Sylvia Plath

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Sylvia Plath
Born: October 27, 1932
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died: February 11, 1963
London, England
Occupation: poet, novelist, and short story writer
Nationality: Flag of United States American
Literary movement: confessional poetry

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, detailing her struggle with depression. Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry that Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass initiated.


  • 1 Biography
    • 1.1 Childhood
    • 1.2 College years
    • 1.3 Wife, mother and poet
    • 1.4 Death
  • 2 Works
    • 2.1 Journals
    • 2.2 Poems
    • 2.3 The Ted Hughes controversy
  • 3 Bibliography
    • 3.1 Poetry
    • 3.2 Prose
    • 3.3 Children's books
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 Biographies
  • 7 Other works on Plath
  • 8 External links



Plath was born 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 zoology and German at Boston University and a noted bees specialist.[1] Plath's mother was approximately twenty-one years younger than her husband.[1] In 1934, Plath's brother Warren was born.[1] The family moved to Winthrop in 1936 during the Great Depression, where Plath spent much of her childhood on Johnson Street. Plath's mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, had lived in a section of the town called Point Shirley, a location mentioned in Plath's poetry. Plath published her first poem in Winthrop, in the Boston Herald's children's section, when she was eight years old.

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath's eighth birthday, of complications following the amputation of a leg due to diabetes. Diabetes mellitus was even at that time a treatable disease. He did not, however, receive proper treatment due to an incorrect self-diagnosis. He fell ill shortly after the death of a close friend who died of lung cancer. Comparing the similarities between his friend's symptoms and his own, Otto was convinced that he too was ill with lung cancer, and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Otto Plath is buried in Winthrop Cemetery, where his gravestone continues to attract readers of Plath's poem "Daddy." Aurelia Plath then moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1942.[1]

College years

During the summer after her second year of college, Plath received the position of guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. The experience was not at all what she had hoped it would be, beginning within her a seemingly downward spiral in her outlook on herself and life in general. Much of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. In her junior year at Smith College, Plath made the her first medically documented suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of sleeping pills [2]. Details of her documented and possible undocumented attempts at suicide are chronicled in her book, The Bell Jar. After her suicide attempt, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution, McLean Hospital; her stay there was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had also funded the scholarship at Smith of which Plath was the recipient. Plath seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honors in 1955. She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University where she continued actively writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. It was at Cambridge that she met English poet Ted Hughes. They were married on June 16, 1956.[3]

Wife, mother and poet

Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith. They then moved to Boston where Plath sat in on seminars given by Robert Lowell. Also attending Lowell's seminars was Anne Sexton. At this time, Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.[4]

Upon learning that Plath was pregnant, the couple moved back to the United Kingdom. Plath and Hughes lived in London for a while on Chalcot Square near the Primrose Hill area of Regent's Park, and then settled in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. While there, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961, she suffered a miscarriage, and a number of her poems address this event.[5]

Soon, Plath's marriage to Hughes met with many difficulties (particularly his affair with Assia Wevill), and they separated.[6] She returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas, and rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road (only a few blocks from the Chalcot Square apartment) in a house where W.B. Yeats once lived. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.[7]


Plath's grave at Heptonstall church, West Yorkshire
Plath's grave at Heptonstall church, West Yorkshire

Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. She left out bread and milk and completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with "wet towels and cloths."[8] Plath then placed her head in the oven in her kitchen while the gas was turned on.

It has been suggested that Plath's timing and planning of this suicide attempt was too precise, too coincidental, and that she had not meant to succeed in killing herself. Apparently, she had previously asked Mr. Thomas, her downstairs neighbor, what time he would be leaving; and a note had been placed that read "Call Dr. Horder" and listed his phone number.[9] Therefore it is argued that Plath must have 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 and reached Mr. Thomas and another resident of the floor below for several hours. Also, an au pair was to arrive at nine o'clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Arriving promptly at nine, the au pair could not get into the flat, but was eventually let in by painters, who had a key to the front door.

However, in the book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Jillian Becker says that, "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.'"

Plath's gravestone bears the inscription "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted." Following her death, the gravestone was repeatedly vandalized with supporters of Plath chiselling off the name "Hughes." This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman he left Plath for, which led to claims that Hughes had been abusive toward Plath.[10]



Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as "The Journals of Sylvia Plath," edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired all of Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013 (50 years after Plath's death).

During his last years of life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath's journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her edits in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published "The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the "Unabridged Journals" is newly released material. The publication was hailed as a "genuine literary event" by Joyce Carol Oates.

Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)": Hughes, in the Foreword to Plath's "Journals" 1982.


Plath has been criticized for her controversial allusions to the Holocaust, and is known for her uncanny use of metaphor. Her work has been compared to and associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets.

While the few critics who responded to Plath's first book, The Colossus, did so favorably, it has also been described as somewhat staid and conventional in comparison to the much more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work.

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. It is a possibility that Lowell's poetry—which is often labeled "confessional"—played a part in this shift. Indeed, in an interview before her death she listed Lowell's "Life Studies" as an influence. The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its descriptions of mental illness in autobiographical poems such as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus".

In 1982, Plath became the second poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously (for "The Collected Poems").

In 2006, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled "Ennui." The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.

