Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath

Plath pictured during her mid- to late twenties.
Born October 27, 1932(1932-10-27)
Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died February 11, 1963 (aged 30)
London, England, United Kingdom
Pen name Victoria Lucas
Occupation Poet, novelist, and short story writer
Nationality American
Ethnicity Austrian, German
Education Cambridge University
Alma mater Smith College
Writing period 1960–1963
Genres Autobiography, children's literature, feminism, mental health, roman à clef
Literary movement Confessional poetry
Notable work(s) The Bell Jar
Notable award(s) Fulbright scholarship
Glascock Prize

Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
1982 The Collected Poems

Woodrow Wilson Fellowship
Spouse(s) Ted Hughes
Children Frieda and Nicholas Hughes

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, children's author, and short story author.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book's protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath's experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass.


[edit] Biography

[edit] Childhood

Plath was born during the Great Depression on October 27, 1932 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to Aurelia Schober Plath, a first-generation American of Austrian descent, and Otto Emile Plath, an immigrant from Grabow, Germany. Plath's father was a professor of apiology and German at Boston University and author of a book about bumblebees.[3] Plath's mother was approximately twenty-one years younger than her husband.[3] She met him while earning her masters degree in teaching. Otto was alienated from his family because he chose not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents wanted him to be. They went as far as taking his name out of the family Bible.

In April 1935, Plath's brother Warren was born.[4] The family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts in 1936, where Plath spent much of her childhood on Johnson Avenue. Plath was raised a Unitarian Christian and had mixed feelings toward religion throughout her life. 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. Plath published her first poem in Winthrop, in the Boston Herald's children's section, when she was eight years old.

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath's eighth birthday,[3] of complications following the amputation of a foot due to 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 was ill with lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Otto Plath is buried in Winthrop Cemetery, where his gravestone continues to attract readers of Plath's poem "Daddy." Aurelia Plath then moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1942.[3]. Visiting her father's grave prompted Plath to write the poem "Electra on Azalea path".

[edit] College years

Plath attended Smith College, where she dated Yale senior 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 described in the novel as suicidal, but in her journals she describes it as a legitimate accident (the suicidal aspect was likely fictionalized for the novel, which is not her biography).[5]

During the summer after her third year of college, Plath was awarded a coveted position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. The experience was not at all what she had hoped it would be, beginning within her a seemingly downward spiral in her outlook on herself and life in general. Many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. Following this experience, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of sleeping pills.[6] Details of her attempts at suicide are chronicled in her book. After her suicide attempt, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroconvulsive therapy.[4] Her stay at McLean Hospital was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had also funded the scholarship awarded to Plath to attend Smith. Prouty had sucessfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honors in June 1955.

She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University where she continued actively writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. It was at a party given in Cambridge that she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They were married on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday) at St George the Martyr Holborn after a short courtship.[7]

[edit] Wife, mother and poet

Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The couple then moved to Boston where Plath audited seminars by Robert Lowell that were also attended by Anne Sexton. At this time, Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.[8]

Upon learning that Plath was pregnant, the couple moved back to the United Kingdom. Plath and Hughes lived in London for a while on Chalcot Square near the Primrose Hill area of Regent's Park, and then settled in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. While there, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage, and a number of her poems address this event.[9]

Plath's marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Assia Wevill, and the couple separated in late 1962.[10] She returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas, and rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road (only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat) in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.[11]

[edit] Death

Plath's grave at Heptonstall church, West Yorkshire

Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. Leaving out bread and milk, she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with "wet towels and cloths."[12] Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day, an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.

It has been suggested that Plath's suicide attempt was too precise and coincidental, and that she had not intended to succeed in killing herself. Apparently, she had previously asked Mr. Thomas, her downstairs neighbour, what time he would be leaving; and a note had been placed that read "Call Dr. Horder" and listed his phone number.[13] Therefore, it is argued that Plath must have turned the gas on at a time when Mr. Thomas should have been waking and beginning his day. This theory maintains that the gas, for several hours, seeped through the floor and reached Mr. Thomas and another resident of the floor below. Also, an au pair was to arrive at nine o'clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, the au pair could not get into the flat, but was eventually let in by painters, who had a key to the front door.

However, in the book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Jillian Becker says that, "according to Mr. Goodchild—a police officer attached to the coroner's office . . . she had thrust her head far into the gas oven. 'She had really meant to die.'"

Plath's gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard bears the inscription "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted." The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by some of Plath's supporters who have chiseled the name "Hughes" off it. This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes had left Plath, which led to claims that Hughes had been abusive toward Plath.[14] "Hughes" is now written in bronze in order to prevent future vandalism.

On March 16, 2009, Plath's son, Nicholas Hughes, also committed suicide at the age of 47.[15]

[edit] Works

[edit] Journals

Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Plath's death.

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. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly released material. 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)."

[edit] Poems

Plath has been criticized for her controversial allusions to the Holocaust, and is known for her uncanny use of metaphor. Her work has been compared to and associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets.

While the few critics who responded to Plath's first book, The Colossus, did so favorably, it has also been described as somewhat staid and conventional in comparison to the much more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work.

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. It is a possibility that Lowell's poetry—which is often labeled "confessional"—played a part in this shift. Indeed, in an interview before her death she listed Lowell's Life Studies as an influence. The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as, "Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus".

In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Collected Poems. In 2006, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled "Ennui". The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.

