Sylvia Plath

Delta Winds cover 2006Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Sylvia Plath

Sara McDougall

I came to Sylvia Plath's work like most people do, through her fictionalized autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. As an adolescent girl, I identified with Esther Greenwood's sense of being lost and trapped under the distorting "bell jar" of mental illness and suicidal thought (264).

However, it soon became evident to me that it was unfair to judge Sylvia Plath as an author based on the things she considered unworthy of publication. Her real art was her poetry, which is written (and read on recordings of the poet) in such a manner as to bring the author's unique humor and personality to light.

People are so often caught up in the tragic romance of her death and the dissolution of her marriage that they bypass the immensity of her poetic gift. Plath's daughter, Frieda Hughes, in a poem entitled "Readers," published in Britain's The Guardian speaks of the phenomenon of Plath-fandom: "They scooped out her eyes to see how she saw, /And bit away her tongue in tiny mouthfuls/ To speak with her voice." Instead of holding Sylvia Plath up as modern poetic martyr or symbol of literary feminism, appropriating her for one's own use, one ought to leave her family and psychological life be and acknowledge Plath for the parts of her life she actively created and chose while living to make public. Her poetry speaks with a vibrancy and clarity that is at once thoroughly modern and ancient, and its beauty is what she should be remembered for.

Sylvia Plath, like so many other gods and goddesses of American literature, was born in New England to intellectual parents, both of whom were teachers. Sylvia Plath came into the world on October 27, 1932 to Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober Plath. Two years later the couple gave birth to a son named Warren. Sylvia was by all accounts a very bright, happy and creative child. She adored and was adored by her parents and grandparents, and lived in a very supportive, happy extended family home for the first eight years of her life (Schober Plath 18). The Plath children were read to often, from diverse material, and they often created their own stories.

When Sylvia was eight years old, her father died after a long illness caused by severe complications from diabetes. The death hit Plath very hard, and for the rest of her life, she struggled with her unfinished relationship with her father. Many of her poems and journals make mention of bees; her father was a distinguished entymologist who specialized in the study of bees. As a student, Sylvia Plath was regarded as a very intelligent, dedicated girl. She began writing poetry early, and some of her poetic efforts, as well as her drawings, were published. In 1950, she began the fall term at Smith College in Massachusetts on the scholarship endowed by the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, who later became a close friend of the poet.

For two years, Plath was a diligent student and writer, serving on the editorial board of The Smith Review and getting her poems published in popular magazines (Ames 250). After winning a vast number of prizes the previous year for her writing, in the summer of 1952 Sylvia Plath was chosen as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine and traveled to New York to work a month, (the events fictionalized in the beginning of her novel The Bell Jar). This month also signified the poet's first serious breakdown and the beginning of six months of depression as well as a suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization.

Following this protracted episode, Plath returned to Smith College to finish her degree. After graduating in 1955, Plath moved to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. In England, she met and fell in love with the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, Ted Hughes. The two were married in June of 1956. The poets lived in England for a year following their wedding and then moved to Massachusetts where Plath taught at her alma mater and tried, though in vain, to publish her work (Ames 256).

The Hugheses moved back to England in the winter of 1959 and welcomed their first child, a daughter named Frieda, in the spring of 1960. Plath's first collection of poetry, titled The Colossus and Other Poems was published finally in that same year. The poet also applied for and was awarded a Eugene F. Saxton fellowship. In the winter of 1962, the Hughes' second child, a boy named Nicholas, was born. During that time, Plath was writing poems every day and working on the manuscript of what would become The Bell Jar. Later in that year, Plath and husband Hughes separated, and Plath threw herself into writing the Ariel poems in the early hours of the morning before her children woke up. In 1963, Plath published her novel in Britain under a pseudonym to protect her family and friends back in the States.

Beaten down by a particularly tough bout of influenza and plagued by the depression she had fought off for the entirety of her adult life, Plath committed suicide in the winter of 1963. Her last and most famous collection of brilliant poems, called Ariel after the poet's horse, was published in 1965.

Though Plath's life work is often overshadowed by the infamy of her personal affairs, it stands as an impressive collection both in content and quantity. The Collected Poems boasts 274 works, to say nothing of her extensive journals and other prose. The 1960 poem "Candles," from The Collected Poems imagines the ordinary household objects of the title to be relics of another era, far removed from the poet's own. Plath personifies these wax beings, giving them "fingers [...] the bodies of saints" (148). She also describes them as "Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry" (149). The poet seems to have viewed the candles as ambassadors of a purer time and place, and took their descent into quaint old-fashionedness as a sign of her own impending age-induced obscurity. She mentions that the candles "Drag up false, Edwardian sentiments" and apparently images as well; she imparts views of her grandparents in Europe during the time of the "kindly" candles (149). Her idea of the candles having thoughts and souls inside their "milky" bodies is beautiful, as is her notion of the selective light which candles give being gentle and kind to even those less than beautiful. The idea recalls the childhood fantasy of one's toys being capable of thought and emotion and having affection for their owners.

