Path number 5, the Path of The Emperor, is another path like that of The High Priestess which bridges the Great Abyss1. It links the upper, Ideal, level of the Sephirothic Tree with the lower, Actual, levels of time, space and matter into which we humans are born and in which we live. It links Wisdom (Chokmah - 2) with Beauty, Love, The Way (Tiphereth - 6).
Five is the sacred number of life. It represents the Divine spirit entombed in matter: the sacred mystery at the heart of life: the animating Mercurial Essence. In Cabbala, five is associated with breath, inspiration and the sacred and hidden female Mysteries; and the five vowels of the language are regarded as the foci of spiritual forces. These vital, animating forces are centres of good and evil, order and chaos; they are forces of change and evolution, and they link us with the first creation of our world. The symbol for five is the Pentagram.
The letter which represents The Emperor’s path in the Hebrew alphabet is Hé (Window). Through this window the fiery Sun of the Source shines down on worldly matter to create Beauty and to generate life. Through it, too, the Light of the Mother flows with pregnant power to instil in that life the embryo of love and inspiration. Hé is the path of worldly creation, of new beginnings, of birth and of novices. It is another threshold fraught, as any birth must be, with particular dangers. On this path, the journeyer who is wise will heed “the voice of his inner monitor” (Heline, Sacred Science of Numbers, DeVorss, 1997. p. 33) and trust the divine spirit within.
The Emperor’s astrological sign is the Fire sign, Aries (the Ram). He is the embodiment of active, male, generative energies (the sperm which fertilizes the ovum), which are like thunder and lightning - dangerous and electrifying but also beautiful; or like the fierce flame and the warm glow of fire. He is alchemical Sulphur (golden and energising, but also corrosive) which works on mutable matter to change, fix and balance volatile mercurial energies. He is the emblem of male authority in our world: he is Father, Husband, Law-maker.
Just as The Empress’s numbers were both 4 and 3, so The Emperor’s numbers are both 5 and 4. The position in which The Emperor’s body is shown in traditional Tarot packs demonstrates this. His head and arms form an equilateral triangle (which represents the supernal triangle of numbers 1, 2 and 3) below which his crossed legs represent the bisected lines of the number 2. Together, a triangle surmounting a cross forms the alchemical sign for Fire, and the numbers thus represented add up to five. Also in the traditional Tarot packs, The Emperor is shown with the sceptre, orb and shield which represent worldly power. So, since four is the number of worldly stability (represented by a closed square), The Emperor represents strength, stability, and the imposition of form and limits. Like Blake’s Law-maker, Urizon2, he creates his world according to the laws of reason. He sets limits and enforces rules and boundaries: restores order from chaos, establishes morality and self-discipline, and shapes the practical pursuit of creative goals.
Just as the archetype Male of Chokmah and the archetype Female of Binah occupy the apex of the Pillars of Force/Mercy and Form/Justice and balance and complement each other, so, the Emperor’s Sephira 5 (Gevurah: Strength) and the Empress’s Sephira 4 (Chesed: Love) occupy complementary and balancing positions lower down the Pillars. The traveller on The Emperor’s path, then, must learn that for worldly love to be whole and beneficial it must be tempered by individual strength of mind, self-restraint and judgement. As with the creative energies of The Empress, the Emperor’s powers are ambivalent: his practical strength may channel the Divine Will towards beneficial or destructive ends. So, if the lessons of the earlier paths have not been well learned and wisdom, understanding and love are not combined with his strength, the seduction of power may create cruelty, tyranny, stultifying restrictions, bigotry and the illusion of invincibility.
Suitably, the poem on the Path of the Emperor in the archetypal World of Atziluth is ‘Sam’ (BL 10). It is a poem which dramatically suggests the precipitous and dangerous plunge which the Cabbalistic journeyer must make across the Abyss in order to continue the journey. It is also a poem which embodies fierce, unpredictable, masculine energies.
