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Series Editors:
Peter J.Kitson, Department of English, University of Dundee, Dundee, UK
William Baker, Department of English, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb,
Ted Hughes: Alternative



This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
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Published by: Taylor & Francis The Netherlands, Lisse

ISBN 0-203-01798-6 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 90 265 1973 7 (Print Edition)

ISSN 1573-2320

Series Preface vii

Foreword viii
Joanny Moulin

The Deterministic Ghost in the Machine of Birthday Letters 1

Leonard M.Scigaj
Words to “Patch the Havoc:” The Imagination of Ted Hughes in the 1
Poetry of Sylvia Plath
Gayle Wurst
Complicated with Old Ghosts: The Assia Poems 14
Carol Bere
“Dead Farms, Dead Leaves:” Culture as Nature in Remains of Elmet & 23
Terry Gifford
Ted Hughes’s Crying Horizons: “Wind” & the Poetics of Sublimity 32
Christian La Cassagnère
Poetry & Magic 40
Ann Skea
Self-Revelation, Self-Concealment & the Making of the Ted Hughes 50
Stephen Enniss
Drives & their Vicissitudes in the Poetry of Ted Hughes 60
Axel Nesme
Hughes & the Female Addressee 79
Neil J.Roberts
Ted Hughes’s Anti-Mythic Method 86
Joanny Moulin
In Search of the Autobiography of Ted Hughes 93
Diane Wood Middlebrook

“Earth-Moon:” Ted Hughes’s Books for Children (& Adults) 101

Claas Kazzer
Ted Hughes & the Folk Tale 115
Paul Volsik

List of Contributors 125

Works Cited 128
Abbreviations 135
Index of Names and Titles 138
Series Preface

Context and Genre in English Literature

The aim of the Context and Genre in English Literature series is to place bodies
of prose, poetry, and drama in their historical, literary, intellectual or generic
contexts. It seeks to present new work and scholarship in a way that is informed
by contemporary debates in literary criticism and current methodological
The various contextual approaches reflect the great diversity of the books in
the series. Three leading categories of approaches can be discerned. The first
category, consisting of historical and philological approaches, covers subjects
that range from marginal glosses in medieval manuscripts to the interaction
between folklore and literature. The second category, of cultural and theoretical
approaches, covers subjects as diverse as changing perceptions of childhood as a
background to children’s literature on the one hand and queer theory and
translation studies on the other. Finally, the third category consists of single
author studies informed by contextual approaches from either one of the first two
Context and Genre in English Literature covers a diverse body of writing,
ranging over a substantial historical span and featuring widely divergent
approaches from current and innovative scholars; it features criticism of writing
in English from different cultures; and it covers both canonical literature and
emerging and new literatures. Thus the series aims to make a distinctive and
substantial impact on the field of literary studies

The authors of this collection of essays have been chosen so as to span a large
spectrum of approaches to the poetry of Ted Hughes, instead of favouring one
line of criticism as opposed to others. The initial purpose of the project was to
bring together writers whose divergent opinions and theories promised mind-
opening contrasts. Although these authors are from five different countries, they
belong basically to three critical traditions. Some markedly post-structuralist
continental European papers turn resolutely to a close re-reading of the poetic
texts themselves, and in so doing, serve, in part, as neutral ground for an
encounter between milder representatives of the recent, and often opposed,
tendencies in British and American critical readings. While most English experts
often have a propensity for hagiography, the American reception of Hughes’s
poetry has remained engrossed in, and conditioned by, a debate about his
responsibility in the suicide of Sylvia Plath, sometimes at the excessive cost of
no longer reading the poetry, except from this biographical vantage. But even
here, new assessment is needed after Hughes’s own copious, albeit partial
treatment in Birthday Letters of the issues involved in his life with Plath.
However, the main argument of this book lies elsewhere, and is a theoretical
one. Unsurprisingly for one who trained in social anthropology as well as in
English literature in the Cambridge of the 1950s, Ted Hughes was a
cryptostructuralist of sorts, at least until the late 1970s, but with a marked
preference for Jungian theory, which implicitly dominates most of his ethics and
Weltanschauung. This helps to explain why, except in a few recent instances, the
main body of existing criticism concerning Hughes’s poetry draws
predominantly on Jungian psychology. This poses a problem of method, since,
with varying degrees of intensity, criticism tends to relay the poet’s own critical
discourse, not only without acknowledging the fact, but perhaps without even
being aware of it. This is all the more striking considering that, as his career
gathered momentum and he became an established figure, Hughes’s discourse
became more and more overtly ideological. For all that, the essays collected in this
book are not concerned with erecting a barrage of counter-discourse, but rather to
avoid yet another critical pitfall, that lies in Hughes’s mostly involuntary
tendency to push his readers to take sides and to enlist either as fans or as
detractors. Over and against partisanship, the plurality of approach to be found in

this collection should be seen as a search for different ways to steer Hughes
criticism gently but firmly out of the ruts of certain well-travelled avenues.
Impartial assessment is, to be sure, the best service that can be rendered to
Hughes’s poetry, by helping to ensure that one of the most powerful poetic
achievements of the twentieth-century is no longer stranded in biographical or
psychological sands. This collection of essays is the first to be produced since the
poet’s death and presents a good sample of directions in academic research
devoted to the poetry of Ted Hughes at the turn of the century. It is meant as a
continuation of Hughes studies and a tentative broadening of their perspectives.
Joanny Moulin
The Deterministic Ghost in the Machine of
Birthday Letters
Leonard M.Scigaj

“I looked for omens,” Ted Hughes writes, as he and Sylvia Plath enter their first
rented flat in BirthdayLetters (49). But in Birthday Letters (1998) all the omens
save Assia’s pike dream are bad omens. A pillowstain of blood, a gypsy’s curse,
a ouija board, an earthenware head, a possibly rabid bat, a fox cub, a snake,
ponderous astrology, and the word “Fate,” capitalized many times—all testify to
a fatalistic inevitability. These are the “fixed stars” (118, 152, 188) that led to
Plath’s suicide. For Hughes these “fixed stars” are the poet’s story, the one deep
story at the heart of a lifetime that the poet expresses with a “thirst of the whole
being. “But are Hughes’s “fixed stars” the same as the “fixed stars” Plath stated
“Govern a life” in her late poem “Words” (CPP 270)?
“Who has dismembered us” asked Plath, alluding to Assia, in her poem
“Event” (195), written just after David and Assia Guttman Wevill ended their
fatal weekend stay Court Green (21 May 1962). Hughes repeats the phrase in
Birthday Letters (133), but the dismembering persona is not Assia and the time
Hughes refers to is not the spring of 1962. For Hughes the dismembering persona
is Plath’s father, Otto Emil Plath, and the time is 1940, the year of his death. At
this juncture Hughes’s interpretation of Plath’s life and career becomes
obsessive, deterministic. In his 1995 essay “Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems and
The Bell Jar” (WP 466–81), Hughes argued that the primary revelation Plath
experienced in writing her first novel was her fixation on her father’s death and his
abandonment of her. This resulted not only in repressed anger at other males who
might abandon her, for Hughes asserted that in writing The Bell Jar Plath also
uncovered the source of her emptiness, a tendency toward violence buried deep
in her German genetic roots. Though on the “upper level” of her mythology,
asserted Hughes, Plath was certainly engaged in tearing free of those genetic
roots with her death and rebirth poems in Ariel, on the “lower level” she
succumbed to the “explosive experience” of her earlier attempted suicide, her
desire to “annihilate herself” in a communion with her dead father, a desire
falsely and inadequately subverted in The Bell Jar by scapegoating it into Joan
Gilling’s hanging. The genetic determinism behind this interpretation of Plath’s
demise, an unarticulated subtext in that 1995 essay, becomes Hughes’s primary
theme in Birthday Letters.

The central structural design of Birthday Letters concerns an obsessive

equation of Otto and Sylvia Plath with King Minos and the Minotaur of Cretan
mythology. In Apollodaurus, summarized by Edith Hamilton (151–2), Poseidon
gives a bull to Minos, king of Crete, in order that the king sacrifice the bull to
him. Instead Minos keeps it for himself, and Poseidon in turn punishes Minos by
having his wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with it, producing the ravenous half-man,
half-beast Minotaur. Minos directed his architect Daedalus to build a labyrinth to
house the Minotaur. Once inside, no one could escape the labyrinth’s maze, and
Minos used the structure to sacrifice captured enemies until the Athenian hero
Theseus slays the Minotaur and finds his way out with the help of Ariadne’s
thread. Hughes evidently sees in this myth a parable of how a self-centered, self-
absorbed person becomes inattentive to the spiritual, obsessed with the covetous
rational, and in so doing bestializes his or her instinctual life, creating chronic
and self-destructive needs to overindulge in satisfying one’s passions. In this
contemporary recension, Hughes casts Otto Plath as the self-absorbed Minos
(133), given his autocratic pater familias behavior acquired from his Germanic
roots. In her self-destructive indulgence in anger and emotional tirades, Plath
apes her father as she becomes the Minotaur (120).
But Hughes does not stop here. He adds a second level of genetic and cultural
determinism. Otto himself is infected with fascistic faith in an all-powerful Ruler,
der Herr des Hauses (LH 13), and this has destructive consequences. So Plath,
his offspring, exhibits in her destructive behavior that same genetic tendency. Her
dreams in Birthday Letters are infected not only with corpses, but with “father-
worship” and its particular Germanic legacy of Nazi horrors, the “Death-camp
atrocities,” the “gas-chamber and the oven” (141–42). Otto’s brow is “Modified
in Peenemümde/Via Brueghel” (179). Peenemünde is the village in the north of
Germany where the Nazis researched and tested their V-1 and V-2 rockets, and
the Brueghel alluded to is no doubt Peter Brueghel the Elder’s “The Triumph of
Death,” a painting of carnage and slaughter that Plath meditated upon in her
early poem “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” (CPP 114).
Both World Wars deeply affected Hughes’s personality development. As a
child Hughes heard endless stories of the dead and the survivors of World War I
at family gatherings and at Sunday night dinners, for his father was one of only
seventeen survivors of an entire regiment that went through its numbers three times
at Gallipoli. Hughes was nine when World War II began, and his adolescence
was molded in the food rationing, the stresses of the Blitz, and the daily news
accounts of the fighting. German fighters flew sorties regularly over much of
England, looking mostly for aircraft hangars and Rolls Royce engine factories,
but also bombing many cities in the shires. Parachuted pilots already crisped by
explosions and fires in their planes were not uncommon, as in Hughes’s early
poem “The Casualty” in The Hawk in the Rain.
In his poetry Hughes performed an important civilizing function by locating
ways to control aggression. Though he once quipped that the machinery of
religion was the traditional way to control violence (Faas 201), he shared the

modernist view that myth in twentieth century literature performs that religious
function for a populace less and less influenced by traditional beliefs. Hence, as I
have argued in my 1986 and 1991 works, Hughes controlled aggression through
meaning-bearing modernist structures developed from his storehouse of myth
and cultural anthropology: the Lupercalia ritual and the poem as wolf mask in
Lupercal, the narrative of the adventure of the hero in Wodwo, the Zen
Enlightenment of Part III of Wodwo and in the irony of Crow, and the
psychology of alchemical transmutation to achieve the Jungian Self in Cave Birds.
Often in these works—and especially in the Lupercal poem “Childbirth,” and the
Wodwo poems “Thistles” and “The Warriors of the North” —Hughes meditated
on Freud’s theory of phylogenetic inheritance, of an aggressive taint in the
blood, transmitted to each succeeding generation by one’s forebears, that can
instigate violent actions (See Scigaj, 1986, 43, 95; 1991, 52–5).
Hughes’s use of the Minotaur myth in Birthday Letters, however, is
deterministic, not liberating. Genetic determinism is how Hughes understands his
former wife’s bouts of sullenness, her hostility, anger, and her final act of self-
violence. Otto’s hands are the hands of Fate manipulating Plath’s actions (184–
5), and those hands function as a perfect incarnation of a German death-wish, a
cultural Ragnarok, in World War II. What Plath’s parents wanted from their
daughter, insists Hughes, was “Thor’s voice” in the act of “Doing a hammer-
dance on Daddy’s body/Avenging the twenty-year forsaken/Sobs of Germania”
(169). Just as Sylvia “danced for (her) father/In the home of anger” (26) as a
child, so the adult’s “flames fed on rage” (149), ultimately to unite with him
(153) after convicting him of autocratic control in “Daddy.” Hughes views
“Daddy” as both Plath’s love letter and her death-wish, her “Cupid’s bow”
nailing her father to the town square “Stark naked full of those arrows/In the
bronze of immortal poesy” (179). Every arrow becomes a poetic “star” in her
“constellation,” though “it was/[Her] blood that dried on him” (180). Using her
published poetry as evidence against her, Hughes argues that ultimately Plath
really “wanted/To be with [her] father” (153) in a “wedding” foreshadowed by
her summer 1962 interest in becoming a beekeeper (150). Plath’s analyst, Ruth
Beuscher, convinced her that she had “instant access” to her creative energies
(69), but what coalesced from “the core of [her] Inferno” (69) was “Germany’s
eagle/Bleeding up through [her] American eagle/In a cloud of Dettol” (78), as
the dead Otto rose in poetic form from the well at the center of the Devon house
(137, 150, 152).
Hughes convicts himself of complicity in the poem entitled “Error” (122–3).
He romanced Plath into his vision of bucolic rural life as the ideal environment
for raising a family and ensuring greater poetic productivity. Instead of going to
sunny Italy on that Guggenheim grant, Hughes convinced Plath to sleepwalk into
his “land of totems.” “Gallant and desperate and hopeful,” Plath followed,
listening to her own gods, and arrived “soul-naked and stricken/Into this
cobbled, pictureless corridor/Aimed at a graveyard” (122). So Plath in the winter
of 1961–62 sat in a freezing house, without central heating, “Listening/To the

leaking thatch drip” and “staring at that sunken church” just beyond the
graveyard (122–3). Creating a bedroom in red (197–8) and planing an elm plank
for her writing table (138) were other errors committed by Hughes during the
move to Devon that only gave Plath easier access to her anger and her past, and
thus a quickly opened door into Otto’s grave (138).
But what of the genetic determinism that Hughes advances in his reading of
Plath’s poetry and in the structure of Birthday Letters? A key term, deposited in
the poem “Suttee,” is “gruelling prolongueur,” which Hughes uses to describe
Plath’s resurrection from her first suicide attempt into the “labour-pangs” of a
“child-bride” on the “pyre” of a new myth—a myth of suicidal devotion to
Daddy (147–9). Hughes had used “gruelling prolongueur” in the Wodwo poem
“The Warriors of the North,” to signify a Viking genetic inheritance of
aggressive behavior in the North Country Englishmen that flowed into the
Predestination of Calvin. To what extent can we accept this deterministic ghost
in the structural machine of Birthday Letters? From her student days at Smith
College until her death, Plath was an existentialist, wavering only between the
agnostic and atheistic versions. As Sartre persistently argued, deterministic
thinking is absolutely inimical to existential freedom, choice and responsibility.
In The Concept of Mind (1949), Gilbert Ryle invented the term “The Ghost in
the Machine” (15–6) to characterize the mistaken view, originating with
Descartes and seventeenth-century mechanistic thinking, that the mind operates
as a shadowy, unwitnessable realm that nevertheless partakes of the mechanistic
logic that drives the body. Because “the physical world is a deterministic system,
so the mental world must be a deterministic system” (20), and mechanists like
Descartes were really reformulating the religious bogey of Predestination in the
new scientific language of Galileo (23). Descartes placated his religious scruples
by using mental conduct words in ways that suggested that the mind is a quasi-
deterministic causal agent of human action. Thus the bodily machine was
governed by its deterministically-inclined ghost, the mind. Using logic and
linguistic categories, Ryle argues against this determinism throughout The
Concept of Mind. He affirms that dozens of mental conduct words used to signify
intelligence (“clever,” “sensible” “stupid,” etc.) actually signify many different
categories of dispositions, abilities, capacities, and qualities of character that may
express themselves in observable behaviors under certain conditions or on
certain occasions. We must reason back from observed behavior and recognize
the element of freedom of purpose in assessing whether any dispositions or
qualities of character have been employed, and this is not the same as attributing
a fixed or deterministic cause of all behavior. Knowing “how” is a disposition
that cannot be absorbed into knowing “that,” into knowing with causal certainty
Though a half-century old, Ryle’s argument is worthwhile today for its
energetic indictment of reductionism. Humans “are not machines, not even ghost-
ridden machines,” affirmed Ryle, and there is “plenty of room for purpose” (81),
for discrete and differing responses to varying occasions, as well as for “learning

how or improving in ability” (59). “There are very few machines in nature. The
only machines that we find are the machines that human beings make” (82). In
Birthday Letters Ted Hughes has created a machine of words, a labyrinth meant
to reduce his former wife’s behavior to one deterministic cause, and in so doing
deflect attention from his actions as well as reaffirm for one last time in print his
male control of her actions.
Through the obsessive emphasis upon the genetic determinism of Otto Plath’s
anger and control, Hughes eliminates all other possible causes of Sylvia Plath’s
actions in the last years of her life. What Plath learned in writing The Bell Jar
was her fixed link to her father, according to Hughes, a link that
electroconvulsive shock only temporarily numbed with its emptiness, and in
composing the poems of Ariel Plath expressed that one inevitable wish—to merge
with her father in a suicidal pyre. But by reasoning with Ryle, however, one
could scrutinize Plath’s Journals, “The Magic Mirror,” The Bell Jar, the poems
of Ariel, and instances of behavior in Plath’s last years, and locate responses to
needs and desires other than a suicidal merging with her father, as well as recognize
gains in her craft that reflect improvements in her abilities to comprehend social
forces from a woman’s point of view.
On five occasions in Birthday Letters (8, 18–9, 20–2, 25, 136), Hughes informs
his readers that he has been rereading Plath’s Journals. In the first three occasions,
Hughes is primarily interested in how Plath referenced early encounters with him
—when he and Lucas Myers lobbed clods of mud at the wrong dormitory
window (J 133), or her anticipation of his panther-like male prowess (131–4);
how Plath perceived their first meeting at the infamous St. Botolph’s Review
party (112–3), or how she was really on her way to find Richard Sassoon when
she fell into Hughes’s arms and first made love with him (134–44). On the fourth
occasion, Hughes alludes to her “juggernaut” of ambition that was meant to
defeat “The grinding indifferent millstone of circumstance” (132). The last
allusion to Plath’s Journals reveals that Hughes has reread a portion from 1961–
62, from writings that were supposedly either lost or burned, and remembered
“what furies” she “bled into” that rag rug she labored over in the Devon home.
None of these five allusions captures what Ryle would recognize as the main
purpose of Plath’s Journals, the continuing reaffirmation of her existential (non-
deterministic) “self-integral freedom” (31) and her desire to have her writing
recognized as a career equal to that of any male: “I will not submit to having my
life fingered by my husband, enclosed in the larger circle of his activity, and
nourished vicariously by tales of his actual exploits. I must have a legitimate
field of my own, apart from him, which he must respect” (35). This purpose
could one day flower in Plath’s ideal of two equilibrated stars, her “two stars,
polarized” (42–3), as in the “Excurse” chapter of Lawrence’s Women in Love.
Why couldn’t Hughes balance his portrait of Plath with celebrations of that
enviable ideal, however imperfectly realized in her actions and in the many hours
of literary collaborations they no doubt shared at least during the early years of
the marriage?

In “Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems and The Bell Jar” Hughes wrote that “The
Bell Jar is the story, in other words, from behind the Electroconvulsive Therapy.
It dramatizes the decisive event of her adult life which was her attempted suicide
and accidental survival, and reveals how this attempt to annihilate herself had
grown from the decisive event in her childhood, which was the death of her
father when she was eight” (WP 468). This may suit Hughes’s deterministic
purpose in Birthday Letters, but it does so by denying that the novel catalogued
what must have been for Plath the tremendously liberating experience of
bringing to the surface a past traumatic event in a way that revealed the social
causes of her earlier demise—an American 1950s society organized and
administered by males, where roles for women are secondary and where gender
equality in the exercise of social and political power is impossible.
The goal of liberation through knowledge, both self-knowledge and
knowledge of society—what Ryle would see as non-deterministic improvement
by developing one’s abilities (Ryle 59) —is the most pervasive theme in Plath’s
work. This is apparent even in “The Magic Mirror,” her undergraduate Honors
thesis on the Double in Dostoevsky’s The Double and The Brothers Karamazov.
Plath’s central assertion here is that Golyadkin in the former novel commits
suicide because he never recognizes that his double is his own creation, a
crystalization of his own suppressed ambition. In the latter novel, Ivan has the
chance for recovering his “health and integrity” because he is “an artist in his
own right” who self-analytically recognizes both his responsibility for his bastard
brother’s parricide and the Devil as his own projection of his worst ideas
(“Magic Mirror” 43, 57–60). As in Freud, acknowledging the repressed and the
traumatic can lead to liberation through self-knowledge. In her Journals Plath
also records her jagged progress from late adolescence through early adulthood as
a struggle with her own doubts and inner demons, a struggle which is also
potentially liberating.
The Bell Jar is sometimes denigrated as a roman à clef, with its characters so
satirically exaggerated that they suggest mean motives and limited creative
abilities in its author. But like Brecht’s alienation effect, these one-dimensional
satiric characters forestall empathy and keep the reader’s critical intellect alive.
Of much greater importance are the events of the novel, events that Plath not
only did live through, but which were typical of 1950s American culture. The
events raise the reader’s awareness as they expose social forces within a society
of male privilege where women are restricted and disempowered. Though Esther
Greenwood’s visit to her father’s grave does appear just before the attempted
suicide, the visit occupies only three pages of chapter thirteen (BJ 134–7). Its net
effect is to make Esther realize that she can expect no help from parents,
especially male parents, and that she must forego adolescent idols and make her
own decisions. Esther is surprised at how ordinary her father’s grave is. Here she
receives a healthy dose of adult realism as she revises her childhood perception of
him from a godlike muse to an ordinary human. The fact that she can mourn his
death at the conclusion of this short scene means that she is ready to move

onward toward adulthood and accept responsibility for her own actions. Though
Plath consciously presented her father in many early poems as “the buried male
muse and god-creator risen to be my mate in Ted,” a remark she entered in her
Journals in 1958 (J 222), she does not develop Esther’s relationship with her
father in the chapters before or after the graveyard visit in The Bell Jar, a work
she completed three years later. No one will gainsay that Otto’s early death was
“the decisive event of her childhood,” as Hughes insists, but if The Bell Jar were
primarily devoted to exploring her relationship with her father, Plath would
certainly have developed it into a major structural motif. In real life her father’s
early death did leave her with feelings of abandonment that led to
overdependence upon male figures and at times a treatment of males as surrogate
father figures, but she was aware of this tendency in herself by 1959 (J 267, 278,
284), and this is NOT the central subject of The Bell Jar. The main character’s
(and the reader’s) liberating growth in understanding the limitations placed upon
women in a society of male privilege is the central focus of every Bell Jar
Twice in chapter thirteen of The Bell Jar, Plath presents Esther Greenwood
reading books on abnormal psychology shortly before her unsuccessful suicide
event. Plath had read Eric Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (J 83–6) and
consulted psychiatrists in the summer of 1953, in the weeks before her
unsuccessful suicide attempt (LH 130). By 1958 Plath had found in Freud’s
“Mourning and Melancholia” a perfectly acceptable reason for her first suicide
attempt, and it concerned her mother, not her father. She wrote that Freud’s
account is “An almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a
transferred murderous impulse from my mother onto myself: the “vampire”
metaphor Freud uses, “draining the ego”: that is exactly the feeling I have getting
in the way of my writing: Mother’s clutch. I mask my self-abasement (a
transferred hate of her) and weave it with my own real dissatisfactions in
myself.” As Plath recorded this in her Journals (279), she emphasized that this is
both a source of depression and “a changeable liability.” How to rectify the
situation? Again notice the emphasis upon awareness promoting self-
development: “Talking and becoming aware of what is what and studying it is a
help” (J 279). Plath was to reuse that Freudian vampire metaphor later, in the
Ariel poem “Daddy,” and for a similar liberating purpose.
The real consciousness-raising purpose in writing The Bell Jar is Plath’s
dawning awareness, conveyed in Esther Greenwood’s dry Salingeresque wit,
that the causes for her first suicide attempt did not issue from an irreparable
psychic wound, but were in large part the result of the stresses, thwarted desires,
and lack of opportunity for equality in a 1950s American society of male
privilege. Esther doesn’t want to become another self-abasing housefrau, like her
mother or Mrs. Willard. She doesn’t want “infinite security” and the secondary
role of being “the place the arrow shoots off from.” She wants “change and
excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself” (BJ 58, 68). Similarly, she
doesn’t want to learn shorthand to support herself after college; she “hated the

idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (BJ
100, 62). But for a woman to achieve domestic and career equality in 1950s
America was next to impossible.
Like Plath, Esther Greenwood is an aspiring poet. Well, what are the
possibilities for acquiring that “self-integral freedom” and equal opportunity for
career advancement (J 31, 35) in The Bell Jar? Esther goes to New York having
won a prestigious guest editorship at Mademoiselle, as did hundreds of American
coeds in the fifties. Before long she bursts into tears while being photographed as
a guest editor, simply because she is asked what career she desires, and she
answers “a poet” (BJ 83). Esther has already learned from Jay Cee, her supervisor,
that to be in the literary game is to exhaust oneself in dull days of routine
editorial work, punctuated by vapid social events such as fashion shows and
advertising or women’s products luncheons, and interrupted by inane meetings
where one must stroke successful authors, almost all of whom are males. Being
in the literary game means desexing oneself to the point of being an unlovely,
driven Jay Cee, with “pug-ugly looks” (5), who fills out schedule cards (25) after
spending years learning languages (27). Esther’s tears signify her recognition of
the hopelessness of trying to fulfill her career ideals as a poet in this society.
Here the only fact that Plath did not add was that most of the powerful senior
editors above the Jay Cees in these slick magazines were males., veteran slicks
writer and 1942 Smith graduate, was learning this in 1961, the year Plath
composed The Bell Jar, as Friedan researched and composed the first text of the
feminist movement, The Feminine Mystique (1963; see ch. 2, pp. 54–5). When
not on the slow track to dull middle management jobs, the guest editors at
Mademoiselle are encouraged to waste their time accumulating free gifts and
dressing up as dolls, only to be escorted by mysogynists like Marco, the Peruvian
United Nations delegate, who throws Esther into the mud after tearing off the
front of her dress (BJ 86– 9).
Instead of the very minor graveyard scene, Hughes should have focused on
Esther’s green dirndl skirt and white peasant blouse. When Esther, despondent at
the hollowness of her Mademoiselle experience, rejects the New York literary
scene that has ended her career dream, she tosses all of her new fashion clothing
out the window during her last night in the city, and borrows from her friend
Betsy a green dirndl skirt and white peasant blouse. Continuing this defiant
attitude after she returns home, Esther wears the same outfit for the next three
weeks, sees Dr. Gordon in that outfit a few days before he begins administering
the electroconvulsive shock treatments, and wears precisely this outfit on the day
of the attempted suicide (BJ 91–2, 104, 108, 137). This clothing motif suggests
that balked career advancement in a society of male privilege causes the
attempted suicide, not feelings of abandonment from a father who died more than
a decade ago.
Sexual experience has been throughout Western literature a vehicle for growth
and self-realization. But in The Bell Jar Esther must struggle for years with the
gospel of chastity advocated by her mother (65–6). One is either pure or dirty,

like Doreen (19). Esther rejects an obvious potential husband in Buddy Willard,
for his air of scientific superiority, his disdain of a poem as “a piece of dust,” and
most of all, for his male double standard regarding sex (45, 56–9). Esther would
like the same sexual freedom (63), but when she decides to allow Constantin, the
one non-threatening male she meets, to seduce her, she falls asleep. Constantin
wouldn’t work as a husband anyway, reasons Esther, for even such a nice person
would expect her to live under the bell jar of gender inequality. Constantin would
no doubt want her to spend her day washing dishes and making up beds (68).
Marriage could only be Mrs. Willard’s dreary routine: “I knew that’s what
marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy
Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a
university professor and had been a private school teacher herself” (68–69).
Males remain in complete control throughout The Bell Jar. Even the joys of
childbirth are not joys in this male-oriented society. When Buddy takes Esther to
watch him carve up cadavers, she views a live birth in ways that anticipate
Adrienne Rich’s exposure of male hospital practices in Of Woman Born.
Immobilized on “an awful torture table with these metal stirrups,” the woman is
given drugs to alleviate pain and put her to sleep, so she never experiences the
joy of childbirth. For Esther this is “just like the sort of drug a man would
invent” (BJ 53). When Esther finally allows the ugly, unguent Irwin, who takes
pride in always seeming “to get on with the ladies,” to seduce her, the event
causes an excruciatingly painful hemorrhage, evidently the cost for a member of
a subordinate gender to become “part of a great tradition” (184–91).
Dr. Gordon, the most powerful figure in The Bell Jar, misdiagnoses Esther—
exactly what happened to Plath in real life—and prescribes outpatient
electroconvulsive shock treatments. In real life a Dr. J.Peter Thornton, a
psychiatrist recommended by the Plath family physician, prescribed these
outpatient shock treatments before the suicide attempt, as is the case with Esther
Greenwood and Dr. Gordon in the fictionalized Bell Jar account. This
overwhelming display of male power, not Plath’s childhood memories of
abandonment by her father, helped to precipitate the first suicide attempt. Paul
Alexander, the Plath biographer who has researched this area of Plath’s life most
thoroughly, noted that Sylvia was not given a muscle relaxant or anesthesia,
supposedly standard practice, and was therefore nearly electrocuted. The
immediate results were that Plath ceased communication almost entirely, and her
sleeplessness converted to acute insomnia. After the first few sessions, Dr.
Thornton went on vacation and left his assistant in charge (Alexander 119–20).
In The Bell Jar, Plath conveys the utter impersonality of this decisive episode of
her life through a light touch—Dr. Gordon’s inability to converse with Esther as
a person. “They had a WAC station” at her college, he twice remembers—his
sole pathetic attempt to relate to Plath’s personal situation (107, 118). The only
tenderness Esther receives in The Bell Jar comes from her psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan
—a woman (179).

Many scholars, especially Lynda Bundtzen, have observed that composing

The Bell Jar was a liberating experience for Plath, an instructive exercise in how
social forces affect individual behavior and judgment. One can readily see why
Plath’s portraits of her father in the Ariel poems “Little Fugue” and “Daddy”
differ so markedly from her early deifications of Otto. Having taken a more
measured view of Otto as an ordinary person in the Bell Jar graveyard scene, Plath
by the time of the Ariel poems has grown to an adult knowledge of the gender
inequalities within American society and now views her father as symbolic of
yet another control-minded male who restricts the development of women.
In 1982, Hughes observed in his essay “Sylvia Plath and Her Journals” that in
“Little Fugue” the ghost of her father suddenly reappears, after a two-and-a-half-
year absence, for “a daunting, point-blank, demythologized assessment” (WP
187). Hughes sees this as the beginning of Plath’s final tailspin toward
identifying with the “deathly woman” at the heart of “Elm,” which he argues
develops into a deterministic resignation to the inevitability of suicide. In this
essay, composed thirteen years before the “Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems and
The Bell Jar” essay, Hughes wrote that “An Appearance” (CPP 189), the poem
Plath composed two days after “Little Fugue,” was “the most precise description
she ever gave of The Other—the deathly woman at the heart of everything she
now closed in on” (WP 187). “An Appearance” concerns Plath’s self-revelation
of the super-efficient housewife role—so like her mother and the married women
in The Bell Jar—that she could sink into as easily as a stuffed chair. Note that
Hughes’s 1982 observation identifies Plath’s central problem as a tug-of-war
with her maternal role, with her mother as model. This is far from the obsessive
determinism of Otto Plath and German genetics that Hughes develops in
Birthday Letters.
One can view “Little Fugue,” composed on 2 April 1962, as the consequence
of the more realistic view of the father in The Bell Jar, and as a prelude to the
exorcism of the patriarchal imago inside the dutifully trained, once subordinated,
but now rebellious 1950s woman persona of “Daddy.” Contrary to the god-like
figure in the poems of The Colossus (1960), Plath’s first poetry volume, the
father in “Little Fugue” appears as a gruff, grotesque autocrat, with a “yew hedge
of orders,/Gothic and barbarous,” and the power to judge and decapitate, as in
the memory of him lopping sausages “Red, mottled, like cut necks” (CPP 188).
Even in memories that are two decades old, this is scary enough to induce guilt.
The persona’s direct, calm reply, however, is that of an adult woman in control
of her own life: “I am guilty of nothing.” The distance of time in the cold white
clouds that spread their “vacuous sheets” and in the lameness of the persona’s
memory becomes a saving buffer that ensures survival at the end of the poem.
Hughes is correct: this is a “demythologized assessment,” but one that becomes
an occasion for personality growth.
In “Daddy,” written six months later (12 October 1962), one sees the
consequences of that growth. The dominant imagery of the poem deliberately
returns us to Plath’s 1958 Journals comment concerning Freud’s “Mourning and

Melancholia,” where a person’s destructive impulse toward a parent may induce

sufficient guilt that the impulse recoils upon the self. Like Esther Greenwood
with her abnormal psychology textbooks, Plath is trying to understand her past in
order to liberate herself from its grip. As Freud argued, hate transferred to the
self produces guilt that can “drain the ego” and at the very least leave one in a
limbo that forestalls personality growth. So in “Daddy” Plath adapts her Freudian
vampire metaphor (J 279) into a liberating exorcism. No longer the victim of the
male imago that leads to subordination, Plath will erase from her psyche the
negative influence of both the father and the adulterous husband, “The vampire
who said he was you/And drank my blood” for over six years of marriage. The
final stake in the heart continues the vampire imagery and the exorcism, though
the real vampire is the male imago introjected into the female superego as a
controlling patriarchal force. As a single parent now, Plath desires the freedom to
erase the hold that the past has on her psyche, so she can set new self-
development goals. She is still struggling toward that “self-integral freedom” (31)
that has been the driving force of all her adult work.
That Hughes moved Plath’s five beekeeping poems from their original
position at the conclusion of Ariel to a less important position near the midpoint
of the volume has been a sore spot for decades among Plath scholars. Hughes
further complicates our understanding of the beekeeping poems in his Birthday
Letters poem “The Bee God” (150–2). He writes that the original beekeeping
activities he and Plath engaged in during the summer of 1962 were actually a
marriage of Plath with her father, and that the stings Hughes received the day he
didn’t wear the proper hat were the result of Otto Plath’s “Prussian” plans. Here
Hughes ignores the import of Plath’s beekeeping poems. In an important 1982
essay, Susan Van Dyne examined the drafts of the five beekeeping poems and
concluded that, as Plath revised, she downplayed her anger at Hughes by
condensing the stinging incident and moderating her descriptive language. She
did this, Van Dyne observed, because Plath recognized that the major thrust of
those beekeeping poems was to reassert her own self-confident authenticity as an
artist in control of her emotions and life, whereas the bees who lose their stingers
in venting their anger will soon die. The central moment of the entire, five-poem
sequence occurs in “Stings,” where Plath asserts “I/Have a self to recover, a
queen” (CPP 215). Once again Plath’s theme concerns the realization of that
“self-integral freedom” and career equality that she desires in her Journals (J 31,
35), and once again Hughes ignores this theme as he revisits the events.
In Birthday Letters we often see the pain that Hughes experienced in coming
to grips with Plath’s feisty personality, and the years of agony he underwent after
her suicide. This is especially the case in “Life After Death” where, after the
day’s labor of feeding and dressing the motherless children, the pain becomes
acute. Here Hughes likens himself to “The Hanged Man” in Plath’s poem about
her electroconvulsive shock therapy (CPP 141), as he lay awake at night feeling
as if his neck nerves were uprooted and his aching shoulder tendons “cramped
into knots” (182). Posterity should be aware of the pain he experienced in the

years after Plath’s suicide. But it is a pity that Hughes could not occasionally
celebrate Plath’s desire for a liberating equality of career and personal life in the
poems of Birthday Letters. Until Birthday Letters, Hughes shared with Plath that
quest theme of a liberating growth through self-knowledge and knowledge of
society. He could have offered a more balanced view of his former wife thirty-
five years after her death—both for posterity and for the solace of his children, who
must continue to live amid the tangled and hopelessly sensationalized Plath
biographies. In his “Foreword” to Plath’s Journals, Hughes wrote that he
destroyed Plath’s last journal, because he “did not want her children to have to
read it” (J xv). But he will let his children read Birthday Letters, the poems of
which contain not a single sympathetic portrait of Plath that might console her
Hughes follows a straightforward historical sequence in Birthday Letters from
his first notice of Fulbright scholars at Cambridge to beyond Plath’s suicide, but
even in the final glimpses the determinism grinds on, with poems that note the
Plath family features genetically inherited in his children—in Frieda’s nimble
fingers (194), so like her mother’s “long, balletic” fingers (15), and in Nick’s
eyes and facial features, features that are so like Otto’s that his portrait could be
Nick’s (130, 182, 193). Yet the “fixed stars” that Plath referred to in the late
poem “Words,” may not be the fixed stars of genetic determinism, but of a
woman’s steadfast determination to find equality and “self-integral freedom”
until the very end.
Doubtless the few misguided feminists who repeatedly defaced the gravestone
where Hughes kept renewing the lettering of his name, and the dozens and dozens
of biographers and academic researchers who wanted interviews and copyright
permissions during his thirty-five years of silence, wore Hughes down. He says
as much in one of the final Birthday Letters poems, disdainfully entitled “The
Dogs Are Eating Your Mother” (195–6). But since he was rereading Plath
materials during the composition of Birthday Letters, he could have balanced his
portrait with other factors that surely must have influenced Plath’s final suicide
decision, factors that have become available in the research data that has
accumulated over this thirty-five year span. We know that Hughes read Linda
Wagner-Martin’s 1987 Plath biography, because he strongly disagreed with the
manuscript version. But he could have made a mental note of one important
paragraph in chapter seven:
During 1954, Aurelia heard from Otto’s sister that the women in the Plath
family had histories of depression. Otto’s mother had been hospitalized at least
once; his other sister and a niece also struggled with the problem. But Mrs. Plath
never told Sylvia this—nor, so far as is known, did she ever tell her daughter’s
psychiatrist. Her tactic with Sylvia was not to discuss her breakdown or anything
relating to it. (Wagner-Martin 110).
Hughes could have connected this with the doctors report in Anne Stevenson’s
1989 Plath biography, the authorized biography of the Plath Estate. Dr. John
Horder, Plath’s physician at the time of her suicide, stated that she was seriously

ill, needed hospital care, and had been taking an antidepressant for several days
before the suicide, specifically a “mono-oxidase inhibitor” which could restore
enough energy for the patient to carry out a “determined, desperate action”
(Stevenson 297).
Ryle would find one of Aurelia Plath’s letters to her son Warren extremely
interesting. During her last visit to Devon, unluckily during the tense time when
Sylvia first learned of Hughes’s infidelity, Aurelia sought refuge at the home of
Plath’s midwife, Winifred Davies. From there she sent a letter to Warren, dated
17 July 1962 (available in the Plath Collection of the Lilly Research Library,
Indiana University), stating that her daughter had crowded her day with too many
duties, and that this wasn’t the first time Sylvia had overworked herself with a
difficult daily schedule (a reference to her first suicide attempt?) Many women
and men, especially the highly intelligent, become afflicted with episodes of
depression when their life becomes too crowded with cares and duties. This does
not augur genetic determinism, but occasional tailspins—tailspins that are very
treatable with today’s more sophisticated drugs and therapy.
One recent medical study, conducted over ten years by Canadian psychiatric
researchers and published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics,
concludes that humans who have more than the usual 2A serotonin receptors in
their brains are more likely to become depressed. About twenty million
Americans suffer from depression, and about one-tenth of one per cent (20,000)
commit suicide each year (Du). This genetic trait simply increases the possibility
of depression and suicide; the research does not suggest determinism. Ryle
would agree that under some conditions, individuals with certain character traits
and dispositions may succumb to depression, and a few of these might commit
suicide. Individuals with such character traits can help themselves by avoiding
situations and behavior that cause these tailspins.
This is just one of many possible accounts of Plath’s suicide that does not
entail an obsessive fixation upon merging with one’s dead father in a saga of
genetic determinism. But sophisticated medical and marital counseling were
unknown in the early 1960s in both America and England. In America last year,
amid the media blitz surrounding the Emory University acquisition of Hughes
literary materials, Hillel Italie ran a syndicated column for the Associated Press
(12 April 1999) in which he quoted from a letter that Hughes sent to Aurelia, years
after the suicide, about Plath having been “emotionally exhausted and devastated
by those last tranquilizers.” Tranquilizers! Was Hughes unaware of his children’s
mother’s medical condition in the weeks before the suicide? Depression is one of
the most frequently used words in all of the Plath biographies to describe her
occasional episodes of aberrant behavior, but Hughes pays it no heed.
Hughes’s blindness to Plath’s struggle for equality appears at the very
beginning of Birthday Letters, in a very telling Freudian literary slip. In the
second and third poems, Hughes critiqued Plath’s “Caryatids” poem, one of two
poems that comprised her first British publication (1956). Hughes found “no
stirring/Of omen” in the “white, blindfolded, rigid faces/Of those women.” His

friend Dan Huws concocted a broadsheet satirizing the convoluted style and cool,
lofty aesthetic diction of these two Plath poems (see Stevenson 69). But Hughes
is blind to the point of Plath’s poem. Caryatids are pillars, supporting columns
molded in the forms of draped female figures. In Plath’s short, twelve-line poem
with a long title (“Three Caryatids Without a Portico. by Hugo Robus. A Study
in Sculptural Dimensions”), the persona observes that these virginal pillars of
aristocratic “classic sister” have the strength to perform the public task of
holding up a portico. But the Gods do not grant the caryatids “such a trial” of
strength. Once again Plath appeals for equal career opportunity for women, but
the point never registers in Hughes’s perceptions. In the labyrinth of words that
Hughes concocts in Birthday Letters, Plath must always appear as the destructive
Minotaur (130), offspring of “King Minos,/Alias Otto” (133), enflamed in
uncontrollable passions, ravenous for more victims. Only childbirth gives her
momentary respite. Hughes never considers Aurelia’s unequivocal statement, in
her “Introduction” to Letters Home, that Otto Plath, a well-liked university
professor of entomology and Middle High German at Boston University, was “a
confirmed pacifist,” who would “never bear arms” or “take another’s life” (LH
9, 31).
Appearing early in Birthday Letters, the poem “Your Paris” suggests an
irreparable opposition of culturally inherited perceptions, with Hughes’s formed
in the crucible of World War II. Here Hughes coaxes the reader into accepting
the major premise of Birthday Letters—that Hughes was a “post-war utility
survivor” whose “perspectives were veiled by what rose/Like methane from the
reopened/Mass grave of Verdun.” And Plath’s perspectives were already split
into a surface glitter of Impressionism and Modern Art from her American
education that covered “the underground,” a “chamber where (she) still hung
waiting/For (her) torturer,” Thanatos-Otto, “To remember his amusement” (36–7).
From then on most of the poems follow an unvarying structural formula: discrete
instances of Plath’s behavior followed by the same deterministic judgment, the
same foreshadowed glimpse into the crypt: “You had to lift/The coffin lid an
inch” (118). Meanwhile, Hughes’s perceptions do not vary. Near the end of
Birthday Letters the war imagery concludes in “A Picture of Otto,” where
Hughes expects to meet the “Lutheran/Minister manqué” in the underworld
beyond the grave, in the “dark adit,” as in Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting,”
where Owen meets the man he killed yesterday in battle in the “profound dull
tunnel” of Hell (Owen 148–9). Here, as Hughes suggests, Owen sleeps “with his
German as if alone” (193).
Since he engages the issue of the move to Devon in “Error,” one wonders
whether the “dark adit” could have been otherwise had Hughes remained with
Plath in London. I applaud Hughes for letting Plath, who had the drive and the
ambition, make the major moves early in their marriage. Hughes took a one-year
job teaching secondary school students while Plath completed her MA at
Cambridge, and sailed with her to America, again letting her take the lead to
explore college teaching at Smith and possibly a PhD Program. Hughes

scrambled into a one-semester teaching appointment at the University of

Massachusetts-Amherst, just ten miles away. And when Plath realized that
college teaching exhausted her creative energies, they spent a year in Boston
with their salary savings and met William and Dido Merwin, who convinced
them that they could possibly avoid the college teaching track forever by
working for the BBC in London (Stevenson 322–4). Throughout this period,
Hughes definitely followed Plath’s ideal of career equality.
After their return to England in December of 1959, and throughout the first
year-and-a-half of their daughter Frieda’s life (born 1 April 1960), Hughes
followed a regimen that was the most sacrosanct in the household: he watched
little Frieda in their cramped, three-room apartment from 8 a. m. until noon, to
free Plath for her creative writing. Plath fed Frieda lunch and Hughes composed
in the afternoon. Six months after the move back to England, Plath noticed a
roomy corner town house or row house for sale nearby, at 41 Fitzroy Road, just a
few doors from 23 Fitzroy Road, where she eventually would end her life two-
and-a-half years later (LH 387). Living at 41 Fitzroy Road would have allowed
Plath to have two things she desperately needed to maintain her career equality:
London’s assurance of cultured intellectual women to converse with, and reliable
child care to ensure that sacrosanct creative writing time. But Hughes demurred,
probably rightly so, for their finances were nowhere near the purchase price. But
during the next year, Hughes was thoroughly “taken up” by the BBC, his career
and the family finances assured. Had they remained in London, there is at least a
chance that their marriage could have survived, and a stronger chance that Plath
may not have attempted suicide again, even had the marriage not survived.
Hughes’s Minotaur myth is deterministic in part because it is incomplete. He
apparently never saw the Theseus sword in Plath’s work—that drive toward
“self-integral freedom” through career equality. The evidence suggests that both
Hughes and Plath were tempted by Hughes’s vision of rural life, where one could
raise a family amid bucolic surroundings, and accomplish more creative work
without the interruptions of the London literary game—announced and
unannounced guests dropping in every week followed by that wearing round of
stroking at weekend cocktail parties. But if Hughes had understood the
implications of Plath’s struggle for career equality beneath the satire in The Bell
Jar, completed before they moved to Devon, he should have demurred over his
bucolic dream. And Plath at this point should have put her foot down and
demanded to stay in London. Like the girl beneath the fig tree in The Bell Jar
(45, 62), Plath wanted it all, and at times overreached, felt that she could handle
it all, effortlessly and perfectly. She had big eyes, and was often too demanding
of herself (LH 123). At the Houghton Research Library, Harvard, resides a letter
Plath wrote to their friends Jack and Maire Sweeney, a week before the move to
Devon, in which she proudly describes the house and grounds as the realization
of Ted’s dream. Did she write from conviction, or was she beginning to
backslide into the role of the dutiful housewife?

