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Hughes & Plath at Newnham College

Hughes & Plath at Newnham College

On arrival in Cambridge, Plath takes up lodgings at Whitstead in Newnham College. Once
married, Hughes first and then Plath, move into 55 Eltisley Avenue. They are frequent walkers at
nearby Grantchester Meadows.

55 Eltisley Avenue and Grantchester Meadows

There is so much to say about this incredibly fruitful time for both poets; during their lives here
(from November 1956 to late June 1957) Hughes won the Harper Poetry Competition for “The
Hawk in the Rain” and Plath graduated from Cambridge with a 2:1. However, Hughes’
“55 Eltisley” is surely the best starting point if one is to gain a poetical understanding 1 of place.
Hughes had clearly returned to Newnham at some point(s) during the gestation of the 1998
publication of Birthday Letters. 2 He tells us that he “drove past it”, so there appears to be no
lingering there. Why would he not have parked up and walked and taken a longer inspection of the
property, which held so many memories? Of course it may be, as I found for myself, that
Newnham is now such a busy, popular adjunct to the city, that there is very little room to park.
Indeed, on one pilgrimage, I had to stop the car, just shy of parked cars on both sides of the road,
take my picture and move on. There was just time to respond in the affirmative to the question
from the woman walking along the pavement with her shopping bags, “Ted Hughes fan?” she
asked. Rebecca Mills cites Aleida Assman (paraphrased and translated by Susan Küchler) who
describes the ‘drive-by’ as a –

spatial metaphor, or animatorical remembering, which initiates a momentary collapse of past and
present by forcing past and present, distance and proximity into a single point that is exploded out
of a linear and narrative time construction.3

The poem adheres to this theory with its mix of tenses, “Our first home has forgotten us” closely
followed by “I saw…How slight our lives had been”.4 Hughes converses with Plath, as though he is
keeping her informed in a paranormal briefing, hence the sliding and merging of past memories;
observations on Plath’s character and his views and comments upon their relationship. He recalls
their adherence to the Ouija board, horoscopes and omens, looking back to conjure up their lives
in the flat, but in doing so, uses prophetic, forecasting symbols. Like Janus, Hughes looks both at
the new beginnings of the marriage and their relationship and Plath’s hopes for their “future” in her
“crystal ball”, but also to the past and how Plath seemed trapped in her lost happiness of being a
daughter and being resident in a country she felt was archaic. Even the arrival of Hughes, like a
pioneer, staking his claim on the Arctic landscape of the flat, symbolises both a remembrance of
the death of the previous owner, but also a looking forward to Plath’s own suicide. He recalls
moving in before their possessions

…had reconditioned
That crypt of old griefs and its stale gas
Of a dead husband.

1 Ted Hughes “55 Eltisley” in Birthday Letters Faber (1998) pp.49 – 50
2 Ted Hughes Birthday Letters Faber (1998)
3 Rebecca Mills “A Knossos of Coincidence”: Elegy and the “Chance of Space” in the Urban
Geographies of ‘Birthday Letters’ in The Ted Hughes Society Journal Vol 3 Issue 1 (2013) pp.8 – 18
4 “55 Eltisley” in BL

We therefore have a man writing this poem of a visit to an old place of residence, looking back to
his time there with his new wife, but also even further back to the previous incumbents and
thenceforward a little into the more recent past of his wife’s death and then forward/back to the
very recent past of his drive by the property. Rebecca Mills summarises this efficiently, “the
projected future is already past, and foreshadowing meets hindsight.”5
Mills goes on to explore the architecture of “Birthday Letters” reading the buildings and homes of
Plath and Hughes, “as products of a mutually inscriptive process where narrative and space shape
each other.” If one accepts this hypothesis, it is hardly surprising then 6 to find that Hughes is
deeply affected by the history of 55 Eltisley Avenue; its previous owners and the impact the place
has upon his wife. The flat then in Hughes’ interpretation of Plath’s feelings epitomises all her
negative thoughts about England –

part
Nursing home, part morgue
For something partly dying, partly dead.7

Here one wonders if Hughes is describing only Plath’s view of England and the effect of knowing
the history of the flat’s previous incumbents, or if he is also thinking of the marriage, starting out at
Eltisley Avenue, but then decaying and dying or already partly dead. Is he not also considering his
wife and her psychological state? She has confided to him her first suicide attempt before they are
married and he would have been aware surely, if only from her poetry, that there is something
inside her that is attracted/drawn to death and the loss of pain through its purgatorial finality. I
therefore conclude that it was not a parking problem that shortened Hughes’ visit to his former
home; the memories he recalls in the poem are not of the first flush of marriage, but instead he
examines a blood stain from the previous incumbent’s dying husband and he sees how the tragic
future was there for them both to perceive,

… Already
We were beyond the Albatross.

