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Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), poet and novelist, explored her obsessions with death, self, and nature in works that expressed her ambivalent attitudes toward the universe.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston's Memorial Hospital on October 27, 1932, to Aurelia and Otto Plath. Otto, who was a biology professor and a well-respected authority on entomology at Boston University, would later figure as a major image of persecution in his daughter's best known poems—"Daddy, " "The Colossus, " and "Lady Lazarus." His sudden death, eight years after Sylvia's birth, plunged the sensitive child into an abyss of grief, guilt, and angry despair which would haunt her for life and provide her poetry with the central motifs and tragic dimensions that characterize it.

Although she promised never to speak to God again after the death of her father, Plath, on the surface at least, gave the appearance of being a socially well-adjusted child who excelled in every undertaking, dazzling her teachers in the Winthrop public school system and earning straight A's for her superior academic skills and writing abilities. She was just eight and a half when her first poem was published in the Boston Sunday Herald.

Plath lived in Winthrop with her mother and younger brother, Warren, until 1942, when Aurelia Plath purchased a house in Wellesley. These early years in Winthrop provided the poet with her powerful awareness of the beauty and terror of nature and instilled in her an abiding love and fear of the ocean, which she envisioned as female:

   Like a deep woman, it hid a good deal;
   it had many faces, many delicate terrible veils.
   … if it could court, it could also kill.

Thus, even then, Plath was expressing her antithetical attitudes toward existence, embracing life and rejecting it simultaneously.

Wellesley, likewise, influenced Plath's life and values. It was a middle-class, highly respectable, educational community whose attitudes were at first accepted wholeheartedly by the young idealistic girl who was beginning to have her poems and stories published in Seventeen magazine. Her first story, "And Summer Will Not Come Again, " appeared in August 1950.

In September 1950 Plath entered Smith College in Northhampton on a scholarship. There she once again excelled academically and socially. Dubbed the golden girl by teachers and peers, she planned diligently for her writing career. She filled notebooks with stories, villanelles, sonnets, and rondels, shaping her poems with studious precision and winning many awards.

In August 1952 she won Mademoiselle's fiction contest, earning her a guest editorship at the magazine for June 1953. Her experiences in New York City were demoralizing and later became the basis for her novel The Bell Jar (1963). Upon her return home Plath, depressed and in conflict with her hard-won image as the All-American girl, suffered a serious mental breakdown, attempted suicide, and was given shock treatments. In February 1953 she had recovered enough to return to Smith. She was graduated summa cum laude and won a Fulbright fellowship to Cambridge, where she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes. They were married June 16, 1956, in London.

After earning her graduate degree Plath returned to America to accept a teaching position at Smith for the academic term 1957-1958. She quit after a year to devote full time to her writing. For a while she attended Robert Lowell's poetry seminar, where she met Anne Sexton. Sexton's and Lowell's influences were decisive for her poetic development. Both poets opened up for her very private and taboo subjects and introduced her to new kinds of emotional and psychological depths.

Plath and her husband were invited as writers-in-residence to Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, where they lived and worked for two months. It was here that Plath completed many of the poems collected in The Colossus, her first volume, published in 1960, the year her first child—Frieda—was born. Another child, Nicholas, was born two years later.

The Colossus was praised by critics for its "fine craft, " "fastidious vocabulary, " "potent symbolism, " and "brooding sense of danger and lurking horror" at man's place in the universe. But it was criticized for its absence of a personal voice, "its elaborate checks and courtesies, " and its "maddening docility and deflections."

Not until "Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices" (1962)—a radio play which was considered by some critics to be her transitional, formative work—would she begin to free her style and write more spontaneous, less narrative, less expository poetry. "Three Women" foreshadows some of Plath's later poetry in that its structure is dramatic and expressive of those highly personal themes that mark her work.

As it developed, her poetry became more autobiographical and private in imagery. Almost all the poems in Ariel (1965), considered her finest work and written during the last few months of her life, are personal testimonies to her angers, insecurities, fears, and overwhelming sense of loneliness and death. At last she had found the voice that had for so long eluded her.

   Peel off the napkin
   O my enemy.
   Do I terrify?

