Chariot cardCheth path

The Path of The Chariot - Cheth

Tarot card 7. Tree path 8.

Joining Sephiroth 3 (Binah) and 5 (Gevurah).

‘The Shot’, ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’, ‘The Lodger’, ‘The Inscription’.

© Ann Skea

‘The Chariot’ in traditional Tarot packs depicts a crowned Martial warrior standing in a square chariot pulled by two galloping horses. The figure stands firmly between pillars which support a canopy or veil. On each shoulder is a face – male and female or sun and moon – and he holds no reins. He is an emblem of energy, judgement, balance and control. Only one who knows his own powers and can assess and judge the situation second-by-second can maintain such balance, borne along as he is by the turning wheels of an earthly (4: square) chariot drawn by powerful natural energies, which may often pull in different directions, as the horses do on the traditional Tarot cards1. Pride, overconfidence, the slightest lack of attention, judgement or balance, and the ride will end in disaster.

The number of this card is 7 (4 + 3, representing the Earth plus the Divine Trinity of Sephiroth at the apex of the Cabbalistic Tree and, especially, The Goddess - Binah). The Divine energies are hidden by the veil above or behind the human warrior in this Chariot of Life and he or she must learn to know their own strengths and weaknesses in order bring the journey to a safe conclusion. The Cabbalistic phrases for meditation on this path are ‘The Chariot of Life. Lord of Triumphant Light. Sangraal’. And the planet controlling this path is Mars, whose fierce energies may be directed towards good or evil and may be both courageous and cruel2.

The Hebrew letter for this path, Cheth (meaning ‘fence’), embodies all these things. Cheth is made up of the two previous letters, Vau and Zain, and it contains the energies of both3: the dynamic life energies of the Divine which, on this path, empower the traveller and remain protectively close (“like an eagle protecting its young”) but which allow complete freedom of expression and judgement – complete self-reliance.

The Path of Cheth lies on the Pillar of Form between Binah (Sephira 3), who is Mother of Form and The Possibility of Boundaries, and Gevurah (Sephira 5), which is Judgement, Power, Severity, The Expression of Form (its preservation or destruction), and The Response to Boundaries (the setting of limits or fences). Judgement (Gevurah) implies Laws, restraint and emotional control and Cheth is a dynamic path of ‘Run and Return’, a path of individuation, on which the traveller moves between polarities, running and returning between freedom and restraint, form and chaos, splendour and degradation. Balance is essential and the traveller must learn their own limits and use this learning to balance the energies of Gevurah (Judgement) with those of its partner, Chesed (Mercy); and to be in harmony with the Divine and Natural energies within themselves and in the world at large.

This path is filled with the continuous, spiralling energies of life. Its number is 8 – a closed, spiralling figure. 8 is the Caduceus – the entwined double helix of snakes: positive and negative energies in perfect balance. 8 is the number of Mercury / Hermes whose dynamic energies may guide the Soul to the Divine but may also misguide the unwary and unwise. 8 is also the number of the Divine Feminine, the Water Principle, the ebb and flow which is the pulse of life.

In the Birthday Letters poem on the Path of The Chariot in the Atziluthic World of Archetypes, it is Sylvia who rides in the Chariot of Life.

In ‘The Shot’ (BL 16), Sylvia’s need for a god is uncontrolled, unbalanced, Foolish. She is, like the archetype figure on this path, “a god-seeker”, but this is still the start of her Cabbalistic journey and she is immature and still learning about herself and the world. So, her worship which “needed a god” and which “seemed to have been designed at birth for a god” is expressed as infatuation.

In the normal process of growing up, children should learn all they need to become confident, independent individuals – to ‘stand on their own two feet’, so-to-speak, like the rider in The Chariot. Wise parents provide the freedom, security and encouragement which allows this individuation to take place.

But circumstances, for Sylvia, were not normal. It is clear from her stories and journals that her goals were set for her by, especially, her father. His expectations and demands of her were high. He aimed her “at God”, perhaps only in the sense that this is a metaphor for the highest achievements. Yet, as for many young children, Sylvia’s first god was her father. Otto’s death, before maturity and experience allowed her to judge him and the world more realistically, set this pattern (this Form) with a force which, in Ted’s poem, was sustained through the whole of her “Alpha career”. This choice of phrase is important, because it encompasses Sylvia’s high A-grade achievements throughout her life and also the Cabbalistic meanings of Alpha: the Fool, the Self, and the first of the repeated Cabbalistic journeys a seeker of Truth will make in their lifetime4.

As in ‘The Shot’, the death of Sylvia’s father really did trigger a pattern of events and emotions which powerfully shaped her life and her work. She acknowledged this in many of her journal entries, especially those from December 1958 onwards, and she fought hard to understand it and to deal with it. Ted makes it clear in his essay, ‘Sylvia Plath and Her Journals’ (WP 117-190), that Sylvia’s first journey (her Alpha journey) towards individuation and re-birth of the “nucleus of self” (WP 180) reached a critical stage in 1959, and Sylvia’s own writings confirm this. Early in that year, Sylvia came to see that from the time of her father’s death the god-like status she had endowed on him remained fixed: that she had lived for twenty years in a dream, “a wintering”, in which she had come “God-fathered into the world” as if the real man had never existed. For all that time, she had remained immature and childlike – in her “dress of innocence” (‘Electra on Azalea Path’, SPCP 116-7). Sylvia’s recognition of the damage this had done to her is expressed, too, in her poem, ‘The Colossus’ (SPCP 129-30) and this re-assessment of her father was the start of her re-awakening from the dream and the re-birth of her new independent self.

