The final four poems of Capriccio occupy the Sephiroth of Netzach (7), Hod (8), Yesod (9) and Malkuth (10). Netzach and Hod, like Chesed and Gevurah, lie on the Pillars of Force and Form. Even in the Infernal Regions, they work together and their energies are expressed, respectively, as an active, catabolic Force which breaks down old patterns and a passive, anabolic coalescence of new and abstract Forms.
‘Opus 131’ (C 17)
It is notable that in these last four poems, Assia is no longer an active participant in the Goddess’s plans. Already the Goddess has rendered her nameless and faceless. Now, at Netzach, in ‘Opus 131’, the very “heart” of her, “naked” and “faceless”, is exposed to the “horror” of another dark dimension. Netzach, in the Infernal Regions, lies in the dimension of the Fifth Palace of Hell, which is known as ‘The Shadow of Death’. Cabbalistically, this is the “wrong dimension” It is a place of darkness where Hecate’s carrion birds, the Ravens of Death and Dispersion, go about their ghastly business; a place where ordinary things, even “plain homely daylight”, are powerless to prevent this.
At Netzach, the Goddess uses the powerful energies of the number 7 (Venus’s number) to work on human desires and dreams. Through passion and ecstatic magic, often expressed in music, poetry, dance and other sensual energies, her active Netzachian force brings either renewed inspiration or disintegration and chaos. In the dimension of the Shadow of Death, there can be only chaos.
‘Opus 131’ refers to a piece of music by Beethoven which has its own significance as an expression of the seven-fold, pattern-breaking powers of the Goddess at Netzach. Beethoven wrote his quartet, ‘Opus 131 in C-sharp-minor’, after a prolonged period of sickness, depression and compositional struggle. Plagued by his increasing deafness, he was trying, as Ted says in the poem, “to repair/ The huge constellations of his silence”; and, by breaking all the conventional rules of quartet form in this piece, he succeeded. Opus 131 is written in seven movements (rather than the usual four) which are played without pause so that the work has a sense of continuous energy, fluidity and wholeness1. It was “life-line music” for Beethoven–a desperate attempt to break out of the staleness into which he had fallen–and it represented a completely new, inspired and imaginative expression of his genius. It was life-line music, too, for Assia and Ted, both of whom turned to Beethoven’s music for “consolation, prayer, transcendence”, and the sort of ecstatic release which could effect the “selective disconnecting of the pain centre” when disasters threatened2.
Assia, in Ted’s poem, had particular need of that sensual disconnection from the pain centre, and of the healing this might bring, but she found that Beethoven’s music could no longer provide it. She had waited and “strained listening” to find in the wholeness of the circling “pure zero” patterns of Beethoven’s music, some resolution of her worries ("divorce" and “menopause”). Her desire, the thing her “heart panted for”, was for empathy with the healing beauty of the music (a typically sensual, Netzachian desire). She wanted to be carried away by it in ecstasy. Instead, Beethoven’s composition had “broken down” into its constituent parts: counterpoint, variations, divisions, the independent voices of each instrument; the very “notes” became “sharp faces”, dissociated, independent elements which, like Hecate’s Ravens, tore her apart.
Metaphorically, by the end of the poem, the sharp energy of each note had dismembered her, left her in chaos, and scattered her “different bits” in the universal pool of energies: emotionally and psychologically, Assia was now exhausted, still at the mercy of the Goddess, still waiting in this Hell of the Shadow of Death for some final resolution.
‘Familiar’ (C 18)
‘Familiar’ occupies Hod in the Sixth Palace of Hell which is known as ‘The Gates of Death’. But although Hod lies on the Pillar of Form and its energies works with those of Netzach, in the Infernal Regions it could not bring the resolution that Assia so desired.
‘Familiar’ does describe the passive appearance of form, but it was a ghastly creature, “got up from some atrocity’s ground shadow” which came boldly “walking out” through the dark face of “a woman”. She was the un-named, unidentified one whose company it preferred “to non-existence”, almost as if she were the most convenient, rather than the specially chosen, woman for that purpose. She was “its field”, it “merely” used her body for warmth and was “silent”, and, because of the careful lack of punctuation after the phrase “oceanless waif”, both it and the woman lay inactive on the woman’s bed3.
