Judment Card Shin path

The Path of Judgment – Shin

Tarot card 20. Tree Path 21.

Joining Sephiroth 8 (Hod) and 10 (Malkuth).

‘Fever’, ‘Stubbing Wharfe’, ‘Being Christlike’, ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’.

© Ann Skea

The Path of Judgment joins the Mercurial energies of Hod (8 – Glory) to the energies of Malkuth (10 – Kingdom), the Sephira which is also know as ‘The Inferior Mother and Bride’, ‘The Gate of Death’ and ‘The Gate of Eden’. Now, the naked children who were joined in harmony on the Path of the Sun may give birth to a ‘Spiritual Child’, thus completing the Earthly pattern which reflects the transformative power of the Supernal Triangle at the apex of the Tree. To do this, the journeyer must be immersed again in the Motherly element of Malkuth, which is Earth. This immersion is known in Cabbala as the ‘second death’.

In Cabbala, it is said that the journeyer must die twice and be reborn three times before the Spiritual goal can be achieved. The first ‘death’ is that of the Fool who begins the Cabbalistic journey: and the ‘second birth’ is that of the Initiate in whom the glow of a Divine Spark has been revealed. This Spark, however, still requires long and careful nurturing before it can grow into a pure, strong flame. Only on the Path of Judgment, as the Initiate nears the end of the Cabbalistic journey, is that embodied Spirit likely to be pure enough and strong enough to be exposed to the Divine Fire which is the Governing Element of this Path. At this stage, the Spiritual flame of the Initiate will be subjected to some fierce external assay. Bodily, material qualities, which (like Mother and Father) nurtured the Spirit with Love and shaped it with Reason, will be stripped away so that the timeless, universal, healing powers of a ‘Spiritual Child’ may be revealed.

For the Cabbalist, as for the Alchemist, the Spirit exists in the body like the hidden power of fire within a coal. This fire may be lit by energies, such as love, which link it to the Divine Source. And, just as fire creates change within a coal and the coal feeds the fire, so, once touched by Divine energies, the process of change within the embodied Spirit is inevitable. The interdependence between fire and coal is necessary, but the changes which take place are unpredictable, because they depend not only on the purity of the coal but on outside factors, too. As the Renaissance Magus, Giordano Bruno, observed: “because of too long an intimacy with matter” a soul [Spirit] may become “too stubborn and inert for penetration by the rays [Divine Fires] of the splendour of the divine intelligence”. A receptive soul, however, when “softened and conquered by the heat and light… may become entirely luminous1.

Always, it is the Spiritual energies of Mercury, messenger of the gods, which summon and guide the Divine Spirit within the ‘coal’ (or ‘base matter’) of our bodies. But Mercury’s energies alone cannot ensure the successful outcome of the Spiritual quest. And no individual, unaided, can gain the understanding, wisdom and discrimination necessary for such success. So, the Initiate must seek out whatever remains in our world of the timeless, unchanging energies of the Divine Source. Traditionally, such energies are found in those in whom the Spiritual flame burns with strength and purity – those who have, already, completed the journey successfully enough to have been judged by their peers to be a Master or Magus. Aided by such a Master, the Initiate is best able to develop the discrimination and balance needed for their own particular journey. Yet, since no two journeys are alike, there are no rules which can be taught, no pattern which can be strictly followed. Every Master, even one whose Spirit has been judged most pure, is human and, therefore, fallible. So, in choosing and following a Master or Masters, the Initiate must trust intuition and must exert constant discrimination and care. The onus, always, is on the questing Cabbalist to evaluate any teachings in the light of their own circumstances and their own developing knowledge and understanding. Their goal must be to perfect their own Spiritual strength, not simply to borrow or ape that of others.

All of this is reflected in the Hebrew letter for this Path, which is Shin, meaning ‘Tooth’. Shin is described as being formed of three Vaus (‘Nails’), each of which is topped by a Yod of Divine Spirit. All three rise from a common base-line, so that this three-fingered shape exhibits the unity, symmetry and energy of the three flames of Divine Love in our world: the Divine Spark in the human body; the Divine Wisdom, timeless and universal, which exists in our world; and the Divine Source of which both are a part. The three connected fingers of Shin also symbolize the trinities of Mother, Father, Child; body, Soul and Divine Spirit; and the three pillars of the Sephirothic Tree : Form (the coal of entropy); Force (the flame of decomposition); and the Middle Pillar of Balance (the Way).

All this triplicity and unity is reflected, too, in the Cabbalistic number for this Path – 21 – in which 2 +1 = 3 and 3 x 7 = 21 (where 7, the number of worldly completion, signifies the third, Spiritual, birth which should occur on this Path). The worldly nature of this Spiritual rebirth is also expressed in the Tarot number for this Path – 20 – in which 2 x 10 represents a second completion of the worldly cycle: the second ‘death’ which occurs with the return to the Earth of Malkuth.

