The Path of Lamed is one of the most important paths on the Cabbalistic Tree. Like some earlier paths, it leads the journeyer back to the heart of the Tree and to the revelations of Tiphereth, but its occult significance and its closeness to the Divine Mystery of enlightenment is such that much of its Cabbalistic meaning remains hidden. Only initiates who have been suitably prepared and have experienced the Mystery may know the secrets.
All who approached the Mystery at Eleusis, for example, were required to have certain knowledge and to undergo special rituals. The revelation of the Mystery “opened their eyes” and they were enlightened, but the exact nature of that mystical revelation was so secret that still, after some two-and-a-half thousand years, it remains unknown. We know that the worshippers purified themselves in the sea and made a ritual sacrifice to the Goddess Demeter, and that their journey to the Sanctuary was made with much ceremony, with dance and with the cry, “Iaccus!”. Enlightenment, which marked initiation, was different for each individual. But, in any case, a vow of secrecy protected the Divine Mystery.
The same is true of many Cabbalistic, Hermetic, Alchemical and Magical associations, where to break the vow of secrecy is regarded (metaphorically) as the death of the initiate. Aleister Crowley, an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, therefore wrote of the Path of Lamed and the Tarot card of Strength in riddles, and in exhortations with obscure references to “rapture and vigour”, “ecstasy” and “grave mysteries”:
“Beauty and strength, leaping laughter and delicious languor, force and fire, are of us.”
“I am the Snake that giveth Knowledge and Delight and bright glory, to stir the hearts of men with drunkenness..”…
“Love one another with burning hearts… ”.
More plainly, he describes this card as “the most powerful of the Zodiacal cards, [it] represents the most critical of all the operations of magick and of alchemy”. (The Book of Thoth 92).
Ted certainly knew Crowley’s works; and obscure as Crowley’s interpretation of this path is, there are magical elements of it which may well lie behind the Birthday Letters poem, ‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ (BL 26-7), which is the poem on the Path of Lamed in the Atziluthic World. Sylvia’s dancing and her great capacity for love pervade this poem, but the framing reference to the “mystery of hatred” in the first and last lines associates her with that same paradox of hatred which was aroused by the Divine love of those figures of religious Mysteries to whom Crowley refers – Osiris, Horus, Dionysus, Guatama Buddha and Christ. Ted’s purpose, it seems, was not to suggest that Sylvia herself was such a figure but that, as he writes in ‘The God’ (BL 188 - 191), she was like “a religious fanatic”, driven to offer to others that spiritual energy and that spark of Divine love which she carried within her.
Crowley’s explanatory notes for this particular card and Path also throw some light on the obscure second line of Ted’s poem: “After your billion years in anonymous matter”. Clearly this cannot literally refer to Sylvia, although it might be thought to refer to The Goddess and (as in other Birthday Letters poems) to Sylvia’s embodiment of her. Crowley’s notes support this interpretation. Following an explanation of “the magical doctrine of the succession of Aeons, which is connected with the procession of the Zodiac”, Crowley refers to a belief that our present Aeon is that in which “the Beast and the Scarlet Woman… of the Apocalypse” will appear. The Scarlet Woman is part of Zodiacal time and space – part of the billion years of anonymous matter. She is The Goddess. Crowley identifies her as “The Great Mother” and as “Love”, and he associates her with “the mystery of Dionysus Zagreus”. But she was revealed by St. John the Divine as “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH [sic.]” (‘the Revelation’ 17:5), and she, too, was “promptly hated”.
If all this seems too esoteric or far-fetched, then is may be noted that Crowley also offers a more common explanation for the figure on the card of Strength, identifying her as the Moon Goddess, the Female essence represented in human form and shown in control of a wolf, or some other wild beast, which represents the animal passions within us.
The Cabbalistic meditations for this Path of Lamed1 are ‘The Woman justified’ and ‘By Equilibrium and Self Sacrifice is the Gate’. And, just as the figure on the card is female, the Path of Lamed is specifically associated in the Mysteries with Woman (with Demeter and Persephone, with the Shekinah, and with the Scarlet Woman) and with the relationship between human and Divine energies. At this stage of the journey, the Male energies of the previous Path are given form in the Divine passions embodied in the Female which, through the strength and judgement derived from Sephira 5 (Gevurah), may be brought into equilibrium at Sephira 62. Through control will come enlightenment and a rebirth which will release the Initiate’s full potential. But Lamed, the Ox-goad, indicates that the necessary strength for rebirth on this path will only be learned through the prick of pain.
In some respects, one approaching initiation on this Path is still the Fool and, so, may express his or her passions too freely. And uncontrolled passions, and especially uncontrolled love, commonly bring exploitation, abuse, censure, rejection, jealousy and hatred to the Foolish. The sorrow which results from this is the spur of pain, the ox-goad, which should teach understanding and restraint. But control of the Wolf energies is not an easy or comfortable lesson to learn.
