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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was the precocious child of well-educated Boston parents, Otto and Aurelia Schoeber Plath. Otto, who taught German and zoology at Boston University, died when Sylvia was eight of complications following the amputation of his leg. An authority on bees, he had been ill the previous four years from untreated diabetes mellitus. Finances were slim so Sylvia’s mother returned to teaching, and to help care for the children, her maternal grandparents moved into the Plath home, where they remained until their deaths. In order to take a position at Boston University herself, Aurelia moved the family to Wellesley.

Plath’s childhood and adolescence were a series of high academic achievements. She published poetry, fiction, and journalism in a number of places even before attending Smith College on a partial scholarship. An English major at Smith, she continued her consistent prize winning, but she was also very much a woman of the 1950s, plagued with thoughts that she had to marry and have children, or else she would never be a “complete” female. Some of her conflicts over direction (career vs. marriage, sexual experience vs. chastity) combined with a strain of depression in her paternal line to cause a breakdown in the summer of 1953, shortly after she had served as a Mademoiselle College Board editor. The outpatient electroconvulsive shock treatments she received then probably led to her subsequent suicide attempt in August of 1953, and she spent the next four months under psychiatric care before returning to Smith. In June, 1955, she graduated summa cum laude and got an M.A. on a Fulbright Fellowship at Cambridge, England.

On June 16, 1956, she married Ted Hughes, eventually to become Poet Laureate of England. In 1957 they returned to the States where Plath taught freshman English at Smith. She and Hughes then lived for another year in Boston, establishing themselves as professional writers; late in 1959 they returned to England. In the next three years, Plath bore two children, published The Colossus and Other Poems, established a home in Devon, separated from Hughes, and was living with her children in a flat in Yeats’s house in London when she committed suicide, just a few weeks after The Bell Jar had been published. In 1965 Ariel, the collection of some of her last poems, appeared.

Plath’s poems show a steadily developing sense of her own voice, speaking of subjects that—before the 1960s—were seldom considered appropriate for poetry: anger, macabre humor, defiance, contrasted with a rarer joy and a poignant understanding of women’s various roles. “Three Women,” which is set in a maternity ward, The Bell Jar, and many of her late 1962 poems were unlike any of the expert literature she had so carefully imitated—until the last years of her life. Her breaking out of the conventional patterns set an example that shaped a great deal of poetry for the next forty years—reliance on metaphor, quick shifts from image to image, a frantic yet always controlled pace that mirrored the tensions of her single-parent life during 1962. In contrast to late poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” Plath’s final poems were icily mystic, solemn, and resigned. The full range of her work is evident in the 1981 Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
For a Fatherless Son (1962)
Daddy (1965)
Fever 103º (1965)
Lady Lazarus (1965)
Stings (1965)

Other Works
The Colossus (1960)
The Bell Jar (published under the name "Victoria Lucas") (1963)
Ariel (1965)
The Collected Poems (1981)
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)

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On Birthday Letters
Offers the transcripts and audio files of a PBS "Online News Hour" segment on Plath's death.

Sylvia Plath
This site offers a detailed biography, a selection of poems online, and an annotated list of her works.

Sylvia Plath Forum
A genuine Plath web community with regular contributions regarding her life and work.

The Real Sylvia Plath
A article by Kate Moses.

Secondary Sources