Often archives are places where professional items are discovered; something that can be unearthed and used to further knowledge or share information or even explain a prior silence. But occasionally when I’ve been working in archives, I have had deeply personal encounters that are just as powerful in their own way as finding something previously overlooked like a new poem or letter.
When I was sixteen years old, I read my first biography of Sylvia Plath by Linda Wagner-Martin. One moment in the book struck my teenage self and stayed with me, though I could not really say what it was about this story that affected me so. Wagner Martin recounts that in November 1962 when Plath has been flat hunting in London with hopes to escape a winter in Devon, she finds by chance a place in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, that is available for rent. It just so happens it is in a house once occupied by W.B.Yeats. Excited at the prospect of living in such a place, Plath applies for the flat and returns to Devon. Here, one evening in her living room, for fun, she asks W.B. Yeats for a message from beyond. Randomly opening her copy of his Collected Plays she points to a passage which read “Go then, get food and drink, whatever is wanted to give you strength and courage. Gather your people together here, bring them all in. We have a great thing to do, I have to begin – I want to tell it to the whole world. Bring them in, bring them in, I will make the house ready.”
At sixteen years old this struck me as quite eerie. It was all so uncanny; the chance encounter of finding the house, even thinking of asking for a message, and then getting one so pertinent. The odd coincidence was felt by Plath too who wrote to her friend Ruth Fainlight on 20 November ‘I was scared to death but very excited.’ It was however a small feature in Wagner Martin’s account that really struck me. Plath underlined these words in her book and annotated them with ‘Nov. 13, 1962 The prophecy – true?’ The not-knowingness of Plath when she wrote this confounded my teenage self as I realised how messy time could be, and how melancholic. Such an inscription filled with hope, confused my sixteen year old brain, because I was reading it knowing exactly how it all ended, written by somebody who had no idea at all.
The story stayed with me.
In 2011 when I was spending a week in Smith College Archives, I found myself alone in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. It was a completely silent and still afternoon. Facing the shelves holding Plath’s personal library, I saw her copy of The Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. If I had known it was there, I had forgotten, so the shock of it was quite physical. Pulling it from the shelf, I knew exactly what I was going to see for the first time when I flipped open to page 347. It was Plath’s annotation and in that moment there was a poignant convergence of my teenage years, the passing of time, the stories that stay with us, and of course, Sylvia Plath.
Here it is.