The year 2023 marks the 60th year of Sylvia Path’s tragic death. Plath holds the unique distinction of confirming and defying the elements of Nature and nurture, of heredity and environment through her entire life and not alone through her poetry. She died by suicide on February 11 1963.

Decades later, questions about the blurring of her life with her writing, continue to haunt her fans. Where do her life and her poetry begin? She defies death with her poetry. This bears evidence when her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982, more than 20 years after her death. This is a rare honour because the Pulitzer is almost never awarded posthumously.

“The poems Plath wrote in the last five years of her life, leading to the ones she composed in 1962, the year of her ‘Ariel’ poems, were so distinctive – such virtuoso performances in technique, such spellbinding expressions of emotion – that the Pulitzer Jury to award the prize to no other book,” her biographer Linda W. Wagner-Martin writes.

If Plath’s gifted heredity and an idyllic childhood sowed in her the seeds of excellence and perfection, then they also neatly placed her in the unending psychological dilemma of wanting to live up to what was expected of her by her mother and what she really wanted to do with her life.

Her parents Otto and Arellia Schober Plath were intellectuals in their own right. She, the first offspring of her parents, was born three weeks premature, and nurtured by her mother in a carefully constructed environment.

Plath made personal notes in her diaries. These writings were distanced from her writings for public consumption, offering a glimpse into her emotional insecurities. Plath drew heavily on her life for her poetry and also, for her fiction.

Her single published novel, ‘The Bell Jar’, said to be an unfinished piece of work, is now hailed as a modern classic. Like most writers however, Plath changed the facts of life in her creative writing.

For several years after her marriage to Nobel Laureate Ted Hughes, Plath’s writings were born of lists of subjects and themes Hughes drew up for her. Most of what she wrote during September-October 1961, such as Finisterre, The Surgeon at 2 a.m. and The Moon and the Yew Tree she writes:

“The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness…
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.”

This poem began as an exercise. But it soon evolved into one of her strongest, most surprising and most intense poems. “I live here,” she says in the poem, reinforcing her right to be, rooted in the ancient culture, and its graveyard, observed and scrutinised by the moon as it were, reminding her of her own mother with whom she shared a love-hate relationship.

It vacillated between total dependence and absolute yet vain attempts at alienation. She insists therefore that the moon, like her mother, lacks tenderness. The poem marks a phase in her creative life that unfolds her growing sense of discomfort and foreboding in her Devon environment where she wrote it.

At Devon, Plath lived many lives, trying to excel in each of them, sometimes succeeding at and sometimes failing, revealing the imperfections of simply being human. But she failed to cope with this reality of being ‘just human.’

She somehow appeared to cope but could not. Against the backdrop of her failing health and dwindling funds, her only solace was that Ted was with her. As 1961 dawned, her poetry revealed images of blackness, fear and hopelessness.

At the end of the bushes in Blackberrying is “nothing, nothing by a great space.” In Finisterre, the ‘Bay of the Dead’ dominates the landscape. The strong influence of M.S. Merwin is increasingly felt in the poems she wrote when she lived in Devon.

Merwin’s poems are noted for their macabre and existential vision and bleak symbolism. “As she made bright curtains,” writes Wagner-Martin, “baked whole-wheat banana bread and painted flowers on the furniture, she was arriving at a different sense of her identity as a woman. Whether her convictions came from Paul Radin’s African legends and art, or from Robert Graves’ ‘The White Goddess’, or from D.H. Lawrence or Carl Jung or Theodore Roethke, she was discovering that the objects and events of her daily life were the subjects she wanted to write about.”

Literary critics across the world raved and still rave over her ‘Ariel’ poems rather than the poems she wrote from those lists made by Hughes. They were based on her own themes, her own imagination because by then, Hughes had walked out of Plath’s life, leaving her with a pain she could never grow out of.

Five, magnificent ‘bee’ poems are a part of her ‘Ariel’ collection. They define her survival poetry, describing the joy of creation as lived in the community of bees. The old queen fights for being dispossessed by more beautiful and younger queens and emerges triumphant at the end of the fight. “Winter is for women,” she writes.

Women survive together. With the approach of winter, the community that endures is female:

“They have got rid of the men
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.”

These poems are “for the ear, not the eye: they are poems written out loud” said Plath of her poems. Sad however, that what draws people to Sylvia Plath today are her repeated attempts to take her life and her ultimate suicide rather than her writing.

As sadistic, intellectually voyeuristic humans, we seem to remain more intrigued by the reasons why a creative genius is driven to take her own life. In effect, this marginalises our explorations of the quality, the richness and the creations she invested her writings and her life with. Never mind its tragic end.

In retrospect, Plath has evolved into the eternal woman, because all women everywhere identify with some or other phase of her life and perhaps, also her death. She forever swayed between optimism and depression, between strong impulses of creativity and long phases of stagnancy, between clarity and diffusion, between certainty and confusion.

When Plath died, a whole generation painted Hughes as a callous husband whose infidelity drove her to kill herself. But his tragic story did not end with her death. For, his second wife, Assia Wevill, whose affair with Hughes, led Plath to her suicide, also killed herself alongwith their young daughter Shura.

Plath's most celebrated poem ‘Daddy’, written on October 12 the year before she died, fuses the images of Hughes and her dead, German-born father presenting both as Nazi oppressors and tormentors.