Such is the Cabbalistic background to ‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’.
The original title for this poem was ‘A Little Touch of Timon’3, which suggests that Ted initially wanted to make an analogy between Shakespeare’s Timon (of Timon of Athens) and the hatred which his generosity and love eventually aroused in those who received it, and Sylvia and the “mystery of hatred” which she meets in this poem. But the title under which the poem now appears in Birthday Letters is a parable, akin to a response Ted once made to Daniel Weissbort who was commiserating with him over the “outcry” his every move provoked, and over the way “The Scholars band together / fortifying the narrow view”: “Pity the man”, Ted muttered, “whom all men love”4.
Wolves have a long history in myth, folk-lore and religion, of representing the animal passions in human beings5 and, as I discuss in ‘Wolf Masks’6, Ted’s belief in the essential value of such wolf-energies and in the need for them in our world and in us was constantly expressed in his work. The Wolf in Sylvia, then, was the energies which she embodied and which, as her journals often show, she expressed too freely and needed to learn to control. But these same energies were what drove her to seek her true Self through her poetic Self: without them she would have achieved nothing. So, Sylvia’s Wolf needed to be controlled but not subdued to the extent that it lost its wolfishness: its energies were “the gifts” with which she “tried [her] utmost to reach and touch” others, and they were essential to her quest. But the dogs which barked after her, were those people to whom she felt closest: people whose responses to her shaped her self-image, and whose disapproval and hatred caused her the most pain.
At first, in the poem, Sylvia’s gift of love is seen as childishly (Foolishly) indiscriminate – as something which she gave passionately to “every visitor to the house”. Then, child-like, she dances as if to keep her father alive with her love; as if her own spirit could “sweeten” and tame his bitterness and be part of his death. Her failure to keep him alive, or to join him in death, is then seen as a complete loss of self: where once there was anger and bitterness which required her sweetening dance, there was now nothing but silence. Her sorrow drove her to find a new self – a new reason for dancing - but her sense of emptiness and loss became a panic over loss of time in that very search.
‘God help the Wolf… ‘ takes up and elaborates on Sylvia’s search for Self, and it is useful to read of Ted’s own concept of the poetic Self and a poet’s search for that Self in the essay which he wrote in 1988 as a tribute to T.S. Eliot. The essay was originally titled A Dancer to God (Faber, 1992), and in it Ted traces in Eliot’s work a spiritual quest driven by the passionate Divine spark of Eliot’s inner poetic double. Not only does the essay’s title reflect the image of Sylvia’s dancing which dominates ‘God Help the Wolf… ’, but Ted’s statement in the essay that “we live in the translation, where what had been religious and centred in God is psychological and centred on the idea of self – albeit a self which remains a measureless question mark” is also very applicable to Sylvia; and his poem ends with her still “floundering”, still trying to “save” herself, still trying to answer that very question.
As usual, Ted’s poem refers to actual events in Sylvia’s life. In her journal on 20th September 1952, Sylvia, examining her own psychology, asked herself: “Is not my first desperate rush of enthusiasm (remarked upon formerly by Dick) a vestige of my old fear of people running away, leaving me, forcing me to be alone?” [Sylvia’s underlining]. “Is it not a device subconsciously calculated to interest, to hold, to retain my partner, be it male or female?”. Pained by memories of childhood incidents, she recognized her own desperate need for recognition and vowed “to cultivate restraint”. But her desperate attempts at “self-preservation” and “mask”-wearing (SPJ 3 Nov. 1952)) at this time, ended in deep depression and her attempted suicide a few months later.
At Cambridge University, Sylvia hoped all would “begin again” and that she would be “happier than ever before” (LH 3 Oct. 1955). She hoped, too, to publish her poems and be accepted there as “a literary citizen” (LH 5 Oct. 1955). But although she saw and listened to poets and writers whom she admired, her early reverence for the age and learning of the place soon gave way to a disillusioned view of the women students and, in particular, the women dons. More than anything else, in a place where she had expected to be amongst equals in her ability and her desire for learning, she met hostility and rejection from her fellow students, attacks on her poems from fellow poets and, towards the end of her time at Cambridge University, “a devastating and destructive attack” from “a very nasty young don” who singled out her poem for “particularly vicious abuse” (LH 8 June 1957). He or she did so, as Ted notes in his poem, by comparing Sylvia with John Donne – a move which Sylvia thought “typical of Cambridge criticism” and which Ted suggests was a response to the threat which Sylvia’s energies and ability posed to the established but fragile order of “The Colleges”.
Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance Hermeticist whose work on poetic frenzy and spiritual magic Ted knew well, also wrote parables about “impious slanderers”7. He, too, knew that “our Academy has its dogs” and that “Those who wisely search for truth modestly hold onto some discovery. The others bark for the sake of public opinion, and bite and tear”8. In Ted’s poem, Sylvia suffered the “contempt” and the ”homeopathic” teaching of those who tried to make her like themselves: those who, like Ficino’s “wise dogs” of the Academy, “wear out their lives” on “tiny matters” of “studies and business”. Sylvia was certainly pained by their sharp medicine, their “derision” and their “mud”, and she did not understand their hatred. But her letters show that from her earliest days at Cambridge she saw and rejected the “grotesque[ ]” narrowness of their lives: “their experience is secondary”, she wrote of the dons, “and this to me is tantamount to a kind of living death”. She vowed to “move into the world of growth and suffering where the real books are people’s minds and souls” (LH 22 Nov. 1955). Luckily, the happiness of love and marriage helped to keep Sylvia’s Wolf energies intact and she learned to bear the pain of the hostility she encountered and to direct her energies towards her own particular quest. For the time being, “the mystery of that hatred” had been acknowledged and accepted as “very trying”, but Sylvia had learned to control her energies, to “prepare a face to meet a face”, and she had successfully completed her journey through Cambridge. She was ready to start a new life, to be reborn (so-to-speak), in the “Promised Land” of America (LH 8 June 1957. Just such a rebirth, on this particular Path, is totally in keeping with the archetypal, mythical nature of enlightenment and rebirth which follows the questing Fool’s desperate, floundering dance in the Atziluthic World.
’the Bird’ (BL 77-9), which is the poem on this Path in the World of Briah, is full of the energies of Gevurah. It is also a beautiful and careful Alchemy.
As with ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’ (BL 67-8) and ‘Child’s Park’ (BL 69-70), both of which received Gevurah’s energies on earlier Briatic Paths (Cheth and Teth), ‘The Bird’ deals with Gevurah’s power to preserve and destroy Form, especially those patterns of life and thought which shaped the way Ted and Sylvia pursued their quest. Sylvia demonstrates, as before, Gevurah’s ‘Virtues’ of courage and energy; and (on this Path) she joins the ‘Spiritual Vision’ of Gevurah, which is the ‘Vision of Power’, with the ‘Virtue’ of Tiphereth, which is ‘Devotion to the Great Work’. The power which Sylvia sought, was power over the written word, but on this Path she needed to learn, too, that Gevurah’s potential for violence may be expressed in the abuse of power and in the ‘Vice’ of Gevurah, which is cruelty.
In some ways, the title of Ted’s poem refers to the baby bird which he and Sylvia found and which they tried to keep alive in their flat in Northampton (SPJ 4 - 9 July 1958). The analogy between that bird’s desperate attempts to live and Sylvia’s desperate attempts to find her Self through writing, is surely intended. In Ted’s poem, however, Sylvia’s “Panic Bird” is a far more abstract and symbolic creature, although its energies are real enough.
From mid-July 1958 until May 1959, Sylvia’s journal refers often to her feelings of panic and to the “glassy coverlid” (12 July 1958) which seemed to prevent her from writing the stories she so much wanted to write. With great determination, she set out to change this pattern – to break out from “behind a glass-dome fancy-façade of numb dumb wordage” and to “speak from [her] true deep voice in writing” (19 Feb. 1959). But she believed that she would find this voice only in prose, not in poetry.
So, Sylvia’s “Panic Bird” was the life-energies within her which fought for release. In ‘The Bird’, Ted feels them behind the invisible glass, and imagines them as the life energies “throbbing” in the throat of a gecko which is “glued against nothing”. This is a strange image, but it is very like the Alchemists’ image of the Mercurial Salamander (which looks like a large gecko) inside the alchemical flask, where it burns in Sulphurous fires. The parallel between the vitriolic Alchemical purification of Mercury (the Life-Spirit which is supported by, and supports, the body) in Alchemy, and the violent, painful emotions Sylvia suffered in the process of self-determination, is apparent; as is the relationship of both to the Ox-goad of Lamed by which the quester is driven towards enlightenment.
But, although ‘The Bird’ deals with Sylvia’s enlightenment, Ted, at that time, was trapped in the same glass vessel, sharing her journey “step for step”. Both were caught up in a pattern of life in which they circled mechanically, like “A Tyrolean clockwork”. Even in their contact with nature, Ted suggests they were “defective”: walking round and round a municipal “Common”, their bodies, hearts and minds unmoved and disconnected from the earth on which they trod, as if their feet swung only “from the knees”.
As Ted made clear in poems like ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’ and ’the Literary Life’, he and Sylvia had been following a conventional pattern and pursuing their quest in the wrong way. Their move to Boston was the first step in breaking that pattern. But they were still asleep, still in a Foolish dream world, still part of a fairy-tale, like characters in one of the Grimm brothers’ stories which Sylvia had set herself to translate from the German. Ted’s imagery suggests that the fairy story was Rapunzel. And Sylvia “The Princess”, did let her hair down, literally and metaphorically. No longer needing to dress up for work, she wrote of “our splayed selves” (SPJ 27 Sept. 1958) and of her “untrained” hair (SPJ 7 Jan. 1959); and she tried to earth herself and her writing in “a sturdy-shoed, slow-plodding common sense program” (SPJ 12 July 1958) and to write about “THINGS OF THE WORLD WITH NO GLAZING” [her capitals] (SPJ 20 May 1959).
