Sylvia Plath Life and Works
Sylvia Plath was born on 27 October 1932, at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital, in the Jennie M Robinson Memorial maternity building in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were Otto Emil Plath 1885-1940) and Aurelia Schober Plath (1906-1994). She would be an only child for two and a half years, when her brother Warren was born, 27 April 1935. Her first home was on 24 Prince Street in Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston. After Warren Plath's birth, the family moved to 92 Johnson Avenue in Winthrop, Massachusetts just east of Boston. This is where Plath became familiar and intimate with the sea. From an early age she enjoyed the sea and could recognize its beauty & power.
Otto Plath taught at Boston University (BU). To get there, he took a bus, boat and trolley to get to work each day from Winthrop. At that time BU's site was on Boylston Street just off Copley Square. This site is now New England Financial. Otto Plath's health began to fail shortly after the birth of his son Warren in 1935. He thought he had cancer as a friend of his, with similar symptoms, had recently lost a battle with lung cancer. Otto Plath was an expert on bees. He wrote a book called Bumblebees and Their Ways, published in 1934. Sylvia Plath was impressed with her father's handling of bees. He could catch them and they would not sting! (He caught only the males; the males do not have stingers.) Otto Plath died on 5 November 1940, only a week and a half after his daughters eighth birthday. He died of diabetes mellitus, which at the time was a very curable disease. Upon his death a friend only asked, "How could such a brilliant man have been so stupid?"
In 1942, Aurelia Plath moved the family to 26 Elmwood Road, in Wellesley. This was Sylvia Plath's home until she began college. She repeated the fifth grade so that she would be in class with children her same age, and she aced her courses. From then on, Plath was a star student, making straight A's the whole way through high school. She excelled in English, particularly creative writing. Her first poem appeared when she was eight in the Boston Herald (10 August 1941, page B-8).
Plath won a scholarship to attend Smith College, an all girls' school in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was ecstatic in the fall of 1950 to be a 'Smith girl.' She immediately felt the pressures of College life, from the academic rigors to the social scenes. Sylvia Plath received a scholarship to attend Smith College. The benefactress of this scholarship was Olive Higgins Prouty, a famous author. Olive Higgins Prouty lived at 393 Walnut Street in Brookline, a suburb of Boston near to Wellesley. Once at Smith, Plath started a correspondence with Olive that lasted the rest of her life. Plath wanted to be both brilliant and friendly, and she achieved both.
From around 1944 on, Plath kept a journal. The journals gained in importance to her in college. She would come to rely heavily on her journals for inspiration and documentation. She had a very quick, sharp eye, noting details that most people miss and take for granted. Her journal became her most trusted friend and confidant, telling it secrets and presenting a completely different and real self on those pages. Sometimes she was blunt, other times candid. She captured ideas for poems and stories, and detailed her ambitions. One of the more memorable passages she writes about the joy of picking her nose. (January 1953)
At this point in her life, the early Smith years, she was writing very measured, pretty poems. She had the craft of poem making down, but she did not have the voice. She was working hard on syllabics, paying close attention on line lengths, stanza lengths and a myriad of other poetic styles that any apprentice should know. Plath was different, though, as she worked herself to perfection. She relied on her thesaurus to push her way through poem after poem. She emulated Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, and W.H. Auden. She read Richard Wilbur, Marianne Moore and John Crowe Ransom. She also wanted to write short stories for women's magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal and other influential 1950s magazines. She was also sending poems and stories out regularly, facing rejection most of the time. She did, however, receive some success.
Beginning in 1950, Plath began publishing in national periodicals. Her article "Youth's Appeal for World Peace" was published in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) on 16 March. Her short story "And Summer Will Not Come Again" appeared in the August issue of Seventeen & the poem "Bitter Strawberries" appeared in the 11 August CSM. Throughout 1951, Plath was collecting rejection slips at a fast pace, but she was also published quite a bit.
