‘The Table’ as a Representation of the Collection as a Whole
‘The Table’ is a poem in the ‘Birthday Letters’ collection, which contains eight-eight poems detailing the life Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had together before Plath’s untimely death. In particular, ‘The Table’ is a poem about the writing desk Ted Hughes made for his then wife, Sylvia Plath, which ended up unlocking all of her father’s darkness as she wrote poetry on it.
The main metaphor of the poem is that the writing table equals a door that unlocked the darkness inside Plath and the memories of her father. The lines: “I did not / Know I had made and fitted a door / Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave” has Hughes openly acknowledging his mistake, his role in Plath’s downfall, though he wasn’t aware at the time. The adjective ‘fitted’ tells the reader that this door was carefully crafted, but Hughes was blissfully ignorant to what the devastating repercussions would be. “Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave” refers to how he ‘ghost’ of Plath’s deceased father has been resurrected through Plath’s writing – he’s not literally resurrected, but the connection Plath establishes with her father through her poetry almost seems to lessen the boundary between her world and the spiritual realm where he father resides. The adverb ‘downwards’ refers to the grave, which is literally down in the ground. However, I also believe that the line is written in bitter hindsight; Hughes is saying that Plath went through that door herself to be with her father in death, and Hughes cannot let go of his role in her demise. The line shows his hindsight, his remorse for what he has done, similar to the poem ‘Error’ that recognized the move to Devon as one of Hughes’ greatest mistakes in his marriage. There, Hughes asks, “What wrong fork / Had we taken?” which is a rhetorical question as he knows that he is at fault for bringing her to Devon.
This idea of the many roles Hughes plays in Plath’s life is explored from another angle in the second stanza, during his nightmare, where Hughes uses the analogy of an actor by comparing himself to “an actor with his script / Blindfold through the looking glass”. The use of figurative language in the verb ‘blindfolded’ relates to Hughes’ lack of control, his inability to see and properly carry out the script of their life. I believe that this is perhaps his way of trying to negate any responsibility on his part for what happened to Plath, mainly out of guilt and sorrow. He realizes just how much she meant to him, for now only he remains “on the empty stage”, sour and alone, and now that the play is concluded he is left with the startling and somewhat tragic realization that he is not the hero of his own life, but instead is merely the supporting actor in Plath’s life.
A major theme explored in ‘The Table’ is the idea of Plath’s father still playing a prominent role in Plath’s life, especially when she was writing poetry and could finally truly explore her repressed emotions she had regarding her father. The metaphor, “Your Daddy resurrected” makes this appear like a curse, an unwelcomed haunting by some ghostly apparition rising from the dead, invading the world of Hughes and Plath, especially since the stress falls on the word ‘Daddy’, like it is a bitter taste in Hughes’ mouth. This idea carries on when Hughes writes, “While I slept he snuggled / Shivering between us”, a haunting image conjured up in the mind of the reader. ‘He’ refers to the father, and the use of the phrase ‘between us’ emphasizes how Plath’s father was driving a wedge between their marriage. Plath loved her father and broke apart after his death. Hughes finds himself to be a poor substitute, unable to fill the hole in Plath that her father’s death left. In the line, “Finding your father for you and then / Leaving you to him” Hughes accepts that he is not able to complete Plath like her father did. He also reminds us that he takes a share of responsibility for bringing out Plath’s demons, for he was the one that ended up “finding [her] father” by creating the table. Also, the informal noun ‘Daddy’ is capitalized to highlight his importance and prominence in their lives, just like it is in ‘The Bee God’, which is a poem about Plath’s late father. There, Hughes states, “you bowed over your Daddy”, which is not only a reference to Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’, but a reference to how Plath bowed over her father’s memory in an almost worshiping way, signifying the bond the two of them shared. Such a theme is reaffirmed in the verb ‘resurrected’, which carries with it religious connotations. It implies that Plath’s father was not just the god of bees, but of Plath as well.
