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Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) and Ted Hughes (17 August 1930 – 28 October 1998) are known as some of the best poets of all time. They wrote with passion and flare and their poetry brought fire to the souls of their readers. I have always found that Hughes’ last poetry book, “Birthday Letters”, was, in short, a reply to the feelings between him and Sylvia, those judging him for her death, and, in some small form, Sylvia’s poetry. In this essay, I will be discovering the core significances and connections found between their poetry. I will take two poems from each poet and analyze each one, find the links between one and the other or, in some cases, their life.
I will begin with Sylvia Plath’s “The Courage of Shutting Up”, which was written in 1962, during the same week in which she wrote “The Detective”, “The Courage of Shutting Up” and a series of poems collectively called “Bees” – “The Bee Meeting”, “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, “Stings”, “The Swarm”, and “Wintering”.
“The courage of the shut mouth, in spite of artillery!” unlocks the beginning of Sylvia Plath’s “The Courage of Shutting-Up”, a poem written about the cruel circularity of fury, the way it makes “the disks of the brain revolve, like the muzzles of cannon”, “a needle journeying in its groove”. One of the many poems Plath wrote in her illustrious eruption of passionate rage in the autumn of 1962 after becoming aware of Ted Hughes’s unfaithfulness, this poem was part of the monstrous bombings of literature that Plath let soar throughout the course of the twentieth century’s most well-known poetic outburst. When Hughes betrayed Plath, she grinded her pen into a knife and went used in the only way she knew how. Intimacy became her nuclear warhead: living beneath someone’s skin always makes it easier to condemn them.
Many times she tells herself in her journals “I think the worst thing is to exteriorize those jitterings & so I try and shut up and not blither to Ted. His sympathy is a constant temptation.” She argues with herself throughout her life about things she should and shouldn’t say to Ted “Should I tell the boy, before it’s too late – warn him to set his sights on other prey – more domesticated prey, at that. Or should I just shut up and plunge – maybe making us both unhappy.” This poem seems to be the release of every pent up emotion, thought, secret, that she ever held inside, that she ever kept from him, that she ever kept her mouth shut about.
The title “The Courage of Shutting up”, previously known as “The Courage of Quietness”, gives an excellent summary of the poem, although, without reading it, there could be many assumptions about it. For example: A suffering child, a mute, a mime, and many more examples spring to the minds of those with true imagination. As in many of Plath’s poetry, there is no rhyming scheme, which could be her way of portraying her anger, how she is so outraged by all the secrets she has kept, that she does not care for rhymes anymore. Another example is that she lets some of her lines flow over into the next.
In the first stanza she makes it clear that she is holding back some deep dark secrets inside her by the simple mention of “the shut mouth”, “in spite of artillery!”, signifying that she has a great many secrets to tell, shamefully though, she has not told them. “The line pink and quiet, a worm” gives the image of the tongue sitting peacefully in its confinement, the mouth, the head, the mind, but the word “basking” gives us the impression that it is just waiting, for it’s time, for it’s moment, for the mind to finally give in to the temptation of letting go all of the secrets balled up inside of it.
Her “disks of outrage” emphasise this idea, as black disks seem to be referring to a pair of black old records, filled with secrets that are meant to be played. Her outrage at the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity could have been one of the inspirations for this idea. “The outrage of the sky” leaves us under the impression that her anger is so greats that it fills the sky itself and the last line leans strongly towards the thought that the disks in her mind, which could also be referred to as her mind, her memories, ask to be played, or in the minds case, relived or told but without their needle, their tongue, that lay basking quietly, untiring, their story can never be told.
The second stanza is also filled with rages, as she explains that her “disks” are filled with memories of “bastardies, bastardies, usages, desertions and doubleness” which could be interpreted as a rough translation of all the awful sufferings her husband put her through. Her needle, or, in medical terms, tongue, plays around inside her mouth, or “its groove”. Her tongue is her most prized weapon. Her inner “beast” could be considered her dagger, her whip, it is her “secret weapon”, per say.
During the final part of the second stanza and most of the third, describes a surgeon turned into a tattooist. This could be construed as her take on her transformation from a great poet laureate, to a housewife and a mother. Obviously she loves her children, but if you take this description how most do, she is clearly describing how she felt during her “writers block”. She’s “tattooing over the same blue grievances”, in other words, she’s describing how she wrote, what she apparently considered to be, the same awful poems, over and over. The mention of “The snakes” and “the babies” gives a huge reminder of Edge, leaving us under the impression that one could have something to do with the other and that “The Courage of Shutting Up” could have influenced, or at least slightly inspired “Edge”. The fact that she says he is “quiet” and that “he has seen to much death, his hands are full of it” gives the idea that she thought she had written too many failed poetry attempts to try and go back and try again.
