Skip to main content

About this book

Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known and most widely-studied writers of the twentieth century. Since her death in 1963, critics have presented different images of Plath: the 'suicidal' poet, the frustrated wife and mother, the feminist precursor.

In this lively and approachable introduction to the author's poetry, Susan Bassnett offers a balanced view of Plath as one of the finest contemporary poets, and shows the diversity of her work. Bassnett's refreshing perspective on the writer provides a welcome alternative to the many studies which attempt endlessly to psychoanalyse Plath posthumously. Bassnett argues that there can never be any definitive version of the Plath story, but, from close readings of her texts, readers can discover the excitement of her diverse work. Plath is not viewed as an author driven by a death wish, nor does the book focus on her suicide - instead, she is considered in the cultural context in which she wrote, and viewed as a complex writer.
Now thoroughly revised and expanded in the light of recent research, the second edition of this essential text contains new chapters and more close reading of the poetry. It concludes with an analysis of Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, a collection of poems which he wrote about his wife after her death.

Table of Contents


Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known women poets of the twentieth century. Her fame has eclipsed even that of great, world-famous female poets, such as the Russian Anna Akhmatova, or Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean writer who won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1945. Yet unlike those poets, whose international reputations were established during their lifetime, Plath’s fame came more slowly, growing gradually after her death in 1963 to the point where, at the end of the century, she had acquired an almost mythical status, inspiring dozens of biographies, critical studies, memoirs, performances and even, by 2003, a Hollywood film about her life, with Gwyneth Paltrow playing Sylvia.
Susan Bassnett

1. Tracing a Life

In one of the first entries in her Journal, written in the summer of 1950 when she was eighteen years old, Sylvia Plath recorded her thoughts about being a writer and about her relationship as a writer with the world:
I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love’s not impersonal, yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions as that person.1
Susan Bassnett

2. Poetry as Process

The first edition of Sylvia Plath’s Journals edited by Ted Hughes and Frances MacCullagh, was published in 1982, one year after the appearance of her Collected Poems. Eighteen years later, in 2000, Karen V. Kukil edited a full, unabridged version of the Journals, using the 23 extant handwritten and typed manuscripts that span Plath’s adult life, from her years as a student at Smith College to the period shortly before her death. The Journals shed light not only on Plath’s thoughts about writing, but also on her creative process. They are clearly personal documents about her feelings, but were also a space in which she could try out ideas and note incidents and thoughts that she would later transform through language, either in her prose writing or in her poetry.
Susan Bassnett

3. God, Nature and Writing

There are notable differences between Sylvia Plath’s earlier poetry and the poems written in the last 18 months of her life, differences not only of subject matter and imagery but also, especially, of form. This has led some critics to see her early poetry (the Juvenilia of the Collected Poems or the poems published in her lifetime in the volume The Colossus) as a prelude to her later work. Suzanne Juhasz, for example, notes how many commentators have analysed these poems in terms of their being influenced by other writers (mainly Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas) and adds her own comment that ‘this is a glittery, brilliant, self-conscious poetry of surface, a cold poetry’.1
Susan Bassnett

4. Writing the Family

Sylvia Plath was both daughter and mother, a dual role that recurs throughout her writing. Psychoanalytical critics have tried to show that her entire output is concerned with exorcising the figures of her dead father and possessive mother. Others, such as Alvarez, have suggested that her role of artist was somehow incompatible with her role as mother. Describing a meeting with her in 1960, he describes her as ‘a lovely young housewife’. Later, meeting her again after the birth of Nicholas in 1962, he suggests that her ‘new confident air’ that made her no longer ‘a housewifely appendage to a powerful husband’ might have been linked to the fact that she had given birth to a son.1 Both these positions seem to me to be both false and extreme. There are certainly attempts through the writing to rethink the poet’s relationship with both her father and her mother and there are many poems and a good deal of prose that tackles the question of motherhood in its own right, but no evidence of psychosis in either. Had Sylvia Plath lived and been able to participate in the discussions on women and the family that were to follow ten years after her death, she would have found herself in the company of many other women, all wrestling with the same problems. The need to think through the roles of a woman as daughter to a man, as daughter to a woman, as mother in turn to a female and a male child is a central preoccupation of the literature produced by the women’s movement of the late sixties and early seventies. Sylvia Plath was exceptional not because she was somehow deranged but because she was trying to confront those problems ahead of their time.
Susan Bassnett

5. Writing out Love

The poems written to her children reflect a passionate mother-love in the detailed beauty of imagery. The dead babies in glass jars have been transformed and the living babies are represented with love and tenderness:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses.
‘Morning Song’
I rock you like a boat
Across the Indian carpet, the cold floor
‘By Candlelight’
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Your small
Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
… He bites,
Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water
Susan Bassnett

6. Poetry and Survival

A confessional poet, an extremist poet, a post-romantic poet, a pre-feminist poet, a suicidal poet — all these terms have been used (and are still being used) in attempts to define and explain Sylvia Plath’s writing. Some critics have seen her as schizoid, carrier of a death wish that they perceive in everything she ever wrote. Others have seen her as the victim of male brutality, destroyed by a faithless husband, having been undermined by an ambitious mother, over compensating for her own inadequate marriage. There will no doubt be other equally extravagant ‘explanations’ of her writing in the future, since, like the works of Keats, with whom she shares the dubious honour of having died young, her writing does not slot easily into categories and headings.
Susan Bassnett

7. Plath Translated: Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters

The publication of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters in 1998 was perceived generally as an extraordinary literary event, for Hughes had consistently sought to maintain silence and not to engage in public debates about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. He completed the manuscript a year earlier, and in January 1998 a selection of the poems with a commentary by Erica Wagner was published in The Times. In her biography of Hughes, Elaine Feinstein notes that as early as 1989 he had apparently told Carolyne Wright, a young translator in Bangladesh that he was writing poems about his private life,1 but when the poems appeared the literary world was astounded. The collection won the Forward Prize for Poetry and entered the British best-selling books lists. Hughes’ decision to break his long-standing silence had a huge impact, and through the poems we are able to look again not only at their relationship as husband and wife, but also at the relationship between two great writers, one of whom poured out all the violence that was in her heart while the other refused almost to speak her name for decades.
Susan Bassnett
Additional information