‘Circus in Three Rings’

In this 1955 poem, the first of Sylvia Plath’s works to be published in The Atlantic, she describes a hurricane tearing apart a circus as a mirror for her own emotional turmoil.

black and white photograph of circus women on rings
Carl E. Linde / AP

Sylvia Plath was just 23 and two months removed from her graduation from Smith College when The Atlantic published “Circus in Three Rings,” the first of several Plath pieces featured in the magazine before she took her own life eight years later. The chaotic hurricane she imagines rending a circus in the poem mirrors the emotional upheaval of her own life—her “extravagant heart blows up again,” “a rose of jeopardy flames in [her] hair,” “the gnawings of love begin.”

Plath’s relationship with The Atlantic was not without its own stormy moments. In a letter accompanying two short stories from 1959, she reminded an editor that she had “waited over half a year for a No” after her last submission, and wondered “if I could get a faster verdict this time.” None of her fiction was accepted by the magazine during her lifetime, but one story was printed posthumously—joining this and five more of her poems in our archives. — Annika Neklason