The tragic early suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath, February 11 1963, was to haunt Richard Murphy - who turned down her request to remain with him at Clegan after she was abandoned by her husband Ted Hughes. Murphy, conscious that he was a stranger in a rural society that still very much represented a Catholic ethos, and which had accepted and befriended him, would, he feared, be unforgiven if a married woman lived in his house.
When he realised that her husband Ted Hughes had walked out on her, he panicked. He said that it would be better if she went too. As he watched her get into a car to be driven to Dublin, he felt mean, and partly to blame for her misery.
He is more honest in his autobiography * where he states ‘I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by her genius or to become … deeply responsible for keeping her alive in Connemara ….Sylvia may have felt I had this capacity but was withholding it from her.’
Two days before she left, however, having looked at several houses with Murphy, she had agreed to rent a house, between Cleggan and Moyard, from a local woman, Kitty Marriott. She intended to stay there with her two children Frieda and Nicholas, and sit out the ‘first months of separation’ from Ted. They would provide for themselves with fresh milk and home-made bread.
Even so Sylvia was not letting Murphy get away lightly from his abrupt rejection when she made a provocative pass for his affection by rubbing his leg. She wrote thanking him for his hospitality but withdrawing her invitation that he could stay at her home in Devon. She accused him of hypocrisy by showing her houses which he knew she would not like; and for not allowing her to stay with him at Cleggan. She asked mockingly, if he really was being watched over by ‘a little cripple hunchback’ who kept an eye on everyone who comes and goes from his house? She wrote that it was time Murphy vaulted the barrier and escaped.
She did write on one further occasion to say that she and Hughes were getting a divorce; and that she was working furiously, writing from 4am until the children awoke. Murphy felt he could straighten out their differences when she came to Kitty Marriott’s house later that year. But Sylvia had already decided to forget about her dream of living in Connemara, and returned to 23 Fitzroy Road, a former home of the poet WB Yeats, to recapture her original ambition to become a brilliant literary figure.
But in fact he did meet Sylvia for the last time when he was in London at the end of January 1963 for the occasion of the publication of poems Sailing to an Island. They met in a friend’s house, Sylvia was there with her children ‘in a very tense state’. She displayed no ill-feeling towards Murphy, and said she was glad to have got the two-storey upstairs apartment in a house where once Yeats had lived. She thought this was the best thing to do instead of coming to Ireland.
Sadly Sylvia was herself sailing into a perfect storm. Her novel The Bell Jar, a semi autobiographical account dealing with the protagonist’s descent into mental illness, had just been published. Reviews were only luke warm.
While working intensely on a new series of poems (Later published under the title Ariel ), she was dealing with two small children, an exceptionally cold winter, frozen water-pipes, and debilitating ‘flu. There was the growing knowledge that her husband, Ted Hughes, was not coming back to her, all leading to the return of her depression which she dreaded.
Murphy returned to London a few days after her death, and met Hughes at Sylvia’s flat on Fitzroy Road. It was snowing. Hughes was on his way to her funeral. He was shattered by her death, and no doubt aware that his desertion led to her final insurmountable depression.
They had had a deeply volatile relationship, passionate and violent. Even after her death parts of that wild connection survived her suicide, possessing Hughes in a series of dream meetings. Six years later the endless presence of his dead wife was to drive his lover Assia demented.
On the day Hughes met Murphy he was gathering up a pile of her recent poems, left lying around her flat. Hughes always knew Sylvia was a ‘really good poet’. He knew these would be published.
A few months after the funeral, Murphy was amazed when, in a crowded Pier Bar in Cleggan, he was introduced to the poet David Wevill, and his wife Assia, with whom Hughes was in love, and for whom he abandoned Sylvia. Wevill was in turn shocked and upset at his wife’s affair. He had tried to persuade her to end it and to stay with him. He was not successful. But for some reason they had come to Cleggan to find out what had happened to Hughes and Sylvia there. Looking at Assia, Murphy remembered being astounded by ‘the Babylonian beauty of Assia’s raven hair, dark eyes and voluptuous bosom.’
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft,
Its malignity…. (Ariel )
Next week: Hughes and Assia fulfil Sylvia’s dream, and return to live in Connemara.
NOTES: From The Kick - A Memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University Press, 2017.