Maybe Sylvia did tell Ted everything but “the fairy tale” (which Ted does not name): she certainly began at that time to question their closeness and to keep some things from him (cf. SPJ 26 Dec. 1958). Most likely, however, she did not know which fairy tale they were in. Only in retrospect (perhaps only as he wrote this poem), can Ted have seen the pattern of their lives and seen how strangely the imagery of Rapunzel fits this pattern. Rapunzel, like his “Princess” and (metaphorically) like Sylvia, was trapped in a high tower with a “solitary window”. Nightly, she let her long hair “right down to the ground” so that the witch9 who kept her there, and later the Prince, could climb up to her. The Prince, when he was eventually discovered by the witch, threw himself from the window, was blinded by thorns, and spent many years wandering blindly in the woods lamenting the loss of his beloved.
But Sylvia did have another, private, fairy story. She, too, was blindly searching the woods for her lost beloved – her father - believing that to “recover” him (‘Daddy’, SPCP 222) would help her to find her Self. He was Sylvia’s Colossus and her “bullman… /King” (‘Poem for a Birthday’, SPCP 134). But this, too, was a “fairy tale”: a distraction from the true Way to enlightenment.
In ‘The Bird’, Ted’s linking of the fairy tale with his and Sylvia’s exactly parallel journeys, and with his own sleep-walking in Sylvia’s dream, suggests the dream-like nature of the pattern which held them. An Alchemist, Cabbalist or NeoPlatonist would recognize this as the dream in which all unenlightened mortals live, seeing only shadows on the cave wall; but the throb of energy in the Mercurial gecko and Sylvia’s contact with “the ground” on this Path which is identified by the numbers 11 and 12, would suggest a readiness for change. And the word “wake” in line 17 of the poem presages such a change in Sylvia.
What happens, in an Alchemist’s terms, is a process called ‘Congelation’, in which the Spirit “which dreadeth not fire”10 flies up from the Salt Body (the ‘sal’ of ‘salamander’), its “matter is made perfectly white”, and it then congeals again in the flask in malleable or meltable form, like wax or snow. In ‘The Bird’, the whiteness of the “ice-caked ship”, the “lacy crystals”, the salt from which the ship is lifted and the salt-tears which “clogged” Sylvia’s “eyelashes”, all suggest this Congelation. So, too, does the “charred” apartment block which is left by the “flame-race upwards” (just as a blackened residue is left in the bottom of the Alchemist’s flask), and the congealed “frozen suds” left “like a solid Niagra” when the process ends. The “weltering blood” which follows in Ted’s poem is also part of the Congelation, where Spirit is recombined with Body (earth) in a bloody menstruum ready to be ‘Dissolved and Coagulated’ by fire, again and again, until it is pure. Coagulation is one form of rebirth but it is not the end of the journey.
In spite of these alchemical parallels, ‘The Bird’ is not an abstract alchemy. The materials with which Ted was working when he wrote the poem were distillations of Sylvia’s own creative spirit – her journals and, in particular, the poems and stories which she wrote when they were living in Boston. Sylvia’s poem, ‘A Winter Ship’ (SPCP 112 - 113) describes nothing as delicate and fantastic as the “wedding vessel” in ‘The Bird’, but both poems echo the bleakness of parts of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner. Sylvia’s ship is skeletal, “iceribbed”, an “albatross of frost” in a “glassy pellicle”, and the whole poem is coldly full of decay and death which reflect her feelings of frozen energy and her depression. Yet it is a good poem, anchored in “the world with no glazing” just as Sylvia determined her writing should be. ‘Aftermath’ (SPCP 113 - 114), which was inspired by the house fire which Sylvia described in her journal (28 March 1958), is less earthed, but with its conjuring of Medea, the sorceress who had power over fire-breathing bulls, it, too, is an expression of Sylvia’s struggle for new energy; for “incident”; for “carnage” even; and of the frustration she felt and which is expressed in Ted’s poem by the dark screen and Sylvia’s soundless howl.
“What glowed into focus” (as Ted puts it), through Sylvia’s determination and persistence in the midst of all this turmoil, was her story, ‘The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle’ (JPBD 59 - 73)11, which Ted collected amongst the “more successful stories” in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.
