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“Sylvia Plath’s final work Daddy and other Poems also styled Ariel, was done a disservice in its original exclusion of “The Rabbit Catcher,” “The Other,” and “The Courage of Shutting Up” as they showcase Plath’s genius in the form of words and her brutally honest way of expressing her emotions with colorful poems.”
Throughout the development of man-kind, we have seen a history of arts and literature destroyed or lost to the ages. Sylvia Plath’s collection Ariel: The Restored Edition came very close to being one such piece of literature. In fact, Ted Hughes, whom was Plath’s editor and husband, at one point decided to trim her final manuscript, cutting away pivotal poems such as “The Rabbit Catcher”, “The Other”, and “The Courage of Shutting Up.” Sylvia Plath’s final work Daddy and other Poems also styled Ariel, was done a disservice in its original exclusion of “The Rabbit Catcher,” “The Other,” and “The Courage of Shutting Up” as they showcase Plath’s genius in the form of words and her brutally honest way of expressing her emotions with colorful poems.
Firstly, Plath’s poetry was perhaps not as appreciated in its time as it is today, and a large reason for that is because Plath strayed from the traditional sense of poetry and chose to be provocative and use starkly darker language than her predecessors and peers. To this end, Plath is remembered as an impactful poet, going against the norms of her time and expressing herself in ways that others might have deemed inappropriate, Of her last collection of poems Ariel, “The Rabbit Catcher” is especially impactful. On its surface, “The Rabbit Catcher” centers on a hunter and the animals he hunts, but if we look deeper we can see how Plath’s life was reflected in her work. “There was only one place to get to / Simmering, perfumed / The paths narrowed into the hollow. / And the snares almost effaced themselves / Zeroes, shutting on nothing.” (Plath 7) Plath uses this imagery as a façade to her own life, it goes into depth how she felt about the affair she discovered her husband and editor, Ted Hughes was having. “The Rabbit Catcher” is Plath expressing her raw emotions in all their complexity and irregularity. By having this poem cut from her manuscript posthumously, Plath’s work seems incomplete. It is pivotal to the full collection as one of its most emotional and conceptually pleasing poems, painting a beautiful and tragic picture of her life. To us, as readers of Ariel, it is clear to us that Plath’s life was full of emotion and that she felt emotions very strongly, especially anger and sadness. In contrast though, to her daughter, Plath was almost godlike until she matured and learned the true nature of her mother.
It was many years before I discovered my mother had a ferocious temper and a jealous streak, in contrast to my father’s more temperate and optimistic nature, and that she had on two occasions destroyed my father’s work, once by ripping it up and once by burning it. I’d been aghast that my perfect image of her, attached to my last memories, was so unbalanced. But my mother, inasmuch as she was an exceptional poet, was also a human being, and I found comfort in restoring the balance; it made sense of her for me. The outbursts were the exception not the rule. (Hughes xviii)
Frieda Hughes is Sylvia Plath’s daughter and to Hughes, Plath was the epitome of perfection. She thought her mother was infallible. She makes a point to say that she felt relief in restoring the balance to her image of her mother, this is important because as someone who has little memory of her mother but also possesses her poem that display her raw emotions, she was able to make her peace that her mother was a complicated person and provided a unique view on the world around her. Stephen T. Asma writes “People aren’t born saints or born criminals, they are made that way through bad nurturing and personal habits of indulging the wrong appetites.” (Asma 53) This quote especially rings true in the context of Frieda Hughes interpretation of her mother as a child and eventually as an adult. Hughes found a balance and realized her mother was not a saint, but she was also not a “criminal” either. She was simply herself, fierce and genuine. “The Rabbit Catcher” is Sylvia Plath’s subtle and perfected rage in the form of words, it encases her anger, sadness and her desire to be loved. The Student Writing Center puts it perfectly when they say:
The poem’s viciousness resides in its comparison between traps set for rabbits and the ‘constriction’ of a sexual relationship. The shape of the ‘snares’ – zeroes, which shut on nothing- mimics the ‘hole in the hot day’, which is the speaker’s refusal to hear the shrieks of death; the same shape appears as the ‘tea mug’ around which dull, blunt murderous fingers circle or wear the kind of ring that both signifies marriage. This link between traps and marriage is reinforced by the description of the victims:
How they awaited him, those little deaths! They waited like sweethearts. They excited him. (Student Writing Center par. 1)
Plath was vicious as well as vulnerable. She felt emotions in a way that others did not and through her poems we get a rough idea of how she experienced those emotions. This passage shows how “The Rabbit Catcher” is important to Plath’s final manuscript by highlighting how she had an ability to express herself and also paint a portrait at the same time. If this poem had not been added to her published manuscript, we would be at a great loss for the arts and for Plath’s raw emotional work that she worked on during her darkest times.
