Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath.jpg
Plath in July 1961 at her Chalcot Square flat in London
Born(1932-10-27)October 27, 1932
Boston, Massachusetts, US
DiedFebruary 11, 1963(1963-02-11) (aged 30)
London, England, UK
Resting place Heptonstall Church near Vermaak's Farm, West Yorkshire, England
Pen nameVictoria Lucas
  • Poet
  • novelist
  • short story writer
Alma mater Smith College (BA)
Newnham College, Cambridge
  • Poetry
  • fiction
  • short story
Literary movement Confessional poetry
Notable works The Bell Jar and Ariel
Notable awards
Ted Hughes (m. 1956)

Signature Sylvia Plath signature.svg

Sylvia Plath ( /plæθ/ ; October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College and Newnham College at the University of Cambridge before receiving acclaim as a poet and writer. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956, and they lived together in the United States and then in England. They had two children, Frieda and Nicholas, before separating in 1962.

Boston State capital of Massachusetts, U.S.

Boston is the capital and most populous city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States. The city proper covers 48 square miles (124 km2) with an estimated population of 694,583 in 2018, making it also the most populous city in New England. Boston is the seat of Suffolk County as well, although the county government was disbanded on July 1, 1999. The city is the economic and cultural anchor of a substantially larger metropolitan area known as Greater Boston, a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) home to a census-estimated 4.8 million people in 2016 and ranking as the tenth-largest such area in the country. As a combined statistical area (CSA), this wider commuting region is home to some 8.2 million people, making it the sixth most populous in the United States.

Smith College private womens liberal arts college in Massachusetts

Smith College is a private women's liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Although its undergraduate programs are limited to women, its graduate and certificate programs are open to men. It is the largest member of the Seven Sisters. Smith is also a member of the Five Colleges Consortium, which allows its students to attend classes at four other Pioneer Valley institutions: Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In its 2018 edition, U.S. News & World Report ranked it tied for 11th among the best National Liberal Arts Colleges.

University of Cambridge University in Cambridge, United Kingdom

The University of Cambridge is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Founded in 1209 and granted a Royal Charter by King Henry III in 1231, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's fourth-oldest surviving university. The university grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with the townspeople. The two 'ancient universities' share many common features and are often referred to jointly as 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Cambridge has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.


Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and was treated multiple times with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She died by suicide in 1963.

Major depressive disorder all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities.

Major depressive disorder (MDD), also known simply as depression, is a mental disorder characterized by at least two weeks of low mood that is present across most situations. It is often accompanied by low self-esteem, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, low energy, and pain without a clear cause. People may also occasionally have false beliefs or see or hear things that others cannot. Some people have periods of depression separated by years in which they are normal, while others nearly always have symptoms present. Major depressive disorder can negatively affect a person's personal life, work life, or education, as well as sleeping, eating habits, and general health. Between 2–8% of adults with major depression die by suicide, and about 50% of people who die by suicide had depression or another mood disorder.

Electroconvulsive therapy psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from mental disorders.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock therapy, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from mental disorders. The ECT procedure was first conducted in 1938 and rapidly replaced less safe and effective forms of biological treatments in use at the time. ECT is often used with informed consent as a safe and effective intervention for major depressive disorder, mania, and catatonia. ECT machines have been placed in the Class III category by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1976.

Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for two of her published collections, The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel , and The Bell Jar , a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death. In 1982, she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems.

Confessional poetry or "Confessionalism" is a style of poetry that emerged in the United States during the 1950s. It has been described as poetry of the personal or "I", focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously and occasionally still taboo matters such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide, often set in relation to broader social themes. It is sometimes also classified as Postmodernism.

<i>The Colossus and Other Poems</i> book by Sylvia Plath

The Colossus and Other Poems is a poetry collection by American poet Sylvia Plath, first published by Heinemann, in 1960. It is the only volume of poetry by Plath that was published before her death in 1963.

<i>Ariel</i> (poetry collection) poetry book by Sylvia Plath

Ariel was the second book of Sylvia Plath's poetry to be published. It was originally published in 1965, two years after her death by suicide. The poems in the 1965 edition of Ariel, with their free flowing images and characteristically menacing psychic landscapes, marked a dramatic turn from Plath's earlier Colossus poems.

Life and career

Early life

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. [1] [2] Her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath (1906–1994), was a second-generation American of Austrian descent, and her father, Otto Plath (1885–1940), was from Grabow, Germany. [3] Plath's father was an entomologist and a professor of biology at Boston University who authored a book about bumblebees. [4]

Aurelia Frances Plath was the wife of Otto Emil Plath, the mother of the American poet Sylvia Plath, and her brother Warren, and the grandmother of Frieda Rebecca Hughes and Nicholas Farrar Hughes.

