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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The sacred or falling sickness was always unnameable when it struck a female.

(Lives like Loaded Guns– page 138)

Given my closing remarks at the end of Monday’s post about Sylvia Plath it feels only right to republish this sequence to give a more bit more context.

So far in the sequence we have seen authors attribute Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal from society as an agoraphobic reaction to patriarchy (The Mad Woman in the Attic) or as a response to the intense pain of forbidden love (The Passion of Emily Dickinson).

Even the more recent book, published in 2004, A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, is still backing the agoraphobic horse after quoting from Amy Lowell’s 1918 speculation (page 26): ‘There is a high probability that she suffered from agoraphobia. At the very least, she suffered from extreme social shyness.’

Is there an elephant in the room here that no one thought to mention until Lyndall Gordon came along in 2010 with her explosive potential myth-shaker, Lives like Loaded Guns.

Lives like Loaded Guns

Lyndall Gordon begins to build her case for a different explanation by reminding us (page 116) that Emily Dickinson always liked ‘to tell it slant.’

She asks us what explanation can we plausibly suggest for Emily Dickinson’s use of expressions such as ‘Throe’ and ‘a Cleaving in my Mind’? Is there a better fit than epilepsy? She adds other quotations into the mix (page 117): ‘it’s as though the body is a house haunted by an Assassin of the Brain, who prowls its corridors until the tormented Body “borrows a Revolver“ and prepares for a secret shoot-out behind a bolted door.’

There are, on page 125, six quotes including the word ‘fit.’ She feels that (page 126) ‘she never got over her fear of ‘it’ and in time her constant apprehension of “a fitting” turns out to be “terribler” than when it’s on – when she’s “wearing it.” The full text here is:

While we were fearing it, it came—
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair—

There is a Fitting—a Dismay—
A Fitting—a Despair
’Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

She spells out the implications (page 117):

If this, at least in part, is what was secret, the conditions of Dickinson‘s life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.… What seemed eccentric was simply dread.

Where else does she look for evidence to support this theory?

She agrees that anything conclusive is hard to come by because (page 119) ‘females especially provoked genteel aversion as they broke the rules of ladylike control. Families therefore colluded to keep the condition a lifelong secret. Dickinson’s poetry speaks of a “reticent“ volcano.’ And adds (page 123) ‘Because the diagnosis was rarely uttered, still less put on paper, there is little chance of explicit evidence.’

She refers to Emily Dickinson’s visit to Dr James Jackson in September 1851 (page121). Gordon argues that ‘it could have been Dr Jackson who persuaded Emily Dickinson to accept the prospect of seclusion and singleness in the hope of doing something with the intellectual and creative creative gifts that this doctor had the capacity to discern…’ She feels also that:

Dr Jackson’s authority would have weighed with Mr Dickinson, who agreed to relieve his daughter of the household tasks and empty social gatherings she loathed. . . He indulged the priority she wished to give to poetry and promoted mild exertion in the fresh air: daily walks with her dog Carlo… and her taste for gardening.

There is only one piece of tangible piece of evidence within her grasp (page 121) and it concerns the prescription he made out which has almost miraculously survived. Gordon feels this piece of paper ‘is a crucial clue to Dr Jackson‘s diagnosis. What he prescribed was half an ounce of glycerine diluted with two and a half ounces of water.’ She accepts that glycerine had many uses. However, one of the medical uses in Dickinson’s day was indeed for epilepsy, even though in today’s terms its past efficacy is seen (page 122) basically as a placebo. Apparently, Emily Dickinson used the prescription until 1853 with diminishing confidence.

What reasons do we have apart from the indirect hints in the poems and the possibly reputation-protecting seclusion, to justify thinking that glycerine was not being prescribed for something else other than epilepsy?

