The Path of Kaph lies on the Pillar of Force and joins Sephiroth 4 (Chesed: Mercy) with Sephiroth 7 (Netzach: Victory, Eternity). It is a Path, therefore, on which essential, creative powers prevail, rather than form-giving controlling powers.
All the symbols associated with this Path in Tarot, Cabbala, Alchemy, and Astrology represent the Divine, dynamic, impulse of life and the continuous repetition of this impulse within the material world. Without it our world would not exist. It is the motive power of the supreme God; the cycles of Nature; the continual interaction of Air, Fire, Water and Earth (or, in Alchemy, of Sulphur, Mercury and Salt with prima materia); and the ever changing circumstances of our world and our lives under the influence of the revolving stars. In biological terms, it is our own life energies. In psychological terms it is the subconscious, changing and repeating patterns of needs and wants which drive us.
In Tarot, the dynamic impulse is represented by The Wheel of Fortune. In Cabbala (as the meditation for this Path conveys) it is “The All Father in three forms, Fire, Air, Water”, and it is represented by the Hebrew letter, Kaph, which means the “Palm of the Hand” (which transmits the power as Love) or the “Fist” (which demonstrates its Supreme Force). A second Cabbalistic meditation for this Path conveys some of the turmoil of constant change: “In the Whirlings is War”.
In religion and mythology, the Divine motivating power belongs to the supreme God, Creator of the Universe. His controlling hand keeps the Wheel of Life in motion, but others may influence its effects on the individuals who inhabit the created universe. So, for example, Bacchus, Krishna and Adonis, (Sun gods, children of the Divine Source) are all born into our world and are associated with the music and the dance which keep the wheel turning harmoniously. And so, in Greek mythology, Zeus delegates control of individual destiny to the three Moerae or Fates: Clotho (who spins life’s thread), Lachesis (Chance, who measures out the thread) and Atropos (the inescapable Fate who cuts the thread and ends each individual life).
The Wheel of Fortune which belongs to the Moerae / Fates, is the wheel which appears on the traditional Tarot card for this Path, and various figures are shown on the rim of the Wheel. A human-headed creature travels downwards towards the earth; a dog-headed creature travels upwards towards the heavens; and a sphinx with a sword surmounts the wheel. The wheel itself often has features which identify it with the Uroborus, the tail-eating snake of Nature.
For Cabbalists, the human-headed creature is the unenlightened traveller who, like the Hermit on the previous path, moves down into the earthy darkness of Saturn / Cronus. If this darkness is negotiated successfully and its visions are understood, then the dog-headed Anubis / Mercury will guide the traveller’s Soul upwards towards the light. The wheel turns constantly, and the traveller may make many journeys on its rim before true enlightenment is achieved but the sphinx1 is ever present, and her riddle needs to be understood and answered or her sword will fall and the traveller will be destroyed
For the Cabbalistic traveller, the questions to be answered and understood are questions about Self and one’s place in this world. On this Path of Kaph, it is the inner Self, in particular, which must be studied: the force and the patterns of our own subconscious needs and feelings must be understood, balanced and controlled so that they do not rule our own lives or the lives of others. Insight is necessary: and unselfishness. Above all, equilibrium is necessary if the traveller is to live in harmony with all the World’s energies. In Cabbalistic terms, we must acknowledge and accept the supreme power of the Divine Source in the World and allow it to be expressed in a balanced way through the Divine creative power within us. The number for this Path, which is 11, visually represents this equilibrium as two equal lines standing side-by-side, and its importance is such that 11 is regarded as a Master Number – one which is never reduced by adding its component digits together.
‘The Machine’ (BL 25), which is the poem on the Path of Kaph in the Atziluthic World, is fairly clearly an Archetypal representation of the Wheel of Fortune in motion. Sylvia, from the very start of the poem has descended into the devouring darkness of Saturn / Cronus and her fears and panics, needs and desires control her. Sylvia’s journal for 10 March 1956, from which Ted quotes, is full of the ‘Whirlings’ of Sylvia’s subconscious and the ‘war’ of energies, imaginative fantasies, fears and furies which drove her. It is full, too, of unstoppable wheels and crushing weights. In fact, the whole journal entry is a perfect example of a descent into the subconscious and of the powerful, chaotic and terrible energies which may be encountered there. These energies, in Ted’s poem, are the “Juggernaut” which moved towards him, and “yawned” him into their “otherworld interior”.
For Ted, at that time, nothing was certain and his description of himself in the poem mimics this uncertainty: “Most likely” he was “just sitting”; “Maybe” he was drinking with his friend Lucas. He sees himself as having “no more purpose” than his own dog – just like the Fool on the traditional Tarot card. But he had no “real dog”: nothing to warn him of impending change or of the “Juggernaut” which would take over his life.
