Hughes, Plath, and the Poetry of “Bleak and Disturbing” Relationships
Within the poetry of Hughes and Plath, the theme of human relationships is written of in varying and diverse manners. Plath’s work details relationships, such as the parent-child relationship, using powerful and intricate imagery, while Hughes conveys the theme using comparatively simpler, but more metaphorical language. Both poets seem to supply a complex view of relations, and although many may consider their portrayal as ‘bleak and disturbing’, there are certainly readings which could oppose this view.
Firstly, ‘Morning Song’, a poem illustrating the surreal period of time for the parents after the birth of a new baby, certainly portrays the relationship of parent and child in an ambivalent manner. The poem was written shortly after the birth of Plath’s first child Frieda, so could be read biographically- however, in many of Plath’s poems, personas are used to convey her views on different aspects of life- so, although a confessionary poem, the emotions are likely to be exaggerated. At a first reading, the relationship may seem disconnected and distant – but as with all Plath’s poetry, the symbolic and cryptically metaphorical language conveys deeper implications of the relationship.
The title of the poem, ‘Morning Song’, arguably does not seem to indicate any startling negativity concerning the relationship; on the contrary, both words seem to immediately evoke joyful, or even celebratory connotations. The time period of ‘morning’ could perhaps be metaphorically alluding to the idea of beginnings- the start of a whole life for the child, and the commencement of a different life for the new parents. Many readers would automatically link the idea of a new beginning, to the idea of hope, and the great possibility of happiness. Furthering this interpretation, the word ‘song’ evidently holds the idea of celebration and jubilance, and could be viewed as representative of a welcoming for the child. Alternatively, it could be interpreted that the title alludes to the cry of the new baby- if so, it does not seem to be representing it particularly negatively. The comparison of a cry to a song certainly seems to suggest an awe, or admiration from the point of the parent rather than anxiety or discomfort. However, perhaps a more bleak interpretation of the title could be formed if ‘morning’ is read as simultaneously suggesting the homophonic word ‘mourning’. In which case, it could be seen as implying a metaphorical death of the parents- their old lives fading away, as the birth of the child completely changes them. Although this idea could be seen as negatively representing the relationship, it is only a single, arguably tenuous interpretation- primarily, the title provides the reader with a light, hopeful first view of the poem- far from being disturbing.
However, within the poem itself many instances seem to present a more negative, and bleak representation of the relationship. Most pointedly, the speaker states: ‘I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement’. Certainly this seems to indicate the mother’s reluctance to accept her new responsibility, her attempt at distancing herself from the child, almost a rejection. By using such an abstract metaphor to describe their relationship, the sense of alienation is further enforced. The speaker’s comparison of herself to a ‘cloud’ which ‘distills a mirror’ could be read as the process of the mother caring for her child, which Plath sees to be a ‘mirror’ of the mother. The child grows older as the ‘mirror’ is further ‘distilled’ by the parents’ care and nurture. However, the as the mother sees her child, a mirror-image of herself when she was younger, it only ‘reflects’ and highlights, her ‘slow effacement’. In other words, as the child grows older, it only emphasises to the mother her ‘effacement’- how she is becoming more insignificant, essentially fading away into her old age, like the condensation which fades away as the mirror becomes clearer. If interpreted in such a way, it could be viewed that the mother is very much apprehensive to commence this new life with her child, viewing it as something which will only bring sorrow and disappointment, in highlighting to her her own mortality, and insignificance. Interestingly, Plath’s comparison of herself to a ‘cloud’ is seen frequently in other poems, for example, ‘Little Fugue’- it often highlights both a sense of obscurity or confusion, and the idea that she is a victim, particularly due to the white, pure colour of the cloud. The line ‘I’m no more your mother’ alone arguably shocks the reader and provides an unsettling view of this relationship- what with the implication of the mother being neglectful or uncaring, it could be viewed that this indeed provides a ‘disturbing portrait’.