Gordon quotes Dr Hirschhorn as asking an extremely pertinent question (ibid.): ‘why did Dickinson persist in asking Austin to send her this medication from Boston even though there was an adequate drugstore at home in Amherst?’ She accepts that the ‘question of secrecy about her medication is… still open’ but adds that ‘the undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time…’

She finds at least one compensation for Dickinson’s not having been born when more powerful medications were used (page 123) ‘Since poetry was all important to Dickinson, it was in a sense fortunate that she lived before barbiturates came into use in 1912 for, in sedating the brain, the drugs dulled it.’

Gordon then turns to a more familiar theme, though still linking it with her diagnosis of epilepsy rather than agoraphobia (page 124):

‘I like the look of agony,’ [Dickinson] said, because agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ [dates from 1884] of her early thirties had ‘lain there Missles by — .’

This explanation differs from Farr’s view that it was the putting to bed of the pain of her two unfulfilled romantic attachments, one to Sue, her sister-in-law, and the other to the Master, that led to the decline in her creativity. It also discounts the correlation we will be discussing between her peak creativity and the American Civil War described in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. However, the three possible explanations may be complementary rather than contradictory. All the factors could well have played a part.

Gordon has one more card up her sleeve. This relates to Dickinson’s well-documented supposed eye problem for which she went for treatment in 1864 and 1865. Gordon plausibly questions (page 127) whether her eye treatment alone could ‘necessitate such prolonged stays in Boston, when the distance from Amherst was not so great as to prevent her father is coming and going? Commonsense suggests a major disability, and a concerted attempt at a cure.’

Gordon finds plausible evidence for supposing this treatment might have ended her most creative period (page 130). Her lack of progress was attributed to her own lack of motivation and cooperation. ‘In the end Dr Williams’s cure was so ineffectual that he fell back on a standard defence: blame the victim,’ and ‘further subscribed to the current medical view that too much thinking could damage a woman.’ He forbad her to read! ‘His prohibitions put an end to the booklets,’ those mini-compilations of her poems, , knows as fascicles,that she stitched together. ‘She never resumed this alternative to publication, and though she did continue to write poems, the great surge of the early 1860s came to an end.’

She goes on to adduce evidence for their being two other members of the Dickinson family with epilepsy (page 132-138). As epilepsy has a ‘genetic component’ this perhaps strengthens her case.

I have come away persuaded that Gordon is right to raise the possibility of epilepsy, though conclusive proof will probably remain indefinitely elusive. Some are already hotly contesting the theory. For example, Hirschhorn et al. in Perspect Biol Med.(2013) consider they have refuted Gordon’s claims on ‘scientific, clinical, and biographical grounds.’ Time will tell.

Another Isolating Factor

Either way, the theory does not diminish the relevance of patriarchy, thwarted romance and the Civil War as other factors contributing to Dickinson’s power as a poet and her pain as an isolated human being. Rather it may enrich our understanding both of the possible source of the spiritually loaded poems, given, for example, the possibility of quasi-mystical states being induced by an epileptic fit, and of those particular poems that might have inspired directly by her more disturbing experiences of the fits themselves. I think this is one of those cases where biographical details can remove rather than create a veil between the reader and a full understanding of a poem.

There is one other possible factor contributing to her isolation and her suffering which needs to be added in here: her relationship with her father. Pollak and Moore draw into their account of her life some quotations from her letters, which, even allowing for her obvious ironic exaggeration at times, have potentially disturbing implications. For example (page 28):

Fathers (sic) real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt!

And more unsettling still (page 29):

[A]fter tea I went to see Sue – had a nice little visit with her – then went to see Emily Fowler, and arrived home at 9 – found Father in great agitation at my protracted stay – and mother and Vinny [her sister] in tears, for fear that he would kill me.

In the end, in terms of the basic tenor of this sequence of posts, notwithstanding the likely contribution made to her isolation and pain by patriarchy, cultural and personal, and by a possible anxiety problem, for me the epilepsy theory added a layer of richness to my understanding of her poetry. I’ll quote one poem that illustrates this to finish this post with, and before we move on next time to one last candidate waiting in the queue to explain her Everest of productivity in the Civil War years.

