Poetry and Magic

© Ann Skea

First published in Moulin,J.(Ed.) Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons, Routledge, London, 2004.

This paper is the first chapter of a detailed analysis of Ted Hughes’ poetic sequence, Birthday Letters. It explores Hughes’ use of Cabbala and Tarot in structuring Birthday Letters and examines each poem in the sequence from this perspective. Useful background reading on Tarot and Cabbala is widely available on the internet but Colin Low’s Notes on Kabbala is especially helpful.

Starting The Journey

‘Fulbright Scholars’, ‘Caryatids (1)’, ‘Caryatids’ (2).

“Is there any significance”, a correspondent asked me, “in the fact that there are eighty-eight poems in Birthday Letters?”. “None of which I am aware”, I replied, “But, since Ted does structure his poetic sequences very carefully, I would not rule it out”.

I thought no more about this, because I was preoccupied with the idea that the Birthday Letters were Ted’s Eroici Furori – a sequence of passionate love poems such as were considered to be the crowning achievement of a Renaissance magus like Giordano Bruno, with whose work Ted was very familiar. Love, for Renaissance Hermeticists and for Platonic Neoplatonists like Bruno, was “the living virtue in all things, which the magician intercepts and which leads him from the lower things to the supercelestial realm by divine furor1. It was a means of understanding, ordering and, ultimately, influencing things in our world. Bruno published De gli Eroici Furori in England in 1586, but it is a cryptic text full of magical symbolism, and very different to Birthday Letters. It was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, whose English love poetry is, however, similar in some ways to Ted’s and has itself been attributed (although contentiously) to the inspiration of divine furor.

Ted’s belief in the primacy of the imagination as an instrument for reaching the truth was exactly that of Sidney and the other members of the so-called “Areopagus” who befriended Bruno on his visit to England. And his preface to By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember (Faber, 1997) sets out exactly the sort of mnemonic techniques for training the imagination that they had learned from the work of Renaissance Hermeticists like Marsilio Ficino. His belief in poetry as “magical” and as “one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen”2; his knowledge of the work of Renaissance figures like Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola (as evidenced in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, (Faber, 1992); his sustained, careful and detailed use of the techniques, processes and beliefs of alchemy in Cave Birds, Remains of Elmet and River; and his acknowledged use of meditation and astrology, all point to his lifelong interest in using magic in his work. None of this, however, threw any light on Birthday Letters until I read about the way in which poets like Sidney, Fulke Greville, Marlow, Milton, Donne and, later, even Dryden, adopted Cabbalistic number theory in the structure and content of their poems. The work by Alastair Fowler in revealing this kind of structuring has been of major importance, and it was whilst reading his work on Spencer3 that I suddenly realised the possible relationship between Cabbala and the eighty-eight poems in Birthday Letters.

Cabbala, in its ancient and traditional form, is the knowledge of occult number theory in the Bible. It is also a mystical and magical discipline by means of which the Cabbalist may understand our world and all its energies and use them to reintegrate disparate elements – to create harmony and heal ills. This is the Great Work, and the individual seeking to undertake this work must begin with the self.

Cabbala is based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.Sephirith picture These letters are arranged on interconnecting pathways on a Sephirothic Tree (a tree of life) on which there are ten Sephiroth – ten points at which the divine energies enter our world, transmitted as a lightning flash from the Divine Source. And, in Ted’s own words: “Everything in the universe, attached to its symbol, can be given its proper place on the Tree… So the Tree becomes a means of ordering the psyche by internalizing the knowable universe as a stairway to God” (SGCB 20-1).

Trees on Sephirith pictureThose who seek to order the psyche and climb the stairway to God in this way, follow The Path of Wisdom (also known as “The Path of the Serpent”) along the Tree’s twenty-two interconnected pathways, through four overlapping worlds: Atziluth (the World of emanation, archetypes and (in Jungian terms) the psyche; Briah, the World of the intellect, the possibility of creation, the collective subconscious; Yetzirah, the World of synthesis, formation, the individual subconscious; and Assiah, the world of making, the earthy, material world of consciousness. William Blake’s four worlds of Eden, Beulah, Generation and Ulro “derive from the same tradition”4. The twenty-two letters of the Cabbalistic alphabet in these four worlds make eighty-eight pathways along which the Cabbalist makes the questing journey. And, from the time of the Renaissance, the cards of the Tarot pack (especially the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana) have been used as a mnemonic for the pathways of this Cabbalistic quest.

