Sylvia Plath 1932–1963
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet and novelist.
Plath's poetry gives a vision of life as enhanced by death. The blinding intensity of the poems written during the last months of her life and the circumstances of her death lend themselves to psychological interpretations to such an extent that it is now difficult for many critics to separate her work from her life. There seems to be little doubt that Plath was driven to be successful at whatever she did. After a phenomenally productive career at Smith College, interrupted for a year because of her mental collapse and nearly accomplished suicide, she won a Fulbright Fellowship to study English literature at Cambridge. In England she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children. She seemed to be able to fulfill the demanding and often conflicting roles of mother and wife, poet and critic very well, but seven years after her marriage she committed suicide.
Though literary magazines had been printing Plath's poetry for several years, at the time of her death she had published only one collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems, and her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. As it was a bitterly direct commentary on the life she had almost ended earlier, she published it only in England, and under a pseudonym, hoping thereby to avoid hurting her mother. The initial response to these works was favorable, despite some critics' reservations about the resemblance of her poetic style to that of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke, among others. Her reputation today rests mainly on the posthumous volumes selected by her husband, Ariel, Winter Trees, and Crossing the Water.
Critical opinion differs on the degree to which these later poems follow from her early work. Most of the poems in The Colossus were written in a carefully structured form, using scholarly language in creating elaborately detailed metaphors. In comparison, the last "blood jet" of poetry she wrote broke out of established forms and diction and employed distinctively colloquial phrasing. Her imagery remained precise, but seemed to develop itself more freely than before. This general relaxation served in the opinion of many critics to release a certain passion that made her poetry, always concerned with such themes as the ephemerality of life, its inevitable destruction, and the beauty and timelessness of the natural cycle, even more effective and powerful.
Plath's best-known poem, "Daddy," tells in a disquietingly singsong rhythm the story of a daughter's fury at the "fascist brute" who is her father. The personal tone of such poems as this and their apparent derivation from her own life have led some critics to classify Plath as one of the "Confessional Poets" along with Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Others claim her as a precursor of more recent feminist writers. Certainly some of her poems and, more openly, her novel show an awareness of the complicated distribution of power between men and women. Her poetry seems also to reveal a concern with making the feminine role compatible with the demands of art. Lines such as "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children," from "The Munich Mannequins," would seem in context to indicate that she does value women's unique capacity for childbirth. Above all Plath is refreshing in her insistence in the subjectivity of her female protagonists. As Esther Greenwood, the heroine of The Bell Jar, announces, "The last thing I wanted was … to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted … to shoot off in all directions myself…." Although there may be much to learn about the pressures endured by women artists by studying Plath's life, many commentators hope that the fascination exerted by her death will not eclipse her poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 14, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)