Plath, Sylvia 1932–1963

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Author: Philip Hobsbaum
Date: 2003
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Excerpt; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Length: 10,773 words

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Page 241

Sylvia Plath 1932–1963


SYLVIA PLATH WAS born on October 27, 1932, at Robinson Memorial Hospital in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, Massachusetts. She was the first child of Otto and Aurelia Plath. Her parents were of German and Austrian derivation. Otto Plath, who had relatives already in the United States, emigrated at the age of sixteen from Grabow, a Prussian town in the Polish corridor, to New York, where he initially worked in an uncle’s delicatessen. Financed by his grandparents, who had settled in Wisconsin, he studied languages at Northwestern University and the University of Washington, Seattle. He went on to teach languages at the University of California where he also studied biology. He began work in biology at Johns Hopkins University in 1920 and in entomology at Harvard University in 1925, receiving his doctorate from Harvard in 1928. He met his future wife, Aurelia Schober, at Boston University in 1929. They were married in Carson City, Nevada, on January 4, 1932, Otto having obtained a divorce from a previous marriage. He was forty-five; Aurelia was twenty-four.

Aurelia gave up a teaching job to become a full-time housewife, and she helped her husband in developing for publication the manuscript of his major work, Bumblebees and Their Ways. It was published in 1934. The couple had originally settled in Jamaica Plain, near Boston, but eventually moved to a frame house on Johnson Avenue in Winthrop, near Boston city center. Aurelia’s parents, Frank and Aurelia Schober, lived nearby, and this first grandchild, Sylvia, was close to them emotionally. A second child, Warren, was born on April 27, 1935, but he was sickly in comparison with his sister. Otto Plath’s health deteriorated as a result of undiagnosed diabetes. Eventually his leg was amputated and he died of an embolism on November 5, 1940. Aurelia Plath went back to teaching in order to support her family.

In 1942 Aurelia was given the task of developing a course for medical students at the Boston University College of Practical Arts and Letters. She moved with her parents and the two children to Wellesley, an area a dozen miles west of Boston, which she deemed to be healthier than her previous domicile and that in any case was more convenient for her work. “The little white house,” 26 Elmwood Road, was where Sylvia Plath grew up.


Sylvia Plath’s earliest written works, mostly short stories, refer to the father as a power figure in various shapes but also suggest what seem to have been racial incidents that had taken place at school—first the Annie F. Warren Grammar School in Winthrop, and then the Marshall Livingstone Perrin School in Wellesley: it was wartime, and the family had foreign antecedents. Sylvia kept diaries, wrote poems published in the school magazine, and always attained high grades in her studies. She was an exemplary pupil, anxious to please, and graduated in 1950 from Gamaliel Bradford Senior High School, Wellesley. There she had especially impressed an English teacher, Wilbury Crockett, who placed emphasis on European as well as modern American literature. Sylvia had become coeditor Page 242  |  Top of Articleof the high school newspaper, The Bradford, and took active part in the compiling of a yearbook about the school’s alumni. A story, “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” was published in Seventeen magazine in August 1950, the year before she entered Smith College. She also had work accepted by the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor.

Her story in Seventeen brought about a correspondence which developed into a five-year friendship with Ed Cohen, four years older than herself and a student at Roosevelt University. She entered Smith College in September 1950 equipped with scholarships from the Olive Hig-gins Prouty fellowship and the local Smith club but did not make friends there easily. She dated Dick Norton, who was to be the model for Buddy Willard in her future novel The Bell Jar, and she maintained a somewhat stormy relationship with Ed Cohen. She did well in her university courses, though not so spectacularly as she had done at school. Another story, “Den of Lions,” appeared in Seventeen, and she wrote up her summer experiences as a baby-sitter for the Christian Science Monitor. Yet another story, “Sunday at the Mintons,” won a prize in a competition sponsored by the magazine Mademoiselle and was published in August 1952. In her junior year at Smith she specialized in English, studying writing with Elizabeth Drew and even meeting W. H. Auden, who was an occasional visitor to the college. She encountered Gordon Lameyer, a senior at Amherst who had already heard of her from various sources, and she also dated Myron Lotz, a Yale athlete who had been the roommate of one of the boys she had known back home. In the fraught social atmosphere of the time, when well-brought-up girls were expected to retain their virginity until marriage, these and other relationships with the opposite sex, were not the easy triumphs that they may seem now. Further, there was always the fear of being caught out with an unwanted pregnancy, to the detriment of one’s reputation and career.

One result of her success with Mademoiselle was that she was chosen with nineteen other girls to spend a month in New York in June 1953, to learn about editorial processes. The effect on her is of one driven by her extracurricular activities, her social relationships, and the demands of her academic work. She returned home from New York very depressed. Her condition was intensified when she learned that she had not been accepted into the Harvard summer school fiction course taught by the great Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor. She tried electroconvulsive therapy, but without the context of counseling, this proved to be a mistake.

One hot August day Plath crept into a space under the porch of the little white house, equipped with a great many pills, and swallowed them. Fortunately she took too many and vomited them up. She was found still breathing within two days. When physically recovered, at least in part, she was transferred to the psychiatric wing of the Massachusetts General Hospital, thereafter receiving treatment at the McLean Hospital, Belmont, at the expense of Mrs. Olive Prouty, a well-known Smith benefactress.

Under the care of a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, Plath learned to trust herself a little more. During the next year she started an all-out sexual affair with Richard Sassoon, three years younger than herself, who was a junior at Yale and a distant relative of the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. Her previous experiments in lovemaking had hardly prepared her for the attention of this sophisticate brought up on the European continent. Over the same period of time Smith voted her the largest scholarship ever given to an undergraduate, and Harper’s published one of her poems, “Doomsday.” She was set to graduate from Smith at the top of her class.

That summer, Plath and a friend, Nancy Hunter, attended Harvard Summer School Page 243  |  Top of Articletogether and took an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, where she seems to have indulged in a bout of mild promiscuity. On returning to Smith in September for her final year, she began a thesis concerned with studying the concept of the double as acted out in the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky—not the easiest of topics. She turned out several short stories for a class taught by Alfred Kazin and was the sole pupil in a course on poetics taught by Alfred Fisher. It was at that point that she really got going as a poet, producing what at least may be termed brilliant juvenilia. Her early poems, such as “Female Author,” were highly formal in technique and very accomplished:

    All day she plays at chess with the bones of theworld:
    Favored (while suddenly the rains begin
    Beyond the window) she lies on cushions curled
    And nibbles an occasional bonbon of sin.
    Prim, pink-breasted, feminine, she nurses
    Chocolate fancies in rose-papered rooms
    Where polished highboys whisper creaking curses
    And hothouse roses shed immoral blooms.
    The garnets on her fingers twinkle quick
    And blood reflects across the manuscript;
    She muses on the odor, sweet and sick,
    Of festering gardenias in a crypt,
    And lost in subtle metaphor, retreats
    From gray child faces crying in the streets.

