If Sylvia Plath was hoping for some kind of rapprochement between herself and her husband Ted Hughes during their brief stay with the late Richard Murphy at Cleggan, Co Galway, in September 1962, she was to be quickly disillusioned. In fact she would be abandoned, and plunged into despair. Yet following a visit to Coole Park, and Thoor Ballylee, Sylvia was to take away a spiritual connection with the poet WB Yeats, and a feeling of peace in the tragic build up to her suicide some five months later.
Both Ted and Sylvia, married for six years and with two children, Frieda and Nicholas, were by then recognised poets. Hughes was rising spectacularly to be acknowledged as one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century; * while Sylvia too was producing an impressive canon of work. Her first volume of poetry, The Colossus, received excellent reviews, and she had just published her only novel The Bell Jar.
But before she and Ted set out for Ireland on September 13, they were already a broken couple. Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill had fallen recklessly in love in London. Ted clearly had no interest in what Sylvia longed for: ‘a boat and a sea’, and ‘a no-squalling babies’ holiday in the west of Ireland.
The day after they arrived, because of inclement weather which would have made a sea voyage on Murphy’s converted black-sailed hooker too rough for comfort, Murphy took them to see Lady Gregory’s Coole Park and Yeats’ tower at near-by Ballylee. At Coole Murphy pointed out the famous autograph tree, where Augusta Gregory asked her literary guests to carve their initials. Some are indecipherable today, but many are still visible including WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and AE (George Russell ).
Loyal Sylvia, despite her fragile state, looked at her husband and said that his initials deserved to be in that company; in fact he was a better poet than some of them.
Yeats’ tower at Ballylee at that time had been neglected for 34 years. Since 1929 the Yeats’ family had stopped staying there. The poet was getting old, and he preferred the warmth of the south of France. It was a ruin when Yeats bought it in 1916. He had it restored and made comfortable for summer holidays by the architect William A Scott.
Now, before a second restoration by Bord Failte (in the mid 1960s ) Richard Murphy’s distinguished visitors arrived. They were delighted by what they saw. As they climbed the spiral stairs, jackdaws fled protesting loudly. From the top Sylvia threw coins down into the river. Then they noticed the moss-coated apple tree (planted by Yeats’ wife George ), bearing a heavy crop of bright red cookers. Ted said that they would make good apple-pies, enough for all the winter. They heaved Seamus (a young friend of Murphy’s ), up into the tree to shake the branches, and went to work among the nettles picking up the fallen apples. Murphy asked: ‘Why are you doing this?’ Ted Hughes replied: “ When you come to a place like this you have to violate it.” A remark Hughes would later regret.**
Impact on Sylvia
Yeats’ tower home at Ballylee, however, was to have a totally different impact on Sylvia. The American novelist Olive Higgins Prouty described, in an unpublished letter, how, ‘in beautiful language’, Sylvia told her about the magic of the tower ’surrounded by wild rhubarb, and an apple-orchard with a bright-eyed grey donkey.’ It was here, Sylvia wrote, ‘despite feeling somewhat dead and ill, that her soul responded to the place, and in some odd way felt a connection develop with Yeats.’ ***
‘The man I loved’
Murphy brought them out to Inishbofin on board his Ave Maria, where they stayed for the day until collected again in the late afternoon. During the six miles across open water with a strong current and an ocean swell, Sylvia lay prone on the foredeck, leaning out over the prow. Murphy thought she resembled ‘a triumphal figurehead, inhaling the sea air ecstatically, as if she were challenging the ocean to rise up and claim her.’
The late Margaret Day, who ran a successful hotel on Inishbofin, recalled Sylvia’s warm character. “We had some magnificent lilies growing outside the hotel, and I remember Sylvia refused to leave without taking a bulb, which I was more than happy to give her.”
Sylvia confided her marriage woes to Murphy. She believed that a legal separation rather than a divorce was the best solution. She could not imagine either Ted or herself truly married to anyone else. Their union had been so complete, on every level, that she felt that nothing could destroy this.
On Saturday night, three days after their arrival, the poet and publisher Tom Kinsella joined them for dinner, which was a great success. As the meal went on and the wine flowed Murphy was alarmed to feel Sylvia giving him a gentle kick under the table.
The intention was clear. Poor Sylvia anxious and defenceless at her husband’s behaviour, needed the comfort that Murphy might offer, and the life-style that he obviously enjoyed. It could have been the healing gift that she needed; but Murphy made it clear he was not interested. ‘I was happy in Cleggan, and didn’t want to cause a scandal that might upset my precarious footing as an outsider, a divorced Protestant with a British accent, in a village under the sway of a priest who had no liking for me or for Protestants or for Brits.’
On Sunday morning, September 16, Ted was gone. At first Sylvia was too embarrassed to admit Ted had vanished, probably to meet Assia at some secret rendezvous. She told Murphy she would meet Hughes on the Galway to Dublin train on Wednesday. But she was desperate. She wrote to a friend: ‘I am bloody, raw, nerves hanging out all over the place, because I have had six stormy but wonderful years, bringing both of us from nothing, books, fame, money, lovely babies, wonderful loving, but see now that the man I loved as father and husband…is just dead.’****
Next Week: Sylvia leaves for England, but wants to return to Connemara. She berates Murphy for his insensitive response to her cry for help, but finds the London home of WB Yeats.
Notes: *He was later appointed Poet Laureate, and after his death in 1998, commemorated at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
**What did Hughes mean by that remark? It seems an outrageous thing to say; but may have been said due to Hughes’ state of mind at the time. After Sylvia’s Plath’s suicide Hughes was devastated. And was so for many years. But he came in for savage criticism for his alleged treatment of her. Murphy gave the apple incident to a biographer of Plath’s, Anne Stevenson. Ted later asked Murphy to give Stevenson instead ‘a simple record of the facts’, because, he said, there were wild stories circulating in America that he had taken Sylvia to the west of Ireland, and abandoned her there with no money while he had gone off to shoot grouse. He asked Murphy to delete his remark about ‘violating ‘ the apple tree. In a convoluting explanation he suggested the phrase was ‘a facetious antithetical inversion of the obvious in a West Yorkshire style of hyperbole, which if taken out of context could do him harm. He regretted not having spoken about the ‘golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon’, one of Yeats’ famous lines. I am taking this story from The Kick - A Memoir of the poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University press, 2017.
***Olive Higgins Prouty had sponsored a scholarship to Smith College, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, of which Sylvia, who was born in Boston, was the recipient. She remained friends with Prouty all her life. The letter is published by Gail Crowther who has written extensively and sensitively about Sylvia.
**** Letter to Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse Beuscher, from Letters of Sylvia Plath (Volume II 1956 - 1963 ) published Faber and Faber 2018.