At the time of writing, many critics took a feminist perspective on Plath’s poetry- the persona’s reluctance to accept her role as a mother may have been viewed as indicative of the excessive pressure put on women to enter into a life of domesticity and childcare. The identity of a female was arguably extremely limited in those years, what with the clear lack of equality in such a heavily patriarchal world- the poem could be seen as expressing Plath’s reluctance to be trapped in the confines of such an identity, an identity almost defined solely by motherhood. Rebecca Warren further notes that Plath’s poetry concerning motherhood is often read by feminists today as reflecting the conflict posed by individual creativity, and domesticity- so perhaps the detached portrait of the persona’s relationship to her child indicates the fear of losing her creative freedom, and is more complex than simply a ‘bleak and disturbing’ rejection of the child. Furthermore, the first line of the poem arguably dispels any negativity, perhaps even the first word- ‘love’. The speaker, addressing her new child, denotes that ‘Love set (it) going like a fat gold watch’, seemingly providing an upbeat, endearing start to the poem. Instantaneously, the idea of ‘love’ illuminates the poem with a kind of positivity and tenderness, implying the both the love between the parents, and the love they have for the child. Additionally, the simile of ‘like a fat gold watch’ is arguably endearing, perhaps alluding to the child’s healthy physical appearance, while the colourful adjective ‘gold’, connoting wealth and riches, seems to convey the child as being something precious and prized. Combined with the upbeat monosyllabic rhythm of ‘fat gold watch’, this opening line certainly seems to convey a sense of adoration and joy towards the new child. However, it could conversely be argued that it does, in fact, conjure a negative portrait of the parent-child relationship. Although the poet does state that ‘love’ is what brought the child into the world, which could seem positive, it is arguably an impersonal word, and distances the baby from the parent -instead it is linked to an abstract concept. Perhaps this furthers the sense of reluctance the mother feels to accept this child and to accept her new life- instead of linking the child with herself and her own responsibility, she relates it only with this abstract ideal. Furthermore, the idea that the child is compared to an inanimate object seems somewhat unsettling- as soon as a life begins, it is immediately assimilated to something with no life. Such a comparison also occurs later in the poem, when the child is described as a ‘statue’. It could be interpreted that this once again portrays the speaker’s apprehension to accept the child, and acknowledge the presence of this whole new life, in her life. It could be counter-argued that by the speaker addressing the child as ‘you’, it conveys her acceptance of the child’s existence and presence in her life, and somewhat subsides the sense of distancing. Additionally however, the fact that the child is compared to a ‘watch’ arguably presents the reader with an ominous and foreboding image- it could be interpreted that the speaker implies a stopwatch, representing the already diminishing time left in the child’s life. This is undoubtedly a ‘bleak’ and pessimistic view, perhaps indicating the speaker’s own concerns with mortality- the child only reinforces her preoccupations and fears of death, instead of filling her with hope for new life created.
Furthermore, the sense of alienation and distancing from the child is created in many other instances throughout the poem, furthering the negative and joyless representation of the relationship. The emotionless, synaesthesic description of the baby’s ‘bald cry’ does not evoke any sense of the parent’s awe at hearing their child for the first time, instead conveys it is being something empty, emphasising the lack of connection between the parents and child. Additionally, Plath describes the cry taking ‘its place among the elements’, which seems to separate the child from the human world, and associate it instead with something exterior and alien. The sense of discomfort and unease which the parents seem to feel is further enforced by the lines: ‘your nakedness/ Shadows our safety’. Here, it seems as if the presence of this new, fragile and vulnerable child in their responsibility seems to threaten their own security- their before structured lives have now been completely changed, and to feel comfortable again, they must adjust. The contrast between the words ‘nakedness’ and ‘safety’ emphasises the disquiet of the parents, as it highlights the change which has come over their life; the previous order and security, now tainted by the vulnerability of their situation. Furthermore, the word ‘shadows’, emphasised by the enjambment, seems to convey the looming anxiety and fear which the new child has caused the parents. However, it could also imply the ambiguity of emotion which the child has caused for the parents – shadows and darkness obscure and confuse, and in this way, the sudden presence of a fragile and innocent child in their care, has left them without clarity of emotion or of the situation. Although the sense of alienation and detachment from the child may seem to present a ‘bleak’ image of the relationship, it is arguably a considerably realistic portrayal- the birth of a new child is undoubtedly a large change, and the difficulty of becoming adapted to this is certainly not a ‘disturbing’ idea. Equally, the parents’ feelings of being less secure at having such a great new responsibility is certainly not an unsettling idea, nor ‘bleak- it is simply a normal, and arguably temporary reaction.