Though devoid of literary merit, there is enough in this apprentice piece to excite the interest of a teacher of creative writing. For one thing, it is conscientiously formal: it is couched in the form of the English or Shakespearean sonnet. The rhymes are full and the rhythms, save for that odd extra syllable in line four, iambic. It is an example of the conventional alternating light beat and heavy beat stretching over ten syllables per line that is the basis of most traditional poetry in English, be it the sonnet or blank verse itself. True, the subject is highly conventional, in that it expresses the isolation of the female author from that which ought to be her subject matter. It is self-reflexive; it characterizes itself. But again, the poem in effect ironizes this position by representing the idyllic posture of the young poet as one open to moral objection. Only someone determined to learn her craft could have written this, and that “someone” was clearly an apprentice earnestly seeking the approbation of a master.

In May 1955, still heavily involved with Richard Sassoon, Plath heard that she had been successful in her application for a Fulbright grant and that, supported by references from Mary Ellen Chase, Elizabeth Drew, and Alfred Kazin—on whom she had published an article— she would be enrolling as a foreign student at Cambridge University. She also tied for first place in the Glascock Poetry Contest at Mount Holyoke College; the Atlantic Monthly accepted her poem “Circus in Three Rings”; her thesis tied for the Marjorie Hope Nicolson Prize; she was photographed with the poet Marianne Moore for the Christian Science Monitor; and she graduated summa cum laude.


By October 2, 1955, Plath was in Cambridge. She was to read for part 2 of the Tripos, the main qualifying examination for the bachelor of arts degree. Her lectures included those of Basil Willey on the English Moralists, David Daiches on the modern English novel, and F. R. Leavis on literary criticism. She showed no sign of recognizing the intellectual distinction of the latter, preferring in later years to consort with such heroes of the Sunday press as Stephen Spender and John Lehmann. Dorothea Krook, who befriended her and became her favorite don, taught her Henry James. Plath stood out among the dowdy English girls of that period; with her five feet, nine inches of height, her model’s figure, and her brightly casual American Page 244  |  Top of Articleclothes, she seemed akin to a character from a film by Paul Bogart or Richard Alan Roth.

All the attractive men in Cambridge, where the male students outnumbered the female students ten to one, could not cure Plath of Richard Sassoon. She went to Paris to see him in December, and they traveled together by train down to Nice and by motor scooter to Venice. Back in Cambridge by January 10, 1956, she was tormented by the achingly damp weather but made contact with the local literati, especially the editors of Delta, Chequer, and Granta, in all of which magazines her poems were published. But even with such easy conquests she was in danger of sinking into another depression. The launching party of yet another magazine, St. Botolph’s Review, however, attracted her attendance. It was held at the Women’s Union in Falcon Yard, and it was there that Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes.

Cambridge parties of those days were somewhat rough affairs, with no pretensions other than copious drink, a plethora of cigarettes, and occasionally some noisy jazz music on record. St. Botolph’s Review had been started in opposition to an imagined Cambridge establishment of writers, and was named after the disused rectory in which several of the contributors lived, among them Daniel Huws and Lucas Myers.

Some of these characters were distinctly uncouth, as if in revolt against the state education they were receiving from the ancient university of Cambridge. Ted Hughes, despite his masculine good looks, characteristically dressed in shabby corduroy trousers and frayed jerseys, with uncombed hair flaked unbecomingly with dandruff. He had already graduated and was up on a visit from London. Towering at six feet, two inches over the crowd present, he instantly drew Plath’s notice. She confronted him about his poems in the magazine, in honor of which the party was ostensibly being held. He tried to kiss her and, in return, she bit him on the cheek. It was clear that she was casting this quiet, somewhat awkward youth in the role of Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. As Marie Singer, a distinguished Cambridge psychiatrist of the day, said, “Sex is nine-tenths fantasy.”

The acquaintance was continued with the help of Luke Myers, a compatriot poet whom Plath already knew. She had a drink with him and Hughes in London at the beginning of the Easter vacation, going on to Paris to see Richard Sassoon. He, however, had gone away. After some desultory wandering, she returned to Cambridge where, in May 1956, Hughes left his dead-end job in London and joined her, taking work as a teacher at Coleridge Road Secondary School.

Hughes and Plath decided to marry, and the ceremony took place by special license, a device to deal with emergencies and those in a hurry, on June 16, 1956, at the church of St. George the Martyr in Bloomsbury, London. Their honeymoon was spent in Benidorm, Spain, then a fishing village rather than the holiday resort into which it later developed. They visited Hughes’s parents in Heptonstall, on the verge of the Brontë country. Plath returned to Cambridge to continue her studies and found that the Atlantic Monthly had accepted another poem while Poetry (a Chicago magazine) had accepted six. She revealed her marriage to the Fulbright commissioners, who supplied her grant as a single student, and secured their approval. The married couple could now openly cohabit, which they did from mid-November at Eltisley Avenue. Plath had heard of a competition for a best first book of poems, sponsored by Harper Brothers through the New York Poetry Center. It was judged by Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender. She entered a sheaf of poems by Hughes with the title The Hawk in the Rain. In February 1957 a telegram arrived from New York informing them that Hughes had won. From 1957, when this collection was published by Faber and Faber, until his death forty years later, Hughes was probably the most highly Page 245  |  Top of Articleregarded poet in Great Britain, his only rival being the much younger Seamus Heaney.

Through the good offices of Mary Ellen Chase, Plath achieved an instructorship at Smith and, with a respectable but not dazzling degree from Cambridge, traveled with her husband to the United States and set up house in August 1957 at 337 Elm Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. At Smith, Plath taught three freshman English classes three times a week, introducing her mass audiences to such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. She became increasingly discontented with the regime, largely because of its emphasis on literary criticism, and left Smith in May 1958. It is not recorded whether any student was significantly helped by her ministrations.

The couple remained at first on Elm Street, composing frenetically and seeking to establish themselves as professional writers. Plath achieved her first acceptance from The New Yorker. In September 1958, the couple moved to a tiny apartment on Beacon Hill in Boston, a city full of poets. Plath met, among many others, Robert Lowell and his then wife Elizabeth Hardwick, Adrienne Rich and her then husband Alfred Conrad. She took a job, typing records in the psychiatric clinic of Manhattan General Hospital and turned this to account in her story “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” (1958):

On the blackest days, when I’ve scarcely time to squeeze one dream out of the old books and my copywork is nothing but weepy college sophomores who can’t get a lead in Camino Real, I feel Johnny Panic turn his back, stony as Everest, higher than Orion, and the motto of the great Bible of Dreams, “Perfect love casteth out fear” is ash and lemon water on my lips.

