(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).
Melissa A. Dobson
Born 27 October 1932, Boston, Massachusetts; died 11 February 1963, London, England
Also wrote as: Victoria Lucas, Sandra Peters
Daughter of Otto E. and Aurelia Schober Plath; married Ted Hughes, 1956; children: two
Sylvia Plath's father emigrated from the Polish corridor and became a biologist at Boston University; her mother, also a German immigrant, taught high school English. Plath was instilled with an achievement ethic which fueled her precocious talent for writing and drawing.
The facts of Plath's biography directly inform her writing, especially her idyllic yet menaced childhood by the sea, which ended abruptly with her father's death when Plath was eight. His death, its dramatic circumstances, and the ensuing move inland to Wellesley affected Plath profoundly. Writing poetry became "a new way of being happy." Sea, father, and childhood became a haunting amalgam of loss.
Plath's legend as superachiever began early. By the time she won a scholarship to Smith (1950), Plath had drawings, poems, and stories in national publications, including Seventeen. Maintaining her momentum at Smith with school honors and steady publication, she won Mademoiselle 's College Fiction Contest, was named Guest Editor ("the literary woman's 'Miss America"'), and in June 1953 was initiated to "Mad"-ison Avenue.
Exhausted, demoralized, and at odds with her hard-won image as the all-American girl, Plath had a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. After psychiatric treatment she returned to Smith, graduating summa cum laude (1955), again winning top awards and also a Fulbright to Cambridge for graduate work. During her two years at Cambridge, Plath married Hughes. Returning to Smith as English professor, she found the conflict between teaching and writing untenable. After another year attending Robert Lowell's poetry seminar and Yaddo, Plath made her life in England, immersing herself in writing, Devon country life, and motherhood.
Worn down by competing pressures of motherhood and muse, chronic ill health, a cold winter, a failed marriage, and recurrent depression, Plath gassed herself at the age of thirty-one.
Plath's middle class, Unitarian upbringing induced no radical activism. Although a liberal conscience does plead for peace, and a mature Plath fears the military-industrial complex and deplores "The Thin People," Plath reaches out from her "bell jar" for an image of her own experience as a woman and artist. Compulsively trying to come to terms with the meaning of her female sexuality as she tries to realize her ambitions, Plath interprets global distress in terms of her personal conflicts. As a woman, Plath frequently identifies with the underdog; in her art she is Jew to a Nazi paternity, "chuffed off" to Auschwitz, turning and burning in Holocaust ovens, even the bright oven of Hiroshima.
In her apprentice work, Plath submerges her specific concerns about identity, creation, death, and muse beneath detached, synthetic, allusive pieces on nature and art. Plath's early poems attest to her control, not only over form but over the emotion it contains. Her middle poems are best represented by The Colossus (1960), which spans her college, breakdown, scholar, and marriage phases of development. Painstakingly wrought, word by well-chosen word, the clenched poems elicit admiration for their mature technical virtuosity, and criticism (shared by Plath) for their elaborate "checks and courtesies," "maddening docility," and "deflections." The poems not only present the themes and images of the later Ariel -type poems (the baby/moon/mother/ muse matrix and father/sea/suicide cluster), but introduce the exuberant passion and wit that distinguish Plath's greatest works.
Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1962) is a transitional, formative work. Always obsessed by, and ambivalent about, female creativity, Plath now presents her Darwinian value system: the mother is victor, for she produces, while the Girl and the Secretary are "empty," "restless and useless," creating "corpses." The three voices represent Plath's consciousness of her role conflict as artist, wife, and mother. The radio-play format opens up Plath's style. After this, Plath's poetry is dramatic rather than narrative or expository, written "all of one piece," to be read aloud; its imperfect cadences, careless-seeming rhymes, and impression of spontaneity and free association underlie Plath's new aesthetics, which demand of the poems that they be "possessed … as by the rhythms of their own breathing."
The poems in Ariel (1965, reprinted several times, including 1990 and 1997), Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems (1971, 1993), and Winter Trees (1971) are the culmination of themes and images of Plath's previous works. They are different only in degree—"extremist" in their profound disillusionment in her idealized marriage and the "years of doubleness, smiles, and compromise." Plath releases her long-suppressed rage and is, at the same time, disconcertingly gleeful and triumphant, gaily macabre, and erotically murderous. Vitality, not iambics, produces the rhythm, and the haft, slanted rhymes sound like a drunk's.
While the poems appear autobiographical and private in imagery (the "toe" of "Daddy," one of Plath's best-known poems, refers to her father's amputated foot) and bare of artifice, years of practice with form and poetics underlie these outbursts, and the literal concrete metaphors universalize the meaning.
Plath's fiction contains the same preoccupation with her own experience, but it never loosens control as in her breakthrough poetry and hence never assumes the poetry's powerful voice. It was written throughout Plath's career, largely for the commercial market. Yet in these manufactured stories, with their studied moralistic formulas, Plath gives candid expression to her own anxieties. In "The Fifty-Ninth Bear," she projects a wife's canny hostility to her husband. "Den of Lions" reveals the Plathian voice at its best, where the persona is "game," wryly humorous, and self-deprecating about her traumas.
