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Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) - pseudonym Victoria Lucas

 

American writer whose best-known poems are noted for their personal imagery and intense focus. Plath wrote only two books before her suicide at the age of 31. Her posthumous ARIEL (1965) astohished the literary world with its power, and has become one of the best-selling volumes of poetry published in England and America in the 20th century. Plath was married to the poet Ted Hughes.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
(from 'Lady Lazarus', in Ariel, 1965)

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston. Her father was a professor of biology at Boston University, and had specialized in bees. He has been characterized as authoritarian and died of diabetes in 1940 when Plath was eight years old. Her mother, Aurelia, worked at two jobs to support Sylvia and her brother Warren, but in her diary Plath reveals her hatred for her mother. At school Plath appeared to be a model student: she won prizes and scholarships. She studied at Gamaliel Bradford Senior High School (now Wellesley High School) and at the Smith College from 1950 to 1955. In LETTERS HOME (1975), edited by Plath's mother, she revealed a portrait of a young woman driven by hopes for the highest success alternating with moods of deep depression.

Her first awarded story, "Sunday at the Mintons," was published in 1952 while she was at college in magazine Mademoiselle. Plath worked in 1953 on the college editorial board at the same magazine and suffered a mental breakdown which led to a suicide attempt. She described this period of her live in THE BELL JAR, her autobiographical novel, which was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963, a month before her death. The novel takes place in New York at the height of the Cold War, during the hot summer in which the Rosenbergs were sent to the electric chair, convicted of spying for the Soviets. Against this background Plath sets the story of the breakdown and near-death of her heroine. The book is considered a powerful exploration of the restricted role of women. With J.D. Salinger's The Cather in the Rye it is recognized as a classic of adolescent angst.

After winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College, Cambridge (England). She met there in 1956 the poet Ted Hughes, "... big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me,'' whom she married next year. Hughes's first impression was "American legs / Simply went on up. That flaring hand, / Those long, balletic, monkey- / elegant fingers. / And the face -- a tight ball of joy." They first met at a student party, where she bit Hughes on the cheek, really hard. It set the tone to their tumultuous relationship. Plath decided to be a good wife, but Hughes was not the ideal husband she imagined: he was moody, penchant for nosepicking, and dressed slovenly. Also Plath's suspicions of Hughes's infidelity burdened her.

Plath's early poetry was based on then current styles of refined and ironic verse. Under the influence of her husband and the work of Dylan Thomas and Gerald Manley Hopkins, she developed with great force her talents. In 1957 Plath returned to the U.S., where she worked as a teacher of literature at the Smith College. From 1958 to 1959 she worked as a clerk in Boston and studied poetry at Robert Lowell's course. Plath moved again to England in 1959. Her first child, Frieda Rebecca, was born in 1960 and second, Nicholas Farrar, in 1962. Next year appeared her well-known poems, the aggressive 'Lady Lazarus' and the notorious 'Daddy', in which Plath expanded the boundaries intimate expression.

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

(from 'Daddy', 1966)

When Ted Hughes abandoned her for an another woman, Assia Gutmann Wevill, the wife of the Canadian poet David Wevill, fantasies of self-destruction took over of Plath's resolution. Wevill was German-born, sophisticated woman, with film-star looks. Near the end of her life, Plath burned hundreds of pages of a work in progress. In one of her final poems she wrote: ''Dying / is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.'' (from 'Lady Lazarus') In a letter to her mother Plath complained that Hughes had left her in poverty, but according to Elaine Feinstein, whose well-balanced on Hughes appeared in 2001, he gave her all their joint savings.

''It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative -- which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great muscular owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching & constricting my heart.''

