Analysis of Confessional Poems: Birthday Letter and Ariel

Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letter and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: The Restored Edition are both books containing a series of confessional poems. Both poets are regarded as one of the most influential literary couple in the world. The relationship between Hughes and Plath remained controversial in the public since Hughes’s betrayal in infidelity arguably led to Plath’s suicide at a young age. The book Ariel was released after Plath’s death in 1962, while Hughes’s Birthday Letter was published in 1998 just before his death from cancer. The two books demonstrate different visions of each other in the life they shared. Ariel: The Restored Edition, reveals Plath’s struggles throughout her life, whereas Birthday Letter is what Hughes used to represent his vision of his relationship with Plath, and rebuke blame for Plath’s suicide. In this essay, two confessional poems from each collection will be analyzed in order to explore how Hughes revised the true confession that Plath claimed in her poems.

Ariel: The Restored Edition contains some of Plath’s most disturbing and confronting poems. ‘Daddy’ is one of the most famous poems in Ariel, written in October 1962. It is a poem that outlines the rejection of family and society as Plath moves from a state of psychological bondage to freedom, found paradoxically in suicide. Plath uses chronological sequencing of recollections of her childhood to explore this transformation. She further uses psychoanalytic terms to illustrate her perspective on her relationship with two oppressive male figures in her life – her late father and her husband. In the opening of the poem, she depicts her father as an “old shoe” for which she had lived through a degree of mental suffering for thirty years – with reference to “Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen”.

Furthermore, Plath uses the symbol of the Nazi and a Jew to represent to her own mental oppression of her childhood memories. This association shows Plath’s incapacity to deal with her father and highlights an underlying enmity towards him. In the poem, her husband, with his “Meinkampf look” was a replacement of male authority in her life after her late father, but it also implies that she has made her father a prototype of all men. This image that was superimposed on her husband is fashioned in her father’s likeness, which shows a submissive husband-wife dynamic. This piece of reflection indicates the ideology of male supremacy and tyrannical treatment that Plath faced during her childhood. The weight of male domination however, was a main driver of Plath’s suicide, as depicted by her hatred and metaphorical murder of her father.

In contrast, Hughes’ use of the “gold-jacketed”, “solid silver”, “nickel-tripped” bullet in ‘The Shot’ describes Plath herself, as she is propelled by her obsessive drive to her target, “your daddy,/ The God”. Hughes claims he had no ability in stopping Plath or changing her direction, but perhaps the hot bullet could have been transformed by the alchemy of psychotherapy. Hughes’ use of the metaphor to depict the childhood trauma shows the impact of psychological ill-health on its victims. In ‘Black Coat’, another poem found in Birthday Letters, Hughes describes himself as a blank canvas – a “tabula rasa” ready to be inscribed upon, and that he is “thoroughly alone” with the “sea”. This creates a sense of irony as Hughes discovers the false perception Plath has of him by associating him with her late father, and that he is anything but alone. Furthermore, the use of “tabula rasa” raises Plath’s own description in ‘Lyonnesse’ – a poem focusing on male abandonment and loss of family connections through the description of an uncertain male God whose mind is a “white gape”. Hughes’s poem highlights the fear and resentment that is felt by Plath towards this “gape”. This is another identification of Hughes addressing Plath’s obsession in which he and her father have become inseparable in Plath’s mind. Similarly, in ‘Your Paris’ – a poem by Ted Hughes – is an indication of the notion of difference between cultural, educational and attitude. The opening sentence, “Your Paris, I thought, was American”, accentuates the feeling of estrangement as the couple are dissimilar and detached from each other. The poem also incorporates the ideology that what readers interpret is an entity beyond one’s self and it’s up to the reader’s own interpretation of the terms: “my Paris” and “your Paris”. The recognition of this subjectivity has placed important implications in determining the truth.

‘Lady Lazarus’ is another poem that share the notion of suicide as ‘Daddy’. However, is anticipates and manipulates responses of the reader much more overtly. Plath implores reader’s sympathy and rebukes one’s inquisitive nature. It is a confession from Lady Lazarus about her third failed suicide attempt. The poem is a recognition for Plath at the end of her life as she struggles between her identity amongst others, and between death and birth. The woman in the poem is compared to a Holocaust victim and a decaying corpse, for which symbolizes Plath’s unhappiness of her internal struggle that is hidden from the public’s eyes. It further exemplifies the reasoning behind Plath’s suicide attempt and her anger, for which was the cause of her father and husband.

In justifying himself, Hughes again revise the truth in ‘The Minotaur’ by exploring Plath’s degree of mental health. The poem follows a classical legend, the Minotaur – half bull, half man – which was fed with human flesh and was killed by Theseus. In this poem, Plath’s father is described as a Minotaur, but “risen” from the dead, and thus labeling Plath’s quest as futile. It further describes the “labyrinth” which has become Plath’s tormented reality, for which her father has departed from. The “labyrinth” can be found in another of Hughes’s poems. He states that Plath has completely entered this “labyrinth” for which he could not break down, as she was deaf to external voices. At the end of the poem, it shows how Plath has been possessed by voices of insanity that led to her desperately wanting to end her life. The poem laments Plath’s failure to overcome her own mental health as Plath described it has led her to feed on “men like air” in the Lady Lazarus due to her rage against men who have dictated against her. Overall, Plath’s identity was emphasized by how her own corpse was placed in the ‘grave of her risen father’. Although Plath blames her father and husband for her suicide attempt, Hughes poem is a contrast to her claims as he explores the destructiveness of mental illness and how it has affected Plath’s life.

In conclusion, in many ways Hughes’s the Birthday Letter is considered as a response to the tragic life of the suicide of Plath. Poems like ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ reflects Plath’s personal struggle openly and how she seeks to be free from her internal struggles and experiences caused by her late father and husband. However, these claims were rebuked by Hughes who instead blamed Plath’s suicide on her battle against mental illness, particularly through ‘The Shot’ and ‘The Minotaur’. The two poems re-examine and justify the psychological breakdown that led to Plath’s untimely death.

11 February 2020
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