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 novel The Bell Jar and her second volume of poetry, Ariel, Plath's reputation has only grown since her death in 1963. She is considered a poet of the confessional movement, which was led by Robert Lowell, but her work transcends this label and speaks to more universal truths than simply her own emotions. Although the sensational nature of her death by suicide has led some critics and readers to conflate the value of her life and art, Sylvia Plath's poetry demonstrates an astonishing capacity to engage with the art of poetry; many of her words and images have become fully entrenched in the literary consciousness.

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 illness. After Otto's death, Aurelia moved Sylvia and her younger brother to Wellesley, where she began teaching medical-secretary training classes at Boston University. Plath started drawing and writing poetry when she was very young, submitting over forty-five 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 was administered shock treatment. 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 moved back 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 young 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 infidelity, which nearly destroyed her. The two separated in the summer of 1962, and Plath threw herself into her work, producing some of her finest and most haunting poetry. 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 had once belonged to William Butler Yeats, the famous Irish poet. She was happy to be there, but remained emotionally distressed over both her marital failure 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

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 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."...