The Albatross is not the only sea-faring reference in the poem; indeed, Hughes clearly sees the
house as the beginning of their marital voyage – he describes the kitchen paraphernalia adapting
itself to become part of,

the shipyard and ritual launching
Of our expedition.

Hughes emphasises how much Plath separated her new husband from both her own female
friends and his old flames. He combines grammatical emphasis with the extended metaphor of the
sailing to reflect not only his wife’s country of origin, arriving from across the Atlantic, but also the
watery phobia she developed in her poetry. Hughes tells Plath, “You yourself were a whole
Antarctic sea” between her husband and friends and that she was “pack ice” between him and his
old girlfriends. He also grew accustomed to the conditions needed to keep her “compass steady.”
Two women were accepted into the home in spite of “their faces” but they are “polar apparitions.”
One begins to hear Eltisley Avenue cracking through the ice of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner,
the Albatross quick frozen in the Arctic cold of Plath’s possessiveness.
Hughes says that the two “plodded’ through that winter “hand in hand.” One has the image of them,
Scott-like, trudging through polar snow, in an attempt to reach the warmth of home. The couple

5 Mills “AKofC” in TTHSJ Vol 3 Issue 1 p.14
6Mills “AKofC” p.8
7 “55 Eltisley”

are already in the dark that early in their marriage and they are looking for a light of understanding,
cohesion and acceptance of each other that is still unattainable. In the use of an oxymoron,
reminding me of Milton’s “darkness visible” from the first book of Paradise Lost, Hughes found
himself trying to move forward in a “rainbow darkness”; all around there are storm clouds gathering
both from earlier on in the day and up ahead on the horizon, but there is also the promise of
complete happiness and the pot of gold of compatibility if only they can reach the end of that
rainbow. Plath was “happy” he tells us in the poem; she had “igloo comfort”, but the warmth inside
was also claustrophobic, one feels for him rather than her. Still, the igloo metamorphoses then into
“Your Bell Jar” and she is destined to be drowned in the icy water of the expedition. What comforts
and warms Plath, paradoxically, can also be freezing cold and lethal.
Whilst living at Eltisley Avenue, Plath wrote “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” 8 which tells the
story of a terracotta bust of Plath, made by a room-mate at Smith. Plath despised the bust, but
apparently felt superstitious about throwing it away. Erica Wagner in Ariel’s Gift 9 cites the
outcome of this dilemma as Hughes’ solution, referring us to Plath’s letter to her mother of 8
February 1957, “Ted suggested we walk out into the meadows and climb up into a tree and
ensconce it there so it could look out over the pastures and river.” 10
Wagner reminds us though that Plath seemed afraid of the head falling into the river and cites
Stevenson’s Bitter Fame 11 where Plath’s biographer finds the fear of the drowned head in poems
Plath was writing at this time in Cambridge. “All the Dead Dears” 12 for example, finished on April
7th 1957, which Plath describes to her mother as, “one of my best” 13 has a subject matter with
little to do with water, but rather –

In the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge is a stone coffin of the fourth century A.D. containing
the skeletons of a woman, a mouse and a shrew. The ankle-bone of the woman has been slightly
gnawn.14

However, Plath sees the skeletons as being “barnacle dead” and she focuses on the human
skeleton’s head and then her hands which she imagines are pulling her in until,

… an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck-feet winnowing his hair –

It would appear that water and its power to kill, or cleanse, are rarely far from her poetic psyche. In
another poem of Birthday Letters Hughes writes a companion, “The Lady and the Earthenware
Head” 15 In it he feels sure that the head has fallen from the tree and the river has become its
purgatorial chapel of rest –

