The Path of the Moon joins Netzach (Sephira 7) to Malkuth (Sephira 10) at the very bottom of the Tree. It takes the journeyer far from the Divine Source, into the wholly material world of Malkuth, The Kingdom, where all the accumulated energies of the Tree take fixed form. On this Path, the Moon is at its darkest and little of its reflected light remains to guide the traveller through the waters which are the governing Element here. Pisces, the last sign of the astrological year, rules these waters, and the all-embracing, formlessness of this sign is governed, now, by Mars.
The Goddess associated with Netzach is Venus-Aphrodite, still in her role of Hag, Hecate, ‘Ruler of flux and reflux’, Goddess of Death and Life. But the Goddess of Malkuth is the Inferior Mother, the Moony reflection of the All Mother, Binah, in whom all form is potentially present and who, now, brings about the realization of that potential. In Malkuth, she has a terrible aspect but she is the Indwelling Female Spirit of the Divine in all matter; she is the Soul of the World, the Shekinah, Gaia. The unity of the Divine is expressed through her in material diversity – ‘As above, so below’, in Hermetic terms – but with this separation and fixity comes imbalance1. Our own fallibility in the discrimination of differences between things also results in misjudgment and error. So, Malkuth is Maya, the World of Illusion, and it is the World of Shells in which the Divine Spark is present but exiled from the Divine Source: it is a fallen world in which our own Souls lie buried.
Malkuth, however, is the ‘Gateway of Resurrection’. It is a place of endings and beginnings: the Moon wanes and waxes and the endless cycles of Nature continue. The Cabbalist’s Soul can begin to move from here towards the pure light of the Source: the female and male potencies of the Divine may be reunited in balance and harmony, and wholeness regained, and the Inferior Mother, the Shekinah, may return from exile and become The Bride.
The Hebrew letter of this Path is Qoph, which is variously translated as ‘The Back of the Head’, ‘Monkey’ or ‘Ape’. In the Sepher Yetzirah, Qoph is associated with the Corporeal Intelligence, the potencies of the cerebellum, the most primitive part of the human brain, the involuntary matrix which we inherit from our earliest ancestors and which co-ordinates all our movements. Through the cerebellum we are linked to our animal origins and, thus, to Nature. Cabbalists believe that the Tzaddi on this Path can find and unearth the buried Divine Spark and reunite it with the Source; that the Soul acting through the cerebellum can restore order to Nature. This for Alchemists too, is the seat of ‘Anima’, the place where memory and motion are joined, the place where The Golden Chain of Homer links us to Heaven2 and where the spirit of the Moon, the imagination, acts as the medium through which Natures order may be restored. This is the place where, in Ted’s words, “those prehistoric feelings and satisfactions” (PIM 76) reside; it is “the dark hole in the head” (’the Thought Fox’, THCP 21) where our imagination can make us one with Nature.
The shape of the letter Qoph, combines two letters: Resh (meaning ‘Head’ or ‘Beginning’) and Zayin (’sword’ or ‘Weapon’). In this combined group, Zayin, significantly, is written so that it descends below the line of text, signifying that Qoph takes the journeyer (and the enlightened Tzaddi fishing for Divine Sparks) down into the sunless depths of Malkuth, where the only light is the reflected light of the Moon3.
On the Traditional Tarot card, the mask-like face of a waning moon hangs over a bare landscape onto which Yods of Divine Spirit are falling4. Two dog-like creatures (sometimes identified as Anubis and Ap-uat, the Egyptian gods which guide the soul through the underworld) howl at the moon and guard the way to the open skyline. And two towers (like the Pillars of the SephirothicTree) stand on the distant horizon on either side of the open way. In the foreground, taking up almost half of the card, is a lake the waters of which, as on the Path of the Star, are the Waters of Life, the Bitter Sea of Binah, and, most importantly for a shamanic poet, the waters of the human subconscious. Dominating these waters, is a crab-like creature with its pincers and legs outstretched. It is a creature native to these waters, a creature with jointed legs, simple eyes, devouring jaws and a protective armour which it sheds as it grows and metamorphoses, so that these waters are littered with shells. It is a creature of nightmares, but it is also a symbol of transformation and rebirth5.
Appropriately, in ‘Moonwalk’ (BL 41 - 43), all of these images, and others drawn from mythology, folklore, religion and poetry, may be glimpsed like brief, illusory reflections or fragmentary shells of some greater whole. ‘Moonwalk’ is the poem on the Path of the Moon the archetypal World of Atziluth. And in the negative, colourless, moon-landscape of this poem, Sylvia, herself, wears a moon-mask – a “shucked off”, armour-like shell. Her anger is “moon-devil”, disturbed and disturbing anger, and her words are regurgitated bits of that same species of joint-legged creature that we see in the lunar waters of the tarot card.
In ‘You Hated Spain’ which was the poem in the Atziluthic World on the previous Path, Ted left us with an image of Sylvia as a new-born soul on the edge of the Goddess’s waters. On July 23, 1956, whilst still in Spain, Sylvia recorded an incident in her journal which suggests her sudden immersion in these dangerous, shifting, waters of the subconscious, and which seems, also, to be the basis of ‘Moonwalk’. From the start of the journal entry, Sylvia writes of the full moon as if it were the cause of the deep, dark, unspecified “wrongness” which possesses her and drives her in anger out onto the hillside. She stares at the moon, talks to the moon, and does not want to go out alone, but she is infected by some “poison” which distorts her perception of Ted and makes her think of smothering, death, murder, “the killing words”, and sickness. So, although Ted accompanies her, they “sit apart” like “strangers”. In this short journal entry, the moon’s light changes people, landscapes and, in Sylvia’s final sentence, “the world”.