Not surprisingly, that voice offended many people for its unflinching directness and use of startling metaphors. In "Lady Lazarus" her father, "Herr Doktor, " is compared to a Nazi scientist: "Herr Enemy." In "Daddy" dead Otto becomes a "fascist, a brute chuffing me off like a Jew/A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen."

Violent and frighteningly vivid in its depiction of suicide, death, mutilation, and brutality, Ariel shocked critics and induced in its creator a powerful new sense of self. In his introduction to Ariel, Robert Lowell described that new self as "something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created … hardly a person … but one of those superreal, hynotic, great classical heroines. … ."

In later poetry published posthumously in Crossing The Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1971) this new self was able to voice its long-suppressed rage over "years of doubleness, smiles, and compromise."

Ironically, although Plath is often regarded by critics as the poet of death, her final poems, which deal with self and how self goes about creating and transcending itself in an irrational, destructive, materialistic world, clearly express her yearning for faith in the healing self-transforming powers of art.

   Miracles occur,
   If you care to call those spasmodic
   Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
   The long wait for the angel
   For that rare, random descent.

Despite this sense of possible redemption, Plath could not escape the tragedy that invaded and overwhelmed her personal life. By February 1963 her marriage had ended; she was ill and living on the edge of another breakdown while caring for two small children in a cramped flat in London ravaged by the coldest winter in decades. On Monday, February 11, she killed herself. The last gesture she made was to leave her children two mugs of milk and a plate of buttered bread.

Further Reading

A good biography of Plath is Edward Butscher's Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976). Other books of interest are Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, edited by Aurelia Plath (1975); The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982); Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation by Jon Rosenblatt (1979); Plath's Incarnations by Lynda Bundtzen (1983); A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath by Nancy Hunter Steiner (1973); Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Margaret Dickie Uroff (1980); Sylvia Plath by Caroline King Barnard (1978); Plath: Poetry and Existence by David Holbrook (1976); and The Art of Plath: A Symposium, edited by Charles Newman (1970). □

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Plath, Sylvia

Sylvia Plath

Born: October 27, 1932
Boston, Massachusetts

Died: February 11, 1963
London, England

American poet and novelist

Best known for The Bell Jar, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath explored the themes of death, self, and nature in works that expressed her uncertain attitude toward the universe.

Early life

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932, to Otto and Aurelia Plath. Her father, a professor of biology (the study of plant and animal life) at Boston University and a well-respected authority on bees, died when she was eight years old. She was left with feelings of grief, guilt, and anger that would haunt her for life and led her to create most of her poetry. Plath gave the appearance of being a socially well-adjusted child. She was also an excellent student who dazzled her teachers in the Winthrop, Massachusetts, public school system and earned straight A's and praise for her writing abilities. She was just eight and a half when her first poem was published in the Boston Herald.

Plath lived in Winthrop with her mother and younger brother, Warren, until 1942. These early years gave her a powerful awareness of the beauty and terror of nature and a strong love and fear of the ocean. In 1942 her mother found a job as a teacher and purchased a house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a respectable, middle-class, educational community that also influenced Plath's life and values. Her first story, "And Summer Will Not Come Again," was published in Seventeen magazine in August 1950. In September 1950 Plath entered Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts, on a scholarship (money given to a gifted student to attend college). There she once again excelled in her studies academically and socially. Referred to as "the golden girl" by teachers and peers, she planned her writing career in detail. She filled notebooks with stories and poems, shaping her words carefully and winning many awards.

Out in the world

In August 1952 Plath won a fiction contest held by Mademoiselle, earning her a position as guest editor at the magazine in June 1953. Her experiences in New York City, were depressing and later became the basis for her novel The Bell Jar (1963). Upon her return home Plath, tired of her image as the All-American girl, suffered a serious mental breakdown, tried to kill herself, and was given shock treatments. In February 1953 she had recovered enough to return to Smith College. She graduated and won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University in England, where she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes (19301998). They were married in June 1956 in London, England.

After Plath earned her graduate degree, she returned to America to accept a teaching position at Smith for the 19571958 school year. She quit after a year to devote all her time to writing. For a while she attended a poetry course given by American poet Robert Lowell (19171977), where she met American poet Anne Sexton (19281974). Sexton's and Lowell's influences were important to her development as a poet. Both urged her to write about very private subjects. Plath and her husband were invited as writers-in-residence to Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, where they lived and worked for two months. It was here that Plath completed many of the poems collected in The Colossus (1960), her first volume of poems. Her first child, Frieda, was born in 1960. Another child, Nicholas, was born two years later.