Suitably, on the Traditional Tarot card, the Earthly representatives of the Supernal Triangle of Father, Mother and Child are shown emerging from the earth, summoned by the trumpet of an airy, Mercurial angel, which appears (as befits one of the most important energies of Hod) in clouds of glory. The male figure (Father; Reason), is set a little apart from the other two, both in position and by his abstract, Heavenward gaze. He clasps his hands together, as if absorbed in prayer or wonder. The woman (Mother; Intuition) holds the child’s hand lovingly close to her heart. Her gaze could be on the child or on us, but it remains Earth-focussed. Between the man and the woman, with its back to us, is the child, whose circle of golden hair looks like an active but Earth-bound sun2.

The child sits on the edge of a man-made grave or tomb, as if just emerging from it. Father and Mother seem still to be partly immersed in the earth. All three are physically connected to the grave / tomb (as is appropriate for human figures) and thus, joined but separate, they resemble the three fingers of Shin, each golden-haired, as if blessed by a Yod of Divine Spirit. All three, too, are surrounded by green hills which stretch to the horizon and, so, they remain part of the world of Nature which is our world.

The flag which hangs from the trumpet of the summoning angel, displays a gold cross which divides a red field into four squares. This is the Alchemical symbol for the transforming Spiritual power of the Four Elements united in the Philosopher’s Stone. The cross, too, like crossed paths on a field of red earth, signifies judgment and choice. Here, it is the new-born ‘Divine Child’which is being summoned to judgment, and the wisdom and understanding which that ‘child’ has learned, based on a balanced unity of love and reason (symbolized by the Mother and Father), which will be tested.

‘Fever’ (BL 46 - 48), which is the poem on this Path of Judgment in the World of Atziluth, offers a clear and straightforward description of an actual event in Ted’s and Sylvia’s lives. And judgement and lack of judgment pervade this poem.

Shortly after their arrival in Spain, Sylvia suffered a “terrible siege of dysentery” (SPLH 14 July 1956) which left her “utterly weak3. Sylvia wrote no more than two sentences about this in her letter to her mother, mentioning it only, it seems, so that she could boast of the care Ted took of her: telling her how he hypnotized her to sleep, so that she woke “completely cured and feeling wonderful”. Ted’s poem, however, describes everything in extravagant detail which is, at first, as excessive and over-wrought as is the behaviour he attributes in the poem to Sylvia.

Judgment and lack of judgment, both Ted’s and Sylvia’s, are readily apparent. Suitably, too, the exaggerated imagery and the almost childish language which Ted used at the start of the poem ironically suggest the ‘Foolish’, immature state of the couple at this stage of their shared journey, in life and in Cabbala. Sylvia, he says, had “eaten a baddie” and, feverish in her galleon-size bed, she cried that she was “going to die”. Ted, “fancied” himself as “nursemaid” (a nice child-orientated choice of word and role), and he “masterfully” spooned soup into her “baby-bird gape”. Even Ted’s “promise” that this was the way in which Voltaire was cured of the plague, is an exaggeratedly foolish claim made, apparently, on false premises4. Only when Ted questions the truth of Sylvia’s feverish state, and begins to recoil just “a little” (twice repeated) for “balance” and “symmetry”, does the mood of his poem become more serious.

Sylvia’s exaggerated emotional state in this poem is “a little bit crazy”. She has hallucinatory dreams, panics, and is cut off from reality. Ted recalls that he too, to begin with, was role-playing, and it was this role-playing which made him feel that “things had become real”. But, as he began to question and judge the situation, and to withdraw “just a little”, he became aware of deeper, “chillier” thoughts, prompted by his own familiar, sceptical response to excess and unreality; aware, too, of the danger that his reactions to such excess might cloud his judgment. Looking back, as he wrote this poem, Ted remembered that it had “seemed easy” to judge Sylvia’s behaviour and to respond realistically to it; and comforting to think that he had been forewarned of dangers in “good time”. But he saw, too, that his self-confidence had been ‘Foolish’ and immature, and that the real reaction to a life-or-death situation is often helplessness: a feelingless, “callous”, protective “blank”, equivalent to that deadly state in which primitive creatures (those incapable of making a “choice”) “curl up and die”. Ted’s intuition had told him this at the time, but only at the very end of the poem does he describe himself as the unfeeling, “stone man” and Sylvia as the “burning woman”; and this seems to contradict his earlier claim that he had recoiled “just a little”. This seeming contradiction, however, was not accidental.

Plain as Ted’s poetic description of his and Sylvia’s reactions to that “real ailment” is, there is another, strongly Alchemical and Cabbalistic level to this poem. It is indicated by Ted’s choice of fire and stone as symbols for Sylvia and himself in the final lines of his poem; and it is present, throughout, in the Alchemical ‘conjunction of opposites’ which he explores.


Fire is the creative force of Nature, the agent of Alchemical transmutation, the Mercurial Spirit which is the same Divine Spirit symbolized in the ‘flames’ of Shin. Stone, like the ‘coal’ of Shin, is the Alchemist’s ‘base matter ’, the Prima Materia of the body in which the Mercurial fire glows, and on which it feeds. Stone is the “passive receptive ground of all multiplicity and differentiation5. Together, fire and stone can create the perfected, Spiritual Self, the Alchemical gold of ‘Our Fire-Stone’, the ‘medicinal virtue’ of which is its transmuting, healing power in our world. Ted and Sylvia, at this early stage of their shared journey, were spiritually equivalent to the impure, unhewn Alchemical Fire-Stone.