She abandoned the job some time before May of the next year, 1959, but not before it had afforded her further material.


During this period Plath began to attend the poetry workshops of Robert Lowell, then the most highly regarded poet in the United States. Other participants were George Starbuck and Anne Sexton, whose first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), had been accepted by Houghton Mifflin. Hughes and Plath spent part of the fall of 1959 in a writers’ retreat called Yaddo. Here she turned twenty-seven and started a book of poems to be called The Colossus, the title poem of which was based on her father. Soon after, she discovered that she was pregnant. The couple decided to move to England. Once there, they stayed with Hughes’s friend from Cambridge, Daniel Huws, and his wife, Helga.

Eventually Plath and Hughes found a flat on the third floor of a house in Chalcot Square, not too far away from the Huws’s flat and from Regent’s Park. It was cramped, with one bedroom and no room that could serve as a study. Plath claimed the sitting room and bedroom while Hughes worked on a small card-table in a cupboard off the hallway. He was able, at times, to use the study of his rich friends, W. S. and Dido Merwin, who lived nearby. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) provided a source of income; both Hughes and Plath were accomplished readers and broadcasters. Hughes’s second book, Lupercal (1960), freshly out, consolidated his already formidable reputation.

The social pattern of the Hugheses’ household tended to consist of visits from a male friend of Hughes, Luke Myers or Peter Redgrove being perennial, and the two men going off to a public house while Plath cooked dinner. Sometimes they were back late, and there was, if not a row, a certain frostiness. Plath was not one for pubs, and that was why several of Hughes’s friends and acquaintences scarcely knew her. She did not manage much by way of writing in these early months in London, but she signed a Page 246  |  Top of Articlecontract with Heinemann, not a noted publisher of poetry, to bring out The Colossus.

The Hugheses’s first child, Frieda, was born on April 1, 1960, a month after Hughes won the Somerset Maugham Award. The Colossus came out in October 1960. It is an accomplished college-girl sort of book, without much in the way of emotional pressure, but exhibiting signs that the author had read all the best writers, especially John Crowe Ransom and Theodore Roethke. The earliest poems in it are probably “Two Sisters of Persephone” and “Strumpet Song,” dating from 1956. The two latest are probably “The Burnt-out Spa” and “Mushrooms,” dating from 1959.

One of the better poems is “The Eye-Mote.” A day is darkened by a splinter flying into the speaker’s eye: “I dream that I am Oedipus.” However, she is not Oedipus; she is just one well-read young woman with a mote in her eye. In another promising piece, “Lorelei,” Plath envies her spiritual sisters, those nymphs that float romantically down the reaches of the river. The river is necessarily culled from mythology, and the poem is all prettily done, but there is a certain lack of depth. In yet other pieces, there are various English views, and exhibitions in museums that attract the young author’s attention. They are rendered felicitously in her adroit verse, with its neat pararhyming (”back”/ “gimcrack”) and its sprung rhythms. Notice the habit of inversion that allows most lines to begin with a recurring stress, also called an ictus, leaping forward—“Rigged,” “Lies,” “Relics”—in “All the Dead Dears”:

  Rigged poker-stiff on her back
  With a granite grin
  This antique museum-cased lady
  Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
  Relics of a mouse and a shrew
  That battened for a day on her ankle-bone

The point is, as a helpful note tells us, that the ankle-bone of the woman has been slightly gnawed. It is not clear that either of the exhibits displayed with her, the mouse and the shrew, had anything to do with the gnawing. This is just an odd circumstance, displayed for our (mild) interest.

Possibly the author’s recent childbearing has had some influence over her work. Another poem, “I want, I want,” begins

    Open-mouthed, the baby god
    Immense, bald, though baby-headed,
    Cried out for the mother’s dug.

But any comment on this poem would need to relate it to the eccentric lyricism of Theodore Roethke, in those days an immense influence over young poets. It seems to derive from literature rather than from any very sharp apprehension of life. Insofar as “life” exists as an entity in this book, it is there (as her writing teacher, Kazin, said of Plath’s early work) to be written about.

There is enormous talent in The Colossus, but it lies mostly in potential. Here is a capacity for expression looking for a subject. Only twice in this volume does the subject of a poem press upon readers. One of these examples, “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” is proleptic to later writing. It is part of a series of poems that runs through Plath’s work and which should certainly be recognized as a sequence concentrating on bees. Here is the budding of an idea in rich imagery, although at this juncture existing almost for its own sake:

    A garden of mouthings. Purple, scarlet-speckled, black
    The great corollas dilate, peeling back their silks.
    Their musk encroaches, circle after circle,
    A well of scents almost too dense to breathe in.
    Hieratical in your frock coat, maestro of the bees,
    You move among the many-breasted hives. . . .

It could all have come out of a fairy story, yet there is a sense of impending pressure here. Page 247  |  Top of ArticleOne finds it in the verbs, rather too heavy for their purpose: “dilate,” “peeling,” “encroaches.” It intensifies and becomes adult poetry in the final stanza:

                                    . . . Kneeling down
    I set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye
    Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.
    Father, bridegroom, in this Easter egg
    Under the coronal of sugar roses. . . .

There is poignancy in that “disconsolate as a tear.” The eye-to-eye contact is doing far more than the mote-to-eye contact in the earlier poem, “The Eye-Mote.”

Plath’s father wrote a standard book, Bumblebees and Their Ways, based on hours of observation and curiosity, though it is unlikely that his daughter ever read it. Here, in the title poem of The Colossus, the polite mask comes off, and readers catch a glimpse of what this collection of poems should have been about. An acute reviewer would have started with this poem, and, in this poem, with the key moment, the dominant—in which the author is diminished to a humble little creature seeking to repair the fabric of a ruined masterpiece:

    Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of lysol
    I crawl like an ant in mourning
    Over the weedy acres of your brow
    To mend the immense skull-plates and clear
    The bald white tumuli of your eyes.

Lysol was not only a cleansing agent but a well-known way of committing suicide—used, for example, by that forceful predecessor of Plath’s, Charlotte Mew, whose sexually explicit poems Sir Edward Marsh would not permit into his anthology, Georgian Poetry. Lysol is also alluded to in a fragmentary poem by T. S. Eliot, which Plath would certainly have known, Sweeney Agonistes.

The key poem in The Colossus does not have to do with the passive viewing of effigies in museums but with the active attempt to renovate one of them. The author wants the image of her dead father, kept in the recesses of her memory, back, restored, alive. Anyone interested in Plath’s development from this promising first book would expect the future to be built upon this structure. The reviewers were not so acute as that. One of the shrewder ones, A. E. Dyson, wrote in the Critical Quarterly of “her occasional sense of being teased by glimpses of better worlds, also lurking just behind the surfaces of things.”