This re-birth dragged on, Ted writes, only to be completed by the appearance of a “new self-conquering self” in 1962. But the world continued to turn and Sylvia’s newfound self was vulnerable. In a paragraph which uses the imagery of the Martian warrior and the underlying Cabbalistic meaning of The Chariot and Cheth, Ted writes:

That her new self, who could do so much, could not ultimately save her, is perhaps only to say what has often been learned on this particular field of conflict – that the moment of turning one’s back on the enemy who seems safely defeated, and is defeated, is the most dangerous moment of all. And that there can be no guarantees. (WP 189-90).

This moment of danger at the end of the Alpha journey, this most vulnerable time when Sylvia was newly independent, alone and “Godless”, accepting no human or spiritual authority, is, I think, the time Ted refers to near the end of ‘The Shot’ when he recognized that, shaman / witchdoctor though he was, he was not “the right witchdoctor” at that time to save Sylvia from disaster.

He acknowledges, too, that although he had been more than just “mind-stuff / Provisional. Speculative”, like the “ordinary jocks”5 Sylvia had elected to god status before she met him, he was, in the end, another of those wounded men she had left in her “flightpath”. Sylvia’s journals, especially the entries for the time before she met Ted, show just how rational, analytical and calculating she was about her relationships with men. She did not “believe in God as a kind father in the sky” (SPJ entry 48, 1950/51) but she deified and worshipped each chosen man: “I made him into a golden god, physically, morally and mentally” she wrote of one early boyfriend (10 Jan. 1953); “be christ!”, she exhorted Richard Sassoon (22 Nov. 1955).

Her journals show, too, her continuous and careful self-analysis and the boundaries she tested as she ricocheted from man to man and from panic and “sob-soaked” despair, to ecstasy. But the “undeflected” trajectory on which she had been launched by her father’s death was a “Run and Return” from a false god back to that same false god: her “whole life” “true” to one “god-seeking” path which ended when Sylvia, as Ted writes chillingly, came “at last” to “bury” herself in the heart of that god – her Daddy.

Ted’s eventual understanding of the power with which Sylvia had been launched on her path through life, and of his own powerlessness, in the end, to change that path, is seen again in ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’ (BL 67), which is the poem on the Path of The Chariot in the World of Briah.

The opening phrase, “I let it grow”, expresses Ted’s remorse, as much as his powerlessness, for anything he did, or did not, do at the time when Sylvia faced her professional teaching experience at Smith College. Whether or not he could have changed things is something he would never know but he begins the poem by confessing to the ‘Vice’ of Binah, which is inertia, and by acknowledging the two errors which are the qlippoth of Binah and Gevurah - Fatalism (“I had supposed it was all OK”); and Bureaucracy (submission to the “Financiers and committees and consultants” who had put Sylvia in this position in front of the class and who would judge her).

Judgement, severity and fear, all energies of Gevurah, are everywhere in this poem. It begins with Ted’s own judgement of himself, for which he is condemned to be permanently stilled in contemplation of Sylvia’s death. It continues with the judgement of all those whose hopes and ambitions and support had brought Sylvia to the moment of “that first morning” of her professional teaching career and who, in reality or metaphorically, were watching to see if she would justify their own actions. And it culminates in “the life that judged” Sylvia, which could refer to Otto, on whose teaching life Sylvia was modelling her own, but also, in a Cabbalistic sense, to the life-pattern to which Sylvia was submitting herself and within which she was testing boundaries and standards which were set for her by others.

That this pattern, this life, these boundaries were not Sylvia’s own, is indicated by the compromise she made in wearing the blue flannel suit, and which Ted describes as a “Half-approximation” (capitalized at the start of a line for emphasis) of Sylvia’s idea of “the proprieties” (this final phrase is carefully chosen and precise and indicates Sylvia’s own judgement of rightness and fitness, as well as of correct behaviour). That Sylvia wanted to “ease into” these proprieties indicates, too, that she already knew this pattern set by others was too rigid and not her own, and that she was compromising both in dress and in her values and goals. The importance of this whole compromise is indicated by Ted’s use of “the blue flannel suit” as the title of the poem.

Sylvia’s ultimate goal was to write, not to teach, but she thought that teaching would be a means to that end. So Sylvia’s judgement, too, is part of this poem, as is her courage (the ‘Virtue’ of Gevurah), her fear and her misery. Sylvia’s own judgement of herself is as severe and rigid as the other judgements to which she submits herself. And, in the poem, this “straitjacket” to which she condemns herself, like a prisoner, leads her finally to death.