‘Juggernaut’ is a word derived from the name of the Hindu Deity, Lord Jagannath, who is Lord of the Universe. In English, the word is used to represent any great, unstoppable, crushing force2, so it conveys an image which is wholly appropriate to this Path. As Lord of the Universe, too, Lord Jagannath is the Mummy / Daddy of all the World’s energies; and the ritually carved image of him which rides in the great Chariot, Nandigosh, at his temple in Puri, does have a “grotesque mask” of a face. In ‘The Machine’, however, “Mummy / Daddy” also suggests the real-life parental energies which helped determine the path along which the wheels of Sylvia’s mind turned. And the Juggernaut of Sylvia’s subconscious, as her diary entry reveals, was certainly “half quarry” (full of the imaginative imagery from which her poems came) and “half hospital” (full of fevers, disease and death).
In Cabbalistic terms, the whirling of the energies is constant (The Wheel never stops) but the direction or way in which they move can be changed. This cannot be done by will alone (although Sylvia, in her journal entry, determines to “plot and plan and manipulate” her path), any more than brute force can suddenly stop or change the direction of Lord Jagannath’s huge Chariot, but it may be achieved through understanding and gentle control. Those who pull the Chariot, and those who ride the Wheel of Life, must balance knowledge of their own abilities and strengths with what they know about the “machine” they seek to guide, and with what they can continually feel about its movement. Successful changes of direction require knowledge and intuition; understanding and skill.
In ‘The Machine’, Ted suggests that the momentum and direction of Sylvia’s progress through life did not change. Instead, the energies which drove her engulfed Ted, his children (his choice of pronoun suggests all Ted’s children, including Shura and, of course, his poetic creations) and his life.
In the final lines of the poem, past and future are joined, just as they are on The Wheel of Life and on The Wheel of Fortune. What had been possible when Ted and Sylvia first met is no longer possible: the steps they began building together are “now stone” (‘now’, suggesting that they were formerly less fixed); the door he approaches is “now red”, the colour of blood and of the Hag goddess, not the colour of spirit and enlightenment; and Sylvia is no longer herself, alive with “still time” (this linkage of these two words effectively stops the Wheel) “to talk” and perhaps change direction: Sylvia, it seems, in the unstopped time since her death has become something else: an iconic image, perhaps, created by others.
In the World of Briah, in which the energies are less archetypal and are more clearly associated with the imaginative and creative energies of the traveller, the poem on the Path of Kaph is, appropriately, ‘The Literary Life’ (BL 75-6). It is appropriate, too, that the imagery in this poem is drawn from familiar childhood fantasies and fairy stories. The Fates are represented by a single fairy godmother in her tower; the Wheel of Fortune is her spinning wheel; and she spins the thread of Life on her spindle and works it with her bobbin and her needle.
Sylvia, herself, after her first meeting with the American poet, Marianne Moore3, in April 1955, described her as being “as vital and humorous as someone’s fairy godmother, incognito” (SPLH 16 April 1955). Inspired by Marianne Moore’s own poetic style, and elaborating on this fairy godmother image of her, Sylvia wrote a syllabic poem, ‘The Princess and the Goblins’ (SPCP 333), from which ‘The Literary Life’ clearly borrows. Both poems are about the literary life – about the fabrication of poems, the aspirations and the influences which shape them, the hope-filled initial steps towards success, and the disastrous endings caused by the working out of witchy fate. The similarities and the differences between the two poems are curious and fascinating.
Sylvia’s poem opens with a statement: “From fabrication springs the spiral stair”. This stair is no ordinary stair, but a “visionary ladder” up which the princess is drawn by the healing and “holy” light of the moon. Leaving her fever-bed (to which she had been brought by a “waspish pin” in a malignant witch’s embroidery) the princess climbs into the “ancient, infinite and beautiful” presence of her “legendary godmother”. The metaphorical parallels with Sylvia’s own life are strong. Sylvia’s art was the fabrication of poems and one of her poetic heroes was Yeats, for whom the tower, the spiral stair and the moon were important symbols of the poetic imagination. ‘The Princess and the Goblins’ was amongst the poems Sylvia wrote in the year after her recovery from her suicidal depression, so, the sick princess could well be Sylvia; and the “legendary godmother”, whose strong thread is proof against all “artful wizards”, certainly has the powers and abilities which Sylvia attributed to Marianne Moore. In Sylvia’s eyes, Marianne Moore was one of “the ageing giantesses & poetic godmothers” of American poetry (SPJ 29 March 1958) – a woman who took her place amongst the “big, unscared practising poets” (SPJ 25 Feb. 1957) and was the equal of such artful poetic wizards as W.H Auden, Stephen Spender and T.S. Eliot. Between 1955, when Sylvia first met her, and July 1958, when she returned some of Sylvia’s poems with a “spiteful letter” (SPJ 17 July 1958), Sylvia looked to her for inspiration, encouragement and help.
By June 1958, when Ted first met Marianne Moore, Sylvia’s ‘godmother’ had become an influential poetic mentor for him, too. Her judgement of his poetry in Hawk in the Rain had helped to win him Harper’s ‘first publication’ contest (SPJ 25 Feb. 1957) and she was willing to support his applications for various grants. So, however real the narrow stair may have been up which he and Sylvia climbed to her New York apartment, both of them had already climbed her narrow stair to poetic achievement: she had judged their work and both were clearly able to fabricate the sort of poetry which met her particular poetic standards.
