The Path of Justice, like the Path of The Empress (Path 4 - Daleth) which is above it on the Cabbalistic Tree, runs between the Pillar of Justice (Force) and the Pillar of Mercy (Form). It shares the turbulent energies of that earlier path, especially the Goddess energies of Binah (Sephira 3) which are channelled to it via Chesed (Sephira 4). So, the Path of Justice is a path of creation and destruction – of initiation, insemination and gestation. But, because it is lower down the Cabbalistic Tree, its energies are more closely linked to our world and to our individual lives.
The Goddess on this path appears as Themis, the Titan daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaea (Earth). Themis was protectress of the infant Zeus, who later relied on her for wise guidance. Her own children governed the seasons, the clouds, wise legislation, justice, peace and fate. She assisted at the difficult birth of the twins, Apollo and Artemis, and made Apollo a gift of the Oracle at Delphi which had belonged to her mother, Gaea. On earth, Themis governs justice, peace and social harmony, and she is shown on the Traditional Tarot card of Justice, card 8, with a sword and balanced scales.
The number for this path is 9, and the Hebrew letter for this path is Teth, meaning ‘snake’. Both are closely linked with the Goddess’s powers.
Just as Themis, as daughter of Sky (Male) and Earth (Female), embodies all the energies of our world, so 9 includes all the energies of the previous paths (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9 = 45: 4+5 = 9) and is a number which is said always to return to itself (9x2 = 18: 1+8 = 9; 9x3 = 27: 2+7 = 9; etc). It is the number of the Goddess; the number of the orgiastic moon-priestesses who devoured the Dionysian bull; and the number of the Muses who are responsible for all imaginative arts and whose Mysteries of Divine Harmony, inspiration and spiritual rebirth were the foundation of the Orphic teachings of Pythagorus and of the Eleusinian Mysteries associated with Dionysus and Iacchus.
Like its reversed figure, 6, 9 is associated with sex and generation. In the mystical Revelation of St. John the Divine, the number of the Beast, 666, adds up to 91, but so too does the number of the redeemed, 144,0002. Cabbalists, therefore, believe that the powerful sexual energies of 9 may be sublimated (a precise Alchemical term which describes a process of Mercurial purification) by love, judgement and control to achieve the magnificence of enlightenment and Truth. The Cabbalistic meditations for this path are “Act of Power” and “She who rules the Secret Force of the Universe”, and the energies of 9 on the Cabbalistic Tree are regarded as the hidden Foundation of all.
Teth, the serpent, also represents fundamental, concealed power. It is Form hidden in Matter; Spirit in Body; the animal energies in the rational human; the Snake in the Garden of Eden. Teth is powerfully sexual and it is both destructive and generative – it devours in order to create anew. It is Good and Evil. It is Nature, the Uroborus, the snake devouring its tail and (like 9) returning always to itself. It is the driving force of life which shapes the pattern of evolution and holds all potential for growth.
‘Trophies’ (BL 18-19), which is the Birthday Letters poem on the Path of Justice in the Atziluthic World, has “the whiff of the beast” in its lines and in its energies. Its panther is the perfect Dionysian symbol for the energies of this path3 and Ted borrowed it from Sylvia’s poem (SPCP 22-3) ‘Pursuit’, which was written on 27 Feb. 1956 just after their first meeting at the St. Botolph’s party. Sylvia described that poem in her journal entry for that day as “a full-page poem about the dark forces of lust… dedicated to Ted Hughes”.
Devouring sexual passion is apparent in Sylvia’s journal entries for some time before she wrote ‘Pursuit’. These earlier entries were partly an expression of emotional turmoil and the conflict between lust and ‘nice’ behaviour: partly, they were writing exercises. On 18 Feb. 1953, for example, she wrote of a desire to be driven off and raped “in a huge lust like a cave-woman fighting, screaming, biting in a ferocious ecstasy of orgasm… “ But she added ironically:“That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Really delicate and feminine”. However, the “dry pages” to which Ted refers in ‘Trophies’ are those journal entries based on letters in which Sylvia expressed her passion for Richard Sassoon.
