Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), poet and novelist, explored her obsessions with death, self, and nature in works that expressed her ambivalent attitudes toward the universe.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston's Memorial Hospital on October 27, 1932, to Aurelia and Otto Plath. Otto, who was a biology professor and a well-respected authority on entomology at Boston University, would later figure as a major image of persecution in his daughter's best known poems—"Daddy, " "The Colossus, " and "Lady Lazarus." His sudden death, eight years after Sylvia's birth, plunged the sensitive child into an abyss of grief, guilt, and angry despair which would haunt her for life and provide her poetry with the central motifs and tragic dimensions that characterize it.
Although she promised never to speak to God again after the death of her father, Plath, on the surface at least, gave the appearance of being a socially well-adjusted child who excelled in every undertaking, dazzling her teachers in the Winthrop public school system and earning straight A's for her superior academic skills and writing abilities. She was just eight and a half when her first poem was published in the Boston Sunday Herald.
Plath lived in Winthrop with her mother and younger brother, Warren, until 1942, when Aurelia Plath purchased a house in Wellesley. These early years in Winthrop provided the poet with her powerful awareness of the beauty and terror of nature and instilled in her an abiding love and fear of the ocean, which she envisioned as female:Like a deep woman, it hid a good deal; it had many faces, many delicate terrible veils. … if it could court, it could also kill.
Thus, even then, Plath was expressing her antithetical attitudes toward existence, embracing life and rejecting it simultaneously.
Wellesley, likewise, influenced Plath's life and values. It was a middle-class, highly respectable, educational community whose attitudes were at first accepted wholeheartedly by the young idealistic girl who was beginning to have her poems and stories published in Seventeen magazine. Her first story, "And Summer Will Not Come Again, " appeared in August 1950.
In September 1950 Plath entered Smith College in Northhampton on a scholarship. There she once again excelled academically and socially. Dubbed the golden girl by teachers and peers, she planned diligently for her writing career. She filled notebooks with stories, villanelles, sonnets, and rondels, shaping her poems with studious precision and winning many awards.
In August 1952 she won Mademoiselle's fiction contest, earning her a guest editorship at the magazine for June 1953. Her experiences in New York City were demoralizing and later became the basis for her novel The Bell Jar (1963). Upon her return home Plath, depressed and in conflict with her hard-won image as the All-American girl, suffered a serious mental breakdown, attempted suicide, and was given shock treatments. In February 1953 she had recovered enough to return to Smith. She was graduated summa cum laude and won a Fulbright fellowship to Cambridge, where she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes. They were married June 16, 1956, in London.
After earning her graduate degree Plath returned to America to accept a teaching position at Smith for the academic term 1957-1958. She quit after a year to devote full time to her writing. For a while she attended Robert Lowell's poetry seminar, where she met Anne Sexton. Sexton's and Lowell's influences were decisive for her poetic development. Both poets opened up for her very private and taboo subjects and introduced her to new kinds of emotional and psychological depths.
Plath and her husband were invited as writers-in-residence to Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, where they lived and worked for two months. It was here that Plath completed many of the poems collected in The Colossus, her first volume, published in 1960, the year her first child—Frieda—was born. Another child, Nicholas, was born two years later.
The Colossus was praised by critics for its "fine craft, " "fastidious vocabulary, " "potent symbolism, " and "brooding sense of danger and lurking horror" at man's place in the universe. But it was criticized for its absence of a personal voice, "its elaborate checks and courtesies, " and its "maddening docility and deflections."
Not until "Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices" (1962)—a radio play which was considered by some critics to be her transitional, formative work—would she begin to free her style and write more spontaneous, less narrative, less expository poetry. "Three Women" foreshadows some of Plath's later poetry in that its structure is dramatic and expressive of those highly personal themes that mark her work.
As it developed, her poetry became more autobiographical and private in imagery. Almost all the poems in Ariel (1965), considered her finest work and written during the last few months of her life, are personal testimonies to her angers, insecurities, fears, and overwhelming sense of loneliness and death. At last she had found the voice that had for so long eluded her.Peel off the napkin O my enemy. Do I terrify?
Not surprisingly, that voice offended many people for its unflinching directness and use of startling metaphors. In "Lady Lazarus" her father, "Herr Doktor, " is compared to a Nazi scientist: "Herr Enemy." In "Daddy" dead Otto becomes a "fascist, a brute chuffing me off like a Jew/A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen."
Violent and frighteningly vivid in its depiction of suicide, death, mutilation, and brutality, Ariel shocked critics and induced in its creator a powerful new sense of self. In his introduction to Ariel, Robert Lowell described that new self as "something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created … hardly a person … but one of those superreal, hynotic, great classical heroines. … ."
In later poetry published posthumously in Crossing The Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1971) this new self was able to voice its long-suppressed rage over "years of doubleness, smiles, and compromise."
Ironically, although Plath is often regarded by critics as the poet of death, her final poems, which deal with self and how self goes about creating and transcending itself in an irrational, destructive, materialistic world, clearly express her yearning for faith in the healing self-transforming powers of art.Miracles occur, If you care to call those spasmodic Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again, The long wait for the angel For that rare, random descent.
Despite this sense of possible redemption, Plath could not escape the tragedy that invaded and overwhelmed her personal life. By February 1963 her marriage had ended; she was ill and living on the edge of another breakdown while caring for two small children in a cramped flat in London ravaged by the coldest winter in decades. On Monday, February 11, she killed herself. The last gesture she made was to leave her children two mugs of milk and a plate of buttered bread.
Further Reading on Sylvia Plath
A good biography of Plath is Edward Butscher's Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976). Other books of interest are Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, edited by Aurelia Plath (1975); The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982); Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation by Jon Rosenblatt (1979); Plath's Incarnations by Lynda Bundtzen (1983); A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath by Nancy Hunter Steiner (1973); Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Margaret Dickie Uroff (1980); Sylvia Plath by Caroline King Barnard (1978); Plath: Poetry and Existence by David Holbrook (1976); and The Art of Plath: A Symposium, edited by Charles Newman (1970).