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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,

Your dark

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.

While

From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars

Govern a life. (270)

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