The parent-child relationship was also explored by Ted Hughes in his poem ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’. Similarly, it seems that the relationship has been portrayed in an ambivalent and complex manner and once again, the poem can be read biographically, as ‘Frieda’ was his first daughter with Plath. As with Plath’s poem, it is written in free verse, and is filled with vivid, intricate images. Firstly, the speaker’s first reference to Frieda, ‘And you listening’ immediately seems to show his love, and awe of his daughter. By composing the poem almost as if addressed completely to Frieda, through use of the ‘you’ pronoun, it is rendered considerably more personal and clearly shows his close relationship with his daughter. Comparatively, Plath addresses Frieda in the same way in ‘Morning Song’, and in both poems, this usage of ‘you’ seems to capture the intimacy of the parent-child relationship, through this direct addressal. Furthermore, this short, three word sentence is made even more distinct by Hughes’s use of end-stopping, allowing the description of Frieda to be strongly emphasised in its isolation. The awe and admiration of the speaker is certainly conveyed through such a great focus on this singular, simple action in the present moment.
In this way, the relationship is certainly not conveyed as ‘bleak’ nor ‘disturbing’, but entirely loving and tender. Notably, the entire poem is composed in the present tense, perhaps in order to vivify the moment and sentiments Hughes is writing of. The majority of ‘Morning Song’ is equally written in the present tense, and it could be argued that the purpose of this, in both poems, it to fully communicate the intensity of the actions and emotions experienced, by conserving them in the immediacy of the present moment. However, further into the poem, Hughes begins to compare his daughter to various images, which presents a different element to their relationship. Firstly, Hughes describes her as ‘A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch’. This could be interpreted as conveying the child’s wonder, and anticipation of the full moon coming into view, as she sits ‘listening’, ‘tense’ with excitement for its arrival. However, an alternative reading could be that the speaker is implying the impending maturity of his daughter that time will bring. The ‘tension’ which the speaker’s daughter is linked perhaps portrays the looming inevitability of her growing up and maturing into adulthood, something which the speaker seems to view with concern. He continues this theme by comparing her to ‘A pail lifted, still and brimming’. The idea of a ‘pail lifted’ perhaps conveys the beginning of her life- currently, she is only ‘lifted’- her childhood has only just been initiated. Although a sense of stasis is created through the word ‘still’, this is contrasted by the present participle of ‘brimming’, seemingly suggesting that the water is still moving on the surface, despite its apparent ‘stillness’. This could be read as indicative of the speaker’s knowledge that despite the fact that his daughter’s maturity is ‘brimming’ and inescapable, in the present moment, her childhood and innocence is ‘still’ and stagnant. Perhaps this is why Hughes composed the poem in the present tense- in order to solidify and preserve the sweet, infant state of his daughter.