‘Familiar’ is a word which has its roots in the Old French and Latin words for family. It denotes an intimate. In particular, it refers to a demonic spirit which attends a witch. Generally the demon is a small animal: the witch, a woman. In Ted’s poem woman and the animal were interdependent, and the animal half of this partnership was “of all creatures” a great shire horse.
“Why a horse?”, Ted asks. But his description of the horse identifies it with whiteness, the moon, bones “sucked empty” by starlight, and with atrocities, war and death. This mare was phantasmal: and she was clearly of Hecate’s world, not ours. A daughter of Leucippe, the White Mare who is yet one more form of the Hecate as Goddess of witchcraft4, she was the demon “work-horse” of a witch. But so closely linked was she with the woman that the woman asks “Am I it or is it me… ?”, for throughout Capriccio, she too has been the “work-horse” of the Goddess.
Assia did live close to Highbury Common, but the woman in ‘Familiar’ had no clear identity, only this interdependent intimate association between herself and the white mare. And it is this interdependence which expresses the energies of the number of Hod, which is 8, the linked circles of which depict the Mercurial connection of two worlds. 8 is the number associated with ritual magic; and, most significantly here, it is the number which is known as ‘The Double Feminine’ (SSN 69).
Through their “continuing nearness” and their intimate familiarity with each other, the white mare and the woman constituted the Double Feminine. But the ritual magic, in ‘Familiar’, was Hecate’s black magic. And the woman’s soul (the “migrant” spirit which Mercury should have led through the darkness)was still not separated from her body. She had no spiritual freedom: no awareness of herself as separate from the migrant spirit of the white mare. "Which of us is the tired migrant?", she asked. But there was no answer: no enlightenment, as there should have been at Hod. There were only questions, and listlessness and passive acceptance of her spirit’s bonding with that of this creature from the Underworld.
At Hod, where the number 8 holds the secret of balance, there can be no half-measures in the choice between personal limitations and spiritual freedom. This poem ends, however, with the woman is still questioning her own personal and spiritual identity.
‘Flame’ (C 19)
‘Flame, at Yesod (9), lies in the Seventh (and last) Palace of Hell which is the Palace of the dark Moon Goddesses and which is simply know as ‘Hell’. Malkuth (10) also lies in this Palace.
Yesod is a Moon-governed interface where fluctuating tides of energy flow to-and fro between the Upper Tree, Yesod and Malkuth. It is the dream-place of our lives, a magical place of omens and clairvoyance, a place where underlying abstract patterns (personal and historical) are repeated in different ways, where matter is in flux and where our perceptions, especially our image of ourself, are easily distorted. The Illusion of Yesod is ‘Security’. It is also the place where new insight can make new beginnings possible.
Assia’s identity, in her own eyes, was that of a woman who could bind a man to her with love. Her sense of security came from such a bonding and, also, from living with that man in a shared home. This had been the pattern of her life ever since she had married John Steel when she was just sixteen; and this was the dream in which she still believed. In ‘Flame’, Ted describes Assia’s dream as being kept alive by her search for a new place to live: but the flame of her dream was fanned by artificial means – a “dusty chemistry” of “oxygen mask” and “Green” house names. These, and the “bared, bedroom floorboards” and “suspect” hints of salmon life beneath “stained” waters, were enough to breathe life into it; and “exact” and “measured” calculations of the “rent” (the material cost of such a change) were all that she considered. There was nothing new or real or truly life-giving in this scenario: and no consideration of anything but material existence. At Yesod, where the ‘Foundation’ of any new journey is established and where new insight make enlightenment possible, such repetition of old, material patterns was disastrous. Even Assia intuitively suspected that there was “one, crucial grain of too-much” at “Green Farm”, which undermined the security it seemed to offer, but she clung to her dream.
Resorting to magic and omens, she turned to the “oracular book”. A traditional practice amongst some pious folk is to ask for God’s guidance by letting the Bible or some other holy book fall open, then to randomly selecting a passage from it. But the book to which Assia turned was the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The oracular words she found there, as quoted in ‘Flame’, are spoken by Duke Vicentio at the beginning of Act III of Measure for Measure: but the sentence in the poem is incomplete, as if she read only the first part of it before rejecting its advice. In full, the sentence reads: “Be absolute for death; either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter”5. Duke Vicentio’s speech urges spiritual preparation for death: the acceptance of death in life, since there is no escaping it. The incomplete sentence in ‘Flame’, however, seems to urge a simple worldly choice between death and life.
