01 October 2014

I know your estate so well: Sylvia Plath at Yaddo

The Grand Manor, Yaddo
On Sunday 21 September 2014, Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, opened its doors to visitors for a day of tours. At $50 a ticket, it seemed a reasonable price to pay for infrequent public access into this retreat for artists. Naturally you will surmise I was interested in seeing the site as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a guests for eleven weeks from 9 September to 19 November 1959. The tour consisted of 15 stops which included the first two floors of "The Grand Manor" as well as the ground floor of West House, and a swing by Pine Garde and the new Greenhouse Studios, built on the site of a couple of other previous greenhouses.

Sadly, there was not one mention of Plath on my tour! My particular tour, consisting of 25 people, started at the Greenhouse Studios, then proceeded to Pine Garde. Then on to West House before ending in the mansion itself. I could not have been happier at this as it got out of the way the things with which I was not as concerned. While it started off slightly late, we made up time temporarily and then by the point we were doing the mansion, there was such a backup that we ran over by more than 45 minutes. I felt terrible for the tour groups going after ours. I spent some parts of the downtime in-between stops re-reading Plath's journal entries and poems about the property on my phone.

The house and property were simply amazing. Artworks and fascinating objects were everywhere, and the materials that went into the houses construction, design, and decor appeared to be the of the finest quality.

              West House, Yaddo
On the way to West House, we passed the Garage, which Plath talked about she and Hughes moving into in her journals, but I am unclear at the moment if they did move or not. In West House I got a great vibe from the decor and layout, which must all be the same as it was back in 1959. As we entered the door, the tour guide pointed out the statue, which was formerly in the Rose Garden but moved to its present location after it was vandalized. You can see in the photograph below the hand has sustained damage. This recalled Plath's journal entry: "The white statues are all encased in little wooden huts, like outhouses, against the ravages of winter and vandals" (525). In the house, I looked for books by Roethke. Jung, Katherine Anne Porter, and Iris Murdoch, among others that she read while there, but could not suss out how they were organized on the many shelves and in various nooks. My wife did spy a copy of Dylan Thomas' Selected Poems.

Vandalized statue, West House
The upstairs, as with the third floor where Plath's study was, was not part of the tour. In West House we entered from a porch into the music room, then were shuttled into a sitting/living room, down the hallway (where Plath's bedroom was, but it was not pointed out), and into a darkish room on the eastern part of the house filled with a card catalog of stereopticon photographs, which recalled to me Plath's wonderful 1960 poem "Candles". In the hallway, there are a set of stairs that lead up to the second floor. On a landing, there is a stunning Tiffany window which was formerly in a chapel window in the main house.
Tiffany window, West House
Living room, West House
Sofa, Music Room, West House
The back of West House
The main house was were the tour got really mind-blowing. As the tours were quite log-jammed with people there was ample time to stand around and observe. The entry way into the house leads you to the big indoor fountain. This is in the west part of the house and faces east. A massive hall opens up from this. To the right is a small receiving room. The next room we were shown on the right is the main dining room. Opposite the dining room is the music room, which is set up with pews. Above the fireplace in the music room there is a frieze, with little columns and other miniature ruins of Romanesque columns and the like, which reminded me the line "You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum" of Plath's Yaddo poem "The Colossus".

Fountain, Yaddo
Dining room, Yaddo
Dining room table, Yaddo
At the east end of the main hall on the first floor, directly opposite the fountain, is a sitting area, with the two massive portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask. When walking back towards the fountain and the entry way, on the right is the stunning mosaic phoenix fireplace Plath wrote about in her poem "Yaddo: The Grand Manor": "Indoors, Tiffany's phoenix rises / Above the fireplace; / Two carved sleighs / Rest on orange plush near the newel post" (Collected Poems 123-124, link to image of sleighs). Then the grand staircase leading up to the second floor. On the landing of the stairs, Plath writes in her journals about the"large stained glass window of woman in blue gown, float in white draperies & fillet of pearls binding auburn hair holding hands to a sky of stone-shaped clouds - green lawn, blue & white sky" (503).
Phoenix fireplace, Yaddo
Grand stair case, Yaddo
Stained glass, Yaddo
As you go up the grand staircase, to the left is Spencer Trask's bedroom and a former chapel. On the landing, you turn right, go up another flight up stairs to the second floor. To the right is the bronze "Bust of Homere" to quote Plath (502). Beyond the bust is a "Glassed-in reading porch with three great-arched windows looking into thick green pinetrees" (503). Like the first floor, the entire space is an open hallway with rooms off to the side here and there.
Bust of "Homere", Yaddo
Reading Porch, Yaddo
At the far end of this floor, facing east, is the "Yaddo: Library: Second Floor" as Plath describes it in her journal (pages 502). This was the most important room for me to see as it matched up so well with what Plath captured in her journals both in text and in illustrations. In this room is the
The glass atlas
"Glass atlas of stars & constellations painted with birds, men horses in yellow & blue & green - equinoxes marked in red on wrought iron pedestal -

Centaurus, Lupus Scorpio, Cancer, Taurus Capricornus, Sagittarius Pegasus, Andromeda, Lynx, Leo" (503).

