Editor’s Note: This post is the third post of the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
In 2021, on a 16 Celsius English summer day with occasional sunshine and clouds, I visited Plath’s North Tawton, which I have been planning to do since pre-pandemic. I was familiar with the academic literature highlighting Plath’s isolation and her writings on the small village. However, for a city-dweller like Plath, being in North Tawton felt like I time-travelled in the past to a different England. It was a Friday midday, and I barely saw a soul when I arrived; only a few people were walking with their dogs. My expectation of the village came from Plath’s writings, in which she writes about her friendly relationship with her neighbours, particularly Elizabeth Sigmund, in the small community. When I arrived at the village, I thought I would see a vibrant village community with the elderly on the street and shops. Instead, there was silence and breezing wind.
There is a clock tower at the centre of the village from which streets open up in a Y shape. I immediately knew where to find Plath’s Court Green and St Peter’s Church, which inspired “The Moon and the Yew Tree”.
Unfortunately, the church was closed but I looked around the Victorian gravestones, slowly passing the souls of the dead. The beautiful green trees could not contrast more with the Neo-gothic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was searching for the window of Court Green, Plath’s office window, from which she could have an expansive view of the yew:
The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.1
The yew tree still stands proudly and heavenly, the darkest among all the trees: “And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence”.2 From the yew, I moved towards Court Green, where Plath inherited a large garden with seventy-five apple trees. The couple grew vegetables, fruits, and potted flowers. In May 1962, she wrote to her mother: “[t]he cherry petals are just beginning to blow down like pink snow, & laburnum & lilac are just opening a few buds, and few apple trees are blooming in the orchard”.3 Her poems “Among the Narcissi” and “Poppies in July” demonstrate how the natural landscape of her flower garden influenced her poetry. In her poems about domesticity and mundane life, such as “Cut”, “Plath promoted objects and housework tasks to positions of pivotal importance”, which became part of the appeal of the Devon village.4
North Tawton has been an ambiguous place for both Plath and Plathians. In the year she spent in the isolated village, she produced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she experienced extreme isolation after Hughes left her. Nevertheless, the country life provided plenty of opportunities for Plath to explore her creative, aesthetic, and domestic independence, such as horse riding in the field of Devon, experimenting with beekeeping, painting her children’s nursery elbow chair, and making apple pie from the apples of her garden. The poetry and fiction Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and winter 1962 are embedded in the natural environment in Devon and community, places, and non-human life of North Tawton.
In order to track and visualise Plath’s poetic landscapes and movements in South West England, I created a digital map. I categorised the map locations into two groups: the first group includes place names that inspired Plath’s writings, which range from specific buildings to larger locations, like the Dartmoor National Park. The second group of locations in the map show places that Plath mentioned in her correspondences, journals, or can be traced back from archives, for example, the city of Exeter where she shopped for clothes, curtains, and washing machine, and the radio station where Ted Hughes went to read his poems.
Moving from a one-bedroom flat in London to a cottage changed Plath: she became interested in self-sustaining family life such as growing vegetables and making honey. Whereas Hughes always preferred the English landscape as a Yorkshireman, for Plath, who grew up in Boston, life in Devon was a new experience. Nevertheless, Plath found pleasure in living in a small village by choosing aesthetics and creativity as her governing principles in her new-found cottage life. Maeve O’Brien argues that the American transcendentalist movements influenced Plath to appreciate “spaces of geographical isolation and repeatedly attempt to live ‘deliberately’ and write”.5 On the other hand, Plath often idolised the English countryside–by moving to Court Green, Plath “satisfied her American Dream of home ownership and her American fantasy of the British gentry life”.6 However, once her marriage collapsed, her social isolation increased, and she felt cut off from London intellectual circles. In her letters, she stated to her friend that “you can imagine what it’s like for a sociable city intellectual like me, dying to write, read, see places, plays, people etc. to be stuck among cows, cow people, without an adult to speak to”.7 Whilst Plath’s letter to her friend expresses loneliness and helplessness, her description is also classist and offensive towards the working-class locals. Plath made her home in the English countryside, nevertheless, it was not the idolised landscape of British Romanticism anymore and being cut out from the intellectual circles and entertainment, such as going to cinemas, galleries, restaurants, changed her view of the country life.
During summer 1962, Plath and Hughes experimented with beekeeping which Plath commemorated in several of her writings. Beekeeping is one of the most recognised influences in Plath’s writings from her Devon times. In the bee poems, she narrates the shifting relationship between the speaker and the bees: “The Bee Meeting”, the beehive first appears “as a virgin, / Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming”8 then a “Black on black, angrily clambering”9 in “The Arrival of the Bee Box”. In “Swarm”, they have loud military sounds: “A dull pom, pom in the Sunday street”; “they are the voice of God”10, and finally, in “Wintering”, the bees become explicitly feminine but still a “ball in a mass, / Black”11. The bee poems demonstrate Plath’s employment of the sonic and physical presence of the bees, which she kept in North Tawton. She reimagines the queen bee as a metaphor for her identity and freedom, symbolising her rebirth and the start of her independent life.
I walked past attractive fields and cottages remembering the photograph of Plath, in which she sits in her garden with her children surrounded by daffodils. Plath took care of the inherited flower, which included red, orange, and yellow zinnias, lilacs, petunias, rose bushes, daffodils, laburnum, cherries and honeysuckle12. Ted Hughes’s poem “Daffodils” from Birthday Letters employs the photograph of the bright yellow of the daffodils to remember her: “Remember how we picked the daffodils? / … Every March since they have lifted again”13. For Hughes, cutting down the flowers represents an intimate moment he returned to yearly. As I am waiting for the bus, I notice the blue plaque marking Ted Hughes’s literary presence, yet there is no public memory of Plath ever living here, despite producing most of her Ariel poems like “Lady Lazarus”, “Ariel”, “Lesbos”, and the bee sequence that made her name. Nevertheless, Plath’s lingering poetic presence is in the natural landscape of Devon village: one cannot walk in this place without thinking about every step Plath took here, every inspiration she breathed in from the cold air looking at the yew tree, the bees, blackberries, the narcissi, and the church community.
1 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 173.
2 Ibid, 173.
3 Sylvia Plath, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume II: 1956-1963, ed. Kukil, Karen V. and Steinberg, Peter K. (London: Faber & Faber, 2018), 773.
4 Maeve O’Brien, “Plath in Devon: Growing Words Out of Isolation”, in Sylvia Plath in Context ed. Tracy Brain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 321.
5 Maeve O’Brien, “Plath in Devon: Growing Words Out of Isolation”, in Sylvia Plath in Context ed. Tracy Brain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 318.
6 Heather Clark, Red Comet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2020), 660.
7 Sylvia Plath, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume II: 1956-1963, ed. Kukil, Karen V. and Steinberg, Peter K. (London: Faber & Faber, 2018), 873.
8 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 212.
9 Ibid, 213.
10 Ibid, 216.
11 Ibid, 218.
12 Sylvia Plath, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume II: 1956-1963, ed. Kukil, Karen V. and Steinberg, Peter K. (London: Faber & Faber, 2018), 644.
13 Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 155-156.
Feature image: Dorak Tamás