Path number four, The Path of The Empress, is the third path of the Supernal Triangle and it is the last path the journeyer will take before crossing the Abyss which lies between the supernal realms and the paths of the lower Trees.
In the Hebrew alphabet, the letter which represents this path is Daleth (Door or Portal) and, in Cabbala, it signifies the door to the material world in which we live: the way to experience, to knowledge and to maturity. Path number four is the path which joins Wisdom (Chokmah 2) and Understanding (Binah 3) and in mystical orders it is the Door to Initiation and Illumination.
Four is also the number of God the Creator; the Tetragrammaton; the Logos; the Word; the Eternal Principle of Creation.
And four is the number of Earth and of the alchemical ‘Mothers’ ‐ Fire, Air, Water and Earth ‐ of which all Earthly things are made. We still speak of four seasons, four directions, the four corners of the Earth and, in astrology, of the four Fixed Signs of the zodiac: Leo, Aries, Taurus and Scorpio.
Sephira number four (Chesed: Love; Humility), whilst not on The Path of The Empress, transmits to the journeyer on the Cabbalistic paths those divine energies of the lightning flash which are associated with the number four. Chesed is on the Pillar of Mercy, and the Spiritual Vision associated with it is the Vision of Love: love freely and humbly given. Its negative aspects are those of excessive love - love which is not balanced by judgement: intoxication, debauchery, possessiveness, tyranny, iconoclasm and dogma. The planet associated with Chesed is Jupiter, but four is also the number of Venus, the Goddess of Love.
All these are traditional Cabbalistic attributes of the number four, Daleth.
In the Tarot, however, the number of The Empress’s card is three and she is another form of the Great Goddess. Whereas The High Priestess represents judgement and intuition, The Empress is the Earth Mother, the Soul enthroned in Nature, the workings of Heaven on Earth. She is all unrestrained emotion: love, passion, anger, jealousy, joy and sorrow. She is a voluptuous, sensual and sexual Venus; a fecund and fruitful Ceres; a Demeter of domesticity and maternal care; and a Cybele, Aphrodite, Isis or Mary mourning for her lost son or lover.
The sexual powers of The Empress are enthralling and her maternal powers are selfless and constant. But she is still the many-throned, many-wiled Goddess who combines the highest spiritual energies with the lowest and most material. Her number is three, and that of her path is four. She combines the energies of both numbers and her path, like that of The High Priestess, teaches the need for balance and for understanding but this is to be found through love rather than through intuition.
In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the epigrams for meditation on The Path of The Empress (Daleth) are “The Wife; Alchemical Salt; The Gate of the equilibrium of the Universe".
The fourth poem in Birthday Letters, ‘Visit’ (BL 7), is the poem on The Path of The Empress in the Atziluthic World. And the first thing to note about this poem is that it is out of sequence with the chronological order of actual events.
Sylvia’s journal entries for March 10 and 11, 1956 (SPJ) both describe a night-time visit made by Ted and his friend, Lucas Myers, to throw “stones” and “mud” at a window which they mistakenly thought was hers. These same entries also contain her fervent prayers that Ted would come and meet her: “Please let him come; let me have him for this British spring. Please please”. In ‘Visit’, Ted also describes all this, but the position of the poem in the Birthday Letters sequence and the poem itself, where Ted describes himself ambiguously as “unknown to you, and not knowing you”, suggest that Ted and Sylvia had yet to meet. In fact, they had met at the St Botolph’s party just two weeks before, as Sylvia’s journal entry for February 26th confirms. It was unlikely, too, that Ted would have forgotten this meeting since, as he describes in ‘St Botolph’s’ (BL 14) (three poems after ‘Visit’), Sylvia had bitten him so hard on the cheek that her teeth marks had branded his face “for the next month”.
In the pattern of the Cabbalistic journey, however, ‘Visit’ fits precisely. And the second thing to note, (I do not believe that this is coincidence) is that Ted brings together, in the opening lines of the poem, the numbers one, three and four: these represent, in the Tarot, The Magician, The Empress and The Emperor ‐ all that is necessary for creation on Earth.