So, too, in Ted’s ‘Moonwalk’ is the world changed. Everything in his weird and witchy moonscape, including judgement determined by the Goddess’s dice, is black-and-white, “in negative”, moonlit, ghostly “mimicry”, “dream” or “possession”, and Sylvia is immersed in it. Briefly, she is Coleridge’s “Nightmare Life-in-Death” Goddess, who was identified by Ted in ‘The Snake in the Oak’ as Arnquagassak, “the great malignant female” (WP 429). But unlike Coleridge, who confronts his Goddess - this “Unleaven Self, the Cain within him” (WP 418) – Sylvia becomes the Goddess or is possessed by her. She becomes, too, a “tomb-Egyptian”, Maat perhaps, who is mistress of the Underworld and the female counterpart of Thoth. But she could be any dead Egyptian traversing the Hall of Judgement where the deceased one’s words6 are weighed on the great Balance and Thoth inscribes his judgement in indecipherable “moon-marks” on his palette.
Sylvia’s own language, now, is indecipherable, as if she were possessed by religious ecstasy or by “moon-mushroom” hallucinogens. So, Ted, in his poem, resorts to the superstitions, old saws and ancient wisdom of folk-lore, as a sort of primitive, protective ritual: pass off the blame onto the “olive trees” (anciently associated with the supreme magical powers of the god7); if the soul appears not to be in the body (a superstition about sleepwalking) don’t, whatever you do, wake the sleeper.
When moon-magic, lunacy, or possession prevail, logic is useless, judgement is distorted and any interference may have terrible results. Ted refers to the Biblical story of Abel, and, in Genesis, when Cain was possessed by irrational anger the Lord reasoned with him and Cain “talked with” Abel, but ungoverned emotion prevailed and Cain killed his brother (Genesis 4: 1-5). When the “voice” of Abel’s blood cried out “from the ground”, betraying Cain’s deed to the Lord, Cain was “cursed from the earth” and became an exile. Heaven and Earth, judgement and sin, all play a part in this puzzling story but who is to blame? “Who’s here?”. The Lord who wields judgement? Sin, which is personified in the Genesis story? Or the Goddess, perhaps, whose Duende energy controlled Cain’s Unleavened Self?
Ted, in ‘Moonwalk’ does not recognize Sylvia in her moon-madness, but “Who’s here?”, repeated twice, calls into question Ted’s own identity, too, if he takes no action and only “humours” or “watches”. And the whole situation is a waking nightmare: terrible as Sylvia’s aspect is, this is not a dream - she is “awake”. So, it seems to Ted that “it’s a question of patience”: that the best thing to do is to wait for the moon-governed flux and reflux of energies to take its course.
In the shells of folklore, myth, Biblical and Apocryphal8 stories which make up this poem, all understanding is fragmentary, and “Who’s here?” becomes a question which may have many answers. What seems clear, is that everything is controlled by the iron, war-like, Mars-governed, aspect of the Moon. Yet this, too, prompts a question: “What is moon?”.
Ted’s answer to this question calls up yet another image from the stories and pictures to which we turn in our constant search for the Truth about our world9, and it is an image which also reflects the meaning of Qoph. An “ape / Being led by the virgin” is shown very clearly in one illustration in Robert Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi10. There, the ‘Ape of Art’ sits on the World, surrounded by the Elements, the Planets, the Stars and Heavenly Bodies. It is held on a chain by ‘Virgin Nature’, ‘The Soul of the World’, who, in turn, is attached by the wrist to a chain that descends from a cloud which conceals the Divine Creator. So, in Neo-Platonic and Alchemical lore, the chain of Divine energy joins Nature to the human ape which dominates our world11, where, because of our pride and our reliance on our rational abilities, we see only imperfect reflections of the Truth. The Ape of Art represents the intellectual and technical abilities we employ to describe and imitate Truth; and The Virgin, Nature, is the medium which links us to, and leads us to, the Divine. Fludd’s image is inscribed with the title “Mirror of all Nature and Symbol of Art”.
Ted accurately describes both ape and virgin as “helpless”. Both are chained to the earth and so must remain in this fallen, imperfect, shadow-world. This is the world of Nature, the Goddess’s world, and, in ‘Moonwalk’, this is her hell and Ted and Sylvia are helplessly immersed in it. Sylvia, in particular, has yet to learn to manage the raw energies in and around her, to smelt and shape its “ore” by her own art into an Ape of Art. But the moon seems to have taken control of her most “seriously” on that night in Spain when she described its “cold, cruel” light invading even the house and “poisoning the knives and forks” (SPJ 23 July 1956).
The first half of ‘Moon walk’ describes Sylvia’s immersion in the dark waters of her own subconscious, irrational energies. She is possessed by her emotions, operated on by the moon, until the ghostly “X-ray” image which suggests how she might use these energies appears. The second half of the poem describes the slow journey through the darkness which she makes before she achieves some mastery of these energies and her new Poetic Self is born.
