Sylvia Plath

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A self-portrait circa 1951.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932February 11, 1963) was an American poet, author, and essayist.


Born in Boston, Plath showed early promise, publishing her first poem at the age of 8; her father, Otto, a college professor and noted authority on the subject of bees, died around the same time, on October 5, 1940. She continued to try and publish poems and short stories in American magazines and achieved marginal success.

In her junior year at Smith College, Plath made the first of her suicide attempts: she later detailed this in the semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. She was committed to a mental institution, McLean Hospital. She seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honours in 1955.

She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University where she pursued her poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. It was at Cambridge that she met English poet Ted Hughes. It is said that on the night they met, she bit his ear (cheek?) until it bled, and he in turn stole red lipstick from her. They were married on June 16, 1956. Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States. Plath taught at Smith. They then moved to Boston where Plath sat in on seminars with Robert Lowell. This course was to have a profound influence on her work. Also attending the seminars was Anne Sexton. At this time the couple also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend. On hearing that Plath was pregnant the couple moved back to the United Kingdom.

She and Hughes lived in London for a while and then settled in a small market town in Devon, North Tawton. She published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus, in England in 1960. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage. A number of poems addressed this event. The marriage met with difficulties and they were separated less than two years after the birth of their first child. Their separation was mainly due to the affair that Hughes had with fellow poet Assia Wevill. Wevill would also kill herself once Hughes left her, killing her four-year old daughter (2 year old? - see Neurotic Poets link below), Shura, in the process in March of 1969.

Plath returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas. She rented a flat in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived; Plath was extremely pleased with this and considered it a good omen. She began Legal Separation proceedings. The winter of 1962/1963 turned into one of the harshest in living memory. On February 11, 1963, ill and possibly low on money, Plath committed suicide in her kitchen by gas asphyxiation after leaving milk and sandwiches for her children in the next room. She is buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire.


As her widower, Hughes became the executor of Plaths personal and literary estates. He oversaw and edited the publication of her manuscripts. He also destroyed the final volume of Plaths journal, detailing their time together. In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously (for The Collected Poems).

Many critics, often feminist, have accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends. Hughes, for his part, strenuously denied this, although he did cut a deal with Plath's mother Aurelia when she tried to block publication of her daughter's more controversial works in the States, which struck some as self-serving on Hughes's part. In his last collection, Birthday Letters, Hughes broke his silence about Plath. In it, he is unapologetic for his behaviour, and yet extremely frank. The cover artwork was done by Frieda.

Plath's early work, collected together in her first book, The Colossus, whilst being well received critically has often been described as conventional and lacking much of the drama of her later works. It has been hotly debated how much of an influence on her writing was the work of Hughes. A good many articles, essays and books, indeed almost a whole industry has sprung up around this very subject. It is clear, from her journals and letters, that she respected Hughes's talent enormously and spoke respectfully of it even after their break-up. Despite this respect the works are very clearly in her own voice and the similarities between the two poets' works are, on the surface, slight.

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more confessional area of poetry. It is likely that the teachings of Lowell, who stressed the confessional, played a large part in this shift. The impact of the publication of Ariel was quite dramatic, with its frank descriptions of a descent towards mental illness. Plath's work has also been associated with Sexton. Both suffered from mental illness and both committed suicide so comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable.

Despite the very large amount of criticism and biography that has been undertaken subsequent to her death, the debate about Plath's work often seems to be characterised as a struggle between those who side with her pitted against those who side with Hughes. An indication of the level of bitterness that some people have directed at Hughes can be seen by the fact that her gravestone repeatedly had the word Hughes chiselled off it. Her headstone has subsequently been rendered more 'tamper proof'.




  • The Bell Jar (1963) under the pseudonym 'Victoria Lucas'
  • Letters Home (1975) to and edited by her mother
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977) (the UK edition contains two stories the US edition does not)
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
  • The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath's Smith College senior thesis
  • The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000)


  • The Red Book (1976)
  • The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996)
  • Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001)
  • Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001)

NB. A number of 'limited edition' works were published by specialist publishers, often with very small print runs.


  1. The 2003 film, Sylvia, tells the story of the troubled relationship of the poet couple.
  2. Hayman, Ronald [1991] The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath London, Melbourne, Auckland Heinemann
  3. Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters, by Erica Wagner.

External links

de:Sylvia Plath eo:Sylvia PLATH fr:Sylvia Plath he:סילביה פלאת' pl:Sylvia Plath sv:Sylvia Plath


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