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Plath [married name Hughes], Sylviafree

(1932–1963)
  • Sally Brown
  •  and Clare L. Taylor

Sylvia Plath (1932–1963)

by Rollie McKenna, 1959 [ and Ted Hughes (1930-1998)]

© Estate of Rollie McKenna; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Plath [married name Hughes], Sylvia (1932–1963), poet and writer, was born in the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital on 27 October 1932, the daughter of Otto Emil Plath (d. 1940) and Aurelia Frances Schober. Otto had emigrated from Prussia at sixteen and Aurelia was a second-generation Austrian-American. Their second child, Warren, was born in 1935. Sylvia spent her early childhood at 24 Prince Street, Jamaica Plain, Boston, until 1936 when the family moved to 92 Johnson Avenue, Winthrop, where Aurelia's parents lived. Otto Plath was an entomologist, specializing in the study of bees, and a teacher of German at Boston University. He died suddenly when Sylvia was eight, of undiagnosed diabetes, following an emergency leg amputation. After his death she declared, 'I'll never speak to God again'; it haunted her for the rest of her life. In one of her last prose writings, 'Ocean 1212-W', she wrote that her first nine years 'sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth' (Plath, Johnny Panic, 124). The family moved inland to 26 Elmwood Road in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Aurelia's parents helped to look after the children, while Aurelia worked for Boston University College of Practical Arts and Letters.

Education and early writing

Sylvia was an ambitious child, and 'dangerously brainy', as she writes in 'America! America!' (Plath, Johnny Panic, 36). She was determined to succeed in everything she attempted, always striving for perfection and hugely dependent on her mother's praise. Her first published poem appeared in the Boston Traveller when she was eight. As a young poet she experimented with various forms, including the villanelle, and was influenced by such diverse writers as D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. At eighteen she wrote in her journal: '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.' By the time she graduated from Bradford Senior High School in Wellesley, in 1950, she had sent dozens of stories to Seventeen magazine, finally succeeding in getting one published ('And Summer Will Not Come Again') in August that year, just before she entered Smith College with a prize scholarship. She called herself at this time 'The girl who wanted to be God' (Plath, Letters Home, 40).

During Plath's first two years at Smith she led a frenetic life, writing poems and journalistic pieces, editing the Smith Review, and excelling academically. In 1952 she wrote ecstatically to her mother, 'The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon'. In the last three years she had earned $1000 through her writing, with her stories published in Seventeen and Mademoiselle. At the same time her journal describes her growing sensation of existing in a stifling ‘bell jar’ and charts her anxious thoughts: 'What to do? Where to turn? What ties, what roots?' In her third year she was awarded a guest editorship at Mademoiselle and spent what she was later to describe as the 'deadly summer of 1953' in New York (Journals, 269). It was a confused and troubled period, culminating in her being refused admission to the Harvard writing seminar. She returned home and suffered a serious mental breakdown (for which she was treated with electro-convulsive therapy, ECT), and attempted to commit suicide by taking an overdose of her mother's sleeping pills on 24 August. Later she wrote of this act: 'I … blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.' It was a near-miracle that she survived, after lying hidden for three days in a ‘crawl space’ under the family house.

Following further ECT, psychotherapy, and insulin-shock treatment at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, with Dr Ruth Beuscher, Plath returned to Smith in February 1954. With her glittering, newly dyed, blonde hair, and bright smile, she was popular on the social circuit. She wrote an honours dissertation on the image of the double in Dostoyevsky, and graduated summa cum laude in June 1955. In her senior year she met Richard Sassoon, nephew of Siegfried Sassoon, a sophisticated Yale student with a European background, who had a great influence upon her. From October 1955 until June 1957 she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, as a Fulbright scholar in English, spending her first winter and spring breaks travelling on the continent. Her short stories from this time, such as 'The Wishing Box', show an early awareness of the constraints of gender roles. She published poems in Cambridge student magazines, and it was at a party to launch one of them, St Botolph's Review, that she met Edward James (Ted) Hughes (1930–1998), a recent Cambridge graduate and—in her own words—'a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer' with 'a voice like the thunder of God'. This 'cataclysmic' encounter, during which Plath bit Hughes on the cheek and he seized her scarf and earring as souvenirs, has become part of their legend, as has 'Pursuit', the poem Plath wrote at this time beginning, 'There is a panther stalks me down'. She described it as being about the 'dark forces of lust' (Journals, 214). She visited him in London in March, on her way to a holiday in Europe. On her return she wrote: 'I took a plane from Rome through the mist-shrouded sky … renounced … my old life and took up Ted.' In her journal she hailed him as her 'savior', the lover and companion she needed 'as I need bread and wine'; years later Hughes described his own response: 'I made my world perform its utmost for you.' His world was the natural world, the world of animals, weather, and landscape reflected in his poetry. Plath's writing, in contrast, came later from her deepest inner self and the mythology, both ecstatic and chilling, that she wove around it. Hughes described her writing her earlier poems 'very slowly, Thesaurus open on her knee, in her large, strange handwriting'.

