The World Card Tau path

The Path of The World – Tau

Tarot card 21. Tree Path 22.

Joining Sephiroth 9 (Yesod) and 10 (Malkuth).

‘55 Eltisley’, ‘Remission’, ‘The Beach’, ‘Red’.

© Ann Skea

Path 22, the Path of The World, is the final Path of the Cabbalistic journey. It is the Path onto which the Spiritual Child steps forth armed with all the experience, knowledge and understanding which has been gained on the earlier Paths. And it is the place of transformation, the place where all the energies which are now gathered at Yesod (9 - Foundation) are made manifest in our World through the powers of Malkuth (10 – The World).

Both Yesod and Malkuth have been discussed in detail in earlier chapters, but not as they relate to this Path. Here, the culmination of the Great Work is achieved and no further changes become possible on this particular journey. The journeyer will either succeed in their quest, or fail. And the degree of understanding, balance and self-control which has been learned on the journey now determine the pilgrim’s future, for (as always in Cabbala where death and life are a continuous process) this end is also a beginning.

Malkuth lies at the base of the cental Pillar of Equilibrium at the end of Path 22 which is nearest to the Underworld. It is linked, through Yesod, to the Path of the Arrow, which flies directly up the Pillar of Equilibrium, through Tiphereth at the heart of the Tree, across the Abyss, to Kether – The Crown. There, the liberated Self (the Pure Spiritual Child) comes face-to-face with the Divine Source and direct communication is possible. The journeyer who succeeds in making this flight successfully is still human, still present in our World of Nature, and he or she becomes a Master or Magus: a healer and teacher1.

The ‘Child’ which has been born of a journey in which learning has been incomplete, however, necessarily embodies impurities which make direct communication with the Divine Source (seeing the God naked, as it were) extremely dangerous. This Child should make the journey again, beginning humbly, not quite as the Fool they once were but with child-like willingness to learn. But another, terrible possibility also exists.

Enthralled by the unpredictable energies of the Moon Goddess of Malkuth, Hecate, and the dangerous powers of Saturn, the Old Father God of fertility who governs this Path, the journeyer who has gained some, incomplete, understanding but is not yet fully master of their own energies, may be tempted, as Sylvia was, to try and fly up the Path of the Arrow to the Source2. Such an attempt can only end in disaster. Just as Psyche incurred the wrath of Eros and was cast out of his dream palace and out of the World for succumbing to the temptation to see his face, so those who prematurely attempt to fly to the Source plunge into the Abyss of Shells, demons and ghosts. Then, only through the mediation of others (as in the story of Psyche) are the gods placated so that the wandering spirit may re-enter the World of Nature through Saturn’s Underworld and, ultimately, be reborn.

The Cabbalistic journey, which is that of the shamanic healer, the poet, the potential Spiritual Master and Magus requires the utmost patience. It also requires faith that even in the darkest places Truth and Unity do exist. And so-called ‘Simple Faith’ is an essential aspect of this Path. Yet to define Simple Faith, is no easy task.

Faith, it seems, is fundamental to our world-view and it may be expressed in religious, mythological, psychological, mathematical, scientific or common sense terms. At an everyday level, faith in the continuity of the material world allows us to function from moment-to-moment and faith in natural laws, whether we understand them or not, allows us to learn from experience, to predict and to plan. But for the Cabbalist, faith in some power which is the source of inner strength and guidance underpins the whole journey. Without simple faith, the Cabbalistic journey would be meaningless.


Simple Faith, on this Path of The World is symbolized by the Hebrew letter for this Path, which is Tau. Tau, in Hebrew teaching is ‘The Seal of Creation’, the “impression” of God which “passes in inheritance from generation to generation, world to world”. In this way, Tau links Heaven and Earth. Tau is also the Cross in which, symbolically, every Earthly thing is connected to the still point of Truth and Unity. The Cross is a symbol of faith and redemption3.

Faith is represented, too, on the Traditional Tarot card for The World. It is suggested by the symbols for the four Christian evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – whose gospels have passed the message of God from generation to generation. It is suggested, too, by the wreath of evergreen leaves which symbolize the continuity of life through Nature’s cycles and the zero of completion, the Uroborus, which joins every end to a new beginning. It is there, too, in the human figure (traditionally hermaphrodite) which dances naked at the centre of it all. This figure, at the hub of this wheel of natural and supernatural life, expresses child-like joy, balance and wholeness. It is variously interpreted as the Spiritual Child, the Spirit of Nature, the Self reborn, and the position in which it dances, with arms outstretched and one leg crossed over the other, resembles that of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, dancing in the cosmos. This Tarot figure, however, has one foot firmly planted on Earth and it is surrounded by Earthly symbols.

The Element which governs this Path is Earth. The crossed legs of the dancing figure make the Earth number, 4 – the cross of the four Elements and the number of stability. And its head and arms make a triangle, symbolizing the reflection here on Earth (in Father, Mother and newborn Spiritual Child) of the unity of the Supernal Triangle. Together, a triangle superimposed on a cross like this represent Alchemical Sulphur, the immortal Soul which is the “essential and immutable form of man” on Earth4. Alchemical Sulphur also (like the energies of Malkuth) confers form on the purified essence which is the final product of the Great Work, thus fixing it, as a seed of spiritual gold, in our World. Similarly, the Tarot figure of the Spiritual Child is fixed within the egg-shaped wreath of leaves, so that it is part of Nature and her cycles here on Earth. Out of the egg, into our World, will come the liberated Soul, the reborn Shaman, the Magus, the True Self.

