At the time of her death in February 1963, aged thirty - tragically she committed suicide - Sylvia Plath had published just one book of poetry to muted response and one novel. Yet she is now recognised as a major poet whose life and work challenge us artistically, psychologically and morally. The catalyst was the Ariel poems. They were discovered after her death by her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, edited by him and were published in 1965. Many were written in the autumn of 1962 after her separation from Ted Hughes and the final poems in January 1963. They are a concentrated rush to greatness - and she knew it. She woke Heaney writes 'already composed' in Yeats's terms into something intended, complete feeling like a very efficient tool or weapon used and in demand from moment to moment.' Plath herself was aware of the power emanating from her - 'These are the poems which will make my name' she wrote to her mother. They did. Larkin said of her poems 'They exist in a prolonged, high-pitched ecstasy like nothing else in Literature.' He wondered had her own talent overwhelmed her. Perhaps.
Like Dickinson, Plath was born in Massachusetts, in 1932. Her father Otto was professor of German, her mother Aurelia, was a teacher. Her father died when she was eight and this terrible loss had a profound and lasting effect on Plath. The family survived - indeed as a young woman Sylvia seemed to thrive. She had a brilliant academic career, she was popular socially, she was vivacious and extremely pretty. However, underneath the surface of this jeunesse doree lay a darker reality. Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression and her mother, aware that the illness was endemic in Otto's family, sought help which included electroconvulsive therapy. When she was twenty-one she attempted suicide. It is to Sylvia Plath's great credit that she continued to work hard and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge where she met Ted Hughes. It was a coup de foudre. They married, had two children, Frieda and Nicholas and they wrote poetry - obsessively. Her early poetry did not come easily to her - 'she composed' ,Ted Hughes tells 'very slowly'. While her greatness rests on the almost ecstatic despair of the Ariel poems, Lady Lazarus, 'Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air '- the tour de force that is Daddy , then Death and Co, Edge poems composed 'in extremis'. The groundwork was laid in those early years.
One must approach Plath with care - as a member of the audience once said to me - 'this is the first time I have ever been frightened by poetry.' Artistically, she went as close to the abyss as it is possible to go and tragically, as a young woman of only 30, in a sense she fell into the abyss. Of her suicide in 1963 her mother wrote 'Her physical energies having been defeated by illness, anxiety and overwork and although she had for so long managed to be gallant and equal to the life experience, some darker day than usual had temporarily made it impossible to pursue.' Seamus Heaney took as the title of his deeply perceptive essay on Plath a line from one of her poems 'The indefatigable hoof-taps'. They continue to reverberate.