I have already referred to this poem once in this sequence. It is a favourite of mine. As a brilliant rendering of her inscape it is hard to match, so whatever facilitated the isolation that fostered it and which she shared with other writers – a repressive environment for women, agoraphobia, epilepsy, thwarted passion or war – the pain of it all engendered many poems like this. At times she celebrated that.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[Emily Dickinson] conceived of herself as a martyr poet.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson page 55)

Given my closing remarks at the end of the previous post about Sylvia P|lath it feels only right to republish this sequence to give a more bit more context.

At the end of my sequence on the value of the feminine perspective I indicated that I would be returning to that theme. It was already clear to me by that point that I could not leave the topic behind until I had done justice to the unique and compelling voice of Emily Dickinson. As will become conspicuously apparent, Dickinson also had a fascinating quality that links her with Los Solitarios.

I intend to do this by taking, mostly in sequence, the perspectives of four very different books about the poet (their publication dates will prove significant later): The Mad Woman in the Attic (1994 first edition: also 2000 edition), The Passion of Emily Dickinson  (1994), Lives like Loaded Guns (2010) and A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004).  

The Mad Woman in the Attic

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the last chapter of their uneven but compelling analysis of Victorian patriarchy and its impact upon women, pin their colours firmly to the mast early on in terms of how they see Emily Dickinson (page 583):

Emily Dickinson herself became a mad woman – became, as we shall see, both ironically a mad woman (a deliberate impersonation of a mad woman) and truly a mad woman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father’s house).

As we shall see later, when we look at Lives like Loaded Guns,this may be simplifying the situation in at least one crucial respect.

Their feminist take on the matter is summarized when they write (page 384):

. . . the verse-drama into which she transformed her life enabled her to transcend… the ‘double bind’ of the woman poet: on the one hand, the impossibility of self-assertion for a woman, on the other hand, the necessity of self assertion for a poet.

But there were significant costs to what they see as a strategy which Dickinson was forced to choose.

The persona she adopted became a prison (page 591):

. . . while freeing her from the terrors of marriage and allowing her to ‘play’ with the toys of Amplitude, the child mask. . . eventually threatened to become a crippling self.

Also, there was a painful irony at work (page 595):

As a girl, Dickinson had begged to be kept from ‘what they call households,’ but ironically, as she grew older, she discovered that the price of her salvation was her agoraphobic imprisonment in her father’s household, along with a concomitant exclusion from the passionate drama of adult sexuality.

She was painfully aware of the effects upon her of patriarchy (page 606):

She went on to analyse with terrible clarity not only her imprisonment in romantic plots but the patriarchal structures she knew those plots reflected. . . “Is it because, as a woman, I am bound by a physical law, which prevents the soul from manifesting itself?“

She celebrated pain as leading to art (page 612):

From the centre of this cave of flame the poet speaks with a priestess’s oracular voice, … describing the smithy in which her art and her soul are purified: ‘Dare you see a Soul at the white heat?/Then crouch within the door – …’

They spell out an important insight into the creative process exemplified by Dickinson (pages 612-13):

. . . she is a prophet of Imagination whose brain is a furnace in which the gross materials of life are transformed into the products (the refined ore) and the powers (the designated light) of art.

They deal at some length with the paradoxes connected with white (pages 615-23). It frequently represents both creative energy and the loneliness ‘Romantic creativity may demand.’ It’s ‘a two-edged blade of light associated with . . . both triumph and martyrdom.’ It’s ‘not just a sign of her purity but the emblem of her death.’

A key passage lists a collection of powerful associations (pages 621-23):

Impersonating simultaneously a “little maid“ in white, a fierce virgin in white, a nun in white, a bride in white, a mad woman in white, a dead woman in white, and a ghost in the white, Dickinson seems to have split herself into a series of incubae, haunting not just her father’s house but her own mind.

