01 December 2016

Sylvia Plath's "A Winter's Tale" Illustrated

Sylvia Plath's "A Winter's Tale" (the poem) was a New Yorker poem, appearing in their 12 December 1959 issue. While she marketed it to the magazine in mid-1959, Plath was encouraged by Howard Moss to resubmit it later in the year after revising a line.

"A Winter's Tale" is a poem of place, and that place is Boston, Massachusetts. Plath and Ted Hughes had been living in Beacon Hill at 9 Willow Street since September 1958, so she got to experience the Christmas season in the city in 1958 like never before. Plath worked briefly that autumn in the psychiatric ward at the Massachusetts General Hospital, likely in the same building and ward where she was a patient five years earlier in the late summer of 1953. She and Hughes familiarized themselves with their city by foot, often going on long walks along the wharves and through Scollay Square. They also took in museums and galleries and frequented the Boston Public Library at Copley Square.

The composition date of "A Winter's Tale" is unknown, but it was certainly after 28 November 1958, when Boston held its Ninth annual tree lighting ceremony, as was reported in the Boston Globe the following day. Joseph A. Keblinsky wrote about it in his 29 November article, "Christmas Festival Opens In Burst of Light, Carols". A read through of his piece contextualizes some of the scenes Plath witnessed. I found, too, a photograph depicting part of the nativity scene printed in the Boston Globe the following year on 30 November 1959. I imagine the scene would largely have been the same from year to year.

I was reading "A Winter's Tale" recently and was struck by the number of places, buildings, and companies that Plath captured. Some of these sites are still around; some are "long gone darlings", to quote another Plath poem, "All the Dead Dears" (which coincidentally, like "A Winter's Tale" was both the title of a poem title and the title of a short story).

Due to copyright, I cannot post the entire poem here, but what I have done is to reference the stanza and then the word or words from the poem which place the verse in Boston. Then I have included a link to a photograph found on Flickr from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, or inserted my own photograph to help to illustrate "A Winter's Tale". Also there are some annotated Google maps. My hope is that the poem will be visually contextualized in a way that makes it new and modern yet also historically rendered.

To set the scene, though, how about a photograph of Acorn Street from April 1958 taken from directly in front of 9 Willow Street. And here, too, is one from February 1959 -- a snowy scene quite possibly taken with Plath and Hughes six floors up in the apartment looking out their windows.

View of Acorn Street from Sylvia & Ted Hughes' apartment
9 Willow Street, Boston (October 2012)
This map relates to stanza one and stanza seven
In stanza one, Plath begins the poem in her own backyard, as it were, at Boston Common (May 1958). The trees are labeled in the Common and Public Garden; which is something Plath herself referred to in her later poem, "Two Campers in Cloud Country". In "A Winter's Tale", Plath specifically mentioned the "Ulmus / Americana", otherwise known as the American Elm.


Plath's adolescent home was on Elmwood Road, Wellesley, and she lived on Elm Street twice in Northampton (at Haven House and at 337 Elm Street). The elm likely held particular significance to her. Later, Plath's writing desk in North Tawton was a large plank of elm that was originally cut for a coffin. The desk is now held by Smith College. Peaking Beacon Hill is the "domed State House" (March 1958). The Common and State house are identified on the map above by the number 1.

Here are two photographs. The first is of Boston Common, taken from inside 9 Willow Street in what was Plath and Hughes' bedroom. The second is of the State House, taken from the roof deck.

View of Boston Common from Sylvia & Ted Hughes' apartment
9 Willow Street, Boston (October 2012)
View of State House from roof deck,
9 Willow Street, Boston (October 2012)
This map relates to stanza three and stanza four
In stanzas three and four, Plath compares the angels in the nativity scene to the models in several of Boston's department stores. She mentions Bonwit's (then at 234 Berkeley Street), Jay's (on Temple Place), and S. S. Pierce (144 Tremont Street). In the image of S. S. Pierce, the building is next to "Central" truck.

This map relates to stanza five
In stanza five, we are now with the speaker of the poem in Downtown Crossing, then the heart of Boston's pedestrianized shopping area, listening to carolers on Winter Street, Temple Place, and outside of Filene's (February 1959). Winter Street and what was then Filene's and Temple Place are circled in the map above. Filene's is now gone, replaced in part by a Primark and an in-construction office and residential tower.

In stanza seven (see first map image above), eight and nine, Plath's speaker is back in Beacon Hill. She name-drops many of its most famous, exclusive streets and listens to the carolers filling the air with their songs. Pinckney Street (March 1959), Mt Vernon Street (April 1958), and Chestnut Street (1958).

There are still "odd violet panes" on the windows, too: a fantastic, idiosyncratic detail to record. The image below is from just around the corner from 9 Willow Street.

"Of  windows with odd violet panes"
29A Chestnut Street, Boston, Mass.
Is it the best photograph? Oh, no. Certainly not. But if you are interested in this violet phenomenon, please see "Why Some Boston Brownstones Have Purple Windows", Boston Magazine, 23 September 2015. It is sometimes a wonderful thing to know that my own eyes --and yours too-- can still look upon the very exact same thing that Plath's did.


This map relates to stanza nine
The last stanza and a half addresses the Little City on a hill (See also). There is some interesting imagery here. If the the final four place names were looked at from above and lines drawn connecting the points, they would form a close approximation of a Cross, the symbolism for which hardly needs explaining.

Charles Street (February 1959) (West) and Customs House (August 1959) (East).
North Station (September 1959) (North) and South Station (April 1957) (South).

All links accessed 21 May 2016, and 1 and 17 November 2016.

4 comments :

Annika J Lindskog said...

What a great post, thank you! Very interesting contextualisation.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Annika, Hi! Hi! Thank you for your comment! I like walking in and through Plath's poems. ~pks

A Piece of Plathery said...

Thank you Peter, for the information and the photographs. Love the purple panes.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Plathery! My pleasure. Thank you for the comment. ~pks

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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.

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