Sylvia Plath, an American author, is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. October 27 would have been her 87th birthday. Plath is widely heralded as a pioneer in the field of confessional poetry, and she is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry through her published collections The Colossus and Ariel.
According to Google, Plath’s “painfully honest poetry and prose gave voice to the author’s innermost emotions in ways that touched generations of readers… Her works often used heavy imagery and metaphors, set amongst scenes of winter and frost, as shown in today’s Doodle.”
Read on to learn more about Plath and her groundbreaking career:
1. Plath Was a Boston Native Who Published Her First Poem At Age 8
Plath was born on October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father, Otto Plath, was an author and biology professor who taught at Boston University. Otto died a week after Plath’s eighth birthday, and the loss had a devastating impact on her. According to the Poetry Foundation, Plath began to write as a means of coping with her feelings of abandonment. In 1940, she published her first poem in the children’s section of the Boston Herald.
Plath continued to publish her poems in regional magazines and newspapers as a teenager. One of her most notable, “Daddy,” spoke directly about her father’s oppressive parenting and his untimely death. In addition to writing, Plath displayed her talents as an artist, winning an award for her paintings from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947. In the book Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, it’s said that her mother pushed her tirelessly to succeed, and that she had an IQ of about 160.
Plath graduated from high school in 1950, the same year that one of her poems was published in a national magazine, Christian Science Monitor. She attended Smith College on scholarship and continued to be an excellent student, winning the Mademoiselle fiction contest during her first year. She graduated summa cum laude in 1955.
2. Plath Attempted Suicide At Age 20 & Was Treated with Electro-Shock Therapy
It was during her undergraduate year at Smith College that Plath began to suffer from depression. In August 1953, she attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. She was 20. She survived the ordeal, and was subsequently hospitalized at McLean Hospital. She spent six months at McLean, during which time she was subjected to insulin and electro-shock therapy treatment.
Plath detailed her battle with depression in her journal. One entry, dated June 20, 1958, delved into her daily struggles, and the emotional lows to which she would occasionally succumb. “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative,” she wrote. “Whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” Plath’s breakdown and recovery would later serve as the inspiration for her only published novel, The Bell Jar.
Plath rebounded from her suicide attempt, as she graduated from Smith College and traveled abroad to further her writing career. She earned a Fulbright grant to study at Newnham College, one of the two women-only colleges at the University of Cambridge. Whilst there, she traveled, wrote poetry, and worked for the student newspaper.
3. She Was Married to English Poet Ted Hughes & They Had 2 Children
Plath met fellow poet Ted Hughes during her time at Cambridge. She detailed their initial encounter in one of her journal entries. “I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the [US] government on a government grant. And I’d read some of Ted’s poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him,” she revealed.
“I went to this little celebration and that’s actually where we met. Then we saw a great deal of each other,” Plath continued. “Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later… We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on.” They married on June 16, 1956.
Plath and Hughes moved back-and-forth between Massachusetts and England. They had two children together: Frieda, born 1960, and Nicholas, born 1962. Despite their idyllic lifestyle, however, Plath and Hughes’ marriage ended in divorce. Hughes left after admitting to an affair with a German woman named Assia Gutmann Wevill, and Plath was left to look after their two children alone.
4. Plath Wrote Her Most Famous Poems During the Final Months of Her Life
While Plath had already published acclaimed collections like The Colossus, she experienced a creative burst during the winter of 1962. She moved to London with her children and rented rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road that was previously owned by poet William Butler Yeats. It was here, during the final months of her life, that she wrote the poems for her final collection, Ariel.
Plath battled depression brought on by the freezing winter and the fact that her children were often sick. She pushed herself to keep working, writing 26 poems in the span of a few months. She also put the finishing touches on her novel The Bell Jar, which was released under the pen name Victoria Lucas in early 1963. Much to her dismay, the novel received mixed reviews from critics. Ariel was subsequently held up for release until 1965.
Boston Review cites Ariel as a watershed moment in feminist literature, and a shining example of the confessional movement. “Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified,” the publication wrote. “Sylvia Plath was no longer an isolated victim, but the avatar of a new female literary consciousness.”
5. Plath Died by Suicide at Age 30
Plath’s depressive episode led to her suffering from insomnia, and she lost 20 pounds as a result. On February 11, 1963, she wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call a doctor, then she decided to take her own life by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 30 years old.
Some have speculated that Plath did not intend to kill herself due to her request for a doctor, but most, including close friends Al Alvarez and Jillian Becker, agree that she planned to take her own life. Her body was laid to rest at Heptonstall. Plath’s daughter Frieda went on to become a writer and a poet, while her son Nicholas was a scientist at the University of Alaska. The latter committed suicide on March 16, 2009.
Plath’s reputation as a poet rose to even greater heights after her death. In addition to Ariel, three volumes of her work were published, including The Collected Poems, which won a 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.