Sylvia Plath’s Darkest Sea: What an Unveiled Draft Poem Reveals

The drafts for one of Sylvia Plath's last poems will go to auction soon. Olivia Cole uncovers a haunting fragment on the back of a page.

Courtesy of Bonhams; Everett Collection

Now that her life story is the stuff of myth, it's hard to imagine that when Sylvia Plath killed herself on February 11, 1963, she was the obscure American wife of Ted Hughes, a much more famous British poet. When in June 1960 the couple attended a party at Faber & Faber (Hughes’s publisher), he was photographed, looking shy, standing in the center of the most famous voices of the time. Plath was at the party, but not snapped with the giants. She wrote to her mother Aurelia, “I drank champagne with the appreciation of a housewife on an evening off from the smell of sour milk and diapers. During the course of the party, Charles Monteith, one of the Faber board, beckoned me out into the hall. There Ted stood, flanked by TS Eliot, W H Auden, Louis McNeice [sic] on the one hand and Stephen Spender on the other, having his photograph taken. ‘Three generations of Faber poets there,’ Charles observed. ‘Wonderful!’ Of course, I was tremendously proud. Ted looked very at home among the great.”

Later, in a scrapbook, Plath wrote underneath her copy of the photograph, “A pride of poets.” Plath’s own first collection, The Colossus, wouldn’t be published until later that year, but today, her own reputation, for the most part resting on the Ariel poems she wrote in the last months of her life, makes her the lioness of that “pride of poets.” Almost all of her drafts and archives are in academic institutions and new material has only rarely been discovered. However, drafts of one of her most famous poems, “Sheep in Fog,” a truly remarkable set of manuscripts written in the last weeks of her life, have recently come onto the market as part of the poetry collection of Roy Davids. A collection put together over 40 years, it is being sold this spring at Bonhams on May 8. The Plath material is estimated to sell for between £30,000 and £35,000 (approximately $45,000 to $53,000) and is likely to break records for the sale of her literary manuscripts.

To anyone who has explored the complex afterlife of Plath and Hughes’s poetry and their tangled archives, Davids is a key figure. A fellow poet, collector, and manuscript dealer, he became a close friend of Hughes’s in the 1970s, when as head of Sotheby’s book department he helped Hughes sell Plath’s own archive to Smith College in Massachusetts and later brokered the controversial and highly lucrative sale of the poet laureate's papers to Emory. When he sold Plath's papers, Hughes kept back a full set of drafts for each of their two children, Nicholas and Frieda, and when later in life Nicholas was short of money, Hughes arranged for Davids to buy them.

The same poem had also offered the occasion for one of Hughes's, until the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998, very rare meditations on his late wife. In 1987 Davids was giving a lecture on poetic drafts to help Hughes gave him “The Evolution of Sheep in Fog,” later published in Winter Pollen.

“Sheep in Fog” is a beautiful distress signal of a poem. The setting is a dawn ride over Dartmoor, where until the breakdown of their marriage Plath, Hughes and their two small children had been living. Ariel was her horse (named grandly after Shakespeare's flying invisible spirit), and it's from him that she surveys the frozen landscape: "The hills step off into whiteness./People or stars/Regard me sadly, I disappoint them//The train leaves a line of breath. O slow..."

"Fog Sheep" as it was first known, started life December 2, 1962. Despite the stricken "dolorous" atmosphere, the penultimate stanza hankers for spring: "My bones hold a stillness, the far/Fields melt my heart..." The drafts show Plath trying to finish with images of fatherly clouds, floating across the landscape, "Patriarchs till now immobile... Row off as stones or clouds with the faces of babies." But on January 28, on a typed draft, the final stanza is crossed out and replaced, with no hope for spring remaining. The thaw of the fields becomes a flood of treacherous water: "They threaten to let me through to a heaven, starless, and fatherless, a dark water." Two weeks later, Plath was dead. To sit and leaf through these pages, looking at Plath's exuberant, round, almost student-like writing, is to shiver at the story they tell.

When I recently went to take a look at these drafts in person, I was astonished to find another footnote to the sad story they contain, one that not even Hughes addressed in his analysis of the poem. (No scholars have yet seen these drafts.) When they lived together Plath and Hughes shared and thriftily recycled paper—a more apt emblem of their creative intimacy would be hard to come by. As Hughes wrote in his poem “Love Song,” the lovers were two brains working out of one head, “in the morning they wore each other's face.” (When in 2000, as a student, I worked at Emory, helping to catalogue the Hughes archive, much of it had to be photocopied and referenced twice because both sides were used by the couple.) By the winter of 1962, living alone, Plath was reusing her own drafts. If she turned over "Fog Sheep" to glance at her own writing on the other side, she would have revisited one of her prose scenes (which seems to be unpublished and unreported until now) in which a girl contemplates a night swim and entertains the possibility of disappearing into the dark water.

