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 Because he was still legally married to Plath, he inherited her estate and unpublished works.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.
Sample Essay Response
- High Range
How do the disparities between your prescribed texts affect their textual conversation?
Literature exists within a continuous cycle, consistently drawing upon previous works and ideas within contemporary texts, imbuing antiquated pieces with new life, and it is through the evolution of this cycle that textual conversations between art, culture and peoples are formed. Through the exploration of shared experiences, the continuous journey of prominent personas and the integration of biographical context, a mythopoetic canon is forged across Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1963) and Ted Hughes’ The Birthday Letters. (1998), which is rife with disparities. It is within these dissonances that the nature of the supposed conversation becomes clear- it is not a conversation at all, rather, Hughes attempts to summon Plath’s persona and spirit to enact a sort of judicial séance. Thus, it is through the disparities in the mythopoetic canon and biographical poems forged across the ‘conversation’ of Plath and Hughes that the corruption of their relationship and work becomes clear.
Through reflection of ones lived experience, Plath explores the nature of cyclical narratives and the evolution of the self. The Arrival of the Bee Box and Daddy serve to initiate the inaugural suffering persona as seen through claustrophobic imagery of confinement, “the coffin of a midget” and historical allusion to disparate power hierarchies such as the suffering of Jewish individuals under Nazi control. Additionally, the ‘Plathian’ motif of the “veil” is introduced in The Arrival of the Bee Box, symbolising separation from the self and one's soul. Plath works to banish the pain and suffering of the persona through breaking from the rigid stanzaic form with the final line of The Arrival of the Bee Box, “the box is only temporary”. This realisation and freedom further presents itself within Daddy as despite having “tried to die” the persona is reborn in power, the penultimate image of “villagers…dancing” serving to banish the suffering persona and replace lamentation with joy. Plath crafts a mythic martyr through the trials and tribulations of rebirth, characterised by an inaugural suffering in order to gain power, a celebration of femininity and freedom.
A confessional introspection of memory and nostalgia, Hughes mediates his involvement in Plath’s life through intertextual dialogue with her work, creating disparities and disillusionment within Plath's work. The Bee God serves to corrode and banish Plath’s mythic hero through imagery of subservience and innocence, the integration of ‘Plathian’ colour symbolism inverted to represent purity and innocence, “white regalia”, alluding to a wedding. Further, the independence of the Plathian persona is compromised as “you bowed to your daddy”, fully negating the Plathian persona’s struggle against the disparate power structure as witnessed in Daddy. It is Hughes’ attempt at renewing the Plathian persona that rather serves to erode the power from the Ariel collection, further seen in Red as he subverts Plath’s use of colour symbolism. Hugh interprets “red” as danger and futility rather than the maternal and matriarchal power as established within Plath’s work Nick and the Candlestick. Thus, it is through Hughes attempts to appropriate Plathian imagery, personas and narratives that the disparities between collections become clear and begin to erode the integrity of the ‘conversation’ itself.
A highly crafted poetic insight into the corrosive effects of societal pressures on the self, the Plathian persona must undergo a state of decay before being reborn in power. The performative rhythm of Lady Lazarus gives a sense of riot and voyeurism, furthered by images of cinematic horror and the grotesque, “the nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth”, “I may be skin and bones”, described as “the big strip tease”. The power found in accepting one's flaws in the face of contextual societal pressures further gives the Plathian persona power against the erasure of identity as seen through the continuous motif of the “veil”. This is furthered within Lady Lazarus as the persona exclaims “these are my hands, my knees”, wherein repetition highlights her attempts to reclaim some sense of self in the aftermath of the corrosion of identity. The Plathian mythic hero rises again through mythological allusion and phoenix imagery as, “from ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air”, a powerful promise, negated by Hughes as he makes the Plathian martyr into a danger or infantilises her, as seen in Fever. Therefore, despite Plath’s attempts to poetically disseminate patriarchal confides, oppressions and harms, Hughes invokes linguistic dissonances to rewrite the ‘conversation’, with no chance for a Plathian rebuttal.
A collision of perspectives, the incongruence between Plath and Hughes’ ‘textual conversation’ is elucidated as they explore the duality of shared experience whilst negating the corrosion of memory and contrast of perspectives. Fever 103 by Plath and Fever by Hughes each explore conflicting sides of a shared experience, highlighting the disparate perspectives, ethics and philosophies that ground each collection, communicating the futility of ‘conversation’. For Plath, there is a return to colour symbolism and a satirical tone, “I am too pure”…”I am a camellia”. In addition, through the minor use of pronouns within the piece there is an understanding of the metamorphic decay of the persona, furthered by tactile imagery of heat, similar to the final stanza of Lady Lazarus with its phoenix imagery. Hughes undermines and subverts this power through imagery of the hysterical and heroic, “what I was really saying was: stop crying wolf” and “how sick was she?”. This ignorance of the Plathian personas power and rather the crafting of an infantile character, “with her helpless baby bird gape” serves to entirely negate the rebirth of the Plathian hero through a bastardised characterisation. Further, Hughes’ statuesque imagery of the “stone man” paints a heroic portrait of chivalry and honour rather than the defamation and decay that The Birthday Letters administers to Plath’s works, thus removing the possibility of a morally, ethically, or academically sound ‘conversation’. The duality of Fever and Fever 103 serves to highlight the utter dissonance between these poets works as the disparities brought forth by Hughes are used to summon and persecute a woman who had already suffered enough whilst living.
Thus, the disparities in the ‘conversation’ between Ariel and The Birthday Letters severely impact the way in which the texts interact, as it is not a conversation at all- rather it is a spiritual defamation of Plath's work, life, and ethics. Having not published the Ariel collection herself, Plath did not consent to any part of this supposed ‘conversation’, a digression only furthered by attempts to immortalise the Plathian persona as immoral, manipulative, and cunning via The Birthday Letters through integration of Plath’s motifs and themes, therefore decaying any hope of power or peace found at the end of Lady Lazarus. Hughes’ disparities were crafted to raze the morality and integrity of Plath’s work, but rather, they act as evidence to the contrary as they highlight a man’s attempts to demoralise the work and life of a dead poet who sought to speak out against patriarchal ignorance and the silencing of women and girls. The conversation is not real- it never was, and to treat it as a viable academic source is to ignore the ethical ambiguity of patriarchy, misogyny, and literary plagiarism.
What makes this a High Range Response?
Utilises high modality language and a varied vocabulary in a skilful way. You shouldn’t throw a thesaurus at an essay and call it a day- when you learn new words make sure you fully understand what they mean and imply before bringing them into your writing.
Links back to the question wherever possible and in a variety of ways to ensure a lack of repetition but the constant building of a strong argument.
Topic sentences are thematic and immediately link to the rubric, thus showing the marker that this is at the forefront of your mind as you craft your response. Additionally, by crafting rubric-focused topic sentences prior to an exam, you can come into the HSC with a flexible and focused start to a paragraph that will be adaptable to most questions.
Correctly differentiates between persona and author, as in a collection such as this, it is important to separate the persona’s (or characters of the poem) from the authors whose biographical experiences bleed into their work.
Balances analysis between the texts, paying equal attention to each collection.
Presents a unique argument that answers the question in detail.