This was not the only story Sylvia wrote at that time but it is one which shows considerable skill, and it does glow with humour and life. It is also very suitable for Ted’s symbolic purposes, because of the double nature of the American Eagle12 and of Sylvia’s American – German background. Feeling her energies trapped, Sylvia longed to “Forget self and give blood to creation” (SPJ 28 Feb. 1959), which is exactly what she saw happen at the tattoo shop, where an eagle was born in blood on a sailor’s arm. Her own “Panic Bird”, meanwhile, remained trapped. Determination, willpower, courage, violence, love and sorrow – all the energies of Gevurah and Tiphereth drove her search for Self at that time, and through her sessions with Ruth Beuscher she explored her American – German childhood and her relationship with her parents. She also visited her father’s grave at Winthrop. But although she achieved small flights of imaginative freedom (rather like the out-of-body experience of the narrator in ‘The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle’, who faints at the sight of the blood) still something prevented her complete creative rebirth.
Ted’s vision (which could be dream or memory) in lines 45 - 57 of ‘The Bird’, defines his and Sylvia’s situation and suggests the nature of the problem. Firstly, they “stood married”: stood, as if stalled by their attempts to share, completely, a quest which can only be made by each individual person for themselves. The “Cambridge College” in which they stood could have been in Cambridge, England, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, although it would have been the latter at this time13. Both espoused similar values, and both attracted people with similar aims and lifestyles to their “packed” rooms to drink College “sherry”. Both, like Ficino’s “Academies” had, and probably still have, their own “dogs” who expect conformity with their particular ways of living. Ted symbolized this way of life in these lines as the unimaginative accumulation of money for “booze”: suggesting the lack of imagination by the “chunky” nature of the tumbler and the base metal nature of “coins”, and using the slang term “booze” to describe the lack of quality in the thing to which they donated their time and money.
In the 13 lines which describe Ted’s vision, the explosion of this coarse tumbler creates the sudden whiteness and the “infinitely tiny” crystals of snow which represent the completed Alchemical Congelation which must precede any rebirth. The message for him, and especially for Sylvia whose Spirit with its potential for rebirth was trapped in a glass vessel shaped by her American College goals and experiences14, was clear: this pattern (this Form) had to be destroyed before the perfect crystalline seed of rebirth could be made. But one other thing is clear in these lines: the complete destruction of the pattern and the true Congelation is not brought about by willpower but by some explosive external force15. So, although Ted and Sylvia again changed their way of life, leaving Boston for a tour of Canada and the United States, living and working for two months at Yaddo artist’s colony, and then moving back to England, these changes, although a form of rebirth, were only preparation for the inner change Sylvia sought but which still eluded her.
Tragically, the final twelve lines of ‘The Bird’ show that in spite of Sylvia’s continued attempts to break the patterns of inherited values within herself (symbolized earlier in the poem by her smashing of a “mahogany heirloom table”), the Alchemical materials from which her rebirth eventually did occur were not pure enough. In spite of all her efforts, some essential lesson had not been learned16.
So, the infinitely tiny white crystals which were left when her “glass dome” did break in late 1962, were not the pure ‘diamond’ crystals of a true Alchemical transmutation, but impure, contaminated crystals of snow, “old” and “slabbed” like that which “barricaded London” in the winter of 1962-3. Again, this is an Alchemical image, for London was often used by Alchemists to represent the Fortress to which all Paths lead and which only those with a pure, enlightened Spirit can enter. Sylvia’s Spirit, the “bird” which was finally freed when the glass “vanished”, could not enter the Fortress because of this muddied snow. Instead, like the gecko, she was not yet pure, so she “fell into empty light”. Ted describes “the huge loose emptiness of light / Wheeling through everything”, and this phrase suggests both the absence and the omnipresence of light, and a vast feeling of turmoil, confusion and, particularly, “emptiness” (the word is twice repeated). Instead of the flight of the crystalline Spirit, which must eventually return to the Body to seed new life, Sylvia fell into what Cabbalists will recognize as the Void. Not only was the bird-gecko-Spirit gone, but so, too, was the glass dome which was the Alchemical flask, the Body, which had supported it: together these were Sylvia17.
‘A Short Film’ (BL 134), which is the poem on the Path of Lamed in the World of Yetzirah, is a strange poem, seemingly quite out of context in the roughly chronological order of Birthday Letters. Suddenly, flanked by poems which refer to events early in 1962, we have a picture of Sylvia as a child; and, it seems, a meditation on the pains of memory, love and death.
Yet the image of Sylvia, ghostly, “made out of mist and smudge”, not dancing but “skipping and still skipping”, as if eternally driven by her trapped animal energies, makes a powerful and disturbing link with the ending of ‘The Bird’. And part of the “horror” of this connection is the idea that Sylvia is still circling in the Void: that these “few frames” of film show not only the past but the present and future, too. Such a “long-term” projection is its “danger”.
Other images used by Ted in the poem also make a connection with ‘The Bird’. For the film acts as the outside power, the “electronic detonator”, which links the image of Sylvia with that small spark of her Spirit which lies in the memory (in the “grave”/ cave / flask of the Body) of all those who loved her, and which causes the explosion of an idea: a sudden enlightenment which charges the nerves and causes the Body to “sweat”. Such a sweat is, again, an Alchemical image of the Salt released from the Salamander by sulphurous purification.
