Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Experience “Poppy Day” in Cambridge

2019 Rose Library Fellow Di Beddow

Di Beddow conducted research at the Rose Library in April 2018 as a recipient of a short-term fellowship. She is writing up her PhD thesis on “The Cambridge of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath” under supervision at Queen Mary University, London UK.  Di has spoken on the subject at conferences in Ulster, Huddersfield and Cardiff and she has had articles published in both journals and the British Library modern literature website.  She has had a long career as a senior leader in secondary education, but now lives and studies in Cambridge.  She is mother to two grown-up lads, Joseph and Billy and the nominal owner of a cat, called Badger.

My study trip from Queen Mary University in London UK to the Smith archives; the Lilly Library and the Rose Library in April 2018 was designed to further my understanding of my thesis, “The Cambridge of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.”  Having lived in Cambridge most of my life and growing up just around the corner from their first marital home together at Eltisley Avenue in Newnham, I felt a particular connection to the poets’ time here, being the place where they both went to college; where they famously met at a wild party launching the inaugural and only edition of the “St.Botolph’s Review” and where they set up home before sailing to America in June 1957, the month and year that I was born.  I was keen to uncover original writing from both poets, which could be traced back to Cambridge, as this early period is often under-valued, being seen by critics as a time when little of worth was written and where Hughes especially, feels ambivalent about the historic place of learning:

Sometimes I think Cambridge wonderful, at others a ditch full of clear cold water where all the frogs have died.  It is a bird without feathers; a purse without money; an old dry apple, or the gutters run pure claret.  There is something in the air I think which makes people very awake. [1]

My particular interest is in the impact that place has upon on the poets and what legacy they have left for us in and about the city.

In a notebook, held at Emory, Hughes describes the mayhem which is known as Rag or Poppy Day in Cambridge.  Students take control of the city, holding processions, fancy dress events and performances to raise money for charity.  Both Hughes and Plath wrote about the occasion in November 1956, when they approached the city centre from Newnham:

Everything short of aggressive violence is legal on the 11th of November. Coming in from the west, the first sign was a barricade across Barton Road, attended by robed, turbanned, red-stained figures, young men in pyjamas and dressing gowns.  They were holding up every incoming car … and extorting cash in return for a hefty bucket of water over his windscreen and a perfunctory stroke or two with a broom.  The rattle of money boxes, cans with slits in the top, began here, and were not going to finish for another 12 hours. [2]

In their journey further into town he describes ropes across Silver Street Bridge, with students carrying chamber pots and demanding cash from the public who wished to pass over the bridge, whilst further down the street there were decorated, themed wagons, which Hughes explains as, “… their loads were the story”.  The vehicles held footballers, men in dress suits with fake moustaches and other characters who were, “… sitting on the edge of the lorry” and “held out dustbin lids and chamber pots for our pennies.”  The lorries would often have jazz bands playing on them and the bunting and constructed scenes on their backs would travel through the streets of Cambridge at a snail’s pace with people on the pavements throwing change, often deftly caught in a bucket by the occupants of the truck. Hughes then reaches the top of Silver Street:

At the top of Trumpington street we were really in the thick of it … Girls robed like Greeks, but with twig T.V. aerials sticking out of the top of their heads were shaking their tins in the dense way of people.

In characteristic fashion, Plath’s version of the events is collated in chronological fashion, starting at 9.30 am on Saturday November 10th when the two poets left Whitstead, Plath’s college lodgings at Newnham and came across the road block that Hughes describes above.  Because Plath is covering this event for publication, her writing is far more detailed and formal compared to Hughes’s notes.  In the Lilly Library Plath’s article describes:

… five or six Cambridge University students, each one uniformed in white coat and red fez, were supplying artificial red poppies and a rapid car-polishing in return for contributions from the drivers. [3]

