12 April 2011

Guest Post: Sylvia Plath and Heptonstall: A Personal View

The following is a guest post by Sheila Hamilton, whom you may remember reviewed "Wuthering Heights" on this blog. Sheila's poem "Walking in the Underworld" was published in Plath Profiles 2, and she is the author of Corridors of Babel.

The first time I went to Heptonstall was in August 1995. Just along the road from the village, then down a lane into the Calder valley, is a large and rather splendid 18th-century house, Lumb Bank. It was originally a mill owner's house, then in the late Sixties it belonged to Ted Hughes the poet who was also, by then, Sylvia Plath's widower. By 1995, the house had been for many years run by the Arvon Foundation as a creative writing centre. In August 1995, I had arrived to attend one of Arvon's residential poetry courses. It was a warm and sunny day in a warm and sunny summer, so after unpacking my things and having a cup of tea, I strolled up the lane and down into the village. With that strange feeling we get when visiting a place we know only from other people's words, other people's photographs. I was familiar with Fay Godwin's black-and-white photographs of Heptonstall and its locality, and it was with some excitement I caught my first glimpse of the church tower. I wandered down the main street of dark-stone cottages and cottage gardens patrolled by cats and chickens. I turned right when I saw the sign for the church. Much as I was happy to see the village, the bright flowers in the gardens, the old gates and doors (many of which date from the sixteenth century, when Heptonstall was a wealthy textile village), my main aim that afternoon was to go and see Sylvia Plath's grave.

There are, in fact, two churches in the graveyard at Heptonstall.The original C13th church was badly damaged by a storm in Victorian times ; since then it has been a roofless and windowless ruin, its archways intact. The spire that I had glimpsed further up the road belongs to the newer church, completed in 1854 to replace the storm-ravaged one. This is the church of St Thomas a Becket, the church used today by Anglicans in the village, and it was the church where Plath's funeral took place in 1963. The graveyard round about these churches contains graves dating back to the seventeenth century. It even boasts the grave of an executed counterfeiter and long-established rogue, David Hartley, a man famous (or notorious) in the Yorkshire of his time. Everywhere you look there are gravestones, some vertical, many horizontal, hardly any grass peeping between the gaps. Most of the graves stones are Victorian, some adorned with weeping angels and mournful cherubs, some large with verbose inscriptions, others quite plain, stating bare facts. Plath evokes this graveyard beautifully (and depressingly ?) in her 1956 poem "November Graveyard." "Flies watch no resurrections in the sun," she writes in that poem.

The graveyard that Plath herself is buried in is known as the New Graveyard (it acquired its first permanent resident in 1915) and is just across a narrow lane at the back of the church. There are fewer angels here, fewer cherubs. There are many quite simple, more-or-less modern gravestones. Plath's herself is simple, not very large, just one in a row dating from the 1960s. The name on the stone is "Sylvia Plath Hughes" and the dates tell, starkly, of a short life: 1932-1963. Then there is this inscription "Even Among Fierce Flames, The Golden Lotus Can Be Planted." Ted Hughes said that this came from the Bhagavad Gita, and that he was fond of reminding her of it when she was discouraged, depressed, felt unable to be what she desperately wanted to be: a good poet. (I am not sure about the Bhagavad Gita, whether Hughes was correct in his attribution, but it is a startling phrase and, I feel, an appropriate one for the grave of a poet who knew a lot of pain in her life and still created so much.)

I will state here that I saw no evidence of vandalism on the grave. The letters of the name "Hughes" had indeed been chipped off in the late 80s by angry feminists who felt that Hughes had caused Plath's death and subsequently tampered with her literary legacy. Newspapers in England even now trot out phrases like "Plath's much-vandalized grave" but, in truth, this happened maybe three times, and was already well in the past by 1995. Some people who love poetry and admire Plath feel that the gravestone is drab, that it doesn't do her justice. I don't agree. I rather like the fact that she is here, in among Yorkshire villagers, her stone overlooking the dramatic and (in certain lights) beautiful moors. When I went that first time, in August, the long grasses in the graveyards were beige, parched for water, and there were these wonderfully bright pink rosebay willowherb flowers everywhere, not planted, not contained, just springing up naturally. (Another term for them is Indian Balsam.) They are, in fact, originally an American plant and so, like Sylvia, an import from the other side of the Pond!) All that pink made the graveyard seem almost jolly. Butterflies flitted in and out of the grasses; a magnificent dark cat snoozed in a shady spot.