Ted’s judgement of Sylvia as he sees he r“now” in this poem, is, in contrast to all the other judgements in the poem, full of tenderness and love. The images he uses – of her “green” fear; of her helplessness; of “the lonely / Girl (the capital and the choice of word emphasizing that she is still an immature traveller in Life’s Chariot) who was going to die” (“going to” suggesting both her determination and her eventual fate); and of himself stilled “Bending so briefly” over her still form in the open coffin – all are images which evoke powerful feelings of pity and sympathy in the reader. By this means, Ted tempers Judgement with Mercy.

It is, perhaps, hard for anyone who does not share the belief Ted had in powerful occult energies to appreciate the complexity of what he was doing in this poem and the dangers he would have believed were inherent in his actions. Firstly, he was working on three levels. Not only was he recording the past, he was recreating the events and the energies which fuelled them in his own present as he wrote the poem, and (if the poem was successful) he would be recreating them in the mind of anyone who read it. Secondly, the energies on this particular path are extremely powerful and must be treated with the utmost care and respect. Thirdly, the World of Briah is a world in which patterns are formed which may crystalize and become fixed in our own, Earthly, World of Yetzirah.

So, in the final lines of this poem, Ted is careful to bring all the energies he has evoked in it to a standstill. He does this by creating a poetic charm in which the word “stilled” is repeated three times (for magical effectiveness) and he and Sylvia, “then” and “now”, are brought “permanently” into the circle of this charm. The reader is left with an image of them together, with Ted permanently bending briefly over Sylvia’s open coffin as he is, metaphorically, throughout Birthday Letters.

In ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’ the severe energies of Gevurah predominate, but in ‘The Lodger’ (BL 124-6), which is the poem on this same path in the World of Yetzirah, it is Binah (Sephira 3), the Triple Goddess, the Mother of Form whose powers prevail. Not only is the poem full of the natural energies of fertility and gestation and the eternal cycles of birth and death, it is also full of the influence these had on Ted’s life as he and Sylvia settled into their home in Devon.

As in ‘The Error’, Ted again associates Devon with The New World. Potatoes, tubers which are a fine example of Nature’s enduring energies, begin the poem6. Potatoes are reputed to have been brought to England from The New World by Sir Walter Raleigh (a Devon man and a poet), and here in the poem they are likened to the “welcome wagon”, a gift of basic provisions with which small pioneer communities in America once greeted new neighbours. For Ted and Sylvia, in their own new world, potatoes were the “first fruits” of their own yard. And Ted, a “Pioneer” in their new Devon life (and on this Cabbalistic path where the life energies test the traveller so thoroughly) bought the essential basics with which to learn self-sufficiency: the spades, forks, overalls, boots (all of which are very necessary for a gardener) and the books. Not just any books but “The books!”. Ted’s emphatic repetition of “the books” is the first indication that there was more, perhaps, to his horticultural endeavours than simply digging his Devon yard.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note the books which Ted has spoken of reading at that time, although in Cabbalistic terms (exactly as in the garden) book-learning may impart necessary knowledge but hard practical work is needed in order to gain understanding. Two books, in particular, were important enough for Ted to discuss them in his interviews with Ekbert Faas in 1970 and 19777, and to refer to them again in his Foreword to his own book, The Difficulties of a Bridegroom, which was published in 19958. These were the Buddhist text, the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), and The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, by the seventeenth-century Hermeticist, Johann Valentin Andraea. Both these books are, in Ted’s words, to do with “a shamanic flight and return” and the alchemical process of enlightenment and healing. In other words, they are texts which teach the art of living and dying: the horticulture of the heart and soul. And Ted, in ‘The Lodger’ is “gluttonous to swallow all horticulture / the whole cornucopia”.

So, on this path on which the Cabbalistic journeyer must dig into their own heart and soul and learn to know the Self, Ted “double-dug”. This is a gardening term which describes a method by which the old surface soil is buried and the deeper soil brought to the surface: essentially, everything is turned upside-down, which is a very precise metaphor for any process of self-analysis designed to reveal hidden depths. And Ted, so he tells us, double-dug “The entire garden. And my heart”. He puts ‘garden’ and ‘heart’ into two separate sentences but isolates them in a single line which is linked by the momentum of the poem to both the line above it and the line below. The garden, it seems, is double-dug, and so is the heart; and whatever lives in the heart digs with Ted.

Lucas Myers, in Crow Steered Bergs Appeared, comments that ‘The Lodger’ “should be read quite literally” (CSBA 78). He confirms that the heart condition which Ted describes so graphically and with such reality in the poem really did exist. Myers writes that “There were signs of it before they moved to Devon in September 1961” and he believes that the fibrillations ended in winter or spring of 1962 when Ted “decided not to die9. Yet, it is perfectly possible to read this poem quite literally at two levels. Ted would have learned, from the books he was reading at that time, that in a physical and a metaphorical sense, “my heart was me. I was my heart.” And in ‘The Lodger’ he pays a good deal more attention to his heart than to his potatoes.

