Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where her German immigrant father, Otto Plath, taught entomology and German at Boston University and her mother was a high-school teacher. Her father published a number of books, including in 1934 Bumblebees and their Ways on his particular specialty. Otto Plath died in 1940, following complications from diabetes, when his daughter was 8. He emerges as a central figure in Plath's poetry, especially her final poems, where he is sometimes allied with her husband, poet Ted Hughes, from whom she had separated. Both embody a haunting, oppressive presence that she cannot set aside, one that is resented for being there and also condemned for abandoning her. The penultimate stanza of "Daddy," evoking vampire myth, reads:
If I've killed one man, I've killed two -The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now.
The last five poems of Ariel, as she had planned the book she was writing in her final months, all use beekeeping as a central metaphor. Within four months of writing these poems, and two weeks after the publication of her only novel, The Bell Jar, Plath committed suicide. Ariel went on to become one of the bestselling poetry volumes in English in the twentieth century, and her Collected Poems when they appeared in 1981 won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
Plath was a prizewinning student at Smith College, publishing poems and short stories, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and winning a competition to serve as college editor of Mademoiselle magazine for a month. At the end of her junior year at Smith she had a breakdown and attempted suicide, an event recorded in The Bell Jar, and in "Daddy," where she writes:
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue.
Her treatment included electric shock therapy. Plath's final year at Smith was a great success, however, and she won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University for two years, where she met Ted Hughes. The two married in June 1956. Plath returned to the US with her husband to teach at Smith for a year, and the two then lived for a short period in Boston, before returning to make a home in London in late 1959. While in Boston Plath attended a poetry seminar run by Robert Lowell that also included Anne Sexton.
Plath published the only book of poems that appeared in her lifetime, The Colossus and Other Poems, in 1960 in London (New York publication came in 1962). The title poem, and other poems in the volume such as "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" and "The Beekeeper's Daughter," illustrate the ornate, self-conscious language which hides the voice that in the later poems bursts out with such urgency. "The Beekeeper's Daughter" opens:
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.
The last line of the opening stanza of the title poem, "The Colossus," gives an indication of the work to come within such a short time. There the ornate language of a similar opening description is deflated by the directness of a summary line: "It's worse than a barnyard." The main influences on the poems in the volume are the work of W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, and - in the poems written after 1959 - Theodore Roethke.
Following this first volume, Plath began work on the poems eventually published posthumously in Crossing the Water (1971). These include a number of poems on childbirth and on life with her two children, Frieda born in 1960 and Nicholas in 1962. These were followed by the poems of Winter Trees (London 1971, New York 1972) and the poems of Ariel - the latter written in the mood of betrayal and vengeance that followed her discovery of Hughes's involvement with another woman, a family friend. Plath and Hughes had set up house in Devon by the time the marriage broke up, and Plath remained there in the final months of 1962, often writing a poem a day, poems centered around love, death, betrayal, rage, and entrapment. In a rush of creativity in October she wrote many of the poems that are her best known, including "Daddy," "Fever 103°," "Lady Lazarus," and "Ariel" - the latter a wild ride, "Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning." Imagery of the Nazi years of Germany is frequent in these poems, often associated with her father and with oppressive, death-dealing male authority - although Otto Plath was not a Nazi. This masculine force is sometimes met with fury, "Lady Lazarus" ends famously "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air." The magazines to which Plath sent these powerful poems for publication rejected them.
At the beginning of 1963 Plath and her children moved back to London. Critics have noted a calmer, more settled tone to some of the poems of January and early February. The Bell Jar was published in January under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas." But on February 11, after sealing the doors to her children's rooms to protect them, Plath committed suicide by gassing herself.
Ted Hughes became Plath's somewhat controversial literary executor. While some commentators are sympathetic, other readers and critics have condemned him for his rearrangement of the Ariel poems, for destroying Plath's final diary, and for what they see as his ultimate responsibility for her suicide. He also pressed for the abridgement of Plath's journals when they were published in 1982, although an unabridged edition appeared in 2000 following Hughes's death. Among other revelations, the unabridged journals document Plath's driving ambition, and the hatred she sometimes felt towards her mother for what she saw as Aurelia Plath's role in Otto's early death. A volume of Plath's letters to her mother was published in 1975 as Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963. Hughes waited many years to give his fullest account of the marriage, the 88 poems of Birthday Letters (1998). Within the narrative of the couple's meeting and later difficulties - which for Hughes were largely driven by his wife's obsessive concern with her dead father and the desire to rejoin him - some poems are direct responses to Plath's own work, for example "Night-Ride on Ariel."
Ariel was published in 1965, with an introduction by Robert Lowell. The mixture of a furious sense of doom barely contained within the form and language of the poems, and the directness of address, particularly in the poems written almost daily in October and early November 1962, secured Plath's early posthumous fame. In light of her suicide, the poems were understood in directly personal terms similar to the 1950s confessional poetry of such writers as Berryman, Sexton, and Lowell. More recently, however, her themes have been read within a broader context. The poems are now seen by some critics as articulating the plight more generally of talented, independent women within the gender confines of the 1950s. The Nazi allusions associated with Otto Plath in the poems, for example, that had been read as unfair, excessive and inappropriate, are sometimes read now as bringing into the poems the force of an oppressive, dictatorial male culture whose power whether consciously invoked by governments or unthinkingly accepted within a family, infects alike history, political and cultural dynamics, and the well-intentioned love within even the most intimate of relationships. Such readings have kept to the fore an appreciation of the poet's work, an appreciation which relies less on the personal legend and drama of a talented and beautiful young woman dead by her own hand at thirty, and more on a recognition of the poet's remarkable achievement itself.
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