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Sylvia Plath Conference Paper – Plath and Cambridge

Sylvia Plath Conference Paper – Plath and Cambridge


Sylvia Plath arrived in Cambridge (Slides 1, 2, 3, 4) in October 1955, four years after Ted Hughes had come to Pembroke. Only four months later she met Hughes and there began the relationship of modern poetry.The myth tells that little of worth was written in or of Cambridge in Plath’s time here, but my thesis argues, with the aid of the lenses of complementary studies that Sylvia Plath not only gained a degree and met her husband in Cambridge, she also matured in her writing and left as a legacy, a vibrant and important body of work which, like her character has a distinctive and compelling voice.

She writes home to her mother that “It is the most beautiful spot in the world, I think, and from my window in Whitstead on the third floor I can see out into the Whitstead garden to trees where large black rooks (ravens) fly over quaint red-tiled rooftops with their chimney pots.” 1 (Slides 5,6,7) Whitstead is a large, draughty, white house just off the Barton Road and across the playing fields and gardens of Newnham College itself. (Slides 8,9,10) Here the college housed overseas students, so Sylvia found herself amongst South Africans and fellow Americans as well as one or two home students. She describes her room in detail and repeats her home-making activities in 2 several of her letters to people back in the States. In these early days her customary excitable enthusiasm for the new and the opportunities it may open up for her spring from the page; she tells her mother in her second letter from October 2nd 1955, “I feel that after I have 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.” However, this promise seems conditional on the future “ I must make my own Cambridge, and I feel that once I start thinking and studying again (although I’ll probably be a novice compared to the specialized students here) my inner life will grow rich enough to nourish and sustain me.”3 Her utter joy at gaining a coffee table for her room, a Braque print and the coloured spines of her books arranged on the shelves show her creative curatorship and sensory delight. Her trips to buy fruit from the market in Cambridge expressively, descriptively


1 Sylvia Plath (SP) to Aurelia Schober Plath (ASP) 2/10/1955, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1 (TLoSP1 from now on) Eds. Karen Kukil & Peter Steinberg (Faber London 2017) p.966
2 SP to Gordon Lameyer p.987, Olive Higgins Prouty p.999 as well as her mother TLoSP 3 SP to ASP PlathTLoSP p.969

and lovingly punctuate several of the letters home “Best fun of all was the open marketplace in the square with fresh fruit, flowers, vegetables, books, clothes and antiques … am buying apples (very good) oranges and dates (fruit) regularly at market…”4 However, by June 1957 she writes home, “Both of us delighted to leave the mean, mealy-mouthed literary world of England.”5

With the disciplines of psychogeography, anthropology and memory studies, I embrace and reveal the life and work of Sylvia Plath during this Cambridge period. What impact did Cambridge have upon her and her work and what legacy is left by her in Cambridge? Having focussed on her husband for the Ted Hughes conference in Huddersfield earlier this year, this paper will move the focus to Plath. However, I would wish to stress that my thesis is one which charts the relationship between both writers and Cambridge. I see it as a reparative study, chiming with the growing appreciation of the achievement of both poets and their influence upon each other. It is also a very personal study, retracing my childhood in the streets of Newnham and growing up in the university city. Here, in the place where they first met and fell in love so passionately and decisively, there remains a living will of ideas, creativity and emotions, researched and explored in places, people, archives, letters, journals and poems.

The poems of this Cambridge period Plath claimed shortly before she died, “quite privately bore me,” 6 but there are some such as “Resolve” which, whilst Plath does not include in Colossus, contain moments of unadulterated beauty, breaking free from her addiction to the thesaurus and the obscuration of strict poetic form and releasing Plath’s exceptional, cultured perception of her environment and her psyche in a glorious pathetic fallacy. “Resolve”, reminiscent in mood, as Alvarez notes, of the later “Sheep in Fog” and in form of “Mushrooms,” sits on the page and takes the eye from sketching line to decisive declaration so comfortably and easily. Alvarez describes how Plath has captured the mood of “slow autumn melancholy in which inner depression fuses


