Guess what arrived in the mail on my birthday, this month? The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volumes I & II. Now I’m not a great fan of Plath, a fellow Smith College Alum, or her poetry — but 10 years ago I worked on an enormous undergraduate project over winter break, as I edited Plath’s letters with a cohort of fellow Smithies. One particular letter that I selected to annotate was really very long, written by Plath after her visit to Paris at Christmas in 1956. It is such an amazingly cheerful, excited, and dreamy Plath who writes to her friend, Elf, at Smith College; asking if she will join her in Paris when summer comes again, that I decided to share her letter in this Wise Welsh Witch installment.
Sylvia Plath’s Transcribed Letter:
TO ELINOR FRIEDMAN KLEIN, FRIDAY 10 FEBRUARY 1956
TLS (aerogramme), Smith College
friday morning february 10
dear dear elf …
listen, I am going quite mad with thinking about this summer! there is a cold wind blowing straight from siberia, and our gas fires went off at the most frigid time of the year, leaving us with frostbite, breath coming in great white clumps, and no place to hide. much less type. now all is cheerio again, and I am dancing on the orange tile rooftops and kicking over chimney pots.
LISTEN: how about you and me traveling for a hell of a long time together this summer!!?!! I can’t think of anybody on god’s green earth I would rather run around greek arenas with, and if I know us, we might just end up straddling the sphinx or masquerading as arabs in morocco or fighting for zion. I am teetering in wait for hearing about my fulbright renewal which, if it comes, will make me rich with not a worry, and if it doesn’t come, will make me start selling matches in moscow and trying to make a fast buck on the place pigalle. could be worse. today, though I am optimistic as mary martin.
gordon is coming over this march to look for a university in germany at which to study next year; which couldn’t mean less, except it’ll be nice to have a hunky man to travel with on navy-expense account this spring; mother is coming this summer (to austria) if my grandmother gets over her recent operation for stomach cancer o.k., and I’ll be seeing her and showing her london, cambridge, england for about a week from june 13- to-yup, 21st! after that I’ll have 3 or 4 weeks (at least, depending on fulbright) and then summer term here which I may shorten, but should take, and from august 20th to sept 30th definitely free. now all is contingent, like the best things in life, so let me know your dates, desires, and so on and on. I’m game for anywhere, esp, greece, italy, spain, africa, egypt, just to name a few, and would love to get some vague, cloudy, rose-colored idea of where you’d like to start out at, so I can think about easter. I’m a pro-motor-bike driver know, and it is fun, and quite comfortable, like a livingroom armchair, maybe. also, hitch-hiking is a very real possibility.
let me, just to make you go utterly mad, tell you what happened christmas: and from now on, when I start telling you that I am in love with an arabian giant and everyone else lookslike insects, laugh loudly and strongly in my face and tell me to wait a week. or even a day or 2. for I now have olympian perspective. and all because I didn’t get sick on the channel boat. I lived in Paris for 10 glorious rainy hell-and-heaven days with Sassoon: saw Ballet de Paris: Buzz Miller, take it from me, is out-of-this world: danced george simenon’s surrealistic “La Chambre”, cyclic, detective, drama with vampire woman reminding me rather drastically of you, with black hair miles long, in her face, and all over the place; god, what a dance; seduces him and murders him; convulsions great. Went mad in stained-glass Ste. Chapelle, cried over all the colors, just all glass, many-colored, staining white radiance of eternity, etc. and notre dame on chrismas morning, frigid cold and dark; saw hundreds of whores, thanks to dear richard, who obligingly quoted price ranges: even heard one petite blond refuse someone, poor guy; hours walking, in lights: montmartre under snowpalace domes of sacre coeur, champs elysses, place de la concorde; mona lisa smiling pale yellow, winged victory hunking like god’s wife in louvre; impressionists: van gogh all yellow sunflowers, cezanne’s other-world blue-green “lac d’ annecy” which makes you realize all reproducers should be toasted in hell and their eyeballs burnt out; jardin de tuileries, where, yes, we went to puppet show with little kids and played on swings, and with sailboats, Christmas toys.
New Year’s Eve we took midnight express to Riviera, Sassoon and me. my first shot of the new year was the red sun exploding up out of the blazing blue of Angel’s Bay in the Med. Sea like the cyclops-eye of god. I made it a poem. we lived in Nice, in a cheap room, with its own little wrought-iron balcony overlooking a garage and the surrounding mountains. Could see alps maritime like white breasts of aphrodite in distance; blue sea incredible; rented Lambretta, me learning to drive, rode through Beaulieu, Villefranch, Menton, round Cap Ferrat, through Monaco (where we gambled and lost at Monte Carlo and I bowed my head down and muttered the name of Grace Kelley), to Italian frontier. Then, another blue day, up in the little hills, with palms and orange trees, to Vence to the Matisse Chapel, which is god’s own heart and into which we entered by a miracle which I just wrote a 25-page story about which should immortalize me. Love enters everywhere: I know this, and it sounds like hell or the ladies home journal, but its true. Sassoon and I shared all this, all life, crying, kicking each other, madly in love, growing, and all that. God, what a life.
And we have now said good-bye: reality comes in: he goes back to the states to be killed in the army (I’m sure it will kill him, he’s got such bad, sensitive health), and to find his metier (he’ll always earn pots of money; he’s lucky, the child of the devil and dionysus) and we both go about our responsibilities, which is the way grown-up people do. it is hell, because all the dear, sweet boys (mostly jewish and negro) here are loves, but none I could marry. we’ll see. I’ve years yet. and am damn happy. Tell some of this to Mr. Fisher; he knows all, anyway, and I admire him and he’ll always be The Force
in my writing life: I’m wicked now, though, and have turned from poetry to prose, which gets in the bigness and people, and plots I’ve got to say now. LET ME KNOW ABOUT THE SUMMER. Love and more Love – Sylvia
I really enjoyed Plath, through this letter to her friend, and the research I put into it was luscious; her mention of Ballet de Paris, La Chambre, La Sainte-Chapelle, Sacre ́-Couer, Jardin des Tuileries, and so much more. There are clues to Plath’s young life in her letter, that provoke queries into the romances which she mentions. She is at once naive and yet world wise in her passionate embrace of all that she experiences with them. What if she had never met Ted Hughes? In all the tragedy that was the end of her life, this letter gives pause to the consideration of her many joyful seasons. During her years abroad, in which she enjoyed much freedom while conflicted by the expectations for all American women of her generation, Plath learned much about herself.
My name, from before I was married to Stratton, “Robin Whitham Acker,” appears at the top of the list through the first pages of both volumes, in the acknowledgements, and this, one of my edited and annotated letters, appears on page 1103, of Volume I. It is such a tiny little thing, but I cherish it, for its contribution to history, and the value of letters all but lost, except for the work of archives, and especially because the postal service in the United States is currently under dire threat. And so, that is my birthday reflection, this month. That my mind wanders over many different memories on this day, each year, and some of those which have been seemingly insignificant are absolutely precious.
On Reading Sylvia Plath’s Mail, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request.
Author’s Note: Now considered offensive, “negro” was a term often used to refer to people who were native to Africa, during Plath’s lifetime.
“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch.