Sylvia Plath was born on 27 October 1932, at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital, in the Jennie M Robinson Memorial maternity building in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were Otto Emil Plath 1885-1940) and Aurelia Schober Plath (1906-1994). She would be an only child for two and a half years, when her brother Warren was born, 27 April 1935. Her first home was on 24 Prince Street in Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston. In 1936, the family moved to 92 Johnson Avenue in Winthrop, Massachusetts just east of Boston. This is where Plath became familiar and intimate with the sea. From an early age she enjoyed the sea and could recognize its beauty & power.
Otto Plath taught at Boston University (BU). To get there, he took a bus, boat and trolley to get to work each day from Winthrop. At that time BU's site was on Boylston Street just off Copley Square. This site is now New England Financial. Otto Plath's health began to fail shortly after the birth of his son Warren in 1935. He thought he had cancer as a friend of his, with similar symptoms, had recently lost a battle with lung cancer. Otto Plath was an expert on bees. He wrote a book called Bumblebees and Their Ways, published in 1934. Sylvia Plath was impressed with her father's handling of bees. He could catch them and they would not sting! (He caught only the males; the males do not have stingers.) Otto Plath died on 5 November 1940, only a week and a half after his daughters eighth birthday. He died of diabetes mellitus, which at the time was a very curable disease. Upon his death a friend only asked, "How could such a brilliant man have been so stupid?"
In 1942, Aurelia Plath moved the family to 26 Elmwood Road, in Wellesley. This was Sylvia Plath's home until she began college. She repeated the fifth grade so that she would be in class with children her same age, and she aced her courses. From then on, Plath was a star student, making straight A's the whole way through high school. She excelled in English, particularly creative writing. Her first poem appeared when she was eight in the Boston Herald (10 August 1941, page B-8).
Plath won a scholarship to attend Smith College, an all girls' school in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was ecstatic in the fall of 1950 to be a 'Smith girl.' She immediately felt the pressures of College life, from the academic rigors to the social scenes. Sylvia Plath received a scholarship to attend Smith College. The benefactress of this scholarship was Olive Higgins Prouty, a famous author. Olive Higgins Prouty lived at 393 Walnut Street in Brookline, a suburb of Boston near to Wellesley. Once at Smith, Plath started a correspondence with Olive that lasted the rest of her life. Plath wanted to be both brilliant and friendly, and she achieved both.
From around 1944 on, Plath kept a journal. The journals gained in importance to her in college. She would come to rely heavily on her journals for inspiration and documentation. She had a very quick, sharp eye, noting details that most people miss and take for granted. Her journal became her most trusted friend and confidant, telling it secrets and presenting a completely different and real self on those pages. Sometimes she was blunt, other times candid. She captured ideas for poems and stories, and detailed her ambitions. One of the more memorable passages she writes about the joy of picking her nose. (January 1953)
At this point in her life, the early Smith years, she was writing very measured, pretty poems. She had the craft of poem making down, but she did not have the voice. She was working hard on syllabics, paying close attention on line lengths, stanza lengths and a myriad of other poetic styles that any apprentice should know. Plath was different, though, as she worked herself to perfection. She relied on her thesaurus to push her way through poem after poem. She emulated Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, and W.H. Auden. She read Richard Wilbur, Marianne Moore and John Crowe Ransom. She also wanted to write short stories for women's magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal and other influential 1950s magazines. She was also sending poems and stories out regularly, facing rejection most of the time. She did, however, receive some success.
Beginning in 1950, Plath began publishing in national periodicals. Her article "Youth's Appeal for World Peace" was published in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) on 16 March. Her short story "And Summer Will Not Come Again" appeared in the August issue of Seventeen & the poem "Bitter Strawberries" appeared in the 11 August CSM. Throughout 1951, Plath was collecting rejection slips at a fast pace, but she was also published quite a bit.
