Plath’s Life


Sylvia Plath was born on October 27th 1932 in Boston. She was two and a half years older than her younger brother, Warren. After her brother’s birth, the family moved out of Boston to the coast where Plath enjoyed living near the power and beauty of the sea.


Her father, an avid bee-keeper who always impressed Plath with his ability to handle bees without them stinging him, died in 1940, when she was 8, from an easily curable form of diabetes. Shortly after this her first poem was published in the Boston Herald


Plath was an excellent student who was particularly gifted at creative writing and in 1950 she won a scholarship to attend Smith College, an all girls’ school in Massachusetts. Plath recorded the stresses that her driving ambition to excel both socially and academically exerted on her during her college years in her journals which acted as a confidante, a sounding board for problems and a source of inspiration for her poetry. At Smith College Plath developed a style of poetry that was technically very accomplished but was too polished and lacked any real form of personal voice.


During this time she was also writing articles and short stories, one of which, ‘Sunday at the Mintons’ won her a position as a guest editor on the young ladies magazine, ‘Mademoiselle’ based in New York. The stresses and strains of this month spent in New York over the Summer of 1953 are recorded in her novel ‘The Bell Jar’. In this novel the protagonist, a thinly disguised version of Plath herself, suffers a nervous breakdown caused, in part, by the pressure she places on herself to succeed. Plath returned from New York exhausted only to be further disappointed by being refused admission to a summer workshop for writer’s at Harvard.


A combination of these events perhaps prompted Plath’s first suicide attempt when, on the 24th August 1953, she took a blanket, a bottle of sleeping pills and a glass of water and crawled underneath the porch having left her mother the note ‘I have gone for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow.’ Plath was eventually found two days later with only eight sleeping pills left in the bottle.


Following this suicide attempt, Plath spent a considerable period of time being treated at the McLean Hospital in Belmont (a mental institution) after which she eventually returned to Smith College in the spring of 1954 going on to gain admittance to the Harvard Summer School that year, graduating Summa Cum Laude in 1955 and winning a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University in England.


Plath was excited about living in England and the possibility of marrying an Englishman. She also loved Cambridge despite the stressful assessment system which required students to spend a lot of time studying individually. In February 1956 she met the poet Ted Hughes at a party where he kissed her hard on the neck and she bit his cheek so violently it bled, an appropriately tumultuous beginning to a relationship that would eventually be the death of Plath. The two married four months later in June 1956 and returned to the U.S. the following summer after Plath’s exams to enable Hughes, the more successful poet of the two, to pursue fame in America. During this time Plath was a housewife, typist for Ted Hughes’ work, writer in her own right and teacher at the same Smith College from which she had recently graduated.


Plath and Hughes spent two years in the States where Plath was initially plagued by fears of her inadequacy as a teacher in addition to suspicions she had about Hughes faithfulness after she discovered him flirting with a student on the last day of Summer Term 1958. In 1959, however, Plath became pregnant and the two returned to England so the child could be born in Hughes’ home country. They lived in London and their daughter, Frieda, was born in April 1960 and in the same year Plath’s first collection of poems ‘The Colossus & Other Poems’ was published.


Plath became pregnant again in 1960 but suffered a miscarriage in February 1961. During her hospitalization following the miscarriage Plath began writing ‘The Bell Jar’ and a series of poems including ‘Tulips’ and ‘Morning Song’


In August Plath and Hughes moved out of London to Devon, by this time she had became pregnant again and eventually gave birth to a son, Nicholas, in January 1962. Plath was, however, isolated and alone in Devon and became increasingly suspicious about her husband’s fidelity. Her suspicions were proven correct when she discovered that he was having an affair with Assia Wevill, the wife of David Wevill the man who had bought their old flat in London.


Attempts to fix their relationship failed and in September Plath and Hughes decide to undergo a legal separation (not a divorce). This controversial move meant that Hughes, as Plath’s widower when she died, was given control of her estate and her works. He has been subsequently heavily criticized by feminists for censoring her work, in particular he is suspected of removing unflattering references to himself.


Following this separation Plath spent October writing frenziedly and produced some of her most outstanding poems, including ‘Lesbos’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Cut’ and ‘Ariel’. After this period of hectic creativity she moved back to London, with the help of Hughes who posed as her husband in order to help her secure a new flat in the Primrose Hill area: a flat that WB Yeats, the Irish Poet, had once lived in.


That winter was one of the coldest on record and Plath suffered partly due to the weather, the sickness of her children and her isolation from friends and family in the States. In January 1963 ‘The Bell Jar’ was finally published in America and received some good reviews and it was about this time that Plath wrote her last few poems, culminating in ‘Edge’.


Plath committed suicide on the morning of the 11th of February 1963, before her children woke. She baked cookies for her two children, sealed their room from the kitchen using tape, turned on the gas oven and, leaving it unignited, placed her head inside eventually suffocating on the fumes. It has been suggested that this suicide attempt was merely a ‘cry for help’ as she had enquired of her downstairs neighbour what time he would wake up and left a note for him to call the doctor possibly relying on him to save her. The gas fumes, however, seem to have seeped through the floor and knocked him unconscious. Plath was eventually discovered by her Au Pair girl who arrived at 9 o’clock to take care of the children but could not get in until a group of painters and workmen, also working on Plath’s flat, arrived with a key.