Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963)
Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College and Newnham College Cambridge before receiving acclaim as a professional poet and writer. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and they lived together first in the United States and then England, having two children together: Frieda and Nicholas. Following a long struggle with depression and a marital separation, Plath committed suicide in 1963. Controversy continues to surround the events of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy.
Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for her two collections The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In 1982, she became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Collected Poems. She was also the author of one semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, which was published shortly before her death.
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 biology and German at Boston University and author of a book about bumblebees. Plath's mother was approximately twenty-one years younger than her husband. They met while she was earning her master's degree in teaching and took one of his courses. Otto had become alienated from his family because he chose not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents had intended him to be.
In April 1935, Plath's brother Warren was born. The family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts in 1936 and Plath spent much of her childhood on Johnson Avenue. Raised a Unitarian Christian, Plath experienced a loss of faith after her father's death, and remained ambivalent about 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. While living in Winthrop, eight-year-old Plath published her first poem in the Boston Herald's children's section. In addition to writing, she showed early promise as an artist, winning an award for her paintings from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947.
Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath's eighth birthday, of complications following the amputation of a foot due to untreated 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, had lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Otto Plath was buried in Winthrop Cemetery; visiting her father's grave prompted Plath to write the poem Electra on Azalea Path. After her husband's death, Aurelia Plath moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1942.
In 1950, Plath attended Smith College. She dated a Yale senior named 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 that was fictionalized in the novel. 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 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. After her suicide attempt, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroconvulsive therapy. Both her stay at McLean Hospital and her Smith scholarship was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make an good recovery. In January 1955 she submitted her thesis The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels and in June, graduated from Smith with honors.
She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge where she continued actively writing poetry and publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. At Newnham, she studied with Dorothea Krook, whom she held in high regard.
In a 1961 BBC interview (now held by the British Library Sound Archive), Plath and poet Ted Hughes describe how they met and eventually came to be married. Hughes begins, "I left Cambridge in 1954, but I still had friends there that I used to go back and see now and again. And one of these friends produced a poetry magazine, it just sold one issue. Anyway, I had some poems in this and we had a celebration the day it came out." "To which I came," Plath continues. "I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the [US] government on a government grant. And I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met. [...] I think we saw each other again on Friday the 13th, or something, in London, somehow, after this. Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later." Hughes goes on "I'd saved some cash. I'd been working for about 3 months and everything I'd saved, I blew it on a courtship." Plath adds, "We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on."
They were married on June 16, 1956 at St George the Martyr Holborn in the London Borough of Camden. In early 1957, Plath and Hughes moved to the United States and from September 1957 Plath taught at Smith College, her alma mater. She found it difficult to both teach and have enough time and energy to write  and the middle of 1958, the couple moved to Boston. Plath took a job as a receptionist in the psychiatric unit of Massachusetts General Hospital and in the evening took creative writing seminars given by poet Robert Lowell (also attended by the writer Anne Sexton). At this time Plath and Hughes first met the poet W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.
After travelling in the US, the couple moved back to the United Kingdom in December 1959. Plath and Hughes lived in London at 3 Chalcot Square, near the Primrose Hill area of Regent's Park. Their daughter Frieda was born on 1 April 1960 and in October, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961, Plath's second pregnancy ended in miscarriage; a number of her poems address this event. In August she finished her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and immediately after this, the family moved to the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. Nicholas was born in January 1962.
Plath's marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Plath's good friend Assia Wevill, which she discovered in July. In June Plath had had a car accident which she described as one of many suicide attempts and in September the couple split. From October, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity and wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests, writing at least 26 poems of her posthumous collection Ariel during this time.In December 1962, she returned alone to London with their children, and rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road (only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat) in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived.Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen. The winter of 1962 was one of the coldest in 100 years; the pipes froze, the children—now two years old and nine months—were often sick, and the house had no telephone. Her depression returned but she completed the rest of her poetry collection which would be published after her death (1965 in the Uk, 1966 in the US) . Her only novel The Bell Jar came out in January 1963, published under the pen name Victoria Lucas. Al Alvarez, a poet, editor and literary champion of Hughes and Plath, spoke, in a BBC interview in March 2000, about his failure to recognize Plath's depression. Alvarez says he regretted his inability to offer emotional support to Plath: "I failed her on that level. I was 30 years old and stupid. What did I know about chronic clinical depression? [...] She kind of needed someone to take care of her. And that was not something I could do." In his 1971 book on suicide, he claimed that Plath's suicide was an unanswered cry for help.
