Biography of Sylvia Plath, American Poet and Writer

The poet famous for her explorations of darker themes

Photograph of Sylvia Plath in front of a bookshelf
Sylvia Plath was an American writer. Photo circa 1950.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, and writer of short stories. Her most notable achievements came in the genre of confessional poetry, which often reflected her intense emotions and her battle with depression. Although her career and life were complicated, she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and remains a popular and widely studied poet.

Fast Facts: Sylvia Plath

  • Full Name: Sylvia Plath Hughes
  • Known For: American poet and author
  • Born: October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober Plath
  • Died: February 11, 1963 in London, England
  • Spouse: Ted Hughes (m, 1956)
  • Children: Frieda and Nicholas Hughes
  • Education: Smith College and Cambridge University
  • Selected Works: The Colossus (1960), The Bell Jar (1963), Ariel (1965), Winter Trees (1971), Crossing the Water (1971)
  • Awards: Fulbright Scholarship (1955), Glascock Prize (1955), Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1982)
  • Notable Quote: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”

Early Life

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the first child of Otto and Aurelia Plath. Otto was a German-born entomologist (and the author of a book about bumblebees) and a professor of biology at Boston University, while Aurelia (nee Schober) was a second-generation American whose grandparents had emigrated from Austria. Three years later, their son Warren was born, and the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, in 1936.

While living there, Plath published her first poem at age eight in the Boston Herald’s children’s section. She continued writing and publishing in several local magazines and papers, and she won prizes for her writing and artwork. When she was eight, her father died from complications after a foot amputation related to long-untreated diabetes. Aurelia Plath then moved their entire family, including her parents, to the nearby Wellesley, where Plath attended high school. Around the same time as her high school graduation, she had her first nationally published piece appear in the Christian Science Monitor.

In February 1956, Plath met Ted Hughes, a fellow poet whose work she admired, while they were both at the University of Cambridge. After a whirlwind courtship, during which they frequently wrote poems to each other, they married in London in June 1956. They spent the summer on their honeymoon in France and Spain, then returned to Cambridge in the fall for Plath’s second year of studies, during which they both became intensely interested in astrology and related supernatural concepts.

Initial Studies and Struggles

After graduating high school, Plath began her studies at Smith College in 1950. She was an excellent student and achieved the position of editor at the college’s publication, The Smith Review, which led to a stint (ultimately, a wildly disappointing one) as guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. Her experiences that summer included a missed meeting with Dylan Thomas, a poet she admired, as well as a rejection from Harvard’s writing seminar and her initial experiments with self-harm.

A red brick building at Smith College
Plath attended college at Smith College in the 1950s. MacAllenBrothers / Wikimedia Commons

By this point, Plath had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and she was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to treat it. In August 1953, she made her first documented suicide attempt. She survived and spent the next six months receiving intensive psychiatric care. Olive Higgins Prouty, an author who had successfully rebounded from a mental breakdown, paid for her hospital stay and her scholarships, and eventually, Plath was able to recover, graduate from Smith with highest honors, and win a Fulbright Scholarship to Newnham College, one of the all-female colleges at Cambridge. In 1955, upon graduating from Smith, she won the Glascock Prize for her poem “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea.”

In 1957, after her marriage to Hughes, Plath and her husband moved back to the United States, and Plath began teaching at Smith. Her teaching duties, however, left her with little time to actually write, which frustrated her. As a result, they moved to Boston, where Plath took a job as a receptionist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s psychiatric ward and, in the evenings, attended writing seminars hosted by the poet Robert Lowell. It was there that she first began to develop what would become her signature writing style.

Early Poetry (1959-1960)

  • “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea" (1955)
  • Various work appearing in: Harper’s Magazine, The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker
  • The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)

Lowell, along with fellow poet Anne Sexton, encouraged Plath to draw more from her personal experiences in her writing. Sexton wrote in a highly personal confessional poetry style and in a distinctively female voice; her influence helped Plath to do the same. Plath began to more openly discuss her depression and even her suicide attempts, particularly with Lowell and Sexton. She began working on more serious projects and began considering her writing more professionally and seriously around this time.