The number one appears in the very first line of the poem, just as it appears at the very top of the Cabbalistic Tree. And it is associated specifically with Lucas: “Lucas, my friend, is one”. One is the number of The Magician / Mercury, the guide who may also be a trickster. It was Lucas who guided Ted to a window in the Newnham College where Sylvia lived, but it was the wrong window. The name ‘Lucas’, too, like the Latin word ‘lucis’ and the Greek word ‘leukos’ (both meaning ‘light’) links this friend with Lucifer (literally, ‘light bearer’), Phosphorous and Mercury, all guides and bearers of light and spirit who move between Heavenly and Earthly realms1.
Like the inert alchemical element, Salt, which is associated with Daleth and The Path of The Empress and which needs Mercury to activate it, Ted is waiting in his “chrysalis” for the moment when he will “leap to freedom”. Sylvia, too, as her journal entry shows, is waiting, “spiderlike”, restless, and “quivering like polished barbwire”, for a new path2. Both were fired with the thought of the other: Ted, like “inflammable celluloid”; Sylvia, “burning, fevered”. And both are driven by emotion, not logic. Passion, earthy darkness, love, motherhood and loss are everywhere in the poem. So, too, are the creative words, both Ted’s and Sylvia’s, which are part of their story3.
But Ted’s search was still like “blind-man’s-buff”: still like a blindfolded child’s game of catch. He did not really know the person he was seeking when he stood in that garden at Sylvia’s College, nor, even, did he know that he was “missing” her. And the suggestion of his being on the threshold of maturity (like an initiate on the path of Daleth) is there in the image of a chrysalis, and in his weekend recidivism to his Alma Mater, the ‘Bounteous Mother’ which was the Cambridge College, Pembroke, from which he graduated.
Sylvia, however, on March 10, 1956 suddenly knew passionately that she wanted Ted. In her journal entry for that day, she wrote that she wanted to “have” him: to possess him, if only “for this British Spring". She wanted him, just as Ted says, as “the male lead in her drama”. Her joy, prayers, panic, nightmare and despair, described by Ted in ‘Visit’, are vivid in her journal, where her emotions became words which she committed to paper, seemingly without restraint. As if, as Ted tells her in his poem, they “floated out through your throat and tongue and onto your page”.
This raw emotion, and the sudden shock and the pain of loss which Sylvia’s words brought to Ted, reading them ten years after her death, are powerfully re-created in ‘Visit’ by her daughter’s sudden question, “Daddy, where’s Mummy?”. Ted calls Frieda “your daughter”, combining the female energies and linking her so closely with Sylvia in the lines of the poem that there is a confusion of past and present which mirrors his own confusion when Frieda spoke. Suddenly, the whole story is there in a midnight of frost and numbness which encompasses both the garden with which the poem and the story began and Ted’s own continuing pain. But buried there, too, like the continuing life-force hidden in a chrysalis, is “A pulse of fever” with which Ted links past, present and future.
That pulse of fever was there in the “numbness of earth” that midnight in the Newnham garden. It was there under the shock and the pain of loss caused by Sylvia’s words, and in the silent house when their daughter asked her terrible question. It was there in the attraction which drove Ted and Sylvia to seek each other out. And it is there, still, in the daughter who carries her parents’ genes. Most importantly, it was and is there in the words both Ted and Sylvia wrote and which still carry their creative power into the life of each reader.
In ‘Visit’, Ted brought together all the elements of “Your story, my story” and all the energies he would need to recreate this story in poetry as a Cabbalistic journey, including the pulse of fever necessary to give it life and bring it to maturity. And for the reader who first encounters this poem on the printed page at the start of the Birthday Letters sequence, it is the beginning of a story in which Ted’s and Sylvia’s futures are still “waiting to happen”.
Finally, this story from the archetypal World of Atziluth is also the human story. It is the story of passion, love, marriage, parenthood, death and sorrow which is the story of life itself. It is your story and it is my story.
‘Wuthering Heights’ (BL 59), the poem on The Path of The Empress in the World of Briah, is one of the most beautiful poems in Birthday Letters.
The energies in it ‐ The Alchemical ‘Mothers’: Fire, Air, Water and Earth, which are the Goddesses destructive and creative powers ‐ swirl and bubble like the “witch-brew boiling in the sky vat” of the poem ‘Moors’ in Remains of Elmet (ROE 19, THSP 160). And it is these Elmet moors above the Yorkshire village of Stanbury which are the setting for this poem.