Earth is represented, too, in all the numbers associated with this Path. The number of the Tarot card is 21, representing two whole Earthly cycles of 10, plus a new beginning at 15. The number of this Cabbalistic Path is 22, in which 2 + 2 and 2 x 2 equal 4, representing Earth. And the numerical value of Tau is 400, which significantly magnifies its Earthly powers.

Like the linked and equal twos which represent the Cabbalistic Path of Tau, the title Ted chose for the first poem on this Path in the Atziluthic World also contains linked and equal numbers. “55 Eltisley” not only refers to the first home in which Ted and Sylvia lived after their marriage and their return from Spain, it also has numerical significance which is remarkably apt for Ted’s Cabbalistic purposes.

5 + 5 = 10. And 10, although it is not the number of the final Path, is the number of completion and the number which gathers all the energies together in the Worldly Kingdom of Malkuth, at one end of this Cabbalistic Path. 5 is also the Tarot number of the Hierophant, the man or woman chosen by the High Priestess to channel her energies into our World. The Hierophant is one who (like the shamanic poets Ted spoke of with Ekbert Faas) has received and responded to the Goddess’s call: and both Ted and Sylvia, in their driven need to be poets and in their determination to dedicate their lives to creative ends, had heard her and responded. Both, at this stage of their lives, were inspired by love, which is the source of the Hierophant’s powers. And both were already successfully channelling a great deal of creative energy into their poems. Both, in effect, were Heirophants and, in their shared poetic purpose6, they could appropriately be represented by the fives side-by-side in this poem’s title.

‘55 Eltisley’ tells a story which is backed up by entries in Sylvia’s journal and by letters which she wrote to her mother between 22 October 1956 and 29 May 1957. Ted’s solitary move into the flat, the “few old sheets” and the “kitchen silver” which had remained there, and the “ghastly yellow” walls which Sylvia wanted to repaint (SPLH 1 Nov. 1956); the dirt she tried to scour away; the sofa; the paraffin heater; the two older women, Dorothea Krook (SPLH 24 Feb. 1957) and Wendy Christie (SPLH 18 March 1957), whose help and friendship Sylvia accepted: all find confirmation in Sylvia’s letters. As do Sylvia’s strong responses to world events, her longing for America (SPLH 12 March 1957), and the great elation and deep depression which accompanied each acceptance or rejection of their poems.

Ted imaginatively adds life and colour to his memories of all this in this poem, but in the light of the poem’s position in the Cabbalistic journey there is another, deeper level of meaning to much of what he tells us.

On the first day of November, 1956, Ted did indeed move into the ground floor flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Cambridge, alone. Officially, Sylvia was expected to remain in her college room at Whitstead until December 7th when the term ended but unofficially she soon joined Ted at Eltisley Avenue. Their separation, then, was brief and not nearly as total or distant as it had been in October when, for three weeks, Sylvia was living in Cambridge and Ted was still living in London. Yet, in his poem Ted emphasized the solitary nature of his move into the flat in five lines in which he chose his words with precision. He “took possession” of the flat, “claimed it”, “slept” in it “alone”, he tells us: thus he performed the very first task of any careful magician by taking possession of the space which would become the home (or temple) in which he would practice his art.

Ted’s art, and Sylvia’s, too, of course, was poetry, but the flat in Eltisley Avenue was also the place in which the couple would cast horoscopes, consult the Tarot, and use the Ouija board to conjure the Spirit, Pan, to ask for help in choosing topics for their poems and in predicting Football Pool results. This sort of practice is, as discussed earlier in relation to the poem ‘Ouija’ (BL 53), a misguided and dangerous way for novices to seek contact with the Divine energies. Perhaps Ted suggests as much in ‘55 Eltisley’ when her refers to the “emergency kit of kitchen gadgets” with which they launched the “expedition”: for this was not just an expedition into a shared journey through life but also their shared poetic quest for wholeness and Truth.

Ted was always superstitious, so it was quite natural that he should immediately have looked for omens at 55 Eltisley Avenue. But the power he attributed to the blood which he found staining the pillow, and the detail in which he “studied” it, is rather more than simple folk-lore superstition or a ghoulish, over-active imagination might suggest or require. It is, rather, the power which magicians and soothsayers have always attributed to blood: the power of ectoplasmic materialization – the power to allow things of the spirit world to take form in our world – a power which is especially associated with the energies of Malkuth. So, in this poem, the blood on the pillow “condenses” for Ted “a miasma”, an “odour”, a “ghost”. And his investigation of its exact origin – mouth, ear or head – had the sort of importance that a soothsayer would attribute to an investigation of the entrails of a sacrificed animal.