Marianne Moore’s standards were high, and her intellect, her Imagist style and her use of syllabic verse were highly regarded amongst those poets of the mid-twentieth century whose work Sylvia and Ted most admired. The goal Sylvia and Ted shared, however, was not to copy the style of others but to learn from it in order to develop their own, unique, poetic voices. This is what Sylvia was doing in ‘The Princess and the Goblins’. In this poem, her fabric(ation) was smoothly woven to support a pretty picture, and she left no loose ends: it is like a skilfully crafted, rather conventional, apprentice sampler. But there is a deeper level to it, too.
Unlike conventional fairy stories, Sylvia’s poem has no happy ending. The boy who is rescued from the goblins by the princess has no imagination and he does not see the spun gold fabrication which she tries to show him, or the fairy godmother. He sees only ordinary, everyday things. So, in his rational, unimaginative appraisal, all is reduced to mechanical “clockwork” – the moonlight is dispelled, the poetic magic is destroyed, and the fairy godmother vanishes. At this deeper level, where the bright sun of rationality reduces the imaginative, poetic, phantoms of the moon to a “silly scene” of apple rinds and straw, Sylvia’s poem expresses strong reservations about an over-rational, over-rigid and over-realistic approach to poetry, however brilliant it may be.
Ted’s poem, ‘The Literary Life’, expresses similar reservations. Unlike Sylvia’s poem, it is anything but regularly syllabic, but its images are as vivid and precise as those of any Imagist poet and its rhythms are as close to the natural, musical phrasing of speech as it is possible to be. Whilst creating the exact, detailed, colourful sort of picture Marianne Moore would have valued, it demonstrates that conforming to her strict patterns of poetry4 is not the only, or indeed the best, way for a poet to find his or her voice. In the first part of the poem (lines 1 - 15), Ted and Sylvia (like the princess and her boy in Sylvia’s poem) ascend the godmother’s stairs. In Ted’s poem, however, it is not the boy who spoils the poet’s magic but Marianne Moore herself. It was her coin – her style of poetry, the “hum of the old wheel”, which was “Then the coin” of the day (one of the meanings of ‘coin’ is ‘fabrication’) – which was “compulsory” for those seeking to gain her approval and support. To follow that path, as Sylvia and Ted were doing at that time, was to continue the ordinary, everyday, “quotidian scramble”, in order to win fashionable, public success. That path, however, was the “subway” – the way below the true way - and that is what they eventually learned.
Ted implicitly criticizes Marianne Moore’s poetic style in his description of her. Unlike Sylvia, who showed her as a benign godmother, he draws her as a witch. The bric-à-brac of her home; her bright, rapid-fire, intelligent talk; her dainty appearance – all are accurately conveyed, but Ted’s choice of words is precise and cruel. She is a “curio relic of Americana”, whose voice (real and poetic) is “the flickering hum of the old wheel”5. Her sharpness is employed in “darning”, rather than in new creation. And her work is to produce a cold, protective shell of “Chain-mail”, on which she embroiders, in course “crewel-work” (the paronomasia with ‘cruel’ is damning), lifeless, metallic6 images of plants and animals. What is seen of her, and what her work reveals, is not her body or her emotions but her “face” – and that is “tiny” and unfree, like a bobbin on a spindle. It is tempting to see Ted’s poem as a practical demonstration of Marianne Moore’s dictum that real poetry presents “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (MM ‘Poetry’7): the real toad in his garden being the witch hidden beneath the fairy godmother’s “face”.
Ted’s question, “Why shouldn’t we cherish her?” is, after all this, an ironic and rhetorical question. It is asked in the present tense, which suggests that he felt, as he wrote it, that he had sufficiently diminished whatever power she once had over him and Sylvia, and that there was no longer any reason not to cherish this “curio relic of Americana”.
The second part of ‘The Literary Life’ (lines 16 - 34) refers to another syllabic poem which Sylvia wrote in 1958. On Mayday that year, Sylvia described the itch to write “applied by reading Marianne Moore & Wallace Stevens etc.” as so strong that it disturbed her equilibrium (SPJ 1 May 1958). ‘Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbour’ (SPCP 95) must have been written at about that time, because it was accepted for publication by Howard Moss at The New Yorker just a few weeks later. It is a far more sophisticated poem than ‘The Princess and the Goblins’, and Sylvia was thrilled when Howard Moss wrote on his acceptance letter that he thought it “a marvelous poem” (SPJ 25 June 1958). Her author’s proofs of the poem arrived on 3rd July, and Sylvia called it “my star piece” (SPJ 4 July 1958), so she was shocked when she received “a queerly ambiguous spiteful letter” from Marianne Moore (SPJ 17 July 1958) criticizing both of the poems she had sent her8.
