Getty Images: I love this imagined idea of Anne Boleyn
King Henry VIII attracted to Catherine Howard
Anne and Henry are the couple on the left.
Today is the anniversary of Lizzie Siddal and Sylvia Plath’s deaths. Both women committed suicide but the end of their lives does not define them. Both left an incredible legacy of art. They differed in their contribution to that art.
By Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Lizzie was a muse, discovered by the artist Walter Deverell, whilst she was working in a milliners. She subsequently sat for many of the Pre-Raphelite artists and had a long term relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He encouraged her to write and paint but she is remebered as a muse, a tragic woman who was addicted to laudenum and took her own life. The relationship with Rossetti was intense and had to endure his infidelity, the loss of their newborn child and Lizzie’s addiction. Her poems were never published during her lifetime. Here is one I am very fond of:
A Silent Wood
O silent wood, I enter thee
With a heart so full of misery
For all the voices from the trees
And the ferns that cling about my knees.
In thy darkest shadow let me sit
When the grey owls about thee flit;
There will I ask of thee a boon,
That I may not faint or die or swoon.
Gazing through the gloom like one
Whose life and hopes are also done,
Frozen like a thing of stone
I sit in thy shadow but not alone.
Can God bring back the day when we two stood
Beneath the clinging trees in that dark wood?
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal
Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear c.1856
Similar to Lizzie, Sylvia Plath also had a long term relationship and marriage with another artist, the poet Ted Hughes. She also suffered a stillbirth and his infidelity. However, Sylvia lived in a different age and was able to strive for a different destiny to Lizzie.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.” from The Bell Jar
Sylvia didn’t want to be a silent muse, she wanted to be the one writing and was able to pursue that ambition. However, for a woman living with a poet she also had to be his inspiration with the heavy weight of that expectation: be desirable, inspire passion, be beautiful. It was an intense relationship, well documented, both motivating and difficult. Although she was supported by Ted, he always believed in her ‘genius’ and she his, Sylvia constantly had to be a good wife and mother; run the household and raise the children. This pull between two opposing expectations and desires infiltrates her writing, journals and letters. Graves, who influenced both Ted and Sylvia, found the roles imcompatible. In her poem the Moon and the Yew Tree she seems to define those two creative forces, between the feminine moon and masculine tree, and the unhappiness it created. It is a poem saturated in meaning and open to interpretation but I feel the problem of being both writer and muse is discussed:
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
I interpret these lines as saying: I am no doorway to your inspiration, I have my own identity and story.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The phallic tree representing masculinity but above it, always, the moon is rising.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.
Unleashing the creativity, the female is aggresive and following her own path; the male response to this is silence.
Below, Ted as Sylvia’s muse.
Sylvia Plath (1931-1962), Ted Hughes, about 1957. Pen and ink. © estate of Sylvia Plath / Faber & Faber Ltd.
The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
PLATH: I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers. I think writers and artists are the most narcissistic people. I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, in fact a great many of my friends happen to be writers and artists. But I must say what I admire most is the person who masters an area of practical experience, and can teach me something. I mean, my local midwife has taught me how to keep bees. Well, she can’t understand anything I write. And I find myself liking her, may I say, more than most poets. And among my friends I find people who know all about boats or know all about certain sports, or how to cut somebody open and remove an organ. I’m fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As a poet, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical.
“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” Rilke (Letters to a young poet)
Carolyn Jess-Cooke has kindly reviewed my book and is also giving away a copy. Just comment on her web post or tweet: Read the full review here
“The significance of this book as a work of art, however, is in its reclamation of history from the female perspective. That the poems themselves are brilliant, almost all of them adroitly executed, makes me want to stand up and give the book a round of applause. There is mastery here, boldness, and a lively assertion of what poetry can give to the historical imagination. This is a book that deserves widespread acclaim.”
Jessica Birch has also reviewed the book in The Next Review
“If our national history can be described as at least to be sluiced in blood, then Stacey has used the red element startlingly, superbly in this book…The liquids stink and soil in equal measure, and the near-erotic thrill of attendant, queenly, ambition. It’s a real strength of this book that there is no slow historical development of these women’s awareness that they could rule alone, that they could attain power: no, from the start this is a committedly feminist book….
I salute the publishing house that allows a poet’s debut to be this damn ambitious and this damn unapologetic.”
Ledbury Poetry Festival Hosts: Poetry By Heart Recitation Competition, Herefordshire and Worcestershire Final
Saturday 27 February, 2pm – 4pm, The Burgage Hall in Ledbury
Audiences members report being inspired and moved by the performances of the young people.
Please join us and spread the word as students say their efforts feel valued when they see a venue is full.
Come and support our young people!
Entry is FREE! Refreshments provided. Please RSVP Chloe Garner on 01531634156 or firstname.lastname@example.org
MC: Brenda Read-Brown
Judges: Frances Bradley, Anne-Marie Dossett, Pippa Henry and Ruth Stacey
Ledbury Poetry Festival is excited to work with Poetry By Heart, a national competition designed to encourage pupils aged 14-18 and at school and college in England to learn and to recite poems by heart. Poetry By Heart successfully engages young people from diverse social backgrounds and all types of school in personal discovery of the pleasures of poetry. Each pupil is challenged to memorise and recite two poems – one published before 1914 and one in or after 1914 or one from a special collection of World War 1 poems as part of the centenary commemorations.. Pupils choose these from the timeline anthology of over 600 years of poetry.
Please do come and support these students who are challenging themselves to learn and recite poems by Shelley, Cavafy, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Bridges, Jean Sprackland, Alun Lewis, Edith Sitwell.
The former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion plays a lead role in Poetry By Heart. He commented:
“Poetry By Heart has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 2013. Many thousands of students have not only learned great poems for life but they have also shared them with friends and families in the inspiring and moving performances that are at the heart of every competition. I am constantly surprised and delighted by the quality of the students’ achievements.”
“Taking a poem into your heart makes it part of you. Saying a poem aloud makes you part of its life in the world. This is a rich and nourishing relationship that can last a lifetime.” Jean Sprackland