In ‘Fever’, as in Sylvia’s 1962 poem ‘Fever 103°’ (SPCP 231 - 2), where she describes the “triple tongues” of her spiritual fires as devouring and dangerous, Sylvia is sure she will die. But, whereas in ‘Fever 103°’ Sylvia is independent, strong, and able to make choices and let “old selves” dissolve as she aims for “Paradise”, in Ted’s poem, she is helplessly controlled by the fires which burn within her. Both poems describe the extremes of fever. And in both poems Sylvia instinctively turns to water for its cooling, healing powers. In Ted’s poem she seeks “oblivion” – a quenching of the fires which burn her: In her own poem, the water is cleansing and emetic – it makes her “retch”, so that pure, hot metal flies free. Neither approach is well-judged in Alchemical or Cabbalistic terms, for at this stage of the journey, in order to successfully balance a consuming fire with water, the wisdom and strength of Solomon is necessary6.

In ‘Fever’, the “familiar voice” of Ted’s “mother” wakes in him with some buried scrap of wisdom which he acts upon with (suitably) unquestioning certainty. Alchemically, however, it would seem that “mother” Nature dictated his use of “carrots, tomatoes, peppers and onions” in a “rainbow… elixir” of “essences”. And, in relation to their poetry, this was the time (in 1956) when Ted began to suggest subjects from nature to Sylvia as a means of earthing such euphoric fevers as those which are apparent in her ‘Epitaph for Fire and Flower’ (SPCP 45); or of sowing fertile seeds when she yearned for inspiration, as she did in ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ (SPCP 56 - 57)7. Ted, who was already steeped in nature, fed its healing essences into Sylvia who, as Lucas Myers remembers, was possessed by “extraordinary vital energy” but who needed the “soundness, rootedness and authenticity” which Ted brought her (CSBA 46 - 47). Ted, in turn, needed Sylvia’s fire – needed the Mercurial spirit which he describes in her in many of the Birthday Letters poems – to balance his own Saturnine energies.

Alchemically, Mercury must be combined with Saturn, and Stone must be united with Fire, before the growth of the Spirit can begin. “Without contraries is no progression”, as Blake wrote in his ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’8. And Initiates, by learning to safely combine contrary Elements within themselves, learn to discriminate the real from the unreal – Truth from Error. Blake, who believed that “Exuberance is Beauty”, also understood the need for balance: and he knew that this must be learned, and that “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough”. In Spain, in 1956, Ted and Sylvia were in the process of learning this lesson.

So, in ‘Fever’, Ted brought the stone man and the burning woman together. But in these last three important lines of the poem, he twice repeats “I said nothing”. Figuratively, this phrase joins the unit, ‘I’, with the empty circle of nothing to make the number ten – 10 – the number which represents the completion of a Spiritual journey. And, by repeating the phrase, Ted sets this poem firmly on the Path of Judgment and also associates it with the two ‘deaths’ (the end of two Spiritual cycles) which presage the final rebirth. Sylvia always regarded her first suicide attempt as her first death; but on the shared journey which she and Ted had just begun in 1956, the first ‘death’ was the Alchemical death which occurs when two separate Elements – Man and Woman; Sulphur and Mercury; Fire and Stone – are ‘married’ to become one.

Ted and Sylvia, on their honeymoon in Spain, were still learning the art of marital unity. In ‘Fever’, it is apparent that they had not yet got the balance right. And for Ted, as he suggests in the poem, the way in which he responded to Sylvia’s fever marked the beginning of his own lack of judgment: it was the first occasion on which he discerned some lack of Truth in their behaviour, and yet he chose to say “nothing”.

‘Fever’ strongly suggests that it was that first choice of silence, and the pattern it set, which Ted lamented. In the Birthday Letters sequence, it is clear that he eventually recognized the error he and Sylvia had made in believing that a shared Spiritual rebirth was possible; but in ‘Fever’ he documents another kind of misjudgment – one which caused a fatal imbalance in the Alchemical mixture, and which he did not rectify in time to prevent disaster. In a letter which Ted wrote to Lucas Myers in 1987, he wrote that if (in Myer’s words) “he had not humoured [Sylvia] and nursed her like a patient and coddled her like a child” – if he had “carried on just as he was instead of wrapping his life up in a cupboard while he tended her” – they both would have “emerged in better shape” (CSBA 65).

Ted always accepted that it had been his own choice to (as he put it in a letter to Aurelia Plath9) concentrate on getting Sylvia “to the point of at last writing what she wanted to write” whilst his own work carried on “anyhow, somehow”. And he blamed only himself for this error of judgment. But a pattern was set whichTed, as he tells us in ‘Fever’, repeated.

