Just as the figure of Justice in the traditional Tarot pack represents Themis, the Titan daughter of Uranus and Gaea (Sky and Earth), so the Hermit represents her brother Cronus (or Saturn). Like Themis, he embodies all the energies of the world but, in particular, he is associated with the cycles of Nature and with time – the past, the present and the future. He shares her number, 9, the number of sex and generation. And the number of his path on the Cabbalistic Tree of Life is 10, which returns all things to harmonious unity.
Cronus, like his father, Uranus, was a sky god who inseminated Earth and was responsible for Nature’s continuing abundance. He was also an agent of disorder and change. At his mother’s request, he led his brother Titans in war against his aging father, overcame him and castrated him. Then, with his sister, Rhea (also an Earth Goddess) as his consort, he ruled in his father’s place until he in turn was deposed by his own son, Zeus.
This myth of the cyclical deposition, emasculation and death of the father (or King) and the subsequent period of chaos and infertility which ensues before the son (or new King) takes his place, has been known in various forms in many agricultural societies. It was a story which was easily associated with the seasonal fertility of the land, and (as Frazer showed in The Golden Bough) it often took on magical significance and was ritually acted out to ensure that new growth would take place each Spring. In Ancient Greece, it was the underlying myth of the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries. In Rome (where Cronus was known as Saturn) it was re-enacted each year at the time of the winter solstice in the feast of Saturnalia, after which, for a few days, there was a ritual overturning of the established order – a period of misrule and chaos.
As societies grew more urban and controlled, the festivals began to lose their original magical purpose and Saturn became better known as a god who was responsible for disorder and disaster than for his generative powers. But, like a seed lying dormant during the winter, the hidden creative and generative powers of Cronus-Saturn remained latent and powerful. Both kinds of energy are of importance to astrologers, alchemists and cabbalists when they use Saturn as a symbol.
The planet Saturn, in the art of Alchemy, is the seventh of the heavenly bodies. It is furthest from the sun and represents lead, the darkest and most chaotic of the alchemical metals. In the first Alchemical process, lead (Saturn or ‘base matter’) must be destroyed in order to release the vital, Divine spark within it: this is metaphorically described as the killing of the old King by his Son. Jung, in his study of Alchemy, likens this period of destruction to descent into the human subconscious; a dark, chaotic state which is nevertheless full of latency and potency. This is a truly Saturnine state.
In the Tarot, The Hermit, is sometimes shown as Saturn in his guise of Old Father Time, leaning with hunched back on the scythe which represents his destructive powers. In traditional packs, however, he is an old, stooped man who holds up a lantern or hides it under his cloak. Symbolically, the Divine Spark is in The Hermit’s grasp but it is contained (in the lantern), or hidden in darkness under his cloak, ready for future use. In reality, too, hermits choose to withdraw themselves from the material world and live as close to Nature as possible; and, traditionally, they carry Divine energies which they share with others through inspiring and imaginative teaching or writing.
The Hebrew letter for The Path of The Hermit, is Yod, which means ‘Hand’; and the number of the Path of Yod is 10. Yod, in its very shape, incorporates “the spark of essential good in the letter tet ”1. This is taken to be a hidden sign of God’s latent power in the manifest world.
In Cabbalistic numerology, the number 10 also represents the Divine in the hand of Mankind. It represents the unity of 0 (the Fool; the closed circle which is all and nothing) with 1 (the Divine Spark from which the manifest world began). All earlier numbers, Paths and qualities lead to 10: all later numbers, Paths and qualities are built on it. It is the fundamental formative number; the hidden foundation.
The Cabbalistic meditations for this path are: ‘The Secret Seed of All’; ‘Secret of the Gate of Initiation’; ‘The United’.
In summary, the Path of The Hermit – the Path of Yod (which leads to Tiphereth at the very heart of the Cabbalistic Tree) – is a path on which the traveller will encounter all those destructive and generative energies of Nature which are associated with Cronus-Saturn. On this path, sacrifices are made as the old order is broken down, insemination takes place and a period of gestation begins. Past, present and future; the energies of 7 (Saturn’s alchemical number), 9 and 10; and the energies of 4 (Chesed: the material world) and 6 (Tiphereth: The Way) – all must be encountered on this path before a new birth can occur and bring new order and new creative energies to the traveller’s world.
It can be no accident, surely, that the titles of three of the Birthday Letters poems which belong to this path refer directly to its energies. The first two of these titles reverberate to the energies of 9: ‘18 Rugby Street’ (1 + 8 = 9) and ‘9 Willow Street’. The third title refers to birth: ‘The Afterbirth’. And, whilst the title of the fourth poem, ‘Telos’, is less obviously associated with this path, the word’s meaning is specifically ‘Final Cause’, which in Aristotle’s Physics (11.3) is “the end (telos) for which a thing is done”: i.e the purpose (often hidden) which brings about change and motion. For Aristotle, for cabbalists and for alchemists, Nature is the Final Cause of the cycles of life, death and rebirth: Nature, as in the words of one of Ted’s poems, inevitably “pursues her ends” (’snowdrop’, THCP 40).
‘18 Rugby Street’ (BL 20-24) is the poem on the Hermit’s Path in the Atziluthic World of archetypes. In its first sixteen lines Ted depicts the house itself as an archetypal Tree of Life, its four floors (like the four Cabbalistic Trees) exposed to view like a “stage-set”. In Ted’s picture the “perpetual performance” of human life - the movement up and down the tree on snakes and ladders which are part of both a child’s game and a cabbalists Tree imagery – is a seedy display of mechanical encounters. “Limbs and loves and lives” are tangled and untangled like disordered ropes, rather than being more organically intertwined. And this unending “love-struggle” is ageless, impersonal, acted out by an ever-changing cast of people who, like superstitious actors, tell tales of possession and peddle ancient myths of labyrinths and monsters.
There is a note of irony in Ted’s memory of being told “You should write a book about this house”, for, if 18 Rugby Street represents the Cabbalistic Tree of Life, Birthday Letters is that book. And, indeed, the labyrinth and the “Knossos of coincidence” seem both to have been very real in his and Sylvia’s journey around that Tree. No cabbalist or alchemist, however, believes that the labyrinth is inescapable, however “amazed” or en-mazed in the labyrinth of the material world we humans may seem to be. However lost in the darkness the Divine Spirit is within us, they believe that with the right help (such as Theseus had from the Goddess) and with courage and sacrifice, anyone may kill the Minotaur of dark energies within them and escape into the light.
For the moment, however, Ted, in the Tree-house world of ‘18 Rugby Street’ which he draws for us in this poem, is “amazed”.
