Though her novel The Bell Jar has brought Sylvia Plath copious literary praise throughout the decades, it is not outlandish to assert that her poetry might in fact be her crowning achievement. Bold, visceral, moving, evocative, wrenching, perplexing, and gorgeous, her many poems run the gamut from simple and charming to terrifying and violent. They address such major themes as the preeminence of the patriarch, the sorrow of loss, the yearning for creative autonomy, a mother's love for her child, thoughts of suicide, and ruminations on nature, sex, and the body. Each poem is generally understood in terms of its chronology, as part of one of three distinct phases of the author's output.
Plath's first phase of poetry has been deemed her "juvenilia" phase. This term generally applies to the period around 1950 through 1955, just after the close of her twenty-third year, and refers to about 220 poems. They are not considered her best work and are often considered of interest only to scholars. Many of these poems address the challenge of being a woman in a patriarchal society, especially in regard to creative pursuits. However, many others concern themselves with politics and more personal, psychological concerns. Some of the juvenilia poems were published in magazines, while others survive in typed copies, and yet Plath's husband Ted Hughes believed there could be many more yet to be uncovered.
The second phase of Plath's poetry dates from between 1956 and late 1959/early 1960. This phase produced most of the poetry that would be published in her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems. Plath married Hughes in 1956, after which the couple moved to England, which would prove the setting for her new burst of creativity and psychological penetration. Some of these poems began to take on a "confessional" aspect, no doubt through the influence of her teacher and mentor, Robert Lowell, whose Life Studies is considered the magnum opus of confessional poetry. The poems from this period explore imaginative dreamscapes, probe deep into the psyche, confront personal traumas, and allude to societal issues and ills. Hughes tried to paint this period as one defined mostly by intellectual exercises, and though Plath herself seemed to agree with that assessment, the work itself suggests far greater achievement and profundity than one would expect from simple exercises.
In 1960, William Heinemann published The Colossus and Other Poems. It included such poems as "The Colossus," "Full Fathom Five," "Hardcastle Crags," "Spinster," "Lorelei," and "The Stones." The collection was well-reviewed as heralding the strong voice of a young new poet. The American edition was published by Alfred M. Knopf in May 1962, with one poem dropped for that edition. Critics lauded her cleverness, her technique, and her sympathetic but fastidious approach to her subjects. Most of the reviews were scholarly, however, and often paternalistic; some encouraged Plath not to be too self-conscious in the writing.
The third stage of Plath's poetry was written during the period from 1960 until her death in 1963. This period was one of intense personal and psychological turmoil for Plath, as both her marriage and mental state disintegrated even as she experienced a heightened level of creativity. The poems were dashed off quickly, but featured remarkable images, deep psychological insights, disturbing references to the Holocaust, and stunning experimentation. Many of these poems explored her relationship with and resentments towards her deceased father, and the poems that were written weeks or days before her death give insight into her tortured mental state. One of her most dedicated critics wrote that the poems of this period "typically combined psychic retrievals with intense domestic dramas," and that Plath produced "a collage of discourses, a cauldron of mourning."
After her suicide in 1963, Ted Hughes gathered together poems Plath intended for publication, and oversaw the release of Ariel. He purposefully left out several of the poems Plath had selected, and it was not until 2004 that a "corrected" edition was published using Plath's original conception for the volume. Ariel featured some of Plath's most famous poems: "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," "Contusion," "Edge," "Sheep in Fog," "Tulips," and "Medusa."
The volume was an immediate and profound critical success. It was hailed as a major literary event, and solidified Plath's reputation as a poetic genius. Many of the earliest reviewers were struck by the tragic nature of her life, and tended to conflate her art and life together. This perspective was later challenged by feminist critics, but remains a frequent understanding of her work. One of the challenges a student of Plath's work faces is how much to consider the work autobiographical, rather than imaginative. Regardless of how one interpets these final poems, in allowing Plath to vent her fantastical and fiercely intelligent imagination, this volume revealed that Plath had found her voice as a poet.
Sylvia Plath's poetry remains some of the most beloved and acclaimed work of the 20th century, challenging its readers with the complexity of its allusions, metaphors, and images, as well as startling and disrupting readers with the force of its insight, self-awareness, and psychological penetration.