Both Ted’s reading and his writing in 1960/61/62 dealt with the heart and with living and dying. He has said that The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz influenced him so strongly that “around 1962” he gave the “working title”, Difficulties of a Bridegroom, to everything he wrote “for the next few years” (DOB ix). Late in 1960, Ted was also working on a libretto based on the Bardo Thodol10, and this work was reflected in his play, The Wound11, which he later called “a Gothic-Celtic version of the Bardo Thodol” and which explores the experiences of a man who is shot, enters the realm to which souls go immediately after death (the Bardo) but returns to our own world with the help of a young, female spirit-guide.

In its setting, theme, and some of its characters, The Wound appears very like a sequel to an earlier play, The House of Aries, which was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 16 November 1960. One of the characters in The House of Aries is called, ‘The Lodger’, and this is not the only link between this play and the Birthday Letters poem of that name. Not only is the ‘House of Aries’ an astrological term denoting the first House of a horoscope ( the House which deals with the Self), but the play also presents the extremes (the boundaries) of male and female natures; and the play’s underlying message (given through the two female characters, who each represent a priestess of the Goddess: the Virgin and the Whore) is of the need to balance cruelty and the Law with love and mercy12.

The Lodger, in The House of Aries, is a scholar of “the vital thing---society’s sanity, peace; that is, the Law”. He concentrates on his books and has never married, because he believes that “some men marry what must be done” and he is “Married to the Law”. The virginal Elaine calls him “a sort of St. George” but she tells him “you sit in your room too much”. The whorish Wife is blunter: “All that spirit stiffened into a bookmark! “… ” You should learn to love me, boy / You need kisses, sweet kisses / To soften your nature”. With this scenario in mind, there is a certain irony in Ted’s emphasis on “The Books!” in his Birthday Letters poem ‘The Lodger’.

Importantly, the Lodger in Ted’s play is woken to a new awareness of Self by Elaine. He sees this as “an indictment: / Court summons by lip and cheek”, and he feels judged: “It seems I am guilty”. He expresses it as love, and he wants to marry Elaine but is captured trying to escape with her and is shot. His awakening can be interpreted as ‘the call’ by which the Shaman is first made aware of The Goddess’s power. It can, in Ted’s terms, also be interpreted as the sudden awareness of the Poetic Self - the other self, a “doppelganger”, and “the true self” (WP 275) - which lies beneath the mask of Ego. Ted discusses this awakening in detail in his essay on T.S. Eliot, A Dancer to God13, referring to the Poetic Self’s “hidden life” and calling it “the voice of Eros". In this same essay he writes in similar terms of Yeat’s shamanic call; and in his long essay on Coleridge, ‘The Snake in the Oak’ (WP 373-465), he again details his belief in the presence of this other Self - the Poetic Self - which is woken to power by the Goddess. The seat of the Goddess within us is the heart, and to refuse the shamanic call, as Ted told Ekbert Fass (UU 206), means death - real or metaphorical (and for Coleridge, Ted saw it as the death of his Goddess-inspired, Poetic Self).

Given all this, it is hard not to read Ted’s poem ‘The Lodger’ as a description of his own shamanic call: The Goddess’s call to judgement of himself through which his Poetic Self (his true self) could be released. Ted, in the poem, is physically and mentally (if we accept an intentional ambivalence) immersed in the Goddess’s realm but he has reached a limit of some kind which has unbalanced his natural energies. The Goddess, whose energies are the pulse of life, has touched him in his heart14. Yet, it seems that Ted does not immediately recognize her call. Instead, he exhibits the Vice of Binah which is inertia, and the Qlippoth (or Error) of Binah, which is Fatalism. There is humorous self-mockery in the excesses of fatalism and hypochondria which Ted describes in this poem as he looks back at his younger self: he is an unwilling player of “Russian roulette”, he is “going to die”, is “already a discard”, “ already posthumous”, his momentum merely the inertias “of what” he “had been”.

Fludd picture

He mocks his own hypochondria, but the symptoms were real enough. Yet from what was he “a discard”? Not just from life, he says, but from “the intact, creating, resounding realm / where music poured”. And for the Cabbalist, the Hermeticist and the poet, music is fundamental. Pythagorean number theory (which underlies Hermetic and Cabbalistic numerology) was based on the harmonies of Orpheus’s lyre, and Orpheus was the first poet. For them, the whole world consists of harmony and number, and our human arts are but faint echoes of that first, harmonious, cosmic music. For Ted, writing about art in ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’ (WP 84-102)15, music was “the sap of mathematical law; a secretion from the gulf itself - the organizing and creative energy itself” (WP 92). Yet in ‘The Lodger’, Ted cannot reach this organizing, creative energy; cannot conduct it through his “aorta” to obtain “release” from the “errata” his heart, so he assumes that he is doomed or that his Poetic Self has died.

Ted’s choice of the word ‘errata’, echoes the title of the poem which immediately precedes this one in Birthday Letters, and it again suggests that his heart symptoms had a Cabbalistic meaning for him. This suggestion is reinforced by the simile Ted chose to describe that “double fisted blow” which “came down” between his shoulder blades: “Soft but stunning like the kick of a camel”. Not many readers will have had first-hand experience of the kick of a camel, so the simile will have little meaning for most. And nothing in Ted’s situation in the poem or in that Devon setting can explain the presence of this camel. So what is it doing here? Cabbala, again, provides an answer which is relevant to this path and suggests what Ted eventually concluded to be the source of his heart troubles. ‘Camel’ is the meaning for the Hebrew letter ‘Gimel’ which identifies Path number 3 on the Cabbalistic Tree: the number associated with the Sephira Binah, and the Path identified in Tarot with The High Priestess who transmits and protects the Divine energies on Earth.