The Colossus was praised by critics for its "fine craft" and "brooding [anxious] sense of danger and lurking horror" at man's place in the universe. But it was criticized for its absence of a personal voice. Not until "Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices" (1962)a radio play that was considered a key work by some criticswould Plath begin to free her style and write more natural, less narrative (telling a story) poetry. "Three Women" is like much of Plath's later poetry in that its structure is dramatic and expresses the highly personal themes that mark her work.

Expressing inner demons

As Plath's poetry developed, it became more autobiographical (about her own life) and private. Almost all the poems in Ariel (1965), considered her finest work and written during the last few months of her life, are personal accounts of her anger, insecurity, fear, and tremendous sense of loneliness and death. She had found the voice that she had tried to express for so long. Violent and vivid in its description of suicide, death, and brutality, Ariel shocked critics, especially several poems that compare her father to a member of the Nazis (members of the ruling party in Germany, 193345, who killed six million Jewish people during World War II [193945], which was a war fought between Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States against Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Plath could not escape the tragedy that invaded and took over her personal life. By February 1963 her marriage had ended. She was ill and living on the edge of another breakdown while caring for two small children in a small apartment in London, England, during the coldest winter in years. On February 11 she killed herself. The last thing she did was to leave her children two mugs of milk and a plate of buttered bread.

Later works

In later poetry published after her death in Crossing The Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1971), Plath voiced her long-hidden rage over "years of doubleness, smiles, and compromise." A more complete look into Plath's tortured mind was possible following the publication in 2002 of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 19501962.

Although Sylvia Plath is often regarded by critics as the poet of death, her final poems, which deal with the self and how it goes about living in a destructive, materialistic (focused on the acquiring of material wealth) world, clearly express her need for faith in the healing powers of art.

For More Information

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991, revised edition 1999.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

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Plath, Sylvia

Sylvia Plath, 1932–63, American poet, b. Boston. Educated at Smith College and Cambridge, Plath published poems even as a child and won many academic and literary awards. Her first volume of poetry, The Colossus (1960), is at once highly disciplined, well crafted, and intensely personal; these qualities are present in all her work. Ariel (1968), considered her finest book of poetry, was written in the last months of her life and published posthumously, as were Crossing the Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1972). Her late poems reveal an objective detachment from life and a growing fascination with death. They are rendered with ruthless art, describing the most extreme reaches of Plath's consciousness and passions. Her one novel, The Bell Jar (1971), originally published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1962, is autobiographical, a fictionalized account of a nervous breakdown she suffered when in college. Plath was married (1956–63) to the British poet Ted Hughes. She committed suicide in London in Feb., 1963. Her brief life, troubled marriage, and fiercely luminous poetry have provided the raw materials for interpretation by a small army of biographers, feminists, memoirists, novelists, playwrights, scholars, and others.

Bibliography

See her collected poems (1981); occasional prose, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1979); journals, ed. by T. Hughes and F. McCullough (1983); The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962 (2000), ed. by K. V. Kulil; biographies by E. Butscher (1979), A. Stevenson (1989), P. Alexander (1991), R. Hayman (1991), J. Rose (1991), L. Wagner-Martin (1987 and 1999, rev. ed. 2003), and C. Rollyson (2013); J. Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994); T. Hughes, Birthday Letters (1998); D. Middlebrook, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath–A Marriage (2003); J. Becker, Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath: A Memoir (2004); A. Wilson, Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life before Ted (2013); studies by M. Broe (1980), J. Rosenblatt (1982), L. Wagner-Martin, ed. (1988, repr. 1997; 1992), and L. Niland, ed. (2013); A. Alvarez also wrote extensively about her in his study of suicide, The Savage God (1971).

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Plath, Sylvia

Plath, Sylvia (1932–63) US poet. Her verse includes The Colossus (1960) and Ariel (1965). The latter was published after her suicide, as were Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1971), Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977), and Collected Poems (1981). She wrote one novel, The Bell Jar (1963). Intensely personal, confessional elements characterize her most effective work. She was married (1956–62) to the English poet Ted Hughes.

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