In Birthday Letters Hughes attempts to convince the reader that Court Green,
with its clammy cold and leaky thatch, and its view of a graveyard followed by a
dour Anglican Church, gave Plath further access to Thanatos-Otto. From this
view Plath certainly “cannot see where there is to get to,” as she observes in
“The Moon and the Yew Tree” (CPP 173). But her sense of being trapped in a
dead-end existence derives not simply from the view. Without the company of
intellectual women and reliable day care, Plath crawled cabin fever walls that were
turning into a prison of overscheduling, taking on too much with two children in
diapers—cooking, gardening, home refurbishing, playing hostess for a week or
for weekend-long guests, dealing with post-partum depression after the birth of
her second child, often watching her husband catch a train for BBC work in
London (which meant no child care help for that entire day), and in the process
squeezing hardly any time to write from her exhausting schedule. Because neither
spouse, so far as we know, gave sufficient thought to the effects of rural life on
Plath’s drive for career equality, Plath was fast becoming a character in her
worst nightmare—an overworked, self-sacrificing Mrs. Willard from The Bell Jar,
a kitchen mat awaiting the return of the workaholic male (BJ 69). As Aurelia
observed in her letter to Warren, Sylvia indeed had taken on too much, and as a
result her own career was being placed on hold. Certainly much of the hostility
Hughes absorbed from Plath in Devon derived from the Theseus sword of a
hemmed-in heroine’s last struggle. But all Hughes could see was Otto and World
War II behind Plath’s anger; he never recognized the sword of this female
Theseus. His bucolic rural vision crowded it out. In Devon he seldom saw its
point, for he was aglow with the shine of his own soaring career. But in the “dark
adit” he still feels its point. And in Birthday Letters his ghost grinds on in his
labyrinth, alone in the machine of his words.
Words to “Patch the Havoc:” The Imagination
of Ted Hughes in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath
Gayle Wurst

As editor of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, Ted Hughes chose 1956, the year of
his marriage to Plath, as the first “logical division” in her poetry, using it as a
line of demarcation to separate her juvenilia from the beginning of her mature
work. “Early 1956,” when Plath had just turned twenty-four, “presents itself as a
watershed,” Hughes tells us, “because from later this year came the earliest poems
of her first collection, The Colossus. And from this time I worked closely with
her and watched her poems being written” (Introduction, J 16).
The eye of Ted Hughes is indeed ever present in Plath’s early poetry, just as
his vision of her development was later determinant in the over-all organization,
interpretation, and publication of her largely posthumous work. The meaning of
this poetic regard for Plath herself is inseparable from her joyous “big Hero
Worship” of Hughes, whom she famously portrays as destined for the pantheon
she self-consciously worshipped as “gods” in the likes of Eliot, Auden and Yeats
(LH 108). Even before Plath identifies Hughes by name, the entry in her Journal
written the morning after “that fatal party where [she] met Ted” announces him
with gusto as “the only one there huge enough for me.” He is “that big, dark,
hunky boy. The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge with
hulk and dynamic chunks of words” (J 211–2). Writing to her mother, Plath was
more ecstatic yet: “I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant
poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large, hulking, healthy Adam, half
French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God—a singer, storyteller, lion
and world-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop” (LH 233).
Much of Plath’s mythologizing is clearly motivated by the belief that union
with such a paragon, whom she repeatedly describes as “the male counterpart of
[her]self,” augured well for her own poetry (LH 264). Her rapturous praise of
Hughes’s physique and poetic prowess thus went hand-in-hand with her own
hopes for herself as a writer. Hughes’s hugeness made it possible for her to
“marry him,” Plath wrote, for he was the only man with whom she would “never
have to restrain” her own “little gift, but could push it and strain it to the utmost,
and still feel him ahead” (J 295). “For the first time in my life I can use all my
knowing and laughing and force and writing to the hilt all the time, everything,”
she exclaimed. “He has a health and hugeness. I am writing poems, and they are
better and stronger than anything I have ever done” (LH 234; Plath’s emphasis).

Just as Ted was writing “virile, deep banging poems,” he would “work with [her]
to make [her] a woman poet like the world will gape at” (LH 248): “Ted says he
never read poems by a woman like mine working, sweating, heaving poems born
out of the way words should be said” (244). And, while Plath was very proud of
having been “clairvoyant” enough to foresee Hughes’s rise to fame as one of
Britain’s most promising young poets (329), in 1958 she accurately predicted his
future as Poet Laureate in a parenthetical afterthought to a sudden surge of
assurance about herself: “Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me
to be the Poetess of America (just as Ted will be the Poet of England and her
Dominions)” (J 360).
As Plath’s descriptions of Hughes’s “virile, deep banging” poems, and the
birth-throes of her own “heaving” work vividly illustrate, her fantasies of mutual
poetic potency and creation are keyed to a sexual metaphor based on the erotic
attraction of male poet and female muse. Given the strength of this metaphor in
her letters and journals, it is not surprising that immediately after Plath met
Hughes in February 1956, a composite male figure, poet/lover/muse, begins to
inhabit her poetry. The first of these poems, chronologically speaking, is
“Pursuit” (CPP 22, 23), a piece about sexual attraction and flight, written on
February 27, 1956, only two days after the poets” tempestuous first encounter.
“Wrote a full-page poem about the dark forces of lust: “Pursuit”, Plath recorded
in her Journal. “It is not bad. It is dedicated to Ted Hughes’s (J 214). As Hughes
recalls it in “St. Botolph’s” (BL 15), he himself was the pursued in an incident
“that was to brand [his] face” with a “swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks.”
Plath’s poem, however, foregoes the depiction of physical contact to prominently
feature the dangerous, hypnotic gaze of the poet/lover: “There is a panther stalks
me down:/ One day I’ll have my death of him,” she begins. “What lull, what
cool can lap me in/ When burns and brands that yellow gaze? ”
From this point on, the erotic poetic regard in Plath’s work becomes an
increasingly problematic presence. In its initial stage, Plath celebrates and
completes this gaze with a portrait of the lover/muse as a mythologized and
fructifying force of nature. “Faun” (originally called “Metamorphosis”) is an
excellent example of this tendency. This poem, which Plath includes in a letter
dated 19 April 1956 to exemplify her new, “better and stronger” work (LH 234),
implicitly draws on the famous passage from Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy,”
where the budding poet figure blows “mimic hootings to the silent owls” and is
answered with “quivering peals” across “the watery vale.” Plath, however, goes
Wordsworth one better in Hughes, creating an image of poetic prowess so
irresistible that “all owls in the twigged forest/Flapped back to look and brood/
On the call this man made.” In the end, the poet/lover, transformed in the magic
“arena of yellow eyes” himself changes shape: via the owls’ yellow gaze, Plath
the female ephebe recounts how she vicariously “saw hoof harden from foot, saw
sprout /Goat-horns. Marked how god rose/And galloped woodward in that

This poetic jeu de regard reaches its climax in “Ode for Ted” (CPP 29–30),
another of the earliest pieces from 1956, and the sole poem Plath ever wrote to
bear her husband’s name. Here, the male poet’s very look makes the universe
bear fruit, conflating the image of the poet-as-Adam with that of a pagan nature
deity. In the poem’s most interesting turn, “Ode for Ted” takes the trope of the
fruitful male gaze to its furthest extent only to end in a curiously distant,
apparently rhetorical, yet self-reflexive question: “how but most glad/could be
this adam’s woman,” Plath asks, “when all earth his words do summon/leaps to
laud such man’s blood!”
How but most glad, indeed? Much of Plath’s poetry from 1956 through 1958
and, it could be argued, for the rest of her career, will attempt to work out the
answer to this question. Plath purposely fashions Hughes into the primal namer of
all things, leaping to “laud such man’s blood” the better to imagine herself as
“adam’s woman.” Likewise, she proudly took up the mantle of muse and
ceaselessly worked as his amanuensis, typing his poetry and submitting his
manuscripts for contests and publications, the better to nourish her imagination
of Hughes as a powerful creator, and turn this image into a self-fulfilling
prophecy. “I am so glad Ted is first,” she declared when Hawk in the Rain “won
the Harper’s first publication contest.” Hughes entered this competition at the
insistence of Plath, who both scouted out possible venues for his work and saw to
the typing of his manuscript: “All my pat theories against marrying a writer
dissolve with Ted,” she reflected in her Journal: “his rejections more than
double my sorrow and his acceptances rejoice me more than mine—it is as if he
is the perfect male counterpart to my own self: each of us giving the other an
extension of the life we believe in living. It sounds so paragon. But I honestly
believe we are.” (J 271).
Yet when “this adam’s woman” turned to writing poetry herself, her fantasy of
fruitful poetic union ironically backfired. Plath’s poems tell a very different
picture than the rosy idealization she painted in her letters home, and even in her
journal. Rather than providing an enabling myth which permitted her to see
herself as poet-god and co-creator, Plath’s deification of her husband played
into, and quickly exacerbated, her lifelong dread of her own poetic sterility, once
he began “work[ing] closely with her” and “watch[ing] the poems being
written.” As Steven Gould Axelrod has succinctly worded the problem, Hughes
became the model for a “male force which engendered (Plath’s) creativity even
as he annulled it” (30). This is the view which Hughes, too, has followed in
Birthday Letters, portraying himself as both “puppet” and unwitting “male lead
in [her] drama” (BL 7), the victim of a “Greek necessity” (CPP 272) stronger and
bigger than them both, which gradually, but relentlessly, conflated his image
with Daddy.
Yet if we go back to Plath’s juvenilia, we see that her union to Hughes—and
especially her imagination of his imagination—served largely to intensify a
tightly-knit complex of negative themes and images of female creativity which
were already well developed, and even obsessional in her poetry long before she

ever encountered him. Significantly, perhaps tragically, Plath most acutely

expresses her self-doubt in the juvenilia in the single poem that dares to confront
her interiorization of the “spinster” woman writer. The encounter with this
stereotype occurs in an undated poem she ironically entitles “Female Author”
(CPP 301), as if the term were an oxymoron. Plath portrays her “prim, pink-
breasted, feminine” poetess as the very image of de-natured sterility: “nurs[ing]/
Chocolate fancies in rose-papered rooms,” she “lies on cushions curled,” “lost in
subtle metaphor” in isolated “retreat” from all that is vital in the world.
Furthermore, Plath’s use of intertextuality in this poem deftly calls on Blake’s
“London,” Eliot’s “Wasteland” and even Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to
make her scornful point. All come barreling down on her unfortunate female
author, only to prove that her frivolous musings are not worth the paper they are
written on—and to distance Plath herself from scribblers of this genre.1
Given Plath’s early tendency to extol the vitality of the male gaze at the
expense of the woman writer, it is perhaps to Hughes’s credit that as editor of the
Collected Poems he foregoes chronology to introduce the body of Plath’s
“mature” work with “Conversation Among the Ruins” (CPP 21). This sonnet,
named after a painting by Georgio De Chirico, actually postdates “Pursuit” and
other pieces from 1956 in which the role of the male poet/lover is less
ambiguously praised. Poem and painting both feature two figures: a standing
man dressed in modern clothing, and a seated woman, wearing a white tunic. In
the painting, the woman is at a table, her back turned to the viewer, while the
man stands to her left, looking down on her with dark eyes. Above his head, and
turned in the same direction, is the bust of a Greek statue, perhaps Apollo. The
landscape around them, barren of life, is glimpsed between a column to the left,
and two half open doors which swing inward toward the female figure from a
broken wall to the right.2
“Conversation Among the Ruins” differs from many other poems Plath wrote
in 1956 in that she here already is takes stock of her own mythologizing, and
especially of its effect on herself as a poet-god. One of the most striking things
about the poem is its portrait of the male figure as an intruder responsible for a
wasted landscape. The male poet-figure, described as “heroic” in spite of his
“wild furies,” is both active principle and agent of destruction. He “stalks,”
“disturbs,” and “rends” the structures of an elaborately composed, classical
landscape, turning it into an “appalling ruin.” A modern figure, too, dressed “in
coat and tie,” he stands in domination over the “bankrupt estate,” where
“fractured pillars frame prospects of rock.” By contrast, the female figure, still

1. A fuller analysis of this poem focusing on Plath’s use of intertextuality is found in my

Voice and Vision: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.
2. I thank Leonard Scigaj for furnishing me with the reproduction of De Chirico’s painting
on which this description is based. For an excellent discussion of Plath’s wider use of
modern painting, see his “The Painterly Plath That Nobody Knows.”

tied to the past and robed in classical tradition, remains subordinate and
unmoving: “I sit /Composed in Grecian tunic and psyche-knot,/Rooted to your
black look, the play turned tragic.” Like “Ode for Ted,” this sonnet also ends
with a crucial question that will reverberate throughout Plath’s entire work:
“What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?”
This question is all the more important in that “Conversation Among the
Ruins,” which serves as a portal to the Collected Poems, is manifestly reflexive
in nature. Plath’s blighted landscape, once decorous and “elegant,” now
“blighted,” not only foreshadows future developments in her poetry; it turns back
to allegorically evoke the highly artiflcial world of her juvenilia—a world of
balanced symmetries, archetypal figures, and carefully structured villanelles and
sonnets. Destruction, usually imminent rather than actualized, constantly
menaced Plath’s “elaborately structured and staidly traditional” poems of this
period (Broe 6), and she constructed her world all the more tightly to keep her
doubts about herself as creator at bay: “The asteroids turn traitor in the air,/The
planets plot with old elliptical cunning; clocks cry, stillness is a lie, my dear,”
she warned herself in the early villanelle, “To Eva Descending the Stair” (CPP
In Birthday Letters, Hughes represents his initial response to this poetry,
noting how he and his friends “concocted/An attack, a dismemberment,
laughing,” when Plath “published [a] poem/About Caryatids” in Cambridge. In
yet another poem about the incident, he writes, “It was the only poem you ever
wrote/That I disliked through the eyes of a stranger./It seemed thin and brittle,
the lines cold” (BL 4, 5). Once Hughes’s eyes were no longer those “of a
stranger,” he continued to dislike much of the work Plath was producing; he thus
set about criticizing her poems and assigning her subjects for new ones. While
Plath learned much under his tutelage, internal evidence from her Journals and
the poems she wrote during their early marriage shows that she also began to
focus the persistent, yet heretofore vaguely identified, menace that had always
threatened to blow her “rich order of walls” apart. From mid-1956 on, Plath gave
danger a habitation and a name in the “bleak light of his stormy eye.”
Hughes’s dislike and criticism of Plath’s writing must have deeply
preoccupied him, at least in retrospect, for the problem forms the only instance in
Birthday Letters where two poems, devoted to the same subject, bear the same
title. It is as if Hughes wished to revise himself, or needed a double-take. In
“Caryatids (2)” (BL 5–6), he seems to repent, writing that he sought to “reach”
more than “reproach” or “correct” Plath with his mockery. The authority of this
critical regard once Plath began submitting her poems for Hughes’s critique, and
her need for his respect and approval are inseparable from the repeated rise to
hyperbole in her early praise of the mythic poet/lover. Yet ironically, his
empowerment most often takes place to the detriment of the female figures in
her poetry. “The Queen’s Complaint” (CPP 28–29), facing “Ode for Ted” in the
Collected Poems, is another case in point: here, a “giant” with “looks black and

fierce as rooks” “hulk[s]” across the Queen’s “dainty acres,” causing her to “sing
us thus: “How sad, alas, it is/To see my people shrunk so small, so small.”
It is crucial to note that the gaze of the male poet is never lovingly directed at
the muse in Plath’s poetry, nor is there ever a mutually gratifying exchange of
regards between a male and female figure. Typically, Plath’s speakers and
narrators are removed from the arena of action: their role is to witness from the
margins while the poet figure at the center of the poem causes the universe to
blossom or blow apart wherever he directs his gaze. Notably for the development
of her later voice, Plath also begins to distance herself from this dilemma in
“Conversation Among the Ruins,” ironizing the “black look” and devastating
commentary of the poet/lover in her description of the birds emblematic of
Hughes: “rooks croak above the appalling ruin (my emphasis). The male figure’s
mythified “black look,” however, still remains the center of concern in the poem
and her work as a whole. Turning to his eyes in the hope of finding herself
reflected as poet, Plath instead discovers a muse in her “psyche-knot,”
“composed” but no composer.
Although Plath’s Journals joyously claimed her “buried male muse and god-
creator” had “risen to be (her) mate in Ted” (J 381), her poem, “Full Fathom
Five,” written in The Colossus period, tells another story. Here, the image of the
bountiful young poet/ god gives way to a more ominous male figure—a Titian
who “surface[s]” suddenly as an “old man” in the “unimaginable,” yet haunting
guise of the drowned father: “foam-/ Capped: white hair, white beard, far—flung,/
A dragnet, rising as the waves/Crest and trough.” Writing to herself about this
poem in her Journal, Plath exclaims, “O, only left to myself, what a poet I will
flay myself into!” (381). Meanwhile, the speaker, confined to the margins of the
poem and her role as witness to male power, walks “dry” on the border of a
troubling “kingdom/exiled to no good” (CPP 92).
In “Apprehensions” (BL 140), Hughes has written very affectingly both about
Plath’s terror of sterility, the “fear” that “hid in [her] Schaeffer pen,” and what it
was like to be the focal point of her efforts to write herself out of it. Doing so, he
pays considerable, and painful homage to the power of Plath’s own poetic regard,
overturning the convention that so plagued Plath herself. This reversal is
exemplified in Hughes’s “Black Coat” (BL 102–03), a poem that responds to
“Full Fathom Five,” and even more directly to Plath’s “Man in Black” (CPP 119–
20). Plath wrote this piece in March 1959 on a what she blithely calls “one of my
fruitful visits to Winthrop” (J 477); after visiting her father’s grave, she “walked
over rocks along the oceanside” where she observed “Ted out at the end of the
bar, in black coat, defining the distance of stones and stones humped out of the
sea” (J 473).
Although Plath described it as “the only “love” poem” in the book manuscript
she was preparing (J 477), “Man in Black” is an ominous, seven-stanza, single-
sentence poem which barrels down syntactically to focus on the poet/lover in his
“dead/Black coat,” a “fixed vortex on the far/Tip” of a menacing seascape,
“riveting stones, air,/All of it, together.” Remembering “going out there” in his

“black overcoat” many years later, Hughes recalled the incident quite differently.
The speaker of “Man in Black” is literally out of the picture. For Plath, this
distance permits her to make a stake on safer ground, but it also signals her
position of exile in relation to Hughes’s enviable (and increasingly ominous)
centrality; for Hughes, this centrality is not only unwanted, it transforms him into
a prey in a telescopic rifle lens. For Hughes and Plath both, the male figure in the
black coat, seen from “so far off/half a mile, maybe,” “rivets” the universe
together as the first clear precursor to “Daddy” (BL 103; CPP 120).
During the later phase of Plath’s poetry, she famously rid herself of Ted’s
“shadow,” as she put it in 1962 (LH 479)—a shadow largely formed and formed
in large by her former projections of his prowess. Although critics have tended to
neglect or misinterpret them, numerous poems Plath wrote between February
1956 and March 1958 shed much light on this change in her work, and form an
intermediate stage in her effort to shed “dead hands, dead stringencies,” as she so
famously put it in “Ariel” (CPP 239–40). Poems like “Strumpet Song,” “Black
Rook in Rainy Weather,” “On the Difficulty of Conjuring up a Dryad,” “On the
Plethora of Dryads,” “The Lady and the Earthenware Head,” “Ouija,” “On the
Decline of Oracles,” “Virgin in a Tree,” “Perseus,” and “The Disquieting Muses”
shift the male poet from center stage to concentrate on the figure of the female
muse, all the while foregrounding the absence of inspiration.3 Taken together,
these poems show Plath coming to consciousness of her specificity as a woman
poet by reflecting on the conditions of representation, and articulating her
reactions to the portrayal of female figures in western art.
Plath’s use of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, common to several of these
poems, succinctly illustrates the shift in her paradigm. According to Annis
Pratt’s groundbreaking study, this myth forms one of the major archetypal
patterns in fiction authored by women. For Pratt, the story of Apollo and Daphne
originates as the “account” of a cultural “invasion,” the “story of the rape of (a)
local female divinity by a “patriarchally structured culture, the Achaeans,” whom
Apollo represents. Pratt points out that “Daphne means laurel and laurel leaves
were chewed by pre-Achaean priestesses to induce oracular powers:” the myth
thus recounts how “Apollo conquers a territory by raping its goddess,
assimilating her magic, and setting himself up in her place.” Or rather, how he
attempts to conquer the goddess. For unlike his usurpation of the oracular powers
of Gaea at Delphi, Apollo is unable to conquer Daphne the nature nymph. To
return to Pratt once more: “Daphne wishes to protect her body and her sacred
places from forced entry and thus turns herself into a tree. Because of her natural
magic, she remains forever unravished, Apollo forever in the process of
ravishing” (4).
“The tension between what Apollo intends and Daphne is willing to accept,
between forces demanding our submissions and our rebellious assertions of
personhood, characterize far too much of our fiction to be incidental,” Pratt
writes (6). Pratt’s analysis only pertains to fiction: but if we extend her argument
to poetry, Apollo, crowned with leaves of laurel, clearly emerges the symbolic

victor in spite of Daphne’s successful escape. His is the image of the conquering
poet, cultural guardian and producer of language in the perpetual act of desire;
while Daphne, the perpetually pursued object of his attentions, is reabsorbed into
nature, a state tantamount to silence and unconsciousness. Elements of this myth
were particularly well suited to Plath’s imagination of Hughes, whose head she
so willingly envisioned crowned with laurels. More problematical, the ironic
nature of Daphne’s victory presented Plath with the conundrum of her own role
as muse, as she tried to tap the tradition for a conscious female subject, only to
discover that traditional poetic conventions proved an obstacle to her course.
“Why do I freeze in fear my mind & writing: say, look, no head, what can you
expect of a girl with no head? “she queried herself in her Journals (437).
One of the earliest of Plath’s Daphne poems, “On the Difficulty of Conjuring
Up a Dryad” (CPP 65–6) ironically foregrounds “the vaunting mind” of a female
poet which “wrestles to impose/its own order” on recalcitrant nature and myth.4
“However I wrench obstinate bark and trunk/To my sweet will, no luminous
shape/Steps out radiant in limb, eye, lip.” Plath declares, foregrounding the
“difficulty” the title of her poem announces. In stanza five, the speaker comes to
the root of the problem, acknowledging her jealousy of male poets: her vision is
“cold,” she says, addressing a “doctor “and adopting the medieval medical
vocabulary that equated the lack of female imaginative powers to a cold, wet
humor.5 The final stanza compares her feminine “fancy” to the powerful
fecundity of the masculine imagination, which, ironically, she can envision all
too well. Unable to conjure up a dryad, the speaker “spurns such fictions as
nymphs,” but her envious description of the male poet’s fertility makes her
statement seem like sour grapes. Left with a strong sense of inadequacy, she ends
with a sad self-diagnosis: her “Beggared brain/Hatches no fortune,/But from
leaf, from grass,/ Thieves what it has.” The diminished female author steals what
little she can, and Plath herself plays the thief in this poem. As Margaret (Dickie)
Uroff has noted, the language throughout is a “strange concoction of Hughes and
Wallace Stevens.” In an embedded reference, the “star-lucky slight of hand man”
can even be seen as “Hughes described in Stevens’ words” (78, 80). Yet Hughes
is far more than the envied referent: Plath makes Hughes’s success as a poet
represent the dynamics of an entire poetic tradition, then uses her art to study the
way her relationship to “her poetic fathers undermines her sense of competence”
(Axelrod 35).
This transformation is all the more striking in that Plath grafts into the poem a
key citation from Yeats, whom she associates with Hughes in her Journals.6
Notably, she takes a phrase from Yeats’ “A Prayer for my Daughter,” which

3. The dating for some of these poems in the Collected Poems is unfortunately erroneous.
My own discussion relies on dates given in Plath’s Journals and Letters Home, and
follows corrections supplied in Nancy D.Hargrove’s indispensable study, The Journey
Toward Ariel: Sylvia Plath’s Poems 0f 1956–1959.

also draws on the Daphne myth to express the wish that his daughter Anne
“become like a flourishing hidden tree:” “Oh may she live like some green
laurel/Rooted in one dear place,” Yeats writes. For Yeats, his daughter’s soul is
cognizant that “its own sweet will is heaven’s will:” for Plath, however, such
company only assures her of the insufficiencies of her own “sweet will” as poet.
7 “That damn scrupulous tree won’t practice wiles/To beguile sight,” her persona

states, mockingly reporting her symptoms of sterility to the “doctor” she

consults. “However I wrench obstinate bark and trunk/To my sweet will, no
luminous shape/Steps out radiant in limb, eye, lip.” As a result, the female poet
cannot “concoct a Daphne.” She says: “My tree stays tree.”
The rare feminist critics who have addressed these early poems seem to find
their avowal of failure an embarrassment. Jacqueline Rose, for example,
hesitates between two opposing scenarios in the attempt to explain their “very
awkwardness.” Plath here is either “symptomatic of the way women internalize
patriarchy, take into themselves and embody some of patriarchy’s most sexual
images and tropes” or, conversely, she “expos[es] or foreground[s] the
denigrated femininity on which the more inspired vision of women (and poetry)
so often relies” (115). Seen within the evolution of the poetic regard in Plath’s
work, however, the interest and value of her dryad poems surely lie in the way
she is consciously struggling to conceptualize the problem of representation from
a woman’s point of view, using specifically gendered terms for what well may be
the first time in contemporary poetry.
In a sense, these poems are very private. They show Plath in the process of
articulating the problem and formulating it for herself: and although she attempts
to move from the first to the second position Rose delineates, from
“internalizing” to “exposing,” she does not entirely succeed in her aims. Rose
asserts that Plath “writes herself into the place of the man” who is “lured, failed,
or deceived” or, conversely, as in “On the Plethora of Dryads,” is distracted by
nymphs “who surfeit the senses” (114, 115). Yet Plath’s early work represents
the erotic attraction between male poet and female muse as always fully
consummated. The male poet is such a stud he has only to look, to make “the
opulent air go studded with seed.” Only from the female point of view does the
erotic spark refuse to ignite, and the model fail for lack of inspiration.

4. Hargrove dates “On the Plethora of Dryads” October 26, 1956 (48), and my analysis
supports her conjecture that “On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad,” which is
obviously a companion poem, was also composed in the fall of that year.
5. For an excellent examination of the medical, philosophical, psychoanalytical and
literary discourse on the female imagination in the theory of humors, see: Christine
Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Pages 31–33 and 83–87
are particularly to the point for Plath’s poem.
6. See, for example, Plath’s entry for February 25, 1957 (written on the first anniversary of
her meeting with Hughes): “Ted is an excellent poet, full of blood & discipline like
Yeats” (J 270).

In 1958, Plath attacked the model of Daphne with redoubled vigor in “Virgin
in a Tree” (CPP 81–2), a poem modeled on an etching by Paul Klee entitled
“Jung Frau in Baum.” This depicts a naked, sour-looking, knarled female figure
horizontally reclining in an awkward posture that conforms to the boughs of a
dwarfed and blighted tree. Propped on one elbow, the figure looks the viewer
straight in the eye.
Paradoxically, Plath now can see the dryad, or “virgin in a tree” all too well;
the trouble is, she can’t see how to get her out. Plath dismantles this “tart fable,”
enlisting irony and bawdy puns throughout her poem in an effort to diminish the
virgin’s “untongued” torture. She also foregrounds her own poetic regard, and
even sets it off in a frame, engraving Klee’s etching on her mind as a warning:
“As you etch on the inner window of your eye/This virgin on her rack.” “Barren
sirs” and “ugly spinsters” feed their imagination on the dryad’s “ache and wake,”
but the regard of the virile male poet is absent from the list of the guilty; still
fertile in Plath’s imagination, his gaze has nothing to do with the “lemon-tasting
droop” of the dryad’s “lips.” As a result, Plaths poem ends in a characteristic
avowal of failure: “Tree twist will ape this gross anatomy/ Till irony’s bough
“Virgin in a Tree” was the first in a series of poems Plath wrote in a week
which left her “stunned” by her own capabilities: “I had about seven or eight
paintings and etchings I wanted to write on as poem-subjects, and bang! After
the first one, “Virgin in a Tree,” after an early etching by Paul Klee, I ripped into
another,” she writes excitedly in Letters Home. “These are easily the best poems
I have written and open up new material and a new voice” (336). Her Journal
entry of March 28 seconds this excitement, equating the week to the first break-
though in her writing since her suicide attempt in the Spring of 1953: “I wrote
eight poems in the last eight days,” Plath records, “poems breaking open my real
experience of life in the last five years: life which has been shut-up, untouchable,
in a rococo crystal cage, not to be touched. I feel these are the best poems I’ve
ever done” (J 356). These are the poems that caused Plath to exclaim she had
written lines which “qualify [her] to be the Poetess of America,” as cited above
Part of Plath’s elation derives from her new concentration on her dilemma
from the specific point of view of a woman poet: as “Virgin in a Tree”
illustrates, once she begins to analyze her own response to the representation of
the feminine, the male figure modeled on Hughes drops out. Yet the fact that his

Plath goes so far as to envision her marriage to Hughes as “a team better than Mr. and
Mrs. Yeats” (LH 280).
7. For further analysis of Plath’s use of Yeats, see: Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, “A Father’s
Prayer, A Daughter’s Anger: W.B.Yeats and Sylvia Plath,” Daughters and Fathers,
Lynda E. Booze and Betty S.Flowers, eds. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1989), 233–55.

regard is still deeply rooted as implied comparison and internalized standard

leaves Plath all the more alone to struggle with her vision, or lack of it, in an
increasingly female world. It is no wonder, then, that she cannot be fully
comfortable expressing her own self-assurance, or new sense of mastery as a poet,
without immediately asserting a parallel glory for Hughes, whom she
immediately imagines as “the Poet of England.”
In the poems that ensue, Plath comes face to face with the “basilisk—look of
love,” as she puts it in “The Lady and the Earthenware Head” (CPP 69–70). This
look is central to the paradoxical encounter with the female muse that
increasingly dominates her poetic struggle. The confrontation first fully takes
place in “The Disquieting Muses” (CPP 74– 6), written several days after
“Virgin in a Tree.” “Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched, bald head,” these “dismal-
headed Godmothers” are actually anti-muses: in them, we find the muses who
inspire, the three fates who kill, the Furies who pursue, and the three gorgons,
most notably the Medusa, who paralyses with her gaze. All combine with the
wicked witch of fairy tale to inhabit the abstracted female body of modern art
from which they take their name, De Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses. This
“poetic kingdom” is the result of a tradition of representation stretching from
classical to modern times, as Plath’s comments for the BBC make clear. The
“dummies” of De Chirico’s painting, she says, “suggest a twentieth-century
version of other sinister trios of women—the Three Fates, the witches in
Macbeth, de Quincey’s sisters of madness” (CPP 276; note 60).
Plath’s poems from 1962 also make clear that the “black look” she first attributes
to the male poet is later transferred, anchored, and further concentrated in the
eyes of the Medusa who constantly seeks to fix the female poet at the center of
her petrifying gaze. Contrary to the “difficulty” of the dryad who refuses to
appear, the Medusa figure surges up unexpectedly, and always uninvited in Plath’s
later work. In the Journals, the Medusan presence consistently translates Plath’s
fear of writing block into images of freezing, stasis and paralysis, often
accompanied by a head/division: “I am stymied, stuck, at a stasis,” she wrote on
March 4, 1957. “Some paralysis of the head has got me frozen. As if I can escape
by going numb and daring to begin nothing. Everything seems held up, what is
it? “(J 272–3). “Something deep, plunging, is held back,” she wrote in January
1958, “Voice frozen” (J 312). By February 1959, the Medusan imagery had
turned violent: “What inner decision, what inner murder or prison break must I
commit if I want to speak from my true deep voice in writing. and not feel this
jam up of feeling behind a glass-dam fancy-façade of numb dumb wordage (J
In Plath’s later poetry, the Medusa’s sudden intrusion begins at least as early
as “Elm” (CPP 192–3). Written in April 1962, this poem gives voice to the
virgin in a tree, only to blow the female figure literally apart with the sound of a
terrible “cry.” This violent fragmentation cannot diminish the power of the
Medusa. Reasserting herself as muse, she appears superimposed with the moon at
the end of the poem as a “face. murderous in its strangle of branches.” “Its snaky

acids kiss./It petrifies the will,” Plath writes. “These are the isolate, slow faults/
That kill, that kill, that kill.”
The centrality of the Medusa in Plath’s later work, and the attempt of the poet-
I to counter her muse’s petrifying gaze, grows out of, and eventually overwhelms
the “black” regard of the male poet/lover. This process equally takes place in
natural settings like “Elm” and those that portray a domestic, female interior.
Leaving no respite, the encounter engenders an on-going and never-ending
struggle for self-appropriation as Plath paradoxically fights to keep the muse at
bay in an escalating display of violence. “Is this the one I am to appear for,/is
this the elect one.//Is this the one for the annunciation? “the muse scornfully
thinks as she gazes on the female poet working in the kitchen in “A Birthday
Present” (CPP 206–8). “My god, what a laugh!” In “An Appearance,” too, the
muse suddenly erupts on a scene of domestic activity, as the poet-I sits at her
sewing machine, “red material/Issuing from the steel needle that flies so
blindingly:” “O heart, such disorganization!” the persona of the poem exclaims.
“The stars are flashing like terrible numerals./ABC, her eyelids say.”
Nowhere do the disquieting muses feature more prominently or savagely in
Plath’s late work as in “Lesbos” (CPP 227–30). “Viciousness in the Kitchen!/
The potatoes hiss,” the poem begins. Written on October 16, 1962, this highly
ironic return to the source of the lyric figures the speaker locked eye to eye with
her deadly other in a surreal female landscape: “The fog of cooking, the smog of
hell/Floats our heads, two venomous opposites/Our bones, our hair.” The male
figure is exiled from “Lesbos” with an electric look which figures as a shower of
sparks. No longer a virile poet, he is now transformed to an “impotent husband”
who “slumps out for a coffee:” “He lumps it down the plastic cobbled hill/
Flogged trolley,” as “blue sparks spill/Splitting like quartz into a million bits.”
Finally, it is not the poet of “Man in Black,” who “rivets” Plath’s universe
together, but the “basilisk look of love” of the female muse. The male poet-
figure is last glimpsed in “Lesbos” onanistically “hugging his ball and chain” at
the margins of the poem, “down by the gate/That opens to the sea/where it drives
in, white and black” (CPP 229). He has not only been decentered from the focus
of “Man in Black;” he has taken up, or been relegated to, the former position of
Plath’s persona in “Full Fathom Five,” “exiled to no good” on the edge of a
menacing shore. This exile results from the hard look of the Medusa, who rejects
the male poet, indeed, ejects him from the poetic universe, to center her
“venomous” regard squarely on the female poet. The gorgon’s gaze also reflects
the final image of what well may be Plath’s final poem, as the muse looks down
at the body of a dead, “perfected” woman, staring from her “hood of bone” in
“Edge.” “The moon has nothing to be sad about” Plath says. “She is used to this
sort of thing./Her blacks cackle and drag” (CPP 272–3).
Plath’s “ceremony of words” never patched the havoc of the “black look” to
which her writing, and her image of herself as poet, always remained firmly
“rooted.” In an extraordinary move, she took this look instead and made it the
subject of her own poetic regard. Doing so, she recouped ground lost to the lyric

by inscribing a self-consciously female subjectivity in the process of defining

itself. Just as crucially, she also laid the groundwork for subsequent poets, male
and female both, by articulating the cost of poetic conventions that define the
feminine as an object of contemplation rather than a speaking subject.
That Hughes is both Plath’s target and the inheritor of her achievement,
Birthday Letters painfully attests. “Meet[ing]” Plath’s voice “on a page of [her]
journal, as never before,” he encounters “the shock of [her] joy” and her “panic/
That prayers might not create the miracle.” (BL 8) Birthday Letters, too, is a
“conversation among the ruins,” the address of a poet readying to die to one who
has long been dead. Yet the interconnectedness of Hughes’s last volume with
Plath’s life and work creates a living dialogue between poetic equals who honed
their art against and for each other throughout their entire lives. In the end, it is
not Hughes’s interpretation of the facts, but his acknowledgement of Plath’s
poetic regard that counts; not his particular “take” on his role in her art or myth,
but his tribute, despite the cost to himself, to the focus and power of her “brown
Complicated with Old Ghosts: The Assia
Carol Bere

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the “other woman” in the Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes story,
has either been ignored, or treated disparagingly by Plath biographers. The
criticism, in fact, tends to minimize the impact that Wevill had on Hughes’s life.
What is well documented is that Assia’s suicide in 1969, along with the death of
their small daughter, Shura, brought the Crow poems to a halt. The Crow
sequence, published in 1970, was dedicated to the memory of Assia and Shura.
And then relative silence, or so it seemed, until the publication of New Selected
Poems 1957–1994 (1995), which included eight poems about Assia in the
Uncollected section of the volume. What is generally not well known, however,
is that an earlier location of the Assia poems is Capriccio, a twenty-poem
sequence, published in a limited edition of 50 copies in the spring of 1990.
Any detailed analysis of Ted Hughes’s poetic canon should certainly include
the Assia poems. Capriccio, in particular, is a significant, well realized narrative
sequence in its own right. Capriccio also provides additional perspective on
“Dreamers” in Birthday Letters, which refers explicitly to Assia, and indirectly
on the overall tenor of the sequence. In this article, I will attempt to map the field
of the published poems addressed to or about Assia, and provide some
commentary on the sequence. First, a caveat: my analysis, to some extent, is
preliminary. I have not seen the Hughes archive at Emory University, and
therefore do not know whether there are other “Assia” poems among the
manuscripts. What I will be talking about here are only those poems that Hughes
actually chose to publish about Assia. Second, there are definite links between
Capriccio, Birthday Letters, and Howls & Whispers, a limited edition of “Plath”
poems, published around the same time as Birthday Letters, which are suggested
briefly at the conclusion of this essay.
Some brief biographical facts about Assia are necessary for understanding of
the poems. She was born in Berlin in 1927. Her father, Dr. Lonya Gutmann, was
a Russian Jew, and her mother was a German Protestant. Much of her childhood
in Berlin was lived under Nazi threat, and the family fled to Tel Aviv in the
1930s. Hughes speaks of Assia’s long-standing fears of Nazi persecution in
poems such as “The Locket,” also in New Selected Poems, and in “Smell of
Burning,” and “The Roof.” She later moved to British Columbia with her first
husband, although when Assia met the Hughes, she was married to a Canadian

poet, David Wevill, working at an advertising agency in London, and writing

poetry. All reports note that Assia was quite beautiful, with substantial amounts
of black hair, and this is supported by a few of the Assia poems, and by Baskin’s
In May 1962, the Wevills visited the Hughes in Devon, and sometime after
this, Assia’s relationship with Hughes is generally thought to have begun. Hughes
and Plath separated in the fall of 1962, and Plath committed suicide in February
1963. Hughes continued to see Assia and their daughter, called Shura, was born
in March 1965.1 Assia moved to Devon with Hughes some time in 1966. Yet the
relationship was not without problems, and in late 1967, Assia moved back to
London, although she continued to see Hughes (Myers, 131–33). The title of this
article, “Complicated with Old Ghosts,” is actually a quote from a letter Hughes
wrote to Celia Chaikin, Assia’s sister who lives in Canada, reported by Israeli
writer, Eilat Negev, who interviewed Hughes in 1996. Negev quotes Hughes as
saying “we tried to escape the shadow, live as if we started anew,” but the
“shadow” of Plath hung over their relationship—not only Plath’s suicide, but
what also, to a large extent, Hughes believed to be Assia’s envy and/or obsession
with Plath’s talent and life. Beyond this, I discuss only the relationship (or a
relationship) as set out in the published poems. I know little or nothing about Ted
Hughes’s relationship with Assia, and conjecture would be unfair. While it is
tempting to consider the sequence as biography or even autobiography, I am
reading Capriccio as a blend or mosaic of ancient myths, historical and
contemporary events, some actual facts of the relationship—and, more to the
point, as a fully realized poetic sequence.
As mentioned, the earliest published location of the Assia poems—at least as
far as I am aware—was the Capriccio sequence. The volume comprises twenty
poems by Hughes, and twenty-five etchings, woodcuts, and wood engravings in
various colors by Leonard Baskin, Hughes’s long-time collaborator. A separate
broadside for Capriccio announces publication of twenty new poems by Ted
Hughes. Whether “new” means “unpublished” is somewhat ambiguous since the
individual poems are undated, and could have been written sometime earlier than
1990. The broadside also assures readers (or, more likely, potential collectors)
that “The poems will not be reprinted in the poet’s lifetime.” Whether this was a
comment inserted by the publisher, or whether Hughes changed his mind quickly
is also an open question. In any case, individual poems from the sequence were
published in various periods from 1992–1995, and Hughes read a few of these
poems in a radio broadcast.2 The eight poems that Hughes placed immediately

1. I am grateful to Ann Skea for verifying the correct date of Shura’s birth. Skea reports
that the birth certificate in the Family Records Office in London states that Alexandra
Tatiana Eloise (later called Shura) was born on March 3, 1965 at Charing Cross Hospital.
Shura’s mother was listed as Assia Wevill (formerly Gutmann) of Camden, and father,
Edward James Hughes, of Court Green, Devon. Shura’s birth was registered April 6,
1965, Westminster Registration District.

following the Plath poems (later published in Birthday Letters) in the

Uncollected section of New Selected Poems, was the largest grouping of
Capriccio poems published collectively outside of the original publication, and
included “The Other,” “The Locket,” “Shibboleth,” “Snow,” “Folktale,” “Opus
131,” “Descent,” and “The Error.” With the exception of “Flame,” another
Capriccio poem also published outside of its original location, the eight poems in
New Selected Poems were the same poems that had been published either
individually or in various combinations during the 1992–1995 period. This
suggests that Hughes believed that these poems were either representative of, or
conveyed the “Assia” story most effectively.
On the surface the title of the sequence, Capriccio, is somewhat misleading.
The most obvious reference is to a musical term, denoting an improvisational,
lively, joyful, free-form instrumental work. Without even reading the sequence,
however, Baskin’s haunting illustrations would suggest otherwise. The
illustration on the title page, a human head (perhaps female) with hair standing
on end, with hands that appear to be claws poised over the frame of the picture at
shoulder level represents the general thematic environment of the full sequence.
Other accompanying illustrations, which include dark, rather threatening, black-
beaked animals; several skull-like animal heads; misshapen, twisted figures of
birds; a figure with sprouting hair; and a face of a woman (or possibly an animal)
encased in a shroud suggest that the archaic Italian definition of capriccio, or
“head with hair standing on end,” denoting horror, is closer to the story set out in
the narrative sequence. A related, perhaps even closer derivation that supports both
the narrative story line, and the accompanying broadside illustrations is
raccappriccio, from Italian, meaning horror or shudder. At the same time, the
opening poem, “Capriccios,” suggests that life is subject to chance, the
contingency of events, sheer dumb luck, the capricious acts of the gods—hence,
a whim. Here, the derivation is capra, or goat (one of the illustrations), which is
derived from the Latin caper. Overall, the capriccio of the title suggests
unmotivated acts, without purpose in any religious or mythical sense, as well as
horror, and these interpretations are borne out in the structure of the sequence.
Capriccio is structured on a relatively loose narrative framework, an interplay
of myth, history, biography, and some autobiographical elements. The individual
poems have an almost lapidarian effect, but the overall mood of the sequence is
finality. The opening poem, “Capriccios,” establishes the narrative line, and
announces the “chronicle of a death foretold,” or deaths, since the outcome is

2. “Flame,” was published in the Poetry Book Anthology in the fall of 1990. Hughes read
four of the poems that appeared in New Selected Poems— “Descent,” “Laws of the
Game,” (“The Other” in New Selected Poems), “Folktale,” and “Opus 131” on the Poet of
the Month broadcast on Radio 3. on April 9, 1992. At least four of the poems that
appeared in New Selected Poems were also published individually during 1992–1995.
Hughes made minimal changes to the poems published initially in Capriccio, and
published later in other venues; see Sagar and Tabor, Ted Hughes: A Bibliography.

