Plath’s Voices Women’s Experience

Sylvia Plath’s book of poetry The Colossus fused personal pain and women’s experience in verse that came to be known as “confessional” poetry.

Summary of Event

Although Sylvia Plath’s reputation as a poet was growing in the late 1950’s, she had a hard time publishing her first book-length collection. After some delay, The Colossus was first published by Methuen Press Methuen Press in England in the fall of 1960. Plath herself was living in England, where she had gone to live with her British husband after her college graduation and her first literary success. Colossus, The (Plath)
[kw]Plath’s The Colossus Voices Women’s Experience (Fall, 1960)[Plaths The Colossus Voices Women’s Experience]
[kw]Colossus Voices Women’s Experience, Plath’s The (Fall, 1960)
[kw]Women’s Experience, Plath’s The Colossus Voices (Fall, 1960)[Womens Experience, Plath’s The Colossus Voices]
Colossus, The (Plath)
[g]Europe;Fall, 1960: Plath’s The Colossus Voices Women’s Experience[06680]
[g]United Kingdom;Fall, 1960: Plath’s The Colossus Voices Women’s Experience[06680]
[c]Literature;Fall, 1960: Plath’s The Colossus Voices Women’s Experience[06680]
[c]Women’s issues;Fall, 1960: Plath’s The Colossus Voices Women’s Experience[06680]
Plath, Sylvia
Hughes, Ted
Roethke, Theodore

In England, Plath’s startlingly revealing, but tightly crafted, poems were received favorably but quietly. Reviewers for The Manchester Guardian, Time and Tide, Punch, and other journals praised her craft and precision while in some cases criticizing the elements of gloom and negativity that dominated the collection. Plath’s earlier losses, depressions, and flirtations with death are present in the poems, but they are concealed and controlled by patterns that range from sonnets to syllable-counting forms. British readers and critics basically liked her approach.

Plath, however, would not feel that she had fully arrived as a poet until she had an American edition of her book and an American audience receive it. Her personal life was in turmoil during the two years between her English and American publications, and her poetic style was changing, veering more toward acutely painful revelation and away from the forms that controlled the earlier emotional outpourings and the masks that disguised them. Her husband, poet Ted Hughes, was achieving rapid success, but her own life seemed to be on hold. Her baby took up most of her time, and she suffered a miscarriage, underwent an appendectomy, and then conceived the couple’s second child. Financial pressures were an ever-present worry. Nevertheless, while she attempted to keep her life together and while she continued to write poems in her developing new style, Plath was also trying to find an American outlet for those earlier poems that she knew to be successful.

Finally, on the recommendation of Stanley Kunitz Kunitz, Stanley , the book was accepted by Alfred A. Knopf Alfred A. Knopf for publication in 1962. (Kunitz had suggested that one or two of the poems in the British edition be deleted because they were too obviously like those of Theodore Roethke, a poet Plath much admired for his ability to weld craft to personal revelation in poems that were both moving and intelligent.) Plath returned home from the hospital after her appendectomy in March, 1961, to the good news that Knopf had bought her book. The editors finally chose to delete a number of poems, finding the collection too long, but Plath was so ecstatic about receiving a contract from a major American publisher that she did not care.

The Colossus was published on May 14, 1962. At that time, Plath’s newer poems were appearing in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Poetry, and elsewhere; her professional accomplishments were at a peak. By then, however, her personal life was deteriorating drastically. Her husband was unfaithful, and the couple separated, leaving Plath to rear two children alone and without money. Partly because of this financial need and partly because she had sold her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar
Bell Jar, The (Plath) (1963), to Heinemann in England, Plath began to entertain the possibility of supporting herself through commercial fiction. Knopf, though, rejected The Bell Jar—Plath’s own editor criticized its point of view as unbelievable—and she received rejections of other work as well. Her career appeared to have gone into a sudden downswing to match that of her personal life. First reviews of the American version of The Colossus were warm but sparse. Her frustration and desperation grew as she dealt with the difficulties of planning a divorce, taking care of the children, and trying to find time to write.

Plath’s letters, poems, and notes from the period of May, 1962, until her death nine months later show that the optimism and high spirits engendered by the publication of The Colossus faded very quickly in the face of personal disaster and apparent professional rejection. She seemed unable to decide on a course of action and follow it. She needed to find a place to live, and she decided to remain in England, perhaps because it seemed to her that England was more hospitable to her work. Money continued to be a pressing problem. She decided to move from the country area to London; more services were available to her there, and she believed that she would have more stimulating company, but she could not find an affordable London apartment. As her last personal triumph, however, she found a flat in London in the building that had once housed William Butler Yeats and promptly moved into it, believing that Yeats’s spirit would inspire her.

Sylvia Plath in 1955.

(Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

The winter that followed this move, however, proved to be the last straw for Plath. She found herself physically isolated with her children, cold most of the time, and sick with the flu and other illnesses. She was now writing poetry of sheer, unadulterated pain, and she was seeing doctors and psychiatrists to seek remedies for her multiple problems. Her unresolved feelings about the death of her father in her childhood merged with her rage and pain at her husband’s rejection into a cloud of depression. She rose early each morning before the children and wrote agonized, death-dominated poems until her children’s needs claimed her. “The blood jet is poetry,” she claimed in one of her last pieces. “There is no stopping it.” She did find a way to stop it, however.

On the night of February 11, 1963, Plath left mugs of milk and plates of bread for the children, sealed the kitchen door with towels to prevent the escape of gas, turned on the taps of the gas oven, and put her head in the oven. Her suicide came less than one year after the triumph of the American publication of The Colossus and, ironically, was likely the cause of her book’s later success.