Otto Plath biologist

Otto Emil Plath was a German American author, a professor of biology and German at Boston University, and an entomologist, with a specific expertise on bees. He was the father of American poet Sylvia Plath, Warren Plath, and the husband of Aurelia Plath. He wrote the 1934 book, Bumblebees and Their Ways. He is notable for being the probable subject of one of his daughter's most well-known poems, Daddy.

Grabow Place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany

Grabow is a town in the Ludwigslust-Parchim district, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany. It is situated on the river Elde, 7 km (4.35 mi) southeast of Ludwigslust, and 34 km (21.12 mi) northwest of Wittenberge. It is twinned with Whitstable, in Kent.

On April 27, 1935, Plath's brother Warren was born, [2] and in 1936 the family moved from 24 Prince Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to 92 Johnson Avenue, Winthrop, Massachusetts. [5] Plath's mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop, and her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, had lived in a section of the town called Point Shirley, a location mentioned in Plath's poetry. While living in Winthrop, eight-year-old Plath published her first poem in the Boston Herald 's children's section. [6] Over the next few years, Plath published multiple poems in regional magazines and newspapers. [7] At age 11, Plath began keeping a journal. [7] In addition to writing, she showed early promise as an artist, winning an award for her paintings from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947. [8] "Even in her youth, Plath was ambitiously driven to succeed". [7] Plath also had an IQ of around 160. [9] [10]

Jamaica Plain Neighborhood of Boston in Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States

Jamaica Plain is a neighborhood of 4.4 square miles (11 km2) in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Founded by Boston Puritans seeking farm land to the south, it was originally part of the town of Roxbury. The community seceded from Roxbury as a part of the new town of West Roxbury in 1851, and became part of Boston when West Roxbury was annexed in 1874. In the 19th century, Jamaica Plain became one of the first streetcar suburbs in America and home to a significant portion of Boston's Emerald Necklace of parks, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Winthrop, Massachusetts City in Massachusetts, United States

Winthrop is a city in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 17,497 at the 2010 census. Winthrop is an ocean-side suburban community in Greater Boston situated at the north entrance to Boston Harbor, close to Logan International Airport. It is located on a peninsula, 1.6 square miles (4.2 km2) in area, connected to Revere by a narrow isthmus and to East Boston by a bridge over the harbor inlet to the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation. Settled in 1630, Winthrop is one of the oldest communities in the United States. It is also one of the smallest and most densely populated municipalities in Massachusetts. It is one of the four cities in Suffolk County. It is the southernmost part of the North Shore, with a 7-mile (11 km) shoreline that provides views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and of the Boston skyline to the west.

<i>Boston Herald</i> US newspaper

The Boston Herald is an American daily newspaper whose primary market is Boston, Massachusetts and its surrounding area. It was founded in 1846 and is one of the oldest daily newspapers in the United States. It has been awarded eight Pulitzer Prizes in its history, including four for editorial writing and three for photography before it was converted to tabloid format in 1981. The Herald was named one of the "10 Newspapers That 'Do It Right'" in 2012 by Editor & Publisher.

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath's eighth birthday, [4] of complications following the amputation of a foot due to untreated diabetes. He had become ill shortly after a close friend died of lung cancer. Comparing the similarities between his friend's symptoms and his own, Otto became convinced that he, too, had lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Raised as a Unitarian, Plath experienced a loss of faith after her father's death and remained ambivalent about religion throughout her life. [11] Her father was buried in Winthrop Cemetery, Massachusetts. A visit to her father's grave later prompted Plath to write the poem "Electra on Azalea Path". After Otto's death, Aurelia moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1942. [4] In one of her last prose pieces, Plath commented that her first nine years "sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth". [2] [12] Plath attended Bradford Senior High School (now Wellesley High School) in Wellesley, graduating in 1950. [2] Just after graduating from high school, she had her first national publication in the Christian Science Monitor. [7]

Lung cancer cancer in the lung

Lung cancer, also known as lung carcinoma, is a malignant lung tumor characterized by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. This growth can spread beyond the lung by the process of metastasis into nearby tissue or other parts of the body. Most cancers that start in the lung, known as primary lung cancers, are carcinomas. The two main types are small-cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) and non-small-cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC). The most common symptoms are coughing, weight loss, shortness of breath, and chest pains.