Plath’s reputation in this period, however, was nothing compared with that of Hughes. He was feted, interviewed, quoted; he was the cynosure of all eyes. The effect of this upon Plath, who had a miscarriage in February 1961, was a tendency to jealousy concerning the numerous women editors and producers who commissioned Hughes’s work. After an especially successful session with the radio producer Moira Doolan, Hughes returned to the flat in Chalcot Square to find that Plath had destroyed all his writing in progress and also torn up a number of books. There had already been incidents of conflict with his family. Plath was proving to be a difficult person to live with.


Pregnant again, and with the baby due in January, the Hugheses decided to move to the country. After some searching in the west of England, they discovered Court Green, a place in Devon, which had nine or ten rooms. Court Green was surrounded by more than two acres of grounds and placed near a village, and the village itself was on a main railway line that led to London, so that they need not feel cut off. They sublet the flat at Chalcot Square to David Wevill, a Canadian poet whom Hughes had met through his Cambridge connections.

Plath and Hughes moved into Court Green on August 31, 1961. During this period of removal Page 248  |  Top of Articleand resettlement, Plath completed a spate of poems including some of her best work, much of which is included in a posthumous volume, Crossing the Water (1971). The title poem dates from April 1962. It is a lyrical appreciation of the delights incident upon being where one is. There is also, however, the feeling that a change is being made; that the two people who seem to be involved in the poem are crossing some such river as Acheron over which, it was said in classical mythology, the souls of the dead were conveyed:

    A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
    Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
    They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

This quietude is characteristic of the poems gathered in Crossing the Water. They mostly occur after the apprentice work of The Colossus and before the Sturm und Drang represented in Ariel.

A singularly beautiful poem included in Crossing the Water was written before the move from London. It dates from October 1960 and is called “Candles.” It sustains throughout, both in terms of subject and expression, a gentle romanticism that gives us a good idea of what Plath could have accomplished if she had spared herself. It plays upon both the physical appearance and the history of candles to give some idea of a more arbitrary, more easygoing, more compassionate world:

   It is touching, the way they’ll ignore
   A whole family of prominent objects
   Simply to plumb the deeps of an eye
   In its hollow of shadows, its fringe of reeds,
   And the owner past thirty, no beauty at all.

Cunningly, the fact of the newborn baby is woven in. Readers get the picture of the young mother nursing her child in a world that can be censorious, and thinking of herself as being ephemeral, like these same candles, more retrospective in vision as the years pass by. The poem ends, not quite addressing either the candles or her baby, on a sustained falling cadence:

    I watch their spilt tears cloud and dull to pearls.
    How shall I tell anything at all
    To this infant still in a birth-drowse?
    Tonight, like a shawl, the mild light enfolds her,
    The shadows stoop over like guests at a christening.

Plath later made a recording of this poem. To hear it is to undergo one of the most poignant experiences modern literature has to offer. It is hard to believe that there was anything that an artist of this distinction would have been unable to accomplish.

Of a kindred quality is a poem of October 1961, “Mirror.” The plotting in “Mirror” is meticulous, and the form is that of a perfect dramatic monologue. In some ways, the poem is like one of those remarkable Anglo-Saxon riddles that give the body of a text and demand that the reader supply the title. There is little here which is not true of a looking-glass, except that it speaks: “I am silver and exact,” “I am not cruel, only truthful”:

    Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
    It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
    I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
    Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

The subtext of the poem is a disquisition on time and growing older, accomplished through the running metaphor of that other reflective entity, a lake. The second half tells of a woman looking into the mirror, “searching my reaches for what she really is,” then turning back to the more flattering images revealed by “those liars,” the candles or the moon. To that extent “Mirror” is a companion-poem to “Candles.” The poem ends with a revelation in keeping with its naturalistic candor throughout:

Page 249  |  Top of Article
   In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
   Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

The poem is written in a blank verse for our time, which has learned both from Robert Frost and from Wallace Stevens. It gives one the sense that, had Plath lived to something like the years reached by those masters, she might well have rivaled them in technique.


Some months earlier, during the spring of 1961, Knopf accepted The Colossus for American publication, and, elated by this, Plath began her one completed novel, The Bell Jar (1963). It is through this novel, rather than through her poems, that most readers have come to know of Sylvia Plath. In many ways, it is the ideal student novel, as Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger had been a generation before.

Plath’s novel is based on her stay in New York in June 1953. On June 19 of that year, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had been executed for spying. Hence the striking start of the novel: “It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The novel reads like a first-person journal in all its rawness and apparent artlessness. What art there is inheres in a well-trained ear, that rejects anything vague or specious. But there is little plot to hold all this together, although there are many incidents: clumsy passes being made at the protagonist, a good deal of ill health through injudicious eating and drinking, a leg broken in skiing, a suicide attempt. What binds these together, if anything, is a persistent sense of loss, focused on the memory of a father. One key incident is a visit to the graveyard where he lies buried:

At the foot of the stone I arranged the rainy armful of azaleas I had picked from a bush at the gateway of the graveyard. Then my legs folded under me, and I sat down in the sopping grass. I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard.

Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death.

My mother hadn’t cried either. She had just smiled and said what a merciful thing it was for him he had died, because if he had lived he would have been crippled and an invalid for life, and he couldn’t have stood that, he would rather have died than had that happen.

I laid my face to the smooth face of the marble and howled my loss into the cold rain.

There is no accurate sense of the father’s character here. All is centered on the feelings of the girl-narrator. So it is through the book. There are certainly areas of distinguished writing— notice the internal rhyme patterns in the prose of the extract just quoted—but the narrative achieves its effects because of vivid rendition of the protagonist’s feelings, not through any perceptive recording of other characters or of the external world. Be that as it may, this is exactly what an adolescent audience was waiting for, and The Bell Jar became the key book for at least two generations of college students.

Heinemann accepted the novel in October 1961. However, in view of its autobiographical content, it was decided to publish it under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas—Lucas possibly because of the full name of Hughes’s old friend, Luke Myers. Only a few month later, on January 17, 1962, the new baby, Nicholas, was born.

The rural habitat at Court Green deprived the couple of their big-town associations. It was better for Hughes, who could slip away to a publishers’ meeting or a rendezvous with writers, than for Plath, who was tied up with the two babies. They had visitors, but these were as likely to be irritants to Plath, with her duties as hostess, as alleviations. Among those visitors were David and Assia Wevill, who arrived for a short weekend on May 19, 1962. There is no doubt that Hughes and Assia, who was an Page 250  |  Top of Articleexceptionally beautiful woman, were attracted to each other. After this visit, during which there was a degree of tension, Plath began a cycle of poems in which Hughes became a kind of replacement of Otto, the dreaded father figure.