4 SP to ASP TLoSP p.968 and p.993
5 SP to ASP 8/6/1957 Letters Home Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber London 1975 ) p.317
6 SP in British Council Interview quoted by Alvarez in “Sylvia Plath: The Cambridge Collection” p. 299 in The Cambridge Mind/Ninety Years of the Cambridge Review 1879-1969 Ed. Eric Hamburger, William Janeway, Simon Schama (Cape London 1990)

inextricably with the blurred, silent weather outside.” 7 And it is this bitter sweet blending of the painful with the beautiful that exudes from Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows with the students punting and holding hands,

Black-gown’d, but unaware
How in such mild air
The owl shall stoop from his turret, the rat cry out.

In Birthday Letters Hughes echoes in “The Owl” how an owl, deceived by his cry of a rabbit in pain …swooped up, splaying its pinions

Into my face, taking me for a post.
The symbolism of their first meeting at that fateful party; the bite and the confessional nature of the

poem shows us Hughes recalling the importance of nature in the place of their courtship. The opening line of the poem declares,

I saw my world again in your eyes

Initially at Cambridge, Plath throws herself into student life, studying yes, but also acting; party-going; dating; eating out; attending cultural events and the inevitable punting with tea at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester. This phase of her Cambridge sojourn is summarised for me in the Christian Science Monitor articles where she gives American readers a slice of her Cambridge experience along with a sketch of the rooftops from Whitstead. (Slide 11) She describes waking up here and seeing “ubiquitous large, black ravens, lurching along the ground or hunching darkly in the trees, muttering perhaps, if one listens closely, ‘Never-more.’ “ She takes us on a walk along the bustle of “narrow one-way streets” beside the “dark waters of the Cam.” She also takes in the fenland feel of the city which when “mists rise at twilight, takes on the muted green and silver-grey tones of a Corot painting.” Like her, it never fails to amaze the perceptive visitor or local that “Contemporary student life moves against the mellow background of centuries of tradition.” Unlike many inhabitants though, comparing the university to an American college campus she claims “it is literally impossible to divide Cambridge University from the town. In a sense, the university is the town, and vice versa.” She recalls too the visit of the Queen and the


7 Ibid. p.301

Duke of Edinburgh to Newnham College when they come to open a nearby new laboratory; she becomes swept away with Shakespearean fervour transforming the dining hall into “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” 8

However, in April 1956 Plath’s letters home change radically in tone and the references to her inadequacy in reading and knowledge of the Cambridge canon disappear. She begins to revel in life, particularly a pagan life which glories in nature and the seasons, the immediacy of hunting, gathering and cooking food and writing, above all writing. Her descriptions become more Chaucerian, particularly in relation to Spring with its connotations of growth and rebirth as she appreciates rooks cawing, grey mists, burgeoning blossom and the willows weeping into the ever- present Cam. Plath is in love.

Ted Hughes has released in her a love of nature; an understanding of the harshness and violence of life; an acceptance of pain which hones and burnishes character leading her to feel a resilience to her old demons of worthlessness and depression. She describes how having, “been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long.” 9 Plath writes, now printed in the magnificent new edition of her letters “I can’t believe any body ever loved like this; nobody will again. We will burn love to death all our long lives;” 10 (Slide 12) Whilst Hughes, in a letter addressed to “Darling Sylvia Puss-Kish Ponky” tells his then secret wife that he misses her stupidly “I have wandered about today like somebody with a half-completed brain-operation.” 11


8 Sylvia Plath writing in The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Mass) Youth Section “Leaves from A Cambridge Notebook” Monday March 5 1956 p.17 & Tuesday March 6 p.15 Cambridge University Library
9 SP to ASP TLoSP p.1180
10 SP to Ted Hughes (TH) TLoSP p.1298
11 TH to SP Letters of Ted Hughes Ed. Christopher Reid (Faber London 2007) pp. 49 – 51