Fragments and shadows of reality still abound. Ted is still unable to understand what is going on or who he now accompanies through this moonscape: the stars, astrology, mythology, prehistory – nothing can explain it. He sees Sylvia anew, but as a silent moon-shadow, like a “strange dog”. And he, too, is a shadow-dog, befriending her and accompanying her. The dogs might be those two on the tarot card, ambiguous creatures on the threshold of the Way, or simply creatures attuned to and led by the moon. They might be Anubis and Ap-uat journeying through the Egyptian Underworld. But Sylvia’s eyes, the traditional ‘window of the Soul’, show that she is “in her element” (a phrase which has multiple meanings here): like a legendary sea-monster, alive in the Goddess’s waters – like the “Kraken”, to be precise12 - Sylvia surfaces from the darkness and takes in a store of images on which she will later feed when she writes about Spain. But these images, too, are distorted fragments, “shards and moults” of Nature. They are parts of a moonscape which is so distorted by Sylvia’s emotions that it becomes like a de Chirico picture: a picture of real things in a strange, silent unreal world13.
The poem which most suggests Sylvia’s moon-distorted vision of the world is ‘Departure’ (SPCP 51), in which bitterness sours the beauty of the land, drains, corrodes and brutalizes it, so that only images of ruin and rankness remain. It is a poem which begins with fruitfulness and ends with the shell of a house, shambling goats and “sea-salt”. It is a poem which tells of disgust and expresses disgust. In it, Sylvia took the raw ore of her dark, angry emotions and, with her talent, created “so prettily” an artefact which reflects nature. But, like a “fiesta mask”, Sylvia’s poem was a shield, a protective shell, through which her Unleavened Self, her “daemon”, could safely gaze. Ted’s choice of the word ‘daemon’ is exact14: what was hidden behind the empty shell of words in Sylvia’s poem, and what Ted still saw when he wrote ‘Moonwalk’, was her ‘Indwelling Spirit’, her ‘genius’. This, then, was the first glimpse of Sylvia’s Poetic Self: the first hint of her Ariel voice.
‘Black Coat’ (BL 102 - 103), on the Path of the Moon in the World of Briah, shows Ted not only on the brink of the Goddess’s waters but also on a spit of land, a natural turning point (like Malkuth on the Sephirothic Tree) where, in Sylvia’s poem (‘Man in Black’, SPCP 119 - 120), his black shape established a “fixed vortex” in the world she had just described, “riveting stones, air / All of it, together”. The scene which both poems describe took place before Ted and Sylvia set off across America, so, ‘Black Coat’ is misplaced in the chronological order of events which persists for most of Birthday Letters, but everything about ‘Black Coat’ fits this particular Path.
In Sylvia’s journal entry for 9 March 1959 (the same day that she recorded her visit to her father’s grave in Winthrop), she described walking by the oceanside and “Ted out at the end of the bar, in black coat, defining the distance of stones and stones humped out of the sea”. Her poem, ‘Man in Black’, was written at about this time and, on 23 April 1959, she noted its acceptance by the New Yorker, and described it as “the only ‘love’ poem” [her inverted commas around ‘love’] in her planned book, the title of which, at that time, was Full Fathom Five. Sylvia chose this title, which was also the title of one of her poems, not only for “the association with the sea, which is the central metaphor for my childhood, my poems and the artist’s subconscious”, but also because it related to “my own father- the buried male muse and god-creator risen to be my mate in Ted” (SPJ 11 May 1958).
Clearly, in 1958, Sylvia had already consciously begun to identify Ted with her father. And in April 1959, she suggested that the “dead black”, which describes Ted’s coat, shoes and person in ‘Man in Black’, was probably a “transference” from her visit to her father’s grave. In Ted’s poem, this identification becomes “sharp-edged”, and he sees Sylvia’s ghostly father, that same ghost which had emerged from the sea and taken shifting form in her poem, ‘Full Fathom Five’ (SPCP 92-3), merge with his own “blurred see-through” shape15.
Ted, himself, in the cold, sunless seascape of ‘Black Coat’, is cut back to the vital spirit within him – to the “quick of the blood”. And his “sole memory” (the paronomasia of ‘sole’ with ’soul’ is significant) is of standing on the edge of these Moon-governed waters, trying to be alone and “simply” himself: as if he and the sea were “one big tabula rasa” and the sandspit was a point (like Malkuth on the Tree) from which he could make “a whole new start”. In his sole/soul memory, he wears a black coat like a carapace, and all the images he recalls are sharp-edged and two dimensional, like photographic simulacra. But, if inspiration comes (as mystical lore degrees) through the sole of the foot (“pressed to the world rock, flat”, as Ted wrote in Adam and the Sacred Nine (THCP 451)), Ted’s feet, at this point, were still shod. His “shoe-sole” prints were the “only sign” that he had been there; and he did not enter the waters, merely had a “minimal but satisfying discussion” with them. Ted’s use of the word ‘discussion’ is curious: one does not usually discuss things with the sea. The ‘Spiritual Vision’ of Malkuth on this Path, however, is ‘Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel’16. And the Holy Guardian Angel is often regarded by Cabbalists as the Divine Spirit or the very essence of Self in each person. So, Ted’s “discussion” with the sea suggests his own tentative approach to direct communication with his buried Self. In this poem, he notes that at that time he did not understand what the sea and his own subconscious depths could teach him, but he felt the “therapy” of that moment, and he stored this memory away, like a photograph, “for later”.
Certainly, by 1959, Ted had begun to study Hermetic, Cabbalistic and Magical knowledge as a possible source of inspiration for his work. At Yaddo that September, he and Sylvia devised “exercises in meditation and invocation” for this purpose17. And the magical definition of ‘invocation’ is “the aspiration to the highest, the purest form of the part of oneself that one wishes to put into action”18, which is, in other words, communication with one’s Holy Guardian Angel. But earlier that year, at the time when Sylvia was exploring her feelings for both her father and Ted with her psychologist, Ruth Beuscher, Ted was so totally absorbed in his own brief approach to these deep and dangerous waters that he had no idea of the sudden change which had occurred in Sylvia’s perception of him: no idea either that he, now, he was not just a “target”, but a “decoy” with which to draw the creatures of Sylvia’s imagination from the “freezing sea” in which (as her journal entries for March 29 and April 23 show) her writing was still locked.