8 Sylvia Plath “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” in Collected Poems Faber (1981) pp.69 – 70
9 Erica Wagner Ariel’s Gift Faber (2000) p.86
10 Sylvia Plath Letters Home Faber (1975) p.294
11 Ann Stevenson Bitter Fame Houghton (1989)
12 Sylvia Plath “All the Dead Dears” Collected Poems (1981) pp.70 – 71
13 Letters Home p.306
14 Epigraph to “AtheDD”
15 Ted Hughes “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” in Birthday Letters Faber (1998) pp.57 – 8

Your deathless head, fired in a furnace,
Face to face at last, kisses the Father
Mudded at the bottom of the Cam,
Beyond recognition or rescue,
All our fears washed from it, and perfect,
Under the stained mournful flow,

For Hughes then, it would appear that Plath’s death has cleansed them both of superstitions, fears
and faults in their relationship, or perhaps Hughes continues to reassure his wife, even after death;
he did after all describe “Birthday Letters” as, “ a gathering of occasions on which I tried to open a
direct, private, inner contact with my first wife – not thinking to make a poem, thinking mainly to
evoke her presence to myself, and to feel her there listening.” It is interesting 16 that like Plath in
“All the Dead Dears” Hughes recalls the importance of the return to the father, whether that be the
father of the skeleton in Plath’s poem, Otto in both poems, or God the Father in Hughes’ poem.
It is also important to note that in early November, Hughes’ poem, “The Drowned Woman”17 was
bought by Poetry (Chicago). A thirty year old woman, Hughes describes as a, “worn public lady”
drowns herself in a park lake; he tells us she came to the park,

Not for the sun’s forgetful look
Nor children running here and there;
On the mud bed of the lake
She found her comforter.

Again, Hughes offers drowning as something of a blessing for a troubled mind and tortured body.
With Grantchester Meadows such a nearby haunt of Plath’s it is with gratitude we read that she
was relatively happy here, or we might well have lost her earlier than her untimely death at thirty,
the same age as Hughes’ subject for “The Drowned Woman.” She explains away her
procrastination from academic work, by reassuring herself that Virginia Woolf staved off depression
with cookery and pottering and although Plath says that she feels, “ (my) life linked to her,” she
also writes in her journal, “But her suicide, I felt was reduplicating that black summer of 1953.
(Plath’s first suicide attempt) Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable,
slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy.” 18
In the first part of “55 Eltisley” Hughes describes the past of the house and its effect upon them
both. I cannot help but recall the notion of “genius loci” in psychogeography; there is an abiding
spirit of the house or flat in the way that Hughes obsesses on the aforementioned blood stain,
believing that the experience of the widow and her dead husband, “Hung – a miasma – round that
stain.” This noxious atmosphere gathers potency with his use of sibilance in “Senility’s sour
odour.” The fetid smell and oppressive air then condenses “Like a grease on the cutlery.” Why
grease becomes singular in this line it is difficult to say, unless Hughes wishes to further personify
and particularise the blood stain and its portent. He wonders from which orifice the blood was spilt
and dramatises the mark by wondering if it was from the head, caused after “some fall.” With all of
these details, the flat grows in size until it is a huge theatre of life; like Hughes returning to his
former residence, I too was disappointed at the lack of “trace.” My photograph of the flat bears a
resemblance I feel to a blitz-torn London building with only the facade standing; it reminds me of
Woolf’s return to Bloomsbury after a bomb has hit during the Blitz –

16 Ted Hughes on winning the Forward Prize for Birthday Letters in 1998, cited by Erica Wagner in
Ariel’s Gift p.22
17 Ted Hughes “ The Drowned Woman” in Collected Poems Faber (2003) pp. 15 – 16
18 Sylvia Plath in The Journals 1950 – 1962 Faber (2000) February 25th 1957 p. 269

‘I could just see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books.
open air where we sat so many nights, gave so many parties.’ She wrote to Angelica: ‘As for 52
Tavistock – well, where I used to dandle you on my knee, there’s God’s sky: and nothing left but
one wicker chair and a piece of druggett. 19

Small wonder that Hughes feels that 55 Eltisley Avenue from a drive past, offers nothing to him of
the drama; the depth; or the quality of his memories. It is in his interaction with the barren nature
of the building that the reader gains an insight to the lives of the couple in those early days
together.
We know from the letters and journals of both poets, that Hughes took residence before Plath.
Hughes writes to Lucas Myers on 16th November 1956, telling him, “ The flat is good – a
downstairs floor – extremely cheap.” He goes on to describe the chemist who 20 lived upstairs, but
unmentioned is the fact that this scientist was no other than George Sassoon, son of Siegfried and
therefore related to Plath’s previous lover Richard Sassoon. Plath writes to her mother describing
the flat in far more detail than Hughes tells to his friend Myers –