A prominent theme in ‘The Table’ that a lexical field revolves around is death, a dark theme that sets the morbid and ominous tone for the entire poem. Hughes says the desk was made from “coffin timber. Coffin elm”. The repetition in the use of the noun ‘coffin’ emphasizes the idea that each poem Path wrote on the desk brought her closer to her grave. Words like ‘grave’ and ‘resurrected’ scattered throughout the poem bring forth imagery surrounding a world of darkness and death that the couple now find themselves in, a world that has been unlocked by the writing table Hughes had made. In regards to the aforementioned ‘door’, the phrase, “following [Plath’s] pen, / The words that would open it” relate to how Plath’s poems were the cause for her spiral into depression. However, it was mainly due to Hughes insistence and encouragement that Plath concentrated on her poetry so much, a grave mistake that soon enough led to her death. The lexical field is continued in the poem ‘Red’, which has a repeated use of the nouns ‘blood’ and ‘bones’, dark images that conjure feelings of death, especially since they are regarding Plath. Plath’s story was incredibly tragic, hence this imagery is powerful in reminding the reading the full extent of what her severe depression led to.
In conclusion, ‘The Table’ is a deep and developed look at the catalyst of Plath’s growing depression and how a simple writing table could unlock so much of her tragic past that it ultimately led to her untimely death. The utilization of many metaphors and repeated imagery, along with the links and references to other poems throughout ‘Birthday Letters’ weave a detailed narrative of Plath’s life and ultimate downfall, making ‘The Table’ a vital piece in this intricate puzzle.
Comparative Analysis of the poems “The Horses” and “The Thought Fox”
In Hughes’s poetry, “racial memory, animal instinct and poetic imagination all flow into one another with an exact sensuousness” – Seamus Heaney
“The Horses” and “The Thought-Fox” are two of Hughes’s most powerfully symbolic poems, introducing the author’s extensive examination of the rational actions of humans as compared to the instinctual actions of animals. It is true that the dominating impression that these poems leave with a reader is a sense of the vigor and frequently violent energies of both the non-human world and the inner world of man’s own emotions.
To begin with, the very titles of both the poems deal with two different animals having various significant symbolic implications and connotations. It is very interesting to note that Hughes has chosen a Fox to illustrate his idea of creativity. Fox is a crafty animal, very mischievous, very slippery, not to be trapped or caught easily. Being a symbol of deception and cleverness, it would always try to hoodwink the hunters and other animals. It is somewhat subtle and elusive. Very intelligently, this image of Fox hints at the process of hitting upon an idea or getting a sudden interesting thought or more precisely, the art of creation of poetry which is also elusive and slippery in nature. Its just like, once an idea is conceived, the only way to preserve it is through capturing it on a piece of paper, otherwise there is a dire threat of it being slippery enough (exactly like a fox) to sneak out of the mind. On the other hand, horses in “The Horses” are the symbols of natural energy, potency and pro-creative power.
The beginning lines of both the poems use the personal pronoun ‘I’ which refers to the narrator. The setting of both poems is indicated in the first lines which is ‘woods’ in “The Horses” and ‘forest’ in “The Thought-Fox.” We find another striking similarity between the odd timings which are mentioned in both poems. e.g. ‘hour-before-dawn’ in “The Horses” and ‘midnight’ in “The Thought-Fox.”
We have very strong vibes of some impending threat in the very beginning of the poems where on one side the unfathomable fear of the “Evil air” and a “frost-making stillness” makes us freeze with alarm, the danger of “Something else” being “alive” in the other poem clutches the strings of our mind even more. We are shaken up in the very commencement of the poems, our senses seem to be all at work and we seem to be already startled with the underlying theme, the tone and the choice of words by the poet.
From the beginning till the end, both poems have a proper sequence that takes the readers along like a roller coaster ride. As in “The Thought-Fox,” initially we find the lonely narrator with a blank page, who may be struggling to scribble something on it even though the page remains blank. This leads to the emergence of a vague figure in the next stanza, which takes some formation and is seen as the figure of a fox. It further takes a proper shape and finally, by the end, the page gets printed and the creation is complete. On the other hand, we see a sequence in “The Horses” as well. The poet starts like a journey during which the narrator comes across horses that are “making no sound”. He moves away from these horses and describes the external world and its environment with the same brilliance with which he described the horses. We see him returning to the horses by the end and the journey gets complete. It seems that both the poems are treated as a very powerful lens of the camera which first shows the objects lying near but then focuses the far off images very clearly and then returns back to the close image again.