The event which the poem describes, however, took place some months before Sylvia and Ted met. On 12 December, 1955, Sylvia had gone riding with Dick Wertz (an American friend at Cambridge) and her usually placid horse had bolted (Stevenson, Bitter Fame, Viking, 1989. p. 66). Ted at this time knew nothing of Sylvia, nor she of him, and the event, seemingly, has nothing to do with the Birthday Letters story except that Sylvia, much later, wrote a poem about it. Why, then, did Ted include the poem just here in the sequence?
Apart from its Cabbalistic significance (which will be discussed later), the placement of the poem may relate to entries in Sylvia’s journal which do fit the chronology of events on which Birthday Letters is based. These entries were made shortly after Ted and Sylvia had first met and in them she writes of her ride on Sam and links it to a total commitment to love - but not love of Ted.
On 6 March, 1956, ten days after the breathless entry which describes her first meeting with Ted, Sylvia copied into her journal an impassioned letter to Richard Sassoon. “I love you with all my heart and soul and body”, she wrote. And, “I was thinking of the few times in my life I have felt I was all alive, tensed and using everything in me: mind and body” (SPJ 6 March 1956). Sylvia identifies one of these times as her runaway ride on Sam; also, she continues, “there are the many, many times I have given myself to that fury and death which is loving you”.
Distressed and distraught as Sylvia appears to be in this long journal entry, she is patently giving herself over to the dangerous energies she describes, just as when she clung onto Sam “jarred breathless, thinking in ecstasy: “is this the way the end will be?”. “I luxuriate in this”, she writes. And much of the entry is consciously penned for dramatic effect, with sonorous repetitions: “… why must I only cry and freeze, cry and freeze?”; and with a stylish finale: “Come my couch. Goodnight and goodnight”.
For the next few days Sylvia’s energies seem to have remained turbulent. On 8 March, she briefly contemplates marrying “some young man with a brilliant father”. The next day she rejoices that she “could write ten novels and vanquish gods”. Then, on 10 March, only four days after her letter to Sassoon, she writes with that same intensity of her desire for Ted.
Anyone reading these journal entries can feel Sylvia’s headlong plunge forward and the sort of “bounced and dangling anguish” which Ted imagines for her in the poem ‘Sam’. There is the same “clinging on” and the same “free-fall” with only a vestige of “steerage” left. Love and life and abandon had, indeed, become “all of a piece” (BL 10) and Sylvia, herself, likened her abandon to that of her ride on Sam during which, as she later wrote, “fear, wisdom” were “at one” with “all colours/spinning to still in his whiteness” (‘Whiteness I Remember’ SPCP 102).
In Ted’s poem it is as if it was only this abandon which kept Sylvia from the “horribly hard, swift river” which she, in her journal entry about Sam, identified with death (“Is this the way the end will be?”). There was “luck” and an animal instinct for self-preservation, but, Ted suggests, there was also something more – some greater force that kept Sylvia alive at that time for its own purposes: “Something in you not you did it for itself”; and “Maybe your poems/ Saved themselves… ”.
In the final six lines of the poem, Ted seems to suggest that although Sylvia abandoned herself to the turbulent forces at that time and came safely through, she did not learn from the experience. It was “practice” but “not enough, and quite useless”. So, when he himself became the cause of a similar turbulent and dangerous emotional ride for her, when he “jumped the fence” (so to speak) in their marriage, she forgot the lesson of Sam, clung to him only briefly, then threw herself off. Just such a throwing off and separation of herself from Ted is apparent in the letters Sylvia wrote to her mother after she had asked Ted to leave their Devon home (SPLH from 27 April 1962, onwards). In these, she appears fiercly proud and independent, seems to have buried her love, and is considering divorce. She is also trusting the judgement and advice of family and friends, rather than her own instincts3. The final lines of Ted’s poem are an appalling description of Sylvia’s suicide. In her attempt to stop the turbulent energies completely, Sylvia died, and her death effectively “tripped” Ted and brought him down too.
Such an interpretation as this is, of course, speculative. And others, certainly, have interpreted the poem differently.