They then shift into an intriguing way of describing this, which resonates both with the work of Pessoa, and his heteronyms, a focus of interest for me, and of course my own relatively light-hearted exploration of my own sub-personalities, My Parliament of Selves. They state:

The ambiguities and discontinuities implicit in her white dress became, therefore, as much signs of her own psychic fragmentation as of society’s multiple (and conflicting) demands upon women. . . . In addition, and perhaps most frighteningly, they dramatised an ongoing quarrel within that enigmatic self which became the subject of much of Dickinson’s most pained and painful poetry.

They quote a famous poem in support, after first quoting Harriet Beecher Stowe (page 624):

‘ what a fool is he, who locks his door to keep out spirits, who has in his own bosom a spirit he dare not meet alone.’ And here is Dickinson, on an equally terrible haunting:

One need not to be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
the Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –

They grimly summarise their conclusion (page 631):

It is in her own body, her own self, that her many selves are imprisoned or buried; she is their grave, tomb, and prison.

This gels with Vivian Pollak’s description of Emily Dickinson as ‘[a] poet of the inner civil war.’ (From A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson – page 3).

Before I move on to look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson,I think it will be useful to check out briefly some ideas expressed by Raj Patel and Jason Moore in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.

Emily Dickinson looked across the Atlantic to the work of the Brontës, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pollak – page 5), and resonated to their struggle with the English version of patriarchy (Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar: Chapters 15 and 16). Coverture is one example, whose persisting impact I had until now failed to recognize as such (page 125):

New traditions of control put bourgeois women in a bind, particularly in England. The law there enshrined coverture – the status of a married woman, including the placing of her person and property under her husband’s authority. . . . Coverture persisted from the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. So great was its power to rob women of rights and identity, campaigners against it called it ‘civil death.’ It is from this institution that a wife’s taking of her husband‘s name originates.

The control women surrendered made marriage uninviting. Marry they none the less did (page 127):

Yet even as the economic imperatives for women to choose marriage increased, so did the covering philosophy describing this choice as uncoerced. This . . . mirrors the relations of workers under capitalism, who needed to appear free agents at least in theory, even if their freedom boiled down to the choice of working for a pittance, starving to death, or serving in a debtors’ prison.

Housework, something against which Emily Dickinson rebelled, was (page 129): ‘considered precisely beyond the domain of wage work, a favour that women did for men, akin to the free gift that nature offered enterprise.’

We will be coming back to nature as well.

In the next post I will take a look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson.

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Now for the most difficult task of all so far. When we look at Plath’s poetry through Hayden’s lens what do we eventually find?

In a journey of at least two stages, I’m starting with the poem that gave her posthumous collection its title.

Ariel

Ariel

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Nigger-eye
Berries cast dark
Hooks—

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Shadows.
Something else

Hauls me through air—
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

White
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Apart from the insensitive use of the ‘n’ word, what other problems does this poem present.

Well, for a start, until I realized that Ariel was the name of her horse, I had been struggling to make sense of the poem in terms of the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Unsurprisingly I had made no progress whatsoever, as an analysis of the poem on the web acknowledges right from the start:

It is important to note a piece of background information before attempting to understand what this piece is about. In an interview after her death, Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, explained that Ariel was the name of her horse. Without this information, understanding this poem is almost impossible.

Once that Beecher’s Brook has been successfully negotiated, a significant problem remains, at least for me. Is all the remaining interpretative effort sufficiently rewarded by the insights gained or experiences conveyed?

For me, I’m afraid the answer to that question is no. The obscurity created by the poem’s fragmented self-absorbed intensity seems disproportionate and simply not worth decoding. For me it carries all the signs of what Iain McGilchrist describes as being the bizarre distortions that one would expect to find when the left-hemisphere escapes the holistic influence of an impaired right-hemisphere. McGilchrist wrote[1] that:

. . . there is the confusing fact that taste in modern art is more receptive than usual to elements that are visuo-spatially bizarre or distorted, something far more likely after a right hemisphere stroke, and may even celebrate such elements as signs of ‘creativity’.

The illustrations he provides indicate a high degree of fragmentation. Is it possible that modernism’s preference for this kind of style is masking too many critics’ perception of other more troubling possible sources of fragmentation in Plath’s poetry, and leading instead to uncritical adulation?