In the second section of the poem (lines 17-49), we see Ted sitting alone, a little hermit-like perhaps, in the middle of the house waiting for Lucas to bring Sylvia to join him. On the floors below him, close to the under-street underworld of the “catacomb basement” and the labyrinthine hell which leads to the “unlovely lavatory”, lives a dark, earthy, Belgian girl whose “house-jailor” is a fierce, Cerberus-like dog. Above him, as if still free in the upper branches of this Tree-house, lives another woman, Susan. She too, it seems, will eventually become caught in the labyrinth, will meet the Minotaur and, like the Belgian woman, will die there.
Both women’s deaths are linked in this second section of the poem with Sylvia’s death2 and Ted specifically links all three women numerically by the number of years (seven) between the date of the picture he is describing (1956) and the date of Sylvia’s death (1963). Not only does he bring past, present and future together, he also joins the three women with the number of the Goddess (3), and with two numbers which embody completion and change (7 and 10, both of which belong to Saturn). Seven, in particular, is a powerful occult number which is associated not only with the completion of a cycle but also with sacrifice and with bulls3. So, by using these particular numbers in the lines of the poem, Ted ritually links the three women together and associates them with the Athenian maidens sacrificed to the Minotaur at Knossos. And, by the end of this section of the poem, one cycle of life, love and death has been completed.
Appropriately, the first word in the next section (line 50) is ‘Lucas’, meaning ‘light’. After all the deaths, Ted again presses Lucas Myers into service in his role of Mercury, psychopomp4, to lead the spirit of Sylvia back into the poem. In 1956, Ted did in fact ask Lucas Myers to bring Sylvia to meet him at 18 Rugby Street. Rather reluctantly, Myers did this, but the date was Friday 23rd March, not Friday 13th April, as Myers confirms in Crow Steered Bergs Appeared5, and as several of Sylvia’s journal entries also confirm (SPJ Appendix 7: 26 March 1956, “SUNDAY”; 30 March 1956).
Ted himself wrote to Sylvia from 18 Rugby Street on March 30th, 1956, referring to “that night” and to the memory of “getting to know” the smoothness of her body6. Yet the date he specifies in the poem as the date for their first sexual encounter was Friday 13th of April. In response to Keith Sagar’s query about this confusion of dates he rather vaguely wrote: “You could be right about the dates. Probably I elected this date to prominence because [Sylvia] made a great point of my doing her father’s horoscope ”7. He also wrote that the date might have “imposed itself as mighty significant” because of another “truly decisive” Friday 13th in their lives8. But whether Ted genuinely made a mistake or not (and it seems unlikely since he refers in the poem to reading the entries Sylvia made in her journal at that time), there are many good Cabbalistic and magical reasons why he might deliberately have chosen to use this particular date at this particular point in the poem.
April (which is ruled by Venus, Goddess of Love) is the month which marks the death of winter and the birth of Spring. It was once the first month of the new year.
The 13th day of April (the ides of April in the old Roman calendar) also marks a calendric period of new beginnings. In the Hebrew alphabet, 13 is the number of the letter representing the Mother of Mysteries and it is associated with death and transfiguration. It represents the death of the old and the birth of the new spiritual self.
Friday (also sacred to Venus) is a day traditionally associated with sacrifice and renewal. In the Bible, for example, it is the day on which Christ died and also the day on which the dead will rise at the Last Judgement.
So, all three elements of this particular date mark an end and a beginning. All three may be lucky or unlucky. All three have occult significance. And Sylvia certainly came to regard Friday 13th April, 1956 (when she met Ted again on her return from Paris) as a day of rebirth. Two years later, on 13 April 1958, she wrote in her journal “TODAY: is an anniversary. Two years ago, on Black Friday the 13th, I took a plane from Rome through the mist-shrouded sky of Europe, to London – renounced Gordon, Sassoon – my old life – & took up Ted and my resurrection came about with that green and incredible Cambridge spring”.
April 13th was Sylvia’s father’s birthday. Before his death he had been Sylvia’s “male-ally in the world”(SPJ, 12 Dec. 1958), and in 1956 she was actively seeking a man who could take his place in her life. This was part of the “dream” she “hunted for”. But the real “toad-stone in the head of [her] desolation” (and the word ‘toad-stone’9 suggests the compulsion and ambition which drove her) – the real cause of her “panics” and “fevers” – was all bound up with her need to write. Sylvia’s fear was failure and her “worst fear”, as she herself said in her journal “would be to live with not writing” (SPJ 12 Dec. 1958). Only through her writing was she able to regain the sunny self she had been before her father died. This was the “life she begged to be given again”, and this was the “life she would never recover, ever”.
Sylvia had thought that Richard Sassoon might be the man to help her fulfil her needs. By March 1956, however, Richard Sassoon was distancing himself from her, and when she got to Paris he had vanished. Ted, in the poem, refers to Sylvia’s journal and the story which it tells of her tears and her turmoil when she discovered that Richard was not in Paris as she had expected. But it tells, too, of the way in which that first sexual liaison with Ted had been fitted into Sylvia’s relationships with other men; and of how he now entered her calculations about her future. A journal fragment written in Paris and dated 1 April 1956 lists, under the sub-heading “Be chaste”, six men Sylvia resolved not to throw herself at, and Ted (whose name is the only one written completely in lower case) is amongst them.
In other journal entries written whilst Sylvia was in Paris, it does indeed appear that Ted was “insurance” (as he puts it) against her fears and panics. Yet both he and Sylvia were equally uncommitted, although both wanted to meet each other again. Ted, in what he describes as an act of “casual self-service”, had “conjured” Sylvia back into his life and was recklessly “Happy to be martyred for folly”: and ‘folly’, here, has the double sense not just of his own foolishness in “bribing Fate” but also of the light-hearted, uncommitted game he thought he was playing.
Fate, the Goddess, of course answered in her own way with an act of “emergency surgery”, by which she stitched together an archetypal male (full of masculine sexual self-interest) and an archetypal female (using all her feminine wiles in the searching for a suitable mate) to create one whole (but imperfect) being. The image, here, is of the creation of the Alchemical Androgyn, which combines King and Queen, Sun and Moon, and which is an essential precursor to obtaining the pure spiritual gold.
Throughout the poem, time and events are telescoped and Alchemy, Cabbala, and various archetypal myths of death and rebirth are mixed together. So, from the time Lucas is said to be “bringing” Sylvia, the image becomes that of Mercury bringing a weeping Persephone from the land of the dead towards this Alchemical conjunction. Sylvia travels towards Ted through a foreign land in which she is lost, weeping, tortured and powerless. Then, suddenly, the tense shifts and she is present in Ted’s world as he writes the poem: “I can hear you”, he writes, “climbing the bare stairs alive and close”. He hears her breathing, her panting, just as she wants him to, but she is gone from the present as quickly as she came. “That was your artillery, to confuse me”, Ted writes, and he could be referring to both the immediate past as he writes the poem and the distant past, for memory suddenly fails him: “Then – / Blank. How did you enter? What came next?”.