Once again, as in ‘Visit’, creative words are important. And again Mercury appears as the guide in the very first line of the poem. This time Walter, Ted’s uncle, “is guide". His energies, sparked by Sylvia’s huge, “transatlantic” (an ambiguous use of the word) elation, effervesce like “his rhubarb wine kept a bit too long” ‐ a lovely image, which captures Walter’s age, with its rich “vintage” of tradition, “legends and gossip”, and his rhubarb-sharp estimation of writers as “pathetic people. Hiding from it / And making it up”4.
Sylvia, in turn, is inspired by Walter’s words, which evoke the memory of another poet, Emily Brontë, who long ago climbed this same steep track to the open moor.
Mimicking their climb, the poem moves from Haworth Rectory and its associated images of death and of dark, “dwarfish”, “elvish” human handiwork, to the skyline and the windswept, wuthering5, heights of Emily’s “private Eden”, (“her Paradise”, Ted called it in Remains of Elmet, (’emily Brontë’ ROE 96)). In a talk published in The Listener in 1963 (‘The Rock’, 19 Sept. pp.421-3), Ted spoke of the “exultant” mood of the high moors and of the lasting effect on him of childhood climbs from the dark Yorkshire valley up onto the moor, where light is
[a]t once both gloomily purplish and incredibly clear, unnaturally clear, as if objects there had less protection than elsewhere, were more exposed to the radio-active dangers of space.
Now, in ‘Wuthering Heights’, as he, Sylvia and Walter climb, the moor opens for Sylvia like “a dark flower”. And in its strange light, all human endeavour “withers into perspective”, so that all that remains of the “incomings and outgoings” of centuries of people is “a rubble of stone and sheep-droppings”.
The echoes of Remains of Elmet are very strong in this poem, and there are many poems and many photographs in that earlier sequence (and in the later Elmet6) which complement and illustrate this poem in Birthday Letters. In particular, ‘Two Photographs of Top Withens’ (E 19); and ‘These Grasses of Light’ / ‘Stanbury Moor’ (ROE 16 / E 20 ), ‘Open to Huge Light’ / ‘Two Trees at Top Withens’ (ROE 17 / E 21), ‘Top Withens’ (ROE 103), ‘Emily Brontë’ (ROE 96 / E 94), ‘Haworth Parsonage’ (ROE 100), and ‘Light Falls Through Itself’ (ROE 112).
In ‘Wuthering Heights’ (BL 59), as in Remains of Elmet, Ted evokes a landscape in which past lives and past hopes have succumbed to the forces of nature. But in this poem on The Path of The Empress this is seen as a prelude to what Sylvia would create from it all in her writing: how she, so full here of new life and hope and energy, “would take up now the clench of that struggle”. Sylvia did, in fact, describe this day in a letter to her mother (2 Sept. 1956), and there the landscape is sunny and romantic, very different to Ted’s picture of it in this poem. She did, indeed, see it with new and hopeful eyes, and she “breathed it all in” and was inspired by it.
In brief notes in her journal (SPJ Appendix 10, 31[a], following the entry for 26 Aug. 1956) she wrote: “Mrs. Mehan ‐ rich-flavoured dialect story. [sic] set in Yorkshire (Wuthering Heights background)”; and “drama of Cathy & Heathcliff”. She listed things associated with the Brontës which she probably saw at Haworth Rectory on the day of her climb: including “Anne ‐ ms - 41/2 x 35/8 poems”, “Sofa ‐ Emily died ‐ 19th Dec. 1848”(31[b]); “Charlotte’s needlework”(32[a]); “Charlotte ‐ tiny black satin slippers”(32[b]). All these, she put together in a prose poem on 9 August (SPJ Appendix 10. 42[b]) headed “Withens”, where she describes the two routes to Top Withens and imagines “The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of visitors & the yellow-eyed shag sheep”.
Shortly after this, early in 1957, Sylvia captured the spirit and light of the moors in two poems: ‘Two Views of Withens’ (SPCP 71-2) and ‘Carbuncle’ (SPCP 72-3). And in September 1961, perhaps after more long walks on the Yorkshire moors (SPJ 24 Dec. 1960), she wrote a stronger, more personal poem, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (SPCP 167), which appears amongst other poems of her Ariel period.
