Author Profile: Sylvia Plath, one of the most celebrated and controversial poets

Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Boston to a German immigrant college professor, Otto Plath and his student, Aurelia Schober. Sylvia shared a troubled relationship with her authoritarian father, and her earlier works employ that as a theme. In one of her famous poems ‘Daddy,’ Sylvia compares her father to a Nazi officer beating and shouting orders to Jews, a community she uses to personify herself and her helplessness.

“I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.”

Denis Donoghue observed in the New York Times Book Review: “Plath’s early poems, many of them, offered themselves for sacrifice, transmuting agony, ‘heart’s waste,’ into gestures and styles.”

Plath reading her poems

Plath’s father died when she was only eight years old. Plath felt betrayed if not sorry, and the relation she’d shared with her father continued to bother her even as she grew up. Plath was a gifted student, and while still in her teens, she had won accolades for her stories and poetry. She attended Smith College on scholarship and earned the opportunity to intern for a New York magazine Mademoiselle. The Bell Jar, which she wrote much later in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, accounts for the entire experience she had in the city. On returning home, Plath began experiencing urges to kill herself. She swallowed sleeping pills but was saved and sent for electrotherapy. She recovered from this phase of depression only to enter it much later. Plath in her autobiographical novel, the Bell Jar, confesses that while suffering from depression, she felt as though she was contained in a bell jar where she was immune to everything around her and where her only prayer was death.

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Upon recovery and having received her degree from Smith College, a Fulbright Fellowship brought Sylvia Plath to Cambridge University in England. There she met poet Ted Hughes and married him in 1956 though the two shared a stormy relationship, after that. In 1957 she moved to Massachusetts to study with poet Robert Lowell and Ann Sexton. She moved back to England, and her first collection of poems “The Colossus” was published in 1960. Most of her poems employed death as an effective element. According to Margaret Rees, “Whether Plath wrote about nature or the social restrictions on individuals, she stripped away the polite veneer.” Plath had two children Freida and Nicholas, but her marriage was slowly falling apart.

After Hughes left her for another woman, Plath fell victim to a disease that had tormented her previously- depression. She fought emotional turmoil while taking care of the children alone. On the morning of February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by placing her head in the oven and asphyxiating herself.

Her former husband, Ted Hughes, later published her collection of poems under the title, Ariel. It won the attention and appreciation of the literary world. She was awarded for the same, posthumously. In the New York Times Book Review, she was applauded as “one of the most celebrated and controversial poets writing in English.”
Sylvia Plath was an extraordinary poet, her confessional style of writing capable of impacting populations. Read one of her poems below:


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful,
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

You can read an analysis of this poem here