Sylvia Plath: Dynamic Concepts, a Storm-Tossed Life

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Sylvia Plath: Dynamic Concepts, a Storm-Tossed Life


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Perhaps there is no poet who has created as much excitement in both literary and feminist circles as the New England writer Sylvia Plath (1933-1963). Plath reached the height of her career shortly before her death in the early 1960s, but her poems are as fresh today as they were then. In those poems, she created an internal landscape of such meaning and scope that she remains the object of fan clubs, the topic of bloggers across two continents; and her life is the subject of biographies produced at a rate of four or five per year.

Sylvia Plath spent her brief life on both sides of the Atlantic: the United States and Great Britain. But geography played only a minor part in her dramatic presentations. However, her poems sometimes appear in British anthologies of poetry, and, of course, they are in almost every anthology of American poetry where they are likely to remain for generations into the future.

The elements of Plath's life can be easily established through her journals, her letters, and in more artistic and penetrating form, the 274 poems that frame the years of her all too brief life.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston on October 27 (prophetically, sharing that birthday with the noted Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who like Plath would also have a strong influence on the direction of twentieth-century English language poetry). Her father, Otto Plath, was a college professor of entomology, the study of insects. His specialty was the life of the bumblebee, and his daughter would later write a number of poems that have bees as their primary theme. She lost her father at age eight, and as she confessed to a friend, she alternately adored him and hated him for "abandoning her." Her mother, Aurelia, was also a teacher, but unlike her father, was cool and domineering, causing a wall of resistance to spring up between daughter and mother.

Her father's premature death haunted Plath and perhaps set her on the pathway to depression and tragedy. It was not until many years after his death that Plath actually visited her father's grave for the first time. In her poem, titled after the ancient Greek tragic story of a daughter Electra in love with her father, Plath writes with stunning incisiveness and painful self-accusations:

   Electra on Azalea Path

   The day you died I went into the dirt,
   Into the lightless hibernaculum,
   Where bees striped black and gold, sleep out the blizzard
   Like hieratic stones, and the ground is hard
   It was good for twenty years that wintering-

   O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
   Your gate father-your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
   It was my love that did us both to death.

Early success of a precocious poet

Plath had her first poem published at the amazing age of eight. Other publications followed, notably in the magazine Seventeen, reinforcing her early love for writing and no doubt whetting her appetite for the satisfaction that goes with seeing one's work in print. A highlight of her teen years was a scholarship to Smith College, awarded upon her high school graduation.

In 1953 she became a "guest editor" (the equivalent of what we now call an "intern") at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. Plath could not endure the stress and overwork in the high-tension publishing world, and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be her last such episode. The Bell Jar a depiction of the episode and its resolution was published under a pseudonym in 1963, then with her own name posthumously in 1971.

Back at school and writing again, her ambition returned. She applied for and was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. Soon she was aboard the Queen Mary for a thrilling voyage to England, to study at Cambridge University.

A transatlantic life

At Cambridge she met Ted Hughes, a British poet who celebrated the fauna and flora of England in his poems, and who in later years was to become England's poet laureate.

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