BIRTHDAY LETTERS


“Can you identify ‘Lyonesse’? It appears in Birthday Letters and in Plath’s work, too, I think”.

Lyonesse appears in the poem ‘Error’ (THCP 1121) as a “dreamland”, “Never-never land”, Ted’s “land of totems”. Lyonesse is a legendary place which is said to be a lost island (like Atlantis) that existed off the coast of Cornwall in South West England. Sir Tristan, who joined the court of King Arthur after Lyonesse sank into the sea, was born there. He is the Tristan of the love story on which Wagner based his opera Tristan and Iseult. He was sent by Arthur to kill the giant, Morholt, and to fetch Iseult of Ireland, the bride of his uncle King Mark. But Tristan and Iseult drank a magic love potion meant for the bridal pair, and the result was tragic.

Sylvia’s poem ‘Lyonesse’ (Plath: Collected Poems p.232) tells of the sinking of this legenday land.

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“One thing puzzles me about Hughes’ use of the Sephiroth as a structure. In The Sufis Idries Shah points out, “The alteration of basic Cabbalism (from eight elements to ten) deprived the Western development of the system of a great deal of its meaning and usefulness. Hebrew and Christian Cabbala later than the 12th century is therefore only of partial meaning. This includes all aspects of the Cabbala of ten elements as distinct from the ‘Eight Cabbala’
“Given that Hughes seems to have recognized Shah as an authority, why do you think he chose to ignore Shah’s information when he structured the Birthday Letters using the ten elements? And why do you think he chose not to refer to it (Shah’s information) when writing about the Kabbalah’s possible influence in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being ?”

Ted certainly knew Idris Shah’s work and it is certainly possible to see many things in common between Ted’s beliefs and those of the Sufis, including the belief in a common spiritual Truth underlying all religions, the concept of ‘remembering’, the practice of teaching through poetry and fable, and an emphasis on the value of intuition and feeling as opposed to a total reliance on reason. However, Shah’s authority has been seriously questioned by other experts on Cabbala, and Ted did not recognize him as the only authority on that subject.

The Cabbalistic Tree which Ted used is based on the ten primal numbers which, together with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, represent the plan of creation of all things in heaven and earth. The Hebrew Tree of ten Sephiroth, such as that illustrated by Anastasius Kircher (1601-1680), was adopted by the Christian NeoPlatonic Humanists, about whom Ted writes in his ‘Introduction’ to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. They were Christians by faith (although a number of them were accused of heresy and died for their beliefs) and many of them could, like John Dee, read Hebrew. So, it is likely that they took their ideas directly from Hebrew sources. Blake, too, read Hebrew, and his ideas certainly influenced Ted.

Interpretation of the twenty-two characters (or letters) of the Hebrew alphabet is also an important part of the Jewish Kabbalistic study. These characters may be placed on the twenty-two Paths which join the ten Sephiroth of the Hebrew Kabbalistic Tree. Most of the oldest representations of the Tree, both Hebrew and Christian, depict ten Sephiroth, and the Cabbalistic numerology which is practised works with ten (eleven and twelve being included as special numbers still interpreted on the base 10).

There are also twenty-two cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack and these, too, can be laid out on the Paths which join the 10 Sephiroth. These Paths may be travelled in different ways: i.e up the Tree from Sephiroth 10, Malkuth: The Path of the Snake of Knowledge; or down the Tree from Sephiroth 1, Kether: The Path of the Lightning Flash. These are the Cabbalistic journeys Ted was making in Birthday Letters, and Howls & Whispers and Capriccio, and which I have traced in detail in my chapters on these sequences.

See also my comments on Cabbala and religion under Crow and Cabbala, Mysticism, Shamanism, Sufism, Magic..

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‘Caryatids (2)’ (THCP 1046). Notes.

In ‘Caryatids (2)’ , Ted writes of himself and his Cambridge University friends “playing at students” and drinking “the brown and the yellow ale”. Ted and his friends would meet at a pub where, amongst other things, they enjoyed singing folk-ballads. One ballad which was very appropriate for Ted’s purposes in ‘Caryatids (2)’ was ‘The Brown and the Yellow Ale’, which was one of James Joyce’s favourite songs. Amongst other ballads they sang were ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘Eppie Morrie’. Versions of all these ballads can be found on the internet.

Our Welshman” was Daniel Huws, whose poem ‘O Mountain’ (included in Noth, Secker and Warburg, London, 1972) was written as an elegy for Sylvia Plath. Lucas Myers confirms this in his memoir Crow Steered Bergs Appeared (Proctor’s Hall, Sewanee, Tennessee, 2001. pp. 22-28), where he also comments on Ted’s statement that he and his friends “concocted / An attack, a dismemberment” of Sylvia’s poem. “It wasn’t quite like that”, he explains.

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‘You Hated Spain’ (THCP1068). Notes.

In 1956 Ted and Sylvia spent their honeymoon in Spain and whilst they were there they attended a bullfight in Madrid. Spain shocked Sylvia. Nothing like it had been part of her experience or her education, and she found the rawness, the poverty, and the constant reminders of violence and death hard to bear. However, she was clearly fascinated by the different culture and it provided her with some good material for her writing. ‘The Goring’ (Plath: Collected Poems 49), which Sylvia wrote at that time, is her description of the bullfight and she also wrote of it in a letter to her mother (Plath: Letters Home 14 July 1956). The bull’s sudden, instinctive, deadly burst of power and the man’s bloody defeat were, Sylvia told her mother, “the most satisfying moment” in a ritual which had until then “disgusted and sickened“ both her and Ted.

Ted’s own detailed and horrible description of this bullfight can be found in a letter which he wrote to his parents (LTH Summer 1956). “It was very disappointing”, he wrote. “The bull isn’t a savage raging murderous thing at all”. Only after it had been mercilessly tormented by the men did it become “very angry”. The whole cruel spectacle was “theatre”, and the tormented bull and the blindfolded, beaten and mauled horses were, he noted, just part of giving the Spanish crowd “their money’s worth”.

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‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’ (THCP1064-5). Notes.

E-mail from Keith Sagar to Ann Skea. 22.Oct.20003: “I have a photograph of Ted and Sylvia on their wedding day. Ted looks quite presentable, nothing like a ‘Swineherd’, in fact the smarter of the two since Sylvia’s dress looks rather like what the Americans would call a bathrobe. Ted has a white shirt, a smart black tie, and a tweed (far from black) jacket. His forelock, for once, is not dangling over his forehead, disciplined, possibly, by that very Brylcream which the most glamorous English cricketer of that decade, Denis Compton, was advertising on every other hoarding”.


© Ann Skea 2008. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com


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