"Sylvia Plath is an interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic, by the college girl mentality" - Woody Allen in "Annie Hall"

Perhaps these same starry-eyed English majors have mistaken depression for something intense and sweet and feeling and Byronic--and not as something violent and obnoxious and bitchy and trying and exasperating.

Perhaps it is this and many other reasons that people don't realize that Sylvia Plath was a manic and depression is simply not a pretty thing.

The story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes would not be complete without the mention of Ted Hughes' Love Letters, the literary sensation in which the poet broke long silence and tells his side of the story, the final chapter of this modern trans-Atlantic love story.

Sylvia Plath

She described herself as "dangerously brainy." Sylvia was born on October 27, 1932 to Otto and Aurelia, who had been married since 1929. Sylvia's father knew five languages and had a doctorate degree from Harvard. He had sailed to America in 1901 from the Prussian town of Grabow in the Polish Corridor. He was a strong believer in Darwinism, which caused his family to strike his name from the family Bible. He also loved bumblebees and was considered to be a brilliant man. Sylvia was the center of her father's attention while her mother was absorbed with taking care of Warren, Sylvia's two and a half year younger brother, who was always sick. This caused Sylvia to be extremely jealous of her brother. Her father died after developing diabetes and had a leg amputated. Sylvia was only eight years old at the time.

Sylvia Plath's early writing reflects the Horatio Alger ethic; happiness is the right of everyone, to be achieved through hard work, success is the reward of work, and fame and money are the measure of success. She was thought to be very prude and smug as a child, the favorite of many of her relatives.

She loved the sea, but moved inland when she was ten years old. She was 5' 9" by the time she was 15, and kept journals constantly. She had mastered the art of achievement; even she thought of herself as super-normal.

By the time she attended Smith College, with scholarships of course, she already had an impressive list of publications. While she was at Smith, she wrote more than 400 poems. During the summer following her junior year at Smith, having returned from a stay in New York City where she had been a student ``guest editor'' at Mademoiselle Magazine, Sylvia nearly succeeded in killing herself by swallowing sleeping pills. After a period of recovery involving electroshock and psychotherapy Sylvia resumed her pursuit of academic and literary success, graduating from Smith summa cum laude in 1955 and winning a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge, England.

In 1956, Sylvia married Ted Hughes. Unfortunately, he ran off with another woman and Sylvia committed suicide on February 11, 1963, by inhaling gas from an oven. The woman her ex-husband had run off with later committed suicide as well, the exact same way as Sylvia had.

The Works of Sylvia Plath

" When you are insane, you are busy being insane - all the time... When I was crazy, that's all I was."

- Sylvia Plath on the supposed link between mental illness and creativity.

I found this somewhere about 10 years ago and I have no idea now where it came from. It is a useful quote though for anyone suffering from romantic illusions.

Swaying so slender/it seemed your long, perfect, American legs/simply went on up. That flaring hand, those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers…
And your eyes, squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds, incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears.. you meant to knock me out/with your vivacity
”. (excerpt from Ted HughesSt Botolph’s)

Sylvia’s lightened hair had been ‘carefully trained to dip with a precise and provocative flourish over her left eyebrow’ (’A Closer Look At Ariel’, 1974). It was this hair that hid the scar on her face, from one of her suicide attempts. Sylvia had a constant drive for perfection. This drive provoked the nickname "The High Priestess of Suffering" and dominated the rest of her life. Much of her anguish came from her misshapen relationship with her father. Other factors that influenced her works were her strained views of human sexuality, her sado-masochistic tendencies, self-hatred and her traditional upbringing. Sylvia was misogynist; subconsciously, she viewed femininity as sinful. In her play Three Women, the women recount their associated alienation and depression. This may also allude to the fact that Plath suffered post-partum depression. Her poem "Lesbos" clearly depicts the female gender as sinful and unwanted. She uses strong language, calling a young, schizophrenic girl a "bastard," while someone else suggests that the girl be drowned. Meanwhile, a baby boy is regarded a precious gem. Plath was fatally dependent on the men in her life. As much as men had caused her pain and anguish, it is suggested that she wanted to be one, that she hated the subordinancy associated with femininity.