In 1953, Plath wrote articles for local newspapers like the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Springfield Union as their Smith College correspondent. Her short story, "Sunday at the Mintons" won first prize in a Mademoiselle contest. From this story, she also won a Guest Editorship at Mademoiselle at 575 Madison Avenue in New York City during June 1953. (The offices have since moved & the magazine recently ceased publication.) She and several other young women stayed at the women only Barbizon Hotel, at 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. The events of this very important month are well covered in her novel, The Bell Jar. (In The Bell Jar she calls the hotel, The Amazon.) Her published journals for these months are thin, and do not reveal too much about the breakdown that followed. She returned from the New York exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. She was banking on being admitted to a Harvard summer class on writing. When she received word she had not been accepted, Sylvia Plath's fate was also secured. Her journals end abruptly in July. For details of the summer of 1953, readers must rely on information Plath put down in a few letters to friends and in her novel, The Bell Jar.
Throughout July and early August, Plath tells us in The Bell Jar that she could neither read nor sleep nor write. In an interview given to the Voices & Visions audio/video series, Aurelia Plath tells us that her daughter could in fact read, and that she meticulously read Freud's Abnormal Psychology. Plath, however, felt despondent. On 24 August 1953, she left a note saying, "Have gone for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow." She took a blanket, a bottle of sleeping pills, a glass of water with her down the stairs to the cellar. There she crept into a crawlspace and began swallowing the pills in gulps of water and fell unconscious.
Aurelia Plath gave a good fight into finding her missing daughter, barely waiting a few hours to phone the police. An exhaustive search started in the Greater Boston area to try and find the missing Smith beauty. Boy scouts and local police and neighbors combed Wellesley thoroughly through small parks as well as in and around Morses Pond. Headlines in the papers the next day, 25 August 1953, alerted many of Plath's friends. Headlines were less favorable the following day, Wednesday 26 August 1953. However, around lunchtime Plath was found with eight sleeping pills still in the bottle. For more on Plath's disappearance, please see my article "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath". The newspaper stories and even in Plath's The Bell Jar reported that the crawlspace was beneath the breezeway/porch. However, in two visits to the Plath house in 2012 and 2016, there was no visible crawlspace there. There was a space beneath the first floor bathroom and what was once Warren Plath's bedroom.
Plath was treated at McLean Hospital in Belmont with the help of her Smith benefactress Olive Higgins Prouty. Her doctor was Ruth Barnhouse Beuscher, and Dr. Beuscher would go on to be a great help to Plath in the years to come. Her recovery was not easy, but Plath pulled through and was readmitted to Smith for the spring 1954 semester. This is really the beginning of Sylvia Plath, poet.
1954 was a remarkable year. She met Richard Sassoon, who would later play a significant role as lover. Plath also continued where she left off at Smith, doing excellent work in spite of the breakdown. That summer she studied at Harvard Summer School, living with Nancy Hunter-Steiner in apartment 4 at the Bay State Apartments, located at 1572 Massachusetts Avenue.
The next school year at Smith, Plath worked hard, continuing her excellence. In the spring 1955 semester, Plath turned in her English honors thesis, The Magic Mirror: The Double in Dostoevsky. She graduated summa cum laude and also won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University.
Before Plath left for England, however, she needed to get through a summer of living at 26 Elmwood Road where her first suicide attempt, two years earlier, occurred. She spent much of her time dating young men like Richard Sassoon, Gordon Lameyer and toward the end of the summer, an editor named Peter Davison. However, before setting sail, Plath ended these attachments, preferring to take on what England had to offer. As Plath sailed to England, she spent her time "flirting and then making love" (Wagner-Martin). Plath was excited about Cambridge for many reasons, two of which were its possibility for the best education and to find a man to marry (at that time men outnumbered women at Cambridge by the astonishing ten to one).
As an American in England, Plath was shocked and overwhelmed by Cambridge. Coming to England in mid-September, Plath spent her first ten days in London, sightseeing and shopping. When she arrived at 4 Barton Road and Whitstead she was at first disappointed as it is at the back of the college. She loved Cambridge though and immediately became familiar with its old streets and customs. British schooling is very different than in America so Plath had major adjustments ahead of her. She had to choose her courses for two years and at the end of the second year were the exams. This meant much study on her own, though she was responsible for writing essays weekly on topics, attending lectures and meeting one hour a week with her tutors. Plath's tutor, Dorothea Krook, would become a very important female role model in the coming years, much as Dr Ruth Beuscher was to her. Krook taught Plath in a course on Henry James and the Moralists. Her academic course load was much lighter than it was at Smith, so that autumn Plath joined the Amateur Dramatics Club (ADC) and had a small role as an insane poetess. Initially, she tried to steer clear of dating as she grew accustomed to life in a foreign country. She still maintained relations with Richard Sassoon, who was living in Paris at the time. Plath spent her winter holiday with Sassoon in and around Paris and Europe. However romantic this holiday was, Sassoon soon wrote to Plath asking for a break, telling Plath that he would contact her when he was ready.
