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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 part of the “confessional movement,” frank and revelatory about her personal life and innermost thoughts.
Though she drew on her experiences and inner life in her poetry and her only published novel, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath in some sense made herself known to her readers, but the facts of her life were somewhat altered from the literary version.
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. But her diaries from that time revealed something quite different — she was filled with doubts, immensely insecure, and 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.
You might also like: 10 of Sylvia Plath’s Best Loved Poems
College years and 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, during which she spent a month in New York City. The experience wasn’t what she had hoped, and it began 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.”
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.
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 wanted to be a poet and a teacher, and felt pulled by opposing forces. Here’s more about the tragic relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
See also: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
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 more of 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 in her, and becomes a poetry of anguished confession.
Deepening depression and death
As her 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. After her death, more of her work was released, and 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 her suicide in 1963 under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was published in the U.S. under her real name in 1971. Her only novel, it is semi-autobiographical, portraying the author’s struggles with mental illness.
Sylvia Plath died on February 11, 1963, in a flat in the Primrose Hill section of London. 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. She 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.
More about Sylvia Plath on this site
- The Tragic Relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
- Sylvia Plath’s Struggles With Self-Doubt
- Quotes from The Bell Jar
- Introspective Quotes by Sylvia Plath
- Sylvia Plath’s Suicide Note: Death Knell, or a Cry for Help?
- 10 of Sylvia Plath’s Best-Loved Poems
- Dear Literary Ladies: How can one persevere when writing pays so poorly?
- The Bell Jar
- The Colossus and Other Poems
- Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
- The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
- The Collected Poems
Biographies about Sylvia Plath
- Sylvia Plath’s Grave – Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England
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