The tragic story behind Sylvia Plath’s writing

Despite her premature death, Sylvia Plath is regarded as one of the most gifted literary talents of the 20th century. Nige Tassell asks what drove the American poet to write about such deep personal pain

Sylvia Plath seated in front of a bookshelf.

“What horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising and fading out into an indifferent middle-age.”

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The poet, novelist and short-story writer Sylvia Plath was far more than brilliantly promising, but tragically didn’t get the opportunity to fade out into indifference, even if she had wanted to. The best-known of the so-called ‘confessional poets’ – a loose fellowship of writers who drew from deep personal experience for their work and whose number included Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton – Plath took her own life at the shockingly young age of 30.

Who was Sylvia Plath?

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932, Plath’s talents as a writer revealed themselves at an early age and she became a highly accomplished student after enrolling at Smith College in 1950. However, Plath was plagued by severe depression and undertook electroconvulsive treatment. After one such treatment, she made her first suicide attempt in 1953, taking an overdose in a crawl space underneath her mother’s home.

After moving to England on a Fulbright scholarship, Plath met the Yorkshire-born poet Ted Hughes and the couple were married at the end of her first year at Newnham College, Cambridge (“it is as if he is the perfect male counterpart to my own self”). They moved to the US a year later. After a spell teaching back at Smith College, Plath took a job as a secretary at a psychiatric unit, giving her more time to write. In the evenings, she’d attend seminars hosted by Lowell, at which he and Sexton urged Plath to write in a more confessional style.

Nancy Hunter Steiner, a roommate of Plath’s at a Harvard summer school, later wrote of the impact of her friend’s poetry. “In a sense, she was the victim of an obsessive talent that sent her out into the world to gather sensations and seek wounds that could provide creative inspiration. Having acquired the wounds, she stuck her fingers into them, turning the pain and blood into the lines of highly subjective poetry that both repel and fascinate the reader.” Plath herself saw her work as “a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience”. And married life would be a chaotic experience.

By 1960, Plath and Hughes were back in England, settling in London’s leafy Primrose Hill. It would prove to be a significant year. In April, Plath gave birth to their daughter Frieda; in October, her first poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in the US. It would be the only collection published in Plath’s lifetime, but the praise for it was largely posthumous. Indeed, when Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was published a month before her death (under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’), it too was largely greeted with critical indifference.

Sylvia Plath’s death

By then, Plath and Hughes – now also the parents of a son, Nicholas – had moved to rural Devon, letting their London flat to another couple, Assia and David Wevill. In July 1962, shortly after attempting suicide by driving her car into a river, Plath discovered that her husband and Assia Wevill were having an affair. Plath and Hughes separated within a couple of months, with Hughes returning to London.

Despite being left in sole control of two young children, Plath enjoyed a burst of creativity, with recent events offering plenty of inspiration. The bitter winter of 1962-63 was miserable, and Plath and the children returned to London before Christmas. Fewer than two months later, though, a further attempt at taking her life would prove to be her last. She was found dead in the kitchen of the flat, having inhaled carbon monoxide after putting her head in the oven.

With the couple still married at the time of her death, Hughes inherited Plath’s estate. He admitted destroying the last volume of her journal, much to the chagrin of Plath’s disciples. And it would be more than three decades later, via his poetry collection Birthday Letters, that he would finally publicly explore their relationship. One critic described the collection as “an apologist diatribe concealed in honey”.

Posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982, Plath was also the subject of the 2003 biopic Sylvia. The free and easy way that the filmmakers exhumed her story was condemned by Plath’s daughter Frieda. In a poem entitled My Mother, Frieda wrote:

Now they want to make a film

For anyone lacking the ability

To imagine the body, head in oven,

Orphaning children. Then

It can be rewound

So they can watch her die

Right from the beginning again.

Even in death, there was little peace around Plath’s legacy. “Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated,” she once confided to her journal. “But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.” Sylvia Plath never made it home.

Nige Tassell is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed