93 Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

Amy Berke; Robert Bleil; Jordan Cofer; and Doug Davis

Sylvia Plath, 1961
Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Plath’s father, a professor of biology at Boston University and an authoritarian figure within the family, died when Plath was eight years old, and Plath struggled for the rest of her life to come to terms with her complicated feelings for him. Plath’s mother went to work to provide for Plath and her brother. From a young age, Plath was a high achiever, showing an early talent as a writer and poet. She received a scholarship to Smith College and, after graduating, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University. In spite of a history of depression and one suicide attempt, Plath excelled at academics and worked diligently on her writing, periodically publishing her work. At Cambridge, Plath met the young, upcoming British poet Ted Hughes; the two shared an intense and immediate attraction, marrying only a few months later. Plath and Hughes enjoyed their first years together as writing partners, encouraging each other as poets. The two lived for a time in America, travelled broadly, and eventually returned to England to live. Plath gave birth to two children and engaged in domestic routines while still working on poems that would eventually be included in her posthumous collection, Ariel (1965). She continued to struggle with depression, and after discovering Ted Hughes’s affair with a mutual friend, Assia Wevill, Plath’s depression worsened. She eventually separated from Hughes and moved to London with her children in an attempt to start over on her own. Most of the poems that comprise Ariel were written while she lived in London. During a particularly difficult winter where she saw her novel The Bell Jar published to less than enthusiastic reviews in January 1963, Plath’s mental state deteriorated. She committed suicide in February 1963, leaving her children behind, as well as the new collection of poems that would eventually make her famous after her death.

Plath’s most critically acclaimed poems are those that appeared in her posthumous collection, Ariel. In these last poems composed before her suicide, Plath appears to have reached a new level of creative complexity in imagery and theme. Her poems exhibit a raw power and anger, as she battles with despair and attempts to find the fortitude to endure her psychic pain. Within the postmodern milieu and contributing to its innovations, Plath does not create a distinct persona through which she filters these intense, private emotions. Poetic form and tradition become less significant with postmodern poets, and the poet’s voice achieves primacy, especially in the school of poetry termed “Confessional.” Poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, and Plath in the 1950s were willing to probe their psyches in very private, personal ways, “confessing” their deepest, most private, even disturbing feelings. In the time period, this kind of psychological probing of the self was new and provocative. From a feminist perspective, Plath in the Ariel poems openly explores her feelings of rage against the men in her life and against patriarchal authority in general. Plath also explores her feelings of ambivalence about being a mother, the cultural pressures she experienced of becoming a wife and mother, the pain she endured as a result of her husband’s infidelity, and her battle with depression that culminated in suicide attempts. In “Daddy,” the prevalent Nazi imagery is not autobiographical but is used to depict the extreme emotions at work in the narrative voice’s desperate, raging attempt to cut the cord of paternalistic domination. The narrative voice urgently and angrily wants to break from daddy’s control, domination, and influence in order to forge her own identity as a woman and as a person. In “Fever 103 ̊,” the narrative voice offers hallucinogenic images of a fevered self, burned pure of fleshly needs and desires into an acetylene virgin, a bodiless entity that is almost invisible but nevertheless combustible. In her virginal state, untouched by the “lecherous” patriarchy, she is most volatile and powerful.


The word - Read - over the background of a book.

Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” The Collected Poems, by Ted Hughes, New York : Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 222–24. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/collectedpoems00sylv.

Or try the link below to access this selection:

Or listen to Plath:

Daddy–Read By Sylvia Plath. Directed by PoetryPoemsPoets, 2012. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hz1ar58BIM.


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American Literatures After 1865 Copyright © by Amy Berke; Robert Bleil; Jordan Cofer; and Doug Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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