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The Tragic Darkness Behind The Genius: The Compelling Life Of Sylvia Plath

In spite of passing away at a young age, the writer’s spirit still lives in her works, allowing Plath to continue causing a cultural impact.

Once upon a time, in a not so far away land called Boston, a baby came to the world on October 27, 1932. The child was born from a marriage between Otto Plath, a German immigrant professor, and Aurelia Schober, a master's student who also happened to be Otto’s pupil.

Unbeknown to her, in the years to come, the girl would become a prodigy in the arts of poetry and storytelling. Yet, even though she achieved academic and social success, at a personal level, the writer suffered from deep sadness. Depression started to consume her until, at the age of thirty, her life would tragically come to an end. 

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Sylvia Plath has been considered one of the best American poets due to her unique imagery style and her witty use of rhyme. Inspired by her life and women’s situation during the mid 20th century, Sylvia wrote acclaimed works such as Ariel, a collection of poems, and The Bell Jar, her semi-autobiographical novel. She won many literary contests, sold her first poem while still in high school, and was even awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, becoming the first to receive the honor posthumously. 

Her life in itself was a compelling story. Some of it had tragic moments that would push her to mental breakdowns and suicide, but some bits withstood her artistic and passionate character.

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Dealing with depression:

Thanks to her skills, Sylvia Plath obtained a scholarship to attend Smith College, a liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Massachusetts. There, Plath became the editor of The Smith Review and was granted a summer internship at Mademoiselle magazine, spending one month in New York, during her third year of college. 

Nevertheless, the experience was far from what Sylvia had expected. She described her time in New York as "pain, parties, work." This experience unleashed a severe identity crisis in her.

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In 1953, Sylvia committed her first suicide attempt by taking her mother’s sleeping pills; she was found in her house's cellar. Shortly after recovering, in August of the same year, she went missing; her disappearance was reported in the newspapers, radio, and television. 

Her disappearance and suicide attempt made it to numerous articles in notorious journals of the time, like The Boston Globe and The Boston Daily Record. At the moment, many pointed out the parallels between Sylvia and Esther, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, in which the main plot revolves around the character’s anxiety and depression that began while being invited to a famous New York magazine, just like Sylvia did. 

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An alternative path as a visual artist

Before devoting her life to writing, Sylvia considered becoming a studio artist. In fact, when she enrolled at Smith College, Plath chose a major in visual arts. However, her teachers saw her potential with the words and convinced her to switch to an English degree. 

Still, even if Sylvia devoted her time to writing, she never forgot her love for the visual arts. She created various paintings and collages, each one recreating her sense of humor. Recently, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery displayed some of her works in One Life: Sylvia Plath, an exhibition that lasted from 2017 to 2018. 

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The display’s curator, Dorothy Moss, stated the following: "Sylvia Plath's fascination with images and imaging was a strong part of her identity. The exhibition allows us to see what she described as her 'visual imagination' in all its complexity."

A new beginning and a tragic end

Plath was married to English poet Ted Hughes for about seven years. Plath described the relationship as "full of abuses," and in 1962, she separated definitely from Hughes after discovering he was having an affair. Sylvia Plath left her ex’s home with their two children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes. In December of that same year, the family moved into a new house. Their address would be 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, London. 

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What’s so special about this place was the fact that, in 1957, a blue plaque was put up at the front stating that the building used to be the boyhood home of a distinguished Irish poet and dramatist: William Butler Yeats.

"The street and the house... where I've always wanted to live... It is WB Yeats’ house – with a blue plaque over the door, saying he lived there," described Sylvia.

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Unfortunately, Plath’s depression followed her to London, prompting her insomnia, depressive episodes, and suicidal thoughts. On the morning of February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath was found dead with her head in the oven while her children were sleeping. There has been a debate regarding her final action. Some say that it was a planned suicide. Others believe that it was a cry for help. 

Despite passing away at a young age, the writer’s spirit still lives in her works, allowing Plath to continue causing a cultural impact.

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Photos from Flickr: Sabrina King / Breut Helene / irene molina

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