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Sylvia Plath

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

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Boston, 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 published 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 also wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death.

Early life

Plath was born during the Great Depression on October 27, 1932 at the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath (1906-1994), was a first-generation American of Austrian descent, and her father Otto Plath (1885-1940), was from Grabow, Germany. Plath's father was an entomologist and was professor of biology and German at Boston University; he also authored 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 after choosing not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents had intended him to be.

In April 1935, Plath's brother Warren was born and in 1936 the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts. 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. Raised as a Unitarian Christian, Plath experienced a loss of faith after her father's death, and remained ambivalent about religion throughout her life. He was buried in Winthrop Cemetery; visiting her father's grave prompted Plath to write the poem Electra on Azalea Path. After his death, Aurelia Plath moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1942. In one of her last prose pieces, Plath commented that her first nine years "sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth". Plath attended Bradford Senior High School in Wellesley, graduating in 1950.

College years

In 1950, Plath attended Smith College and excelled academically. She wrote to her mother, "The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon." She edited The Smith Review and 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, and it began a downward spiral. Many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. During this time she was refused admission to the Harvard writing seminar. Following electroconvulsive therapy for depression, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt in late August 1953 by crawling under her house and taking her mother's sleeping pills. She survived this first suicide attempt after lying unfound in a crawl space for three days, later writing that she "blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion." She spent the next six months in psychiatric care, receiving more electric and insulin shock treatment under the care of Dr. Ruth Beuscher. Her stay at McLean Hospital and her Smith scholarship were paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make a good recovery and returned to college. In January 1955, she submitted her thesis The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoyevsky's Novels and in June, graduated from Smith with highest 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. She spent her first year winter and spring holidays travelling around the continent.

Career and marriage

n a 1961 BBC interview (now held by the British Library Sound Archive), Plath describes how she met Ted Hughes:

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... 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... 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.

Plath described Hughes as "a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer" with "a voice like the thunder of God”.

The couple were married on June 16, 1956 at St George the Martyr Holborn in the London Borough of Camden with Plath's mother in attendance, and spent their honeymoon in Benidorm. Plath returned to Newnham in October to begin her second year. During this time, they both became deeply interested in astrology and the supernatural, using Ouija boards. 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 writers Anne Sexton and George Starbuck). Both Lowell and Sexton encouraged Plath to write from her experience and she did so. She openly discussed her depression with Lowell and her suicide attempts with Sexton who led her to write from a more female perspective. Plath began to conceive of herself as a more serious, focused poet and short-story writer. At this time Plath and Hughes first met the poet W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend. Plath resumed psychoanalytic treatment in December, working with Ruth Beuscher.

Plath and Hughes traveled across Canada and the US, staying at the Yaddo artist colony in New York State in the autumn of 1959. Plath says that it was here that she learned "to be true to my own weirdnesses", but she remained anxious about writing confessionally, from deeply personal and private material. The couple moved back to the United Kingdom in December 1959 and lived in London at 3 Chalcot Square, near the Primrose Hill area of Regent's Park, where an English Heritage plaque records Plath's residence. 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, including "Parliament Hill Fields", address this event. In August she finished her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and immediately after this, the family moved to Court Green in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. Nicholas was born in January 1962. During the summer of 1962, Hughes began to keep bees, which would be the subject of many Plath poems.

In 1961, the couple rented their flat at Chalcot Square to Assia and David Wevill. Hughes was immediately struck with the beautiful Assia, as she was with him. He would later write in "Dreamers" (Birthday Letters, 1998)

"The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it,”

In June, Plath had had a car accident which she described as one of many suicide attempts. In July 1962 Plath discovered Hughes had been having an affair with Wevill and in September the couple separated.

Beginning in October 1962, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity and wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests, writing at least 26 of the poems of her posthumous collection Ariel during this time. In December 1962, she returned alone to London with their children, and rented, on a five year lease, a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road—only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat. William Butler Yeats once lived in the house, which bears an English Heritage blue plaque for the Irish poet. 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, and was met with critical indifference.

