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Plath, Sylvia

Sylvia Plath used poetry to pluck inspiration from her depression, and through that she gained enough strength to create powerful, candid pieces of work. To read her work is to identify the loneliness and isolation of a writer; her poetry is never sugar-coated and is, most of the time, belligerently negative. However, there is often a subtle playfulness that counterpoints the pessimism. As a poet she was self-revealing and expressed her feelings the only way she knew how, through words, and often her words were her only solace from the wavering melancholy of being a perfectionist, and often expecting far too much of herself. Growing up in an era where women, exceptional or not, were expected to stay at home, she became aware of the limitations that were imposed on women and often found herself rebelling against them. Through this, not only is she an inspiration for anyone who loves the craft of writing, she is also a testament to the fact that women could not only display a traditional approach to family values but also be individual through creativity. She has been pegged with being an anguished, feminist writer but she was also a social critic, representing a group of writers who had a profound impact on informing social change in mental health care. The impact of her life and death was so potent that she has even inspired the study of mental illness. James C Kaufmann, a psychologist, coined the term the ‘Sylvia Plath effect’ in 2001, to refer to the occurrence of mental illness within creative minds. Plath’s perfectionist attitude to her work and her expansion of the confessional style of poetry has seen her become a major part of American literature, but like many others before her, the triumph and reputation would only be granted posthumously.
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11th October 1932

Sylvia Plath was born to Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober in Boston, Massachusetts

Sylvia’s father, Otto Plath, was a German born entomologist and biology professor at Boston University. Aurelia Schober, her mother, was approximately twenty years younger than her husband; they had met at Boston University where Otto was professor and she was studying towards her Master’s Degree in teaching.

Read more about Sylvia Plath's birthplace

27th April 1935

Plath’s brother, Warren, was born in Boston, Massachusetts


The family moved to 92 Johnson Avenue in Winthrop, just east of Boston

Otto, still teaching at Boston University, had to commute using a boat, a bus and a trolley to get to work from Winthrop. The family home was closer to the sea now and Plath became familiar with its beauty and tranquillity but also its ferocity. The change of scenery was certainly an influence on the young writer.
5th November 1940

Otto Plath died in Winthrop, Massachusetts

Otto’s health began to diminish shortly after the birth of Warren, mistaking his illness for lung cancer when it was diabetes mellitus, at the time a notably curable disease. Convinced it was lung cancer, he didn’t seek treatment until it had progressed too far. His death, shortly after Plath’s eighth birthday, left Aurelia with the strain of bringing two children up alone, whom she supplemented by working two jobs concurrently. Otto’s death made Plath aware of mortality at an early age and gnawed underneath the surface of her apparent flawlessness. Loss and depression would prove to become consistent motifs within her future body of work.
10th August 1941

Plath’s first poem was published in the Boston Herald in Boston, Massachusetts

Plath was a model student at the Winthrop public school, excelling particularly in English and creative writing. She gave the appearance of a well-adjusted child and was only eight and a half when her first poem was published. The poem was an early indication of the clear and concise writing style that was rapidly developing.

Aurelia moved the family to Wellesley, Massachusetts

Aurelia, finding a job as a teacher, purchased a house in the middle-class community of Wellesley. This would be Plath’s home until she left for college.

Plath was granted a scholarship to study at Smith College, a distinguished all girls’ school in Northampton, Massachusetts

Once at Smith, Plath began a correspondence with Olive Higgins Prouty, a famous author, which would last the rest of her life. Plath was writing measured poems, emulating Dylan Thomas and W H Auden among several others.

Read more about Plath on the Smith College website

11th August 1950

Plath’s first story, 'And Summer Will Not Come Again', was published in Seventeen and the poem 'Bitter Strawberries' appears in the Christian Science Monitor

Throughout 1950 and 1951, Plath was sending her work out regularly and often being rejected. She did receive some success, publishing in national periodicals and writing for the Springfield Union as their Smith College correspondent.
August 1952

Plath won a fiction contest held by the New York based publication Mademoiselle

Plath’s short story 'Sunday at the Mintons' won first prize in the contest and granted her a Guest Editorship at Mademoiselle.

Find out more about Mademoiselle magazine

June 1953

Plath began her Guest Editorship at Mademoiselle in New York

Plath returned from New York mentally exhausted. Returning home she hoped to be admitted into the Harvard summer school for writing. When she received word she had not been accepted, she entered a period where she could not read, write or sleep. Plath felt despondent and fell into the void of depression.
24 August 1953

Aurelia reported that her daughter had gone missing from the family home in Wellesley, Massachusetts

Aurelia found a note saying 'Have gone for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow.' Her daughter had taken a blanket, a glass of water and a bottle of sleeping pills to the cellar. She crept into the crawl space underneath the porch, swallowed the pills and fell unconscious. Aurelia alerted the police within hours of finding the note and an exhaustive search was carried out by the police, boy scouts and neighbours.
26 August 1953

After a two-day search, Plath was found in the crawl space underneath her home with eight sleeping pills still in the bottle

Plath was treated at McLean Hospital in Belmont. Her friend and Smith benefactress, Olive Higgins Prouty, was on hand to help her through this period. Against all odds, Plath pulled through and recovered enough to be able to return to Smith for the 1954 Spring semester.

