19 May 2015

For Sylvia Plath, 1963 – An elegy by Gilbert Foster

The following guest blog post was written by Dr Gail Crowther, co-author with Elizabeth Sigmund of Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning (2014).

Gilbert Foster (1920-2000) was an academic and a poet. He was born in Dublin, Ireland and throughout his life lived in England, Australia and Canada.

However, in 1961 when Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes moved to Court Green in North Tawton, Devon, Gilbert and his wife Marian along with their three (soon to be four) children lived in a bungalow across the road near to Dr Hugh Webb's surgery.

The Fosters feature frequently on Plath's Letts wall calendar from 1962. They all had tea together on Sunday 30 September, Sunday 25 November, and Sunday 2 December. On Monday 10 December when Plath finally left Court Green to return to London for the winter, she trusted the Fosters to look after her two kittens, Tiger-Pieker and Skunky- Bunks. Gilbert would walk across to Court Green, in the snow, every day, often with his eldest son, to feed the cats and he continued to do this for months.

Like most people outside of London in 1963, the Fosters read about Plath's death in a piece written by Al Alvarez called 'A Poet's Epitaph' published in The Observer on 17 February. The article simply stated that Plath had 'died suddenly' and like many others, it was at a later date that the Fosters discovered that Plath's death was due to suicide. The article included a photograph of Plath with her daughter Frieda and four poems, all written in the last months of Plath's life; 'Edge', 'The Fearful', 'Kindness', and 'Contusion'.

During Plath's time in Devon, she told very few people that she was a poet. The Fosters did not know that she wrote her own poetry, but were aware of Hughes' increasing profile as a literary figure. In the months of September and October when Plath was writing the bulk of her Ariel poems, she would meet her Devon friends and neighbours for afternoon tea or dinner, and many had no idea what she was doing in those early, blue hours. For example, on 30 September when Plath invited the Fosters for tea at 3.30 pm, she had that morning written and completed 'A Birthday Present'. On 2 December, when they met for tea again at 3.30 pm, she had started the first draft of 'Sheep in Fog' (although this would not be completed until 28 January, 1963 in London).

Soon after learning of Plath's death in 1963, Gilbert Foster, while at Court Green, wrote his own elegy to Plath. Short, but beautifully haunting and melancholic, I find this one of the most moving pieces written in remembrance. Capturing the emptiness of her once-full house and the green now standing vacant, the echoes of the childrens' play seems quite spectral and poignant. A house which awaited reopening in spring, now stands without purpose. The overwhelming mood of this poem is silence – the empty house, the shabby green, the abandoned motte, and the curious door bell of Court Green that 'giggled' and jangled, now standing quiet. The Big Freeze of 1962-63 brought many parts of Devon to a halt and reflecting back on Plath's death, Foster opens his poem with the stark words, 'this is a season for dying.' It was, and as Alvarez ended his epitaph, the loss to literature was inestimable.

For Sylvia Plath, 1963

this is a season for dying:
now your one-eyed house regards no more children
Valletort's motte, just, and the shabby Green
No point in waiting here for summer's Court
Silence: the bell-pull and the giggling bell

Gilbert Foster (1920-2000)

Acknowledgements: with kind thanks to Marian Foster for permission to reproduce this poem and the image of Gilbert Foster taken in Galway, Ireland in 1956.

Click here for more information about Gilbert Foster's life and poetry.

All links accessed 1 May 2015


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Wow. Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

Hélène said...

I find it very interesting how few people knew about her writing poetry - read the same thing in Sylvia Plath in Devon recently... I wonder how much of it is simply a product of her time and the role of women back then. I was struck when I initially read her journals by how she always seemed to put Ted's work ahead of her own's and happily so - or at least convincing herself that she was. I get the feeling it must have played into her creative explosion when they separated. Of course it's just a personal feeling but I find this a very interesting topic, both on a personal Plath level and regarding the evolution of women's roles in those decades. But perhaps she was more open about it in London society than in Devon?

The Plath Diaries said...

Beautiful blog post, Peter and that poem is just so poignant.

I think that Plath kept her poetic endeavours to herself as part-strategy because she was dumped out of literary circles in England quite frequently. Even as early as Cambridge, perhaps Plath thought it better to keep mum about her own writings instead of being patronised by the predominately male 'scene'. And, aside from Alvarez, she didn't really keep company with much of the literati in either England or the US (aside from the brief friendships established when she was auditing Lowell's class).

I personally love that she told people like Richard Murphy that she hadn't written in months when all the while she was writing brilliant stuff. Like she was keeping her power to herself. Fits in well with my thesis idea ;-) Choosing silence as a method to empower.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comment, Maeve. The post was written by Gail Crowther, an oversight I have just corrected at the top. I hope that your thesis writing is going very well.

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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." 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.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • 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.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (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. 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. 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "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. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.