Marriage and America, 1956–1959

They married in London at St George's Church, Bloomsbury, on 16 June 1956, Joyce's Bloomsday, with Aurelia Plath as the sole witness. Plath's journal exultantly records: 'We came together in that church of chimney sweeps with nothing but love and hope and our own selves.' Several of the entries written on their honeymoon, spent in Paris (with Aurelia) and Benidorm, are drafts for articles and short stories, including the enchanting 'Sketchbook of a Spanish Summer'. She wrote in her journal that Spain was 'the source … of creative living and writing'; her poems written about Spain are full of colour, energy, and light (Journals, 249). In October, after a visit to Hughes's parents in Yorkshire, they returned to Cambridge, Plath to begin her second year at Newnham and Hughes to teach at a boys' school, renting a flat near Grantchester Meadows for £4 a week. Plath wrote to her mother of their 'lovely hours together': 'We read, discuss poems we discover, talk, analyze'. A friend recalled them as 'almost incandescent with happiness'. Nevertheless, some of Plath's poems hint at darker forces in the marriage; her Newnham tutor later commented on 'the passionate rage which has since come to be recognised as the dominating emotion of her poetry' (Wagner, 84). It was at this time, both strongly drawn to the study of astrology and the supernatural, that they began to consult a Ouija board together, an experience described in 'Ouija':

It is a chilly god, a god of shadesRises from the glass to his black fathoms.

Her 'Dialogue Over a Ouija Board' was purportedly a transcription of a spirit text from an imp called Pan. Pan successfully predicted the draws on a football coupon, although he also pronounced on more serious issues and passed on communications from a Prince Otto who was beholden to the Colossus, a figure who reappeared in her later poems. They continued to work hard, Plath diligently typing out her own and her husband's work and sending it off in batches to magazines and publishers. In February 1957 Hughes won the New York Poetry Center competition with his collection The Hawk in the Rain.

In March 1957 Plath was appointed to a teaching post at Smith. Late in May she heard that her selection of poems entitled Two Lovers and a Beachcomber had been shortlisted for a prize awarded by the Yale Series of Younger Poets, to be judged by W. H. Auden. Plath's poetic aims had changed and developed over the first year of marriage. She wanted to temper the more formal, abstract elements of her work and aim for a 'more conversational quality' in her poetry. She considered one of her best poems of this period to be 'All the Dead Dears'.

Plath completed her BA degree in June, and she and Ted crossed the Atlantic later that month, spending the summer 'writing and fishing' on Cape Cod. In the autumn they moved to Northampton, Massachusetts; Plath began lecturing at Smith, on texts ranging from Oedipus Rex to The Waste Land, an experience that depressed and exhausted her. 'All fake, all false', she wrote in her journal. 'Why so weary, so slack all winter? … No explanations, only obfuscations'. That summer, however, two of her poems, 'Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor' and 'Nocturne', were to her great delight at last accepted by the New Yorker, the magazine she admired above all others.

But in January 1958 Plath was struggling to write. The events on which she reflects form the basis of her novel The Bell Jar:

I wonder if, shut in a room, I could write for a year. I panic: no experience! Yet what couldn't I dredge up from my mind? Hospitals & mad women. Shock treatment & insulin trances. Tonsils & teeth out. Petting, parking, a mismanaged loss of virginity and the accident ward, various abortive loves in New York, Paris, Nice. I make up forgotten details. Faces and violence, Bites and wry words.

Journals, 316

But Ted's appointment that month as instructor of English and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts meant that they could save money, and by June they were resolved to devote themselves to their writing. Encouraged by new friends, the poet W. S. Merwin and his wife, Dido, they moved to an apartment in Beacon Hill, Boston, in September, and formulated a programme of study and writing. Plath, however, suffered again from writer's block (a subject addressed fluently in her 'Poems, Potatoes'), and took a job as a part-time secretary at the adult psychiatric clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital, an experience which helped to shape her posthumously published story, 'Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams'. In this sinister tale a secretary in a psychiatric hospital keeps her own private record of patients' dreams which she also invents. She is caught by the hospital authorities and given shock treatment to wipe her memory. Her memory is saved, however, by the imaginary Johnny Panic, her ‘god of fear’.

