“What horrifies me the most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising and fading into an indifferent middle age.”
Poet, novelist and short story writer Sylvia Plath was more than brilliantly promising, but tragically didn’t have the opportunity to sink into indifference, even if she wanted to. The best known of the so-called “denominational poets” – a community of writers who drew from deep personal experience for their work and whose numbers included Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton – Plath committed suicide at age shockingly young 30 years old. .
Who was Sylvia Plath?
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932, Plath’s writing skills were evident from an early age and she became a highly accomplished student after enrolling at Smith College in 1950. However, Plath was in the throes of a severe depression and started electroconvulsive therapy. After such treatment, she made her first suicide attempt in 1953, overdosing in a crawl space under her mother’s house.
After moving to England on a Fulbright Fellowship, Plath met Yorkshire-born poet Ted Hughes, and the couple married at the end of their freshman year at Newnham College, Cambridge (“It’s like he was the perfect male counterpart of mine “). They moved to the United States a year later. After teaching at Smith College, Plath accepted a secretary position in a psychiatric unit, which gave him more time. In the evenings, she attended seminars organized by Lowell, in which he and Sexton urged Plath to write in a more denominational style.
Nancy Hunter Steiner, a Plath roommate at a Harvard summer school, later wrote about the impact of her friend’s poetry. “In a way, she was the victim of an obsessive talent that sent her out into the world to collect sensations and seek wounds that could provide creative inspiration. Having acquired the wounds, she dug her fingers into them, transforming the pain and blood into highly subjective poetry that both repels and fascinates the reader. Plath herself saw her work as “a way to order and rearrange the chaos of experience.” And married life would be a chaotic experience.
By 1960, Plath and Hughes were back in England, settling in lush green Primrose Hill in London. It would be an important year. In April, Plath gave birth to their daughter Frieda; in October, his first collection of poetry, The Colossus and other poems, was published in the United States. It would be the only collection published during Plath’s lifetime, but praise for it was largely posthumous. Indeed, when Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The bell was published a month before her death (under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”), it was also widely met with critical indifference.
Sylvia Plath’s death
By this time, Plath and Hughes – now also the parents of a son, Nicholas – had moved to the Devon countryside, renting their London apartment to another couple, Assia and David Wevill. In July 1962, shortly after attempting to kill herself while driving her car in a river, Plath discovered that her husband and Assia Wevill were having an affair. Plath and Hughes parted ways a few months later, Hughes returning to London.
Although left to the exclusive control of two young children, Plath has seen a burst of creativity, with recent events providing a lot of inspiration. The bitter winter of 1962-63 was miserable and Plath and the children returned to London before Christmas. Less than two months later, however, another attempt to take his life will prove to be his last. She was found dead in the apartment’s kitchen, inhaling carbon monoxide after putting her head in the oven.
With the couple still married at the time of their death, Hughes inherited Plath’s estate. He admitted to destroying the last volume of his diary, much to the chagrin of Plath’s followers. And it would be more than three decades later, via his collection of poetry Birthday letters, that he would finally publicly explore their relationship. One reviewer described the collection as “an apologist’s rant hidden in honey.”
A posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry in 1982, Plath was also the subject of the Sylvia biopic in 2003. The free and easy way the filmmakers unearthed her story has been condemned by Plath’s daughter, Frieda. In a poem titled My mother, Frieda wrote:
Now they wanna make a movie
For all those who don’t have the capacity
Imagine the body, the head in the oven,
Orphan children. Then
It can be rewound
So they can watch her die
From the start again.
Even in death, there was little peace around Plath’s legacy. “Maybe one day I’ll go home crawling, beaten, defeated,” she once told her diary. “But not so long as I can make a fuss out of my sorrow, beauty from sorrow.” Sylvia Plath never returned home.
Nige Tassell is a freelance writer specializing in history
This content first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed