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.
Publications & Acknowledgements
- BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
- Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
- Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
- Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
- Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
- Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
- Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
- Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.