Monday, 11 February 2013


It's 50 years ago today that Sylvia Plath lost her life-long battle with depression, and took her own life. 

Born to middle class parents in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on 27 October 1932, Sylvia Plath published her first poem when she was eight. Sensitive, intelligent, compelled toward perfection in everything she attempted, she was, on the surface, a model daughter, popular at school, earning straight A's, winning the best prizes. By the time she entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950, she already had a remarkable list of publications, and while at Smith College she wrote over four hundred poems.

Sylvia's surface perfection was however underlain by severe personal discontinuities, some of which no doubt had their origin in the death of her father (he was a college professor and an expert on bees) when she was eight. During the summer following her junior year at Smith College, Sylvia nearly succeeded in killing herself by swallowing sleeping pills. She later described this experience in an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963. After a period of recovery involving electroshock and psychotherapy, Sylvia continued her pursuit of academic and literary success, graduating from Smith College summa cum laude in 1955 and winning a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge, England.

In 1956 she married the English poet Ted Hughes , and in 1960, when she was 28, her first poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in England. The poems in this book show the dedication with which Sylvia had served her apprenticeship; yet they give only glimpses of what was to come in the poems she would begin writing early in 1961. 
On the surface, Sylvia Plath's early poetry looks naïve, but when examining the poems repeatedly, it becomes clear that her work has multiple meanings; perhaps the strongest element of her verse is its compactness, in fact her poems are quite short, rarely lasting beyond two pages. She had also completely mastered techniques such as 'internal' rhyme, alliteration, and enjambment, helped by her love of Shakespeare, Donne, Yeats, Auden, and other immortals.

She and Ted Hughes settled for a while in an English country village in Devon, but less than two years after the birth of their first child the marriage broke apart.
The winter of 1962-63, one of the coldest in centuries, found Sylvia living in a small London flat, now with two children, ill with flu and low on money. The hardness of her life seemed to increase her need to write, and she often worked between four and eight in the morning, before the children woke, sometimes finishing a poem a day. In these last poems it is as if some deeper, powerful self has grabbed control; death is given a cruel physical attraction and psychic pain becomes almost palpable.
On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath killed herself with cooking gas at the age of 30. Two years later Ariel, a collection of some of her last poems, was published; this was followed by Crossing the Water and Winter Trees in 1971, and, in 1981, The Collected Poems appeared, edited by Ted Hughes.

"The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence."

"I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;  I lift my eyes and all is born again."

"What horrifies me most is the idea of  being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age."

"Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace."

Sylvia Plath