National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Fifty Years After Her Death, Sylvia Plath's Poetry Lives On
By Keiana Smith- McDowell, NAMI Intern
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Sylvia Plath is regarded as one of the most talented poets of the 20th century. Her biography has been written several times, but to learn the real Sylvia Plath, the obvious place is to first read the vulnerable yet honest details of her life through her poetry. †
Fifty years ago, in 1963, Sylvia Plath sat out milk and bread for her children and then walked into the kitchen and closed the door behind her. At the age of 30, Plath would take her life and in the half-century since her death, both she and her catalogue of poetry, complete with her darkest most inner thoughts have been analyzed and studied to discover that the literary world lost a remarkable talent too soon.
Born Oct. 27, 1932 in Wellesley, Mass., Plath revealed her interest in writing from an early age. She earned a scholarship to Smith College, an all-women’s university where she studied English on a full-scholarship, and also accepted a position as a guest student editor at Mademoiselle Magazine; an opportunity she knew would help jump-start her career as a non-fiction writer.
But college years weren’t the best of times for a young Plath as they are for many others.
While in New York, Plath would experience her first breakdown and hospitalization, which lead to a diagnosis of depression and the call for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as therapy. A month later, a failed suicide attempt would land her back at a psychiatric hospital, this time for six months of intensive therapy.
Many speculate her father’s death as the cause of her depression, particularly because in her poem “Daddy” she blames herself for his death; but her experience in New York would provide the cinematic plot for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. The book tells the story of a young girl, Esther Greenwood, from Boston who moves to New York City for the summer for an internship at Ladies Magazine. While in New York, Esther experiences lead her to the discovery that she has lived a sheltered life in Massachusetts. But life wasn’t perfect in New York for Esther, either. She meets a young man named Josť Antonio La Vias at a party who nearly succeeds at raping her and she also suffers from depression, a mental illness that leads to an attempted suicide and hospitalization.
After The Bell Jar was published, close friends revealed that the novel was a collection of journals written by Plath in her early life.
After hospitalization, she went on to graduate summa cum laude from Smith College and awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study poetry at Cambridge University in London.
The facts of her life in London are widely reported. She would marry Poet Laureate Ted Hughes in 1956, have two children, Frieda and Nicholas, and publish her first collection of poems The Colossus in 1960. That same year, Hughes would find himself as part of a love triangle and eventually leave Plath for the wife of Canadian poet David Wevill. The whirlwind of pain caused by infidelity would reintroduce her to depression and possibly helped lead to her suicide.
Depression may have eventually led Plath to her early death, but she worked diligently to become the writer she is known as today. While therapy did not ultimately save Plath’s life, many people who experience mental illnesses receive treatment and go on to have successful, balanced lives.
Poems such as “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” “Tulips,” and “Eavesdropper” are what solidify her as both legend and poetic genius. Known as one of the pioneers of confessional poetry, Plath used these poems as both her creative and emotional outlet, lending her feelings to the world actually became the way she helped others understand their illness.