Sylvia Plath - Poet, Author

Great talent in great darkness

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath.

The glamour brought about by Sylvia Plath's suicide overshadows much of her work, a glamour that has made her a sort of heroine for her fans and a poet damned by a murderous art for her critics. Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932. She grew up comfortably in middle-class style and attended Smith College. Though Plath appeared to be a carefree student who was the envy of many young women, she silently struggled with the monsters of mental illness.

In her senior year she won Mademoiselle magazine's fiction contest and was awarded two Smith Poetry Prizes. In addition to these accolades, she was chosen to be guest editor of Mademoiselle's College Board Contest. In the midst of her early success, Plath experienced her first breakdown and famous disappearance. She was subsequently hospitalized and treated with shock therapy. Plath described the hospitalization as "[a] time of darkness, despair, and disillusion--so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be--symbolic death, and numb shock--then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration." This was followed by a suicide attempt in 1953 and six months of intensive therapy, paid for by a benefactress.

Fortunately Plath was able to return to college and only graduated a couple of months behind her class. She wrote her honors senior thesis on the double personality in Dostoyevski's novels and graduated summa cum laude.

After receiving a Fulbright scholarship, she began two years at Cambridge University. There she met and married, in 1956, the British poet Ted Hughes. They lived first in Massachusetts, while she taught for a year at Smith and then studied with the Robert Lowell and met Anne Sexton - two inspirational poets who were also bipolar.

In 1959 the couple returned to England, where their first child, a daughter, was born. The same year, 1960, saw the publication of her first book of poems, The Colossus. She suffered a miscarriage in 1961, and bore a son in 1962.

In 1961 the Hughes family moved to Devon. She had won a Saxton Grant $2,000 that enabled her to work on The Bell Jar. She spent her days trying to manage doing housework, caring for her two babies, and writing. After a vacation in Ireland, she and Ted decided to separate for a while. Before Christmas, Plath moved herself and the children to London where she signed a five-year lease on a flat once occupied by the poet William Butler Yeats. She took the finding of the Yeats house to be some kind of a sign.

When The Bell Jar was published in 1963, Plath was discouraged by the reviews - although many were positive, they were not as good as she had hoped. It was the coldest winter in London. She did not have a phone, and the pipes froze. At that time, Plath was at work on the Ariel poems.

She had seen a doctor who prescribed sedatives and recommended that she consult a psychotherapist. She fired the young woman who helped her take care of the babies and was waiting for a replacement, Plath wrote, "... to help with the mornings so I can write ... nights are no good, I'm so flat by then ..." The poems continued to rush out of her even though she was full of despair. Her friends said she seemed cheerful at times and still full of hope despite her problems.

On February 11, 1963, after carefully sealing the kitchen so her children would not be harmed, Sylvia Plath took a bottle of sleeping pills and stuck her head in a gas oven. Her downstairs neighbor, knocked out by gas seeping through the floor, believed she had intended him to rescue her when he smelled the gas.

Intensity, imagination, and attention to the evolving self characterize Sylvia Plath's poetry. She handled very painful and intense subjects such as suicide, self-loathing, Nazis, shock treatment, dysfunctional relationships, and homicidal iron tanks. Some of her better poems such as "Daddy," "The Moon and the Yew Tree," and "Lady Lazarus," show an amazing sense of control. The controlled flow of images combined with the structure of these poems successfully draws the reader into that suffering. Many of her later poems are graphically macabre and somewhat surreal in their imagery. The syntactic and visual irregularities together create an unsettling experience. The use of parody and black humor rescues her poetry from total pathos.

Almost from the day she died, readers and scholars have been faced with the enigma of her suicide in addition to being perplexed and thwarted by her mental illness. Sylvia Plath's unabridged journals lend credence to a theory that she not only suffered from mental illness (probably bipolar disorder) but also from severe PMS.

  • Poppies in October
    Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.

    Nor the woman in the ambulance
    Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly--

    A gift, a love gift
    Utterly unasked for by sky

    Palely and flamily

    igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
    Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

    O my God, what am I
    That these late mouths should cry open
    In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

    --Sylvia Plath


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