Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

Sylvia Plath showed early literary promise, publishing her first poem at the age of 8; her father, Otto, a college professor and noted authority on the subject of bees, died around the same time, on October 5, 1940.

She continued to try and publish poems and short stories in American magazines and achieved marginal success.

In her junior year at Smith College, Plath made the first of her suicide attempts: she later detailed this in the autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. She was committed to a mental institution, McLean Hospital for a while. She seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honours.

She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University where she continued to pursue her poetry. It was there she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They were married in 1956.. Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States. Plath taught at Smith College in Northampton. They then moved to Boston where Plath sat in on seminars with Robert Lowell. This course was to have a profound influence on her work. Also attending the seminars was the poet Anne Sexton. At this time the couple also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend. On hearing that Plath was pregnant the couple moved back to the United Kingdom.

She and Ted Hughes lived in London for a while and then settled in a small village in Devon called North Tawton. She published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus, in England in 1960. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage. A number of poems addressed this event. The marriage met with difficulties and they were separated less than two years after the birth of their first child.

Plath returned to London with their two children, Frieda and Nicholas. She rented a flat in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived, Plath was extremely pleased with this and considered it a good omen. She began Legal Separation proceedings. The winter of 1962/1963 turned into one of the harshest in living memory. On February 11, 1963, ill and possibly low on money, Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her kitchen by gas asphyxiation. She lies buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire.

Plath's early work, collected together in her first book, Colossus, whilst being well received critically has often been described as conventional and lacking much of the drama of her later works. It has been hotly debated how much of an influence on her writing was the work of her husband, Hughes. A good many articles, essays and books, indeed almost a whole industry has sprung up around this very subject. It is clear, from her journals and letters, that she respected Hughes' talent enormously and spoke respectfully of it even after their break-up. Despite this respect the works are very clearly in her own voice and the similarities between the two poets works are, on the surface, slight.

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more confessional area of poetry. It is likely that the teachings of Robert Lowell, who stressed the confessional, played a large part in this shift. The impact of the publication of Ariel was quite dramatic, with its frank descriptions of a descent towards mental illness. Further controversy surrounded the publication, due to the fact that her husband controlled the publication of her works. He openly admitted destroying her final journal. Many critics, often characterised as feminist, although not always, have accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends. Hughes, for his part, strenuously denied this.

Plath's work has also been associated with Anne Sexton, with whom she studied under Lowell. Both poets suffered from mental illness and both committed suicide so comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable.

Despite the very large amount of criticism and biography that has been undertaken subsequent to her death, the debate about Plath's work often seems to be characterised as a struggle between those who side with her pitted against those who side with Hughes. An indication of the level of bitterness that some people have directed at Hughes can be seen by the fact that her gravestone repeatedly had the word Hughes chiselled off it. Her headstone has subsequently been rendered more 'tamper proof'.

The two small collections, published as Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees caused much literary excitement and contained a number of significant works that led to a further reconsideration of her reputation. The final publication of poems The Collected Poems (1981), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983. It remains unclear if any further poems will emerge.

Books by Sylvia Plath