Plath, Sylvia

SSylvia Plathylvia Plath (October 27, 1932-February 11, 1963) was a poet, literary critic, novelist, diarist, correspondent and sometime social activist. On the evidence of her intensely confessional poetry, Plath’s personal theology was humanist, with a leaning toward nature mysticism. Throughout her short life she associated closely with the Unitarian church. After her suicide Plath was taken up as a martyr and heroine of the feminist movement.

As a child in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Sylvia attended the Unitarian church with her parents, Otto and Aurelia Plath. She went to a Methodist church when the family lived in Winthrop, Massachusetts, where there was no Unitarian congregation. After Otto died in 1940, Aurelia joined the Wellesley Unitarian Church, where she taught in the Sunday school. Sylvia joined the church youth group and attended a Star Island Unitarian youth conference in 1949. Concerned about the prospect of nuclear war, Sylvia and her friend Perry Norton wrote an anti-arms race essay, “A Youth’s Plea for World Peace,” which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor (March 1950). While a student at Smith College, Sylvia wrote her mother that she believed in “the impersonal laws of science as a God of sorts….” In a religion course she wrote a paper on Unitarianism and identified herself as an “agnostic humanist.”

Following her third year at Smith and a summer 1953 internship at Mademoiselle magazine, Sylvia became clinically depressed. After enduring a painful series of electroconvulsive shock treatments, she hid herself from her family and attempted an overdose of sleeping pills. Unitarian minister Max Gaebler and his wife, friends of the family, joined the local Unitarian minister, William Rice, who was already trying to console the family. Two days later Sylvia was discovered in the crawl space under the house. After psychiatric counseling, insulin therapy, and more shock treatment she returned to Smith. The expense of this treatment was borne by Unitarian novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, who had already underwritten Sylvia’s college education and would remain her counselor, correspondent, and “literary mother” during the remainder of her life.

In The Bell Jar (1963), a novel based upon these traumatic experiences, made into a film released in 1979, Plath portrayed her mother, Mrs. Prouty, and Rev. Rice unsympathetically. Plath later explained to her mother that she had fictionalized “to add color” and “to show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.” She described her process of transforming life into art by saying, “I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.”

In 1956, while studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, Plath married Ted Hughes, later British poet laureate. Although they were married privately by special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury, she planned a second, public, wedding ceremony in the Wellesley Unitarian Church (which did not, in the event, take place). While living in England she attended a parish church for a few months during the winter of 1961-62. Although she thought of herself as “a pagan-Unitarian at best,” she enjoyed the ceremony and the music. She was driven away from the church by a sermon praising the hydrogen bomb as “the happy prospect of the Second Coming.” When she read an American Unitarian sermon on fallout shelters it moved her to tears. She wrote her mother, “I’d really be a church-goer if I was back in Wellesley. . . .the Unitarian Church is my church. How I miss it! There is just no choice here.”

Plath and Ted Hughes separated in 1962. Though the pain of her marital problems may have been a factor, Plath’s suicide in early 1963 was probably a consequence of her pre-existing depressive illness. Yet even while suffering acute distress, Plath continued to compose original poetry of a high order, including her October poems. These late works garnered mixed posthumous reviews, some calling them sick, while others lauded their nobility. The poet Irving Feldman concluded that her spirituality was mad, being “that religion of one—which cannot distinguish between the self and the world.” On the other hand, Stephen Spender rated them the feminine equivalent of Wilfrid Owen’s war poems.Though her work had won several prizes and appeared in various magazines, only one volume of Plath’s poetry, The Colossus (1960), was published during her lifetime. Since her death, three additional collections of her poetry have seen publication, as well as her diary and a collection of her letters. Her Collected Poems (1981) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1983.

The major archives for Sylvia Plath material are the collection purchased from Aurelia Plath, including letters, family papers, and unpublished poems, at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana and the collection purchased from Ted Hughes, including journals, drafts of poetry and the Bell Jar, and materials connected with her life with Hughes, at the Neilson Library, Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Plath’s published letters are in Aurelia Schober Plath, ed., Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963 (1975). The journals have been published as Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000). Much of Plath’s poetry was published originally in periodicals, including The New Yorker, Seventeen, The Christian Science Monitor, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The Nation, The Atlantic, Poetry, and London Magazine. The collections of Plath’s poetry are The Colossus and Other Poems (1962), Ariel (1966, Restored Edition edited by her daughter, Frieda Hughes, 2005), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1972). Her major work is contained in The Collected Poems (1981) and the novel The Bell Jar (1963, first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas). Biographies include Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987) and Paul Alexander, Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991). Of special interest to Unitarian Universalists is Max Gaebler, Sylvia Plath Remembered (1983).

Article by Wesley Hromatko