Chapter Two: “Beautiful, beautiful America!”
In March 1956, Hughes was staying in a London flat, 18 Rugby Street in Bloomsbury; Plath visited him there on her way to France, where she expected to meet Richard Sassoon, with whom she was still involved. But in Paris, Sassoon was nowhere to be found: and so Sylvia Plath turned her whole heart to Hughes. These next poems, from ’18 Rugby Street’ through to ‘The Owl’ – the spring of 1956 – shape the early days of their romance. Yet they also begin to explore Plath’s interior torment: how, in Hughes’s words, “the dark ate at you.”
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Late in the month of March 1956, Plath went down to London to meet Ted Hughes and Lucas Myers. At the time, Hughes was living in a flat in Rugby Street with no running water; the only bathroom was three floors down from his eyrie. No. 18 was “a small early Georgian house, the old one out at the end of a terrace of larger ones. On each floor was a living room with two windows facing south on to a lively street, a tiny kitchen beside it and, at the back, a small bedroom. The rooms still had their original panelling, covered in many coats of paint,” wrote Daniel Huws much later. Plath was on her way to France, for she had not yet given up on Richard Sassoon (on 13 March she wrote to her mother: “you know I am very much in love with Richard”); she resolved to visit him in Paris, where he was staying in the rue Duvivier.
When she arrived, however, Sassoon had gone, no one knew where. In ‘18 Rugby Street’, his account of the first night he and Plath spent together, Hughes refers to her quest for Sassoon, writing of “the desperation of that search / Through those following days. . .” At the time she revealed her misery only to her journal, where she wrote, after arriving at Sassoon’s empty flat: “I had been ready to bear a day or two alone, but this news shook me to the roots. I sat down in [the concierge’s] living room and wrote an incoherent letter while the tears fell scalding and wet on the paper . . . I wrote and wrote, thinking that by some miracle he might walk in the door. But he had left no address, no messages, and my letters begging him to return in time were lying there blue and unread. I was really amazed at my situation; never before had a man gone off to leave me to cry after. . .”
To her mother she showed her other, brighter, face: “I have the loveliest garret in Paris, overlooking the rooftops and gables and [an] artists’ skylight!. . . Perhaps the hardest and yet best thing for me is that Sassoon is not here. . . but I am getting most proud of my ability to manoeuvre alone. It is good for me, and I am beginning to enjoy it thoroughly. . .” She noted this letter to her mother in her journal, “which gave her the gay side.”
‘18 Rugby Street’ shuttles between the wonderfully vivid present of the poem –
The catacomb basement heaped with exhaust mufflers,
Assorted jagged shards of cars, shin-rippers
On the way to the unlit and unlovely
Lavatory beneath the street’s pavement
– and the future. The poet looks ahead to the nights they will spend there after their wedding, sees how their son Nicholas’s eyes will be like his mother’s, though now, “For me yours were the novel originals.” This time blending reinforces the sense of fate that is both implicit and explicit in Birthday Letters.
Happy to be martyred for folly
I invoked you, bribing Fate to produce you.
Were you conjuring me? I had no idea
How I was becoming necessary,
Or what emergency surgery Fate would make
Of my casual self-service.
He invokes her, she conjures him: a magic that obscures their real selves and makes them actors in a drama. There is no escape. Of 18 Rugby Street he has been told with fireside-tale exaggeration:
Whoever comes into it never gets properly out!
Whoever enters it enters a labyrinth –
Later in that labyrinth, of course, he will find his Minotaur.