[edit] The Ted Hughes controversy

As Plath's widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath's personal and literary estates. This proved to be controversial, as it is uncertain whether Plath had begun divorce proceedings before her death: if she had, Hughes' inheritance of the Plath estate would have been in dispute. In letters to Aurelia Plath and Richard Murphy, Plath writes that she was applying for a divorce. However, Hughes said in a letter to The Guardian that Plath did not seriously consider divorce, and claims they were discussing reconciliation mere days before her death. He consequently oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1965). He claimed to have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last few months together.[citation needed]

Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, although the money earned from Plath's poetry was placed into a trust account for their two children Frieda and Nicolas.[16] Examples cited include his censoring of parts of her journals that portrayed him unfavorably, and his editing of Ariel, changing the order of the poems in the book from the sequence she had intended and left at her death, as well as removing several poems. However, the poems were removed and the order changed for several reasons, including the request of the American publishers.[citation needed] Critics argue this prevented what was intended to be a more uplifting beginning and ending of Ariel, and that the poems removed were the ones most readily identified as being about Hughes.

Hughes hired an accountant to keep track of the estate, but the accountant did a poor job. A large and looming tax bill caused Hughes to convince Plath's mother, Aurelia, to publish The Bell Jar in the United States. Because of this, she later asked Hughes' permission to publish a volume of Plath's letters, to which he agreed with strong reservations.

Ironically, Hughes' sister, Olwyn — who was never close to and often openly hostile toward Plath during her life — eventually took over much of the duties of executor of the Plath estate. Like her brother, Olwyn Hughes was seen as being overly aggressive in limiting permissions if the works cast Hughes in an unfavorable light.

In the realms of criticism and biographies published after her death, the debate about Plath's work very often resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes.[17]

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] Poetry

  • The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)
  • Ariel (1965), includes the poems "Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus"
  • Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
  • Crossing the Water (1971)
  • Winter Trees (1972)
  • The Collected Poems (1981)
  • Selected Poems (1985)
  • Plath: Poems (1998)

[edit] Prose

[edit] Audio poetry readings

  • Sylvia Plath Reads, Harper Audio 2000[18]

[edit] Children's books

  • The Bed Book (1976)
  • The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996)
  • Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001)
  • Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001)

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Introduction to Twilight at the Equator: A Novel by Jaime Manrique. University of Wisconsin Press, 2003 ISBN 0299187748
  2. ^ Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1970), pp. 57–74
  3. ^ a b c d Steven Axelrod. "Sylvia Plath". The Literary Encyclopedia, 17 Sept. 2003, The Literary Dictionary Company (April 24, 2007), University of California Riverside. Retrieved on 2007-06-01. 
  4. ^ a b Sylvia Plath
  5. ^ Taylor, Robert, America's Magic Mountain, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. ISBN 0-395-37905-9
  6. ^ Kibler, James E. Jr, ed. (1980), Dictionary of Literary Biography, 2nd, 6 - American Novelists Since World War II, A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book, University of Georgia. The Gale Group, pp. 259–64 
  7. ^ "Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)". pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Books and Writers, (2000). Retrieved on 2007-06-25. 
  8. ^ "Sylvia Plath". UIUC Library Online, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved on 2007-06-25. 
  9. ^ Marie Griffin. "Sylvia Plath - Poet". "Great talent in great darkness", Bipolar Disorder (2007 About, Inc.). Retrieved on 2007-06-25. 
  10. ^ Richard Whittington-Egan. "Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—a marriage examined". Contemporary Review (February 2005). Retrieved on 2007-06-25. 
  11. ^ Brenda C. Mondragon. "Sylvia Plath". Neurotic Poets (1997-2006). Retrieved on 2007-06-25. 
  12. ^ Stevenson, Anne (1998), Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, Mariner Books 
  13. ^ Peter K. Steinberg. "Biography (1956-1963)". A celebration, This is; Retrieved on 2007-02-28. 
  14. ^ Vanessa Thorpe. "I failed her. I was 30 and stupid". The Observer, Guardian Unlimited (March 19, 2000).,6000,148915,00.html. Retrieved on 2007-02-27. 
  15. ^ Hoyle, Ben (March 23, 2009). "Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s son commits suicide". The Times (London, United Kingdom). Retrieved on March 23, 2009. 
  16. ^ Frieda Hughes, ed., Ariel: The Restored Edition, p. xvii
  17. ^ David Smith (September 10, 2006). "Ted Hughes, the domestic tyrant". The Observer.,,1869090,00.html. Retrieved on 2007-06-25. 
  18. ^ Review - Sylvia Plath Reads - Suicide

[edit] Biographies

[edit] Other works on Plath

  • The 2003 motion picture Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, tells the story of Plath's troubled relationship with Hughes.
  • Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters (2002, W.W. Norton) by Erica Wagner | ISBN 0-3933-2301-3
  • Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Jillian Becker (a friend with whom Plath spent her last weekend) (Ferrington, London, 2002).
  • Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (1992, Johns Hopkins University) by Steven Gould Axelrod | ISBN 0-8018-4374-X
  • The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995, Vintage) by Janet Malcolm | ISBN 0-6797-5140-8
  • A psychobiographical chapter on Plath's loss of her father, and the effect of that loss on her personality and her art, is contained in William Todd Schultz's Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[edit] Fictional offerings

[edit] External links

NAME Plath, Sylvia
SHORT DESCRIPTION American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist
DATE OF BIRTH October 27, 1932
PLACE OF BIRTH Boston, Massachusetts, United States
DATE OF DEATH February 11, 1963
PLACE OF DEATH London, England
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