The engaging narrator of "Den of Lions" turns up again in The Bell Jar (1963, 25th anniversary edition in 1996, film version 1979), Plath's autobiographical novel about her mental breakdown. Again, disillusionment fuels the criticism Plath now levels about growing up female in middle-class America. Plath's approach is satiric; the world's injustice is more absurd than evil. The heroine's summer on "Mad" Avenue is an initiation ritual into "the real world," which turns out to be a disillusioning joke. Plath's refusal to moralize and her naive insistence on the private nature of her vision effectively result in a moving book with tragic and universal overtones.
Her earnest effort to conform as woman and artist led to Plath's breakdown. As she herself disengages the gagging mask of pleasing, pleased normalcy, her literature devolves from its disguised interest in landscapes and events to the subject of raw, terrifying self released from the pretense of objectivity: "Peel off the napkin / O my enemy. / Do I terrify?" ("Lady Lazarus"). Accompanying the unmasking of the subject is the conversion of duty-bound literary behavior to the exuberant anarchies of a released prisoner of style.
A Winter Ship (1960). American Poetry Now (edited by Plath, 1961). Uncollected Poems (1965). Crystal Gazer (1971). Fiesta Melons (1971). Lyonesse (1971). Pursuit (introduction by T. Hughes, 1973). Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (edited by A. S. Plath, 1975, 1992). The Bed Book (1976). Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings (edited by T. Hughes, 1978, 1998). The Collected Poems (1992). The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit (1996). The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1998). Poems (1998).
Sylvia Plath collections are housed in the Lilly Library of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Aird, E., Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work (1973). Alexander, P., Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991, 1999). Alvarez, A., The Savage God (1971). Annas, P. J., A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1988). Axelrod, S., Sylvia Plath, the Wound and the Cure of Words (1992). Bassnett, S., Sylvia Plath (1987). Bloom, H., ed., Sylvia Plath (1989). Britzolakis, C., Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning (1999). Bronfen, E., Sylvia Plath (1998). Bundtzen L. K., Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (1983). Butscher, E., Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976). Butscher, E., ed., Sylvia Plath, The Woman and Her Work (1977). Chalmers, C. F., "Sylvia Plath: A Selected Annotated Bibliography" (thesis, 1989). Connell, E., Sylvia Plath: Killing the Angel in the House (1995). Friess, D. K., "The Shattering of Literary Families: A Lacanian Psychoanalysis of the Absent Male—Tennessee Williams, Marsha Norman, and Selected Poetry of Sylvia Plath" (thesis, 1998). Gilbert, S. M. and S. Gubar, Shakespeare's Sisters (1979). Guide to the Sylvia Plath Materials in the Lilly Library (1993). Haberkamp, F., The Poetics of Beekeeping: Sylvia Plath (1997). Hall, C. K. B., Sylvia Plath: Revised (1998). Hargrove, N. D., The Journey Toward Ariel: Sylvia Plath's of 1956-1959 (1994). Hayman, R., The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1992). Holbrook, D., Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (1988). Hughes, T., Birthday Letters (1998). Jaidka, M., Confession and Beyond: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1992). Kroll, J.,Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1976). Lane, G., and M. Stevens, Sylvia Plath: A Bibliography (1978). Malcolm, J., The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995). Markey, J., A Journey Into the Red Eye: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1993). McCollough, F., ed., The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982). Meyering, S. L., Reference Guide to Sylvia Plath (1990). Newman, C., ed., The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (1970). Rose, J., The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1996). Steiner, G., Language and Silence (1969). Stevenson, A., Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989). Strangeways, A., Sylvia Plath: The Shaping of Shadows (1998). Tabor, S., Sylvia Plath, A Biography (1987). Wagner-Martin, L., Sylvia Plath: A Critical Heritage (1988, 1997). Wagner-Martin, L., The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties (1992). Wurst, G., Voice and Vision: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (1999).
Crowell's Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry (1973). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). WA.
Contemporary Literature (Winter 1993, 1996). Contemporary Review (1998). Criticism (1998). Hudson Review (Summer 1990). London Magazine (Feb. 1962). Made-moiselle (July 1975). Ms. (October 1975). NR (June 1994). New Yorker (1993, 1998). NYT (13 Feb. 1998). Raritan (Fall 1994). Southern Review (Summer 1973). Western Humanities Review (1997).
—BARBARA A. CLARKE MOSSBERG,
UPDATED NELSON RHODES
Born: October 27, 1932
Died: February 11, 1963
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.
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 (1930–1998). 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 1957–1958 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 (1917–1977), where she met American poet Anne Sexton (1928–1974). 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 critics—would 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, 1933–45, who killed six million Jewish people during World War II [1939–45], 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.
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, 1950–1962.
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.
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.
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). □
(1932 - 1963)
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and scriptwriter.SYLVIA PLATH: INTRODUCTION
SYLVIA PLATH: PRINCIPAL WORKS
SYLVIA PLATH: PRIMARY SOURCES
SYLVIA PLATH: GENERAL COMMENTARY
SYLVIA PLATH: TITLE COMMENTARY
SYLVIA PLATH: FURTHER READING