There is a Dionysian quality of ecstasy to the earliest of these letter extracts (SPJ 22 Nov. 1955). But Sylvia’s later journal entries, especially that made on 6 March 1956, after her abortive trip to Paris4 and after Sassoon’s withdrawal from her, contain what Ted describes in ‘Trophies’ as her “efforts to cry words”, her “despair, terror, sheer fury-”. Then, on 10 March, the entries show the sudden transference of Sylvia’s passion from Sassoon to Ted:“HE is here”, she wrote. And in a ‘Postscript’,“Oh the fury, the fury… The panther wakes and stalks again, and every sound in the house is his tread on the stair”.
Throughout Ted’s poem, Sylvia is the helpless vehicle for the Dionysian energies embodied in the panther. Sassoon, its “real prey” in the beginning, had “skipped and escaped” so, with a “sudden / Look that locked on” Ted, “through” eyes which are both its own and Sylvia’s, it chose its new victim. In Sylvia’s journal entries from 10 March to 18 April 1956 and in her poem ‘Pursuit’ one can still feel the power of those energies, and they did, indeed, bring “a combustion / Of the stuff of judgement” to Ted. So, “with a laugh” and in “drunken euphoria”, like a Bacchant, he succumbed to “The tenacity / of the big cat’s claim / on the one marked down and disabled” and remained numb to the bloody wounds it had left on Sylvia and to the deadly potential of its power over himself.
The final lines of ‘Trophies’ sum up the moment at the St. Botolph’s party when Ted succumbed to the panther and foolishly tempted Fate by stealing from it Sylvia’s hairband and an ear-ring – trophies of war which turned out, in the end, to be valueless objects but which, ironically, became memorials of a situation in which both he and Sylvia were victims (and trophies, perhaps) of the Gods.
Passion and judgement are again the prevailing energies in ‘Child’s Park’ (BL 69-70), the poem on the Path of Teth in the World of Briah.
Child’s Memorial Park was close to the Northampton apartment in which Ted and Sylvia were living in July 1958. Sylvia described it as an“odd primitive greening park” (SPJ 6 Sept. 1967) and in her journal entry on 11 June she recorded having written“a good syllabic poem on the Child’s Park Stones as juxtaposed to the ephemeral orange & fuchsia azaleas”: certainly, the azaleas in her poem5 burn like an “orange and fuchsia bonfire” in the dark “leaf-filtered green”. In that same journal entry, Sylvia writes of the incident associated with these flowers which is also the subject of Ted’s poem. This seemingly trivial incident aroused Sylvia to such fury that she wrote in her journal:“I have a violence in me that is hot as death-blood”, and she described how, faced with the momentary defiance of one of the young girls who were stealing rhododendron blossoms, she had to control the urge to“fly at her and tear her to bloody beating bits”.
So, as Ted’s poem begins by asking, what did azaleas mean to Sylvia that they caused such passion?
Sylvia associates azaleas in her journals and in her poems with roses and, in particular, with the single roses she, herself, had stolen from that same park. She wonders, as Ted does, at her seemingly “split morality”:“Here I had an orange and a pink rosebud in my pocket and a full red rose squandering its savours at home & I felt like killing a girl stealing armfuls of rhododendrons for a dance” (SPJ 11 June 1956). In her poem, ‘Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers’ (SPCP 103-4), she compares her “nicety” with the girls’ “love”, her “petty thievery” with their “large”, but the excuses she offers there, and in her journal, do not explain the “homicidal” feelings which had gripped her. Clearly, Sylvia’s judgement had not been based on understanding and her actions had been an outpouring of some uncontrolled energy within her.
