Poet Sylvia Plath Stirs Passions, Controversy From Grave Tombstone Vandalism Renews 30-Year Battle Of Husband, Feminists

from: The Atlanta Constitution - May 21, 1989

by Matthew C. Vita Journal-Constitution Correspondent

In a village cemetery high in the Yorkshire hills lies the body of Sylvia Plath, the American writer whose anguished poetry and sad, desperate death became potent symbols to a generation of women.

It is a peaceful if austere setting for a woman who ended her troubled life at 30 only to become one of this century's most admired writers.

Ms. Plath's novel "The Bell Jar," a semi-autobiographical account of a woman's battle with depression, is a feminist bible. In 1982, she posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for her "Collected Poems.'

But 26 years after her suicide, Ms. Plath does not rest in peace. The inner torment that daunted her in life has continued after her death in a dispute between her admirers and her husband, Ted Hughes, the British Poet Laureate who controls her estate.

The debate over Ms. Plath's marriage has simmered for years in the academic world. Recently, it spilled over into Heptonstall, a sleepy cluster of stone houses in the rugged South Pennine Hills where Ms. Plath was buried in 1963 in the Hughes family plot.

Four times in the past three years, someone has chiseled the lead letters spelling out the name "Hughes" from her rough-cut granite tombstone, leaving just her maiden name. No one knows who is vandalizing the grave, but local suspicion falls on feminist activists.

Mr. Hughes's detractors blame him for contributing to Ms. Plath's instability by turning her into a housewife, then leaving her penniless with their two children for another woman. They were separated at her death. Mr. Hughes, who has vigorously guarded the period of his marriage to Ms.

Plath, destroyed her last journal after her death. Another journal mysteriously disappeared and, biographers assume, suffered the same fate. Each time the letters have been removed from the marker, Mr. Hughes, who lives hundreds of miles away in Devon, had a local stonemason restore his name.

The last time, however, he ordered the stone removed. The grave stood unmarked for 18 months until two university undergraduates had difficulty finding it during "a pilgrimage to the memory of a great woman poet" this spring. They called attention to the fact in a letter published in The Guardian in April.

"All the evidence we found suggest not that she is remembered, but rather forgotten -- nothing is being done in Heptonstall to preserve her memory," wrote Julia Parnaby and Rachel Wingfield, both 20.

The letter sparked a flurry of accusations against Mr. Hughes and rekindled the passions that have flared over Ms. Plath since her death. "Her suicide and the power of her poetry which in effect forecast it, together, aroused this incredible myth about her," said Anne Stevenson, whose new biography of Ms. Plath, "Bitter Fame," is being published in August. "She acted out the Greek tragedy that people, mostly women, feel still." A letter co-signed by eight leading literary figures, including the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, noted that the Hughes family had rejected efforts by the parish council to erect a sign in the village to help visitors find the plot. It called on the family to prove it wasn't "trying to discourage people from visiting the grave."

Jill Tweedie, a columnist for The Independent, wrote that Mr. Hughes could perhaps be excused for failing to recognize at the time of Ms. Plath's death the implications of putting his name on her tombstone.

"That he still does not, 25 years after the turmoil of the '60s and '70s, suspiciously resembles our old friend Mr. Chauvin," she said. Mr. Hughes, who never speaks to the press, broke a long silence on the dispute with two letters, each exceeding 2,000 words, that were published in The Independent and The Guardian.

In them, he accused people of building a "Plath Fantasia" around his former wife that "has obscured the life and death of Sylvia Plath." He defended putting his name on the tombstone because it was Ms. Plath's legal married name. In fact, he said he broke with custom by inserting "Plath after Sylvia because I knew well enough in 1963 what she had brought off in that name, and I wished to honor it." On April 18, 11 days after the letter by the two university students appeared, the stone was put back at the grave.

It still is not easy to find. A scrap of paper tacked to a message board at the door of the adjacent church says it is located "13 rows down from the top and about 34 of the way to the far wall."

Alistair Aitchison, a 25-year-old native of Scotland who has been a fan of Ms. Plath's poetry since he first read it in high school, was at the grave with two members of his Boy Scout troop on a recent Saturday afternoon. "In her whole life she was surrounded by controversy, and I think it's sad that it still follows her after her death," Mr. Aitchison said. The name Hughes was back on the two-foot high tombstone, this time in letters set deeper into the granite to make them harder to remove. The stone reads, "In Memory, Sylvia Plath Hughes, 1932-1963" followed by two lines from Sanskrit that Mr. Hughes said he used to quote to Ms. Plath when her spirits were low: "Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted." A tiny rose bush is planted in the center of the plot. Beside it is a potted primrose, a reminder of the Primrose Hill section of London where she spent the last months of her life. Otherwise it is a tangle of grass and weeds and the remnants of a border of Baby's Breath and Star of Bethlehem planted by admirers in years past.

Caption: Mug shot of Sylvia Plath Photo: Mug shot of Ted Hughes Photo: The English gravesite of American poet Sylvia Plath has become the target of vandals who repeatedly have taken off the last name of her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Feminist activists are suspected.

Copyright 1989 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.

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