“I cannot believe she got so tart & acidy simply because I sent her carbon copies”, Sylvia wrote in her journal (SPJ 17 July 1958): but she concluded (getting a little acidy herself) that sending carbon copies to the “American Lady of Letters” had indeed been her “great & stupid error”. Ted, as he says in ‘The Literary Life’, saw that Marianne Moore disliked the intensity and the “ghostly gloom” which pervades and underlies Sylvia’s two poems but he, too, thought Marianne Moore was being arrogantly sarcastic. And his consignment of her to the “second or third circle” of his Inferno, suggests that he also thought she was jealously defending her position of power in the American world of poetry from a younger and clearly very able rival.
Ted’s use of the word “engross” is central to this view (as it is central to this section of the poem). The dictionary meaning of ‘engross’ is ‘write in large letters’ or ‘express in legal form’: it suggests power and judgement, both of which belonged to Marianne Moore. The word ‘gross’ alone, however, can mean ‘rank’, ‘overfed’, ‘course’ and ‘greedy’, and these are the meanings which resonate most strongly in Ted’s use of ‘engross’. Ted’s Inferno is, presumably, like Dante’s9, wherein the second circle is for those that lust makes sinful, including those who grossly misuse their power in order to gain their own desires; and the third circle is for those who live gluttonous lives, especially those who fight their own equals for control of a city. By consigning Marianne Moore to the hells of one or other of these circles, Ted suggests that she jealously misused the power she had to either encourage or to hurt Sylvia, who looked up to her and was inspired by her as a poet. On the Path of Kaph, the palm of the hand or the fist may be used by those who are in just such a position as Marianne Moore’s: she, it seems, on this occasion used her fist, and for this Ted damns her. Choosing her own word, “engross”, as a weapon, he turns it against her, having long ago taken its particular sharp point “deep in [his] thumb”, like a jealous fairy-godmother’s needle.
Sylvia, too, was wounded: cast down from the heights to which The New Yorker acceptance of two of her poems had lifted her. No doubt she wept, as Ted says she did, but by the time she wrote her journal entry she was more concerned about the outcome of her application for a Saxon grant than about Marianne Moore’s comments on her poems (SPJ 17 July 1958). She had, after all, The New Yorker acceptance to confirm their worth; and Ted’s encouragement and his belief in her ability to lift her spirits.
A decade later, Sylvia was dead; and Marianne Moore was in her eighties but still “holding court”. Ted pictures her as an ancient fairy-tale creature – “dainty and bright” under the petal brim of one of the large-brimmed hats she favoured. He describes her pursed lips and her skin - crumpled and fragile but soft and silky – and she reminds him of some small mouse-like creature – a dormouse or a bat. But her voice was still needle sharp, and the concession to Sylvia’s ability (which she “insisted” on making) was not to praise Sylvia’s poetry but a prose piece, ‘Ocean 1212-W’ (in Ted’s poem she forgets the ‘W’) which exactly fitted her own Imagist criteria. Sylvia’s article (which was written for radio) is beautifully written but it is, as Marianne Moore ambiguously describes it in Ted’s poem, “so lit”: lit with the glow of memory and the colours and sounds of the sea; but also a very literary, carefully shaped, semi-autobiographical, “journalistic”10 piece of writing.
Even after Sylvia’s death, it seems, Marianne Moore could not bring herself to be generous to her. So, in the final eleven lines of ‘The Literary Life’, she sinks even lower in Ted’s estimation. Wielding what little remaining power she had, she “insisted” on saying what she had to say (and nothing more) and “she bowed so low” that Ted was obliged “to kneel” and bow his face to her, as if in homage. He saw, then, that her face (again, her persona is suggested by this word) “seemed tinier than ever”. And it was this smallness (of heart and of person) which filled him with “graveyard” heaviness as he listened. In the final three lines of the poem, Marianne Moore’s age, her wrinkled smallness, her association in Ted’s mind with graveyards and bats, all suggest an ambiguity in her search “for the grave” (Ted does not specify whose) “where she could lay down… “. But in the final line, it is the smallness and lack of generosity of Marianne Moore’s posthumous offering to Sylvia which is emphasized by the awful finality of those last two words.
So, this is what the literary life amounts to. A quotidian scramble for fame and power amongst jealous and ungenerous people, many of whom judge by self-ordained and rigid standards and show no mercy or love in their final judgements. There is no equilibrium in such a competitive world and no Truth to be found in this way on this Path. Yet this was the Briatic pattern which took shape in Sylvia’s life at that time and which remained a strong component of the inner drives which carried her (on the Wheel of Life and in this poem) to her grave.
Because of the dynamic, unstoppable momentum of the Wheel on the Path of Kaph, if the lessons of the earlier Paths have not been well learned then the course of events in the Yetziratic World may too easily reflect the negative energies of Chesed (self-righteousness, tyranny and gluttony: all of which were exhibited in ‘The Literary Life’) and of Netzach (habit, rigidity and selfishness).
This is exactly what happens in ‘Setebos’ (BL 132-3), where Ted’s use of Shakespear’s mythic and magical drama, The Tempest, reinforces the sense that uncontrollable forces governed his and Sylvia’s lives in the early months of 1962. This was the time when Sylvia wrote ‘Elm’ (SPCP 192-3) and the time when, as Ted describes in ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’, her Ariel voice “emerged in full” in her poetry and subsequently “never faltered again” (WP 188).