The presence of both the camel and the cat in ‘The Lodger’ can be interpreted as signs of the urgent presence of The Goddess in Ted’s life: she who governs the pulse of life and who Ted calls “the wary, wily old long-breathed witch Nature” (WP 440). Yet, although the Goddess is responsible for that “whole cornucopia” which Ted aimed “to swallow”, and she is closely associated in the poem with his heart’s errata, she is clearly not the “alien joker” who is “using” Ted’s heart and sharing his and Sylvia’s skins in the final lines of the poem. So who is this?

The answer which springs immediately to mind, is “Otto”, Sylvia’s father, the man who was an expert on bees and who “Hid behind” Ted in the first poem on this path, ‘The Shot’ (BL 16). It was Otto, Sylvia was conjuring into her poems, and Otto is the “ghost” Ted describes as “re-appearing” in Sylvia’s work early in 1962.

Yet it was Ted who knew that bees had long been regarded as priestesses of The Goddess16. It was Ted’s Poetic Self who had for years been “spellbound by Yeats”; who regarded Yeats as the presiding “judge”17 of his own writing; and who would have remembered the bees and the “Nine bean rows” in Yeats’s poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’; and it was Ted who would have know that the bean is associated both with The Goddess and with ghosts18.

It is Ted’s ordinary, everyday self which, in ‘The Lodger’, digs the garden, studies the books, starts “a diary - observations” of the heart’s errata, and studies “all the ways a heart can kill its owner” and just how his own heart “had killed” him so that he “could not reach the music”. It is his Poetic Self which is, I think, the “alien joker”, whose Mercurial cupidity and trickery are part of the energies encountered on this path.

Ted’s Poetic Self is, as he says Eliot’s was,“the keeper of dreams”, the “doppelganger”, “co-tennant”, with the ordinary ego, of the heart and skin. This is the self which may “contain, in its vitals and so to speak genetic nucleus, the true self, the self at the source, that inmost core of the individual” (WP 275) and which must make its presence known in whatever way it can.

Critical to this interpretation, is the imagery of mirrors in the final lines of the poem. Mirrors, traditionally, are believed to reflect the soul of those looking into them. Graves notes that they were “part of the Mysteries, and probably stood for ‘Know thy self’"19: exactly the lesson which must be learned on this Cabbalistic path. But the mirrored soul, the doppelganger, the hidden self, may appear to the ordinary ego as a monstrous, nightmarish, unacceptable figure20. This is exactly the image Ted saw when his ordinary self gazed over Sylvia’s shoulder as she “polished” her poems: the terrible image of Otto, which in Sylvia’s poems at that time was becoming almost indistinguishable from himself. Otto, who stood behind Ted in ‘The Shot’, like a shadow, may well have seemed to him like the embodiment of the darkest aspects of himself: the “usurping brother” (the Boar of his later analysis of Shakespeare’s work). This was the ghost / self which he tried to ignore, superstitiously fearing that it might take him over if he acknowledged its reflection in the poem-mirrors.

But in what way was this alien joker also sharing Sylvia’s skin? In what way could it evict them both?

My interpretation, here, is tentative but is based on what the Birthday Letters poems, up to this point in the sequence, have already shown. Ted and Sylvia began their marriage and their poetic journey as a shared enterprise. They worked together as equals, sharing their lives and their thoughts to the extent that Ted later said: “we had become so close, we had worked together so closely, it was uncanny - as if we had become one person"21. He also said: “Our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive"22. In that sense, their Poetic Selves shared the same skin, although each expressed it quite differently in their work.

Throughout our time together”, Ted said, “we looked at each others verses at every stage - up to the Ariel poems of October 1962, which was when we separated”: but in terms of their poetic endeavours the relationship had long been unbalanced. In a letter to Aurelia Plath, written after Sylvia’s death, Ted said that from 1956, the focus had been on Sylvia’s poetic rebirth: “We assumed my writing would carry on anyway somehow. Our great anxiety was for hers....She thought as I did that mine could look after itself23. And, in the Birthday Letters sequence, ever since ‘Epiphany’ (BL 113) when Ted rejected the untamed energies of Nature and opted for an ordinary domestic role, he has depicted himself as sleepwalking after Sylvia and supporting her as she finds her poetic rebirth. This sleepwalker was the ordinary ego which was still in charge after the move to Devon. This, for Ted, was the Lodger his Poetic Self (which he regarded as the true self) had come to evict.

