Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet and novelist who helped popularize a then-new genre of poetry — confessional poetry — that emphasizes revealing intimate details about the poet's life, often with brutal honesty; Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were other major figures. Plath is still incredibly popular today, despite her short life and limited bibliography, precisely because of her honesty, imagery, and diction.
Plath was born in Massachusetts to Otto Plath, an entomologist whose expertise is on bumblebees, and Aurelia Plath, a second-generation American of Austrian descent, and spent her early years in the seaside town of Winthrop. She had a younger brother named Warren. On November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Syliva's eight birthday, Otto died from complications following the amputation of his foot. The family then moved to the town of Wellesley, in Boston. Aurelia took a job teaching students in medical-secretarial training at Boston University, while Sylvia and Warren attended local public schools.
At an early age, Sylvia began to write poetry and draw in pen and ink, submitting forty-five pieces to the teen magazine Seventeen before publishing her first short story in the August 1950 issue. That same year, Plath entered Smith College, where she held class and college offices, became a member of the editorial board for The Smith Review, and published poems and stories for Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. She won Mademoiselle's fiction contest in August 1951, two Smith College poetry prizes the following year, and became a guest editor for Mademoiselle. That summer, she also published three poems in Harper's magazine. Despite her success, Plath returned home and suffered a "six month crash", attempting suicide and vanishing; she was then hospitalized and subjected to shock treatment to complete her senior year at Smith, graduating summa cum laude. She went on to Newnham College in Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright fellowship, and within a year, she met and married the poet Ted Hughes; they moved to the United States in 1957.
Plath became a teacher at Smith College, but after a year of teaching, she left to focus on writing full-time; she took a secretarial job in the psychiatric department of Massachusetts General Hospital to stave off writer's block and her depression. This became the basis of one of her short stories: "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams". She eventually returned to England with Hughes in December 1959.
Her first child, Frieda, was born April 1, 1960 in London, and Plath published her first book of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems in the fall. The Hugheses moved to a Devon village where they bought a thatched house, where their son Nicholas was born on January 17, 1962. During that time, Plath began writing Ariel, in which she abandoned conventional metrical patterns in favor of free-verse poetry, and she continued writing poems in that style.
In the late summer of 1962, Plath learned of Hughes' affair with Assia Wevill, a mutual friend, and the couple separated. She later submitted the manuscript of The Bell Jar, chronicling a college student's mental breakdown and eventual recovery, and continued to work on poems for Ariel.
In December 1962, Plath and her children moved to London, renting a flat where W. B. Yeats once lived; she was pleased by this and considered it a good omen. Sadly, The Bell Jar, published January 1963, was met with critical indifference, much to her distress. In addition, living in Yeats' house was cold; the pipes froze, there was no telephone, and Plath's children had miserable colds. Plath managed to complete Ariel, but her depression returned. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants to which, in the United States, she was known to react badly, but as these antidepressants were under a different name, she was unaware that she was taking the very medication she should avoid. Her doctor tried to get her to the hospital and arranged for a psychiatrist. Still, on February 11, 1963, Plath offed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning, sealing herself in the kitchen with tape, towels, and cloth and putting her head in the oven.
Plath was posthumously honored, if you will, in 2001 when Dr. James Kaufman conducted research on creativity and mental illness. He found that creative writers, particularly female poets, are at great risk for depression, mental illness, and suicide. Kaufman called this the Sylvia Plath effect.
Works by Sylvia Plath:
- The Colossus and Other Poems
- Ariel (Plath)
- Winter Trees
- The Bell Jar
- Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Her work features these tropes:
- Bilingual Bonus: At least a minor one in "Daddy", for all the German speakers.
- Creator Breakdown: The poems written in the weeks before her suicide get darker and darker until you get to "Edge", which is a creepy poem about a statue of a woman, and the last poem she ever wrote.The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment...
- Executive Meddling:
- Literary Allusion Title:
- "Lady Lazarus," which also doubles for As the Good Book Says... Lazarus of Bethany is a man revived by Jesus four days after his death. Guess what "Lady Lazarus" is about.
- Subverted on at least two occasions. Some mistakenly think that "Medusa" is this, believing the title refers to the monster from Greek mythology (it actually refers to a jellyfish). Likewise, some assume Ariel is a reference to The Tempest when it was the name of Plath's horse. The central poem of the collection is about her sense of freedom while riding.
- Pen Name: The Bell Jar was originally published under the name Victoria Lucas.
- Stock Shout-Outs: As previously mentioned, Sylvia Plath is quite popular despite — compared to other writers in the 20th century — her limited literary output.
- There are shout outs to The Bell Jar, as well as specifically to Plath. They range from a Warehouse 13 episode about her typewriter, a House patient that wrote a poem in the style of Sylvia Plath, a mention◊ in an episode of Californication, and a song by The Antlers titled "Sylvia".
- Tears for Fears also released a B-side in 1990 titled after "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" (which later got remixed as a single in 1991).
- A preoccupation with Sylvia Plath in cinema has become cultural shorthand for tough, feminist young women who may be hard to be around, as with Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You and Lisa from The Simpsons.
- Talks Like a Simile: One of the rare good examples, as her similes tend to be incisive, unique, and often startling, but they're employed enough to be a distinctive attribute of both her poetry and her prose.
- What Could Have Been: Her death at thirty prevented any poetry she might have yet created from coming into existence. She also had a second novel in mind that would present the world through the eyes of health as opposed to the eyes of the depressed and suicidal Esther.