literature mental health

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was an American Academic, Author, Editor and Poet best known for her novel ‘The Bell Jar’, and for her poetry collections ‘The Colossus’ and ‘Ariel’.

Plath showed an aptitude for writing from a young age and was writing complete poems from age 5. At age 8 she had a poem published in the children’s section of the Boston Herald. Plath kept a journal from the age of eleven and continued to have poems published in regional magazines and newspapers. In 1950, just after graduating high school she had a poem entitled “Bitter Strawberries” – published in the Christian Science Monitor, her first in a national publication.

Plath won a scholarship to Smith College that same year and wrote for both the school paper and other publications like Seventeen, Harper’s and The Christian Science Monitor. In June 1953 she worked as one of twenty ‘guest editors’ for Mademoiselle magazine, her time there left her so emotionally and physically exhausted her. She could no longer concentrate and was disillusioned by the entire progress. She developed insomnia and exhibited irrational behaviour leading up to her first suicide attempt – an overdose of sleeping pills – she spent time in a mental health facility before returning to college and completing her degree.

Plath won a Fulbright Fellowship at Cambridge University in England, while studying at the university’s Newnham College, she met the poet Ted Hughes who she married in 1956. She did not want the marriage to be public so that it did not jeopardise her fellowship or academic career. On their honeymoon Hughes alleged flew into a rage and violently choked her and Plath questioned her hasty decision. This would not be the first time he would be violent to her.

Plath’s first collection of poetry, The Colossus, published in England in 1960. The same year she gave birth to her first child, two years later she had a second but her marriage was falling apart. In 1962 Hughes left her for another woman and Plath fell into a deep depression, she had already started to write in a more confessional, ‘inward’ style and the episode inspired most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel. In 1963 her novel, ‘The Bell Jar’ which was based on her life and deals with one young woman’s mental breakdown was published.

On February 11, 1963 during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath committed suicide. Her physician had been unsuccessfully trying to find her a bed in the overcrowded psychiatric hospitals for weeks because of her worsening depression. In 1965 ‘Ariel’, a collection of her poems was published by Hughes, it contained some of her most famous poems including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” which were dark and potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness.

Some saw ‘Ariel’ as a feminist piece of work, marking the beginning of a movement. American women who ordinarily would not have read poems were buying her work and it was awakening ambitions in them. Plath, a woman who was well-educated and excellent at her craft had written a collection of final poems that detailed female rage, ambivalence and grief in a way that many women identified with.

Hughes continued to publish her work. In 1982 Plath won the Pulitzer Prize for Collected Poems. She was the first poet to posthumously win a Pulitzer Prize.

Sources here, here and here.

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