“So the disks of the brain revolve like the muzzles of cannon”, could be describing how her memories replay themselves over and over in her head, grinding at her mind to speak the “bastardies” that she knows so deeply of. When she mentions “the antique billhook, the tongue” she is describing once again how dangerous her words would be if they were released. The billhook is a traditional cutting tool used mainly in forestry for cutting smaller woody materials such as shrubs and branches. If her words were only set free they would destroy her enemy with “indefatigable” power, meaning that she is extremely persistent and untiring. It must be cut out because it has “nine tails” like a ‘cat o nine tails’ whip. There are three ways to lash with this type op whip. Soft lashings leave marks but they will heal, severe lashings leave scars that will not heal and savage lashings can kill. Clearly Plath was set to kill, which is why her “whip” must be cut out. It even “flays from the air, once it gets going”, which gives it even more power and even more reason for it to be cut off.
However, in the fifth stanza we see that “the antique billhook, the tongue” “has been put by”, cut out, silenced, maybe even ‘tongue-tied’ up with “the fox heads, the otter heads, the heads of dead rabbits”, which could be interpreted as a strange representation of all the women that Plath’s husband had been with so it may be her description of how he was trying to put her up there with them. Clearly he failed. However, when we consider this from a different perspective, there is the possibility of the heads being her past poetry, a vast collection of different animals, some more dangerous than others but none so dangerous as the tongue itself that put all of those heads up there. Plath describes it as “marvellous”, so it is clear that it is one of her most prized possessions. It has “pierced” many things “in it’s time”; meaning that her spike of a tongue has “pierced” many a person or, some people might think it has silenced them when in a verbal discussion.
When she mentions the eyes, the repetition of “the eyes” enhances their significance; perhaps she is referring to the well known phrase “If looks could kill”. She continues to write that “mirrors can kill” and if she is comparing mirrors to her eyes like some would think, one could assume she is speaking of how eyes mirror emotions, feelings, etc as they are “Terrible rooms in which a torture goes on one can only watch” showing that there is pain and suffering in the eyes but one can only sit and watch it play out in the eyes as if in shock, entrancement, or from paralysation. However, she mentions after to “not worry about the eyes” probably insinuating that they cannot actually kill anything or anyone. They are “white and shy” signifying purity, innocence. Perhaps she seeks to show that she does not use her eyes to kill, but her words.
Also, in the last stanza, Plath describes how her eyes are not “stool pigeons”, meaning a criminal’s look out or a decoy, so they are not purposely looking for anything. She says that they are “folded like flags” and it is well known that in some countries when a soldier is killed the flag is folded in a certain way and given to the soldier’s family.
Their death rays folded like flags
Of a country no longer heard of,
An obstinate independency
Insolvent among the mountains.
Moving onto the selected poems by Ted Hughes, “Freedom of Speech” was published in 1998 along with all the others found in Ted Hughes’ “Birthday Letters”, about his relationship with the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, the book was described as “Book of poems breaks Hughes’ long silence on Plath’s life and death.”
The title “Freedom of Speech” doesn’t really give an exceptional overview of the narrative poem, it seems to hint towards the idea that everyone in the poem with the exception of the author himself, who is mentioned in the poem, and the person he is addressing are speaking, smiling, laughing, etc. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of rhyme scheme, but there a few random lines in which a half rhyme can be found, could this be a possible indication of how scattered everything described in the poem is, the fact that everyone is laughing but him and her, the main characters, the birthday girl, could make everything rather disrupted. He does not end each line with a comma or a full stop, like is usually done in an “a b a b” rhyming scheme, which tends to be the most frequent, he lets a few of the lines spill over into the next, enhancing the idea of a scattered, desperate stream of consciousness throughout the poem. The theme is clearly fictional, as it is impossible for the person he is addressing to actually be there on her sixtieth birthday because she had ended her life thirty years before. He describes Sylvia as a quiet bystander, sitting in silence, feeding her last book, her last love, grapes from her “lips pursed like a kiss”. The word “kiss” refers to her love for the book “Ariel” which was a gathering of the last poems she wrote before she committed suicide after a life of depression which ended in loneliness in 1963. The word “kiss” also gives the impression that “Sylvia” is caressing the book, and the “ss” also makes it sound so.
