01 February 2020

Sylvia Plath Collections: The "Simple" Poem

The other day in my post about the Al Alvarez file in the Harriet Rosenstein papers now at the Rose Library, Emory, I mentioned the "simple" poem that was being shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic in 1974. Of course there was more in the post than that "simple" poem.

On Friday, Emily worked in Box 4, with folders 9-16. There were syncing problems with led me to malfunction. To be honest I am embarrassed about this, so let's try to move on.

If you are familiar with the finding aid, you will see that this folder set included files for Margaret Shook, Elizabeth Sigmund, Alison Smith, Nancy Steiner, William Sterling, and Marcia Stern. (Also Stephen Spender, but I asked Emily to skip this folder as it just included an article he printed in Gemini, Spring 1957, which I have a copy of somewhere in my files...Plath mentioned it in a letter written that spring, see footnote on page 83 of Volume II, so I had previously looked this up.)

I was anxious to read William Sterling's interview notes because in addition to David Freeman and Karen Goodall (a new name to me in Plathiana), this is among the earliest of Plath's acquaintances. And, also, because I can call her a friend, I was super excited to see Elizabeth Sigmund's file. I had many phone calls with Elizabeth; we exchanged letters in the mail. I was lucky to meet her in Plymouth and at her home with Gail Crowther back in 2013.

The Elizabeth folder, Emily reported, contained 59 images. Our shared folder was stuck on 54 images for about 74 years and 12 seconds. I decided I should preview the folder even though it was incomplete. I saw in there the letter from Assia Wevill to Plath (the original is at the British Library but copies are out there). Letters from Ted Hughes. Lots of interview notes. And I knew from a previous inventory of the collection that Elizabeth's folder included "notes from over Sylvia's desk, SP drawing (copies)". This is something that was obsessed over.

The "note" above Plath's desk in Court Green, it turns out, is the aforementioned "simple" poem. Rosenstein and Alvarez seemed to feel that it was authored by Plath. But even before I saw Emily's image in the folder, I had decided I would do something they could not have done: I would Google the poem.

When I read it, I did not feel in my gut it was Plath. The first line is "With my looks I am bound to look simple or fast I would rather look simple" and above it is written "Magna Est Veritas" (Latin for "Truth is Great" or "Great is truth) in Plath's hand. Google told me something Alvarez, at the least, should have known: that it is a poem by Stevie Smith. We can determine this was typed, by Plath, circa November 1962, around the time she wrote a letter to Smith (on the 19th). But I feel the title of the poem, and the poem itself, resonated with Plath because of the reproduction of Isidis that hung in her house. Maybe that is a stretch? And I feel this is the origination of something several people commented on Plath saying in those final months, the the "truth comes to" her.

"Magna Est Veritas" was published in Stevie Smith's 1957 collection Not Waving but Drowning (Deutsch). Plath's copy of the book was given to her as a Christmas present in 1960, and sold in the big Bonhams sale in March 2018.
Also on the page with the poem is a drawing by Plath (signed "Sylvia Hughes). This appears underneath something Elizabeth called "Aphorism" by Ted Hughes. Visible in his hand is "The mind reigns, the mind slaves, the mind pastures geese."

After going through all the files, one of the things I was most interested in seeing from this set of images was not there.

All links accessed 31 January 2020.

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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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.