In retrospect, as he wrote Birthday Letters, Ted saw this as a critical time in both their lives. So critical, in fact, that he created an especially strong ritual drama11 in ‘Setebos’ in order to re-create the events within a protective, potentially healing, Cabbalistic framework. Setebos, the devil-god consort of Shakespeare’s great witch, Sycorax, in The Tempest, is another form of Lord Jagannath, Lord of the Universe, and it is under his name that the Whirlings of this poem take place. Yet, it is Sycorax, “who, with age and envy / Was grown into a hoop” (The Tempest Act 1. Scene II) whose magic prevails.
In ‘Setebos’, Ted used The Tempest rather differently to the way in which he describes Shakespeare’s use of it in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. He allotted the role of Prospero, for example, to Sylvia’s mother: but she only “played” the part and he limited her use of magic to the staging of “the Masque”. This is appropriate, since it is the Mother Goddess, Juno, who in The Tempest’s Masque blesses the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, just as Aurelia Plath participated in the blessing of the marriage at her daughter’s wedding. Aurelia’s magic in ‘Setebos’, however, is unlike Prospero’s in every other way. She did not rescue Ted from any storm, only paid for “a new wardrobe” which he (perhaps seeing this as an attempt to renovate him as well as his clothes - to give him a new mask) declined to wear. Nor did she have any control over his and Sylvia’s lives after their wedding. She did accompany them to Paris, and Ted describes her smiling at her reflection on the dark wall there, as if at her shadow cast by the glow of her daughter’s happiness. But already she seemed to be a dark presence “eavesdropping” on the edge of their lives, just as she remained thereafter, hearing and seeing only shadowy reflections of the real situation, mostly through the letters Sylvia wrote to her.
In Ted’s adaptation of The Tempest, who else but Sylvia and he could have played Miranda and Ferdinand? Ted saw Shakespeare’s young lovers as dramatized versions of Venus and Adonis, symbols of perfect, heavenly love, and for him and Sylvia in those first months “It was like that”, as he says, and emphatically repeats. It was a magical time, full of the sort of “voices and sounds and sweet airs” with which Shakespeare’s magic island was filled. Ariel, too, “entertained” them. Ariel, who in Ted’s analysis of The Tempest was the “agent” of Sycorax’s power, a “flower spirit” and a “storm spirit”, with magic of his own which was weaker than that of Sycorax but was “at the end of the register opposite the black” and had the power to transform her spirit into “verbal poetry”. Ted calls Ariel a “poetic daemon” of the Great Goddess – one who accomplishes her ends. At the time he and Sylvia married, Ariel’s “aura” found expression in their lives and in their poetry: but Ariel was always an unreliable and Mercurial trickster.
Caliban, too, in Ted’s analysis was a “poetic daemon” of the Goddess (SGCB 478), although his “genetic make-up” (as Ted calls it) and his nature are darker and more earthy then Ariel’s. Neverthless, he transmitted poetic inspiration of the Dionysian kind (SGCB 465 - 8), showing Ted and Sylvia “the sweetest, the freshest, the wildest”, in a secret, mutual love. The closeness of Ariel and Caliban in lines 12 to 20 of ‘Setebos’, demonstrates their kinship and combines their energies – light and dark; air and earth. And all these energies culminate in “Sycorax” (the name set alone at the end of the line), thus bringing both the Hag Goddess’s daemons back to her and demonstrating her power, even as she hovers “at the horizon”, off-stage “in the wings” of Sylvia’s and Ted’s lives.
That Sycorax was “the rind” of the “emptied quince” in Ted’s and Sylvia’s “garden”, suggests the Fall from Eden which overtakes them in the second part of the poem: the quince (like Eve’s apple) had been savoured; together in their new poetic life they had begun to search for knowledge and enlightenment; and, secretly, they had loved Caliban, the earthy child of the Serpent Goddess, Sycorax. She, “the rind” of that quince, sat like the Sphinx on the rim of the Wheel of Fortune which now carried them down into the dark, moonlit turmoil of the storm.
So Caliban, Shakespeare’s “Hag-seed”, “Moon-calf” monster, who speaks poetry when he promises to show all Nature’s treasures to his friends, “reverted to type” and became a lustful beast. And it was his animal “bellow” which, it seems, Ted heard in Sylvia’s voice when she spoke in the voice of the Elm and described “this dark thing”, full of “malignity” and snaky poisons, which inhabited her (‘Elm’ SPCP 192 - 3). In Sylvia’s poem, the Elm is a creature of the Moon, it has the feathered nature of the swine-crow Sycorax, and the snaky fury of Medusa: it was this awful Goddess’s energies which Ted heard and feared as he lay (like Shakespeare’s Ariel) in “the labyrinth of a cowslip” whilst her storm raged about them.