Unitarianism is a Christian theological movement named for its belief that the God in Christianity is one person, as opposed to the Trinity which in many other branches of Christianity defines God as three persons in one being: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unitarian Christians, therefore, believe that Jesus was inspired by God in his moral teachings, and he is a savior, but he was not a deity or God incarnate. Unitarianism does not constitute one single Christian denomination, but rather refers to a collection of both extant and extinct Christian groups, whether historically related to each other or not, which share a common theological concept of the oneness nature of God.

Wellesley, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Wellesley is a town in Norfolk County, Massachusetts, United States. Wellesley is part of Greater Boston. The population was 27,982 at the time of the 2010 census. In 2008, Wellesley had the 3rd highest median household and family incomes in all of Massachusetts. In 2018, data from the American Community Survey revealed that Wellesley was the 7th wealthiest city in the United States. It is best known as the home of Wellesley College, Babson College, and a campus of Massachusetts Bay Community College.

College years and depression

Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts Smith College.jpg
Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts

In 1950, Plath attended Smith College, a private woman's liberal arts college in Massachusetts. She excelled academically, and wrote to her mother, "The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon". [13] While at Smith, she lived in Lawrence House, and a plaque can be found outside of her old room. She edited The Smith Review.

After her third year of college, Plath was awarded a coveted position as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. [2] The experience was not what she had hoped it would be, and many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar.

She was furious at not being at a meeting the editor had arranged with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—a writer whom she loved, said one of her boyfriends, "more than life itself." She hung around the White Horse Tavern and the Chelsea Hotel for two days, hoping to meet Thomas, but he was already on his way home. A few weeks later, she slashed her legs to see if she had enough "courage" to commit suicide. [14] During this time she was refused admission to the Harvard writing seminar. [13] Following electroconvulsive therapy for depression, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt on August 24, 1953 [15] by crawling under her house and taking her mother's sleeping pills. [16]

Sidgwick Hall at Newnham College, University of Cambridge Cambridge Newnham.JPG
Sidgwick Hall at Newnham College, University of Cambridge

She survived this first suicide attempt after lying in a crawl space for three days, later writing that she "blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion." [2] She spent the next six months in psychiatric care, receiving more electric and insulin shock treatment under the care of Dr. Ruth Beuscher. [2] Her stay at McLean Hospital and her Smith Scholarship were paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make a good recovery and returned to college.

In January 1955, she submitted her thesis, The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoyevsky's Novels, and in June graduated from Smith with highest honors. [17]

She obtained a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Newnham College, one of the two women-only colleges of the University of Cambridge in England, where she continued actively writing poetry and publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity . At Newnham, she studied with Dorothea Krook, whom she held in high regard. [18] She spent her first year winter and spring holidays traveling around Europe. [2]

Career and marriage

Plath's stay at McLean Hospital inspired her novel The Bell Jar Administration Building, McLean Hospital, Belmont MA.jpg
Plath's stay at McLean Hospital inspired her novel The Bell Jar

Plath first met poet Ted Hughes on February 25, 1956, at a party in Cambridge. [19] In a 1961 BBC interview (now held by the British Library Sound Archive), [20] Plath describes how she met Ted Hughes:

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. [20]

Plath described Hughes as "a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer" with "a voice like the thunder of God." [2]

The couple married on June 16, 1956, at St George the Martyr, Holborn (now in the London Borough of Camden) with Plath's mother in attendance, and spent their honeymoon in Paris and Benidorm. Plath returned to Newnham in October to begin her second year. [2] During this time, they both became deeply interested in astrology and the supernatural, using Ouija boards. [21]

In June 1957, Plath and Hughes moved to the United States, and from September, Plath taught at Smith College, her alma mater. She found it difficult to both teach and have enough time and energy to write [17] and in the middle of 1958, the couple moved to Boston. Plath took a job as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit of Massachusetts General Hospital and in the evening sat in on creative writing seminars given by poet Robert Lowell (also attended by the writers Anne Sexton and George Starbuck). [17]

Both Lowell and Sexton encouraged Plath to write from her experience and she did so. She openly discussed her depression with Lowell and her suicide attempts with Sexton, who led her to write from a more female perspective. Plath began to conceive of herself as a more serious, focused poet and short-story writer. [2] At this time Plath and Hughes first met the poet W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend. [22] Plath resumed psychoanalytic treatment in December, working with Ruth Beuscher. [2]

Chalcot Square, near Primrose Hill in London, Plath and Hughes' home from 1959 Chalcot Square - - 1005457.jpg
Chalcot Square, near Primrose Hill in London, Plath and Hughes' home from 1959

