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The Ultimate Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Cheatsheet | English Advanced Module A [Free Annotated Essay]

In this article, we go through the summaries, themes and key contextual points in the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes set for Module A: Textual Conversations.

Do you find it challenging to discuss Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’ poetry? Are you looking to demonstrate a strong understanding of how they are related? This is your ultimate Plath and Hughes cheatsheet! We’ll go over the main themes they explore in their poetry and some key contextual points.

 

In our Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Cheatsheet, we discuss:

 

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What is Module A: Textual Conversations?

Module A is a comparative study of texts. A comparative study is when you study two texts together and compare them. You will examine what they have in common and also how they differ.

In a comparative study, you explore the content, themes, and construction of the texts. You will also consider the contexts of both texts and the effect this has on the texts’ meaning and possibly on its construction.

‘Textual Conversation’ is a metaphor for texts sharing a relationship made up of themes, ideas, intertextuality and context.

They have a conversation, of sorts, because the more recent text is commenting on aspects of the older texts. It goes without saying that this very much a one-way conversation as the older text cannot comment on the more recent one. In this case, Sylvia Plath’s poetry is the older text, which Ted Hughes directly engages with in his poetry.

Are you still confused? We break down all the Module A syllabus dot points in our Year 12 English Advanced Module A Guide.

Now that you know what Module A is all about, let’s take a look at the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and see where they fit in.

 

Prescribed texts:

Click on the titles to read the full poem on an external site.

 

Sylvia Plath’s poem summaries

 

‘Daddy’

Plath uses a second person voice to directly address her father. The speaker voices her disdain for her father and his oppressive treatment of her. She even goes so far to say that she tried to “kill” her father, but is betrayed by the fact that he “died before [she] had time”.

So, she is haunted by her memory of him. She reveals that she attempted suicide when she was 20 years old to try to reach him and receive closure. Coupled with her recurring description of her father as a Nazi and herself as a Jew facing persecution, her raw choice of language evokes discomfort, to say the least.

She also implies that she married a man (“I said I do, I do”) who is very similar to her father (“I made a model of you”) and compares her husband to a vampire who has been drinking her blood for 7 years.

In the last stanza, she announces that her father’s heart has been pierced with a stake, and that villagers, who “never liked [him]”, are now “dancing and stamping on [him]”. She concludes the poem by declaring that she’s completely done with her father: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Wooden model in reference to how Plath felt she was controlled by her father

 

‘Nick and the Candlestick’

Plath adopts the perspective of a woman who uses a second person voice to address her baby boy — Nick. It’s interesting to note that Plath’s own son, Nicholas, was born not long before she wrote this poem.

From the outset, the speaker compares herself to a miner in an old cave, establishing a metaphor that would extend throughout the whole poem. There are three references to a candle:

  1. The title ‘Nick and the Candlestick
  2. The speaker holds a candlelight to navigate the cave — the flame is weak, but the only source of light.
  3. The dripping water from the cave’s ceiling reminds her of wax dripping from a candlestick.

The cave seems rather eerie and unwelcoming, as it is filled with echoes and piranhas (flesh-eating fish). However, the speaker finds comfort with the presence of her son and assures him that he is neither the cause nor the target of the pain that the world inflicts.

The speaker explains how she tried to make the cave more inviting and homely by hanging “roses” and “soft rugs”. She concludes that she would be content even if the world was to end tonight because her love for her son has been enough to fulfil her life.


‘A Birthday Present’

The speaker is a woman who speculates what her birthday present might be. Plath uses a second person voice to discuss this present with an unknown figure — presumably, the person who gave her this gift.

The poem becomes rather ominous when the speaker reveals that she “feels” this present “looking” and “thinking”. The speaker portrays the mundanity of her domestic life and finds it frustrating to conform social expectations of women.

The speaker then says that she doesn’t mind what she gets as a present — a seemingly normal statement, which is followed by the alarmingly justification that she is unwillingly living on what she believes to be borrowed time.

After all I am alive only by accident.
I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.

It soon becomes clear that she believes that her birthday present is death. It’s almost as though the speaker trying to convince the rule-abiding and domesticated part of her identity to accept death and discreetly commit suicide.

Do not be afraid, it is not so.
I will only take it and go aside quietly.

Plath emphasises the inevitability of death and the fact that we are all slowly dying. She frames it like the speaker would be doing herself a favour by committing suicide now, instead of waiting for “the whole of it [to be] delivered” when she’s “sixty” years old and “too numb to use it”.


‘Lady Lazarus’

The speaker parallels her unsuccessful suicide attempts to Lazarus’ death and resurrection in the bible. She speaks of death as though it is the only way to escape the oppression of a patriarchal society, but much to her despair, she is constantly revived and forced to face the harsh reality.