On this Path where Hecate, Goddess of enchantment and witchcraft, governs a black-and-white world of shells and illusions, the Virtue of Malkuth is ‘Discrimination’, and this discrimination applies, especially, to distinguishing between the real and the unreal, illusion and Truth. The waters here, too, are Hecate’s waters of vision and imagination; and Hecate’s world is lit only by the borrowed light of the Moon. Poets in particular, whose chief tools for reaching the Truth are imagination and intuition, must be especially careful to guard against error on this path. Sylvia’s error was to take a moment of intuitive second-sight (a “diplopic” vision) as fact and to mistake her imaginary projection of this vision for Truth. From then on, exhibiting the Vice of Malkuth, which is ‘Avarice’, she clung to that false and hollow version of reality and remained possessed by it, to the extent that it informed not only her work but also her life; and, inevitably, Ted’s life, too. Consequently, by the time the couple arrived on this Path again, but in the World of Yetzirah, their perception of the world was already distorted, so their ability to discriminate between myth and Truth, shells and substance, was fatally compromised.
In our fallen world, especially in the deceptive light of the Moon, myths and fables and fragmentary visions should not be taken for Truth. But, just as the Moon reflects the light of the Sun, so our myths and stories frequently reflect a gleam of Truth. The task of the Tzaddi on this path is to strip away all illusion in order to discover whatever Truth or Divine Spark may lie within these deceptive shells, and this requires faith, courage, determination, pain and self-sacrifice.
‘suttee’(BL 147 - 149), the poem on this Path in the World of Yetzirah, begins with one myth and ends with another. The first, the myth of the birth of Sylvia’s Poetic Self from the self-sacrifice of her first suicide attempt, Ted describes as a religion which required complete devotion, dedication and faith from them both. In 1966, Ted described Sylvia’s poetic opus as “chapters in a mythology”19; and in 199520, he described “the mythic schema of violent initiation, in which the old self dies and the new self is born” as one which “preoccupied” Sylvia, because her “very survival, depended absolutely” on her being able to “impose” her “creative reinterpretation” of this creation-myth on her own life and work. But this “psychic transformation of self-remaking” was agonizingly hard.
In ‘Suttee’, the awe, fear, struggle, pain and patience required of both Sylvia and Ted as “night after night” over “weeks, months, years” they struggled for Sylvia’s rebirth were real enough, as Sylvia’s journal entries constantly attest. Yet Sylvia, as in ‘Moonwalk’, was in her element – immersed in the creative / destructive waters, happy but fearful. Her “anaesthetic” for the ongoing pain of this birth was the daily, necessary, “busyness” (Ted’s choice of spelling is precise) of life. As for all of us, this can dull the senses and keep us from painful self-examination but its healing effect is illusory: it is no more than a placebo in the painful search for Spirit, wholeness and Truth. Nevertheless, Sylvia persisted in her labour and slowly, as Ted’s essay in Thumbscrew documents, she made progress, until in ‘Elm’, in “an apocalyptic disintegration”21 of her old self, her new Poetic Self was born.
Ted, however, did not believe that Sylvia’s purpose was wholly self-centred. Another poem, ‘Religion’ in Howls and Whispers, develops the same theme as ‘Suttee’, but in a different, much harsher way. There, Ted describes Sylvia’s obsession as “that mythos” in which she is her “own Church” and her religion is “Love”, but the sacrifices she makes are the “sacrificial murder” of her mother and father. Neither Sylvia nor Ted are included in these ritual sacrifices, so the poem does not reflect the shared nature of their Cabbalistic journey in the way that ‘Suttee’ does. Nevertheless, the energies of Malkuth are an important part of ‘Religion’, and the way in which Ted used them there, throws light on the sacrifices made in ‘Suttee’. Sylvia, in ‘Religion’, embodied the same Duende energies as does the Tiger in Ted’s ’tiger-Psalm’, which “blesses with a fang” (THCP 577-8): her ritual, sacrificial murder of “Love” was “flow of passion” from her “real lips”, and it was expressed “here on earth” in her “words”.
For those who are seriously experimenting with magical techniques of meditation and invocation, as Ted and Sylvia were, the energies of Malkuth are essential, because the imaginative forces generated must be ‘earthed’ and take physical form22. As with electricity and lightning, forces which are not ‘earthed’ can accumulate and be potentially dangerous; and mishandling (or faulty magical technique) can give these active potencies devastating power. No wonder, then, that Ted, who was still a novice in this magical art, was unprepared for “the flood” when the birthwaters broke and Sylvia’s Ariel voice was finally born. No wonder he was unwittingly “dissolved” in those waters and “engulfed” by them. And Ted’s choice of the word ‘engulfed’ suggests precisely the Cabbalistic spiritual and psychological darkness into which he was inexorably swept, because the newborn was not a child of light and beauty, but “the old child”, “the old babe”, embodying all the darkest, most primitive and most wrathful energies of the oldest gods23.
Ted set the old, twelfth-century word ‘babe’ at the beginning of a line, so that its initial letter is capitalized. This suggests the status of the “newborn” as a little god. But ‘babe'’ also has its ancient roots in ‘babble’ (meaning ‘foolish, incoherent prattle’) and in ‘baban’ (meaning ‘old-woman’) and in ‘baboon’. All of these meanings can be applied to Sylvia’s Ariel, that precociously mature, hermaphrodite, devilish-trickster spirit, which Ted described in his note to Sylvia’s ‘The Hermit at Outermost House’ as a “comic goblin” full of “crackling verbal energy”, with “a lot” of Sycorax’s other child, Caliban, “in it”. (SPCP 118 - 119).