Severely depressed, and without telling her husband or her mother, Plath herself resumed psychoanalytic treatment with Ruth Beuscher in December. Her journal for this period contains some darkly bitter reflections on her father's death and the mixture of guilt, resentment, and hostility she feels towards her mother and all the other 'mother figures' who disapprove of the path she has taken with the husband who helps her to fight her 'soul-battles' and 'grow up with courage'. The ‘Sylvia’ of the journals is in marked contrast to the ‘Sivvy’ of the Letters Home to her mother whom, encouraged by her therapist, she now regarded as a 'walking vampire': 'Whatever elements there were in [my writing] of getting her approval I must no longer use it for that. I must not expect her love for it' (Journals, 449). Some of her poems echo her distress: in 'Full Fathom Five' she weaves her dead father into Ariel's song:

Your shelled bed I remember.Father, this thick air is murderous.I would breathe water.

At this time the image of her father became interwoven with that of her husband, the fear of his abandonment of her inextricably linked to her father: she dreamed that she was running after Ted in a hospital, 'knowing he was with another woman, going into mad wards and looking for him everywhere' (Journals, 447).

Plath's therapy continued into the following year, when she took another part-time job, working for the chairman of the department of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard. In February 1959 Plath attended Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University. (Lowell later described her as a 'distinguished, delicate, complicated person'.) Crucially, both Lowell and Anne Sexton, whom she met through the seminar, encouraged her to use autobiographical elements in her writing, and she began to write poems inspired by her past at Cambridge ('Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows'), Winthrop (the philosophical 'Suicide off Egg Rock'), and Benidorm ('The Net Menders'). Sexton's poem 'My Friend, My Friend' almost certainly influenced Plath's 'Daddy', and after class, over martinis at the Ritz, she and Plath discussed their attempts at suicide.

Plath later told a British Council interviewer that she was excited by the 'breakthrough' that came with Lowell's Life Studies 'into very serious, very personal emotional experience, which I feel has been partly taboo' (Alvarez, 22). Sexton's influence enabled her to bring to the fore a specifically female perspective. 'Point Shirley' showed the immediate effect that Lowell had upon her writing: using the locale of her grandmother's home town, it set the hostility of nature and the isolation of the individual into a personal frame. In 'Electra on Azalea Path', which recalled Plath's visit to her father's grave in Winthrop, a daughter speaks to her dead father:

I am the ghost of an infamous suicideMy own blue razor rusting in my throat.O pardon the one who knocks for pardon atYour gate, father—your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.It was my love that did us both to death.

Lowell, who had also spent time at McLean Hospital, helped Plath to understand what depression had taught her.

Despite the inspiration she drew from this, Plath actually wrote little poetry for five months and concentrated on short stories such as 'The Fifteen Dollar Eagle', 'The Daughters of Blossom Street', 'The Fifty-Ninth Bear', and 'Sweetie Pie and the Gutter Men', which were all later published in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977). Plath took her short-story writing very seriously, but viewed it more in terms of financial reward, taking care to tailor her stories to particular magazines. For her a poem was 'concentrated, a closed fist', while fiction was 'relaxed and expansive, an open hand'. She said she would never dream of putting a toothbrush in a poem, and yet the short stories contain elements of later poems (Plath, Johnny Panic, 57).

Notwithstanding fears of an ‘imaginative paralysis’, she had managed to produce a substantial amount of writing during her time in Boston, including The Bed Book, a charming story for children about a jet-propelled bed, and The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit, also for children (both were published posthumously). By the end of May she was able to write: 'I have conquered my Panic Bird. I am a calm, happy and serene writer'.