Plath and Hughes traveled across Canada and the United States, staying at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York State in late 1959. Plath says that it was here that she learned "to be true to my own weirdnesses", but she remained anxious about writing confessionally, from deeply personal and private material. [2] [23] The couple moved back to England in December 1959 and [24] lived in London at 3 Chalcot Square, near the Primrose Hill area of Regent's Park, where an English Heritage plaque records Plath's residence. [25] Their daughter Frieda was born on April 1, 1960, and in October, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. [24]

In February 1961, Plath's second pregnancy ended in miscarriage; several of her poems, including "Parliament Hill Fields", address this event. [26] In a letter to her therapist, Plath wrote that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. [27] In August she finished her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and immediately after this, the family moved to Court Green in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. Nicholas was born in January 1962. [24] In mid-1962, Hughes began to keep bees, which would be the subject of many Plath poems. [2]

In 1961, the couple rented their flat at Chalcot Square to Assia and David Wevill. Hughes was immediately struck with the beautiful Assia, as she was with him. [28] In June 1962, Plath had had a car accident which she described as one of many suicide attempts. In July 1962, Plath discovered Hughes had been having an affair with Assia Wevill and in September the couple separated. [24]

Beginning in October 1962, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity and wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests, writing at least 26 of the poems of her posthumous collection Ariel during the final months of her life. [24] [29] [30] In December 1962, she returned alone to London with their children, and rented, on a five-year lease, a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road—only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat. William Butler Yeats once lived in the house, which bears an English Heritage blue plaque for the Irish poet. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.

The northern winter of 1962–1963 was one of the coldest in 100 years; the pipes froze, the children—now two years old and nine months—were often sick, and the house had no telephone. [31] Her depression returned but she completed the rest of her poetry collection which would be published after her death (1965 in the UK, 1966 in the US). Her only novel, The Bell Jar, was published in January 1963, under the pen name Victoria Lucas, and was met with critical indifference. [32]

Final depressive episode and death

Before her death, Plath tried several times to take her own life. [33] On August 24, 1953, Plath overdosed on pills in the cellar of her mother's home. In June 1962, Plath drove her car off the side of the road, into a river, which she later said was an attempt to take her own life. [34]

In January 1963, Plath spoke with John Horder, her general practitioner [33] and a close friend who lived near her. She described the current depressive episode she was experiencing; it had been ongoing for six or seven months. [33] While for most of the time she had been able to continue working, her depression had worsened and become severe, "marked by constant agitation, suicidal thoughts and inability to cope with daily life." [33] Plath struggled with insomnia, taking medication at night to induce sleep, and frequently woke up early. [33] She lost 20 pounds. [33] However, she continued to take care of her physical appearance and did not outwardly speak of feeling guilty or unworthy. [33]

23 Fitzroy Road, near Primrose Hill, London, where Plath committed suicide 23 Fitzroy Road, London - Sylvia Plath - W.B. Yeats.jpg
23 Fitzroy Road, near Primrose Hill, London, where Plath committed suicide

Horder prescribed her an antidepressant, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, [33] a few days before her suicide. Knowing she was at risk alone with two young children, he says he visited her daily and made strenuous efforts to have her admitted to a hospital; when that failed, he arranged for a live-in nurse. Commentators have argued that because antidepressants may take up to three weeks to take effect, her prescription from Horder would not have taken full effect. [35]

The nurse was due to arrive at nine on the morning of February 11, 1963, to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, she could not get into the flat, but eventually gained access with the help of a workman, Charles Langridge. They found Plath dead of carbon monoxide poisoning with her head in the oven, having sealed the rooms between her and her sleeping children with tape, towels and cloths. [36] At approximately 4:30 am, Plath had placed her head in the oven, with the gas turned on. [37] She was 30 years old.

Some have suggested that Plath had not intended to kill herself. That morning, she asked her downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Thomas, what time he would be leaving. She also left a note reading "Call Dr. Horder," including the doctor's phone number. Therefore, it is argued Plath turned on the gas at a time when Thomas would have been able to see the note. [38] However, in her biography Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Plath's best friend, Jillian Becker wrote, "According to Mr. Goodchild, a police officer attached to the coroner's office ... [Plath] had thrust her head far into the gas oven... [and] had really meant to die." [39] Horder also believed her intention was clear. He stated that "No one who saw the care with which the kitchen was prepared could have interpreted her action as anything but an irrational compulsion." [37] Plath had described the quality of her despair as "owl's talons clenching my heart." [40] In his 1971 book on suicide, friend and critic Al Alvarez claimed that Plath's suicide was an unanswered cry for help, [37] and spoke, in a BBC interview in March 2000, about his failure to recognize Plath's depression, saying he regretted his inability to offer her emotional support: "I failed her on that level. I was thirty years old and stupid. What did I know about chronic clinical depression? [...] She kind of needed someone to take care of her. And that was not something I could do." [41]