All of this degraded, Earth-focussed, magical practice, with its reliance on tools and omens, is consistent with the still-Foolish state of those who have as yet only travelled the Paths of the Atziluthic World and still have much to learn. Especially, Ted and Sylvia had yet to understand that simple faith, rather than complicated rituals, is the way to Truth7. Their approach, too, was naively dangerous on this Path which is so close to the Underworld and is so open, through Malkuth, to the demons of darkness. Yet, as Ted makes clear by his reference to the Albatross in this poem, he and Sylvia were already well beyond the threshold of their poetic journey. For, although the “Antarctic seas” and the “pack-ice” make complete sense as images for Sylvia’s icy opposition to any suggestion of Ted’s contact with other women, the Albatross is best understood as that same shamanic “Keeper of the Threshold” which Ted identified in his essay on Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ (WP 421 - 424).

Ted’s analysis of Coleridge’s poetry as a shamanic poet’s struggle to release his true Poetic Self, established ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as a description of an archetypal shamanic journey. Ted wrote of this journey as that “spirit adventure” which is “the spontaneous quest” undertaken “asleep or awake” by every soul in dire need. It is, in other words, exactly the quest, or ‘expedition’, on which he believed that he and Sylvia had embarked. So, the Albatross appears in ‘55 Eltisley’, and the couple are seen to journey, like Coleridge’s Mariner, through unknown icy-seas; to suffer “meteorological phenomena” (Sylvia’s moods swung between becalmed depression and the storms of creativity and euphoria); and to encounter “polar apparitions”. And now, on this Path of Tau (which figuratively is at the bottom of the Tree, furthest from the warmth of the Source) they have arrived at the place where the Otherworld and our own World meet, where spiritual transformation occurs and where a shamanic poet may, like the Ancient Mariner gain “strange powers of speech”.

In ‘55 Eltisley’, however, although a rainbow of promise glows in the darkness through which Ted and Sylvia plod, the conditions for true transformation are not right. Ted’s happy complacency, his willingness to accept just “a candle” for illumination, suggest the Vice of Malkuth, which is Inertia. Sylvia, too, is happy to settle for the “igloo comfort” of a “centrally heated” Bell Jar. And the “crystal ball” at which she warms her “hands” (rather than warming her heart at the Source) shows her a comforting, ready-made, traditional, dream-scene of domestic harmony. This was a small-scale, Worldly (but also unrealistic) goal for which to aim.

In this poem, Sylvia uses her “heirloom paperweight8 exactly as a magician would use a talisman in order to achieve a desired end. And once again this suggests a crude and ancient ‘kitchen-tool’ sort of magic. But, chillingly, the scene on which Sylvia focuses her energies is a vision of a Mummy and Daddy sealed off from the rest of the world in an artificial place of perpetual snow. Fives Metaphorically, as Ted suggests in the final three lines of the poem, this miniature scene did, indeed, depict their shared future. “Be careful what you wish for: it may come true”, is a warning which must be especially heeded when magic is involved.

‘55 Eltisley’, however, marks only the end of one phase of Ted’s and Sylvia’s journey. They had not yet learned to accept the material world “as it is and has to be” and to look beyond the “mirage” for the Truth. Together as the winter of 1956-7 turned to Spring, they would begin to tread the Paths in the World of Briah. And although they were now “plodding” hand in hand, female joined to male like the Alchemical King and Queen beneath the Rainbow, this newly linked couple was not the truly hermaphrodite Spiritual Child which can reach the Source. Nor could it be, since such joint enlightenment is not possible. Each, individually, would have to find the unity and balance of the Spiritual Child within themselves in order to experience their own transformation in their own time.

In ‘Remission’ (BL 109 - 110), which occupies the Path of Tau in the World of Briah, Sylvia, in her “oceanic submission” to the natural processes of birth, temporarily achieves such a transformation. Ted, in his own words, “helped her” and “saw it” happen: saw Sylvia transfigured; saw the human mother and child linked by Nature to the Source.

Once again, through the medium of Sylvia’s Indian midwife, Ted invokes the image of the Golden Chain of Homer, in which the Virgin Nature transmits the ‘Invisible Fire’ of the Source into our World through the ‘Ape of Art’. There is nothing demeaning intended in Ted’s reference to the midwife’s “monkey-fine dark fingers”. On the contrary, he makes it clear that for Sylvia this midwife was the Earth Goddess, the “deity” who brought the “yoga breath” of the Indian Mother Goddess, Ganga, to inspire and soothe her. Through her arts, Sylvia was “delivered”. And the ambiguity of Ted’s phrase “delivered you” encompasses Sylvia’s own temporary escape from “death” (which like Johnny Panic had become part of her), and the birth of her child: it suggests, also, the mediating role of the midwife, who delivers this gift of new life from the gods.

Only the identification of the midwife as Indian, and the position of the poem in the Birthday Letters sequence, which is roughly chronological, suggests that ‘Remission’ refers to Frieda’s birth in April 1960. In fact, the empty “face-mask of nitrous oxide” was part of Nicholas’s birth in 1962: for Frieda’s birth Sylvia had no anaesthetic at all.9. So, Ted’s statements about Sylvia’s discovery of her true “joy-being” through pregnancy and birth can apply to both occasions. This “joy-being”, however – this Spiritual Child briefly poised at the heart of the Natures World (like the figure on the Tarot card) – was, indeed, a “fragile” plant. It required simple faith in Nature’s powers to sustain it. And although Sylvia recognized that this was the self she “loved and wanted to live with”, the self beneath all the “prettily painted” shells she had so painstakingly constructed for protection since her suicide attempt, she was not yet ready, or able, to learn this lesson of submission and suspend her own Will. As her journals and letters show, she still believed that she could deliver herself from her demons by her own efforts; and Worldly success through publication of her work remained her goal.