In summer 1959 Plath—in the early stages of pregnancy—and Hughes drove across Canada and the United States to visit Plath's aunt Frieda and her husband in California; some of her short stories of this year were inspired by this trip. From September to November they were guests at Yaddo, an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Here Plath completed the poems that made up her first published book, The Colossus. This was a time of creative rebirth for her. Consolidating what she had learned from Lowell and Sexton, she produced the extraordinary 'Poem for a Birthday', a present to herself in October 1959. For Hughes 'The Stones', which formed part of this sequence, and which described the reconstruction of a shattered self, spoke 'with a new voice'. Plath herself felt that Yaddo had released in her a need 'to be true to my own weirdnesses' (Journals, 520–21), and 'Poem for a Birthday' is the first extended attempt to incorporate highly personal material into her work. From this time on she wrote with a renewed intensity and with a new realism, although she worried about writing from her own psyche (‘confessional’ writing was not at this time a respected poetic mode). If 'Poem for a Birthday' is to some degree a response to her pregnancy, 'The Manor Garden' further explores the idea of autumnal decay and sterility bringing forth new life. Written in mid-October, 'The Colossus' itself contains a more scathing attack on the father, while 'Mushrooms' sees Plath looking outwards to contemplate malevolent nature. This period was, as her mother commented, 'an oasis in a year of change' (Plath, Letters Home, 353).

London and Devon, 1960–1962

In December Plath and Hughes moved back to England, spending Christmas in Yorkshire before settling in London, in a rented flat at 3 Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill. Frieda Rebecca Hughes was born there on 1 April 1960. While still in Boston Plath had written: 'I want a house of our children, little animals, flowers, vegetables, fruits'. This flat was small and cramped, but they made it as comfortable and cheerful as they could, and settled down to London life, work, and parenthood. They took turns to write and mind Frieda, and later borrowed a room from W. S. Merwin where Sylvia worked in the mornings, Ted in the afternoon.

Plath wrote comparatively few poems in 1960, and the reason for that lies in 'Stillborn', a 'sad diagnosis' of a recurrence of writer's block. The abiding theme in her work of this year is pregnancy, sterility, and creativity. Some of Hughes's stories, and a verse play, however, were recorded for radio (as was a contribution by Plath to The Poet's Voice series), and his second volume of poems, Lupercal, was published in March that year. Plath signed a contract for the publication of The Colossus, to appear in the autumn. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage (the subject of 'Parliament Hill Fields'), and in the following month had an appendectomy; her stay in hospital produced the acclaimed poems 'Tulips' and 'In Plaster'. That summer her poem 'Insomniac', completed in May, was awarded first prize at the annual Cheltenham festival and she started writing what became The Bell Jar, which she dismissed in October 1962 as a 'potboiler and just practice'. By June she was once again pregnant, and in August the family moved out of London, to Court Green, a former manor house and rectory in North Tawton, Devon, with 2 acres of land. During their first months there Hughes reviewed books, continued to write for the BBC, and had stories and poems published in British and American magazines; Plath sold poems to the New Yorker and the New Statesman. On 17 January 1962 their second child, Nicholas Farrar Hughes (d. 2009), was born at Court Green after a Christmas described by Plath to her mother as 'the happiest and fullest I had ever known'.

In March 1962 Plath wrote a verse play for radio, Three Women, on the subject of childbirth. It was at this time, as Hughes later wrote, that 'the ghost of her father' returned to haunt her and the chilling, deeply disturbing voice of her Ariel poems began to assert itself. She realized her desire as recorded in her Boston journal to write poetry of 'real situations behind which the great gods, play the drama of blood, lust and death'. Aurelia Plath visited Devon in summer 1962, just as Plath and Hughes had begun to keep bees—an activity which drew Plath still closer to the memory of her father. Other poems written during this period, including 'Crossing the Water' and 'Berck-Plage', are full of images of the sea and drowning. About this time Plath had a car accident, caused by her blacking out. She had run off the road onto a disused airfield but was not seriously hurt. The marriage was by now under great strain; Hughes had begun an affair with Assia Wevill (who with her husband David had taken over their London flat) and he and Plath agreed to separate, finally parting during a holiday in Ireland in September. In 'Event', written in May 1962, lovers 'touch like cripples'. The violence and masochism in 'The Rabbit Catcher' is also a testimony to this difficult time. Hughes found it so close to the bone that he eliminated it (and 'The Jailer') from the published Ariel. 'Words Heard, By Accident, Over the Phone' transcribes the searing pain of betrayal, while 'Burning the Letters' re-enacts one of the remedies for that pain. The Colossus was published in New York in July 1962, but made very little impact. Plath herself told an interviewer that she was herself bored by the poems in it, although it contains some of the best of her writing, including 'The Disquieting Muses', 'Lorelei', and 'Full Fathom Five'.