The speaker’s apparent concern with the imminent maturing of his child could be linked to Plath’s ‘Morning Song’, and the speaker’s comparison of her new baby to a ‘watch’. In Plath’s poem, by linking her child to the image of a ‘watch’, it could be argued that Plath too is concerned by the inevitable passing of time, and thus the inescapable aging of her child. Both poets seem to be preoccupied by the idea of time’s inevitable progress, and the effect that will have on their children. Equally, in both poems the child is compared to inanimate objects. In Hughes’s case, it could be argued that he compares Frieda to a solid object, a ‘pail’, in order to convey his desire that she should be unchanging, and should be preserved as a child forever. However, in ‘Morning Song’, it seems that Plath tends to draw comparisons between Frieda and inanimate objects to convey the speaker’s reluctance to fully accept the child. Some may consider that both poets’ concern with time and the inevitable maturing of their children is in itself arguably ‘bleak’, perhaps even morbid in the case of ‘Morning Song’- they may view the poets as focusing purely on the negatives of having children, instead of simply treasuring them as they are. However, it does not seem possible to draw from this representation the belief that it is ‘disturbing’- it is arguably a natural and common fear for a parent to see their child so quickly growing up and changing. In fact, Hughes’ poem could even be considered touching, such is the love and tenderness shown towards his daughter, in his comparison of her to a ‘work’ of art.
Furthermore, within Plath’s poem ‘Little Fugue’ a significantly different perspective on human relationships is presented, particularly concerning the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife. Throughout the poem, using symbolic and cryptic imagery, the speaker seems to be attempting to reconcile the idea of her father in her mind, and recall his image. This poem is largely read biographically, as Plath herself experienced the trauma of losing her father at the age of eight, and her complex relationship with his memory is reflected in many of her poems.
Many may come to view Plath’s representation of relationships in this poem as ‘bleak’ and sombre, due to the speaker’s focus on her desperate attempts to communicate with her dead father, and her frustration at being unable to do so. The theme of obscurity runs throughout the poem, beginning with the statement ‘Cold clouds go over’. This could be interpreted as the mental haziness and blur which obscures the speaker’s memory of her father, as the ‘clouds go over’ the ‘yew’- which could be seen as representative of her father, due to its symbolism of both death and rebirth (linking to the idea of the speaker trying to regain her father). Such dimness of her father’s image is also implied through her description of the ‘featurelessness’ of her memory, emphasising it’s vagueness, while the use of exclamation mark at the end of the same line perhaps highlights her desperation and agitation. Her inability to reconcile her relationship with her dead father, or a clear idea of him in her mind, is further conveyed through the evident confusion of senses depicted throughout the poem. The speaker seems to compare her vagueness of memory to how ‘the death and dumb/ Signal the blind, and are ignored’, and such a simile clearly highlights the frustration felt through her impossibility of communicating with her father. Further into the poem, the speaker once again describes herself as ‘deaf’, causing the memory of her father to be but a ‘dark tunnel’. Whilst the ‘deafness’ emphasises the difficulties of communication, the image of the ‘dark tunnel’ reinforces the idea that the idea of her father in her mind is heavily obscured and indistinct. Additionally, through Plath’s use of synaesthesia in the statement, ‘I see your voice’ the idea of confusion and obscurity is heightened- such a mixing of the senses in this way clearly conveys the speaker’s strife to communicate, but ultimate inability. It could be argued that the portrait of the father-daughter relationship presented here is indeed ‘bleak’- it can be seen that the speaker still struggles to accept the death of her father, and her desperation to communicate or regain the memory of him, could be viewed as both sad, and unsettling. However, others may believe that although there is a hopeless desperation within the poem, it does not render the relationship ‘bleak’, but purely tragic.