For Sylvia, too, the ordinary (but damaged) ego had been dominant until September 1961 when her Ariel voice was finally born and (as Ted describes in ‘Sylvia Plath and Her Journals’) her conflict with The Other began. This Other, Ted said, was “the fateful part of her being”, the part “which had tried to kill her and had all but succeeded” but which had had “a homoeopathic effect on the nucleus that survived”(WP 187). Ariel was, I think, that nucleus: Sylvia’s Poetic Self, who had come to evict the dark Other who, for so long, had been her Lodger. The Other in Sylvia’s poem of that title (SPCP 201) is “White Nike”, dark Moon Goddess, “sick one”, to whom Sylvia has given birth but who “Assumes, like a meathook, the burden of his [my emphasis] parts”: Husband / Father / Otto trying, she says, to “insert” himself “Between myself and myself”. The final line of Sylvia’s poem shows her defiant and undefeated in this deathly battle.

The poem on the Path of The Chariot in the World of Assiah is ‘The Inscription’ (BL 172). In a pre-publication list of poems which Ted sent to his editor at Faber and Faber, Christopher Reid, the poem in this position in the Birthday Letters sequence was ‘The Laburnum’. At some stage he crossed this out, wrote “Delete” next to it and “Replace with: The Inscription”. Almost certainly, Ted wrote several poems, or drafts of poems, as he meditated on each Cabbalistic path and, although both pre-publication lists in my possession show insertions and changes, both show that Ted intended eighty-eight poems to be published.

‘The Laburnum’ was published in the limited edition of one-hundred-and-ten copies of Howls and Whispers24, illustrated by Leonard Baskin and published by Gehenna Press in 1998. All the poems in this book might have been part of the Birthday Letters sequence but Ted chose either to include an alternative poem on the same theme (as with ‘The Minotaur’) or, perhaps because the poem was too personal or too judgemental of others (as with ‘The Laburnum’), to limit their exposure to the public.

Both ‘The Inscription’ and ‘The Laburnum’ suit this particular Cabbalistic path. Both are set in the period after Ted and Sylvia separated in October 1962, and there are a number of lines which are common to both. ‘The Laburnum’ begins: “Tell me / We shall sit together this summer / Under the laburnum.”, and this same phrase occurs in the middle of ‘The Inscription’. Ted’s response, “Yes...yes yes yes”, in both poems is the same, and the four lines following it are almost identical. In ‘The Laburnum’, however, Ted uses the personal pronouns ‘you’ and ‘I’ throughout: in ‘The Inscription’ he uses the third person pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’, ‘her’ and ‘his’, which is less personal and gives the poem more general meaning.

In both poems, the atmosphere is wintry and the protagonists uncertain of themselves and of each other, and unsure of their direction: they are, in effect, out of control in the Chariot of Life.

In ‘The Laburnum’ the judgmental and retributive energies of Gevurah predominate and Sylvia, as in ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’, follows the advice and directions of others. The poem is angry and harsh, especially about Sylvia’s mother, whose advice is likened to “poisonous laburnum seeds, sprinkling her pages”. Sylvia repeatedly asks for “only the truth” but “They” console (a strange choice of word, here) her with “howls from their own divorce” and with “the revenge ” she “could not find” in herself, whilst assuring her they are her “true friends”. The poem ends with betrayal. Having dropped their poisonous seeds, destroyed the tree which for Sylvia represented joy and hope, and opened up her grave,“They stepped back to let it happen”. This poem about revenge, retribution and guilt is, itself, angry and judgemental: which is, perhaps, why Ted chose the equally bleak but far more loving and forgiving poem, ‘The Inscription’, for Birthday Letters.

‘The Inscription’ begins in frost and snow. The life energies are frozen “Hard / Cold.”. But the sooty, brick-reflected sun which shines into Ted’s “morning” flat is bright. His new life, alone in his Soho flat, has the empty, “Cargo-dumped” lightness of an empty packing case about it. Throughout the poem (unusually in Birthday Letters) Ted uses third person pronouns, so that it is no longer just himself and Sylvia who are separated and meet again amidst the confused emotions common to such situations, but Male and Female, two halves of the sort of Hermetic, complementary whole which he and Sylvia had been for most of their marriage.

She now carries “the missing supplies”, and it is “her” energies - her warmth, curiosity, love, jealousy and suspicion (all the energies of Binah and The Goddess) - which melt a “rigid lightning” path (a nice realistic representation of the lightning flash from the Divine Source) through the frozen sea to his “islet or reef or rock”. Her approach is purely natural and instinctive. She hunts him out “like a dog” hunts a rat. But what she wants is his assurance of a shared future and reassurance of his faith in her. She is no longer in control of herself: neither is he. He does not understand what she wants; and his rational judgement of her requests, and both their responses, suggest the confusion in them both.

What he should have done, Ted says in retrospect, is trust his instincts: “he should have grabbed” and put his trust completely in love. She, too, is torn between jealousy and love. Both are going back and forth (“Run and Return”) along this path, blocked by barriers which they might have surmounted but didn’t. No guide appears in this dark World of Assiah to help them, only malign tricksters, like Sylvia’s advisors in ‘The Laburnum’ or the jealous spirit which prompts her to open the “red Oxford Shakespeare” and to read the inscription written there by her rival.