Ted, too, wrote a poem about Emily Brontë (ROE 96 / E 94) but also another poem, ‘Two Photographs of Top Withens’ (E 19) (quite unlike Sylvia’s ‘Two Views of Withens’), which again tells the story of their climb from Stanbury with Ted’s Uncle Walter. In this poem, a snapshot taken of Sylvia on that day shows her sitting “in one of the sycamores”. But the mood is grim and “Even the spirit of the place, like Emily’s,” is “Hidden beneath stone” and scoured by “the mad and empty windv. Now, in this Elmet poem written years after the event, the ruined house at Top Withens has lost the charm which made Sylvia want to “buy it and renovate it!”: it is “weatherproofed, / Squared with Water Authority concrete, a roofless / Pissoir for sheep and tourists”. But the sycamore trees, linked with Sylvia in the first and last stanzas of the poem, are still there. And her “ghost” ‐ “held (for that moment)” by the camera ‐ became the photograph mentioned in the poem: which is a beautifully poetic description of the photographic process.
In ‘Wuthering Heights’ in Birthday Letters, the mood is quite different, and the sycamore trees stand (like two pillars) in the middle of the poem: two healthy old trees (with the “girth and spread of valley twenty-year-olds”) of a species identified in mythology with the Tree of Life and with The Goddess and fertility. Here, associated with Sylvia’s inspiration and her “globe-circling” aspirations, almost exactly in the middle of the poem, the sycamore trees mark the beginning of a change of mood which culminates in an alchemical mixture of images embodying air, water, fire, and earth. The moor-wind, the clouds, the fever which fidgets the heath-grass, and the stone, all are brought together in the warm, “lucent” body of Sylvia, whose poem “unfurled” from her naturally, like a “frond of hair from her nape”.
The alchemical images in the poem are linked, too, with the spirits which are present in all Sylvia’s and Ted’s writing about this day: the ghosts of the people who tried to make a life on those moors; the Brontë ghosts (especially that of Emily, and perhaps of her heroine Cathy, behind the “broken mullions”); and also (in Ted’s poems) the ghost of Sylvia ‐ both in the poem itself and also as Ted evokes her as he addresses the poem to her. In the concentration of energies which Ted achieves in the last twelve lines of the poem, the ghost of “that earlier one” flames with jealousy (like a jealous goddess), but is “quenched” in “understanding” ‐ as if in sudden realisation that Sylvia is the new, living vehicle for the same active, creative energies which once were hers. 7.
So, the alchemy of this poem has moved Sylvia and Ted along the Cabbalistic Path of Initiation ‐ The Path of The Empress ‐ in this windy, watery World of Briah, from the Wisdom (Chokmah) of facts and knowledge with which it began to the threshold of Understanding (Binah) and inspiration with which it ends. “Understanding”, significantly, is the final word of the poem.
The symbolism of an initiate on the threshold of new understanding is present, too, in ‘A Dream’ (BL 118) which is the poem on The Path of The Empress in the World of Yetzirah. ‘A Dream’ follows ‘The Gypsy’ (BL 116), which recounts the curse of the old gypsy woman at Rheims and suggests Sylvia’s own embodiment of the Goddess’s powers. ‘A Dream’ also directly precedes ‘The Minotaur’ (BL 120), as if we now stand at the entrance to the Labyrinth. There are other labyrinths associated with this poem, too.
Many aspects of this poem, and of the period of Sylvia’s life with which it is chronologically associated, reinforce Ted’s continuing association of her with the Goddess. In ‘Visit’ she was a seductive Venus; in ‘Wuthering Heights’ she was on the threshold of her role as Wife; and in ‘A Dream’ she is Mother. But again the poem is closely concerned with the power of the creative word ‐ the logos - and with initiation, doorways and thresholds, and rites-of-passage.
By late 1961, Sylvia was a mother, fiercely proud of her small daughter and pregnant again with Nicholas, who would be born on 17th January, 1962. Earlier in 1961 she had suffered a miscarriage (SPJ 6 Feb. 1961); and she had undergone an appendectomy, notes of which she included in her journal as source material for her writing. Most importantly, between March 18th and August 22nd she completed the first draft of her autobiographical novel8, The Bell Jar, in which she recreated her past as the life of the fictional Esther Greenwood. In the words of the cover blurb on the Bantam Paperback edition (1975), The Bell Jar is “The Heartbreaking Story of a Talented Young Woman who descends into Madness”.