Plath displays symptoms of the "Electra Complex." Just as Oedipus Rex was a mythical king of Thebes who killed his father and married his mother, Electra was a woman who plotted to murder her mother. Plath had a very bipolar relationship with her father, Otto. She was very close to him, and yet hated him viciously. When he died, eight year old Sylvia proclaimed, "I'll never speak to God again". The fact that he died when she was so young, before adolescent years when she would have instinctively separated her identity from being “Daddy’s daughter” to being “Sylvia”, meant that in her mind, he was still the god-like figure a father is to his small children. Following her first suicide attempt at the age of nineteen, she said, "He was an autocrat . . . I adored and despised him, and I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him." Plath's liberation came in her poem "Daddy," in which she compares herself to a Jew and her father to a Nazi, and a vampire.

Sylvia first saw her future husband when she arrived quite drunk to a party held to celebrate the launch of a Cambridge literary magazine. She spotted Ted Hughes, a "big, dark hunky boy", the only one huge enough for her, and wanted to know who he was at once. After meeting Hughes in person, she quoted one of his poems to him. He pulled her into a side room, and ripped her hairband and earrings off when she pulled away as he tried to kiss her. She then bit his cheek when he went to kiss her. Apparently Hughes was fiercely attractive, and later a friend warned her that Ted Hughes was "the biggest seducer in Cambridge."

They married, and Sylvia gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on April 1, 1960. That February, Sylvia had a miscarriage, an event that provoked the world renowned poem, "Parliament Hill Fields" and sent her on into a state of emotional volatility. Ted and Sylvia had a second child, Nicholas, in 1962 and the family relocated to an isolated farm. Feeling removed from the rest of the world, Sylvia wrote and cared for her children. In July of that same year, Sylvia discovered her husband was having an affair. They would separate in September and later divorce.

Sylvia reluctantly packed her bags and moved with her two children to an apartment in London. She did not hve much in the way of money or food, and she became ill that winter with what doctors referred to as an "extended flu." The difficulty in her life allowed Sylvia to write, and she did so at four o'clock in the morning until the children woke. “The Bell Jar” (largely autobiographical) was published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963.

Sylvia was depressed over the breakup of her marriage and lack of success. She penned her last works, which became her best, and were published three years after her successful death in a volume called “Ariel”.

Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time in 1952 by swallowing about forty sleeping pills. She had left a note that she was going for a long walk, and after being missing for two days, her mother heard groaning noises coming from the basement and she was rescued. She was then institutionalized and treated with insulin shock treatments, psychotherapy and electroshock. Sylvia continued to write during treatment, generating the creation of her second award winning short story, "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. It is said that Sylvia never wanted her suicide attempts to end up anything more than just attempts. This can be assumed after reading Ted Hughes’ poem, “Sam”, as well as her poem “Whiteness I Remember” which tell the story of a runaway horse that nearly killed her. It was seen as a miracle she didn’t die, and Hughes drew conjectures on what blind force it was that drove her to cling on to the horse for dear life, despite the violent and fatiguing ride. It is also thought that Sylvia’s final suicide attempt was simply a strategy to get her husband back.

In February of 1963 Plath awoke early and went to the kitchen to prepare a plate of cookies and two glasses of milk. She carried the tray to her children's room and sat it beside their bed while they were still asleep. She closed their bedroom door and stuffed towels in the crack of the door. She went back to the kitchen, opened the oven door, and turned it on. She laid a towel on the oven's door and wrapped her head in a towel, and then knelt to the floor, resting her head on the open oven door. Apparently her neighbour was supposed to let a lady, an au pair in that very morning, so it would seem Plath timed it so that she could be saved. However, the fumes from the oven were so strong that the neighbor had passed out in his bed. Plath's au pair came late that morning, and found the door locked. She smelled the gas fumes and called the police.

On Plath's headstone, Ted Hughes had inscribed the name "Sylvia Plath Hughes." Feminists who despised Hughes and placed blame for Plath’s death upon him, chiselled the name "Hughes" from the headstone. In 1988, after Hughes had replaced the stone for the fourth time, a local resident erected a simple cross from two sticks bound into a cross. On the cross, serving as a headstone, was written "Sylvia Plath."

