Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932. She grew up in a comfortably middle-class style and attended Smith College. She suffered a breakdown at the end of her junior year of college, but recovered well enough to return and excel during her senior year, receiving various prizes and graduating summa cum laude. In 1955, having been awarded a Fulbright scholarship, she began two years at Cambridge University. There she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes and settled in England, bearing two children. Her first book of poems, The Colossus (1960), demonstrated her precocious talent, but was far more conventional than the work that followed. Having studied with Robert Lowell in 1959 and been influenced by the "confessional" style of his collection Life Studies, she embarked on the new work that made her posthumous reputation as a major poet. A terrifying record of her encroaching mental illness, the poems that were collected after her suicide (at age 30) in 1963 in the volumes Ariel, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees are graphically macabre, hallucinatory in their imagery, but full of ironic wit, technical brilliance, and tremendous emotional power. Her Selected Poems were published by Ted Hughes in 1985
Finally the one way the poet was to achieve relief, to become an independent Self, was to kill her father’s memory, which, in "Daddy," she does by a metaphorical murder. Making him a Nazi and herself a Jew, she dramatizes the war in her soul. It is a terrible poem, full of blackness, and one of the most nakedly confessional poems ever written. From its opening image onward, that of the father as an "old shoe" in which the daughter has lived for thirty years—an explicitly phallic image, according to the writings of Freud—the sexual pull and tug is manifest, as is the degree of Plath’s mental suffering, supported by references to Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen. (Her references elsewhere to hanged men are also emblems of suffering; in Jungian psychology, the swinging motion would be symbolic of her ambivalent state and her unfulfilled longing as well.) Plath confesses that, after failing to escape her predicament through attempted suicide, she married a surrogate father, "a man in black with a Meinkampf look" who obligingly was just as much a vampire of her spirit—one who "drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know." (Sylvia Plath was married to the poet Ted Hughes for seven years.) When she drives the stake through her father’s heart, she not only is exorcising the demon of her father’s memory, but metaphorically is killing her husband and all men.
"Daddy" is a poem of total rejection. When she writes that "the black telephone’s off at the root," she is turning her back on the modern world as well. Such rejection of family and society leads to that final rejection, that of the Self. Her suicide is everywhere predicted, in poems of symbolic annihilation such as "Totem" and in statements of human fascination with death. In "Edge," to be dead is to be perfected! Her earlier terror at death, thus, becomes a romance with it, and her poems themselves are what M. L. Rosenthal calls "yearnings toward that condition." Freud believed the aim of all life is death, and for Plath life was poetry. So by extension, poetry for her now becomes death, both conditions inseparable. She as much as says so: "The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it."
A companion piece to 'Daddy', in which the poet again fuses the worlds of personal pain and corporate suffering, is ‘Lady Lazarus'. In this poem a disturbing tension is established between the seriousness of the experience described and the misleadingly light form of the poem. The vocabulary and rhythms which approximate to the colloquial simplicity of conversational speech, the frequently end-stopped lines, the repetitions which have the effect of mockingly counteracting the violence of the meaning, all establish the deliberately flippant note which this poem strives to achieve. These are all devices which also operate in Auden's 'light verse', but the constantly shifting tone of 'Lady Lazarus' is found less frequently in Auden's more cerebral poetry. At times the tone is hysterically strident and demanding:
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
Then it modulates into a calmer irony as the persona mocks herself for her pretensions to tragedy: 'Dying/is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well.' As in 'Daddy' Sylvia Plath has used a limited amount of autobiographical detail in this poem; the references to suicide in 'Lady Lazarus’ reflect her own experience. As in 'Daddy’, however, the personal element is subordinate to a much more inclusive dramatic structure, and one answer to those critics who have seen her work as merely confessional is that she used her personal and painful material as a way of entering into and illustrating much wider themes and subjects. In 'Lady Lazarus' the poet again equates her suffering with the experiences of the tortured Jews, she becomes, as a result of the suicide she inflicts on herself, a Jew:
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
The reaction of the crowd who push in with morbid interest to see the saved suicide mimics the attitude of many to the revelations of the concentration camps; there is a brutal insistence on the pain which many apparently manage to see with scientific detachment. ‘Lady Lazarus’ represents an extreme use of the 'light verse' technique. Auden never forced such grotesque material into such an insistently jaunty poem, and the anger and compassion which inform the poem are rarely found so explicitly in his work. 'Lady Lazarus' is also a supreme example of Sylvia Plath's skill as an artist. She takes very personal, painful material and controls and forms it with the utmost rigour into a highly wrought poem, which is partly effective because of the polar opposition between the terrible gaiety of its form and the fiercely uncompromising seriousness of its subject. If we categorize a poem such as 'Lady Lazarus' as 'confessional' or 'extremist’ then we highlight only one of its elements. It is also a poem of social criticism with a strong didactic intent, and a work of art which reveals great technical and intellectual ability. The hysteria is intentional and effective.