One suggestion has been that ‘Sam’ takes as its subject Sylvia’s poem, ‘Whiteness I Remember’ (SPCP 102), which she wrote in July 1958 and which she considered to be “a book poem” (SPJ 9 July 1958). This early poem is seen as “practice”: as a trial run for her later, much better poem about another horse-ride, ‘Ariel’ (SPCP 239). But, whether because the poem did not achieve perfection or because Sylvia is thought to have found a ‘voice’ and style in this early poem but discarded it and not found it again until four years later in the Ariel poems, this early writing practice was “not enough, and quite useless”. Neither of these interpretations adequately explains the last four lines of ‘Sam’, nor does it explain why Ted chose to single out a “quite useless” poem as his topic or to use it at just this point in the Birthday Letters sequence.
Whatever the overt, surface meaning of ‘Sam’, however, a Cabbalistic interpretation is still appropriate.
On the Emperor’s path, the journeyer is subject to the energies of the Great Father, the All Begetter, the creator of form in the material world. The Light of the Mother, too, shines on this path through the Window (Hé) filling that world with inspiration and love. This, is the first path on which the Divine energies are manifested in the material world: the point at which Spirit becomes entombed in matter. It is a path of evolution, change, new life, new creation and the path of novices.
Sam, the horse Sylvia was given to ride, was a stallion. She describes him in ‘Whiteness I Remember’ as being of “tried sobriety”; a fatherly “stable-horse” suitable for “novices” (SPCP 102). Under her, however, this fatherly horse became suddenly like a Jovian Thunderbolt which carried her precipitously over (as Ted says in ‘Sam’) “that horribly hard, swift river” of “the cataract of macadam”. Macadam is a tar-sealed road surface, but the word also means, literally, ‘son of Adam’4. So, the cataract is not only the potential “end” which Sylvia saw and wrote of in her journal entry, it is also linked with the origin of human life and the dark river of time and death to which all life in the material world is subject. Sylvia clung on like a “baby monkey” (a hint of evolution, as well as a reference to instinct) and “Hammocked” in her body, like an embryo in the womb, were the poems she would later produce. Beneath her, as if from some Wagnerian pit, Sylvia heard “the clangour of the iron shoes”, and iron, too, is an element associated with this particular Cabbalistic path because of its connection with the All Father/Jove/Zeus.
Alchemically the stallion, Sam, may be seen as the fiery Sulphurous energies which overcame the Mercurial, mutable body (that was Sylvia), and stripped it of its accumulated worldly dross so that only the gold (the vital essence, the breath of inspiration) remained in the ‘temple’ of the body.
Cabbalistically, Sylvia, travelling this path of Hé, survived these fiery energies long enough for them to carry her across the Abyss to a more fixed and stable place (Sam’s “stable”, as Ted ambiguously describes it). There, the embryo poems would eventually be born, but the dross of the world, as is usual for novices, would accumulate again. Sylvia had been shown ‘The Way’ of instinct and love but, at a later time (Ted suggests in ‘Sam’) when she should have remembered the lesson of that ride, she tried instead to take control and was consumed by those energies “in a flash”.
In ‘The Chipmunk’ (BL 62), the poem on the Path of the Emperor in the fluid, pattern-forming World of Briah, the flashing, energies of the Emperor are less fierce, less archetypal, more of our world. The poem is still full of energy and movement but the electrifying flash is channelled through “circuitry”: it is the flash of animal energy in the circuitry of the body, and of flashlights, flash-bulbs, a flickering film, a snapshot.
Ted and Sylvia, at this time, have figuratively crossed an Abyss – the great gulf of the Atlantic Ocean – and, like the Pilgrim Fathers before them, are beginning their new life in America “under the Cape Cod conifers” on the Massachusetts coast5.
On this Cabbalistic path of Hé, where the origins of life are joined to the present and the future, Ted’s chipmunk, with its pure “flowing”, “rippling, bobbing” mercurial energy, is linked from the beginning of the poem with the world of folk-stories and with “aboriginal” America. Ted calls it “the first real native” and, like a figment of the imagination, this “wood-elf” comes over roots which could be both the roots of the ancient conifers and its own (and our) primitive ancestry. Ambiguously, too, it is the “first scout” of wild game, working (like the demon weasles in Remains of Elmet (ROE 63), which it resembles in size, movement and energy) as a servant and emissary of Nature and reconnoitring the “wild game” in its territory – which, here, is Ted and Sylvia.
