Sylvia Plath: A Profile of the Mid-20th Century Poetic Icon

Poetic Icon of Dazzling Brilliance, Despairing Madness & Suicide

Photo of Sylvia Plath at her gravesite, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire
Amy T. Zielinski/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932, daughter of a German immigrant biology professor, an authority on bees, and his Austrian-American wife. At 8, bio-picSylvia suffered her first great loss: her father died suddenly after surgery for complications of undiagnosed diabetes, and she attained her first literary recognition: a poem published in The Boston Herald. She grew up in Wellesley, in an extremely close relationship with her widowed mother Aurelia. She sent out many poems and stories which were rejected before she began to see them published in national periodicals (Seventeen, The Christian Science Monitor) in 1950.

Plath’s Education

Plath was a star student and an ambitious apprentice writer. She attended Smith College on scholarship and won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle in New York City in the summer of 1953. Later that summer, having learned that she had not been admitted to the Harvard summer writing program for which she’d applied, Sylvia attempted suicide and was treated for depression at McLean Hospital. She returned to Smith the next spring, wrote her honors thesis on the double in Dostoevsky (“The Magic Mirror”), and graduated summa cum laude in 1955, with a Fulbright scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge.

Plath’s Marriage to Ted Hughes

The meeting between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is legendary, recreated in the biopic Sylvia. Sylvia had read St. Botolph’s Review, was impressed by Hughes’ poems and went to the publication party determined to meet him. She recited his poems to him, it is said they danced, drank and kissed and she bit him on the cheek until he bled, and they were married within a few months, on Bloomsday 1956. When she completed her studies in 1957, Plath was offered a teaching position back at Smith and the couple returned to America. But after a year, she left academia and she and Ted devoted their life together to writing.

Plath and Hughes in England

In December 1959, Ted and pregnant Sylvia sailed back to England; Ted wanted his child to be born in his home country. They settled in London, Frieda was born in April 1960, and Sylvia’s first collection, The Colossus, was published in October. In 1961, she suffered a miscarriage and other health troubles, was given a “first look” contract by The New Yorker and began work on her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. When the couple moved to Court Green manor house in Devon, they let their London flat to a poet and his wife, David and Assia Wevill, fatefully: it was Ted’s affair with Assia that broke up their marriage.

Plath’s Suicide

Sylvia’s second child, Nicholas, was born in January 1962. It was during that year that she found her authentic poetic voice, writing the intense and crystalline poems later published in Ariel, even while managing the household and taking care of her two children essentially alone. In the fall she and Hughes separated, in December she moved back to London, to a flat where Yeats had once lived, and The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym in January 1963. It was an extraordinarily cold winter and the children were sick. Sylvia left them in a separate aired-out room and gassed herself to death on February 11, 1963.

The Plath Mystique After Death

Sylvia Plath was only 30 years old when she committed suicide, and since her death, she has been elevated to the status of feminist icon and pioneer woman poet. Serious critics may quibble with the fan cult that has arisen around Plath, but her poetry is undeniably beautiful and powerful, and it is generally recognized as the most influential American work of the 20th century—in 1982, she became the first poet to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously, for her Collected Poems.

Books and Recordings by Sylvia Plath

  • The Bell Jar (unabridged audio CD of the novel read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Caedmon/HarperAudio, 2006)
  • Ariel, The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement (with foreword by her daughter Frieda Hughes, HarperCollins, 2004; paperback, 2005)
  • The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950 - 1962 (transcripts from the original manuscripts at Smith College, edited by Karen V. Kukil, Anchor Books, 2000)
  • The Voice of the Poet: Sylvia Plath (audio cassette with book, Side A recorded with Ted Hughes in 1958, Side B recorded in 1962, just 3 months before her death, Random House Audio, 1999)
  • Plath: Poems (selected by Diane Middlebrook, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 1998)
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath (abridged and edited by Ted Hughes, The Dial Press, 1982; paperback Anchor Books, 1998)
  • Collected Poems (edited, annotated, and with an introduction by Ted Hughes, Harper Perennial, 1981)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (short stories, prose and diary excerpts, Harper & Row, 1979; paperback HarperCollins, 1980; Harper Perennial, 2000)
  • Letters Home (correspondence, 1950 - 1963, edited by Aurelia Schober Plath, HarperCollins, 1978; paperback Harper Perennial, 1992)
  • Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems (first American edition, Harper & Row, 1971; paperback HarperCollins, 1980)
  • The Bell Jar (loosely autobiographical novel, first American edition with drawings by Sylvia Plath, Harper & Row, 1971; paperback HarperCollins, 2005)
  • Ariel (poems, first American edition with an introduction by Robert Lowell, Harper & Row, 1966; paperback HarperCollins, 1975, 1999)
  • The Colossus and Other Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1962; paperback Random House 1968, 1998)
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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Sylvia Plath: A Profile of the Mid-20th Century Poetic Icon." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2020, August 26). Sylvia Plath: A Profile of the Mid-20th Century Poetic Icon. Retrieved from Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Sylvia Plath: A Profile of the Mid-20th Century Poetic Icon." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 26, 2021).