The 1959 poem "Mushrooms" takes that theme of personification a bit farther, speaking in the "perfectly voiceless" voices of various fungi. The poet speaks of the dual nature of the fungus. Although the mushrooms are very quiet, "Bland mannered, asking little or nothing," they are often dangerous, poisonous, the bane of gardeners and people with children or pets that will eat any and everything. Their "soft fists insist on [...] paving. Our hammers, our rams [...] widen the crannies, / shoulder through holes" (139). Because of their quiet insistence, "We shall by morning inherit the earth. / Our foot's in the door" (140). The idea of quiet insistence winning the inheritance of the earth is both heartening and frightening. If one assumes that these mushrooms (and therefore everything which they can possibly represent) are benign, even goodly, then the concept of the inheritance of the meek is wonderful. It is the righteous being rewarded, goodness fought for and preserved. However, because Plath's poem remains ambiguous throughout, the reader has no way of knowing the motive of the mushrooms. Do they seek only to propagate their species, or to remove all others from their path? And because they are so quiet, who would hear them creeping as they infiltrated like a cancer, bringing their sinister rule over a paralyzed victim? They are, after all, mold.

Many of Sylvia Plath's poems center around bees. Her father kept bees during the poet's childhood. Throughout her life, and certainly her writing, bees were representative of her father, Otto Plath, and Sylvia Plath later kept bees of her own while in England. Her 1959 poem "The Beekeeper's Daughter" uses vivid sensory images to convey the memories of her father tending his colonies of bees in the family garden. She describes her father as "Hieratical in [his] frock coat, maestro of the bees,"betraying the place he had held in her heart since his death. The final line, "The queen bee marries the winter of your year," is enigmatic. Did she mean to make comment on her father's devotion to his bees (instead of her), or was she simply tying the harvesting of honey to the season (118)?

From the 3rd of October 1962 to the 9th of that same month, Plath wrote a series of five poems cataloging her own experiences with tending a hive. The first, "The Bee Meeting," tells of attending a meeting in town to purchase a bee colony. The way she describes all the town characters at first appears to be the personification of the bees in a hive, swarming about, chattering, tending to one another. When Plath gets outfitted with protective gear, she feels that "they are making me one of them" (211). The poet evidently found the event somewhat traumatic; the harassment of the queen, the smells and sounds made her sick, left her feeling cold. The next poem, "The Arrival of the Bee Box," was written the next day, when her bees were delivered. Plath again finds the bees disconcerting:

It is like a Roman mob,
Small taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to the furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
[...] The box is only temporary. (213)

In the third poem, "Stings," Plath identifies with the bees. "I stand in a column of winged, unmiraculous women, / honey drudgers. / I am no drudge [...] I have a self to recover, a queen" (215). In imagining that she is recovering herself, Plath delves into the project with greater ardor, protecting herself from those that would harm her, becoming strong as the great red queen with "wings of glass." Poem four, "The Swarm," likens a loose swarm of bees to an army during war. Mentions of "Napoleon," "the furnace of greed," and "Russia, Poland and Germany" strike home the power and mindless destructiveness the bees are capable of: a large black army, flying heavy, stinging and killing without restraint. She remarks that "It seems bees have a notion of honor, / A black intractable mind. / Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything" (217). The final poem in this bee series is "Wintering" in which the poet has harvested her honey, and the bees are surviving through the season on Tate & Lyle table syrup. She observes that the bees "have got rid of the men [...] Winter is for women" (219). Perhaps this was a commentary on her own difficult experiences; it seems as though her logic was that women could "winter" better than men because the cold didn't alter their traditional socially-defined domestic roles much, being already confined to their spheres.

"Lady Lazarus" appeared in Sylvia Plath's most famous collection of poetry, Ariel. The poem tells the story of Plath's failed suicide attempts, and how she came back from each, like the biblical Lazarus. She states, "The second time I meant / To last it out and not come back at all. / I rocked shut / As a seashell" (245). And yet she came back, preserved by her family and by something in her body or mind that would not yet let her loose. Judging these stanzas, many people viewed her survival as miraculous, and took to viewing her like a circus attraction. Her use of German and an angry tone indicates that perhaps she was addressing this work to the specter of her father held in her head. The poem's last lines liken the poet to another mythological figure, the phoenix, who burns himself up only to rise anew. "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air" (247).

Plath's word choices often require a clipped, formal diction of the reader, dredging up the poet's own old-fashioned New England accent, cool and reserved until the tension of the poem breaks and any given reader must shout the words ferociously to fully impress upon the listening public their proper meaning. Her poems range from torrents of madness like the aforementioned "Lady Lazarus" (245) in which she bawls out the men in her life who have wounded her to sweet, silly praises and lullabies, like the poem "You're," an ode to her unborn daughter Frieda (141).

Sylvia Plath's poems stand the test of time, even with fickle American audiences, because the poet was entertaining, sarcastic, and above all true. Even if her pieces cannot be interpreted as the events of her life verbatim or at all, they are true in the sense that they relate to the truth of human experience and are bound to hold grains of truth for several people who read them regardless of their individual lives.

Works Cited

Ames, Lois. Afterword. The Bell Jar. By Sylvia Plath. 1971. New York: Perennial Classics, 1999.

Hughes, Frieda. "Readers." The Guardian. 8 Nov. 1997.

Plath, Aurelia Schober. Foreword. Letters Home. By Sylvia Plath. Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1981. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.