never in doubt. “The Locket,” the second poem in the sequence, addresses Assia
directly, establishes her individual mythology, while the third poem, “The
Mythographers,” sets up the players in the tableau, the organizing myth of
Capriccio, and related mythological and biographical facts. Understanding of the
individual poems—or the sequence as a whole—flows directly from
“Capriccios,” and “The Mythographers.” (Collected Poems 783–6)
“Capriccios” appears initially to be a pastiche of Norse myths, Biblical as well
as Christian symbolism, and commonly held superstitions or beliefs. With the
references to Adam, Friday the thirteenth, the drunken gods, Good Friday, and
the bloodied halo, sponge, and nail in the opening few stanzas, however, Hughes
creates a cosmic portrait of the disordered, chaotic world of the gods and the
universe. Over this fractious universe, presides Frigga, the wife of Odin, the
protector of married love, often associated with fertility or childbearing. In an
earlier Germanic myth, she has given her name to Friday; in other words, Friday
is Frigga’s day. More important, Frigga’s nature is somewhat ambivalent: she
gives fruitfulness, and at the same time, also rules over the province of the dead.
References to the personal level are also implied but unstated: In “18 Rugby
Street,” in Birthday Letters, for example, Hughes recalls Plath’s visit, and their
lovemaking before she left for Paris on Friday the thirteenth, her father’s
birthday.3 Without exploring Hughes’s later sense that he was caught between
Plath and her father, “the god with the smoking gun,” and destined to fail, I
would only suggest here that the connections are implicit in “Capriccios.”
The world of “Capriccios” is one in which human beings are relatively
helpless, subject to the seemingly erratic, unmotivated events of life, and with
little control over death. Nowhere is this more clear than in Hughes’s mention of
“Loki’s gift,” “spermy mistletoe,” and “ship of tinder,” a direct reference to the
death and burial of Balder, the son of Frigga and Odin, brought about by Loki,
brother of Odin. Briefly, according to the myth, Balder has premonitions that his
life might be in jeopardy, and to protect him, Frigga extracted a pledge from all
living things, fire, water, and metals. She neglects the mistletoe, which Loki, in
the guise of trickster, directs the blind god Hother to throw at Balder, killing him
instantly. Mistletoe is generally considered to be a life-giving or divine essence,
but in “Capriccios,” it is also the instrument of death. Loki has created death, the

3. I appreciate Keith Sagar’s comment that Hughes was mistaken about the date of Plath’s
visit (April 13 in “18 Rugby Street”) before she left for Paris during spring vacation from
Cambridge. In excerpts from the unabridged journals published in The New Yorker,
March 27, 2000. (109), Plath writes on Monday, March 26, 1956: “Arrived in Paris early
Saturday evening exhausted from sleepless holocaust night with Ted in London.” Thus,
the date of her visit would have been March 23. Lucas Myers, a friend of Hughes and
Plath, and referred to in the poem, corroborates this date in his recent memoir (see Myers
43) Myers notes that he met Plath at The Lamb, a London pub on March 23, and took her
to see Hughes at 18 Rugby Street. Myers also notes that Plath returned from Europe on
April 13.

dominant theme of the sequence. Yet caprice, chance, lack of motivation are the
cause of fragmented myth, similar to the way in which the deaths of Assia and
Shura cut short the projected transforming myth of Crow.
Beginning in the sixth stanza, myth and actual events merge as Hughes refers
to “Frigga’s two-faced gift,” probably birth and death, and the narrative assumes
immediacy as it shifts to the personal: “Imagine the bride’s mirror/In the form of
a cauldron/Of the soul’s rebirth.” Associated with the female mana figure, the
cauldron is a vessel of life, death, and rebirth, as well as inspiration and magic. As
noted in The Great Mother, the transformative nature of the cauldron moves
through various stages: through dissolution and death, to the spirit or symptom
of rebirth, which leads to vision and word, often interpreted as fate (Neumann,
296–7). The poem then shifts to the early stages of the transformative process,
here defined in specific references: to Sylvia Plath “who forgot death,” to Assia,
“who forgot life,” and to Shura, who “sank without a cry.” The mention of the
“epicanthic fold lifted in the bride’s mirror,” which is essentially a fold of skin in
the upper eyelid that tends to cover the inner corner of the eye, connects directly
to “Life After Death” in Birthday Letters, where Hughes describes: “Your son’s
eyes, which had unsettled us/With your Slavic Asiatic/epicanthic fold/but would
become/So perfectly your eyes” (182) And the final lines of “Capriccios,”
“Remembering it: will make your palms sweat/The skin lift blistering, both your
lifeline’s bleed” reinforce the sense of horror that is at the heart of the sequence.
“Capriccios” establishes the cosmic terrain while “The Mythographers” sets
out the mythological architecture that governs the sequence. Briefly, Hughes’s
imagination was intensely mythic, and he believed that myths had the power to
us move us into greater areas of perception, to help us bridge or reconcile our
inner and outer worlds—ideally, to recover some sense of the numinous. The
overarching myth of Capriccio, is that of Lilith and Na’ama. This myth is key to
understanding the events—or at least the interpretation of the relationship and
actual events set forth in the sequence—and explains the placement and thematic
link to “The Dreamers” in Birthday Letters, a poem in which Hughes essentially
attempts to explain to Plath, that he was helpless, perhaps unwittingly seduced by
Assia, “A German/Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon.”
Lilith is a major figure in Jewish demonology, although earlier roots of the
legend can be traced to Babylonian and Sumerian demonology. She is also an
influential figure in the Kabbalah, the teachings of Jewish mysticism—which
Hughes had studied—and in the Zohar, the holiest book of the Kabbalah, and
commentary on the Pentateuch. In the Zohar, she is occasionally replaced by
Na’ama (Nehama in “The Mythographers”), while in other sources, Na’ama
operates in company with Lilith, and is occasionally defined as the mother of
demons. The name Lilith has been associated with lilah, the Jewish word for
night, and in some legends, she appears as a female demon flying around the
worlds at night, with the face of a woman, long hair, and wings (which supports
some of Baskin’s illustrations for Capriccio). In the Zohar, as well as in other
sources, Lilith (and by extension Nehama) has two primary roles: in the first, she

is the incarnation of lust, the seducer of men; and in the second, she attempts to
strangle newborn babies. Occasionally, when she finds no children, she turns on
her own.
In the earliest version of the legend, God created Lilith as a companion for
Adam, (here I refer to the first few lines of “The Mythographers,”) “When God
had created Man and Woman/He gave them to the Mythographers for testing.
Said the Mythographers:/Let there be Lilith.” The phrase “owlish from her hole
in the window,” refers to Lilith, the “screech owl,” mentioned in Isaiah 34.14,
the only time that her name appears in the Bible. Lilith and Adam fought
endlessly. She refused to be dominated in any aspect, particularly in her
lovemaking, captured here in a somewhat hallucinatory image. According to the
legend, Lilith flew out of the Garden of Eden, refused the three angels that Adam
sent to bring her back, claiming that her mission was to steal the souls of infants.
It is only when confronted with an amulet containing the names of three angels,
and the words, “Out Lilith,” that she will refrain from harming infants. Clearly,
this has not occurred in “The Mythographers,” as the narrator, or teller of the tale,
conflates and extends the myth in the concluding section of the poem, and in raw,
unflinching terms, describes the death of Nehama and the child.
The myths of Capriccio, for the most part, are those of woman as seducer and
destroyer—perhaps the dark side of the Great Mother archetype. Agency is
female-centered; and the speaker or narrator—in some poems an indeterminate
voice, in others, the first-person speaker, is essentially a passive respondent.
There is no hero descending into the underworld to rescue the woman, no
completed shamanic flight and return. Rather, in “Descent,” the fourth poem in
the sequence, the process of shedding the self begins with direct references to
Assia stripping off Germany (with “the crisp shirt of crossed lightnings” [here,
the reference is to SS symbols], Israel, Russia, British Columbia, ultimately her
child: “As your own hand, stronger than your choked outcry,/ Took your
daughter from/you.” The poem shifts from the personal to the mythic level with
the reference to Inanna, the Sumerian queen of heaven and earth, who “has to lie
naked” in the underworld, “between strata/That can never be opened, except as a
book.” The story of Inanna follows the pattern of the archetypal moon goddess.
With her descent into the underworld, Inanna has access to the mysteries of death
and rebirth, but according to some versions of the myth, she must first
understand and accept her neglected dark side before she can reemerge as the
goddess who rules over sky, earth, and the underground. At this stage of the
sequence, there is no resolution, no suggestion of return.
From this point on in the sequence, the speaker addresses Assia, the “you” of
the poems, directly, talking of her individual history, her Jewish ancestry—
actual, tribal, and Holocaust-related—and, at a more measured distance, their
relationship and her death. With the exception of “Flame,” perhaps, which
speaks of actual places in the north of England, where Hughes and Assia talked
of moving—and may have visited some time before her death, chronology is kept
to a minimum4 Although the poems, in general, are not grouped in an explicit

pattern, major related motifs are developed through shifts in language, tone, and
perspective. As noted, poems such as “The Locket,” “Smell of Burning,” and
“The Roof,” and, to varying degrees, “Snow,” “Shibboleth,” and “Familiar,”
speak of Assia’s entrenched, ceaseless fears of Nazi persecution of the Jews.
“Rules of the Game” (“The Other” in New Selected Poems) and “The Error,”
address what appeared to be Assia’s obsession, sheer envy, and perhaps
unresolved feelings of guilt about the death of Sylvia Plath.
The magnetic force of desire, with its implicit potential for self-destruction, is
profiled (in somewhat contemporary reworkings of the Lilith myth) in “The Pit
and the Stones” and “The Coat” where the narrator claims: “Nobody/Can deter
what saunters/ Up the ferny path between/The cool, well-ironed sheets, or what
spoor/Smudges the signature of the contract.” And in “Folktale,” one of the more
graphic representations of the potentially harsh, destructive capabilities of human
beings, the relationship founders on misunderstanding, questionable motives, and
absence of generosity.5 In some aspects, “Folktale” is the horrific dark side of the
optimistic vision of joyous union described by Hughes in “Bride and groom lie
hidden for three days” in Cave Birds. Before abandoning the Crow project,
Hughes intended that “Bride and groom,” would be the concluding poem of the
ultimately triumphant story of Crow, a response to the question of the Ogress,
“Who gives most, him or her?” (Faas 144).
Both “Folktale” and “Bride and Groom” are structured on notions of
reciprocity, but while the couple in “Folktale” are propelled by sheer self interest
(“He wanted…,”/ (“She wanted…”), “Bride and groom” builds on notions of
cooperation and generosity, culminating in vision of ideal love: “So gasping with
joy, with cries of wonderment/ Like two gods of mud/Sprawling in the dirt, but
with infinite care/They bring each other to perfection” (CB 56). “Bride and
groom” describes the dissolution of the self, the achievement of union, through
the transformative power of mutual giving, whereas the disintegration of the
relationship in “Folktale” suggests fragmented, incomplete myth.
Capriccio is shot in dark colors, shadows, images of death. The mythical
framework is in place, but the path to reintegration, to some sense of wholeness,
has been short-circuited. Some measure of hope, or at least protection, is
suggested in the brief concluding poem, “Chlorophyl,” with its interweaving of

4. There is also a degree of ambiguity regarding the narrative voice in “Flame,” and it
may be that the addressee is not Assia; rather, the somewhat indeterminate “you” may
actually be Hughes referring to himself. As mentioned previously, Hughes and Assia had
spoken of moving to the north of England. Allusions to the Duke’s powerful set speech in
Measure for Measure (Act III, Scene I), concrete place names in the north, and the more
specific mention of lines such as “You did not know how history had already/Cast you to
repeat yourself,” which probably refer to the death of Plath and now Assia, suggest that the
speaker is Hughes. Without knowing the concrete facts, it is still possible to assume that
within the context of the poem, even if the chronology is not exact, the “you” of “Flame”
is nevertheless Hughes.

imagery of the descent of the departed mother and daughter with the sycamore,
the Egyptian tree of life. In The Book of the Dead, “two sycamores of turquoise”
stand at the gate of heaven, and are associated with Nut, the goddess of heaven,
and coffin goddess who shelters or encloses the dead. And in the cabala, the tree
situated at the center of events in paradise represents knowledge of life and death.
Yet within the full context of Capriccio, the recurrent or structuring image of
“Chlorophyl,” “the keys/Of a sycamore” —possibly the fruits or seeds of
regeneration—and the accompanying illustration of the phoenix appear to be
more of an implied, even added—on prayer for resurrection and immortality,
rather than an achieved reality.
Capriccio, Birthday Letters, and Howls & Whispers can also be viewed as
fragments of one long sequence, or, more accurately, as separate, although
interrelated, sequences that speak to each other across separate frames. Some of
the more obvious guides to interpretation such as publication dates of the
sequences while suggestive, are generally inconclusive. Composition dates for
many of the poems are unknown. Several of the poems, which were later
included in Birthday Letters, were published as early as 1980,6 and Hughes
mentioned writing many of what we assume to be Birthday Letters poems (and
possibly poems included in Howls & Whispers) around 1995.7 Of greater
concern, however, is not the date of composition of the individual poems, but
rather the appearance and placement of separate poems in the sequences.
A detailed reading across the three sequences would suggest many
relationships, some clear differences, and provide more extensive analysis than
can be encompassed in the scope of this article. Nevertheless, some preliminary
comments are useful at this stage.
At the outset, the shifts in tone, emotional perspective, narrative progression,
and, more important, narrative voice suggest some differences among the three
sequences. The narrative voice in Birthday Letters, and, to some extent, in
Howls & Whispers is more conversational, more intimate than the voice of
Capriccio, where, as noted, the speaker tends to be a passive respondent. There are

5. There are several references to Assia, both direct and implied, in “Folktale” such as
“She wanted…escape without a passport”; “…an enemy without a gun”; and “…the hill-
stream’s tabula rasa,” which could indicate her desire to erase the past, to start life anew with
Hughes. The “leopard Ein Gedi” (between Jerusalem and Masada on the shores of the
Dead Sea), also seems to refer to Assia, and could have several connotations. While the
leopard is often associated with hunting and ruthless force, in some cultures, the leopard
is viewed as a lunar creature, which could relate to the myth established in Capriccio. I am
grateful for Leonard Scigac’s comments that the leopard can be associated with Dionysus
(cf. Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, where the panther is referred to as “a mythical
beast half-leopard, half-lion, sacred to Dionysus,”) or in Macedonian art, where
Dionysius, is often depicted riding a leopard, indicating a more effeminate aspect, of the
god. In “The Pan,” (Birthday Letters), the seductive attractiveness, along with
unsuspected, hidden danger of the woman with “leopard-claw ear-rings,” may also refer
to the Lilith myth that underpins Capriccio.

also subtle shifts in the narrative voice in a few of the poems of Howls &
Whispers such as “The City” and “The Offers,” which cut closer to the vein, and
reveal more of Hughes’s painful, unresolved feelings about Plath’s death than
many of poems in Birthday Letters. The most obvious question is why the poems
of Howls & Whispers were considered “strays,” why Hughes chose to publish
these eleven poems in a limited edition, not to include any in Birthday Letters,
and publish a couple of the poems separately in 1997 and 1998.8
Similarly, while the mythical framework of Capriccio helps to explain the
relationship, and the interplay between myth and actual events provides much of
the narrative integrity of the sequence, and perhaps a way for Hughes to come to
terms with the relationship, the use of myth also tends to distance or inhibit
emotional response. Myth is relegated to a secondary, although implicit role,
however, in the placement and ordering of the eight Assia poems from Capriccio
in New Selected Poems 1957–1994. The poems immediately follow the seven
Plath poems (published later in Birthday Letters), and “The Dogs are Eating Your
Mother,” the poem to Plath’s children. As I have suggested elsewhere, both the
Plath and Assia poems lose their individual franchise, because they are grouped
together within the Uncollected frame (Bere, Moulin 2000 240). The contiguous
placement of the poems does suggest the importance of the interrelationships
between the two women (with Hughes as the implied center), while the
placement of “The Other” and “The Error” as the bracketing poems in this group
reinforces the notion that the inescapable influence or “shadow” of Plath was a
major force in Assia’s death.
With the placement of “Capriccios,” as the opening poem of Capriccio, and
the same poem, with a few variances, as the closing poem of Howls & Whispers
(here, called “Superstitions”), Hughes has deliberately created a circular pattern
among the sequences, again suggesting the unpredictable, unmotivated nature of
events, and, more important, the impossibility of fulfillment of transforming or
completed myth. Finally, the decision to publish specific poems is always a
carefully considered decision, and the placement of individual poems in a
sequence also requires aesthetic decisions. Essentially, the creative act of writing
continues into the design of the sequence. Reading the poetry of Ted Hughes is
not simply a question of reading isolated poems, but rather of understanding the
complex, interconnectedness of the various sequences.

6. “You Hated Spain” was first published in Ploughshares 6:82–87, 1980; and “The
Earthenware Head” was published in The London Review of Books, 2:4 (February 21,
1980); see Sagar and Tabor, Ted Hughes: A Bibliography.
7. Ted Hughes: Timeline, compiled by Ann Skea. <http://www.zeta.org.au/~annskea/
timeline.htm> In a conversation with Skea in 1995, Hughes mentioned that he was writing
“about 100 poems about things I should have resolved thirty years ago. Should have
written then, but couldn’t.”
8. “The City,” was published in The Sunday Times, Int’l edition, Book section, October
26, 1997; and “The Offers” in The Sunday Times, October 18, 1998.
“Dead Farms, Dead Leaves:” Culture as
Nature in Remains of Elmet & Elmet
Terry Gifford

First, the immortals dwelling on Olympos

Fashioned a golden race of human beings
Under the reign of Kronos, king of heaven.
They lived like gods, with hearts immune from care,
Remote from toil and trouble, ignorant
Of vile old age; with never-failing limbs
They danced and feasted, far from every evil,
Dying as though subdued by sleep. All blessings
Were theirs, for fertile fields, uncultivated,
Brought forth abundant crops, and people lived
Peacefully off the land.
(Hesiod, Works and Days [c. 700 BC] Torrance 287)

Hesiod’s description of the Golden Age is regarded as the earliest antecedent of

pastoral, the idealised literary mode that came, four centuries later in the Idylls of
Theocritus to be associated with shepherds and their pipes, and four centuries
later again, to be located in the literary construct Virgil overlaid on the
Peloponnese region of Arcadia. Ovid retold a version of the Greek myth of the
Golden Age and Ted Hughes’s version of this pastoral is expressed with ironic
contemporary relevance: “Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.”
The poem “Open to Huge Light,” from Remains of Elmet, however, evokes the
opposite of Arcadia. The humans are sheep and the (wind-)shepherds, who, in a
twist of the pastoral iconography, are now playing “the reeds of desolation”
rather than idealisation, are revealed by Fay Godwin’s photograph to be trees.
That the sheep’s heads might hold any awareness of the nature of that desolation,
or any awareness of their responsibility for it, seems unlikely. They are not
“listening deeply to the source.” Startled by something—that flash of emptiness
—they turn back to the business of eating, or rather, to unpack the metaphor,
business as eating. This poem both celebrates the celestial light to which these
two trees are witness before this wind-blown Yorkshire moor, and the end of the
pastoral as a mode of celebration. Here is merely emptiness, actually deforested
in the uplands by a Bronze Age culture based upon wood: houses, fencing,

heating, ships (Rackham 35). Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s version of the

Golden Age makes the point by continuing: “Then the great conifers/Ruffled at
home on the high hills./They had no premonition of the axe/Hurtling towards
them on its parabola./Or of the shipyards.” (TO 9)
In Elmet, published after fifteen years as a completely reconstituted second
edition of Remains of Elmet, the poem previously titled by its first line, “Open
To Huge Light” is now titled, as many of the earlier first-line-titled poems are, to
reveal its location: “Two Trees at Top Withens.” And the second edition’s better
print (now duotone) of the photograph reveals the desolation of the broken stone
walls at Top Withens, a ruin which is the location of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering
Heights. So here are a second (physical) and third (literary) sense in which
human culture contributes to the desolation of this actual place. “Two Trees at
Top Withens” is a post-pastoral poem and one which hints that human culture,
whilst being as natural as eating, is also as self-absorbed and as head-down to its
“Post-pastoral” is a term I coined at the Ted Hughes conference ten years ago
(Sagar, 1994 129ff), partly as a joke—it was the age of post-structuralism, post-
colonialism, postmodernism and post-feminism. But I found that I had to take
my own joke seriously because I needed the term to characterise literature that,
“listening deeply kept faith with the source” in a mode which, whilst avoiding
pastoral Golden Age idealisation, was not limited by the simple opposition of
anti-pastoral. I have since refined the concept in the final chapter of my book
Pastoral to include six features which can be briefly, crudely, listed as a
recognition (I) that a “listening” awe should lead to humility, (II) that the
“source” is a creative-destructive universe, (III) that human nature is a continuum
of outer nature, (IV) that nature is culture and culture is nature, (V) that
consciousness produces conscience and a responsibility to define what “keeping
faith with the source” should mean, (VI) that the exploitation of natural resources
is not separate from the exploitation of social groups. Of course, these features
are not unproblematic absolutes; each requires definition in relation to texts.
Whilst they appear to be epistemological (that is, concerned with how we know),
they are more importantly ontological (concerned with how to be).
One of the concepts which I have found to be most problematic is the notion
of culture as nature. Post-structuralism has left a legacy of an easy capacity to
conceive of nature as culturally constructed by language, and BSE reminds us (in
England) that we culturally construct nature in material terms as well. Indeed,
Leonard M. Scigaj’s opposition to Derridian différance and the deferral of
meaning, with the notion of référance, is a timely intervention to refer “one’s
perceptions beyond the printed page to nature, to the referential origin of all
language” (Sustainable Poetry 38). It is crucial that the words “conifers,” “axe”
and “shipyards” do refer to real things because we have to take responsibility for
our past relationships with them in the undeferrable decisions we are actually
making all the time in the present. So perhaps nature is more obviously (and,
indeed, dangerously) culture, than culture is capable of being perceived as nature.

But throughout the work of Ted Hughes that which is human culture is
characterised in terms that imply that it is, fundamentally, nature. Nowhere is
this more evident than in Remains of Elmet, with an interesting added emphasis
in the additions to that project in Elmet. Not only are “Dead Farms, Dead
Leaves” in that poem’s title, but the industrial revolution, the opposite of
“natural” to a writer like D.H.Lawrence, is, in its death throes, characterised by
Hughes’s imagery as part of the creative-destructive cycles of nature. This is
both a radical conflation of long-standing separation of first, civilisation and
nature, art and nature, then industrialism and nature in English culture, and a return
to the earliest European sense of the grounding of human culture within nature.
Ovid echoes Hesiod in describing the decline of human life from the Golden
Age through the ages of silver and bronze to the assumed present Age of Iron
where, in Hughes’s translation, “Earth’s natural plenty no longer sufficed…
Precious ores the Creator had concealed/As close to hell as possible/Were dug up
—a new drug/ For the criminal (TO 12). But it need not have been like this—the
exploitation of the earth as of people in “criminal” behaviour. Even when the
earlier Age of Brass had “brought a brazen people” in Hughes’s words, “still/
Mankind listened deeply/To the harmony of the whole creation,/And aligned/
Every action to the greater order” (TO 10). And Hesiod’s Work and Days goes
beyond the pastoral to offer advice, in the Age of Iron, on wholesome husbandry
that anticipates a strand of “aligned” rural work literature that takes its name from
Virgil’s The Georgics. (Of course, Hughes’s Moortown sequence of poems is a
contemporary georgic in the tradition of Hesiod, with an anti-pastoral emphasis).
Peter Coates’ recent survey of Western conceptions of nature traces the
separation of culture and nature to the great poet of the generation before Ovid,
Titus Lucretius (99–55 BC), whose poem On The Nature Of Things
distinguishes, in the very voice of nature, between the body which is to be
celebrated as naturally mortal, and the mind that can be “liberated” to
“contemplate the nature of all things” (Torrance 407). Thus began a Manichaean
dualism that in its often dominant forms privileged mind over body, civilisation
over nature, science over arts, virtual over material, indoor keyboard consumers
over sensory interactors with land in David Abram’s terms (268), modern
goddesses over postmodern cyborgs in Donna Harraway’s terms (181). The
subversive form of this dualistic thinking took its starting point in classical
pastoral, flourished in eighteenth century Romanticism, and then in modern
resistances to industrialism and later technology. Here the value system is
reversed, foregrounding or favouring body over mind, nature over the works of
man, imagination over empiricism, the instinctive over the rational, the organic
to the genetically modified, sky burial to the crematorium in poet Graham Mort’s
terms (57), “the power of sun and moon” used by Lucretius, rather than nuclear
power. In its dominant forms and its subversive reversals the separation
of culture from nature has increased the distance over which our species must
“listen deeply/To the harmony of the whole creation.” What Lucretius was
breaking was a harmony of culture and nature at the heart of Greek poetry.

Torrance reminds us that “There could be no “nature poetry” in classical Greece,

for the natural world could never be conceived apart from the human” (275).
In Remains of Elmet Hughes looks around at the remains of the human project
in the upper Calder Valley, writing, as Lucretius momentarily did, as “if Nature
suddenly should find a voice” (Torrance 406), but with a holistic view of “the
whole creation.” Hughes’s perspective is therefore a long one and his theme is
decay, beginning with the “corpse” of the glacier that shaped the Calder Valley
in the title poem which, perhaps surprisingly, was omitted from the second
edition. Hughes lists glacier, farms, mill-towns and their population as
responsible for his conclusion: “Now, coil behind coil,/A wind-parched ache,/An
absence, famished and staring,/Admits tourists/To pick among crumbling, loose
molars/And empty sockets” (RE 53). In his introduction to Elmet he adds the
First World War and Methodism to the “cataclysms” that contributed to his sense
that, growing up in this place, “gradually it dawned on you that you were living
among the survivors.” The difference between the two books and the tone of
their introductions, and perhaps the reason for dropping the title and poem
“Remains of Elmet,” is the difference in emphasis between “empty sockets” and
“survivors.” This might also be seen as the difference between the destructive
and creative tensions in nature, or between, as the later introduction puts it,
“pressurised stagnation” and “fermenting independence” in the region’s history.
Before I return to this difference between the two editions, I want to
demonstrate the poetic devices by which Hughes characterises culture, the
various forms of the human enterprise in this place, as nature. “Lumb
Chimneys,” the model example, has been dropped from the second edition and
its telling photograph has been placed beside the important poem “Chinese
History of Colden Water” (a symptomatic revision of the first edition’s poem
“The Trance of Light”). “Lumb Chimneys” reverses metaphors so that we
understand nature by human comparison (“And the nettle venoms into place/Like
a cynical old woman in the food-queue”) and decaying culture by comparison
with natural processes (“Before these chimneys can flower again/They must fall
into the only future, into earth”). This technique for the conflation of culture and
nature, which so often ends with an image of culture as nature, is again in
evidence in the retained and revised poem “First, Mills.” After building mills,
cenotaphs were necessary, after crown greens for the ancient art of bowls, “the
railway station/That bled this valley to death” for the First World War. Nature is
“requisitioned” (changed from the less specifically military “commandeered”) by
culture: “Then the hills were requisitioned/For gravemounds.” The cover
photograph shows in its far left corner a hill-top cenotaph. But the poem ends:
“And now—two minutes silence/In the childhood of earth.” The “cataclysms”
that hung over Hughes’s childhood (one of which is still remembered by two
minutes silence each November 11th) were merely a brief time in the earth’s
evolution, although they were a part of it, if only as “everything fell wetly to

This was, of course, only the stage of the process whereby dead farms, like
dead leaves, “cling to the long/Branch of the world” as “the hills went on
gently/ Shaking their sieve.” This evolutionary phrase from “When Men Got To
The Summit” foregrounds the hills and the process of “sieving” against the failed
human habitation of these hills, as even the puritanical force of “the hard,
foursquare scriptures fractured.” This sieving metaphor raises two questions
which ought to be addressed in considering the notion of culture as nature. First,
if it’s easy to observe what falls through the sieve, what remains? What are the
positive remains of Elmet? Second, is all that falls through, like all that remains
in the hills’ sieve, of equal value? Is there no distinction between dead farms and
dead mills in terms of human suffering, for example? Is the television that
remains in the homes of Hebden Bridge of equal value to, say, the survivor’s
spirit of “outcast and outlaw,” the inheritors of Billy Holt (E 51) who remain in
Hebden Bridge? “Nevertheless, for some giddy moments/A television/Blinked
from the wolf’s lookout” (RE 56).
I will answer the second question first. Clearly some aspects of human culture,
although “nature” in the broadest sense of being products of what Gary Snyder
calls “the wild mind” (Snyder 168), are more self-destructive, or alienating from
external nature, than others. Human culture exterminated the wolf and now
humans look at nature programmes about wolves on television in houses sited
where the Elmet wolf might have looked out. (The photograph of the television
aerial standing alone above a ravine has been omitted from the second edition).
But the humans’ and the wolf’s are not the same kinds of looking. Of course,
Hughes hints, human culture might so alienate itself from “listening deeply” to
the whole creation that it follows the fate of the wolf in Elmet, after “some giddy
moments” in the timescale of the creation. (That is, the wolf, and the foxes of
Elmet, might have the last laugh). And certainly Remains of Elmet regularly
recognises the exploitation of mill-workers, as of nature, in the Calder Valley.
“Slavery” is a word used about both stone and people in the poem “Hill-Stone Was
Content.” This recognition is also present in the second edition. The Chinese
immortal who falls asleep beside Colden Water wakes in terror at the sounds of
hammer, looms, clog-irons, biblical texts and gutter water that has resulted from
the exploitation of this brook and its valley that seemed to be an idyllic “leafy
conch of whispers.”
But the answer to the first question—what remains in the sieve—lies in the
difference between the two editions. In the first, culture is in natural decay:
industrialism, farming, religion, even childhood memories. The new tourism is
an empty kind of casual, so far “unheritaged,” accident—“pick[ing] among
crumbling, loose molars.” But that image is absent from the second edition, the
poem “Remains of Elmet” excised and a new title chosen implying the continuity
of place—simply Elmet. Twenty poems of the sixty-two poems were dropped
from the first edition and twenty new to the book were inserted into the second
edition. (Of the twenty dropped, eighteen had already been dropped for Three
Books published a year earlier and six poems dropped for Three Books were

reinstated, or revised, in Elmet, indicating some considered rethinking of the

project over a period of time). Of the twenty poems new to the both editions,
four came from the Hawk in the Rain, two from Lupercal, and one each from
Recklings and Wodwo. (Sagar and Tabor, in their invaluable Bibliography 1946–
1995, miss two poems from those indicated as first published in the second
edition: “Familiar” —a different text from that of the same title in the 1990
limited edition Capriccio—and “Slump Sundays”) (105). This endorses
Hughes’s view of this project as reported by Fay Godwin, that “this was his
definitive collection of Calder Valley poems” (Gammage 107).
The revised poem now titled “Chinese History of Colden Water” ends by
replacing the earlier version’s sense of a land emptied of any signs of human
culture—a land “Heavy with the dream of a people” —with the line “all but the
laughter of foxes.” The lightness of this is symptomatic of the difference in tone
between the two editions, although the additions to the second edition celebrate
more than foxes. All of the previously uncollected poems in Elmet, with the
exception of “Telegraph Wires” are family reminiscences. Keith Sagar reports
Hughes telling him that the sequencing of poems in the two books was not a
matter of significance (The Laughter of Foxes 28). My recent interview with Fay
Godwin indicates that her suggestions led their joint process of sequencing the
contents (see Appendix below). But the placing of the new family poems
towards the end of Elmet cannot be ignored. Their focus is not so much on a lost
childhood, as they might have been in the earlier book, but on the celebration of
what might be called “the spirit of Billy Holt” (see Sutcliffe, Cockroft and
Pease). The last two poems in Elmet are about survival under the shadow of the
aftermath of the First World War, whilst “Walt” counterbalances the fact that he
survived to make his fortune (1893–1976), with the “skyline tree-fringe” of “all
that was left”.1 “Sacrifice” extends the admiration for a family member who
survived being the “sacrificed” youngest brother, “born bottom of the heap”
(presumably Albert, 1902–1947, the brother of Walt, 1893–1976, and Hughes’s
father William Henry, 1894–1981). “His laugh thumped my body,” Hughes
writes, celebrating the spirit that also survived the motorcycle accident which he
laughs to recall. Together with his father in “Familiar” and his brother in
“What’s The First Thing You Think Of?” the fact that these are warmly
remembered family members adds a living vitality to Elmet that could not be
encompassed by the verdict of the introduction to the first book, “Within the last
fifteen years the end has come.” The evidence of the decay of the mills and
chapels is still there, but the last sentence of the introduction to the second
edition emphasises what is left in the sieve, above the remains that have fallen
through: “Gradually, it dawned on you that you were living among the survivors,
in the remains.” “The remains” are not now so much what is dead, but what has
survived. Of Fay Godwin’s new photographs in the second edition eight contain
the presence of people, those survivors, including three photographs of children
replacing the one in the first edition. (Fay Godwin suggests that this was not a
conscious strategy on her part in the interview below.)

I want to highlight two dimensions to the spirit of survivors behind Elmet, the
second edition, that are the subject of recent theoretical elaboration in English
cultural geography and social anthropology associated with Lancaster and
Manchester universities respectively. In both disciplines there is a recognition of
a modern collapse of the categories of culture and nature that might be seen to
have both negative and positive consequences.
First, a contemporary cultural geography of Elmet would observe that these two
books have themselves contributed to, not just the cultural representation, but the
cultural reconstruction of nature and the natural in the upper Calder Valley. They
must now be seen as, in a small way, contributory to the region’s cultural
regeneration and continuing survival. In a radio reading from Remains of Elmet
in 1980 Hughes followed his reading of “For Billy Holt” with an introduction to
“When Men Got To The Summit,” in which he said: “It has even been
rediscovered as a hideout from society. In the mid-sixties Hebden Bridge was
declared the hippy capital of the United Kingdom” (BBC Radio 3, 3.10 1980).
The inheritors of the “outcast[s] and outlaw[s]” described in the poem “For Billy
Holt,” including the hippies of the sixties, have flourished in Hebden Bridge
which is now a centre for a thriving alternative culture in which nature has a
strong presence in those industrial remains. Significantly Hughes wrote in the
introduction to Elmet that the old Methodism had been superseded by “the new
age.” “New Age” bookshops leak whale-song into the streets of Hebden Bridge.
The Walkley Clog factory, the last in the UK, is also jangling with jewelry and
craft shops inside its austere mill building. A recent Channel Four documentary
revealed that Todmorden has more psychotherapists in the population than
anywhere else in the UK (“Darkest England,” 24.1.2000). Lumb Bank, the
creative writing centre established by Hughes a quarter of a century ago, can now
be seen as an established part of the Calder Valley tourist industry. The plaque
on N° 1 Aspinal St. is not the blue one of English Heritage such as Plath was
delighted to find on her final house in London (LH 477), but one erected by the
Mytholmroyd Residents’ Association. A writer seeking to be a self-imposed
“outcast” from London can find no better alternative than Mytholmroyd, as the
Guardian reported recently in the case of novelist Sarah Champion: “No sooner
had Champion begun to unpack her lava lamp and flying ducks than she
discovered that her new house was the birthplace of Ted Hughes’s (23.10.1999).
The Hebden Bridge Times reported on April 2nd 1999 plans to establish a Ted
Hughes Heritage Centre in the derelict Mytholmroyd railway station. The canal
behind N° 1 Aspinal St, featured in Elmet, has been renovated and reconnected to
Lancashire, a symbol of Yorkshire confidence in the regeneration of heritage, as

1. In fact, it was a visit from “Uncle Walt” to Devon that resurrected the Remains of
Elmet project in Hughes’s mind as a kind of “episodic biography,” as Hughes outlined to
Fay Godwin in a letter of 4th July 1976. This was before the photographs and the place
itself took over the project of the first book.

cultural industry replaces the woollen industry and clogs-irons ring for style
rather than work.
But the Hebden Bridge Literary and Philosophical Society at which I heard
Hughes read in the early 1970s, like The Boarding House (“Overlooking the
Crags, Close to the Moors, Parties Catered for”) were featured in the tourist
guide of 1927 (Wilcock 23). So, in the timescale Hughes deploys in these two
books, are these merely “some giddy moments” of cultural flourish, or a culture
surviving by “listening” better? In Contested Natures, Macnaghten and Urry
argue that such distinctions are now harder to make:

The innovations of twentieth-century science have rendered the distinction

between natural and social time as invalid and lead us yet again to
conclude that there is no simple and sustainable distinction between nature
and society. They are ineluctably intertwined. There are therefore many
different times (as indeed there are different spaces) and it is not possible
to identify an unambiguous social time separate from natural time.
(Macnaghten & Urry 29)

So there is both our sense of glacial time and personal memory and “heritage
regeneration” in the present, in a space we might call a valley, a retreat, a
crucible of water power, a corridor and a tourist centre. In “Walt” memory is
overlaid on memory in a multilayered construction of nature (“the skyline tree-
fringe”) that is itself a celebration of “kinship,” the name we give to one
experience of culture as nature (“as through binoculars”). Walt’s binoculars of
time and space are shown us through the poem’s binoculars of time and space. In
a sense, any study of the Elmet project has to, in Macnaghten and Urry’s terms,
“decipher the implications of what has always been the case, namely, a nature
elaborately entangled and fundamentally bound up with social practices and their
characteristic modes of cultural representation” (30). For Walt, as for Hughes, as
for the reader, “Natures are in time as they are in place” (167). Culture is
nature’s way of helping us decipher our relationship with nature. Memory,
kinship, time and place give definition to “the skyline tree-fringe” in the poem
and contribute to our understanding of the ways it can be “all that was left” in the
poem’s final line. That “all,” may be empty for Walt, full for Hughes, and both
for the reader.
The social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern would find Hughes’s increased
emphasis on “natural” family ties in this landscape interesting less as an example
of culture as nature than as a case of what she calls “postplurality.” Her book is
called After Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century and argues
that although comparatively recently diversity of individualism and social groups
was to be valued (fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles in Elmet are celebrated for
their idiosyncrasies), and “the person was seen as “part” of nature,” we now
value the overlapping of what had been regarded as separate and distinctive. The
final chapter of her book is titled “Nostalgia from a postplural world.” Nature, she

says, which had provided a model or analogy for human kinship, is no longer a
stable contextualising category. When postmodernism showed that nature was
culture, culture could no longer be nature. “Kinship was regarded as an area of
primordial identity and inevitable relations. It was at once part of the natural
world that regenerated social life and provided a representation of this
relationship with them” (198). Dead fathers, dead farms, dead leaves could all be
seen both metaphorically and literally to “cling to the long/Branch of the world.”
But, Strathern would argue, once that branch was only perceived as metaphor,
“the grounding function” of nature disappeared (195). Coates concludes that “the
greatest threat to nature today” is not pollution in its now highly technical forms
from gene manipulation to the computer virus as new life-form, but “the
postmodernist challenge” —the circular discourse about the instability of the
category of “pollution” (184). This would debate virtually dead leaves, culturally
dead farms on the cyborg branch of the world in which there can be no verb “to
This brings us back to the Lucretian separation of mind and body, language
and nature—a world in which human intersubjectivity takes place in a different
realm from our sensuous relationship with the non-human. The result,
anthropologist Tim Ingold observes, is human beings who,

as social beings…are destined to remain permanently suspended in such

semantic webs, while their bodies continue to be firmly anchored in the
material relations of the object world—relations that may furnish
metaphorical resources for social cognition but that are, by the same token,
partitioned off from it… Social life goes on, according to this scenario, and
indeed will always go on, beyond the edge of nature; society floats like a
mirage above the road we tread in our material life (238).

In his brilliant essay “Life beyond the Edge of Nature?” Ingold argues that if
nature is regarded as subject rather than object, and a world that is interactively
transforming itself rather than working out some kind of DNA pre-programming,
“it is a world, if you will, not of intersubjectivity but of interagentivity” (249).
Culture is then what we call our evolving “relationships within the continuum of
organic life” (250), “our listening deeply” to our poet’s evocation of both “the
laughter of foxes” (E 42) and the knowing laughter of the human survivors
Ted Hughes’s Crying Horizons: “Wind” & the
Poetics of Sublimity
Christian La Cassagnère

Originally published in Ted Hughes’s first book of poems, The Hawk in the
Rain, in 1957, “Wind” was ten years later one of the few compositions of his that
the poet singled out to exemplify his discussion of the creative experience in Poetry
in the Making. The poem was thus republished, in the chapter entitled “Wind and
Weather,” to illustrate the idea that creative writing originates within the
creator’s self in the intensity of a genuine experience, however commonplace its
occasion may be: “A strong wind certainly stirs your mind up, as if it actually
could enter your head, and sometimes on such occasions you get the feeling of
having lost your bearings, and that something terrible is about to happen, almost
as if it were the beginning of an earthquake. On and off I live in a house on top
of a hill in the Pennines, where the wind blows without obstruction across the
tops of the moors. I have experienced some gales in that house, and here is a
poem I once wrote about one of them.” (33)
The composition of “Wind” was thus to Hughes a memorable moment of
writing; and he seemed to regard it as representative of his poetic impulse. But if
the poem commends itself as an object of close reading, it is chiefly because it
brings into play, in the nutshell of its single page, the fundamental adventure of
Hughes’s creation, namely, as Joanny Moulin has emphasized in his recent book,
meeting the real: the Tyche theorized by Aristotle in his Physics and reinterpreted
by Lacan as “la rencontre du réel” (Lacan 1973, 55), that real—whatever we
mean by it: this will be my concern in this essay—being at any rate experienced
as traumatic, as Lacan observes (55) and as Hughes forcefully suggests when
speaking, in “Egg Head” (10)1, of the “manslaughtering shocks” from the world
as it impinges on consciousness, and as an “otherness” (still to quote “Egg
Head”), as an alterity on which language, or more generally the symbolic order,
has no grasp because it cannot do anything but substitute its autonomous system
of signifying forms. A poem, in such conditions, cannot but be a self-defeating
space in which a subject of language—i. e. originating and existing in the order
of language—attempts to meet the real in a field that excludes it by nature.
Is the poetic venture, then, a further evidence that the real is, as Lacan argues,
“what the subject is doomed to miss” (39)? Is the poem bound to be the place of
a “rencontre manquée” (54) of a missed meeting? Such is precisely, at bottom,
the problem explored by “Wind,” whose true object is not so much a cosmic

phenomenon as the status of language: the highly problematic capacity of the

poetic signifier to register the “manslaughtering shocks” of the real without
abolishing itself as language. An issue, I would suggest, that reactivates
somehow a question that was at the heart of the concept of sublimity as it was
understood in (pre)romantic art and theories of art, namely as an aesthetics of the
impossible and, in literature, as a poetics of the unutterable: let us remember
Burke’s praise, in his Enquiry (55), of Milton’s negative description of Death in
Paradise Lost as a paradigmatic instance of the sublime. I would thus like to
suggest in a reading of “Wind” how the poem reexplores in its own way the
problematics of sublimity, how it struggles to articulate it anew, and so how, in
this particular light, Ted Hughes does appear to us, after Yeats and in the very
field of modernity, as one of the last romantics.