During a visit from her mother in July, and while Hughes was briefly absent in London, Plath made a bonfire of his papers and insisted that he leave the house. Though he returned, the couple began discussing a trial separation. They stayed together long enough for them both to take an Irish holiday in Cleggan, on the Conne-mara coast, domicile of the poet Richard Murphy, whose entry Plath, together with other judges, had just placed first in a competition organized by the Cheltenham Literary Festival. The couple arrived in Cleggan together but split up soon afterward. Plath returned via Dublin to Court Green. Hughes went to London where he continued to see Assia.


Upon her return Plath filled her intervals of insomnia by writing the poems through which she is best known. Forty of them were produced between the end of September and the first day of December. These were mostly to appear in a collection, published posthumously, called Ariel (1965). Those who were acquainted with Plath chiefly through the accomplished college-girl work assembled in the previous book were astonished by the new poems spat at them furiously over the air in a Radio 3 broadcast organized by her longtime producer, George MacBeth. The characteristic diction of the poems is drawn from folk song and nursery rhyme. A good deal of the imagery derives from fairy stories, especially the darker ones like those of the Grimm Brothers: gold rings, flapping bats, spider-men, yew trees, witches, balloons. Yet the tone is manic, almost approaching that of a frenetic kind of light verse. The content, however, is far from light.

The poems that drew most attention were “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” and no wonder. Though they may lose something of their surprise quality by fréquentation, there is no doubt that their direct force shook the preconceptions of many listeners and, subsequently, readers. In “Daddy” the male figure looms so malevolently that the poem has become the banner of many an aggressive feminist:

   You do not do, you do
   not do Any more, black shoe
   In which I have lived like a foot
   For thirty years, poor and white,
   Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
   Daddy, I have had to kill you.
   You died before I had time———
   Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
   Ghastly statue with one grey toe
   Big as a Frisco seal
   And a head in the freakish Atlantic
   Where it pours bean green over blue
   In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
   I used to pray to recover you.
   Ach, du.

This poem is basically a continuation of “The Colossus.” In part, the father figure is seen as a statue, a monument. It may be questioned how the symbol of the shoe got into the poem. In fact, it could have been any image capable of bearing a reference to masculinity: a penis, say, or a column. But Plath’s education forbade undue explicitness, and “shoe” has the advantage of permitting a great deal of rhyming words congruent with it.

The poem would collapse into a scream of hysteria were it not for the unshakable craft Plath had forged in her schooldays. As it is, the form derives from the stepped verse of William Carlos Williams, who wrote movingly about women in distressed situations. Also, more immediately, it is inspired by the poem “Roosters,” in which Elizabeth Bishop, one of the poets Plath most respected, deprecates male pretensions. In “Daddy” Plath is linking the Page 251  |  Top of Articleearly death of her father, which she sees as a betrayal, with her growing up as a woman in a male-controlled world, and with being married to a husband whom she suspects of betraying her with another woman.

Alongside this howl of rage is “Lady Lazarus.” Hints regarding German and Jewish ancestry in “Daddy” are here developed into an identification with the victims who perished in the Nazi prison camps during the war. The protagonist of “Lady Lazarus” manages to resurrect herself every ten years. Thus, the plot of the poem seems to depend on some imagined death soon after Plath’s father died, the attempted suicide at home when she was twenty-one, and the suicide she is now contemplating. From each of these she seems to rise:

    I have done it again.
    One year in every ten
    I manage it——
    A sort of walking miracle, my skin
    Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
    My right foot
    A paperweight,
    My face a featureless, fine
    Jew linen.
    Peel off the napkin
    O my enemy.
    Do I terrify?——

In draft, excised from the finished version of this poem, the next stanza runs: “Yes yes Herr professor / it is I / Can you deny.…” And then the poem goes on, in the next printed line, “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?” This ratifies the notion one might have had anyway that this poem is addressed in hysterical reproach to Plath’s father. One can say this: that the poem in question would certainly have horrified the industrious, conformist figure of Otto Plath, had he been unfortunate enough to have lived to see it.

“Lady Lazarus” is a shriek of hatred against men, succumbing to misery even through its air of triumph which so sorely brings no relief. The poem ends, however, anything but wearily:

  Ash, ash—
  You poke and stir.
  Flesh, bone, there is nothing there-
  A cake of soap,
  A wedding ring,
  A gold filling.
  Herr God, Herr Lucifer
  Out of the ash
  I rise with my red hair
  And I eat men like air.

It is hard, though one must try, to read this poem as a work of literature. One’s first reaction is, necessarily, “how dreadful to feel like that.” It is tempting to consign it to the psychiatrist rather than to the reader of literature. Yet the force, which it undoubtedly directs outward, is also controlled. The poem may even, through the agony it displays, have earned the right to draw upon imagery stemming from the most terrible events in the world. For the Nazis not only slaughtered their victims by the millions, but some Nazis even extracted the gold fillings from their victims’ teeth to make jewelry and peeled off their skin to make lampshades.

How Plath got herself into this state is a matter of clinical inquiry. One may infer a severe dislocation between two aspects of personality: that which seeks, as an artist does, to plough out a furrow of one’s own, and that which seeks to please an already existing establishment. The two attitudes are contradictory and hence incompatible. Plath was highly accomplished and attempted to be everything at once: poet, novelist, student, journalist, broadcaster, housewife, mother. Nobody could do all that, and, above all, nobody could do it at the pitch of perfection she sought.

The structure of Ariel appears to be somewhat arbitrary. Poems may have been omitted that should have been included, and the arrangement may not have been what the author intended. Nevertheless, in its present shape it has taken Page 252  |  Top of Articleits place among the classics of the time and, until some superior form of publication is agreed upon, it is better to consider this and other books by Sylvia Plath as we have them.

Other poems that require notice in this remarkable book of 1965 include, in order of appearance: “Morning Song,” “The Applicant,” “Tulips,” “Cut,” “Berck-Plage,” “The Rival,” and four items that belong in the much longer Bee Sequence, “The Bee Meeting,” “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” “Stings,” “Wintering”— though there are others with which one would not wish to dispense. What is chiefly noticeable is the strength with which the poems are plotted, the decisive onsets at the various beginnings, and the charismatic quality of the linguistic texture. These are not poems that lie flat on the page.

“Morning Song” is one of the happier pieces, announcing the arrival of a baby. It is only after further acquaintance that one notices a certain glib romanticizing in the writing: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” There is only a tenuous relationship between a baby’s heart starting to beat and the ticking of a gold watch; indeed, the appropriateness of comparing a living being with a mechanical artifact itself may be held in question. The dominant of the poem, that which gives it persuasiveness and intensity, comes rather late: “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown.” The clumsiness of the speaker’s movements disperse what romanticism lingers from the beginning, but it is noticeable that this realistic verse refers to the mother, not the child. The poem succeeds, if at all, through afflatus: its striking beginning and the recovery of that exuberance at the end:

                          . . . And now you try
   Your handful of notes;
   The clear vowels rise like balloons.

