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Sylvia Plath Biography

(1932–63), Mademoiselle, The Bell Jar, The Colossus, Ariel, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, Collected Poems

American poet and novelist, born in Boston, Massachusetts, educated at Wellesley High School and Smith College. She was appointed a student guest-editor for Mademoiselle magazine in 1953, an interlude which strongly informs her novel The Bell Jar (1963). In 1955 she took up a Fulbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she met Ted Hughes. They were married in 1956 and went to America in the following year. Plath taught for a time at Smith College and subsequently attended a writers' group in Boston supervised by Robert Lowell, to whose influence the emergence of confessional (see confessional poetry) elements in her verse has been attributed. In 1959 she and her husband returned to England, settling in Devon prior to their separation in 1962. Her first collection of poetry, The Colossus (1960), displayed her accomplishment in the use of conventional forms, while ‘Suicide off Egg Rock’ prefigured the disquieting intensities of her later writing. In 1963 she killed herself in London after a remarkably prolific period of composition, the results of which Philip Larkin described as ‘a prolonged high-pitched ecstasy like nothing else in literature’. Ariel, her best-known collection, appeared to enormous critical acclaim in 1965. Great originality and skill are evident in the forms and rhythms of the poetry, which also displays an incisive directness of tone, dramatic power, and imagery of startling clarity and precision. The fascination with mortality and extreme states of mind increasingly evident in her work after 1960 is emphatic in a number of the collection's best-known poems, among them ‘Lady Lazarus’, and ‘Daddy’. Two further volumes, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, were published in 1971 and a Collected Poems edited by Hughes appeared in 1981. Hughes also edited Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977), a selection of diary excerpts and prose-pieces. Her mother, A. S. Plath, produced an edition of her correspondence entitled Letters Home (1975), and F. McCullough edited The Journals (1982). Sylvia Plath (1987) by Linda Wagner-Martin and Bitter Fame (1989) by Anne Stevenson are biographical studies.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Ellis’ [Edith Mary Pargeter] ‘Peters Biography to Portrait of Dora (Portrait de Dora)