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Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) - pseudonym Victoria Lucas

 

American writer whose best-known poems are noted for their personal imagery and intense focus. Sylvia Plath wrote only two books before her suicide at the age of 31. Her posthumous collection Ariel (1965) astohished the literary world with its power. It has become one of the best-selling volumes of poetry published in England and America in the 20th century. Plath was married to the poet Ted Hughes.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
(in 'Lady Lazarus,' Ariel, 1965)

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston. Her father Otto Emile Plath, born in East Prussia, was a professor of biology at Boston University, who had specialized in bees. During WWII, he was investigated over alleged "pro-German" sympathies. In the poem 'Daddy' Plath wrote: "I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo." Aurelia Schober, Plath's mother, was twenty years his junior; they met at Boston University, where he became her instructor in Middle High German. After the death of her husband in 1940, Aurelia worked at two jobs to support her children. She sold the house in Winthorp and moved with her family Wellesley.

At school Plath was a model student: she won scholarships and prizes. Plath's mother, pushing her to succeed, kept all of her awards and was very proud of them. To supplement the family income, Plath worked at menial part-time and summer jobs. To her brother she once said, "You know, as I do, and it is a frightening thing, that mother would actually kill herself for us. She is an abnormally altruistic person, and I have realized lately that we have to fight against her selflessnes as we would fight against a deadly desease."

Between 1950 and 1963 Plath wrote to her mother nearly a thousand letters. Letters Home (1975), edited by Aurelia, gives a portrait of a young woman, who is driven by high hopes alternating with moods of depression. Plath once said, "It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative -- which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great muscular owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching & constricting my heart."

Plath studied at Gamaliel Bradford Senior High School (now Wellesley High School) and at the Smith College from 1950 to 1955. Her first awarded story, 'Sunday at the Mintons,' was published in 1952 while she was at college in magazine Mademoiselle. In 1953 Plath worked on the college editorial board at the same magazine. She suffered a mental breakdown which led to a suicide attempt. Plath was admitted to McClean Hospital where she was given the electro-convulsive treatment.

Later on she described this period of her live in The Bell Jar (1963), an autobiographical novel, which appeared under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, a month before her death. With J.D. Salinger's The Cather in the Rye it is recognized as a classic of adolescent angst. The novel takes place in New York, at the height of the Cold War, during the hot summer in which the Rosenbergs were sent to the electric chair, convicted of spying for the Soviets. Against this background Plath sets the story of the breakdown and near-death of her heroine. In the center of the novel is the image the descending bell jar, the suffocating, airless enclosure. 

After winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College, Cambridge (England). She met there in 1956 the poet Ted Hughes, "... big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me,'' whom she married next year. Hughes's first impression was "American legs / Simply went on up. That flaring hand, / Those long, balletic, monkey - / elegant fingers. / And the face -- a tight ball of joy." Their first encounter happened at a student party, where she bit Hughes on the cheek, really hard. It set the tone to their tumultuous relationship. Plath decided to be a good wife, but Hughes was not the ideal husband she imagined: he was moody, penchant for nosepicking, and dressed slovenly. Also Plath's suspicions of Hughes's infidelity burdened her.

Plath's early poetry was based on then current styles of refined and ironic verse. Under the influence of her husband and the work of Dylan Thomas and Gerald Manley Hopkins, she developed with great force her talents. In 1957 Plath returned to the U.S., where she worked as a teacher of literature at the Smith College. From 1958 to 1959 she was employed as a clerk in Boston. At Robert Lowell's course she studied poetry. Plath moved again to England in 1959. Her first child, Frieda Rebecca, was born in 1960 and second, Nicholas Farrar, in 1962. On the next year she published the aggressive 'Lady Lazarus' and the notorious 'Daddy', in which Plath explored the boundaries of her introspection.

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

(in 'Daddy', 1966)

When Ted Hughes abandoned her for an another woman, Assia Gutmann Wevill, the wife of the Canadian poet David Wevill, fantasies of self-destruction took over of Plath's resolution. Wevill was German-born, sophisticated woman, with film-star looks. Near the end of her life, Plath burned hundreds of pages of a work in progress. In one of her final poems she wrote: ''Dying / is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.'' (in 'Lady Lazarus') In a letter to her mother Plath complained that Hughes had left her in poverty, but according to Elaine Feinstein, whose well-balanced on Hughes appeared in 2001, he gave her all their joint savings. The children remained under Plath's care and she continued working at home.

Plath died in London on February 11, 1963; she committed suicide. Before he laying her head into the gas oven early in the morning, she prepared breakfast for her children, took it upstairs and set near their beds. Her gravestone is in Yorkshire. Hughes's name was chipped off her tombstone, and his poetry readings were disrupted by shouts of "murderer." Tragically, Assia Wevill killed herself in the same way as Plath – by gas. She also killed their daughter, Shura, she had with Hughes.