Plath, back at Cambridge and not too happy with the English winter, began falling ill and sinking into a depression. She suffered from a splinter in her eye which became the subject of the poem "The Eye-Mote", and along with a cold & flu, began to think she would not conquer Cambridge after all. On 25 February Plath met with a psychiatrist named Dr Davy and in her journal entry for that day-expressed anger at Sassoon. At the ripe age of 23, Plath really needed someone to love and to love her. To be 23 and single in 1953 was considered to be passed her prime.
That afternoon after the meeting with Dr Davy, Plath bought a copy of the Saint Botolph's Review and read impressive poems by E Lucas Myers and more impressive poems by a poet called Ted Hughes. Plath was told of a party that evening celebrating the publication of this new literary review to be held at Falcon Yard.
The meeting of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is probably the best-known meeting of two aspiring poets in the 20th century. Plath walked into the room with a date named Hamish and quickly began enquiring as to Hughes' whereabouts. She found him, recited some of his poems, which in the few hours since first reading them had memorized. According to her journals and letters, they were dancing and stamping and yelling and drinking and then he kissed her on the neck and she bit Hughes on the cheek, and he bled. No matter what sort of hyperbole was used in the retelling of their meeting, it was dramatic and life changing. Hughes' voice boomed like the thunder of God, and his Yorkshire accent was deep and intense. She wrote the poem "Pursuit" to him and in the poem she calls him a panther. It is also in this poem that Plath announces with some clairvoyance that "One day I'll have my death of him." Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes both found influences in W.B Yeats, Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence, to name a few. Hughes read these poets as well and also Hopkins, Blake, Chaucer and Shakespeare. There is no doubt that Hughes helped Plath achieve the major poetic voice she would later find. The voice might have always been in Plath, the talent and drive was certainly there.
That spring Plath suffered much heartache and confusion over her love for Richard Sassoon, who had asked Plath not to contact him until he figured out what he wanted (he was in love with at least two other women). Plath traveled to London for one night before going to Paris for her spring break and she stayed with Ted Hughes at his flat at 18 Rugby Street. They made hectic love all night long and then she traveled to Paris in search of Sassoon to find some resolution. Sassoon's decision could not have been any clearer; he was far away from Paris and did not want to be found. Plath, finding her letters unanswered at Sassoon's residence, became desperate, frequenting places she and Sassoon previously visited. Plath met several other friends from Cambridge, some strangers and finally had a bad time of traveling through Italy with her ex-flame Gordon Lameyer. Plath received at least one love letter from Hughes, which lifted her. She flew from Rome to London to be with Hughes, leaving Lameyer behind.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes married on Bloomsday 1956 (16 June) at the Church of St. George-the-Martyr at Queen's Square, Bloomsbury, just a few paces from the offices of Faber & Faber. Aurelia Plath was there to witness. The Hugheses spent the summer writing and no doubt getting to know each other better in Benidorm, Spain. The couple also spent in Paris, France, and Alicante, Spain, before visiting Yorkshire, to be with Ted's parents, who knew nothing of the wedding.
In the fall, Plath continued studying at Cambridge. Eventually, Plath moved in to a flat located at 55 Eltisley Avenue with Ted Hughes. Ironically, some relatives of Richard Sassoon lived above them. The two poets would study, cook, eat, take walks and learn to live with each other. Ted Hughes took a job teaching at a local boy's school. This would be one of his most enjoyable jobs. Plath and Hughes made arrangements to go to America in the summer of 1957.