Lucas (Mercury) having performed his task, vanishes. And Sylvia’s spirit suddenly fills the poem like the risen Alchemical phoenix, “a great bird” in a flare of that “cobalt”, electric-blue aura which is associated with spirit. Yet, Ted’s description of Sylvia is as realistic as it is spirit-like. He lovingly describes her “roundy face”, her nose, her lips, her chin, just as if she were present: yet even as he describes it, her face is never fixed, never the same. It is “a prototype face”, primitive, aboriginal, “elvish”, always mobile, “a stage for currents and weathers”. Only in death, Ted writes, does it become fixed, and even then it is child-like, so unmarked by time that its scar looks more like a “Maker’s flaw” than the result of some wound gained later in life10. Thus Sylvia enters the poem as pure energy; and in spite of Ted’s loving efforts, he cannot pin her down in words any more than he could keep her in his room that day in 1956.
So, Sylvia and Ted walk together to Fetter Lane11. A new section in the poem (line 124) marks a new beginning and, as if their physical meeting were an explosive prelude to their new relationship, “on a bomb-site becoming a building site” they kiss. And suddenly, they are giddy, falling, as if over the lip of some huge waterfall, clinging together “for safety” as “the roar of soul” sweeps them along. The imagery conveys the maelstrom of feelings which engulf them, but it is also the Alchemical imagery of the fusion of elements in a flask (or “barrel”) from which the soul will be released, and of the “revolving” and “rumbling” of an old order being overturned. This last imagery, together with the mention of Sylvia’s scar and the warning which Ted hears, as if from “a sober star”, are reminders of Saturn’s presence and of the sacrifices associated with his cycles of death and rebirth.
Ted does not ignore this warning. Worse, like the ass-eared Lord of Misrule in this sudden Saturnalian revolution, love overturns reason and he foolishly declares the star to be spiritless and cowardly – a “poltroon of a star”. In this new beginning (another step in the poem (line 136) and in the process being described), Ted is “wrapped” in Sylvia (and the paronomasia, here, with ‘rapt’ and its meaning of being ‘carried away in spirit from the earth, from life, from consciousness, from ordinary thoughts and perceptions’ is beautifully apt). Remembering only the power of their emotions and his own enraptured state, Ted cannot recall how they entered the hotel, only that suddenly “There we were”.
Reading the next line in the poem (line 139), one might think that only a fisherman like Ted could foolishly think that to describe his lover as a fish would be taken as a compliment: but the fish, of course, is the symbol of Aphrodite, of fertility, of Sun-heroes, of Iachus and of rebirth. Sylvia’s fish-like body is “a new world”, the magical but fickle world of Love. And this is now, Ted’s “new world. A poem which he wrote for Sylvia just after this meeting and sent to her in Paris, begins: “Ridiculous to call it love”, but it ends: “Wherever you haunt earth, you are shaped and bright / As the true ghost of my loss”. So, through love, the ‘Conjunctio’, the merging of male and female, body and spirit, is completed.
‘18 Rugby Street’ ends on a euphoric, and possibly foolishly naïve note, with Ted marvelling at his newfound world. But the final line of the poem also encompasses all the possibilities of rebirth and new beginnings which throughout Birthday Letters are associated with “Beautiful, beautiful America”.
Sylvia’s and Ted’s teaching obligations in America ended early in June 1958. They planned to spend the next few months writing but had already saved their round-trip fare to Europe (SPJ 11 June 1958). In the meantime, they found a small apartment in Boston which Sylvia described as “ideal aesthetically if not in high price and kitchen crammed against one wall of the living room”. It consisted of two rooms with a “sixth floor Beacon Hill View to the river” (SPJ 20 June 1958). Its address was 9 Willow Street.
‘9 Willow Street’ (BL 71-4), is the poem on The Hermit’s Path in the World of Briah, which is the mutable, watery world of intellect and abstract creation. For Ted and Sylvia, this address was significant and would have seemed most propitious for the start of their new life of writing, for the Willow tree is a sacred tree, a tree of enchantment and fertility, which has long been revered by poets12. The Willow gave its name to Helicon (‘willow’ = Gk. ‘helice’), the abode of the Muses. Orpheus was given his gift of eloquence by touching the Willow in the sacred grove of Persephone and he carried its branches with him in his journey through the underworld. And although it was originally sacred to the sun gods, Beli, Zeus and Apollo, the Willow came to be associated chiefly with the powers of the Moon, with Poseidon, and with Moon Goddesses, Persephone, Hera, Circe and Hecate. Witches used willow for flight, enchantment and divination; and willow wands were used for conjuring dreams, intuition and inspiration. Willow was also associated with death and rebirth, especially at the pagan Willow-Moon Festival of Beltane, when the Wicker Man (or Green George)13 was sacrificed to ensure fertility; and at the Summer Solstice when St John’s fires (formerly the pagan fires of Oannes/Bacchus) were lit for “lustration” or ritual purification before rebirth.
For all these reasons, Ted and Sylvia would have regarded 9 Willow Street as a “poetic address” and 9, being the fertile number of both Themis and Saturn, would have made it “even better”.
Yet even as she found the “ideal” writing environment, Sylvia recognized that she was “Fearful, inadequate desperate”, worried about money, about publication, about “sloth, fear, vanity, meekness” but, most of all, about her own capacity for “choosing” and “making” her life. Having been used to the constant demands of school and college, she now swung between “joyous positive and despairing negative” (SPJ 20 June 1958), knowing that she had the free time and the companion she had wished for but afraid that her inner resources would fail her. Words like ‘paralysis’, ‘despair’ and ‘doldrums’ began to occur frequently in her journal. She made lists of things she must do: “produce a book of poems, stories, a novel, learn German & read Shakespeare & Aztec mythology and the origin of the species[sic]” (SPJ 20 June 1958), and she castigated herself if she deviated from her schedule.
These were the “turbines / Home and College had assembled” in her, the external demands which she had internalized and which kept her in perpetual anxiety and motion and “thundered the parquet”. The actual move the new apartment lifted her spirits, but “black depression”, “fear” and “panic” soon returned (SPJ 14 and 15 Sept. 1958). As she “hammered” at her typewriter trying to create her new self through her writing (Ted’s imagery is that of the Alchemical Hermes being reborn from the Philosophical Egg) her “Panic Bird” rarely left her alone; and, in fact, it was her old self – the “old egg” of past experience in which she was still enclosed – which drove her.
Ted, too, was depressed (SPJ 27 Sept. 1958). Unlike Sylvia, who “Perched in the glare” on that “cliff-edge” (which describes both her emotional state and the bright sixth-floor, bay-window at which she wrote) Ted retreated inwards. In the poem he tells us that he shut out the world, the noise and the light, “And sank”. In a letter to Lucas Myers from 9 Willow Street, Ted wrote: “My emotional life has been like a dead man’s here until very recently”; he also said that there was (in Myers words) “a kind of natural starch in the New England air that gradually encrusted you” (CSBA 90).