Sylvia Plath was honored posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Interestingly, not only did Hughes’ new wife commit suicide in the exact same way as Plath, but A. Alvarez, a friend of the couple who wrote Plath’s memoirs, has since killed himelf as well.

A woman of many masks

She suffered from mental illness, severe PMS, and after several failed suicide attempts finally succeeded in killing herself at 30. But what does this really tell us about Sylvia? Putting aside the dramas of her life, you find an inspiring woman, filled with deep emotions (many of which weren't shared with anyone until after her death).

Born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, in 1932. Sylvia Plath's first poem was published when she was eight. Intelligent, extremely sensitive, and compelled toward perfection in every endeavor, Sylvia was on the surface the perfect daughter. She was popular in school, earned straight A's, and won many prizes.
The death of her father when she was ten rocked the foundations of Sylvias world, however she continued to achieve, and write. By the time she started at Smith College on a scholarship in 1950 she already had impressive list of publications. While at Smith Syliva wrote over four hundred poems.

One day her mother noticed healing scars on her legs. Sylvia said she just "wanted to see if I had the guts" and admitted that she wanted to die. She was immediately taken to see a psychiatrist. After several sessions with a psychiatrist, and a diagnosis of severe depression, Plath was prescribed what was thought at that time to be "the best therapy for emotional problems": electroshock therapy.

The death of her father in her childhood had a severe effect on Sylvia, and undoubtably was one of the primary factors leading to her depression. She writes about how his death affected her in the 1962 poem Daddy. "I was ten when they burried you. At 20 I tried to die And get back, back, back to you."

On August 24, 1952, Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time.When she was physically well enough, she was institutionalized at McClean Hospital's mental institution at Belmont. Sylvia was treated with insulin shock treatments, psychotherapy and electroshock. She continued to write during the course of the treatment, which seemed to be effective in lifting her ever-present depression. She later described her experience at McClean in an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963.

By January Sylvia was released from the hospital and returned to her studies at Smith, graduating with honors and winning a Fulbright scholorship to study at Cambridge, England.

In 1956 Sylvia married the English poet Ted Hughes, and in 1960, when she was 28, her first book, The Colossus, was published in England. The poems in this book, though formally precise and well written, only give glimpses of what was to come in the poems she would begin writing early in 1961. She and Hughes settled in an English country village, but less than two years after the birth of their first child the marriage broke apart.

The chilling winter of 1962-63, found Sylvia living in a small London flat. She now had two children, was ill with flu and low on money. The hardness of her life increased her need to write. She often worked between four and eight in the morning, before the children woke, sometimes finishing a poem a day.
In these last poems it is as if some deeper, powerful self has grabbed control, death is given a cruel physical allure and emotional pain becomes almost tangible. On the morning of February 11, 1963, Plath killed herself with cooking gas.

Two years after her death Ariel, a collection of some of her last poems, was published; this was followed by Crossing the Water and Winter Trees in 1971, and, in 1981, The Collected Poems appeared, edited by Ted Hughes. 'Poppies in July' was written in July of 1962.

All of Plath's work remains in print. You could walk into any bookshop around the world and find her poetry or a biography. Much of her writing has received critical response over the years, but the fact is Sylvia always saw life for what it was. Her writing reflects this, and so throws many traditional ideals out the window, along with more traditional writing styles.

By her own admission Plath was a woman of many masks, someone who felt it necessary to reveal only facets of herself in any given situation, professional or social. Nobody knew the true Sylvia Plath until after her death. It is only through her poetry and journals that aspects of her true self began to shine bitterly through the facade she created for herself.

Examining Plath's life allows readers to better understand her works. Much of the attitude and imagery in her fiction and poetry have their genesis in her life experiences. Sylvia wrote through the highs and lows of depression, trauma, and self motivated perfectionism. As a result her writing has opened doors to understanding mental illness.

Sylvia Plath's poetry reaches the far extremes of creative expression. Her poetry extends from the despairing, vengeful and destructive, to the tender, passionate, and pure. Her works have admired and inspired the world over, and continue to do so 39 years after her death. Only true poetic genius has such power to survive. Sylvia Plath - a woman of many masks, hiding a creative power which was truly extraordinary.

Originally written for Beatnik online poetry journal

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