Auctions | March 19, 2013

Bonhams to Sell Key Sylvia Plath Poem

London—The complete working papers for Sylvia Plath's poem Sheep in Fog, offering a vivid insight into the fragility of the poet's mind in the weeks leading up to her suicide on February 11, 1963, are to be auctioned at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London, on May 8. 

The papers are featured in the Roy Davids Collection Part III: Poetry: Poetical  Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets, and are estimated at £30,000-35,000, or $47,000-55,000.

Sylvia Plath completed the first draft of Sheep in Fog in December of 1962 during a surge of inspiration which began in August of that year. As her husband Ted Hughes subsequently wrote in an essay on the work (also included in the sale, estimate £4,500-5,000, or $7,000-9,000), the tone at that time was positive reflecting Plath's own 'positive resolution.' The final stanza in the 1962 version reads:

Patriarchs till now immobile

In heavenly wools

Row off as stones or clouds with the faces of babies

When Plath revised the poem on January 28, 1963, however, at the beginning of her final brief burst of creativity, the mood had darkened as the new ending shows:

They threaten

To let me through to a heaven

Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

Hughes has written that the progression of the poem "amounts to a full perfect realization of the calamitous change of mood, the sinister change of inspiration, between the two groups of poems."

The manuscript and associated papers are very rare. Most of Plath's papers were sold to Smith College where she had studied as an undergraduate. Ted Hughes retained the complete drafts of two poems, one for each of their children. Sheep in Fog was given to Nicholas Hughes who committed suicide in 2009. The manuscript inherited by Plath and Hughes' daughter, Frieda, is believed to be in an institutional library.