In ‘9 Willow Street’, Ted is “enclosed” by “wings of blackness”. His “lumber”, the dead wood which he carried with him, was not only his own past but also his need to be close to nature, something which he told Lucas Myers was disabled for him by the “chemistry” of American society. And maybe he also had in mind, when he chose the word ‘lumber’ for this poem, the willow bands with which the sun-god substitute was bound to a stock during the fertility rites of Cybele and Attis14, a ritual which he made the Reverend Lumb endure at the beginning of Gaudete.
More clearly, this lumber which Ted carried with him to the bottom of the river, is linked in the poem with “Jung’s nigredo”, the plunge into the darkness and chaos of the human subconscious. In “my black sack” (the personal pronoun confirms that it is Ted alone who is thus encased) Ted strikes “sulphur matches” in an attempt to “find the eyes” of Jung’s nigredo, which, for Jung, are “the eyes of the spirit”, “the eyes of the understanding and the imagination” (Jung Psychology and Alchemy 250). Sulphur is the purifying element15 which the Alchemist uses to break down the prima materia – to “Kill the King”, and Jung quotes the Alchemists’ dictum “Purge the horrible darknesses of our mind” and links these darknesses with the nigredo in which the spirit is fettered16. It seems, then, that Ted lit his sulphur matches in an attempt to purge himself of the lumber which fettered his spirit. It seems, too, that the sulphur matches which Ted lit were poems.
Most of the poems Ted wrote at this time were published in Lupercal in 1960. Speaking of these poems in an interview with Ekbert Faas in 1977, Ted said that “almost all” of them were “written as invocations to writing” (UU 209). He went on to say that his “main consciousness in those days was that it was impossible to write. So these invocations were just attempts to crack the apparent impossibility of producing anything”. Lupercal notably contains poems which turn to Nature to invoke and celebrate the vital spirit. In the first poem, ‘Things Present’ (L 9) (and the first and last poems in all Ted’s books were carefully chosen and had special significance17), Ted becomes “the tramp18 in the sodden ditch” in order to “Embody a now, erect a here”, as if to create a space in which these poems and his own spirit might live. ‘Fourth of July’ (NCP 27), however, is an ironic comment on American Independence Day and more clearly describes Ted’s perception of America (and of his own situation in America) at that time. In it, nature is “taxed and patrolled”, independence is equated with hucksters, “monsters” are banished from “the right maps”, and “the mind’s wandering elementals / Ousted” from their mythical places of spirit and imagination wait “dully” in an urban world “taking nothing in”.
So, suffering from the same sickness of spirit, Ted and Sylvia “huddled” together in Willow Street: he rocking in “infantile” blackness, feeding on her “nightmares and terrors”: she “In a paralysis of terror-flutters”, in an “airy Hell” in which her writing, which was her ladder to rebirth, was twenty-four hours of toil (“typewriter”, “alarm clock” and “new sentence” are run together with beautiful ambiguity) which came from nothing and lead to nothing. In imagery which describes the Alchemical hermaphrodite and the Sulphurous Alchemical process of destruction and purification, Ted depicts the reality of their life at that time and the struggles they endured. Sylvia’s journal entries amply testify to the “siamese-twinned” nature of their relationship, to the walks and the dreams which they shared, and to the “festering” such closeness sometimes fostered in each of them. Yet this “soul sepsis”, this “heaving dimension of chemical horror”, this Alchemical “Killing of the King”, which they shared inside Sylvia’s “Bell Jar”, should have been a step towards rebirth.
Significantly, their “only escape” was into “arms / That reached upwards or downwards”, which suggests sexual union and is a suitably Saturnalian suggestion. But since it was these arms which, Ted says, “rolled us along all night eastward”, these must have been arms other than their own, and Saturn (in the mud below) and the Goddess (in the air above) are subtly invoked. Yet, “what a waste!”. This phrase, which follows immediately in a line on its own, suggests Ted’s later recognition of the mistakes he and Sylvia were making and to which they were “spectre-blinded” at the time. Wrapped in each other as they were, they could not possibly succeed. Each alone might have “met with a new life”, because in Cabbala each must make their own journey in their own way, but together they were “off course” (like the fleeting birds which are associated with happiness in the following lines), being rolled “eastward” rather than westward (the traditional direction for the rebirth of the spirit). And this was not their only mistake.
“Happiness” is set in a line of its own in the text of the poem and is connected to “blown scraps” of vital natural energy in the seven lines which immediately follow. But happiness it seems, like the exotic American birds which briefly visit this poem, was so “momentary” that Ted and Sylvia failed to “identify” it. And the identification of happiness with nature, here, is the key to what Ted and Sylvia failed to recognize. For the Cabbalist and the Alchemist, as Jung points out in the pages where he discusses the purging of the nigredo, the “golden understanding” comes from “the inner light which God has lit in nature and in our hearts from the beginning” (Jung PA 270). Rebirth, in other words, comes from the vital spirit within and is reached through the heart not through the intellect: it is not reached by making schedules and lists or by “hammering” away at anything.
Now, as before on this Path of the Hermit, Ted is given a warning. In an appropriately “dizzy”, dream-like state, Ted encounters an emissary of the Goddess. Writing this poem, he presents his encounter with a bat as a symbolic event, a “scenario” staged by Fate; and, in the penultimate line of the poem, he connects it with the myth he and Sylvia “had sleepwalked into”. Suitably, the Goddess’s emissary in his darkness is a Mercurial shape-changer and trickster - “something” which originally appears to be soft, slug-like and harmless but which turns into a snarling, fanged, hyena-faced Fury.
Bats, in Ancient Greece were sacred to Demeter19 but more often they were associated with the other bat-winged, bloody-eyed, snake-haired, dog-fanged Furies, the Erinnyes, who were born of Gaea after the blood of Uranus fell on her when Cronus castrated him. The Erinnyes pursued, tormented and drove mad those who shed the blood of family members (“blood shedding its own blood”, as Ted describes this in his version of the Oresteia (O 164))20 but they were persuaded by the Goddess Athena to befriend Orestes, for which he renamed them ‘Eumenides’ : the Kindly Ones.
Ted beautifully invokes and contains the tiny bat-Fury in two separate but closely related sections of the poem (lines 73-96). In the second of these, he depicts himself (as at the end of the first poem on this Path) as a fool. There he is, a grown man entertaining a crowd on Boston Common by fighting a tiny bat, and getting bitten for his pains. At the same time, in the poem he is a foolish human attempting to control one of Fate’s terrible sisters. But he gave his blood-sacrifice freely and he treated the creature gently and with love: “cradling” it, he “offered it up” to the “wall of chestnut bark” where, “triumphant”, it vanished “upwards into where it came from”. This bat-Fury sent down from above moves as a bat might - “backwards” and “face-downwards” – but in doing so it effectively turns Ted’s world upside-down.
