This is one of the first thing I wrote in college. I had meant to find a number of images common to Plath’s poems and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. But this is as far as I got. For some reason I gave up on it, and wrote on Robinson Jeffers, instead. Coming back to it now I find that it pleases me quite a bit, so ah issah addin it to my permanent record.
Sylvia Plath’s Intensifying Moonlight
Sylvia Plath, quite famously, put her head in an oven and gassed herself to death on February, 11, 1963. We say this desiring to get it out of the way. Though we won’t, of course, get it out of the way. These morbid facts have tacked themselves to every discussion of Plath’s poetry for almost fifty years. But, it is not only the lurid details themselves that draws us to Plath. Anne Sexton, another strong, American, female poet, also killed herself, without drawing a fraction of the attention Plath has commanded. What is it, then?
There is a gender war aspect. At the time of her death, Plath was estranged from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who was having an affair with another woman. Feminist critics have tripped over themselves posthumously siding with the dead wife. Plath and Hughes were well known among poets working in Britain at the time, and Hughes would many years later become Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. So, there is a famous people angle. The deepest and truest reason we are so captivated by Plath’s death, however, lies in the psychological force of her poems – a force that seems to augment, year by year and poem by poem, till it seamlessly and strangely conjoins the biographical material, like a destiny.
This is a kind of force that makes people uncomfortable. Ted Hughes, in a letter to Donald Hall, defended his wife’s work against Hall’s charge that she had written “the impact of her sufferings rather than the impact of art.”(Hughes 225) Writes Hughes, “What you’re saying, really, is at last she managed to get through – she managed to actually say something her own, in verse. … For a change, and at last, somebody’s written in blood! Whatever you say about them, you know they’re (the poems) that every poet wishes he or she could do.”(226) This seems a fine defense against Hall’s charge, and any number of similar others in the years since. In the months, then weeks, then days before her death, Plath’s poems gained a velocity and intensity almost without equal. A kind of intense but deathly light burning off every unnecessary gesture, leaving “what every poet wishes he or she could do.”
Plath’s talent became apparent while she was still young, but it is a talent that could easily have come to nothing. The first stanza of a one of her earliest, “Metamorphoses of the Moon”, runs:
Cold moons withdraw, refusing to come to terms
with the pilot who dares all heaven’s harms
to raid the zone where fate begins
flings silver gauntlet of his plane at space,
demanding satisfaction; no duel takes place:
the mute air merely thins and thins.(Plath 307)
This is packed with over-chosen words. The choices strain to be clever. The younger Plath is working hard to make “mute” work with “moon”, and to make sure the “harms” are “heaven’s.” Whatever is wanting to come through she is hedging up with show. There is no question here that she is privileging her suffering, or any personal experience, over her art. It is workmanship, but constantly calling attention to itself. Although, there is “thins and thins”, the kind of tight spit of words that later she will master. A nice iamb jaunts through the meaninglessness. And, there is indication that she knew what she was trying to do: near the middle of the poem she writes “For most exquisite truths are artifice / framed in disciplines of fire and ice”.(307) We will come back to this moon many times, too.
Let’s leap ahead. These are last four lines of poetry she wrote, from a poem titled “Edge”:
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.(273)
If this don’t spook ya, nothin will. The ordinary language of “nothing to be sad about” and “She is used to this sort of thing” are juxtaposed brilliantly against the witch language “hood of bone” and “blacks crackle and drag.” (One believes it is possible to read her whole life in that juxtaposition.) The workmanship is now submerged in the effect of the poem. Moon and hood and hood and bone, blacks, crackle and drag may all be as chosen and worked as the words in her earliest work, but now they seem inevitable. “The woman is perfected / Her dead / body wears the smile of accomplishment”, she says in the opening of the poem. But the crackling and the dragging carry connotations of otherness. Crackle is what a fire does as it slowly burns down; and drag is what a misshapen beast does as it roams. The lines are perfected, but it is doubtful that the woman is – at least the flesh and blood woman. Possibly the perfected woman is the moon, gazing on, neither sad nor, by this time, at all perturbed.
The moon withdrawing or staring on as a metaphor for her own physic activity is something she has used before. In “Fever 103”, written three months before “Edge”, she writes: “…I am a lantern – / My head a moon / Of Japanese paper.” (232) A couple weeks later, in “Thalidomide”,
O half moon –
half-brain, luminosity –
Negro, masked like a white,
Amputations crawl and appall – (252)
The moon here is not so passive, not only looking on. It represents the cold activity of Plath’s psyche. Negro here may make us uncomfortable, but for Plath it is probably no more than the un-European activities she is discovering in her writing – her 19th century structures are falling away. Half moon slides into luminosity with the easiest assonance. It also recalls the earlier poem in which her head is a lantern and a moon. She is strangely lit up by the inspiration of her electric moonlight.
Following up the moon with black or dark is also common for Plath. The moon covers, or withdraws from, or stares on, or hovers over something black, or dark. In a poem titled “Lorelei” from a few years earlier we get “a full moon, river lapsing / black beneath …”(76) In “The Moon and the Yew Tree” we read, “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary / The trees of the mind are black …”(172). The moon is an observer, a cold light of the mind. What it observes is always dark or black.
“The Moon and the Yew Tree” is also a great marker along her journey between the early struggling poems and the final great ones. These are the first and last stanzas:
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring their humility.