Beyond the horizon of language

My reading will be grounded on the observation of two structural features of the
text, two features that seem conflicting and which I would like to use as keys to
two alternative readings: the poem’s strongly formalized construction, and yet,
within this construction, the presence of rupture, of discontinuity which tends to
deconstruct the pattern, however insistently it maintains itself (almost) until the
The first feature may seem paradoxical in that while having “wind” as its
referent, in other words a sheer “energy” in the Blakian sense, refusing all form
that would “contain” it, the poem presents itself—visually in its layout as well as
auditively—as a firm metrical construct, with its clear division into six four-line
groups that repeat the same stanza design; each stanza being moreover self-
bounded by a network of phonic repetitions—consonances and assonances—
occurring at the end of all lines (with the only exception of lines 2 and 3) and thus
shaping the stanza into a quatrain with enveloping rhymes (in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and
5th stanzas) or alternating rhymes (in the 3rd and 6th). And within the stanza the
lines, whose boundaries are marked out by the terminal rhymes, repeat basically
the same five stressed pattern, so a set verse design, straight away established in
the opening line, “This house has been far out at sea all night,” a decasyllable in
which the ear definitely identifies an iambic pentameter loaded with spondaic
That seeming paradox of the “watertight compartment of words,” to borrow
Dylan Thomas’ phrase, that has as its object a shapeless force—“woods
crashing… Winds stampeding… Floundering” —has no doubt its deeper logic, a
logic whose best formulation might be found in the poem of another poet, the
self-portrait of Yeats in the writing act:

1. Except when otherwise stated, references to Ted Hughes’s poetry are to the New
Selected Poems, 1957–1994 (NSP).

…the elemental creatures go

About my table to and fro
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;
Yet he who treads in measured ways
May surely barter gaze for gaze (Yeats, 57)

What Yeats is stressing, in this metapoetic passage which is fully relevant, I

think, to Hughes’s poem, is the necessity of controlling form to cope with the real.
The limits which the poetic signifier keeps on inscribing within itself in “Wind”
are the securities that protect the subject—whose representative, “I,” will not
venture into the text until line 9, so as the stanza design has been twice
established—from being engulfed by whatever “raging” forces he is confronted
with: much in the same way as in “Meeting,” the poem next to “Wind” in the
New selected Poems (13), stages the irruption of the goat’s “devil head” in the
close-knit safety net of the terza rima. In other words in “Wind,” the poem’s
coded and regulated dis-course is Hughes’s speaker’s way of “treading in
measured ways” as he ventures into the fleld of an impossible real.
The poem thus sounds, on the whole, like the narrative of a mythical journey,
an initiatory journey which is doubly inscribed: first in the opening line which
establishes the isotopy of the night sea-voyage, then throughout the poem in its
narrative dimension which is underpinned by a sequence of temporal terms, from
“all night” (1.1) to “Till day” (1.5) to “At noon” (1.9) and finally to the “Now”
of line 18 which introduces an epiphanic present. As such, “Wind” inevitably
tends to read like a variation on the “shamanic flight” pattern, a major and well-
known reference of Hughes in his analytical writings, so the ritual journey in
which the shaman (to quote Hughes in his 1970 interview about Crow) “goes to
the spirit-world…to get something badly needed” (Faas, 206) or, in terms of
artistic creation, the course of the poet set upon “opening negociations with
whatever happen[s] to be out there” (201), “far out at sea.”
In its basic opposition between two places, here within and far out, between
“house” and “horizon” —the two alliterating words at the two ends of the
signifying chain—, the poem projects a topography in the Freudian sense, in
other words a psychical space where “house,” a locus immediately connected in
the opening phrase with the subject of enunciation through the deictic “this,”
appears as a metonymic image of the “I,” i. e. the meditating, self-transparent,
self-protected ego that “entertain[s] book, thought” and social conversation (l.20–
21), that aspect of the psyche which Hughes designates, in his major essay on
Coleridge, as “the wall of intellectual ego” (WP 420). The journey thus appears
as a decentering movement of the subject from an ego, initially experienced as
central, to another “far out” locus, so that the poem’s trajectory defines itself as a
search for that “ex-centricity” Lacan speaks about in his comment on Freud’s
basic discovery, namely that “the subject does not coincide with its intellect, it is

not on the same axis, it is ex-centric… Let us stick to this topographic metaphor:
the subject is decentered from the individual. That is the meaning of Je est un
autre (Lacan 1978 17).
I is an Other, the “I” discovers itself as Other: such seems to be the ritual at
work in the poem, a ritual where the ego (as alienating centre) has to be
displaced in all the forms that represent it in the signifying field, i. e. “I,” “we”
(its extension in the order of speech) and “house” (its metonymic stand-in). And
here, ironically, the fixed limits of metre are made to serve the decentering
process, for whenever they occur, the signifiers of the ego appear in a different
place in the line space: successively in the positions of syllable 2, 3, 6, 10, 9 and
5. In the poem’s space, therefore, the “I” (or its equivalent) is never given any
stable stance from which to speak. It hardly survives, adrift like a wreckage
tossed in a verbal sea—the poem itself being that sea, a “sea of ink,” if it may
borrow George Herbert’s metaphor—until it completely submerges in the final
stanza through the syntactic ritual that superposes four parallel clauses whose
sequence performs, as it were in a filmic effect, an ellipsis of the grammatical
subject: “We watch the fire blazing,/ And feel the roots of the house move, but
sit on,/Seeing the window tremble to come in,/Hearing the stones cry out under
the horizons.”
The elliptic process should be read literally, as an aphanisis in the Lacanian
sense (Lacan 1973 197–210), namely as a fading of the subject as ego—as
existing in “book,” “thought” and discourse (1.20–21), in other words in the
symbolic order—, which allows the emergence of the Other, i. e. of the subject
as a subject of desire, existing “a long way from the world of words” (PM, 119)
and irrupting at the poem’s end in the “cry:” so a sheer vocal occurrence arising
straight from the body, free of the mediation and the interdicts of the linguistic
law—like those “cries” Hughes will evoke in Gaudete, coming “from the awkward
gullets of beasts/That will not chill into syntax “(G, 176)—an animal language
manifesting, in its immediacy, the naked truth of desire. At the end of the
shamanic journey there is thus no vision but a hearing, that of an unthinkable
sound: the stones’ cry whose utter strangeness is registered in the uncanny
rhythm of the final line behind which now we can no longer recognize any ghost
of a known metre, which makes it metrically “unsayable” —to use a term
Hughes took up from a review qualifying another final line of his, that of “The
Horses” (WP 320)—, an unsayableness moreover that captures us, in the reading
performance it imposes on us, into psychosomatic participation in the
uncanniness. We may think at this point of Lacan’s observation that “the ears are
in the field of the unconscious the only opening that cannot be stopped” (Lacan
1973 178). And we may think, above all, of Hughes’s own observation, in his
later comment on the Orghast experiment, that however incommunicable the
otherness may be, “here and there, it may be, we hear it… Some animals and
birds express this being pure and without effort, and then you hear the whole
desolate, final actuality of existence in a voice, a tone. There we really do recognize
a spirit, a truth under all truths. Far beyond human words. And the startling

quality of this “truth” is that it is terrible. It is for some reason harrowing, as well
as being the utterly beautiful thing” (WP 124–5).
This observation might be read as a gloss to the unthinkable final line of the
poem. And it should be realized at the same time that between the two texts—the
observation and the poem—Hughes is actually offering his reinterpretation of
sublimity (although he does not introduce the term), emphasizing as he does the
violence and brevity characteristic of the “sublime” experience (“here and there,
it may be”), its specific intricacy of terror and pleasure (the Burkean oxymoron of
the “delightful horror” (Burke 67) being rearticulated in Hughes’s “terrible
beautiful”), while stressing as well (in “far beyond human words”) the
transgression inherent in the access to sublimity, since it involves breaking
through the boundaries of the Law to which the speaking subject is normally
submitted, the ethical as well as the linguistic Law, which makes an utterance
speakable: a transgression which the poem inscribes within itself in the violent
images of dangerous overstrain ready to blow up limits: “The tent of the hills
drummed and strained its guyrope,/The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,/At
any second to bang and vanish with a flap” (ll. 12–14), images at the poem’s
centre which are not so much descriptions of a landscape as self-metaphors of
the poem in its sublimity, a mise en abyme of the exploding poem.
The sublime moment, if it happens, thus happens on the extreme edge of
enunciation, where the poem breaks open into the cry that rises from beyond the
frontier of the symbolic order, and into the silence that rushes in through the cry.
That frontier where the poetic voice ventures at the risk of its death, where “I”
dies into “cry”, is the horizon of Hughes’s poetic myth: those “horizons,” those
“skylines” which often appear—especially in The Hawk in the Rain, as here in
“Wind,” or again in “The Jaguar” (5), or in “The Horses” (8) as well—at the
poem’s end and which are always described as places of vision and chiefly of
hearing, as if the poem’s ultimate object was to draw us into listening to
something which is not in the poem, into hearing the silence beyond the text, a
silence where the meeting may take place at long last.

Within the poem’s horizon

And yet such reading would leave out, I think, a vital aspect of our experience of
the poem, for reading the text, we are made to put silences within its body, and
this, owing to the second formal feature I mentioned at the beginning and I
would now like to discuss: the ruptures, and to begin, the erratic syntactic breaks
that interrupt the flow of the metrical sequences (stanza or line) and thus impose
a silence where a signifier was expected. Leaving aside the starting point of the
initial utterance in the opening line (where syntax and metre necessarily coincide),
six out of the remaining sentences (from “then under an orange sky” in line 5)
begin within a stanza and most often even within a line, at an unpredictable
place, so that the major syntactic pauses which precede them make rifts in the
metrical texture, for instance: “That any second would shatter it. Now deep,” (l.

17) “Or each other. We watch the fire blazing” (l.21). There are thus in the
signifying chain interstices where a palpable silence makes itself heard, between
the utterances, between the signs, and even once at the heart of the sign. I am
now referring to the startling metrical and typographical break that occurs at the
end of line 15, “The Wind flung a magpie away and a black-/Back gull bent like
an iron bar slowly”: between “black” and “Back,” at least in a really poetic or
“musical” reading, a rest, a pause, may be no longer than the pulse of an artery,
but in which the syntagm cleaves itself into a chasm of silence.
Woven into the poetic utterance, are thus spots of muteness and thereby
potential cry-like sounds that haunt the muteness and introduce somehow in the
linguistic construction what Hughes has called in Poetry in the Making
“something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies” (124), in
other words, we may now say, the silent life of drives: as in the third line of the
poem, “Winds stampeding the fields under the window” which is framed in
between two occurrences of the same signifier (“wind,” 1st and 10th syllables of
the decasyllable: still the insistence on the signifying limits), but prolonged in an
extra syllable by the /ou/ of “window,” a cry-like diphtong in excess (of the line
frame) and foreign as well to the rhyme scheme which controls the poem at large
(it is the only exception I pointed out before): a sheer sound, therefore,
irreducible to the verbal construction and occurring in the initial stanza like an
early emergence of the crying “stones” in the final utterance (l. 24) where the
erratic /ou/ has now crept into the stressed monosyllable at the core of the line. And
something from “beyond human words,” as well, steals in in the insistence of
certain phonemes throughout the poem, especially the obsessive /d/ and /b/
alliterations and consonances, for instance “woods crashing through darkness…/
Winds stampeding the fields under the window/Floundering black astride” (l. 2–
4), and “a black-/Back gull bent like an iron bar” (l. 15–16): phonemes that,
beyond the semantic function of the linguistic signs of which they are parts,
make up as letters in their materiality something of a pulsation and manifest in
their recurrence that “compulsion to repeat” which is characteristic of the world
of drives and which gives them, as Freud has observed, their “daemonic
character” (107).
The real therefore, which is after all the reality of drive life and of unconscious
desire, is no longer (or at least not only) beyond the signs: it works in the signs
and in sublime gaps between the signs, it is present and active in enunciation.
The semantics of the “horizon,” in this second reading, is thus turned inside out,
or more exactly outside in, pointing no longer to the frontier of the linguistic
code leaving out an impossible real, but rather to the boundary of the text within
which something of the real can speak. The “horizon,” in other words, delimits
the poem as a self-bounded space, like the snow-covered clearing of “The
Thought Fox” (3), “this blank page where my fingers move,” leaving “prints,” i.
e. letters, which are traces of an unspeakable real.
Could we go any further in the analysis of the reality of desire and of the
traces it imprints in the poem? A clue may be found, no doubt, in the insistent

theme of the gaze, in the intensity with which it is invested—which gives it the
character of the Freudian Schaulust (scopophilia) —and chiefly in the
reversibility it goes through in the poem’s unfolding and which makes it vacillate
between subject and object, between an “I gaze at the Thing” and “the Thing
gazes at me”: a vacillation between “Once I looked up” (l. 10) and the “mad eye”
(l. 8) that (implicitly) looks at me; a vacillation repeated within the space of the
penultimate line between “Seeing,” whose elided grammatical subject is “I” or
“we,” and “window,” which is etymologically—as Keith Sagar has pointed out
(28) —the “wind’s eye,” the hole made in the wall for the wind to look in: the
eye of the other which takes me as its object.
This scheme of oscillating positions between looking and being looked at
might be read in the light of the Lacanian studies of the gaze, more particularly
in the analysis “Of the gaze as object a” (Lacan 1973 65–109) where the
scopophilic drive is shown to generate fantasies characterized by such
reversibility, the subject actively gazing at the object of desire, imaginarily
“devouring” and incorporating it, but adopting as well the object’s position and
thus becoming the object of the other’s desire: “Seeing the [wind’s eye] tremble
[out of desire] to come in.” Being under the desiring gaze of the Thing, the desire
to be the object of the other’s desire, such is, I think, the fantasy that writes itself
out in the poem. And the image of the “roots” in the final stanza (l. 22), which
may prefigure the “roots, roots, roots” of the embryonic Wodwo (88) still below
the condition of language, and which is in itself anyway a reference to a place of
origin, points symptomatically to the originary, to the motherly nature of the
Thing: to that mother figure Ted Hughes often conjures up in his mythological
constructions, calling her for instance the “Mother of animals and food” (WP
414), or again (borrowing the phrase from Coleridge) the “nameless female,” i.
e. literally the female as unnamed and desirable as such, in other words the
mother still unconnected with the name-of-the-father, whose destiny is to
become unthinkable as an object of desire in the world of words, and thus whose
perilous approach, in the poem’s verbal world, is marked out by the castration
anxiety signals that flicker in an insistent blinding fantasy that features an
Œdipus behind the shaman: the “blinding wet” (l. 4), the “Blade-light “wielded
by the wind (l. 6–7), the wind “that dented the balls of my eyes” (l. 11). Is the
journey’s end, therefore—the final line with the crying stones—, the locus where
the “I” can hear the voice of the other’s desire, the “terrible beautiful,” a-stone-
ishing cry of Medusa, the nameless animal mother claiming back her child to be
whole? Or is it the cry of the “I”’s own desire? Whichever way we read this
fascinating “unsayable” line, what is certain is the inscription, in its intense non-
sense, of an unspeakable enjoyment (“jouissance”). The sublime, then, is no other
than the in-scription, the trangressive inscription. It takes place in the poem, within
the horizon of its verbal space, rather than in the silence beyond.
What is remarkable, on the whole, is that by offering those two alternatives to
read its concept of sublimity, Ted Hughes’s poetry revives a question that was
central to the romantic poetics, namely the debate, or the polarity, between the

view of the sublime as the unutterable, theorized by Burke and often reechoed
afterwards, for instance by Shelley’s Demogorgon’s pronouncement that
ultimately “a voice is wanting,” that “the deep truth is imageless” (Prometheus
Unbound, II. 4. 115–116), and on the other hand the romantic attempt to
integrate that unspeakable within the poetic utterance, to capture fragments of the
wanting voice in the interstices of discourse, as Coleridge does in his
“conversation poems” by listening to what can be heard “in the interspersed
vacancies/And momentary pauses of the thought” (“Frost at Midnight,” 46–47),
or like Blake’s demon writing with “corroding fires” on a plate of The Marriage
of Heaven and Hell (pl. 6–7) and engraving the letters that speak of desire, or
again like Los, the maker, creating forms in “sublime labours” (Jerusalem, pl. 10,
65). It does seem that we find in “Wind,” and more generally in the poetry and
the critical writings, as well, of Ted Hughes a vacillation that reenacts the debate
that was—should we say that is—at the heart of romanticism. Does sublimity
point to a real that is “far beyond human words,” as Hughes asserts in his
comment on Orghast (WP 124–5), so in the speechless space of the Beast of
“Gog,” beyond the field of the Logos-God’s alienating speech, in the world of
“great bones (. that) pound on the earth” (71)? Or may it be that sublimity lies
“here and there,” as Hughes says in the same comment, if we understand “here
and there in the space of the poem,” in those effects of the letter where we can
hear it? This remains of course an open question. But we may, as reading—and
inevitably desiring—subjects, prefer the second alternative, that in which the
subject that speaks and treads in measured ways in Ted Hughes’s poetic metres
is, like the Curlew of The Remains of Elmet (163) “A web-footed god of the
Poetry & Magic
Ann Skea

“Is there any significance,” a correspondent asked me, “in the fact that there are
eighty-eight poems in Birthday Letters?” “None of which I am aware,” I replied,
“But, since Ted does structure his poetic sequences very carefully, I would not
rule it out.”
I thought no more about this, because I was preoccupied with the idea that the
Birthday Letters were Ted’s Eroici Furori—a sequence of passionate love
poems such as were considered to be the crowning achievement of a Renaissance
magus like Giordano Bruno, with whose work Ted was very familiar. Love, for
Renaissance Hermeticists and for Platonic Neoplatonists like Bruno, was “the
living virtue in all things, which the magician intercepts and which leads him
from the lower things to the supercelestial realm by divine furor” (Yates 272). It
was a means of understanding, ordering and, ultimately, influencing things in our
world. Bruno published De gli Eroici Furori in England in 1586, but it is a
cryptic text full of magical symbolism, and very different to Birthday Letters. It
was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, whose English love poetry is, however,
similar in some ways to Ted’s and has itself been attributed (although
contentiously) to the inspiration of divine furor.
Ted’s belief in the primacy of the imagination as an instrument for reaching
the truth was exactly that of Sidney and the other members of the so-called
“Areopogus” who befriended Bruno on his visit to England. And his preface to
100 Poems to Learn by Heart sets out exactly the sort of mnemonic techniques
for training the imagination that they had learned from the work of Renaissance
Hermeticists like Marsilio Ficino. His belief in poetry as “magical” and as “one
way of making things happen the way you want them to happen”1; his
knowledge of the work of Renaissance figures like Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Pico
della Mirandola (as evidenced in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete
Being; his sustained, careful and detailed use of the techniques, processes and
beliefs of alchemy in Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet and River; and his
acknowledged use of meditation and astrology, all point to his lifelong interest in
using magic in his work. None of this, however, threw any light on Birthday
Letters until I read about the way in which poets like Sidney, Fulke Greville,
Marlow, Milton, Donne and, later, even Dryden, adopted Cabbalistic number
theory in the structure and content of their poems. The work by Alastair Fowler

in revealing this kind of structuring has been of major importance, and it was
whilst reading his work on Spencer that I suddenly realised the possible
relationship between Cabbala and the eighty-eight poems in Birthday Letters.
Cabbala, in its ancient and traditional form, is the knowledge of occult number
theory in the Bible. It is also a mystical and magical discipline by means of
which the Cabbalist may understand our world and use its energies to reintegrate
its disparate elements—to create harmony and heal its ills. This is the Great
Work, and the individual seeking to undertake this work must begin with the
Cabbala is based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These letters
are arranged on interconnecting pathways on a Sephirothic Tree (a tree of life) on
which there are ten Sephira—ten points at which the divine energies enter our
world, transmitted as a lightning flash from the Divine Source (Illustration 1).
And, in Ted’s own words: “Everything in the universe, attached to its symbol,
can be given its proper place on the Tree…” So the Tree becomes a means of
ordering the psyche by internalizing the knowable universe as a stairway to God”
(SGCB 20–1).
Those who seek to order the psyche and climb the stairway to God in this
way, follow The Path of Wisdom (also known as “The Path of the Serpent”)
along the Tree’s twenty-two interconnected pathways, through four overlapping
worlds: Atziluth (the World of emanation, archetypes and (in Jungian terms) the
psyche; Briah, the World of the intellect, the possibility of creation, the
collective subconscious; Yetzirah, the World of synthesis, formation, the
individual subconscious; and Assiah, the world of making, the earthy, material
world of consciousness. William Blake’s four worlds of Eden, Beulah,
Generation and Ulro “derive from the same tradition” (Raine 6). The twenty-two
letters of the Cabbalistic alphabet in these four worlds make eighty-eight
pathways along which the Cabbalist makes the questing journey. And, from the
time of the Renaissance, the cards of the Tarot pack (especially the twenty-two
cards of the Major Arcana) have been used as a mnemonic for the pathways of this
Cabbalistic quest.
If all this seems to be a long way from poetry, then I can only say that magic is
an art, and it is an art in which Ted was very interested. He often described
poetry as a magical shamanic journey undertaken to obtain some healing
energies needed in our world, and he constantly sought ways to use the
imagination to reintegrate our inner and outer worlds. One might also apply to Ted
some of his own observations about Shakespeare: “The idea of a syncretic
mythology… The idea of these images as internally structured, precisely folded,
multiple meanings… The idea of meditation as a conjuring by ritual magic of
hallucinatory figures—with whom conversations can be held.” (SGCB 32–3) All

1. Ted Hughes & R.S.Thomas read and discuss selections of their own poems, Norwich
Tapes Ltd, London: The Critical Forum, 1978.

of these ideas are very relevant to Birthday Letters. The question then, for me,
was whether Ted did use Cabbala, and in particular the imagery of the Tarot, to
structure the sequence of poems in Birthday Letters and, if so, whether this offers
us a different perspective on the work. I began my investigation of these
questions sceptically, knowing the richness and range of Ted’s imagination and
very aware that I might easily impose the structure for which I was searching.
But, for many reasons, not least the closeness and consistency with which the
poems match the cards and embody the Sephirothic emanations, I now have no
doubt that such a structure exists. (Table 1)
Each episode of the story—“Your story. My story” —in Birthday Letters is a
stage on the path at which something—some pattern from the past—is (often
quite literally) captured in a photograph, film, picture or mental image and
brought into the present to be meditated on, questioned, illuminated and re-
created in a poem. For Ted, who believed in the magical power of poetry and the
summoning power of symbols, this was a dangerous process, as well as being
psychologically harrowing. Cabbala, if nothing else, provided him with a
protective structure within which to negotiate with the energies and to conjure
into being the people and events of his past.
The Cabbalistic journey begins with the first manifestation of form, the point,
in which every potential exists. It is everything and nothing; the closed and
endless circle; zero; the aleph of the Hebrew alphabet. For the neophyte
Cabbalist or magician, it is the image of The Fool in the Tarot pack. Here is the
“imbecile innocent” of Cave Birds, stepping off blindly on his journey towards
knowledge and enlightenment with the baggage of his past life on his back and
the dog of materialism and worldly convention snapping at his heels. The very
title of the first poem in Birthday Letters embodies all these things (“Fullbright
Scholars,” BL 3). Here are “Scholars,” Sylvia amongst them, about to embark on
the search for knowledge in a strange land. The accumulated Alphas of their past
lives have earned them a place on this path, and they are “Fullbright” like the
zero of the sun. They have their luggage with them, literally and metaphorically.
In the photograph, as in the first manifestation of matter, everything is still
Ted, too, is an innocent, “dumbfounded” by his “ignorance of the simplest
things” and confessing (like the neophyte magician making the ritual negative
confession at the start of the journey) that he lacks memory, knowledge and
direction. In Cabbalistic terms, at the apex of the Tree is Kether, the Crown, the
Monad, the number 1, the planted seed from which all else grows. This is also
the Garden of Eden, and just as Adam’s bite of the apple from the Tree of
Knowledge brought him knowledge of his nakedness, so Ted’s first taste of a
fresh peach brings self-consciousness.
Consciousness, Force and Form, the first three Sephiroth on the Tree, are the
fundamental aspects of the divine as manifest in all creation and from them
comes all change in the natural world and in the inner world of the Cabbalist.
(Illustration 2)

Chokmah, Sephira number 2, and Binah, Sephira number 3, form the base of
this triangle of supernal energies. Chokmah and Binah each occupy the summit of
one of the two pillars of Justice and Mercy on and between which all ten Sephiroth
of the Tree are positioned. Chokmah, on the right-hand pillar of Mercy, is also
known as Abba, the All Father, Raw Energy: Binah, on the left-hand pillar of
Justice, is known as Aima, the All Mother, Capacity to take form.
Given this graphic arrangement, it is interesting to note that the title of both
the second and third poems in Birthday Letters (4–6) is “Caryatids” (the name of
carved female figures which form pillars supporting the portico of a Greek
temple) and that in both the hardback and the paperback editions of the book
these poems, perhaps fortuitously, stand side-by-side, pillar-like, on opposing
Also, the poem on the left embodies female energies: the caryatids are
“friable” and “frail-looking” (“each body” in Sylvia’s poem, to which Ted refers,
is “a virgin vase”), yet they are strong enough to bear a “falling heaven of
granite.” In the Tarot, the related card is that of The High Priestess, who
represents Artemis, the huntress, (caryatids are named after the women of Caryae
who worshipped Artemis) and also Isis, Diana and other moon-goddesses of
potential fertility. Which suggests not only a literal answer to Ted’s opening
question in “Caryatids (1),” “What were those caryatids bearing?,” but also that
they are bearers of the omen which he failed to see.
“Caryatids (2),” the poem on the right, embodies raw male energies,
“frivolous as faithless,” “stupid with confidence,” “careless,” carousing and
destructive, focussed only on the present, the “real World and self.” Just such
energies belong to The Magician, The Juggler, Hermes/Mercury, whose Tarot
card is associated with the duad Binah. He can be dexterous and cunning,
creative and destructive, magus or trickster. He, too, like the protagonist of Ted’s
poem, wears “playclothes,” “tests every role for laughs,” yet is able to spark
connections “through bustling atmospherics.”
Sylvia’s caryatid poem was meant to catch the attention of Ted and his poet
friends, which it did. But they thought it exemplified form without energy (just
as Chokmah does) and disliked it. In Ted’s view it was “thin and brittle,” “cold,”
“like the theorum of a trap, a deadfall.” The irony of this was that the trap caught
both Ted and Sylvia.
In these first three poems, as nowhere else in Birthday Letters, Ted deals
directly with the Sephiroth rather than with the paths between them. This is
appropriate, because at this level—that of the first three divine emanations in the
highest, Atziluthic, world—the energies are nearest to the Source and are of
equal importance. It is also appropriate, because in all the rituals associated with
Cabbalistic journeys, such as those of the Order of the Golden Dawn (of which
Yeats was once a prominent member), the Neophyte is brought to the “Pillars of
Soloman/Hermes/Seth” beyond which lies the gate to “The Hall of Truth.” At
this stage in Birthday Letters, Ted has brought himself and Sylvia to this

gateway. Together they will begin the journey but, until their marriage, their
paths run parallel and are joined only at times, as fate decrees.
Clearly, it is not possible for me to trace the Cabbalistic pattern of this journey
poem by poem through Birthday Letters in this short paper. What I will do,
instead, is look at four poems which represent the same path in each of the four
overlapping Worlds. The path I have chosen is that of the thirteenth letter of the
Hebrew alphabet, Mem, which is symbolised by water and is represented in the
Tarot by card 12, The Hanged Man. For the sake of simplicity, too, I will
concentrate on the Tarot, which is, as I have already mentioned, a mnemonic
device for remembering the complex theory of Cabbala, and, as such, it relies on
vivid images and rich mythological associations.
The image on the card of The Hanged Man was identified in Frazer’s Golden
Bough as Attis, the Dying God on the Tree of Life. It is a symbol of sacrifice,
death and rebirth, an overturning of the world, a time for radical change on the
path. Mem, described by Cabbalists as “between the Waters above and the
Waters beneath,” is also a path of transition.
The Birthday Letters poem related to the path of Mem and The Hanged Man
in the first, Atziluthic, world of archetypes and first emanations is “Fidelity”
(28), and almost its first words are—“I was just hanging around.” Here is Ted,
“afloat on the morning tide,” “gutted,” “free,” suspended: “…I think of it/As a
kind of time that cannot pass./That I have never used, so still possess.”
At this stage of the Cabbalistic journey, worldly things have been left behind
and the aspirant is in a state of suspension and must prove him or herself worthy
of continuing along the path. Like the Grail-quest Knight, some trial must be
passed, some choice or sacrifice made.
Only a short time earlier, Ted was “playing at friendship,” “frivolous as
faithless. The old life had to end, just as Dionysus had to perish to be reborn as
laccus. Already Ted has left behind the baggage of his first twenty-five years.
All he has is “a bare mattress, on bare boards, in a bare room” and his notebook.
Now, every night in this bare, top room, he encounters “a lovely girl” and, just as
the Grail-quest Knight (Gawain, in particular) was tested in his encounters with
the amorous lady in the mysterious castle, so Ted’s “fidelity” to Sylvia is tested.
Images of “knighthood,” “holy law,” “a priestess,” “nakedness” and chaste
“sisterly comforting” all reinforce this parallel. Ted makes a choice, and even the
second, “wilder,” “shameless gap-tooth,” plump and pretty girl does not break
his chivalrous resolve to “keep the meaning of my words/Solid with the world
we were making.”
Significantly, it was the breaking of faith which was the issue here not sexual
gratification, for in Cabbala sex is not a sin. So, each girl—one naked and
sisterly, the other naked in her desire to get him “inside her” —is sacrificed,
“laid,” like a “sinless child,” under the threshold of Ted’s and Sylvia’s future.
The second poem on the path of Mem and The Hanged Man is “Astringency”
(80). Now, Ted’s and Sylvia’s paths are combined. They are no longer in the

Atziluthic world of archetypes but in the lower, watery, mutable World of Briah,
the world of intellect and abstract creation.
In “Astringency,” the natural energies, like the River Charles, seem frozen and
everything is suspended. Ted strolls “slackly,” and he and Sylvia are “Together,
silent, thinking of nothing.” The word “astringency” was for years, as Ted tells
us, a cant, insincere, catchword but it also means “the drawing together of
organic tissues” (OED), a process by which healing is promoted. In the poem,
which is full of images of sickness and distress, Ted draws together fragments of
free, healthy energy (like the goldfish) and the “toxic” world of
“Agrochemicals,” air polluted by iron-smelting, and “Lit. Crit” —all the result of
intellectual intervention in a natural, creative process. He and Sylvia are “Right
there on the edge” of this world, standing “on” America, rather than immersed in
it’s culture, watching the “lariat” noose of “each small, tired wave” wash over “a
nipple of rock,” as if these murky, poisoned waters are threatening their own
In their lives at this time, too, they were on the edge. They had left behind the
rational, predictable path of jobs and academia and they were not yet committed
to the literary life of Boston. “A life of doing nothing is death,” Sylvia wrote in
her journal on August 2nd, 1959, and she swung between elation and depression:
“the strangling noose of worry, of hysteria, paralysis…” [July 27, 1959] (J 410)
was ever present. In the true spirit of Briah they were “writing, consolidating our
splayed selves” [Sept. 27, 1959] (423): discovering identity and voice.
Amongst the other organic energies brought together in the poem, are the
human energies, rational and instinctive. In Sylvia, if not in Ted, rationality is
“the censor,” “the night hands,” “the snare” which silences her instinctive
energies and traps “all that teeming population” of imaginative metaphors, to
hang them, tortured, in her poems (another image of suspension). Only once does
Ted hear an instinctive metaphor escape in her speech. But, like the goldfish, this
“Brainstorm of the odds” shows that the situation is not hopeless, the natural
energies are still strong and “frisky” and choice still exists.
No sacrifices are mentioned in the poem, but the choice Ted and Sylvia make
(as the very next poem in Birthday Letters shows) is to follow instinct, rather
than logic, and to keep faith with the trust each has placed in poetry and its
paramount importance in their shared future.
Below the World of Briah, but connected to it, is the World of Yetzirah, a
world of syntheses and formation in which poetry, music, literature, art, law and
all other real but intangible patterns exist and are shaped by the individual
“The Rag Rug” (135), (which is the poem on the Hanged Man path in this
Yetziratic World) does not, on first reading seem to be about suspension, choice
or sacrifice, as the other poems were. But it is full of Cabbalistic symbolism,
especially in the snake energies which coil and sway and pour through the poem.
Sylvia’s “motley viper,” a serpent which seems “to pull something out of (her)
like some tapeworm of the psyche” and is dragged, like her own “entrails, out

through (her) navel,” and Ted’s great golden snake, shaken awake by an
inversion of Ted’s dream world and lifting “its head from a well in the middle of
the house,” are both superb images of subconscious energies. They are also
energies which are as dangerous and mysterious as The Path of Wisdom (which
is itself The Path of the Serpent) is for those who travel it. And they are linked in
the poem with some deep “knowledge” which will alter Sylvia’s “blood” and
Ted’s “nerves and brain” and lie “coiled between” them like the rag rug, dividing
them from each other.
Hanged Man imagery is there in the poem, too. It is there in the doubleness
which Ted himself weaves into the poem so that the rag rug becomes a symbolic
interface between two worlds, the earth world of “venous blood,” “the grave,”
malediction and death, and the sky world of the “serpent’s jumbled rainbow,” of
“lightnings,” sunny “daffodil yellow,” happiness and birth. At this interface, Ted
and Sylvia are “lifted,” “freed” by the physical act of creation. Sylvia, plaiting
the rug and “creating the serpent” soothes Ted with her calm industry, and Ted,
lulls her with his voice, “like a snake-charmer,” reading books which are,
themselves, about interfaces where dark, subconscious energies enter the world.
The mood of suspension, of “breath-held camera moments,” of shared beauty
and happiness is strong in the poem, but so, too, is the fragility of this world, the
sense of impending, irreversible, division and change. And the poem lies at a
moment of change in the Birthday Letters sequence and in the story which it
In my reading of the poem, the creation of the rag rug is a metaphor for the
creative gestation which was going on in Sylvia in the early months of 1962, a
process in which Ted, himself was “pushed out and away.” Until then, in spite of
all their differences, Ted and Sylvia had worked together. But at the heart of this
poem, following the moment of suspension and beauty, are Sylvia’s “furies”
(“bled into the rug” and “confided to whoever” in her diary), followed by Ted’s
images of birth and separation. Sylvia seems driven by this new knowledge she
has “unearthed” to separate herself from Ted—to do what she had described
once in her journal in a burst of fury at Ted: “I won’t bother showing him the
story of Sweetie Pie I’ve done, keep the viper out of the household and send it
out on its own” (J 484, May 20, 1959). It is not clear whether the viper, at the
time of that entry, was Ted or the story she had written.
In April 1962, according to Ted in “Sylvia Plath and her Journals” (WP 187–
8), Sylvia achieved “this cool, light, very beautiful moment of mastery, that
enabled her to take the next step…(then) she started on a poem about a giant
wych elm that overshadowed the yard of her home… And at once the Ariel voice
emerged in full, out of the tree.”. The poem to which Ted refers is “Elm” (LH
192). And the poem immediately after “The Rag Rug,” which represents the next
step on the journey in Birthday Letters, describes how Sylvia divined new
inspiration for her writing “in the elm,” although here it is the elm table Ted
made for her2.

And there are sacrifices here, too. “The Rag Rug” ends with an image of the
end of Ted’s and Sylvia’s shared Eden. The rag rug itself, and the inspiration and
knowledge which the process of gestation and birth achieved, survived this
ending but, from this point on, Sylvia followed her path alone and Ted
“sleepwalked” (“The Table,” 138) after her.
In “The Ventriloquist” (181), the poem on The Hanged Man path in the World
of Assiah, sacrifice is total. Assiah is the world of making, where all that has
been prepared for and formed in the other Worlds becomes real and present. It is
the lowest, earth-bound World, furthest from the Source and nearest to the dark
Underworld. “The Ventriloquist” is full of doubleness, it encapsulates all that has
happened so far in the journey and it ends with Sylvia’s most terrible choice and
sacrifice—her death.
In my reading of this poem, Sylvia is the ventriloquist of the poem’s title, and
Ariel is her “doll.” Ariel was a magnificent and terrifying creation, strong, angry
and destructive, beautiful but flawed like everything in the World of Assiah. It
was Ariel’s voice that Sylvia had worked so hard to find and which spoke so
clearly in the poems she wrote in the last months of her life.
And Ariel has accompanied Ted and Sylvia on their journey through Birthday
Letters. Ariel was the “humanoid, raggedy shadow” which appeared in the portrait
painted of Sylvia at Yaddo (“Portraits,” 104) but she has now grown strong and
independent. Hers was the voice “which cried out in (your) sleep” in “Fairy
Tale” (159) and which Sylvia did not recognise as her own. And Ariel was the
“prisoner in the dungeon” who Sylvia fed “through the keyhole” in “The
Blackbird” (162), and the “Guardian Angel” into whose bosom Sylvia “crept for
safety” but who turned out to be her “Demon Slave,” and “devoured” her.
“The Ventriloquist” begins with the bodily fall into sex, love and marriage
which, in Birthday Letters was also Ted’s and Sylvia’s fall into the Abyss from
the top of the Sephirothic Tree at the start of their questing journey. Whilst
Sylvia wept and clung to Ted through the “thorny wood” and the “river’s freeze”
of the journey which was also their marriage, her other, destructive, self put
“Mummy” on show as “The Kraken” in The Bell Jar and screamed in her poems
that “Daddy was no good” and that Ted “was with a whore.” Finally, it is this
second self, which Sylvia had sought out and nurtured, which kills her.

2. At At the time of the events in the poem, Ted and Sylvia were living in Devon in the
house with the well “beneath its slab in the middle” and the worn threshold. It was 1962,
Nicholas had been born in January and Sylvia’s mother had visited them from late June to
mid August. But the table which Ted describes in “The Table”, the poem which follows
“The Rag Rug” in Birthday Letters, had been made for Sylvia in September the previous
year (Letters Home, Sept. 15, 27, 1961. 429–30). Sylvia’s poem “Elm”, in which Ted
suggests the Ariel voice first appeared, was written in April 1962. So, the chronology of
the poems does not follow that of actual events here but is consistent with the order of the
pathways on the Sephirothic Tree.

This was the ultimate self-sacrifice, the ultimate destructive revenge by the
“doll” on the stars which had guided Sylvia towards her creation. In Cabbalistic
terms, it was not “Justice” (note the capital given to this word in the poem) but
the result of an unbalanced use of the severe energies of the Pillar of Justice,
which should have been tempered by those of the Pillar of Mercy. As Portia so
rightly tells Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “earthly powers do then show
likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.”
For Sylvia, this was the end of her journey. The re-birth which, in Cabbalistic
terms, should have followed her sacrifice was no longer possible. Ted’s world,
too, was overturned. In spirit, he too was plunged into darkness and it was a long
time before he began, again, his journey towards the Source.
But Birthday Letters does not end with “The Ventriloquist.” Cabbala, like
alchemy, works at three levels: the conscious, story-telling, level: the
metaphorical level at which images and symbols work on the subconscious and
the spiritual message is understood; and the practical level of applied processes
and rituals. In the remaining Birthday Letters poems, Ted completes the new
journey which he began when he started the imaginative processes and rituals
needed to conjure past events and re-create them in his work. The final poems
are all aspects of life after death, which is also the title of the poem following
“The Ventriloquist.” They tell of the effects of Sylvia’s death on Ted and her
children; of the myths and stories which Ted created because of it; and of the
industry which grew up around her story and her work. They tell, too, of the
characteristics and skills Frieda and Nicholas inherited from her and of Ted’s
memories of her, which, like the “flawless crystal” of her “seer’s vision-stone,”
encompass both ecstasy and horror.
In “The Dogs are Eating your Mother,” Sylvia’s children and we, the readers
of the poem, are told to imagine her journey out of the underworld and on
towards the sun, to “think her better.” And in the final poem, Ted lays to rest the
ghost of Sylvia which he has conjured back into life in the poems by
recombining the red and the blue colours which reflected her blood and her spirit,
and sealing this journey’s end with the symbol of kindly caresses which he has
used in the poem—a blue jewel.

For Ted, Birthday Letters brought, he said, “a sense of inner liberation, a huge
sudden possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange.”3. His wife, Carol,
wrote4 that “he was renewed after publishing them.” For me, following Ted’s
footsteps through Birthday Letters along some well-trodden Cabbalistic
pathways has been an enlightening and magical experience. But it is the nature
of Cabbala that every person must make the journey for themselves. Although
we may follow the same paths, what I learn on my journey is likely to be quite
different to what you would learn on yours. So, in the end, all anyone can offer

as a guide are a few unsteady footprints in the mud and the suggestion of sights
you might see along the way.

3. Ted Hughes’s letter to Kathleen Raine read at the Whitbread Book of the Year Awards,
Jan. 1999.
4. Carol Hughes in a letter to me. Dec. 1999.
Self-Revelation, Self-Concealment & the
Making of the Ted Hughes Archive
Stephen Enniss

When Emory University acquired the Ted Hughes archive in February 1997,
journalists around the U.S. and abroad were quick to proclaim Ted Hughes’s
secrets revealed. “Hughes papers reveal agony and ecstasy of his love life”
(Harlow) was one of the more sensational and, I would add, one of the more
misleading. The truth is few journalists actually visited the archive itself, and
those who did were ill-equipped for the time-consuming spade work necessary
even to begin to grasp the extent or the nature of the archive’s revelations.
Nevertheless the presence of the archive evoked for them, as it often does for us,
intimations of the deeply personal. Its very existence gave the newspaper stories
that followed a new degree of credibility, simply through their invocation of the
archive’s authority.
Even as some were proclaiming Hughes’s secrets revealed, however, others
were approaching the archive with the opposite conclusion. A number of
journalists were particularly interested in that small portion of the collection that
remains under restriction.1 In particular there was great interest in a single trunk
that the library was asked to keep closed for twenty-five years. One reporter was
particularly eager to get a photograph, not of any of the newly acquired papers,
but of the sealed trunk itself (a request I’m happy to say I declined). Another
chose to fill his newspaper’s column space with his own unsupported speculation
about the contents of the sealed trunk (Bone).2
The truth is an archive is many things. The Ted Hughes archive is as much a
product of Hughes’s inattention as it is his deliberate actions. Many decisions—
most small but some large—give an archive its final character. The daily
decisions over what to save and what to throw out offer ample opportunity for a
self-conscious fashioning of the self that all of us engage in. The neatly
numbered and cataloged boxes also have the power to blow the top off our
carefully constructed notions of self.