To add to this disturbing picture, she portrays society’s sadistic fascination with her suffering. She feels like no one truly cares about her and people only pay attention to her because her struggles are like an entertaining soap opera to them:

The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Yet, she ends the poem warning that she will return to seek revenge on the men who did her wrong:

Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Sunset

 

‘Fever 103°’

In a BBC broadcast in 1962, Plath described the poem to be “about two kinds of fire – the fires of hell, which merely agonize, and the fires of heaven, which purify. During the poem, the first sort of fire suffers itself into the second.”

As the title suggests, the speaker is lying in bed with a high fever, which potentially makes her hallucinate about such vivid images of hell and heaven. She opens the poem by asking: “Pure? What does it mean?”, suggesting that she struggles to find moral guidance and truth in the world.

She reveals how she is very much afraid of her own immoral nature and fears that it will lead to her demise like “Isadora’s scarves” — Isadora was an American dancer who unfortunately passed away in a freak car accident; apparently, her iconically-long scarf got caught in a wheel of the car in motion and strangled her.

Ultimately, the speaker restores faith in herself and declares that she is “too pure for you or anyone”. She feels like she is leaving behind her past mistakes and sins, as she rises to paradise.


‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’

The first person speaker contemplates the power she has over the fate of the bees in the box, which is exciting at times and overwhelming at others. She sets a dark tone when she says the box looks like “the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby”. The bees in the box could be an extended metaphor for her tumultuous struggle with depression.

The speaker reveals how she is weary of the “dangerous” nature of the box, but “can’t keep away from it” and tries to peek into the box through “a little grid”. She compares the “angrily clambering” bees to African slaves. While this implies that she may feel bad about mistreating the bees, she finds herself unable to let them out, as she explores the extent of her power over them:

They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the own.

Although she claims that she will show the bees mercy by setting them free, she only resolves to do so tomorrow. This leaves the readers with an uncertainty of whether she will stay true to her word, and suggests that she may enjoy having power more than she will admit.

 

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Ted Hughes’ poem summaries

 

‘Fulbright Scholars’

The speaker recalls a time when he was 25 years old and happened to take note of a news bulletin featuring the recipients of the Fulbright scholarship — a US program for foreign exchange students. He maintains a second person voice to address a woman (probably Plath) and speculates that he may have unknowingly seen her for the first time then.

He uses rhetorical questions and qualifying words like “maybe” and “unlikely” to express his lack of confidence in his memory. How much of the poem is actually true is not clear, as he even embeds an affectionate description the young woman, obscuring the distinction between his present and former knowledge:

your long hair, loose waves –
Your Veronica Lake bang.

Your exaggerated American
Grin for the cameras, the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.

He ends the poem on a seemingly unrelated note, admiring the freshness of a peach.


‘The Shot’

In this poem, Hughes offers a new perspective of Sylvia’s mental health struggles, which ultimately led to her suicide. The speaker claims that she worshipped her father and when he passed, she was troubled for life. He believes she was fixated on finding a replacement for her father and that she had targeted the speaker to be that replacement.

The speaker portrays how he was helpless and unable to prevent Sylvia from taking this path of destruction:

You were undeflected.
You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,
Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect

In the last stanza, he does appear to express regret, saying that “the right witchdoctor / Might have caught [her] in flight” and ultimately prevented her demise. However, he acknowledges the sad reality of her passing and reminisces over what is left of her:

A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.

Watch, necklace and ring on a wooden table

 

‘A Picture of Otto’

Sylvia Plath’s late father was named Otto, as mentioned in the title of this poem. Hughes encounters Otto in the underworld while searching for Sylvia. Hughes addresses Otto in second person to offer sympathy and seek affirmation from him.

In her poem ‘Daddy’, Sylvia highlights the similarities between the men and their mistreatment of her. However, Hughes suggests that her portrayal of them is skewed by her perspective and does not reflect their true selves, even going so far to label it as a “myth”.

I was a whole myth too late to replace you.

He empathises with Otto and reinforces the notion that neither of them are to blame for Sylvia’s downfall.

I understand – you never could have released her.


‘Fever’

The speaker recounts a time when his wife was sick and had a fever in Spain. He describes how he cared for her by making her a soup, spoon feeding her, wiping away her tears and comforting her. However, he reveals that he questioned whether she was exaggerating how much pain she was in.

How sick is she? Is she exaggerating?

The speaker recounts how he wished that she would stop making a big deal out of petty things, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to tell when she was seriously suffering and needed his help. Eventually, he becomes desensitised to his wife’s cries and suffering, which he explains was his way to cope.