In psychoanalytic terms, both poems can be interpreted in very interesting ways. “The Thought-Fox” may in a way represent a conflict between the Id and the Ego where the awake Ego is trying to compose a piece of writing while the passionate subconscious Id is constantly trying to overpower it, resulting in the triumph of the awake Ego in the form of the “printed page” by the end of the poem. However, in “The Horses” the “Huge in the dense grey” horses can be interpreted in various ways. Horses may represent the unconscious of a man which sometimes fall into a deep slumber just like these “Grey silent fragments” in the poem. They can also be considered the un-trodden corners of man’s mind which get stirred only very rarely. These very horses can also be taken as the symbolic fulfillment of wishes (in the form of Dreams) that have been repressed for a long time. These wishes come out in strange ways, cloaked or covered under the veils of some uncanny images.
Considering the differences in the two poems, we come across various tiny details that very delicately separate the two poems in form, content and theme. While there is only one Fox in “The Thought-Fox” and “ten together’ horses in “The Horses”, still this one fox overpowers the ten horses in its sharpness and quick movements. We find ‘stillness’ and ‘silence’ in “The Horses” whereas “The Thought-Fox,” despite its loneliness of its narrator, is filled with sharpness and a lot of unstoppable movement. While we see many colors in “The Horses” like grey, orange, red and blue, “The Thought-Fox” on the other hand had only darkness and ‘A widening deepening greenness’. Yet, by the end, we have a strong feeling of ‘abundance’ as we can imagine almost anything and everything with the page being printed. In “The Horses”, there is ‘Not a leaf, not a bird’ while the narrator sees ‘no star’ in “The Thought-Fox”. Further we see a lot of juxtaposition of opposites in “The Horses” like ‘blackening’ and ‘brightening,’ ‘The frost’ showing ‘its fires’ etc but in the “The Thought-Fox” we see no combination of opposites on the surface level but the only juxtaposition we see in this poem is the contrast between the lonely atmosphere of the poem and the sharpness of the emerging fox.
It is not a special concern for animals that seems to have drawn Hughes to write about them in these poems. It is surely something deeper than merely an ordinary concern for animals (which apparently could have resulted from his employment as the zoo-attendant). It is rather that he sees in them the clearest manifestation of a life-force that is distinctly non-human or, rather, is non-rational in its source of power. Hughes observes in modern man reluctance to acknowledge the deepest, instinctual sources of energy in his own being, an energy that is related to the ‘elemental power circuit’ of the universe and to which animals are closer than man.