Immediately upon their meeting, Plath began typing and sending out Hughes's poems publishers in America and England. Due in part to this work, in early 1957, Ted Hughes won first prize in the New York Poetry Center contests judged by Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender for his book The Hawk in the Rain. This was a contest he was unaware he entered. His publishers would be Harper & Row and they would bring the book out that summer. Plath had been writing some very good poems this English winter, among them "Sow," "The Thin People," and "Hardcastle Crags." On 12 March 1957 Plath was offered a teaching position in Freshman English at Smith College.
The English winter dissolved into a studious spring for Plath as she had to read for her exams on all ages of Tragedy at Cambridge. She labored day in and day out, whilst being a housewife and typing and retyping manuscripts of Ted's poems. Plath was also writing poems too, like "All the Dead Dears," from this library blitz. Plath submitted a manuscript of poems to the English faculty called Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea, which had been all but lost until some time around 1967/8.
The Hugheses went to Yorkshire after Plath finished her exams to spend time with Ted's family until they sailed for North America. They took daily walks on the moors. This would be the end of Plath's formal studying and education as a student. The Hugheses read proofs of The Hawk in the Rain, and Plath cooked for everyone. On 20 June, the Hugheses sailed out of Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth and arrived in New York a week later.
On 29 June 1957, Mrs. Plath arranged a big garden party for her daughter and son-in-law. Over sixty people were there to meet and greet the couple. After the party, the Hugheses spent seven weeks on Cape Cod at Eastham, sunbathing, writing, fishing, etc. Plath's book of poems, Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea, was rejected from the Yale Series of Younger Poets that August. Plath had been writing in the Ladies' Home Journal style and hoping to have stories published, but this goal was never achieved. It was here, however, on the Cape, that Plath visited Rock Harbor, of which she later wrote about in her poem "Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor." This poem became her first New Yorker acceptance.
In late August Plath & Hughes moved to Northampton & to Smith. They lived at 337 Elm Street, just up the road from Smith College, and next to Child's Memorial Park. Plath immediately began panicking about teaching. She also immediately found teaching to be more exhausting than she thought it would be. Among her frustrations was the lack of time for her own writing in any form--journals, poems, stories, and letters. More importantly, the teachers and other faculty Plath once so admired as a student turned out to be not as great as colleagues. Plath had extreme paranoia about her teaching ability and showed this face to nearly no one except her journal and later, possibly, to her psychiatrist. No one on the faculty that year at Smith could sense the terrible feelings eating at Plath's mind. By November, Plath and Hughes had made the tough but crucial decision to leave academia and turn to a life of writing. In a letter to her brother, Plath justified this decision saying, "Every time you make a choice you have to sacrifice something." Still the year passed and she had moments of assuredness, and moments when her mind became doubting and frail.
The Hugheses met the Merwin's that winter. The poet W.S. Merwin had written a glowing review of Hughes's book, The Hawk in the Rain that summer in the New York Times Book Review, and the meeting proved strong. It was the first of many times the poets met, and thus also began a lifelong friendship. That winter Plath suffered a severe illness and was all but bed-ridden for much of the holiday season.
The new year, 1958, was also stressful for their relationship. On the last day of school, a well documented day in Plath's Journals, Hughes was to meet with Plath right after her last class but was no where to be found. Plath looked in the library reading rooms and in the car but he was not to be found. Plath writes in her journals that she started walking towards Paradise Pond when she saw her husband coming up the path, smiling broad and chatting, with a young student, a girl who ran off immediately when she saw Plath. This incident led to Plath questioning her reverence of Hughes and also led to quarrels and possibly some violence!
In the summer, they moved into a flat at 9 Willow Street, Beacon Hill, in Boston. They were to dedicate all their efforts to writing and sending poems, stories, and other creative writings to different contests and publishers. Plath took a part-time job at Massachusetts General Hospital, and this is linked to the creation of her short stories "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" and "The Daughter's of Blossom Street", two of her best short stories. "The Daughters of Blossom Street" was published in London Magazine under an earlier title, "This Earth Our Hospital". She also began auditing Robert Lowell's seminar writing course at Boston University, where she met George Starbuck and Anne Sexton. Free from the restrictions of teaching, Plath found time to write. She slowly began working her way to better poetry.