In the potential dichotomy of energies on the Cabbalistic Paths, the newborn might have been the hoped for Child of Light whose healing energies, here on this Path, could make Sylvia whole, rend the Veil of Illusion and unite her directly with the Source. But even as the babe was born, Ted, caught in the “warp” (the word suggests distortion as well as fixed threads) of viscous, sticky birthwaters, heard its cries “refracted, modulating” (both words implying some sort of distortion of the original) from “joy” to “screams”. These were Ariel’s characteristic screams, and Ted associates them, here, with death, with primitive, timeless, eternal mourning, and with all-consuming flames24. This “new myth”, taking its final expression in form as Ariel, was woven around Sylvia’s “own self in flames”, and Ted believed it to be an expression of the “deeper negative pattern”, the “pattern of tragedy which lay like a magnetic field in the very ground of [Sylvia’s] being”25. It was primitive, atavistic and completely beyond Sylvia’s conscious control – a product of Qoph, the ‘Back of the Head’, where lies the most hidden part of our nature, the shadow-self which expresses the old potencies that link us to our earliest ancestors.
In spite of Sylvia’s intellect, her strong will and the various rituals she had learned and practiced in order to control these subconscious energies in her work, she was not adequately prepared. So, she was consumed by this newborn Self: possessed by the screams and the tongues of flame, which became her tongue. And Ted, caught up in this “explosion of screams”, found himself running, not to wash his hands of the situation but to try and save himself from these tongues of flame, her tongue, which attacked him, too.
So, a new myth, a new shell, came to dominate both their worlds and this myth became their new reality. Sylvia, in whom “the poetic genius and the active self, were the same” (as Ted wrote in 196626), had “none of the usual guards and remote controls to protect herself from her own reality. She lived right in it, especially during the last two years of her life”. And in the new myth of sacrifice in which she now lived, in spite of her tears and her cries for help, everything had become confused. Husband and father were still merged, and Sylvia was both ‘Inferior Mother’ of Ariel and ‘Bride’ of Malkuth’s Kingdom – wedded to her newborn Self and that tongue which found material form in her poems as surely as she was wedded to Ted. Everything – child-bride, husband, father, rage, love – now became fuel for the flames. And Sylvia and Ted, with the birth of this old Babe from the depths of the Moon Goddess’s dangerous seas, were once again exposed to the fierce, destructive, life-threatening judgement of the New World Sun, as they had been earlier when they trod the Path of Death in ‘Badlands’ (BL 82 - 86). Then, they were learning the lessons which should have prepared them for the path of Qoph. But now, being eaten away by the flames which deprived them of “the oxygen” they needed to breathe, it was clear that their learning had been faulty.
Yet, in spite of the chaotic, mythic drama which now consumed them both; in spite of the “dark flames and screams” of Sylvia’s new Ariel voice; in spite of the dark aspect of what Ted called Sylvia’s “almost demonic spirit”27, Ted believed that this birth represented a triumph - a “temporary” triumph, as it turned out, but the completion of Sylvia’s “first, brave attempt” to heal and recreate herself28.
After that birth, Sylvia still, in her work, performed the positive “ritual dance” by which she had always tried “to compel ‘the good things to happen’”29. Her poetic techniques, her artistry, courage and determination, are as clear as ever in her Ariel poems, and Ted outlined her methods in detail in his essay on the evolution of ‘Sheep in Fog’ (WP 191 - 211). But, as in this essay, Ted discerned in all her work a double level in which the ecstatic ritual dance and its tragic shadow were both equally real and both equally symbolic30. Yet, even as the Sylvia’s shadow-Self grew clearer and Sylvia’s ritual and symbolic self-sacrifice became horribly real, the value of all that she created after the birth of Ariel remained.
Sylvia saw her world, Ted later wrote, “in the flame of the ultimate substance and the ultimate depth”31. And, as the quotation which Ted chose for Sylvia’s tombstone declares:
Even amidst Fierce FlamesTed had no doubt about the genius of Sylvia’s Ariel tongue. He described her language in the Ariel poems as “charged with terrific heat, pressure and clairvoyant precision”, and the poems themselves as looking “like a family of living cells, where nothing can be alien or dead or arbitrary” (WP 161). For him, Sylvia’s language – those tongues of flame – was “‘Baraka’: the flame and the rose folded together”: and he saw in the “direct, even plain, speech” which characterized her last work, that she had achieved the “unity” and wholeness in her language and work that she had failed to achieve in her life.
The Golden Lotus can be planted.32
This unity in Sylvia’s work was the true birth that occurred on the Path of Qoph, and it was a creation which was, according to Ted, “truly tragic” He applied this phrase, also, to Sylvia herself. Yet even in this phrase, Ted, who was never careless with the written word, suggests something positive. He well knew Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, which holds that the truly tragic presents a common human dilemma which can stir powerful and intense emotions in readers or spectators and, so, bring about catharsis and healing. Traditionally, the truly tragic also has an epic and moral dimension: it, like Sylvia’s work represents “chapters in a mythology” which tell of the human struggle to reconcile artificial laws that constrain and determine human behaviour with the laws of Nature. Ted believed strongly in the shamanic and magical power of epic myths and poetry, so, given his awareness of the fickle, mercurial and potentially dangerous energies of Ariel, it is unlikely that he would have worked so hard to promote the publication and the understanding of Sylvia’s work had he not believed that it did have the cathartic and healing power.