That Ted regarded both Caliban and Ariel as daemons of the Goddess, explains Caliban’s presence in the Elm in ‘Setebos’, although elsewhere Ted wrote of the voice which emerged from Sylvia’s ‘Elm’ as Ariel’s. Certainly Caliban’s dark, earthy energies inhabit the tunnel down which the Minotaur approaches. His “bellow” and his “murderous music” are those of an emerging monster. Caliban’s thunder and his “black downpour” join Ariel’s lightning in the tempest which begins to rage in ‘Setebos’ and this turmoil matches in suddenness and power the way in which Sylvia’s new poetic voice emerged from the Elm in 1962.
In ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’ (WP 186-8), Ted wrote that after The Bell Jar was written in 1959, there was little sign of Ariel in Sylvia’s poems until “September, October and November of 1961”, when Ariel’s voice appeared, “still swaddled in old mannerisms” and “hardly more then a whisper”. Then, “quite suddenly”, “the ghost of her father reappear[ed]” (in ‘Little Fugue (SPCP 187 - 9)) and in April 1962 Sylvia wrote three poems, “unique in her work”, which he believed “enabled her to take the next step”. A few days later, in ‘Elm’ (dated 17 April, 1962), “the Ariel voice emerged in full out of the tree. From that day on it never faltered again”.
All of this was so sudden that Ted, not knowing exactly what was happening, saw the ghost of Otto reappear and saw, too, in ‘Event’ (SPCP 194), the “groove of old faults, deep and bitter” being “rehearsed”. Later, he wrote that in spite of the creative rebirth which had already taken place for Sylvia with The Bell Jar, she had still to deal with “’the Other’ – the deathly woman”, the one she called the “sick one” and confronted so vividly in her poem, ‘The Other’ (SPCP 201 - 2). And he wrote that after ‘Elm’: “Ariel was doing the very thing it had been created and liberated to do. In each poem, the terror is encountered head on, and the angel is mastered and brought to terms.” (WP 188). At the time, however, Ted lay in his own labyrinth “without a clue” whilst the resulting storm and confusion surrounded them both. He no longer knew what direction their lives would take: he had lost the thread of the story and could not determine “which play” they were now in.
Ariel had created the tempest which now ensued, and Caliban’s dark moon-calf energies could be heard in the Minotaur; but Otto, now, was King Minos demanding sacrifices, and Sylvia was the maiden screaming as if being “roasted” inside a bronze bull. The confusion of plays and the confusion of characters (linked by Sylvia’s and Ted’s poems, where Otto = King Minos = The Minotaur = Sylvia circling “in a ring / a groove of old faults, deep and bitter”) is now part of the great storm in which they are marooned in ‘Setebos’. Ted’s poetry, here, is powerful – full of the energies of a great bull god and the stormy laughter of his consort, Sycorax. The Moon, which is as much a symbol of Diana / Venus, Goddess of Love as it is of Hecate / Sycorax, Goddess of Hell, is both “off her moorings / Tossed in tempest” and a horned thing plunging and tossing. And in the rapid movement and close linkage of words and lines, Sylvia and Ted (who at the beginning of the poems were cast as Miranda and Ferdinand / Venus and Adonis) become lost and stranded: Ted’s ship is unreachable, off its moorings, like the moon, and he cannot find Sylvia but hears her “bellowing” songs of dismemberment and death.
The line, “who has dismembered us?”, points us again to Sylvia’s poem, ‘Event’, written just a month after ‘Elm’. In it, already, love has disappeared, the woman circles in a groove worn by habit around old and bitter faults, and the couple lie “back to back” and “touch like cripples”. Clearly Ted read Sylvia’s poems at that time and heard the struggle within them, but in ‘Setebos’ he describes how he heard, too, the danger in them for himself. So the confusion in ‘Setebos’ continues. Now he is both Caliban and Actaeon – the monster and the hero. Having worked with Sylvia towards her poetic rebirth, having watched her strip off her masks and seen her soul-naked, he, like Actaeon, had seen the Love Goddess naked and would suffer the inevitable consequences of her wrath.
But in ‘Setebos’, the play is still dominated by The Tempest. So, Sycorax hurled Prospero’s head at Ted12, symbolically overturning Prospero’s powers and using them against him. And, “hugging tight” what he could of his own nature and abilities, Ted crawled, as Caliban did in the storm in Act II Scene II, “under a gaberdine”, hearing the cry of the spirit hounds which Sycorax / Prospero and Ariel (through Sylvia’s poetry) had released against him13. So the Wheel of Fortune turned, and both of them were subjected to the tempest which its Whirlings engendered.
Following Ted’s arguments in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, it should be noted in particular that he interprets lightning as the flash of enlightenment descending the Tree of Life in Cabbala; Ariel as ‘Lion of God’ / ‘Flame of God’ – “the thunder and lightning of the Divine Source”; the cowslip as a symbol of Adonis’s death and rebirth; and a severed head as the birth of a new, spiritual consciousness. With this in mind, it is possible to see ‘Setebos’ as marking an important step in Ted’s own journey to spiritual rebirth, as well as marking the Jungian “alchemical individuation” of Sylvia’s “self” which he traces in ‘Sylvia Plath and her Journals’. Certainly, the second part of ‘Setebos’ describes in mythological terms the tyranny and the victory of the negative energies which drove Sylvia along this particular Cabbalistic Path. It describes, too, the turmoil which she and Ted actually lived through shortly before they began to live and write apart.
