The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath

 

This source, although informal at points and clearly written by an amateur Plath enthusiast, is useful in giving a brief overview of some of the key moments in Plath’s life

 

Much of the interest in Sylvia Plath and her literary works has been sparked by the events that led her to taking her life so tragically and unexpectedly in the early months of 1963. By coming to understand her life and its tragic end, a reader of her work can come to better understanding of the intense imagery and emotions that she pours into both her poetry and fiction. (Kutztown 2)

 

Plath Plath was born on the 27th of October in Boston, Massachusetts to parents of German and Austrian decent. Her father, Otto Emil Plath, an etymologist and author of a treatise on bumblebees, was a professor of biology and German at Boston University. He met Aurelia Schober (Plath) in 1929 while she was working on her Masters degree in English and German. Plath had one younger brother named Warren who was born on the 27th of April 1935. During much of her childhood, Plath spent time on the North Atlantic coast near Boston. Her love for the sea, as well as, her parents’ backgrounds provides much if the imagery for her poetry. (Kutztown 4)

 

Around 1936, the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts. Shortly after, her father's health began to fail; however, believing that he had lung cancer he refused to receive treatment. During her father's illness, his need for rest left time for Plath and her brother to explore and play by the ocean. In 1940, Otto Plath died from gangrene in his leg resulting from an untreated case of diabetes mellitus. (Norton 2607) The death of her father marked an important point in Plath’s life; the family moved away from the sea to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Being left alone with two children, Aurelia Plath was faced with the dilemma of having to support her family; she moved in with her parents and accepted a position in designing and teaching a course in medical secretarial procedures at Boston University.

 

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Plath proved to be a bright young woman. Before attending Smith College on scholarship, she had already accomplished a series of literary achievements. In August of 1950, she had her first story, ‘And Summer Will not Come Again’ published in Seventeen magazine, as well as, a poem, "Ode on a Bitten Plum" which appeared in the November issue. (Kutztown 5) Once at Smith, her literary success continued to soar as she won several awards and recognition. However, being very much a woman of the 1950's, Plath's success bred many problems. She was plagued with thoughts that she needed to marry and have children in order to be a complete woman. She constantly battled over the direction her life should follow. The battles between career vs. marriage and sexuality vs. chastity in addition to her rising depression finally led to her breakdown shortly after serving as honorary College Editor for Mademoiselle magazine. (Heath 2405) Her breakdown marks the first of her suicide attempts. In August of 1953, after being rejected from a summer writing course at Harvard as well as feeling a wave of failure and depression, she left her home leaving a note that she was going for a walk. However, Plath instead crawls under the porch space after taking several sleeping pills. (Kutztown 6) It was three days later before she was discovered and rushed to the hospital, resulting in her spending several months under psychiatric care before returning to Smith and graduating summa cum laude and receiving a Fullbright Scholarship to obtain her MA at Cambridge University.

 

Once at Cambridge, the next several years marked a period of maturation and great achievement. She joined the university's Dramatic Society, modeled and wrote for the Cambridge newspaper, the Varsity, vacationed in France and maintained an active life. It was in March of 1956 that she Ted Hughes, who was later to become the Poet Laureate of England. After an intense love affair, they married the following June and spent the summer honeymooning in Spain. From the start, their relationship has been described as extremely wild and intense. In a letter to her mother Plath tells her about their first meeting; "When he kissed my neck I bit him and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room he had blood running down his face." (Sac.Bee 2)

 

To outsiders, her marriage must have appeared to be almost perfect: it combined romance and two poets starting out their lives and careers together. After returning to Cambridge in the fall, as Plath continued her studies, Hughes secured a teaching position at a nearby boy's school. Dedicating herself to Hughes, she became both his typist and agent, while still managing to find time to do her own writing. In March of 1957, Ted's "The Hawk in the Rain" won the New York Poetry Center Award and was published in both America and England; resulting in the couple returning to Massachusetts. While Ted landed a position teaching in Amherst at the University of Massachusetts, Plath began teaching at Smith College. However, both poets found trying to teach and write at the same time frustrating. A year later, they both decided to leave their positions and survive on the grants, prizes, and earnings from writing. However, to help make ends meet, Plath took on part time positions at a nearby hospital and psychiatric ward.