In 1953, Plath wrote articles for local newspapers like the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Springfield Union as their Smith College correspondent. Her short story, "Sunday at the Mintons" won first prize in a Mademoiselle contest. From this story, she also won a Guest Editorship at Mademoiselle at 575 Madison Avenue in New York City during June 1953. (The offices have since moved & the magazine recently ceased publication.) She and several other young women stayed at the women only Barbizon Hotel, at 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. The events of this very important month are well covered in her novel, The Bell Jar. (In The Bell Jar she calls the hotel, The Amazon.) Her published journals for these months are thin, and do not reveal too much about the breakdown that followed. She returned from the New York exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. She was banking on being admitted to a Harvard summer class on writing. When she received word she had not been accepted, Sylvia Plath's fate was also secured. Her journals end abruptly in July. For details of the summer of 1953, readers must rely on information Plath put down in a few letters to friends and in her novel, The Bell Jar.
Throughout July and early August, Plath tells us in The Bell Jar that she could neither read nor sleep nor write. In an interview given to the Voices & Visions audio/video series, Aurelia Plath tells us that her daughter could in fact read, and that she meticulously read Freud's Abnormal Psychology. Plath, however, felt despondent. On 24 August 1953, she left a note saying, "Have gone for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow." She took a blanket, a bottle of sleeping pills, a glass of water with her down the stairs to the cellar. There she crept into a two and a half-foot entrance to the crawl space underneath the screened-in porch. She began swallowing the pills in gulps of water and fell unconscious.
Aurelia Plath gave a good fight into finding her missing daughter, barely waiting a few hours to phone the police. An exhaustive search started in the Great Boston area to try and find the missing Smith beauty. Boy scouts and local police and neighbors combed Wellesley thoroughly through small parks as well as in and around Morse's Pond. Headlines in the papers the next day, 25 August 1953, alerted many of Plath's friends. Headlines were less favorable the next day, Wednesday 26 August 1953. However, around lunchtime Plath was found with eight sleeping pills still in the bottle. Sylvia was treated at McLean Hospital in Belmont with the help of her Smith benefactress Olive Higgins Prouty. Her doctor was Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, and Dr. Beuscher would go on to be a great help to Plath in the years to come. Her recovery was not easy, but Plath pulled through and was readmitted to Smith for the spring 1954 semester. This is really the beginning of Sylvia Plath, poet.
1954 was a remarkable year. She met Richard Sassoon, who would later play a significant role as lover. Plath also continued where she left off at Smith, doing excellent work in spite of the breakdown. That summer she studied at Harvard Summer School, living with Nancy Hunter-Steiner in apartment 4 at the Bay State Apartments, located at 1572 Massachusetts Avenue.
The next school year at Smith, Plath worked hard, continuing her excellence. In the spring 1955 semester, Plath turned in her English honors thesis, The Magic Mirror: The Double in Dostoevsky. She graduated summa cum laude and also won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University.
Before Plath left for England, however, she needed to get through a summer of living at 26 Elmwood Road where her first suicide attempt, two years earlier, occurred. She spent much of her time dating young men like Richard Sassoon, Gordon Lameyer and toward the end of the summer, an editor named Peter Davison. However, before setting sail, Plath ended these attachments, preferring to take on what England had to offer. As Plath sailed to England, she spent her time "flirting and then making love" (Wagner-Martin). Plath was excited about Cambridge for many reasons, two of which were its possibility for the best education and to find a man to marry (at that time men outnumbered women at Cambridge by the astonishing ten to one).
As an American in England, Plath was shocked and overwhelmed by Cambridge. Coming to England in mid-September, Plath spent her first ten days in London, sightseeing and shopping. When she arrived at 4 Barton Road and Whitstead she was at first disappointed as it is at the back of the college. She loved Cambridge though and immediately became familiar with its old streets and customs. British schooling is very different than in America so Plath had major adjustments ahead of her. She had to choose her courses for two years and at the end of the second year were the exams. This meant much study on her own, though she was responsible for writing essays weekly on topics, attending lectures and meeting one hour a week with her tutors. Plath's tutor, Dorothea Krook, would become a very important female role model in the coming years, much as Dr Ruth Beuscher was to her. Krook taught Plath in a course on Henry James and the Moralists. Her academic course load was much lighter than it was at Smith, so that autumn Plath joined the Amateur Dramatics Club (ADC) and had a small role as an insane poetess. Initially, she tried to steer clear of dating as she grew accustomed to life in a foreign country. She still maintained relations with Richard Sassoon, who was living in Paris at the time. Plath spent her winter holiday with Sassoon in and around Paris and Europe. However romantic this holiday was, Sassoon soon wrote to Plath asking for a break, telling Plath that he would contact her when he was ready.
