Female Focus: Sylvia Plath

Published

Credit: The Lilly Library

Roisin McCann
Writer

How rare and profoundly precious a feeling it is when you realise you’ve blissfully stumbled upon the work of someone who will change the way you view your position in life itself. I can map Plath’s effect on my perspective, from the day I picked up The Bell Jar for the first time to the days I frequent Ariel to totally absorb myself in the brilliance of her verse. She offered me what I would become to realise to be the antithesis of comfort: confessional, exhilarating, and direly unsparing. As Plath imparted us with her exploration of the social and cultural realm using the personal lens, it is essential that we honour the poet who through her ingenuity, through her tragedy and through the exposing nature of her work, offered us the ultimate insight into the female experience.

Born in 1932 to a middle-class family in Massachusetts, Plath experienced the death of her academic father Otto at age eight, an event she would view as a form of betrayal and return to in her work. Writing consistently through her adolescence, she later attended the prestigious Smith College and took up a summer apprenticeship at Mademoiselle magazine in 1953, a traumatic experience from which she drew influence for her later novel The Bell Jar. After depressive periods of self harm and a suicide attempt, Plath recovered to return to Cambridge to finish her studies. It was there where she met and married the poet Ted Hughes. The couple by nature are said to have had a tumultuous relationship, where it is believed that Plath endured both abuse and adultery. Continuing to write thorough her adult life, Plath composed The Colossus & Other poems and The Bell Jar, which was published under the name Victoria Lucas. Coinciding with a particularly distressing period of mental health and personal hardship, Plath experienced a vigorously creative period in the months leading up to her death, where she wrote Ariel before her suicide in 1963.

Perhaps the biggest injustice of the literary world has been the reduction of Plath’s work to a byproduct or a side effect, defining her solely within the context of her suicide and her turbulent and abusive relationship with Hughes. Some regard this as the price paid for her confessional style of poetry. Indeed, Plath wrote openly about her illness—which would likely now be characterised as bipolarity—and importantly about her experience with psychiatric care. Without a doubt, her struggle with mental health pervaded her poetry, such as ruminating upon her infatuation with suicide in the miraculous Lady Lazarus, but her brilliance was of an entirely separate entity.

Plath reached posthumous acclaim after her suicide upon Hughes’ (guilt ridden) editing and publishing of Ariel. In more recent generations, she has gradually become deservingly acknowledged for her role in furthering the genre of confessional poetry, and more importantly catalysing the affinity for the narration of the female experience in twentieth century literature.

In the account of Esther Greenwood’s gradual and unnerving spiral into insanity in The Bell Jar, Plath captures the oppressive constraints of conformation felt by a woman who has realised her capacity for potential far exceeds what the Valium-induced lobotomised housewife era and tethered gendered norms of society will allow for her. In one of my most prized Plath poems, The Rival , through the fictional creation of a female character—believed to be an amalgamation of her mother and other women in her life—Plath gives an uncanny insight into womanhood through detailing the complexity of female relationships. Furthermore, in The Night Dances, Plath delivers a subjective maternal account of watching her son sleeping, which plays with curiosity of the distances between them and the depths of the unknown between mother and son. Plath’s ability to externalise the authentic experience of the woman has been reflected in the works of female poets and artists of the generations to follow, from the highly personal poesy of her friend Anne Sexton to the later lyrical poetry of artists like Joni Mitchell.

‘Wrong generation, wrong medication” has been used by one writer to describe the premature death of the woman who would become one of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century. Whilst Plath’s mental health was infused into her work and her ability to give a poignant account of the absurdity of the world around her, her illness which crucified her is used to dissuade people of relevance of the poetry which has crowned her. “Mistress poet” was the title she longed for herself. There will always be sorrow in the fact she did not live long enough to see how, through her legacy and influence on female poets of the generations to follow, she’s truly earned it.