1. Such restrictions are common in archives of contemporary materials. Often the

restriction, as is the case in the Ted Hughes papers, protects the privacy of individuals
whose letters are present among the papers but who was not a party to their disposition.
The largest number of restrictions in the Hughes archive are of this kind and are on letters
Hughes received from

What I wish to examine in the following essay are some of the ways these
contrary impulses of self-revelation and self-concealment are expressed in the
Ted Hughes archive now housed at Emory. I want to examine some of the
decisions that have gone into the making of the Hughes archive but not in order
to implicate one person or another for this or that lost artifact. All archives, after
all, are a record of absences. The one figure we most want to find in the archive
is, in the end, the figure that we are sure not to find. Instead, I wish to examine
the making of the Ted Hughes archive for what it may tell us about Ted
Hughes’s own stance towards personal history and artistic creativity. The same
contrary impulses of self-revelation and self-concealment that we see dramatized
in his own actions towards the material archive reflect on a life-long pattern of
self-presentation that informs his mature poetry as well.
As Ted Hughes recalled in his 1961 BBC radio program “Capturing Animals,”
some of his earliest and fondest childhood memories were of fishing and hunting
in Yorkshire. In recalling the importance of those early experiences in his own
development, he mentions the diaries that he kept at the time, diaries where he
recorded “nothing but my catches” (3). While these childhood diaries have
apparently not survived, his reference to them establishes an early preoccupation
with capturing—not simply animals—but his own experience in some more
permanent form. These early diaries, along with the sketches he began making at
the time, point to a precocious self-expression on the blank page and hint at what
would become for Hughes a life-long preoccupation.
The earliest surviving manuscripts in the Emory collection were not preserved
by Hughes himself but, rather, were saved by the Mexborough Grammar School
classmate to whom he gave them in 1947 or 1948. These two poems (one of
which is reprinted here for the first time) are heavily derivative and offer little
glimpse of the self that composed them. The one reprinted here seems less an
expression of a distinctive personality than an expression of sheer will. Like
Alexander whose conquests it relates, the poem casts the poet himself in a
different kind of drama of conquest, one for the affections of a childhood
classmate (Plate 2).
Among the earliest surviving manuscripts from the Hughes archive itself are
drafts of poems that were collected in the early collection Wodwo. Examining
these drafts now what one immediately notices is Hughes’s habit of composing
poems on any scrap paper at hand. Poems appear on envelopes, on the back of
letters, on coarse brown wrapping paper, and, most strikingly, on the back of his

friends and colleagues. In each case, the restriction on these letters can be lifted with the
permission of the copyright holder.
2. There is no evidence to support James Bone’s speculation that the sealed trunk contains
Sylvia Plath’s lost journal. As the agent in the sale of the Ted Hughes archive made clear
in a reply to Bone’s article published in The Times: “I can satisfy the curiosity of scholars
and others about the possibility of Sylvia Plath’s missing journal being incarcerated in it.
It is not” (Davids).

own and Sylvia Plath’s own discarded manuscripts.3 On the one hand, the
practice seems to reflect a disinterest—if not, in fact, a more active disdain—for
the manuscript itself. Clean desk paper is not required. One can instead scribble
on anything at hand, since the manuscript is temporary, a means to another end.
Yet these drafts have survived in the hundreds. An early manuscript draft of
“Public Bar TV” appears on the opposite side of a letter from his Faber & Faber
editor Charles Monteith; drafts of “Gog” were written on a discarded typescript
of his 1960 radio play The House of Aries, and an unpublished verse play (Bardo
Thodol) is written on discarded pages of Sylvia Plath’s lost novel Falcon Yard
(Plate 3). Handling them now, they seem to have a power more charged with the
current of Hughes’s own daily life than do any clean, carefully scripted drafts.
The dual-sided drafts evoke something of Hughes and Plath’s shared life, even as
they document each poet’s own creative work.
The absence of any significant number of drafts from The Hawk in the Rain
and Lupercal can be explained by Hughes’s own early awareness of the
commercial value of his manuscripts. While Emory purchased the bulk of his
archive in 1997,4 as early as 1960 he sold the manuscripts from his first two
collections to a rare book and manuscript dealer for a mere £160 (LH 388).5 Two
years later he was actively promoting his manuscripts to the London dealers
Winifred Myers, Kyrle Fletcher, Bertram Rota, and Ben Sonnenberg, in effect,
working them against one another. In a 1962 letter to Myers he holds out the
prospect of a direct sale to the University of Texas bypassing the London dealers
altogether. This was a period when Ted and Sylvia were struggling to meet their
financial obligations. Ted’s Guggenheim had come to an end immediately before
the 1960 sale, and the following year they had purchased a home in Devon and
were trying to live off of their writing. The sale of his manuscripts provided
some modest help in facing these hardships, and, as for later, “he’ll have other
manuscripts then” Sylvia noted in a letter to her mother (387). Thus began a life-
long practice of cannibalizing his own manuscripts in order to supplement his
irregular income.
We catch some glimpse of Hughes’s own attitude towards this enforced
stringency when he confides in a later letter that he has parted with the

3. As a result of this practice, a number of previously lost works by Plath have surfaced in
the Ted Hughes archive, among them a fragment of a short story titled “Runaway,” based
on the same incident as Hughes’s Birthday Letters poem “Sam” and notes for her
previously lost novel Falcon Yard.
4. Emory began buying Ted Hughes manuscripts in 1985 and had assembled a substantial
Ted Hughes collection before the 1997 purchase of his own archive. Since that time,
Emory has continued to make additions to the papers including a large number of early
manuscript drafts from the collection of Joseph Gold, correspondence from Hughes to
Lucas Myers, and an extensive correspondence (1950–1998) with his own brother, Gerald.
5. In a 1975 letter to Aurelia Plath, Hughes recalls the amount paid as $450 dollars (Ted
Hughes to Aurellia Plath).

manuscript of “Pike” reluctantly, only because he was “exceedingly pressed for

cash” (Hughes to Gold, 19 Mar 1964).6 Indeed, immediately after selling that
particular manuscript, Hughes regretted the decision and took steps to recover it
from the American collector who had subsequently purchased it. In an exchange
of letters with this collector, Hughes acknowledges, “This last year I’ve lost a lot
of stuff, manuscripts and so on. I’ve started locking [them] in a chest—ridiculous
business” (Hughes to Gold, 7 Aug l964).
The specific loss Hughes refers to is likely Sylvia’s burning of an unknown
quantity of his papers in July 1962 (recounted in her poem “Burning the
Letters”), soon after learning of his affair with Assia Wevill. In a second fire, this
one in 1971, Hughes’s papers were again targeted, this time by someone who
broke into his Yorkshire home and set them ablaze.7 A number of manuscripts in
the Hughes archive bear evidence of one or the other of these fires, including a
1969 letter from Leonard Baskin which was badly singed in the second fire. In
each case the manuscript stands in as a surrogate for the self that is the real target
of anger.
While Hughes took steps to safeguard his manuscripts, he showed no
awareness of the greater value that a larger archive might contain, indeed, just
the opposite. He apparently made little effort to secure an institutional buyer (the
earlier mention of the University of Texas came to nothing), but was content
instead to let his early manuscripts be scattered among many different individual
collectors. In the mid-1970s he was still selling manuscript material with his sole
interest apparently being the price realized. A handwritten note from that period
lists potential buyers for his manuscripts along with the prices he expected to
get.8 “Market price of holograph of published poem—1 page—written out by
author—£20… Market price for manuscript pages of achieved poems—£35”
(“Possible Buyers”). On at least one occasion in the mid-1970s, Hughes
eliminated the step of converting his manuscripts into cash and instead used
drafts of Wodwo as a kind of currency in a direct payment for a chest from a
Devon antique dealer. Similarly when a friend once asked him for money, he sent
instead fair copies of several poems which he copied for the purpose.
Letters that survive in the archive reflect Hughes’s growing understanding of
the value of such material and his active negotiation over prices. In the early
1960s he writes to one of his London dealers: “I am gradually being forced to
realize that in time to come my manuscripts are going to be worth quite a lot… I
would be foolish, and so would you, if we were to go on almost giving these
things away.” (Letter to Myers) One element of this letter is of particular
interest, that is the implication that the manuscript—the material artifact itself—

6. This element of regret for this early sale is captured as well in a 1975 letter to Mrs.
Prouty Smith. He writes, “I sold my own early papers years ago for a couple of hundred
pounds—parts of them I know have since changed hands for vastly greater sums, but they
can’t help me any more… They were probably my freshest best work” (Letter to Prouty
Smith, 12 May 1975).

has a greater inherent value than the published poem. “In the past, I’ve sold
manuscripts for next to nothing,” he writes, “for less than I was paid merely for
the publication of the poems” (emphasis added). While the manuscript, as we
have seen, clearly had a monetary value for Hughes, it also had a value unrelated
to the marketplace and, indeed, unrelated to mere publication. Unlike the
published poem, the manuscript draft retained some vestige of that creative
power that first animated the poem. For some insight into the nature of that
power, we need to look at the poems themselves; I’d like to consider briefly just
two, one well-known, the other previously unpublished and unknown.
The early poems—those written at the time when he was beginning to sell his
own manuscripts—return often to images of decay, whether that decay takes the
form of “dust” (“Song”), “fragments” (“The Horses”), “muck” (“Fallgrief’s
Girlfriends”), or the broken jawbone and carapaces washed ashore in “Relic.”
Unpublished drafts from the time express a similarly bleak view of a broken and
mutable world. “Dust has no memory whatsoever,” is how he puts it in one
unpublished fragment (“Dust”), while in another he acknowledges time’s steady
assault in the line, “Paper yellows, even without flame” (“Concurrence”). Such
images dominate Hughes’s poetry and suggest a familiar and characteristic
stance towards human history and man’s tenuous hold on it.
Against the broken fragments of these early poems there is, however, often a
suggestion of some opposite movement. This latter poem, titled “Concurrence”
in the surviving manuscript, continues: “Paper yellows, even without flame,/But
in words carbon has already become diamond” (“Concurrence”). In these lines
Hughes establishes a link between the carbon that is the result of time’s slow fire
and the carbon of the poet’s own pencil. Even as the page slowly smoulders, the
poet’s own creative fire inscribes words on the page that have already become
diamond. The poem is an affirmation of some counter movement against, what
he calls it elsewhere, the “cold clockwork of the stars” (HR 53), and an
expression of hope for that otherwise fleeting creative force.
We see such an affirmation of the creative moment many places in Hughes’s
poetry, but perhaps nowhere as familiarly as in his self-mythologizing account of
writing a poem that we find in “The Thought Fox” (HR 15). In this well-known
poem poetic inspiration is described as a midnight visit from a fox which slowly
advances across a forest clearing. In his recent study, Keith Sagar takes
exception to “the myth of unpremeditated art” that the poem seems to posit;
however, we need to consider not the accuracy of its account so much as the
importance of this myth of creativity to Hughes (2000 89). Early in his career the

7. Hughes describes this fire in the Note to the Vintage Edition of Janet Malcolm’s The
Silent Woman (210).
8. Among the possible buyers were the well-known bookseller Bernard Stone, the
London-based firm of Bernard Quaritch, and the American dealer Marjorie Cohen of the
House of Books.

poem became a kind of signature piece for him. He gave it pride-of-place in his
New Selected, and he commented on the circumstances of composition on more
than one occasion, most fully in the same “Listening and Writing” radio
broadcast where he described his childhood hunts. In his remarks, he did not
qualify or otherwise retreat from the fictional elements of the analogy, but
instead expanded them even further: “If I had not caught the real fox there in the
words, I never would have saved the poem,” he writes. “I would have thrown it
into the wastepaper basket as I have thrown so many other hunts that did not get
what I was after.” More to the point, he then adds, “as long as a copy of the poem
exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out in the
darkness and come walking towards them” (“Capturing Animals”).
What Hughes is describing is the original moment of creative inspiration. The
poem, if successful, reenacts that moment and gives us as readers access to the
original experience that the poet serves. The reader’s experience is not a new one
but is, instead, a distant echo of that original inspiration. In Hughes’s mind that
moment is the final measure of value and is the end that the poet serves. As
Ekbert Faas summarizes his position, “No craft, education, professional
dedication and experimental ingenuity, not even the most thorough artistic
conscience, will produce great poetry in default of this inspiration” (39).9 This
chain of association which stretches back to the poet’s original inspiration
explains in large part the great value that Hughes came to place in the
manuscript draft itself. The draft is always closer to that original inspiration than
the final published poem. More than the achieved poem, the draft is for Hughes a
reminder of the fox’s first stirring and his slow movement towards us.
The poetic manuscript held a particular power for Hughes as evidenced as
well by his early and frequent publication in special manuscript editions of his
work. The first of these was the 1967 publication of Animal Poems in only one
hundred copies, thirty-six of which include one or more of the poems in
Hughes’s own hand. This was followed by numerous other manuscript editions
which incorporated either fair copies of his poems in his hand, cannibalized
working drafts, or, in the case of Cave Birds and the broadside of “Sky Furnace,”
facsimiles of the original manuscripts prepared for the purpose. The practice,
begun in 1967 was one he returned to repeatedly over his lifetime, most recently
in Howls and Whispers the fine press companion volume to Birthday Letters
published shortly before his death.10
Like his early sale of manuscript drafts, his decision to issue these manuscript
editions was surely, in large part, a financial one. He could not only charge
considerably more for these special editions, he could also issue them between
the appearance of his major collections. We should not, however, let the
economics of these publications obscure what they also convey about the special
status he accorded the manuscript itself. These editions served a personal need as
well and are consistent with Hughes’s early critical statements privileging the
original creative inspiration over any subsequent working out of a poem’s final
form. The manuscript edition quite literally contains the artifact of that otherwise

elusive inspiration, which Ekbert Faas calls an “obsessive concern” of Hughes’s

early poetry (38).
Hughes’s 1981 sale of the Sylvia Plath archive to Smith College offers further
evidence of Hughes’s own attitude toward the manuscript record. In a letter that
anticipates this upcoming sale, Hughes comments on the wide fluctuations in
prices paid for archives and on the impossibility of capturing their real value. “I
know that Dylan Thomas’ miraculous early notebooks, from which he drew all
his major poems, went for a few pounds—even as late as the fifties. While in
1963 Roethke’s papers went for [a] quarter of a million [dollars].” He then adds,
“these things have no absolute value. They are simply priceless.” While he
recognizes their clear market value—and its fluctuations—he also attaches a
value to manuscripts that is outside the marketplace altogether. Neither a few
pounds nor a quarter million dollars can adequately measure the value of such
materials. “The first drafts, in hand,” he writes, “are astonishing documents of
inspiration” (Letter to Prouty Smith).
It is important to note, however, the manuscript that he charges with such
importance is the poem draft: “the first drafts in hand” and the “miraculous early
notebooks.” Indeed, in what is clearly the most commented on manuscript action
of Hughes’s life, his destruction of Sylvia Plath’s last journal, we see him
drawing a clear distinction between Plath’s creative work (which he saw into
print in five major collections) and a journal record of her personal life. What has
escaped notice is that Hughes maintained the same distinction with regard to his
own journals from the period. In a 1975 letter to Plath’s mother, Aurelia, he
mentions “my journal of that time” and later adds that the harsh view of his
marriage to Plath “will only be corrected, probably, when somebody produces
her journals of the time and mine” (Letter to Aurelia Plath).11
Hughes’s early insistence that the sources of his own inspiration lay outside
the self explains, in large part, his very different stances towards the poem draft
and towards personal documents such as letters or journals. In drawing a
distinction between the public value of poetic manuscripts and the private nature
of the journal, Hughes forces a split between the lived life and the creative
imagination itself. Implicit in such a position is the notion that creative

9. Hughes’s insistence on a spontaneous and uncontrollable inspiration may have been, in

part, a response to Sylvia Plath’s far different manner of laboring over her poems with
thesaurus in hand. In his “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath’s Poems,” he
describes her method of composition this way: “She wrote her early poems very slowly,
Thesaurus open on her knee, in her large, strange handwriting, like a mosaic, where every
letter stands separate within the work, a hieroglyph to itself… Every poem grew complete
from its own root, in that laborious inching way, as if she were working out a
mathematical problem, chewing her lips, putting a thick ring of ink around each word that
stirred for her on the page of the Thesaurus.” (188)
10. Howls and Whispers was published in an edition of only 110 copies, ten of which
included a single manuscript of one of the poems.

inspiration can be separated from the day-to-day details of the lived life, indeed,
that its source lies somewhere outside the self altogether. The self-effacement
implicit in such a split would later be construed by many readers as a defensive
act of self-protection. In fact, the roots of this split lie in his early conception of
the creative process itself.
In 1988 Roy Davids, the head of manuscripts at Sotheby’s and a personal
friend of Hughes’s, asked Hughes if he could provide some notes on the
surviving drafts of Plath’s poem “Sheep in Fog” for a lecture that Davids was to
give later that year. What began as only a series of notes quickly grew into a
well-developed essay that now offers one of the most full statements by Hughes
on the manuscript and poetic creativity itself. Hughes presents a view of the
creative process remarkably consistent with his early views first articulated
twenty-five years before. Repeatedly Hughes refers to “the amazing inspiration”
(emphasis added) that produced Plath’s major poems, in effect, giving agency to
some force other than the self. Elsewhere in the original notes for the essay,
Hughes suggests that the process of writing the Ariel poems was “a triumphant
surmounting of all her personal difficulties” (Letter to Davids). In such
statements, Hughes seems on the brink of an Eliot-like argument. about the
impersonality of the poet, yet what he privileges in these statements is not so
much a larger poetic tradition beyond the self as it is a kind of possession of the
self. Thus, he writes of “the inner law of the poem,” the poem that has been
“persistently trying to emerge,” and its “inevitable conclusion.”
In a series of highly illuminating statements, Hughes describes three types of
poetic composition, three degrees really of poetic inspiration.12 In the first, the
poem springs complete from its initial inspiration. As Hughes puts it “the poem
seems to write itself, and takes the poet completely by surprise, as if he had no
idea where it came from. Once here, it cannot be altered” (TH to Davids). The
second type of process is one where “the poem can half rise” and the poet
“struggles to help it, offering it words, images, anything from his bag of tricks,
trying to anticipate it and take its slightest suggestions from the bits that have
appeared.” In the third, the initial inspiration offers the poet no more than an odd
phrase or line, and the poet “goes after it” with deliberate skill. “The final work
can often carry a strong poetic charge, it may well be rhetorically powerful and
carry striking phrases, lines, felicities, and at the very least can be an admirable
piece of craftmanship [sic]. But we have to ask: what relation does it bear to the
first inspiration (emphasis added), to the unique psychic materials that were
pushing for expression?”
I am less interested in the application of this scheme to Plath’s own poem than
I am in the implications for Hughes’s own poetics. These statements seem aimed
at establishing the primacy of poetic inspiration. The drafts before him are

11. The Ted Hughes papers at Emory include several journal-like entries on widely
scattered notebook pages but contain no sustained journal.

important not for where they eventually lead, but for where they have come.
They trace “the beginning, middle and end of a phenomenon to which no poem’s
final printed version can give any clue” (WP 207). They are “a complementary
revelation…the log-book of its real meanings.”
This view of artistic creativity has wide implications. While it validates the
initial impulse that animates the manuscript draft, it also diminishes the poet’s
own contribution to that creative process. Hughes attributes creativity not to any
deliberate skill of the poet but, instead, to some fundamentally unknowable
inspiration. In order to make such a claim Hughes had to ignore the considerable
manuscript evidence of his own creative work. His own papers typically reveal
extensive revision of draft upon draft. In the “Sheep in Fog” essay, however, he
chose to emphasize not the artist’s control over his materials but his role as a
channel for that original inspiration. Implicit in this position is a certain denial of
self that on some level Hughes found appealing.
What is most remarkable about the late collection Birthday Letters is the way
the poems reunite that previously bifurcated self. When Hughes published the
collection near the end of his life, reviewers were quick to proclaim, as the New
York Times did, “Hughes Breaks His Silence on Sylvia Plath.” Though he had
written extensively about Plath, and had edited a considerable body of her work
for publication, the Birthday Letters poems, for the first time, presented
Hughes’s own self as a register of events. No longer was he writing in a
disinterested voice of a third party, as he had done in “The Chronological Order
of Sylvia Plath’s Poems,” “Ariel by Sylvia Plath,” “Sylvia Plath’s Crossing the
Water,” his introduction to the Collected Poems, or in various other editorial
notes and introductions. In Birthday Letters he once again placed himself in
relation to the events the poems. He also did so in verse. That act, more than any
other, reunited the two halves of the self that he had kept apart in his earlier
critical statements regarding the sources of poetic inspiration. Here was a series
of poems that sprang not from any impersonal and unknowable inspiration but
quite directly from the journals, letters, poems, and photographs that are such a
frequent point of reference of the poems. Birthday Letters sprang quite directly
from the stuff of his own lived life. These poems are an effort towards the
coherent reassembly of that personal past, a past that is by its very nature broken,
fragmentary, and always receding into dim and irrecoverable memory.
In the end, the split that Hughes tried to claim between his personal experience
and the sources of his own art was not one he was able to maintain with any
consistency. The tensions between these two selves are most apparent in the
contradictory actions towards his own material archive. While he valued the
poem draft for its creative and talismanic properties, he also insisted that other

12. In the original letter to Roy Davids, Hughes describes three forms of poetic
inspiration; in the published essay, he identifies four. The fourth, however, is a variation
on the third; therefore, I do not consider it here.

elements of his archive were his alone and not for any public scrutiny. These
contradictory impulses of self-revelation and self-concealment allow us a
glimpse of Hughes’s own conception of his art. The late synthesis of these
opposing tendencies, most apparent in Birthday Letters, allows us a glimpse of a
self restored by art.
Drives & their Vicissitudes in the Poetry of
Ted Hughes
Axel Nesme

When I indicated to Joanny Moulin that I was considering working on “drives

and their vicissitudes” in Ted Hughes’s poetry, he wrote back suggesting that I
do some checking on the concept of enantiodromia as introduced by Jung in his
writings and further explored by Hughes in Shakespeare and the Goddess of
Complete Being. I will therefore go back on this term, which I hope will permit
me to situate differentially the more specifically Freudian concept of drive. In
Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (40), Hughes defines the term
with the formula: “Jung’s term for the reversal of one dominant psychological
attitude into its opposite.” In his own use of the concept Jung acknowledges his
debt towards Heraclitus:

Old Heraclitus…discovered the most marvellous of all psychological laws:

the regulative function of opposites. he called it enantiodromia, a running
contrariwise, by which he meant that sooner or later everything runs into
its opposite… Thus the rational attitude of culture necessarily runs into its
opposite, namely the irrational devastation of culture… The enantiodromia
that always threatens when a movement attains to undisputed power offers
no solution of the problem, for it is just as blind in its disorganization as it
was in its organization.

In Psychology and Alchemy Jung also writes: “an enantiodromia has obviously
taken place: after being rejected the unconscious asserts itself even more
strongly” (1970 112). Enantiodromia could thus be viewed roughly as a return of
the repressed in the form of a dream or a symptom. It may also take on the shape
of a reversal affecting the history of a subject or an entire culture. In any case,
between enantiodromia and entropy or, to use a more Freudian terminology,
homeostatic regulation, or even the life-drive/death-drive dialectic, the difference
may seem minimal. However, while in Freud’s theory this dynamic is as
unavoidable as the very existence of the drive itself, Jung does not view it as a
necessary condition: “The only person who escapes the grim law of
enantiodromia is the man who knows how to separate himself from the
unconscious, not by repressing it. but by putting it clearly before him as that
which he is not.” (1966 72)

I would not therefore go as far as to assimilate enantiodromia to a “reversal of

a drive into its opposite,” for insofar as the drive is that which defines man as a
linguistic being subjected to the Other’s desire, there is no object which, being
perfectly adequate to it as would be the object of the need, can put an end to it;
there is only a succession of metonymic substitutes which temporarily fill the
gap of the lost primal object1 and which constantly reactivate the dynamics of the
drive, whose aim is “but the return, as in a closed circuit. to its own source,
which allows us to understand how a drive can be satisfied without reaching its
goal.” (Dorr 185) Following Hughes’s own logic, the poet’s writing is not only
enantiodromic in relation to the culture whose repressed side it unveils, its
shamanistic claim is also to offer its reader a way out of what Jung calls “the
grim law of enantiodromia.” On the contrary it seems to me there is no possible
integration of the objects of the drive in Hughes’s poetry; instead the drive can
be seen as both constantly re-circulating and circum-venting what Lacanian
theory designates as Objet Petit a.
Whether in its in its vocal or phonemic manifestations on which I will
primarily focus in this paper, the object of the drive defines itself partly by the
space it delineates, the vacuum whose edges it maps out as does the curlew’s
flight in “The Horses” (HR 16): “I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge./The
curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.”
Thus while insisting in “Skylarks” that “The sky lies blank open” (W 168) and
depicting in the poem “Pibroch” (177) the universe as the cradle of a persisting
nothingness where his gnats will later be seen to fly, “at large in the nothing”
(179), Hughes does not only create a vacuum in the sky the better to lodge there
his new gods of survival, be they thrushes, larks, or “an almighty gnat,” he also pins
down the nothingness to which the object of the drive can be assimilated in the
final analysis. For as Alain Juranville points out, “the object of the drive lends
itself to infinite substitutions. It is nothing (Il est le rieri).” It is, in Lacan’s own
terms, “the object that we confuse all too often with that upon which the drive
closes—this object, which is in fact simply the presence of a hollow, a void,
which can be occupied, Freud tells us, by any object, and whose agency we
know only in the form of the lost object, the petit a” (1964 180).
The void central to the mechanism of the drive is apt to become resonant and
turn into the oxymoronic “ringing nothing” which is heard at the end of “The
Contender” (C 41), “the one note of silence/To which the whole earth dances
gravely” in the poem “Fern” (W 28), or conceivably the uncanny hieroglyphic
silence of the bodies of the mute children described in “Deaf School” (M 105).
The voice as object of what Lacanian theory calls “pulsion invocante” i. e.

1. “L’objet d’une pulsion. ne peut pas être l’objet du besoin. Le seul objet a même de
répondre a cette propriété ne peut être que l’objet du désir, cet objet que Lacan désignera
comme objet an objet du désir et objet cause du désir tout a la fois, objet perdu. A ce titre,
l’objet a en tant qu” il est éternellement manquant, inscrira la presence d’un creux que n”
importe quel objet pourra venir occuper (Dorr 185).

“invoking drive,” partakes of a similar paradox. Its truest expression might be the
silent scream at the center of Munch’s famous painting which carries the same
title, the same scream Hughes presents as the origin of all things in “Lineage”
and whose toned-down version we might trace for example to the rat’s
screeching in “Song of a Rat” (W 162), an apt analogon of Hughes’s writing insofar
at least as it is the other of the metaphysical sophistries his poetry is fond of
denouncing, but also more importantly the other of meaning itself.
In Poetry in the Making Hughes explains that a good poem may acquire the
same solidity and unavoidable factuality as what he calls “some lovely solid
thing” (WP 19). In that case, its mode of presence in the world is not similar but
identical to that of an animal: “I think of poems as a sort of animal… Maybe my
concern has been to capture not animals particularly and not poems, but simply
things which have a vivid life of their own, outside mine” (10). In other words,
the poem does not exist as a linguistic artefact implicitly signalling to the
subject’s divorce from the Real. It is a thing among others, hence also
consubstantial to das Ding, the Freudian Thing defined in Lacanian theory as
“plenitude insofar as it is there located by the (verbal) signifier” (Juranville 253),
or, following one of Lacan’s many untranslatable formulas, “ce qui, du réel
primordial…pâtit du signifiant” (1986 142), i. e. that part of the primal real of
which the signifier necessarily falls short and whose quest leads the subject
beyond the pleasure principle.
For lack of ever becoming one with the real of das Ding, however, a poem
may at least convoke it by means of the scream which brings into play the vocal
object as that which stands for das Ding, or rather, for the gap which its absence
inscribes in each speaking subject:
The scream is not primarily a call, it brings silence into being. Not because
silence sustains it, being in its background: quite the opposite. According to
Lacan the scream creates a gulf into which silence rushes. He then mentions the
knot that silence ties between something which exists just before it vanishes and
the Other thing where speech may falter: it is this knot that becomes resonant
when the scream carves a space inside it. The “gap the scream delineates” is
internal, but it is also that of the Thing. The death drive penetrates this inner gap,
then returns to its surface. The scream thus carves a hole within the body while
at the same time resonating in the space where das Ding is lacking. It is at this
level that the Nebenmensch (the Freudian Thing) appears as an unbridgeable gap
delineated within ourselves and which we can barely approach. The death drive
has no object, since the subject then becomes that nothing which is the Thing in
its emptiness, and can trigger no desire. It is there that the lack of the Object is
experienced as the lack of all objects. (Juranville 231–2)
The pure voice of the other thing where speech falters thus resonates in the
scream with which the pure signifier Gulkana is equated in Hughes’s poem by
the same title “The Gulkana” (R 78): “Gulkana—/Biblical, a deranging cry/From
the wilderness—burst past us./A stone voice that dragged at us.” The utter
nonsense of this river name isolates the voice as object, a petrified voice (“a

stone voice that dragged at us”) whose fate the gaze will later share (“Bliss had
fixed their eyes”), a voice which therefore carries no meaningful speech and
reduces the speaker’s ear to a pure void; the voice of perversion perhaps also, since,
as A.Juranville points out, it “ultimately refers to the voice of the threatening
mother, of the seducing mother” (187) whose deadly power and force of
attraction is expressed in the verb “dragged.” The voice which thus makes itself
heard is a voice from before the law, hence the denial attempt (“something I kept
trying to deny”) of the speaker, led by his transgressive desire to set foot on the
locus of origins where the resurrection of the fish translates a primal scene
fantasy in almost explicit terms. This experience necessarily triggers a sense of
anxiety, as the speaker finds in the resurrected fish his own image, “A bodiless
twin, some doppelganger/Disinherited other, unliving,” reflected in the frame of
fantasy, here designated as “the windows of the express torrent.”
Bearing witness to a dysfunctioning of the paternal metaphor which introduces
the subject to the symbolic order, this erection of the voice as object is also the
privileged medium of a questioning of the law of finitude, the law of symbolic
castration partly challenged by the poetic subject in “Anniversary” (CPH 854).
In this poem, as in a sonnet by Seamus Heaney called “In Memoriam M.K.H.,”
the use of grammatical tenses signals the incompletion of the mourning process,
as does from the outset the fate inflicted on the page from the diary which
mentions the death of the poet’s mother. While the indication “Ma died today”
inscribes this death in the linear temporality of the diary, the poem subtracts the
vision of the mother from this order to maintain her in a perpetual present, in a
fashion similar to the tearing off of the page mentioning her death from the
diary. The text thus offers the maternal voice as object of the invoking drive a
space where it can be heard from the grave and become the voice that is invoked,
an evanescent and seductive object which, by drawing the outline of a void, turns
it into the imaginary locus where the lack of das Ding designates itself: “Her
voice comes, piping,/Down a deep gorge of woodland echoes” (292). Indeed, it
is no accident if many poems in which Ted Hughes apostrophizes the departed,
such as “For the Duration” (Ww 22) or “Old oats” (CPH 852) or “You Hated
Spain” (BL 39) foreground the dimension of invocation, thus possibly
manifesting the poet’s difficulty in coming to terms with loss otherwise than via
a return of the ghost of the object, that which all invocations aims at, and more
specifically that which occurs in “Anniversary.” For here the voice which is
invoked is precisely the object which, according to Juranville “lets the ear appear
as a void” (186) where the drive involutes. This is at least the suggestion one
may read in the lines, “She is using me to tune finer/Her weeping love for my
brother” (CPH 855), where the speaker subjected to the mother’s desire for
fusion (be it presented as a mere con-fusion between the two brothers: “able for
all that distance to think me him”) becomes a tuning instrument, in other words,
an ear for the voice of the mother who, having merged with the cosmos, is animated
by the pure binary movement of the drive: “The work of the cosmos,/Creation
and destruction of matter/And of anti-matter/Pulses and flares, shudders and

fades/ Like the Northern Lights in their feathers” (292). Central to the emergence
of the voice as object is its withdrawal as the vehicle of meaningful speech, at
times when selves are “no longer woven into a voice” as Hughes wrote once
again in “Deaf School” (M 105) or when animals set in resonance the void in
which their voices are heard: “the voices and frenzies of the larks,/Squealing and
gibbering and cursing./ Like sacrifices set floating/The cruel earth’s offerings/
The mad earth’s missionaries.” These lines from “Skylarks” (W 168) are
exemplary of the two contradictory forces at work in Hughes’s poetry: on the
one hand the fascination with the Other of articulate language as embodied by
the larks’ gibberish; on the other, the discursiveness which here substitutes a
meaningful comparison for the nonsense of which the reader previously caught a
glimpse. Given the line of questioning I have chosen, my focus will continue to
bear primarily on the first term of this dichotomy, which I would now like to
approach from a more metapoetic angle.
As meaningless as the scream in which the invoking drive opens onto the
death drive which is the primum mobile of all partial drives in the essential
vanity of their motion, is the writing that Hughes’s gnats are seen to successively
jot down and erase in mid air, “Writing on the air, rubbing out everything they
write” (179). Animated by the pure alternating motion of the drive in their
constant shifts from activity to passivity—“Ridden to death by your own bodies/
Riding your bodies to death” (180)—the dancing gnats also follow the circular
pattern of the drive circumscribing the central void which stands for the absence
of das Ding, hence their being defined as “immense magnets fighting around a
center.” Hughes’s insects thus offer an apt analogy for the initial moment of the
writing process, preceding sublimation:

The act of writing. is a pure act in which the signifier is produced, but as
meaningless in and of itself. This appears quite clearly in the way one draws
a letter on the page, then returns to where one started, in the same way as
in the partial drive, one revolves around the object, i. e. always also the
void of das Ding. The motion which inscribes a letter is the motion of the
drive. And this motion is bound to repetition in writing: once the letter has
been produced, it calls for the production of another letter, without the
second one being anymore than the first, with the same presence of
meaninglessness (non-sens). (Juranville 284)

Yet all this only applies to the initial logical moment of writing. As soon as a
structure emerges, however, sublimation occurs, by virtue of which, in Lacanian
theory, the object is elevated to the dignity of das Ding, which appears in lieu of
the object, within the specific temporality of poetic speech. This scenario we can
see at work in the poem from River “Milesian Encounter on the Sligachan” (44)
with which I would like to conclude this paper. In his article entitled “The
Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian
Unconscious” after listing the various objects of standard analytical theory Lacan

adds: “An unthinkable list, if one adds, as I do, the phoneme, the gaze, the voice
—the nothing” (1966 315). Following Lacan’s suggestion I would like to show
how in this poem, it is precisely through the agency of the phoneme that the
object is elevated to the dignity of the Thing.
Despite the predominance of its narrative aspect, reinforced by the six prose
paragraphs inserted after the third line, this poem presents a number of formal
features which suggest from the start that the encounter in question will extend
beyond the level of the plot and involve the dimension of the signifier. Indeed,
besides the falling rhythms introduced by several dactyls and trochees—
“tumblequag,” “hairiness,” “clatterbrook,” “petrified scapulae, vertebrae,”
“underbank opposite,” “something sinister about bogland rivers” —as a prelude
to the fading “from the light of reality” undergone by the speaker at the end of
the poem, one formal characteristic that stands out are the numerous alliterations
which seem to take this poem back to the origins of English verse, perhaps as an
echo of the primitivist longing for Beowulf days already expressed in “Thistles”
(W 17).
Here are a few examples: “something sinister” (l.2) “crusty, quaking cadaver
and me lurching over it in elation like a daddy-long-legs” (l.6); “crooked little
clatterbrook” (l.7); “The shock./The sheer cavern of current” (l.5); “clear/
Cleansing” (ll.8–9); “giddy/Ghostly” (ll.12–13); “peering into that
superabundance of s pirit” (l.15) “Those shuttles of love-shadow” (l.23)
“precious like a preservative” (l.29).
This omnipresence of alliteration draws the reader’s attention to what Laurent
Jenny calls “plastic nuances” which “bring the weight of reality to bear on
utterance,” they belong to what the critic calls “that sensitive border which
unfolds at the same time as utterance itself” and which can be seen as “a kind of
“interface” between discourse and the world” (17). Indeed, according to Jenny,
not only “deictics and nouns act as shifters between language and its other. The
sensitive materiality of discourse also functions “deictically” in that it is oriented
towards the world” (18). This plasticity of poetic speech, this encoding of the real
in the substance of the text to which alliteration contributes, may thus be seen as
the exact counterpart of the symptom as the encoding of jouissance in the real of
the body. In its primitivism, alliteration thus opens up a discursive space “made
up of the substance of the world and unfolding together with it;” it fashions the
poem as the locus where “this world divides within itself, tears itself away from
itself while preserving its plasticity, thereby creating the possibility of a
withdrawal, but not of an absolute separation.” (Jenny 19). This last quote
encapsulates, I believe, the transgressive dimension of Hughes’s poetic
undertaking in its problematic relationship to the law that posits the real as
language’s impossibility.
No wonder therefore, if in “Milesian Encounter on the Sligachan,” language is
made subservient to the speaker’s attempt at restoring a primal unity of sorts,
notably by way of hyphenated words and compounds that stich various nouns
together2, the most spectacular example being the bog which serves not only as

the setting for poetic revelation, but also as an omnific signifier that lends itself
to various transformations: “bogland” (line 2), “bog-cotton” (l.11), “underbog”
(l.28), “boggart” (l.65). By stressing the infinite malleability of words as he also
does in suggesting the genesis of the word “whisker” (l.54) from the merger of
“whisky” (l. 51) and “whisper” (l.52), Hughes thus reenacts in the materiality of
the letter the imaginary scenario of the origins one of whose main protagonists
is, if not the Freudian Thing, at least that which stands for it, call it the phallic
mother or simply the legendary Gorgon whose presence in this text is made quite
explicit by the mythological reference: “With a ram’s skull there—magnified, a
Medusa” (l.30) bearing witness to the “Milesian” or picaresque aesthetic adopted
by Hughes, but also conveniently assimilating the river to the Gorgon from
whose veins legend has it that both a deadly poison and medicine to bring the
dead back to life could be drawn.
There are thus, I would argue, two encounters in this poem: first, the
imaginary confrontation—mediated by a scopic fantasy in which gazes are
exchanged: “I… peering into…” (l.14), “the loveliest ogress…watched me,” (ll.
59–61)—with the “fellow aliens” (l.16), whose oxymoron encapsulates the
poem’s strategy aiming to reduce alterity to similarity—“Those peculiar eyes/So
like mine,” (ll.17–8)—the better to tone down the threat perceived in the
landscape as locus of epiphany. The frame of fantasy does not however provide
the only connection between the two agencies involved. Indeed the subject and
the Other, being respectively compared to a “Daddy-long-legs” and to a “most-
longed-for-ogress,” i. e., both designated by hyphenated names, seem
linguistically destined to meet, which transfers the stage of the encounter from the
river’s imaginary setting to the poem’s linguistic make-up. In the same way as
the various hyphens create a continuity between signifiers, the [ou] assonance
and [l] consonance thus metonymically connect verbs predicated of the speaker
with the Other of the encounter: “I stroked its throat… I licked the moulded
hollows/Of its collarbones.” But while a sexual meaning is deliberately suggested
in lines 34–47 where the speaker portrays himself as successfully attempting to
arouse the pool, an attempt which partially culminates in the climactic crash of
line 47, the linguistic climax of the poem only occurs in lines 50–2, which define
the text’s second, and more specifically poetic, encounter. This apex is itself
followed by the purely verbal anticlimax of “salmo salar” (71) where Latin
taxonomy takes over from the more native capitalized nouns of lines 50–2.

2. “Tumblequag,” “Ice-Age hairiness” (ll.4–5) “daddy-long-legs” (l.7), “clatterbrook” (l.

7), a razor-edged, blood-smeared grass, the flood-sucked swabs of bog-cotton, the dusty
calico rip-up of snipe -” (l.12), “the Cuillins…that were blue-silvered” (ll.14–5), “up to
my hip in a suck-hole…teetering over the broken-necked heath-bobs a good half-hour” (ll.
19–20), “So lonely-drowning deep, so drowned-hair silent” (l.7); “the long pool-tail” (l.
14); “With an ushering-in of chills” (l.43); “the tip of my heart-nerve” (l.47); “the eye-
pupil darkness? The loveliest, left-behind, most-longed-for ogress” (l.59), “her time-
warped judas-hole” (l.61).

The poem thus stages a love encounter with the signifiers of the mother
tongue, the word “boggart,” which is West Yorkshire dialect for “specter,” and
also with a specific phoneme. In “Milesian Encounter” the poet is not only
fishing “the long pool-tail” for the tale of an encounter in a pool, but also for
certain gutturals, be it at the cost of what Craig Robinson calls “deliberate
exaggeration” (203–4). This, Hughes does most spectacularly in the apocopated
internal rhyme of line 50 (“a Gruagach of the Sligachan), where he extols those
remnants of his language’s Celtic prehistory as the privileged vehicles of the
metaphor which veils the woman as imaginary bearer of the phallus, before
staging their demise when denotative, scientific language takes over and the lack
is revealed behind the linguistic veil that covered it. Yet through the mediation of
Hughes’s poetic narrative, the reader has had ample enough opportunity to relish
the raucous charms of the voiceless velar fricative, previously repressed from the
signifier which designates the setting of the poem, namely the Cuillins whose
Promethean connotations (“asylum of eagles”) were the only reminder of the
hero Cuchullain after whom those mountains are also named.
While “Thistles” (W 17), one of Hughes’s many explorations of the death and
resurrection pattern, stages by way of a simile the resurrection of “the gutturals
of dialects,” “A Milesian Encounter” thus achieves a similar effect to that
described by Hughes in the often-quoted passage from his “Notes on
Shakespeare” (WP 105) where the poet explains how Shakespeare’s use of the
Latin word “aggravate” reactivates “the concrete Anglo-Saxon “gr” core of growl,
grind, eager, grief, grate etc.” Hughes’s own brand of linguistic archaelogy not
only unearthes the same sound combination set off by the chiasmatic ordering of
the voiced and voiceless. plosives (“grabbed…crashed”/“crack…anite” [græ]/
[kræ], [kræ]/[græ]), it also throws into relief a phoneme that takes us back to the
Germanic roots of English.
This poem thus enacts a transition of sorts from linguistic innocence to
experience as well as the speaker’s exile from original light. As he implicitly did
lines 35–6 in constructing a phonological chain that connected him with the
Thing, the speaker finally suggests that such metonymic ruins of the (m)other are
the only object of jouissance allotted to him as subjected to the signifier. While
confming the other within the “judas-hole” of line 61, i. e. the frame of scopic
fantasy necessarily perceived as a betrayal of the total truth that hides behind, the
poem, by also letting through phonemic glimmers of what Hughes terms “the
light of reality,” elevates those to the dignity of the Thing
Does the poet emulate Perseus who defeated Medusa by trapping her image in
the reflection of his shield, i. e. by interposing the imaginary order between
himself and the Other’s jouissance? This reading would be legitimate, but
perhaps incomplete. It is worth remembering here that at the beginning of the
poem, the origin of the encounter is located in directions provided by a third party
—““up in the pools,” they’d said,” (l.1)—a symbolic Other ensuring mediation
between subject and object of the encounter. This fact, I would argue is to be
related to the poem itself being addressed to “Hilary and Simon.” Simultaneously

to this inscription opposing the gift of the poem as symbolic artefact to the gift of
the salmon’s eye as imaginary object also thematized in the poem, knowledge of
jouissance is located in the Other: “you know when it’s coming” (l.40). The
phoneme as letter thus borders a gap in knowledge, the knowledge of jouissance
as located in the unconscious, i. e. , an Other which defines the subject of speech
as the product of his splitting between his discourse and his speech as well as
between his imaginary reflection and the real of his body. Which may explain
why in the poem under scrutiny, alterity, initially located in a prehistoric other
whose connection with the subject, although acknowledged, was of a primarily
specular nature (“Those peculiar eyes/So like mine”) is later on integrated in
terms of an “altering” predicated of the speaker’s body at the same time as the
text undergoes the rather theatrical linguistic alteration I have been studying.
In a recent book psychoanalyst Henri Rey-Flaud propounds a vision of
modernity as the moment when the ultimate Cause of all things, a signifier which
incidentally shares the same root as Chose, the French word for thing, is elided.
Previously, he adds, the world “was only thinkable as obeying a principle of
causality whose founding signifier was located in the Other, designated by
the expression “Heaven.” In other words, the universe was thought as reasonable
on the basis of the belief that the final reason of all things would be given one
day and provide the meaning of meaning” (58). Rey-Flaud argues that the
moment when “the chain of causes was broken and the founding signifier was
lost is a decisive one in our culture, for it marks the birth of scientific thought
which, by “eluding” and “eliding” the question of the ultimate cause, once and
for all dismissed as pertaining to the impossibility of the real, lays down the
foundation of reality as such.” (58–9).
As for Ted Hughes’s poetic project, it manifests a resurgence of a pre-
scientific imaginary order which, in its iconoclastic guise, denounces
metaphysical illusion the better to promote nature as a universal cause of creation
and destruction. Hence his mimologism, which can be read as a refusal to accept
the signifier’s essential inadequacy to its meaning, or in other words, that for lack
of an ultimate Cause, the only possible belief rests on the absence of the ultimate
Cause and on the assumption of the arbitrariness of the sign. Perhaps therefore
Ted Hughes falls short of what Rey-Flaud thus defines as “pure belief.” I have
tried to show how in his poetry meaningless objects occupy the space which this
belief leaves vacant, and are convoked in lieu of the primal signifier (designated
in Lacanian theory as S2, or the phallic symbol Ф) to function as substitutes of
the Thing whose absence it proclaims.

At a cocktail party honouring W.H.Auden at the offices of Faber & Faber on June 23rd,
1960. The poets are (left to right): Stephen Spender, W.H.Auden, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot,
and Louis MacNeice. Photograph by Mark Gerson.

Plate 1: Ted Hughes preparing his papers for sale, Court Green, 1996. (Carol Hughes)
World these three poems are ordered according to Sephiroth 1, 2 and 3 on the Tree, not

Plate 2: “You were not born when mighty Alexander died,” early poem in Ted Hughes’s
hand, ca. 1947. Among the earliest surviving manuscripts by Ted Hughes in the Hughes
collection is this poem inscribed “for Jean,” a childhood classmate at Mexborough
Grammar School. (Estate of Ted Hughes)

Plate 3a and 3b: Working draft of Ted Hughes’s unpublished oratorio “Bardo Thodol”
with, on the verso, notes in Sylvia Plath’s hand for a planned novel, Falcon Yard, 1960.
(Estate of Ted Hughes)

Plate 4: “The Thought-Fox,” signed fair copy prepared for sale. (Estate of Ted Hughes)

Plate 5: Howls & Whispers, The Gehenna Press, 1998. One of ten deluxe copies (out of a
total edition of 110) featuring three watercolor drawings by Leonard Baskin, a second
suite of etchings, one copperplate, and a single leaf of Ted Hughes’s manuscript. This
series of eleven poems is described in the prospectus for the volume as “strays from the
series” Birthday Letters. Shown here is copy number 7 with a single manuscript draft of
“Minotaur 2.” (Estate of Ted Hughes)

The Sephirothic System of the Ten Divine Names


Correspondences between Birthday Letters poems, Cabbala and Tarot. “In the Atziluthic
according to the alphabet.
Tarot Hebrew Cabbala World of World of World of World of
Card Alphabet Symbol Atziluth Briah Yetzirah Assiah
The Fool Aleph Ox “Fullbrigh “Chaucer “Isis” “Dreamer
t ” s”
1 The Beth House “Caryatid “Ouija” “Epiphan “Fairy
Magician s (1)” y” Tale”
2 The Gimel Camel “Caryatid “The “The “The
High s (2)” Earthenw Gypsy” Blackbird
Priestess are Head” ”
3 The Daleth Door “Visit” “Wutheri “A “Totem”
Empress ng Dream”
4 The He Window “Sam” “The “The “Robbing
Emperor Chipmun Minotaur Myself
k” ”
5 The Vau Nail “The “Horosco “The “Blood
Hieropha Tender pe” Pan” and
nt Place” Innocence

6 The Zain Sword “St. “Flounder “Error” “Costly
Lovers Botolphs” s” Speech”
7 The Cheth Fence “The “The Blue “The “The
Chariot Shot” Flannel… Lodger” Inscriptio
.” n”
8 Justice Teth Serpent “Trophies “Child’s “Daffodil “Night-
” Park” s” Ride on
9 The Yod Hand “18 “9 “The “Telos”
Hermit Rugby Willow Afterbirth
Street” Street” ”
10 The Kaph Palm/Fist “The “The “Setebos” “Brasilia”
Wheel of Machine” Literary
Fortune Life”
11 Lamed Ox Goad “God “The “A Short “The
Strength Help the Bird” Film” Coat”
12 The Mem Water “Fidelity” “Astringe “The Rag “The
Hanged ncy” Rug” Ventriloq
Man uist”
13 Death Nun Fish “Fate “The “The “Life
Playing” Badlands” Table” After
14 Samekh Prop “The “Fishing “Apprehe “The
Temperan Owl” Bridge” nsions” Hands”

15 The A’Ain Eye “A Pink “The 59th “Dream “The

Devil Wool…” Bear” Life” Prism”
16 The Pé Mouth “Your “Grand “Perfect “The
Tower Paris” Canyon” Light” God”
17 The Tzaddi Fish-hook “You “Karlsbad “The “Freedom
Star Hated Caverns” Rabbit of
Spain” Catcher” Speech”
18 The Quoph Back “Moonwa “Black “Suttee” “A
Moon o’head lk” Coat” Picture of
19 The Resh Head “Drawing “Portraits “The Bee “Fingers”
Sun ” ” God”
20 Shin Tooth “Fever” “Stubbing “Being “The
Judgemen Wharfe” Christlike Dogs are
t ” Eating…”
21 The Tau Tau Cross “55 “Remissio “The “Red”
World Eltisley” n” Beach”
Hughes & the Female Addressee
Neil J.Roberts

The first words of Hughes’s earliest collected poem are “O lady:” a formal
apostrophe, as saturated as possible with the signs of poetic convention.
Remember that Crow had his head cut off for singing “O leaves.” The female
addressee is completely sublimated: she is the lost or unattainable lover of
Elizabethan sonnets, the sinister “ladie” of traditional ballads and above all, as
many critics have remarked, the White Goddess of Robert Graves. If this poem
was in any way inspired by a relationship with a real woman or girl, that
empirical situation has left almost no trace. As Ekbert Faas says, she is “some
oceanic goddess…the White Goddess to whose youthful worshipper Graves’
book…had already turned into a kind of Bible.” Faas also reports that the poem
was written “as if to dictation” and that Hughes was left, Coleridge-like, “with the
frustrating recollection of a lost line he failed to jot down” (Faas 71). It is a
classic example of what Graves calls a Muse poem, directly inspired by the Muse
and taking her as its subject. Graves writes: “a true poem is necessarily an
invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient
power of fright and lust” (24). In The Hawk in the Rain this poem, “Song,” was
placed first. In the various selected volumes it is pushed into second place by
“The Thought-Fox.” This is certainly a more appropriate introduction to the
poems that immediately follow it in Hughes’s oeuvre: Faas points out that such
direct representation of the Goddess almost disappears from Hughes’s poetry
until Gaudete. But if we focus on the second half of his career, and especially on
Gaudete, the “Uncollected” section of New Selected Poems, and Birthday
Letters, the female addressee is of central importance. At the same time, the mere
mention of these texts signals that the female addressee has crucially different
forms and meanings at different stages, or in different projects. In these different
forms and meanings can be seen something of the gender struggle that Hughes’s
oeuvre enacts.
The peculiar characteristic of apostrophe as a poetic device is that someone
who is absent is addressed as if she were present, (I am excluding here apostrophes
to inanimate addressees such as the “Ode to the West Wind” which
conventionalise an equally absurd form of address). The addressee is usually
dead or has deserted the speaker: hence it is particularly associated with funeral
elegy and love poetry. Jonathan Culler has written that in apostrophic poetry

“something once present has been lost or attenuated,” and that apostrophes
“replace this irreversible structure by removing the opposition between presence
and absence from empirical time and locating it in discursive time” (Culler 49–
50). This shift from the empirical to the discursive is very convenient for the kind
of apostrophic poetry typified by “Song,” in which the addressee is sublimated,
even apotheosised, and stripped of empirical characteristics.
I want to contrast this highly specialised form of address with the normative
conception of social utterance—including literary utterance—espoused by the
School. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language Voloshinov wrote that

Orientation of the word toward the addressee has an extremely high

significance. In point of fact, word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally
by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word, it is precisely the
product of the reciprocal relationship between the speaker and listener,
addresser and addressee… I give myself verbal shape from another’s point
of view (86).