“The Applicant” is more a sort of joke-poem. Plath is not remarkable for her humor, and the humor here savors of cartoon; it is twodimensional. The applicant in question is a man, and he is being offered a female with all working parts, somewhat after the pattern of the figures portrayed in popular songs of Plath’s epoch, such as “Paper Doll,” as sung by the Mills Brothers, and “Living Doll,” associated with Cliff Richard. The doll in question is guaranteed to be obedient. The key lines are:

  Naked as paper to start
  But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
  In fifty, gold.
  A living doll, everywhere you look.
  It can sew, it can cook,
  It can talk, talk, talk.

“The Applicant” contains at once a compendium of the chauvinistic references to women in popular song and also a caricature version of what takes place in a bourgeois marriage, with its silver wedding anniversary of twenty-five years, golden wedding anniversary of fifty years, and so on. Behind the jocose rhythms, there is a good deal of bitterness—expressed chiefly through the gap between perception of a civilized life and the macabre “reality” that Plath envisages.

“Tulips” shows Plath at her most verbally charismatic. The poem begins with characteristic bite: “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. / Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.” This contrast between the sensual warmth of the tulips and the pale remoteness of the speaker, who is a hospital patient, is maintained throughout the poem. Any other writer might have rested with the whiteness, the numbness, the washed-out quality, the sheer emptiness of the patient. It could have been managed. There is plenty of room for play upon words:

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff

Like an eye between two white lids that will not

shut. Stupid pupil. …

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The last phrase is a pun to delight William Emp-son, analyst of ambiguity, and all other students of the metaphysicals. The pun is obvious enough once Plath has made it. But all this paleness and whiteness is disturbed throughout the poem by the almost anthropomorphic activity of the tulips: “The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me”; “Their redness talks to my wound”; “they weigh me down, / Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour, / A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck”; “The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.” The set of contrasts achieves closure with an astonishing synthesis between the internal organs of the patient and the troubling entry of the tulips:

   And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
   Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
   The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
   And comes from a country far away as health.

“Cut” works through an expressionist exaggeration of a household event. Plath’s mastery of the excessively short line is exemplary. It is managed by a jerkily energetic rhythm wholly consonant with a jokey treatment of the subject matter. The speaker’s thumb, which has just been cut, is transformed into a scalped pilgrim, a turkey wattle, a bottle of pink fizz, and then weirdly expanded to a gap out of which run a million soldiers— “redcoats, every one.” Plath must have been one of the first poets to use the word “kamikaze” in her verse, which is all part of the expansion of the cut thumb into apparently universal warfare. But then Plath, with equal skill, shuts the whole venture down, and what readers see at the end is

  Trepanned veteran,
  Dirty girl,
  Thumb stump.

“Berck-Plage” is the most obscure of Plath’s major poems, partly because it is a conflation of two apparently unrelated experiences that bring in a third which is not spelled out. The year before it was written, 1961, the Hugheses had set off to spend time on a holiday with W. S. and Dido Merwin in Lacan in southern France. On the way, they motored through Berck-Plage on the Normandy coast, which contained sanatoria for men wounded in the Algerian war. The sufferers sunned themselves on the beach intermingled with the vacationers. A year later Plath was to witness the decline through cerebral hemorrhage of their neighbor in Devon, Percy Key, himself resettled from London with his wife, Rose. Plath attended Percy’s funeral on June 29, 1962, and she seems to some extent to have associated it with the funeral of her father, Otto, which of course she had not attended. It is from this last that the black boot-black shoe symbolism seeps in. In an imaginative synthesis, Plath has an Otto/ Percy figure buried on Berck-Plage. Clearly, the admixture of wounded men and vacationers had deeply affected her.

Thus the poem depicts a priest in funereal garb walking slowly up a beach stretching past a hotel and itself populated by mackerel gatherers, children with their hooks and cries, invalids in tubular steel wheelchairs. All of this serves as a backdrop to the funeral of “an old man … vanishing. / There is no help in his weeping wife.” The speaker, through whose surrealistic vision all this flourishes, denies the necessity for her own presence there—“I am not a nurse, white and attendant”—at the same time as having to admit her attendance in another capacity, that of mourner: “dark-suited and still, a member of the party.” The beauty of the hinterland—“The natural fatness of these lime leaves”—forms an ironic comment on the whole vista.

Behind it all is not only guilt at failure to mourn the father properly—without a funeral ceremony, there is no closure—but resentment at being expected to attend at all, probably tinctured by a sense of duty in having reluctantly visited the dying Percy Key and a feeling of Page 254  |  Top of Articledisgust at the old man’s physical deterioration. The poem ends, maintaining its slow dignity:

   And the priest is a vessel,
   A tarred fabric, sorry and dull,
   Following the coffin on its flowery cart like a beautiful woman,
   A crest of breasts, eyelids and lips
   Storming the hilltop.
   Then, from the barred yard, the children
   Smell the melt of shoe-blacking,
   Their faces turning, wordless and slow,
   Their eyes opening
   On a wonderful thing—
   Six round hats in the grass and a lozenge of wood,
   And a naked mouth, red and awkward.
   For a minute the sky pours into the hole like plasma.
   There is no hope, it is given up.

“The Rival” is a straightforward hate poem. The other woman is compared with the moon, which borrows light but creates nothing, and is stripped when seen without her mysteries: “in the daytime she is ridiculous.” The rival also has the qualities of the medusa, a species of Gorgons or sub-women found in classical mythology. Though renowned for her beauty, especially that of the locks of her hair, the medusa has the property of reducing everything at which she looks to stone. The speaker of the poem holds her in contempt, yet feels harassed by her: “Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand, / Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity.” The poem, which in tone and emphasis is a dramatic monologue, suggests that the dreaded rival is as obsessed by the speaker of the poem as the speaker is by her rival: “No day is safe from news of you, / Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.”

“Lesbos,” included in the U.S. edition of Ariel, may be assumed, with no undue emphasis on biography, as Plath’s reaction to her rival, Assia Wevill. The poem begins with a highly sibilant diatribe. Its positioning of the “-s” and “-z” words will bear a degree of attention:

   Viciousness in the kitchen!
   The potatoes hiss.
   It is all Hollywood, windowless,
   The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine,
   Coy paper strips for doors—
   Stage curtains, a widow’s frizz.

What characterizes this utterance is not the sibilant consonants only, but the preference for short vowels high in pitch: “viciousness,” “kitchen,” “windowless,” “wincing.” “strips,” “frizz,” and so on. All this makes for a highly distinctive tone of voice. It is a voice utterly self-absorbed, addressing the reader with peremptory force, an eruption such as a manic journal-entry proclaiming, with undeniable sincerity, pain.