Plath died in London on February 11, 1963; she committed suicide. Her gravestone is in Yorkshire. Hughes's name was chipped off her tombstone, and his poetry readings were disrupted by shouts of "murderer." Tragically, Assia Wevill killed herself in the same way as Plath - by gas. She also killed their daughter, Shura. During her career as writer Plath was loosely linked to the confessional poets, a term used to describe among others Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton (1928-74, committed suicide), and John Berryman. Her literary reputation rests mainly on her carefully crafted pieces of poetry, particularly the verse that she composed in the months leading up to her death. Plath has been considered a deeply honest writer, whose ceaseless self-scrutiny has given an unique point of view to psychological disorder and to the theme of the feminist-martyr in a patriarchal society. In this discourse, Ted Hughes has become the villain, whom Robin Morgan accused in 1972 in a poem of killing Plath. "I accuse / Ted Hughes," she wrote in 'The Arraignment'. However, Janet Malcolm has defended Hughes in her book The Silent Woman (1994), in which she sees Plath's literary spouse a Prometheus figure who has to "watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers and newspaper journalists."

Plath's 'COLLECTED POEMS' (1981), assembled and edited by Ted Hughes, won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Her journals appeared in 1982 heavily edited by Hughes, who explained that he wanted to spare the children further distress. Feminist critics have suspected that Hughes tried to protect himself. But when Karen V. Kukil assembled the unabridged journals, published in 2000, critics doubted the ethics of dutifully revealing a Plath's unrevised work with grammatical errors and misspellings.

Colossus - first published by Methuen Press in England, and then on May 14, 1962 by Alfred A. Knopf in the United States. The work fused personal pain and women's issues in revealing poems that would help to popularize 'confessional' poetry. At its appearance it went unnoticed. Compared to Ariel, which appeared in 1965, Colossus was more formalized. Its appearance coincided with the deteriorating of Plath's personal life. Her husband was unfaithful, she planned separation, and she was alone with two children and without money. - For further reading: The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. by C. Newman (1970): Protean Poet by M.L. Broe (1980); Sylvia Plath by Lindsay W. Wagner-Martin (1987); Sylvia Plath by Susan Bassnett (1897); Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson (1989); The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman (1991); Rough Magic by Paul Alexander (1991); The Haunting of Sylvia Plath by Jacqueline Rose (1991); The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm (1994); Ariel's Gift by Erica Wagner (2000). Note: Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes, who become a painter, published in 1999 a collection of poems, entitled Wooroloo. She has also designed the cover for Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes's book about himself and Plath. - Suom.: Plathilta on myös julkaistu suomeksi Sanantuojat (kootut runot).

SELECTED WORKS:

  • A WINTER SHIP - - Published anonymously
  • THE COLOSSUS AND OTHER POEMS, 1960
  • THE BELL JAR, 1961 - suom. Lasikellon alla
  • ed.: AMERICAN POETRY NOW, 1961
  • THREE WOMAN, 1962 - radio play, BBC
  • ARIEL, 1965 - suom. Ariel
  • UNCOLLECTED POEMS, 1965
  • CROSSING THE WATER, 1971
  • CRYSTAL GAZER & OTHER POEMS, 1971
  • FIESTA MELONS, 1971
  • WINTER TREES, 1971
  • LYONESSE: HITHERTO UNCOLLECTED POEMS, 1971
  • PURSUIT, 1973
  • LETTERS HOME: CORRESPONDENCE 1950-1963, 1975
  • THE BED BOOK, 1976 - Sänkyjen kirja
  • LETTERS HOME, 1976
  • JOHNNY PANIC AND THE BIBLE OF DEAMS, 1977
  • COLLECTED POEMS, 1981 - (ed. by Ted Hughes) - posthumous Pulitzer Prize
  • THE JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH, 1982 (ed. by F. McCullough)
  • SELECTED POEMS, 1985 - (ed. by Ted Hughes)
  • JOURNALS 1950-62, 1982 - (Introduction by Frances McCullough, foreword by Ted Hughes; the last journal which ended in Jan. 1963, was distroyed by Hughes, one journal is missing from the Neilson Library at Smith's College) - Sylvia Plathin päiväkirjat (suom. Kristiina Drews)
  • THE IT-DOESN'T MATTER SUIT, 1996 - Salaperäinen puku
  • THE JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH 1950-1962, 2000 (ed. by Karen V. Kukil - an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath over the last twelve years of her life)


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