09 January 2012

Update from the Archive Day 1

This morning was beneficial to the paper I am writing on The Bell Jar as I was able to verify some information against Sylvia Plath's typescripts. The Sylvia Plath Collection has a few early, partial drafts, and then a complete set of "later drafts" which maybe could be considered final drafts as one of them was used by Heinemann when they set the type for the book. One of the things I looked at sadly revealed that Plath submitted the typescript with a typographical error. This does not change my opinion of Plath; but it confirms her humanness. And, when it comes to the word she spelled wrong, one can hardly blame her.

The word is "bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronnruonnthu-nntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!" And it appears on page one of Finnegan's Wake. Plath's copy is held by the Mortimer so I was also able to work with the "thick book," which Esther tells us "made an unpleasant dent in my stomach" (130).

That was basically all I wanted to do today, but as I was browsing the finding aid I thought about Plath's pre-Colossus attempts to publish a book. Her Unabridged Journals tell us that she formed and submitted a number of books of poems including "The Bull of Bendylaw" which became "The Devil of the Stairs." 

Her "The Bull of Bendylaw" was submitted contained 45 poems, which at the time (13 May 1959) had seen all but 13 published. The books full contents are not known, but some of them are: "Natural History", "Landowners", "Green Rock, Winthrop Bay", "Mad Girl’s Love Song", "On the Decline of Oracles", "Owl", "Rhyme", "The Bull of Bendylaw", "Apotheosis of an Avenging Lover" ["To a Jilted Lover"], "Recantation", "Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives", "On the Plethora of Dryads", "Poems, Potatoes", "November Graveyard", "The Hermit at Outermost House", "The Disquieting Muses" , "Medallion" , "Two Sisters of Persephone" , "In Midas’s Country", "The Goring", "The Companionable Ills" , "Electra on Azalea Path", "Moonrise" , "Spinster" , "Frog Autumn" , "Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor" , "Ella Mason and Her Eleven Cats" , and "The Ravaged Face". As Plath weeded and changed the book, some of the poems were eventually published in The Colossus.

How does this book - or fragment of a book - compare to what was published in 1960 (Heinemann, London) and 1962 (Knopf, New York)?  Not a question I can answer but it is something to think about.  In her journal entry for 18 May, when she changed the title to "The Devil of the Stairs" Plath says that her previous title was "catching, had an obscure point, the idea of energy breaking through ceremonial forms" (483). In changing the title to "The Devil of the Stairs" Plath comments that this title "encompasses my book & 'Explains' the poems of despair, which is as deceitful as hope is" (483). As we know a book by either title was subsequently abandoned.

One abandoned Plath poem that I have often wondered about is "Mules That Angels Ride"! I know! The title is from a line in part VII of Wallace Stevens' "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle".  In Karen Kukil's Unabridged Journals, the index lists this as a provisional title, which Plath planned to write during her spring break from teaching in 1958. We know she turned to ekphrastic poetry, writing on Klee, Gauguin, etc. She planned to write "on a new poem" which was for a contest. She saw it as being 350 lines and as an "exercise to set me free" (350). Plath saw the poem as containing the "naturalness & implicit form (without glassy brittleness)" that she said affected "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" (350).  Plath later said that "Mules That Angels Ride" would be "about the spirit, luminous, making itself manifest in art, in houses, and trees and faces" (352).

While Kukil says this is a provisional title, by 28 March 1958 Plath had sent out "a group of eight poems, seven of them new, under the title 'Mules That Angels Ride' to a Wallace Stevens Contest" (357). Of the group of poems, Plath writes of them that "the vision arrives astride the symbol, the illumination comes through a mask of mud, clear and shining" (357). But, what are the eight poems that comprise "Mules That Angels Ride"?

For the "Editing Sylvia Plath's Correspondence" class we watched the Biography channels' "Sylvia Plath" program from a few years ago, talked about Plath, answered student questions, and watched a portion of the Smith Symposium from April 2008 in which Plath's friends read portions of letters they received from their friend.  This served to illustrate just how varied Plath's letters are and how she was funny, personable, and knew how to write something based on the audience and/or recipient. She was much, much, much more dynamic a letter writer than, say, Letters Home, shows. Tomorrow we will begin the process of editing and transcribing the letters.


Melanie Smith said...


athat is all, wish I was there.

Jess McCort said...

Is there a plan for a new edition of the letters in the works? Sorely needed. Just curious. J

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jess, I'm not sure. I haven't heard anything along these lines. But the process of transcribing the letters is making them pretty much publication ready.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

This class looks like a blast. Perhaps KK would allow you to publish the syllabus when it's complete?

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