Fumy, spirituous mists inhabit this place.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence. (172-73)
This has come a long way from the early poems, but is still a year away from the perfection and intensity of the her last poems. “As if I were God” seems a little much. Either “fumy” or “spirituous”, probably “fumy”, needs to go. She is still European, here. It is still “artifice framed in disciplines of fire and ice.” The moon is not quite under a hood of bone – though it is “bald” and “wild.” The blue and the pews and the yew tree messaging silence are all very evocative. We know where this is all going, we can hear it coming. The moonlight is going to dissolve these structures. The blacks are going to crackle and drag; and then, we can’t help but say it, all the electricity will be left a lumpen mass on the kitchen floor. A few days before she, a true poet, wrote in “Words”:
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life. (270)
If (as the Greeks maintained in the Cratylus)
The name is the archetype of the thing,
In the letters of the rose is the rose,
And all the Nile in the word Nile.
And, made with consonants and vowels,
Will be a terrible Name, that the ciphered
Essence of God and the Omnipotence
Guard in perfect letters and syllables.
Adam and the stars learned it
In the garden, but the corrosion of sin
(Say the Qabbalists) has erased it,
And the generations have lost it.
The schemes and the innocence of men
Are without end. We know there was a day
When God’s folk were seeking the Name
With the vigilance of the Jewish ghetto.
Not in the way of others: as an aimless
Shadow insinuated in an aimless history.
Still green and living is the memory
Of Judah León, once a rabbi in Prague.
Thirsting to know what God knows
Judah León arranged and rearranged
The letters into Byzantine variations
And, at last, pronounced the Name that is the Key.
The Door, the Echo, the Guest and the Palace
He carved, with fumbling hands, upon
A rough doll, to teach it the secrets
Of the Letters, of Time and of Space.
The simulacrum lifted its drowsy
Eyelids and stared at shapes and colors
It did not understand, lost in sounds
And attempting its first fearful movements.
Gradually, it saw itself (as with us)
Ensnared in the resounding net
Of Before, After, Yesterday, Today, Meanwhile,
Right, Left, Me, You, Others.
The Qabbalist, presiding like a divinity
Over the immense creature, named it Golem.
(These truths are given by Scholem,
at a most scholarly place in his tome.)
The rabbi explained to it the universe
“This is my foot, this is yours, this is rope”
And, to the end of years, got the unholy creature
To sweep well or poorly the synagogue.
Perhaps there had been a mistake in his way of writing
Or in his pronunciation of the Sacred Name;
A weighing too great for the enchantment,
The man’s apprentice never learned to speak.
Its eyes, less like those of a man than those of a dog,
Less like those of a dog than those of a thing,
Would follow the master doubtfully
Around its darkening prison room.
Something abnormal and rough was in the Golem.
Before it passed, the Rabbi’s cat would
Hide itself. (There is no cat in Scholem,
But, across the years, I can see it.)
Its daughterly hands would lift up to its master’s God
In imitation of its master’s devotions;
Or, stupid and smiling, it would bow itself down
Into a curve and pray as they do in the East.
The Rabbi would look at it with tenderness
And with some horror and ask, “How
could I beget this painful son
and leave my leisure, where is the wisdom?”
“Why append the infinite series of symbols
with more symbols? Why in vain
reel in the forever unreeling string?
Give another cause, another effect, another grief?”
In this hour of anguish and failing light
His eyes would come to rest on the Golem.
Who can tell us the things felt by God,
Looking down at the rabbi in Prague?
Inferno, V, 129
They leave aside the book, knowing already
That they are the people of the book.
(And will be again in the utmost other,
But what could make them feel this?)
For now they are Paolo and Francesca,
Not two friends that share
The flavor of a fable.
They look on one another with disbelief and wonder.
Their hands do no touch.
They have discovered the sole treasure.
They have found the other.
They do not betray the Malatesta
Because treachery requires a third,
And only they two exist in the world.
They are Paolo and Francesca
And also the queen and her lover
And all the lovers that have been
Since far off Adam and his Eve
Walked on the grass in Paradise.
A book, a dream, reveals to them
That they are figures of a dream that was dreamed
In the lands of the Breton.
Another book will come to cause that man,
Himself dreaming, dreams of them.
I am the only man on the earth and perhaps there is neither earth nor man.
Perhaps a god deceives me.
Perhaps a god has condemned me to time, that long illusion.
I dream the moon and I dream my eyes perceiving the moon.
I have dreamed the evening and the morning of the first day.
I have dreamed Carthage and the legions that desolated Carthage.
I have dreamed Lucan.
I have dreamed the hill at Golgotha and the crosses of Rome.
I have dreamed the geometry.
I have dreamed the point, the line, the plane, the volume.
I have dreamed yellow, blue and red.
I have dreamed my sickly childhood.
I have dreamed the maps and the kingdoms and that pain in the dawn.
I have dreamed the inconceivable pain.
I have dreamed my sword.
I have dreamed Elizabeth of Bohemia.
I have dreamed the doubt and the certainty.
I have dreamed the day called yesterday.
Perhaps there was no yesterday, perhaps I was never born.
It is possible that I dream of having dreamed.
I feel a little cold, a little fear.
Over the Danube the night lies.
I will continue to dream of Descartes and of the faith of his fathers.