Misunderstanding the oracle, Assia rejected its advice and chose worldly life, ignoring everything but material considerations, even though it seemed to her that “the Master himself” (who may have been Shakespeare, or God, or whoever else spoke through the oracle) had “undersigned a different contract”. Determined to make a new beginning, she found yet another house as a “back-up fail-safe”: the Dower House – a place intended for widows, rather than for the bride that Assia wished to be. Here, the “paradisal gardens” were a worldly parody of the Garden of Eden, and the gardener, a human substitute for the God who created the gardens of Paradise.
It is clear in ‘Flame’ that the Yesodic Illusion of ‘Security’ allowed Assia to think in terms of “protective devices”, material things which, in fact, were only a makeshift “First Aid Kit” suitable for “bangs” small enough to be muffled by Manchester “bed-covers and blankets”, and for “damage” minor enough to be limited by comfortable padding. None of these material precautions, however, was sufficient to protect her from the all-consuming “nuclear” explosion which actually occurred.
It is not known what “the signed bit of paper” was that acted as “detonator” for this “nuclear reaction” (Ted’s metaphor here appropriately includes the destructive violence of Assia’s reaction to the situation) but in the context of the poem’s place at Yesod, (where, in Cabbala, the marriage of the Bride of Malkuth to the Bridegroom of Tiphereth is consummated) it was most likely something to do with Assia’s recent divorce from David Wevill, whom she still loved, or with the unexpected news of his subsequent marriage to someone else6.
That “history” had “cast [Assia] to repeat itself” suggests the Yesodic perpetuation of abstract form, and it suggests also that Assia’s suicide completed the repetition of the pattern of love, disorder, emotional upheaval and suicide which had occurred previously between Sylvia and Ted. Whatever the detonator was which came “after so many years” with such “precisely attuned” “synchrony”, whatever phone call Assia “barely had time” to make, it is clear in the poem and in the context of its place in the Capriccio sequence, that the powerful magic of Hecate, and the enormous tidal flux of her energies at Yesod, were deadly. For the woman of the Capriccio poems, as for Assia, “it was all over”.
‘Chlorophyll’ (C 20)
Chlorophyll: The green pigment in plants which absorbs energy from the sun in order to transform carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere into carbohydrates for growth and reproduction. In this process, oxygen is released.
Earth, Air, Fire, Water. All of these elements are embodied in the title which Ted chose for this final poem of Capriccio. All of these elements are eternally present at Malkuth (10). ‘Chlorophyll’ occupies the Sephira of Malkuth in the last Palace of Hell and, even in Hell, the energies of Malkuth are present and active, as they are throughout the created World.
The Queen of Malkuth is the Goddess of Nature, Mother Earth, the Shekinah, the Goddess who is known as the Inferior Mother: she is the Moon-lit reflection of The Superior Mother at Binah (3) and she combines darkness with light. Here at Malkuth, her powers over life and death bring ends and beginnings. And, in the number of Malkuth, which is 10, the circle of the human journey is completed and the 1 of the human individual, (‘I’), is joined with the completeness of 0, the World Soul which is the indwelling Spirit of the Supreme Creator.
For Cabbalists, Malkuth is a place of gestation and preparation for rebirth. It is the place where body is joined to Soul so that a new journey can begin.
‘Chlorophyll’ is the most magical Cabbalistic poem of the whole Capriccio sequence. Its sixteen lines, numerologically, add up to 7, a number which possesses the deepest and most far-reaching symbolism of all the numbers, and which, like Malkuth itself, represents completion, form combined with Spirit, rest and preparation for a new journey. (SSN 55). 7 is the most sacred of numbers and by using it to shape this poem, Ted invoked the highest and most harmonious powers of Nature.
Within the poem, too, by the threefold repetition of the phrase “keys/ Of a sycamore”, Ted invoked the Goddess, in particular in her manifestation as Mut, the Egyptian Mother Goddess whose tree is the sycamore, as it is also of her children, Isis and Osiris7.
