Sylvia Plath: How the Famous Poet Struggled With Mental Illness

Sylvia Plath’s poetry was her unique way of trying to show others “what it is like to be alive in this body-mind.”

Jan 27, 2022By Mary Karagkou, MA English Literature & Philosophy
Sylvia Plath portrait famous poet

 

Sylvia Plath’s poetry shaped 20th-century literature, although she didn’t leave much work behind. Her powerful yet simple words often created bleak and heart-wrenching imagery, as she bravely alluded to her own struggles with mental health. The poetry collection Ariel, released after her death in 1965, has multiple references about occasions in her life that frustrated her. Eventually, they led her to take her own life. Three poems in the collection stand out regarding the theme of mental health: “Lady Lazarus,” “Cut,” and “Daddy.” Intense feelings reverberate through every line of these poems. Read more to find out if her illness ultimately destroyed her creativity, or if it’s the reason why her writing has become renowned today.

 

Sylvia Plath: A Disrupted Life

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Plath Family by Aurelia Greenwood Schober, 1933, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, after her father, college professor Otto Plath, immigrated to America from Germany with her mother. She had a very turbulent relationship with her father, leaving her with many unresolved feelings when he passed away in 1940. Around that time, she kept a journal and developed an affinity for expressing her emotions in the form of writing. Having a diary led her to get a scholarship at Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college, in 1950.

 

While she was at university in 1953, she started working as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. It was also that same year that she made her first suicide attempt. She had to put a pause on her studies, and she went to McLean Hospital to recover. Critics have argued that her time in psychiatric care was the inspiration behind her only novel, The Bell Jar.

 

After two years of inner healing, she completed her degree and received a scholarship from the Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of Cambridge in England. She never stopped writing and continually published her poetry in the student newspaper Varsity during her studies. In February 1956, a year after she moved to England, she met her future husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. They fell in love quite quickly and passionately. It was no surprise that they got married in London a few months later, on the 16th of June. They moved back to America in 1957, after Plath finished her degree at Cambridge. Not long after their return, Plath briefly taught English at Smith College.

 

An Unhappy Marriage

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Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, England by Harry Odgen, 1956, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

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It quickly became clear that Sylvia Plath still had depression, even in a seemingly happy marriage. She stopped working at Smith College and soon took a job as a receptionist of the psychiatric unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. At the same time, she took creative writing lessons and met Robert Lowell and writer Anne Sexton. She eventually confessed to them that her mental health wasn’t getting any better in her marriage and alluded to her previous suicide attempt.

 

In April 1960, she gave birth to her first child, Frieda, and got pregnant almost immediately after. Unfortunately, her second pregnancy led to a miscarriage, something that hindered her relationship with Ted Hughes. That same year, she finished writing her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, but didn’t publish it immediately. She was afraid of confessing too much about her own life through such a deeply personal story.

 

In 1961, Ted and Sylvia rented a flat owned by Assia and David Wevill. Hughes was entranced by Mrs. Wevill from the moment he laid eyes on her and later went on to have an affair with her. Although she had started off as friends with Assia, Plath was smart enough to find out what was going on between them. That was a significant moment in her depressive episodes, which she clearly expressed through several of her poems, “Lady Lazarus” in particular.

 

Her marriage had an air of melancholy since its beginning, and the affair with Wevill fostered an environment of anger and sadness for Sylvia. Thus, it was no surprise that the pair divorced in September of 1962. Astonishingly enough, that’s exactly when Plath started writing all her confessional poetry and completed all the poems one can find today in her poetry collection Ariel.

 

Mental Health and Death

sylvia plath mental health
Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna, 1959, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

1962 and 1963 were some of Sylvia Plath’s most difficult years. Her mental health was at an all-time low for several reasons: she was left with two children alone after her husband divorced her for someone she thought was better. In 1963, she published The Bell Jar under the nickname Victoria Lucas, and it was completely disregarded by her beloved writing community. The fact that her hard work went unacknowledged was the final straw for her, especially since that book mirrored a lot of her own struggles with depression.

 

Her severe depressive episodes started six months before her death. She constantly felt surges of anxiety, thoughts of suicide had become a daily habit, and eventually, she felt as though she could not do even the simplest tasks. On February 11th, 1963, at 30 years old, she was found dead in her house after inhaling gas from her oven. Life had become too much for her.

 

As readers, we end up finding out more grueling details about what was going on in her head in her later poetry that Ted Hughes took the liberty to publish. During her months of depression, Sylvia had written like never before. She put the monsters that frolicked in her head onto paper just to get a taste of relief.

 

Getting Plath’s Poetry Published

sylvia plath poetry bell jar
Manuscript of the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1961, via British Library, London

 

After Sylvia Plath’s passing, her ex-husband Ted Hughes went over the poetry and journals she had left behind. This is how the poetry collection Ariel came to be. Hughes was its editor, which is also the main reason why most of the poems were altered in the first version.

 

In 2004, Ariel was published again, without Hughes’s modifications and with the addition of a foreword by her daughter, Frieda Hughes. A lot could be said regarding the fact that Hughes altered a female poet’s literary property – even if that poet was his former wife. In any case, the unmodified version was highly praised by her already-existing fans. The poems were intense, chilling, and had a confessional tone to them. It’s only natural that they were so since most of them were written a few months before her suicide.