During her career Plath was loosely linked to the confessional poets, a term used to describe such writers as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton (1928-74, committed suicide), and John Berryman. Her literary reputation rests mainly on her carefully crafted pieces of poetry, particularly the verse that she composed in the months leading up to her death. ElizabethHardwick, who was then married to Lowell, said of Plath that at the end, she is "both heroine and author: when the curtain goes down, it is her own dead body there on the stage, sacrified to her own plot." Many feminist readers held Hughes responsible for her death, but the precise "reason" for her suicide has been difficult to determine.

A deeply honest writer, Plath's ceaseless self-scrutiny has given an unique point of view to psychological disorder and fuelled debates about the psychodynamics of female creativity. In this discourse, Ted Hughes has become the villain, whom Robin Morgan accused in 1972 in a poem of killing Plath. "I accuse / Ted Hughes", she stated in 'The Arraignment'. However, Janet Malcolm has defended Hughes in her book The Silent Woman (1994), in which she sees Plath's literary spouse a Prometheus figure who has to "watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers and newspaper journalists."

Plath's Collected Poems (1981), assembled and edited by Ted Hughes, won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Hughes, who explained that he wanted to spare the children further distress, published in 1982 a heavily edited version of her journals. Feminist critics have suspected that he tried to protect himself. But when Karen V. Kukil assembled the unabridged journals, critics doubted the ethics of dutifully revealing a Plath's unrevised work with grammatical errors and misspellings. In addition to her diary, where Plath revealed the feelings of hatred toward her mother, Aurelia was portrated in The Bell Jar. "I had always been my father's favorite, and it seemed fitting that I should take on a mourning my mother never bothered with," the heroine Esther Greenwood says after visiting her father's grave. In Letters Home Aurelia revealed that for the sake of her children she withold her tears until she was alone in bed at night. For a period, she blocked the publication of the book in the United States due to its unkind portraits and for fear of libel. It finally appeared in 1971.

For further reading: The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. C. Newman (1970): Protean Poet by M.L. Broe (1980); Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage by Linda Wagner-Martin (1988); Sylvia Plath by Susan Bassnett (1897); Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson (1989); The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman (1991); Rough Magic by Paul Alexander (1991); The Haunting of Sylvia Plath by Jacqueline Rose (1991); The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm (1994); Ariel's Gift by Erica Wagner (2000); Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Connie Ann Kirk (2004); Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev (2006); The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath by Jo Gill (2008). Note: Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes, who become a painter, published in 1999 a collection of poems, entitled Wooroloo. She has also designed the cover for Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes's book about himself and Plath. Colossus: first published by Methuen Press in England, and then on May 14, 1962, by Alfred A. Knopf in the United States. At its appearance it went unnoticed. Compared to Ariel, which came out in 1965, Colossus was more formalized.

Selected works:

  • A Winter Ship, 1960 (published anonymously)
  • The Colossus and Other Poems, 1960
  • The Bell Jar: A Novel, 1961
    - Lasikellon alla (suom. Mirja Rutanen, 1975)
  • American Poetry Now: A Selection of the Best Poems by Modern American Writers, 1961 (ed.)
  • Ariel, 1965
    - Ariel (suom. Kirsti Simonsuuri, 1983)
  • Uncollected Poems, 1965
  • Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices, 1968 (BBC verse drama; with an introductory note by Douglas Cleverdon)
  • Million Dollar Month, 1971
  • Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems, 1971
  • Crystal Gazer and Other Poems, 1971
  • Fiesta Melons, 1971 (introduction by Ted Hughes)
  • Lyonesse: Poems, 1971
  • Winter Trees, 1971 (includes the radio play Three Women)
  • Pursuit, 1973 (with an etching & drawing by Leonard Baskin)
  • Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, 1975 (ed. Aurelia Schober Plath)
  • The Bed Book, 1976 (UK ed: illustrated by Quentin Blake; US ed.: pictures by Emily Arnold McCully)
    - Sänkyjen kirja (suom. Hannu Kankaanpää, 1994)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: And Other Prose Writings, 1977 (introduction by Ted Hughes)
  • Dialogue over a Ouija board: A Verse Dialogue, 1981 (with a drawing by Leonard Baskin)
  • A Day in June: An Uncollected Short Story, 1981
  • The Collected Poems, 1981 (ed. Ted Hughes; posthumous Pulitzer Prize)
    - Sanatuojat (suom. Marja-Leena Mikkola, 1987)
  • The Green Rock, 1982
  • The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982 (ed. F. McCullough)
  • Sylvia Plath's Selected Poems, 1985 (ed. Ted Hughes)
  • Journals 1950-62, 1982 (introduction by Frances McCullough, foreword by Ted Hughes; the last journal which ended in Jan. 1963, was distroyed by Hughes, one journal is missing from the Neilson Library at Smith's College)
    - Sylvia Plathin päiväkirjat (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1997)
  • Above the Oxbow: Selected Writings, 1985 (with original wood engravings by Barry Moser)
  • The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels, 1989
  • The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit, 1996 (illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner)
    - Salaperäinen puku (suom. Hannu Kankaanpää, 1996)
  • Plath: Poems, 1998 (selected by Diane Wood Middlebrook)
  • The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962, 2000 (ed. Karen V. Kukil)
  • Ariel: The Restored Edition, 2004 (foreword by Frieda Hughes)


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