Lucas Myers agrees that there is a cathartic aspect to some of Sylvia’s work, and he writes that “Ted saw Sylvia’s work as a totality, a discrete and self-contained mythology” (CSBA 103). But he believes that Ted eventually saw only mid-Sahara emptiness at the heart of Sylvia’s struggle, and he suggests that rather than finding Sylvia’s Ariel poems healing, “most people” are more likely to take them as a “licence for regression and aggression”, just as some radical and very vocal feminists have done (CSBA 99 - 100).
Sylvia’s poem, ‘Daddy’ (SPCP 222 - 224), in particular, has certainly functioned in this way. And Ted, when he came to write ‘A Picture of Otto’ (BL 193), was well aware that he and Otto Plath had become “tangled” in and by Sylvia’s poems. So, as he reached the Path of the Moon / Qoph in the World of Assiah in his own Cabbalistic journey, writing Birthday Letters, he used all his skill and all the energies of this Path to conjure Otto from the grave, to confront him, and to acknowledge and become reconciled with the figure he now saw to be his own shadow-Self.
In Malkuth, in the World of Assiah, the Cabbalistic quester reaches (symbolically33) the nadir of their journey. Not only is Malkuth our material world, the fallen world of shells, it is also the threshold of life and death, the entrance to the underworld, the promontory (as it was in ‘Black Coat’) around which swirl the seas of the unconscious in which the disembodied Soul awaits rebirth. These seas fill the gulf “beyond death”, from which Duende energy “oozes” with its healing mana (WP 92-3). And in Malkuth, where the Moon Goddess’s magical powers are strongest, an adept in the use of magical techniques may summon the ghosts of the dead from this gulf. The ‘tunnel’ which connects the two worlds is reached through Qoph, the Back of the Head, the seat of the Anima, and the means of entering this tunnel and of invoking spirits to enter it, is imaginative visualization, at which poets are most adept.
An adept poet can conjure ghostly images in the imagination so vividly that they are almost real, and can capture them in words so skilfully that they come alive in the imagination of others, too. In Lorca’s words “The magical property of a poem is to remain possessed by duende that can baptize in dark water all who look at it”34.
Duende was the dark energy of her shadow-Self which Sylvia captured in her Ariel poems. This was the energy from the gulf which, through the “magical property” of her poems, made Ted’s ghost inseparable from that of her father and will continue to do so for as long as her “words can stir a candle” (the most fragile flicker of light) in the imagination of others. That this should have happened, was something Ted “never dreamed”. But Ted’s use, in his poem, of the words ‘occult’ and ‘guilt’ in connection with this occurrence have at least two possible meanings. Firstly, these words suggest that the occult magical practices of meditation and invocation which he and Sylvia used to bring about the birth of Ariel were more dangerous than Ted knew, and that they were infringing some magical or moral proscription by using them. Secondly, because of the position and the ambiguity of “our”, which connects these two words, there is the suggest of some shared, hidden guilt in Ted and Otto; a shared darkness which Sylvia had intuited and written into her poems, where others also saw it, the lasting consequences of which Ted could never, at that time, have imagined.
What sort of guilt might this be? And why should Ted, in ‘A Picture of Otto’, bring his son’s portrait into this merging of identities, too?
The answer, I think, lies in Sylvia’s poetic portraits of her father; and in ‘Daddy’ in particular. Otto was not the ogre, the Fascist, the devil, the deliberate torturer that Sylvia so angrily attacked in ‘Daddy’. Neither was Ted. But Sylvia endowed both men with all the darkest, most primitive, most destructive attributes of our ‘fallen’ species, and she killed both these demonic figures in her poem like vampires, with a stake through the heart. In ‘Religion’, Ted was clear that Sylvia’s “inexorable murder” of her father was a religious act, a symbolic “sacrificial murder” which was part of her “mythos”, and that this “passion” brought words of blessing here “on earth”. So, the killing, the horror and the anger in ‘Daddy’ all can be seen as Duende, with which Sylvia was attempting to perform a magical, ritual cleansing. In her poetic ritual, she focussed on the shadow-side of human nature, used Otto and Ted as figures to which she could imaginatively attach these shadows and make them real, and then she destroyed them. So, though her poem, Otto and Ted became both symbolic and real figures. Sadly, many readers of Sylvia’s poem fail to distinguish the shadow from the truth.
In the photograph which Sylvia used to conjure her father’s ghost in ‘Daddy’, and which Ted later used for the same purpose in ‘A Picture of Otto’, the double image is beautifully demonstrated. This particular photograph (SPLH 17), taken in 1930 , is wonderfully appropriate for both poems and for this particular Path. It is black-and-white, like the Moon-world; it is (as are all photographs) an illusion, a ghostly image, a reflection of light caught on film; and in it, the light and shadow bisect the figure of Otto in such a way as to suggest two very different sides of his character. In the bright, lit half, Otto looks relaxed and amiable: hand in pocket, leg loosely flexed, eye bright, hair softly waved and a half-smile on his lips. Here, is the honey-loving “bee-king”35. The dark half of the image demonstrates Otto’s “Prussian backbone”, the rigidity which was both his strength and his fatal weakness: leg stiff, arm bent and clamped to his side, a book firmly grasped, hair strictly controlled, and face almost cadaverous and hidden in black shadows. No photograph could better demonstrate the “Lutheran / Minister manque”, or the stern, demanding, strong-willed man who favoured and encouraged his daughter and who became her god.
