11 May 2023

Visiting the unhappy
grave of Sylvia Plath
in ‘Happy Valley’

‘Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted’ … the grave of Sylvia Plath in Heptonstall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Calder Valley is now known to many as ‘Happy Valley’ following the success of the recent television drama series. Two of us took the train from York through Leeds and Halifax to Hebden Bridge on Tuesday and spent much of the day enjoying the warm sunshine in these tranquil settings beneath the Pennines in West Yorkshire.

Hebden Bridge has steep hills, fast-flowing streams, and canal-side walks, and is beloved by artists, writers, photographers and musicians. Before lunch in Bridge Gate, we climbed the steep cobbled street leading up to the original settlement and hilltop village of Heptonstall.

The original church in Heptonstall was dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket and was founded around 1260. But the church was damaged by a gale in 1847, and is now only a shell. It was replaced by a new church, Saint Thomas the Apostle, built in the same churchyard.

The oldest remaining marked graves in the churchyard are thought to predate 1500. It is said there are more than 100,000 bodies in the churchyard, and many graves have been used again and again.

The American poet Sylvia Plath is buried in the graveyard across the lane from the churchyard. The epitaph on her grave reads: ‘Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted’ – a citation from the Bhagavad Gita.

She was married to the poet Ted Hughes, who was from nearby Mytholmryd, and she is named on the gravestone as Sylvia Plath Hughes. Her headstone is regularly vandalised by visitors who remove his surname, because some of her fans – particularly women, and American women – believe Ted Hughes was responsible for her death. But when we visited her grave this week, the black lettering seemed to have been freshly restored.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932 and published her first poem in the Boston Herald at the age of eight. Her German-born father Otto had been alienated from his family because of his decision not to be ordained a Lutheran minister. His death nine days after her eighth birthday had a deeply profound and lasting influence on her and shaped her personality and her writing. Raised as a Unitarian, she experienced a loss of faith after his death, and remained ambivalent about religion for the rest of her life.

While she was a student at Smith College in Massachusetts in the 1950s, she wrote over 400 poems. In 1955, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. She was enchanted with the groomed courts and crooked streets of Cambridge, and was often seen pedalling furiously around the town, her black gown billowing out behind.

In Cambridge, she met the English poet Ted Hughes. Through his mother, Hughes claimed direct descent from Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of the Little Gidding community. When he met Sylvia Plath, Hughes had already graduated from Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Pembroke College, and he was living between London and Cambridge:

I am here;
I wait;
and he plays on the banks of the river Cam
like a casual faun.

They were married in the same year, on 16 June 1956, in Saint George the Martyr Church, Holborn, on the south end of Queen Square, just a short stroll from the Bloomsbury offices of TS Eliot. They had chosen the day because it was Bloomsday. She returned to Cambridge in October to begin her second year at Newnham. After some time in the US and Canada, they returned to England, and in 1960, at the age of 28, she published her first book, The Colossus, in England. Her only novel, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963.

For a while, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes lived in North Tawton, a country village in Devon, but their marriage began to break up less than two years after the birth of her first child.

In the cold winter of 1962-1963, she lived in poverty in a small flat in London, with her two small children – Frieda Rebecca, who is now a poet and children’s writer, and the late Nicholas Farrar Hughes, named after his ancestor, Nicholas Farrar of Little Gidding. Her flat in 23 Fitzroy Road was in a house where WB Yeats once lived. There that winter, the flat was cold, the pipes froze, there was no telephone, and the children were often ill with flu. But there she continued to write, often working between 4 and 8 a.m. before the children awoke, and at times finishing a poem a day. In those poems, death is given a cruel, physical allure and psychic pain becomes almost tactile.

Early in the morning of 11 February 1963, Sylvia Plath succeeded in killing herself with cooking gas at the age of 30, while her children slept in the next room. She was buried in the churchyard in Heptonstall, beside Saint Thomas Becket Church.

Her collection Ariel was published two years after her death. It includes many of her well-known poems and was edited by Ted Hughes. Her two other collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, were also published after her death and edited by Ted Hughes.

Plath frequently wrote about child birth, hospitals and suicide and employed disturbing and distorted imagery. Philip Larkin called her the ‘Horror Poet.’ But in 1982 she was the first poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

Ted Hughes had left Sylvia Plath for Assia Wevill. Tragically, Assia also died by suicide,, in the same manner as Sylvia Plath, and killed their daughter Shura too .

The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, published in 1981, was edited by Ted Hughes. He succeeded John Betjeman as Poet Laureate in 1984. In 1998, Hughes published Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems about their relationship. The book caused a sensation.

Sylvia Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes was the subject of the 2003 feature film Ted and Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig.

Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Edge’ is among the display boards in Saint Thomas’s Church in Heptonstall:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Looking down onto Hebden Bridge from Heptonstall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

If Sylvia Plath would likely not have chosen to be buried in Heptonstall, the American poet Asa Benveniste definitely chose this churchyard for his own grave, having spent the final years of his life in Hebden Bridge, below Heptonstall.

Asa Benveniste (1925-1990) was a poet, typographer and publisher and a co-founder in London of the publisher Trigram Press. He and his partner Agnetha Falk ran a second-hand bookshop in Hebden Bridge in the 1980s. His gravestone reads: ‘Foolish Enough to Have Been a Poet.’

Asa Benveniste, who has been described as ‘a Turkish Jew,’ was born in New York on 25 August 1925. He moved to Paris after World War II, and settled in England in the 1950s. He moved to London, then later to Cornwall and Kent.

He moved to Hebden Bridge in the 1980s after leading a course at the Arvon Foundation at the same rambling mill owner’s house that Ted Hughes considered as a possible home for himself and Sylvia Plath and himself. Asa and Agnetha ran a second-hand bookshop in Hebden Bridge, stocked mostly with the library he had collected over the years.

When he died in 1990, he was buried in the graveyard in Heptonstall. His gravestone, a few feet away from Sylvia Plath’s grave, reads: ‘Foolish Enough to Have Been a Poet.’ His grave is often marked in the traditional Jewish way with pebbles and stones.

‘Foolish Enough to Have Been a Poet’ … the grave of Asa Benveniste in Heptonstall is often marked with pebbles and stones, following Jewish tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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