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Considered an important poet of the post-World War II era, Plath became widely known following her suicide in 1963 and the posthumous publication of Ariel (1965), a collection containing her most startling and acclaimed verse.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Father’s Death Leaves Lasting Damage
Born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Plath enjoyed what she described as an idyllic early childhood near the sea. Her father, a German immigrant, was a professor of entomology who was especially interested in the study of bees. But his sudden death from diabetes in 1940 devastated the eight-year-old Plath, and many critics note the significance of this traumatic experience in interpreting her poetry, which frequently contains both brutal and reverential images of her father as well as sea imagery and allusions to bees.
Mental Collapse and Partial Recovery
Plath began publishing poetry at an early age, in such periodicals as Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor, and in 1950 she earned a scholarship to Smith College. After spending a month during the summer of her junior year in New York City as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine, Plath suffered a mental collapse, which resulted in her attempted suicide and subsequent institutionalization. Mental health care in the 1950s was vastly superior than at any point in the past, as various advocacy groups had succeeded in pushing through reforms in the late 1940s.
Still, treatment for depression was limited, and mental illness was stigmatized.
Plath later chronicled the circumstances and consequences of this breakdown in her best-selling novel, The Bell Jar (1963), a work considered groundbreaking for its open description of mental illness. Following her recovery, Plath returned to Smith and graduated summa cum laude. After winning a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University, Plath met and married Ted Hughes, an English poet. The eventual failure of their marriage during the early 1960s—and the ensuing struggles with severe depression that led to her suicide—are considered to have played crucial roles in Plath’s most critically acclaimed poetry.
Posthumous Winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize
Plath’s verse is well-represented in several different volumes. The Colossus (1960), the only book of her poems published during her lifetime, collects pieces dating from the mid- to late 1950s; Ariel contains poems selected by Hughes from among the many works Plath composed during the final months before her death; Winter Trees (1971) collects several more of the Ariel poems and reflects Hughes’s plan to publish Plath’s later works in intervals; Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems (1971) reprints most of her post-Colossus and pre-Ariel verse; and The Collected Poems (1981), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, features all of her verse, including juvenilia and several previously unpublished pieces in order of composition.
Frustrations Displayed in Later Works
Critics generally believe that some of the later poems in The Colossus heralded a new phase in Plath’s career. Generally speaking, Plath’s later work displays the increasing frustration of her aspirations. Her ambitions of finding happiness through work, marriage, and family were thwarted by such events as hospital stays for a miscarriage and an appendectomy, the breakup of her marriage, and fluctuating moods in which she felt vulnerable to male domination and threatening natural forces, particularly death. After the dissolution of her marriage, Plath moved with her two children from the Devon countryside to a London flat, where Irish poet William Butler Yeats had once resided, and wrote feverishly from the summer of 1962 until her suicide in February of the following year. Plath was writing during a relatively conservative period that lasted from the end of World War II until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In Western Europe and the United States, suburban development and the nuclear family became symbols of the era that were later sharply contrasted by the social revolution of the 1960s. Plath likely felt stymied by the constraints of a society that valued men’s career goals more than women’s.
Haunted by Her Past
Plath published The Bell Jar, which appeared shortly before her death, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. She was unsure of the quality of the work and feared that it might offend those people, particularly her mother, on whom the characters are based. This novel details a college student’s disappointing adventures during a summer month in New York City as a guest editor for a fashion magazine, her despair upon returning home, her attempted suicide, and the electro-shock treatments and institutionalization she undergoes to “cure” her of depression and lethargy. The narrator of The Bell Jar encounters many of the pressures and problems Plath examined in her verse: Her attempts to establish her identity are consistently undermined, she projects an ambivalent attitude toward men, society remains indifferent to her sensitivity, vulnerability, and artistic ambitions, and she is haunted by events from her past, particularly the death of her father.
Ultimately, Plath became overwhelmed by the trials of her personal life. By February 1963 her marriage was over and she was ill, struggling to care for her two small children in a cramped flat in London. Outside, the winter was the coldest the city had seen in decades. On Monday, February 11, she committed suicide.
Works in Literary Context
Plath’s early verse reflects various poetic influences, evoking the mythic qualities of the works of William Butler Yeats and Ted Hughes, the diverse experiments with form and language of Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden, and the focus on personal concerns that dominates the verse of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. Her later works are marked by the influences of her failed marriage and haunting past.
