Sylvia Plath, an author and poet was critically acclaimed and appreciated for her work. She died at the age of 30, after putting her head in an oven. Many students are aware of this fact considering her poems are studied as a part of syllabus in school. But as a literature student, it becomes imperative to learn more about her life as a writer and how she wrote the way she did, and contemplate as to where she found the muse for her writing, when in reality her head was filled with despair and darkness. ‘Tragic Death of Young Authoress’ the headline blared, on 12 February 1963, a day after her death. But this was not her first attempt at ending her own life. Sylvia was depressed most of her adult life and is said to have attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills and crawling under her house in 1953.
She later wrote that she ‘blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion’. She was under medical treatment in the psychiatric unit for around 6 months. In 1962, she was in a car accident, which is also said to be not an accident but a planned action, yet again, as an attempt to commit suicide. Soon after this, she found that her husband was having an affair which led to her further depression and severe trauma. In a campaign titled ‘Overlooked’ in 2018, The New York Times paid tribute to many remarkable people whose death had not been given homage to, the way their life and work had truly deserved it. They wrote, ‘Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now, we’re adding the stories of other remarkable people’.
One of them was Sylvia Plath. In the article written by Anemona Hartocollis for this, she described Sylvia Plath to be ‘a postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair’. The following excerpt from the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Plath is often recounted while recollecting her. This poem is from her collection titled ‘Collected Poems’ and it was first published in 1960:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on in 1932, Plath was the daughter to Otto Plath, a college professor, and Aurelia Schober. She published her first poem in the Boston Herald’s children’s section. She was an exemplary student and won many accolades, besides publishing her poems in regional magazines and newspapers. She had an IQ of around 160. After her father’s death when she was 8, she remained ambivalent about religion throughout her life. She studied at Smith College, majoring in English and there too, she showcased extraordinary capability as a writer. She was an ‘A’ grade student throughout who won many awards, even while she was battling depression in intervals during her college years. It was in her undergraduate years that she took to writing a lot.
She won a summer guest editor position at the young women’s magazine Mademoiselle and upon her graduation in 1955, she won the Glascock Prize for the poem ‘Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea’. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956. Though a happy relationship at the start, it led to a rocky end after her learning about his affair. After that she moved to London with her two children in December 1962. Her depression had returned at this point but it was not stronger than her will to write, and write wonderfully at that matter. In her journals, one finds an insight into her thought process and her perspective on writing and why she actually wrote. In two entries from May 1952 and January 1953, Plath states, ‘The fact remains that writing is a way of life to me…But to write, you have to live, don’t you’.
Her words clearly depict how passionate she was about writing and also the fact that it gave her hope. Writing gave her the hope to keep going despite her circumstances and the red signals that her mind was giving her. After the failure of her marriage, she wrote ‘All I need to do is work, break open the deep mines of experience and imagination’. Clearly sticking to her own words, she worked furiously, though clinically depressed, and completed the rest of her poetry collection, which was published posthumously in 1965, titled ‘Collected Poems’ by Ted Hughes. This work was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest literary honors. She was the first poet to receive this Prize posthumously. Ted Hughes was the reason of Plath’s fame even after her death as he had personally edited and published a lot of her work posthumously.
But it is also ironical that many fellow writers state that he was the cause of her depression, as he was abusive in their relationship. Robin Morgan, in one of her poems titled ‘Arraignment’ clearly and bravely states that Plath’s death was indeed caused by abuse committed by Hughes in their relationship, which caused the mental turmoil that Plath faced all alone. Though as readers, most of us might be unaware of the mental condition and depression Sylvia Plath had to go through when writing her extraordinary work, it is important that we at least pay her tribute for the art form that she lived for, i.e. writing and literature, be it prose or poetry, and not remember her just as the poet who killed herself by putting her head in the oven. Plath’s gravestone bears inscription that Hughes chose for her ‘even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted’.
Picture Credits : theatlantic.com