It sees Ted (or Ted sees it see him), as locked away from nature, trapped in the world of his book like a prisoner. And Ted, woken by its restless movement and by its “peremptory” “tail-gesture” (which suggests a deliberately provocative rudeness), recognizes exactly that disparity between the free-flowing natural energies and the caged, controlled, rational energies which he has described in the first half of this poem. He sees, too, in a momentary, instinctive chipmunk-face, which Sylvia makes in a retort to him, the orphaned, natural child beneath the controlled, sophisticated veneer which Sylvia habitually maintains.
All this happens “in a flash-still” and the result of Ted’s enlightenment is entirely consistent with the energies of this particular Cabbalistic path. Ted recognizes, like “my snapshot for life”, the instinctive, natural energies which lie imprisoned (orphaned, even) within himself and in Sylvia and which need to be nurtured. He recognizes, in other words, The Way, and he greets it with a shout of recognition. But, as always on the Path of the Emperor, there are responsibilities involved, too. The last three lines of the poem link Ted’s recognition with a promise. This promise is demanded of him by a spirit of Nature which could be the chipmunk of the poem, the “dim”, orphaned, primitive “woodland spirit” in Ted and Sylvia, and even the ghost of Sylvia’s dead father (since Sylvia had, in a sense, become an orphaned child at the age of eight when her father died). Whatever it is that requires Ted to swear “To take his orphan”, it is clearly a masculine spirit. And, by using only the unqualified word “take”, Ted suggests the completeness of the responsibility which falls on him with this promise. Again, on this particular path, Fatherly duties and responsibilities are important and such a promise is consistent with this.
So, Ted (but not Sylvia) has been shown The Way (the Briatic pattern for future action), which is one of balance between the rude, wild, natural energies which he and Sylvia inherit (as do we all) and the rational, controlled energies which society has encouraged them, so successfully, to adopt. It is a way, too, of responsibility associated with love.
The World of Yetzirah, is the World of Formation, where patterns crystalize and become fixed. Just such ordering and fixation are already part of the Emperor/Father’s nature, so one would expect his controlling powers to be strongest here on his own path, and the journeyer needs to take extra care.
In ‘The Minotaur’ (BL 120), at this lower level of the Cabbalistic Worlds, there is no clear pathway like the one which Sam took “straight down the white line of the Barton Road” in the earlier poem. Instead, there is a labyrinth of echoing tunnels and dead ends, in which is hidden a devouring monster. The ‘Mercurialv messenger, who in ‘The Chipmunk’ was a friendly wood-elf, is now a goblin – already a “cave”-dweller in the depths of Sylvia’s ear - come to lure her into the labyrinth. And the energies, here, are Sulphurous, corroding energies, channelled into human anger and destruction.
Suitably, “the hammer” in line four of the poem (which can, like Jove’s hammer wield the Emperor’s power) is attributed to no-one. It stands, momentarily, alone before becoming the stool which Sylvia swings in “demented”, uncontrolled anger like a true daughter of Jove. And it destroys the “heirloom sideboardv which is Ted’s link (in this poem) with his mother and his past. Metaphorically, the Father’s powers, here, destroy the “broad plank” of stability and the inherited, continuous connection with human origins which the Mother provides.
Ted’s shout, a sudden, intuitive flash as he is infected by Sylvia’s anger, is uncontrolled. Only later, as he regains his self-control and orders his thoughts, does this intuition harden into a “considered”, Emperor-like directive: “Get that shoulder under your stanza’s/ And we’ll be away”. Intuition has shown him the way, but it is intuition distorted by anger and unbalanced by the Mother’s energies: the way to which it points is the wrong way for both of them (“we’ll be away”, he says).
The Cabbalistic pattern in this poem is clear: but the mythological parallels are confusing. Ted is no Ariadne: the thread he hands Sylvia in this poem is not the Goddess’s silken thread of survival but a bloody skein which will lead to dark monstrous energies and to Sylvia’s death. Nor, however purposeful she appears, is Sylvia Theseus entering the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur. Perhaps, because of her death, she may seem like one of young Athenian women who were annually offered to the Minotaur and devoured by it, yet the monster she seeks to join, and whom she eventually conjures wrathfully into her poetry, is her father.