A Red Red Spirit
Life and death, beginnings and endings. The death of one person: the ending of two lives, or the beginning of both? Sylvia Plath, tumbling through madness toward suicide, created a collection of poems titled Ariel, and used the theme poem to express the revelations she had while planning her own suicide. Thirty years later, the man who was blamed for her madness and death – her husband, British poet Ted Hughes – finally responded to the accusations with a set of his own poems he called The Birthday Letters. His poem Red is a direct response to Ariel. The two poems seek to present opposing views of Plath’s madness and the “revelations” she found within insanity. One sees her death as a beginning, an entrance into a new state of consciousness. The other looks at it as an ending, as the loss of something unique and priceless. Sylvia Plath seems to suggest that her entire life had been meaningless, flat blankness, but that her madness had opened her eyes to a new world. Ted Hughes appears to look upon her death in a distinctly different way. He sees it as violent, as an enormous loss, as a fallacy that ruined everything Plath had.Plath states her feelings in the first stanza of Ariel: “Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue. / Pour of tor and distances.” Her words suggest that she believes her entire life had been meaningless, flat blankness, but that the outpouring of emotion that went into Ariel allowed her to see things differently. She speaks of “substanceless blue.” Blue – the color of the sky, representative of light and knowledge. The “pouring” of lava – which forms tor – suggests that the enormous number of poems she created in a very short period of time allowed her to gain knowledge she had never had access to before.Even the title of the poem seems to suggest an evolution within the author. The name Ariel has two different meanings. First, it is the name of a spirit in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This spirit, near the end of the play, is released from her servitude to Prospero, and becomes a being of pure energy, free and beautiful. There is a direct connection between this image, and the image of Plath gaining some new revelation near the end of her life, causing her to view the world in some new and wonderful way. It is easy to believe that Plath saw herself as being tied down, restrained, and that she saw insanity as a release from those fetters.Further, in Hebrew, Ariel means “lion of God.” Plath makes that connection quite clearly, with the phrase “God’s lioness, / How one we grow” in the second stanza of her poem. Again, there is an idea of growth. She seems to be saying she has grown from a meek, unimportant human to something much greater, much more powerful.Ted Hughes seems to view her death in a different color: “…red / Was what you wrapped around you. / Blood-red. Was it blood? / Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?” From the title on, Hughes drowns his readers in red. He speaks of death, of gashes and bleeding, of weeping and wounds. Unlike Plath, Hughes appears to see her death as a violent and unnecessary end to something beautiful. He describes Plath as being clothed in blood, and reveling in it. He, too, seems to believe Plath’s earlier life was dark, but it is not the same darkness. Where she sees nothingness, stillness, he sees something much more violent and destructive. When she states that she has grown into something greater, become something more, he suggests that she has in fact lost something more precious than she could ever find. He begins to talk about the color blue near the end of the poem, saying:Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.Kingfisher blue silks from San FranciscoFolded your pregnancyIn crucible caresses.Blue was your kindly spirit – not a ghoulBut electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.He suggests that what she spent so much time and emotion looking for, she already had. He ends the poem by saying, “But the jewel you lost was blue.” The blue that she seemed to believe she had found, the “substanceless blue” her revelation allowed her to enter, was in fact everything she already knew.These two poems allow the reader a glimpse into the philosophies of the respective poets. Plath suggests that death is not an ending. It is a new beginning, an outlet for energy, and a source of knowledge. Hughes spent thirty years trying to understand her death, and learned to live with his role in it. The conclusion he eventually came to was very different from hers. He looks at her death as an ending. She had everything she could have ever wanted, in life, if she could only find it, and she chose to give that up.Works CitedPlath, Sylvia. “Ariel.” Ariel. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.Hughes, Ted. “Red.” The Birthday Letters. New York: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1999.
Robert Frost and Ted Hughes: Journeys in “Out, Out,” “Daffodils,” and “Red”
By embracing the concept of a journey, we frequently reach our destination with a greater understanding of ourselves and current surroundings. After scrutinizing the concept of journeys it has become self evident that our lives can be quite capricious so it is crucial to value the insignificant things in life that we often take for granted. In ‘Birthday Letters’ Ted Hughes illustrates how unpredictable, erratic and fluctuating a journey can be. Robert Frost supports this perception and expresses the insignificance of life in his poem ‘Out, Out’. Both texts have demonstrated to me how unpredictable and unforeseen journeys can be. Appreciating and being grateful for the little things in life will be auspicious for us. This is expressed in Ted Hughes’ poems ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Red’ where he symbolically describes the emotional journey that was his marriage with Plath.
The inclusive language at the beginning of the Hughes first poem ‘Remember how we picked the daffodils?’ shows how Hughes affectionately recalls memories from the loving beginning of their marriage and reinforces the connection they once shared. However, the language in the text abruptly shifts in tone, ‘She cannot even remember you’. This abusive language, coupled with the change to second person, effectively contrasts to the beginning of the poem and represents troubles that they had with Plath’s mental illness and ultimately the downfall of their marriage. In the poem Hughes refers to the daffodils as if they are struggling and suffering, this is a motif for their relationship. He personifies the daffodils to create a feeling of unease and instability ‘among the soft shrieks-/ Of their girlish dance-frocks-/Fresh opened dragonflies,’. From this the audience can recognise that Hughes is uncertain and concerned about the connection between himself and Plath. This culminates in his realisation that his marriage, like the flowers,‘Opened too early’ which expresses his regret that they lost the passion and warmth that was once felt in their relationship.