Ted’s poem, by using the nuclear imagery of the “Heavy water” needed to quench the “plutonium secret” of Sylvia’s rage, suggest similar deep subconscious energies at work within her. And the sexual imagery throughout the poem defines their nature. He shows, too, how these energies might be “cooled and controlled” to produce something new and beautiful rather than something deadly. Sylvia’s poem, also makes the link between sensuous, sexual natural energies – the “blowze” and “musk” and soft “nap” of the roses – and poetry “rescued / From blind air, from complete eclipse”. She did make poetry from the violence of that incident, but it is as if the effrontery, enormity and casualness of the girls’ theft of great bunches of the vivid and fiery flowers swamped her judgement and she failed to remember that lesson in control.
Ted’s poem repeats and demonstrates that lesson. In it, he performs a poetic / alchemical process in which the fundamental energies of life, the creative powers which are the ‘Secret Force of the Universe’ and which flowed through Sylvia at the time of the Child’s Park incident, are broken down, cleansed and remade. He takes those energies down into the darkness, using the rhythmic beat of “Bullfrogs / Took you down through lily tangle” to take the “brands” of Sylvia’s “own burning” passion down into the dark, cooling waters of the pond. Washed free of anger, Sylvia is “resurfaced” to see “afresh” a world of prismatic colour, delicacy, an emergent dragonfly and catalpas with their Dionysian leopard-spotted flowers. The pileated woodpecker6 which is fertilizing these flowers is devil-like and snake-like with its “writhing”, its “uncoiling head” and its association with “undersides” and with prehistory. All this imagery, coupled with the “livid” cry which “Flung the garden open”, suggests a parallel between Child’s Park and the Garden of Eden, a parallel which is reinforced by Ted’s use of the word “Paradise” just nine words after “garden”.
Sylvia, it seems, had already been told that she was “never / More than a step” from Paradise. In the imagery of this poem, nature, hidden in the darkly sexual “pit of the hairy flower”, leads Sylvia directly to the core of the Inferno from which, with precise Alchemical imagery, seven steps in a Peacock’s Tail of colours lead to a “veil-rending defloration” in the “nuclear core” and “a rebirth out of the sun”. This was the sort of Alchemical re-birth which, in the poem, Sylvia “imagined” and she was “fearless” in her quest for poetic rebirth. But the rebirth which eventually occurred and which is described at the end of this poem was disastrous.
In Alchemy, the whole, slow, careful process of purification leads to the ‘Conjunctio’, ‘Coitus’, the Chemical Marriage of Male and Female (Sun / King / Father / Abba with Moon / Queen / Mother / Aima) from the nuclear fires of which the pure gold of the Soul is born. If at any stage of the process the correct procedure is not carefully observed, then the matter being refined will not be pure and the synthesis will fail – often explosively. Ted’s use of capitals for the words ‘Father’ and ‘Word’ in this poem not only show the God-like status which Sylvia had given to her father but also makes her re-connection with him part of the Alchemical process which she imagined would bring her rebirth. Sylvia certainly believed that her poetic rebirth required her to “get back, back, back” to her father (‘Daddy’ SPCP 222-4), and to deal with the wounds which his death had caused her. She seems to have been right. But is seems, too, that she did not learn the necessary balance required to channel and control the energies which were released in Ariel.
Ted’s choice of ‘Child’s Park’ as a title for this poem on this particular Cabbalistic path, as well as the incident which it describes, aptly convey his own and Sylvia’s Cabbalistic (and Alchemical) immaturity at that time. And the poem demonstrates Sylvia’s faults on this path, which were the Vice and the Illusion of Chesed: Hypocrisy and the belief of ‘Being Right’. This need not have ruined her quest had she learned good judgement and the ability to balance the energies of justice with love. Early in the poem, faced with the uncontrolled energies which fuelled Sylvia’s “homicidal hooded stare”, Ted intervened. In the end, he did not: could not, because “what happens in the heart simply happens”. This line is important. Set on its own in the poem, it conveys an Alchemical and Cabbalistic truth which nuclear science seems to confirm: that the nuclear force which marries or fuses together the nucleons7 of two pure atoms is unexplained and uncontrollable. What happens in the nuclear core it seems, as in the heart, just happens.