Bakhtin himself insisted that the speaker himself is always also a “respondent”
who presupposes “the existence of preceding utterances” (1986 69), and that the
word “break[s] through to its own meaning and its own expression across an
environment full of alien words” (1981 277).
In other words, addressivity is bound up with intertextuality. The removal of
the apostrophic addressee from “empirical time” to “discursive time,” especially
when accompanied by the kind of sublimation that we have seen in “Song,”
drastically affects the poem’s intertextual bearings. The immediate allegiance of
“Song” to The White Goddess obviously relates it to a vast network of poetic and
religious imagery and ideas. It lends itself to the notion of intertextuality
espoused by Barthes, for whom “the citations which go to make up a text are
anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read” (160). Although Barthes derives
this anonymous conception of intertextuality via Kristeva from Bakhtin,
Bakhtin’s own understanding of the relations between texts was very different.
For him “the meeting of two texts” was “the meeting of two subjects and two
authors” (1986 107). This definition of intertextuality seems to me to apply to
apostrophic poems such as Tony Harrison’s elegies for his parents, where the
addressees are not sublimated, and their words (or words attributed to them) have
a function that would be completely dissipated if they were “anonymous.” The
crucial case in Hughes’s oeuvre is of course Birthday Letters.
As I have said, the female addressee, having disappeared after “Song,”
reappears abundantly in the Epilogue to Gaudete. More than half the poems use
the device, which contributes powerfully to the sequence’s impression of
withdrawal, loneliness and concentration. It appears again in the “Uncollected”
section of New Selected Poems, where poems addressed to Sylvia and to Assia
are presented in such a way that a reader without biographical information would
not be able to identify the addressees. Finally, the fact that all but four of Birthday

Letters are addressed to Sylvia was one of the most frequently remarked features
of the book when it was published.
The Gaudete epilogue poems are addressed to “a nameless female deity.”
Hughes wrote in a letter that in them “Lumb adds up several women in his life,
assuming them, as he does so, into that female in the other world (or hidden in
this world)—and naturally I could only lend him people I have known.” He was
particularly informative about the poem “I know well.” Hughes’s response to an
admittedly rather insensitive criticism of this poem was to ask whether it made
any difference to know that “the girl in “I know well” was Susan Allison, who
died very slowly of Hodgkins’ disease, very aware of what was happening to
her” (Letter to Neil Roberts and Terry Gifford, October 1978). My answer to that
question is yes, it does make a difference, and ever since I have had this
information I have thought this one of Hughes’s most moving pieces of writing. I
don’t think this is because I am sentimentally importing into the poem a
vicarious feeling about a real-life situation. It is not that the information adds
something to the poem, but that the sublimation, the “assuming” as Hughes puts
it of people he has known into the “female in the other world” obscures what is
in the poem, distracts the reader from the particular human reality.
Another problem, again arising from Hughes’s comment, concerns the best
known of these poems, “Waving goodbye from your banked hospital bed.” The
reason why this is the best known of them is that most readers assume it is about
Sylvia Plath, mainly because of the lines, “You knocked the world off, like a
flower-vase./It was the third time. And it smashed” which seem to allude to
“Lady Lazarus.” In a letter to Leonard Scigaj however Hughes denied that the
poem had anything to do with Plath (Brandes 187). An interesting intertextual
point arises here, which reminds me of Bakhtin’s conflict-filled conception of the
life of the word which “break[s] through to its own meaning and its own
expression across an environment full of alien words” (1981 277). The words
“the third time” do not literally occur in “Lady Lazarus,” where Plath writes
“The first time,” “The second time” and “This is number three.” In most contexts
such a commonplace phrase would not remind a reader of the poem, even if he
or she were very familiar with it. But in the context of a Ted Hughes poem
addressed to a dead female, it is almost as if Plath herself momentarily speaks. It
is Bakhtin’s “alien word,” which Hughes’s word has to “break through.” But it
fails. His attempted sublimation, his assumption of the women he has known into
a “nameless female deity,” breaks down and the simple words which he cannot
compel to serve his own meaning draw the poem into the gravitational field of
Plath’s text. This could not happen if intertextual relations were, as Barthes
claims, always “anonymous.” The situation is however more complex than this.
It is not a question simply of one text, “Lady Lazarus,” ambushing Hughes’s
poem. The peculiar malignity with which the poem seems to be hijacked by one
little phrase owes not a little to the many other texts, mostly hostile to him, which
have intervened between Plath’s writing and his own. Few cases could better

exemplify the Bakhtinian word that “enters a dialogically agitated and tension-
filled environment of alien words, value judgements and accents.” (1981 276)
We could say the same of Birthday Letters, though the relationship of these
poems to the “word” of Sylvia Plath is very different from that of “Waving
Goodbye.” In the Gaudete poem Hughes’s alleged intention of writing a poem that
is not about Plath is subverted by the intertextual word. Birthday Letters are the
most intensely and intimately but also the most deliberately intertextual of
Hughes’s poems. Again and again he cites Plath’s poems, stories and journals,
sometimes to startling effect. This manner of citation is intertwined with the
often elaborately circumstantial character of the poems. These words of Plath’s
are represented as belonging to the dramatic situations evoked by Hughes’s
poems. At one level this could be seen as an indirect answer to one of the most
resonant polemics in the Hughes—Plath wars, Marjorie Perloff’s comparison of
the published Ariel with the collection that Plath prepared before her death. Perloff
argued that the original sequence had a “narrative structure” centring on
Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill and his “actual desertion.” The published
volume however is arranged to suggest that Plaths suicide was inevitable, caused
by “her essential and seemingly incurable schizophrenia” (Perloff 313–4). In
other words, in rearranging Ariel, removing some poems and adding others,
Hughes suppressed its circumstantial basis. In Birthday Letters poems such as
“The Rabbit Catcher,” “The 59th Bear” and “Black Coat,” he seems to be doing
the opposite: restoring the poems and prose of Plath to the most minutely
circumstantial context, one that only he knows because only he was there, and so
outflanking the feminist argument. In “The Rabbit Catcher” Hughes writes lines
that play intriguingly round those of Plath’s poem, but studiously ignores the
sexual parallel, and with it the implied identification (according, as it were, to
Perloff’s narrative) of himself with the rabbit catcher. Plath’s erotic language is
replaced by an unsexualised and even sentimental family scene. By asserting his
own perspective in this overt way Hughes answers not only Plath’s reaction to
the traps but also the popular image of himself as a violent and sexual predator.
The most direct echo, the image of the hands round the mug, is perhaps even
more interesting. The brilliant detail of “blood in the cuticles” suggests that
Hughes has immersed himself in Plath’s vision to the extent of retrieving from
her consciousness a graphic image that did not find its way into her poem. This
introduction of an element of horror that even exceeds that of the poem could be
interpreted, again, as an outflanking manoeuvre. And why does Hughes change
the colour of the mug from white to blue? In any other writer this could only be a
mistake; in Hughes, however, it could be interpreted as a sign of access to an
authentic reality not available in Plath’s poem.
“Black Coat” narrates, in a more circumstantial way and from his point of
view, the incident that inspired Plath’s poem “Man in Black.” His words,
“Watching me/ Pin the sea’s edge down” echo hers, “riveting stones, air,/All of
it, together.” But the significance of “Man in Black” is of course Plath’s later
allusion to it in “Daddy,” where the hero of the earlier poem, and the rivets that

image his power to create wholeness, are transformed into “a model of you,/A
man in black with a Meinkampf look/And a love of the rack and the screw.” The
manoeuvre of Hughes’s poem is to suggest that this transformation was already
predetermined at the moment when Plath watched him at the sea’s edge: the
moment, he imagines, when her father “crawled” from the sea and “slid into
The most audacious of these allusions is in “A Dream”: “Not dreams, I had
said, but fixed stars/Govern a life.” This is more than an appropriation: it is a
claim that Plath’s famous words are a quotation from himself.” Fixed stars/
Govern a life” are of course the last words of the poem “Words,” with which
Hughes chose to conclude Ariel. It is neither the concluding poem of her
proposed collection, which she drew up before it was written, nor the last poem
she wrote. If Hughes really spoke these words, then here he is claiming—or
confessing—that he literally gave himself the last word in Ariel. But “claim” and
“confess” both miss the mark as attempts to describe Hughes’s tone here. He
seems indifferent to the issue, leaving the tardy scholar to pick it up. The urgency
of the lines is all to do with his communion with Plath, not at all with textual
politics. He plays so blithely into the hands of his critics that he conveys his
contempt for them far more effectively than in the prose polemics he
occasionally yielded to, or the embarrassing poem “The Dogs Are Eating Your
I may seem to have strayed from the topic of the female addressee, but the
questions of intertextuality that I have been discussing are closely bound up with
those of addressivity. The second person of lyric poetry is notoriously non-
specific. To tie it to particular circumstances as Hughes does in Birthday Letters
requires a great deal of work that lyric is traditionally reluctant to do. This can be
illustrated if we think by contrast of the “Uncollected Poems” in New Selected
Poems. These include eight poems later collected in Birthday Letters, followed
by eight that are apparently about Assia Wevill: of each group seven are
addressed to Sylvia or Assia respectively. This publication aroused nothing like
the interest of Birthday Letters, although it was both a strong foretaste of that
volume and, in the Assia poems, offered an additional frisson. This is partly a
matter of marketing, but it also reflects the strong pull of this kind of poem
towards anonymity and universality, the norm of “Song” and the Gaudete
The first “Assia” poem, “The Other,” which like many of the Birthday Letters
borrows its title from Plath, concerns the envy of “you” for “her,” who is dead.
These pronouns are entirely relational in their reference—“shifters,” as Jakobson
called them. If we begin with the assumption that “you” is a particular person,
Assia, the poem fits a particular set of circumstances. But it takes a reader
specially attuned to the Hughes biography to make this assumption. There is no
compelling reason why most readers should understand that the “you” of this
poem is not that of the preceding sequence, even taking into account the
interposition of “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” addressed to Hughes’s

children.” The Other” is followed by “The Locket” which refers to “Your death.”
The references in this poem to the Song of Songs, Berlin and the swastika
presumably signify Assia’s Jewishness and her Eastern European antecedents,
but to a reader not aware of this they are strongly suggestive of well-known
motifs in Plath’s poetry. The circumstantial differences between the two groups
of poems are obscured, and the pull of this kind of poetry towards the
anonymous and universal asserts itself.
As I have pointed out earlier, apostrophic poetry is characterised by a peculiar
and paradoxical temporality: the absent is addressed as if it were present, the
dead person as if she were alive. This is a device which Plath herself used to
profound effect, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, in “Daddy.” In most elegiac
lyrics, however, this paradox is weak because the empirical, circumstantial
pastness of the dead person is obscured in the ways I have been discussing. One
of the great strengths of Birthday Letters is its management of this paradox, the
exceptional sense of actuality with which the poems present the grieving writer
conversing with his dead wife.
Among the best examples of this are the poems that dwell on an incident in
March 1956 when, after the notorious meeting at the St Botolph’s Review party,
Hughes returned to Cambridge but failed to see Plath. Late at night he and his
friend Lucas Myers threw mud at a Newnham window thinking it was hers, but
they were mistaken. Plath knew he was in Cambridge, and waited in torment for
him to visit her. Later he read her account of this in her journal. Hughes attaches
a surprising importance to this episode, as if it stands for his general failure
towards Plath: it figures much more prominently in Birthday Letters than his
affair with Assia. In “The Machine” Hughes quotes directly from the journal: “A
huge dark machine” and “The grinding indifferent/Millstone of circumstance.”
(cf J 131) These words “Had come to you/When I did not.” Hughes’s account of
his inactivity recalls the guilty heedlessness of the protagonist of Cave Birds in
“Something Was Happening.”
“Visit,” another poem about this incident, superimposes the moment of his
failure to see her, that of her writing in the journal, a remembered moment when
his daughter asked for her mother, and the moment of reading the journal ten years
later. Plath’s writing in the journal is described in a remarkably phonocentric
way: “Your actual words, as they floated/Out through your throat and tongue and
onto your page.” These words are not mere signifiers but the literal traces of her
presence. His remorse for his former absence is made the more poignant by his
being there in the presence of these traces now, at the moment of reading the
journal. The phonocentrism also intensifies the account of Hughes’s feeling as he
reads: “I look up—as if to meet your voice/With all its urgent future/That has
burst in upon me.” The illusion that the words in the journal are literally traces of
her voice allows for a moment the even more tormenting illusion that the
unachieved future is still just that: a future. Then the journal shrinks back into
mere signification: “printed words. /You are ten years dead. It is only a story.” In
“The Machine” the moment of his guilty absence, drinking in the pub, is

imagined as the moment in which he is swallowed by Plath’s fate and passes into
another time in which, again, the dead possibilities of the past are still alive.
In an important way these poems owe their poignancy to something that is
uncharacteristic of Birthday Letters: they are concerned with, indeed obsessed
with, Hughes’s absence from Plath at the moment they return to. In the more
typical Birthday Letters poem Hughes and Plath are both present, and the
circumstances are once shared memories that are now only his. In two cases he
uses the fiction of her presence to ask her to “Remember.” In “The Bird,” which
takes as its central image that of “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” he
writes, “Remember,/Circling Boston Common together,/The defective jailbird
walk we perfected,” and in “Daffodils,” “Remember how we picked the
In normal circumstances devices such as this are touching; in Hughes’s case
they are also polemical. The shared memory that is now only his, so that he can
appeal to her for confirmation, is part of the rhetoric of authority that runs
throughout Birthday Letters. This is a man who wrote to Alvarez, protesting
about The Savage God, “It is infuriating for me to see my private experiences
and feelings re-invented for me, in that crude, bland, unanswerable way, and
interpreted and published as official history” (Malcolm 125). It is not only
Alvarez’s memoir that aroused this reaction, and one can only too easily imagine
his response to, for example, Marjorie Perloff’s “bland, unanswerable” reference
to his “actual desertion,” which she claimed his version of Ariel obscured.
In their treatment of the female addressee Birthday Letters are at the opposite
extreme from “Song” and the Gaudete epilogue. In them Hughes abandons his
project of obliterating the identities of the women he has known while
subsuming them into the figure of the Goddess. His sense of failure is not
merged with a generalised lament about man’s violation of nature, unlike Lumb,
responsible for the deaths of at least three women, when he writes, “The
trousseau of the apple/Came by violence into my possession… I forestalled God
—/I assailed his daughter.” Birthday Letters’ insistence on actual circumstances
resists the pull of apostrophic poetry away from empirical time and into
discursive time. The fiction of the dead person’s presence does not have its usual
consolatory effect. This insistence, which I have suggested is counter to the
generic norms of lyric poetry, also accounts for the uncharacteristic flatness of
much of the language, the comparative absence of the specifically linguistic
energy that we normally expect from Hughes. I have also suggested that it is
polemical, an attempt to answer the “bland, unanswerable” feminist reading of
Ariel according to a narrative that “reinvents” his private experience. The citation
of Plath’s poetry and prose is a part of this polemic. It is not a dialogue in the
sense that her words answer his. By attaching her texts to circumstances of which
he is the only surviving witness he asserts his authority, claiming back ownership
of his own experience. In doing so, however, he also claims ownership of the
meaning of Plath’s words—even, as we have seen, in one case literally claiming
them as his own. It is a deeply moving but also a deeply obdurate work.
Ted Hughes’s Anti-Mythic Method
Joanny Moulin

In his 1923 article “Ulysses, Order & Myth,” T.S.Eliot hailed James Joyce as the
inventor of “the mythic method,” saying that “Mr Joyce’s parallel use of the
Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery”
(175), He also said that it was “a method for which the horoscope is auspicious,”
(176) and it is easy to rush and see Hughes as one of the continuators of this
mythic method. Still, a closer scrutiny of the issue ought to have been brought
about by a 1975 article by Stuart Hirschberg, “Myth and Anti-Myth in Ted
Hughes’s Crow.” For Ted Hughes’s way is rather an anti-mythic method in
several respects. This jarring note might well break the nice crystal “mythos” of
an unproblematical rapprochement of Ted Hughes with T.S.Eliot. The “Tributes
to T.S.Eliot” that Hughes has published in A Dancer to God, and his dubbing
Eliot “a great literary shaman of the spiritual tradition of the West” in
Shakespeare & the Goddess of Complete Being (89) are most certainly the
expression of a genuine admiration. But a pig should not be bought in a poke.
For it is a very convenient cover-up of the fact that T.S.Eliot was an active
defender of “The Idea of a Christian Society,” which Ted Hughes has insistantly
declared himself not to be. Besides, in his 1970 interview with Ekbert Faas,
Hughes explained that an artist may develop both outwardly and inwardly. He
picked the example of T.S.Eliot, in words which in many ways echo his
definition of the “mythic method” as “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of
giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and
anarchy which is contemporary history” (177). Hughes said that a poet must
“develop inwardly”, which means to find out the patterns to organise the “inner
world.” This may lead to the creat tion of an “original mythology,” or, failing that,.
“you may uncover the Cross as Eliot did” (Faas 204). Incidentally, Hughes’s
own “mythology” turned out to be hardly more original, for it is simply the
radical opposite.
In fact, the difference between Eliot and Hughes in this respect rests on a
conceptual bind. For the word myth does not mean exactly the same thing for the
two of them. And this is mostly because they speak on the two sides of a major
transformation in the history of ideas. In 1923, T.S.Eliot wrote that “Psychology
(such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and
The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a

few years ago” (178). But, in the 1950s, Jungian psychology and Sir John Frazer
would be part of the staple reading of a Cambridge student in English and social
anthropology like Ted Hughes. Still, they did agree at least on one word to
qualify myth—it is the word dodge. Eliot, while criticizing Adlington’s criticism
of Ulysses, expressed what would then become a widespread opinion concerning
Joyce’s “parallel to the Odyssey” saying that “it has been treated as an amusing
dodge, or scaffolding erected by the author to the purpose of disposing his
realistic tale, of no interest in the completed structure” (175). As T.S.Eliot saw it,
myth was still very much a tool to be used in a method, that is to say as a means
to an end. Eliot’s “mythic method” can be read as an extension and a variant of
the “objective correlative.” There is only a difference of degree between “finding
the formula of that particular emotion” (48) and using myth as “a way of giving a
shape and a significance to” something else (177). Now it first seems that Ted
Hughes is saying the same thing when he writes that “mythologies are dodgy
things,” which for him are “nothing more than the picture language that we
invent” to express “the deeper shared understandings which keep us intact as a
group” (WP 310). But he is speaking of “mythologies” and, in his vocabulary,
“myths” are more precisely defined as those “deeper shared understandings.”
The difference is extremely important, yet it remains evasive and unclear, as
nearly all the concepts Hughes makes use of are “dodgy,” provisional
scaffoldings. Yet, very graphically, he goes on using the word “mythologies”
between inverted commas, saying: “one ‘mythology’ that I found ready to hand
was the natural world—all the various creatures of the world, and their doings, in
their places or out of them” (312). Hughes’s definition of myth is very close to
that of the referent, that is to say an extra-linguistic fact, of which a given group
of people may have a common experience, or mytholoy. A set of such given
references, which amounts to the common “picture language” of a poet and his
readers, is what Hughes calls “mythos.”
But the words “mythology” and “mythos” have here undergone a reversal of
their etymological and commonly accepted meanings. “Mythology” or
“mythologia” is either the history and the study of fabulous tales, or such
fabulous tales themselves. A “myth” or “mythos” is a fabulous story, or such a
use of language. But this is not what Hughes means here—he does not mean
mythos as “legend,” in the sense of Pindaros of Thebes who opposed it to logos.
Hughes operates an implicit reversal of values, and for him mythos is truer than
logos. This key tenet of Hughes’s poetry has been understood and established by
Keith Sagar, as early as The Art of Ted Hughes, with such assertions as, for
instance: “To see something as real, in all its fullness of being, is to recognise it
as a manifestation of the sacred, a hierophany” (210). To translate Sagar’s
assertion into Hughes’s vocabulary of Shakespeare & the Goddess of Complete
Being, seeing something as “real” or “sacred” is tantamount to seeing it on what
Hughes calls “the mythic plane” (219) or in “the mythic dimension” (221). In a
sense, Hughes is turning Plato’s cave inside out. For, to him, logos is the
pseudos, and mythos is closer to essential truth. One might even go as far as to

say that, for Hughes, myth itself stands for an ontological absolute. Myth,
according to Hughes, is actually anti-myth. It is not at all a random element of
some “myth-kitty,” as Larkin would have it, out of which the poet might pick
and choose, as in a creative-writing tool-box, to express whatever ineffable
emotions. On the contrary, myth is emotion. In short, for Hughes, myth is not a
method, it is the target. That is because, for Hughes, there is no real solution of
continuity between words and things, any more than between physics and
metaphysics. Mythos is for him, as it were, the connective side of logos. At face
value, Hughes agrees with Derrida that “There is nothing outside of the text”
(158). Simply, Hughes makes no difference between “the referent or the
transcendental signified” and what would be a transcendental signifier. Even
Nature, even the Goddess, is always already a myth, that is to say a text—or, to
be more accurate, a tissue. This biological metaphor of myth as living text
pervades and sustains the whole of Hughes’s poetry. It is verified as early as The
Hawk in the Rain where the Thought-Fox is a literal-cum-animal hybrid. And it
is verified still in Birthday Letters where “a poem unfurled from you/Like a
loose frond of hair from your nape/To be clipped and kept in a book,” (61) or where
the “sacrifice” that Sylvia’s hands make when she writes is a “story,” and
therefore a mythos.
This basic tenet of Hughes’s vision of the world was expounded as early as his
two “Myth and Education” papers. In the second of these, the 1976 text then
partly reprinted in Ekbert Faas’ The Unaccommodated Universe and now in
Winter Pollen, it reached a form of conceptual expression with the antithetic
phrase of “true myth.” Hughes wrote that “the unspoken definition of myth is that
it carries truth of that sort” (152). And the sort of truth in question is given by the
definition of myth as “tribal dreams of the highest order of inspiration and truth”
which give “a true account of what really happens in that inner region where the
two worlds collide” (151). Hughes’s philosophy can be defined as a psychology,
and more precisely a historicist psychology in which myth is the closest possible
approximation of transcendental truth, but is fundamentally the product of human
There is no saying why this upside-down definition of myth as truth should
remain “unspoken,” except, perhaps, that if it were more clearly stated it would
run the risk of meeting some serious critical contradiction. But, be it as it may,
these considerations lay the basis for an unobtrusive shift from an
epistemological to an ethical ground. This revised definition of myth enables a
discreet progression from the question of what is [the] truth—which,
incidentally, is also the title of one of Hughes’s books of poetry for children,
echoing Pilate’s last question to Christ (John 18:38)—to the question of what is
good. In his first “Myth and Education” paper, a 1970 article which has never
been reprinted, Hughes propounded a surprisingly black-and-white appreciation
of literature. He declared that the “great works of imaginative literature” may
either be good, in which case “they are hospitals where we heal, where our
imaginations are healed,” or “evil works,” in which case “they are also

battlefields where we get injured” (67). By extension, this medical metaphor of

literature casts some light on how to understand Ted Hughes’s idea of the poet as
a shaman. By his dealings with the “mythic plane,” a shaman, that is also to say,
in Hughes’s vocabulary, a “mythic poet” may heal his cultural community. That
is why these “shamans” appear, or so Hughes says, in moments of severe crisis
(see, e. g. SGCB 89–90). To the question of how to tell whether a shaman’s
influence is good or evil, it is to be feared that the only one to know the answer is
the shaman himself. Hughes says that “priests continually elaborate the myths,
but what is not true is forgotten again” (WP 152). Therefore, supposedly, if the
shaman’s myths were not true, and therefore not good, then they simply would
not rouse any reader’s interest to speak of.
Ted Hughes is a moralist, and it is too easily forgotten that he is one with an
axe to grind. One of the main points of Stuart Hirschberg’s “Myth and Anti-
Myth in Ted Hughes’s Crow,” corroborated by Hughes himself in his interviews
with Ekbert Faas, is that we are dealing with an anti-Christian polemist. Ted
Hughes is, so to speak, a latterday Celsus, or an English Nietzsche of sorts,. and
his method has quite overtly been to launch mythic antidotes to the Christian
myths. In the first “Myth and Education” paper, he defined the story of Saint
George, which in his opinion is “the key symbolic story of Christianity,” as “the
symbolic story of creating a neurosis,” saying that it was “the key to the neurotic-
making dynamics of Christianity.” He went on to explain that it was “exactly the
story and exactly the symbolic condition” that, in his story of The Iron Man at
least, he was “trying to reverse” (66). Needless to say that this is not exactly the
kind of point of view that could easily be reconciled with T.S.Eliot’s favourite
It goes without saying that The Iron Man is far from being the only one of
Hughes’s texts to which this anti-Christian ethos applies. There is no need to
repeat how the poems of Crow wage systematic attacks against the Old and the
New Testament, from Genesis to the Gospel of Love (which God ridiculously
fails to teach Crow) and to the cartoon resurrection of the Trickster. Needless to
recall how Gaudete is a burlesque attempt at showing how “Christianity’s
something about women,” (65) and a stubborn mistaking of agape for eros.
There is no need to more or less admiringly reassert how River literally reeks
with New-Age neo-paganism, towards the climactic proclamation of the mating
salmons at the hour of their death as the “Arks of an undelivered covenant,”
(CPH 667) in “The dance orgy of being reborn” (254). But it might be
worthwhile to make a pause on this particular detail. I have quoted from the
poem “The Gulkana,” such as it is printed not in the first, 1983 edition of River,
but in the New Selected Poems 1957–1994 and the Collected Poems, or in the
1984 American edition of River where the poet had already amended his text to
the version he was to keep. One of the changes consists in having, for example,
chosen to write “covenant” instead of “promise,” and introduced the vision of the
“dance-orgy” in the textual vicinity of the notion of resurrection here revised as
palingenesic rebirth. Whatever the motivations for these minor textual

amendments, the net result is that here we have a resolutely neo-pagan poem
which comes to flirt, as close as it can, with a key Christian myth and its
accustomed vocabulary. The same remark applies to “Salmon Eggs,” for
instance, where “tidings” (R 122) has been changed for “advent” in “This is the
liturgy/Of Earth’s advent” (CPH 681). This could be merely coincidental, but it
is in fact an instance of textual tuning which is part of a systematised tactic. Ted
Hughes’s anti-mythic method is a strategy of brinkmanship and subliminal
One prototype of an anti-myth in character form is Gog, the Old Testament
fiend from Ezekiel recycled as an avatar of the Anti-Christ, saying: “Hearing the
Messiah cry/My mouth widens in adoration” (W 150). In like manner, an anti-
mythic poem strives to mimic the myth it is targeting. Unlike a pastiche, which
is a declared instrument of satire or of simple Jamesonian play, an anti-myth
works by stealth and chameleonic camouflage. It often seems to be tapping, or
rather harnessing, the ready-made energy of a pre-existent myth, the better to
subvert it, in a quasi viral way. That is equally true of isolated textual instances,
as of the larger mythic bases, the “blueprints” or projects, of which Crow and
Cave Birds are the superstructures. This is the subtextual pattern of the shamanic
flight, which I have suggested to call Hughes’s monomyth after Joseph
Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, who derived it from
Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (581) and defined it as “The standard path of the
mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented
in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return: which might be named the
nuclear unit of the monomyth” (Campbell 30). Now Hughes’s compulsive riding
of this hobby-horse of eternal return is repeatedly done in terms that keep
verging on Christian imagery, which generates the strong implicit impression that
the Christian myth of the Resurrection is just another avatar of the same. The
unspoken, and all the more potent, poetic discourse is that Christianity (1) has
invented nothing very new and (2) has drawn the wrong conclusions from its
One of the clearest examples of this can be found in a series of poems which
tackle the Crucifixion. The realisation that we are dealing with crucifixion
poems, which are in fact anti-crucifixion poems, is likely to dawn on the
chronological reader with “The Contender,” (C 41–2) who is said to “lay
crucified with all his strength/On the earth.” “The Contender” is a simple anti-
myth of a poem, which revises the crucifixion from a non-Christian point of view,
which is also that of the poet of “Mount Zion” (RE 62) for whom “Christ was
only a naked bleeding worm/ Who had given up the ghost.” The same item of
poetic discourse is conveyed in a later Crow poem, “Crow Blacker than Ever”
(69), where the sacrifice of the Son of Man on the Cross is depicted as a stupid
prank of Crow’s and a gangrenous, stinking blind-alley.
But these simple anti-Christian poems are still an early stage of the global anti-
myth, which will then develop and grow, although in an altogether linear,
chronological way. Within the Crow collection itself, a solution has already been

found out of the impasse of the crucifixion myth and the deadlock of radical anti-
mythic opposition. The solving of this problem is what Crow is really about. And
the mythic tissue starts growing perceptibly in “Crow’s Battle Fury” (67–8),
which is really an extension of stanza VIII in the final_version of “Skylarks”
(CPH 173–6), for the myth of the crucifixion is being yoked to, and begins its
hybridisation with, the Irish myth of Cuchulain. So that, for the first time, we are
presented with a positive crucifixion poem, with a hero of a new type, whose
vision has evolved—“One of his eyes sinks into his skull, tiny as a pin” —and
who is beginning to take into account the non-conceptual energies that
Christianity allegedly suppresses.
By a process of iteration, Ted Hughes’s poetic writing has thus gone at least
one step beyond “uncover[ing] the Cross,” as he once said T.S.Eliot merely did.
Crow remains Ted Hughes’s masterpiece collection, for the reason that it is the
locus of his work where a literal solution, or dissolution of the Christian myth of
the crucifixion is being invented. The anti-myth is here a kind of thaw. The
mythic construct is literally beginning to melt down and away. On the “objective
correlative” plane of the imagery, the Promethean body of the crucified, which is
the human body qua structural concept, is tearing free and liquefying, on its way
back to the womboneness of oceanic presence. This barely incipient anti-mythic
change will have acquired a fuller and more visible momentum in a later poem
of Wolfwatching, “Take What You Want But Pay For It,” (42–4) which is both a
crucifixion poem and a pieta. That revised crucifixion poem becomes a major
stereotype in Hughes’s poetry, in the sense that, like an intratextual Auerbachian
“Figure,” it recurs again and again in Hughes’s work under various guises. And
it is one of the stereotyped representations of what he would later call the
“Theophany” in Shakespeare & the Goddess. The “bleeding worm” of the
Crucified in “Mount Zion” (RE 62) has eventually achieved its metamorphosis,
or, as Hughes puts it when speaking about Shakespeare: “The muddy, dragonish
tragic larva has suddenly split—and this shimmering nuptial insect (the
Theophany) rises out of it, in a halo.” (SGCB 329) Another occurrence of the
same is to be found at the end of Prometheus On His Crag, which is the same as
Orghast, when Hughes’s Prometheus Unbound, like Shakespeare’s Adonis,
blooms on the bosom of his motherly crag. Exactly as Cuchulain in “Crow’s
Battle Fury” (C 68) is “a hair’s breadth out of the world” and “comes forward as
step,/and a step,/and a step—” Prometheus “treads/On the dusty peacock film
where the world floats” (M 92). And yet another occurrence of the same, which
is probably the most accomplished, is to be found at the end of Cave Birds, in the
hatching out of “The Risen” (60), where Hopkins’ aviary symbol of the Cross is
being burnt out—“when he soars, his shape/Is a cross, eaten by light,/On the
Creator’s face.”
Hughes’s anti-mythic discovery can thus be traced in this movement from
Crucifixion Poems to Theophany Poems. On a minor mode, Hughes had made an
earlier attempt at analysing his own mythopoetic method, in a 1977 interview
with Ekbert Faas. He was then trying to use the concepts of the “masculine” and

the “feminine,” to explain the underlying blueprint narrative which was to Crow
what the Odyssey must have been to Ulysses. This mythic pattern, or “Crow
project,” is expounded in the appendix to Keith Sagar’s The Laughter of Foxes.
In short, the gist of the matter was for Crow, the hero-poet, to “move from one
pole of total disaster in the relationship between him and the female to the
opposite pole of totally successful, blissful union” (Faas 213). The marriage
poems of Cave Birds and the alchemical conjunctio oppositorum that they
exemplify are the theoretical link between the gender issue and the metaphysical
issue. Still, as Keith Sagar’s development implicitly corroborates, the gender
issue is a corollary, or, rather, it is already a thematic metaphor of a more general
philosophical thesis.
This theological thesis, this recognizable progress or change at the centre of
his work, is what is essential to Hughes’s specific poetic genius and individual
talent. It happens in Crow. But it has been made more visible by the light that
has been cast on it by Birthday Letters. Remarkably, the “Ted Hughes” character
of Birthday Letters is the persona of a previous self, over whom the later Hughes
is reflexively pondering, in the manner, too, of the Rousseau of the Confessions.
One of the outstanding features of Hughes’s last collection of poems is the
powerful resurgence, towards the end, of crucifixion poems. Foremost among
those is “Life after Death” (182–3), where the Crucified, “The Hanged Man,” is
overtly equated with the earlier “Ted Hughes” character. Hughes identifies his
former self as being in a Christ-like position on the mythic plane—“I fancied the
pain could be explained/If I were hanging in the spirit/From a hook under my
neck-muscle.” This poetic statement is complemented by another, made most
clearly in the two poems “Being Christlike” (153) and “The God” (188–91), where
it is “Sylvia Plath,” the poetic figure, who is construed as being caught in a Christ-
like spiritual attitude, offering herself up in sacrifice, as a transparent answer to
the enigma of “a Salvia/Pressed in a Lutheran Bible.” The way of Hughes’s
poetry is then no longer to be seen as the ever iterated construction of new myths,
but as the ideal sloughing off of the chrysalis of words. It is the ultimate anti-
mythic method of Khepry, the Egyptian beetle, the scarab-god and verb of
metamorphic, literally amorphous being.
In Search of the Autobiography of Ted Hughes
Diane Wood Middlebrook

In June 1999 I received a contract from Viking Press to write a book about Ted
Hughes, with the expectation of completing a manuscript by the end of the year
2000. Explicitly stated in the prospectus was my intention not to write a
biography. Ted Hughes would have been dead for only fourteen months and
three days when the new Millennium arrived; members of his family and many of
his friends were still in mourning for him.
Yet because Hughes was now dead, those of us without personal relationships
to negotiate were free to be curious about him. Hughes had invited that curiosity
in one of his last books: Birthday Letters, a meditation on his famous marriage.
But Ted Hughes had been producing autobiographical writings steadily, if sotto
voce, throughout his career. By the time of his death, Hughes—much like his
early master W.B.Yeats—had devised a persona of himself that I believe was
meant as a legacy to posterity.
Ted Hughes established the means of pursuing the project of piecing together
the history of this persona by selling a very large collection of his papers to the
Robert W.Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.1 Hughes
organized the archive himself, and prepared an annotated inventory to
accompany it to Atlanta. Visitors were permitted to see this interesting
document, even before the archive had been completely catalogued by the library
staff. The manila file folder containing the inventory was an inch and a half thick.
Open it, and the first sheet to meet your eyes was an 8x10 glossy photograph:
Ted Hughes at home, surrounded by boxes, composing the very notes you are
about to look at.
The date is late autumn 1996.2 Hughes is sitting forward on a wooden chair,
elbows on his knees, turning the pages of what appears to be a business letter. A
heavy gold wedding band shines prominently on the ring finger of his left hand.
His mouth is closed in a firm relaxed line, chin and jaw blurred by a couple of
days’ growth of beard. On his nose are large spectacles with dark amber frames
from which a cord runs under the collar of an olive shirt that has been left
unbuttoned at the neck far enough to disclose the gray hair on his chest. He is
wearing light-colored khaki pants. One dark brown shoe is in evidence, the other
is lost behind the ranks of cardboard cartons that fill the foreground of the
picture, covering much of the tweedy carpet and an Oriental rug (in the archive

later you will find letters negotiating the acquisition of this rug). On the table to
Hughes’s right, a chinoiserie lamp illuminates the pages in his hand, and a red
magic marker lies within reach. On the wall behind him hang several prints. One
is identifiably an image by Leonard Baskin: either a cave-bird or a crow, with
feathers like plates of Japanese armor.
Here is a man surrounded by his life’s work, which he is itemizing in
preparation for sale to a library. It is finished, says this pose; and at Hughes’s
back we notice a wooden door. If the picture conveys a sense of pathos, though,
it is entirely in the eye of the beholder who knows the date of Ted Hughes’s exit.
The man we are looking at will go on to publish six more books, we remember.
And at this particular moment he is completely unselfconscious, ignoring the
camera, intent on the business at hand, boxing a jigsaw puzzle of 108, 000 pieces.

I began with this image because it is a view widely held in the world that
Hughes was a man who protected his privacy. Such was the theme of
commentary that followed the publication of Birthday Letters, early in 1998, ten
months before Hughes died of cancer. Two sample headlines from the front pages
of prestigious newspapers suffice to convey the way journalists defined the
book’s importance: “Revealed: The Most Tragic Literary Love Story of Our Time”
was the headline in the London Times. The New York Times inserted an
American angle: “In Poetry, Ted Hughes Breaks His Silence on Sylvia Plath.”
The reporter Sarah Lyall gave a typical slant to the story: “It has been nearly 35
years since the poet Sylvia Plath put her head in a gas oven, killing herself at age
30 soon after her husband left her for another woman. And for all that time, her
widower, the poet Ted Hughes, has maintained an implacable silence about their
life together, emerging from his self-protective cocoon only occasionally, mostly
to correct errors or to write prefaces to Plath’s work… Mr. Hughes said through
his British publisher, Faber & Faber, that he wanted his work to speak for itself
and did not want to be interviewed.”
Implacable: odd choice; means “cannot be appeased or pacified.” She
probably meant inexorable—“cannot be prevailed upon to yield to request” —
for Hughes was a famous avoider of journalists, except when he was promoting
one or another good cause: the need for poetry in the schools, the need for clean

1. Emory began acquiring Ted Hughes manuscripts in 1985, and made a series of small
purchases in the late 1980s and early from a variety of different manuscripts dealers. In
late 1995 or early 1996 Stephen Enniss, Curator of Literary Collections at Emory,
received a phone call from Roy Davids, Hughes’s agent, inquiring whether Emory would
be interested in acquiring Hughes’s literary archive. In November Ennis went to England
to see the materials first-hand. Negotiations continued over the Winter, and in February
1997 Ennis returned to pack and ship materials to Emory. The archive was officially
opened for research in April 2000.
2. Steve Enniss dated the photograph in a conversation with DM, 14 October 1999.
3. Steven Enniss” estimate, e-mail to DM, 17 February 2000.

waterways. At one point he explained himself bluntly: “My silence seems to

confirm every accusation and fantasy… I preferred it, on the whole, to allowing
myself to be dragged out into the bullring and teased and pricked and goaded
into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia” (Lyall).
But I would say that both Hughes’s sale of his papers to Emory, and Hughes’s
own published contributions to our information about him speak otherwise. I
speculate that his refusal to be interviewed was motivated not so much by a
desire for privacy as by a rejection of the rhetorical position of respondent. He
will allow no one else to establish the terms of his self-presentation. And in
presenting himself in print, he was willing to be usefully forthcoming.
My initial survey indicates that on eight occasions between 1965–1998
Hughes made significant published contributions to an autobiographical account
of his marriage to Sylvia Plath:

• 1965: interview with John Horder in The Guardian.

• 1966: publication of “The chronological order of Sylvia Plath’s poems’ in a
special issue of the literary journal, TriQuarterly.
• 1974: correspondence with the Yale graduate student Judith Kroll, which he
permitted to be published in the book that emerged from her doctoral
dissertation, Chapters in a Mythology.
• 1975: publication of Letters Home, with which Hughes took an active editorial
• 1981: publication of Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, which Hughes edited
and introduced.
• 1982: an edition of the Journals of Sylvia Plath, on which Hughes served as
Consulting Editor.
• 1994: correspondence with Jacqueline Rose, Anne Stevenson and Janet
Malcolm, which he permitted to appear in Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman.
• 1998: publication of Birthday Letters.4

The narrative goes this way: they shared an apprenticeship; Plath completed her
apprenticeship in the creation, in her poetry, of a “real self,” and Hughes was the
privileged witness of that process; Plath’s suicide left Hughes the steward of that
self. He is qualified for this role because he understands poetic genius.
Hughes began elaborating this story in print as early as March 1965, at the
time of the posthumous publication of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Here is an excerpt
from the interview that appeared in The Manchester Guardian, 25 March 1965,
in which Ted Hughes discusses his relationship to the author of Ariel:

4. Full publication details: John Horder, “Desk Poet,” Ted Hughes, “The chronological
order of Sylvia Plath’s poems,” Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology, Sylvia Plath,
Letters Home, The Collected Poems and The Journals of Sylvia Plath; Janet Malcolm,
The Silent Woman.

There was no rivalry between us as poets or in any other way. It sounds

trite but you completely influence one another if you live together. You
begin to write out of one brain. Sylvia was completely original though. She
may have been influenced by Stevens and Lowell in a couple of poems but
she had found her own voice. She wrote an enormous amount, eight or
nine books before Heinemann took “The Colossus,” and every nine months
or so the body of her manuscripts would undergo a complete change. You
see, she needed to write—she could produce a characteristic poem at any
time she liked.
After we’d returned to England and were living in Chalcot Square near
Primrose Hill, we would each write poetry every day. It was all we were
interested in, all we ever did. We were like two feet, each one using
everything the other did. It was a working partnership and it was all
absorbing. We just lived it. There was an unspoken unanimity in every
criticism or judgment we made (Horder).

Further developments of this narrative occurred in conjunction with economic

opportunities that emerged from the successful marketing of Plath’s work.
Though Ted Hughes’s sister Olwyn served as the business manager of the Plath
estate, Hughes remained firmly in control of editorial issues. His introduction to
Plath’s Collected Poems is remarkable for the attitude of entitlement with which
he reveals his editorial interventions on Plath’s behalf. “The Ariel eventually
published in 1965 was a somewhat different volume from what she had planned…
omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962… Several
advisers had felt that the violent contradictory feelings expressed in those pieces
might prove hard for the reading public to take” (CPP 15). Collected Poems,
Hughes notes, contains “not merely what verse she saved but—after 1956—all
she wrote” (13). It also contains, in a set of notes by Hughes, a considerable
amount of quotation from Plath’s journals, which Hughes was currently
preparing for publication in the USA (though not in the UK).
Hughes’s “Foreword” to the journals carries the story yet another step along.
Speaking from the vantage of the intimacy provided by marriage, he offers an
idealizing characterization of Plath’s development as an artist, in an explanatory
trope. “One can compare what was really going on in her to a process of
alchemy. Her apprentice writings were like impurities thrown off from the
various stages of the inner transformation… The negative phase of it, logically,
is suicide. But the positive phase (more familiar in religious terms) is the death
of the old false self in the birth of a new real one. And this is what she finally did
achieve, after a long and painful labor.” (J xi–xii)
This narrative has many subtexts. The most significant, in my view, is the
unexpressed comparison Hughes communicates: She became “real” in her
work; how “real” am I? What kind of “self” could be comparable to hers? What
would it mean to be “real” —in words?

