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The Yellow Rose

Four decades at Sylvia Plath’s grave

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘I simply wished to preserve for a while longer something of the private remnant valued by her living family — and I trust by some others too.’ Ted Hughes (1989)

10/02/2023. I’m lingering over almond cake in the Towngate Tearoom in Heptonstall. Outside, a steep of weavers’ cottages funnels a bitter easterly from ‘the humped indifferent iron’ of the hills. It’s partly the warm hiss of coffee that keeps me here, partly reluctance to make my way to the grave. Why the hesitation today? I’ve been coming here for years…

Fall 1981. Her name on The Bell Jar in a book shop in Northampton, Massachusetts, takes me by surprise. As a schoolgirl in Sheffield, in the 1970s, I’d stumbled across one of her poems. It was like a lightning bolt. The language. Its possibility. ‘Ich, ich, ich, ich.’ I flick through her novel, skim the biographical note. Smith College, where I’m a scholarship student, was Plath’s alma mater. She taught here, in the 1950s, on her return from a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge. She was married to the Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes. I buy the book for the connection with home. Later, in Boston, I meet the daughter of Lois Ames, the author of the biographical note, and we become friends. Her mom never finished her book about Plath, she tells me. There had been difficulties. She shares unpublished information. Details that had remained private. ‘Keep it to yourself’, she says.

Summer 1987. When my friend visits England, we drive to Devon to find the house where she lived while her mom worked on the authorised biography. We knock at a blue arched door. Who are we? What are we looking for? We explain about Sylvia Plath. How our two paths crossed. Only by chance, we say. We are invited in, given chocolate biscuits. When the children go out to play, the German au pair asks us about Plath’s grave. We aren’t sure. We have never visited. ‘If I find it’, I say, ‘I’ll send a photograph.’

Winter 1987. I drive through bone-white mist to a graveyard ringed by ‘skinflint trees.’ Three times I pace it, peering at engravings on grey headstones. In The Cross I order cheese pie and chips. Almost good enough to salvage the trip, I tell myself. Before I leave, I ask two locals if they know where Sylvia Plath’s grave is. They’ve never heard of her, they say. I could try the new field. The plot is easy to miss. Unmarked and unremarkable. Someone has put flint around the perimeter, stuck an inked lollipop-stick in the centre. I make a note: In line with the 9th tree from the edge of the graveyard, overlooking the moors. A yellow rose in bloom.

Summer 1993. I drive from Brighton to Yorkshire to attend a poetry course tutored by Anne Stevenson. Sick and teary with exhaustion, I rest my pregnant stomach against the steering wheel of my bone-shaking Beetle as I stop repeatedly to check the map. At the turning circle outside Hebden Bridge, I suddenly realise where I am. Lumb Bank is a stone’s throw from the grave. One afternoon, Anne brings me tea and biscuits for the sickness. We settle in the lemony room to chat. Bitter Fame, Anne’s authorised biography, has been criticised by defenders of Hughes and supporters of Plath. I mention Lois Ames, my friend’s mother. ‘She had difficulties too’, I say. ‘Maybe I should have abandoned mine’, Anne reflects. As I get up to leave, she asks if I’ve been to the grave. ‘Not yet’, I reply. ‘The rose is doing well’, she smiles.

Spring 1998. In his poem ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’, Ted Hughes recalls how their children ‘played around the grave’, decorated it with shells and pebbles from Devon. Now, he writes, the feminists and fantasists ‘Bite the face off the gravestone/ Gulp down the grave ornaments,/ Swallow the very soil’. Even the most sympathetic of Plath’s biographers, Janet Malcolm, expresses shame that she had ‘joined the pack of his pursuers’. How can any of us not feel guilty? In Heptonstall, the headstone has been repaired and re-installed. My husband snaps a black and white shot of me in front of it, my body obscuring the Sanskrit phrase inscribed on its granite face: EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES/ THE GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED. In a letter to The Guardian, Hughes explained he used to say these words to cheer Plath ‘when she was low’. The riveted lead letters are cool under my hands. We have been walking at Hardcastle Crags. I’m wearing a baggy cardigan and floppy hat, a favourite scarf around my neck. In the photo I will be smoking a cigarette, my gaze averted. I have two children and a book of poems. Behind me, the yellow rose is flourishing.

