Wednesday, 25 August 2010




This is not what I meant:
Stucco arches, the banked rocks sunning in rows,
Bald eyes or petrified eggs,
Grownups coffined in stockings and jackets,
Lard-pale, sipping the thin
Air like a medicine.

The stopped horse on his chromium pole
Stares through us; his hooves chew the breeze.
Your shirt of crisp linen
Bloats like a spinnaker. Hat brims
Deflect the watery dazzle; the people idle
As if in hospital.

I can smell the salt, all right.
At our feet, the weed-moustachioed sea
Exhibits its glaucous silks,
Bowing and truckling like an old-school oriental.
You're no happier than I about it.
A policeman points out a vacant cliff

Green as a pool table, where cabbage butterflies
Peel off to sea as gulls do,
And we picnic in the death-stench of a hawthorn.
The waves pulse like hearts.
Beached under the spumy blooms, we lie
Sea-sick and fever-dry.

Sylvia Plath

The American poet and authoress Sylvia Plath visited Whitby with her husband Ted Hughes in the August of 1960. The following passage is taken from the biography ‘Sylvia Plath - A Literary Life’ by Linda Wagner-Martin :-

As if Plath was charting the reason for her unease, her depression and illness, she writes about a brief trip she and Ted, with Frieda, took with Ted’s cousin Vicky to the beach.
‘Whitsun’ recounts the disappointment of the holiday in Whitby; the poem opens, ‘This is not what I meant.’ Picnicking ’in the death stench of a Hawthorn,’ she notes that her spouse is ‘no happier than I about it.’ The poem concludes with the image of two vacationers lying together ’seasick and fever dry.’
Plath’s description in a letter to her mother reinforces the mood of the poem: ’There is something depressingly mucky about English sea side resorts. Of course, the weather is hardly ever sheer fair, so most people are in woollen suits and coats and tinted plastic raincoats. The sand is muddy and dirty. The working class is also dirty, strewing candy paper, gum and cigarette wrappers.’
In contrast to her assessment of their holiday, she lamented in the following paragraph, ’My favourite beach in the world is Nauset, and my heart aches for it. I don’t know, but there is something clean about New England sand, no matter how crowded.’

Plath’s visit also inspired her to write a short story - using an idea that was sketched out in her ’Letters Home’ - entitled ’The Perfect Place’, also known as ‘The Lucky Stone‘ the piece would eventually appear an issue of the magazine ’My Weekly’ on the 28th October 1961.

It was said the ’The Perfect Place’ was one of the last short stories, if not the last story, Plath completed prior to writing ’The Bell Jar’. The similarities between the two works are so strong, that the story - it’s characters, episodes and themes - appear to be a blueprint for the novel. - Peter K Steinberg


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