Red

Ted Hughes

Key Idea

The key ideas in this poem are Plath’s self-destructiveness and the things she lost because of it and Hughes’ role as a spectator in their relationship

 

It can be paired with both Lady Lazarus and Nick and the Candlestick

Overview

Red, as the final poem in ‘Birthday Letters,’ serves as Hughes’ final statement on his relationship with Plath. 

 

Hughes employs colour symbolism throughout the poem to chart Plath’s descent into psychosis and its toll on their relationship. Red symbolises passion and said mental illness, while represents order, and blue hope. Hughes begins by stating ‘Red was your colour.’ He then depicts how it came to consume and corrupt their relationship – ‘When you had your way finally / Our room was red.’ Though initially ‘Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness’ – a reference to Plath’s intellect and passion for knowledge – the intensity of her psychosis ultimately proved to be too much, as history tells us. With ‘You revelled in red.’ Hughes reflects how Plath came to find comfort in her anguish. He continues: ‘Everything you painted you painted white / Then splashed it with roses, defeated it.’ He suggests that there was once hope for recovery: ‘Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.’ But ultimately, ‘the jewel you lost was blue.’ – Plath’s psychosis denied her liberation and the freedom she spent her life desperately searching for. 

The final poem in ‘Birthday Letters’ offers a poignant reflection on a relationship that, in Hughes’ eyes, was almost doomed from the start given Plath’s psychosis and self-destructive tendencies. He paints himself as a helpless bystander, unable to do anything to stop Plath from continuing down the path set for her by her mental illness – one that, as suggested in other poems, he believes started with the death of Otto Plath. 

quote table

Quote
Technique
Idea
‘But the jewel you lost was blue.’
Symbolism
Perspective of Hughes on Plath
‘Blue was your kindly spirit …. electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.’
Symbolism, Description, Accumulation
Perspective of Hughes on Plath
Was it blood? / Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?’
Rhetorical questions, Symbolism
Plath and death
‘Our room was red. A judgement chamber. / Shut casket for gems.’
Imagery, Symbolism
Plath and death
‘Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail / As the skin on blood’
Simile
Plath and illness/death
‘Everything you painted you painted white / Then splashed it with roses’
Metaphor, Symbolism
Perspective of Hughes on Plath
‘I felt it raw - like the crisp gauze edges / Of a stiffening wound’
Simile
Impact on Hughes
‘Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.’
Symbolism
Relationship with literature

Hughes Poetry

Fulbright Scholars

Red

The Shot

The Bee God

Fever

A Picture of Otto