Arguably, the relationship presented is too complex to immediately be judged ‘bleak and disturbing’. Despite the speaker’s wishes to regain the memory of her father, the image which we are provided with of him is dark and unsettling: ‘A yew hedge of orders/ Gothic and barbarous, pure German.’ As in many other poems, particularly ‘Daddy’ Plath seems to be inferring World War two here, and comparing her father to a perpetrator of the holocaust. The image of the speaker’s father as a ‘yew hedge’ once again links to the symbolism seen at the beginning of the poem, and conveys him as a restricting, controlling figure of authority. Further, by describing him as ‘barbarous’, the speaker clearly conveys the cruelty and inhumanity which she believes her father to possess. Perhaps this reflects Plath’s own resentment towards her father for being pro-Nazi at the time of the war, or, her anger and frustration at this death, which could have been avoided, had he not wrongly misdiagnosed himself. The poem seems to present an extremely conflicted view of the relationship: on the one hand, the speaker describes her father as an oppressive, evil figure which ‘Dead men cry from’, and on the other, the speaker conveys her utter desperation and toil to regain a clear memory of her father, or somehow communicate with him. Therefore, it would seem to simple to conclude the portrayal of the relationship as ‘bleak’- it is evidently multi-layered, complex and confused. However, it may seem reasonable to view it as ‘disturbing’- it is certainly an unsettling idea that someone is so obsessed by the memory of their dead father, despite condemning him as ‘gothic and barbarous’.
The final line of the poem, ‘The clouds are a marriage dress, of that pallor’, may lead many into further believing this relationship to be ‘disturbing’. Just as the speaker seems to be concluding her thoughts of her father, a different thread, presenting a different relationship, is woven in. The last stanza itself seems to portray the speaker attempting to reconcile and ‘arrange’ her thoughts on the subject, as she tells herself ‘these are my fingers, this my baby’. She seems to be acclimatising herself with her present life, before referring back to the ‘clouds’ of her memory. Once this ‘arrangement’ has been carried out, the speaker now seems to imply that her marriage, has taken on the same obscurity as the relationship with her father. The same ‘clouds’ that covered her relationship with her father, now cover the relationship with her husband. If read biographically, it must be noted that at the time of writing, Plath’s relationship with Hughes was beginning to break down- which could explain the confusion the speaker now seems to be viewing this marriage with. Alternatively, it could be viewed that the speaker has replaced the memory of her father, the ‘clouds’, with her husband, through the metaphor of ‘a marriage dress’. Her marriage has caused Plath to imprint Hughes onto the image of her father, in order to reconcile his memory in her mind. In other words, it could be seen that the speaker sees her husband, in some ways, as a ‘replacement’ for her father- in her attempts to recover and reach her father, she instead revived him in her husband. This could be linked back to the image of her father as a ‘yew’, the supposed tree of rebirth- for Plath, her father has been reborn in Hughes. Hughes himself is said to have always felt as if he was in the presence of Plath’s father, which arguably contributed to the eventual collapse of his marriage to Sylvia. Evidently this relationship, for many readers would be viewed as ‘disturbing’ and unsettling- however, such writing does arguably encapsulate the essence of the ‘confessionary’ genre, which many may admire as intense, and brave. Rebecca Warren notes that many of her poems detail ‘psychological pain’, and such pain is certainly conveyed in ‘Little Fugue’, stemming from the trauma of losing her father, and her desperation to regain him.
Finally, many moments of Hughes’ ‘Lovesong’ can be compared to ‘Little Fugue’, in the representation of the husband-wife relationship. Largely read biographically as a portrait of the destructive, intense, but passionate relationship between Plath and Hughes, its aggressively sexual tenor and energetically fast-paced structure certainly does not render the poem ‘bleak’. However, many may consider the violent aspects of the poem particularly ‘disturbing’. Such lines as ‘his words were occupying armies,’ ‘her laughs were an assassin’s attempts’, and ‘his looks were bullets daggers of revenge’ clearly convey the relationship to be that of ruthful antagonism and conflict. However, although this imagery of violence could be read negatively, and C.J Rawson’s assertion that ‘everybody knows that Ted Hughes’s subject is violence’ could be seen as affirming his unhealthy fixation on it, even within relationships, it could be viewed in a different light. Perhaps Hughes only uses violence in this poem hyperbolically, in order to exaggerate the passion between the couple- for example, comparing the man’s looks to ‘bullet daggers’ merely conveys the intensity and power of his gaze, not cruelty or anger. The violence imagery certainly causes the lines to be more potent and impactful, especially when coupled with the frequent enjambment, asyndeton, and rhythmic repetition of words such as ‘his’ or ‘her’, which provide the poem with a dynamic pace. Furthermore, arguably, certain moments in the poem place the relationship in a more positive light, for example: ‘love is hard to stop’. Hughes’s simple language, so contrasting to the complex and cryptic writing of Plath, conveys here the true depths and power of their love- however, simultaneously, it could be argued that there is the underlying implication that the couple wish for this love ‘to stop’.