"The sea was big, enormous... She thought of all the people in the town asleep in their warm beds, snug, blind against the night, and oh, suddenly she wanted to be a very little girl again. To have somebody tuck her in at night, to cradle her against the colossal dark." Plath writes in the kind of third-person interior monologue she often used for her short stories and early fiction. The sense of "fatherlessness” is here even without thinking of the poem on the other side. The “Colossus,” in fact, was Plath's poetic name for her dead father, whom she reconfigured in her first collection of poems as a watery sea creature to whose deathly embrace she was drawn. Here, "Alison" leaves her raincoat on the beach, keeping a lookout, like the suicidal heroine of The Bell Jar who leaves her heels on the sand when she thinks of swimming out to sea and never coming back.

To her harshest critics Plath, however brilliant, presents a moral problem. She is charged with being the egotistical artist who courted death and her death wish in her writing before going through with it as a final fame grabbing flourish. Hughes knew that was too harsh a view. "The Ariel poems,” he wrote in his essay on “Sheep in Fog,” "document Plath's struggle to deal with a double situation—when her sudden separation from her husband coincided with a crisis in her traumatic feelings about her father's death which had occurred when she was eight-years-old (and which had been complicated by her all but successful attempt to follow him in a suicidal act in 1953). Against these very strong, negative feelings, and others associated with them, her battle to create a new, reborn self, supplies the extraordinary positive resolution of the poems that she wrote up to 2 December 1962."

The "crisis" of course was Hughes's affair with Assia Wevill, but it also precipitated her best work. Like Keats, in a few short months she wrote the poems on which her giant reputation now rests. Heartbreak or no, here you find the "extraordinary" high-wire tricks of reincarnation and regeneration: whatever life throws at her, in the poems at least, Plath is Lady Lazarus, who dies only to be reborn: "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.” She's a cat with nine lives. It's beautiful myth making—a way of writing but also, you guess, a way of surviving—or trying to survive.

In “Ariel,” a poem from that same streak, the setting again is her dawn ride, but it's totally different from “Sheep in Fog.” As dawn breaks, the rider flies into the eye of the sun, hurtling like Icarus, but also triumphant, a godlike figure, not the sad, grief-stricken woman who two months later sees her horse’s hooves as "dolorous bells." There between the third and fourth version of “Sheep in Fog” is the shift that sets Plath floundering and signals her desperation. The poems that followed are her most desolate: her belief in rebirth no longer works its old magic. In “Totem,” one of her last poems, she wrote of how the “same self unfolds like a suit/Bald and shiny with pockets of wishes//Notions and tickets, short circuits and folding mirrors."

Like so many of Plath's female characters in her prose, Alison is plainly a stand-in for the poet herself. On the beach she casts “herself into the black water," whispering to an unnamed presence that she is coming.

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"The night seemed to fall back, withdrawing from her, dark and silent. A star glared at her. The moon sprouted like a puffball in the heavens. If she lay on her back, she could kick the moon. She could split it open with a kick, and the ashes inside would come falling gently down, on her eyes, on her mouth, in a gray coverlet.

At the bottom of the sea a lobster was laughing at her... Foolish Alison, silly girl. She should be in bed where she belonged, asleep her eyes shut tightly, tightly. Let the moon sail by spilling white flour, let the stars fall among the tree leaves. It had nothing to do with her. Nothing at all."

Here is the classic Plath torn between significance and irrelevance—the self that's Lady Lazarus and the one that's a cheap shiny suit. Ted Hughes himself never put much store on Plath's short stories. Most of them were written for the American magazine market, whose needs she had learned to master as a student, but even if produced solely to pay the bills, they rehearse her preoccupations. Did Plath flip the page and cast an eye over Alison in the dark sea as she looked at her floating cloud in the final verse and knew it wouldn't do? It's impossible to tell, but even this prose fragment stages the drama of Plath's extraordinary imagination that still grips us 50 years after her death. In the end, her great power as a poet is in being neither wholly the mythical goddess kicking the moon nor entirely the doubting solitary rider whom even the stars find disappointing, but both: sometimes all on the same piece of paper.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Smith College is in Boston. It’s in Northampton, Massachusetts. We regret the error.