February 11, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death. To honor her life and work we've compiled a list of ten things she loved and wrote about in her letters, journals, and poems.
1. Sun Bathing
The sun seeped into every pore, satiating every querulous fiber of me into a great glowing golden peace.
As Plath biographer Andrew Wilson notes in his article "Sylvia Plath in Love,"1 "Plath was a self-confessed sun worshipper. In her journal she described the joy she felt after leaving the biting winds and leaden skies of Cambridge behind. Finally, by the time the train reached the Côte d'Azur, she saw what she had been waiting for: 'the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea.'"
In July 1951, Sylvia Plath wrote in her journals:
"Lying on my stomach on the flat warm rock, I let my arm hang over the side, and my hand caressed the rounded contours of the sun-hot stone, and felt the smooth undulations of it. Such a heat the rock had, such a rugged and comfortable warmth, that I felt it could be a human body. Burning through the material of my bathing suit, the great heat radiated through my body..."2
How can I describe the beauty of [this] country?
"Yesterday was about the most lovely in my life," Plath writes on a postcard to her mother, dated January 7, 1956. "Started out on motor scooter along famous wide 'promenade des anglais' of Nice, with its out-door cafés, splendid baroque facades, rows of palms, strolling musicians—and headed inland to Vence, where I planned to see the beautiful recent Matisse cathedral of my art magazine, which I've loved via pictures for years."3
3. Greek Mythology
I imagine myself with a great public,
Mother of a white Nike and several bald-eyed Apollos.
(from Plath's poem, "Barren Woman")4
Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
(from Plath's poem, "Fever 103")5
Many of Plath's poems are organized around classical Greek tragedy. These references are found in Plath's first book, The Colossus, where both Oresteia and Electra appear. In Ariel, Plath invokes Medusa, gorgons, and dryads, in addition to Nike and Cerberus. The titles of her poems "Medusa" and "Lesbos" also highlight her interest in Greek mythology.
We drink sherry in the garden and read poems...
In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Plath makes multiple references to sherry. At a New Year's party she recalls enjoying "an immense amount of sweet sherry" while on another occasion she states, "I drink sherry and wine by myself because I like it and I get the sensuous feeling of indulgence...luxury, bliss, erotic-tinged." She also enjoyed sherry when hosting literary guests:
"I cook steaks, trout on my gas ring, and we eat well. We drink sherry in the garden and read poems; we quote on and on: he says a line of Thomas or Shakespeare and says: "Finish!" We romp through words. I learn new words and use them in poems."6
5. Hot Baths
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them...
Plath seemed to enjoy the psychological calm that a hot bath brought. "I took a hot bath: therapy: the kinks wore out," Plath writes in her journals, "and I rose purged..."7
In her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, Plath's protagonist, Esther Greenwood also has an affinity for hot baths:
"There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them. Whenever I'm sad I'm going to die, or so nervous I can't sleep, or in love with somebody I won't be seeing for a week, I slump down so far and then I say: 'I'll go take a hot bath.'"8
6. Joy of Cooking
I go make an apple pie, or study the Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel.9
In a letter to her mother, Plath wrote, "If you have a chance, could you send over my Joy of Cooking? It's the one book I really miss!"10
First published in 1936 and having sold over 18 million copies, Joy of Cooking has been a staple in many kitchens including Plath's. According to writer Kate Moses in The Guardian, Plath allegedly wrote "Lady Lazarus" while baking the cookbook's lemon pudding cake.11
7. Ouija Board
We had more fun than a movie...
In a note accompanying Plath's poem "Ouija," Ted Hughes describes how she "occasionally amused herself, with one or two others, by holding her finger on an upturned glass, in a ring of letters laid out on a smooth table, and questioning the 'spirits.'"
Read the article "Sylvia Plath's Spirit Guide" for more about Plath's communications through the Ouija board, as well as details about which poems were inspired by the process.
8. Marilyn Monroe
She gave me an expert manicure.
A few months after the release of the film "Some Like it Hot," Plath describes a visitation by the famous actress in her journals in October 1959.
"Marilyn Monroe appeared to me last night in a dream as a kind of fairy godmother. An occasion of 'chatting' with audience much as the occasion with Eliot will turn out, I suppose. I spoke, almost in tears, of how much she and Arthur Miller meant to us, although they could, of course, not know us at all. She gave me an expert manicure. I had not washed my hair, and asked her about hairdressers, saying no matter where I went, they always imposed a horrid cut on me. She invited me to visit during the Christmas holidays, promising a new, flowering life."12
9. Her horse, Ariel
How one we grow
Pivot of heels and knees!
(from Plath's poem "Ariel")13
In his foreword to Sylvia Plath's posthumous collection of poems, Ariel, the poet Robert Lowell writes: "The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare's lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author's horse."14
Plath went riding frequently at a riding school on Dartmoor, an area of moorland in south Devon, England.15
10. The color red
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
(from Plath's poem "Lady Lazarus")
In Plath's final months she used the color red twenty-two times in her poems. Her affection for the color was evident in her prose as well. She cites the color red over one hundred times in her journals, seemingly fixated on its hue, whether writing about "red-skinned apples," "red-lacquered nails," or "Rose leaves red, deep-red tipped."16
1 Andrew Wilson, "Sylvia Plath in Love," Mail Online, January 19, 2013.
2 Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 74.
3 Aurelia Schober Plath, ed., Letters Home (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 203.
4 Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), 157.
5 Sylvia Plath, Ariel (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 53.
6 Aurelia Schober Plath, ed., Letters Home (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 209, 235, 631.
7 Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 352.
8 Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Bantam, 1972), 19.
9 Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 269.
10 Aurelia Schober Plath, ed., Letters Home (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 242.
11 Kate Moses, "Baking with Sylvia," The Guardian, February 14, 2003.
12 Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 513.
13 Sylvia Plath, Ariel (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 33.
14 Sylvia Plath, Ariel (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), vii.
15 Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), 294.
16 Karen V. Kukil, ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 20, 327, 412.