So Ted “stepped back”, and the glare (a deliberately ambiguous word connecting Sylvia’s final, fearless ‘marriage’ to her Father / God with her earlier homicidal stare) produced by the fusion was nuclear and uncontrolled. The “radioactive fallout” of this ‘Act of Power’ contaminated Sylvia’s “whole Eden”, which was by then no longer just a child’s park, but a family’s world.
‘Daffodils’ (BL 127-9), on the Path of Justice in the World of Yetzirah, is a sad and beautiful poem full of memories and regrets. It is full, too, of the transience of life. Yet, this transience is set amidst the continuity of Nature: the never-ending cycles of death and renewal. Nature – the Uroborus, the snake eating its tail – is the abiding power in this poem.
‘Daffodils’, in Birthday Letters, is quite different in mood to the poem of the same name and many identical lines in Flowers and Insects (Faber, 1986). Ted, in the Flowers and Insects poem, is the sole flower picker and the mood, to begin with, is jubilant. The massed daffodils are like “a cauldron… boiling gently” in his garden, racing “under every gust of earth-surge” like “blown foam”, and providing a stimulus to his own poetic words of wonder. From jubilance, the mood becomes one of piracy and suggestive sexuality, as it does also in the Birthday Letters poem, but the consequences are quite different. In the Flowers and Insects poem, there is more guilt in plucking the flowers than in selling them. They enter Ted’s dreams as souls, “Dressed for Heaven”, which he has killed and which have “gone to ground” inside him, where they become “awful”, like accusing “all-seeing angels”. This was a nightmare: it was “Resurrection / The trumpet”, but Ted “wrenched free” of it and “flitted” with his “world”, his “garden” and his flowers. The ending of the poem is hopeful and unstopped both in its sense and in its punctuation which, suitably, is a dash.
In Birthday Letters, ‘Daffodils’ begins and ends with memory: it is all that remains of Sylvia, to whom the poem is addressed. The flowers (as in Flowers and Insects) are unexpected “Treasure trove”, an “incidental gilding of the deeds”, but it is Ted and Sylvia and their small daughter, Frieda, who harvest them, and the words, “we sold them”, end each memory of joy and beauty like a refrain tolling doom. “We sold them”, Ted writes at the beginning of the poem. “It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them. / Were we so poor?”. This was a question which he did not ask in the Flowers and Insects poem, nor does Old Stoneman the boss-eyed, beetroot-faced grocer appear there. Yet, his appearance on this path of the Serpent is wholly appropriate, for it is he who, devil-like and snake-like, tempts Ted and Sylvia to sell Nature’s “blessing” for profit, playing on their greed and slyly offering them the reasonable excuse that such trade was “A custom of the house”.
Greed is one of the Vices of this path, and other aspects of the poem are appropriate to this path, too. In particular, the phrase “nuptial flight”, which in both poems is associated with “the rarest ephemera / Our own days”8, not only evokes the Bee Goddess, Melissa, and the buzzing energy of the bee swarm which precedes the mating of the Queen, but also suggests the Alchemical sublimation (often metaphorically depicted as flight) which leads to the Chemical Marriage. Both associations parallel the Saturnalian deflowering which is most explicit in the Flowers and Insects poem but which survives, fragmentally, in the “soft shrieks”, the “wet shocks” and the girlishness of the flowers in Birthday Letters.
