Sylvia Plath, Gifted Poet and Author of The Bell Jar

sylvia plath

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was a gifted writer of poetry and fiction whose life ended all too young by suicide. Triggered by the death of her father when she was eight years old, depression took root and led to a life of struggle.

She made no pretense about the degree of her pain in her writings. Plath’s poetry is considered part of the frank and revelatory “confessional movement.”

As a young woman, Plath seemed to have what it would take to succeed. She was attractive, smart, and talented. As a college student at Smith, she was well liked and showed immense academic promise.

But her diaries from that time revealed a different story. Filled with self-doubt and immensely insecure, she was evidently beginning to struggle with mental illness. It was while she was at Smith that she first attempted suicide.

 

Childhood bound by grief and accomplishment

A week after her eighth birthday, Plath’s father died from complications due to a foot amputation. In the same year, she published her first poem in the Boston Herald’s children’s section.

Over the course of the next few years, she continued to publish multiple poems in regional magazines and newspapers. Her childhood was filled with ambition, despite dealing with the loss of her father at such a young age.

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Sylvia Plath

10 of Sylvia Plath’s Best-Loved Poems
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College years and struggles with depression

In 1950, Plath attended Smith College and academically flourished. She edited The Smith Review and during the summer after her third year of college was awarded a coveted position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine.

She spent a month in New York City to fulfill the guest editorship, but the experience wasn’t what she had hoped and it led to a downward spiral. Plath made her first suicide attempt in 1953 by crawling under her house and taking her mother’s sleeping pills.

She survived this first suicide attempt after lying unfound in a crawl space for three days, later writing that she “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.”

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Self-Portrait by Sylvia Plath
13 Artist’s Portraits of Sylvia Plath (Including Her Own)
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Tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes

Plath first met poet Ted Hughes at a party in Cambridge, England. They later married on June 19th, 1956. In a 1961 BBC interview, she describes her first encounter:

“I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the [US] government on a government grant. And 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.”

Their marriage has been labeled as one of literature’s most destructive. In unpublished letters, Plath reveals Hughes beat her after her second pregnancy, which resulted in a miscarriage. The couple had one daughter, Frieda, and a son, Nicholas.

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Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

The Tragic Relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
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Nine letters were written after Plath discovered her husband’s infidelity with their friend Assia Wevill in July 1962. These letters make up the heart of the collection. The alleged claims and letters can be seen in further depth here.

When Plath separated from Hughes, she was juggling raising two children and also battling the conventions of the 1950s, which mandated that women put home and family first and foremost. She wanted that, but she also to be a poet and a teacher. Pulled by opposing forces, she often felt conflicted. Here’s more about the couple’s doomed relationship.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
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An impressive body of poetry

The success of her poetry was rapid and impressive. She published The Colossus in 1960. The poetry in this collection was intense, personal, and delicately crafted. Ariel, another of her best-known collections, was published posthumously in 1965. The beauty of craft remains even as it reveals the fissures and anguish growing in the poet’s psyche. According to the Penguin Companion to American Literature:

“The Colossus (1960) and the posthumous Ariel (1965) show a remarkable development. The first is a largely personal poetry, intense and delicately rendered, usually dealing with the relationship of the poet and a perceived object from which she seeks illumination, ‘that rare, random descent.’

It is controlled, serious verse but her later work shows new strains and pressures at work and becomes a poetry of anguished confession.”

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Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s Suicide Note: Death Knell, or Cry for Help?
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Deepening depression and suicide

As Plath’s depression deepened, her family and success weren’t enough to keep her from taking her own life. She was only thirty, with two small children. Gabrielle Bellot, in an essay titled “Sylvia Plath and the Many Shades of Depression” observes:

“‘I am only thirty,’ the narrator of Sylvia Plath’s monumental 1962 poem, ‘Lady Lazarus,’ announces early. ‘And like the cat I have nine times to die.” Like the biblical Lazarus, she has returned from the silent room from which one is never supposed to return; she also resembles Plath herself, who attempted suicide multiple times. Read in light of Plath’s history, her resurrections become the failures of both women’s suicidal attempts, a failure at once triumphant, in that she gets to live again, and tragic, for the same reason.”

After her death, more of her work was released, burnishing her reputation. continues to be widely studied.

Colossus was the only work published during her life, and her Collected Poems, edited and published by Ted Hughes after her death, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

The Bell Jar was published in England just prior Plath’s suicide in 1963 under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was published in the U.S. under her real name in 1971. Her only novel is semi-autobiographical, portraying her struggles with mental illness.

Sylvia Plath died on February 11, 1963, in a flat in the Primrose Hill section of London. The house had once been occupied by poet W.B. Yeats, which she had at first considered a good omen for her own work. There she lived with her two small children, separated from Hughes.

She committed suicide by turning on a gas oven and putting her head into it. The period just before her death was a remarkably productive one, which has led to a lot of speculation as to whether her suicide was intentional or a cry for help.

Sylvia Plath produced an impressive body of poetry in the months and even the days before her death, despite worsening depression. She was also working on a novel, which remained unfinished. More about the circumstances surrounding her death can be found here.

 

A complicated position for Ted Hughes

Though they had separated, Plath was still married to Ted Hughes when she died, and was without a will. Hughes became the executor of her estate and overseer of her literary output, much of which had yet to be published. Erica Wagner, in Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters covers the poet’s complicated legacy and Ted Hughes’ role in it. In the Wagner’s introduction, she writes:

“Hughes’ circumstances were not easy. On one hand, he was faced with an artistic duty to the work of his late wife; on the other, with his wish to protect himself and his family from the intrusions and accusations of the press and the reading public. The difficulty was compounded by the nature of Plath’s work: her unflinching gaze was forever directed at herself and those around her. She drew almost exclusively on her own experience.

… Her expression of dissatisfaction with her marriage — revealed posthumously— combined with Ted Hughes’ continuing editorial control over her material was an explosive mix.”

In his Foreword to The Letters of Sylvia Plath (1982), Ted Hughes all but admitted that he did not fully know or understand his wife until it was almost too late:

“Sylvia Plath was a person of many masks, both in her personal life and in her writings. Some were camouflage cliché facades, defensive mechanisms, involuntary. And some were deliberate poses, attempts to find the keys to one style or another … though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody — except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.

Her real self had showed itself in her writing, just for a moment, three years earlier, and when I heard it — the self I had married, after all … in that brief moment, three lines recited as she went out through a doorway, I knew that what I had always felt must happen had now begun to happen, that her real self, being the real poet, would now speak for itself, and would throw off all those lesser and artificial selves …”

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath page on Amazon*


More about Sylvia Plath

On this site

Poetry Collections

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

Novels and prose

  • The Bell Jar (1963, UK; 1971, US)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (1977)
  • Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom (2019)

Children’s books

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

Biographies and Journals

  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough (1982)
  • Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander (1991)
  • The Silent Women: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995)
  • Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters by Erica Wagner (2000)
  • The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000)
  • Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, A Biography by Edward Butscher (2003)
  • Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook (2013)
  • Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Linda Wagner-Martin (2015)
  • Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark (2021)

More Information

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