I believe that the last works of Ted Hughes constructed an answer, when, in
the poems of Birthday Letters and his other “last” works, Hughes exchanged the
position of critic for that of husband.
In surviving his accomplished wife, a writer like himself, Hughes joined a
small but important coterie: Robert Browning. John Middleton Murry, the
husband of Katherine Mansfield. Scott Fitzgerald, husband of Zelda. Leonard
Woolf, husband of Virginia. Even, it might be argued, T.S.Eliot, husband of
Vivien. Like several of them, Hughes held the position of legal executor of the
woman writer’s literary estate. Like a couple of them, he used that position to
promote her posthumous reputation. But Hughes differs from all of them in
having embraced the role of husband with his imagination. His last works, even
the translations in which his own subjectivity seems absent, offer a searingly
personal register of the vicissitudes of living through the late 20th century as the
partner of a culturally influential woman whose importance increased with the
development of the feminist movement in the last quarter of this century.
Crucial to this development in Hughes’s self-presentation was his appointment
in 1984 as Poet Laureate to the Queen. During all the years since Plath’s death in
1963 Hughes had managed to make a living by shrewd management of his own
publications, and by investing income earned by the estate of Sylvia Plath. His
letters to friends indicate, however, that during the 1970s and 1980s he felt
stalled and unfulfilled as a writer of poetry. Nonetheless, Ted Hughes had become
a greatly esteemed public figure, partly because of the popularity of his writings
for children, and partly because of his advocacy on behalf of writers.
The Laureateship gave new impetus to his critical work. He began to pursue
what was a perhaps unconscious program of writing for the British public a
unified field theory5 of British poetry. He offered the hypothesis6 that the voice of
poetry is the voice of the god the Greeks called Eros, the god of sensuous love,
and claimed that, in Britain, this voice had been suppressed at the time of the
Puritan Revolution. Hughes observes that Puritanism invested all attributes of the
Creator in a Jehovah of extreme, militant rationality, banishing the claims of
bodily pleasure, divesting religion of its goddesses. The erotic, associated with
femaleness, could not be adored, so it was repressed; split off, it returned in
demonized form, as lust. Thus, according to Hughes, Shakespeare’s poetry “has
its taproot in a sexual dilemma of a peculiarly black and ugly sort.” (WP 106)
Again and again in a Shakespearean plot, “the newly throned god and the
deposed goddess tore each other to pieces” (WP 111) at the mythic level.
Translating this thesis into more contemporary language, Hughes says that
Shakespeare’s work “dramatizes the biological polarity of the life of the body
and the archaic nervous system and the life of the reflexive cortex.” (WP 120). In
other words, the black and ugly conflict between the sexes is an outcome of

5. Hughes applied this phrase to the work of T.S.Eliot in “The Poetic Self: A Centenary
Tribute to T.S.Eliot,” (WP 268).

identifying mind with masculinity, and setting it in dominance over the female, a
Western cultural ideology so pervasive it seems natural.
Hughes first roughed out this thesis in 1971, in an introduction to a selection
of Shakespeare’s verse. In 1992, speaking as Poet Laureate, he elaborated the
argument in the massive tome Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
Like many poet-critics, Hughes seems to have lavished his critical skills on the
work of another writer the better to clarify something inchoate in his own
imagination. Completing this exhaustive work on Shakespeare did indeed
unblock Hughes’s own creativity. From this time forward, Hughes began to
explore as his own the sexual dilemma he had pinpointed first in Shakespeare’s
tragedies. In all of Hughes writings from 1994 until his death, he reveals an
obsessively personal engagement with discoveries about human being that
emerge in the dynamics of a marriage, but cannot be understood until the
marriage is over, has become an object among others on a wide horizon of social
In the last works of Hughes’s Laureateship, the former themes of his writings
are replaced by a focus on the partnership of a man and a woman bound by, and
struggling within, a sexual love. Birthday Letters (1998) is the obvious, primary
example. But under this rubric can also be included the translations Hughes
produced after releasing his big Shakespeare book. First came Tales from Ovid
(1997), selections from Metamorphoses that depict human beings who are
catastrophically transformed by fateful sexual entanglements. This was followed
by Hughes’s adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre (1998), the play from which Sylvia
Plath drew an epigraph when she wrote her first poem for Ted Hughes, “Pursuit”
(a factoid that is not as trivial as it sounds). Posthumously published were The
Oresteia of Aeschylus (1999), which Hughes recast as a pair of plays that
explores the foundation of the war between the sexes; and Euripides’ Alcestis
(1999), in which a tragic plot is reversed by the wife’s return from the dead.
On first inspection, these translations do not seem to be of a piece with the
intimate domestic realism of Birthday Letters. Yet all are focused on marriage,
and are thickly planted with analogies to Hughes’s marriage to Plath, as theatre
reviewers have been quick to notice. And though the original dramas are tragic
by genre, Hughes’s versions pull them into the gravitational field of his own
exulting discovery of the sexual dilemma that he himself had been inhabiting
unconsciously for years, and that he discovered first in his history-oriented
reading of Shakespeare and then by re-reading the works of Sylvia Plath.
Not just Plath’s poetry—re-reading everything she wrote. The poems of
Birthday Letters, addressed to Plath, draw copiously from the Plath archive of
journals, letters, drawings and photographs that “rescued” the time they had spent
together, as he says in the poem “Drawing” (BL 44). Sometimes he appears to

6. Ted Hughes, “The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’s Verse,” reprinted in (WP
103– 121).

misremember—as when he recalls that on the night he first kissed her he stripped
a blue headband from Plath’s hair—Plath says it was red—and when he mistakes
the date on which they first made love—he says it was Friday the 13th of April,7
but the actual date was 25 March—and, more subtly, when he describes her at
their wedding as “a nodding spray of wet lilac” (BL 21): he had given her a pink
rose that he doesn’t mention. And so forth.
What is the point of these rather insignificant departures from Plath’s texts,
and from established facts? If Hughes had been writing as a critic, he would have
double-checked such allusions for accuracy. No: in the aftermath of thinking
about Shakespeare he returns to his wife’s words to pay them a different kind of
attention. Before, he had been a self-appointed sponsor of her reputation,
painstakingly calling to public notice a select array of poems in which her
distinctive gift reached full expression. We have observed how completely he
admired them for their artistic purity. At the same time, he speaks as if these
poems could have nothing to do with him.
Now, writing Birthday Letters, Hughes turns to Plath’s voluminous records of
daily life as to invaluable depositions of their life together. As Plath’s survivor
Hughes winced when he encountered the Lawrencian prose in which she
described him to her mother. As her editor, Hughes required the omission of
passages that he thought would not add to her luster in the world’s eyes. But as
the voice of Birthday Letters, he takes on the whole range of the subjectivity that
can be discovered in Plath’s writings. His apparent misquotations of her words
are deliberate, ostentatious substitutions, for he is not remembering her words, he
has been prompted by her words to enter his own, different memories. Obviously,
he occupies a time different from the time he shared with her. But he also
remembers things differently from the way she set them down. Then too he is
reconstructing events from a different intellectual perspective than the one he
brought to bear as her editor. Taken altogether, then, his substitutions can be seen
evidence of interventions excited by historical insight into their “sexual
dilemma,” the one they shared with characters in Shakespeare.
Yet Birthday Letters is not a work of uxorious nostalgia. The strongest
impression given by these poems is that of contact with the terrible strangeness
that intimate partners can reveal to one another in the ordinary course of sharing
their lives. Like most couples in the 1950s, Hughes and Plath did not live
together before marriage. Birthday Letters shows how disquieting revelations
began unfold between them during the first days of their honeymoon. These were
not always disquieting revelations about Sylvia Plath. Under the pressure of their
union, Hughes found himself exhibiting character traits and dispositions that
seemed to originate somewhere else: in his mother, sometimes; at other times, in
a kind of stupid, animal passivity he labels “sleepwalking.” So, from the first

7. In “18 Rugby Street,” Hughes recalls the “night in London on your escape to Paris” as
“April 13th. Your father’s birthday. A Friday.” (BL 21)

days of marriage, awareness of extreme and disturbing difference flows

dreadfully beneath the surface of their happiness. Hughes captured this
disturbance poignantly in the poem “9 Willow Street.”
Birthday Letters attempts to explore these experiences—of, we might say,
normal estrangement—in the first person. Hughes, it seems, recognized that his
own historical importance resided in having been a husband; moreover, that his
obligations lay far beyond that of serving as the manager of his dead wife’s
estate and the steward of her posthumous reputation. He had to embrace their
struggle with his creativity, find words for what had been experienced as
intensely, incoherently personal.
To elaborate this perspective is the purpose of the book I am undertaking. My
working hypothesis is that Hughes, like the thief in Edgar Allan Poe’s detective
story “The Purloined Letter,” has hidden something in plain sight. So far, readers
and commentators have been successfully put off the scent by Hughes’s foxy
stratagem of claiming to be a very private man. His withdrawal into Devon and
Yorkshire, where he lived for nearly forty years far from the hub of literary life,
preserved his privacy within a wide penumbra. Gossipy memoirs that began to
appear immediately after his death—such as a memoir of an affair with Hughes
by the English writer Emma Tennant—have not penetrated that penumbra very
far, as yet. But while he was still alive and holding off the journalists, Hughes
was steadily cooperating in the coherent organization of a very large amount of
information about himself, aimed at posterity. That’s the man I’m looking for:
the one who left the materials of his autobiography hidden in plain sight.
“Earth-Moon:” Ted Hughes’s Books for
Children (& Adults)
Claas Kazzer

I am going to talk about one of the most intimately personal aspects of Ted
Hughes’s work: his writing for children. At its heart, as in most of his works for
adults, lies his myth of the Goddess of Complete Being. Her laws shape and
govern Hughes’s characters, motivate or animate them, while providing the
overall background for his distinct cosmology. Embracing all human conflict, the
laws of the Goddess are the ones to which his protagonists must adhere or
ultimately fail. But they are also laws, this is also a cosmology, to which
Hughes’s children’s writings offer a most open access and of which they give a
surprisingly full account.
Doubtlessly, any reading of Ted Hughes’s work will benefit greatly from an
awareness in the reader of what he regarded as the creative/destructive powers of
the world we live in, and hence of the Goddess. Yet, it would be false to claim
that the stories, poems or plays could not be enjoyed or understood without such
an awareness. Far from it, as the image of the Goddess, her aspects and the laws
of her world are easily recognisable under different names as aspects, laws and
an image of the world we live in. What she presents in Hughes, however, is a
powerful, historically and psychologically charged image that unifies key conflicts
under one common name and in one particular set of associations.
Inseparable form the Female as a muse, the Goddess was the major creative
force in Hughes’s writing. In her devouring/loving principle he saw “the key to
all mythologies” (Shakespeare and the Goddess). Her laws he considered as
those governing our own “inner worlds,” herself as presiding over the forces of
the Unconscious (cf. esp. WP 136–53). In her image he saw combined the
aspects of Venus, of the “the Queen of Heaven,” of “Isis, mother of all the gods,
and all living things” but equally of “the Queen of Hell,” of “Hecate, goddess of
witchcraft, all magical operations, the underworld, spirits, the moon, darkness,
hounds etc.” (111– 2). He saw her as “Nature” in the widest, all-embracing sense,
as the bringer of life and of death. As such, for Hughes she was inseparably
linked with his concepts of creativity, sexuality, myth, poetry, music—with the
healing potential of art.
Modern Western society Hughes diagnosed as being repressive against
anything associated with the Goddess. He saw an overvaluation of rational,
abstracted thought. He saw how centuries of “enlightenment” had lead to the

suppression of the Female and her “darker” worlds, how the mistaken notion of
Man as the Crown of Creation had effected (and was used to justify) an
increasing abuse and destruction of Nature. Moreover, Hughes saw all this as
going hand in hand with a loss of contact to the “inner world” of the human
psyche, to our inner selves (148–9). He felt that there was a terrible imbalance.
Lacking in contact to our inner selves meant lacking access to the most
“important half of our experience” (144). Imbalanced, we mutate into half-men
(and women), half-beings, like those described in “Moon-Freaks” (Earth-Owl 39)
or “What will you make of half a man” (G 110).
Yet Ted Hughes was as far from condemning the world of “objective,” rational
thought, the “outer world of man-created technology (and culture)” (“Parables”
149), as he was from romantic escapism into a world of cosy subjective fantasy.
What he was after was the re-creation of a balanced relationship between
“outside” and “inside,” between “objective” and “subjective imagination,” male
and female, humankind and our natural environment. The ultimate goal of art, he
thought, was healing, making whole (cf. WP 136–53).
Consequently, Hughes wrote a poetry of life and of hope. He tells us that Life
doesn’t just give up, even under the worst of circumstances, that Nature doesn’t
just give up. Industrial ruins “must fall. into earth” to “flower again” (RE 14), the
severed head of a dead lamb is given “all earth for a body” (M 33)—and though
what has happened is hard to take, Life continues, Life will try again. Even
Hughes’s early protagonists get to experience this redemptive aspect of the
Goddess. Having offended or failed her, Lumb (Gaudete), Prometheus
(Prometheus on His Crag) or the nameless protagonist of Cave Birds are given a
second chance, while Crow must search for his creatrix/bride. Finally, there are
the rare “marriage” scenes as in “Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days”
(CB, originally intended for Crow) or in The Iron Woman, where the actual
balance between male and female, humankind and nature, inner and outer world
is achieved.1
In Hughes, the Goddess is given the force of a natural law—a force we may
recognise as such in most of the spheres we live in. In psychoanalytical terms we
may encounter her force in the powers of C.G.Jung’s Unconscious or of Anima/
Animus. Or we may see what the inner world may come to, mutated, in the terrible
forces of neuroses. In terms of environmentalism (the “Goddess as Nature”), we
may realise the inevitability of the Goddess’ laws in the results of human misuse
of natural resources or of environmental pollution. In social-historical terms, we
may be aware of the effects of male domination of most areas of Western society
over the last centuries. Clothed in story and myth, the level of communication
which Ted Hughes considered most appropriate as a background for imaginative

1. The rarity of such marriage scenes is matched by the difficulty, which Hughes ascribed
to achieving the task. It does not seem incidental in this context, that “Bride and Groom,”

literature, the Goddess influences and haunts the whole canon of Western
literature and culture. This is a sphere, in which she appears in the prominent
guises of Isis, Hecate, Venus or the Moon-Goddess (cf. WP 111–2). But we may
also find central aspects of her projected into the shapes of mermaid, seductress,
witch, hag, madwoman, etc., and of course, into nature.
In Hughes’s works, the Goddess appears as all of these and more. She emerges
as much from his experience of the natural world as from real and imagined
women. As such, she also presents the “feminine side” of his inner world. In this
paper, I will investigate her presence in the inner “moon world” of Hughes’s
children’s books—a world, in which she is described with affection, adoration,
fear, horror or respect, but a world in which she is also known and visited for her
consoling, healing power.
The Moon is one of the most frequently recurring images in Hughes’s poetry
for adults. Often, she occurs in significant conjunction with the Sun, and clearly
represents an image of the Female as Hughes perceived her. From such early
pieces as “The Bull Moses” (L 37), “Gog,” “Full Moon and Little Frieda” (W
192), she makes her appearance at frequent intervals in more or less openly mythic
connotations. There is the famous “Two Legends,” in which “Sun and moon
alternate their weathers” to hatch Crow (C 14), or “The Plaintiff” from Cave
Birds, who is “Your moon of pain” (20). She makes her appearance in Gaudete,
(cf. e. g. 34) and in Elmet, where a visit to the rocky outcrop “Bridestones” has a
sensitising effect so that “from now on/The sun/Can always touch you/With the
shadow of this finger./From now on/The moon can always lift your skull/On to
this perch, to clean it” (E 65), or where “Mount Zion,” a chapel, is “blocking the
moon” (ibid. 75). She shows herself in Moortown and is more fully present in
River, were the Moon (again in conjunction with the Sun) is responsible for the
“Creation of Fishes” (R 56). Birthday Letters more than any of the books for
adults is littered with moon imagery—there are “Moonwalk,” “Isis,” “Night-
Ride on Ariel,” or “The God,” for example,—just as Sylvia Plath’s poetry is full
of moons.2 However, apart from some obvious links in Hughes’s prose writings
(cf. esp. WP 373–465 and SGCB), the Moon’s most frequent and telling
occurrence is in the moon poem books and the Creation Tales and stories for
While we might be acquainted with the more threatening side of the Goddess
from such works as Gaudete, Cave Birds or Crow, Hughes’s children’s books
present her with her loving/creative aspect intact. The portray the balance

its metal imagery, reads like an account of the construction of his children’s story
characters, The Iron Man and The Iron Woman.
2. Interestingly, the connotation of the moon in Plath and Hughes is different. In Plath
(and subsequently in Birthday Letters), she is more of a foreboding, sometimes malicious,
threatening presence, while a more positive, though immensely powerful moon prevails in

between outer and inner worlds, humankind and nature, male and female as an
initial state of being or as a state that is achieved much more easily than in his
books for adults. But Hughes does not shy away from presenting the “dark” side
of the Goddess to his desired child audience. Many of his children’s poems are
about death (and therefore about life), and a book like The Iron Woman shows
how the Goddess’ destructive energy—provoked by human ignorance and abuse
—can be turned into something good. On the whole, the children’s books present
Hughes at his most open and personally revealing—they show an approach to
writing, imagining and remembering, which offers a key to his work as a whole.
Writing for children, Hughes thought, offered the rare opportunity of
communicating in a most open and direct manner. It afforded him with a carefree
mode of playful exploration of the themes that most concerned him. Writing for
adults, he felt, was about “smuggling” the message “past a tremendously vigilant
defence system.” But children he could “get through to openly” (Hughes,
Morrison).3 And Hughes was aware that through this open mode of
communication he was “intimately, intimately, giving something away,” that it
alerted him to what was false to himself. And his essays suggest that he
considered such awareness and the subsequent shedding of false selves, as a
precondition to creativity.4 Those are exactly the parts of oneself that must “die”
if one is to gain access to the creative world of the Goddess.
For Hughes, the childhood world offered possibilities that he found largely
lost to an adult outlook. He thought of it as a world of excitement, “not just a
miniature world of naive novelties and limited reality” but “still very much the
naked process of apprehension, far less conditioned than ours, far more fluid and
alert, far closer to the real laws of its real nature.” (WP 29). Like all children’s
writers Hughes was faced with the problem of how, if at all, anything like such a
“child nakedness” of perception could be achieved in an adult. His approach was
the most simple and most frequently employed by children’s writers: to
remember the “feeling of what it was like to be the age of my imagined reader”
(Hughes, Neill 12). He knew that trying to conjure that feeling, tying to
remember, offered him opportunities for discarding his own adult defences,
shedding some of his own false securities. He was aware that this was as good

3. Hughes knew that there were no fixed boundaries between writing for children and
writing for adults, that their division was more or less an artificial one. From his teaching
practice and his encounters with children he also knew that concepts of childhood (and
adulthood) were changing along with the rest of society and culture. This awareness
reflected in his selections of poems for the New Selected Poems, the Collected Animal
Poems, or The Rattle Bag and The School Bag (both with Seamus Heaney)—accounts for
what Canadian scholar Lissa Paul so aptly called the “children’s Hughes” (Paul, 1999
43): poems originally written with an adult audience in mind but staying “within the easy
hearing of children” (Hughes, Neill 12) or moving there.
4. Cf. Hughes’s essays on Coleridge, Shakespeare, Plath, or Dickinson, and on children’s
writing, like “Concealed Energies.” (WP)

as it gets for an adult, who wants to look at the world with a “comparatively
unconditioned eye” (cf. Hughes, Paul 222–3).
The shedding of false adult securities, false selves, is also linked to the sense of
play which, Hughes felt, was intrinsic to writing for children. “Children’s
writing,” he said, “must be very simple and immediate. You’re just playing. I
suppose with a lot of adult writing that sense of play goes out and serious
responsibilities arrive. Play: maybe that’s what all literature is, or should be.”
(Hughes, Morrison). He knew that playing is essential for a child’s learning, for
coming to terms with the world, testing oneself and one’s position in it, for
rehearsing major social and behavioral patterns or for exploring such puzzling
events as death and birth.
Then, there is language, one of the favourite human playthings. Sound and
word play are enjoyed by children from a very early age. Overflowing and
bubbling, such child playfulness is essentially creative while inseparable from
“finding one’s voice,” testing one’s senses, sharpening one’s perceptions. Like
other types of play, linguistic play is about getting a grasp on things and
(repeatedly) trying to get it “right.” At the same time, it is linked with our need
for reassurance, comfort, expressed in sound. It is inseparable from the rhymes
and rhythms of lullabies, nursery verse or folk song, or from the tradition of
medieval riddles5 and proverbs. Hughes is most at home in this realm of
linguistic play. This is a kind of playfulness which is reflected in his repeated
attempts at writing about one idea from different angles, playing with it. And he
knew that “one poem never gets the whole account right,” that “there is always
something missed,” and that “at the end of the ritual up comes a goblin” (Faas
205). But he knew just as well that it was worth trying, that the process would be
enjoyable and most rewarding.
In all that, Hughes was aware that a playful exploration with its attempts at a
“child nakedness” of perception does hold as much excitement as risks. That it
meant to deliberately never playing it safe, risking failure and disclosure of the
intimately personal (cf. Hughes, Morrison). But while this circumstance may
account for the occasional silliness or whimsy of some of his work, it also
accounts for some of his most warmly personal and enjoyable writing: true-to-
himself poetry and storying. And his late poems for children, like those from The
Cat and the Cuckoo and The Mermaid’s Purse (both collected in The Iron Wolf)
indicate with all their silliness, and beauty, that Hughes never lost the taste for
this kind enjoyment and risk-taking.
What all this amounts to is an unmatched communicative openness in Ted
Hughes’s books for children. Writing for children afforded him with a means for
replenishing his senses, loosening himself, for re-experiencing the world, for
breaking free from adult concerns6.
The aptness of Ted Hughes’s approach to writing for children is supported by
recent children’s literary theory. When, in his Signs of Childness in Children’s
Literature, Peter Hollindale writes about the structure of communication between
adult writer and child reader, his findings closely match Hughes’s more intuitive

take: Writing for children, Hollindale says, the author has to bridge a “cultural
and historical gap” between himself and his desired reader. In the attempt, “the
author must construct childhood from an amalgam of personal retrospect,
acquaintance with contemporary children, and an acquired system of beliefs as to
what children are, and should be, like” (12). This finds its correspondence in
Hughes’s assertion that writing for children: “I imagine the reader I’m telling the
story to as a combination of me and one or two children I know well.” (Hughes,
For such an approach to be successful, Hollindale argues, there must be a
shared component between adult writer and child reader—a component he calls
“childness:” the “quality of being a child” (47). This quality, which is “dynamic,
imaginative, experimental, interactive and unstable,” allows children to grow by
experimenting with their identities through interaction with adults and the world
around them. As a aspect of adult identity, childness may allow us to tap into
that creative, playful approach, thus providing a means by which we may
“replenish our mature selves” (46). A successful communication with a child
reader is only possible when author and reader share some degree of childness,
when the construct of remembered and imagined childhood finds its match in the
actual (and constructed) childness of the reader.
Moreover, a sense of personal continuity and rootedness, of storying, seems
directly connected to adult childness through its dependence on memory:
“Effective writers of children’s literature,” Hollindale says, “are often those who
retain [a] childhood intensity and urgency of storying, whose childhood is alive
in memory and present existence because it is still essential to their mature
procedures for articulating the self in time” (70). Such rootedness is clearly
evident in Hughes’s more biographical accounts as “The Rock,” “Capturing
Animals” and in various interviews like “The Art of Poetry” (Hughes, Heinz) or
“So Quickly It’s Over” (Hughes, Pero). It is a rootedness in both, landscape and
storying, inseparable from his own remembered childhood experience.
If, as I argue, childness was indeed an intrinsic part of Ted Hughes’s identity,
it is no surprise that it should directly inform some of his most successful pieces
for adults. Here, it must have been especially the “no-holds-barred approach to
problems” (WP 29) which he was after. And indeed, much of Crow, which at
several occasions he called a “children’s story” (Skea: “Adelaide”; “Timeline”),
and in particular the “child nakedness” of approach, the intention of
communicating the bare essentials, has been salvaged from the childness of the
original narrative behind the poems (cf. Kazzer 192–9). Moreover, Crow’s
tricksterish take on the world is more than just “child’s play.” He embarks on an

5. I am grateful to Lissa Paul for pointing this out to me.

6. Significantly, for about three years after Sylvia Plath’s death, while raising their
children, Ted Hughes published/wrote next to nothing new for adults while several books
for children appeared in very close succession of each other.

“original, wild, no-holds-barred” exploration (WP 29), which accounts for many
of the surprising turns in those fragments of the story that have come down to us.
And no matter how his struggles with perceptions and preconceptions, between
aspects of his own self turn out, he keeps tackling the world with undiminished
optimist zest (cf. also WP 239–43).
As childness is shared ground between Hughes’s books for adults and children,
so are the fundamental concerns he brought to writing. At the most personal,
creative level of this writing, we encounter a poet with an near obsession with
healing, redemption, with the balancing of “male” and “female” aspects of one’s
being, with making good and resurrecting. We find someone who repeatedly
writes about death (and therefore about life), and about humankind’s
precarious relationship with nature. Just as the concept behind most of Hughes’s
works for adults was the putting together of a healing narrative, his children’s
books are concerned with providing psychological/spiritual blueprints for
“putting together” little boys and girls (cf. Hughes, Morrison; ME 66–7). It does
not seem unimportant that many of them originated from actual stories or poems
told to his own children—as such all of them were intended as stories or poems
to grow on.
The combination of Hughes’s insistence that art should be healing and of his
attempts at a child nakedness of perception accounts for the sense that he was
giving away some intimate part of himself in his writing for children. He was
convinced that a healing potential for a story or poem could only arrive out of a
healing process experienced by the author. Hughes knew that attempting to heal
himself would mean attempting to heal others. He considered art as “the
psychological component of the auto-immune system” which “works on the
artist as a healing” and “as a medicine” on those who perceive it (Hughes, Heinz
82). If that is indeed the case, then there should also be a match between the
things that needed to be healed in the author and the healing potential a narrative
holds for the reader. The mythic aspect of such “healing” narrative, Hughes
thought, was an inevitable result of the process (ME 67).
If we accept the concept of childness as “shared ground, though differently
experienced and understood, between child and adult” (Hollindale 47), it
becomes clear that children’s writing can be as enjoyable for adults as it is for
children—though with that difference of experience and understanding
mentioned earlier, and because of that difference. For the critic, however, the
children’s books offer a most valuable source as their openness and honesty,
their lack of pretence and clever manoeuvrings makes for some of the most
intimate and straightforward writing that Hughes has ever produced. They are
books from which emerges a complex but personal picture of their author,
complete with little foibles, tragic biographical entanglements, joys, successes
and failings—an utterly human picture. “In every moon-mirror lurks a danger./
Look in it—and there glances out some stranger” (“Moon-Mirror,” Earth-Moon

From what has been said so far it should not seem surprising to find a
children’s book of Hughes’s chock-a-bloc with invocations to his Goddess of
Complete Being. In the particular set of poems I will talk about, she is
symbolised in the common image of the moon and/or discernible as a presence
behind the happenings in that inner “moon world” which Hughes explores.
Several stories from his Creation Tale collections and Ffangs the Vampire Bat
and the Kiss of Truth can be seen as directly related to these poems in their
references to the moon.
Ted Hughes’s moon poems were published in a succession of four volumes
between 1963 and 1988.7 It may not be incidental that the first of them, The
Earth-Owl and Other Moon People (illustrated by R.A.Brandt), came out during
a time when the “Lunar Race” was in full progress, when reports of new moon
probes and moon exploration projects hit the news at a steady rate. The Earth-
Owl was a book of rhyming, strongly playful poems, much in the mood of Meet
My Folks! The poems, Hughes mentions, were an exploration of the “moon from
the bottom of our dreams,” its creatures and oddities, which, since affects us
more directly and profoundly, should be “much more our concern” than the “real
moon. rolling about in the sky” (PM 110).
Some twelve years after that first book, in 1976, Hughes dedicated another
publication to the topic: Earth-Moon—a limited edition and the only book fully
illustrated by Hughes himself. The powerful combination of images and poems
in this book offers a rare glimpse of Ted Hughes’s creative vision. And a simple
comparison of the illustrations with Chris Riddell’s magnificent work from
1988, or Leonard Baskin’s, or R.A.Brandt’s marks the starkness of imagery of
Hughes’s inner world. Earth-Moon presents the Goddess in all her dark beauty
as Hughes saw it. Like many of his poems, his illustrations are marked by
circular movements (cf. ill. for “Moon-Walkers”), the integration of seeming
opposites into a single whole (cf. the Ying/Yang ill. for “Moon-Whales”). His
“Moon-Mares” move in a burst of flame to which the water/wetness imagery of
“Moon-Whales” provides a counterpoint. There is an abundance of snakes (and
of course moons), and most of the more ferocious beings—but the healing
“Moon-Ravens,” too—are fitted with large claws, beaks and fangs. Life’s
undiminished zest is presented in the spermy dolphins of his illustration for
“Moon-Whales” —the sperm being a central image of survival for Hughes (cf.
also WP 240–1 and Gifford 130–1). A pack of wolves—reminiscent of Norse
myth8—opens the volume, while a kind of fish-monster is drawn on one of the

7. A fifth book, Moon-Bells and Other Poems does not strictly belong with this group as
it only takes its title from one of the moon-poems. It collects seven of them and large number
of “unrelated” children’s Hughes poems, like “Amulet,” “Coming Down Through
Somerset” or “Horrible Song.”

Though still playful, Earth-Moon contains some markedly darker material—

among them two rhymeless poems that were to become the introductory and
concluding poems of the subsequent volumes. Also published in 1976, the trade
edition of Moon-Whales and Other Moon Poems, illustrated by Leonard Baskin
and available only in the US, collected the poems from The Earth-Owl and
Earth-Moon. In 1988, finally, appeared a “revised edition” simply called Moon-
Whales, from which six of the poems had been dropped and which had been re-
illustrated by Chris Riddell. Already this brief history of the moon poem books
hints to a particular interest, which Hughes seems to have had in the topic. They
are books about the Imagination, and about Creativity in all her shapes. As such,
they are also about the ways of the psyche, the tricks it seems to play, and the
merits of close contact with its dream-world. Hughes succeeds in painting a
moving picture of the inner world: beautiful, ferocious, sad, funny, consoling—a
mirror-world full of surprises. A world full of tiny little stories and parables set
to challenge our perceptions of the dream-moon—the realm of the Goddess. And
though aiming particularly at children, the poems remain within hearing of
Naturally, the inner moon world is “more decisive, and utterly different” from
the outer world we know so well (WP 143), and obeying laws which tend to be
the reverse of what we are accustomed to. In it, nothing holds fast (“Moon-
Wind,” Earth-Moon 23), ways and roads do not lead to expected or fixed
destinations (“Moon-Ways” 17). It is a place of weird and funny monsters,
strange plants and creatures (or mixtures thereof) and strange occurrences. A
place where the imagination is presented as so powerful that it can immediately
bring things into existence (“Moony Art” 61), but also a place that can be or
appear menacing, threatening and dangerous. It is a world that, separated from the
outer world, neglected, may easily become “a place of demons” (WP 149).
Placing the reader at the collision of these worlds, Hughes provokes
communication between them, confronts us with our own “Moon-Mirror.”
Clearly, Hughes’s moon world presents the laws of the Goddess, who appears
more threatening the more alienated she has become. And it represents the dark
and light of the “female side” of his own inner being. In his second “Myth and
Education” essay Hughes describes how the adult “inner world” is under threat
to “become elemental, chaotic, continually more primitive and beyond. control,”
a “place of demons” (WP 149). So that, “if we do manage to catch a glimpse of
our inner selves, by some contraption of mirrors, we recognize it with horror—it
is an animal crawling and decomposing in a hell. We refuse to own it.”
But the world of moon-poem books has not degenerated, but has retained a
cheerful, childly9 aspect. And in a delightful play with our perceptions, Hughes
shows that it is often just our (mis)interpretation that makes this world appear

8. Cf. eg. Sol and Mani (Sun and Moon), being pursued by wolves or Fenrir who is to
swallow the Sun at the Ragnarök.

threatening (cf. e. g. “The Moon-Hyena,” “Moon-Walkers” or “The Moon-

One of those cheerful and a most prominent characteristics of Hughes’s moon
world is its creatures’ affection to music (cf. e. g. “Moon-Whales,” “Music on
the Moon,” “The Moon-Mare,” “The Moon-Hyena,” “Singing on the Moon”).
Singing on the moon, for example, attracts moon-monsters, which, though
looking terrible and seeming furious, are just ferociously passionate about and
grateful for music: “At your song’s end the monster will cry out madly/And fling
down money, probably far more than you can spend,/And kiss your shoe with his
horrific frontend,/Then shudder away with cries of rapture diminishing sadly
(“Singing on the Moon,” Earth-Moon 37). “The Moon-Hyena” presents another
“musical” example of how misleading our perceptions of the moon world can be.
Though it has “A laughter of dark hell/Mad laughter of a skull/Coming to devour
the living ones.”
It is not by accident that Hughes ascribed to music an even greater healing
capacity than to poetry (cf. Hughes, Heinz 82). Poetry, music, myth and female
sexuality, he thought, ultimately rose from the same creative source (cf. “Battling
Over the Bard”). His children’s poetry has a strong leaning towards music.
Though apparently stompy, and clumsy at times, the poems are at once tuneful,
earthy, joyous and memorable10, while rhyme and rhythm (as striking qualities
of most of them) place them in the close proximity of medieval riddle, lullaby or
nursery verse. There is fun to be had, there are thrills and, very importantly, there
is comfort.
Apart from the connection between the inner moon world and music, Hughes
explicitly links his moon to poetry. In “Visiting the Moon,” one of the most
puzzling of the poems, the poetic persona finds himself in a tower, where “the
moon, molten silver in a great cauldron,/Was being poured/Through the eye of a
needle//Spun on to bobbins and sold to poets/For sewing their eyelids together/
So they can sing better.” (Earth-Moon 57). Likewise, a “Moon-Marriage”
produces only poems as offspring. This is described as a process, in which the
person to be married is being chosen by an (apparently totemic) animal, as
“there’s no telling what bride/May choose you from the inside” (39). In “Moon-
Theatre” (48–9), Hughes even mentions the Adonis type hero, who plays such an
important role in what he called Shakespeare’s mythic/tragic equation (cf.
SGCB, e. g. 7–18). The poem makes clear to its audience that a story (or play)
can be conjured out of virtually nothing. A princess is invoked, who is abducted
by an ogre from whom she escapes (disguised as a wolf) to find herself hounded
until a flower-hero saves her. Moreover, “Moon-Theatre” gives a clear hint

9. Like “childness,” I borrow this adjective from Hollindale. (45)

10. Tellingly, Hughes had his Iron Woman fall into a stomping dance when expressing
her strongest emotions, while bringing both, his Iron Man and The Iron Woman to a
consoling musical end with the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon providing music of the spheres.

towards (shamanic) ecstasy/magic as “tap[ing] a drum and fix[ing] your eyes in a

glassy stare” (Earth-Moon 48) is a precondition for the story/play to take off.
Typically for Hughes, there are poems in the moon books that deal with death
or threats with extinction (cf. e. g. “A Moon-Lily,” “A Moon-Witch” or “A
Moon-Hare,” in which the moon crashes into earth). As in his books for adults, his
imagination does not flinch from such topics. Rather, he seems aware of the
fascination, which death and extinction hold for children, and which is also
apparent as a popular theme of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Moreover, by not
falsely “sheltering” his desired child audience from such topics, just as by
allowing silliness and whim into the poems, Hughes brings a great honesty to the
books. An honesty and openness, that greatly furthers communication with his
desired child readers, while being central to his idea of the “child nakedness” of
Like his other books for children, the moon-poem collections bear witness to
the fascination certain images and dramatic constellations held for Hughes.
Simultaneously, the many echoes of other poems and poetic sequences in the
moon books provide further proof of the Goddess’ central place in the work, and
indeed, they show that the books for children and those for adults belong
together in the single body of the work.
The idea of the all-importance of the moon-goddess and her world to
Hughes’s views gains further momentum when we take a look at the many
animals that are linked with the inner moon world in his poems and stories for
children. It is striking to see, how he places his favourite mythic (or personally
totemic) animals next to God’s Mother and Woman in a close relationship to the
moon-goddess and her realm (cf. e. g. “The Guardian,” Tales of the Early World
16–29). And as we might have expected all along, there is a bond between
Moon, Woman and Fox, which Hughes writes about in “The Secret of Man’s
Wife” (Dreamfighter 138–50).
Many other mythic animals traditionally linked with moon-worship make their
appearance in Earth-Moon. There are the white “Moon-Bull,” who thinks Night
is his bride, and the “Moon-Hare,” or the “Moon-Mare,” who “moves like
nightfall./ Beautiful, beautiful,” running “On human mountains.//Wild as a ghost/
She is here, she is past,//In her lunatic fury./The only sure lure is//The music
stolen/ From stars that have fallen” (58–9). And though all of these animals are
in some way or other associated with darkness, the moon or the Goddess,
Hughes must have felt a desire to write about them, to present them in their full
Naturally, Ted Hughes’s moon-mirror world is as varied as the daylight natural
world human beings prefer to inhabit. It is a mad, silly, funny, sad, or cruel
world, in which life and death are entwined. Most of all, however, it is a world
that has a healing, consoling power, one where sadness and mourning are not
suppressed but lived through (cf. e. g. “The Moon-Lily,” 7–8). It is the sacred
space of night and dream, in which the reader must confront beings like the
“Snail of the Moon” or the “Moon-Mourner” or “The Silent Eye.” But there are

the “Moon-Ravens,” too, who swallow illnesses that leave your mouth in the
shape of a moth (24). The overall healing capacity of the poems comes from the
collision of the moon world with one’s own actual experience. Many of them
address the reader directly, thus bridging the gap between outer and inner world,
making themselves felt.
The strong affection, which so unmistakably shines through the descriptions
of most of his moon-creatures—even such unlucky “beings” as the haggis—
finds its match in the “real,” daylight world of Hughes’s animal poems. In both
groups of poems, rhyme and rhythm occur for several important purposes,
sometimes simultaneously. On the personal, creative level, they served Hughes
“amuse [him]self” (PM 111) while opening a door to the childly imagined self/
reader—but there is no denying that rhyme and rhythm also helped Hughes to
control some of the energies evoked. In other cases the cheerful verse forms are
used, conversely, to counterpoint a violent story, as in “The Moon-Haggis”
(Earth-Moon 60). But most of all, the use of rhyme and simple rhythm serves the
collections’ overall consoling purpose. It allows the reader to maintain a hold
and, like the author, to control that inner mirror-world that is being conjured. The
similarities with the use of strongly alliterative lines in Hughes’s contemporary
verse for adults are striking. Counterpointing Anglo-Saxon with Latin-based
vocabulary, he was trying to tap into a primeval linguistic/mythic source, was
looking for access to the realm of the Goddess in the clash of two traditions. And
though he sometimes ended up with a clanking, verbal suit of armour, shielding
much of the energy he was trying to evoke, his most successful pieces from that
time never fail to provoke a strong inner response (cf. also Bishop 18–21).
It does not seem difficult imagining Hughes telling the poems to his own
children at bedtime. It is them, to whom the poems are dedicated, and it must
have been them who helped the warm tone in Hughes’s writing for children to
come to the fore. Comparing the earliest book, The Earth-Owl, with the later
ones, the change in tone is striking. From its overall design, The Earth-Owl and
Other Moon-People seems to have been intended as a book similar to Meet My
Folks!—a happy jumble of descriptions of “people.” Most of its twenty-odd
poems are funny, interesting in some of their associations, usually quite easy to
digest but somehow undistinguished, detached. His many moon-plant
descriptions, for example, almost make the impression of empty off-hand
doodles or, even worse and similar to some of the early poems for adults, some
come across as constructed, shielding off energies rather than evoking them.
There is not enough of Hughes himself in them, so that one gets the impression of
something being withheld.11 With Earth-Moon and the books that follow, it is

11. In his 1993 interview with Blake Morrison Hughes says: “My notion was always that
it’s the one thing you don’t do: you don’t write about yourself. The shock of Sylvia’s
writing, when she really began to write, was that she was doing the very opposite of what
she would

otherwise. We find them peopled as a typically laterHughesian universe. It is as

if the dark beauty of that inner moon needed to grow on Hughes, as if he needed
to gain the inner strength not to flinch from her glare. In the later books she has
become more fully visible in detail and proper access to her world seems to have
been gained. But most importantly, Hughes’s voice in the poems has become
more compassionate, less detachedly descriptive.
Yet, as early as 1963 we meet some of the most charged beings and images
that recur in Hughes later books, like the “half-man” of “Moon-Freaks” (a poem
that also features the “galloping” hand which recurs in The Iron Man) whose
double is described in the opening poem of the “Epilogue” of Gaudete (177), and
the origins of which date back to around the same time (cf. Difficulties of a
Bridegroom, ix). Or the “tree-disease” (Earth-Owl 31), which recurs in Crow’s
“Magical Dangers” (52). Another familiar feature is the deadly threat from
numbers on the moon. “Moon-Horrors” (Earth-Owl 15–6) depicts numbers in a
way we might be familiar with from “Crow’s Account of St. George.” As horrors
in the moon world, numbers have specialised in killing and devouring people.
Worst of them all is “the flying strangler, the silent zero,” “that specializes in
hunting down the great hero” (16). In “Crow’s Account of St. George” the
protagonist “sees everything in the Universe/Is a track of numbers.” Obsessively
he dissects every new “nest of numbers” he manages to find. Fighting off
monsters that try to interfere, he ends up slaughtering his wife and children (C
32–3, cf. also ME 66).
One of the most striking features of the inner moon-mirror, which Hughes
confronts us with in his poems and stories, is its capability to bring out the Truth.
12 Moon poems, like “Moon-Mirror” describe this more covertly (much of it tied

to the reader’s response) than his stories for children. In Ffangs the Vampire Bat
and the Kiss of Truth, however, Hughes writes most openly about the kind of
Truth most closely associated with the Goddess, and closest to his intentions in
writing. It is the Truth of finding out who one really is. It does not seem
incidental that he felt Ffangs was a very personal story, one that exposed very
much of himself (cf. Hughes, Morrison). In the story, the Truth is found on the
moon, where the protagonists meet a girl, Selena, who has a snake in her mouth!
Whomever the moon-girl kisses is instantly transformed into who he/she really is
by the snake’s “deadly bite” (Ffangs 89). This is a context, which makes clear
that whatever we might see in our own moon-mirror is a part of our selves. It
may be a part that urgently needs to be re-invited into our life before it becomes
rotten, dangerous, deadly.
In all that, Hughes presents a challenge to our perceptions, presents books that
both, adult and child, can grow on. In their variety and playfulness, they can
open a door to the inner world. They can—even if only momentarily—put us
back in touch with that “child nakedness” mentioned at the beginning of this
paper. Losing in “child nakedness,” losing in our openness of approach to the
world, Hughes believed, we would “begin to lose validity as witnesses and
participants in the business of living in this universe” (WP 29).

