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Two Views of Plath's Life and Career--by Linda Wagner-Martin and Anne Stevenson

Linda Wagner-Martin

Sylvia Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the older child of Otto and Aurelia Schoeber Plath. Her father was professor of German and entomology (a specialist on bees) at Boston University; her mother, a high school teacher, was his student. Both parents valued learning. In 1940 Otto died of complications from surgery after a leg amputation, and Aurelia's parents became part of the household to care for the children when she returned to teaching.

Sylvia's interests in writing and art continued through her public school years in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and at Smith College, where she attended on scholarships. Her extensive publications of poems and fiction led to her selection for the College Board of Mademoiselle magazine in 1953. The depression that was endemic in her father's family troubled her during her junior year; when her mother sought treatment for her, she was given bi-polar electroconvulsive shock treatments as an out-patient. In August 1953, she attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Recovered after six months of intensive therapy, Sylvia returned to Smith and her usual academic success. A senior, she wrote an honors thesis on Dostoyevski's use of the double and graduated summa cum laude in English; she also won a Fulbright fellowship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. In the fall of 1955, she sailed for England.

Plath studied hard but her life in England was also sexual. As her writing showed, she was angry about double-standard behavior, and claimed for herself the right to as much sexual experience as men had. She believed combining the erotic and the intellectual possible, and when she met Ted Hughes, a Cambridge poet, she felt that life with him would be ideal. The two were married in London on 16 June 1956, accompanied by Sylvia's mother.

After a honeymoon in Spain, the Hugheses set up housekeeping. Sylvia passed her examinations while Ted taught in a boys' school; in June they sailed for America. The next year Sylvia taught freshman English at Smith; in 1958 and 1959 they lived in Boston and wrote professionally. Ted's first poem collection, The Hawk in the Rain, won a major poetry prize; Sylvia's promise that she would make him a success seemed fulfilled. Unfortunately, giving such single-minded attention to Ted's work meant that developing her own voice as a writer was difficult. She visited Robert Lowell's class in poetry writing, where she met George Starbuck and Anne Sexton; Sexton's work became an inspiration to her. Plath worked part-time as a secretary in the psychiatric division of Massachusetts General Hospital, transcribing patients' histories, which often included dreams. She also resumed therapy with the woman psychiatrist who had helped her after her breakdown.

The years in the States convinced Ted that he needed to live in England. After an autumn at Yaddo, the writers' colony, Ted and Sylvia sailed for London in December 1959. Sylvia was happy: she was writing good poems (she had written 'The Colossus' at Yaddo, where she had discovered Theodore Roethke's poetry), and she was five months pregnant. Soon after Frieda's birth on 1 April 1960, they began looking for a country house to escape cramped, expensive London. In late summer of 1961, they moved to Devon, where Sylvia was ecstatic about their centuries-old manor house. Before that time, however, they wrote efficiently (sometimes in the borrowed study of poet W. S. Merwin), and Plath was able to finish most of The Bell Jar. Influenced by J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia's novel narrated a woman's life from adolescence, ending with a positive resolution of rebirth.

Ted wrote programs for the BBC and became a Faber author, in contact with T. S. Eliot and other important British poets; Sylvia was publishing new kinds of poems, content that William Heinemann had contracted to publish her book, The Colossus and Other Poems. Its publication in October 1960 was well received, and Alfred Knopf published the collection in the States.

Personal jealousies, differences in American and British views of gender roles, and a return of Sylvia's depression complicated the Plath-Hughes marriage. Despite their happiness when Sylvia became pregnant once more, after an earlier miscarriage, the marriage of two aspiring writers living in an isolated village with an infant and little money was difficult. After Nicholas's birth in January 1962, Sylvia faced the fact of Hughes's infidelity, expressing herself through increasingly angry--and powerful--poems. In contrast to such work as "The Rabbit Catcher" and "The Detective," her radio play for the BBC, 'Three Women," is a beautifully wrought, somber poem about maternal choice. Plath had learned to find joy in her women-centered world, and the care of her children and friendships with other women were increasingly important. But she could not tolerate male irresponsibility. Living with the children in lonely Devon, Plath wrote many of the poems that later appeared in Ariel. Her so-called October poems, written during the month after Hughes had left her, are among her most famous: "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," "Fever 103," "Purdah," "Poppies in July," "Ariel," and others. The magazines to which she sent these poems did not accept them; although the New Yorker magazine had a First Reading contract, its poetry editor refused all her late work except for a few lines.

Moving with the children to a London flat in December 1962, Plath tried to make a new life for herself, but the worst winter in a century added to her depression. Without a telephone, ill, and troubled with the care of the two infants, she committed suicide by sleeping pills and gas inhalation on 11 February 1963, just two weeks after the publication of The Bell Jar (written by "Victoria Lucas").

That novel, and the various collections of her poems that appeared during the next twenty years, secured for Plath the position of one of the most important women writers in the States. The mixture of comedic self-deprecation and forceful anger made her work a foreshadowing of the feminist writing that appeared in the later 1960s and the 1970s. Like Friedan's 1963 The Feminine Mystique, Plath's Bell Jar followed in 1965 with the posthumously published collection Ariel, was both a harbinger and an early voice of the women's movement. As the posthumous awarding of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry to Plath's Collected Poems showed, her audience was not limited to women readers, nor did her writing express only feminist sentiments.

