Sylvia Plath had acquired a modest reputation as a poet when she committed suicide 50 years ago, on February 11, 1963. Just 30 years old, she was as well known in England as the wife of the more famous poet Ted Hughes. That might have added to her depression, but she was far from stilled. Instead, in the six months preceding her death, she produced the stunning confessional poems collected in 1965 as Ariel, with their shocking equations: father as Nazi, husband as beast, society as prison.
Two weeks before her death, Plath’s novel The Bell Jar appeared under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Anyone who read it—and not many did on its initial release—might have seen bad things coming for its author. Anyone who knew the young writer closely—and such people were also very few—would have known that the things she described in her work were real: the shock treatments and suicide attempts and heartfelt attempts to embrace what others might call the normal worlds of motherhood, wifedom, academia, and authorship.
Plath’s marriage to Hughes was famously uneasy, marked for decades after her death by allegations and accusations. After separating from him, she found a Cassandra-like voice in a sequence of verse often called “the October poems,” which are now the standards of anthologies and workshops: “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “Death & Company.” Few poems of their day—or any day, for that matter—carry as much weighty anger, and without exception, the editors with whom she had been working declined to publish them.
In the years since her death, those poems have become emblems, much imitated and much admired; without them, later poets such as Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton might have found it much harder to find publication. And Plath has come to be seen alternately as a victim or as, well, self-indulgent for having left the world while caring for two infant children.
The facts support the former view, though to be pro-Plath does not require one to be anti-Hughes. We may learn more such facts now that portions of her archives are being unsealed, a decade and a half after Hughes’ own death. For now, it is worth noting that the winter in which Sylvia Plath died was one of the coldest on record, which would not have helped matters; after relocating to London from the countryside, she wrote to her mother, “Thank goodness I got out of Devon in time. I would have been buried for ever under this record 20ft snowfall with no way to dig myself out.” It is also worth noting that the medical approach to what we now call clinical depression was much less sympathetic to sufferers in her time than it is today.
Sylvia Plath stands at the head of a long, illustrious list of literary suicides (“One year in every ten/I manage it”), and she is read, perhaps unfairly, with that sad end in mind. Her poems, marking a terrible struggle, remain very much alive.