The Bee Poems make up an identifiable sequence. Four of them occur in Ariel. “The Bee Meeting” pitches tone against subject-matter. The tone is excited, as though anticipating a party, but it is soon clear that the central figure, who speaks the poem, is an object of sacrifice:

  I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
  Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
  Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.

Swathed in the smock, she is now not only clothed but imprisoned. This does not prevent an identification with the queen bee: “The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen. / / She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.” The villagers, from initially welcoming figures, change into a concourse of threats. They include a rector in black, identifiable as Otto Plath, a midwife who consigns one to domesticity, and also a mysterious apparition in a green helmet that seems to combine the functions of surgeon and executioner. By the end of the poem, the victim is Page 255  |  Top of Articleunquestionably dead—still in that exuberant, bustling verse: “The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands. / Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, / why am I cold?” The bustle is maintained through the plethora of light syllables in relation to the stresses on the relatively fewer strong ones.

“The Arrival of the Bee Box” is altogether a simpler poem. It does not involve the villagers; the activity has been sparked off by the protagonist herself. She has ordered a box that might almost be a small coffin, and certainly it is the potential agency of death, for it contains a swarm of bees that are angry, as can be inferred by the sound they make:

   It is the noise that appals me most of all,
   The unintelligible syllables.
   It is like a Roman mob,
   Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

Opening the box could prove certain death. She wishes she were a tree—“the laburnum, its blond colonnades”—but pictures herself as she is, in her beekeeper’s gear: “my moon suit and funeral veil.” It is a simple story, simply told, but deftly expressed almost beyond criticism.

“Stings” is a bee version of “Lady Lazarus.” As in “The Bee Meeting,” there is a degree of duality in the poem. The speaker hands the combs of honey to a man in white, but she is conscious of the brood cells and, somewhere within them, the queen:

            . . . she is old,
   Her wings torn shawls, her long body
   Rubbed of its plush—
   Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.

The speaker identifies with the old queen, and says she has been worn out by household drudgery. It is clear that this is a fate she expects for herself, and her blame settles upon “a third person” who ostensibly “has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.” He seems to be identified with the surgeon in the green mask who features in “The Bee Meeting.” “The sweat of his efforts,” sweet in its time, has reduced the queen to this decrepitude after an orgy of child-bearing. But the queen, with whom the speaker of the poem now explicitly identifies, will avenge herself:

   Now she is flying
   More terrible than she ever was, red
   Scar in the sky, red comet
   Over the engine that killed her—
   The mausoleum, the wax house.

“The Swarm,” published in the U.S. edition of Ariel, comes next in the Bee Sequence. In this poem the bees are symbols of the aggression of Napoleon’s Grand Army and of the resistance that it encounters. The poem is intensely graphic, and also onomatopoeic in its insistence on a synthesis of sound, vision, and emotion: “Somebody is shooting at something in our town- / A dull pom, pom in the Sunday street.” The bees shoot up into the boughs of trees seventy feet from the ground. They are the very quintessence of anger: “The bees argue, in their black ball, / A flying hedgehog, all prickles.” The speaker of the poem claims that her reason for shooting at the angry bees is that “They would have killed me.” As well as being part of Plath’s bee mythology, the poem is an allegory of war.

“The Swarm” is logically followed by “Wintering,” another of the Ariel poems. Here the bees are surviving under artificial conditions: they have no contact with flowers. In other words, they have rid themselves of the men and are all women—“Maids and the long royal lady”—but they are slowed down, and there is some question as to whether the swarm will survive. However, the poem ends on a hopeful note—”The bees are flying. They taste the spring”—an unusual occurrence in this threatening sequence.

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The Ariel poems were written in a state of mania. There is no doubt that Plath received an uplift from a sense that she was free to be a poet and had shed the bourgeois expectation of her youth that had cast her in the role of housewife. It was a time of dramatic decisions. After abandoning a previous plan to settle in Ireland, she acquired a five-year lease on a rented flat in a house, 23 Fitzroy Road, in Primrose Hill, an area that she had considered several years before she went to live, first in Chalcot Square, then in Court Green. She moved in, with the children, on December 12, 1962.

By January a terrible winter had started, the worst London had known for many years. Plath and the children were ill. She had hired a Belgian au pair to help her with the children, but this arrangement did not last. Plath claimed to be helpless and penniless and stayed with various friends who noticed her mood swings. Her antipathy to Hughes, who had been for several months conducting an open affair with Assia Wevill, meant that he was limited in what he could do to help her on the domestic side. By February 10 Plath was back in the Fitzroy Road flat. Early on the morning of February 11, she turned on the gas of her oven and put her head in it. She had left cups of milk beside the childrens’ beds and had stuffed towels under the doors of their rooms to protect them from escaping gas.

Plath had arrived at the flat with nearly all the Ariel poems already written. The ones produced at Fitzroy Road include “The Munich Mannequins,” “Totem,” “Paralytic,” “Balloons,” “Kindness,” “Contusion,” “Edge,” and “Words.” Of these, at least “The Munich Mannequins,” “Kindness,” and “Edge” are fully up to anything she had written previously. The manic quality has intensified; and indeed there is a sense in which many of these final poems could be read as a controlled hysteria, a sensitized black comedy. Take, for example, “Kindness” with its mocking tone:

   Kindness glides about my house.
   Dame Kindness, she is so nice!
   The blue and the red jewels of her rings smoke
   In the windows, the mirrors
   Are filling with smiles.

The faux-naïf geniality, the effect produced by an apparently childlike tone, imperfectly serves to hide the subterranean anger; again, it is the anger of a poet put into the position of a housewife. Dame Kindness stands for the usual sort of well-wisher, who asks you how you are as a matter of form. The end of the poem is especially poignant, in which Dame Kindness presents the speaker with the usual kind of present, flowers, and these turn out to be something tangible but also, under the charming surface, an entrapment: the speaker’s own children. It is a controlled simplesse—a false simplicity—and the effect is scalding:

   And here you come, with a cup of tea
   Wreathed in steam.
   The blood jet is poetry,
   There is no stopping it.
   You hand me two children, two roses.

Another Ariel poem written in London is “Edge,” clearly the latest poem in Ariel because it is very probably the last poem Plath ever wrote, dated February 5, 1963. It is, in form, a kind of epitaph, but a very sinister one. For example, the speaker declares her children to be dead:

   Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
   One at each little
   Pitcher of milk, now empty.
   She has folded
   Them back into her body …

It is clear that Plath was in a dangerous state of mind.