This was the novel Sylvia had dreamed of writing and had struggled for so long to create. She wrote it “at high speed and in great exhilaration” (’sylvia Plath and her Journals’, WP 185), and the date on which she completed it is inscribed in the margin of some typed notes which she made in December 1958 (SPJ 12 Dec. 1958) and in which she asks “why don’t I write a novel?”: the margin note reads ‐ “I just have! August 22 1961: THE BELL JAR”, and Sylvia has signed it.
It seems likely, then, that Sylvia re-read these journal notes in 1961 and that their contents were fresh in her mind at that time. They are extraordinarily uninhibited, emotional and frank notes of a meeting with her psychotherapist, Ruth Beuscher; and they deal with her view of her mother and her mixed feelings of hate, pity and love for her; her love of her “ogre” father, and the circumstances of his death; her own “Panic Bird” of fear about not writing; her thoughts about men; her own flouting of her mother’s expectations and rules, and her guilt over this, then her anger at that guilt; her love of Ted; and her view of writing as “a religious act”, a necessity: “the worst thing,” she wrote, “worse than all of them, would be to live without writing” (SPJ 12 Dec. 1958). In the same entry, she also noted other fears: “fear of writing: why fear? Fear of not being a success?”; and “Fear of losing male totem: what roots?”.
All of these things seem to be part of the background to Ted’s poem ‘A Dream’; part of Sylvia’s dream (which Ted shared); and part of the poem’s puzzles and its labyrinth of associations which she gives him, finally, to “think about”.
In many ways, the poem is just like the dream it describes. It is full of fragmentary images from the subconscious which seem to have no logical connection with each other. And interpreting dreams is notoriously difficult. My suggestions about this poem, then, are just that: suggestions. They are based on Sylvia’s writing at that time; on some of Ted’s writing; and on what I believe to be the position of this poem on the Cabbalistic Trees. As with all dreams, there can be many interpretations.
Two dreams recorded in those same journal notes of December 1958 seem relevant to this poem. The first, recorded on December 27th, was closely connected with Sylvia’s anxieties and fears of loss and failure. In that journal entry, Sylvia referred to frequent childhood nightmares of losing her mother, and to the loss of her father and his love, then she wrote:
I dreamed the other night of running after Ted through a huge hospital, knowing he was with another woman, going into mad wards and looking for him everywhere: what makes you think it was Ted? It had his face but it was my father, my mother.
Was this the “worst dream” which in ‘A Dream’ “came true”? Do the opening lines of the poem (which in the chronology of Birthday Letters corresponds with the period shortly before Ted and Sylvia moved to Devon) refer to the “ring on the door-bell” which led to Ted’s first meeting Assia Wevill and Sylvia’s eventual separation from him?
Possibly. But there is another “horror” dream recorded in Sylvia’s notebook on January 8th 1956, which seems more closely associated with the images in ‘A Dream’ of an opened coffin and a message from a dead father. This dream, from which Sylvia “woke screaming”, is full of open graves and “of the deformed and dead, alive as we are, and [she is] among them, in the filth and swarming corruption of the flesh”. Following this description, Sylvia wrote: “I feel, am mad as any writer must in one way be: why not make it real?”. And, in a sense, that is what she did and that is what Birthday Letters shows her doing: trying to get back to her dead father (cf. ‘Daddy’, SPCP 222-4) (a process which she seriously began in those psychotherapy session with Ruth Beuscher in 1958); raising him (as she has in ‘The Bee God’ (BL 150)) and reassembling him in her poetry; visiting him ‐ her “Ogre” ‐ in the forty-ninth chamber of her dream palace in the abyss; and finally joining him in death.
‘A Dream’ suggests Sylvia’s first disturbing contact with her dead father. And the stars which Ted said “governed a life” (or was it Sylvia who said it in ‘Words’ (SPCP 270)?) are the “fixed stars” which led her to seek and make that contact: the stars of her birth; the “ill-starred” Scorpion of ‘Electra on Azelea Path’ (SPCP 103). These were the stars which determined her character and drove that “thirst of the whole being” which Ted elsewhere divined in her poetry as a thirst for the whole being ‐ a thirst for “the birth of her new creative self” (WP 182).
In ‘A Dream’, Daddy asked to stay with her. For Ted, such a request from Sylvia’s father was “a command”, but to call it that suggests notions of filial duty, rather than freely given love. And it was, of course, an un-natural request.
