Day in History 11 February – Rene Descartes – Elizabeth Siddal – Sylvia Plath

Descartes portrait after Frans Hals 1648

On this day in 1650, philosopher, mathematician, scientist and writer, “The Father of Modern Philosophy”, René Descartes, died in Stockholm, Sweden.  Born in La Haye en Touraine (now Descartes), Indre-et-Loire, France on 31 March 1596.  He is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement “Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am; or I am thinking, therefore I exist or I do think, therefore I do exist), found in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637 – written in French but with inclusion of “Cogito ergo sum”) and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644 – written in Latin).  The Final Footprint – Descartes was initially interred in the cemetery of Adolf Fredriks kyrka (“The Church of Adolf Frederick”), a church in central Stockholm.  Later his remains were taken to France and entombed in a side chapel of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  His skull or brain is kept in the Musée de l’Homme (French, “Museum of Man”) in Paris.  The inscription, in Latin, reads in part; MEMORIAE RENATI DESCARTES RECONDITIORIS DOCTRINAE LAVDE ET INGENII SVBTILITATE PRAECELLENTISSIMI QVI PRIMVS A RENOVATIS IN EVROPA BONARVM LITTERARVM STVDIIS RATIONIS HVMANAE IVRA SALVA

elizabethSiddal-photoOn this day in 1862, wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, artists’ model, muse, poet and artist Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal died at the age of 32, from complications related to an overdose of laudanum, at her home at 14 Chatham Place, London, now demolished and covered by Blackfriars Station.  Born Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, on 25 July 1829, at the family’s home at 7 Charles Street, Hatton Garden, London.  Siddal was painted and drawn extensively by artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais (including his notable 1852 painting Ophelia) and her husband.  She featured prominently in Rossetti’s early paintings of women.  Rossetti’s relationship with Siddal is explored by Christina Rossetti (Dante’s sister) in her poem “In an Artist’s Studio”:

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.


The Final Footprint – Siddal was interred at Highgate Cemetery in London.  Rossetti enclosed in his wife’s coffin a journal containing the only copy he had of his many poems.  He reportedly slid the book into Siddal’s red hair.  By 1869, before publishing any newer poems, he became obsessed with retrieving the poems he had slipped into his wife’s coffin.  Rossetti and his agent, Charles Augustus Howell, applied to the Home Secretary for an order to have her exhumed.  It was done at night to avoid public curiosity and attention.  Rossetti was not present.  Howell reported that her corpse was remarkably well preserved and her delicate beauty intact, probably as a result of the laudanum.  Her hair was said to have continued to grow after death so that the coffin was filled with her flowing coppery hair.  Rossetti published the old poems with his newer ones.  They were not well received by some critics because of their eroticism, and he was reportedly haunted by the exhumation through the rest of his life.

Seven years after his wife’s death, Rossetti published a collection of sonnets entitled The House of Life; contained within it was the poem, “Without Her”. It is a reflection on life once love has departed:

What of her glass without her? The blank grey
There where the pool is blind of the moon’s face.
Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day’s appointed sway
Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place
Without her? Tears, ah me! For love’s good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day.

What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart,
Of thee what word remains ere speech be still?
A wayfarer by barren ways and chill,
Steep ways and weary, without her thou art,
Where the long cloud, the long wood’s counterpart,
Sheds doubled up darkness up the labouring hill.
— From Without Her

Sylvia_plathOn this day in 1963 poet, novelist, short story writer, Pulitzer Prize recipient, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the kitchen of her flat at 23 Fitzroy Road near Primrose Hill, London, at the age of 30.  Born on 27 October 1932, in Massachusetts Memorial Hospital, in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.  Plath studied at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, before receiving acclaim as a professional poet and writer.  She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and they lived together first in the United States and then England, having two children together, Frieda and Nicholas.  Plath suffered from depression for much of her adult life.  Controversy continues to surround the events of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy.  Plath is generally credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry with her two published collections, The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel.  In 1982, she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems.  She also wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death.  sylviaplathGrave_of_Sylvia_Plath_-_geograph_org_uk_-_412470The Final Footprint – Hughes appears to have been devastated by Plath’s death, despite the fact that the couple had had been separated five months.  In a letter to an old friend of Plath’s from Smith College, he wrote, “That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.”  Plath is interred in the Heptonstall’s parish churchyard of St Thomas the Apostle.  Plath’s gravestone bears the inscription that Hughes chose for her:  “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.”  The quote has been variously attributed to the 16th-century Buddhist novel Journey to the West written by Wu Cheng’en or to the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.  The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by those aggrieved that “Hughes” is written on the stone; they have attempted to chisel it off, leaving only the name “Sylvia Plath.”  When Hughes’ partner Assia Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura in 1969, this practice intensified.  After each defacement, Hughes had the damaged stone removed and replaced.  Plath mourners accused Hughes in the media of dishonoring her name by removing the stone.  Wevill’s death led to claims that Hughes had been abusive to both Plath and Wevill.  In 1970, poet Robin Morgan published the poem “Arraignment”, in which she accused Hughes of the battery and murder of Plath.  Reportedly some threatened to kill him in Plath’s name.  In 1989, with Hughes under public attack, a battle raged in the letters pages of The Guardian and The Independent.  In The Guardian on 20 April 1989, Hughes wrote the article “The Place Where Sylvia Plath Should Rest in Peace”: “In the years soon after [Plath’s] death, when scholars approached me, I tried to take their apparently serious concern for the truth about Sylvia Plath seriously. But I learned my lesson early. […] If I tried too hard to tell them exactly how something happened, in the hope of correcting some fantasy, I was quite likely to be accused of trying to suppress Free Speech. In general, my refusal to have anything to do with the Plath Fantasia has been regarded as an attempt to suppress Free Speech […] The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and of mine), or for her memory, or for the literary tradition, I do not know.”  Plath was portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Hughes was portrayed by Daniel Craig in the 2003 film Sylvia.

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