Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
“Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”
On October 27, 1932, Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor. They were married in January of 1932. Otto taught both German and biology, with a focus on apiology, the study of bees. In 1940, when Sylvia was eight years old, her father died as a result of complications from diabetes. He had been a strict father, and both his authoritarian attitudes and his death drastically defined her relationships and her poems—most notably in her elegaic and infamous poem, “Daddy.” Even in her youth, Plath was ambitiously driven to succeed. She kept a journal from the age of 11 and published her poems in regional magazines and newspapers. Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor in 1950, just after graduating from high school. In 1950, Plath matriculated at Smith College. She was an exceptional student, and despite a deep depression she went through in 1953 and a subsequent suicide attempt, she managed to graduate summa cum laude in 1955. After graduation, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she attended a party and met the English poet, Ted Hughes. Shortly thereafter, Plath and Hughes were married, on June 16, 1956. Plath returned to Massachusetts in 1957, and began studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later in the United States. She returned to England where she gave birth to the couple’s two children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, in 1960 and 1962, respectively. In 1962, Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Gutmann Wevill. That winter, in a deep depression, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel. In 1963, Plath published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Then, on February 11, 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call the doctor, then she committed suicide using her gas oven. Plath’s poetry is often associated with the Confessional movement, and compared to poets such as her teacher, Robert Lowell, and fellow student Anne Sexton. Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme. Although only Colossus was published while she was alive, Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize after death. (from Poets.org)
For more detailed information on the life of Sylvia Plath is available here (Wikipedia.org) __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Her father died of treatable diabetes, a week after her eight birthday.
A gifted child, Sylvia had her first poem published later that same year.
While she was at college, she won a competition to spend a summer working for Mademoiselle magazine in New York
It was not long after that summer that she ended up in a psychiatric institution after attempting suicide. It was there that she first received electric shock treatment.
Her only novel, The Bell Jar, is a semi-biographical account of that period in her life.
She was also a talented artist (see below)
The man she married, Ted Hughes, was also a gifted poet. He was later given the honour of becoming Britain’s poet laureate in 1984.
Despite the fact that they were separated, it was Hughes that inherited all of her literary work after her death. It was he who compiled the poems she wrote before her death into the collection Ariel, a series of poem that was to make her famous.
She kept a diary fromm the age of eleven right up to her death.
Hughes also inherited her journals and was later often condemned for deciding to burn her final journal. He claimed he did it because he did not ‘want her children to have to read it.’
On her gravestone, her name is written Sylvia Plath Hughes and also bears the inscription ‘even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted’. The ‘Hughes’ part of the inscription has been chiseled off on many occasions – by Plath fans unhappy at his treatment of her.
Tragedy – and suicide in particular – cast a long shadow on Sylvia Plath’s legacy. The woman that Hughes left Plath for, Assia Wevill, also committed suicide (while also taking their young daughter’s life) in 1969 , Sylvia’s son Nicholas later took his life in 2009.
Gwyneth Paltrow played Sylvia Plath in the 2003 film, Sylvia.
- “One of the most celebrated and controversial poets writing in English.” Joyce Carol Oates
- “Images and phrases with the energy of a runaway horse.” Robert Pinsky
- “She deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art.” Al Alvarez
- “a literary dragon who….. breathed a burning river of bile across the literary landscape.” Time magazine
- “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English.” Joyce Carol Oates
- “ superbly trained in her craft.”
-”Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences.”
-”I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.”
-”The hardest thing is to live richly in the present, without letting it be tainted out of fear for the future or regret for the past.”
-”I may never be happy, but tonight I am content.”
-”And there’s the fallacy of existence: the idea that one could be happy forever and age with a given situation or series of accomplishments.”
-”And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
-”Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”
-”How we need another soul to cling to.”
-”I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.
-”Kiss me and you’ll know how important I am.”
-”Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
-”Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted.”
-”I too want to be important. By being different. And these girls are all the same.”
Poetry by Sylvia Plath on the courseClick on the link to view the text
The poet reads ‘Black Rook in Rainy weather’:
Some video interpretations of her work_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Poppies in July
The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel. It was originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman á clef (a novel that represents historical events and characters disguised as fiction). The novel appears to cover the period when Plath was twenty – from her time living and working in New York as guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine through her depression, treatment and attempted suicide later that year. It offers interesting insights into both her mental health and some of her general views on life. Plath committed suicide a month after its first UK publication. The novel was published under Plath’s name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, according to the wishes of Plath’s husband Ted Hughes and her mother.
Click here to read some interesting extracts
The entire novel ‘The Bell Jar‘ can be read here
Interviews with Sylvia Plath
The artist Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was also a talented artist but decided from her late teens to concentrate instead on her writing. A selection of 44 ink and pen drawings by Sylvia Plath is currently being exhibited for the first time at the Mayor Gallery in London, displaying Plath’s love for her “deepest source of inspiration”, art.
See a selection of her work here
Sylvia is a 2003 British biographical drama film directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, and Michael Gambon. It tells the true story of the romance between Sylvia Plath and her fellow poet Ted Hughes. The film begins with their meeting at Cambridge in 1956 and ends with Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963. The film got very average reviews and was considered controversial after Frieda Hughes, Sylvia and Ted’s daughter, accused the filmmakers of profiting from her mother’s death
Interesting Smithsonian article about her life ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Sylvia Plath reads from the poem ‘Daddy’ written many years later about the father that she lost suddenly when she was eight years old
*NB – Not on the Leaving Cert course