The publication of The Colossus by itself did not, as the number and extent of reviews testify, rock the literary world. Upon its appearance, the book received only a few brief notices. Ironically, the most enthusiastic first reviews of the book were written immediately but did not appear until after Plath’s death; these included responses by Richard Howard and Mark Linenthal. A brief, ambivalent review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in August of 1961; that and a review by an old friend, E. Lucas Myers, which offered qualified praise, may have been all the published responses available to Plath by the time of her death.

It was the suicide of the poet and the resultant attention to the problem of the troubled artist that made the name Sylvia Plath a household word and made her one of the leading figures of the confessionalist school of poetry. Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) was a major influence on Plath’s later poems, and Lowell and Roethke both preceded her in this subgenre. Critics of the 1970’s, during which many believe the confessional mode dominated poetry, linked Plath’s name with those of Roethke, Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman in a list of major confessionalist poets whose work has outlasted the trend.

A group of Plath’s late poems appeared in Encounter
Encounter (periodical) five months after she died, sparking discussions of the connection between art and pathology and initiating research into Plath’s work. The Encounter group includes two of her most intensely painful outcries, “Daddy” “Daddy” (Plath)[Daddy (Plath)] and “Lady Lazarus,” “Lady Lazarus” (Plath)[Lady Lazarus (Plath)] poems dealing directly with her suicide attempts and her frantic need to cut loose from her father’s ghost and her husband’s memory. Interest in these poems led to increased sales of The Colossus and to the publication of her posthumous book Ariel
Ariel (Plath) (1965). Critics enjoyed comparing the violent and explosive poems of Ariel to the more formalized passions of The Colossus, usually to the detriment of one or the other.

A major effect of Plath’s suicide was to widen the audience for poetry to those who did not usually read contemporary poetry. Many of these readers were women who found in Plath’s description of her paralysis and fear in the male-dominated social machinery a mirror of their own preoccupations. Ariel and The Colossus both sold well, and Plath’s work began to appear in anthologies worldwide and to leave her traces on creative writing programs, where Plath-like revelation became commonplace. Biographer Edward Butscher commented, “Her suicide seemed to have confirmed her pathological art and instigated the kind of cult worship Sylvia herself would have loved.”

The suicide itself was imitated by poet Anne Sexton Sexton, Anne ten years later, after Sexton had written in a poem about her envy of Plath’s suicide. The two had apparently talked about methods and means of killing oneself years before. Other American poets in the 1960’s and 1970’s committed or attempted to commit suicide; no one can estimate what effect Plath’s act had as an influence on these poets. One can only say that there was a tendency in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a tendency observable in the lives and works of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), John Berryman (1914-1972), Sexton herself (1928-1974), and others, to write about nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, and then ultimately to commit suicide. Plath was the first of this group to follow this pattern.

As the 1970’s drew to a close, however, the whole phenomenon of confessional poetry diminished, and newer poetry tended to diverge in two directions. The Language Poets composed work that was increasingly abstract and obscure; other poets, such as Carolyn Forché and Adrienne Rich, moved toward direct political statement. Critics tended to decry confessional poetry as self-indulgent and sensationalistic.

The true and lasting value of Plath’s contribution to American literature, ironically, was not much noted until after the cults died down. Then it could be seen not only that Plath articulated a new female myth but also that her diction and rhythms are very finely attuned to the varying content of her work. Critics of the later periods focus on her gift for mythologizing and the consistency of her myths as well as on her skilled use of poetic conventions to contain and sustain emotion in The Colossus. She is also praised for representing the repression of women of her time with a level of realism few others achieved. Colossus, The (Plath)

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. 1991. New ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999. Readable biography pinpointing the sources of many Plath themes and images.
  • Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Part of the Women Writers series. A basic critical introduction that discusses major images and themes and introduces some of the major critics. Describes formative events in Plath’s life. Easy to read, this book is a good first stop for students. Brief bibliography, index.
  • Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. 1976. New ed. Tucson, Ariz.: Schaffner Press, 2004. A well-written biography featuring an impressive group of photographs. Detailed but readable; uses the poetry and novel to support inferences about Plath’s psyche. Good endnotes; useful bibliographical notes. Index.
  • _______, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. A collection of essays including reminiscences about Plath herself and interpretations of her work. Very useful for a general introduction to Plath. These essays are not heavy-duty scholarship but easy-to-read memoirs and impressionistic analyses.
  • Gill, Jo, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A brief but comprehensive readers’ companion to Plath’s life and work. Bibliography and index.
  • Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. 1991. New ed. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2003. Biography that emphasizes Plath’s suicide and what led up to it. Clear and fascinating, good writing style. No critical analysis, however. Good photographs, a chronology, notes, a brief bibliography, and an index.
  • Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Part of the popular Greenwood Biographies series, this brief but good biography explores the mythology surrounding Plath’s life and work.
  • Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Focuses on the mythological content of Plath’s poems and traces these mythic figures and events. Well written and persuasive; of particular use to those interested in archetypal criticism or in myth generally.
  • Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. A good biographical source for early Plath. Contains appendix of Dido Merwin’s memories of Plath. Index.
  • Vendler, Helen. Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. A literary analysis by a well-known critic that includes a chapter on Plath and The Colossus.
  • Wagner, Linda W., ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988. Gives the reviews and other critical receptions of the individual Plath works. Allows readers to see how attitudes toward Plath developed. Useful bibliography, index.
  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Excellent, thoroughly researched biography. Includes unusually well-chosen photographs that capture the time period as well as sidelights of Plath’s life. Very useful bibliographies, especially of primary sources. Index.

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