The story Ted tells in ‘Remission’ is clear enough. Even the myth-loaded image of Sylvia’s rescued Self launched on the Paradisal river in a “little woven vessel” – that new Self which finds its image in a “free-floating crib” – is clearly one of release and promise10. But all such potential, for Sylvia, is shown to be “already” undermined in the final lines of the poem.

What is much less clear about the poem, is Ted’s reason for shaping it on his page in just the way he did. Why, for instance, did he choose to make lines 11 to 16 a separate stanza? And why, especially, are the final three lines so rudely divorced from the rest of the poem when grammar and punctuation make them the last part of the sentence begun on line 32?

There is no doubt that lines 11 to 16 state the essential and necessary kinship of Sylvia’s true Self with Nature. No doubt, either, that the final three lines of the poem figuratively display death’s undermining power. Yet, there are other Cabbalistic and magical reasons why Ted should have chosen to shape this poem as he did.

Since 10 represents every aspect of Worldly completion, it is appropriate that at the “kernel” of the first ten lines of the poem, Ted reveals the True Self which lies hidden under Sylvia’s multi-layered Worldly persona. It is also appropriate, since 6 is the number of Venus-Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love whose energies lie at the heart of the Cabbalistic Tree, that Ted should express the natural beauty and wholeness of Sylvia’s True Self in the next six separate but closely linked lines.

By adding together 10 and 6, in pattern and in the meaning of the numbers, Ted then gives us sixteen lines in which the Spiritual Child is born (10 + 6 = 16 : 6 + 1 = 7, the number of the Spiritual Child born into our World).

Finally, by spatially distancing the phrase “Escape incognito” from the verb “helped”, to which it is linked by the grammar and punctuation of the last four lines of the poem, Ted gave that phrase the added power of an imperative. And, by invoking the magical power of 3 to support that phrase, he reinforced its imperative effect. In addition, his particular spacing of lines ensures that whenever the poem is read paying due attention to the spacing Ted chose, “As I helped you” will belong most naturally to the sixteen lines which it concludes: and the imperative effect of “Escape incognito”, linked to the final two lines, will be reinforced and (especially if it is read aloud) given continuing magical power.

What Sylvia is to escape from is clearly and carefully defined, and her incognito state (‘incognito’: unknown; disguised; with character and name concealed) allows death no “features” by which to recognize her again.

No change was possible in the events which Ted recounted in ‘Remission’, but his own journey as he wrote the Birthday Letters poems had brought him again to the final Path of the World of Briah. Here the fluid concepts and patterns so far created are those which will soon be made concrete in the World of Yetzirah. So, Ted’s numerical pattern-making in ‘Remissions’ had special significance: and it strongly suggests that his purpose was to ensure that Sylvia’s Spirit should, through the magic of this poem, be able to re-enter our World incognito and, therefore, whole again and completely free11.

‘Remission’, however, was not the last poem of Ted’s Birthday Letters journey: nor does it recount the end of Sylvia’s journey all those years before. It tells only, as the title indicates, of Sylvia’s brief respite from the claims of the deathly power that lodged in her and constantly threatened to destroy her. So, both journeys continued, and the next poem on the Path of Tau, now in the World of Yetzirah is ‘The Beach’ (BL 154 - 156).

’the Beach’, set between ‘Being Christlike’ and ‘Dreamers’ in the Birthday Letters sequence, appears to refer to something which took place in November 1962. Yet, by November 1962 (the month is mentioned twice in the poem), Ted and Sylvia had separated. Ted was living alone in London and Sylvia had begun to plan her move out of Court Green in Devon. The couple did still meet, and there is no reason why they should not have shared a trip to a Devon beach, but it seems unlikely. And Ted’s endeavour, in the poem, to endear England to Sylvia by showing her a “magnificent” beach seems trivial compared to the serious breakdown in their relationship at that time12.

The actual date of events, however, is not significant, except that chronological anomalies in Birthday Letters are invariably due to Ted’s deliberate positioning of poems according to their relevance to particular Cabbalistic Paths. In November 1962, Sylvia certainly “lashed for release”. She was unsettled, consumed by anger and grief, and planning to get a divorce. And the differences apparent between the couple in ‘The Beach’, were very real for Sylvia and Ted at that time. Its symbolism of failed dreams, too, is very apt.

In particular, that was the time when, especially between 26th September and 2nd December 1962, Sylvia’s poetic demon, Ariel, lashed her into an amazing, sustained surge of creativity. From the first release of Ariel in ‘Elm’ (SPCP 192 - 193), Sylvia responded to her demon; first slowly, then with gathering momentum until she was writing two or three superbly accomplished poems a night13. Sylvia’s driven, instinctive need to give free rein to her poetic Self, regardless of all that was happening to her every-day Worldly Self, is precisely captured in Ted’s image of the migrating eel, driven by instinct to seek its source. But although Sylvia’s poetic Self came alive as she wrote those poems and did, briefly, dance at the centre of her creative world, its dance was wild and destructive and joyless: quite unlike that of the figure on the Tarot card of The World.