Plath was readmitted to Smith College for the spring semester in Northampton, Massachusetts

Back at Smith, Plath continued where she left off, producing some excellent work in spite of the breakdown. Later in the year she studied at Harvard summer school, living with Nancy Hunter-Steiner. She also met her future lover, Richard Sassoon.
June 1955

Plath graduated from Smith College and won a Fulbright scholarship to study literature at Cambridge in Northampton, Massachusetts

Before setting off to England, Plath stayed at the family home after her graduation. During this time she was romantically linked with several men including Richard Sassoon, Gordon Lameyer and an editor named Peter Davison.
September 1955

Plath arrived in Cambridge, United Kingdom

Plath spent her first ten days in London, shopping and sightseeing. At first she was overwhelmed by Cambridge, but quickly adapted. She maintained relations with Richard Sassoon, travelling to Europe with him during the Winter, only for Sassoon to write to her shortly after, mentioning that he would contact her when he felt ready.

Read more about Plath on the Newnham College website

February 1956

Plath met Ted Hughes in Cambridge

After reading Hughes’s poetry in a Cambridge publication St Botolph’s Review, Plath was compelled to attend a party celebrating the publication of the literary review. Plath met Hughes and referred to him as a 'big, dark hunky boy, the only one ... huge enough for me.' Plath was obsessed with him and composed the poem 'Pursuit' a few days later, in which a woman is stalked by a panther. By the time a couple of months had passed, the couple were already discussing marriage.
16 June 1956

Plath and Hughes married in Bloomsbury, London

The couple decided to get married in secret, so that it would not jeopardize Plath’s fellowship grant. They were married in the Church of Saint George in London, whilst her Mother was visiting, and the newlyweds spent their honeymoon travelling Europe.
February 1957

Hughes’ book The Hawk In The Rain won the prestigious first-book award and was published in America and later, England

With The Hawk In The Rain developing critical acclaim, for the first time Plath was jealous of her husband’s success. Their marriage started to show some strain as Plath confronted Hughes for spending time with younger women. Friction and arguments began to consume their marriage, yet they spent the summer travelling around America and stayed at Plath’s Aunt Frieda’s house in California.
December 1959

Plath was confirmed pregnant and moved back to London, England

As soon as Plath’s suspicions were confirmed, the couple moved back to England to stay with Hughes’ family.
February 1960

The couple moved into a London flat and Plath signed a contract with British publisher Heinemann for the publication of her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems

The publication of Plath’s first book helped her deal with the jealousy she felt with her husband’s success with The Hawk In The Rain. Reviews were good yet few and far between.
1 April 1960

Plath gave birth to her first child, Frieda, in Heptonstall

Despite enduring a difficult labour, Plath was highly prolific in 1960 in regards to her poetry. The experience of being hospitalised inspired her to create many poems such as In Plaster and Tulips. This surge of inspiration also encouraged her to begin drafting ideas for her novel, The Bell Jar.

Read more about Plath's life here

March 1961

Plath begins to write her novel, The Bell Jar in London

1961 saw Plath write countless poems in a fruitful and confident manner as well as what would be her seminal novel, The Bell Jar. The year was inspirational for her craft but not for her marriage; the couple had taken a holiday to France in July which was tainted by friction and arguments
17 January 1962

Plath and Hughes had their second child, Nicholas, in London

Plath was distressed that Hughes seemed disappointed that his second child was a boy. During the early months of the child’s life, Hughes appeared distant and openly flirted with Assia Wevill, one half of a couple who were subletting their London apartment.
July 1962

Plath’s suspicions that Hughes was being unfaithful were confirmed

Returning to her home with her mother, Plath overheard a phone conversation Hughes was having with Assia. The phone call explained Hughes’ increasingly odd behaviour and his frequent trips away from home.
September 1962

Plath and Hughes went on holiday to Ireland in an attempt to reconcile their marriage

The trip ended dreadfully when Hughes decided to pack up and leave three days early. He continued to see Assia and Plath returned alone to Devon. Later in the month they decided for legal separation, though Plath’s friends and family were more in favour of a divorce.
December 1962

Plath and the children moved into a London flat that was previously rented by W B Yeats

The ordeal of securing the flat saw a less than productive month for Plath’s craft, she had composed only two poems.

See where Plath lived from 1962 to 1963

17th January 1963

The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas

Reviews were not as positive as Plath had hoped. One publisher had previously rejected the story due to how personal it was, almost a case study in content. Plath was writing a large quantity of non-fiction prose pieces, and later in the month she began writing another outburst of poetry. The voice of the work was softer, less angry, as if she knew she was nearing the end.

Read about The Bell Jar

11th February 1963

Plath took her own life

Plath sealed the door to the kitchen with tape and then knelt in front of the open oven and turned the gas on. Her body was found by a nurse who was scheduled to visit that morning and a construction worker who helped her enter the house. It has been suggested that Plath’s planning of this suicide was too precise to not be intended.
16th February 1963

Plath was buried in the Hughes family cemetery in Heptonstall

Since the couple were still married at the time, and Plath died without a will, Hughes became the heir to her estate. Plath would be more famous posthumously than she ever was alive. Even though Hughes supported Plath’s posthumous works, it was said that he carefully edited her work and omitted parts of her journals that were considered to be an attack of his character. Nonetheless, after rearranging Plath’s final manuscript, Ariel and Other Poems was published in 1965.

Plath’s posthumous release, Collected Poems, won the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize, rarely awarded posthumously, was a clear indication of the quality of Plath’s work. Her work would continue to inspire new writers and poets to this day. Unfortunately, her passing away would be another example of a writer who would be more successful in death rather than in life.

Read about the 'Syliva Plath effect'