In reality, lifting the lid of the coffin (which metaphorically was what Sylvia’s psychotherapist encouraged her to do) released an anger which was fed into all Sylvia’s writing. It fed into her novel, her journal and her poetry, in words which by 1963 she saw as “Axes” (‘Words’, SPCP 270) and weapons of destruction which had brought about all the losses she feared. She saw, too, that words were powerless against the “fixed stars” which “Govern a life”. In Sylvia’s poem ‘Words’ and in ‘A Dream’, this phrase is identical, even to the placement of the line break, so the poems are closely linked. Sylvia’s journey, then, had led to words which were destructive rather than creative.
For Sylvia, the most important words she wrote in 1961 were those of The Bell Jar. This was the novel she had always longed to write, the achievement through which she would fulfil her own ambitions and those her mother had for her. Into this novel, as into the Breton jug in ‘A Dream’, she poured everything in her struggle for a new creative self. That Ted saw this novel as a rite-of-passage in Sylvia’s progress towards achieving her true poetic voice, is apparent in his suggestion that in 1961 “perhaps something like The Bell Jar had still to be faced and got through” before the Ariel voice became discernible (WP 186). But, in its cruel representation of Esther Greenwood’s mother, this novel was like a gift of “shards, crude stars” for Aurelia Plath.
In ‘A Dream’, the imagery of the shattered Breton jug is closely linked to Ted’s vivid picture of Sylvia with Chartres hung about her face like “a mantilla / Blackened, a tracery of char ‐ / As after a firestorm”. This is an interesting image for Ted to have “salvaged”. It suggests that he had saved something of value from a scene of destruction; and if the Breton jug does represent Sylvia’s writing of The Bell Jar, maybe it suggests that she emerged phoenix-like from those creative and destructive fires.
Whether or not this is what Ted intended, the image does link Sylvia closely with the Goddess / Empress and, interestingly, with a labyrinth. Chartres Cathedral is another Gothic cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame (Our Lady) and designed and built by the same Master Builders who later worked on Rheims Cathedral. Chartres was for centuries the most important place of pilgrimage in France for those seeking help from The Virgin Mother. It was built according to the same sacred geometry based on numbers as Rheims; and it was erected on a site once dedicated to the pagan Goddess. The oldest part of Chartres Cathedral is the crypt, which is built round a sacred well and is called (in a modern guidebook) “the martyrium”, because Christians were once martyred there. The crypt was the “original heart of pilgrimage to Our Lady, who was particularly invoked by pregnant women” (Houvet, Chartres Cathedral, 1996)9 and it was the home of the church’s most sacred relics.
The church at Chartres has risen from the flames many times, so the charred image of it in ‘A Dream’ could have many origins. The first 4th Century Christian church was burned down in 743; Danish pirates razed it in 858; and it was destroyed again by fires in 1020 and 1134. But the fire of 1194, which also destroyed much of the town and was recorded in a poetic chronicle written by Philippe le Breton some time between 1218 and 1224, was the first fire to affect the Gothic building which had been begun in 1134. It spared only the crypt and the smoke-blackened towers and façade which still exist today. In this fire, too, a sacred relic ‐ The Veil of The Virgin ‐ was thought lost but was unearthed after four days. Whether or not the Veil of the Virgin looked like a charred mantilla is a matter of imaginative speculation, but its rediscovery did persuade reluctant townspeople to begin rebuilding the church, so that Our Lady of Chartres rose again, phoenix-like, from the firestorm of 1194.
The charred, mantilla-like tracery of Chartres which surrounds Sylvia’s head in ‘A Dream’, is reminiscent of the turreted crown usually worn by the Goddess Athena, and by The Empress in the oldest tarot packs. But an even closer link between the Goddess / Empress and Chartres Cathedral is to be found in the great labyrinth, constructed according to the sacred numbers associated with The Virgin, and set into the floor of the Cathedral nave in about 1200 AD. In the centre of this labyrinth there was, originally, a metal plaque depicting Theseus, the Minotaur, and Ariadne holding her ball of thread.10
Certainly, the puzzle which Ted gives us in ‘A Dream’ is as strange as the dream which Sylvia gave to him to “think about”. And, especially as the very next poem in the Birthday Letters sequence is called ‘The Minotaur’ (BL 120), there is a strong suggestion that Ted and Sylvia were, at that moment in their lives, on the threshold of a dark labyrinth.