If all this seems to be a long way from poetry, then I can only say that magic is an art, and it is an art in which Ted was very interested. He often described poetry as a magical shamanic journey undertaken to obtain some healing energies needed in our world, and he constantly sought ways to use the imagination to reintegrate our inner and outer worlds. One might also apply to Ted some of his own observations about Shakespeare: “Without assuming that [he] was a devout Occult Neoplatonist [or Cabbalist]....one can suppose that out of this vast complex of archaic, magical, religious ideas and methods, the following items caught his attention: ...The idea of a syncretic mythology....The idea of these images as internally structured, precisely folded, multiple meanings....The idea of meditation as a conjuring by ritual magic of hallucinatory figures – with whom conversations can be held” (SGCB 32-3). All of these ideas are very relevant to Birthday Letters.

The question then, for me, was whether Ted did use Cabbala, and in particular the imagery of the Tarot, to structure the sequence of poems in Birthday Letters and, if so, whether this offers us a different perspective on the work. I began my investigation of these questions sceptically, knowing the richness and range of Ted’s imagination and very aware that I might easily impose the structure for which I was searching. But, for many reasons, not least the closeness and consistency with which the poems match the cards and embody the Sephirothic emanations, I now have no doubt that such a structure exists. (See Table 1 for a full list of these correspondences).

Each episode of the story – “Your story. My story” – in Birthday Letters is a stage on the path at which something - some pattern from the past – is (often quite literally) captured in a photograph, film, picture or mental image and brought into the present to be meditated on, questioned, illuminated and re-created in a poem. For Ted, who believed in the magical power of poetry and the summoning power of symbols, this was a dangerous process, as well as being psychologically harrowing. Cabbala, if nothing else, provided him with a protective structure within which to negotiate with the energies and to conjure into being the people and events of his past.

The Cabbalistic journey begins with the first manifestation of form, the point, in which every potential exists. It is everything and nothing; the closed and endless circle; zero; the aleph of the Hebrew alphabet. For the neophyte Cabbalist or magician, it is the image of The Fool in the Tarot pack.Fool card Here is the “imbecile innocent” of Cave Birds (‘In these fading moments… ’ CB 20), stepping off blindly on his journey towards knowledge and enlightenment with the baggage of his past life on his back and the dog of materialism and worldly convention snapping at his heels. The very title of the first poem in Birthday Letters embodies all these things (‘Fulbright Scholars’ BL 3). Here are “Scholars”, Sylvia amongst them, about to embark on the search for knowledge in a strange land. The accumulated Alphas of their past lives have earned them a place on this path, and they are “Ful – bright” like the zero of the sun. They have their luggage with them, literally and metaphorically. In the photograph, as in the first manifestation of matter, everything is still possible.

Ted, too, is an innocent, “dumbfounded” by his “ignorance of the simplest things” and confessing (like the neophyte magician making the ritual negative confession at the start of the journey) that he lacks memory, knowledge and direction. In Cabbalistic terms, at the apex of the Tree is Kether, the Crown, the Monad, the number 1, the planted seed from which all else grows. This is also the Garden of Eden, and just as Adam’s bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge brought him knowledge of his nakedness, so Ted’s first taste of a fresh peach brings self-consciousness.

Consciousness, Force and Form, the first three Sephiroth on the Tree, are the fundamental aspects of the divine as manifest in all creation and from them comes all change in the natural world and in the inner world of the Cabbalist.Temple picture

Chokmah, Sephira number 2, and Binah, Sephira number 3, form the base of this triangle of supernal energies. Chokmah and Binah each occupy the summit of one of the two pillars of Mercy and Justice on and between which all ten Sephiroth of the Tree are positioned. Chokmah, on the right-hand pillar of Mercy, is also known as Abba, the All Father, Raw Energy: Binah, on the left-hand pillar of Justice, is known as Aima, the All Mother, Capacity to take form.

Given this graphic arrangement, it is interesting to note that the title of both the second and third poems in Birthday Letters (BL 4-6) is ‘Caryatids’ (the name of carved female figures which form pillars supporting the portico of a Greek temple) and that in both the hardback and the paperback editions of the book these poems, perhaps fortuitously, stand side-by-side, pillar-like, on opposing pages.