The position of ‘Fever’ on the Path of Judgment/Shin is critical to this interpretation, for Sylvia’s second ‘death’ was (as her poem ‘Fever 103°’ indicates) again accompanied by feverish fires, through which she sought to accomplish, poetically and literally, the final separation that would set her Spirit free. Once again she was “burning” and “overloaded”: and again, Ted “said nothing”.

The fact that Ted offered no judgment of any kind, either during Sylvia’s Spanish fever or during this second feverish time, not only suggests the “overload of dilemma” that he felt on each occasion, it was also entirely consistent with his usual practice. Daniel Weissbort notes that “Ted would never directly warn or counsel10; and Lucas Myers writes that Ted’s way was “to let others come at their own epiphanies rather than to confront differences” (CSBA 95).

Ted’s regret and his ultimate judgment of his own silence at these times when Sylvia “burned”, however, are starkly expressed in the bleak ‘Truths’ of the last three lines of ‘Fever’. Sylvia was “overloaded”. Ted “said nothing”; and, again, “said nothing”. Each, in the end, was a separate, contrary Element. The unwise, “stone man” “made soup” (not a pure essence). And “The burning woman”, unwisely, “drank it”.

‘stubbing Wharfe’ (BL 106 - 108), on the Path of Judgment / Shin in the World of Briah, is full of images of the grave and of the dissolution and entropy which are part of the power of Shin. But it reveals, also, the endurance of the Eternal Flame – the fire in the heart which animates us, as it animated the five Yorkshire bowlers in this poem, even as the ‘Tooth’ of Shin gnaws at the body like an ulcer. The Tarot title for this Path is ‘The Spirit of Primal Fire’11. This, Spirit, like the Cabbalistic ‘Flame’ which is bound to the corporeal ‘Coal’, is present in the “helpless laughter, agony, tears” of those bowlers as they “bursts” into “the hopeless old stone trap” of the Yorkshire valley which Ted describes. It is there, too, in the smiles with which the poem ends. Those “smiles”, and the “future” which eases open “a fraction” in the final line of the poem, reflect, too, the Cabbalistic meditation for this path, which is “Resurrection is hidden in death”12.

Stubbing Wharf13 is a small mooring wharf on the edge of the town of Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley. It lies, exactly as Ted describes it in his poem, between the Rochdale Canal and the River Calder, and it would have been a busy place during the Industrial Revolution, when Hebden Bridge was a thriving centre of the wool trade and the River Calder was know as “the hardest worked river in England” (E. ‘Notes’). By 1959, the date of events in Ted’s poem, industry had collapsed, the mills were derelict, and the whole area was, in Ted’s words, “virtually dead” (REO 8).


In 1959, immediately after their return from America, Sylvia and Ted were staying with Ted’s parents in Heptonstall, a small village situated on the cliff which rises directly opposite the Stubbing Wharf Pub. Metaphorically, they, like Stubbing Wharf itself, were “between the canal and the river”, having left the channelled, man-made route of steady jobs and a conventional pattern of life behind them but not yet entered the uncontrolled, turbulent river of experiences to which they had decided to commit themselves. So, on a cold, rainy, winter night, they sat in a “cold and empty” pub, “shut-in” by the steep banks, dark woods and bleak moorland which still overshadow it, and contemplated their uncertain future14.

Many of the graveyard images of natural decay and disintegration which Ted evoked in his poems in Remains of Elmet and Elmet, and which can be seen in Fay Godwin’s photographs of this Calder Valley area in these books, recur in ‘Stubbing Wharfe’. Nature prevails, with wind and cold, “and rain and rain” (‘Wild Rock’, ROE 40): but in nature there is also rebirth. Sylvia, “homesick, exhausted” and miserable, was also pregnant with new life. Nothing in these surroundings, nothing in the “blackness” which seemed to engulf her, matched the fertile, sunlit, “Lawrentian globe” she had envisioned15. Yet there was hope: the “garden swelled under all [their] words” and the world where they could “start living” was all before them.

Chillingly, a “local owl”, like a messenger of the Goddess whose prophetic powers are an important part of the Mercurial energies of Hod on this Path, brings Ted and Sylvia a prophetic vision of their future ‘homes’: Ted’s in a house he had know since childhood and which he bought seven years after Sylvia’s death; Sylvia’s in a grave in Heptonstall which is, “about 300 yards from that house16. But, for the moment, each of them had a different vision of the future and it was their immediate situation which concerned them. The judgment they needed to make at this time, and on this Path, was that between matter and spirit. They needed to learn what local people had learned in this harsh environment: that the Primal Flame can thrive in it and can even burn more strongly because of the hardships. And it was the five local bowlers – survivors like Ted’s Grandad – who helped them to see this.