In the final stanza, Ted realizes the true foolishness of his action. American bats sometimes do carry rabies, so he had risked been infected, but he sees his folly also in metaphorical terms. The “tragedy ending” and the “ironic death” “secreted” in Fate’s scenario are not his own death from rabies, or Sylvia’s death at a later date, but the end of his and Sylvia’s joint poetic journey. Ironically, all their shared sacrifices and efforts carried the disease (unidentified by them) from which the enterprise would die, because they were sleepwalking into a flawed myth of their own “spectre-blinded” making. This was the deathly “bat-light” which they “were living in”.
Suitably for this Path which is presided over by Saturn, the poem ends with “death”: with two deaths, in fact. Ted connects the first death directly with the myth into which he and Sylvia had blindly sleepwalked: he connects the second with the dark, tormented, upside-down world in which they were living. Thus, at the end of this poem, Ted deliberately destroys both these mistakes and in doing so completes a poetic Alchemical and Cabbalistic ritual of purification. In reality, too, Ted’s and Sylvia’s shared myth did eventually die when Ted gave up the idea of a shared journey and concentrated on helping Sylvia to achieve her goal. Their situation changed, too, when they left Boston to travel around America and then returned to England.
‘The Afterbirth’ (BL 130-131) is the poem on the Path of the Hermit in the World of Yetzirah. On the surface, this poem describes the birth of Ted’s and Sylvia’s son, Nicholas, on 17 January 1962. Nicholas was born at Court Green, with Ted and a midwife helping Sylvia with the birth. In a letter to her mother the next day, Sylvia wrote: “at 5 minutes to 12… this great bluish boy shot out onto the bed in a tidal wave of water that drenched all four of us to the skin, howling lustily” (SPLH 18 Jan. 1962); and in a journal entry made at a later date she recorded the delivery of the afterbirth “into a pyrex bowl, which crimsoned with blood” (SPJ ‘THE MIDWIFE: WINIFRED DAVIES’, entry immediately following 7 May 1962). In a note on Sylvia’s poem ‘Totem’, Ted wrote that the pyrex bowl was “used on different occasions both for her son’s afterbirth and the cleaned body of a hare” (SPCP 295).
‘The Afterbirth’ is clearly rooted in reality, but it also has a complex mythic level which tells of the dream “rubbished”; of the Son-Hero born into a sudden noon-sun-blinded, “tear-splitting dazzle”; of the Gorgon vanquished; and of Sylvia, at the moment of birth, a triumphant Goddess “laughing and weeping / Into the glare”.
The dream, “the lotus-eater’s whole island”, is not just the placenta which has nourished the baby in the womb, it is also the “dream-land” to which Ted brought Sylvia in ‘Error’ (BL 122), the same dreamland in which they have both been walking as they pursued their shared poetic dream of creative rebirth21. This dreamland, now, is “offal”, refuse, waste-stuff lying “rubbished” on “newsprint” which is both “blood-soaked” by the placenta and also, no doubt, by print which reports the usual bloody ills of the real world.
The son who is born is both Nicholas and a “shocking beauty”, “the dazzler”, one who bursts into the room, like Perseus, to confront the Gorgon. Ted sees him “flash-up” the “sunburned German”, but the identity of this German is confused. The lines read as if the child was German, which he was not; or the German seems to refer to someone in a honeymoon memory; or (which is most likely in the Cabbalistic context of this Path) he is Sylvia’s German father – the father who is more often represented as the Minotaur in Birthday Letters but who, here, is The Father killed (flashed-up) by The Son in a “blue-blackish” sunstroke hallucination experienced by Ted.
This last, alchemical, interpretation is supported by the parallel imagery of lines 10 – 12 and 13 – 16, and by the deliberate ambiguities which leave it unclear whether it was the son-hero, bursting into the bedroom “when the Gorgon / Arrived” who ripped off her face or whether the Gorgon herself did this; and whether the son was the sunburned German or whether he destroyed the German; and who exactly slammed down the Medusa-like, placenta-like octopus tripes on Ted’s and Sylvia’s “honeymoon quay” - which may, itself, be part of the “wedding picture” in ‘Error’ (BL 122). Such deliberate turmoil introduces an element of Saturnian and alchemical chaos, just as is found in the cyclical myths of Saturn – Cronus.
The birth in this poem marks a sudden change in the old order of Ted’s and Sylvia’s lives. As in any family, the birth of a child arouses strong feelings of love and jealousy, and family relationships must be readjusted. But the image Ted creates in this poem is also a mythic image in which Sylvia becomes the judgemental Goddess, Athena, helping the sun-hero, Perseus, to finally vanquish her one-time rival, the Gorgon, Medusa. Athena and Medusa were related, Medusa being the deathly Hag aspect of the Triple Goddess22, and a Moon Goddess whose blood, falling on the earth, fertilized it and breed new, serpentine, sexual life. She was, in fact, Nature; and she could be both beautiful and terrifying. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, describes Medusa as “a maid far-famed and fair… the jealous hope of suitors”, whose hair “was her charm most rare”. But Poseidon seduced Medusa in Athena’s temple and for this, “lest such sacrilege should no penance earn”, the jealous Athena turned the Gorgon’s hair to “loathsome snakes”23.
Sylvia, at the time of Nicholas’s birth, displayed many aspects of the Goddess Athena. An undercurrent of judgemental sharpness and jealousy ran through her journal entries between New Year and 1 May 1962, roused especially by her neighbours’ daughter, Nicola Tyrer (SPJ Appendix 15, 1962). In the poems she wrote at that time, she saw mostly blackness, hooks and desolation in nature24; and the moon looms cold but beautiful, as the rival resembling death, and as a merciless thing hissing “snaky acids”, which, Medusa-like, petrify “the will”25. There is a sense, too, in which these poems were the afterbirth of Sylvia’s completion of The Bell Jar on 22 August 1961 (SPJ Note 438).
If, as I am suggesting, Sylvia is meant to be seen as Athena in Ted’s poem, and the afterbirth as her Moon Goddess rival, then the hare, too, has double meaning, for the Moon Goddess frequently takes the form of a hare. In the poem, the hare is already “a witchy familiar”, a shapeshifter who speaks with a human voice and may hobble “down from under the elms”.
The afterbirth in this poem also takes many forms: it is the Gorgon (as it is also in Sylvia’s poem ‘Medusa’, SPCP 224 – 6), sea-tripes, the lotus-eater’s island, a “fallen Eden” awaiting rebirth; and, in an ovenproof bowl with “a meaning / All to itself”, it is the jugged corpse of the hare – a dismembered Goddess, a totem animal (as it is in Sylvia’s poem ‘Totem’ (SPCP 264-5)) to be eaten in order to embody the Goddess’s powers.