The Ted Hughes controversy

As Plath's widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath's personal and literary estates. This is controversial, as it is uncertain whether or not Plath had begun divorce proceedings before her death: if she had, Hughes' inheritance of the Plath estate would have been in dispute. In letters to Aurelia Plath and Richard Murphy, Plath writes that she was applying for a divorce. However, Hughes said in a letter to The Guardian that Plath did not seriously consider divorce, and claims they were discussing reconciliation mere days before her death. However, he oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1965). He claims to have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last few months together.

Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, though he denied this. Examples cited include his censoring of parts of her journals that portrayed him unfavorably, and his editing of Ariel, changing the order of the poems in the book from the sequence she had intended and left at her death, as well as removing several poems. Critics argue this prevented what was intended to be a more uplifting beginning and ending of Ariel, and that the poems removed were the ones most readily identified as being about Hughes.

Hughes hired an accountant to keep track of the estate, but the accountant did a poor job. A large and looming tax bill caused Hughes to convince Plath's mother, Aurelia, to publish The Bell Jar in the United States. Because of this, she later asked Hughes' permission to publish a volume of Plath's letters, to which he agreed with strong reservations.

Ironically, Hughes' sister Olwyn--never close to and often openly hostile towards Plath during her life--eventually took over much of the duties of executor of the Plath estate. Like her brother, Olwyn Hughes was seen as being overly aggressive in limiting permissions if the works cast him in an unfavorable light.

In the reams of criticism and biographies published after her death the debate about Plath's work resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes.[11]



  • The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)
  • Ariel (1965)
  • Crossing the Water (1971)
  • Winter Trees (1972)
  • The Collected Poems (1981)


  • The Bell Jar (1963) under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas"
  • Letters Home (1975)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977)
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
  • The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath's Smith College senior thesis
  • The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000)

Children's books

  • The Bed Book (1976)
  • The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996)
  • Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001)
  • Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001)

See also

  • Confessional poetry
  • Poetry of the United States
  • Sylvia Plath effect
  1. ^ a b c d Steven Axelrod. Sylvia Plath. The Literary Encyclopedia, 17 Sept. 2003, The Literary Dictionary Company (24 April 2007), University of California Riverside. Retrieved on 2007-06-01.
  2. ^ Kibler, James E. Jr, ed. (1980), Dictionary of Literary Biography, 2nd, vol. 6 - American Novelists Since World War II, A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book, University of Georgia. The Gale Group, at 259-64
  3. ^ Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Books and Writers, (2000). Retrieved on 2007-06-25.
  4. ^ Sylvia Plath. UIUC Library Online, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved on 2007-06-25.
  5. ^ Marie Griffin. Sylvia Plath - Poet. "Great talent in great darkness", Bipolar Disorder (2007 About, Inc.). Retrieved on 2007-06-25.
  6. ^ Richard Whittington-Egan. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—a marriage examined. Contemporary Review (February 2005). Retrieved on 2007-06-25.
  7. ^ Brenda C. Mondragon. Sylvia Plath. Neurotic Poets (1997-2006). Retrieved on 2007-06-25.
  8. ^ Stevenson, Anne (1998), Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, Mariner Books
  9. ^ Peter K. Steinberg. Biography (1956-1963). A celebration, This is; Retrieved on 2007-02-28.
  10. ^ Vanessa Thorpe. I failed her. I was 30 and stupid. The Observer, Guardian Unlimited (March 19, 2000). Retrieved on 2007-02-27.
  11. ^ David Smith. Ted Hughes, the domestic tyrant. The Observer, Guardian Unlimited (September 10, 2006). Retrieved on 2007-06-25.


  • Sylvia Plath (2004, Chelsea House, Great Writers Series) by Peter K. Steinberg, ISBN 0-7910-7843-4
  • Sylvia Plath: Method & Madness (A Biography) (2004, Schaffner Press, 2Rev Ed) by Edward Butscher, ISBN 0-9710-5982-9
  • Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (2003, Palgrave Macmillan, 2Rev Ed) by Linda Wagner-Martin, ISBN 1-4039-1653-5
  • Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage (2003, Viking Adult) by Diane Middlebrook, ISBN 0-670-03187-9
  • Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991, Da Capo Press) by Paul Alexander, ISBN 0-3068-1299-1
  • The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991, Carol Publishing) by Ronald Hayman, ISBN 1-5597-2068-9

Other works on Plath

  • The 2003 motion picture Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, tells the story of Plath's troubled relationship with Hughes.
  • Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters (2002, W.W. Norton) by Erica Wagner | ISBN 0-3933-2301-3
  • Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Jillian Becker (a friend with whom Plath spent her last weekend) (Ferrington, London, 2002).
  • Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (1992, Johns Hopkins University) by Steven Gould Axelrod | ISBN 0-8018-4374-X
  • The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995, Vintage) by Janet Malcolm | ISBN 0-6797-5140-8
  • A psychobiographical chapter on Plath's loss of her father, and the effect of that loss on her personality and her art, is contained in William Todd Schultz's Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Sylvia Plath Info Blog
  • Sylvia Plath page
  • Literary Encyclopedia biography
  • Biography of Sylvia Plath
    • Sylvia Plath Poem at Blackbird
    • Sylvia Plath at Neurotic Poets
    • Sylvia Plath's Gravesite
    • Poetry of Sylvia Plath
    • Listen online: "November Graveyard"

    NAME Plath, Sylvia
    SHORT DESCRIPTION American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist
    DATE OF BIRTH October 27, 1932
    PLACE OF BIRTH Boston, Massachusetts, United States
    DATE OF DEATH February 11, 1963
    PLACE OF DEATH London, England
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