‘Brasilia’ (BL 178) on the Path of Kaph in the World of Assiah, refers, of course, to Sylvia’s poem of the same title (SPCP 258 - 9). The imagery and symbolism of both poems serve to express a deep concern with the steely, dispiriting effects of “the power, the glory”, and Sylvia’s poem may be seen as a terrible, prophetic vision of a soul-less future society and a prayer for the survival of her child. Ted’s poem, however, goes further and shows the fulfilment of that vision after Sylvia’s death, but with Sylvia again seen as the heartless, judgemental goddess of the Alpha universe into which she fell in ‘Telos’ (BL 176 - 7). Both poems are about the destruction of spiritual vision by materialistic, bureaucratic powers: which is exactly what happened in the City of Brasilia.
In 1883, a saintly Italian priest, Don Giovanni Bosco of Turin, had a vision that a great civilization would be born “between the 15th and 20th parallels, where a lake had formed”. There had already been an idea in Brazil that one day a central, inland capital might be built to unite the Brazilian empire, but it was not until 1922 that Don Bosco’s vision was acted on and a symbolic cornerstone was laid. The eventual completion of the capital, however, had more to do with politics than with spiritual vision. In 1960, the City of Brasilia was inaugurated by Juscelino Kubitschak, who had been elected President on a promise to complete Brazil’s new capital within his term of office: Brasilia was built in just “two thousand days to be the nation’s focus of power”14. It was an ultra-modern, ‘ideal’ city but, in the rush to complete it, the human aspect had been forgotten: plans for pedestrian precincts were abandoned in favour of unrestricted movement for cars; buildings were huge and impersonal; and few of the thousands of labourers (the “candangos”) who came from all over Brazil to build it, could afford to live in it15. It was Bruno Giorgi’s much photographed statue, “Os Candangos”, which became the source of the steely, super-people in Sylvia’s poem.
The steel helmet which Sylvia wears in Ted’s poem, however, had a different source. It links Sylvia, again, with the Goddess Athena in her war-like role of guardian of civic order and fierce representative of her mother, Themis, Goddess of Justice and Law. The “court” was Themis’s / Athena’s “arena”, and the “blade of lightning” which “descended” and “dazzled” was hers, too. But there is also a strong Cabbalistic element in this expression of Athena’s / Sylvia’s “great love” in this poem. The Hebrew word, Kaph, when it is used as a verb, means “subdue”; and in Talmudic teaching it is used to express the awful and repressive power with which the great love of the Divine is sometimes shown to his people. When this kind of Divine power is transmitted through a human agent, Kaph comes to mean the Fatherly “fist” of enforcement, rather than the benevolent “palm” of blessing. This kind of powerful subjection through love, is also one kind of ‘Victory’ (fuelled by the energies of Netzach) over the warring elements of the unconscious which are dealt with on this Path. Such a victory, too, may be reinforced by the Qlippoth of Chesed, which is ‘Ideology’.
In Sylvia’s case, the ideology which drove her was the requirement of perfection in herself16, but also in those who most loved her and whom she most loved. So, “the three sentences” she delivered out of her “great love” destroyed her father (or the Colossus she had made of him); her mother (who was “amazed” and staggered by Sylvia’s attacks on her in The Bell Jar, and in her poems and journals); and Ted and those closest to him (“me and mine” has a double meaning). All three were beheaded - made powerless in Sylvia’s arena: but Aurelia and Ted survived, although terribly wounded. Ironically, the “flunkeys” (the word has implications of toadying and sycophancy) who acted as Sylvia’s servants and “carried out” of the arena the men who loved her (but, notably, not her mother), are probably the same people who “every day since” have maintained Sylvia’s “Empire” and set their own “effigies” of her up on “plinths”. Ted does not spell this out in the poem, nevertheless, it is another example of the destructive disequilibrium which radical ideological beliefs can cause.
In the final section of the poem, Ted’s sudden move from one country to another and from one mythology to another puts Sylvia’s actions into a much broader, more universal, framework. Tenochtitlan was the great city of the Aztecs on which Mexico City now stands. It was created on a site described by the god, Huitzilopochtli, in a dream which was granted to one of the Aztec leaders; and for nearly two-hundred years its floating gardens, canals, temples and palaces were the centre of a rich, powerful and bloody society, Huitzilopochtli, The Portentous One, was the Aztec version of Lord Jagannath. He was responsible for the cycles of nature and the fate of his people. Human sacrifices were made to him daily, in order to ensure that he retained supremacy over the gods of night and darkness with whom he fought each night; and his priests taught the people that such sacrifices were essential to the harmony of the city. His mother was Coatlicue, the terrible goddess of Earth (who was mother, too of the Moon Goddess, Coyolxauhqui, and the Star-gods, the Centzon-huitznahauc) but his powers in Tenochtitlan were displayed in a powerful economic and political system.