In 1959, Plath and Hughes embarked on a trip across the United States and Canada. During their travels, they spent some time at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. While at the colony, which served as a retreat for writers and artists to nurture creative pursuits without interruptions from the outside world and while among other creative people, Plath began to slowly feel more comfortable about the weirder and darker ideas she was drawn to. Even so, she had yet to completely broach the deeply personal, private material that she had been encouraged to draw upon.

At the end of 1959, Plath and Hughes returned to England, where they had met, and settled in London. Plath was pregnant at the time, and their daughter, Frieda Plath, was born in April 1960. Early in her career, Plath achieved some measure of publishing success: she had been short-listed on several occasions by the Yale Younger Poets book competition, her work had been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement, and she had a contract with The New Yorker. In 1960, her first full collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published.

Plaque reading
Plaque marking Plath's England residence as an English Heritage site. Hulton Archive / Getty Images 

The Colossus was first released in the UK, where it was met with significant praise. Plath’s voice, in particular, was praised, as well as her technical mastery of imagery and wordplay. All of the poems in the collection had previously been published individually. In 1962, the collection received a U.S. publication, where it was received a little less enthusiastically, with criticisms of her work being too derivative.

Plath’s Most Personal Work (1962-1963)

  • The Bell Jar (1963)

The most famous of Plath’s works was, of course, her novel The Bell Jar. It was semi-autobiographical in nature, but it included enough information about her own life that her mother attempted—unsuccessfully—to block its publication. In essence, the novel compiled incidents from her own life and added fictional elements to it in order to explore her mental and emotional state.

The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther, a young woman who gets a chance to work at a magazine in New York City but struggles with mental illness. It’s clearly based on many of Plath’s own experiences, and it addresses two of the themes that mattered most to Plath: mental health and female empowerment. Issues of mental illness and treatment are everywhere in the novel, shedding some light on the way it was treated (and how Plath herself might have been treated). The novel also handles the idea of the female search for identity and independence, emphasizing Plath’s interest in the plight of women in the workforce during the 1950s and 60s. Her experiences in the publishing industry exposed her to many bright, hard-working women who were perfectly capable of being writers and editors but were only permitted to do secretarial work.

The novel was finished during a particularly tumultuous period in Plath’s life. In 1961, she became pregnant again but suffered a miscarriage; she wrote several poems about the devastating experience. When they began renting to a couple, David and Assia Wevill, Hughes fell in love with Assia and they began an affair. Plath and Hughes’ son Nicholas was born in 1962, and later that year, when Plath learned about her husband’s affair, the couple separated.

Final Works and Posthumous Publications (1964-1981)

  • Ariel (1965)
  • Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
  • Crossing the Water (1971)
  • Winter Trees (1971)
  • Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (1975
  • The Collected Poems (1981) 
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)

After the successful publication of The Bell Jar, Plath began working on another novel, titled Double Exposure. Prior to her death, she reportedly wrote around 130 pages of it. After her death, however, the manuscript vanished, with its last known whereabouts reported sometime around 1970. Theories persist as to what happened to it, whether it was destroyed, hidden away or placed in the care of some person or institution, or just plain lost.

Plath’s true final work, Ariel, was published posthumously in 1965, two years after her death, and it was this publication that truly cemented her fame and status. It marked her most personal and devastating work yet, fully embracing the genre of confessional poetry. Lowell, her friend and mentor, was a significant influence on Plath, particularly his collection Life Studies. The poems in the collection contained some dark, semi-autobiographical elements drawn from her own life and her experiences with depression and suicide.