Ted never used such imagery casually. So, what was his purpose here? Was he just using the powerful alchemical and magical energies of this Path to convey the agonizing experience of re-living the events which led to Sylvia’s death – the “something which has already happened”? Was he purging himself through the Alchemy of this poem?: Certainly writing Birthday Letters was, amongst other things, a way of doing just that. Or was this a means by which Sylvia’s Spirit could find continual rebirth in our world?: Hence his use of the word “us”, which includes the reader in this Alchemy.
Perhaps, it was all of these things, and more. Certainly, this poem on this particular Path is concerned with the Mystery of rebirth. And there are still more Cabbalistic reasons for its imagery, which make the reason for its exact position in Birthday Letters sequence very clear.
One of the most important figures associated with Lamed is The Fool, Mercury, Pan. Aleister Crowley notes that on this Path there occurs “the comedy of Pan, that is played at night in the thick forest: And this is the mystery of Dionysus Zagreb” (Book of Thoth 138). On this Path, only a Fool will be open enough, child-like enough, to abandon all worldly goals and restraints and leave everything to the gods. Always, at this point, the quester must rely only on love and trust, and must already be strong enough to withstand the necessary exposure to Divine energies. Always it is dangerous.
In Cabbalistic numerology, the Fool, who is represented by 0, began the journey on Path 1. After completing Path 11, the journeyer’s Tarot number is 10 and he or she has completed the Worldly cycle of the upper Tree, and has becomes the Wise Fool who will encounter the Divine energies from Sephira 1: 10 + 1 (The Fool + the Divine) = 11, the Tarot number of the journeyer on the Path of Lamed.
So, the image of Sylvia as a child “aged about ten”, suggests not only that she has completed her journey along the first ten Paths of the Tree but also that with the Strength of this Path, and with her energies undiminished, she is the vulnerable child-like Wise Fool approaching the Mystery at the Heart of the Tree (Tiphereth). Here, in the World of Yetzirah where Briatic patterns become fixed, between the tempests of ‘Setebos’ and the appearance of the serpentine, creative energies in ‘The Rag Rug’, Sylvia in ‘A Short Film’ is again a child. And, at this time in the roughly chronological sequence of Birthday Letters, Sylvia was, as Ted indicated in ‘Sylvia Plath and Her Journals’ (WP 182), ready “to take her first steps into independent life”: just like a ten-year-old child. Ted’s phrase metaphorically indicated Sylvia’s readiness for the great change which occurred when the Ariel voice was suddenly freed in her work, but it also indicated the coming separation of their Paths.
’the Cast’ (BL 179 - 180) (a title which appropriately suggests an empty vessel or the discarded part of a creation) is the poem on this Path in the World of Assiah – the World of Shells or Qlippoth. And again, on this Path, Ted’s essay A Dancer to God (’the Poetic Self’ (WP 268 - 292)) is important for an understanding of the poem. Of particular relevance, are Ted’s discussion of the “conflict of selves” and the “ordeal of parturition” which are undergone as the autonomous poetic Self and the closely related Divine Self separate from the ordinary Ego. Also important, is Ted’s perception of the presence of St. Sebastian and St. Narcissus as symbolic figures in T.S. Eliot’s quest; and the meaning of Eros, the god of Love (who is also Cupid, the mischievous son of Venus, wielder of the arrows of desire) in this questing context. All of these things find parallels in ‘The Cast’.
The very first word of ‘The Cast’ connects this poem with Sylvia’s poem ‘Daddy’ (SPCP 222-243), and Ted’s imagery conveys the cruel vitriolic anger which in Sylvia’s poem is publicly directed at her father. Sylvia’s words are sharp as stings and her accusations, like arrows, were designed “to kill”: in the poem, Sylvia makes this clear. Love, Eros, the passion which is essential to this Path and which, in ‘The Cast’ is described as the honey which Sylvia kept “for others”, was (Ted suggests) in the hands of that mischievous and tricky child, “Cupid”. And his arrows had been “modified” by the death-dealing horrors of the world: by the weapon makers of Peenemünde, where the ‘vergettungswaffe’ (meaning ‘reprisal weapon’), the guided V1 and V2 rocket missiles used in WWII, were developed; and by all the fantastic and horrible ways of dying invented by the human imagination and depicted in Breughel’s paintings18.
In ‘Daddy’, Sylvia conjured the spirit of her father by name; held him present throughout the poem with her repeated, accusatory “you”; and, like a spirit-banishing mantra, in the first and last lines of the poem, she stated her rejection of him. This was powerful word-magic.
Ted, in ‘The Cast’, shows Daddy as a “weightless”, “voiceless”, “lifeless” spirit who was, nevertheless, obliged to listen to Sylvia’s list of grievances against him and was “helpless” against her attack. And he had to die: not like a vampire (although Sylvia did this, too, in her poem) but slowly, stood at the stake, exposed and humiliated for all to see. Significantly, Ted describes the image in which Sylvia enshrined this public and personal version of her Daddy as “the bronze of immortal poesy”, as if she had cast it in bronze, a metal which has a fine, metallic sheen and will last for centuries but which has none of the softness and beauty of pure gold.