Vividly as ‘The Beach’ conveys the failure of two people to reconcile the differences in expectations, vision and mood which exist between them, it is also a poem which demonstrates the need to discriminate between truth and illusion, dream and reality. Cabbalistically, on this Path of Tau, where Worlds meet and where the Virtue of Malkuth is Discrimination, constant vigilance and care is essential. And on this Path, too, Malkuth is the ‘Gate of Death’ and ‘The Gate of Life’, a place of endings and beginnings: it is a doorway to the Underworld through which (under Hecate’s witchy moon) demons may enter our World: and it is a place of extreme dichotomies where the success or failure of the Cabbalist’s journey will be determined.

A beach, as in other Birthday Letters poems, is a margin – a threshold between two worlds. Symbolically, it is a place of dichotomies – the meeting place of conscious and unconscious worlds, of life and death, dream and reality. On one side of this margin, too, is the familiar, unchangeable landscape of the past: on the other, the fluid, unknown seas of the future. Symbolically, a beach was exactly where Ted and Sylvia stood in their everyday lives and in their creative lives in November 1962.

In reality, and symbolically, Ted’s poem tells of unrealistic expectations based, not on knowledge and understanding, but on visions and dreams. Both he and Sylvia had a seed of light – a “jewel” or a “crystal” – within them which drove them towards a promised land. For Sylvia, sun-drenched, sea-scoured Nauset was “some prophecy mislaid”, which she yearned to recover: For Ted, it was Avalon – the Isle of Appletrees – a mythical, fertile place of enchantment and magic, to which he was tuned.

These were complementary visions. Sylvia’s one of sun and sea: Ted’s, dark and earthy. The mistake both make in ‘The Beach’ is to look for the realization of their dreams in the external, physical world. Each, too, perceives the physical world around them in a different way, viewing it according to their own experience and partial knowledge. Ted, shaped by war-scarred England, accepts dirt and drabness and restrictions as the natural state of his world. But on venturing beyond its margin (across the shifting surface of the sea) the “shock” of his first glimpse of the bright, busy, “merry-go-round” world of Manhattan jolts him out of his “utility habit14 into a new, tentative perspective of himself and his world.

Sylvia, too, had been shaped by her past. Her American background led her to judge everything about England according to her own expectations and, therefore, to see it as funereal, “respectable”, “depressionist” and devoid of “colour and light and life”. She rejected all this. But capturing the vehemence and sarcasm of her rejection in his poem, Ted suggests, also, that Sylvia had glimpsed something familiar which she did not want to face, something which “darkened some darkness darker” within herself. So, she “lashed for release”, and Ted, responding to the surface expression of her inner turmoil, knowing she needed some release and wanting to help her, unwisely sought a remedy based on his own inner vision and his own familiar dreams.

The beach Ted had once glimpsed in the distance and had invested in his imagination with all the natural beauties, energies and light which he saw close around him “gathered and crimped, tucked and crewelled / Into needlework by the cliff-top flora”, turned out to be “hopeless”. Exactly “the reverse of dazzling Nauset”. Yet, even if it had been as Ted imagined it, so strongly is our vision of the world around us shaped by habit, that Sylvia would likely have seen only flowers “such as fingers might embroider, close to death” (just as she did in ‘Finisterre’ (SPCP 169)) rather than the “brilliant original for Hilliard’s miniatures” which Ted saw.

Inertia is the Vice of Malkuth. And by the time the Cabbalist has reached this Path of Tau, in the World of Yetzirah, he or she may be deeply set in the grooves worn by habit and may lack the strength to climb from them or may choose the wrong means of doing so. Yet, by this stage the Cabbalist should have learned more than just the dangers of inertia. The illusory, mirror nature of our World and the fragmentary nature of our own view of it, must also be understood: and the ability to discriminate between Dream and Reality must be constantly exercised.

In ‘The Beach’ Ted demonstrated that he and Sylvia had not learned these lessons. And in the final four lines of the poem15 he revealed his own glimpse of the CabbalisticTruth about our World. The Truth which he saw when he approached the sea, is that the “dream face” and the “suds” are but two aspects of the same whole: two “mirages”, as he called them in ‘55 Eltisley’, where he also declared one mirage to be “no worse than the other”. He saw that our fallen World is “the world as it is and has to be” and that, in the words of Hermes Trismegistus, which are fundamental to the practice of Alchemy and which apply equally to Cabbala:

In truth without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above; and whatever is above is like that which is below: to accomplish the miracle of one thing.
Yet, although our vision of the World may be distorted and we live closed up in ourselves seeing “all things thro’ narrow chinks of [our] cavern”, as Blake declared (MHH 14E), beneath our feet lies the Earth into which we must fall and from which new life emerges. This is no illusion: this is “the real”. And in the ‘base matter’ of our bodies, too, lies that same creative spark of life that is the Divine Spark, the crystal or jewel in our heads. We must have simple faith in its existence and in its power to guide us; and we must have the will to face our own darkness in order to unearth it. Unless we do, there is no fixed point by which to judge and understand our world and our actions: and without it, we will never reach that still point where all contraries are reconciled.

Sylvia could not do what Ted did when he wrote those last four lines of ‘The Beach’. She could not see that her dream-world of Nauset was but the flip side of a single whole, the other side of which was her own dark vision of the external world. More importantly, she failed to understand that what she refused to approach, what she cut herself off from when she “sat behind [her] mask, inaccessible”, was a reflection of her own inner darkness. And that until she did walk towards that darkness (as Ted says in the poem that he did) and accepted those energies for what they really were, she would never learn to control them.

