Celebrating tragic heroine Sylvia Plath on the 50th anniversary of her most famous book

Sep 8, 2015 at 9:00 a.m. ET

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's final poetry collection, Ariel. As a woman before her time, Plath wrote of things dark, taboo and terribly personal. Its organization by her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes, was perhaps expected but still feels… inappropriate.

Plath, who published her first poem at the age of 8 in the Boston Herald, was anything but a normal woman or wife. She lived in a time when 23 and single meant "old maid." She was a severe depressive who attempted suicide while an honors student at Smith College.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" — a horrific short story written about the treatment of women with hysteria — may have come out 60 years before Plath became a poet, but mental illness still wasn't understood in her day. She dealt with her depression by writing.

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Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Her most famous work is The Bell Jar, a novel depicting her fictionalized self, her time at Smith and her early trials with despondency, yet she published the book under a pen name.

See, Plath was seemingly perfect. On the surface, she was a model daughter, popular at school and earning straight As. She would eventually become a very sexual woman, too, juggling lovers. She was the mistress of flirtation.

Her first meeting with husband Ted Hughes is legendary. He apparently kissed her neck, and she bit his cheek and made him bleed. The two married in 1956, and so began their many travels and literary successes. They had two children together, and whenever Plath gave birth, her creativity exploded.

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Still, that creativity was tinted in shades of blue. Despite her accomplishments, perfectionist Plath never felt fulfilled. She felt even worse when she discovered Hughes was having an affair — possibly several. Then came the constant rejection of being a female writer in the 1960s. Journals weren't ready for poems of such vigor and passion from a housewife.

In 1963, after sealing herself off from her children, she stuck her head in the oven and killed herself by inhaling gas. She was 30 years old.

I suppose Sylvia Plath is the most iconic example of a depressed poet ever. She even once played the role of "insane poetess" in an amateur dramatics play. Her condition was probably a chemical imbalance, but that wasn't what we called people like Plath in the 1960s; we called them crazy.

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When she killed herself, she was a single mother trapped in a frigid London winter, struggling with the rejection of magazines and her own husband — the man she thought loved her. She is a tragic heroine, destroyed by a society that didn't understand her or her illness. To add insult to injury, her unfaithful husband decided the order of her final poetry collection after her death.

Still, we remember Ms. Plath in works like Ariel, The Colossus and, most famously, The Bell Jar, because her pain lives on today in mothers who struggle, housewives who don't want to cook dinner anymore and generally any woman who's ever felt different or stigmatized by depression.

She left us so many words, but perhaps the most poignant were those of her first suicide note, written as a lonely girl at Smith College: "Have gone for a walk. Will be home tomorrow."

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