1959 brought travel to Plath and Hughes. In the summer they took Mrs. Plath's car and drove out west, through National Parks and big cities. Also, they had decided to move back to England. Plath became pregnant and Hughes wanted the child to be born on his native soil. That autumn the two poets went to Yaddo, a writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. This is where Plath finally had a breakthrough. After getting accustomed to the grounds of the estate Plath was able to mix personal experience with the current landscape at her disposal. The poems were inspired by what she was seeing: "Dark Wood, Dark Water" and "The Manor Garden". She also wrote a poem on the subject of her father, "The Colossus". This poem later became the title of her first collection of poems. She read seriously and closely the poetry of Theodore Roethke. This most evident in her seven-part "Poem for a Birthday," and in particular, the seventh poem, "The Stones." In December they sailed again for England.
They couple spent Christmas at Heptonstall. Plath found it difficult to be there, and felt that Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister, did not particularly want her company. Bitter Fame, the only authorized biography of Plath, tells the chronology and shows the tension between the two women very well. In January 1960, the Hugheses settled at 3 Chalcot Square, in the Primrose Hill neighborhood in London. On 10 February, Plath met with an editor from Heinemann to sign the contract for The Colossus. They met at the York Minster Pub on Dean Street in Soho. On 1 April, their first child, Frieda Rebecca, was born. In August, Plath and Hughes visited Whitby, a coastal town on Yorkshire. Plath wrote about this visit to Whitby in Letters Home. William Heinemann, Ltd. published Plath's first collection of poetry, The Colossus & Other Poems on 31 October, the week of her birthday. It received decent reviews. With the publication of the book and the birth of Frieda, Plath found very little time otherwise to write. According the list of poems in the Collected Poems, Plath wrote only 12 poems in 1960. Among them, though, are the wonderful poems "You're" and "Candles", and the eerie "The Hanging Man". There are other poems that Plath began working on, such as "Queen Mary's Rose Garden". This poem can be found in the 'Notes: 1960' section of the Collected Poems. In addition to poetry, Plath began to write fiction again. In 1960, she wrote "Day of Success" and used her visit to Whitby as the setting of a story titled "The Lucky Stone".
Sometime in late 1960, Plath became pregnant again and in February she had a miscarriage. She also had an appendectomy, which left her stitched & hospitalized for a number of weeks. The surgery was performed at St. Pancras Hospital. It was the experience of being hospitalized that charged Plath in a writing frenzy that produced "Tulips" and "In Plaster" and also gave her momentum on writing a novel. According to Bitter Fame, Sylvia Plath began writing The Bell Jar sometime in March 1961 and she worked like mad for the next seventy days on the novel. She used the study at the Merwin's, who lived nearby at 11 St. George's Terrace. The appendectomy probably frightened Plath, or at least brought back many memories of August 1953 when she was institutionalized. Plath felt the power of childbearing to be enormously inspirational. It no doubt led her to creativity--if she could create children, why not poems as well? Whilst at the hospital, Plath received a first reading contract with a check for $100 from The New Yorker. This meant that The New Yorker would read all of Plath's new poems and have first choice at accepting them for publication.
In 1961 Plath completed 22 poems. Among these are "Morning Song," "Tulips," "In Plaster," "Barren Woman," and "Parliament Hill Fields," "The Surgeon at 2 a.m.," "I am vertical," "Heavy Woman" and "Insomniac," which one first prize at the 1961 Cheltenham Festival Poetry Competition. "Tulips" was written within ten days of Plath leaving the hospital and is, according to Ted Hughes, Plath's first spontaneous poem; the first poem written without laboriously thumbing the pages of her beaten thesaurus. Aurelia Plath came to England in mid-June. There are no specific references to Plath's novel in any letter home between March and Mrs. Plath's arrival to England. It should come as no surprise that Plath wanted to keep this novel very secret. In July the Hugheses took a holiday in France...a well-documented & disastrous stay with the Merwin's (see Bitter Fame). At the end of this holiday, the Hugheses went house hunting around England, settling on a house in the southwest. In August, she both completed her novel and moved to North Tawton, Devon, to a manor house owned by Sir Robert and Lady Arundell. Court Green had nine rooms, an attic, and a cellar.