Sylvia’s fine essay, ‘Ocean 1212-W’ (JPBD 117 - 124 ) was written after her poetic attempt to fly to the Sun on Ariel, and only a few weeks before her death16. In it, she acknowledged that no English beach could ever satisfy her “nostalgia” for her “ocean childhood” and that her “vision” of regaining it was “beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine white flying myth”. She wrote of the sea as if it were her natural element: its light had been her “watery cradle”; she had swum in it by instinct; and she was devastated when she thought it had rejected her, and longed for “a sign of election and specialness” from it. She knew its violence was monstrous but it thrilled and attracted her. But she associated it, too, with her first knowledge of the “separateness of everything” [her emphasis]. And, in a phrase which echoes with bleak finality, she wrote that with that knowledge, her “beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over”.

Whether this despairing statement reflected a long-held lack of faith in ever regaining wholeness, or whether it was only the result of Sylvia’s recent failure to reach the Source on Ariel, it is impossible to say. But Ted certainly believed that Sylvia’s struggles to rewrite ‘Sheep in Fog’17 were driven by a return of her old demons, which he detected “stirring again here more frighteningly than ever” (WP 210). He saw, in her revisions, a melting of the “the ‘Phaeton myth’”, which had been behind Ariel, into “the Icarus myth’”, in which she would fall into a heaven the opposite of that towards which she had originally flown. This heaven, now (“and in her last eleven poems”), was “starless” and “fatherless”. It was “a dark water” like that of her “monstrous” world-destroying sea in ‘Ocean 1212-W’.

Sylvia’s feelings about the sea, it seems, were deeply ambivalent. Which is perhaps why it was not the cool, sea-lit blue of Nauset which was her favourite colour, but the warm, earthy, dramatic colour, red.

‘Red’ (BL 197 - 8) is the final poem on the Path of Tau in the World of Assiah; the final Path of Ted’s Cabbalistic journey; and the final poem in Birthday Letters. As such, it has particular importance. And Ted, in any case, always chose the final poem in his published sequences with particular care. “I have a superstition”, he said in his Critical Forum reading in 1978, “that the writer, even more than the reader, is affected by the mood and the final resolution of his poem in a final way… the poem stands there, permanent, vivid and powerful and tries to make him continue to live in its image”.

Why, if this was Ted’s belief, would he choose to end Birthday Letters with a poem steeped in red, when he “felt it raw – like the stiff gauze edges / Of a stiffening wound”? Why end, finally, on a note of loss, and risk confirming and prolonging a mood of sorrow and regret which was already very real for him? And why, when there was so much he could have said to sum up the good things he wanted Sylvia to be remembered for, did he choose to end this sequence by memorializing such a seemingly trivial thing as her favourite colour?

It is true that red is a symbol for many of the qualities Sylvia possessed. True, too, that there is ample evidence in Sylvia’s writings that she was, as she put it, very “susceptible to colour and texture”(SPLH 5 Nov. 1961) and that she liked to surround herself with red. It is also true that, for Sylvia, there was nothing trivial about her loss of the blue “jewel” of Nauset and the childhood wholeness she had always associated with it. This loss lay behind all her creative endeavours and, so, is suitably encapsulated in Ted’s final line. But the mood of ‘Red’ is “downbeat18, sombre, defeated. Almost everything around Sylvia, and everything she does, is steeped in blood and associated with death, wounds, judgment and sacrifice. Each lightening of mood is short-lived and ends in more blood, defeat and “weeping”. Even the seven lines which convey the “kindly spirit” of blue, end in “the pit of red”; and that “jewel” of blue is finally, irrevocably “lost”.

In the Cabbalistic framework of Birthday Letters, this ‘downbeat’, ghoulish mood, caused by an imbalance between red and blue in Ted’s poem, seems to go against everything he has tried to convey in this sequence about the essential need for balance in any Cabbalistic journey. Yet, this imbalance reflects precisely the imbalance which existed in Sylvia throughout her journey. And the Cabbalistic imagery in this poem is strong.

Colours, and the harmonic vibration of colours (which scientists call wave-lengths), are an aspect of the harmonic unity of the Source. Light was separated from darkness at the creation of our World. Its colourless luminosity is represented by Kether (Sephira 1), at the apex of the Cabbalistic Tree, and from it all colours derive. Red and blue, at the highest (ideal) level of the Tree, belong to the Sephiroth Binah (3) and Chokmah (2). Red, here, is the transparent crimson of blood; blue is that of the sky. Lower down the Tree, in the illusory, mirror world of Nature, red and blue are reflected in the Sephiroth Gevurah (5) (where red is the red of fire) and Chesed (4) (where blue is the blue of water).

So red and blue, as depicted on the Cabbalistic Tree, are at opposites sides and represent the two extremes of the visible spectrum of light.

Red, on the Pillar of Justice, is associated with the Female and (as it is in Ted’s poem) with passive “congealments”, “stiffening” wounds, “crusts”: it is blood which, linked to Chokmah by the energies of Tiphereth (6) at the heart of the Tree, is the vehicle of the vital Spirit which activates the body. Red, is the colour of Earth, which is represented in Ted’s poem by the mineral, red-ochre, and its crystalline form, haematite. And the red of Gevurah is also fiery, powerful, warlike, judgmental and severe, just as Sylvia was in her Ariel poems.

