Tuesday, May 7, 2013


NONE OF SYLVIA PLATH'S children's books were published in her lifetime, but she did see one children's poem in print: "The Bull of Bendylaw," which appeared in the April 1959 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

The Horn Book
is a bimonthly magazine devoted to the discussion of children's literature, along with reviews of children's books, acceptance speeches for major literary awards for children's writers and artists, and occasional poems and stories. The readership includes children's librarians, teachers, children's booksellers, and parents, all of whom use it as a guide for what to read and recommend to children. What that means is, any poem or story published in The Horn Book is likely to reach children through one of these authorities.

As I've discussed in my previous entries on Sylvia Plath, both Plath and her husband Ted Hughes were actively writing for children in the late 1950s. One of their interests was in folktales and ballads, and they each wrote poems drawn from those influences. When Horn Book editor Ruth Hill Viguers approached the couple, asking each to submit poems for consideration, they were able to send several animal poems, which drew on those traditional sources.

Viguers had heard of Plath through a neighbor, but it was when her own children came home from school to say that their English teacher, Mr. Crockett (who had also been Plath's high school teacher) had read Plath's work in class that she chose to reach out to the poet. Not long after meeting with Viguers, Plath sent her husband and her own submissions: "Both of us enjoy writing poems about birds, beasts, and fish, so we are enclosing one from each of us, about an otter and a goatsucker..." In a postscript, she adds "We're adding to the zoo a bull and a field of horses." Only the bull was accepted.

"The Bull of Bendylaw" draws on one of F. J. Child's ballads, and opens with the epigraph:
"The great bull of Bendylaw
Has broken his band and run awa,
And the king and a' his court
Canna turn that bull about."
Plath, however, associates the bull with the sea, and in her poem "The black bull bellowed before the sea," and the sea breaks forth and floods the kingdom. Not only can the king's men not turn the bull or sea back, but in the end
"O the king's tidy acre is under the sea,
And the royal rose in the bull's belly,
And the bull on the king's highway."
The poem was later included in Plath's Collected Poems as the first poem in the 1959 section, where the epigraph is relegated to the notes at the back of the book, and so in the long run, the readership for the poem ended up being adults, but Plath and editor Viguers obviously saw the poem as one that could be shared with children, making it a footnote to any discussion of Plath's writing for children.

I owe this entire post to the article in the Horn Book from 2005 by Lissa Paul, "Writing Poetry for Children is a Curious Occupation": Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, which I have cited for all of my Plath entries. And while I did go and see the Horn Book in the library, I was not allowed to take it out, and so the image of the cover comes from the excellent Sylvia Plath website http://www.sylviaplath.info/.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

1 comment:

  1. Truly..we too were children..Now I can ready to order this books from online bookstore!!