Following Plath's death

Plath's grave at Heptonstall church, West Yorkshire Plath Grave15.jpg
Plath's grave at Heptonstall church, West Yorkshire

An inquiry on the day following Plath's death gave a ruling of suicide. Hughes was devastated; they had been separated six months. In a letter to an old friend of Plath's from Smith College, he wrote, "That's the end of my life. The rest is posthumous." [31] [42] Plath's gravestone, in Heptonstall's parish churchyard of St Thomas the Apostle, bears the inscription that Hughes chose for her: [43] "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted." Biographers variously attribute the source of the quote to the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita [43] or to the 16th-century Buddhist novel Journey to the West written by Wu Cheng'en. [44] [45]

The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by those aggrieved that "Hughes" is written on the stone; they have attempted to chisel it off, leaving only the name "Sylvia Plath." [46] When Hughes' mistress Assia Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura in 1969, this practice intensified. After each defacement, Hughes had the damaged stone removed, sometimes leaving the site unmarked during repair. [47] Outraged mourners accused Hughes in the media of dishonoring her name by removing the stone. [48]

The daughter of Plath and Hughes, Frieda Hughes, is a writer and artist. On March 16, 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the son of Plath and Hughes, hanged himself at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska, following a history of depression. [49] [50]


Plath wrote poetry from the age of eight, her first poem appearing in the Boston Traveller . [2] By the time she arrived at Smith College she had written over 50 short stories and published in a raft of magazines. [51] In fact Plath desired much of her life to write prose and stories, and she felt that poetry was an aside. But in sum she was not successful publishing prose. At Smith she majored in English and won all the major prizes in writing and scholarship. Additionally, she won a summer guest editor position at the young women's magazine Mademoiselle, and, on her graduation in 1955, she won the Glascock Prize for Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea . Later at Cambridge, she wrote for the University publication, Varsity .

The Colossus

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

from "The Colossus",
The Colossus and Other Poems, 1960

By the time Heinemann published her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems in the UK in late 1960, Plath had been short-listed several times in the Yale Younger Poets book competition and had had work printed in Harper's , The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement . All the poems in The Colossus had already been printed in major US and British journals and she had a contract with The New Yorker . [52] It was, however, her 1965 collection Ariel, published posthumously, on which Plath's reputation essentially rests. "Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme." [7] The Colossus received largely positive UK reviews, highlighting Plath's voice as new and strong, individual and American in tone. Peter Dickinson at Punch called the collection "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse". [52] Bernard Bergonzi at the Manchester Guardian said the book was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso quality". [52] From the point of publication she became a presence on the poetry scene. The book went on to be published in America in 1962 to less glowing reviews. Whilst her craft was generally praised, her writing was viewed as more derivative of other poets. [52]

The Bell Jar

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, which her mother wished to block, was published in 1963 and in the US in 1971. [32] [53] Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour – it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.... I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar". [54] She described her novel as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past". [55] She dated a Yale senior named Dick Norton during her junior year. Norton, upon whom the character of Buddy in The Bell Jar is based, contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the Ray Brook Sanatorium near Saranac Lake. While visiting Norton, Plath broke her leg skiing, an incident that was fictionalized in the novel. [56] Plath also used the novel to highlight the issue of women in the workforce during the 1950s. She strongly believed in their abilities to be writers and editors, while society forced them to fulfill secretarial roles. [57]

Double Exposure

In 1963, after The Bell Jar was published, Plath began working on another literary work titled Double Exposure. It was never published and disappeared around 1970. [58] According to Hughes, Plath left behind "some 130 [typed] pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970." [59] Theories about what happened to the unfinished manuscript are repeatedly brought up in the book Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study by Luke Ferretter. Ferretter also claims that the rare books department at Smith College in Massachusetts has a secret copy of the work under seal. [58] Ferretter believes that the draft of Double Exposure may have been destroyed, stolen, or even lost. He presumes in his book that the draft may lie unfound in a university archive. [58]


And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

from the poem Ariel , October 12, 1962 [60]

It was Plath's publication of Ariel in 1965 that precipitated her rise to fame. [2] The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. Robert Lowell's poetry may have played a part in this shift as she cited Lowell's 1959 book Life Studies as a significant influence, in an interview just before her death. [61] Posthumously published in 1966, the impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its dark and potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as '"Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus". [61] Plath's work is often held within the genre of confessional poetry and the style of her work compared to other contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass. Plath's close friend Al Alvarez, who has written about her extensively, said of her later work: "Plath's case is complicated by the fact that, in her mature work, she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick—everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images that seem impenetrable at this distance, but which could mostly be explained in footnotes by a scholar with full access to the details of her life." [62] Many of Plath's later poems deal with what one critic calls the "domestic surreal" in which Plath takes everyday elements of life and twists the images, giving them an almost nightmarish quality. Plath's poem "Morning Song" from Ariel is regarded as one of the twentieth century's finest poems concerning an artist's freedom of expression. [63] [ failed verification ]