Blue, on the Pillar of Mercy, is the “kindly spirit” which is “a guardian, thoughtful”. Blue is airy, Mercurial, and Venusian, it “electrifies”, loves and protects.

And white (Sylvia’s next “favourite” colour) is, in our lower World of Nature, the reflection of the luminosity of Kether. In the words of the 17th Century Jewish mystic, Jacob Böhme, white is “The son of God” who “shines in the sea of Nature”. White is the reflected colour of Wholeness, Unity and Truth. And white is the colour of the “heirloom bones” of spiritual wisdom which, on this Path of Tau, are passed from one generation to the next19.

In Ted’s poem, we are told that both red and white were Sylvia’s favourite colours. But although Sylvia yearned for wholeness and Truth, in this poem she symbolically protects herself from white’s frightening “bone-clinic” starkness by obscuring it or by hiding herself from it with red. In ‘The Beach’, this same fear of facing the Truth led her to refuse to get out of the car and approach the sea; but her inertia there, was very different to the compulsive behaviour she exhibits in ‘Red’. And from the very beginning of this poem, by associating Sylvia’s actions with magical minerals 20and bloody rituals, Ted creates a hellish atmosphere of demonic possession. It seems as if, by choosing to surround herself with red, Sylvia became enthralled by its energies. And, indeed, at the level of Malkuth, on this path of Tau, red is the colour of Saturn, the Devil and “the pit”, and of the Moon Goddess in her manifestation as Hecate or Hag, with her moon-magic and witchcraft.

White, too, is a Moon Goddess’s colour, but it is that of chaste Diana, who presides at Yesod at the opposite end of the Path to Malkuth. In her poem ‘Magi’ (SPCP 148) Sylvia associated white with “the Good, the True”, but she thought its blank purity “Loveless as the multiplication table”. And it was the pure, chaste Goddess’s face which she saw “white as a knuckle” in ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ (SPCP 172 - 3) and that same Goddess’s face, in its “hood of bone” which she imagined “staring” impassively at the dead woman and children in her last poem, ‘Edge’ (SPCP 272 - 3). This was the moon “mother” Sylvia feared but for whom, in her tender, loving manifestation as “Sweet Mary” she also yearned.

Sweet Mary, the Mother Goddess who is also Isis and Ganga, was the Goddess Sylvia came so close to in ‘Remission’. She is the Goddess who manifests beyond Yesod on the Pillar of Equilibrium, at Tiphereth – the heart of the Tree. And it was her blues in which Sylvia “folded” herself during pregnancy and which, with their Mercurial energies seem to have “electrified” her and lifter her on blue “wings” from the “pit of red”.

Yet blue, in Sylvia’s writings is rarely a gentle colour. She associated it with “the blue sisters” who separated her from her father (‘The Beast’ SPCP 134); with the “cold, planetary” light of “the mind” (‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’); but, especially, she associated it with the “blue volts” of her electroconvulsive treatment – with the “blue-tongued” angels of Johnny Panic.

So, Sylvia chose red and allowed its energies to predominate in her life and in her poems. Cabbalistically, on this Path of Tau she lost her courage and her vision and, therefore, failed to reach Tiphereth and, beyond that, the Wholeness of Kether. Ted’s poem describes and reflects the imbalance which Sylvia exhibited at the end of her journey. But it does more than that. It begins with ‘red’ and ends with ‘blue’, thus rejoining these energies across the body of the poem in which Sylvia’s essence is contained. In this way, Ted magically created for Sylvia the possibility of a new beginning.

Yet this was not the only way Ted worked poetic magic in ‘Red’. With careful Alchemy, he also completed the process he began in ‘The Hands’, whereby he brought Sylvia out of the Underworld, dealt with the ghosts, spirits and demons which had tormented her, and, in ‘The Dogs… ’, prepared for her to be brought “back into the sun”. Each poem on the seven Paths which lead to this final Path of Tau in the World of Assiah represented one step towards returning Sylvia to our World in such a way that she might begin a new journey completely free from any former hindrances. Finally, in ‘Red’, Ted began the digesting process of Calcination which is the first step of any new Alchemical journey21. And he did so by joining Red Sulphur and Blue Mercury with the prima materia of Sylvia’s blood and bones in the Athanor (or womb) of his poem.

Thus the Uroborus of Nature eats its tail. And Ted, using poetry, Cabbala, Alchemy and every other skill at his disposal, completed the circle, bringing the journey of Birthday Letters to an end in such a way that he and Sylvia might each have a new beginning.

When Birthday Letters was finished, Ted wrote to a friend that he felt “the sensation of inner liberation, a huge, sudden possibility of new inner experience22. And to Keith Sagar, he wrote: “I suddenly had free energy I hadn’t known since Crow. Which went into Ovid, then Oresteia, Phaedra maybe - and parts of Alcestis”.

Suddenly, he was dancing at the centre of his world, like the figure on the Tarot card. And he attributed his “renewal” directly to his creation of Birthday Letters. “Any traumatic event”, he wrote “ – if writing is your method – has to be dealt with deliberately. An image has to be looked for – consciously – and then mined to the limit: but not in Autobiographical terms23.

