A woman of many masks
She suffered from mental illness, severe PMS, and after several failed suicide attempts finally succeeded in killing herself at 30. But what does this really tell us about Sylvia? Putting aside the dramas of her life, you find an inspiring woman, filled with deep emotions (many of which weren't shared with anyone until after her death).
Born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, in 1932. Sylvia Plath's first poem was published when she was eight. Intelligent, extremely sensitive, and compelled toward perfection in every endeavor, Sylvia was on the surface the perfect daughter. She was popular in school, earned straight A's, and won many prizes.
The death of her father when she was ten rocked the foundations of Sylvias world, however she continued to achieve, and write. By the time she started at Smith College on a scholarship in 1950 she already had impressive list of publications. While at Smith Syliva wrote over four hundred poems.
One day her mother noticed healing scars on her legs. Sylvia said she just "wanted to see if I had the guts" and admitted that she wanted to die. She was immediately taken
to see a psychiatrist. After several sessions with a psychiatrist, and a diagnosis of severe depression, Plath was prescribed what was thought at that time to be "the best therapy for emotional problems": electroshock therapy.
The death of her father in her childhood had a severe effect on Sylvia, and undoubtably was one of the primary factors leading to her depression. She writes about how his death affected her in the 1962 poem Daddy. "I was ten when they burried you. At 20 I tried to die And get back, back, back to you."
On August 24, 1952, Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time.When she was physically well enough, she was institutionalized at McClean Hospital's mental institution at Belmont. Sylvia was treated with insulin shock treatments, psychotherapy and electroshock. She continued to write during the course of the treatment, which seemed to be effective in lifting her ever-present depression. She later described her experience at McClean in an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963.
By January Sylvia was released from the hospital and returned to her studies at Smith, graduating with honors and winning a Fulbright scholorship to study at Cambridge, England.
In 1956 Sylvia married the English poet Ted Hughes, and in 1960, when she was 28, her first book, The Colossus, was published in England. The poems in this book, though formally precise and well written, only give glimpses of what was to come in the poems she would begin writing early in 1961. She and Hughes settled in an English country village, but less than two years after the birth of their first child the marriage broke apart.
The chilling winter of 1962-63, found Sylvia living in a small London flat. She now had two children, was ill with flu and low on money. The hardness of her life increased her need to write. She often worked between four and eight in the morning, before the children woke, sometimes finishing a poem a day.
In these last poems it is as if some deeper, powerful self has grabbed control, death is given a cruel physical allure and emotional pain becomes almost tangible. On the morning of February 11, 1963, Plath killed herself with cooking gas.
Two years after her death Ariel, a collection of some of her last poems, was published; this was followed by Crossing the Water and Winter Trees in 1971, and, in 1981, The Collected Poems appeared, edited by Ted Hughes. 'Poppies in July' was written in July of 1962.
All of Plath's work remains in print. You could walk into any bookshop around the world and find her poetry or a biography. Much of her writing has received critical response over the years, but the fact is Sylvia always saw life for what it was. Her writing reflects this, and so throws many traditional ideals out the window, along with more traditional writing styles.
By her own admission Plath was a woman of many masks, someone who felt it necessary to reveal only facets of herself in any given situation, professional or social. Nobody knew the true Sylvia Plath until after her death. It is only through her poetry and journals that aspects of her true self began to shine bitterly through the facade she created for herself.
Examining Plath's life allows readers to better understand her works. Much of the attitude and imagery in her fiction and poetry have their genesis in her life experiences. Sylvia wrote through the highs and lows of depression, trauma, and self motivated perfectionism. As a result her writing has opened doors to understanding mental illness.
Sylvia Plath's poetry reaches the far extremes of creative expression. Her poetry extends from the despairing, vengeful and destructive, to the tender, passionate, and pure. Her works have admired and inspired the world over, and continue to do so 39 years after her death. Only true poetic genius has such power to survive. Sylvia Plath - a woman of many masks, hiding a creative power which was truly extraordinary.
Originally written for Beatnik online poetry journal