01 August 2015

Sylvia Plath's "Mules That Angels Ride"

Back on 9 January 2012, I gave an "Update from the Archive" during a week spent at Smith College. In that post, I wrote the following:

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"?

Christopher Geissler, the Librarian for American and British Literary and Popular Culture Collections at Brown University, and Gerrianne Schaad, the college archivist at Southern Florida College, provided invaluable information on the Wallace Stevens Award. The "Wallace Stevens Contest" to which Plath submitted her poems was held by the Southern Florida College in Lakeland, Florida. Schaad found an article (pictured left) regarding the contest printed in the student newspaper The Southern on 14 March 1958. The contest requirements were as such: "The national poetry contest is open to authors who have either had a volume a verse published by a known publishing house, or at least three poems published in recognized magazines with a cash prize of $1,000 going to the winner … Poems submitted in the contest should not exceed 350 lines and must be unpublished" (2). The judges that year were Conrad Aiken, R. P. Blackmur, and Allen Tate.

Geissler let me know that an advert for the contest appeared a 1958 issue of The Writer: "Florida Southern College announces the Wallace Stevens Award of $1,000, open to authors who have had a volume of verse published, or at least three poems published in recognized magazines" (Vol 71, p 28). This is a magazine Plath knew and read; in fact, Smith College holds several copies formerly belonging to Plath (though not the one in which appears the quote Geissler provided).

During my four day trip to the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington earlier this year in March, I had occasion to look at just about every box and every folder in the Plath mss II collection. In Box 12, Folder 2 is a notebook Plath kept during the spring semester of 1958 whilst she was auditing Priscilla Paine Van der Poel's Modern Art course (Art 315). The course catalog for that year reads: "Contemporary art and its background from Jacques Louis David and the French Revolution to the present. Open to sophomores by permission of the instructor. Open also in the second semester to students who have had a course in nineteenth-century art abroad. Recommended background, 11. M T W 10. Mrs Van der Poel" (49).

The notebook was spiral bound, 80 sheets, purchased from the Quill Bookshop, then located at 100 Green Street, Northampton (now Ford Hall, opened in 2010). The cover is brown with a dark green band towards the top with "SMITH COLLEGE" printed in goldish-brown color. At the bottom, Plath has written her name "Sylvia Hughes" along with "Library 59", which was where her office was during the year she taught at Smith. Aurelia Plath has added a sticker-label on it that reads "Modern Art Notes". Present are other annotations by Plath including text (a partial/incomplete line "the man in the west moon" from Dylan Thomas' "And Death Shall Have No Dominion"), scribbles/doodles, and division/computations.

On the fourth page of this notebook, Plath has three lists of poem titles (largely using short titles, not the full titles). Two of these lists include total line counts of poems and computations. Plath seemed to be trying to get to 350 lines, which as we know from above was a criterion of the contest. Not all of the poems Plath lists are known or are even possibly extant any longer, but most are. The seven known/extant poems are:

"The Disquieting Muses"; "The Lady and the Earthenware Head"; "Virgin in a Tree"; "Battle-Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer"; "Departure of the Ghost" ("The Ghost's Leavetaking"); "Perseus: The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering"; and "Snakecharmer".

There are a few possibilities, though, for the eighth poem. The first I list here because it was included at one point with the above seven. Plath listed these poems in short title format, not including full titles. So the actual title of this poem is unknown but Plath's short title was "White Cow" and it consisted of 55 lines. The difficulty with this is that Plath wrapped the title in parenthesis and crossed out the line count. Parenthesis, in Plath's lists of poems, generally means exclusion or omission, a change in thought, or possibly indecision.

Another possible poem, also presumably lost, is on the subject of a cat & bird (based on Paul Klee's 1928 painting Cat and Bird). Plath mentioned this in her 22 March 1958 letter to her mother saying: "a little lyric on a cat with a bird-stigma between its eyebrows[1], a really mammoth magic cat-head" (Letters Home 336). In this letter she enclosed two poems: "Battle-Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer" and "Departure of the Ghost" ("The Ghost's Leavetaking"). But, a poem on the subject of a cat and bird does not appear in these lists.

The third possibility is another poem altogether, which feels to me in my analysis to be a complete cop out, but there we are.

The three lists of poems are all in different orders. This might suggest or show Plath in the process of arranging the poems in a specific order. The three orders are:

List one (in pen), on left hand side of the page with line counts:

White Cow -- 55 lines;
"Departure of the Ghost" ("The Ghost's Leavetaking") -- 45 lines;
"Battle-Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer" -- 40 lines;
"Virgin in a Tree" -- 45 lines;
"Perseus: The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering" -- 50 lines;
"The Lady and the Earthenware Head" -- 35 lines;
(At this point in the list the lines are added, totaling 270 lines. Then Plath adds)
"The Disquieting Muses" --56 lines; and
(Plath then notes she needs to get 80 more lines and adds)
"Snakecharmer" -- 28 lines.

List two, in pencil, to the right of the first list, with no line counts, is:

"The Disquieting Muses";
"The Lady and the Earthenware Head";
"Virgin in a Tree";
"Battle-Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer";
"Departure of the Ghost" ("The Ghost's Leavetaking");
"Perseus: The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering"; and

List three, in pen, in between the first to but started lower on the page, with line counts is:

"Departure of the Ghost" ("The Ghost's Leavetaking") -- 45 lines;
"Battle-Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy The Seafarer" --40 lines;
"Virgin in a Tree" -- 45 lines;
"Perseus: The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering" -- 50 lines;
"The Lady and the Earthenware Head" --35 lines;
"The Disquieting Muses" --56 lines; and
"Snakecharmer" -- 28 lines.

Readers should note that in "The Ghost's Leavetaking" printed in Letters Home includes an extra stanza that Plath later removed at the suggestion of her sister-in-law Olwyn Hughes. This stanza (originally the fifth) was also captured in recordings Plath made for Lee Anderson in Springfield, Massachusetts on 18 April 1958 and at for the Woodberry Poetry Room on 13 June 1958.

Thanks must go out to Peter Fydler for asking about "Mules That Angels Ride" in an email, to Gail Crowther for reading and commenting on this post, to Christopher Geissler at Brown University and Gerrianne Schaad at Southern Florida College for their help, to Aurelia Plath for saving everything, and to the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University.

All links accessed 9 April 2015.

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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.