Themes of Despair and Mental Illness
Through bold metaphors and stark, often violent and unsettling imagery, Plath’s works present nature and human experience as mythic, or larger than life. Her vivid, intense poems explore such topics as personal identity, individual suffering and oppression, as well as the inevitability of death. Deeply informed by autobiographical elements, Plath’s writings poignantly reflect her struggles with despair and mental illness.
Plath’s Ariel poems reflect her increasing anger, bitterness, and despair toward life and feature intense, rhythmic language that blends terse statements, sing-song passages, repetitive phrasing, and sudden violent images, metaphors, and declarations. For example, in “Daddy,” perhaps her most frequently discussed and anthologized work, Plath denounces her father’s dominance over her life and, among other allusions, associates him with Nazism and herself with Jewish victims of the Holocaust: ”I have always been scared of you / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. / And your neat moustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue. / Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—.” Plath explained in a radio broadcast that the poem’s narrator is ”a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God.”
Academic Interest in Plath’s Unique Voice
Plath’s efforts to assert a strong female identity and to balance familial, marital, and career aspirations have established her as a representative voice for feminist concerns. While Plath is frequently linked with confessional poets Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, all of whom directly express personal torments and anguish in their work, critics have noted that many of Plath’s poems are dramatic monologues voiced by a character who is not necessarily autobiographical. Although sometimes faulted as self-indulgent and preoccupied with death and psychological suffering, Plath continues to be read widely, and her work has generated numerous scholarly studies.
Journals, Verse Plays, and Short Stories
The posthumous publication of Plath’s writings in other genres, many of which were edited by Ted Hughes, reflects the continuing interest in her work. Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968) is a verse play originally presented on British radio in 1962, in which three women discuss pregnancy. Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963 (1975) reveals Plath’s reactions to pivotal events in her adult life through the publication of letters she exchanged with her mother. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings (1977) collects short stories and excerpts from her diaries in which Plath reworked the personal experiences, themes, and topics she frequently explored in her verse. The Journals ofSylvia Plath (1982), which includes most of the extensive diary entries Plath compiled during her lifetime, has received substantial critical attention. Katha Pollitt described this latter collection as ”a storehouse of ideas for stories, novels, and poems; of stray phrases and incidents that would turn up, sometimes years later, in her finished work. They are the place, too, where she chronicled an almost unbroken parade of depressions, blocks, and visits of the ‘Panic Bird,’ and where she urged herself, over and over, year after dragging year, to throw herself into writing.”
Works in Critical Context
Critics often maintain that during her brief career, Plath’s verse evolved from an early style in which she seemed to model her work on that of other, earlier poets to a later display of a unique and accomplished poetic voice. Katha Pollitt commented: ”Plath’s was one of those rare poetic careers—Keats’ was another—that moved consistently and with gathering rapidity and assurance to an ever greater daring and individuality.” Although critical reception of her work The Bell Jar was mixed, reviewers praised the novel’s satiric portrait of American society and its poignant study of the growing disillusionment of a talented young woman.
Building Sanity in the Ariel Poems
Response to ”Daddy” reflected the general critical opinion toward much of Plath’s later work. Some critics contended that Plath’s jarring effects are extravagant, and many objected to her equation of personal sufferings with such horrors as those experienced by victims of Nazi genocide. Others praised the passion and formal structure of her later poems, through which she confronts her tensions and conflicts. Some recent readings of her work have emphasized the connection between Plath’s struggle to maintain her own unstable mental health and the thematic content of her poetry. Jon Rosenblatt wrote, for example, ”What her poems reveal again and again is her tremendously violent struggle to gain control of the psyche. Each of Plath’s poems portrays in different but parallel settings a momentary ordering of the symbols of life and death.” Likewise, Stanley Plumly stated that ”behind the separate masks, all the masks of [Plath’s] good poems, there is a unity, an integrity, and an integrating of imagination— that whatever the hammer-splittings of the self, behind the sad mask of the woman is the mind and heart of someone making transcendent poems.”
- Aird, Eileen M. Sylvia Plath. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.
- Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness. New York: Seabury, 1976.
- Hobrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: Athlone, 1976.
- Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetryof Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
- Melander, Ingrid. The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Study of Themes. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1972.
- Meyering, Sheryl L. Sylvia Plath: A Reference Guide, 1973-1988. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
- Newman, Charles H., ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
- Northouse, Cameron, and Thomas Walsh. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974.
- Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1973.
- Wagner, Linda W., ed. Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
- Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
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