These five men seemed clownishly and drunkenly “helpless” in their agony and their laughter. Repeatedly, they drank and drained their glasses, “gulping” the spirits which filled and controlled them. They seemed like souls “tossed in hell”, but it also seemed that the agony and pain they endured “stoked” them, and produced ever more laughter. Ted’s poem ‘Singers’ (L 53; THCP 83), and his earlier poem, ‘Roarers in the Ring’(HIR 42 - 43; THCP 38), celebrate these same, wild, enduring, life-affirming energies; as does, ‘Dick Straightup’ (L 17 - 19; THCP 63), where even the colloquial vulgarity of the title conveys the rude strength which characterizes these Yorkshire men, who seem to thrive on hardship in the “drunkenness of time”. So essential did Ted consider these energies – this Primal Fire which helps us to survive – that he ended ‘Singers’ with “a curse on the age that loses the tune”.

In ‘Stubbing Wharfe’, the energies which fill these drinkers overflow and touch Ted and Sylvia, too. And suddenly, their focus is no longer completely on their own problems. These men’s bacchanalian laughter in the face of pain and death, draws an involuntary smile from each of them. And with these smiles comes a small glimmer of enlightenment – a small easing of the darkness in the “dead-end tunnel” in which they seemed to be trapped – and glimpse of a way into the future. On this Path of Judgment, in the concept-shaping World of Briah, this was a lesson in the essential interdependence of material and spiritual energies which they needed to learn. Importantly, too, it was also a lesson about their own membership of the human race; about its fundamental unity; and about the strengths and weaknesses which they, consequently, shared.

‘Being Christlike’ (BL 153), the Judgment / Shin poem in the World of Yetzira, is a lament which is constructed with utmost care, so that its rhythms and line-breaks create emphasis and, at the same time, offer subtle variations of meaning. It is a poem full of paradox, misjudgment and error. And paradox begins with the title, which is the first of the twenty-two lines of the poem which make up one complete worldly, Malkuthian, Yetziratic journey around the Sephirothic Tree.

Sylvia’s search for wholeness and healing had begun with her first suicide. She had always considered this to be a death; and she had lain in the ‘tomb’ under the house for three days before returning to life17 . In this pattern of death and resurrection Sylvia was “[b]eing Christlike”. But she “did not want to be Christlike”. Rather, she saw herself as “Lady Lazarus”, brought back from the dead to seek her own salvation, not that of others. She did not want to be Christlike and be burdened by others. But her error was to believe that she could isolate herself, even from her own “flesh and blood”, and liberate and heal herself without affecting anyone else.

Although, like Christ, Sylvia had worshipped her father and “no other” and had sacrificed everything “to be with him” so that she might find her true Poetic Self, she was not seeking to be united with her Father in Heaven, as Christ was. She was seeking to join her father “[i]n wherever he was” – in the tomb or in the Underworld – somewhere which she thought not only her body but even her family might prevent her from reaching. Here, too, her judgment was faulty, for, as Giordano Bruno wrote: “the soul is in the body in such a way that its superior part may be removed to join and attach itself to divine things as by an indissoluble vow”, corporeal concerns, therefore, “will not tyranize over” the poet who is truly divinely inspired any more than he or she allows them to.18

And, although Sylvia likened herself to a mystic in her poem of that title (SPCP 268 - 269), she rejected formal religion. Her faith was in herself, not in God.19 As Ted wrote in ‘Religion’ (H&W; THCP 1174), Sylvia was her “own Church”. Her religion was “Love”, but her “mythos” required the sacrifice of others; and her whole purpose was not, literally, to die but to save herself through poetic rebirth.

Sylvia did, however, set up her father as “a false god”. Ted’s phrasing in lines 19 - 21 of ‘Being Christlike’, ambiguously suggests that Sylvia rejected as a false god any god who was not her father and yet, paradoxically, the father-god she “wanted” was her own representation of her father – a product of her memory and imagination which was not, truly, Otto Plath.

As on the Traditional Tarot card, father, mother and child are present in Ted’s poem, but the necessary balance and unity between them is absent. Sylvia’s love is focussed on her father: she rejects her mother. And there is ambiguity and paradox in the lines in which Ted describes this rejection. The “stranger” who tried to “tempt” Sylvia from her father was, perhaps, Aurelia Plath: but more surely, she was Sylvia’s imagined recreation of her mother in her journal after her sessions with Ruth Beuscher (SPJ 12 Dec. 1958 - 13 June 1959), and in her poem ‘Medusa’. Yet, this “stranger” with her “great hooded eyes” is also the Moon Goddess – the “bald”, “wild”, terrible Moon which Sylvia described as “my mother” in ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ (SPCP 172 - 173).This mother was not “sweet Mary”, mother of Christ, but a mother to be feared; a mother who, in Sylvia’s last poem ‘Edge’ (SPCP 272 - 273) stares chillingly from her “hood of bone”.

Ted, by the careful placement of line-breaks in his poem, emphasized the way in which this moon mother had come very close to Sylvia: “so close”, he wrote, with her moon eyes “Promising the earth you saw”, that “Your fate and you cried”. Clearly, if the meaning of poem is understood by ignoring the line-breaks, observing the punctuation, and accepting that the mother mentioned is Aurelia Plath, then it seems that Sylvia rejected Aurelia’s tempting; and reacted to the fate that she saw in Aurelia’s eyes, as if Aurelia were the Devil. Which is, perhaps, what Sylvia did do. But the careful structure of Ted’s lines offers the additional view, that Sylvia feared and rejected the Goddess’s strange world and the strange powers the Moon seemed to have over her: that she rejected Mother Nature in favour of the Father’s rational, familiar, will-driven ways.