Then the blank thought
Of the anaesthesia that helps creatures
Under the polar ice, and the callous
That eases overwhelmed doctors

The speaker ends the poem with an apathetic and blunt description of him nursing his sick wife, contrasting the warmth in his tone earlier.

The stone man made soup.
The burning woman drank it.

 

‘The Bee God’

Hughes talks about how Plath started keeping bees and suggests that this was her attempt to reconnect with her late father, Otto Plath, who specialised in bee entomology.

It meant your Daddy had come up out of the well.

The speaker portrays how Plath was unable to leave behind her obsession with her father, as she uses the bees as am object of worship for her father.

But you bowed over your bees
As you bowed over your Daddy

He explains how he wanted to help Plath overcome her internal demons, but Plath was too obsessed with her father (symbolised by the bees) and could not be saved.

You did not want me to go but your bees
Had their own ideas

He dramatically describes how he is stung by the bees and Plath tries to help him. However, he concludes that their relationship could not be saved, as Plath was inescapably burdened by her traumatic memories of her father.


‘Red’

Hughes’ begins the poem by claiming that “Red was your colour” and then adds that “If not red, then white”. He appears to be addressing Plath and uses the colours red, white and blue to symbolise different attributes of Plath’s complex character.

The speaker associates the colour red with:

  • Death and immortality: he mentions “red-ochre” and “haematite” used in burial rituals
  • Judgement: he describes their room as a “judgement chamber”
  • Blood: in the “carpet”, “curtains” and “blood-falls”
  • Sacrifice: he refers to an “Aztec altar — temple” where the Aztecs reportedly made thousands of human sacrifices to their gods (a gory ceremony that involved slicing out the hearts of their victims)
  • Roses and flowers: apparently, Plath’s father named her after “Salvias” (a type of flower)
  • Sexuality: he portrays a sensual image of Plath’s long velvet skirt and red lips

It’s not clear what the colour white means to the speaker, but it does seem to connote purity and serenity contrasting the graphic and intimidating representation of the colour red. However, Hughes conveys how this sense of security and peace does not prevail, as it is overwhelmed by red “dripping” and “weeping roses”

Everything you painted you painted white
Then splashed it with roses, defeated it

The speaker suggests that “Blue was [a] better [colour] for you.” He associates the colour blue with:

  • Freedom: “wings”
  • Beauty and motherhood: “Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco / Folded your pregnancy”
  • Care and warmth: “kindly spirit — not a ghoul / But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful”

After establishing distinct connotations of “red”, “white” and “blue”, he concludes that Plath’s attempt to avoid being associated with “white” attributes has fuelled her “red” attributes and ultimately caused her lose touch with her kind and happy demeanour associated with “blue”.

In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.
But the jewel you lost was blue.

Red flowers

 

Key Contextual Information

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet and Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was an English poet. They married in 1956 and lived together in the United States of America and then in England. Their relationship was the subject of much public scrutiny and Plath ultimately took her own life. In order to make sense of their poems, it’s important to think about how the time they lived in was different from today.

 

Sylvia Plath

Plath’s father was a German immigrant college professor. He died suddenly in 1940 and in many of her poems, Plath discusses their troubled relationship that was further complicated by his early death. Even as a teenager, Plath was recognised for her skilful writing and was awarded numerous times for her stories and poetry. These accolades enabled her to gain a scholarship to Smith College where she succeeded academically and was well-liked by her peers.

However, behind closed doors, Plath battled severe depression and possibly undiagnosed bipolar disorder. She tried to take her own life aged 20, but was hospitalised and revived with electro-shock therapy. She eventually recovered and met Ted Hughes at Cambridge University in England, while on a Fulbright scholarship grant. They married just four months after, in 1956.

In unpublished letters to her therapist between 1960 and 1963, Plath alleged that Hughes beat her and told her that he wished she was dead. In 1962, they separated and Plath took care of their two young children.

Not longer after, Plath committed suicide aged 30. Since they were still in the process of their divorce at the time, Hughes was still officially her husband. So, he inherited her estate, which included the rights to all her work. Hughes published Plath’s collection of poems ‘Ariel’ posthumously, notably editing the final result and burning all her journals. He explained that he was trying to respect the dignity and privacy of Plath and his family.

The Fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts. Where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and of mine), or for her memory, or for the literary tradition, I do not know.
– Ted Hughes


Ted Hughes

Hughes was born in Yorkshire where he would enjoy hunting, fishing, swimming and picnicking with his family. His parents owned and worked at their newsagency and tobacco shop. After his family moved to Mexborough when he was seven, Hughes attended Mexborough Grammar School. There, he was encouraged by multiple teachers to pursue his interest in poetry and was largely inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot.

