Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is a poet whose troubled life and powerful work remains a source of controversy. Born in Boston in the USA she was precociously intelligent, publishing her first poem at the age of eight. The same year her German father, Otto, died suddenly, a trauma which surfaces in her poetry repeatedly. Plath suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout her life, her first serious breakdown occurring in 1953 and later remembered in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963). This episode led to her first suicide attempt, but she recovered and graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts before winning a Fullbright Scholarship to Cambridge University. Here she met the English poet, Ted Hughes, their passionate courtship leading quickly to marriage in June 1956. After two years teaching in the United States the couple returned to the UK when Plath became pregnant, their daughter Frieda being born in April 1960. By this time Hughes was established as a significant new voice in British poetry, but now Plath’s own first collection The Colossus was published and began to receive attention. After the birth of their son in 1962 their marriage became increasingly fraught with Plath’s mental instability and Hughes’ infidelity both likely contributing factors. The couple separated and Plath took the children to live with her in London. During an extraordinary burst of creativity in the autumn of 1962 Plath wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests. However, that winter was particularly severe and Plath became increasingly isolated and depressed: on February 11th 1963 she committed suicide by gassing herself in the kitchen of her flat. Debate has raged ever since over who was to blame for Plath’s early death, the feminist movement adopting her as an icon and interpreting Hughes’ role as her literary executor, particularly his destruction of her final journal, as continuing a patriarchal oppression she had experienced in life. More recently this interpretation has been challenged, not least by Hughes himself in his collection Birthday Letters, which give his view of their marriage in a series of tender and searing poems. Plath’s own work, with its intense sometimes shocking use of metaphor and her exploration of extreme states of mind, refuses to be overshadowed by her tragic biography: in 1982 she became the first poet to be posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Poems.

Her two Archive poems are fine examples of her arresting style and fearless examination of self and society. ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ was written after she had experienced a miscarriage in February 1961 and shows her ability to invest external landscape with the urgency of psychic disturbance. In her introduction to this poem, Plath’s comments suggest that the poem’s narrator is a third party, not herself. This is revealing: whilst considered a leading “confessional” poet, Plath often uses dramatic monologue, as in her famous poem ‘The Applicant’. In this devastating satire on the conventional marriage, she uses the sales-speak of modern commerce to expose society’s de-humanising expectations. Both poems show Plath’s skill in manipulating the sound of language: the rich alliteration and assonance of ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ creating a palpable sense of place, whilst the short lines of ‘The Applicant’ contribute to its aggressive tone, as encapsulated in her repeated use of the pronoun “it”. Plath’s reading style is cool and controlled but this only emphasises the driven energy of these extraordinary testaments, sent from the edge of experience.

Poems by Sylvia Plath

The Applicant - Sylvia Plath
You’re - Sylvia Plath

Books by Sylvia Plath