And yet another, much more contentious, reading is possible if each line is taken to embody a discrete thought. “Your fate and you cried”, suggests a personified fate, such as the Greek Goddess, Atropos, who is one of the three weird sisters who decree the pattern of each human life. It suggests that Atropos, the Fate who inexorably decrees the moment of death, cried out at the blandishments offered to Sylvia by her sister Lachesis or Chance, whose primal energies determine the length of an individual’s life.

Such a reading might seem obscure and untenable, except that nothing in these Birthday Letters poems can safely be regarded as unintended. And Ted’s reference to the mother’s hooded, moon-eyes, recalls the staring moon-mother in Sylvia’s poem ‘Edge’, where Sylvia, herself, links death with “Greek necessity”, and thus suggests the inescapable Fate, Atropos. All the Greek Fates, too, were the daughters of Themis, Goddess of Justice and Wisdom. Her final judgment on this particular Path is (like death) inescapable, but the time of arrival of both is unpredictable. And, whilst Chance, (Lachesis, the ‘Drawer of Lots’) may postpone death for a while, her jealous sister, Atropos, would certainly object.

So, Aurelia; the Moon-mother, Hecate; Atropos; and the mother Sylvia created in her imagination, all were rejected. Ted chose to express this rejection in the words which Christ used to reject Satan, when Satan promised Him the world (Luke 4:8), but Sylvia did not want to be self-less, like Christ. She “wanted” life and acknowledgment, and the “great love” that she yearned for in her poem ‘Mystic’. But her judgment was faulty, her discrimination flawed, her god false, and her whole approach unbalanced.

Four times, Ted repeats, “you did not want to be Christlike”. Like the cross on the flag of the Tarot angel’s summoning trumpet, which divides the red field into four, this signifies the fourfold, Earthly, fundamental element of choice which Sylvia had in our world20 . But wise choices require careful judgment. And Ted’s own judgment, as he wrote this poem, was that Sylvia’s judgment had been fatally flawed, and her choices had been made on false premises. Christ, like any teacher who has been judged by their peers to be a Master or Magus, might have taught Sylvia some wisdom. But Sylvia was determined to find and follow her own way; and the choices she made on her journey showed, quite clearly, that she did not want to be Christlike.

The final poem on this Path, a poem which describes Sylvia’s final resting-place in the material world of Assiah, is ‘The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother’ (BL 195 196). Still, the dogs which barked after Sylvia in ‘God Help the Wolf… ‘ (BL 26 - 27) pursue her. But now, these human dogs – the dogs of “our Academy”, who were described by the Hermeticist, Marsilio Ficino, as fraudulent “philosophers” who “bark for the sake of public opinion, and bite and tear21 , come, in Ted’s poem, like “a kind of hyena” to “pull at her remains”.22

The poem begins with a distinction between body and spirit. And Ted describes Sylvia’s death in metaphors full of Cabbalistic meaning. It is apparent that he and Sylvia had climbed sufficiently high in their struggle towards the Source, for Sylvia’s impetuous, impatient, premature leap from the window through which they saw its light to prove fatal. And this high ‘window’ was, for each of them, the well-developed, creative imagination, through which they ‘saw’ the images which inspired their work.

Sylvia’s ‘fall’, on this Path of Judgment / Shin, brought her Cabbalistic journey full circle and returned her to earth. This was the second ‘death’, which is expected on this Path, and Ted buried her in the earth “where she fell”, so that she might be reborn through Nature’s cycles. Also, Sylvia’s fall (like that of Icarus) was due to misjudgment of her own powers: failure to take into account her Earth-born, human frailty, and, consequently, failure to judge carefully the timing and the delicate balance necessary for her flight. Metaphorically, as Sylvia described it in her own poem, ‘Mystic’, (SPCP 268 - 269), she flew so high that she was “used utterly, in the sun’s conflagration”. So, (metaphorically and literally) after the euphoria of success, Sylvia fell into darkness and returned to the earth.

Plath grave

For Ted, as for all Cabbalists, death is both an end and a beginning. He wrote of the earth around Heptonstall, where he buried Sylvia, as the “cradle-grave” (‘Abel Cross… ‘ THCP 455), and the place into which everything returns for renewal – “the only future” (‘Lumb Chimneys’ THCP 456 - 457). So, in ‘The Dogs Are eating Your Mother’, Sylvia’s grave is a place where children play, rather than weep. The things which the children and Ted “arrange” – things they had “carried from Appledore”, as if they were Sylvia “herself” (and this ‘self’ suggests her spirit, not her body) – are simple, beautiful things of Nature. And Appledore (a small town in Bideford Bay on the north Devon coast) evokes in it’s fruit-filled name, memories of the childhood of Earth, and of the fruit which caused the Biblical ‘Fall from Paradise’ of our First Mother, Eve. Appledore also, recalls the innocent and foolish hero, Sir Thomas Tom of Appledore, “The Knight whose Armour Didn’t Squeak23, which strongly evokes childhood memories for anyone whose childhood contained the poetry of A.A. Milne (as Sylvia’s and her children’s certainly did24).