Picture of Sylvia Plath among the dirt and leaves
Photo of Plath placed on her gravesite.  Amy T. Zielinski / Getty Images

In the decades after her death, a few more publications of Plath’s work were released. Two more volumes of poetry, Winter Trees and Crossing the Water, were released in 1971. These volumes included previously published poems, as well as nine never-before-seen poems from earlier drafts of Ariel. Ten years later, in 1981, The Collected Poems was published, featuring an introduction by Hughes and an array of poetry spanning from her early efforts in 1956 until her 1963 death. Plath was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

After her death, some of Plath’s letters and journals were also published. Her mother edited and selected some letters, published in 1975 as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963. In 1982, some of her adult diaries were published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough and with Ted Hughes as consulting editor. That year, her remaining diaries were acquired by her alma mater, Smith College, but Hughes required two of them to be sealed until the 2013, the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death.

Literary Themes and Styles

Plath wrote largely in the style of confessional poetry, a highly personal genre that, as its name suggests, reveals intense internal emotions. As a genre, it often focuses on extreme experiences of emotion and taboo subjects such as sexuality, mental illness, trauma, and death or suicide. Plath, along with her friends and mentors Lowell and Sexton, is considered one of the primary exemplars of this genre.

Much of Plath’s writing deals with fairly dark themes, particularly surrounding mental illness and suicide. Although her early poetry uses more natural imagery, it is still shot through with moments of violence and medical images; her milder landscape poetry, however, remains as a less-known section of her work. Her more famous works, such as The Bell Jar and Ariel, are fully immersed in intense themes of death, rage, despair, love, and redemption. Her own experiences with depression and suicide attempts—as well as the treatments for it that she endured—color much of her writing, although it is not solely autobiographical.

The feminine voice of Plath’s writing was one of her key legacies, as well. There was unmistakable female rage, passion, frustration, and grief in Plath’s poetry, which was almost unheard of at that point. Some of her work, such as The Bell Jar, explicitly addresses the situations of ambitious women in the 1950s and the ways society frustrated and repressed them.

Death

Plath continued to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts throughout her life. In the final months of her life, she was in the throes of a long-lasting depressive episode, which also caused serious insomnia. Over the months, she lost nearly 20 pounds and described severe depression symptoms to her doctor, who prescribed her an antidepressant in February 1963 and arranged for a live-in nurse, since he was unable to have her admitted to a hospital for more immediate treatment.

Sylvia Plath's gravestone with inscription
Sylvia Plath's gravestone, with her full name and an inscription.  Getty / Terry Smith

On the morning of February 11, 1963, the nurse arrived at the apartment and could not get inside. When she finally had a workman help her enter, they found Plath dead. She was 30 years old. Although they had been separated for several months, Hughes was distraught at the news of her death and chose the quote for her gravestone: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” Plath was buried in the graveyard at St. Thomas the Apostle in Heptonstall, England. After her death, a practice developed where Plath’s fans defaced her gravestones by chiseling off the “Hughes” on her gravestone, largely in response to criticisms over Hughes’s handling of her estate and papers. Hughes himself published a volume in 1998 that revealed more about his relationship with Plath; at the time, he was suffering from terminal cancer and died soon after. In 2009, her son, Nicholas Hughes, who, like his mother, suffered from depression, also died by suicide.

Legacy

Plath remains one of the better-known names in American literature, and she, along with some of her contemporaries, helped to reshape and redefine the poetry world. The visceral images and emotions on the pages of her work shattered through some of the cautions and taboos of the time, shedding light on issues of gender and mental illness that were rarely discussed up until that point, or at least not with such brutal honesty.

In popular culture, Plath’s legacy is occasionally reduced to her personal struggles with mental illness, her more morbid poetry, and her ultimate death by suicide. Plath was, of course, much more than that, and those who knew her personally did not describe her as being permanently dark and miserable. Plath’s creative legacy lived on not just in her own works, but in her children: both her children had creative careers, and her daughter, Frieda Hughes, is currently an artist and an author of poetry and children’s books.

Sources

  • Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.
  • Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.