Philip Hobsbaum (1932-2005): Ghosts in the archive – Sylvia Plath

 history remains first and foremost an encounter with death

Arlette Farge, The Lure of the Archives (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), 8.

It might appear somewhat obvious to be talking about ghosts in the archive, as archival collections by their very nature are perhaps the natural residing places for ghosts and as Arlette Farage noted ‘an encounter with death’.  After all, the normal route of a collection into an archive often comes with the death of the author, although not always.  Yet, what struck me while cataloguing the series of papers MS Hobsbaum B: Writers was the various types of ghosts that flitted about the files and how their presence not only tracks Hobsbaum’s career, but also demonstrates the various roles and responsibilities that Philip adopted throughout his working life.

MS Hobsbaum BP/5: Sylvia Plath

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an American poetress undergraduette, Sylvia Plath, who writes very sophisticated little poems à la Marianne Moone + late Auden + Wallace Stevens (if you can imagine this)…

LR from Christopher Rene Levenson (then editor of Delta) c1956 [MS Hobsbaum E]

Of all the writers who feature in MS Hobsbaum B, Sylvia Plath is perhaps the most ethereal.  The vast majority of documents refer to her in the past tense; they are reflections, reviews, etc., however two items stand out for having been authored by Plath herself.  Firstly a series of photocopied press cuttings from the Boston Christian Science Monitor, where Plath wrote a column for the Youth Section, some of which detail her impressions of Europe in 1956.  The other is a bundle of four photocopied typescript poems by Plath, all carrying her address and some with a feint signature.

Hobsbaum himself refers to these poems in his article ‘Ted Hughes at Cambridge’ published in The Dark Horse Autumn 1999

‘Then somebody told me, he had got engaged to Sylvia Plath.  I had heard of, but not, at that point, met her….  I could not at the time work out how Ted had met her.  She certainly was no habituée of the pubs in which most of our social life took place.  Nor could I see how Ted, with his flakes of dandruff and smelly trousers, would fit in with her cool elegance.  He surfaced once or twice in London, at one point giving me four meticulously typed MSS of Plath’s which I realise now must have been some kind of audition for the London Group.’ [p11]

The poems are ‘Vanity Fair’; ‘Black Rook In Rainy Weather’; ‘The Snowman On The Moor’; and ‘The Lady And The Earthernware Head’.  The first carries the address ‘Whitstead, 4 Barton Road’, Plath’s residence for her first 15 months in Cambridge; the other three have ’55 Eltisley Avenue’, where she and Ted Hughes lived from late 1956 through to June 1957.

While all the four poems appear in Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems (edited by Ted Hughes and published posthumously by Faber & Faber in 1981), neither ‘Vanity Fair’ nor ‘The Snowman On The Moor’ appear in any of Plath’s publications during her lifetime. ‘Black Rook In Rainy Weather’ was included in the Heinemann and Faber editions of Colossus, but not the American edition []. The latter was also twice recorded by Plath, along with ‘The Lady And The Earthernware Head’.  Firstly as part of a reading and interview with Lee Anderson in Springfield, Massachusetts on 18 April 1958, and then a couple of months later for the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Harvard University, recorded at Fassett Recording Studio, Boston, on 13 June 1958.  According to Plath, ‘The Lady And The Earthernware Head’ had initially inspired the title of her first book, which was to be called The Earthernware Head, but she dropped the idea and the poem once she had reached America.

“The Earthernware Head” is out: once, in England, “my best poem”: too fancy, glassy, patchy & rigid – it embarrasses me now…

In his essay ‘The Group: An Experiment in Criticism’ Hobsbaum recalled:

‘We also saw a good deal of Ted Hughes, rather shy and introverted in those days.  He was living with his sister in London for a period before he went back to Cambridge to teach in Coleridge Road Secondary School.  He sent us some early poems by Sylvia Plath, whom he met on this return.  I must admit I didn’t like them very much.’ [p.77]

Whether he liked them or not, Hobsbaum clearly saw value in retaining his copies.


Cataloguing of the Hobsbaum papers is ongoing. Please enquire in advance regarding access by emailing


MS Hobsbaum BP/5: Sylvia Plath (1951-2004) 3 boxes

Philip Hobsbaum, ‘Ted Hughes at Cambridge’, The Dark Horse Autumn 1999

Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes and published posthumously by Faber & Faber in 1981

Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962: Transcribed from the Original Manuscripts at Smith College, Edited by Karen V Kukil (Faber & Faber, London, 2000)

Philip Hobsbaum, ‘The Group: An Experiment in Criticism’ The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol 17 1987


Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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