So, death and childhood are linked in Ted’s poem, which is, ostensibly, advice to his and Sylvia’s children. And part of this advice is that Nicholas and Frieda should immerse themselves in Nature, far away from all the unpleasantness25. But the poem is also a prayer for the release of Sylvia’s spirit. And even the scavenging dogs, who “are not dogs”, but people “who / will drop on all fours” to become voracious animals fighting over Sylvia’s remains, are made to serve a purpose in releasing her Spirit for rebirth. They “batten” on the “cornucopia” of Sylvia’s body of work, and on every material thing which was hers, including “the very soil”. And the various meanings of ‘soil’, here suggestsPlath grave defaced not only the earth around Sylvia’s body but also things excremental and stained, as if nothing is too vile for these ‘dogs’ to swallow. Ted’s pleas – “So leave her” and “Think her better” – stand out from the text, because of their careful placement. And they are reinforced by other words and phrases which, in these last lines of the poem, have the directive strength of magical commands: “Go wrap / Your head”; “Cover / Your eyes”; “Let them”, the dogs, get on with their distasteful quarrels.

That Ted intended these commands at the end of this poem, on this particular Path, to have magical import, is suggested by a number of things. Firstly, by his belief in the particular, magical power of words – especially in poetry, which he once described as ”one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen”26. Secondly, by the fact (noted earlier in this chapter) that it was not in Ted’s nature, normally, to issue commands to others. But most importantly, by the way in which the poems which immediately precede this one in the World of Assiah have laid the foundations for the Spiritual rebirth which will bring Sylvia, whole and unencumbered by ghosts or spirits, “back into the sun” for a last judgment.

The phrase, ‘back into the sun’, is repeated twice in the final four lines of the poem.

Firstly, Ted instructs his children, himself and us, to rationally “Think her” (Sylvia) “with holy care”, into a place where final release and judgment of her Spirit can be brought about. Vultures feed on dead bodies, but they also have a long mythological association with the after-life and with judgement: The Indian Parsee community place their dead on high platforms for vultures to feed on, so that the Soul may be released. And Ted’s vulture in Cave Birds, is “The Interrogator” and “the sun’s keyhole” (CB 12; THCP 421)27.


Secondly, Ted commands the use of creative imagination for this same purpose. So, the ‘dogs’ become beetles. And beetles, like the scarab beetle that lays its eggs in dung and rolls them into the sun to hatch, also have ancient symbolic and sacred associations with the Sun-god and with rebirth.

So, in these final lines, Ted carefully balanced thought with imagination. Flying like Daedalus, on stronger, more mature wings and with infinitely more care than Sylvia or Icarus had managed, he negotiated a way between the Father’s solar, rational powers and the Mother’s moony, imaginative powers, in his attempt to bring Sylvia “back into the sun” for final judgment and rebirth. At the same time, he magically commanded that the voracious mouths of the ‘dogs’ be turned into valuable, natural aids to this endeavour. They, if his magic works well, will devour the ‘shells’ in which the Truth lies concealed. So, human mouths may deconstruct, maul and gulp Sylvia’s remains28 and the ‘dogs’ of the Academy may argue, posture and “vomit / Over their symposia”, but what will eventually be revealed will be whatever fragments of timeless, eternal, universal Truth Sylvia managed to channel into her work. And on these alone will she finally be judged by her peers in our world.


1. Bruno, De Gli Eroici Furori. Part 2. Dialogue 1:IX.

2 All three human figures have golden hair but only the child’s resembles a swirling sun.

3. This illness took place before Sylvia made her drawings of Benidorm (see SPLH 25 Aug. 1956). So, again, the events of this poem and of the poem which immediately precedes it in Birthday Letters, do not conform to the actual chronological order of events. Both poems, however, conform to the requirements of the particular Cabbalistic Paths on which Ted placed them.

4. I can find no evidence that Voltaire ever had plague, although he had been a sickly child at a time when plague was rife in the country. It is relevant to this path, though, that Voltaire had responded to the sick, feverish excesses of the Roman Catholic Church in France with excessive zeal and had become in the process like “a stone man”, governed by rationality and immune to the wonders of Nature, imagination and Spirit. It was for this lack of vision that Blake attacked him in his notes to ‘The Last Judgment’, where he wrote that Voltaire had “embraced Error and rejected Truth” (Blake, Ibid. p.327).

5. Burkhardt, Alchemy, Element Books, Dorset, 1986. p. 69.

6. The Alchemical symbol of Solomon’s Seal (a six-pointed star) unites the symbol for Water (an inverted triangle) with that of Fire (an upright triangle), to represent the balance and harmony of Love. This is also the Star of Venus.