To my chastened eyes, it looks beautiful. We share a bathroom with a Canadian couple (Hughes
says the chemist is South African, but George Sassoon was apparently born in England) upstairs
and have the whole first floor: living room, bedroom, large sort of dining room, antique but sturdy
gas stove and pantry.21

She goes on to tell Aurelia that the landlady, who lives out of town, has agreed that they can paint
the yellow walls another colour and Plath is excited about a “blue-gray” instead. She too, notes the
cheap rent of £4 a week, plus expenses for facilities and she notes the importance of spending
money on keeping the flat warm and making a proper home. “It even has two apple trees in the
ragged little back yard and a bay tree. It’s got pots and pans, old kitchen silver and a few sheets
for the double bed. I’ll make it like an ad out of House and Garden with Ted’s help …”
Wendy Campbell, a Cambridge contemporary of Plath’s, recalls that the flat, “ though it was fairly
small, they made it their own by lining one entire wall with their books and overcoming the
landlady’s effects with their own.” 22 Hughes corroborates this in the poem,

Just so the grease-grimed shelves, the tacky, dark walls
Of the hutch of a kitchen revolted you
Into a fury of scouring. 23

One cannot help but admire Plath for her practical attempts to purge the misery of the flat, whilst
her husband contemplates the blood-stain on the pillow. It is interesting to note the difference in
attitude, the other way round this time, regarding a sofa. On this occasion Hughes seems
delighted with the purchase, stating in the poem,

We splurged ten pounds on a sumptuous Chesterfield
Of Prussian blue velvet.

19 Virginia Woolf to Angelica Bell 26th October 1940 in Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf Vintage (1997)
p.743
20 Ted Hughes to Lucas Myers Letters of Ted Hughes Ed. by Christopher Reid Faber (2007)
21SP to AP November 1st 1956 in CL p. 283
22 Wendy Campbell “Remembering Sylvia” in The Art of Sylvia Plath Ed. Charles Newman Faber
(1970) p. 184
23 “55 Eltisley”

whilst Plath writes to her mother, “We have bought a huge, rather soiled but comfortable, secondhand
sofa for our living room for £9.10s, which we’ll sell next spring,” 24 which sounds far more
measured and most practical as she is already planning ahead to get rid of furniture in the hope
that she will return to America with her husband. She continues in the same letter, “I am sick of
battling the cold and the dirt away from all my friends. America looks to me like the promised land.”
It is a far cry from her earlier expressions of joy at arriving in Cambridge, “…I feel that after I put
down roots here, I shall be happier than ever before, since a kind of golden promise hovers in the
air along the Cam and in the quaint crooked streets. “ 25 It would appear that Plath is forever
searching that which will complete her; there is a lack of satisfaction in the present, even when she
has apparently married the person she feels makes her whole. In another letter home she tells
Aurelia, “ I can appreciate the legend of Eve coming from Adam’s rib as I never did before; the
damn story’s true! That’s where I belong.” 26
They also began to entertain a little, mainly just Wendy Campbell and Dorothea Krooke, Plath’s
“Fairy godmothers,” as Hughes calls them in the poem. They clearly supported Plath and
appreciated her and were hence forgiven, Hughes feels, that they were possible rivals. They
therefore escape being incarcerated in “pack ice.” Throughout the poem he describes their first
home as if it were some sort of “first camp” on the polar expedition of their relationship; Plath
meanwhile, sitting over the paraffin heater, warms herself on a fantastical future. At the end of the
poem, we see again, Plath looking beyond the moment; unable to appreciate the importance of,
“… our first winter”. Instead, she continues to dream ahead and gaze into her snowstorm,

…heirloom paperweight. Inside it,
There, in miniature, was your New England Christmas.
A Mummy and a Daddy, still together
Under the whirling snow, and our future.

24 SP to AP in LH November 13th 1956 p. 285
25 SP to AP October 3rd 1955 in LH p. 184
26 SP to AP October 8th 1956 in LH p.276
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