Death

Dr. John Horder, a close friend who lived near Plath, prescribed her 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 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 Horder had prescribed it under a proprietary name which she did not recognize.

The nurse[Notes 1] was due to arrive at nine o'clock the morning of 11 February 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, with the gas turned on. She was 30.

It has been suggested that Plath had not intended to kill herself. That morning she asked her downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Thomas, what time he would be leaving. She also left a note reading "Call Dr. Horder", including the doctor's phone number. Therefore, it is argued Plath turned on the gas at a time when Mr. Thomas would have been able to see the note. 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 ... [Plath] had thrust her head far into the gas oven... [and] 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." In his 1971 book on suicide, friend and critic Al Alvarez claimed that Plath's suicide was an unanswered cry for help.

Following death

An inquiry on the day following Plath's death gave a ruling of suicide. Hughes was devastated; they had been separated 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's parish churchyard of St Thomas the Apostle, 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 their 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 16, 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the son of Plath and Hughes, hanged himself at his home in Alaska, following a history of depression.

Works

Plath wrote poetry from the age of eight, a poem that appeared in the Boston Traveller. By the time she arrived at Smith College she had written over fifty short stories and published in a raft of magazines. At Smith 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, The Colossus 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 The Colossus had already been printed in major US and British journals and she had a contract with The New Yorker. It was however her 1965 collection Ariel, published posthumously, on which Plath's reputation essentially rests.

In 1971, the volumes Winter Trees and Crossing the Water were published in the UK, including nine previously unseen poems from the original manuscript of Ariel. Writing in New Statesman, fellow poet Peter Porter wrote:

"Crossing the Water is full of perfectly realised works. Its most striking impression is of a front-rank artist in the process of discovering her true power. Such is Plath's control that the book possesses a singularity and certainty which should make it as celebrated as The Colossus or Ariel.

The Collected Poems, published in 1981, edited and introduced by Ted Hughes, contained poetry written from 1956 until her death. Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first poet to win the prize posthumously. In 2006 Anna Journey, then 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.

According to Hughes, Plath left behind "some 130 [typed] pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.”

Reception

The 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 in 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.

It was Hughes' publication of Ariel in 1965 that precipitated Plath's rise to fame. As soon as it was published critics began to see the collection as the charting of Plath's increasing desperation or death wish. Her dramatic death became her most famous aspect, and remains so. Time and Life both reviewed the slim volume of Ariel in the wake of her death. The critic at Time said: "Within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. 'Daddy' was its title; its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father; its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, 'Daddy' was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bile across the literary landscape. [...] In her most ferocious poems, 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus,' fear, hate, love, death and the poet's own identity become fused at black heat with the figure of her father, and through him, with the guilt of the German exterminators and the suffering of their Jewish victims. They are poems, as Robert Lowell says in his preface to Ariel, that 'play Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.'"[Notes 3]

Some in the feminist movement saw Plath as speaking for their experience, as a "symbol of blighted female genius". Writer Honor Moore describes Ariel as marking the beginning of a movement, Plath suddenly visible as "a woman on paper", certain and audacious. Moore says: "When Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened [...] Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified."

The United States Postal Service will introduce a postage stamp featuring Sylvia Plath in 2012.

Themes

Sylvia Plath's early poems exhibit what became her typical imagery, using personal and nature-based depictions featuring, for example, the moon, blood, hospitals, fetuses, and skulls. They were mostly imitation exercises of poets she admired such as Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats and Marianne Moore. Late in 1959, when she and Hughes were at the Yaddo writers' colony in New York State, she wrote the seven-part "Poem for a Birthday", echoing Theodore Roethke's Lost Son sequence, though its theme is her own traumatic breakdown and suicide attempt at 21. After 1960 her work moved into a more surreal landscape darkened by a sense of imprisonment and looming death, overshadowed by her father. The Colossus is shot through with themes of death, redemption and resurrection. After Hughes left, Plath produced, in less than two months, the forty poems of rage, despair, love, and vengeance on which her reputation mostly rests.

