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)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (33) 11 May 2023

Archbishop Higbert, first Archbishop of Lichfield, and Thomas Cantelupe, once a prebendary and then Bishop of Hereford, in a stained-glass window in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Fifth Week of Easter. Two of us are staying in York for a few days, having arrived here late on Monday. We visited Whitby yesterday, and we are planning to visit Knaresborough later today.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following my recent visit to Lichfield Cathedral, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the windows in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The window in Lichfield Cathedral with Archbishop Higbert and Saint Thomas Cantelupe is in memory of Canon Jeremiah Finch Smith (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Archbishop Higbert and Saint Thomas Cantelupe window:

The Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral is currently the venue for the exhibition ‘Library and Legacy,’ showcasing the collections in the cathedral library.

The chapter house was decorated with frescoes and stained glass in the late 15th century by Thomas Heywood, who was Dean of Lichfield in 1457-1492. The glass in the Chapter House once contained figures of the apostles, with other depictions above. These all predated the Cromwellian era, and were destroyed by the Puritans during the Civil War in the mid-17th century.

In the 19th century, the glazing of the chapter house displayed armorial bearings, more or less correct, in imitation of glass known to have ornamented the cathedral in the past. This armorial glass gradually gave way to glass representing scenes in the history of the cathedral. Six of the windows were glazed with these images in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the original but unfilled plan was to fill all the windows in the Chapter House.

The fifth window I am looking at this morning, like many of the windows in this series, is by Charles Eamer Kempe, and this window is in memory of Canon Jeremiah Finch Smith.

The figures in this three-light window represent Archbishop Higbert, first Archbishop of Lichfield, and Saint Thomas Cantelupe, once a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral and Archdeacon of Stafford and then Bishop of Hereford.

Higbert or Hygeberht was the Bishop of Lichfield from 779 and Archbishop of Lichfield after the elevation of Lichfield to an archdiocese some time after 787, during the reign of King Offa of Mercia. However, little is known of Higbert’s background.

King Offa succeeded in making Lichfield an archbishopric, but this was unpopular with the Archbishops of Canterbury. After Offa’s death, his distant relative Coenwulf became King of Mercia, and petitioned the pope to have Lichfield returned to a bishopric. Pope Leo III agreed in 803, but by then Higbert was no longer considered a bishop, and he is listed as an abbot at the council that oversaw the demotion of Lichfield in 803. The date of his death is unknown.

Thomas de Cantilupe (1218-1282) taught canon law at the University of Oxford, where he became Chancellor in 1261. He was Archdeacon of Stafford when he was appointed Lord Chancellor of England in 1264. He became Bishop of Hereford in 1275, and died in 1282. He was canonised by Pope John XXII in 1320. His feast day is on 2 October.

The scenes in the lower panels of this window continue the historical series in the Chapter House windows, and show two bishops of Lichfield, from the ninth and the 12th centuries.

Bishop Higbert’s successor, Bishop Aldulf, is shown at the Council of Cloveshoo in the year 803, resigning as Archbishop of Lichfield and renouncing the metropolitan powers in favour of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He died ca 814-816.

Roger de Clinton, who was Bishop of Lichfield in 1129-1148, is shown building a new cathedral in Lichfield in honour of Saint Mary and Saint Chad. Roger de Clinton also laid out the main streets of Lichfield in a grid pattern, still in evidence almost 800 years later.

This window is in memory of Canon Jeremiah Finch Smith (1815-1895). He was the eldest son of Jeremiah Smith (1771-1854), High Master of Manchester Grammar School. Jeremiah Finch Smith was the Rector of Aldridge, Staffordshire, from 1849, Rural Dean of Walsall from 1862, and a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral. He published sermons and tracts, and edited Admission Register of the Manchester School (3 vols, 1866-1874), and Notes on the Parish of Aldridge, Staffordshire (1884-1889, 2 parts).

The lower parts of the window show Archbishop Aldulf renouncing his metropolitan powers, and Bishop Roger de Clinton building a new cathedral in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 15: 9-11 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 9 ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’

A late 19th century bookplate for Canon Jeremiah Finch Smith

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Work and Mission of the Laity.’ USPG’s Regional Manager for Africa, Fran Mate, reflected on Sunday on the work and mission of the laity.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Thursday 11 May 2023):

Let us pray for a mutuality of relationship between lay and ordained. May those in positions of power honour their responsibility and work to build up the body of Christ.


Almighty God,
who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help
we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life:
grant us to walk in his way,
to rejoice in his truth,
and to share his risen life;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

The coats-of-arms of Bishop John Hackett and of the Diocese of Lichfield, representing the arms of Bishop Roger de Clinton, two bishops who rebuilt Lichfield Cathedral, on the railway bridge at Upper John Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org