Ted, seeing himself as an Egyptian tomb-wall shadow – a dog-headed man like the god Anubis, who conducts the souls of the dead through the Underworld – takes the afterbirth and buries it, significantly, in the earth. This was an ancient folk-practice which was believed to ensure the safety and fertility of the new-born child. Yet, this earth is not just the Court Green garden with its ancient burial mound. Ted describes it in the poem as a “motherly hump” (like a pregnant belly) of “ancient Britain”, the land which once belonged to Brigantia, the Celtic Mother Goddess of fertility and of poetry. Years later, Brigantia’s powers would be evident in Ted’s poetry: in Remains of Elmet (Faber, 1979), in particular26, but also in the fertile Devon soil of Moortown Farm and the poems which grew from Ted’s involvement there (Moortown, Faber, 1979). The buried afterbirth, it seems, had fruitful results for Ted; and also, in quite a different way, for Sylvia.
Sylvia’s relationship to the hare in Ted’s poem is complex. She did not share Ted’s hunters’ view27 of animals like hares, rabbits, grouse and other animals which are hunted and trapped for food: their differing perspectives are made abundantly clear in ‘Rabbit Catcher’ (BL 144 – 6). But in ‘The Afterbirth’, the hare is also the Goddess and, therefore, part of Sylvia’s own female nature. To refuse and deny and bury that part of herself – the irrational, dark, Moon Goddess part which is closest to Nature – and to allow the judgemental, retributive, Athena-like part of herself to dominate, as she did in The Bell Jar, was unbalanced and dangerous. So, the hare opens an accusing eye at her. So, too, it might hobble down “from under the elm”, where the afterbirth was buried, to call to her: “Mother! Mother!”, as if asking to be acknowledged and rescued, but also claiming a relationship with Sylvia such as a witch’s familiar might claim from one who suckled it.
Yet, although it was Sylvia that the hare might call to, Ted imagined it in “our yard”. He, too, it seems was locking Nature out. And it was he who ran over and killed a hare on the A30 road, thereby locking “error beyond repair”. Significantly, this particular hare (which Ted specifically calls “a witchy familiar”) was “sent”, as if by the Goddess and as if intended to be a sacrifice and a warning; and Ted’s use of the word “error” again refers us back to the poem of that title (BL 122) and, thus, to his and Sylvia’s fragile “wedding picture” dream world.
Sylvia, it seems, did not hear this particular warning. Only when Ted magically “re-formed” the hare on his page28 in a hieroglyph (the word means, precisely, “a sacred word, a symbol or inscription’: ‘Hiero’ = Gk. ‘sacred, holy’) did she hear its death scream and, when she did, it was unstoppable, like the flow of the heart’s blood from “a burst artery”.
Ted’s use of simile in the final six lines of the poem suggests far more than Sylvia’s reaction to the Goddess’s / hare’s distress. His reference to the telephone which she picks up, “curious”, makes a link with Sylvia’s poem ‘Words heard by accident, over the phone’ (SPCP 202-3) and with the powerful and terrible feelings and events which were precipitated by her subsequent jealousy of Assia Wevill (whose voice she believed she heard). Sylvia’s poem is permeated with imagery of snake and octopus, and of muddy, “fertile”, Saturnian and witchy energy. She writes of “the bowel-pulse” and of a Cronus-like, Hag-like, “lover of digestibles”; and bitter anger pours from the poem as her world is overturned. It is a powerful and agonizing poem, expressing the same terrible and unstoppable emotions as those engendered by Ted’s images of something “moon-eyed” and flower frail being “ripped up” and “disembowelled”.
In the final line of Ted’s poem, the hare / Goddess is alive again and screaming like a Fury. Given the links with Sylvia which have just been made, and the Path on which this poem lies, it is hard not to see the hare / Goddess as having lain hidden within Sylvia until the time was ripe for her rebirth as a dark, destructive and deathly Hag. In Cabbalistic terms, too, this would be seen as the result of Sylvia’s denial and suppression of an essential part her spirit – the part which should have balanced Justice with Mercy and Love. This, then, was not the rebirth which Sylvia and Ted had planned or expected. The Hermit’s light, when it was finally revealed, was Divine but vengeful.
In the World of Assiah, far from the Divine Source, all errors are compounded. Assiah is the World of Shells or Qlippoth, the negative energies of the Sephiroth, and ‘Telos’ (BL 176 – 7), the poem on the Hermit’s Path in this World, is full of these energies. In particular, it deals with the Qlippoth of Tiphereth (Sephira 6) and Chesed (Sephira 4), which lie at each end of this Path.
Tiphereth, at the heart of the Tree, is a symbol of “centrality, balance and wholeness”29 and it has special importance for our own consciousness of our outer and inner worlds. Tiphereth, if its power has been used correctly in pursuit of The Great Work, can reveal “the blazing Sun of the Tree”. On the other hand, because its Qlippoth is “Hollowness” and its Illusion is “Identification” (especially an identification of Self based on false beliefs), Tiphereth may reveal “an empty room”.
Chesed’s Qlippoth is “Ideology” and its “Vices” are those of “all the other Sephiroth writ large”. Used positively, Chesed’s energies are creative and expansive - a benign and humble expression of mercy and love, such as a holy hermit might transmit. Used wrongly, to build on and expand a false ideology, Chesed’s energies become tyrannous, greedy and selfish. The “Illusion” of Chesed is the illusion of “Being Right”, and such arrogance is the direct opposite of the humility needed for the positive expression of Chesed’s powers.
The duality of both Tiphereth (the Sun or an empty room) and Chesed (love as merciful or tyrannous) pervades Ted’s poem, ‘Telos’, and the Qlippoth of both these Sephiroth are demonstrated in the picture of Sylvia which Ted conveys. The image of Self which Sylvia projected was one of a capable and confident woman who could set her own goals and achieve them through her own ability, effort and will-power. This was the mask she wore, the identity she adopted. Beneath the mask, however, she feared there was nothing, and it was this fear which caused her panics and depressions. In Cabbalistic terms, Sylvia’s reliance on will-power and rational control was a hollow ideology, and under the tyranny of these false beliefs her creative powers became selfish and destructive.
The letter Alpha, one of the many meanings of which is ‘the Unchanged Primal Cause’ (or, in other words, Telos: the Final Cause, Nature), is the perfect symbol for all this, and, even, for the resulting fall which Sylvia experiences at the end of Ted’s poem.
In the poem, and in the world in general, there are “Too many Alphas”. Just some of the things listed under ‘Alpha’ in a dictionary of symbols30 are: an elm, the Trinity, God, New Year and other beginnings, an Ox, an Ibis (Thoth / Anubis), adultery, a favourable judgement, and the Sun. In addition, Robert Graves lists many goddesses who are represented by the letter ‘A’ (“the birth letter”), most of whom are Mother goddesses and / or Moon goddesses: most, in other words, are aspects of the Triple Goddess. Amongst those listed are Black Annis, a Moon goddess who was “concerned with a May-Eve hare-hunt”, and the Goddesses, Athena (WG 369 – 372), both of whom are especially relevant to the poems on this Path.
