08 November 2014

"We Shall Never Enter There": Sylvia Plath and The Burnt-out Spa

On Sunday 8 November 1959, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were in the last days of their 11 week stay at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. Plath's journal entry from a few days later says, "I wrote a good poem this week on our walk Sunday to the burnt-out spa. A second book poem. How it consoles me, the idea of a second book with these new poems: The Manor Garden, The Colossus, The Burnt-out Spa, the seven Birthday poems, and perhaps Medallion …" (526).

The burnt-out spa has for a while be something of an enigma to me. I visited Yaddo for a day in 2001, but did not think to seek out the "burnt-out spa" at the time. It has been on my mind for a while to revisit the town, and over the weekend of 20-21 September did just that, as part of a trip that included a rare tour of the buildings and grounds of so venerable a place. In preparation for the visit, I contacted the city's library to inquire if anyone knew anything about the place that inspired this Plath poem. I received fabulous assistance.

Poet Johnnie Roberts and city historian Mary Ann Fitzgerald each provided valuable information in this quest. The most likely location of the burnt-out spa was the former "Saratoga Sulphur and Mud Baths" at Eureka Park, which opened in 1928 and burnt to the ground on 28 October 1958.

Plath's visit to Yaddo coincided with the first anniversary of the conflagration, so it is possible that the fire might have been mentioned both on the property of Yaddo by its guests and employees, but also by the residents of Saratoga Springs. I also emailed with, and met in person, Teri Blasko, the Local History Librarian of the Saratoga Springs Public Library and her assistant Victoria Garlanda. Together they, along with Johnnie and Mary Ann, provided enough information via emails and attachments to allow for some in the field traipsing through history in this quest.

Arriving in Saratoga Springs, I met with Victoria first in the parking lot of Yaddo and drove the short mile and a half to the end of Eureka Avenue. Here they are building new houses. Makes me wish that in 2001 I had known about the site as it might have looked less spoiled. Victoria pointed out the general vicinity of where the Saratoga Sulphur and Mud Baths was located. We then drove around to the back-side of the area and parked near a hotel. We walked down a clearing path towards the spring with woods on both sides. Victoria warned me about ticks and Lyme disease and other creatures (snakes, etc.) and left me on my own to decide if I would navigate through the dense late summer growth in search of something.

A crude outline from satellite image of the spa location.
Entering the woods, I immediately came across some concrete foundation as well as very rusty metal objects and felt an immense relief. The property after the fire was never redeveloped. If details in the poem are based on observed objects, as is often the case in Sylvia Plath's poetry, then what I saw was the remains of the "wood and rusty teeth", the "rafters and struts", and "Iron entrails, enamel bowls, / The coils and pipes" (Collected Poems 137-138). I wandered around, making my way down to the spring itself. There was not much else to see, but like Plath wrote in her Journals about visiting her father's grave, "It is good to have the place in mind" (473).

Part of the concrete foundation of the old
Saratoga Sulphur and Mud Baths
Eureka Spring and mud
"Iron entrails ... / The coils and pipes that made him run."

Here is an article from The Saratogian from 28 October 1958 on the fire obtained from that wonderful Old Fulton NY Post cards website, which shows two images of the fire burning.

In the top-most image, you can what was the front, main entrance to the Baths. Clearly visible in front is a balustraded fence-like structure. Some of this remained a year after the fire, and was immortalized by Plath in her poem. Plath's speaker, wandering around the site as she herself undoubtedly did, notices the spring as it "Proceeds clear as it ever did / From the broken throat, the marshy lip" (138). She continues, "It flows off below the green and white / Balustrade of a sag-backed bridge" (138).

Two additional views of the Bath are in this black and white photograph, and a color picture postcard. Whilst undated, you can see clearly in the black and white photo the small bridge Plath would have seen; and though partially blocked by a car in the postcard, the bridge crossing the spring is visible in that as well.
1945 view of Saratoga Sulphur and Mud Baths
Postcard of the same
Here is an article about the man that owned the property: 'Mr. Saratoga' believed: Immigrant touted city's healing powers, owned Saratoga Sulphur & Mud Baths from 1928 to 1958. In researching for this post, I read and re-read "The Burnt-out Spa" several times, and as well I also did the same for the other Yaddo poems, especially in preparation for the tour. There were several similarities that I noticed between "The Colossus" and "The Burnt-out Spa" that previously escaped my purview. In the earlier written poem ("The Colossus"), the speaker is miniscule among the grand ruins, and crawls like "an ant in mourning / Over the weedy acres of your brow / To mend the immense skull-plates and clear / The bald, white tumuli of your eyes" (129). In "The Burnt-out Spa", a full-sized speaker is among the beast-like, personified ruins of the spa which is an "esplanade for crickets" (another insect). Diminished in stature against these more modern ruins, the speaker "pick[s] and [pries] like a doctor or / Archaeologist among / Iron entrails, enamel bowls, / The coils and pipes that made him run" (138).

Fifty-five years after Plath, I found myself feeling quite small in the dense overgrowth. The unchallenged weeds and trees have grown wild all around the site of the former spa. That spark and that chill which so often makes itself felt when tracking Plath's footsteps and actions as captured in her poetry and prose made itself known to me while I was at this location, as well as at Yaddo. Yes, Plath, "it is good to have the place in mind."

All links accessed 17 September and 14 October 2014.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Wow, Peter! "What a thrill"! Thank you very much for this post!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Peter! Some super visuals, too. Great sleuthing! ~VC

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Julia & ~VC for your comments. So happy you've found it a thrill and interesting. Glad, too, that you liked the visuals.


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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.
  • 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.