Sylvia Plath: A Tormented Poet

Sylvia Plath expressed herself through heavy words and heavier actions. Living through an ever-changing society of the mid-20th century, she was constantly misunderstood and underappreciated throughout her short 30 years of being alive.

A Promising Beginning

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 27th, 1932, to an entomologist and professor father, Otto Plath, and an Austrian descent mother, Aurelia Schober Plath. Her brother Warren Plath was born less than three years later in April of 1935 as well. 

Tragedy struck Sylvia early at the age of eight when her father, Otto, passed away in 1940 due to untreated diabetes. Having grown Unitarian, she struggled a lot with her faith after her father’s passing, a struggle which would be present for the rest of her life. She later recalled her first nine years living with her parents as beautiful and obsolete. 

She was thought to have a very high IQ of 160. She then showed incredible promise by published a few poems in regional magazines, and in addition also winning an award at the age of 11 for her paintings. Clear signs of a very highly intuitive person with huge potential were present from Sylvia’s young age. However, her battles truly began once she started attending Smith College in 1950.  


Depression Rears Its Ugly Head

Having consistently excelled with her academic life at Smith College (MA) in the beginning, she subsequently started working at the Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. Having moved to NYC for the job, she lived there for only one month later stating that the experience was somewhat of a letdown. During that time, she admired and was inspired by fellow poet Dylan Thomas, who hung around similar circles. 

Her first suicide attempt came in 24th of August, 1953, by trying to overdose with her mother’s sleeping pills. Before this attempt, she was subjected to the infamous electroconvulsive therapy. After the attempt, she was taken into psychiatric care for the next six months. There she was subjected to even more ECT, making matters even worse in the long run. However at the time, Sylvia started feeling better enough for her to return to college. She graduated in June of 1955 with a Bachelor’s degree, and then received a full scholarship at Newnham College in England.

She met her future-husband Ted Hughes a year later in 1956. They were both writers and connected through their mutual aspirations. They got married that same year in London before Sylvia’s second year in Newnham. A year later in 1957 they had moved back to the US where Sylvia worked as a receptionist in MA General Hospital during the day and taking writing seminars at night. She began to take her writings much more seriously during this time, all the while learning to write through different perspectives. 

Frieda, their first daughter, was born in 1960 before Sylvia experienced a miscarriage for her second pregnancy, which devastated her a lot emotionally. Moreover in 1962, Sylvia and Ted Hughes divorced due to Ted cheating and being abusive. Most of her well-known poems were writing throughout this year. In 1963, her one and only novel, The Bell Jar, was published through which Sylvia explains her college experiences and her fight with depression in a very detailed fashion. 

After moving back to London and struggling to take care of her children on her own while also battling with depression, she attempted suicide a couple more times before actually “succeeding” in February of 1963. Before her death, she struggled a lot with insomnia, started losing weight, and tried anti-depressants to no avail. 


The Work in Detail

The aforementioned ‘The Bell Jar’ was her only novel. Published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, this was Sylvia’s way of expressing herself and her experiences in more detail than ever. Her inner struggles with depression and descending dark thoughts are all mentioned. You can clearly feel her mental health worsening as she goes through college while finding it almost too hard to keep those dark thoughts at bay.  The novel is semi-autobiographical with Plath changing the names of character and places where the events took place. Among the themes of mental health, The Bell Jar also contains themes of identity and finding your true self in a society that pushes you to fit in. 

Ariel’ was published originally in 1965 and it’s an incredible collection of Plath’s poetry. In the first version, Ted Hughes the ex-husband of Sylvia edited out some of the poems and added others, compiling a total of 43 poems. Whereas once the book was re-published in 2004, this version included 13 more poems that Sylvia intended to be on the book in the first place. Anybody who is trying to get to know Sylvia  Plath as a writer, as a human being with deep, real emotion capable of intriguing and fascinating thoughts, can read this book containing some of her best work. Included are heart-wrenching and great poems such as “Lady Lazarus”, “Tulips”, and “Daddy”. 

Additional poems, letters and other writings of Plath were published after her death. Some of those works include titles such as “Winter Trees” and “The Collected Poems”. Her mother, Aurelia, also published a lot of Sylvia’s letters with the title “Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963”. Lastly, Sylvia’s journals were published in 1982 under the title “The Journals of Sylvia Plath”. 


In Summation

To say that Sylvia Plath was simply a great poet is not doing enough justice to her incredible body of work and long withstanding influence. Every word holds so much power and behind every poem there seems to be a dark story filled with an ambience that stays with you after every read. An icon of feminism with her ground-breaking ideas, Plath means so much to so many people who struggle with mental health issues and feel mistreated by society. It’s unfortunate that Sylvia wasn’t born in the 21st century, as her genius may have been more accepted, she may have gotten the help she needed, and perhaps she could have grown old while publishing incredible work on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, ‘what ifs’ are interesting to think about, but the reality itself is not all bad either ultimately. The world still got to experience Sylvia Plath’s work and had the blessing to have an icon live among regular human beings, even if only for too short a time. 

Picture: Olga Popova /

If you’d like to read more about literature, read here.

A Reader’s Perspective: Interpreting “Kafka on the Shore” 


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