Plath and Hughes Poetry
Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts. She demonstrated exceptional intelligence from a young age and had won several poetry competitions by the time she went to college in 1950. When she was eight, her father Otto died from diabetes. This was a traumatic event in her life that challenged her Christian faith, as made clear throughout Ariel.
In 1953, at the age of twenty, Plath attempted suicide for the first time by digesting her mother’s sleeping pills. She was revived and spent the next few months in an institution. In the weeks preceding this incident, Plath had slashed her legs in order to gauge her commitment to the idea of suicide, and had undergone electroshock therapy to treat her depression.
Plath attempted suicide for the second time in 1962 by crashing the car she was driving. Shortly after, she discovered that Hughes was having an affair with Assia Wevill, the woman who Plath and Hughes were renting a property to. Plath and Hughes separated in July 1962.
Beginning in October 1962, Plath experienced a creative burst of energy, during which she wrote the majority of the poems that would form Ariel. It is widely believed that releasing this energy is what allowed Plath to make peace with the idea of fully committing to killing herself.
After a long and depressing winter, during which time Plath felt increasingly isolated and depressed – she described her mental state in a letter to a friend as being defined by constant agitation and an inability to deal with daily life – Plath killed herself in February 1963. She was thirty years old.
In the immediate aftermath of Plath’s suicide, Hughes expressed his devastation. Because he was still legally married to Plath, he inherited her estate and unpublished works. His decision to burn her final journal outraged fans and critics. Suspicion that he had been abusive towards Plath grew when Assia Wevill killed herself and their daughter in 1969. Hughes remained mostly silent on Plath’s death until the late 1980s, when in a series of letters to British newspapers he responded to the public outcry that had mounted in the preceding decades. It was not until 1998, with the release of Birthday Letters, however, that Hughes made his most direct comment on the nature of his relationship with Plath and her death.
It is important to remember that Plath came of age during the Cold War, when the climate of anxiety surrounding the inescapable threat of nuclear war prompted widespread existential angst. It was within this mid-century context that the idea of there being such a thing as the perfect nuclear family became popularised, something that Plath was acutely aware of – and vehemently resisted. The idea that men and women had defined roles within society was absurd to her, a view that is explored in great depth throughout Ariel.
Resonances & Dissonances
Lady Lazarus & Red
Plath’s poem is a defiant rejection of social convention, particularly the patriarchy and the male-gaze.
Though Hughes’ work similarly explores the passion with which Plath lived her life, it does so with a much gentler tone, and Hughes ultimately mourns for what is lost by a life of such destruction – innocence – whereas Plath celebrates it for that very reason: the ruin it causes.
Nick and the Candlestick & Red
Both poems convey a tone of optimism, and affection, even if there is no clear outcome. Indeed, the audience is left to reflect on their own understanding of what happens after the poems end – we know that Plath gave birth to her son, Nick, and that her relationship with Hughes ended in pain and that Plath took her own life shortly after.
The use of colour symbolism in Red allows the reader insight into Hughes’ struggle to grapple with Plath’s psychosis and the effect it had on their relationship. He ends the poem by saying that Plath would be better suited to the colour blue – representing innocence – but of course, we know that Plath was never able to achieve such liberation from her psychosis.
Nick and the Candlestick & Fullbright Scholar
Fulbright Scholars is also an exercise in memory, as Hughes recalls the past with an affectionate tone. There is a mystery to the future, with a feeling that truth will be revealed with time. But again, we know that the story of Plath and Hughes is to end in tragedy.
It must also be noted that Hughes makes no reference to the children he fathered with Plath.
A Birthday Present, Lady Lazarus & A Picture of Otto
The gift in A Birthday Present is death; that present is received in Lady Lazarus.
Throughout ‘Birthday Letters’ Hughes avoids mentioning Plath’s death directly. But in A Picture of Otto, he explores Plath’s trauma through his descent into the underworld, by which he distances himself from responsibility for Plath’s death.
The dissonance between the texts is thus that Plath directly confronts her death, while Hughes seeks to avoid it.
Daddy & The Shot
In 'Daddy'Plath offers an unrestrained outpouring of emotion that is painful for both her and the target of her fury – Otto. In characterising her father as the epitome of evil, Plath disrupts social convention. But ultimately, we understand that the greatest trauma suffered by Plath was the loss of her father.
In 'The Shot' Hughes paints himself as a victim in Plath’s struggle to confront the trauma she suffered because of Otto’s death. He is simply something she uses to attempt to cope with that trauma.
But ultimately, Hughes admits that he was unable to help Plath
Daddy & The Bee God
The bees represent Plath’s psychosis: when they attack Hughes, Plath attempts to restrain them, to no avail. Hughes blames Otto for the attack. Hughes is once more the victim, caught in the middle of Plath’s relationship with Otto.
The bees can also be understood to represent Otto. So, in a way, the poem depicts the grasp Otto now has on Hughes, through his daughter.
Daddy & A Picture of Otto
Hughes reflects how he has assumed the role of a father-figure in Plath’s life, a development that he assumes Otto will be furious about. But, Hughes also suggests that the two men are now entangled, forever stuck together in Plath’s mind. Hughes is once more disempowered; he is simply a spectator.
Fever 103 & Fever
Both these poems are about the same event however while Plath recalls her illness with melodrama, Hughes instead approaches it from a position of practicality and realism. Another dissonance: Plath indicates that the source of some of her pain may be her husband’s infidelity, but Hughes is silent on the matter. This is especially significant considering that he was writing years after the event in question.
The Arrival of the Bee Box and The Bee God
Plath finds amusement in her father’s beekeeping hobby. Hughes, however, suggests that Plath’s father played the role of god in her life.While Plath expresses her power over the bees – an assertion that is undercut by the doubt created in the line ‘The box is only temporary’ (we know that it wasn’t), Hughes instead posits that the bees really were out of her control.