Though she's considered a pioneer of the confessional poetry style, Sylvia Plath was not widely famous when she died by suicide in 1963 at age 30. But her legacy has long outgrown her untimely death: Her collections of poetry and one novel, most published posthumously, are still read, debated, and quoted reverently.
1. Sylvia Plath published her first poem at 8 years old.
"Hear the crickets chirping In the dewy grass. Bright little fireflies Twinkle as they pass."
Plath, of course, would later have poems published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's Bazaar.
2. Sylvia Plath's father was a prestigious bee expert, inspiring her "Bee Poems."
Sylvia's father, Otto Plath, emigrated to the United States from Germany as a teenager, and he grew up to become a professor of entomology at Boston University and an authority on bumble bees—his 1934 book Bumblebees and Their Ways analyzed bee colonies and the power of the queen in them. Otto was a huge influence on Sylvia's work—one of her most famous poems is entitled "Daddy," and it and others suggest she fell into the marry-your-father type of trope as well.
Otto died unexpectedly of complications from late-diagnosed diabetes when Sylvia was 8, and she would grapple with that loss for the rest of her life. At the height of her creative output, the fall of 1962, she wrote a sequence of five poems, "the bee poems," in less than a week. They are hopeful and life-affirming works that were originally intended to end her collection Ariel, but were instead posthumously displaced with the darker, more depressive poems like "Edge" and "Words" that she wrote in her final days. The bee poems, which were unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the published version of Ariel, are so different from what Plath is known for—self-destruction, casual violence—that they have often been overlooked as part of her creative canon.
3. Sylvia Plath also wrote children's books.
All published posthumously, Plath had a small collection of children's stories that were found amongst her journals and papers. One, The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit, tells a sweet story about Max Nix and his mustard yellow suit. In the story, 7-year-old Max is the youngest of seven brothers. Two of those brothers were Otto and Emil—her father's names.
4. Sylvia Plath's early life has been described as "accomplished."
Although Plath is most often referred to as a tragic figure, she is described as a driven high achiever in adolescence and young adulthood. She had straight As, a scholarship to Smith College, and was a Fulbright scholar studying in Cambridge, England. She also won various writing prizes while in college.
5. Sylvia Plath was an intern at Mademoiselle Magazine.
While at Smith College, Plath won a contest to become one of a few "guest editors" at Mademoiselle magazine during the summer of 1953. The experience marked a turning point in Plath's work and life; her novel, The Bell Jar, is a thinly veiled fictionalization of her time in New York City. She described the experience as "pain, parties, work," and one of the book's scenes detailed an attempted rape—an event Plath's personal journals from that summer seem to corroborate. After returning home to Boston, Plath spiraled into depression and survived an attempted suicide; she was briefly institutionalized, but returned to school and graduated with honors.
6. Colossus is the only larger work published in Sylvia Plath's name while she was alive.
In 1960, Plath published this collection of poems first in England, where she lived with her husband, to positive critical reviews (if not massive sales). The Bell Jar was published in England just a month before her death, but it was under the pen name Victoria Lucas, due to publisher concerns of getting sued for libel. The Bell Jar, with Plath rightfully named as author, didn't arrive in the U.S. until 1971—but when it did, it became a surprise bestseller.
7. Sylvia Plath's husband was a famous poet, too.
Plath met English poet Ted Hughes—who is considered one of the greatest poets of his generation and was Poet Laureate of the U.K. for the last 14 years of his life—while she was at Cambridge on scholarship in 1956, and the two married within four months. They chose the date June 16 in honor of Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the life and work of James Joyce. The two were young—she was 23, he 25—and they read, critiqued, and supported each other's work. "I am writing poetry as I never have before," Plath wrote to her brother in 1956, "and it is the best, because I am strong in myself and in love with the only man in the world who is my match."
Their relationship was charged but unstable—by the 1960s, Plath wrote to her therapist saying Hughes beat her before she suffered a miscarriage; he cheated on her, and many scholars say his mistress was pregnant at the time of Plath's death by suicide (the mistress was said to have gotten an abortion soon after). For the last five months of Plath's life, they were separated, and she was living and writing in London with their two young children. Because they were not yet divorced at the time of her death, Hughes inherited Plath's estate—including her unpublished works. Hughes made plans to publish Ariel, but he removed some of her chosen poems, added in new poems, and reordered the rest differently from Plath's original manuscript, some say to maximize the narrative of an increasingly depressed woman doomed to take her own life.
8. Sylvia Plath wrote the poems that would make her an icon just before she died.
Plath died by suicide on the morning of February 11, 1963, the culmination of months of turmoil, severe depression, and an astonishing output of writing. Plath and her husband had recently separated, and she had two young children at home, so she would feverishly write between the hours of 4 and 8 a.m. during a notoriously cold London winter. The resulting poems became the collection Ariel, featuring her most famous poems, including "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy."
9. Sylvia Plath won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.
In 1982, Plath won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously, winning for The Collected Poems—edited by Ted Hughes. "Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like," Hughes wrote in the introduction to the collection. "If she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity."
10. A psychologist named a phenomenon after Sylvia Plath—then regretted it.
The "depressed poet" has long been a creative stereotype—so much so that psychologist James C. Kaufman named the idea the "Sylvia Plath effect" in 2001, leading to its more mainstream use. Kaufman recently reframed his point of view, calling himself "young and stupid" at the time he introduced the term. He switched to studying the impact of creativity on social justice.
11. Sylvia Plath's headstone has been repeatedly vandalized.
Plath's grave, in the West Yorkshire hills of England, has been tampered with multiple times—first, her married name was expunged (some think by "feminist activists" looking to remove Ted Hughes from Plath's narrative), leading to a long period where there was no marker at all. "When I first had the lettering set into the stone … the only question in my mind was how to get the name Plath on to it," Hughes wrote in 1989, when the stone was replaced. "If I had followed custom, the stone would be inscribed Sylvia Hughes, which was her legal name … I was already well aware, in 1963, of what she had achieved under that name, and I wished to honor it."
12. Sylvia Plath continues to impact culture today.
Sylvia Plath has been influencing culture for the nearly six decades since her death. From Twitter feeds to famous movie quotes and cameos, a Sylvia Plath mention is often shorthand for "tortured female writer." She's also an influence on modern writers of all kinds—Lena Dunham wrote a college essay comparing Plath and Alanis Morissette, and Joyce Carol Oates has written about her extensively.
For brand new facts about Sylvia Plath, plus stories about other acclaimed authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.