Biography of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was a twentieth-century American poet and novelist whose vivid imagery, searing tone, and intimate topics cemented her place among the pantheon of great poets. Best known for her novel The Bell Jar and her second volume of poetry, Ariel, Plath's reputation has only grown since her death at the age of 30 in 1963. She is considered a poet of the confessional movement, also pioneered by Robert Lowell, but her work transcends this label, excavating not only individual but historical and collective pains. The sensational nature of Plath’s death by suicide, after she had feverishly written dozens of her last poems over a few short months, has spawned a critical tendency to read her work through an overtly autobiographical lens. Many readers have felt that her work has an added weight and truth because it preceded and shed light on her untimely death. Yet her poetry is neither fully nor merely confessional; Plath’s work demonstrates a willingness to expose raw, subconscious truths and an astonishing mastery of the craft of poetry. Because of these qualities, her poems have moved and inspired generations of readers.

Plath was born on October 27th, 1932 to Otto and Aurelia Plath. Her father was a German immigrant, and her mother was Austrian. She spent her early years in Massachusetts, where her father was a professor. One of the most seminal events in her childhood was the death of her father from a long, unaddressed illness when she was eight years old. After Otto’s death, Aurelia moved Sylvia and her younger brother to Wellesley, where she began teaching medical-secretary training classes at Boston University. At 10 years old, Plath first attempted to kill herself. She would repeat this attempt at ages 20 and 30, as recounted in her poem “Lady Lazarus,” written in October 1962, the month of her 30th birthday. (“I have done it again. / One year in every ten I manage it.”)

Plath started drawing and writing poetry when she was very young, submitting over 45 stories to Seventeen before her first one was published in August 1950. She began taking classes at Smith College and quickly excelled there, working on the Smith Review's editorial board, publishing more poems, and winning writing prizes from the likes of the Christian Science Monitor and Mademoiselle. After her time in New York working at the Mademoiselle office, Plath suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide by swallowing pills and then hiding in a crawlspace. She survived, and underwent electroshock therapy. After completing her studies at Smith, she traveled to the University of Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. It was there that she met the British poet Ted Hughes; the two married in 1957, and returned to America.

Plath taught for a while at Smith, during which time she was well regarded by her faculty peers. Eventually, however, she quit and took a secretarial job at a hospital so she could concentrate more fully on her writing. In 1959, she and Ted returned to England, where their first child, Frieda, was born in April 1960. Her first collection of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in 1960 to widespread acclaim. Critics hailed her as a new talent, and admired her poetic techniques.

A second child, Nicholas, was born in 1962. During this time period, Plath worked on the poems that would eventually comprise Ariel. Also during this time, she learned of her husband’s affair with Assia Wevill. Plath and Hughes separated in the late summer of 1962, and Plath threw herself into her work, producing some of her finest and most haunting poetry that autumn. Her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, was published in January 1963 to mixed reviews.

Plath and her children had meanwhile moved into a London house that once belonged to William Butler Yeats, the famous Irish poet. She was happy to be there, but remained emotionally distressed over the failure of her marriage and her novel's lukewarm reviews. The winter of 1963 was particularly cold and miserable, and Plath and her children found themselves frequently ill. Although Plath's doctor was arranging for her to switch depression medications and see a new psychiatrist, the stress of her life became too much to bear. Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 5th, 1963.


Study Guides on Works by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath's poem "The Applicant," a satirical exploration of marriage and gender norms framed through the context of a surreal interview, originally appeared in The London Magazine before being published in Plath's 1965 collection Ariel. Though...

Ariel is the second full-length collection of poetry written by Sylvia Plath, published in 1965. The poems in Ariel were largely written in the weeks preceding Plath's infamous death by suicide in 1963, and explore the themes of despair, rebirth,...

"The Arrival of the Bee Box" is a poem by Sylvia Plath describing a speaker who orders a box full of bees and tries to figure out how to treat them. The poem was first published in Plath's posthumous 1965 poetry collection Ariel. It belongs to a...

The Bell Jar was first published in London in January 1963 by William Heinemann Limited publishers under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, for Sylvia Plath questioned the literary value of the novel and did not believe that it was a "serious work."...

“Fever 103” is a poem written by Sylvia Plath in the dark hours of the early morning on October 20, 1962, three months before her death. It was first published in the magazine Poetry in August 1963, and was among the poems Plath selected for...

Written in the form of a villanelle, "Mad Girl's Love Song" is a poem by American poet Sylvia Plath. She wrote the poem in 1953 when she was in her third year at college. The poem was published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1953, where she completed...

“The Moon and the Yew Tree” is a poem Sylvia Plath wrote in October 1961, shortly before her death, amid poverty and a deteriorating marriage. It was published in her second and posthumous book of poetry, Ariel, in 1965. The poem is in four...

Nick and the Candlestick is a poem by British-American writer Sylvia Plath, in which a mother compares herself to a miner in a cave before addressing her newborn child. "Nick and the Candlestick" was first published in Plath's posthumous poetry...

"Poppies in October" is a short poem written by American poet Sylvia Plath, focusing on the contrast between urban and rural life and on the world's capacity to produce unexpected beauty. The poem was published in Plath's 1965 poetry collection ...