'They will make my name': the Ariel poems

Throughout the autumn Plath stayed with her children in Devon, working in 'the blue, almost eternal hour before the baby's cry' in a fever of creativity to write the poems she felt to be the best she had ever produced, announcing to her mother that 'they will make my name'. She no longer wrote with Roget's Thesaurus on her lap, but fluently produced a remarkable series of bee poems. Almost everything in her life—from the trivial to the life-changing—was transmuted into art. On 12 October came the cold, sinister 'Daddy', which she herself described as 'an awful little allegory', which the speaker of the poem felt compelled to act out. The allegory was of a daughter who renounces her Nazi father with his 'love of the rack and the screw'. This was swiftly followed by 'Lesbos', 'Lady Lazarus', and 'Getting There'. She was also finishing The Bell Jar, about which she continued to speak to friends with some embarrassment, feeling that it was something she needed to write to break free from the past. She took up horse-riding, and wrote to her mother that living apart from Hughes was 'wonderful—I am no longer in his shadow' (Plath, Letters Home, 479).

In December Plath moved back to London, taking a five-year lease on another flat in Primrose Hill in a house that had once been inhabited by Yeats. Although often tired, anxious, and depressed, she continued to write at great speed, sometimes producing three poems a day. Her friend and fellow poet Al Alvarez, who likened this 'amazingly creative period' to Keats's ‘marvellous year’ of 1818, commented of these last, almost hallucinatory outpourings, that they made 'poetry and death inseparable'. Alvarez, who saw her in the months before her death, thought that she had physically altered by this time; her hair, which had reverted to its natural warm brown many years ago, was let loose from its bun and hung down; her face was pale.

The Atlantic Monthly accepted 'The Arrival of the Bee Box' and 'Wintering' for publication, and she also wrote a memoir of her childhood, 'Ocean 1212-W' for the BBC Writers on Themselves series. This is an unusual philosophical account of the birth of the self and the artist, and a final confrontation with the father and mother of her childhood. The Bell Jar, the 'queer and slangy' (as she described it) autobiographical novel looking back to her mental breakdown ten years earlier, was finally published in England—having failed to find an American publisher—under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, on 23 January 1963. Its critical reception was distinctly indifferent. The new year had brought extremely bitter weather and both Plath and her children fell ill with flu; Plath was also taking antidepressants prescribed by her London doctor, and was apparently responding well to treatment. The flat she lived in was barely furnished, and her poems of January 1963 are also spare, and in many cases stripped down to couplets, as in the bleak 'Sheep in Fog' into which the harsh winter of 1962–3 seems to have seeped, in the mute horror of 'Contusion', and the ominously resigned 'Edge', written on 5 February. But there are many bright spots in the poems of this month which counter accounts of Plath's final work as 'death-driven'—the 'clear eye' of the eponymous 'Child' which the speaker wants to fill with colour; and the blooming sun, like a geranium ('Mystic'). In 'Balloons', written the same day as 'Edge', 'oval soul-animals' left over from Christmas delight

the heart like wishes or freePeacock blessingOld ground with a feather beaten in starry metals.

The speaker of 'Mystic' triumphantly announces that 'The heart has not stopped'. In 'Kindness', written on 1 February,

the blood jet is poetry,There is no stopping it.You hand me two children, two roses.

If her own prepared collection for Ariel, which began with 'Morning Song' and ended with 'Wintering', had been published in the way she had intended, the first word of the collection would have been ‘love’ and the last, ‘spring’ (Perloff). But despite poetic intimations of another rebirth, on the morning of Monday 11 February, following an anguished weekend spent with friends, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by gassing herself in the kitchen of the flat, having protected her sleeping children by sealing up their bedroom door, and leaving biscuits and milk by their beds. She was buried near Hughes's family home at Heptonstall in Yorkshire.