Later in the same week, a week that proved very productive for me, I went back with other participants on the poetry course. One morning I found myself working very fast, very happily on a new poem and sitting in one of the corners of the roofless church , surrounded by notebooks! I don't always find the concept of muses very helpful, but there was certainly a sense that Plath was helping me, giving me some of her energy. I knew the facts of her death, of course, and these are tragic facts. But what shone for me that week was Sylvia as poet, as creator, turning often painful subject-matter into vibrant poems that have lasted.

I have been back to Heptonstall several times since then, taking photographs, making notes, walking, enjoying. Admittedly, I have not been there in the wet gusty weather that West Yorkshire is prone to, and I accept that that would give me a different view of it. But I have seen photographs of it in deep snow, and the snow against the dark stone of the church, the dark stone of the houses is beautiful. The whole area is steeped in the history of the Industrial Revolution, peppered with disused mills, mill-chimneys, and with the chapels that sprung up at about the same time. It is also a short distance from Haworth, home of the Brontes. It is not a pretty landscape in any conventional sense, and it must have been a huge contrast for Sylvia, visiting Ted Hughes's family here shortly after her marriage in 1956. Up till then her England had been, briefly, London but mainly, overwhelmingly, Cambridge, a small university city of honey-coloured buildings, elegant quads, cafes haunted by students in black academic gowns. Cambridge is in one of the flattest counties in England; Yorkshire is one of the hilliest. But Plath's letters home from that time (even when you bear in mind how keen she was to impress her mother) radiate a genuine happiness about being in this rugged environment, an environment rather like Hughes himself. The poems that came from her visits are darker in tone ("Wuthering Heights" as well as "November Graveyard"). . .and they are good poems. I sense the place nurtured her.

11 comments :

Peter K Steinberg said...

For more on the inscription on Plath's grave, please consider Paul Prescott's post on the Sylvia Plath Forum from October 28, 2000, which I've pasted below:

"re .inscription on Sylvia Plath's grave :-

This quote comes from the book 'Monkey' written by Wu Ch'Eng-En in the middle of the sixteenth century. It is on page 23 of the penguin classics edition. It is spoken by a Patriarch who is teaching Monkey the way of long life.

The full quote is:

"To spare and tend the vital powers, this and nothing else is sum and total of all magic, secret and profane. All is comprised in these three, spirit, breath and soul; guard them closely, screen them well; let there be no leak. Store them within the frame; that is all that can be learnt, and all that can be taught. I would have you mark the tortoise and snake, locked in tight embrace. Locked in tight embrace, the vital powers are strong; even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted, the five elements compounded and transposed, and put to new use. When that is done, be which you please, Buddha or Immortal"

Paul Prescott, Todmorden, England"


-pks

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! I rushed to look up some photos of Heptonstall as soon as I was done reading. I hope I'll be able to visit one day.

Off topic and I apologize for derailing the conversation, but I've been looking up information on Plath in Ireland lately & found an article online about Mary Coyne's memories of Plath and Hughes: http://archive.advertiser.ie/pages/view.php?ref=29003&search=plath&order_by=field51&sort=ASC&offset=0&archive=0&k= is page 1, and here's the 2nd page: http://archive.advertiser.ie/pages/view.php?ref=28957&search=plath&order_by=field51&sort=ASC&offset=0&archive=0&k=

I can't remember seeing these on your site, Peter, and thought you might be interested in them. Apologies if this is old news. (I mean it is rather old, but you know what I mean.)

--Jenny

panther said...

Jenny, I'm glad you like the post. Something I didn't mention, and it's certainly worth bearing in mind if you are looking at photographs of Heptonstall : Heptonstall has been "improved" and to a certain extent gentrified in the last twenty years or so. Fay Godwin's photographs were taken during the Seventies (as part of her collaboration with Ted Hughes which produced the book Remains of Elmet). . .and they depict a bleaker place than the place I know.Also,the type of weather one encounters up there makes a big difference to the overall impression, I think !

Peter K Steinberg said...