Whether or not Sylvia was exorcising more than her own demons in ‘Daddy’, Ted understood that the picture of Otto she had drawn was, in a sense, a picture of his own darkest Self. And he believed that such energies, if unacknowledged and, therefore, uncontrolled, were exactly those which find expression in the sort of crimes of which ‘Daddy’ is accused. This, then, is the occult (hidden) guilt which, since these primitive energies exist in all of us, is ‘our’ guilt, too36.
Sylvia’s religious mythos, as expressed in her Ariel poetry, also included her and Ted’s son, Nicholas. In ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ (SPCP 240 - 242) this is especially evident. Like a “miner”, in this poem, she goes back to the Goddess’s “old cave” of echoes and Moon-magic, where fish take “communion” out of her toes as if she were the Goddess’s High Priestess. And she returns, in the flicker of the candle, with the “embryo” of love, the new-born son, the baby who remembers his “crossed” position, as if remembering the crucifixion from which the blessed god-child of myth and religion was born. This is the child who will “wake to” a pain which is not his. This, finally, is “the one”, “the baby in the barn”. The religious parallels are obvious.
So, in her religious zeal, Sylvia’s son, as well as her husband and her father, became part of her mythology of salvation through sacrifice. Son, Husband and Father, too, were necessary to the Goddess in her aspects Virgin Mother, Wife and Hag. They established the female-male balance necessary for Sylvia’s poetic alchemy to succeed, and as such, each was an essential part of the picture. So, Ted includes his son’s portrait in ‘A Picture of Otto’.
Sylvia did not have the balance and maturity which is necessary to make pure Alchemical Gold. She did, however, unearth her own shadow-Self. By tunnelling into the underworld of the unconscious, with persistence, determination and courage, she brought Ariel into the light and was both inspired and terrified by this dark spirit which then possessed her.
Ted ends ‘A Picture of Otto’ with the strong image of Sylvia sleeping, “like Owen” in ‘Strange Meeting’, with her “German”. Wilfred Owen’s ‘German’ was the enemy soldier he had killed on the battlefield, but in Owen’s imaginative, poetic vision of the Underworld, Owen meets him again, recognizes him as his own double, and calls him “friend”. Similarly, Sylvia’s ‘German’, her ‘enemy’, was not only the dark, ghostly amalgam Otto-Ted of ‘Daddy’, but also her own shadow-Self. So, Ted separates her from Otto in his imaginative vision and unites her in harmony with Ariel. He fixes this separation in the words of his poem when he states that he does not see her behind Otto, or in front of Otto where he is standing. And, he magically confirms Sylvia’s separation from both himself and Otto, as well as her new wholeness, peacefulness and complete independence, when he sets her image, both in the single final line of the poem and in the final word of his poem, “alone”.
There is yet another aspect to ‘A Picture of Otto’, which has to do with Qoph and with the need to use the energies of Malkuth to earth and give form to the powers summoned in imaginative vision. Ted, like Sylvia and like Owen, creates in his poem a tunnel through which to enter the Underworld. It is in “this tunnel”, the passage of black-inked words on the page, that Ted’s conjured spirits appear and that Ted continues to meet Otto, talk to him, and acknowledge that the two of them are inseparable. In the deep subconscious Underworld, which was for him, as it was for Sylvia, the “heart’s home” he used all his poetic powers to summon the spirits. Now, in both Sylvia’s poems and in ‘A Picture of Otto’ – in the meaning of his words and in the imaginative energies which created them and are now embodied in them – he and Otto “must remain”. So, Ted meets his ‘German’, faces him and greets him as a friend. Between them, now, and permanently secured in the magical, ritual words of Ted’s poem37, everything is “forgiven” and everything is “in common”. In this poem, and in that part of him which was his heart’s home, Ted made a formal and lasting acknowledgment of his shadow-Self. And, because of the deliberate ambiguity of ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘us, ‘our’, ‘we’ throughout the poem, not only are he and Otto separate but inseparable but, in “this underworld”, Sylvia too, “must remain”. She, too, linked to Ted and Otto in and by the words of the fifth stanza, is part of the mutual forgiveness and the newly established, shared, and all-inclusive harmony which Ted’s words, “Everything forgiven and in common”, assert.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. The concept of the Shekinah as the female potency of the Divine One is contentious but it is part of the Lurianic Cabbalistic myth in which the first separation took place at the moment of Creation. Gersholm Scholem (1897 - 1982) explains this myth in detail in ‘Kabbalah and Myth’ (On Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Schocken, NY, 1996. pp. 110 - 117) where he deals, too, with “the broken vessels” and with the restoration of the sparks of Soul. Colin Low’s essay On Separation is more general in its approach but it offers a valuable and easily understood overview.
2. Robert Fludd (1574-11637) a physician and an alchemist, published a number of influential books in which he explored “the philosophical brain” and the “Ladder of Perfection”, the links between Man and the Universe, Heaven and Earth, the senses and the imagination, Reason and inner knowledge. He believed that the basis of all knowledge is the imitation of Nature.
3. The shape of Qoph and the role of the Tzaddi are discussed briefly in The Mystical Significance of Hebrew Letters, but this is an extremely old and complex subject which is regarded by many Jewish scholars as sacred and secret knowledge.
4. Usually, on this card the moon face is framed by a full moon around which rays of sun appear, as in an almost total lunar eclipse of the sun.
5. This creature is sometimes identified with the Sacred Scarab beetle of Egyptian mythology, which rolls the Sun through the Underworld so that it will be reborn each day with the god Keph-Ra.