In the lowest World of Assiah, ‘Totem’, the poem on The Path of The Empress, also represents a threshold. This is the last poem in the Birthday Letters sequence in which Ted and Sylvia are together; and in the chronology of actual events the time to which it refers is March to April of 1962, only a few months before Ted and Sylvia agreed to a legal separation (SPLH 27 Aug. 1962).
In March, 1962, Sylvia wrote to her mother of her plan to paint “a design of hearts and flowers” on the playroom furniture in her Devon home (SPLH 12 March 1962). And a month later she wrote that doing this painting had cheered her up (SPLH 2 April 1962). Aurelia Plath, remembering her arrival at the house later that year wrote:
The threshold of the guest room I was to occupy had an enameled pink heart and a garland of flowers painted on it. (Note pre. 17 August 1962).
But she also wrote that “the marriage was seriously troubled and there was a great deal of anxiety in the air”.
Sylvia painted hearts over the blackness ‐ her own and that of her possessions: they were “the crimson on the black”, which in ‘Totem’ is both hope and fear (lamp and “blood-splash”). The heart was her “logo” ‐ her symbol of magical power, and a sadly debased symbol of love.
The word ‘logo’, a modern, commercialised, debased form of ‘logos’, neatly conveys the mixture of sacred and profane which such a talisman represents, and the degradation of divine energies which had occurred. Sylvia’s painted hearts, in ‘Totem’, are like the Cross of the Emperor Constantine, which symbolized both to the divine vision which brought about the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity and led him to create things of great beauty, and the iconic symbol of the worldly marriage of Church and State which he eventually arranged.
In ‘Visit’ the energies from the Divine Source were experienced directly and flowed strongly and freely into Sylvia’s words. In ‘Wuthering Heights’, they were mediated by Mercury and emerged in poetry which “unfurled” from Sylvia naturally, “like a loose curl”. In ‘A Dream’, further from the Source, the energies were embodied in sacred relics and icons (which, as at Chartres, retain some reputed miraculous powers), but Sylvia’s created words were uglier and more destructive. Here, in the lowest World of Assiah, where the energies of the Source are weaker and those of the Underworld stronger, Sylvia reached for charms, amulets and superstitious magic both to attract her Genie and for protection. Her poetry flowed, but it flowed as if from an open wound. And everything ‐ poetry, love, hate, hope, fear, anger, sorrow and joy ‐ came from her heart. The painted heart symbolized it all.
The double meaning of the red heart prevails throughout the poem. As a mundane symbol, it has always represented the powers of the Goddess / Empress, which can be both creative and destructive. In ‘Totem’, too, it is both. It is mother love, painted on a doll’s cradle and on the threshold “over which [Sylvia’s] son entered”. It is creative love decorating the mirror in which Sylvia finds her reflection, just as she is mirrored in her writing. It is Genie spirit, “Guardian Angel”, the source of all that keeps her whole: as her writing does. But it is also the “Demon-Slave”, the over possessive “Fish-mother” (not the more commonly heard, colloquial, ‘fish-wife’) who is like all the goddesses whose sons (Jesus, Osiris, Ichthys and others) represent resurrection and fertility.
Sylvia’s Demon-Slave was her writing, the love of her life. And the spirit which “possessed” her, the Genie which inspired her and spoke with Ariel’s voice, was an angry, destructive spirit whose unbalanced energies eventually destroyed her. “The blood jet is poetry”, she wrote: and, ambiguously, “There is no stopping it” (‘Kindness’ SPCP 269-70). And the same sense of inevitability pervades her own poem entitled ‘Totem’ (SPCP 264-5) which she wrote in January 1963.