Some of his early poems and stories were published him the school magazine, and by 16, he was certain that he would become a poet. He earned a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, which he accepted after completing his two years of national service. However, he did not enjoy the academic side of poetry and struggled to write poetry at the time because he felt stifled by the “terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus” of literary tradition.

Post university, Hughes undertook many different jobs including being a gardener, nightwatchman and a reader for a film company. He wrote some poetry throughout and in 1956, he and his peers from Cambridge launched their poetry journal, St. Botolph’s Review. At its launch party, Plath and Hughes met for the first time.


Women and Second-Wave Feminism

During the early to mid-20th century when Plath was alive, the feminine ideal in American culture was very restricted and narrow. Women were expected to identify as wives and mothers, and find fulfilment in being a domestic housewife. Plath expresses her frustration at these ideals in her poem ‘A Birthday Present’:

Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.

After Plath committed suicide in 1963, she became an icon for feminism — she was portrayed as a bright young woman who was oppressed and done wrong by the men in her life. Feminist supporters were so indignant at Hughes’ treatment of Plath and his denial of it that they repeatedly carved off the last name “Hughes” inscribed on her headstone.

Woman reading a newspaper while a man washes clothes in reference to feminism in Plath and Hughes cheatsheet

 

Confessional Poetry

Plath is considered to be one of the first confessional poets. In confessional poetry, the poet and the speaker are the same person — there’s no need to distinguish between the persona the poet is trying to portray and themselves. Plath was raw and vulnerable in her poetry, and her personal accounts were highly confronting and ground-breaking.

Previously, such personal and private experiences regarding mental health, relationships and death were not talked about so openly, especially in an autobiographical manner.

Major themes and examples

  • Relationships
  • Mental Health
  • Responsibility

Now that we know a bit about the context of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, it’s time to consider the major themes which their poetry explores.

 

Theme 1: Relationships

Sylvia’s relationship with her father, son, husband and even herself inspires much of her poetry. Meanwhile, Hughes’ collection of ‘Birthday Letters’ almost solely addresses Plath, with the exception of the poem ‘A Picture of Otto’, which addresses her father for the sake of discussing her in more depth.

Plath offers a brutally honest and introspective insight into her relationships. Despite her alleged claims of domestic abuse, it is interesting to note that she only explicitly mentions Hughes in ‘Daddy’ when she compares him to her father. However, we must keep in mind that Hughes had the authority to edit all of Plath’s posthumous poetry.

Here are some examples from Plath’s texts:

1. She describes how she felt oppressed by her father in ‘Daddy’

“I have lived like a foot [in a black shoe]
For thirty years, poor and white”

This ultimately fuels her vicious disdain for her father, which she conveys rather graphically:

“There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.”

2. In spite of all her troubles, she finds genuine happiness with her son in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’

“Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address

You are the baby in the barn.”

Even if the world was to end, Plath makes it clear that she will not complain because she has her beloved son.

3. She is frustrated by how she conforms to the social expectations for women in ‘A Birthday Present’

Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.

Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!

Note how Plath addresses herself in second person in ‘A Birthday Present’. This suggests that she does not have a clear sense of identity, but rather conflicting and changing perceptions of herself. This probably stems from her troubled past and the stringent social standards imposed on women during America in the mid-20th century.


Theme 2: Mental Health

Plath’s poetry in ‘Ariel’ maintains a strong focus on her struggles with mental health. Instead of trying to justify her troubles, she offers us a raw description of her fears, frustrations and contemplation of suicide.

Hughes, on the other hand, speculates the cause of Plath’s premature death and talks about how his relationship with Plath was burdened by her mental health battles.

Here are some examples from Hughes’ texts:

1. He suggests that Plath’s decision to start beekeeping is proof that she never escaped her father’s influence in ‘The Bee God’.

But you bowed over your bees,
As you bowed over your Daddy.

Plath’s father was a professor of biology who specialised in bee entomology, so we can see why Hughes’ makes this connection.

2. Hughes stands in solidarity with Otto Plath in ‘A Picture of Otto’.

I understand – you never could have released her.
I was a whole myth too late to replace you.

Hughes implies that there was nothing that he or Otto (Sylvia Plath’s father) could have done to help Sylvia overcome her mental demons — she was too fixated on the loss of her father and finding a replacement for him, which happened to be Hughes.

On a surface level, the poems seem to portray a blame game between by Plath and Hughes, where they attribute the degradation of their relationship and happiness to another person.

Theme 3: Responsibility

However, if we really consider why both poets felt the need to write their poems, we can deduce that there must have been some sense of responsibility, guilt and anguish that plagued their minds. Poetry was an outlet for them to express themselves, contemplate their future and take responsibility for their past.

 

 

Written by Matrix English Team

The Matrix English Team are tutors and teachers with a passion for English and a dedication to seeing Matrix Students achieving their academic goals.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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