6. Wallis Budge describes Thoth as “the great god of words” and “judge of words”. He notes that in Egyptian texts, the Balance in the Hall of Judgment “is not described as the judging or ‘weighing of actions’, but as the ‘weighing of words’” (The Gods of the Egyptians, Dover Inc. NY 1969, Vol. i. p 408)
7. In folk-tradition, olive besoms are used to drive out evil spirits and olive trees are beaten to ensure that they bear fruit. In mythology, the olive belongs to the great Goddess, to Athena, and to all fertility gods. Hermes invented its cultivation and Medea stirred her magical, rejuvenating, witches brew with it (See Ovid’s, Metamorphoses. 7: 345 - 352).
8. In the Authorised Bible, Cain’s sons become the first artificers, so, his dark blood is turned to creative ends. In the Apocrypha, there are several different accounts of Cain’s murder of Abel. In The Books of Adam and Eve, for example, Eve foresees the murder in a dream; and Earth refuses to accept Abel’s body until Adam dies and his body, made of her mud, is also returned to her.
9. Wodwo’s question “What am I?” is very like “Who’s here?” and both reflect the continuous human concern about our nature and our place in the world.
10. Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism, Taschen, Koln, 1997. p. 501. And Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi.
11. This image of an ape representing human abilities predates Darwin’s theory of evolution and the word ‘apish’, meaning ‘foolish’ is recorded by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as being in use in 1509.
12. The Kraken is an enormous, legendary sea-monster of Northern European waters. When it surfaces, it is said to give off a pungent smell which attracts shoals of fish, which it catches and stores for future consumption.
13. Giorgio de Chirico (1888 - 1974) was an artist whose work Sylvia knew well enough to discuss in detail with a friend in March 1956 (SPJ 25 March 1956). Two years later, she wrote two poems inspired by paintings by de Chirico which had “seized” her imagination, and she recorded quotations from his writings in her journal (SPJ 29 March 1958).
14. The SOED defines ‘daemon’ as ‘genius’, ‘attendant spirit’ and, in Greek mythology, ‘a being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men’. Also, as ‘a malignant being of superhuman nature’.
15. ‘Full Fathom Five’ was the poem in which Ted believed that Sylvia accepted “for the first time… the invitation to her inner world”. Hughes, ‘Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath’s Poems’, in Newman (Ed.) The Art of Sylvia Plath, Faber, London, 1970. p.190. ( This article was first published in Tri Quarterly (7: 81-8), Fall, 1966).
16. Colin Low, Notes on Kabbalah, p. 34.
17. Op. cit., Newman. p. 191.
18. Crowley, Book of Thoth, p. 44.
19. Op. cit., Newman. p. 187.
20. Ted Hughes’ essay, ‘Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Ariel’, in Thumbscrew, 2 Spring, 1995. p. 4 - 5.
21. Op. cit., ‘Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Ariel’, Thumbscrew. p. 9.
22. Dion Fortune discusses the importance of Malkuth in this respect in The Mystical Qabalah, Society of Inner Light, London, 1998 (first published 1935), pp. 263 - 4.
23. These old gods include Hecate, who is goddess of both witchcraft and childbirth; Astarte, goddess of battle; Blue-eyed Sycorax / Cerridwen, the Moon-witch; and the old Biblical God of judgement and retribution.
24. The falling star, thunder, flooding waters, flames and screams, which presage and accompany this birth in Ted’s poem, also carry echoes of the birth of the child to the woman in Revelation (especially Revelation 12: 1-7 and 13-17); and her banishment, like that of the Shekinah, is associated with our divided and fallen world.
25. Op. cit., ‘Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Ariel’, Thumbscrew, p. 11.
26. Op. cit., Newman. p. 187.
27. Faas. UU 181. The extract from ‘Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath’s Poems’ which is included in Faas’s book differs from that in the book edited by Newman.
28. Op. cit., Thumbscrew. p. 11.
29. Ibid., p. 11.
30. Ibid., p. 10 - 11.
31. Faas. UU 181 - 2.
32. This is a Taoist maxim from 6 - 4 BC. Quoted by Wu Cheng (c. 1500 - 1580) in The Adventures of Monkey. Ch. 2.
33. The glyph of the Sephirothic Trees generally shows the Worlds one above the other, with the Underworld directly below the World of Assiah. Sometimes the Underworld, the World of Qlipoth, is represented as a mirror reflection of the upper Trees. But Cabbalists believe that the Worlds and the energies are, in fact, all around us.
34. Op. cit., Lorca, Deep Song. p. 50.
35. Aurelia Plath wrote that Otto’s love of honey led him, as a young man, to capture and keep wild bees, and this skill “won him the name of Bienenküng (bee king) from his contemporaries” (SPLH 9).
36. Ted would not have intended the word ‘guilt’, in this context, to imply any transgression of civil or moral laws but to suggest, rather, our crime against Nature. Ultimately, it is Nature’s laws which govern us, and our guilt is the arrogance and pride which blinds us to this fact. It is exactly this guilt, this “staturing ‘I am’ ”, which Ted described in his early poem ‘Egg-head’ (THCP 33) and which was his constant, poetic concern.
37. It is interesting to note the numerology of this poem. It is made up of six four-line stanzas plus one final line. 6 x 4 + 1. Four is the number of the Elements from which everything in our world is made. Four is the number of Earth and of ‘four square’ stability. Here, four is magnified six times. Six is the number of the heart, of Venus, of the Lovers. Seven, the total number of stanzas, is the number of completion. One is the unity from which all manifestation proceeds and this completes the poem.
Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2004. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at email@example.com