Summer 2005. I am alone, with my children. I sit by the grave while they play. What is it I’m doing here? I watch my autistic son pacing the boundary wall. How the trees have grown since my first visit, I think. I’m here to touch base, I tell myself. Plath is a reference point. Scholarship student. Mother. Poet. Wife. Now, like her, I’ve acquired the label ‘single parent.’ Suddenly, I am exhausted. I turn, call the children. As I stand to go, a fat bee lands on the yellow rose like a bungee jumper. An outrider on its ‘hysterical elastics’, I think to myself, recalling Plath’s bee poems. Now I am laughing, thrilled by the serendipity. How magical, I think to myself. I am a woman with ‘a self to recover’.

Winter 2010. Another book. Its publication should be a celebration but, one day, I’ll look back at the photo my friend takes and see only sadness. I’m almost fifty. My mother is dead, my daughter gone. I have no map for this. No reference point. Something has changed about the grave too. There has been planting. Alpines. Bulbs and shrubs. Things I don’t recognise. I can’t see the earth for greenery. I can’t see the rose either. Has someone pruned it hard to ground? I hunker down, in my green woollen dress, poke around. Perhaps its crown is still there, lying secretly underground?

Fall 2011. Walking at Blackshaw Head with a friend, I suggest a detour to Plath’s grave. After all these years the route through the field is automatic, but I’m disoriented today. Something feels different. We approach in shock. The grave is a riot of colour: artificial flowers and plastic pots; stacks of pens and writing paraphernalia; torn pages and bus tickets; coins and fairies; feathers and religious icons; shells and conkers; stones and photographs. I have never left anything at the grave or taken anything from it, but now I swoop down, sweep everything into the graveyard bins. My friend stands aside, awkwardly. Afterwards, I try to justify myself. I was trying to restore the spirit of simplicity, I say. I know it was wrong. If the grave is no longer the private property of the Hughes family, it certainly doesn’t belong to me. What right did I have to ‘gulp down the grave ornaments’?

Fall 2015. Didn’t Plath say she wanted things like that on her grave? My poet companion reminds me that, in her poem ‘Last Words’, Plath asks for her copper cooking pots. Why not notebooks and pens? And anyway, he says, each token on the grave was meaningful to the person who put it there. He knows someone who has been conducting research on Plath’s grave as a site of mourning. In fact, he knows about the clearance of the grave. ‘You ruined her data’, he tells me. ‘She was pretty distraught about it’. ‘Perhaps you could explain that I wanted to keep this a private place’, I say. Ahead of us, in the rosy light of a late October afternoon, a group are gathered around the grave. ‘It looks like you might get the chance to tell her yourself’, he says…

10/02/2023. The tearoom has filled up with day-trippers. I try to decide whether they are Plath pilgrims or fans of Happy Valley. Why do I assume visitors to the grave will be young? I’m more than twice the age Plath was when she died. Sixty years ago tomorrow, I remind myself; that will explain the crowd. I’ve been here long enough. I offer my table to a woman juggling a bowl of soup and a baby. Time to leave. In the community shop I buy roses, their ‘yellow corsets […] ready to split’. They might just last the night, I tell myself, as I cross the road, head down in the wind, the roses closed against my body, inside my coat.

Elizabeth Barrett’s first collection of poetry, Walking on Tiptoe, was published in 1998 (Staple First Editions). Subsequent collections include The Bat Detector (Wrecking Ball Press, 2005), A Dart of Green and Blue (Arc Publications, 2010) and Falling Mother (forthcoming from Wrecking Ball Press, 2023).

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