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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

Poets in Partnership

Another source of insight into the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes for Module C Conflicting Perspectives.

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One of the most interesting elements of Hughe’s brilliant poetry collection, Birthday Letters, is the way in which he appropriates Sylvia Plath’s poetic language in order to portray the conflicting perspectives within and about their relationship.

The most obvious example is Hughes’ poem ‘Sam,’ which retells the story of Plath’s disastrous ride, portrayed by Plath herself in the poem, “Whiteness, I remember”. White is a symbol and a motif in both poems but the tones are contradictory. There is an exhilaration to Plath’s recount of “the great run” and, to her, the ending is both “fear” and “wisdom”. In contrast, Hughes highlights the danger and chaos of the experience, “propellor terrors” sounding of “the clangour of iron shoes.” Hughes also points to the conflict within Plath herself, “your incredulity, your certainty.”

Although less obvious than the above comparison, Hughes’ “The Shot” can be read as a response to Plath’s “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. While Plath asserts, “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” Hughes inverts the image: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at God When his death touched the trigger.” Plath’s poetry is an attempt at self-empowerment and this is undermined by Hughes’ appropriation and subversion of her imagery and language. Compare these two lines:

A cake of soap, a wedding ring, a gold filling. – “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath.

A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown. – “The Shot” by Ted Hughes.

In spite of her many allusions to the holocaust, Hughes suggests – in “Your Paris” – that Plath had no understanding of the realities of the war in Europe. Plath describes her suicidal body: “bright as a Nazi lampshade”. In contrast, Hughes describes Plath’s experience of the city as “American” while his own is “only just not German”.

In “Red” Hughes argues that red was Plath’s colour, it was she “wrapped around” herself. The images in this poem go beyond the visual to the religious, suggesting that Plath’s wearing of red was somehow prescient of her eventual (bloodless, it should be noted) suicide. In “Tulips” Plath rejects this image of herself. The tulips are painfully “too red”. Perhaps it was this self-inflicted pain that Hughes was objecting to when he argued “Blue was better for you…your kindly spirit.”

In order to understand the conflicting perspectives in Birthday Letters, it is necessary to explore some of Plath’s poetry from her final collection, Ariel. This helps to highlight not only the conflict between the couple but also the internal struggles of each poet.

Final note: This does not mean that Ariel is an appropriate related text for Module C. It is an addendum to your study of Birthday Letters. You should be looking at texts of different types (i.e. not poetry) that allow to discuss conflicts both within and between texts. For more on general approaches to Module C, see this post.

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