By Margaret Drabble
Sylvia Plath was the first poet to write great poetry about childbirth. Her suicide at the age of 30 made her a legend, but she left a legacy far richer than the story of her tragic death. Her poetry is appalling but it is also exhilarating. She embodied a seismic shift in consciousness which enabled us to feel and think as we do today, and of which she was a supremely vulnerable and willing casualty. She changed our world.
She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932, and for most of the first two decades of her life appeared to play the role of dutiful American daughter and exemplary A-grade scholarship student. But the sudden death of her German-born father, Otto Plath, when she was eight inflicted psychic damage which she nursed, explored, inflamed, and was to turn into triumphant and terrible verse for the rest of her life. He died of undiagnosed diabetes after a leg amputation, and the theme of surgery, pathology, bereavement and unresolved loss surges through her poetry, culminating in one of her most famous poems, Daddy, where the lost father and the unfaithful husband merge in an extraordinary sequence of images drawn from the Holocaust. In Plath’s work, the personal spreads into the cosmic and the local explodes into the universal. Some have judged her a tragedy queen, self-aggrandising and histrionic, but perhaps she may be better seen as a vessel through which the horrors of history were permitted to pour.
In 1953, while still at college, she had a mental breakdown culminating in a suicide attempt and was treated with ECT, an experience which, like her father’s death, was to provide her with a store of images, and which she describes in her one novel, The Bell Jar. She recovered to make the fateful journey to England where, in Cambridge, she met Ted Hughes, whom she married in 1956. Their careers collided in a period of creativity and mutual inspiration; they were acknowledged as the stars of their generation. Their work was primal, visceral, intensely physical. Technically accomplished, both wrote from the body, not the head. … more>>