Many have fought strongly to defend Plath against those who feel her mind was significantly unbalanced: I am reluctant to even begin to attempt to diagnose anyone at such a distance in time and place, but do feel that some of her late poetry is more symptomatic than creative, though of exactly what it is probably impossible to say with any degree of certainty.

McGilchrist  also contends that the evidence suggests that one of the predominant emotions of someone experiencing this hemispheric imbalance will be anger:[2] ‘Anger . . . is one of the most strongly lateralised of all emotions, and it lateralises to the left.’

An intensity of anger is something we need to move onto considering soon.

Why this poem?

Before doing so, perhaps I need to explain exactly why I am bringing this poem into the mix at this point or even at all?

First of all, because it is considered by some critics to be one of her greatest poems, it seemed worth testing out before tackling the main focus, Daddy. Perloff, for example, includes it in her list:

Very few of the poems in Crossing the Water have the oracular, transfiguring vision of Sylvia Plath’s best poems: “Ariel,” “Words,” “Little Fugue,” “Fever 103.”

More importantly, perhaps, is the sense it gives me of Plath’s tendency in her later poems, the ones that have received the highest accolades, to go to extremes for no good reason. I completely fail to find this poem ‘oracular’ or ‘transfiguring.’ In its attempts to convey a terrifying experience, it exploits fragmentation to an extreme that effectively denies the reader experiential access to the terror, in my case at least: its cryptic crossword complexity turns it into an armchair puzzle instead. This is not the rewarding challenge of solving for the sublime unknown, which the best poetry requires of us, as we explored last time.

Now Daddy

What happens when this dramatizing intensity is mobilised to convey her feelings about her father? The fragmentation is still there but to a far less disruptive degree, the level of intensity is about the same and the poem as a whole is far more easily intelligible, but a different problem seems to me to have taken precedence, something that her use in Ariel of the ‘n’ word may be hinting at.

It would be impossible to combine here a detailed examination of the poem along with a clear explanation of what many regard as its main deficiencies. I’ve posted a copy of the full poem prior to this post appearing (see link). Please check what I am about to convey against the content of the poem itself. As a brief assist in understanding what I am about to discuss, here are some of the problematic expressions she uses in the poem (with similar ones in other poems): you’ll need to check the context to get all the implications.

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
(lines 32-35)

I have always been scared of you
With your Luftwaffe . . .
(lines 41-42)

A man in black with a Meinkampf look
(line 65)

Even as references to or symbols of patriarchy at that post-war point in UK/US history when the poem was written, they seem excessive.

A relatively moderate take on Plath’s poetry can be found in Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry. In the context of Hughes’ ‘nature poems’ of the post Auschwitz, post Hiroshima era, Hamburger refers to[3] the instances of the ‘extremist art’ which A. Alvarez has found in the work of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton,’ and explains[4]‘extremist art – and all art informed by an intense awareness is extremist in our time – need not take the form of personal confession, as in . . . Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.’

My go-to critic, as a frequent reference I use to any poet I need to check out, has a more negative take. Michael Schmidt states:[5]

Plath places at the control-panels of her art a treacherous instability licensed to do what it likes not only with language but with fact.

He feels that[6] ‘in the wake of Ariel . . . Her use of metaphors [is] so strong that they displace what they set out to define. . . . By means of such metaphors she seeks to generalise her experience, to step outside it, to render impersonal the (apparently) intensely personal. Yet it is hard to imagine a poetry more forcefully stamped with a personality and voice. . . It is the passionate love and anger we remember, so disproportionate that they adhere uniquely to the allegorical figures she has created of ‘him’ and of ‘herself’ . . .’

He concludes:[7]  ‘That is what the poems do, “act out the awful little allegory”, exorcise rather than confess,’ adding that:[8]‘When she uses Hiroshima and Dachau it is in part to borrow a horror, to increase the volume of her poem’ something he defends up to a point while admitting some find it offensive.

