One of the most distinctive voices in 20th century literature, Sylvia Plath produced a body of work that redefined American poetry in visceral and achingly vivid terms. Having been highly influenced by the subject of death since childhood, Plath's first collection of poems, The Colossus was published in England where it was greeted with glowing praise in 1959. American critics, however, initially found her work derivative and pedestrian. The subsequent critical failure of her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), coupled with the discovery that her husband, English poet Ted Hughes, was having an affair, sent Plath into a fury of writing that would produce the majority of the searing, scathing poems for which she would later be known. Just four months later, Plath was dead, having committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide. Posthumous publication of her work sealed her reputation and called for a reassessment of her earlier writing. Through the lens of her tragic death, Plath's poems were seen as articulate cries of fury from a struggling and stifled genius. Feminists, many of whom blamed Hughes' abusive behavior for Plath's death, saw her work and life as emblematic of the oppressed feminine genius. Her legend continued to grow with the passing decades, maintaining brisk sales of her work and inspiring the 2003 biopic "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Though she cut her own life tragically short, Sylvia Plath's painfully lucid, confessional poems would influence generations of writers and establish her as one of the truly great literary voices.
Sylvia Plath was born on Oct. 27, 1932, in Boston, MA, the oldest child of entomologist and author Otto Plath and his wife, Aurelia. Her father died of complications of diabetes when Plath was eight years old, so she moved with her mother and younger brother to Winthrop, MA to live with her maternal grandparents. For Plath, her father's death and the resulting move to Winthrop was a dividing line between her childhood and the rest of her life. She began writing around this same age, and by the time she entered Smith College in 1950, she had written over 50 short stories and scores of poems, and had already been published in numerous magazines. At Smith, Plath lived up to the great expectations placed upon her, exhibiting academic excellence while also serving as the editor of The Smith Review, and having several poems and stories published in such magazines as Harper's and Seventeen. During her third year, she was selected for a guest editor position at Mademoisellemagazine, which took her to New York City for three months. Plath was dissatisfied with the experience in general, and devastated when she was left out of a meeting between Mademoiselle staff and her favorite poet, Dylan Thomas. Her subsequent failure to gain admission to the Harvard writing seminar pushed Plath into a deep depression. She began cutting herself, testing her nerve for a future suicide attempt. She sought treatment for her depression and submitted to electroconvulsive therapy.
After her treatment, Plath's depression worsened. In August of 1953, Plath's mother reported her missing. Her sleeping pills were missing, and it was feared that Plath may have gone somewhere to commit suicide. A search for Plath dominated local and regional news for three days before she was found, having hidden in a crawlspace under her parents' porch before overdosing. Novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, author of Now, Voyager, learned of Plath's plight and stepped in to pay for her medical care. Prouty had met Plath while visiting Smith College to bestow an endowment and, having suffered a nervous breakdown of her own, empathized with the young writer. Six months later, Plath returned to Smith and graduate with honors and appeared to have made a full recovery. She received Mount Holyoke College's Glascock Prize for Poetry and won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. Her work was being published in The Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. While at Cambridge, Plath met poet Ted Hughes. They married on June 16, 1956 in London. The following year, the couple moved to the United States and Plath returned to Smith College to teach. Unhappy with teaching and feeling unproductive as a writer, Plath took a job as a receptionist at a Boston hospital and spent her evenings at writing seminars. There, Plath met poets Robert Lowell and W.S. Merwin, and writer Anne Sexton, all of whom would become Plath's close confidantes, encouraging her to explore more a more direct, confessional style of writing.
Plath and Hughes returned to London at the end of 1959. Their daughter, Frieda, was born the following April, and six months later Plath's first collection of poetry, The Colossuswas published in the U.K. It received a glowing critical reception throughout Europe and Plath was immediately established within literary circles as an exciting new voice. But at the height of her new acclaim, Plath found herself on another dangerous precipice. In February 1961, Plath suffered a miscarriage. Four months later, she was involved in a single-vehicle car crash that she would later claim was another failed attempt at suicide. During her recovery, Plath, Hughes and their daughter moved to the small village of North Tawton. There, Plath would give birth to their second child, Nicholas. She completed her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, but withheld it from publication, discouraged that the 1962 release of The Colossus in the United States was greeted with criticism, with many calling the work derivative and pedestrian. Then, in July of that year, Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. Rather that spurring another depressive episode, their separation seemed to breach a levee inside Plath. In under two months, Plath wrote an astonishing body of poetry, including 26 of the poems that would later be published in the collection Ariel, the volume upon which her legendary reputation would be made. While her clarity of language remained, these new poems were fueled by a bitter anger that seemed to burn off of the page. Themes of vengeance, death, and redemption predominated.
In command of her life and creative voice, Plath moved back to London with her children and rented a flat that once belonged to poet William Butler Yeats. When Plath's depression returned, it returned with a vengeance. Raising her children alone in an ancient, cold flat, Plath began to retreat into herself once again. In January 1963, Plath at last released The Bell Jar in Europe, but did so under the pen name Victoria Lucas. The book was roundly ignored. A friend and neighbor, Dr. John Horder, noticed Plath's returning symptoms. He prescribed antidepressants and arranged for a nurse to check on Plath on a regular basis. On the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, the nurse arrived at Plath's flat and found her dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She had sealed the kitchen doors and windows with wet towels to protect her children and then placed her head in the oven with the gas turned on. Two years later, Hughes, who was still legally married to Plath at her time of death and, therefore, the inheritor of her estate, posthumously published Ariel. It was greeted with ecstatic reviews and prompted a re-release of The Colossus in both the U.S. and Europe. When The Bell Jar was posthumously published in the United States, Plath was hailed as a genius and the embodiment of the embattled feminist voice.
Hughes would continue releasing Plath's unpublished works, including the 1971 volumes, Winter Trees and Crossing the Water, as well as several collections of stories for children. Plath's mother also published a collection of Plath's letters in 1975 in a volume entitled, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Hughes would likewise publish many of Plath's personal journals, but in 1982, he sealed two of her journals, asking that they not be made public until the 50th anniversary of her death. Other journals, including her last before her suicide, Hughes claimed to have burned to spare their children from having to read them. In the years since her death, Plath's raw writings and well-documented struggles with depression came to be viewed as emblematic of the subverted, oppressed feminine voice. Many fans and feminists turned their adoration of Plath's work to hatred of Hughes. Many condemned him for burning or sealing Plath's journals. When Hughes' second wife committed suicide, many claimed it as proof of Hughes' abuse. He received numerous death threats, and the name Hughes was repeatedly chiseled off of Plath's gravestone by vandals. Plath's growing legend inspired the 2003 biopic "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, with Daniel Craig co-starring as Ted Hughes. In 2012, The United States Postal Service honored Plath with a stamp commemorating her life and work, and the following year, on the fiftieth anniversary of her suicide, the last of Sylvia Plath's journals and writings was unsealed and published.
By John Crye