Ted associates many of these meanings of Alpha with Sylvia in the imagery of ‘Telos’. For her, he writes, Alphas were “too many” and “too much”. She was “Sunstruck” with Alpha, sick from it. The description, “Eye-sick”, suggests sun-sickness but the paronomasia with ‘I-sick’ also suggests selfishness and self-delusion; and, since Sylvia’s eyes were especially remarked on in ‘18 Rugby Street’ and ‘The Afterbirth’, the image links her again with the Goddess Athena, whose identifying features in Greek poetry were her brilliant eyes and her aegis.
At school, Sylvia was an Alpha (A-Grade) student: but Ted’s poem suggests that she gained nothing more from school than good grades and the belief that this was what counted in life. When she “kicked school” – meaning colloquially “left it behind” but, here, physically spurning it too – it “collapsed” in nothing but Alphas (which is, itself, an ironic comment on the purpose of school).
Sylvia’s sickness, a suicidal depression in which she felt “sterile, empty, unlived, unwise and UNREAD [sic]” was precipitated by “fear of failing to live up to the fast & furious prize-winning pace” of her life up to that time (SPLH 28 Dec. 1953). And the electric shock therapy which Sylvia was given after her suicide attempt, was intended to cure that sickness. In ‘Telos’ it is possible to read the Alpha “sky-signs” as the “lightning” of shock therapy which went wrong (WP 180) – as, for example, the Jove-like appearance of Johnny Panic in “a nimbus of arc lights” with lightning in “his beard” and “his eye”, which Sylvia described in her story of that name31 – but there were other more influential Alphas in her sky following her recovery. Important people like Olive Higgins Prouty and Mary Ellen Chase helped Sylvia a great deal by guiding and supporting her plans; and she won many prizes and successes, including acceptance by Cambridge University and the award of a Fulbright Scholarship32.
By 1956, Sylvia had come to regard her recovery from her suicide attempt and depression as a rebirth. She wrote of “waking to a new world, with no name, being born again, and not of woman” (SPJ 26 Feb. 1956). But in her new life she was still, as Ted writes in ‘Telos’, “covered” (a carefully chosen word) in Alphas: she had “burrowed” into the darkness both literally and metaphorically, and she had turned Aurelia “inside out” with anxiety, but the Self she “came up” with was the same Self, wearing the same Alpha mask, and with the same fears as before.
The phrase, “your mother”, also has double meaning. In Sylvia’s own poem of rebirth, ‘Poem for a Birthday’ (SPCP 131 – 137), she makes the same connection between the dark cellar and the earth as is conveyed by the word “burrowed” in ‘Telos’. But the earth, there, is also her mother – a devouring mother, who eats her children, as does Nature and as does the dark Hag aspect of the Moon Goddess. So, in both ‘Poem for a Birthday’ and ‘Telos’, it was the dark Moon Goddess to whom Sylvia tried to return but who was ultimately rejected for an Athena-like Self after her rebirth. Sylvia, in her own poem, first becomes one with the devouring mother, then banishes her (“Mother keep out of my barnyard”). She swallows time, “the great umbilicus of the sun”, and with it she swallows “the endless glitter” which in both poetry and myth belongs to Athena. Finally, she is mechanically re-made in “a city of spare parts”. In reality, as in ‘Telos’, Sylvia’s return to mother earth, when she buried herself in the cellar intending to die, was abruptly reversed: the mother was turned inside-out and the darkness became buried within Sylvia, not she in it. In the imagery of Sylvia’s poem, and in the re-making of herself which the writing of the poem imaginatively re-enacted, “the vase, reconstructed, houses / the elusive rose” or, put another way, it is the shadowy aspect of Love which lies cupped in the hand-made bowl and which is as important as the visible aspect. Sylvia acknowledged, there, the existence of both.
The simile which Ted uses in ‘Telos’ to describe this turning inside-out of “your mother” is not, on the face of it, very apt but it, too, conveys the dual aspect of Love. A feather pillow is soft and comforting, not qualities usually associated with Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia, by either Sylvia or Ted. Real as Aurelia’s love for Sylvia was, it seems generally to have been expressed in a practical, efficient, matter-of-fact way – rather as one might expect the Goddess Athena’s love to be, for Athena was also the fierce protectress of mothers and their children. The soft, feathery, ecstatic, floating kind of love, however, is associated with the Moon Goddess (as Diana rather than Hecate) and if you rip up a feather pillow the result is a cloud of feathers which resemble soft, drifting flakes of snow. Perhaps it is stretching the imagination too far to link this image to the snow out of which the hare / Goddess pleads in ‘The Afterbirth’, but the meaning is the same: something soft and gentle has been ripped up, turned out, rejected.
Other images which Ted chooses in ‘Telos’ to describe Sylvia’s life after that first rebirth all demonstrate the Alpha nature of her new Self and the self-destructive and Athena-like aspects of her search for love. Rumpelstiltskin, in the Grimm brothers’ story, stamped so hard that he destroyed himself. Sylvia, in Birthday Letters, finally achieves union with her Minotaur father, but it destroys her; and in real life she was united with him only through death. In her poetry, Sylvia reached her father through her Ariel (another Alpha) voice and her love turned to anger, but it was these angry poems which were most applauded by other women (who often did behave like a “whole band” of destructive Alpha goddesses). Sylvia’s search for love, too, was rational and will-driven – like a fairground game at which she was expert. All her boyfriends were Alpha males, “a straight row of Alphas”, and she shot them down just like that. Her “prize” in this love game was the reinforcement of the image she chose to project of an Alpha “doll” – blonde, pretty and desirable.
That doll persona was “plastic” (malleable but artificial and hollow) and Sylvia smashed it, Ted says, “with a kitchen stool” – an image and a meaning which he used earlier in Birthday Letters in ‘The Minotaur’ (BL 120). In that moment of uncontrolled anger, Sylvia found a new, “tick-tock Alpha” beginning and (as discussed in The Path of the Emperor) the energy which fuelled her Ariel voice but which led her, too, to the Minotaur and to disaster. In ‘Telos’, that same moment of uncontrolled anger is the culmination of a sequence of angry, calculated and vengeful acts. But in destroying the “doll”, Sylvia also wounded herself and it was her own blood which “signed” the urban “snowscape” through which she then ran. This bloody signature suggests the anguish which Sylvia later bled into her Ariel poems, but the fact that in ‘Telos’ the blood came from her “escaping heel” is also significant.