It seems, at first, that it is the inscription written in the Oxford Shakespeare which makes the woman carry on like a wounded but still “running animal”, her happiness no longer “invulnerable” as it once had been. But the ambiguity of ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout the last fourteen lines of the poem, and the lack of end stops in these lines, suggests that it is also her own “words from nowhere” which have left her “Helpless-handed”. These lines, themselves, run like frightened animals and confuse the present of the poem with a past in which he and she had once been so close that her wounding words had “gone through her and hit him”. This confusion is, I think, deliberate, and throughout the poem Ted uses the symbolism of the laburnum tree and of the inscription for double purposes.

Laburnum picture

In reality, as in the poem, the laburnum tree was of special significance to Sylvia. She knew it as the Golden Rain Tree and the Bean Tree, and both she and Ted would have known of its association with The Goddess in myth and poetry, where its golden flowers represent the full summer sunshine of the Goddess’s life-giving energies whilst its poisonous seeds embody her deathly powers25. Sylvia was delighted when she discovered laburnum trees growing in her Devon garden and wrote to her mother: “Isn’t it odd that I’ve written about Golden Rain Trees in my book and now have six” (SPLH 7 June 1962). But in both ‘The Laburnum’ and ‘The Inscription’, the tree is deathly: like a “huge clock” it strikes “noon noon noon”, like a warning chime tolling the passing noontime of golden summer flowers (the time, perhaps, when happiness seemed invulnerable) and presaging the growth of poisonous winter seeds. In early 1961, at the time when Sylvia ripped Ted’s red Oxford Shakespeare “to rags”26 she had thought their “happiness was invulnerable". Perhaps, then, it was. But in 1962, at the time when she was elated by her poetic rebirth and the arrival of her Ariel voice, it was not: and she tested it in angry poems in which she sought to destroy the God Otto / Ted, her dark Other.

Ted, with his knowledge of magic, was deeply superstitious. He well knew the power of words, and, in magic, the inscription by hand of words (or symbols) on paper, stone or metal is especially powerful. Sylvia, too, knew the power of words. She wrote a poem about ‘The Courage of Shutting Up’ (SPCP 209-10), but she vented her feelings in her poetry: and words (as she wrote in her poem of this title) are “Axes” (SPCP 270). It was just such words / axes which “cut” and “tore up” the laburnum tree in Ted’s poem ‘The Laburnum’; it was the words of the inscription which “she” read in the resurrected Oxford Shakespeare in “his” flat, which was the “fatal bullet” that set her running like a wounded animal; and it was, I suggest, “her words from nowhere” dictated by her Ariel voice and inscribed in her poems, which weakened Sylvia’s “hold” on Ted and “Fatally” wounded them both27.

There is no blame in the poem. The words come from nowhere and go through her to hit him28. Perhaps, had ‘she’ allowed love and mercy to surmount jealousy, judgement and guilt when she read (or wrote) the inscription the wound might not have been fatal. Had ‘he’ not trusted logic but love - not “reeled when he should have grabbed” - he, too, might have avoided the fatal wound. But neither had the strength or understanding at that time, so The Chariot of Life carried them on to disaster.


1. In some Tarot packs one of the horses drawing the Chariot is black, the other white, to symbolize opposing energies in Nature. It is interesting to note that practitioners of the Chinese occult science, feng-shui (literally ‘wind-water’: the art of living in harmony with nature), are sometimes known as k’an-yü sien-sheng: ‘masters of the canopied chariot’.

2. The card has close links with the teachings of Krishna when he visited Arjuna on the field of battle in the Sanskrit poem, The Bhagavad Gita. See especially Chapter 3. V. 1-11 (Mascaro. J (Trans.), Penguin, 1982).

3. The Mystical Significance of Hebrew Letters (Cheth)

4. Like Alchemy, the Cabbalistic process is never complete. Always, “At the end of the ritual / up comes a goblin”, as Ted noted on the final page of Cave Birds (CB 62).

5. This term is not one which Sylvia ever seems to have used in her work. It is a jeering, slang term which was once used in Northern England to denote the lowest, dirtiest sailors, generally those working on colliery ships. Ted’s use of it may suggest some jealousy on his part over Sylvia’s earlier men friends but this is unlikely. More likely, is that he used it to emphasize the very ordinary, earthy, mortal nature of these men and the extent of Sylvia’s emotional excesses - both of which are evident in her journals.

6. In Sylvia’s poem ‘Poems. Potatoes’ (SPCP 106), she compares poems with potatoes and concludes that the potato “Bunches its knobby browns on a vastly superior page”.

7. Faas, E. The Unaccommodated Universe, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1980. pp. 205-6, 209-10. p. 212.

8. It is relevant to note that this book brings together work which Ted regarded as comprising “a psycho-poetical autobiography” (this is part of the inscription which Ted wrote in the copy of the book which he gave to me).

9. Myers, himself, is cryptic in his comments about this poem. He does not explain what he thought Ted meant when he “decided not to die”, although he says that, to him “the meaning was clear”. Nor does he explain “the alien force” which Ted describes in the poem or his own comment that Ted “decided to evict it” and “successfully did so” (CSBA 78).

10. This libretto was begun in collaboration with the composer, Chou Wen-Chung, with whom Ted had become friendly whilst he and Sylvia were at Yaddo in 1959.

