'I gotta get me a Sylvia Plath/And maybe she'd take me to France/Or maybe to Spain and she'd ask me to dance/In a mansion on the top of a hill/She'd ash on the carpets/And slip me a pill'
In the song "You Are the Moon", from the album Like Vines, by The Hush Sound there is a lyric "I will bring a mirror, so silver, so exact" referring to the poem "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath. Greta Salpeter, the singer/songwriter, is a known Sylvia Plath fan.
Liz Moore's song "Sylvia" is an ode to the life and plight of the troubled literary icon.
The British indie band Nine Black Alps is named after a line in one of Plath's poems.
Paul Westerberg's song "Crackle and Drag" is about Sylvia Plath and the title was taken from her poem, "Edge", which was written the day before her suicide.
The Ames, Iowa band The Envy Corps have a song titled "Sylvia (The Beekeeper)" which discusses in some detail, Sylvia Plath.
Joshua Radin's song "These Photographs" makes reference to Sylvia Plath: 'You're Sylvia Plath/As you drift from the bath./I hand you a robe/And so it goes/The moment'll pass.'
Suicide Black Metal project, Lurker Of Chalice, uses a sample of Gwyneth Paltrow playing Plath from the movie "Sylvia"
'Sometimes, I feel like I'm not solid. I'm hollow; there's nothing behind my eyes. I'm a negative of a person — as if I never thought anything, never wrote anything, never felt anything. All I want is blackness — blackness and silence'