Plath and Hughes needed to pass on their current London flat at 3 Chalcot Square. They advertised in the papers and a young Canadian poet and his German-Russian wife seemed best. The young couple was David and Assia Wevill.
In October Plath began & completed one of her most elegant poems, "The Moon and the Yew Tree." It began as an exercise Hughes had assigned to her, and I read somewhere that it is far from where Hughes had thought the poem would go; that it greatly disappointed him. It is really the first poem that is just plain brilliant. Plath is looking out of her window and she "simply cannot see where there is to get to." She looks to the moon and the to yew tree for the answers, but she finds only "blackness and silence." It is a poem that gets Plath started in many ways. She's trapped in this poem, cannot see in what direction to head. She needs this direction. But what Plath did not know is that when she wrote this poem, it was she that had taken off. On 28 October 1961, Plath's first women's magazine short story was published in My Weekly. The story was titled "The Perfect Place", but the working manuscript title was "The Lucky Stone". For more information on this story, please read "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar", a paper I published in Plath Profiles. On 09 November 1961 Plath won a $2000 Saxton Grant to work on her novel, which was already finished!
On 17 January 1962 Plath bore Hughes a son, Nicholas Farrar. Somehow with two children, writing and cleaning up Court Green, Plath began writing fantastic, powerful poetry sometime around April. These are the true Ariel poems, and what would lead to the best poems of her life. Plath wrote the wonderful "Elm" and a series of poems expressing concern for Hughes' treatment of animals, "The Rabbit Catcher" being the most famous.
May and June seems to have solidified all the troubles the Hugheses would have. Plath became increasingly suspicious that Ted was having an affair. She wrote the poem "Apprehensions" and "Event" in May. However, it was not all negative. On 14 May, Knopf published The Colossus and other poems in the United States. The book appears differently as some of the poems very clearly inspired by Theodore Roethke were omitted. Plath was always eager to make changes to her works if it meant getting them published. In June, Aurelia Plath came to visit and meet Nicholas. Whilst Mrs. Plath was in England, Plath found out for certain of her husbands infidelity. It seems to be a mixed blessing that Aurelia Plath was there. Plath was most certainly embarrassed and angry, but I suspect it was good that her mother was there to help her out. One of Plath's problems with living in Devon (and in England for that matter) is that she had very few friends, which meant she wrote many letters to her girlfriends back in the US.
In September 1962, Hughes and Plath went to Ireland for a holiday to mend their relationship. They stayed at the Old Forge with the poet Richard Murphy in Cleggan, a remote village in the west of Ireland. While in Ireland, Murphy took the Hugheses to see the Autograph Tree at Coole Park and Yeats' Tower at Thoor Ballylee in nearby Gort. However, within a day or two of being there, Hughes left abruptly. Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren reveal new information about where Hughes went in their biography of Assia Wevill, A Lover of Unreason (2006). Plath returned alone to Devon. Late in the month they decided for a legal separation, though most of Plath's friends and family were in favor of a divorce.
In October, Plath went on a poetic rampage! She wrote over 25 poems during the month. Among them are "Stings," "Wintering," "The Jailer," "Lesbos," "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," "Ariel," "The Applicant," "The Detective," "Cut" and "Nick and the Candlestick", and many more. Most of them would be published in 1965 as Ariel. The high period of productivity occurred very early in the morning, before the children rose. Plath began somewhere around four in the morning and wrote until the children woke. Her letters home during this period also lends a different sort of view. There are no known journal entries for this important period. Hughes claims that at least one journal has been 'lost' and one destroyed. The publication on 3 April 2000 of the unedited Journals of Sylvia Plath cover the period of 1950-1962, with the later entries from 1962 being character sketches and possible descriptions for future novels and short stories. Beginning in June 1962, Plath took meticulous notes on people, houses, feelings, etc. This certainly helped her creative output and range of controlled emotion in the October poems. This poetic blitzkrieg continued into November with strong poems like "The Couriers," "Getting There," "Gulliver," "Death & Co.," and "Winter Trees."