Also in this room are the engravings above the fireplace of which Plath transcribed the titles; and lots of books and things. I noticed a book on lichens and mosses, liking to think Plath looked at it (Full Text). The word lichen features in "Old Ladies' Home", written around this time, as well as in her her Yaddo poem "The Stones" and the later "Three Women". And moss features in "Dark Wood, Dark Water". The "view east" was different in Plath's time as all the present tall trees were not there, affording stunning views of the mountains in the far distance, but also to a view of "A superhighway" which "seals me off", as she wrote of the Northway (Route 87) in "Private Ground" (Collected Poems 130). Also in this room there are two small chairs on either side of the fireplace, one of which Plath partially drew in her journal, see page 506).

Engravings, Yaddo
Inlaid chair, Yaddo
Plath notes the "Wainscotted Stair coming down from above. On the newel, another elaborate lamp in form of a grecian vase with bas relief of naked nymphs" (503). In her journals, Plath also drew a sideboard, describing it as "Ornate sideboard - enclosing Bayreuth beersteins - gilded bow-legs, gilded wood set with innumerable round, oval & leaf-shaped mirrors" (503). Plath also drew the "Ornate gilt wall lamp fixture with petals of streaked pink & white glass for the bowl of it - exotic magnolia petals. All scrolls & filigree leaves" (502).
Wainscoted Stair, newel, and vase, Yaddo
Ornate Sideboard
Gilt wall lamp fixture, Yaddo
I was not successful in noticing all of the objects and furniture Plath drew as I reached the saturation, freak-out, and fatigue point. I tried to keep my composure and feel lucky I did not fall to the floor shaking, drooling, and soiling myself. Out in the gardens, in the fresh air, where a colossal "blue sky out of the Oresteia / Arches above us", in the "Private Ground", "the grasses / Unload their griefs on my shoes" and it was here, too, I noticed the gate mentioned in Plath's "Medallion": "By the gate with star and moon. / Worked into the peeled orange wood" (Collected Poems 129, 130, 124).
The grasses unload their griefs on my shoes...
"By the gate with star and moon" - "Medallion"

All links accessed 22-25 September 2014


The Plath Diaries said...

Oh that ornate sideboard!! An exact replica!

Yaddo looks to be a truly beautiful haven. Plath paid so much attention to detail, it must have felt quite humbling(?) to walk the same stairs, see the same objects that she once did, Peter.

A wonderful blog post! Thank you!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Maeve! Yes, it was humbling to be in the house and on the grounds where so many famous writers have been. A privilege for sure. I am glad that you liked the blog post, and hope that the next two on Yaddo, probably to be posted in November, are equally as enjoyable to you.


Anonymous said...

Wow Peter,amazing place! First time i see some pictures inside Yaddo.Sofar only saw the pic of the building from outside on Sylvia Plath's biographies books. Im happy for you you had the opportunity to visit the place and it must have been thrilling to put your shoes where Sylvia did. Thank you for having shared your trip with us who must get content to live/experience all this only vicariously through the web.

P.S. Sorry,not Yaddo related, but not completely off-topic, I dont know if you speak italian or if you have someone who can help you understand/translate it for you,if you can feel interested im leaving you a link to a film on Sylvia Plath's last days (alas in italian) which i found out yesterday and that i found particularly detailed and pretty well done/faithful.

Wishing you a nice Sunday,

Peter K Steinberg said...


Thank you for your comment. I am always happy to read that my small efforts to share my Plathing experiences with others out there in the larger world. It's why I started A celebration, this is so many years ago. So that people like you in Italy, or in China, and other far away places can see -- in color -- the places in which Plath lived and about which she wrote as the images in books just fail to do these sites justice. So, thank you for your thank you to me!

Unfortunately the link didn't take me to the video, just to the homepage. If you want to try sending it again, please do, or tweet it to me?


Anonymous said...

Ops sorry that it doesnt work..and alas i can't tweet it cause i was hacked and can't use twitter anymore. But no problem! On youtube search bar you just digit Nella Vita di Sylvia Plath ..the first result you get is the film im talking about. I discovered that it's a quite old black/white "movie",with very famous italian actors,of which I didnt know the existance till yesterday and what I have much appreciated of it is the fact that is not the same and light movie about with lots of freedom of fiction or missing important facts as in the movies The Bell Jar and Sylvia w/G.Paltrow,but one much more elaborated and deep with an amazing and interesting dramatic theatrical taste more than tv one. If that makes sense..with my awful english ..really i just can't express what I mean and this makes me angry.
Again thank you for sharing all of this and more and again have a great sun-day (here 32degrees today)
xx Alessandra

Anonymous said...

Great post, Peter, thanks for sharing your time at Yaddo,

suki said...

Am amazing post and such an incredible place.
Thank you Peter!

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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 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.
  • 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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • 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)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (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. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.