Plath, back at Cambridge and not too happy with the English winter, began falling ill and sinking into a depression. She suffered from a splinter in her eye which became the subject of the poem "The Eye-Mote", and along with a cold & flu, began to think she would not conquer Cambridge after all. On 25 February Plath met with a psychiatrist named Dr Davy and in her journal entry for that day-expressed anger at Sassoon. At the ripe age of 23, Plath really needed someone to love and to love her. To be 23 and single in 1953 was considered to be passed her prime.
That afternoon after the meeting with Dr Davy, Plath bought a copy of the Saint Botolph's Review and read impressive poems by E Lucas Myers and more impressive poems by a poet called Ted Hughes. Plath was told of a party that evening celebrating the publication of this new literary review to be held at Falcon Yard.
The meeting of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is probably the best-known meeting of two aspiring poets in the 20th century. Plath walked into the room with a date named Hamish and quickly began enquiring as to Hughes' whereabouts. She found him, recited some of his poems, which in the few hours since first reading them had memorized. According to her journals and letters, they were dancing and stamping and yelling and drinking and then he kissed her on the neck and she bit Hughes on the cheek, and he bled. No matter what sort of hyperbole was used in the retelling of their meeting, it was dramatic and life changing. Hughes' voice boomed like the thunder of God, and his Yorkshire accent was deep and intense. She wrote the poem "Pursuit" to him and in the poem she calls him a panther. It is also in this poem that Plath announces with some clairvoyance that "One day I'll have my death of him." Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes both found influences in W.B Yeats, Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence, to name a few. Hughes read these poets as well and also Hopkins, Blake, Chaucer and Shakespeare. There is no doubt that Hughes helped Plath achieve the major poetic voice she would later find. The voice might have always been in Plath, the talent and drive was certainly there.
That spring Plath suffered much heartache and confusion over her love for Richard Sassoon, who had asked Plath not to contact him until he figured out what he wanted (he was in love with at least two other women). Plath traveled to London for one night before going to Paris for her spring break and she stayed with Ted Hughes at his flat at 18 Rugby Street. They made hectic love all night long and then she traveled to Paris in search of Sassoon to find some resolution. Sassoon's decision could not have been any clearer; he was far away from Paris and did not want to be found. Plath, finding her letters unanswered at Sassoon's residence, became desperate, frequenting places she and Sassoon previously visited. Plath met several other friends from Cambridge, some strangers and finally had a bad time of traveling through Italy with her ex-flame Gordon Lameyer. Plath received at least one love letter from Hughes, which lifted her. She flew from Rome to London to be with Hughes, leaving Lameyer behind.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes married on Bloomsday 1956 (16 June) at the Church of St. George-the-Martyr at Queen's Square, Bloomsbury, just a few paces from the offices of Faber & Faber. Aurelia Plath was there to witness. The Hugheses spent the summer writing and no doubt getting to know each other better in Benidorm, Spain. The couple also spent in Paris, France, and Alicante, Spain, before visiting Yorkshire, to be with Ted's parents, who knew nothing of the wedding.
In the fall, Plath continued studying at Cambridge. Eventually, Plath moved in to a flat located at 55 Eltisley Avenue with Ted Hughes. Ironically, some relatives of Richard Sassoon lived above them. The two poets would study, cook, eat, take walks and learn to live with each other. Ted Hughes took a job teaching at a local boy's school. This would be one of his most enjoyable jobs. Plath and Hughes made arrangements to go to America in the summer of 1957.
Immediately upon their meeting, Plath began typing and sending out Hughes's poems publishers in America and England. Due in part to this work, in early 1957, Ted Hughes won first prize in the New York Poetry Center contests judged by Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender for his book The Hawk in the Rain. This was a contest he was unaware he entered. His publishers would be Harper & Row and they would bring the book out that summer. Plath had been writing some very good poems this English winter, among them "Sow," "The Thin People," and "Hardcastle Crags." On 12 March 1957 Plath was offered a teaching position in Freshman English at Smith College.