In England, the double, winged seeds of the sycamore are know as ‘keys’, perhaps because they resemble the winding key of an old clock, but, as seeds, they are also the keys to the tree’s rebirth and, so, embody the mystery and the mastery of Nature. Through these keys, Ted links the mundane and the spiritual in this poem. He also links Assia and himself (‘she’ and ‘him’) and, once again, by the use of pronouns instead of names he links the Goddess with a human male.
After Assia and David Wevill had visited Sylvia and Ted in Devon, Assia put a blade of grass in an envelope and posted it to Ted. It was a cryptic gift, a secret message, which suggested some shared understanding by which Ted would know her meaning. It was an invitation to share a hidden connection between them, and Ted accepted that invitation. Assia loved expensive perfumes, so the blade of grass may well have been “soaked in Dior”, as if magically soaked in her essence. But this perfume was a worldly essence, part of the seductive, “witchy doll” image, which in earlier Capriccio poems, was the mask or “coat” which Assia had chosen in order to conceal her true nature and to entice men. In the context of Capriccio, however, the “witchy doll” “inside” the blade of grass was also the Goddess, with all the dark, sexual powers she uses to seduce the human male.
Truly, inside a simple blade of grass lie all the powers of Nature. And in the blade of grass which Assia sent to Ted, lay the seeds of everything that happened to them.
As in the poem, the beginning of their relationship and the end (the grass and “the gravestone”) were present. There, “inside” the blade of grass were “her only daughter’s” birth and death. There, too, was a sample of the ashes of Assia’s torment and self-immolation8; a sample of the torment and guilt which Ted himself would experience after Assia’s death. Most importantly, inside that blade of grass, as now inside Ted’s poem, were (and are) the keys of a sycamore: not the symbolic sycamore which is the tree of Mut, but a sycamore, a worldly specimen of this tree. Spiralling down, “falling and turning in air”, and in our imaginations, these seeds fall to earth where, if conditions are right, they will germinate in the sun and rain. Air, Earth, Fire and Water, again are brought together in this imagery9.
The keys of the sycamore, in Nature and in this poem, contain the germ of life–that essential, inexplicable energy without which our material universe would not, and could not, exist. This is the fifth Element that is always present at Malkuth, and Ted planted it in his poem for Assia, for the reader, and for himself. So, he ensured that the cycle of death and life which he described throughout Capriccio would come full circle, and a new cycle could begin.
There is yet one more meaning hidden inside the keys of a sycamore in ‘Chlorophyll’. To see this meaning it is necessary to look back at the earlier poems of the Capriccio sequence and at all the suggestions that it was the Goddess’s caprice to manipulate this man and this woman for her own purposes. In particular, we should remember that in ‘The Mythographers’, the Goddess sealed the forehead of her chosen one with her own star.
Ted believed that the patterns of myth repeat themselves. He also believed that writers who, like him, explore their own inner world do so by “organizing the inner world or at least searching out the patterns there and that is mythology” 10. Throughout Capriccio Ted set his relationship with Assia in a mythic framework. It seems likely that in reflecting on the past as he wrote these poems, he not only used myth to distance himself from disturbing memories and emotions (as was necessary on this Path of the Sword), but that he also saw Assia and himself as replicating a mythic pattern. Their love for each other, and especially the hells they went through and the metaphorical and real death and dismemberment they suffered, together with Ted’s own belief in his calling as a shamanic poet, and his knowledge of the Mysteries and other occult, spiritual disciplines, all suggest that he saw similarities between his own journey and that of the sacrificed and reborn consort/son of the Goddess, and, in particular, of the shamanic poets who are summoned to her service.
Ted’s choice of the keys of a sycamore tree as a symbol of rebirth in ‘Chlorophyll’ reinforces this suggestion, for the sycamore is the tree of Osiris, and Osiris was closely associated in Egyptian mythology with the moon, the Underworld and death. His annual rebirth ensured the fertility of the world; and, like Attis, Adonis, Dionysus and other sacrificed gods he was consort of the Goddess of Nature. It seems that Ted believed that the Goddess used her powers to expose him to experiences which would teach him the lessons necessary for his task as her shamanic poet, the one who must fly to the underworld for healing energies and, through the imaginative power of his poetry, help to restore balance and harmony in our world.