Yet, Sylvia’s image of her father and of herself in ‘Daddy’ is quite different to Ted’s image of them both in ‘The Cast’. And in the word ‘poesy’, with its echo of the name of Poeas, Ted reinforces the meaning of his own imagery in ‘The Cast’, because Poeas (according to Robert Graves) was the ghost-double, the “tanist or other self” of Hercules. Poeas “lighted Hercules’s pyre and inherited his arrows”; he was Hercules’s successor; and it was said that he had fed on Hercules dead body (WG 126). In Ted’s poem, Sylvia’s father is seen as the necessary sacrifice through which she will be “healed”; but he is also an essential part of Sylvia herself, so, in ridding herself of him she necessarily bleeds: Sylvia, like Poeas, kills her other self, inherits her father’s weapons (the stings of his bees) and uses his death to heal and sustain herself, thereby (metaphorically) feeding on him.
Sylvia’s image of her father, however, reflected what he had become in her own mind, not necessarily what he had been in life. This was the psychological wound which had to be healed by love: this was the purification which had to take place before the true rebirth could happen. The pain which Sylvia felt because of her wound drove her to rid herself of it: just as “phagocytes” in the blood work to expel a “chunk of weapon” or a “shard of shrapnel” from the body; just as the ox-goad / Lamed drives the quester along this path; just as the poetic Self drives the ordinary Self to release it. The whole process, as Ted described it in his essay on T.S. Eliot, is one in which part of the poet’s “ordinary personality” is “forcibly displaced”, so that “that other speech and that other life”, which is the poet’s “true speech and life” can be released (WP 276). This is the shamanic poet’s “crucial initiatory experience of visionary dismemberment” and it is full of danger. Yet, clearly, Ted believed that in the initiatory experience which Sylvia underwent on this path, her shamanic flight was guided by Cupid not Eros. Consequently, the “distorted statue”, the poetic image of ‘Daddy’ with which she returned, was a Shell: it was a heartless, hollow image, animated by anger not love, and, because of that Sylvia’s poetic rebirth, too, was hollow. What Ted percieved in ‘Daddy’, and what he described in ’the Cast’, was not the image of Sylvia’s father which she immortalized in her poem, but an image of Sylvia mortally wounding herself in this process.
Ted certainly believed that by December 1962 Sylvia had faced her “antagonist” and “overcome, by a stunning display of power, the bogies of her life” (’sylvia Plath and her Journals’, WP 188). He acknowledged her power and her success, noting that “the impression of growth and new large strength in her personality was striking”. But he saw, too, that at this stage in Sylvia’s journey, on this particular Path, she showed none of the control, judgement or love necessary for true enlightenment. Instead, Sylvia displayed the abuse of power and the cruelty which are the Vice of Gevurah.
In the arguments of A Dancer to God, it is the hidden poetic Self (and the true Divine Self which may lie within it) which is the wounded Self that must be healed: and to do this, the ordinary Ego must be destroyed. And Ted believed that in a visionary or shamanic poet, “each successive truly inspired creation can be read as the poetic Self’s effort to make itself known”. He also wrote that the “distinguishing features” of the presiding image of the poetic Self in such a creation are “that it is visionary, that it is irreducibly symbolic, and that it is dramatically complete”. Both Ted’s and Sylvia’s quite different images of Daddy fulfil these criteria. But whilst Sylvia believed that she was ridding herself of something damaging and undesirable, Ted percieved that her situation was one in which the ordinary Ego and the poetic Self were “deadlocked”, locked in a “death-struggle”: thus, the image which she produced in ‘Daddy’ reflected this death-struggle and predicted her own fate (WP 276 -278).
For Ted, the presiding image in both ‘Daddy’ and ‘The Cast’ was that of St Narcissus, a name which he associated with “the drowned self, the female, dismembered, crying voice – from the fable of Narcissus”, “the mirrored reflection”. St Narcissus, for him, was a martyred figure, emblematic of “the earliest, ecstatic mystai” of the mystery religions; and an image of the “tragic, sacrificed form of Eros” (WP 282-3), god of Love. He saw T.S. Eliot’s image of St Narcissus as an expression of Eliot’s tortured poetic Self: it was an image created with love, and which could be redeemed by love. But although he heard the voice of Sylvia’s poetic Self in ‘Daddy’, the image which she created was dominated by her Ego’s anger. So, it became her own image, too: a heartless creation; a Shell.