During the month of November, Plath was looking for a flat in London. She was fond of the Primrose Hill area, where she lived when Frieda was born. She found a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road. It is the building where W.B. Yeats once lived in and she considered it a great sign, a sign of great things to come. Plath and Hughes wore married faces in an attempt to get Plath the lease on the bigger of the two flats, comprising of the top two floors. A man called Trevor Thomas had also applied for the top two floors, for himself and his sons. Plath and Hughes paid several years rent up front, and the deal was done. The ordeal of securing the flat and starting to pack up Court Green was responsible for a less productive month after mid-November.
Plath and the children moved into the flat in December. She finished only two poems in the month of December. With the onset of a terrible winter and Plath spending many hours painting and laboring, it is no surprise. Plath was still sending poems off, as was usual for her, but was finding publishers not too eager to accept these new, powerful poems. It is as though the publishers somehow were not ready for poems of such magnitude. Plath was mostly alone, although some friends did visit and she was out when possible. Hughes visited regularly and often took Frieda and Nicholas to the London Zoo, which was just through the park. Plath and her children were without a telephone and the heat was poor or non-existent. Plath's friend, the critic A Alvarez, did come by the apartment on Christmas Eve but could only stay a short while as he had other plans. Alvarez was the first critic to notice her poems and has been highly influential in Plath studies since---a very trusted voice.
The winter that would follow would be recorded as one of the coldest to date. Pipes froze and there was plenty of ice and snow on the ground. To read a faithful, funny and detailed account of the winter please read Plath's "Snow Blitz" a work included in collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Or, better still, find and read British newspapers for the time period of December 1962-February 1963. This may provide an authentic account of the day-to-day trials. The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas on 14 January 1963 and received mostly positive reviews, though most appeared after her death. Plath's American publisher, Knopf, had not been interested with the story, thinking it either too personal or a case study. Reviews were not as positive as she hoped. Though she called the novel a 'pot-boiler' to nearly everyone who knew of it, its acceptance did weigh heavily on her. Though not writing poetry, Plath had been writing some non-fiction prose pieces at this time. But, by late January, she began writing in what was another outburst of poetry, completing twelve new poems in just fifteen days, all in a brand new voice. This includes the fine poems of February 1963. It had taken Plath less than two months to begin a new collection of poetry, all in this new voice. This voice was softer and less angry; very somber and resolved, as though she new she was nearing the end--poems like "Mystic," "Sheep in Fog," "Kindness," "Gigolo," "Totem," "Child," "The Munich Mannequins," "Paralytic," "Words," "Contusion," "Edge" and "Balloons".
The public does not know whether or not she began any poems in the last six days of her life. It is not known what her Journals say or what is in many of the letters she might have written. We only know it was cold, the children were sick and Plath was severely depressed. Plath spent most of the last weekend of her life staying with Jillian and Gerry Becker at 5 Mountfort Crescent in North London. Jillian Becker recalls some of this last weekend in her book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath.
In early morning of 11 February 1963, Plath took her own life. She placed her head in a gas oven after completely sealing the rooms between herself and her children. She left a note for the man who lived downstairs, Trevor Thomas, to call her doctor. However, rather than rising, the gas seeped through the floor and knocked Mr Thomas out cold for several hours. An au pair girl was to arrive at nine o'clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Arriving promptly at 9, the au pair could not get into the flat. It has been suggested that Plath's timing & planning of this suicide attempt was too precise, too coincidental, not to be "serious" or intended. She had previously asked Mr Thomas what time he would be leaving. Plath must have turned the gas on at a time when Mr Thomas should have been waking & beginning his day. A note was placed that read "Call Dr Horder" and left his phone number. These measures were too time-sensitive and could have saved Plath's life if events followed her suggested logic.
Plath was buried in Heptonstall less than a week after her death. Sylvia Plath's gravesite in Yorkshire is now visited by hundreds of people each year.
Peter K. Steinberg--January 1999, revised February/March 2000, and December 2007
For more information, please read my biography of Sylvia Plath.
Rough Magic, Paul Alexander
Sylvia Plath, Revised, Caroline King Barnard Hall
The Death & Life of Sylvia Plath, Ronald Haymen
A Closer Look at Ariel, Nancy Hunter-Steiner
Sylvia Plath, Peter K. Steinberg
Bitter Fame, Anne Stevenson
Sylvia Plath, Linda Wagner-Martin