There is no Saturnalia in the Birthday Letters poem and the mood is altogether more sombre. The plucking of the flowers is work to be “bent at”, the “raid” is on Ted’s and Sylvia’s “own good luck”, and the flowers which come as if “falling from heaven” are a “last blessing”. It is interesting, too, that the “deeds” in this poem are not given a capital letter as they are in Flowers and Insects, so they are no longer identified with the Deeds of Ted’s and Sylvia’s Devon property but become also the deeds of two people who were “still nomads – still strangers” to their “whole possession”, a phrase which encompasses material, as well as spiritual and creative, wealth.
Ted’s and Sylvia’s success in selling their manuscripts at that time, in publishing their poems and reviews, and in broadcasting, was also part of their urge “to convert everything to profit”. As Sylvia’s letters to her mother show (e.g. 20 Nov. 1961 and 31 Jan. 1962), they “worked at selling” as much of their work as possible and Sylvia was full of plans to write and sell more. It was not, surely, that Ted believed that their creations should not have been sold: but that money should not have started to become the reason for further creation. Underlying Ted’s horror (in this poem) at their sale of flowers, is the suggestion that he and Sylvia failed to respect the first sign of their own imaginative potential for the blessing which it was: that they treated the first “flamy” meltings of their own creative ice (which, like the daffodils, were “spasms from the dark earth” born of the Goddess in her Motherly form) as booty and began to prostitute a divine gift. So, they “were overwhelmed”, lost their wedding-present scissors, and could cut off and sell no more frail beauty. In the Cabbalistic context of this particular path, it is not too fanciful to see these scissors as representing (in their looped and crossed shape) the joined, balanced energies of 6 and 9: exactly the necessary unity and balance which needs to exist between earthly and divine energies if the true creative treasure is to be harvested.
Scissors which rust, common-or-garden iron scissors, would not be a common wedding present unless they were silver-plated. Their association with weddings is appropriate on this path, but iron scissors can have many purposes. Iron, because it survives fire and comes from the astral world in the form of meteorites, is a symbol of durability. It is also the metal of which magical weapons are made; it is related to blood by its rust colour; and it provides powerful magical protection against evil and, especially, against witches. In folk-lore, iron scissors may be used as a charm – an iron cross – which is hidden in the birth-bed for protection during childbirth; and scissors are superstitiously associated with both birth (cutting the umbilical cord) and death (cutting the thread of life).
In ‘Daffodils’ in Birthday Letters, the iron scissors are hidden in the birth-bed of the Earth Goddess - the sod from which Nature’s rebirth comes “April by April”. And the scissors belong to Sylvia, linking her to this natural cycle of death and rebirth but also providing a charm, “an anchor”, “a cross of rust”, to ensure the safety and durability of her memory.
In ‘Night-Ride on Ariel’ (BL 174-5), the poem on this path in the dark World of Assiah, all the energies of 9 and of the Goddess are present in the Moon in all her phases. Themis’s scales, here, are unbalanced: her sword is sharp. Wrong paths have been taken and Sylvia’s true self, unearthed from beneath a lifetime’s accretions of experience, childhood learning and social conditioning, was, in the end, not strong enough to withstand the fiery combustion of the Chemical Marriage. So, the Mercurial energies of Ariel, which carry Sylvia into the sun in her own poem of that name (SPCP 239-240) lead, in Ted’s poem, to darkness. The dual, all-or-nothing nature of 8 (the Tarot number of this path) together with the unbalanced energies of 9, on this particular path prove deadly.
Surprisingly, Sylvia’s own poem, ‘Ariel’, fits this path exactly. Ariel was the horse Sylvia rode in Devon and also her poetic genius, and this poem is a superbly achieved poetic description and performance of the nuptial flight which precedes the Chemical Marriage. It brings together matter and spirit, form and force, and turns inspiration into poetry in a poetic / Alchemical sublimation of earthy, sexual life-energies to inspired creativity. The energies begin in “Stasis” then “Pour” through the poem, and Sylvia grows “one” with the Panther, “God’s lioness”, in an unstoppable, “suicidal”, blood streaked flight into that “red / Eye, the cauldron of morning” which is both the sun and the Alchemical cauldron of new beginnings. Both morning (in Sylvia’s poem) and Monday (in Ted’s poem) represent new beginnings, but in Ted’s poem the Moon of Monday is a malign moon – the moon of Selene / Hecate and her dark representatives on earth. The moon which represents 9, the Foundation, is the moon which embodies all history, including personal history, so Sylvia’s moon is full of all those women who laid the foundations of her life and from whose influence she could not, in the end, free her true self. They, in the end, are Hecate’s demons. So, for Ted, Sylvia’s ride on Ariel is a ride into night.
