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Introduction to Altitudes


Poetry reading: Cottage Street, 1953
Richard Wilbur Poet
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Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,
Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.
It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,
I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.
How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.
And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love,
Outliving Sylvia, who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

I've often been attacked for writing this poem, often by the advocates of Sylvia Plath or by the admirers of confessional verse. All I can say is that I did not write this poem against Sylvia Plath or against any mode of poetry. I hope to do her justice by giving her these several words: 'brilliant', 'free', 'helpless', 'unjust'. What is unjust about her poems I think any reader can perceive, but surely they are also brilliant.

Some correspondent asked me a while ago if Edna Ward was not in fact the heroine of the poem, and I must say she is, yes. The poem plays around I notice with dimensions, it plays around with the immensity of Sylvia Plath's suicidal grief, and with other... with other largenesses and smallnesses, but I hope to balance the poem in favour of showing grace and courage and ending your life with the word love.

[Q] Did either she or Ted Hughes respond to this poem in any way?

Ted Hughes kindly wrote me a few years ago and said that he thought that this poem was the best page ever written on the subject of Sylvia Plath. I was delighted to have that opinion of his, but course there are those who differed with Ted Hughes in his estimate of the situation.


Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: Cottage Street, 1953, Sylvia Plath, Edna Ward, Ted Hughes

Duration: 4 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 29 September 2010