There is something mythic about Heptonstall. It is a place I imagined firstly. Then I saw it through Godwin's photographs and Hughes' words, and then I saw in person three times in 1996, 1997, and 2003. I agree with you Sheila that the historical Heptonstall is bleaker than the one I experienced. And I also agree that the weather places a huge part. My week there in 2003 was frosty chilly, but under perpetual sun, which destroys stereotypes. My first visit was at dusk with a storm approaching but even in failing light I found it - or at least Plath's grave - to be "a place of force."

Sheila, was there anything in particular that set you in motion to wanting to write about it?

pks

panther said...

Peter, it's one of the few places I dream of repeatedly. Strangely, my dreams of it are often of the lucid type (i.e. I KNOW I'm dreaming in them, but can somehow prolong the dream and not wake up.) In some of the dreams, the dead (as a generality) are rising up at night and climbing out of the graves ! The atmosphere in which they do this is joyful, not creepy, not vampirical, This no doubt says something about ME too but yes, Heptonstall is "a place of force."

In England at least, poems in magazines about SP are a bit two-a-penny. Poems About SP's Grave have, in fact, become a subgenre. I think I might (whisper this !) have written one or two such poems myself. But I didn't rate them. I feel I've explored it rather better in this short prose piece.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I think each of us has written a poem or two about SP and/or her grave. Most are unsuccessful, I like the way you put it: two-a-penny. Even that value might be too high...

Anyway, interesting that you dream about it reguarly. I had several recurring dreams about it too, prior to my first visit. I hadn't seen any pictures of the town or area before hand, but it was pretty much how I had dreamed it, which I found eerie and amazing and kind of "meant-to-be", if you will.

I asked my question as I wasn't sure if this was a lingering thing you wanted to bring up after that Vanessa Thorpe article appeared last September on the state of Plath's grave or not.

pks

Jenny Lerew said...

What a beautifully written piece that is. Many thanks for writing it and for posting it here.

panther said...

Jenny, thank you. I'm glad you've enjoyed it.

Peter, I don't know how I missed the Thorpe article but I did. I've just googled it now in the archives. Some points :

The grave does sometimes look unkempt, agreed. I don't know why it has to fall to the Rev Howard Pask to clear it up, though. Surely a small rota of local volunteers could manage the task with the minimum of fuss, tidying away dead flowers and so on.

Frieda Hughes' highly ambivalent attitude towards her mother (and thus, by extension, the grave) does require sensitivity. But I don't see how she can reasonably object to small rota of local volunteers keeping the place neat. Especially given that she lives at some considerable distance from Heptonstall.

Thorpe mentions Plath's "unassuming" grave. I personally would HATE to see a grandiose mausoleum-type construction there, even if it were possible (I don't think it is, on account of other gravestones being close by.) Robert Burns had an unassuming grave in Dumfries in Scotland after his death in near-penury in 1796. Then he got more widely known. . .and the unassuming grave was replaced by a MONSTROSITY. He was very much a democrat, a man of the people (at a time when you had to be a landowner to even have the vote). . .and this enormous neo-Grecian mausoleum just doesn't honour what he was about at all, In My Humble Opinion.

Peter K Steinberg said...

I know that for the past few years on her occasional visits to Heptonstall that Gail Crowther has spent some of her time clearing the grave of the leavings of pilgrims; installing plantings, etc. I find it distasteful that people leave stuff (other than flowers, which the earth welcomes back). I think I understand the compulsion to do so: but what it comes down to is this is Plath's memorial. If should be treated kindly and respectfully. I'd certainly send money to someone to assist in the upkeep. And I agree with you that anything bigger would be out of place and taste.

Thank you again Sheila for writing your piece!

pks

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

What a terrific guest blog! Thanks to Sheila, and thank you, Peter, for adding the full Monkey excerpt. Hughes tucked his magic into everything. I love that. I purchased that book some time ago, but have yet to read it.

panther said...

I'm really glad that we now know where the quote came from !

I agree, Peter, that things left on or by a grave should be organic, so that they return to the earth. As the inhabitants of the graves themselves return to the earth.

Local volunteers for the upkeep, funded by well-wishers such as ourselves. . .I think this is the way to go. Surely not impossible ?

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