11. The Wound was broadcast by the BBC Third Programme on 1 Feb. 1962. It is collected in Wodwo, Faber, 1971. pp. 104-46.

12.The Lodger of Ted’s play - saintly, learned, reliant on books and the Law - is an immature “boy”. His double, representing the other extreme of male nature, is Morgan, who is also a potential bridegroom for Elaine. Morgan is cruel, heartless, merciless and loveless. Elaine and The Wife both reveal their Goddess natures through their speeches. For Elaine, “Life has hardly begun” yet she traces her genealogy (like the Virgin Goddess) through the religious persecutions of ages. She is linked with dawn, music, blossoming, the new moon, joy and mercy. She represents one end of the spectrum of Female nature: The Wife represents the other. The Wife is world-weary, her “night lasts forever”, and she traces her history from the serpent which “sang and crawled in a circle” - she is Kali, The Hag with “fangs and a starved length”.

13. Hughes, T. A Dancer to God: Tributes to T.S. Eliot, Faber, 1992. Reprinted in Winter Pollen, pp. 268-92.

14. In his essay on Eliot (WP 274-5), Ted acknowledges the difficulty of accepting such a mythic / occult explanation of physical symptoms in a world which no longer believes in a God-centred universe. He provides an alternative, Freudian, psychological interpretation in which the hidden anima struggles with the ego for release and physical and mental disturbances are the psychosomatic expression of this struggle. At the end of his essay on Coleridge he also notes the value of Erich Neuman’s book The Origin and History of Consciousness (trans. R.F.C. Hull, Princeton / Bollingen, 1954) in any discussion of “the psycho-biological life of individuals” and the “cult of the Female”. (WP 464-5).

15. Almost everything Ted says in this essay on the roots of Leonard Baskin’s work has great relevance to his own work. It was first published as an introduction to The Collected Prints of Leonard Baskin, Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1984. It is republished in Winter Pollen, pp. 84-102.

16. Graves, The White Goddess, p 192.

17. Faas, TheUnaccommodated Universe, p 202.

18. Graves, The White Goddess, pp. 69-70. The “alien joker” may also have remembered that in primitive times only The Goddess’s priestesses were allowed to plant or to cook beans.

19. Ibid. p. 395.

20. This is exactly the way Ted describes the Poetic Self as surfacing in the visionary poetry of Eliot and Coleridge. His long essays in Winter Pollen on both these poets analyse the ways in which each dealt with these nightmare visions and the myths which they invented in their work to deal them. These essays are very relevant to Ted’s own work: “Poets’ myths”, as he says, “always are (among other things) a projected symbolic self-portrait of the poet’s own deepest psychological make-up” (WP 375).

21. Carolyn Wright, Poetry Review, Vol 89. No. 3. Autumn 1999. p.8.

22. Interview with Drue Heinze, ‘Ted Hughes: The Art of Poetry LXXI’, The Paris Review, Vol. 37. No. 134. Spring 1995. p. 77.

23. Letter to Aurelia Plath. Jan. 1975. Special Collections, Robert Woodruff Library, University of Emory, Atlanta. MS 644. SCD Box 18. ff. 10.

24. A copy of proofs for this limited edition is titled Howls Cries & Whispers, with ‘Howls’ hand printed above ‘Cries’ on the title page; ‘Cries’ is crossed through with ‘Howls’ printed above it as the title of the poem on page 7; and Cries and Whispers is on the page of publication information. ‘Superstitions’, the final poem in Howls and Whispers, appears with minor differences as ‘Capriccios’, the first poem in the limited edition, Capriccio, of which only fifty copies were issued by Gehenna Press “in the unsettled spring of 1990”.

25. The Laburnum, like the Goddess’s bean, belongs to the Leguminosae Family It is listed amongst the magical Ogham trees by the Celtic bard, Taliesin, in his poem Cad Goddeau (Battle of the Trees) (Matthews, J. Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland, Aquarian Press, London, 1991. p. 298), and is called “the bean” by Robert Graves in his discussion of this poem (WG 32).

26. Anne Stevenson, in Bitter Fame describes this episode as occurring between 27 Jan. and 6 Feb. 1961 (BF 205). Ted, in a letter to Stevenson which is quoted by Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman (PanMacmillan, London, 1994. p. 143), wrote: “The truth is that I didn’t hold that action against [Sylvia] – then or at any other time… to say that I could not forgive her for ripping up those bits of paper is to misunderstand utterly the stuff of my relationship to her.”.

27. ‘Daddy’ (SPCP 222-4), in particular, reads (and was read by Sylvia on the BBC) like a powerful curse. In ‘Publishing Sylvia Plath’, discussing the first publication of Ariel, Ted said: “I would have cut out ‘Daddy’ if I’d been in time (there are quite a few things more important than giving the world great poems”), but he did not elaborate on his reasons (WP 167).

28. In his letter to Anne Stevenson (ibid.), Ted wrote: “The only thing I found hard to understand was her sudden discovery of our bad moments… as subjects for poemsv. But he wrote, too, “She never did anything that I held against her”.

Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2002. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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