In 1519, when Cortez and his Spanish soldiers first came to Tenochtitlan, they were horrified by the pagan ideology they found there. But it was not until 1521 that they managed to destroy the temples and idols, kill the Aztec king, and establish their own Catholic religion. Love and worship of one god was replaced by love and worship of another, and thousands of those who worshipped each god were sacrificed for this great love. The “motherly wraith”, Coatlicue the Mother Goddess whose children were devoured in this conflict, wailed through the city at night, like the mothers and children whose wailing was heard on what came to be known as the “Night of Sorrow” after Cortez’s first attack.
So, in Ted’s poem, Sylvia’s effigies cry out, just as her poem ‘Brasilia’ cries out, at this sacrifice of human spirit – “the dove’s annihilation” – in this demonstration of power and glory. And so, in Brasilia, in Tenochtitlan, and in Sylvia’s own life, a visionary dream of being reborn in harmony at the Centre – which is also the heart of the Empire; the Centre of Being; the centre of the Tree; and the still, stable, hub of the Wheel – was made soul-less by the unbalanced expression of the great power of love in the hands of an unwise and unenlightened individual. In every case, caught up by the unstoppable momentum of events, ordinary people were sacrificed.
This was the danger which Sylvia saw in her poem, ‘Brasilia’, but which she did not manage to avoid in her own life. She became an icon in her own Empire. Yet, her “dry-eyed” effigies and her tearless portraits – those images of herself and others which she created in her work – still stand as a memorial to her great endeavour. And, “every day”, around and through them (as in poems like her ‘Brasilia’) Sylvia’s ghost can be heard weeping and wailing like a motherly wraith, mourning all that has been sacrificed in the name of love.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. The sphinx is generally depicted as a Fury-like creature with a woman’s head, a lion’s body and bat’s wings. In Greek iconography, she often appeared on Athena’s shield or helmet, so the sword she bears is also the Sword of Justice.
2. The English usage of ‘Juggernaut’ is said to derive from the great wooden Chariot (actually called ‘Nandighosh’) on which the carved image of Lord Jagannath is pulled through the town of Puri (in the Indian State of Orissa) during the annual Festival of Chariots (Ratha Yatra). Nandigosh is an immensely heavy wooden cart about ten metres tall and with sixteen huge wooden wheels. Great crowds attend this festival and, at one time, frenzied worshippers of Lord Jagannath would throw themselves under the wheels of Nandigosh, symbolically and literally sacrificing themselves to the unstoppable powers of the Deity. More information about Lord Jagannath, including the story of his relationship to Lord Krishna can be found at Sri Jaganath https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagannath.
3. Marianne Moore (1887-1972). Her Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (1952) and the Bollinger Prize (1953). Sylvia bought a copy and read it before meeting her at Mt. Holyoak College, where Miss Moore was one of the judges of the Glascock Poetry Competition. Sylvia, along with six other finalists, read her poems before the judges and she won the competition. (SPLH 16 April 1955).
4. Sylvia wrote to her brother, Warren, that she found Marianne Moore’s syllabic form “satisfactorily strict” because it had the “speaking illusion of freedom”. She also noted that a pattern which varied the number of syllables in each line “(… can be set up, as M. Moore does it)” (SPLH 11 June 1958).
5. Marianne Moore’s poetry was admired for its sharp, disciplined, highly intelligent and unusual style but some found it too coolly rational. She was renowned, too, for rewriting and republishing her old poems. Her last published version of ‘Poetry’ reduced it from thirty-eight lines to four.
6. The “wire” with which she embroiders is made of “phosphor-bronze”, which is an amalgam. It is stiff and brittle and easily broken – far removed from the soft, malleability and beauty of gold thread.
7. Moore, ‘Poetry’, The Penguin Book of American Verse, Penguin, 1977, p. 345.
8. Sylvia had also sent Marianne Moore a copy of ‘Moonrise’ (SPCP 98).
9. Dante, The Inferno, Canto V and Canto VI.
10. ‘Ocean 1212-W’ (JPBD 117 - 124). In his Introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Ted describes this is one of three “journalistic pieces” “written during the time of the Ariel poems”. But he makes it clear that Sylvia’s reputation “rests on the poems of her last six months”, not on her prose.
11. Ted’s own complex and detailed discussion of the use of ritual drama is found throughout Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being but, especially, in ‘Two Kinds of Ritual Drama’ (SGCB 105 - 108). The ritual drama of ‘Setebos’ is of the second, “manipulative” kind.
12. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Ted writes that in mystical tradition, “In general, beheading means to be reborn with a new, other, consciousness” (SGCB 395).
13. Just as Prospero and Ariel set their spirit hounds on Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Tempest.
14. This phrase is taken from a modern travel brochure.
15. The efforts of these thousands of labourers were recognized by UNESCO in 1987, when Brasilia was declared a ‘Heritage of Mankind’.
16. In a “Diary Supplement” quoted by Aurelia Plath, Sylvia wrote: “Never, never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul”. (SPLH 40).
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