In myth, the heel was the only vulnerable part of a Sun-hero’s body. Often it was the dark Love Goddess or the Hag who inflicted the wound or caused it to be inflicted33, and such a wound was always fatal. It is appropriate, then, that Sylvia, as an embodiment of the wrathful Athena (whose father was a Sun god) should display the bloodied heel of a wounded sun-hero. And her flight, too, is shown as a desperate attempt, “Anyhow” (the word stands alone, suggesting the most desperate of measures), to escape from “The Furies of Alpha” which belong, as in the other poems on this path, to the Moon Goddess / Hag.
In Cabbalistic terms, Sylvia “hurdled every letter of the Alphabet”, rather than working carefully along each Path and learning as she went. So, she “hurled” herself “beyond Omega”, the end which should have brought enlightenment and completion. The final image of the poem is confusing, but it can be understood in Cabbalistic terms, because the shape of the Hebrew letter Aleph (Alpha) is formed by two Yods (the letter of this Path), one above and one below a diagonal line: symbolically, this shows that the Divine Spark (from which everything in our world began) exists both above and below the firmament of our material world. Above is the universe of the “higher water”, a place of blazing sun in which the Soul will find joy: below is the cold, glittering universe of the “lower water” in which the Soul will find only bitterness. Each is a universe of Alpha; and Sylvia “fell” into the “glittering”, lower waters of the two.
‘Telos’ encompasses Saturn as Father Time and it follows Sylvia’s life from beginning to end, twice overturning her world with a form of death and rebirth. But the lessons of Cabbala were not learned and each new Self embodied the same mistaken ideology. Inevitably, this led to disaster and Telos / Nature is shown as the Final Cause of this. Having remained hidden, like the Hermit’s light, Nature finally achieved her ends and her power was acknowledged, but only in the darkest possible way.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. The Mystical Significance of Hebrew Letters (Yod)
2. Throughout Birthday Letters, Sylvia’s father is associated with the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Also, with Saturn-Cronus as the presiding figure in this poem, it is notable that on 29 March 1959 (SPJ) Sylvia recorded in her journal that in a psychotherapy session with Ruth Beuscher she had explored the (presumably subconscious) belief that she might have killed and castrated her father.
3. In the Bible, for example, see Leviticus 4:1-6; and Numbers 23 (where sacrifice is also associated with magical practices). The number 7 was also associated with sacrifice and bulls in many ancient spiritual-rebirth cults, such as the Mysteries of Mithra, which Joseph Campbell discusses at length in The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Ch. 6:III.
4. As discussed in earlier chapters, Lucas Myers served this same guiding, Mercurial purpose in both ‘Visit’ and ‘St Botolphs’.
5. Chapter 11 of Crow Steered Bergs Appeared describes the “historical details” which lie behind Ted’s poem. Lucas Myers writes that Ted asked him (in a letter dated 18 March 1956) “to do an errand I didn’t want to do” but he did agree to meet Sylvia in London and on March 23 he did escort her to the flat in Rugby Street where Ted was living.
6. This letter is amongst the Sylvia Plath papers held at the Lilly Library, Indiana University.(Plath mss. II, Correspondence, Box 6/6 (+1), 1956 Mar.-Apr.)
7. Hughes/Sagar correspondence. British Library, Dep. 10003(10). 15th August 1997.
8. On April 13th 1957 (SPLH), Sylvia wrote to her mother recording “Our first real professional “British” acceptance”. The Atlantic Monthly had accepted two of her poems: ‘Spinster’ and ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’; and one of Ted’s: ‘Famous Poet’, a choice which Ted would have regarded as auspicious.
9. Toad-stones (so called because they are said to come from the body of a toad) are magical stones which witches used to help people achieve their goals. But in Hans Christian Anderson’s parable, The Toad, the stone, or jewel, in the head of the toad is the spark of sun which causes “continual striving and the desire to go upward - ever upward”. So, the ugliest toad may be driven to journey from the dark, sunless well into the light, and the spark will return to the sun. Sylvia knew Anderson’s stories well (see SPJ, 4 Jan. 1958, for example).
10. Even in photographs, Sylvia’s image seems curiously unfixed. Apart from the few iconic photographs which are seen so often that she is instantly identified, many look as if they are of different people. Compare photographs 3, 12, 15 and 20, in The Journals of Sylvia Plath, for example.
11. Fetter Lane is in the City of London and, as Peter Ackroyd notes in London: The Biography (Random House, 2000. pp. 229-237), it has always been a boundary, an edge. This is appropriate for Ted’s and Sylvia’s plunge into a “Niagara” of shared emotions. Appropriate, too, for a couple about to become united, is the more common meaning of ‘fetter’ (to bind or shackle). If Fetter Lane was the true location of Sylvia’s London hotel, then the name was another coincidence in their lives.
12. Robert Graves has much to say about the Willow in The White Goddess, especially in Chapter 10, ‘The Tree Alphabet’.
13. Caesar described the wicker figures of gods made by Druids in Britain and claimed that human sacrifices were burned in them. Frazer describes vegetative Green George ceremonies in Europe in which the Willow was ritually cut down and its branches used to clothe a figure used in mock sacrifice to ensure the fertility of the land and waters. He describes old and sick people spitting three times on the cut willow and saying: “You will soon die, but let us live” (Frazer,GB 166-7).
14. See Frazer: ‘The Myth and Ritual of Attis’, The Golden Bough, Ch. XXXIV.
15. Sulphur has long been used in medicine for cleansing and purifying purposes and was once commonly used to sterilize sickrooms after infectious diseases such as diphtheria.
16. “the “darknesses of our mind” coincides unmistakably with the nigredo” (Jung PA 271).
17. This poem is not included in New Selected Poems, possibly because it had served a special purpose in Lupercal and that purpose was not relevant to the more diverse collection of poems.
18. Tramps, in Ted’s poems, are another kind of hermit, living close to nature and keeping the vital energies intact.
19. The Earth Goddess, Demeter, took the form of a horse in order to escape Poseidon (Saturn) who was pursuing her, but he changed into a stallion and raped her. She was so infuriated by this that she took on the aspect of a Fury and hid in a cave. In ‘Autumn Nature Notes’ in Season Songs, Ted invented his own myth for the Horse-chestnut tree, associating it with the “swirly grain” belonging to the Earth Goddess, and describing it as a “plump mare” which bears the dragon-slaying hero towards his “sunbeam princess” (SS 46-7).
20. Orestes, having killed his father, was pursued by the Erinnyes but at his trial Athena intervened on his behalf and he was acquitted. The Erinnyes challenged this judgement, threatening to make the earth barren with spilled blood, but Athena made a pact with them. She promised them that if they lived in her sanctuary in Athens, she would ensure that all would pay tribute to them. In return they must bless the land and ensure fertility. Because they agreed to this, Orestes renamed them ‘Eumenides’, the Kindly Ones. Ted’s version of Aeschelus’s Oresteia ends with this story.
21. The lotus is a common symbol of rebirth.
Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2002. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at email@example.com