Plath's fellow confessional poet and friend Anne Sexton commented: "Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicide, in detail and in depth—between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb, sucking on it. She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail, and her description in The Bell Jar is just that same story." [64] The confessional interpretation of Plath's work has led to some dismissing certain aspects of her work as an exposition of sentimentalist melodrama; in 2010, for example, Theodore Dalrymple asserted that Plath had been the "patron saint of self-dramatization" and of self-pity. [65] Revisionist critics such as Tracy Brain have, however, argued against a tightly autobiographical interpretation of Plath's material. [66]

Other works

In 1971, the volumes Winter Trees and Crossing the Water were published in the UK, including nine previously unseen poems from the original manuscript of Ariel. [32] Writing in New Statesman, fellow poet Peter Porter wrote:

Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath's control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel. [67]

The Collected Poems, published in 1981, edited and introduced by Ted Hughes, contained poetry written from 1956 until her death. Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, posthumously. [32] In 2006 Anna Journey, then a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath titled "Ennui". The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird , the online journal. [lower-alpha 1]

Journals and letters

Plath's letters were published in 1975, edited and selected by her mother Aurelia Plath. The collection, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, came out partly in response to the strong public reaction to the publication of The Bell Jar in America. [32] Plath began keeping a diary from the age of 11 and continued doing so until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her first year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1982 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough, with Ted Hughes as consulting editor. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the 50th anniversary of Plath's death. [68]

During the last years of his 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 his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Plath 2000). More than half of the new volume contained newly released material; [68] the American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a "genuine literary event". Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)." [2] [69]

Hughes controversies

And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.

from Kindness, written February 1, 1963. Ariel

As Hughes and Plath were legally married at the time of her death, Hughes inherited the Plath estate, including all her written work. He has been condemned repeatedly for burning Plath's last journal, saying he "did not want her children to have to read it." [70] Hughes lost another journal and an unfinished novel, and instructed that a collection of Plath's papers and journals should not be released until 2013. [70] [71] He has been accused of attempting to control the estate for his own ends, although royalties from Plath's poetry were placed into a trust account for their two children, Frieda and Nicholas. [72] [73]

Plath's gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by chiseling off "Hughes" to leave only the name "Sylvia Plath." [46] After Hughes' mistress Assia Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura in 1969, this defacement intensified. After each incident, Hughes had the damaged stone removed and repaired. [47] Outraged mourners accused Hughes in the media of dishonoring her name by removing the stone during these repairs. [48] Wevill's death led to claims that Hughes had been abusive to both Plath and Wevill. [74] [41] Radical feminist poet Robin Morgan published the poem "Arraignment", in which she openly accused Hughes of the battery and murder of Plath. [48] [75] There were lawsuits. Morgan's 1972 book Monster contained the poem and it was banned, although underground, pirated, feminist editions of the book were published. [76] Other feminists threatened to kill Hughes in Plath's name. [37] Plath's poem "The Jailor", in which the speaker condemns her husband's brutality, was included in the 1970 anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement. [77]

In 1989, with Hughes under public attack, a battle raged in the letters pages of The Guardian and The Independent . In The Guardian on April 20, 1989, Hughes wrote the article "The Place Where Sylvia Plath Should Rest in Peace": "In the years soon after [Plath's] death, when scholars approached me, I tried to take their apparently serious concern for the truth about Sylvia Plath seriously. But I learned my lesson early. [...] If I tried too hard to tell them exactly how something happened, in the hope of correcting some fantasy, I was quite likely to be accused of trying to suppress Free Speech. In general, my refusal to have anything to do with the Plath Fantasia has been regarded as an attempt to suppress Free Speech [...] The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and of mine), or for her memory, or for the literary tradition, I do not know." [48] [78]

Still the subject of speculation and opprobrium in 1998, Hughes published Birthday Letters that year, his own collection of 88 poems about his relationship with Plath. Hughes had published very little about his experience of the marriage and Plath's subsequent suicide, and the book caused a sensation, being taken as his first explicit disclosure, and it topped best seller charts. It was not known at the volume's release that Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer and would die later that year. The book went on to win the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and the Whitbread Poetry Prize. The poems, written after Plath's death, in some cases long after, try to find a reason why Plath took her own life. [79] Hughes himself died in 1998, only months after the book was published.