So, through ‘Chlorophyll’, Ted used all his Cabbalistic and poetic skills to combine the mythic, the spiritual and the real in order to ensure that Assia’s death would not be in vain; and to plant the seed of his own healing rebirth. Here on the Path of the Sword he undertook the difficult and dangerous task of plunging his sword into his own heart so that he could see his relationship with Assia more clearly; and could seek out and destroy whatever demons remained hidden. All of this was essential if he was to begin afresh on a new, poetic, Cabbalistic journey, as he did in Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers.
As if to complement Ted’s Cabbalistic purpose and to complete the task he undertook in Capriccio, the Baskin etching which faces the poem ‘Chlorophyll’ in the Limited Edition of Capriccio depicts a phoenix-like bird arising from a green profusion of grasses, leaves and flowers.
In addition, on the very last page of the book – after the poems, after the short, beautifully shaped note outlining the publication details, after Ted’s and Baskin’s signatures – there sits one last Baskin etching. It is a picture of a spider, set in an eight-sided frame. It is a picture of the Goddess herself: she who sits at the centre of the Web of Illusion which is our world; she who is the Mystical Centre embodied in Nature; she who connects Heaven and Earth with her Mercurial thread.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. Opus 131 has been described as expressing savage, raw emotions, sadness and tragic foreboding, but it has at its heart a folk-like theme which binds the movements together with an ephemeral beauty and which ultimately explodes into ecstatic joy.
2. Ted, when asked about his sources of inspiration, said of Beethoven and Blake: “if you could dig to the bottom of my strata maybe their names and works would be the deepest traces”. He also spoke of the violent energies of the world being expressed in the “violence of great works” and in “those moments of [of artistic genius] in Beethoven”. Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. pp. 202 and 199).
3. The white mare is "oceanless", perhaps, because the white tops of rough, wind-blown waves are known as ‘white horses’: so, the sea is her element, as it is that of the Goddess.
4. Robert Graves notes that in 1673 a woman accused of witchcraft confessed to having been temporarily transformed into a mare. Graves, The White Goddess, Faber, 1977, p. 385.
5. In this speech Duke Vicentio expounds on the theme of an essay by French Hermeticist, Philippe Du Plessis Mornay, which in 1592 was translated into English by Mary Sidney, Duchess of Pembroke, sister of Sir Philip Sidney the leader of the Areopagus poets who used Cabbalistic number theory in their poems. Du Mornay wrote: “Neither ought we to fly from death, for it is childish to fear it; and in fleeing from it we meet it”. His Discourse of Life and Death ends: “Die to Live / Live to Die”. Appropriately, Measure for Measure, despite its Cabbalistically balanced title, is a play about unbalanced love, lust, severe justice and trickery: above all, it demonstrates the need for balance.
6. On 9 Oct. 1968 Assia’s divorce from David Wevill was granted. The letter from the Registry notifying her that it was final and absolute did not arrive until mid-February 1969. She wrote to David at that time wishing him every happiness. Shortly after that, unknown to Assia, David married again. For the first time since she married John Steele in 1947, Assia was unmarried and living alone with her small daughter. She was forty-two years old. In March Assia and Ted were house-hunting in Yorkshire. On 22 March Ted returned to Devon: Assia to her flat in London. On 23 March, 1969, Assia committed suicide, taking her small daughter with her.
7. Budge, W. The Gods of the Egyptians, Dover, NY, 1969, Book II, pp. 103, 107-8.
8. As described in ‘The Error’ (C 16).
9. Air is the Element of Mercury, who links heaven and earth. And, suitably, the round, linked, twin domes of a sycamore seed without its wings (as it will be when it begins to germinate) resemble Mercury’s number, 8.
10. “Every writer”, Ted told Faas, “develops either outwards into society and history… or inwards into imagination and beyond that into spirit… ”. Everything he said to Faas about the summoning of shamanic poets and about their journey to the underworld for healing energies is also of particular relevance here. Faas, op.cit. pp. 204-206.
Poetry and Magic 3: Capriccio 5 text and illustrations.
Â© Ann Skea 2007. For permission to quote any part of this document
contact Dr Ann Skea at email@example.com
Return to The Ted Hughes Homepage for more options