Credited with helping to advance the genre of ‘Confessional Poetry’ in the mid twentieth century; the style of writing that was written in an autobiographical manner and dealt with subject matter relating but not limited to, death, tragedy, trauma and depression, came one of America’s and subsequently Britain’s, brilliant but tortured poet and novelists of that era, Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, October 27th, 1932 to parents, Aurelia (nèe Schober) and Otto Plath. Her German born father was an entomologist with a specific expertise on bees and wrote a book in 1934, Bumblebees and their Ways. He was also a professor of Biology and German at Boston University and well respected amongst his peers and community. Aurelia Plath was a high school teacher. Naturally, learning was of vast importance by both parents for their children. Sylvia would be their only child until younger brother, Warren was born two and a half years later in April 1935. Sylvia and Warren’s childhood was a happy, privileged life with the family’s first home in a suburb called Jamaica Plains that was originally part of the town, Roxbury in Boston and became one of the first streetcar suburbs in America in the nineteenth century.
From a young age, Sylvia demonstrated a talent with words and promise as a young artist when she began speaking at a much earlier age than most children and was writing complete poems by the time, she was five years old.
Encouraged by both parents, life for the Plath family was idyllic during this period although it would become short-lived. In 1936 they moved again to the suburb of Winthrop, Massachusetts, an ocean-side suburban community just east of Boston. It was here that young Sylvia became familiar and enamoured with the power and beauty of the sea; a topic that would frequent often in some of her later poetry. Her maternal grandparents, with whom she was close to also lived in Winthrop, a short distance away, on the Bay side of Boston in a house that backed onto the rougher, open waters of Massachusetts Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. During the latter half of the 1930’s, shortly after Sylvia’s brother, Warren was born, their father, Otto became increasingly ill with what he self -diagnosed as lung cancer. Comparing his symptoms to a friend of his who had died of lung cancer, he refused to seek medical treatment, believing that there was no cure or treatment. Five years later in 1940 Otto went to see a doctor about an infection in his foot where it was discovered that he did not have cancer, but advanced stage diabetes and his foot was riddled with gangrene. As a result, Otto’s leg was amputated that October and he died a month later from complications following the surgery in November; a week after young Sylvia’s eighth birthday.
This tragic event traumatised Sylvia who declared from that day on she would “never speak to God again” and would remain ambivalent about religion throughout the rest of her life. After Otto’s death, Sylvia’s grandparents became part of the Plath household and cared for Sylvia and Warren when Aurelia returned to teaching. With the conflicting emotions and confusion that Sylvia felt with the change of events in her young life, she continued to pen poetry and shortly after her father’s death, had her first poem published in the Boston Herald’s children section. Simply titled, ‘Poem’ a note to the editor stated that it was a short poem about “what I see and hear on hot summer nights”
In 1942, Aurelia accepted a teaching position at Boston University and moved her children and her parents inland from Winthrop, to Wellesley, where Sylvia was re-enrolled in the 5th grade in her new school, Bradford Senior High School (now known as Wellesley High School)
Aurelia felt that for Sylvia, studying already familiar topics and being with children who own age (Sylvia had started school nearly two years early) would help lessen her stress of change. In one of her last prose pieces of her life, Sylvia would write that her first nine years of life, "Sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth"
Through her junior high she continued to write and attain good grades, and at the end of the year she was honoured with several awards and would publish her poems and drawings in the school’s newspaper, The Bradford where she contributed for three years before becoming its co-editor for her senior year, 1949-1950. During her senior high school years, she enrolled in the class of a tough English professor, Wilbury Crockett who would challenge Sylvia’s writing abilities and taught his classes like college seminars. While some students balked at the challenging class and what was expected of them, with only two-thirds of students returning, Sylvia believed that Mr Crockett was one who finally understood that superior students needed to be challenged to reach their full potential. She proved an excellent student and in 1949 Sylvia and another student from the English class co-authored a public response to an article in the literary and culture commentary magazine, The Atlantic. The original article written by a
Columbia University Professor, Irwin Edman and titled, ‘A Reasonable Life in a Mad World’ had stated that the modern man must rely on the ability to reason in order to further society. Plath and her classmate challenged Edman’s essay and argued that, beyond reason, “one needed to connect with and embrace inner divinity and spirituality to fully live”. Edman’s short reply recommended that they “Wait until they enter college and consider his ideas again then in more depth.”
This did not dissuade Sylvia and with the pressure of college applications looming in her senior year, she applied herself with even more determination to her studies and continued to culminate various prizes for her hard work. She continued to read, write and submit poems to magazines, including Seventeen and The Ladies’ Home Journal while studying world literature in Mr Crockett’s class, study college biology, US History, French, advanced Art and Gym. Poems she wrote that year include ‘Adolescence’ ‘Lonely Song’ ‘Question’ and ‘The Farewell’ Over time, she sent thirty poems alone to Seventeen, one poem to The Atlantic Monthly, and a short story to women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. None of these works was accepted.