In October 2015, the BBC Two documentary Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death examined Hughes' life and work; it included audio recordings of Plath reciting her own poetry. Their daughter Frieda spoke for the first time about her mother and father. [80]

In 2017, it was revealed that letters written by Plath between February 18, 1960 and February 4, 1963 claim that Hughes beat Plath two days before she had a miscarriage in 1961, and that Hughes told Plath he wished that she was dead. The letters were sent to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse (then Dr. Ruth Beuscher). [27]

Themes and legacy

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

from "Morning Song", Ariel , 1965 [81]

Sylvia Plath's early poems exhibit what became her typical imagery, using personal and nature-based depictions featuring, for example, the moon, blood, hospitals, fetuses, and skulls. They were mostly imitation exercises of poets she admired such as Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats and Marianne Moore. [51] Late in 1959, when she and Hughes were at the Yaddo writers' colony in New York State, she wrote the seven-part "Poem for a Birthday", echoing Theodore Roethke's Lost Son sequence, though its theme is her own traumatic breakdown and suicide attempt at 20. After 1960 her work moved into a more surreal landscape darkened by a sense of imprisonment and looming death, overshadowed by her father. The Colossus is shot through with themes of death, redemption and resurrection. After Hughes left, Plath produced, in less than two months, the forty poems of rage, despair, love, and vengeance on which her reputation mostly rests. [51]

Plath's landscape poetry, which she wrote throughout her life, has been described as "a rich and important area of her work that is often overlooked ... some of the best of which was written about the Yorkshire moors." Her September 1961 poem "Wuthering Heights" takes its title from the Emily Brontë novel, but its content and style is Plath's own particular vision of the Pennine landscape. [82]

It was Plath's publication of Ariel in 1965 that precipitated her rise to fame. As soon as it was published, critics began to see the collection as the charting of Plath's increasing desperation or death wish. Her dramatic death became her most famous aspect, and remains so. [2] Time and Life both reviewed the slim volume of Ariel in the wake of her death. [37] The critic at Time said: "Within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. 'Daddy' was its title; its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father; its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, 'Daddy' was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bile across the literary landscape. [...] In her most ferocious poems, 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus,' fear, hate, love, death and the poet's own identity become fused at black heat with the figure of her father, and through him, with the guilt of the German exterminators and the suffering of their Jewish victims. They are poems, as Robert Lowell says in his preface to Ariel, that 'play Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.'" [83] [lower-alpha 2]

Some in the feminist movement saw Plath as speaking for their experience, as a "symbol of blighted female genius." [37] Writer Honor Moore describes Ariel as marking the beginning of a movement, Plath suddenly visible as "a woman on paper", certain and audacious. Moore says: "When Sylvia Plath's Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened [...] Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified." [85] Some feminists threatened to kill Hughes in Plath's name. [37]

Smith College, Plath's alma mater, holds her literary papers in the Smith College Library. [86]

The United States Postal Service introduced a postage stamp featuring Plath in 2012. [87] In 2018, The New York Times published an obituary for Plath [88] as part of the Overlooked history project. [89] [90]

Portrayals in media

Plath's voice is heard in the BBC documentary about her life.[ citation needed ]

Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the biopic Sylvia (2003). Despite criticism from Elizabeth Sigmund, friend of Plath and Hughes, that Plath was portrayed as a "permanent depressive and possessive person," she conceded that "the film has an atmosphere towards the end of her life which is heartbreaking in its accuracy." [91] Frieda Hughes, now a poet and painter, who was two years old when her mother died, was angered by the making of entertainment featuring her parents' lives. She accused the "peanut crunching" public of wanting to be titillated by the family's tragedies. [92]

In 2003, Frieda reacted to the situation in the poem "My Mother" in Tatler :

Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children

 [...] they think
I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll [93]


Poetry collections

Collected prose and novels

Children's books

See also

Related Research Articles

Ted Hughes English poet and childrens writer

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<i>Sylvia</i> (2003 film) 2003 film by Christine Jeffs

Sylvia is a 2003 British biographical drama film directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, and Michael Gambon. It tells a story based on the real-life romance between prominent poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The film begins with their meeting at Cambridge in 1956 and ends with Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963.

Assia Esther Wevill was a German woman who escaped the Nazis at the beginning of World War II and emigrated to Mandate Palestine, then later the United Kingdom, where she had a relationship with the English poet Ted Hughes. She killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura using a gas oven, similar to Hughes's first wife Sylvia Plath six years earlier.