Additionally, Sylvia Plath was unique in her way of expressing her exasperation through words. She frequently used very niche metaphors to describe very personal situations. Perhaps the best example of this is her poem “The Other”, in this poem Plath uses dark and brutish language to convey her own anger toward her husband and her inability to be the woman she wanted to be for him. This is best seen when she writes:
Open your handbag. What is that bad smell?
It is your knitting, busily
Hooking itself to itself
It is your sticky candies.
I have your head on my wall
Navel cords, blue-red and lucent,
Shriek from my belly like arrows, and these I ride.
O moon-glow, o sick one,
The stolen horses, the fornications
Circle a womb of marble. (Plath 42)
This excerpt is perfectly showing how Plath’s emotions, especially her frustration, spilled into her work. When she mentions the “bad smell” and “hooking itself into itself” she clearly means her husband tendency to be adulterous, and how he tried to hide it and lied to her about it. Ted Hughes was perhaps one of the most prominent figures and subjects of Plath’s work, and the indignation that came with being in a sexual relationship with him. We can clearly see this pain and frustration in the last stanza of “The Other”: “ You smile. / No, it is not fatal.” This stanza, although short, carries so much meaning. Plath was in pain and suffering and also very outraged at the fact that her husband was being unfaithful to her and doing it so blatantly. She is telling us that she is hurting, but you (Ted Hughes) do not care. Stephen T. Asma writes in his novel On Monsters: “The spouse who feels repeatedly humiliated by her partner may feel, according to Katz, as though her very identity is being broken and degraded by the other person. Rage promises to rebalance the situation.” (Asma 211) Plath’s work reflected how she felt and especially resonated when she felt rage and frustration. “The Other” brings to light how Ted Hughes betrayal to Plath permeated her being and made her feel useless in the face of someone who she loved so dearly. In her feeling of uselessness she went into an outburst, visible through her poems, and as she expelled her rage into typed font, she rebalanced herself. Ted Hughes is a major factor in many of her poems, being the subject and even being the editor. When Ariel was originally published, he omitted 9 poems that he considered either too ferocious or too weak. Frieda Hughes recalls her interactions with her father in the foreword:
In considering Ariel for publication my father had faced a dilemma. He was well aware of the extreme ferocity with which some of my mother’s poems dismembered those close to her—her husband, her mother, and my father’s uncle Walter, even neighbors and acquaintances… “I simply wanted to make it the best book I could,” he [Ted Hughes] told me. (Hughes xv)
Ted Hughes’ particular choices of poems are interesting. Some of the poem were omitted because they were indeed ferocious, especially “Lesbos”, but he also made a conscious choice to exclude the poems that lacerated himself. “The Other”, “The Rabbit Catcher” and many other poems are all universal to their application to Plath’s life with Hughes. She laments through these poems about his unfaithfulness and expresses to us, the reader, her pain and frustration. Hughes decision to leave such impactful and meaningful poems out of the original collection brought him under intense scrutiny from many of her fans and fellow scholars. We must also consider that Ted Hughes was not only Plath’s editor but the father to her children as well, and as the father to her children, he had a responsibility to nurture and protect his last vestige of his late wife. It makes perfect sense for him to omit certain poems that were especially damaging to Plath’s image and perception of her by her children. Georgeta Oblisteanu writes in her analysis “Ted Hughes’s Role In Editing Sylvia Plath’s Work” that “We may also ascertain that Hughes eventually achieved his goal of fiercely protecting his children from the cult of their dead mother, no matter how grossly he paid, in the public eye, for his own behavior.” (Oblisteanu 5) Oblisteanu’s words serve to illuminate that Ted Hughes may have omitted various poems to protect his children and the subsequent reactions that those poems may have brought about. Hughes’ actions are varied and complex, much like Plath herself, but mainly serve the dual purpose of protecting his image and his children from scrutiny that their mother’s volatile and lively work may have brought to them.
Similarly, Plath’s poem “The Courage of Shutting Up” was also omitted from the original publication of the manuscript by Ted Hughes. This poem in particular is a very angry and hate filled poem, utilizing a disdainful voice and language that reflects a feeling of pure, unadulterated rage, but also more subtly, a hurt and wanting help.
The courage of a shut mouth, in spite of artillery!
The line pink and quiet, a worm, basking.
There are black discs behind it, the discs of outrage,
And the outrage of a sky, the lined brain of it.
