An American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist.. American poet novelist and short story writer; 1982 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry first to receive the honor posthumously
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Most famous as a poet, Plath is also known for The Bell Jar, her semi-autobiographical novel detailing her struggle with clinical depression. Plath and Anne Sexton are credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry that Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass initiated. Since her suicide, Sylvia Plath has risen to iconic status and is considered to be one of the best poets of her generation.
Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, a section of Boston, Massachusetts. Born to a German father and an ethnic German Austrian-American mother, Plath showed early promise, publishing her first poem at the age of 8. She attended Wellesley High School. Her father, Otto, a college professor and noted authority on the subject of bees, died of an embolism following surgery (complications from undiagnosed diabetes) on November 5, 1940. It is thought that Plath never fully recovered from the loss of her father. She continued to try to publish poems, and in August of 1950, her first short story, "And Summer Will Not Come Again" appeared in Seventeen magazine.
Sylvia suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout her life. She had entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950, but in the summer of 1953, after her return from a guest editorship at Madamoiselle magazine in New York, she experienced a severe episode of depression and was treated with a regimen of electro-convulsive shock therapy (ECT) and, subsequently, at the beginning of her junior year, on August 24, 1953, she made the first of her suicide attempts. She was committed to a mental institution (McLean Hospital), and seemed to make an acceptable recovery, graduating from Smith summa cum laude in 1955, the same year she won the prestigious Glascock Prize competition for her poem "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea." She later depicted her breakdown in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.
Plath earned a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where she continued writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. At Cambridge she met English poet Ted Hughes. They were married on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday) with Plath's mother in attendance. 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. Plath also met poet Anne Sexton during these seminars and became friends with her. At this time Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and remained a lifelong friend. On discovering that Plath was pregnant, they moved back to the United Kingdom. Frieda Hughes was born on April 1, 1960.
She and Hughes lived in London for a while before settling in Court Green, North Tawton, a small market town in Mid Devonshire. She published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus, in the United Kingdom in 1960. In February 1961, she suffered a miscarriage. A number of poems refer to this event. The marriage met with difficulties and they were separated less than two years after the birth of their first child, Frieda. Their separation was partly due to her mental illness, which was exacerbated by the affair that Hughes had with a fellow poet's wife, Assia Wevill. The nature of her illness remains the subject of much speculation. Theories range from bipolar disorder (manic-depressive syndrome) to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Plath returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas. She rented a flat in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill (near Regent's Park), in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived; Plath was extremely pleased with this and considered it a good omen. However, the winter of 1962/1963 was very harsh. Finding herself unable to cope, she rang her friend Jillian Becker and spent the last weekend of her life at the Becker household. The Becker home was warm and comfortable and equipped for children, the Beckers having three girls, the youngest a baby of about Nick's age. She appears to have been happy that weekend, and resolved to return home on the Sunday. On February 11, 1963, Plath gassed herself in her kitchen, ending her life at the age of thirty. The new nanny arrived but couldn't rouse Plath's neighbor in the flat below, as he was under the effect of the gas. Plath's children were found in good health, if a bit chilled--she had taken the precautions of opening the windows in the other rooms and sealing the kitchen door crack with dish towels.
Plath is buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. Rumours of her poverty in the last year of her life have been disputed by later books, particularly Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame. The neutrality of this biography is disputed, and it remains difficult to obtain an objective account of the relationship between Plath and Hughes.