Priestess cardAlso, the poem on the left embodies female energies: the caryatids are “friable” and “frail-looking” (“each body” in Sylvia’s poem, to which Ted refers, is “a virgin vase”), yet they are strong enough to bear a “falling heaven of granite”. In the Tarot, the related card is that of The High Priestess, who represents Artemis, the huntress, (caryatids are named after the women of Caryae who worshipped Artemis) and also Isis, Diana and other moon-goddesses of potential fertility. Which suggests not only a literal answer to Ted’s opening question in ‘Caryatids (1)’, “What were those caryatids bearing?”, but also that they are bearers of the omen which he failed to see.

‘Caryatids (2)’, the poem on the right, embodies raw male energies, “frivolous as faithless”, “stupid with confidence”, “careless”, carousing and destructive, focussed only on the present, the “real World and self”. Just such energies belong to The Magician, The Juggler, Hermes/Mercury, whose Tarot card is associated with the duad Chokmah. Magus cardHe can be dexterous and cunning, creative and destructive, magus or trickster. He, too, like the protagonist of Ted’s poem, wears “playclothes”, “tests every role for laughs”, yet is able to spark connections “through bustling atmospherics”.

Sylvia’s caryatid poem was meant to catch the attention of Ted and his poet friends, which it did. But they thought it exemplified form without energy (just as Binah does) and disliked it. In Ted’s view it was “thin and brittle”, “cold”, “like the theorem of a trap, a deadfall”. The irony of this was that the trap caught both Ted and Sylvia.

In these first three poems, as nowhere else in Birthday Letters, Ted deals directly with the Sephiroth rather than with the paths between them. This is appropriate, because at this level – that of the first three divine emanations in the highest, Atziluthic, world – the energies are nearest to the Source and are of equal importance. It is also appropriate, because in all the rituals associated with Cabbalistic journeys, such as those of the Order of The Golden Dawn (of which Yeats was once a prominent member), the Neophyte is brought to the ‘Pillars of Soloman/Hermes/Seth’ beyond which lies the gate to ‘The Hall of Truth’. At this stage in Birthday Letters, Ted has brought himself and Sylvia to this gateway. Together they will begin the journey but, until their marriage, their paths run parallel and are joined only at times, as fate decrees.

The Path of the The Hanged Man – Mem

Mem pathHanged Man card

Tarot card 12. Tree path 13.

Joining Sephira 5 (Gevurah)and 8 (Hod)

‘Fidelity’, ‘Astringency’, ‘The Rag Rug’, ‘The Ventriloquist’

Clearly, it is not possible for me to trace the Cabbalistic pattern of this journey poem by poem through Birthday Letters in this short paper. What I will do, instead, is look at four poems which represent the same path in each of the four overlapping Worlds. The path I have chosen is that of the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Mem, which is symbolised by water and is represented in the Tarot by card 12, The Hanged Man. For the sake of simplicity, too, I will concentrate on the Tarot, which is, as I have already mentioned, a mnemonic device for remembering the complex theory of Cabbala, and, as such, it relies on vivid images and rich mythological associations.

The image on the card of The Hanged Man was identified in Frazer’s The Golden Bough5 as Attis, the Dying God on the Tree of Life. It is a symbol of sacrifice, death and rebirth, an overturning of the world, a time for radical change on the path. Mem, described by Cabbalists as “between the Waters above and the Waters beneath”, is also a path of transition.

The Birthday Letters poem related to the path of Mem and The Hanged Man in the first, Atziluthic, world of archetypes and first emanations is ‘Fidelity’ (BL 28), and almost its first words are – “I was just hanging around”. Here is Ted, “afloat on the morning tide”, “gutted”, “free”, suspended:

...I think of it
As a kind of time that cannot pass.
That I have never used, so still possess.

At this stage of the Cabbalistic journey, worldly things have been left behind and the aspirant is in a state of suspension and must prove him or herself worthy of continuing along the path. Like the Grail-quest Knight, some trial must be passed, some choice or sacrifice made.

Only a short time earlier, Ted was “playing at friendship”, “frivolous as faithless”. The old life had to end, just as Dionysus had to perish to be reborn as Iaccus. Already Ted has left behind the baggage of his first twenty-five years. All he has is “a bare mattress, on bare boards, in a bare room” and his notebook. Now, every night in this bare, top room, he encounters “a lovely girl” and, just as the Grail-quest Knight (Gawain, in particular) was tested in his encounters with the amorous lady in the mysterious castle, so Ted’s “fidelity” to Sylvia is tested. Images of “knighthood”, “holy law”, “a priestess”, “nakedness” and chaste “sisterly comforting” all reinforce this parallel. Ted makes a choice, and even the second, “wilder”, “shameless gap-tooth”, plump and pretty girl does not break his chivalrous resolve to “keep the meaning of my words / Solid with the world we were making”.