Elaine Feinstein flags up how negative the poem seems:[9]

. . . the sheer theatricality of the poem (‘Daddy’], and the throwaway, colloquial tone of many of the crucial lines, work against a sense of transcendence. These are poems which invoke the power to avenge.

She feels Plath took it too far:[10] ‘what she wrote exposed too much, both of her need and of her hatred.’ This had potentially damaging consequences. She refers to Holbrook quoting psychotherapists:[11] ‘they related how often they were fighting to enable a patient to go on living – when some cultural work was pushing them over the edge. Sylvia Plath’s poetry especially, they said, tended to do this.’

In the age of the internet we are very aware of how powerful and toxic communications can tip vulnerable people over the edge into serious self-harm or suicide. Plath’s impact suggests this has had a longer history than I realised. This also implies that the pointer her analysts gave Plath towards the demonisation of her parents may have reached beyond her own suicide.

Jonathan Bate is aware of the link:[12] ‘Daddy is a poem that yokes father and husband, under the influence of Sylvia’s psychoanalytic journey.’

In describing Al Alvarez’s comment in the Observer about Ariel, based on a BBC broadcast, Bate uses very strong terminology:[13]

. . . The poems written in her last months tapped the ‘roots of her own inner violence’ (‘violence’, that word which was so often applied to Ted’s work). ‘Poetry of this order’, he had ended a talk, ‘is a murderous art.’

Adding that:

. . . The first American edition appeared in the summer of 1966, with the forward in which Plath’s genius was hailed by no less a figure than Lowell himself. ‘Her art’s immortality is life’s disintegration,’ he wrote.

The link with her subsequent reputation is clear:[14] ‘It was this image [of her suicide] combined with the venom of Daddy that laid the ground for the cult of Plath, what Ted call the Sylvia Plath fantasia.’

Collecting these words together – ‘venom’, ‘disintegration’, ‘murderous art’, ‘violence’ ‘hatred’, ‘avenge’, ‘horror’ and ‘anger’ – make it impossible to deny that the cumulative effect of this and other poems is destructively negative, and, when tied to the element of disproportion, it begins to seem indefensible.

Anne Stevenson feels[15] that she is ‘adapting immediate experience to her self-destructive perspective.’

Her conclusions are worth quoting at some length:[16]

As absorbed and intent as a cartographer, Sylvia reported in her poems on the weather of her inner universe . . . her recent furies were transmuted . . becoming indistinguishable from her old buried rages that were now at last fully and freely available to her.

. . .  the voice is finally that of a revengeful, bitterly hurt child storming against a beloved parent.

. . . On ethical grounds only a desperate bid for life and psychic health can even begin to excuse this and several other of the Ariel poems . .

. . .  it is possible, of course, that in some strange way Sylvia couldn’t imagine the targets of such poems as being harmed or hurt by them or that she thought the confessional mode commanded understanding on a different level from mere real-life human relationships, but if this was her a view it was clearly mistaken: such poems have caused enormous pain to the innocent victims of her pen.

Not everyone is so damning though.

In her attempt to defend Plath’s use of holocaust imagery Jacqueline Rose cites the conclusions of her critics as a matter of necessity. Referring to ‘Plath’s failure to recognise the “incommensurability of her experience of what took place she goes on to write:[17]

Joyce Carol Oates objects to Plath ‘snatching . . . metaphors for her predicament from the newspaper headlines’; Seamus Heaney argues that in poems like ‘Lady Lazarus’, Plath harnesses the wider cultural reference to a ‘vehemently self-justifying purpose’; Irving Howe describes the link as ‘monstrous, utterly disproportionate’; and Marjorie Perloff describe Plath’s references to the Nazis as ‘empty’ and ‘histrionic’, ‘cheap shots’, ‘topical trappings’, ‘devices’ which ‘camouflage’ the true personal meaning of the poems in which they appear.