Once publicly married, Hughes first and then Plath, move into 55 Eltisley Avenue. (Slide 13) During their lives here (from November 1956 to late June 1957) Hughes won the Harper Poetry Competition for The Hawk in the Rain ; gained his first English publication and taught at Coleridge School for two terms. Plath graduated from Cambridge with a 2:1 and had poems accepted by two American journals. In “55 Eltisley” from Birthday Letters Hughes describes the couple’s first home together after revisiting the area. He tells us that he “drove past it”, so there appears to be no lingering there. The mythology of the poets’ first home together lives on and is a popular point of pilgrimage although there is no record on the house itself. Similarly, Hughes initially finds no evidence to suggest that they once lived there together. However, as Rebecca Mills notes in an article on buildings in Birthday Letters Hughes then has an epiphany caused by the conjunction of past, present and context. She suggests Hughes’ ‘drive-by’ is 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.12

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”.13 This form of remembering, described by Aleida Assman in her work on memory studies, is part of an active awakening; to continue the metaphor of memory: Hughes sleeping in the present, drives past the house which triggers in him his dream of the past. He awakes and recalls the dream actively, creating his own understanding of the dream – the poem. In the first part of the poem Hughes describes the past of the house and its effect upon them both. I am not alone here in recalling the notion of “genius loci” in psychogeography, the concept that a place emits the aura of its past inhabitants and the events which have played out there; in the poem Hughes confronts their intended future and from the existence of the created object, takes the memory forward into the future for others to read,

12 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 (I am grateful to the author of this article for the allusion to Assmann, whose Cultural Memory and Western Civilization – see note 2 – became formative in my research. Susan Küchler’s essay is in The Art of Forgetting Eds. Adrian Forty and Susan Küchler Berg Oxford 1999) She paraphrases and translates Aleida Assman here.
13 “55 Eltisley” in BL

forming a collective memory and all from a single point of consciousness. 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. 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. Hughes tells us that the house “confirmed” Plath’s “idea of England” –

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

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.

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.”14 Hughes says that the two “plodded’ through that winter “hand in hand.” Plath was “happy” he tells us in the poem; she had “igloo comfort”, but the igloo metamorphoses 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.


14 Mills “AKofC” in TTHSJ Vol 3 Issue 1 p.14

Whilst living at Eltisley Avenue, Plath wrote “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” 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 16 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.” 17 Wagner reminds us though that Plath seemed afraid of the head falling into the river and cites Stevenson’s Bitter Fame 18 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” 19 (Slides14,15,16) for example, finished on April 7th 1957, which Plath describes to her mother as, “one of my best” 20 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.21

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

Birthday Letters Hughes writes a companion to “The Lady and the Earthenware Head.” 22 He feels


15 Sylvia Plath “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” in Collected Poems Faber (1981) pp.69 – 70 16 Erica Wagner Ariel’s Gift Faber (2000) p.86
17 Sylvia Plath Letters Home Faber (1975) p.294
18 Ann Stevenson Bitter Fame Houghton (1989)
19 Sylvia Plath “All the Dead Dears” Collected Poems (1981) pp.70 – 71
20 Letters Home p.306
21 Epigraph to “AtheDD”
22 Ted Hughes “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” in Birthday Letters Faber (1998) pp.57 – 8

sure that the head has fallen from the tree and the Cam has become its purgatorial chapel of rest, “Under the stained mournful flow.” This is a far cry from Plath’s joy at the walks the couple took along the Cam at Grantchester Meadows and Plath’s beautiful sketches of cattle and willow trees 23 (Slide 17). As readers and scholars of both Plath and Hughes we experience the impossibility of escaping what happened to Plath and our knowingness and anticipation abuses our innocent readings of poetic narrative. In Birthday Letters we engage emotionally with Hughes’ testament to this terrible knowledge, but it is my hope that in my thesis I will celebrate the love, power and genius of both poets and as Frieda Hughes so achingly finishes in her introduction to the new volume of Plath letters – (Slide 18)

It seems to me that, as a result of their profound belief in each other’s literary abilities, (my parents) are as married in death as they once were in life. 24

23 Sylvia Plath: Drawings Introduction by Frieda Plath (London Faber & Faber 2013) 24 Frieda Hughes in the introduction to TLoSP
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