7. In a letter to her mother (SPLH 6 Nov. 1956), Sylvia described herself as “emotionally exhausted” by stresses in her own life but also by “the Hungarian and Suez affairs”. Ted, it seems, immersed both of them in nature for relief. And Sylvia wrote that “the creative forces of nature” were the only ones which now gave her any peace, and that she and Ted wanted “to become part of them”.

8. Blake, Ibid. p. 46.

9. James Bone, The Times, 8 April 2000, 2W. p. 10. Quotation from a letter from Ted Hughes to Aurelia Plath, which is now held at Emory University.

10. Letters to Ted, ‘Notes’, p. 108. Daniel Weissbort, like Lucas Myers, was a close friend of Ted’s from the time they were students at Cambridge University until Ted’s death in 1998.

11. Crowley, 777, p. 34.

12. Crowley, Gematria, p. 25.

13. Ted consistently used the spelling ‘Wharfe’, which is also the name of another Yorkshire river and its valley just north of the Calder. Current spelling appears to be Wharf, without the ‘e’.

14. Stubbing Wharf Pub, as shown in photographs which can be found on the Internet (search ‘Stubbing Wharf + Rochdale + canal’) looks pleasantly welcoming in the sun, but it is set in a steep-sided valley and can look very dark, bleak, damp and gloomy in Winter.

15. Sylvia greatly admired the way D. H. Lawrence “bodies the world forth in his words” (SPJ 15 Sept. 1958). And Ted’s reference to ‘gentians’ so close to ‘Lawrentian globe’suggests that Lawrence’s poem ‘Bavarian gentians’ was in his mind. In that poem, Lawrence links passion with death and he also asks for “three dark flames” (like the flames of Shin) to light the “living dark” into which he will go.

Lumb Bank

16. In his letter to the German translators, Andrea and Robert (16 June 1998), Ted noted that Heptonstall was where his mother’s family had always been buried. He wrote, too, that the house he bought (Lumb Bank) “eventually became one of the centres of the Arvon Foundation”, where courses are run “by writers for aspiring writers”.

17. In 1956, using words which have Biblical echoes, Sylvia wrote in her journal: “Being dead, I rose again” (SPJ 19 Feb. 1956).

18. Bruno, De Gli Eroici Furori, Ibid. Second Part. Dialogue 1: IV.

19. In 1952, Sylvia undertook a detailed analysis of her beliefs about God and concluded that we all construct our own “absolutely real dream Kingdoms – paradoxically all ‘true’” (SPJ 25 July 1952). And at Easter 1959, she wrote of “the risen Christ meaning only a parable of human renewal and nothing of immortality” (SPJ 29 Sept. 1959).

20. Four is the number of stable foundations and balance, it represents the Four Mother Elements from which every material thing is made, and so four is the number of Earth. The cross, which cuts the red field into carefully balanced quarters, represents wise choice in our world, and the whole flag is a symbol of the harmony and wholeness which careful judgment will maintain.

21. Marsilio Ficino, ‘What Is Necessary For Composure In Life And For Tranquillity Of The Soul’, Book of Life, (1489),Trans. Boer. Spring Publications, Texas, 1980.

22. How, I wonder, can I analyse this poem, when those who “batten” on Sylvia and her work are so angrily and bitterly described?. I can only hope to be one of Ficino’s “legitimate philosophers” who “search for truth”. And I must repeat that it is the nature of the Cabbalistic journey that each person must make it for themselves. My understanding of Ted’s poems is the product of my own journey and my own fragmentary attempts to peel back some of the shells within which the Truth lies hidden. Others will read Birthday Letters quite differently. “Every story”, as Ted wrote in ‘Myth and Education’, “is still the original cauldron of wisdom, full of new visions and new life” (WP 142). And Birthday Letters is “only a story”. It is Ted’s story and Sylvia’s story, but, through the powers of imagination, it can also be “Your story. My story” (‘Visit’, BL 9). . What matters most of all, are the whole, un-“torn” poems, through which the story is told.

23. It seems, from Milne’s poem, that Sir Thomas Tom was a Kentish knight, not a Devonian. Appledore in Kent, however, is not a seaside town.

24. Sylvia wrote of being “brought up in the fairy-tale world of Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh” (SPJ Dec. 1950. Journal Page 38). She also mentioned both again in 1962, at the time when she was immersed in “the loving slovenliness of motherhood” (SPJ 1962. Appendix 15).

25. The Brooks Range is in far north Alaska, where Nicholas Hughes was living when Ted wrote this poem. The Nullarbor Plains are in Australia, where Frieda lived at that time. Both places are huge, natural wildernesses.

26. Ted Hughes. The Critical Forum . Norwich Tapes Ltd. 1978. A copy of this tape is held with other Norwich Tapes in the Library of The University of Birmingham.

27. The mythological associations of Ted’s Cave Birds vulture are discussed in detail in Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest, pp. 71 - 73.

28. The ‘Hughes’ part of Sylvia’s name (the public ‘face’ she wore as Ted’s wife) has frequently been torn from her headstone. There have been verbal and legal battles, too, about some of the ways in which Sylvia, her life, and her work, have been posthumously presented by authors, film-makers, critics and scholars.

Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2004. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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