In astrology, the Moon is associated with the spirit and with creativity, but the sun pulls it in one direction and the earth in another. Just so, is a person influenced by the moon in their horoscope: the sun pulls the spirit towards truth and enlightenment but earthy, material energies oppose it. Sylvia’s spirit was pulled strongly towards the creative sun and rebirth through the Chemical Marriage but her moon, in the seventh House of her horoscope, made her especially vulnerable to the influence of other people. Several poems in Birthday Letters describe this vulnerability, but Ted specifically links it, in this poem, with Sylvia’s moon.
The worldly influences which Ted catalogues in the poem are largely self-explanatory. The women wielding them were Sylvia’s Austrian mother, who several times re-made her own life; Olive Higgins Prouty, the fairy-godmother whose money brought Cinderella-like transformations to Sylvia; Ruth Beutscher, the psychologist who treated Sylvia after her suicide attempt; and Mary Ellen Chase who helped Sylvia obtain her teaching position at Smith College. These were the benign new-moons of Sylvia’s beginnings: creating her, but creating her as they wished her to be. And Sylvia’s relationship with each of them was one of mixed emotions. Love and gratitude towards them frequently pulled against her need for independence, but they were always, in all “phases” of her life, able to tug at her heart. They were very much part of her “dismal-headed” moon of desires and needs which was, as this phrase ambiguously suggests, much peopled and headed towards dismal ends.
Even as Sylvia grew sure of her true self and began to extricate it from the powerful matrix of her learned and conditioned persona, these moon-women were able to manipulate her like an “hour-glass of moonlight” and, finally, to confuse her at the time when she was most vulnerable. Just when she had achieved her goal and her energies were most depleted, they “jammed all her wavelengths” with their “criss-cross instructions” and dragged her back from the sun to her death “That Monday”, 11 Feb. 1963. The shred of sun to which she “clung” was, perhaps, the Ariel spirit which she had struggled for so long to release and which spoke clearly in the poems she wrote in her last days. After her death, these poems were all that remained of the “exploded dawn” which ended her nuptial flight into that fiery “cauldron of morning”. And her poem, ‘Ariel’, in which she saw that cauldron so clearly and to which Ted refers in the title of his poem, was, more clearly than any of the other poems, a shred of the sun she had been reaching for throughout her journey.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. The Bible, The New Testament, Revelation 13:18.
2. Ibid. Revelation 14:1.
3. There are many well-known paintings of Dionusus / Bacchus accompanied by his panthers, e.g. Titian’s, ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, at the National Gallery in London; and Annibale Caracci’s, ‘The Triumph of Bacchus’, in which the creatures resemble Blake’s Tiger. Both these paintings can be found in the Web Gallery of Art
4. Sylvia visited Sassoon in Paris in December 1955, but in March 1956 when she went to Europe again intending to see him, she was unable to find him.
5. ‘Child’s Park Stones’ (SPCP 100-101).
6. The red crest of a Pileated Woodpecker may well have linked it, in Ted’s mind, with the Hoopoe of the Sufi fable, The Conference of the Birds. This was a fable which he knew well. In it, the Hoopoe leads the birds to enlightenment.
7. A nucleon is a constituent of the atomic nucleus, i.e. a proton or a neutron.
8. “My own days”, in the Flowers and Insects poem.
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