Ariel’s heart and voice, as heard in Sylvia’s poems, was jealous, possessive, angry, and only sometimes warmly loving: not the balanced, freely given love which must be learned if The Empress’s Path from Wisdom to Understanding is to be negotiated successfully. In the end, what had seemed like a welcome poetic re-birth was a devouring and dangerous energy, and Sylvia paid for it with her life. Her Ariel book, all that we have of that re-birth into which she poured her heart, is the empty mask of her Genie, Ariel. And the painted hearts, now, are only the “spoor”, like a cold, empty trail of blood, which tells of Sylvia’s life, love, fears, hopes and desires. They are all that is left of everything which once possessed her, and then devoured her. No stronger expression is possible of the dangers of The Path of The Empress (Daleth). Yet, on this same path, if a true understanding of love and of the power of the word is learned, the Initiate may achieve Illumination
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. In a letter to me (19 Jan. 2001), Lucas Myers wrote that his birth sign is Gemini, so, “Ted delighted in emphasising my double and mercurial character”. He describes that particular night’s events in his own memoir of Ted and Sylvia: Crow Steered Bergs Appeared.
2. Sylvia writes, specifically, of the need to “plot and manage and manipulate my path” (SPJ 10 March 1956).
3. That Sylvia’s journal entries were as much a literary creation as any of her other prose or poetry, is clear from the way she describes her writing (in this same journal entry for 10 March 1956) as “the small ordered word patterns I make”. And it is a shock to read her entries for 6 March 1956, where she expresses devouring love and passion for Richard Sassoon in a letter which she seems to have copied into her journal, then, only three days later, to read an outline for her novel in which she includes “letters to Sassoon, etc.”. Nevertheless, Ted’s indication in ‘Visit’ of the powerful emotions which Sylvia’s journal entries roused in him, even ten years after her death, is very appropriate to this Path of The Empress, where the number four represents creation through the power of the word ‐ the logos.
4. In Alchemy, too, Mercury combines these same corrosive and creative energies which continually break down the prima materia, purify it, and provide energy for its renewal.
5 ‘Wuthering’ is a Yorkshire dialect word for bluster and commotion. It can be used to describe the weather or, disparagingly, people, as in: “He’s wuthering on about his great deeds”.
6. Remains of Elmet (1979) is a very different book to Elmet (1994), although many of the poems in the two books are the same. In my own book, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, and in my paper ‘Regeneration in Remains of Elmet’, I discuss the alchemical structure and purpose of Remains of Elmet. In 1994, shortly after Elmet was published, Ted Hughes asked me what I though of this later book. I replied that it felt to me as if he’d had quite a different purpose in Elmet (that he was doing something quite different to what he was doing in Remains of Elmet ‐ trying to come to terms with something rather than change it) and that the carefully placed cross in Fay Godwin’s final photograph made me feel that the book had completed something for him. His response was a heartfelt “Yes!” ‐ nothing more.
7. Keith Sagar reads this poem rather differently. In a letter to me (17 Feb. 2001) he wrote: “I read the poem (see The Laughter of Foxes, Liverpool, 2000, p. 54) as a failed test on Sylvia. Walter is obviously a false guide (his only qualification being that ‘his mother’s cousin inherited some Brontë soup dishes’. That desecration of the Brontës seems to communicate itself to Sylvia, making her impervious to the dark spirit of the place, or making her protect herself from it with ‘frisky glances and huge hope’ as she appropriates the place with her ‘globe-circling aspirations’. Her words, unlike Emily’s, are ‘brilliantly faceted’ jewels, displaying themselves, as she displays herself to the camera. The ghost’s envy of her is ‘quenched’ presumably because the ghost understands what it is all doomed to come to”.
8. Stevenson, A. Bitter Fame, Viking, 1989. p. 213.
9. The guide book (Houvet, E. Chartres Cathedral, Houvet-La Crypt, Chartres, 1996) includes a photograph of ‘The Virgin of the Crypt’ ‐ the oldest icon: the original was replaced after being burned in front of the church during the French Revolution when the church became a Temple to the Goddess Reason. A later icon (shown in my photograph here), is that of a Black Virgin and Child. Known as “Our Lady of the Pillar", it provides a tantalising link with the Cabbalistic goddess on her Pillar of Mercy.
10. John James gives details of the measurements of the labyrinth and its sacred numbers (1, 2, and 3, which add up to 6, which is a Perfect Number). He also notes that labyrinths (know as ‘Daedali’ or ‘The Way to Jerusalem’) can be found in other churches of that period, although without a metal plaque like the one at Chartres. (James, The Contractors of Chartres, Vol II, Mandalora Press, Wyong, NSW, 1981. pp. 470-3; The Travellers Guide to Medieval France, Harrap Columbus, London, 1987. pp. 74-5).
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