The discs revolve, they ask to be heard
So the discs of the brain revolve, like the muzzles of a cannon.
Then there is that antique billhook, the tongue,
Indefatigable, purple. Must it be cut out?
It has nine tails, it is dangerous.
And noise that it flays from the air, once it gets going. (Plath 45)
As we can see from this poem, Plath chose to use very specific language to express how she felt. She compares her tongue to a billhook, a type of blade used for cutting small shrubs and woody plants, and compares her thoughts to cannons, a destructive weapon of war. Plath also makes a point to say that her thoughts and what she wants to say are like “black discs”, implying that she has these same thoughts over and over again, like a record. These thoughts could be about her husband unfaithfulness or they could be about her unhappiness that she felt with her own life. Whichever Plath had originally meant will never be known, but Ted Hughes’s initial decision to omit this poem is a wrongdoing to her legacy and to the arts. “The Courage of Shutting Up” is one of the most emotional poems in the entire collection of Ariel and is one of Plath’s most honest works. Frieda Hughes writes in her foreword:
When she [Sylvia Plath] died leaving Ariel as her last book, she was caught in the act of revenge, in a voice that had been honed and practiced for years, latterly with the help of my father. Though he became a victim of it, ultimately he did not shy away from its mastery.
This new, restored edition is my mother in that moment. (Hughes xx)
We can exactly what Hughes means when she writes this. Plath was indeed vengeful in the writing of “The Courage of Shutting Up”, her word choices and metaphors make the poem unique in that it is precise and calm, not wild and unorganized like her previous poems. “The Courage of Shutting Up” is pivotal to the collection of Ariel because it changes the tone of the collection through strong word choices and devious alliterations. Ariel would be a very different collection today if “The Courage of Shutting Up” had never been included and we would never have known how masterful Plath was at conveying her own calm and collected version of anger with such mastery. An excerpt that goes exceptionally well with the theme of calm and collected anger of “The Courage of Shutting Up” is from Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters when he writes:
Eros [the love drive of the Id] gathers disparate things together, seeking unity and wholeness, and human love is just one example of its fusion activity. Thanatos [the death drive of the Id] is not just the drive for human death, but also a centrifugal force of destruction. Thanatos seeks to break down living holistic unities into inanimate broken bits.
One could argue that monsters [or monstrous rage in the case of Plath] in literature and film are, among other things, personifications of Thanatos, artistic expressions of subconscious psychological impulses. (Asma 215)
This particularly resonates with “The Courage of Shutting Up” because Plath, in her wondrous rage, was also a human being and wanted nothing more than for her husband to love her the way he loved his mistress. Within the poem we see several examples of her desire for a better partner, but not a different partner, only an improved version of Hughes. “A great surgeon, now a tattooist, // Tattooing over and over the same blue grievances, / The snakes, the babies, the tits / On mermaids and two-legged dream girls. / The surgeon is quiet, he does not speak. / He has seen too much death, his hands are full of it.” (Plath 45) In the poem, Plath compares Hughes, or rather a character, to a surgeon turned tattooist. This is important because it means that how someone that is traditionally a healer or repairer and usually a noble position can become a less favorable person. She uses the tattoos to symbolize the same lies that she was told over and over again and how it pained her. Plath was masterful in her use of an aggressive and passive voice and how she used language to paint a vivid and specific scene.
Although we as humans have had a historical tendency to destroy or lose track of invaluable pieces of the arts, Sylvia Plath’s last collection Ariel was not one of those pieces. Ariel was the last collection of poems written by Plath before her suicide and included the originally omitted poems “The Rabbit Catcher”, “The Other”, and “The Courage of Shutting Up”, three extremely important poems that make light of Plath’s literary genius and her struggles. At the hands of her editor and widower Ted Hughes, almost nine poems including those mentioned above were almost lost. Sylvia Plath’s “The Rabbit Catcher”, “The Other” and “The Courage of Shutting Up” are perhaps some of her finest work that display her raw emotions in a way that was not seen before, and their near exclusion from the collection that was initially published crippled her legacy and was almost a tragic loss to the arts.
- Obilisteanu, Georgeta. “TED HUGHES’S ROLE IN EDITING SYLVIA PLATH’S WORK.” Army Academy, www.armyacademy.ro/reviste/3_2006_eng/a18.pdf.
- American Poetry. “The Rabbit Catcher.” Edwin Arlington Robinson – Twentieth Century – Student Writing Center, 7 Dec. 2017, www.studentwritingcenter.us/american-poetry/the-rabbit-catcher.html.
- Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. Faber and Faber, 2015.
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