Significantly, it was the breaking of faith which was the issue here not sexual gratification, for in Cabbala sex is not a sin. So, each girl – one naked and sisterly, the other naked in her desire to get him “inside her” – is sacrificed, “laid”, like a“sinless child”, under the threshold of Ted’s and Sylvia’s future.

The second poem on the path of Mem and The Hanged Man is ‘Astringency’ (BL 80). Now, Ted’s and Sylvia’s paths are combined. They are no longer in the Atziluthic world of archetypes but in the lower, watery, mutable World of Briah, the world of intellect and abstract creation.

In ‘Astringency’, the natural energies, like the River Charles, seem frozen and everything is suspended. Ted strolls “slackly”, and he and Sylvia are “Together, silent, thinking of nothing”. The word ‘astringency’ was for years, as Ted tells us, a cant, insincere, catchword but it also means “the drawing together of organic tissues” (OED), a process by which healing is promoted. In the poem, which is full of images of sickness and distress, Ted draws together fragments of free, healthy energy (like the goldfish) and the “toxic” world of “Agrochemicals”, air polluted by iron-smelting, and “Lit.Crit” – all the result of intellectual intervention in a natural, creative process. He and Sylvia are “Right there on the edge” of this world, standing “on” America, rather than immersed in it’s culture, watching the “lariat” noose of “each small, tired wave” wash over “a nipple of rock”, as if these murky, poisoned waters are threatening their own mother.

In their lives at this time, too, they were on the edge. They had left behind the rational, predictable path of jobs and academia and they were not yet committed to the literary life of Boston. “A life of doing nothing is death”, Sylvia wrote in her journal on August 2nd, 1958, and she swung between elation and depression: “the strangling noose of worry, of hysteria, paralysis...6 was ever present. In the true spirit of Briah they were “writing, consolidating our splayed selves7: discovering identity and voice.

Amongst the other organic energies brought together in the poem, are the human energies, rational and instinctive. In Sylvia, if not in Ted, rationality is “the censor”, “the night hands”, “the snare” which silences her instinctive energies and traps “all that teeming population” of imaginative metaphors, to hang them, tortured, in her poems (another image of suspension). Only once does Ted hear an instinctive metaphor escape in her speech. But, like the goldfish, this “Brainstorm of the odds” shows that the situation is not hopeless, the natural energies are still strong and “frisky” and choice still exists.

No sacrifices are mentioned in the poem, but the choice Ted and Sylvia make (as the very next poem in Birthday Letters shows) is to follow instinct, rather than logic, and to keep faith with the trust each has placed in poetry and its paramount importance in their shared future.

Below the World of Briah, but connected to it, is the World of Yetzirah, a world of syntheses and formation in which poetry, music, literature, art, law and all other real but intangible patterns exist and are shaped by the individual subconscious.

‘The Rag Rug’ (BL 135), (which is the poem on the Hanged Man path in this Yetziratic World) does not, on first reading seem to be about suspension, choice or sacrifice, as the other poems were. But it is full of Cabbalistic symbolism, especially in the snake energies which coil and sway and pour through the poem. Sylvia’s “motley viper”, a serpent which seems “to pull something out of [her] like some tapeworm of the psyche” and is dragged, like her own “entrails, out through [her] navel”, and Ted’s great golden snake, shaken awake by an inversion of Ted’s dream world and lifting “its head from a well in the middle of the house”, are both superb images of subconscious energies. They are also energies which are as dangerous and mysterious as The Path of Wisdom (which is itself The Path of the Serpent) is for those who travel it. And they are linked in the poem with some deep “knowledge” which will alter Sylvia’s “blood” and Ted’s “nerves and brain” and lie “coiled between” them like the rag rug, dividing them from each other.

Hanged Man imagery is there in the poem, too. It is there in the doubleness which Ted himself weaves into the poem so that the rag rug becomes a symbolic interface between two worlds, the earth world of “venous blood”, “the grave”, malediction and death, and the sky world of the “serpent’s jumbled rainbow”, of “lightnings”, sunny “daffodil yellow”, happiness and birth. At this interface, Ted and Sylvia are “lifted”, “freed” by the physical act of creation. Sylvia, plaiting the rug and “creating the serpent” soothes Ted with her calm industry, and Ted, lulls her with his voice, “like a snake-charmer”, reading books which are, themselves, about interfaces where dark, subconscious energies enter the world.