Plath's work is valuable for its stylistic accomplishments--its melding of comic and serious elements, its ribald fashioning of near and slant rhymes in a free-form structure, its terse voicing of themes that have too often been treated only with piety. It is also valuable for its ability to reach today's reader, because of its concern with the real problems of our culture. In this age of gender conflicts, broken families, and economic inequities, Plath's forthright language speaks loudly about the anger of being both betrayed and powerless.

The Sylvia Plath papers are housed at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, and at Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Ted Hughes published selections from her journals (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Frances McCullough, 1982) and some of the short fiction (Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts, 1980); Aurelia Plath published Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, Correspondence 1950-1963 (1975). Lynda K. Bundtzen, Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process, (1983). Steven Tabor, Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography (1987). Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath, A Biography (1987). Linda Wagner-Martin, ed., Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage (1988). Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, (1989). Steven Axelrod, Sylvia Plath, The Wound and the Cure of Words, (1990).

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.

Anne Stevenson

Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 27 October (she shared a birthday with Dylan Thomas), and spent her childhood in Winthrop. When she was 8 her German father, a professor at Boston University, died of diabetes. Two years later her mother moved the family inland to Wellesley, where she struggled to give Sylvia and her younger brother every advantage of a superior education. Self-consciousness and anxiety about status and money during adolescence contributed to the profound insecurity Plath concealed all her life beneath a façade of brassy energy and brilliant achievement.

Plath discovered that writing was her vocation very early. By the time she was at Smith College in the early 1950s she had published precocious poems in newspapers and written over fifty short stories, some of which won prizes from ladies' magazines. At Smith she went on winning prizes, but after a third year of feverish overwork, she broke down and attempted suicide. Six months in a private hospital set her on her feet again, but in reality she never recovered.

After she had graduated, summa cum laede, from Smith in 1955, she went to Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship, and there she met the poet Ted Hughes. They were married in London in June 1956. The marriage was for six years a strong union of supremely dedicated writers. Sylvia's wholehearted enthusiasm for Hughes's work, which she sent off to the competition that won him fame, was balanced by his steadfast belief in her exceptional gift. They lived in Massachusetts (Cambridge, Northampton--where Sylvia taught for a year at Smith--and Boston), then in London and Devon. A daughter, Frieda, was born in April 1960, and a son, Nicholas, in January 1962.

Sylvia Plath's early poems--already drenched in typical imagery of glass, moon, blood, hospitals, foetuses, and skulls--were mainly 'exercises' or pastiches of work by poets she admired: Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, Marianne Moore. Late in 1959, when she and her husband were at Yaddo, the writers' colony in New York State, she produced the seven-part 'Poem for a Birthday', which owes its form to Theodore Roethke's 'Lost Son' sequence, though its theme is her own traumatic breakdown and suicide attempt at 21. After 1960 her poems increasingly explored the surreal landscape of her imprisoned psyche under the looming shadow of a dead father and a mother on whom she was resentfully dependent.

A fanatical preoccupation with death and rebirth informs her sad, cynical novel, The Bell Jar, as it does her first book of poems, The Colossus, published in London by Heinemann in October 1960, and by Knopf in New York, in 1962. Plath's mature poetry, too exalted to be merely 'confessional', frequently treats of this resurrection theme, together with a related one which attempts to redeem meaningless life through art. Lines like ‘I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light ('Witch Burning’), and 'On Fridays the little children come / To trade their hooks for hands' ('The Stones') foreshadow the powerful, wholly convincing voice of poems like 'The Hanging Man', published posthumously in Ariel: 'By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.'

Ted Hughes has described how Sylvia Plath underwent a searing, 'curiously independent process of gestation' during the spring of 1962, when, two months after giving birth to a son, she produced a powerful radio drama, 'Three Women'. The first deathly Ariel Poems appeared soon afterwards with 'The Moon and Yew Tree', 'Little Fugue', 'Elm', 'Event', 'Berck-Plage', and others. During the summer of 1962 her marriage to Hughes began to buckle; she was devastated when she learned that he had been unfainthful to her. Although she, and Hughes travelled to Ireland together in September, the marriage was by then in ruins, and in October she asked her husband to leave for good.

It was after Hughes's departure that Plath produced, in less than two months, the forty poems of rage, despair, love, and vengeance that have chiefly been responsible for her immense posthumous fame. Throughout October and November of 1962 she rose every day at dawn to take down, as from dictation, line after miraculous line of poems like 'The Bee Meeting', 'Stings', 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', 'Ariel', and 'Death & Company', as well as those heartbreaking poems to her baby son: 'Nick and the Candlestick' and 'The Night Dances'.

In December 1962 she moved with her children from Devon to London. What she recognized as the 'genius' of her poetry temporarily restored her self-confidence, but in January 1963, after the publication of The Bell Jar, and during the coldest winter of the century, she descended into a deep, clinical depression, and in the early morning of 11 February, she gassed herself.

In the quarter-century following her suicide Sylvia Plath has become a heroine and martyr of the feminist movement. In fact, she was a martyr mainly to the recurrent psychodrama that staged itself within the bell jar of her tragically wounded personality. Twelve final poems, written shortly before her death, define a nihilistic metaphysic from which death provided the only dignified escape.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.

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