The image Ted chose was that of spiritual rebirth, and he found it in Alchemy, Tarot, Cabbala, myth and legend, but he found it most truthfully in Nature. It was an image which he had ‘mined’ all his creative life. But not until Birthday Letters had he been able to bring together enough knowledge, understanding and poetic power to create the healing magic which freed him and made the last months of his life “totally his own24.



1. In the spiritual fable, The Conference of the Birds, which Ted knew well, the birds which reach this point in the journey and are able to draw aside the veil and come face-to-face with the Simurgh (the Divine Source), discover that they and the Simurgh are one and the same being. That the Divine is within them.

2. Sylvia’s poem ‘Ariel’ (SPCP 239 - 240), in which she makes herself “the arrow” which flies to the sun, describes her poetic attempt to do just this.

3. Reish, The Mystical Significance of Hebrew Letters. ( .

4. Burckhardt. Alchemy, p. 140.

5. The dancing figure of the Spiritual Child, like the Magician / Magus on card number 1 at the start of the journey, holds a baton or wand denoting supernatural power . On the Traditional card the figure holds a wand or baton in each hand to suggest its superior balance and power, but in many packs only one baton is shown.

6. Sylvia wrote at this time of the “identical aims and expectations of our lives” (SPLH 9 Jan. 1957.

7. By the time Ted wrote Birthday Letters he did understand this. Earlier, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, he had written of the kind of simplicity which is beyond words - simplicity which is “closest to the dumb speech of action” - inspired simplicity which “is the locked-up word of Divine Truth”. (SGCB 278).

8. Such an inheritance is material, lightweight and insubstantial rather than spiritual.

9. In her letter to her mother on 1 April 1960 (SPLH), Sylvia wrote of her Indian midwife and of having had “absolutely no anaesthesia” for Frieda’s birth. Her letter to her mother on 18 Jan. 1962 (SPLH), describes Nicholas’s birth and the empty gas cylinder.

10. Since the earliest times, in myths and legends all around the world, there have been stories of a part-Divine baby being set afloat in a reed basket in order to escape death. Joseph Cambell, for example, refers to the stories of Sargon (c. 2350 BCE), Greek Erichthonius, Hindu Vyasa and Hebrew Moses (The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Penguin, London, 1980. p. 73).

11. Rebirth of the Spirit in a different body (as the Dali Lama is reborn, for example) would achieve this.

12. It seems likely that the events Ted describes in ‘The Beach’ actually took place in November 1961 or in some month other than November. Sylvia’s poem ‘Whitsun (SPCP 153 - 154) describes a similar unsatisfactory beach visit and is dated 14 Feb. 1961.

13. Ted’s account of this in ‘Sheep in Fog’ (WP 191 - 211), based on Sylvia’s dated manuscripts, notes that after December 2 “she wrote nothing at all for two months” (WP 191), only revising ‘The Eavesdropper’ on December 15. He also noted that the poems Sylvia wrote when she began again in January 1963, were “very different in mood” (WP 192).

14. The ambiguity of ‘habit’ suggests the inertia which is the Vice of Malkuth and also the clothing of one who, like a monk, lives in a drab, masking garment which he wears like a useful, ‘utility’ shell. ‘Utility’, too, is a word Ted uses here with nice ambiguity: Utility clothing was introduced in England during the war, it was mass-produced, and it complied with a minimum standard of durability and style.

15. These four lines are separated from the rest of the poem for emphasis but also because the number four is the number of Earth, the Element of this Path. Four also represents the Cross of Tau and the four limbs of the dancing Tarot figure.

16. In a letter dated 26 Dec. 1962, Sylvia told to her mother that the piece had been commissioned. On 4 Feb. 1963, she wrote that she had “done it” (SPLH).

17. This poem was written with the other Ariel poems but Sylvia returned to it again on 28 Jan. 1963.

18. In his Critical Forum recording, Ted used the words “downbeat” and “upbeat” to describe the moods of his poems. He aimed to end any sequence of poems in an “upbeat” mood.

19. In Cabbalistic tradition, the Sephirothic Tree represents the body of the primal man, Adam Cadmon, and each Sephiroth and Path corresponds to a particular body part. In Crowley’s compilation of such correspondences, the Path of Tau is associated with the bones. (777 p. 6).

20. Red-ochre, perhaps because of its blood red colour, has been used in burials and other ritual practices since Palaeolithic times. Haematite, too, has a long history of use in funeral rituals and for protective amulets and magical healing.

21. On one copy of the note which Ted sent to his publishers about changes to the contents of Birthday Letters, he added the poem ‘The City’ (THCP 1179 - 1180) as the final poem. The poem does not suit this final Path and he changed his mind about this inclusion before publication. ‘The City’ was first published as poem number eight in the sequence of eleven poems in Howls and Whispers.

22. From a letter which Ted wrote to a friend and which was read by Frieda Hughes at the Whitbread Prize award ceremony. Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Jan. 1999.

23. Letter to Keith Sagar 18 June 1998.

24. Letter from Carol Hughes to AS (8 November 1999). The actual publication of Birthday Letters, just ten months before Ted died, finally gave him this feeling of total freedom.

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

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