The Minotaur, however, was fathered by a white bull created by the god, Poseidon, for King Minos; its mother was Parsiphae, Minos’s wife. The Minotaur, therefore, has the god’s Spirit entombed in a material body, which is exactly the meaning of the number 5 on this Path of the Emperor. And in this poem, where the Minotaur is both mythological monster and Sylvia’s dead father, it represents the unbalanced, tyrannical powers of The Emperor/ Father’s ambivalent energies6.
In ‘Robbing Myself’ (BL 165), the poem on the Emperor’s path in the next, lowest, World of Assiah, Spirit is again entombed in matter. The life-giving energies lie hidden beneath the “ice-glaze hardened and polished surface” of a frozen world and there is none of the Emperor’s lightning, thunder or flash. Only a “snow-blue twilight” illuminates the scene, and the Mother’s latent powers lie secreted in “the old, new sleep-smell of earth” and in warmth of the overwintering crops which Ted inspects.
The poem deals clearly with actual events. In October 1962, Sylvia and Ted separated (SPCP Note p. 292). On December 12th, Sylvia, with the two children moved to London and shortly before Christmas Ted drove to Devon “to collect the red corduroy curtain material Sylvia thought indispensable for her windows” (Stevenson, Bitter Fame p. 279). Literally, the winter of December 1962, brought “the worst snow and freeze-up for fifteen years”, and Ted’s drive from London to Devon would have taken him over two hundred miles of road which looked both “unnatural and familiar”. Literally, too, the snow through which he drove was “fallen heaven”. But there is a metaphorical level to the poem, too, as is suggested by Ted’s careful placement of the phrase, “cosmic disaster”, so that it links his own life with the prevailing weather condition.
The icy results of a cosmic disaster were, indeed, everywhere. Ted’s and Sylvia’s separation totally changed their world. Metaphorically, it was a cosmic disaster the results of which Ted, in a later letter to Keith Sagar, likened to the sky’s falling. It was a “cosmic disaster”, too, in terms of their shared Cabbalistic journey, since all hope of completing that journey successfully were dashed. And in the shock and stress of their separation, Ted and Sylvia buried their pain and love beneath a frozen surface as they tried to regain their independence. Sylvia seemed “mostly very bright” and energetic but “she kept [Ted] firmly in the dark about her doings” (Stevenson, Bitter Fame p. 279). Ted, too, was trying to regain his independence and his equilibrium, making the “journey back into” himself and back to the natural energies which he had rejected in ‘Epiphany’ (BL 113).
The poem is full of the promise of Nature, the “old, new sleep-smell of earth”. Winter, spring and summer, the natural cycles of time, change and renewal, all are contained in the embryonic sleep of the plants and the house to which Ted returns. The ancient house itself connects past, present and future. Its twelfth century silence; its old, familiar furniture; the memories it contains; all make it a place of colour and warmth and, above all, of promise and hope. It, too, like the tubers and the fruit which Ted “unclamps”, digs up and examines, waits beneath its protective “coverlet” of snow for the changes which time will bring. This is “the nest secret” to which Ted returned. This was the intuition of hope to which he listened in the silence of the house.
Only the gladioli bulbs, at the very heart of the poem, offer a realistic hint of things which Ted “did not know” and which would lead to loss and death. And, on this Path of the Emperor, which joins the Sephira of Wisdom with that of The Way, the things which are not known or understood are of great importance. What Ted should have known, had he balanced his intuition of the Mother’s renewing powers with his knowledge of her way, is that her way is that of love and sharing. But Ted was unwary and “did not know”. He packed potatoes and apples, Nature’s bounty, to share with Sylvia, but the hope to which he listened in the house (the promise of renewal in the house which he says “waited only for us”) he kept gloatingly to himself. And he sealed away this treasure of hope just as he sealed up the house “tight as a plush-lined casket / In a safe”. The horrible echo of death and funerals in that word ‘casket’, suggests his terrible mistake; so, too does the fact that it was ‘my’ casket, not ‘our’ casket, into which he sealed the treasure. Ironically, by the very action of secreting that hope away in his personal ‘safe casket’, rather than sharing it, he sealed it away from himself and robbed himself of the treasure.