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The final volume of Plath’s poems before the collected edition of 1981 is called Winter Trees (1971). It is essentially an overflow from Ariel, with “Gigolo” and “Mystic” being written in that final London sojourn. The beginning of each poem is particularly startling: “The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve” (”Winter Trees”); “It was a place of force— / The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair” (”The Rabbit Catcher”); “The air is a mill of hooks—” (”Mystic”). And if one replies to this last, “No it isn’t,” the likely response comes upon one like a shriek of self-justification: “Yes it is, to me. …”


Poetry requires no such agony to be born. Ted Hughes, in that eventful October of 1962, instead of packing his clothes and leaving for London, should have had the wearied and frenetic Plath certified and placed in a nursing home under heavy sedation. What she needed was a good long rest: nobody could have done as many things as she tried to do, at such a pitch. If the poems were going to come, they would have come without hysterical behavior and endless battening upon the waning patience of friends. Plath’s condition had become pathological. Poems such as “Candles” and “Mirror” show what Plath could do under minimum conditions of stress. There was no need for that defiant gesture of suicide.

As it is, the work of Sylvia Plath is inextricably bound up with her life. Her predicament to no small degree resembles that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a victim of alcoholism. We shall never be able to read their work in the same way we read, say, Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost. It lacks the classical quality of detachment. However, because the public tends to prefer life to letters, and in any case delights on this side of prurience in a good story, Sylvia Plath is likely to continue as an icon and a cynosure, as well as one of the more flawed and wayward of classic American writers.

Selected Bibliography



The Colossus and Other Poems. London: Heinemann, 1960; New York: Knopf, 1962.

Ariel. London: Faber and Faber, 1965; New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Crossing the Water. London: Faber and Faber, 1971; New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Winter Trees. London: Faber and Faber, 1971; New York: Harper & Row, 1972.


The Collected Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1981; New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Sylvia Plath’s Selected Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

Plath: Poems. Edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Sylvia Plath: Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.


The Bell Jar. London: Heinemann, 1963, Faber and Faber, 1966; New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

The Bed Book. London: Faber and Faber, 1976; New York: Harper & Row, 1976.


Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950–1963. Edited by Aurelia Schober Plath. London: Faber and Faber, 1975; New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts. Edited by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1977; New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

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The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Frances Mc-Cullough and Ted Hughes. New York: Dial Press, 1982.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962. Edited by Karen V. Kukil. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Collected Children’s Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.


Wreath for a Bridal. Frensham, Eng.: Sceptre Press, 1970.

Crystal Gazer and Other Poems. London: Rainbow Press, 1971.

Lyonnesse: Poems. London: Rainbow Press, 1971.

Pursuit. London: Rainbow Press, 1973.

Two Poems. Knotting, Eng: Sceptre Press, 1980.

Voices and Visions. New York: New York Center for Visual History, 1988. (Videotape of Plath in an interview and reading many of her poems.)

The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit. London: Faber and Faber, 1996; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Mrs Cherry’s Kitchen. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.


Brennan, Claire, ed. The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Duxford, Eng.: Icon, 1999; New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Homberger, Eric, ed. A Chronological Checklist of the Periodical Publications of Sylvia Plath. Exeter, Eng.: University of Exeter, 1970.

Hughes, Ted. “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath’s Poems.” In The Art of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Charles Newman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Sylvia Plath: A Reference Guide 1973–88. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Tabor, Stephen, ed. Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 1987; London: Mansell, 1987.


Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991.

———, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Alvarez, A. “Sylvia Plath.” The Review 9:20–26 (October 1963). Reprinted, with postscript, in Tri-quarterly 7:65–73 (fall 1966). Reprinted in A. Alvarez, Beyond All This Fiddle. London: Allen Lane, 1968.

———. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Penguin, 1971.

Ames, Lois. “Notes towards a Biography.” Triquarterly 7:95–107 (fall 1966). Reprinted in The Art of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Charles Newman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Pp. 155— 173.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Becker, Julian. Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. London: Ferrington, 2002.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Sylvia Plath. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

———. Sylvia Plath: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Bloom’s Major Poets series. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 2001.

Bonnefoy, Yves, Audrey Jones, Daniel Weissborth, and Anthony Rudolf, eds. Theme and Version: Plath and Ronsard. London: Menard Press, 1995.

Britzolakis, Christine. Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

———, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd Mead, 1977.

Campbell, Wendy. “Remembering Sylvia.” In The Art of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Charles Newman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Pp. 182–187.

Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the Angel in the House. Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, Eng.: Pennine Pens, 1993.

Decker, Sharon D. I Have a Self to Recover: Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” Ann Arbor: Michigan Feminist Studies, 1980.

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Dickie-Uroff, Margaret. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Dyson, A. E. “Sylvia Plath: ‘The Colossus and Other Poems.’” Critical Quarterly 3:181–185 (summer 1961).

Faas, Ekbert. “Chapters in a Shared Mythology: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.” In The Achievement of Ted Hughes. Edited by Keith Sagar. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983. Pp. 107–124.

Gardner, Philip. “The Bland Granta’: Sylvia Plath at Cambridge.” Dalhousie Review 60:496–507 (autumn 1980).

Gilbert, Sandra M. “A Fine White Flying Myth: The Life/Work of Sylvia Plath.” In Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloom-ington: Indiana University Press, 1979. Pp. 245260.

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Hardy, Barbara. “Sylvia Plath: Enlargement or Derangement?” In The Survival of Poetry. Edited by Martin Dodsworth. London: Faber and Faber, 1970. Pp. 164–187.

Hargrove, Nancy Duvall. The Journey toward Ariel. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1994.

Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann, 1991.

Heaney, Seamus. “The Indefatigible Hoof-Taps.” Times Literary Supplement, February 5–11, 1988, pp. 134, 143–144. Reprinted in Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings. London: Faber and Faber, 1988. Pp. 148–170.

Hobsbaum, Philip. “The Temptation of Giant Despair.” Hudson Review 25:597–612 (winter 1972–1973).

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: Athlone Press, 1976.

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Lane, Gary, ed. Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Lehrer, Sylvia. The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath. Salzburg: Universtàt Salzburg, 1985.

Lowell, Robert. “Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.” In Robert Lowell, Collected Prose. Edited by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987. Pp. 122–125.

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Northhouse, Cameron, and Thomas P. Walsh. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: A Reference Guide. Reference Guides in American Literature, No. 13. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974.

Peel, Robin. Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.

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Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1973.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

———. “The Biographer as Fiction Maker: Writing on Sylvia Plath.” In her Between the Iceberg and the Ship: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Pp. 29–38.

———. “Sylvia Plath’s Word Games.” Poetry Review 86, no. 4 (winter 1996). Reprinted in Anne Stevenson, Between the Iceberg and the Ship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Pp. 39–51.

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Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

———. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. New York: Twayne, 1992.

———, ed. Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

———, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1988.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1380300022