 

In February of 1959, Plath decided to audit Robert Lowell’s writing class at Boston University, where she met and became good friends with two other young poets, Anne Sexton and George Starbuck. This class and these friendships were significant because through them Plath begins to look for criticism and acceptance of her work from outside sources. (Heath 2406)

 

 

Later on that summer after several attempts to become pregnant, Plath finally learns that she will become a mother. The couple then decide to move back to England after Ted received the Guggenheim grant to write for the next year. It was in March of 1960, that Plath signs her first contract with William Heinemann to have her first volume, The Colossus and other Poems", published in November of that year.

 

On April 1, 1960 their daughter Freida is born. However, even though Plath accepted motherhood with open arms, the next year became difficult for her. With the new responsibilities of caring for a new baby, she found little time for writing. With Ted spending most of his time at a nearby flat that he kept for seclusion as he wrote, she was pretty much left alone to carry the burden on her own. (Kutztown 7)

 

Once again Plath began to slip into a world of failure and depression. Unable to write like she wanted, she felt trapped with no outlet. As Ted continuously published more work, gave readings and received several awards, Plath, herself, felt the pangs of failure as the Colossus and other Poems failed to receive recognition and prizes. With her health being poor, she miscarries their second child in February of 1961. Later that spring, Plath begins to write with new hope as she begins work on the Bell Jar after receiving the Eugene Saxton grant. She then signs a long term contract with the New Yorker in March for her poems, in addition Alfred Knopf arranged for her volume Colossus to be published later that May in the States. (Hayman xvii).

 

In September of 1961, pregnant with their third child, Ted and Plath return to Devon and move into a home that is an hour’s drive from the sea in hopes that it would help Plath's health. At their new home, they were able to establish new writing schedules allowing Plath to have time to work on her material in the morning while Ted spent time with Freida. It was on January of 1962 that their son Nicholas Farr was born.

 

Later that June, the BBC Third Programme accepted Plath's voice play "Three Women" and Plath was also commissioned to edit American Poetry Now, a supplement to The Critical Quarterly.(Hayman chron.) However, success would not last long for Plath as she learns of Ted's infidelity with Assia Wevill in mid 1962. In her devastation, her mother comes to spend time with her as she tries to repair her marriage. Once again sinking into the arms of a depression that she knew so well, Plath drove her car off a road bank following a long argument with Ted after she finds him with Assia. By the end of the summer their marriage had fallen apart and as Ted returned to London, Plath commenced arrangements for a legal separation to be followed by a divorce.( Bernard 23) Alone in Devon, Plath finds herself left alone to care for the children on her own much like her mother when her own father died.

 

With her health poor and the walls of depression closing in once more, Plath battled to find herself. Inspired by her horse, Ariel, and the sea, she began to work furiously on her new volume of poems ‘Ariel’. In addition, with the success of the Bell Jar, which was published anonymously, she began to look forward to working on her new novel ‘Double Exposure’, although this later disappeared after her death and was never recovered.

 

Despite her increasing success as a writer, the odds apparently turned against her. Unable to deal with Ted's abandonment, Plath began to slip into another of psychotic depressions. Now in a London flat, Plath puts the children to bed leaving milk and food by their beds. She seals their door with towels and then goes into the kitchen, turns the gas on and places her head in the oven. The nursemaid sent by friend and counselor Dr. Horder to help her with the children during her recovery found Plath dead on February 10, 1963 after having a utility worker break the door down because she could not get in.

 

Plath was buried in small graveyard outside of Heptonstall. The inscription on her gravestone reads:

Sylvia Plath Hughes

1932 - 1963

Even among fierce flames

The Golden lotus can be planted.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

The Arts & Media Books - "Poets in Suicide Sex Shocker…"; Time Inc. Vol.143 No. 16, 1994.

Hayman, Ronald, The Death & Life of Plath Plath; A Birch Lane Press Book - Carol Publishing Group, 600 Madison Ave., New York, 10022. 1991

The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol.II 3rd edition; Houghton Mifflin Comp., Boston, Massachusetts. 1998, pgs. 2405 - 2414

The Norton Anthology - American Literature, short 4th edition, WW. Norton E. Company, New York. 1995, pgs. 2606 - 2615

Plath, Plath, The Bell Jar; Harper & Row Publishing, 49 East 33rd St, New York, 10016. 1971

 

 

 

This source can be found at: http://www.uta.edu/english/tim/poetry/sp/the%20life%20and%20death.htm