Sunday, 20 May 2012

Personal musings: Visiting Plath's grave

In March 2009, I turned 24. As a birthday present, some of my dearest friends (who had coincidentally moved to the Manchester area post-University) and I decided to embark on a trip to Heptonstall, Yorkshire to visit the grave of Sylvia Plath. Little did I know that just over one year later I would be enrolled on a Ph.D. course to study Plath! Here are some photographs of our trip.

All photos are copyright to The Plath Diaries. Please email me for permission.

Drivingthrough the Yorkshire moors en route from Manchester to Heptonstall. This wild and barren landscape made me feel uneasy, and reminded me of the Moors Murders which were carried out between 1963 and 1965. I am by no means a Ted Hughes expert, but I do think these bleakness of these moors inspire a lot of his work. Hebden Bridge is the nearest "small town" to Heptonstall, where Plath is buried (about 5miles away). It is a cute and quirky town and would be a perfect place to stay if you are travelling from afar and want to explore the area where Hughes is from and where Plath was inspired to write many of the poems that feature in 'The Colossus'.

Heptonstall is a tiny town, and only vehicles owned by those who live in the village are permitted to park in the town centre. We parked our car a few streets away from the main street of the village. You can see the church steeple in the background. The graveyard Plath is buried in is beside the church. This picture shows my friends walking down the main street of the town. Absolutely tiny! We had food in the bar whose advertisement is to the left of this picture. I quizzed the barman on Plath and he was able to give me a first-person account of his experience of the day of her funeral. He also told me that Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin visited the grave together some years later. I have searched the internet for corroborating facts but have been fruitless, so whether I believe him or not is another story!

It was incredibly moving to visit Plath's grave. I was glad the headstone was not in a state of disrepair, having grown up with the tabloid headlines of Plath fans vandalising the stone (removing the "Hughes" part of her name). Personally, I simply felt very sad. The grave was very lonely, Heptonstall would be cold and desolate in the winter. I thought of Aurelia Plath, so far away from her daughter's body, unable to visit the grave. I thought of Sylvia Plath's children, who would never know their mother except through her work and hearsay. My friends - a very sarcastic bunch - too, were moved. The reality of her 30 years hit all of us very clearly.

I am so lucky to have been given the opportunity to visit Smith College and Boston, places where Plath lived her life vivaciously. Her poems, short stories, fiction, letters and journals speak to my soul very deeply and it is a daily joy to read her work and interpret it in my own way. The desperate sadness of her early death may permeate her work due to critics focusing on it; but this is not the sum total of her being. Having visited her grave, I feel like I was being intrusive. I did not know Sylvia Plath, I was not part of her family, nor was I a friend. Visiting her grave was part curiosity, part homage to the poet who I first fell in love with at fifteen and whose work has evolved with me as I have grown. Now as a twenty-seven year old, her work guides me and inspires me, urges me to work harder, to love better, and to keep on writing no matter what. Visiting her grave has ultimately made me disconnect from the "Plath cult." It made her existence real to me. And despite the tragic sadness of her end, seeing Plath's grave makes her work more real to me also and drives me to defend her artistic integrity as point #1 in my Ph.D.


Zoƫ said...

I love how honest and raw you are writing about your visit to her grave, and how the solidness of being there actually disconnected you from the Plath "cult". Thank you for sharing, its sometimes nice to look back isn't it - to see where we started.

Kayla Elizabeth said...

I find your writing simply exquisite and I can feel how you felt visiting Plath.

I hope one day I can be as lucky and visit the great poet.

Rehan Qayoom said...

You're right about Hughes being influenced by the brutality of the locality. See his poems 'Football at Slack' and the poems on Hepstonstall. There is also a long preface he wrote on that very aspect in the 1994 edition of Elmet (See Collected Poems: Appendix One, 1200-1202).

There is a photograph (plate 4) in Keith Sagar's Poet & Critic of Murphy, Dunn, Larkin and Hughes in a rural churchyard but it says it was taken in 'East Yorkshire'.

Jillian Becker wrote in her memoir:

Sylvia had pictured her grave in undulating Devon, not flinty Yorkshire where she lies. Soon after we met she told me, speaking of he death as a far-off event, that she'd like to be buried in the churchyard next to Court Green.

(Jillian becker. Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath. Ferrington, 2002. 25).

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