Afterlife

Plath's ‘afterlife’ has in some ways been as tempestuous as her actual life. Hughes edited her last poems into the Ariel volume, published in 1965, which precipitated her rise to fame. It omitted some of the poems Plath had earmarked for inclusion, and rearranged the order of those remaining. It was preceded by significant discussion in the press about her suicide, and by serial publication of many poems. Ted Hughes wrote notes on the content and background of Ariel, printed in the Poetry Society Bulletin in February that year. Hughes's editing of Plath's poetry and short stories has had an undoubted impact on how her work has been received. In 1971 Hughes published two further collections of poetry—Crossing the Water and Winter Trees—which included poems written in between the Colossus and Ariel poems, as well as those which had been removed from his collections of Ariel. In the same year The Bell Jar appeared under her own name with a preface by Lois Ames which revealed for the first time details about her personal life—it sold in huge numbers and is now regarded as a classic of modern fiction. In 1976 Aurelia Plath published her daughter's heavily edited, dutiful, and determinedly cheerful Letters Home (partly to counteract the impression of their relationship given in The Bell Jar). The Pulitzer prize-winning Collected Poems, edited by Hughes, appeared in 1981, firmly establishing Plath as one of the greatest and most original poets of the twentieth century. The Plath myth-making machine swung into action almost as soon as Ariel was published. Time and Life magazines reviewed the volume as 'strange and terrible' in a style as 'brutal as a truncheon', written during her 'last sick slide towards suicide'. Such criticism helped to perpetuate the idea that her death was the most famous thing about her, and encouraged further critics to read the poems as solely charting her increasing mental agitation. But even a cursory reading of the poems reveals the many voices of her work—the amused, hopeful, triumphant, as well as the enraged and vitriolic—and Plath herself, when talking about her work, was amusing and charming, her voice controlled, guttural, and powerful. In 1971 in The Savage God, his study of suicide, her friend Al Alvarez proposed a counter-myth, that of the 'priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult'—a gifted poet whose death came by mistake and too soon (Alvarez, 29). Critics interpreted these myths in different ways: on the one hand she is freed from her courtship with death, her early work examined for the moment when the true poet is ‘born’; on the other she emerges like 'Lady Lazarus' with a voice full of hot venom, a woman abandoned by her husband who wrote her best work while on the edge of destruction. Both myths have been rigorously deconstructed by Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991). In a further twist, Plath was taken to task for self-aggrandizement in Anne Stevenson's controversial biography Bitter Fame (1989), which was officially sanctioned by the Plath estate (managed by Ted's sister Olwyn Hughes).

With Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich, Plath pioneered a movement in women's writing, and a way of finding alternatives for the limitations placed on women by the idealization of the housewife's role in 1950s America. A writer and a mother, Plath provided a model for a new generation of poets of the consciousness-raising movement, and she remains enormously popular especially with young female readers. Her lasting triumph will be the power and precision of her poetic voice, and her vision of new possibilities for women writers.

By 1982, when Ted Hughes published a curtailed edition of her journals, Plath had become a feminist icon. He was frequently blamed for her death by a small section of the American radical feminist community, and her grave was defaced in the late 1980s—the name ‘Hughes’ scratched out. During the years of attack Hughes, who continued to live in their house at Court Green, wrote and spoke little of his life with her—keeping, as he put it, 'a wall of astral fire' around himself and his children—until Birthday Letters, an extraordinarily moving and intimate volume of poems addressed to Plath and describing their life together during what he once described as 'those headlong years', was published in January 1998. He died of cancer nine months later. A new and complete edition of Plath's surviving Journals appeared in 2000: one journal was missing, and Hughes had destroyed the last one because he did not want their children to read it: 'In those days', he said, 'I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival'. But this publication added a significant amount of material to the edition of 1982, and revealed the extremes of her deeply complex nature if not the ‘real’ Sylvia Plath. The ever-growing list of biographies and critical works is a testimony to her mythic appeal and her astonishing poetic gifts.

Sources

  • The journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962, ed. K. V. Kukil (2000)
  • S. Plath, Letters home (1976)
  • S. Plath, Johnny Panic and the bible of dreams (1977–9)
  • S. Plath, Collected poems (1981–90)
  • E. Wagner, Ariel's gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the story of ‘Birthday letters’ (2000)
  • T. Hughes, Birthday letters (1998)
  • J. Rose, The haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991)
  • J. Malcolm, The silent woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994)
  • M. Perloff, ‘The two Ariels: the (re)making of the Sylvia Plath canon’, American Poetry Review (Nov–Dec 1984)
  • N. D. Hargrove, The journey toward ‘Ariel’: Sylvia Plath's poems of 1956–1959 (1994)
  • A. Alvarez, The savage god: a study of suicide (1972–3)
  • D. W. Middlebrook, Anne Sexton: a biography (1991–2)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, corresp. and literary papers

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1952–62, repro. in The journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Kukil
  • E. Stahlberg, photograph, 1955, repro. in The journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Kukil
  • R. McKenna, photograph, 1959, NPG [see illus.]
  • D. Bailey, double portrait, photograph (with Ted Hughes), repro. in Wagner, Ariel's gift
  • R. McKenna, photograph, repro. in E. Bronfen, Sylvia Plath (1998)
  • photographs, repro. in www.sylviaplathforum.com, accessed 20 Dec 2002
  • photographs, repro. in Plath, Letters home

Wealth at Death

£2147 4s. 2d.: administration, 1963, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1963)

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