Both poets observe this piece of university life as though they are outsiders; Plath because she is on a job, writing as a journalist for an American magazine, so she explains the origins of the Earl Haig Poppy Fund and describes romantically the colleges around her; Hughes, in spite of attending the university, seems not to have encountered the student antics until he sees them with Plath, two years on from his graduation.  Where she cites the blockade in the Barton Road as “rapid car-polishing”, he delights in the almost intimidating actions of the students with their, “… extorting cash … hefty bucket” and “… perfunctory stroke or two with a broom.”  These differences echo what Lucas Myers observes in Ah Youth: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at Cambridge and After where he defines the difference in intention between the poets when they write:

What Ted and Sylvia shared was an unsurpassed singlemindedness about their art. They were quite determined to put into words the best that was in them, but I thought, in somewhat different ways.  Sylvia was determined that it should be read.  Ted was determined that it should exist. [4]

In the recording of this event, Plath outlines how different is the Poppy Day event from her experience of Cambridge University life:

Only recently grown accustomed to the formal Cambridge University teas, the often painful reserve between men and women under-graduates, and the conservative dress (black gowns worn to academic appointments and after dark), we were rather startled to find decorum turned, as it were, completely topsy-turvy: to see students parading in pyjamas and paisley dressing-gowns under the pinnacles of King’s Chapel …[5]

Whilst these may seem minor details, it is clear to me that both Plath and Hughes do not focus upon the hallowed halls of the university in Cambridge as the focus of the city, but rather the life of the streets and indeed the environment surrounding the city.  Once more, Plath’s article highlights areas of the city that do not normally draw interest; note for example,

For a moment we paused on the bridge to survey one of our favorite Cambridge scenes; to the right: the pale blue buildings of the Anchor pub overhanging the river, the punt landing, Mill Lane bridge above the white froth of the mill race where students lunch on beer and sandwiches in fair weather, and then the backdrop of poplars and brindled cows grazing on Sheep’s Green; to the left: the beginning of the Backs, with the quaint arched wooden bridge joining the old and new courts of Queen’s College, beyond which, a diminishing vista of grassy river-banks and sallow, autumnal willows. [6]

Plath draws attention to the area beyond the university centre, which Hughes acknowledged as more important to the couple, as Plath notes in the passage above.  Although the poem “Cambridge was our courtship” remains unpublished and did not make the cut for Birthday Letters, it is a hindsight light upon the most important part of Cambridge for the couple.  Hughes defines the area in the poem,

Cambridge was our courtship.

Not the colleges, or such precincts,

But everything from the Millbridge

Towards Grantchester. [7]

From the Millbridge then the Cam flows with Coe Fen on the left bank, a green grazing area with small tributaries and sluices, rough pasture and meadow vegetation and on the right, as you walk away from the city, the meadows open out into Sheep’s Green and the old course of the Cam, underneath Fen Causeway and across to Lammas Land; the river then strikes out to skirt around Newnham and then on to Grantchester Meadows.

Hughes describes this area as:

Ornamented with willows, and green level,

Full drooping willows and rushes, and mallard and swans,

Or stumpy pollard willows and the dank silence

Of the slippery lapsing Cam.  That was our place.

It would seem clear then that Cambridge the university city, globally known as a centre of learning, was not of key interest to the couple, but rather that the hedonism and disarray of Poppy Day and the nature and wilderness of the meadows hold more interest for the poets than the tradition and history of the university.

[1]Ted Hughes Letters (Faber London 2007) To Olwyn Hughes February 1952 p. 12

[2] Ted Hughes All quotations about Poppy Day are from the Emory Notebooks Subseries 2:1 Box 57/MSS 644/FF 1 p. 44

[3] Sylvia Plath “Poppy Day at Cambridge” Lilly Library Plath mss. II Box 8, f.2. Plath’s pocket notebook records that she sent the article to the New Yorker, but it remained unpublished.

[4] Lucas Myers in the Emory Ted Hughes Archive Box 1 FF23 p. 95

[5] Sylvia Plath “Poppy Day at Cambridge” Lilly Library Plath mss. II Box 8, f.2. p. 3

[6] Ibid. p.2.

[7] All references to the poem “X” are from the exercise book of Ted Hughes labelled “18 Rugby Street” which is part of the Hughes archive Add. MS 88918/1/6 from the British Library