Yet, from the moon world just visited, inevitably, we must fall to Earth, where
any other moon than the one rolling in the sky tends to threaten us. With the
poem “Earth-Moon” we reach the end of a book, the end of a story. It is a very
Hughesian end, in its meaning fully dependent on the readers’ response, much
like the “Finale” of Cave Birds. With “Earth-Moon,” Hughes gives us a parable
in the shape of “Bedtime Story,” “Existential Song,” “Bedtime Anecdote” or
“Love Song,” all of which belong to the original Crow context. It describes a
state we may recognise or one, which we may see as a warning. Moreover, it can
be seen as describing a condition which could easily be interpreted as that of the
literary critic.

normally have considered a proper thing to write about. I’ve often wondered how she
would have gone on from there. What she’d done was to reclaim her entire psychology.
It’s almost like a myth in itself, a very pure, clear story” (Hughes, Morrison). Noted by
many critics, the change in tone from his earliest books to those written after the mid-
sixties must be linked to that realisation. From that time on, Hughes was allowing more of
himself to enter his poetry. For his children’s books it seems indisputable that the
bringing-up of his own children had a decisive influence as regards tone, content and
12. Cf. also Hughes’s concern with the various shades of Truth in a poem like “Truth
Kills Everybody” (C 84) or “The Snag” (Tales of the Early World 62–71), where the
moon features as a fortune-teller whom Eel turns to, to find out the truth of whether he is
a snake or a fish a truth that does indeed lead to a killing. Cf. also his children’s book
What is the Truth?, which plays out the search for objective truth (cf. Paul, 1992 70).
Ted Hughes & the Folk Tale
Paul Volsik

If all poets are pattern makers, they are themselves caught up in patterns—
movements, periods, intertextual constellations. Today it is essentially the
intellectual background of Hughes’s poetry that I wish to discuss—the question
of ideas and the history of ideas, and the history of literary forms. I will be
concerned not so much with what might be called his mythical readings (one
thinks, for example, of his reading of Shakespeare which brought him into head-
on conflict with academia) but with his reading of “tales,” a word that appears
regularly in his poetry—more specifically a particular form—the folk tale, whose
relation to the myth—and other forms like the fable or fairy tale or wonder tale—
is problematic.
I will begin by placing Hughes in a pattern, that is by seeing him as a neo-
Romantic, or rather a neo-neo-Romantic with all that this implies in the space
where the aesthetic roots itself in the epistemological. It is Romantic literary
“science”—of which nineteenth century anthropological folk tale studies were a
prototype—that will interest me here, for though the poetic work of any poet—as
we know—transcends because it escapes, frustrates, criticises and deconstructs
the necessarily conflictual pattern of ideas and preferences that structures his
vision (I use the word deliberately) of the world and literature, it is perhaps useful
to suggest hypotheses about the way this vision might be structured.
If, however, this paper is more than simply intellectual curiosity about the
more obscure corners of a particular poets’ work, it will be because I am
convinced that the problem of narrative in poetry is a vital problem and very
little understood. This is largely because narratological studies, with rare
exceptions, have concentrated on the novel, seeing narration as a secondary
problem in poetry—if not fundamentally and structurally in conflict with it.
Jakobson’s famous analysis of poeticity has encouraged critics of poetry to
follow narratologists in marginalising the syntagmatic axis in poetry. To my
mind, this is a mistake. My hypothesis therefore is that, since all poetry begins as
narration, the syntagmatic axis cannot be structurally in conflict with the poetic
(though of course it can be backgrounded in certain periods, notably, I would say,
the period during which Jakobson was writing). More particularly, in his poetry
Hughes both uses a form (free verse) whose forward movement is intensely
syntagmatic and also dialogues with canonical narrative forms in many explicit

and implicit ways. He does so thematically in his use of the quest pattern, but he
does so also in, for example, titles of poems like “Two Legends” (C 13) or
“Revenge Fable” (70) or “Bedtime Anecdote” (CPH 262), “Japanese River
Tales” (R 14) or “Folktale” (CPH 788). In addition he uses canonical narrative
strategies (“Crow’s Elephant Totem Song,” for instance, begins with the
traditional opening: “Once upon a time” (C 57); the diary is a miniature narrative
form as Hughes’s uses it and so are certain letters in Birthday Letters). More
explicitly even, Hughes underscores this dialogue intertextually when, on the one
hand, a poem like “February” begins with a reference to Little Red Riding Hood
(“the wolf with its belly stitched full of big pebbles” (L 13)1) and, more subtly,
on the other when, for example, he refers in “Gnat-Psalm” to “little Hasids” (W
181) subtly echoing the fact that Polish Hasidism used folk tales and parables as
major entrances to religious understanding. To understand how and why poetry
uses narrative, how and why the organization in lines and stanzas and collections,
as in Crow, for example, influences our perception of narrative, how our sense of
sequence (beginnings, middles and ends) is constructed, particularly in the post-
Modernist age, we need to study more and over a much wider range of types of
poets, including a poet like Hughes who has made such brilliant use of the
coyote tale2 and Ovid’s narratives in Metamorphoses. As Hughes himself rightly
pointed out, what is characteristic of poetry, one of its most important structuring
axes, is rhythm and particularly what he called mysteriously, but absolutely
rightly I think, narrative rhythm—the deployment of text along a horizontal
syntagmatic axis. Only when we are better able to make the relationship between
the two axes (syntagmatic and paradigmatic) dialectic will we progress as
analysts of poetry.
I will proceed as follows: I will first try to root more historically the idea that
Hughes is to a large extent a neo-Romantic poet, I will then work out of
particular texts to show how Hughes reworks a major structuring aspect of
Romanticism: organicism. Through organicism I will, via Seamus Heaney, look
at Romantic attitudes to folk tales which I think Hughes has reinvested and
reactivated. Finally I will suggest some of the ways in which Romantic attitudes
to the functioning of folk tales might suggest priorities in our reading of
Hughes’s poetry—or at least priorities in Hughes’s own reading habits.

To begin with, I would like to stress that when I say that Hughes was a neo-neo-
Romantic, I mean precisely that—in two ways. Firstly, of course, neo-
Romanticism is not Romanticism, just as neo-Gothic is not Gothic, the Houses of

1. It is perhaps worth noting in view of what will follow, that Hughes here uses Grimm’s
version of the tale and not Perrault’s or the existing oral folk versions.
2. It is interesting to compare his use of the form to Paul Muldoon’s.

Parliament not a gothic building any more than a nineteenth century Parliament
was a folk-mote (though the period liked to think it was) or Tex Avery’s retelling
of “Little Red Riding Hood” a folk tale. The reasons for the difference between
the two such as the limitations in the freedom of a “folk” teller of folk tales, are
beyond the scope of this article. Secondly, it is my conviction that Hughes was at
least partially molded by the specific literary movement called neo-
Firstly, then, I would like to recall that Hughes’s formative years—the forties
—are precisely the years when neo-Romanticism as a movement was achieving
the status of the dominant aesthetic mode in Great Britain. I will here mention
just a few of the elements that might constitute the planets in a galaxy (which
like all galaxies of this sort, requires a justification I cannot attempt here):
Herbert Read’s The Green Child (1935); “The New Apocalypse” (1939); David
Jones’ series of Arthurian legend drawings (1940); Carl Jung’s The Secret of the
Golden Flower (1941); Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony (1943)3; Bill
Brandt’s “Brontë country” (1945); Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the
Base of a Crucifixion” (shown 1945); Eric Hosking and Cyril Newberry Birds of
the Night (1945); Sutherland’s “Crucifixion” (1946); Mervyn Peake’s Titus
Groan (1946) and his gothic drawings; Dylan Thomas’ Deaths and Entrances
(1946)—of which Hughes said “it was my holy book” (Faas 202)—Robert
Graves’ The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948); and
Eric Hosking and Cyril Newberry’s Birds in Action (1949). If one may be a little
flippant, Hughes’s looks as a young man remind one inescapably of those of the
neo-Romantic icon in the British cinema of the 1940s: James Mason. Hughes, in
one sense, does what the poets of the forties (Treece, Henry, etc.) tried to do but
did not succeed in doing—though more could be said, for example, about the
analogies between certain aspects the work of Hughes and that of other poets of
the period (R.S.Thomas’ lago Prytherch, for instance or Kavanagh’s Paddy
Maguire recall Hughes’s Billy Holt).
The importance of this rooting in Romanticism, or rather Romanticism at it
was being reconstructed by both creative writers and the academic critics of the
forties and fifties (Frye and Abrams for example), is that it gives access to an
articulated intellectual and aesthetic universe. It is in this respect important that
Hughes should recognise in “Fantastic Happenings and Gory Adventures” (WP)
that “When [his] craze for comics fizzled out,—I was about thirteen [in 1943]—a
craze for folk tales took their place. The discovery of these things came as a deep
shock” (5–6)
It was this discovery, he says, that led him to Yeats and “the right kind of
metre.” Hughes’s interest in the folk tale was thus born in the heart of the neo-
Romantic movement and was to continue unabated for the rest of his life. I
would now like to enter his intellectual work via what could be seen as a back
door by suggesting that the strength of Hughes attachment to what might be
called a Romantic epistemology is revealed in his constant use of biological

A national legend, the legend of nationality—Hughes on

poet, myths and nation
My point of departure here is two particular quotations by Hughes the first dating
from 1964, the second from 1993, spanning thus his entire career as a poet. In
1964, reviewing a book entitled Myth and Religion of the North by
E.O.G.Turville-Petre which, he claims, is constructed on very much the same
lines as Jacob Grimm’s founding, but in many ways problematic, Teutonic
Mythology (Deutsche Mythologie), Hughes writes that unlike the “Greek-Roman
pantheons that came in with Christianity, and again with the Renaissance…these
other deities of our instinct and ancestral memory” the “Anglo-Saxon-Norse-
Celtic” alternative “belongs to our blood” (WP 41, my italics) Twenty-nine
years later, in his very fine text on “Myths, Metres, Rhythms,” talking of Celtic
culture he writes that it has survived to this day, “like powerfully active glands,
secreting the genetic remnants of a poetic caste selectively bred through many
centuries.” (368 my italics). I would like to subject these passages to serious but
I hope not polemical scrutiny—though the texts themselves are intensely
polemical. I would add that they constitute only one—though to my eyes an
important—thread in Hughes’s intellectual life. The first reproduces, on the basis
of a protoypical Romantic space, a typically Romantic we. Hughes states that
“we” —whoever “we” exactly are—are more at home in the art, literature and
mythology of the North, that this art is ancestrally ours and instinctually close to
us; in a word that this mythology “belongs to our blood” beyond and below
chosen and constructed inheritances. In the second quotation, two things interest
me: firstly—and least urgently—its cavalier attitude to the facts as we know
them; secondly the fact that it too is structured around an important biological
metaphor, and, since poetry is what matters most, metaphors have to be taken
Firstly then, Hughes is not accurate about the Celtic tradition of bardism—his
“inaccuracy” is, like the slip of the tongue, the symptom or the trace of his sense
of the urgency of the issues at stake. The idea that the Celts—and I use the word
as Hughes uses it, not Gaels or Bretons or Welsh or Scots, but Celts: a “people”
or “peoples” who occupy land from Bohemia to the Isle of Arran,— were
“nations” (I insist on what I would see as an anachronistic word, but a mainstay
of Romantic historiography) and not “a people” or peoples or “a culture” or a
“civilisation” is extremely problematic. Secondly, though I do not have time to
prove this here, the idea that the “arduous” poetic schools existed well into the
seventeenth century is untrue, as the Welsh themselves in the seventeenth

3. see, for example Vaughan William’s essays, on “National Music” and “the Folk-Song,”
notably the structural importance of melody (as opposed, say, to “harmonics”) or the
appearance of the word “race” as in his approving quotation of Cecil Sharp (1859–1924),
famous collector of folk-dance and folk-music: “Folk-music is the product of a race and
reflects feelings and tastes that are communal rather than personal” (32)

century regretted4. Indeed it is comprehensible that a structure as complex as

bardic schools, with their years of study, required stable political structures (the
patronage of great Princes) which Wales, for example, lost in the thirteenth
This problem is, however, secondary to that of Hughes’s constant recourse to
biological metaphors of which “blood” is only one example. In the second extract
the nation is seen as a biological entity, and this biological entity secretes, thanks
to a residual genetic structure, its own art and its own poets-who are bred
“selectively,” by which Hughes presumably means “eugenically.” To take the
one example I know well, Wales, the introduction of hereditary (as opposed to
non-hereditary) court poets (bards) was a late (twelfth century) import from
Ireland and not “traditional” or “genetic” in the culture (any more than the
functioning of the Laureateship is biologically rooted in the English “nation,”
and not a social fact which has changed in content and implication from Anglo-
Saxon scop to Andrew Motion). Briefly then this is a fantasy, in many of its
central articulations. These Celtic “nations,” says Hughes, survive political
dismemberment—a constant Hughesian theme—like “glands.” It is important to
insist on the word “gland,” etymologically from acorn as in French—hence oak-
tree—for a gland is strictly an organ which separates certain constituents for use
in the body and—and this is central—“naturally” rejects and ejects others. This,
of course, is a Romantic nationalist idea, and—for better or worse—still with us.
The idea that poets somehow “incarnate” this nation (that they are secreted by
the nation, like amber from a tree, as a sort of quintessence) is also historically
datable. Historians of ideas and notably the idea of nation, have shown how this
idea is a strategic moment in the genesis of the idea of the nation state in the late
eighteenth century, directly linked to the imposition of a “national” “mother-
tongue.” Indeed, the expression in French which says that English is “la langue de
Shakespeare” is an example of this trope and all that it carries politically, an idea
that has as one of its main sources the German thinker Herder, to whom we shall
return. As we know, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, great nations
were felt to be those that had a great founding poet; indeed “nations” without a
great poet tended to invent one like Ossian. Fundamentally, of course, the fact
that Hughes should be on shaky historical ground is of no real importance—what
is important is that he should choose that ground and the particular way in which
he configures its topography. What interests him, as we know from others
sources, is a vision—whose roots I see in Romanticism—of the poet as a central
sacred function in a pre-Modern, pre-Industrial, and thus “natural” because
“unified” society. To put it even more simply what is at work here is a form of
Romantic organicism which uses biological metaphors to include and to exclude,
to articulate past and present, citizen and society5, poet and society, society and

4. See Dillwyn Miles, The Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales (Swansea: Christopher
Davies, 1977)

its texts, text and poet, poetic text and religious text etc. This is the triumph of a
certain vision of the “natural” —at the heart of Hughes’s visionary centering on
the natural world.
More particularly, insofar as the poetic text itself is concerned, the idea that
the artistic work is a “living thing” is as old as Aristotle, but its most systematic
development was precisely the Romantic period notably in Germany, and then in
Great Britain, through Coleridge. In the nineteenth century the triumph of this
idea is total. I do not have time to analyse all the implications of this belief, but
we know it functioned for the Romantics, as for Hughes, in a binary opposition
with the idea of a “mechanical poetry,” that is by definition foreign, French often
in Hughes’s legend of the history of English metre. The organic poem is where—
among other things—the particular and the universal, the biologically national
and the Universal—as well as content and form—are in some sense coalesced
and fused. In this the poem is an analogue of the folk tale.

Folk tales, myths and legends

To progress in my argument I would now like to return to a quotation from the
remarkable address given by Seamus Heaney during the Memorial Service for
Ted Hughes in Westminster Abbey, the locus of the legend of England. Here
Heaney said

another part of him looked through the microscope and telescope into the
visionary crystal, and could see Dante’s eternal margherita, the pearl of
foreverness, in the interstices of the DNA. This is the part of him that
recognized that myths and fairy tales were the poetic code.

As always with Heaney, under what might seem a preconstrained code of

discourse (the memorial service), there is immense precision and that
extraordinary ability of his—so different from Hughes’s magnificent forcefulness
—to pick up, chameleonlike, another’s discourse notably in his use of the DNA
metaphor, also a textual metaphor. But it is the idea that the poetic code is to be
found at its purest and equally in myths and fairy tales that most interests me. It
is vital, I think, to remind ourselves in a University context of the importance of
this placing of myths and fairy tales in the same breath at the heart of the poetic
code and on an equal footing. It is again quintessentially Romantic and would
thus have been generally incomprehensible to earlier periods, notably to
mainstream Enlightenment. One of the great aesthetic and epistemological
breakthroughs of Romanticism lay in its ability to see folk tales as themselves
intensely, mysteriously, and essentially poetic and central to the culture. It is this

5. In fact the notion of “citizen” here is problematic, we are in fact in vision of society
that is essentially “tribal.”

idea that fairy tales are as important if not more important (because they are
“ours”) than the Greek myths that had nourished Renaissance and Enlightenment
culture that marked a turning point, involved a mythical “return home,” a
movement away from the “foreign” Mediterranean to the “native” North. Indeed
in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, at the very moment when the
Welshman Iolo Morganwg was collecting (and rewriting if not inventing) old
Welsh texts, Herder, for example, saw in folk art the expression of national
identity (see, for example, his “Correspondence on Ossian and the Songs of
Ancient Peoples” 1773). The collecting of folk tales was undertaken originally
with a view, precisely, to the creation of a national identity and flowers in the
remarkable collections of the Grimm brothers in 1812–1815, texts which
themselves were rewritten texts, offering none of the guarantees of scientific
rigour that we now expect of anthropologists and folklorists, but reworked by
men who saw themselves as the direct inheritors of an ancient Germanic culture
and who were searching to rediscover it. It was with Grimm that collection of
folk tales, and folk art (the ballad, for example, another vital influence on
Hughes and another narrative form) begins in earnest all over the world, for what
was felt to be at stake here was more than the survival of undeniably beautiful
and fascinating art-objects; it was something infinitely vaster—something
infinitely more “sacred”. Thus this process of collection (that dialogued with
other analogous Romantic priorities like philology) had spin-offs notably in the
science of anthropology. Anthropology is also, in a sense, the child of the
Romantic revolution.
In England, we may remember, anthropology is said to begin with E.B.Tylor
(1832–1917) who drew massively on folklore in his two great works: Researches
into the Early History of Mankind (1865) and Primitive Culture (1871), both of
which, as their titles suggest are part of a general nineteenth century Romantic,
concern with origins. It is interesting to note that his theories were one of the
questions in the Cambridge Anthropological Tripos exam called “The History of
Ethnological and Sociological Theory” in May 1954. Anthropology is, it will be
remembered, the Tripos that Hughes took. Tylor’s theories in turn contributed to
the growth of a school of so-called anthropological folklorists. It is the
interesting leader of this school, Andrew Lang (1844–1912), writer of poetry,
founder member of the society for psychic research, writer of fairy stories for
children, translator of French poetry, who concerns me here. Lang, in many
essays and books elaborated a theory of “survivals” based on Tylor’s hypothesis
that from the beliefs held and customs and art-objects of agricultural communities
and contemporary “savages” the folklorist could reconstruct the ideas of
prehistoric man. To take one example which finds echoes in Hughes’s work,
Lang writes:

In psychology, the savage is he who (extending unconsciously to the

universe his own implicit consciousness of personality) regards all natural
objects as animated and intelligent beings and, drawing no hard and fast

line between himself and the things in the world is readily persuaded that
men may be metamorphosed into plants, beasts, and stars. and that the
lower animals especially may be creatures more powerful than himself,
and, in a sense, divine and creative (31).

In this perspective the folk tale is a paradoxical archaic object, firmly and deeply
rooted in a particular culture yet manifestly universal in distribution, thus giving
almost direct access to the (Ab)Original and the Universal and—for Hughes this
is particularly important—to that mythic primitive moment when man was in
unmediated contact with the natural world.
Did Hughes read Lang? I have no proof either way, and it is perhaps not
important as Lang’s hypothesis has survived in the way that Grimm’s, for example,
about the Indo-European origins of the folk tale have not. Only future
scholarship, only a detailed study of Hughes’s course work at Cambridge, and
perhaps his letters will prove it one way or another. Nevertheless I would
maintain that there is at least an analogy; Hughes is working in a similar
intellectual space to Lang (though his vocabulary has changed). How did Lang
read folk tales? I do not have time to go into the detail, but essentially he argues
that the folk tale appears in all animistic and totemic societies all over the world.
Since it appears all over the world, the folk tale presupposes the unity of
mankind (all cultures, for example investigate the problems of “good” and “bad”
relatives—the jealousy of sisters or mothers-in-law for daughters-in-law that one
finds in the story of “Cupid and Psyche” for example). Moreover, and
innovatively, Lang argued that folk tales are older than myths which are literary
reworkings of them. What Hughes adds, what perhaps distinguishes him—as
poet—from the anthropologist, is that the myth/legend/fairy-story/folk tale is not
presented as an object of scientific study but has an important social and
psychological regulative function. It is here that Jung enters into the complex of
ideas that constitute Hughes’s intellectual background.
How precisely does all this influence Hughes’s use of the folk tale? For one
thing, it makes rigorous definition of the categories myth, legend, folk tale, fable,
ballad, fairy story—even certain forms of historical anecdote—difficult. The
nineteenth century was, in this domain, like much of the twentieth (cf. Franz
Boas), concerned essentially with continuity. There is little attempt by folklorists
to define these categories by exclusion of the sort which asserts that myth
contains the serious beliefs of a community, folk tales do not. Indeed it could be
argued that Hughes’s choice of the “coyote tale,” whose social significance is
often obscure, suggests that he did not want to work within a framework that is
too clearly defined. Indeed, in this area as in many others, he reproduces a sort of
(English?) cultural tradition of which Robert Graves would be another product:
articulating a massive sweep of hypotheses with extreme pragmatism at the level
of the use of individual concepts. It would be possible, from the outside and in a
discriminatory perspective, to suggest that paradoxically and despite their
extremely anecdotal base, the Birthday Letters are more mythical than the earlier

texts, in the sense that there is in them more of the tragedy of defeat than in the
legends and folk tales associated with Crow which are invested, one feels,
despite their blackness, with a certain type of vigorous optimism. But this is
arguable both in principle and in detail.
Before concluding I would like to look at two less obvious textual examples of
the way “narrative” enters into Hughes’s works in what I would consider to be
central ways. The first is the poem “The Gulkana,” (R 78) which enters and
leaves its central space through the territory of the primitive, the “pre-Columbian,”
Indian: “Strange word, Gulkana. What does it mean?/A pre-Columbian glyph./A
pale blue thread—scrawled with a child’s hand/Across our map.” “The Gulkana”
articulates two metatextual metaphors, on the one hand our (modern) map, the
trace of (Western/Scientific) man’s reading of the Universe, and, on the other,
the glyph. I would like to suggest that Hughes’s writing needs the map but is
itself often “glyphic.” Centrally one needs to remember that the glyph is not
simply a picture (as people often understand the word and indeed Hughes’s
poems) but that the pre-Columbian glyph, according to the anthropological work
done by Sir John Thompson which was contemporary to Hughes’s presence in
Cambridge, contains historical (i. e. narrative) as well as ritualistic and religious
information. “The Gulkana” is thus, a poem which is at the same time a picture, a
sacred ritual, and a tale—an account of a particular fishing trip to a particular
My second example is taken from “Astrological Conundrums,” Section I
—“The Fool’s Evil Dream.” (Ww 2)By listening to a story or tale, says the
poem, one is not simply witnessing some distant event that can be analysed (is
Hughes here telling a tale about himself and a particular woman?); one is being
dissolved into it, one is undergoing something, one is involved in a complex
process (the word is central) of parturition. Thus, structurally, in all senses of the
word, being told a tale, like reading a poem, is a rite of passage, a journey of
initiation, a metamorphosis into a radically modified state. This is the story that
Hughes tells, of course, in the poem “Go Fishing” (R 44). However dim the land
and violent the experience—perhaps all the more so if the story does tell of dark
lands, of the shadow—one is born again, after a Tragic catharsis, desolate but
But folk tales also, and this is why the Romantic background is so important,
enable Hughes to take on several other issues which I have only time to list here.
For one thing the myth and the folk tale for Hughes is manifestly a political
problem, for it is the means by which we have access to “the deeper shared
understandings which keep us intact as a group—so far as we are intact as a
group” (WP 310). Our inability to negotiate with myth is the sign of that we are
socially and thus politically fallen. It is for this reason that he can talk of myths
as being “tribal dreams of the highest order of inspiration and truth, at their best”
(151). The myth/folk tale supposes a community, says Hughes, and exists in
opposition to a “high culture” less rooted, less authentic, the product of a non-
tribal, modern, “shallow” society and thus less able to negotiate with fundamental

issues. Linked to this is the fact that the folk tale is also a “popular form”. For
one thing the “hero,” like Crow, rarely has that inaccessible grandeur associated
with the mythical, at least the mythical as enlightened—indeed Enlightenment—
high culture understood it, though not as the Greeks understood it—the Greeks
whose gods cheat, cuckold, rape and know fear with a lack of decorum that is
fundamentally alien to the Christian tradition. The creatures in authentic folk
tales are thus beings who speak our dialects, who, like us, confront the forbidden
with cunning rather than from the protected Archimedian distance of an absolute
moral system. Then again, the folk tale enables Hughes to refer to a “natural,”
and manifestly pagan art-object, something he can use tactically against
Christianity as one of his major enemies, just as the marvellous in folk tales,
which had been a crucial issue in nineteenth century debates about folk tales (cf.
the category “wonder tales”), folk tales that were used tactically against
mechanistic and positivistic science, the bane of Romantic thought. Finally, the
folk tale is, in Hughes’s terms like his poetry, a space which uniquely occupies
the complete aesthetic, social and psychological nexus, not simply the object of
scientific interest: “This literature is still, after all, what it primarily was—
imaginative art, visionary accounts of profound psychological dramas, and
entertainment” (76).
The telling, for example, of the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” or of
“Apple Tragedy” (C 78) is thus a social act: it is entertainment, and generally
public entertainment, it is imaginative in that it involves complex aesthetic
choices, and it is healing—telling us notoriously how to negotiate with the
“wolf” or the “cider” inside us if we are men, or in the opposite sex if we are
women. It is thus of the order of a shamanistic healing device.
In conclusion, it will be obvious, I imagine, that I do not share Hughes’s
epistemological or political views. Perhaps it is a sign that he is a really great
poet that as with Eliot or Pound or Lawrence or Larkin, one can be profoundly
reticent about a poet’s intellectual universe (in this instance the constant recourse
to biological metaphors for political issues) and still profoundly concerned by his
work. Perhaps this comes from a stance that is not unlike that of Hughes’s
watching Crow, Frieda pointing at the moon in “Full Moon and Little Frieda” (W
182) or a child listening to a story in which fierce and sometimes deadly
creatures are let loose. It is all, no doubt, as Hughes’s suggests, the fierce and
deadly creatures within ourselves that we are watching with awe and trepidation.
In this respect I find myself in the position of the Czech poet Miroslav Holub
(Gammage 219) who marks his distance, as a scientist, from Hughes’s particular
form of “darkness”.
List of Contributors

Carol Bere began her research on Ted Hughes for her doctoral dissertation at
New York University. She taught English literature, writing, and poetry for
several years at New York University and Rutgers University, and was an officer
in the corporate communications department of a New York investment bank.
She is a writer specializing in both international finance and literature, has
written for several venues including The Economist Group, and published
articles on Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and other contemporary poets in Critical
Essays on Ted Hughes, The Literary Review, Ariel, Sylvia Plath: The Critical
Heritage, Southern Humanities Review, and Concerning Poetry. Her article,
“Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’s Sibylline Leaves,” was published in 1999 in
Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems, 1957–1994, (ed. J.Moulin). Her most
recent article, “The Road Taken: Adrienne Rich’s Poetry in the 1990s,” was
published in the Summer 2000 issue of The Literary Review.
Stephen Enniss is Curator of Literary Collections at the Robert W.Woodruff
Library of Emory University in Atlanta. In that role he oversees the literary
archive of Ted Hughes, as well as other leading American, Irish, and British
Terry Gifford, Research Co-ordinator, School of Cultural Studies, Bretton
Hall College of Leeds University. He is the author of Pastoral, Green Voices,
(1995, Manchester UP), and co-author with Neil Roberts of Ted Hughes: A
Critical Study, (1981, Faber & Faber). He has been publishing on Hughes since
1978, contributing six chapters to other books on Hughes. He has five collections
of poetry, most recently Whale Watching With a Boy and a Goat, (1998,
Redbeck Press) and is currently writing a collected essays for University of
Georgia Press, The Legacy of John Muir.
Claas Kazzer is working for the British Council Leipzig (Germany). He
worked as a research assistant and teacher at the University of Leipzig, where he
has completed his Ph.D. Thesis on “Ted Hughes’s Books for Children (and
Adults).” He occasionally works as a freelance translator into German, currently
collaborating on a translation of selected essays by Ted Hughes. Since 1996, he
has maintained the Ted Hughes’s Page website: www.uni-leipzig.de/~angl/
hughes. His most recent publications are articles on fantastic elements in

Hughes’s children's books for the Inklings Jahrbuch 1999 and on the links
between “Crow and the Creation Tales” for QWERTY.
Christian La Cassagnère is Professor Emeritus at Université Lumière-Lyon
2. He is the author of La mystique du Prometheus Unbound de Shelley (Lettres
Modernes), Introduction a la poésie de Coleridge (Aubier Flammarion), and the
editor of collections of essays on English Romanticism, of which the latest
volumes are Byron, lectures du Don Juan (Didier Érudition), William Blake, des
Chants d’lnnocence au Livre d’Urizen (Didier Érudition), Wordsworth ou l’autre
voix, (Presses Universitaires de Lyon).
Joanny Moulin is Professor of English literature at the University of
Provence. On Ted Hughes, he has published two monographs— Ted Hughes; la
langue rémunérée (L’Harmattan 1999) and Ted Hughes; New Selected Poems
(Didier Érudition, 2000)— and edited a bilingual collection of essays— Lire Ted
Hughes (Editions du Temps, 2000). He is also the author of Seamus Heaney;
l’éblouissement de l’impossible (Honoré Champion, 1999) and editor of the e-
journal EREA, www.e-rea.org.
Axel Nesme is a former student of the École Normale Supérieure of the rue
d’Ulm, he is a Senior Lecturer in English and American literature at Université
Lumière Lyon 2 and has written his thesis on the poetry of Theodore Roethke.
Neil J.Roberts is Professor and Head of the School of English at university of
Sheffield. Co-author with Terry Gifford of Ted Hughes: A Critical Study. Author
of numerous other essays on Hughes and other contemporary poets including his
most recent book Narrative and Voice in Postwar Poetry (which has chapters on
Crow and Gaudete). He is also the author of books on the poetry of Peter
Redgrove and the novels of George Eliot and George Meredith. He is the editor
of the Blackwell Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English and is
currently working on a study of D.H. Lawrence, Travel and Cultural Difference.
Leonard M.Scigaj completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison in 1977. Since 1978 he has taught twentieth century literature, science
fiction, and “Literature and Ecology,” a new course he developed in 1994, at
Virginia Tech. He has published two books and edited a volume of critical
essays on the poetry of Ted Hughes. He has also published an essay on the
poetry of Sylvia Plath. His most recent work is Sustainable Poetry, a volume that
defines “ecopoetry,” evaluates the most recent poetry of four American ecopoets
(Ammons, Berry, Merwin, and Snyder) and attempts to counter the textual
solipsism of Derrida with the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty.
Ann Skea has published a number of papers on Ted Hughes. Her “Timeline,”
listing Hughes’s major works and the interests and life events associated with
their creation is included in Keith Sagar’s new book (now available). Her own
book Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest looks at the influence of William Blake and
the traditions of alchemy in Cave Birds, Elmet and River. Many of Ann’s papers
can be read at her web-site at www.ann.skea.com. Ann is a writer and reviewer who
lives in Sydney, Australia, when she is not travelling or living in London.

Paul Volsik is Professor of British Literature at Paris 7 University. His major

research area is British Modernist Poetry (notably Dylan Thomas and the
relationship between linguistics and literature). He also has an interest in, and
has published articles on, translation theory and twentieth century poetry
generally. His recent articles include “I, in my intricate image, stride on two
levels… Laying my host in metal,” on Dylan Thomas & the painter Ceri
Richards in Interfaces (N° 15 1999) and “Dreams of Innocence and “Raptures of
Submission; An Aspect of Late Nineteenth-Century Catholic Poetry” in Cahiers
Victoriens & Edouardiens, (October 2000). He is now writing on “Baudelaire” &
“French Poetry since Baudelaire” for The Oxford Guide to Literature in English
Diane Wood Middlebrook is a professional writer and a Professor of English
at Stanford University, where she teaches courses in poetry and poetics. Her
Anne Sexton, A Biography (1991) was a finalist for the National Book Award
and for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Diane Middlebrook is the
author of Her Husband; Hughes & Plath, A Marriage (Viking 2003). Discussions
of her work are posted on the website www.dianemiddlebrook.com.
Gayle Wurst was a Senior Researcher with the Swiss National Science
Foundation and a Fellow in the English Department of Princeton University until
September 1999, where she was working on a project in American literature. She
was a fellow at W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University from 1997–
1999. Her publications on Plath include numerous articles in French and English
as well as Voice and Vision: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. From 1985 to 1995, she
taught American and English literature at the University of Fribourg,
Switzerland, and she has also taught at the Universities of Geneva, Orléans and
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Ted Hughes

Birthday Letters BL
Cave Birds CB
Collected CPH
Poems (The)
Crow C
Dancer to God DG
Elmet E
Flowers and FI
Gaudete G
Hawk in the HR
Rain (The)
Lupercal L
Moortown M
New Selected NSP
Poems 1957–
Poetry in the PM
Remains of RE
River R
Selected Poems SP
Shakespeare & SGCB
the Goddess of
Complete Being.

Tales from Ovid TO

Winter Pollen WP
Wodwo W
Wolfwatching. Ww
Children’s ME
Literature in
Education [1]
(mars 1970)

Sylvia Plath

The Journals of J
Sylvia Plath
Letters Home LH
Collected CPP
The Bell Jar BJ
ISSN 1573–2320
1. Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons
Edited by Joanny Moulin
2004 ISBN 90 265 1973 7
Index of Names and Titles

100 Poems to Learn by Heart 57–8 Bird (The) 92

18 Rugby Street 32, 108n Birthday Present (A) 27
59th Bear (The) 90 BirthdayLetters 1–15, 19–22, 28–30, 32–
9 Willow Street 109 33, 35n–37, 57–61, 63–65, 69n, 72, 74–
Abram, D. 41 75, 88–93, 97, 101, 103, 113, 126, 132
Aeschylus 108 Black Coat 22, 90
Alexander, P. 9 Black Rook in Rainy Weather 23
Allison, Susan 89 Blackbird (The) 64
Alvarez, A. 93 Blake, W. 20, 50, 55, 58, 104–105, 107–
Amulet, 117n 109
Animal Poems 72 Boas, F. 132
Anniversary, 80, Bone, J. 68
Apprehensions, 22 Booze, L.E. 25n
Apple Tragedy, 133 Brandes, R. 89
Ariel 1, 5, 7, 9, 11, 23, 63n–64, 73, 75, 90– Brandt, B. 127
91, 93, 106, 113, 135 Brandt, R.A. 117
Aristotle 49 Bride & groom lie hidden for three days
Astringency, 61 35–36, 112
Astrological Conundrums, 132 Broe, M.L. 21
Auden, W.H. 17 Brontë, E. 40
Avery, T. 127 Browning, R. 107
Axelrod, S.G. 19, 24? Brueghel, P. 2
Bruno, G. 57
Bacon, F. 127 Bull Moses (The) 113
Bakhtin, M. 88–89 Bundtzen, L. 9
Bardo Thodol (The) 69 Burke, W. 50, 52
Barthes, R. 88 Burning the Letters 70
Baskin, L. 34, 70
Battersby C. 24n Campbell, J. 99
Bedtime Anecdote 123, 126 Capriccio 29–37, 31–32, 43
Bedtime Story 123 Capriccios 32
Bee God (The) 11 Capturing Animals 68, 72, 116
Being Christlike 101 Caryatids (1) 13, 60
Bell Jar (The) 1, 2, 5–9, 15, 64 Caryatids (2) 21, 60
Beuscher, R. 3 Cat & the Cuckoo (The) 115


Cave Birds 3, 35–6, 58, 72, 92, 99, 100, Dogs Are Eating Your Mother (The) 12,
112–114 37, 64, 91
Chaikin, C. 30, Dorr, J. 78
Chinese History of Colden Water 42, 44 Dostoevsky, F. 6
City (The) 37n Drawing 108
Coat (The) 35 Dream (A) 91
Coates, P. 41 Dreamers (The) 29, 33
Cockroft, L. 44 Dreamfighter 120
Cohen, M. 70n Du, L. 13
Coleridge S.T. 51, 55, 114n, 128 Dust 71
Collected Animal Poems 114n
Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (The) 1, 6, Earth-Moon 118–120, 122
10–11, 15, 17, 20–22, 105–106 Earth-Moon 123
Collected Poems of Ted Hughes (The) 32, Earth-Owl & Other Moon People (The)
80, 98–99 112, 117, 121
Colossus (The) 106 Edge 28
Colossus (The) 17 Egg Head 50
Coming Down Through Somerset 117n Egyptian Book of the Dead (The) 36
Concurrence, 71 Eliot, T.S. 17, 20, 74, 95–96, 100, 107
Contender (The) 79, 99 Elm 27, 63
Conversation Among the Ruins 20 Emory (Archives) 13, 30, 67–69, 104–105,
Creation of Fishes 113 135
Crow 3, 29, 33, 51, 98–101, 113–114, 116, Enniss, S. 104n
126 Error (The) 31, 35, 37
Crow Blacker than Ever 99 Euripides 108
Crow’s Account of St George 122 Existential Song 123
Crow’s Battle Fury 99–100
Crow’s Elephant Totem Song 126 Faas, E. 3, 35, 51, 72, 87, 95–96, 100, 115
Culler, J. 88 Fairy Tale 64
Cullingford, E.B. 25n Falcon Yard 69
Fallgrief s Girlfriends 71
Daddy 3, 9–10, 23, 90, 92 Familiar 35, 43
Daffodils 93 Faun 18
Dancer to God (A) 95 February 126
Davids, R. 68, 73–74, 104n Female Author 20
Davies, W. 12 Fern 79
De Chirico, G. 20, 26 Ffangs the Vampire Bat & the Kiss of
De Quincey, T. 27 Truth 117, 122
Dead Farms, Dead Leaves 39, 41 Ficino, M. 58
Deaf School 79, 81 Fidelity 61
Della Mirandola P. 58 Fitzgerald, S. 107
Derrida, J. 41, 97 Flame 31, 34–35n
Descartes, R. 4 Fletcher, K. 69
Descent 31, 34 Flowers, B.S. 25n
Dickinson, E. 114n Folktale 31, 35, 126
Difficulties of a Bridegroom 122 Fool’s Evil Dream (The) 132
Disquieting Muses (The) 23, 26 For Billy Holt 45

For the Duration 80 Howls & Whispers 30, 36–37, 72

Frazer, Sir J. 96 Hughes
Freud,S. 10, 54, 79, 81 Albert (uncle) 44
Friedan, B. 8 Carol (wife) 65n
Fromm, E. 7 Frieda (daughter) 12, 14, 134
Full Fathom Five 28 Gerald (brother) 69n
Full Moon & Little Frieda 113, 134 Nicholas (son) 12, 63n
Olwyn (sister) 106,
Galileo 4 Shura (daughter) 30n, 33
Gammage, N. 44, 134 Walt (uncle) 44
Gaudete 52, 88–89, 91, 93, 98, 112–114 William Henry (father) 44
Gifford, T. 89
Gilling, J. 2 In Memoriam M.K.H. 80
Go Fishing 133 Ingold, T. 46–47
God (The) 101, 113 Iron Man (The) 98, 119n, 122
Godwin, F. 44 Iron Wolf (The) 115
Gog 56, 99, 113 Iron Woman (The) 112–114, 119n
Gold, J. 69n–70 Isis, 113
Graves, R. 35n, 87–88, 127, 132 Italie, H. 13
Grimm, J. 126n, 128, 130
Guardian Angel 64 Jaguar (The) 53
Gulkana (The) 80, 98, 132 Jakobson, R. 126
Gutman Japanese River Tales 126
Assia 1, 29–30, 33–35n, 37, 91 Jenny, L. 82
Lonya 14 Johnny Panic & the Bible of Dreams, 93
Jones, D. 127
Hamilton, Edith 1 Journals of Sylvia Plath (The) 5, 7, 10–11,
Hanged Man (The) 11, 101 17–19, 22, 24, 26–27, 62–63, 68, 105–
Hargrove, N.D. 23n–24n 106
Harlow, J. 67 Joyce, J. 95–96, 99, 100
Harraway, D. 41 Jung, C.G. 77–78, 113, 127
Harrison, T. 88 Juranville, A. 78–79, 81
Hawk in the Rain (The) 3, 19, 49, 53, 69,
71, 78, 87, 97 Klee, P. 25626
Heaney, S. 80, 114n, 126, 129 Kristeva, J. 88
Heinz, D. 116–117, 119 Kroll, J. 105
Herder, J.G. 130
Hesiod 39, 41 Lacan, J. 49, 52, 55, 78–79, 81
Hill-Stone Was Content 43 Lady & the Earthenware Head (The) 23, 26
Hirschberg, S. 95 Lady Lazarus, 89
Hollindale, P. 115, 116, 117, 119n Lang, A. 131
Holub,M. 134 Larkin, P. 97
Horder, J. 12, 105, 106 Lawrence, D.H. 5–6, 41
Horrible Song 117n Laws of the Game, (The Other) 31
Horse (The) 53, 71 Lesbos 27
Hosking E. 127 Letters Home 2, 13–15, 17–19, 63, 69, 105
House of Aries (The) 69 Life After Death 33, 101

Listening & Writing 71 Muldoon, P. 126n

Little Fugue 9, 10 Music on the Moon 119
Little Red Riding Hood, 127, 133 Myers, L. 30, 32n, 69n, 70
Locket (The) 30, 31, 35 Myers, W. 69
Love Song, 123 Myth & Education (1) 97, 117, 119, 122
Lowell, R. 106 Mythographers (The) 32-s33
Lucretius, T. 41–2
Lumb Bank 45 Negev, E. 30
Lumb Chimneys, 42 Neill, 114n
Lupercal 3, 69 Neumann 33
Lyall, S. 104–105 New Apocalypse (The) 127
New Selected Poems 29–31, 35, 37, 50, 88–
Macbeth 27 89, 98, 114n
Machine (The) 92 Newberry C. 127
Macnaghten P. 45 Night-Ride on Ariel 113
Malcolm, J. 70n, 93, 105
Man in Black, 22, 28, 90 Ode for Ted, 19, 21
Mansfield, K. 107 Offers (The) 37n
Meet My Folks! 118, 121 Old oats 80
Meeting 51 On the Decline of Oracles 23
Mermaid’s Purse (The) 115 On the Difficulty of Conjuring up a Dryad
Merwin W. & D. 14 23–24
Middleton Murry, J. 107 On the Plethora of Dryads 22, 24n–25
Miles, D. 128n Once upon a time 126
Milesian Encounter on the Sligachan 81–82 Open to Huge Light 40
Milton 50 Opus 131, 31
Moon Art 119 Orghast 52, 56, 100
Moon-Bells & Other Poems 117n Ossian 129–130
Moon-Freaks 112, 122 Other (The) (Laws of the Game) 31, 35, 91
Moon-Haggis (The) 121 Ouija 23
Moon-Hyena (The) 119 Ovid 39, 41, 126
Moon-Lily (The) 121 Owen, W. 14
Moon-Mirror 117, 119
Moon-Mourner (The) 119, 121 Paul, L. 114n–115, 122n
Moon-Ravens 121 Peake, M. 127
Moon-Theatre 120 Pease, D. 44
Moonwalk 113 Pero, T. 116
Moon-Walkers 118–119 Perseus 23
Moon-Ways 118 Pibroch 78
Moon-Whales 118 Picture of Otto (A) 14
Moon-Wind 118 Pike 70
Moortown 41 Pindaros 96
Morganwg, I. 130 Pit & the Stones (The) 35
Morrison 114–117 121–122 Plaintiff (The) 113
Mort, Graham 41 Plath
Moulin, J. 37, 77 Aurelia (mother) 12–13, 69n, 73
Mount Zion 99–100, 113 Otto (father).1–4, 12–13

Sylvia 1–15, 17–28, 30, 35, 37, 60–64, Shakespeare & the Goddess of Complete
68–69, 72n–75, 89, 93, 104–106, 107– Being 58, 59, 77, 95, 97– 98, 100, 108,
109, 113–115n, 121 112
Warren (brother) 12, 15 Shakespeare, W. 20, 35n, 64, 107–108,
Poe, E.A. 109 114n
Poetry in the Making 49, 54, 79, 118 Sharp, C. 127n
Portraits, 64 Sheep in Fog 73–74
Pratt, A. 23 Shelley, P.B. 55, 88
Prayer for my Daughter (A) 25 Shibboleth 31, 35
Prometheus On His Crag 100, 112 Silent Eye (The) 121
Public Bar TV, 69 Singing on the Moon 119
Pursuit 18, 20, 108 Skea, A. 30n, 36n, 116
Sky Furnace 72
Quaritch, B. 70n Skylarks 81, 99
Queen’s Complaint (The) 21 Slump Sundays 43
Smell of Burning 30, 35
Rabbit Catcher (The) 90 Smith, P. 70n, 73
Racine, J. 108 Snag (The) 122n
Rackham, O. 40 Snail of the Moon l21
Rag Rug (The) 62–63 Snow 31, 35
Raine, K. 58, 65 Snyder, B. 43
Rattle Bag (The) 114n, Something Was Happening 92
Read, H. The Green Child 127 Song 71, 87–89, 91, 93
Recklings 43 Sonnenberg, B. 69
Remains of Elmet & Elmet 39–47, 56, 58 St. Botolph’s Review 5, 92
Revenge Fable, 126 St. Botolph’s 18
Rey-Flaud, H. 84–85 Stevens, W. 106
Rich, A. (Of Woman Born) 9 Stevenson, A. 12–14, 105
Risen (The) 100 Stings 11
River 58, 81, 98–99, 113 Stone, B. 70n
Roberts, N. 89 Strange Meeting 14
Rock (The) 116 Strathern, M. 46,
Roethke, T. 73 Strumpet Song 23
Roof (The) 30, 35 Sutcliffe 44
Rose,J. 25, 92, 105
Rota, B. 69 Table (The) 63
Runaway, 69n Take What You Want But Pay For It 100
Ryle, G. 4 Tales form Ovid 40–41, 108
Tales of the Early World 120, 122n
Sacrifice 44 Ted Hughes: A Bibliography 31n, 36n, 43
Sagar, K. 32n, 40, 44, 55, 97, 100 Telegraph Wires 44
Salmon Eggs 98 Tennant, E. 110
Sam, 69n The Moon-Mare (The) 119
School Bag (The) 114n, There Was a Boy (The) 19
Scigaj, L. 20n, 35n, 40–41, 89 Thistles 82, 84
Secret of Man’s Wife (The) 120 Thomas, D. 51, 73, 127
Thomas, R.S. 58, 127

Thought Fox (The) 54, 71, 87, 97

Three Books 43
Three Caryatids Without a Portico 13
To Eva Descending the Stair 21
Trance of Light (The) 42
Truth Kills Everybody 122n
Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 128
Two Legends 113, 126
Tylor, E.B. 131

Uncle Walt, 44n

Uroff, M.D. 24
Urry, J. 45

Van Dyne, S. 11
Ventriloquist (The) 63
Virgil 39
Virgin in a Tree 23, 25–26
Voloshinov, V.N. 88

Wagner-Martin, L. 12
Walt 46
Waving goodbye from your banked
hospital bed, 89–90
Wevill, D. 30
What is the Truth? 122n
What will you make of half a man?, 112
What’s The First Thing You Think Of? 44
When Men Got To The Summit 43, 45
Wilcock, D.T. 45
Williams, V. 127
Wind 49–56
Winter Pollen 1, 9, 52–53, 55–56, 63, 74,
79, 84, 96, 98, 107, 112–114, 116, 119,
123, 128, 133,
Wodwo 3, 55, 69
Wolfwatching 100, 132
Woodruff, R.W. (see Emory Archives)
Wordsworth, W. 19

Yeats l7, 24n–25, 51

You Hated Spain, 36n, 80
Your Paris 13