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. Robert Lowell's poetry may have played a part in this shift as she cited Lowell's 1959 book Life Studies as a significant influence, in an interview just before her death. Posthumously published in 1966, the impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its dark and potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as '"Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus". Plath's work is often held within the genre of confessional poetry and the style of her work compared to other contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Plath's close friend Al Alvarez, who has written about her extensively, said of her later work: "Plath's case is complicated by the fact that, in her mature work, she deliberately used the details of her everyday life as raw material for her art. A casual visitor or unexpected telephone call, a cut, a bruise, a kitchen bowl, a candlestick—everything became usable, charged with meaning, transformed. Her poems are full of references and images that seem impenetrable at this distance but which could mostly be explained in footnotes by a scholar with full access to the details of her life." Many of Plath's later poems deal with what one critic calls the "domestic surreal" in which Plath takes every day elements of life and twists the images, giving them an almost nightmarish quality.

Plath's fellow confessional poet and friend Anne Sexton commented: "Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicide, in detail and in depth—between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb, sucking on it. She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail, and her description in The Bell Jar is just that same story." The confessional interpretation of Plath's work has led to some dismissing certain aspects of her work as an exposition of sentimentalist melodrama; in 2010, for example, Theodore Dalrymple asserted that Plath had been the "patron saint of self-dramatization" and of self-pity. Revisionist critics such as Tracy Brain have, however, argued against a tightly autobiographical interpretation of Plath's material.

Journals and letters

Plath's letters were published in 1975, edited and selected by her mother Aurelia Plath. The collection, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, came out partly in response to the strong public reaction to the publication of The Bell Jar in America. Plath had kept a diary from the age of 11 until her death, doing so until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her first year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1982 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough, with Ted Hughes as consulting editor. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Plath's death.

During the last years of his 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 his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. More than half of the new volume contained was newly released material; The American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a "genuine literary event". Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”

The Bell Jar

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1963 and in the US in 1971, which her mother wished to block. Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour- it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.... I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen though the distorting lens of a bell jar". She described her novel as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past". 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.

Hughes controversy

As Hughes and Plath were legally married at the time of her death, Hughes inherited the Plath estate, including all her written work. Hughes has been condemned from some quarters for burning Plath's last journal, saying he "did not want her children to have to read it." He lost another journal and an unfinished novel and instructed that a collection of Plath's papers and journals should not be released until 2013. In the reams of literary criticism and biography published after their deaths, after the release of new material, biopics, or any old-new controversy, the debate over Plath's literary estate is very often reduced to black and white, that is, whose story the readers choose. Hughes has been accused of attempting to control the estate for his own ends, although royalties from Plath's poetry were placed into a trust account for their two children, Frieda and Nicholas.

Still the subject of speculation and approbation, Hughes published Birthday Letters in 1998, his own collection of 88 poems about his relationship with Plath. Hughes had published very little about his experience of the marriage and subsequent suicide and the book caused a sensation, being taken as his first explicit disclosure, topping best seller charts. It was not known at the volume's release that Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer and would die later that year. It went on to win the Forward Poetry Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whitbread Poetry. The poems, written after her death, in some cases long after, are an account of a failure; they circle round a missing centre, trying to find a reason for why Plath took her own life.

Plath was portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2003 film Sylvia. Frieda Hughes, now a poet and painter, who was two years old when her mother died, was angered by the making of entertainment featuring her parents' lives. She accused the "peanut crunching" public of wanting to be titillated by the family's tragedies. In 2003 she published the poem "My Mother" in Tatler:

Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children

[...] they think
I should give them my mother's words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll

Poetry collections

The Colossus and Other Poems (1960, William Heinemann)
Ariel (1961–1965)
Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
Crossing the Water (1971)
Winter Trees (1971)
The Collected Poems (1981)
Selected Poems (1985)
Plath: Poems (1998)
Sylvia Plath Reads, Harper Audio (2000) (Audio)

Collected prose and novels

The Bell Jar: A novel (1963), under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas"
Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (1975)
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (1977)
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
The Magic Mirror (published 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)

References

Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath




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