The urge to retain power and control, which leads to secrecy and selfishness and to the jealous guarding of important information, is the dark side of the Emperor’s ambivalent powers. It is exactly this urge which Ted displays in the second half of this poem. It is suggested, too, in the eight lines set by themselves towards the end of the poem, in which Ted links the house, the casket, nature, hope and the church. Initially the glow of the sun through the windows of the church seems like a symbol of hope from within a place traditionally associated with resurrection. But the windows are “shuttered”, the glass “stained”(not coloured), and the sun is “sunk” in a place which is also a symbol of human power and control over spiritual knowledge. Every sign of hope, here, is tainted in some way. The “wintering boughs” will eventually break into bud but the sun which must effect this seems to be sunk inside the church. And the hope represented by the house is tainted by Sylvia’s sorrow. Her lonely crying, strangely, makes the house seem “newly precious” to Ted, perhaps because he saw some hope of reconciliation in her grief for a broken marriage. But although the house is “sweet with cleanliness”, as if washed clean by Sylvia’s tears, it is firmly kept that way: shut ‘tight’ as a plush lined casket which, as if to emphasise this control, is set aside, in a line on its own, “In a safe”. So, the Emperor’s controlling powers unbalance the situation. And so the treasure is lost.
Sylvia, too, of course was one of the treasures missing from the house/casket. But it makes no sense for Ted to say, as he does in the poem, that he did not know this, unless there was clear evidence that she had really gone from the house and their partnership for good. In fact, there is evidence in Sylvia’s letters that she had every intention of returning to the house; and Ted himself has said that before her death she had almost completely repaired her relationship to him7.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. The Great Abyss is generally held to lie in the region between the supernal triangle of Sephiroth 1, 2 and 3, and the lower, worldly, part of the Sephirothic Tree. Its entrance, Daath, is sometimes shown symbolically in this position as a dotted circle to distinguish it from the solid circles of the ten Divine Sephiroth. There is disagreement as to the origin and substance of the Abyss but it is generally regarded as a region of nothingness, darkness and chaos in which malign demons and spirits live. A good discussion of Daath and the Abyss can be found in Colin Low’s Notes on Kabbala
2. William Blake’s picture of ‘God Creating the Universe’ (often given the Cabbalistic title ‘The Ancient of Days’) shows Urizen leaning from heaven with his compasses to create the world. This image has been linked to the Book of Proverbs 8: 27-30; and also (in the Tate Gallery’s William Blake Exhibition Catalogue, Tate, 200, p. 202) to chapter 8 of The Book of Daniel which, interestingly, describes Daniel’s vision of a Ram (Aries’ sign), the use and misuse of power, and which contains many references to the number four (all belonging to The Emperor).
3. Ruth Beuscher apparently wrote to Sylvia on September 26th counselling her to sue for divorce “whilst her husband’s adultery was still hot” (Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 257)
4. Ted has used this ambivalent meaning of ‘macadam’ before in ‘Tick Tock Tick Tock’ in Remains of Elmet (ROE 120). ( Skea, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, p. 204)
5. Ted and Sylvia left England by ship on 20 June 1957. By July, they were living in a cottage at Eastham, Cape Cod, which Sylvia’s mother had rented for them for seven weeks as a wedding present (Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 111).
6. Another poem, ‘The Minotaur 2’, appears in Howls and Whispers (this was Cries and Whispers in early proofs) (Gehenna Press, 1998). It is a shorter poem but the energies are still Sulphurous and, again, a quarrel and Sylvia’s anger become a “skein of blood” which leads her to the labyrinth, the Minotaur and death.
7. Ted wrote this in a letter to Keith Sagar which is now held in the British Library. It was quoted by Christine Patterson, ‘Ted on Sylvia, for the Record’, The Guardian , Saturday August 18, 2001.
Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2001. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at firstname.lastname@example.org