Remembering poet Sylvia Plath



On October 27th 1932 Sylvia Plath was born in Boston. The wife, mother, poet, novelist and short story writer committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1963.

Plath attempted suicide first in 1953 by taking her mother’s sleeping pills. Ten years later, she killed herself in the same Primrose Hill house that Irish poet W.B Yeats lived in during the 19th century (below, her grave in Heptonstall, Yorkshire). While her two children Nick and Frieda slept - she had sealed the doors with wet towels - she gassed herself in the oven. Her doctor reported: "No-one who saw the care with which the kitchen was prepared could have interpreted her action as anything but an irrational compulsion."

Although famous for her recitation of Daddy, expressing some of the hatred she felt for her father (who died of undiagnosed diabetes when she was eight), she also wrote an affectionate poem about her mother which is less well known. Disquieting Muses describes her mother Aurelia Plath as a kind of Mary Poppins figure:

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were.

Plath who signed letters to her mother as ‘Sivvy’ wrote that she loved her mother "better than anybody". In ways, Plath tried to emulate her parents; when living in an old farmhouse in north Devon she kept bees as her father had done (see her poem The Swarm for an insight into the dark but honey sweet danger of a hive).

"I have a visual imagination. For instance, my inspiration is painting and not music when I go to some other art form. I see these things very clearly". Plath was a talented and keen draughtswoman. Her pen and ink drawings show intimate studies from nature and scenes from everyday life. The untitled sketch of a ‘Male in Profile’ is believed to be her husband Ted Hughes drawn in Paris during their honeymoon. It has been said that she has a similar illustrative line to Hockney using a combination of fine marks and crosshatched shading. Her early notes were adorned with drawings that she hoped to include as illustrations for her articles. One such successful example was a drawing of Spanish fishing boats included in a piece she wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 1956.

When the poet met Ted Hughes at a party she bit him on the cheek drawing blood. In a 1961 interview, she recalled: “I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the [US] government on a government grant. And I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met. Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later... We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on.” Hughes, the most recent addition to Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ corner, was having an affair with German Assia Wevill at the time of Plath’s suicide. Wevill killed herself and also their four-year-old daughter Alexandra Tatiana Elise (Shura) in 1969, taking her own life in similar fashion to Plath, by gassing herself.

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