Dr Horder, a close friend who lived near Plath, prescribed Plath antidepressants a few days before her death. Knowing she was at risk alone with two young children, he says he visited her daily and made strenuous efforts to have her admitted to a hospital and when that failed, he arranged for a live-in nurse. Some commentators have argued that because anti-depressants may take up to a three weeks to take effect, her prescription from Horder would not necessarily have helped. Others say that Plath's American doctor had warned her never again to take the anti-depressant drug which she found worsened her depression but Dr Horder had prescribed it under a proprietary name which she did not recognize.
The nurse was due to arrive at nine o'clock the morning of February 10, 1963 to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, she could not get into the flat, but eventually gained access with the help of a workman, Charles Langridge. They found Plath dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in the kitchen, with her head in the oven, having sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with wet towels and cloths. At approximately 4.30 am, Plath had placed her head in the oven, while the gas was turned on, with the pilot light unlit. She was 30.
It has been suggested that Plath had not intended to succeed in killing herself. That morning, she asked her downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Thomas, what time he would be leaving. A note had also been left reading "Call Dr. Horder", listing his phone number. Therefore, it is argued Plath turned the gas on at a time when Mr. Thomas should have been waking and beginning his day. This theory maintains that the gas seeped through the floor for several hours and reached Mr. Thomas and another resident of the floor below. However, in her biography Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Plath's best friend, Jillian Becker wrote: "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.'" Dr Horder also believed her intention was clear. He stated that "No-one who saw the care with which the kitchen was prepared could have interpreted her action as anything but an irrational compulsion".
An inquiry on the day following Plath's death gave a ruling of suicide. Hughes was devastated; they had been separated only five months. In a letter to an old friend of Plath's from Smith College, he wrote, "That's the end of my life. The rest is posthumous". Plath's gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard bears the inscription that Hughes chose for her: "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted." Biographers variously attribute the source of the quote to the 16th century Buddhist novel Journey to the West written by Wu Ch'eng-En or to the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.
The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by those aggrieved that "Hughes" is written on the stone; they have attempted to chisel it off, leaving only the name "Sylvia Plath". When Hughes' partner Assia Wevill killed herself and her four year old daughter Shura in 1969, this practice intensified. After each defacement, Hughes had the damaged stone removed, sometimes leaving the site unmarked during repair. Outraged mourners accused Hughes in the media of dishonoring her name by removing the stone. Wevill's death led to claims that Hughes had been abusive to both Plath and Wevill. In 1970, radical feminist poet Robin Morgan published the poem "Arraignment", in which she openly accused Hughes of the battery and murder of Plath; other feminists threatened to kill him in Plath's name.
In 1989, with Hughes under public attack, a battle raged in the letters pages of The Guardian and The Independent. In The Guardian on April 20, 1989 Hughes wrote the article "The Place Where Sylvia Plath Should Rest in Peace":
In the years soon after [Plath's] death, when scholars approached me, I tried to take their apparently serious concern for the truth about Sylvia Plath seriously. But I learned my lesson early. [...] If I tried too hard to tell them exactly how something happened, in the hope of correcting some fantasy, I was quite likely to be accused of trying to suppress Free Speech. In general, my refusal to have anything to do with the Plath Fantasia has been regarded as an attempt to suppress Free Speech [...] The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and of mine), or for her memory, or for the literary tradition, I do not know.
On March 6, 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the son of Plath and Hughes, hanged himself at his home in Alaska, following a history of depression.
Plath wrote poetry from the age of eight. At Smith College she majored in English and won all the major prizes in writing and scholarship. She edited the college magazine Mademoiselle and on her graduation in 1955, she won the Glascock Prize for Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea. Later at Newnham, Cambridge, she wrote for the Varsity magazine. By the time Heinmann published her first collection, Collosus and other poems in the UK in late in 1960, Plath had been short-listed several times in the Yale Younger Poets book competition and had had work printed in Harper's, The Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. All the poems in Collosus had already been printed in major US and British journals and she had a contract with The New Yorker.
Colossus received largely positive UK reviews, highlighting her voice as new and strong, individual and American in tone. Peter Dickinson at Punch called the collection "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse". Bernard Bergonzi at the Manchester Guardian said the book was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso' quality". From the point of publication she became a presence on the poetry scene. The book went on to be published America in 1962 to less glowing reviews. Whilst her craft was generally praised her writing was viewed as more derivative of other poets. Some later critics have described the first book as somewhat young, staid or conventional in comparison to the more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work.