The fact that the author describes the two as “Ariel sits on your knuckle” “in the cake’s glow” stands to reason that she and the book are in darkness, lighted only by the cake’s glow, as it would not have been that bright had the lights been on. This bring up the question: Does this mean the whole room was in darkness or just that plain solid area in which the tortured poetess and her last poetry book could be found? If it be that Hughes is trying to demonstrate that the whole room is in darkness, then the party was clearly a false and it is quite possible that he was lying to her about everyone laughing so that she would start the laughter and happiness. The trouble is that since the person referred to is clearly void of such emotions and, to be frank, isn’t even there, he could be talking to himself, willing himself to start the laughter. If however the whole room is bright minus that one area in which the cake sits, in which “Sylvia” and her last love sits, then this has turned into a completely different poem. If the second option is true, then it seems that the person being referred to is a sort of ghost, sitting in the darkness, remaining solemn and unemotional, haunting him on this memorable day, her sixtieth birthday, a full thirty years after her suicide in 1963. It has always been discussed that Hughes never stopped loving or thinking about Miss Sylvia Plath and the fact that Ted Hughes even wrote the book of poems which includes “Freedom of Speech” supports that theory because clearly he must have thought about her often to write such a long and elaborate poetry book.
In the second stanza the narrator describes the others as laughing, “as if grateful”. This could be trying to tell her that they are grateful to be invited, to be in the presence of such esteemed poets. There is a huge group of people “the whole reunion, old friends and new friends, some famous authors, your court of brilliant minds, and publishers and doctors and professors”. The entire third and fourth stanza gives the effect of a metaphor, as it has given human qualities to dead relatives, inanimate objects and the flowers around them. The description of Sylvia herself could be construed as a metaphor as it is impossible for her to actually be there as she died thirty years ago.
His sense of wording in the last three stanzas are noticeable as he mentions that the children are hers, not theirs, and yet simply calls Ariel by it’s name, giving the illusion that Ariel is a single-minded being that Sylvia did not create, and if she did it was not alone as it was Hughes who discovered the poems and put them together, so he obviously does not say it is hers because he was also a part of it’s creation as he put the poems together and corrected all her mistakes that he found in the poems. The one last mentionable point is that he uses capital letters in the last line when he says “Only You and I do not smile.” Normally when someone uses the word “you” there is no capital letter but he has used one and has obviously done it for a reason. This could be to illustrate her importance in his life, to make her seem more important because at the time she is “there” with him, on her sixtieth birthday, sitting solemnly in the darkness with her last love, Ariel, and because of that Hughes cannot join in on the fun everyone else is experiencing because he feels attached to her, haunted by her spirit being there.
In conclusion, an analysis of “Freedom of Speech” shows that this poem is an author-oriented, first-person, single-angle (only the viewpoint of Hughes is shown) narrative poem which contains a mixture of modes (prose and verse).
The courage of shutting up
The courage of the shut mouth, in spite of artillery!
The line pink and quiet, a worm, basking.
There are black disks behind it, the disks of outrage,
And the outrage of the sky, the lined brain of it.
The disks revolve, they ask to be heard-
Loaded, as they are, with accounts of bastardies.
Bastardies, usages, desertions and doubleness,
The needle journeying in its groove,
Silver beast between two dark canyons,
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
So the disks of the brain revolve, like the muzzles of cannon.
Then there is that antique billhook, the tongue,
Indefatigable, purple. Must it be cut out?
It has nine tails, it is dangerous
And those it flays from the air, once it gets going!
No, the tongue, too, has been put by,
Hung up in the library with the engravings of Rangoon
And the fox heads, the otter heads, the heads of dead rabbits.
It is a marvellous object-
The things it has pierced in its time.
But how about the eyes, the eyes, the eyes?
Mirrors can kill and talk, they are terrible rooms
In which a torture goes on one can only watch
The face that lived in this mirror is the face of a dead man.
Do not worry about the eyes-
They may be white and shy, they are no stool pigeons,
Their death rays folded like flags
Of a country no longer heard of,
An obstinate independency
Insolvent among the mountains.
Freedom of Speech
At your sixtieth birthday, in the cake’s glow,
Ariel sits on your knuckle.
You feed it grapes, a black one, then a green one,
From between your lips pursed like a kiss.
Why are you so solemn? Everybody laughs
As if grateful, the whole reunion –
Old friends and new friends,
Some famous authors, your court of brilliant minds,
And publishers and doctors and professors,
Their eyes creased in delighted laugher – even
The late poppies laugh, one loses a petal.
The candles tremble their tips
Trying to contain their joy. And your Mummy
Is laughing in her nursing home. Your children
Are laughing from opposite sides of the globe. Your Daddy
Laughs deep in his coffin. And the stars,
Surely the stars, too, shake with laughter.
And Ariel –
What about Ariel?
Ariel is happy to be here.
Only you and I do not smile.
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