PLATH, SYLVIA (1932-1963, American poet)
THE COMPLETE WORKING PAPERS FOR HER KEY POEM 'SHEEP IN FOG', c. 75 lines in her handwriting, comprising autograph and typescript drafts and a typed completed version (15 lines), all but the first two separately dated and most of the typescripts with her name and address typed by her in the top right-hand corner, with extensive autograph deletions and revisions preserving numerous reconsidered readings; on three of the versos are typescripts, two with autograph revisions [from 'A Poem for Three Voices'], the other from a short story (character: Alison), the drafts for 'Sheep in Fog': 7 pages, large quarto, 23 Fitzroy Road, London NW1, 2 December 1962 and 'Revised 28 January 1963'
...The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them...
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
NO POETICAL MANUSCRIPTS BY SYLVIA PLATH OF COMPARABLE IMPORTANCE TO THESE DRAFTS HAVE APPEARED ON THE MARKET. IN MANY RESPECTS THEY AFFORD AN UNPARALLELED INSIGHT INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESSES OF ANY MAJOR POET AND ARE MORE IMPORTANT AND REVEALING THAN THOSE FOR ANY OF HER OTHER POEMS.
Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's husband, poetical soul-mate, and in many respects her mentor, thought 'Sheep in Fog' was 'one of her most beautiful poems'. He wrote a brilliant and penetrating essay about the full evolution of the poem (see the previous lot), reproducing a number of the drafts in it. Only a summary of one part of it can be given here; his much fuller examination retracing the course of composition in detail and commenting on the processes of poetical composition in general is supplied herewith in photocopy.
'Because we have all the manuscripts, all dated, of all her late poems, we can trace the course of the two amazing surges of inspiration that produced them'. The first surge began in August 1962 and ended on 2 December with 'Sheep in Fog', these poems reflecting her 'positive resolution' and positive mental state (for her) at that time. After that she wrote nothing for two months. On 28 January 1963 she revised the last poem of the first surge, 'Sheep in Fog', giving it a new negative conclusion (the penultimate draft in this lot): it 'amounts to a full perfect realization of the calamitous change of mood, the sinister change of inspiration, between the two groups of poems'. The 'hope of rebirth has disappeared, to be replaced by resignation' (Kendall). On the same day Plath wrote three new poems, and by the time she died, two weeks later, she had written twelve more new poems. 'Sheep in Fog' was found with the poems of that second surge.
The last four lines of the poem written on 2 December 1962 'are nothing like as ominous as the three she replaced them with' on 28 January 1963 - ('Revised Jan 28, 1963') - (quoted above). Leaning 'strongly towards the positive' (for her), they had read:
...Patriarchs till now immobile
In heavenly wools
Row off as stones or clouds with the faces of babies.
In the earlier version 'the final three-line image is still trying to stay in the Ariel world of hope and triumphant outcome,' but the first version of the ending, to Hughes, already reflected a change of mood, one that 'refuses to be coerced' ('she suppresses the intruder') and therefore was in a degree 'mechanical and unconvincing'. He also illustrates his point (revealing the subtlety, delicacy, fragility and progressive nature of his subject and of her psychological state) by noting that she changed 'Like a dead man left out' in the first autograph draft herein to 'A flower left out' in the second autograph draft both written on the same day, thereby revealing her struggle against a growing negativity of mood in December 1962. On 28 January she accepted that the first ending was 'not quite right...[and] taking up the poem again she removes the false ending'. 'Sheep in Fog' therefore 'belongs to both groups: the last poem of the first group, in its first version [December 1962], and the first poem of the last group, in its final version [January 1963]'.
The description in the final version of 'Sheep in Fog' of the heaven towards which she was being inexorably drawn as 'fatherless' strikes right to the very core of Sylvia Plath's being. When she was only eight years old, her father, Dr Otto Plath, a scientist, died, having failed to seek medical help for the gangerine in his leg. In her poems Sylvia Plath habitually interpreted this not only as him having committed suicide, but as having deliberately abandoned her. This same theme was to become the sub-text of Ted's remarkable commentary on Sylvia's life, Birthday Letters (1998), the most successful volume of poems of the last century, selling some 500,000 copies. There Ted reflected that in seeking to help Sylvia release her inner life for the benefit of her art, he inadvertently 'revealed a perfect landing pad / For your inspiration. I did not / Know I had made and fitted a door / Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave...' and her dream life became 'As if you descended in each night's sleep / Into your father's grave...' The word 'fatherless' Sylvia introduced into 'Sheep in Fog' on 28 January 1963 plumbed her depths far deeper than any other she could have chosen.
Because Plath kept all the drafts of this poem and dated them, and because she went through such a traumatic change of psychological mood during the course of writing, and because that change of mood ended in her taking her own life only two weeks later, these working papers are a unique and extraordinary witness to the evolution of a poem. The drafts reveal, Hughes concluded, 'the nature and scope of the psychological crisis that gives the poem its weird life, sonority, its power to affect us. In other words, they are, as the final poem is not, an open window into the poet's motivation and struggle at a moment of decisive psychological change.' In many ways these working papers are the supreme example of poetical drafts.
Sylvia Plath's poetical papers are at Smith College and at the Lilly Library, Indiana.
PROVENANCE: Ted Hughes; Nicholas Hughes - when Sylvia Plath's literary archive was sold to her old college, Smith, Ted Hughes kept back the manuscripts of only two poems, one for each of the children; this one was Nicholas's. It is understood that the one Frieda inherited is now in an institutional library.
REFERENCES: Ted Hughes, 'Sylvia Plath: The Evolution of 'Sheep in Fog', Winter Pollen, 1994; Roy Davids, 'Ted Hughes's "Sylvia Plath: The Evolution of 'Sheep in Fog' - The Onlie Begetter', The Epic Poise: A Celebration of Ted Hughes, edited by Nick Gammage, 1999; Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts, 1979; Tim Kendall, Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study, 2001.