 

In the end, poetry was what was keeping her alive. She wrote to forget and to remember, hurt and laugh, and sometimes to let herself feel something other than utter despair. Battling with severe manic episodes while also keeping it together for her children was certainly not easy.

 

Writing was an anchor for her to reality, and that’s apparent when one opens up Ariel and reads a few passages from her poems discussing suicide. Indeed, she also wrote letters to her psychiatrist Ruth Barnhouse, describing her feelings more explicitly. Still, her poetry was her creative release from the demons of the past that so evidently taunted her.

 

“Lady Lazarus” 

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Sylvia Plath standing beside her bicycle by Marcia B. Stern, 1951, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

Some poems stand out in Ariel due to her word sequences and the vivid imagery which came out of them. It can be argued that “Lady Lazarus,” “Cut,” and “Daddy” in particular are the most striking poems in the collection. Let’s take a look at the first one for a moment.

 

Even the title, “Lady Lazarus,” is something completely new; Plath is taking a risk by turning a symbol of Christianity into a woman. In the Bible, Jesus Christ resurrects Lazarus from the dead, which also happens to the character in the poem. Analysts of “Lady Lazarus” from the British Library have argued that Plath is confessing to events that happened in her own life through that very poem. She talks about her three suicide attempts and her fascination with death as she exclaims that “Dying/ Is an art/ like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” Yet, life had always found a way to bring her back.

 

At first glance, this poem might seem like an adoration of death, even an appraisal of committing suicide and the thrill of waking up and finding out that you are alive after all. However, the title and the final stanza suggest otherwise. “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair / and I eat men like air,” she writes, and the image that arises is the one of a phoenix-like woman who rises out of anything that life throws at her. It’s contradictory to the bleak images that she previously painted so vividly. That is exactly the point, however, this poem is a very accurate portrayal of the constantly conflicting highs and lows she experienced, according to her journals and letters.

 

“Cut”

sylvia plath portrait
Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, 1956, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

On the other hand, “Cut” is a completely different story. The poem begins with a story of how the character, presumably Plath, accidentally cut “[her] thumb instead of an onion.” Even the words in the lines of the stanzas are short, almost cut themselves. The pain of the accident is then described as a “celebration,” which is quite odd. The event is sickeningly enjoyable at the beginning of the poem but quickly turns into self-loathing as the words used to describe her and her deformed finger become increasingly negative. The narrative voice, or Plath, clearly detests itself for its own feelings: the “thrill” turns to hatred for the thrill. Once again, another poem riddled with contradiction depicts the clear instability of her mental health.

 

“Daddy”

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Twas the Night Before Monday by Sylvia Plath, Undated, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

Daddy” is a poem in which the narrative voice expresses the feelings of the loss of a father, presumably Sylvia Plath’s own father. Indeed, it is a very dark poem since the narrator explores the tumultuous relationship with the parent and yet how his death was extremely upsetting.

 

Sylvia Plath’s own father passed away when she was only eight years old. In “Daddy,” she tried to find a way to be “through” of the unresolved feelings for him. Even from the beginning of the poem, the narrator exclaims, “Daddy, I have had to kill you/ You died before I had time.” The dysphoria felt is very apparent from the start and even more vividly so at the end, where “Daddy” is described as a “bastard.”

 

The feelings of fear, suffocation, and inability to communicate with the parental figure run throughout the poem. There’s no empowering ending like in “Lady Lazarus,” only anger and delirium. However, there is a resolution in the final line of “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” The narrator is done with the feelings of frustration and the trauma the father might have caused. There is no absolution towards the events that transpired, just a release of the anger onto which the author had held.

 

Sylvia Plath: A Creative Genius

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Sylvia “Marilyn” Shot by Gordon Ames Lameyer, June 1954, via National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington DC

 

Sylvia Plath was an immensely strong person and artist, expressing her asphyxiating feelings in a unique way. During her life, she sought a way to hold on through writing about her mental health. It is an honor and a privilege to have access to her bravely expressed directory of private thoughts at this day and age, where, in certain societies, mental illnesses remain a taboo subject and are thus ignored.

 

All of her pieces of work, but Ariel in particular, can be seen as the products of a creative genius. Although Plath eventually succumbed to her mental illness, she was alive for long enough to talk about it and create raw and true oeuvres exposing the inner turmoil of her thoughts. It’s an exciting thought that her art is becoming a symbol for normalizing the taboos around mental health. Perhaps that was the reason she wrote so fervently in the last months before her death, and it’s the reason she will be remembered as a significant and vitally important voice for generations to come.



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By Mary KaragkouMA English Literature & PhilosophyMary is a writer and editor with a love for poetry and fantasy novels that harbor philosophical concepts within them. She holds an MA in English Literature and Philosophy from the University of Glasgow, with a focus on Ethics, Creative Writing and Fantastic Histories of the 20th century. Mary recently started writing for TheCollector’s Philosophy and Literature department. She fills her free time with writing poems, reading novels from all genres, and learning about new and old literary theories.