The mood of suspension, of “breath-held camera moments”, of shared beauty and happiness is strong in the poem, but so, too, is the fragility of this world, the sense of impending, irreversible, division and change. And the poem lies at a moment of change in the Birthday Letters sequence and in the story which it tells.

In my reading of the poem, the creation of the rag rug is a metaphor for the creative gestation which was going on in Sylvia in the early months of 1962, a process in which Ted, himself was “pushed out and away”. Until then, in spite of all their differences, Ted and Sylvia had worked together. But at the heart of this poem, following the moment of suspension and beauty, are Sylvia’s “furies” (“bled into the rug” and “confided to whoever” in her diary), followed by Ted’s images of birth and separation. Sylvia seems driven by this new knowledge she has “unearthed” to separate herself from Ted – to do what she had described once in her journal in a burst of fury at Ted: “… I won’t bother showing him the story of Sweetie Pie I’ve done, keep the viper out of the household and send it out on its own”8. It is not clear whether the viper, at the time of that particular entry, was Ted or the story she had written.

In April 1962, according to Ted in ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’9, Sylvia achieved “this cool, light, very beautiful moment of mastery, that enabled her to take the next step… [then] she started on a poem about a giant wych elm that overshadowed the yard of her home… And at once the Ariel voice emerged in full, out of the tree.”. The poem to which Ted refers is ‘Elm’10. And the poem immediately after ‘The Rag Rug’, which represents the next step on the journey in Birthday Letters, describes how Sylvia divined new inspiration for her writing “in the elm”, although here it is the elm table Ted made for her (‘The Table’ BL 138)11.

And there are sacrifices here, too. ‘The Rag Rug’ ends with an image of the end of Ted’s and Sylvia’s shared Eden. The rag rug itself, and the inspiration and knowledge which the process of gestation and birth achieved, survived this ending but, from this point on, Sylvia followed her path alone and Ted “sleepwalked” (‘The Table’, BL 138) after her.

In ‘The Ventriloquist’ (BL 181), the poem on The Hanged Man path in the World of Assiah, sacrifice is total. Assiah is the world of making, where all that has been prepared for and formed in the other Worlds becomes real and present. It is the lowest, earth-bound World, furthest from the Source and nearest to the dark Underworld. ‘The Ventriloquist’ is full of doubleness, it encapsulates all that has happened so far in the journey and it ends with Sylvia’s most terrible choice and sacrifice – her death.

In my reading of this poem, Sylvia is the ventriloquist of the poem’s title, and Ariel is her “doll”. Ariel was a magnificent and terrifying creation, strong, angry and destructive, beautiful but flawed like everything in the World of Assiah. It was Ariel’s voice that Sylvia had worked so hard to find and which spoke so clearly in the poems she wrote in the last months of her life.

And Ariel has accompanied Ted and Sylvia on their journey through Birthday Letters. Ariel was the “humanoid, raggedy shadow” which appeared in the portrait painted of Sylvia at Yaddo (‘Portraits’, BL 104) but she has now grown strong and independent. Hers was the voice “which cried out in [your] sleep” in ‘Fairy Tale’ (BL 159) and which Sylvia did not recognise as her own. And Ariel was the “prisoner in the dungeon” who Sylvia fed “through the keyhole” in ‘The Blackbird’ (BL 162), and the “Guardian Angel” into whose bosom Sylvia “crept for safety” but who turned out to be her “Demon Slave”, and “devoured” her.

‘The Ventriloquist’ begins with the bodily fall into sex, love and marriage which, in Birthday Letters was also Ted’s and Sylvia’s fall into the Abyss from the top of the Sephirothic Tree at the start of their questing journey. Whilst Sylvia wept and clung to Ted through the “thorny wood” and the “river’s freeze” of the journey which was also their marriage, her other, destructive, self put “Mummy” on show as “The Kraken” in The Bell Jar and screamed in her poems that “Daddy was no good” and that Ted “was with a whore”. Finally, it is this second self, which Sylvia had sought out and nurtured, which kills her.

This was the ultimate self-sacrifice, the ultimate destructive revenge by the “doll” on the stars which had guided Sylvia towards her creation. In Cabbalistic terms, it was not “Justice” (note the capital given to this word in the poem) but the result of an unbalanced use of the severe energies of the Pillar of Justice, which should have been tempered by those of the Pillar of Mercy. As Portia so rightly tells Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “earthly powers do then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice”.