Rose, in her defence of Plath, seems to equate some higher cultural standard, against which she feels Plath is being unfairly measured, with a patriarchal orthodoxy, and may be correct under some circumstances. However, this seems no justification for manufacturing a standard that makes all ‘subliminal uprush’, no matter how extreme and chaotic, equal to great art. Nor can we dismiss from the necessary mix counter balancing positives such as spirituality either. More on that later.

As part of her psychoanalytically-based defence of the poem[18] she quotes George Steiner’s praise of it as the ‘Guernica of modern poetry,’ claiming that ‘perhaps it is only those who had no part in the events who can focus on them rationally and imaginatively.’ Given my unqualified admiration of Picasso’s masterpiece, this seems grossly misplaced. Picasso is giving powerful expression to the grief and horror experienced in response to an atrocity, not misappropriating a crime against humanity to give vent to an histrionically exaggerated sense of personal injury.

Later Rose goes on to assert[19] that the argument that Plath ‘simply uses the Holocaust to aggrandise her personal difficulties seems completely beside the point. Who can say that these were not difficulties which she experienced in her very person?’ Given what we know to be the facts of her childhood, for example that her father, whatever his faults, did not abandon her but died of late-treated diabetes when she was eight years old, what Plath writes is clearly and unarguably a self-serving escalation of the truth. In my view, in the final analysis, Rose’s defence simply does not work.

It seems therefore clear to me that Daddy cannot be a poem leading us to a higher level of understanding of objective reality, or truth we might term it. It simply does not bear comparison with the best of Emily Dickinson, no matter what her husband thought (see link for an example of her poetry, describing a dark experience in a far more effective fashion). It’s only possible justification is that it might succeed in effectively conveying her intensely subjective state of mind. Does that make it a great poem, in effect the ‘Guernica of modern poetry’?

Or is the legacy of Plath a post-modern nightmare where there is no ‘truth’ to discover, just a clash of different but supposedly equally valuable meanings, some of which her poetry powerfully reproduces?

This is where we need to take use Hatcher’s perspective on Hayden’s poetry as a lens to evaluate Plath’s oeuvre.

More of that next time.

References:

[1]. The Matter with Things – page 261.
[2]. Op. cit. – page 197.
[3]. The Truth of Poetry – page 282.
[4]. Op. cit. – page 290.
[5]. Lives of the Poets – page 793.
[6]. Op. cit. – page 796.
[7]. Op. cit. – page 797.
[8]. Op. cit. – page 799.
[9]. Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet – page 133).
[10]. Op. cit. – page 146.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 185.
[12]. Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life – page 189.
[13]. Op. cit. – page 239.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 240.
[15]. Bitter Fame – page 244.
[16]. Op. cit. – pages 262-66.
[17]. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath  — page 206.
[18]. Op. cit – page 214.
[19]. Op. cit. – page 229.

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Two weeks ago this is what I saw as I crossed the road near to our home. Not exactly relevant to my current thread of thought, but  couldn’t resist flagging it up regardless. Apparently an estimated 41 million squirrels are killed by drivers each year, according to WorldAtlas, The explanation of why squirrels are particularly vulnerable can be found at this link. Given the squirrel’s avoidance pattern, fewer vehicles on our roads seems the only way of reducing these numbers. Such a step would also carry additional benefits in terms of the climate crisis.

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Next Monday I’ll be attempting to confront the question of the relative value of extremely bleak or intensely negative works of art such as Plath’s, as against those such as Hayden’s that do not shirk the darkness but also have a clearer sense that there is light. One of the poems I’ll mention towards the end as a point of comparison is this by Emily Dickinson: Ted Hughes felt his wife was as great a poet. I’ll be leaving you all to decide for yourselves on that one

Anyway, it seemed a good idea to give everyone a chance to ponder before I start sounding off.

Emily Dickinson

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Next Monday I’ll be attempting to confront the question of the relative value of extremely bleak or intensely negative works of art such as Plath’s, as against those such as Hayden’s that do not shirk the darkness but also have a clearer sense that there is light. One of the poems I’ll be looking at is Plath’s Ariel.

It seemed a good idea to give everyone a chance to ponder before I start sounding off.

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