So, it seems that at Tiphereth, at the Heart of the Tree, Sylvia did encounter the Divine energies in the form of a sacrificed god but her initiation and rebirth were not the desired end of her journey. She still had the lessons of Love to learn. And although she began again with “the different, cooler, inspiration (as she described it) and the denser pattern”(WP 189) of the poems from on 28 Jan. 1962 on, circumstances combined to bring about her death and prevent her from continuing her journey. Ted’s final image in ‘The Cast’ sums up the terrible self-sacrifice which too quickly followed Sylvia’s initiation on the Path of Lamed and cast her into the Void.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. The Hebrew letter, Lamed (meaning Ox-goad), embodies in its shape the letters Yod and Kaph to represent the descent of the seed of wisdom from the Divine (Yod) into the human heart (Kaph) to bring understanding and enlightenment. A similar connection with Divine energies is made through the position of this Path on the Cabbalistic Tree, where Sephira 6 is joined directly to Sephira 1 and stands in relation to it as the human Son does to the Divine Father. Sephiroth 5 and 6 also combine with Sephira 4 to form a triangle which is the mirror image of the Divine triangle of 1, 2 and 3 at the Tree’s apex, thus reflecting the Divine energies in the lower Worlds.
2. In numerology, 5 (Gevurah) + 6 (Tiphereth) = 11, the number of equilibrium and the number of the Tarot card of Strength. The potential for enlightenment is represented by the number for the path of Lamed, which is 12 – the number of completion. There are 12 Zodiacal signs which govern the Paths of the Tree and also govern our lives.
3. This is the crossed out title on a list of changes which Ted sent to his publishers prior to publication.
4. Daniel Weissbort tells of this in his own poem: ‘Pity The Man Whom All Men Love’, Letters To Ted, Anvil Press, 2002.
5. The legend of Saint Francis of Assisi and the Wolf of Gubbio demonstrates a Hermit’s particular strength in controlling the wolf energies, although Cabbalists and Christians may interpret this legend differently.
6. Skea, A. ‘Wolf Masks’. First published in Scigaj, L (Ed.), Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, G.K.Hall & Co, New York, 1992.
7. Ficino, Letters, Shepherd-Walwyn, London, 1978. Vol.2, letters 5 and 6; Vol. 5, letter 114.
8. Ficino (Trans. Boer), The Book of Life, Spring Publications, University of Dallas, Texas, 1980. p.190.
9. Sylvia, at this time, blamed her mother for many of her problems and did compare her mother’s power over her to that of “the old witches” (SPJ 27 Dec. 1958).
10. George Ripley, ‘Of Congelation’, The Compound of Alchymy, London 1591.
11. Sylvia’s journal entry for 18 Sept. 1958 notes her visit to the tattoo shop and her resolve to “spend all next morning writing it up”. She first mentioned the story on 28 Dec. 1958, when she called it “imagey static prose”, but by 31 May 1959 she included it amongst her successes.
12. The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States was chosen to represent one of the primary national groups to migrate to America and, in the first suggested designs, it was a double-headed German Imperial Eagle. Ultimately, the American bald eagle was chosen, but it is still a double bird: One representing Many, but also combining Heaven (the Sun bird of Zeus) and Earth; War and Peace.
13. “Dinner parties all this week”, Sylvia noted in her journal on 19 Feb. 1959. And many of the people she mentioned at that time either lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or worked there, generally at one of the universities.
14. Sylvia was very aware of the pressure to conform to the conventional expectations of family and friends. She wrote in her journal of “the pragmatic American world’s cold eye” and of the “expectation of conformity”, especially in “this part” of America [Massachusetts] (SPJ 11 Dec. 1958).
15. In Cabbalistic numerology, the 12 of Lamed, which indicates the completion of a worldly cycle of preparation, must be joined with the Divine power of 1 from the Apex of the Tree, to make 13, the number of rebirth.
16. In other Birthday Letters poems (e.g. ‘Costly Speech’ (BL 170 - 171) and ‘The Inscription’ (BL 172)), Ted suggests that Sylvia never learned the balance and the selfless love which are necessary for a true rebirth. In particular, he shows that the Power (of words), which she did gain on this Path of Lamed, was contaminated by the ‘Vice’ of Gevurah, which is cruelty.
17. The Void or Abyss is, again, a place about which Cabbalists hold differing and complex views. For some, it is the place where God’s earliest creations, those which failed due to lack of balance and judgement (and which, interestingly, are called “broken vessels”) accumulate as Shells (Qlippoth). It is often called the “dark” Abyss, but this darkness is metaphorical and indicates only that the Abyss is a place inhabited by Demons. Some understand it is the Void which was left when God created the All by contraction of the Ain Soph, and this Void is a place of scattered light, Qlippoth and potential Form.
18. In particular, in Pietre Breughel the Elder’s painting, ‘The Triumph of Death’, to which Sylvia referred in ‘Two Views of a Cadaver Room’ (SPCP 114), where she wrote of the “smoke and slaughter”, the “carrion army” and the “desolation” to which only two lovers (a small detail in the corner of the painting) are oblivious.
Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2002. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at firstname.lastname@example.org