For Sylvia, this was the end of her journey. The re-birth which, in Cabbalistic terms, should have followed her sacrifice was no longer possible. Ted’s world, too, was overturned. In spirit, he too was plunged into darkness and it was a long time before he began, again, his journey towards the Source.

But Birthday Letters does not end with ‘The Ventriloquist’. Cabbala, like alchemy, works at three levels: the conscious, story-telling, level; the metaphorical level at which images and symbols work on the subconscious and the spiritual message is understood; and the practical level of applied processes and rituals. In the remaining Birthday Letters poems, Ted completes the new journey which he began when he started the imaginative processes and rituals needed to conjure past events and re-create them in his work. The final poems are all aspects of life after death, which is also the title of the poem following ‘The Ventriloquist’. They tell of the effects of Sylvia’s death on Ted and her children; of the myths and stories which Ted created because of it; and of the industry which grew up around her story and her work. They tell, too, of the characteristics and skills Frieda and Nicholas inherited from her and of Ted’s memories of her, which, like the “flawless crystal” of her “seer’s vision-stone”, encompass both ecstasy and horror.

In ‘The Dogs are Eating your Mother’(BL 195), Sylvia’s children and we, the readers of the poem, are told to imagine her journey out of the underworld and on towards the sun, to “think her better”. And in the final poem, ‘Red’ (BL 197) Ted lays to rest the ghost of Sylvia which he has conjured back into life in the poems by recombining the red and the blue colours which reflected her blood and her spirit, and sealing this journey’s end with the symbol of kindly caresses which he has used in the poem – a blue jewel.


For Ted, Birthday Letters brought, he said, “a sense of inner liberation, a huge sudden possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange.12. His wife, Carol, wrote13 that “he was renewed after publishing them”. For me, following Ted’s footsteps through Birthday Letters along some well-trodden Cabbalistic pathways has been an enlightening and magical experience. But it is the nature of Cabbala that every person must make the journey for themselves. Although we may follow the same paths, what I learn on my journey is likely to be quite different to what you would learn on yours. So, in the end, all anyone can offer as a guide are a few unsteady footprints in the mud and the suggestion of sights you might see along the way.


1. Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991, 272.

2. Ted Hughes + R.S.Thomas read and discuss selections of their own poems, Norwich Tapes Ltd, London: The Critical Forum, 1978

3. Alistair Fowler, Spencer and the Numbers of Time, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1964.

4. Kathleen Raine, Yeats, the Tarot and The Golden Dawn, Dolmen Press, Dublin, 1972, 6.

5. J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan, London, 1974

6. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Ballantyne, NY, 1982, July 27, 1958.

7. The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Sept. 27, 1958.

8. The Journals of Sylvia Plath, May 20, 1959. This particular entry is amongst others made in 1959 (January 27, 28, May 18, 20, 31) which record Sylvia’s first experiences with rug-braiding. On Jan.27, she records her intention that the rug will be something to help her to assert her will: “I will begin to make a rug today. To step on”. On Jan. 28, she describes her “immense pleasure” in making something by hand; and on May 20, after a fight with Ted, she records her use of rug-braiding to release her anger: “It will not be a prayer rug but an anger rug”. It is interesting to note that the colours Sylvia describes using in 1959 are not those which Ted describes in the poem. Either Sylvia was making another rug in 1961, or Ted has transposed the rug-braiding activity and altered the details for this poem.

9. Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, 187-8.

10. Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, London, 1981, 192-3.

11. At the time of the events in the poem, Ted and Sylvia were living in Devon in the house with the well “beneath its slab in the middle” and the worn threshold. It was 1962, Nicholas had been born in January and Sylvia’s mother had visited them from late June to mid August. But the table which Ted describes in ‘The Table’, the poem which follows ‘The Rag Rug’ in Birthday Letters, had been made for Sylvia in September the previous year (Letters Home, Sept. 15, 27, 1961). Sylvia’s poem ‘Elm’, in which Ted suggests the Ariel voice first appeared, was written in April 1962. So, the chronology of the poems does not follow that of actual events here but is consistent with the order of the pathways on the Sephirothic Tree

12. Ted Hughes’ letter read at the Whitbread Book of the Year Awards Jan. 1999

13. Carol Hughes in a letter to AS. Dec. 1999.

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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