<i>Birthday Letters</i> book by Ted Hughes

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"Daddy" is a poem written by American poet Sylvia Plath. It was written on October 12, 1962, shortly before her death and published posthumously in Ariel in 1965. "Daddy" is one of the most widely anthologized poems in American literature, and its implications and thematic concerns have been discussed academically, with many differing conclusions.

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Diane Middlebrook biographer

Diane Helen Wood Middlebrook was an American biographer, poet, and teacher. She taught feminist studies for many years at Stanford University. She is best known for critically acclaimed biographies of poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and jazz musician Billy Tipton. Middlebrook was preparing a biography of the Roman poet Ovid, to be published in 2008. Her death brought that project to a close.

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"Lady Lazarus" is a poem written by Sylvia Plath, originally included in Ariel which was published in 1965, two years after her death by suicide. This poem is commonly used as an example of her writing style.

<i>Crow</i> (poetry) book by Ted Hughes

Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow is a literary work by poet Ted Hughes, first published in 1970 by Faber and Faber, and one of Hughes' most important works. Writing for the Ted Hughes Society journal in 2012, Neil Roberts, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield, said:

Crow holds a uniquely important place in Hughes [sic] oeuvre. It heralds the ambitious second phase of his work, lasting roughly from the late sixties to the late seventies, when he turned from direct engagement with the natural world to unified mythical narratives and sequences. It was his most controversial work: a stylistic experiment which abandoned many of the attractive features of his earlier work, and an ideological challenge to both Christianity and humanism. Hughes wrote Crow, mostly between 1966 and 1969, after a barren period following the death of Sylvia Plath. He looked back on the years of work on Crow as a time of imaginative freedom and creative energy, which he felt that he never subsequently recovered. He described Crow as his masterpiece...

"Tulips" is a poem by American poet Sylvia Plath. The poem was written in 1961 and included in the collection Ariel published in 1965.The poem is written in nine stanzas in sixty three lines

Nicholas Farrar Hughes was an English-American fisheries biologist known as an expert in stream salmonid ecology. Hughes was the son of the American poet Sylvia Plath and English poet Ted Hughes and the younger brother of artist and poet Frieda Hughes. He and his sister were well known to the public through the media when he was a small child, especially after the well-publicized suicide of his mother. Hughes held dual British/American citizenship.

Ariel (poem) poem

"Ariel" is a poem written by the American poet Sylvia Plath. It was written on her thirtieth birthday, October 27, 1962, and published posthumously in the collection Ariel in 1965, of which it is the namesake. Despite its ambiguity, it is literally understood to describe an early morning horse-ride towards the rising sun. Scholars and literary critics have applied various methods of interpretation to "Ariel".

"The Blue Flannel Suit" is a poem by Ted Hughes published in 1998 in his book Birthday Letters. The 30th of 88 poems in the collection, "The Blue Flannel Suit" is one of several in the series explicitly about his wife Sylvia Plath. Prior to the series, Hughes had rarely discussed their relationship or Plath's death or responded to claims by some critics that he bore some responsibility for her state of mind and death.

<i>Crossing the Water</i>

Crossing the Water is a 1971 posthumous collection of poetry by Sylvia Plath that was prepared for publication by Ted Hughes. These are transitional poems that were written along with the poems that appear in her poetic opus, Ariel. The collection was published in the United Kingdom by Faber & Faber (1975) and in the United States by Harper & Row (1976).

<i>Winter Trees</i>

Winter Trees is a 1971 posthumous collection of poetry by Sylvia Plath, published by her husband Ted Hughes. Along with Crossing the Water it provides the remainder of the poems that Plath had written during her state of elevated creativity prior to her suicide.

"Sylvia’s Death" is a poem by American writer and poetess Anne Sexton (1928–1974) written in 1963. "Sylvia's Death" was first seen within Sexton's short memoir “The Barfly Ought to Sing” for TriQuarterly magazine. The poem was also then included in her 1966 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems "Live or Die". The poem is highly confessional in tone, focusing on the suicide of friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath in 1963, as well as Sexton’s own yearning for death. Due to the fact that Sexton wrote the poem only days after Plath’s passing within February of 1963, "Sylvia’s Death" is often seen as an elegy for Plath. The poem is also thought to have underlying themes of female suppression, suffering, and death due to the confines of domesticity subsequent of the patriarchy.



  1. Two poems titled Ennui (I) and Ennui (II) are listed in a partial catalogue of Plath's juvenilia in the Collected Poems. A note explains that the texts of all but half a dozen of the many pieces listed are in the Sylvia Plath Archive of juvenilia in the Lilly Library at Indiana University. The rest are with the Sylvia Plath Estate.
  2. Plath has been criticized for her numerous and controversial allusions to the Holocaust. [84]


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Further reading