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Sylvia Plath


Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 4 March 2014
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The poet had come to suffer from what is commonly known as "writer's block" or an inability to write imaginatively.

She compares herself to a woman who has been pregnant but who keeps giving birth to stillborn children, which look real enough but which have no life in them whatever.


Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932.

She was an intelligent child who had her first poem published when she was only eight. She displayed a marked degree of sensitivity but sought perfection in all that she did.

Her father -- a college professor and a bee expert -- died of an illness when Sylvia was still young. He apparently thought it was cancer but in reality it was a curable form of diabetes.

His untimely death appears to have scarred the young child's sensitive mind.

She entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950 and, while there, wrote some 400 poems. During her first year at the college, however, she attempted suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills.

She graduated from Smith College summa cum laude in 1955 and thereupon won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England.

While there, she married the English poet, Ted Hughes. Their marriage, however, would last a mere ten years before Sylvia found herself divorced.

She was alone once more, but now in a small London flat. She was poor and with two children to look after.

This was a foreign existence to one who had always been accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life.

The winter of 1962 to 1963 was one of the coldest, during which time the poet was continually ill with flu. She learnt first hand much about the harshness of life.

She nevertheless worked furiously in the very early mornings while the children slept, producing a poem virtually every day.

Towards the end of that winter -- in February 1963 -- she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen. She was then only 30 years of age.

She had not yet won the recognition she so richly deserved as a poet. Like so many great artists, fame would follow only after her death.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

Is "Stillborn" a commentary about stillborn children -- or is it a poem about poetry? Explain your answer carefully. (4)

[Need help?]

These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn't for any lack of mother-love.
  • What does the poet mean when she says, "These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • How could the poems "miss out on walking about like people"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does Sylvia Plath comment, "It wasn't for any lack of mother-love"? (4)

[Need help?]

"They smile and smile and smile at me.
  • What is the point of the repetition of the word "smile"? (4)

[Need help?]

They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy and a fishy air.
  • What is the relevance in comparing the stillborn poems to pigs and fish? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Is the poem a serious comment on the art of writing poetry, or is the poet merely having fun playing around with words and ideas? (4)

[Need help?]

Is the title of this poem a fitting one? Be careful to explain your answer. (6)

[Need help?]

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