Hughes shows how the journey can often be unpredictable and fluctuating so it is important to appreciate the joyful moments when they arise to avoid feeling the anguish Hughes did. The tragic ending of their relationship and Plath’s debilitating mental illness is conveyed further in the final poem of ‘Birthday Letters’, “Red”. Hughes uses strong descriptive language to metaphorically encase Plath in the colour red, ‘But red/ Was what you wrapped around you’. Hughes uses this symbolism of the colour to represent her self induced suffering and to show his animosity towards Plath. In the final message of the poem we are introduced to a new colour as Hughes uses a metaphor to represent Plath’s motherhood and graciousness with blue. “But the jewel you lost was blue”, although Hughes displays Plath’s qualities that appealed to him, his bitterness is still evident and the audience is once again presented with his disappointment that Plath could not overcome her illness even with the aid of motherhood, that she let go of her jewel and consequently lost herself. Hughes illustrates his mistakes of taking the happiness of his marriage for granted and provides us with the lesson of appreciating the little things in life. Thus, the poem reinforces to the audience that journeys are always continuing, as we regularly have a hunger to relive past experiences that we constantly yearn. Ultimately, Hughes shows that journeys allow us to not only understand events in our life, but also acquire intuition towards our beliefs.
After examining the notion of journeys, a reader can be compelled to consider the fragility and brevity of life. Robert Frost strongly expresses just how abrupt and insignificant our lives can be in his poem ‘Out, Out’. The title of the poem is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when Macbeth hears the news of Lady Macbeth’s death he reveals “Out, out, brief candle!/ Life’s but a walking shadow, … Signifying nothing.” The dying of the candle shows how simply our lives can be diminished and abandoned. This reference also reinforces how infiniTesimal our lives are in the great scheme of things. This is illustrated again at the end of the poem, by the overall detached tone when the bystanders, who are not affected by the boy’s death “turned to their affairs”. This act of the bystanders who almost seem to forget about the boy’s death proves the irrelevance and pointlessness of our existence. In the poem Frost creates a harmonious and tranquil setting “Five mountain ranges one behind the other/ Under the sunset far into Vermont.” However this peaceful image is interrupted when he personifies the buzz saw which “snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled.” The use of onomatopoeic verbs thoroughly enhances the intrusion of the saw into the natural background.
Frost demonstrates how something so serene can expeditiously be overturned which ultimately results in the boy’s loss of life. This recognition of how subtle and minuscule our existence can be creates the moral of our lives being precious. With the use of evocative imagery and a metaphor, “Holding up the hand,/ … as if to keep/ The life from spilling.” Frost expresses the boys horrific realization and recent understanding of how fragile his life is. The metaphor illustrates the boy’s disbelief as he is convinced such a simple act can preserve his existence. This emphasizes how quickly something so innocent can be corrupted and it’s because of this ease that our lives are so precious to us. Frost underlines the need to seize the day and make the most of the present. Furthermore it is demonstrated how ferocious a journey may be and how it is often impossible to predict what a journey may have in store for the traveller. Thus it is essential to value our lives as they are regularly more vulnerable and fragile than we expect.
It is impossible to predict what a journey will have in store for us. They can drive us to appreciate the current happenings in life. In Hughes’ poems ‘Red’ and ‘Daffodils’ and Frost’s ‘Out, Out’ I was obliged to consider the importance of not taking everything for granted, as the authors of these texts clarified the perception of how fragile and brief life is. Analysing journeys has allowed me to acknowledge how enlightening they can be in gaining a fuller understanding of the complexities of life. It has recently become apparent how journeys can challenge, inspire and reevaluate our underlying assumptions about the world.