Additionally, the final three lines of the poem arguably set the presentation of their relationship in a more positive, uplifting light, as Hughes describes the couple essentially becoming one, through their love: ‘In the morning they wore each other’s face’. This idea of uniting is reflected in the changing structure of the poem- the penultimate stanza is of two lines, perhaps representing the two lovers, and the final stanza, is of only one line, which could be viewed as imitative of the couple becoming one. To many, this may show the strengths of their relationship- however, the positive view is undertoned by the fact that their uniting is described as being paradoxically hostile: ‘In their dreams their brains took each other hostage’. Despite this powerful love which Hughes is conveying, it seems to be inextricably linked to the antagonism and hostility within the relationship- such a portrait of a destructive, conflicting relationship could be viewed as ‘bleak and disturbing’ by many. However, perhaps if read as a truly hyperbolic account of the relationship, many may consider this representation to be realistic, in its complexity. Certainly the critical readings of Hughes’s poetry have changed over the years- particularly following the suicide and of Plath, and the suicide and matricide of Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill, many feminists viewed Hughes as a cruel, controlling and monstrous figure. This certainly impacted the way his poetry was read, leading to many viewing such a violent portrayal of their relationship as ‘disturbing’.
The husband-wife relationship portrayed in ‘Lovesong’ can be linked to that within ‘Little Fugue’, especially if read biographically. Firstly, describing the couple’s tempestuous love, Hughes states ‘His kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried to’. This could be compared to the idea conveyed within ‘Little Fugue’, that the persona is so obsessive and preoccupied by the memory of her dead father, that she attempts to reclaim such a figure through marriage. Such a relationship results in the husband attempting to erase ‘her whole past’ and memories of her father, perhaps in order to make the relationship healthier. This could be read as Hughes’s attempts to normalise the relationship in trying to cause Plath to forget her father and the trauma he caused her, as he so often felt as if he were in the haunting shadow of him. Equally, the lines ‘Her embrace was an immense press/ To print him into her bones’, could be linked to the idea of Plath’s desperation to somehow regain her father’s memory, thus resulting in her ‘marriage dress’ taking the form of the ‘clouds’ of memory of her father. Plath’s wish to ‘print him into her bones’ could be viewed as her desire to overlay the haunting memory of her father, with that of Hughes instead- in order to have some kind of reconciliation, and resolution. To many, such a portrait of their relationship may indeed seem ‘disturbing’ and perhaps unnatural- but overall, even when not read biographically, the poems certainly present a complex, and conflicting view of human relationships.
Throughout these poems, it is evident that human relationships, both parent-child, and husband-wife, are presented by both Plath and Hughes as complex, and convoluted. There are many moments in the poetry of Plath which could be deemed as both ‘bleak and disturbing’, particularly concerning the disjointed relationship presented between father and daughter. Equally, in that of Hughes, the intensely aggressive and hostile presentation of a relationship presents a deeply conflicting view of a couple, which perhaps could be viewed as ‘disturbing’ by some. However, it seems it would be excessive to say that their poetry ‘offers an entirely bleak and disturbing’ view of relationships, since other moments of the poems, and the overall intricacy of the relations conveyed, renders the portrait too complex for such a general conclusion.
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