Years later, Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia would comment that many young writers looked with envy at Sylvia as an instant success, when she had actually received countless rejections for her work but simply remained persistent in submitting, although sometimes those rejections caused self-doubt in her abilities and coupled with stress, would develop a pattern of illness and depression that would plague her for the rest of her life. Several rejection slips from Seventeen alone still exist in the Plath archives today and her first national publication didn’t occur till 1950, after she had graduated. A poem titled, Bitter Strawberries, published in the daily newspaper, Christian Science Monitor.
Though Sylvia knew her chances of a local town scholarship to Wellesley were excellent, but she had her sights set on one of the country’s premier women college’s, Smith College, one hundred miles away from Wellesley, in Northampton, Massachusetts. This appealed to Sylvia not only for the higher quality education she sought, but the much needed and literal breathing space she craved from her family and Aurelia, with whom she shared a room with at home.
During her time at Smith’s College from 1950-1955, Sylvia gained notoriety on campus for her poetry and stories that were finally getting published regularly in national magazines, but sadly those glowing accomplishments hid a dark truth. The depression that was endemic in her father’s family followed her and coupled with homesickness and frustrated with minor failures including a disappointing month long guest editing spot at Mademoiselle (that would eventually inspire her only novel, The Bell Jar, published under the pseudonym, Victora Lucas) her mother saw no other option than to send Sylvia to a doctor who diagnosed her as bi-polar and prescribed electroconvulsive shock therapy. Sadly, Aurelia’s good intentions for her daughter were horribly awry and Sylvia was unable to bear the strains of perfectionism and pain that then lead to her first unsuccessful suicide attempt in August 1953.
Sylvia had swallowed forty of her mother’s sleeping pills at the family’s home while no one was around and was found in the crawl space three days later, dazed but alive and admitted to Mclean’s Hospital psychiatric institution in Belmont where she remained for six months receiving more electro shock and insulin treatment. She seemed to make a good recovery and returned to college in January, but it wasn’t until April 1954 before she attempted to write again and before long she was back to earning excellent grades and prizes for her poetry, graduating summa cum laude in June 1955 with a Fulbright Scholarship for Cambridge University in England where she would study literature in the fall and write for the University’s publication, Varsity.
At Cambridge, she enjoyed making new friends, dating and touring, although she was yet to find any serious romantic relationships that would soon change when she met her future husband, the charismatic but abusive poet, Ted Hughes in 1956. Enamoured by his strength and power, their whirlwind relationship turned into a marriage within four months and would be fraught with complexities. Their marriage was kept secret in order not to jeopardize Sylvia’s academic career or Fulbright Scholarship. They honeymooned in Spain and after Sylvia passed her examination at University they travelled around the United States, where she taught freshman English at her former college. It was during this time that Ted’s first poetry collection, The Hawk in the Rain won a major poetry prize and fulfilled Sylvia’s promise that she had helped make him a success, however, she struggled to continue developing her own voice as writer, but continued teaching, attending poetry writing classes and resuming her psychiatric treatment. In 1959, they decided to settle back in London after learning Sylvia was five months pregnant and a few months later in 1960, their daughter, Frieda Plath was born. During this brief time, Sylvia was happy and she was able to finish most of her only novel, The Bell Jar and began publishing new kinds of poetry, however it didn’t last and their marriage issues, including jealousy, and Ted’s infidelity coupled with Sylvia’s depression complicated things, despite becoming pregnant a second time, this time with a son, Nicholas.
In October 1962, Ted left the marriage and despite being prolific with her poetry, many magazines largely continued to reject her work. She moved into a flat in London with her two children in December 1962 and tried making a new life for herself, but the worst winter in a century in London had added to her reoccurring depression and without access to a telephone and troubled by two young children to care for, it was all too much for Sylvia and in the early hours of February 11th 1963, two weeks after the publication of The Bell Jar, she set aside milk and bread in the children’s room, cracked open their window and sealed off the rooms between them with towels and tape. At 4.30am she placed her head in the oven with the gas turned on and fell into unconsciousness.
She was thirty years old.
Sylvia Plath is buried in the Hughes Family cemetery at Heptonstall Church in Yorkshire. In 1965, two years after her death Ted Hughes published her final collection of poetry, Ariel and other Poems that became her magnum opus, catapulting her to stardom, and in 1981 more unseen poems was released by Ted Hughes, titled, Collected Poems awarding Sylvia Plath the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.