The Marriage of Tragedy: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Nietzsche
April 6, 2011
It is predictable to find the term tragic when discussing the marriage between two poets, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. This sense of tragedy is often expressed as relating to human emotions of sadness. In The Birth of Tragedy, however, Nietzsche uses the term to discuss attic tragedy, or also known as ancient Greek drama. Nietzsche sets forth the concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian duality, and the perpetual strife between these two opposite forces can be applied to other aesthetic inquiries. Most understandably, the method of looking at the two poets should be our priority in discussing their poetry. In order to incorporate Nietzsche’s aesthetic framework, we must dispel the view of Plath as a confessional poet while inspecting some of Hughes’ consistent poetic techniques. Although the two poets find common ground on some of their style and themes, Plath and Hughes can be distinguished based on their approach to their poems. In light of Nietzsche’s view of tragic forces, Hughes is revealed as driven mainly through Apollonian sense of craft while Plath embodies the Dionysian spirit in her poems.
Plath and Hughes are usually discussed in relation to each other and it is no surprising fact that their biographical materials are almost inseparable when examining their poetry. Plath’s critics propose that she belongs to the group of confessional poets, especially from the readers who bring focus to her biographical materials that surround Plath’s poetry. Rosenblatt argues that “[w]hile the autobiographical origin of the experiences are clear, there is no reason to restrict the range of meanings elaborated by them to a merely private recitation of anguish” (22). The dramatic elaboration of her personal life forces the audience to feel as if they are being let into Plath’s private circle of confidentiality. If the connection between the reader’s emotions to poetry were to be regarded as the success of literature, the force of Plath’s poetry goes beyond the expectations. With the abundance of published materials written about her personal life, some of her poems like “The Lady and the Earthenware Head,” “Words heard, by accident, over the phone” are presented as Plath reaching out to confide in the readers (Plath, 69; 202). These two poems are undeniably related to actual events that occurred. Confessional poetry may be accurate but it is crucial to focus on her poetry along with the biographical inspirations. Thus, we must consider different ways of portraying her style rather than reducing her poetics as exclusively confessional poetry.
The problem with depicting Plath as a confessional poet is that this view often considers the end, mainly her suicide, as an intentional result. For such a prolific literary figure, it is unfair to transform her as a mere historical figure. As a matter of fact, there is more of anxiety than certainty in her poetry. Numerous poems emphasize the conflict between two opposite forces – life and death – embodied in various objects (Rosenblatt, 21-22). Nietzsche’s characterization of Greek tragedy followed a similar path. In Birth of Tragedy, he asserts “the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality: […] involving pertual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations” (Nietzsche, 1). These two tendencies allow two opposite ends to be discussed while maintaining they are necessary to each other. The theme of polarity is resonates in Plath’s poetry. In “Getting There,” the speaker is submerged in instability, being pulled by destructive images such as “Dynasty of broken arrows,” “[burying] the dead” and many blood references throughout the poem (Plath, 249). However, the end couplet, “Step to you from the black car of Lethe, / Pure as a baby,” demonstrates the conflict of life and death in its extreme juxtaposition. Similarly, the speaker of “Lady Lazarus” is reborn in the last verse of the poem: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air” (Plath, 244-247). Plath uses the pattern of death and rebirth in many other poems to comparable degrees of vividness. “Totem” can be interpreted as the extension of “Getting There,” due to the inclusion of train-like vehicular movement towards some unknown destination. Interestingly, “Totem” also closely situates “children,” which can be taken as Rosenblatt’s conception of force of life, with “Death with its many sticks” (Plath, 265). It is evident from this partial list of examples that Plath showed interest in ritualistic approach to the conflict of the two opposing forces, which allows her to be developed beyond the statement merely based on the social context.
While Plath’s suicide, to a certain extent, invited readers to teleologically analyze the dynamics of her poems, Hughes was able to personally express his visions and ideas about his poems and poetry in general through interviews as well as additional works to promote these subjects. Hughes often uses anthropomorphic subjects and primitive myths like a shaman. A. Alvarez labels Hughes as a “survivor-poet” in an attempt to see him and Plath as simple opposites (Libby, 387). Although this bold description seems to be a mere indirect way of dividing Plath and Hughes while reverberating the manner in which binds Plath as confessional, it offers a valuable insight that relates to Hughes’ shamanistic approach to poetry. In many of his poems, he transforms his experience into an expressive moment or vision upon which he carefully constructs the poetic body. “Eclipse” is probably the best example of this movement. The poet first situates the subject or the speaker in the beginning, and then describes the scene in the minutest detail (Hughes, NSP, 228-232).The arachnid lovers are anthropomorphized, especially the end of the poem with emotive terms such as “bliss” “lovemaking” and “rejoice.” The invocation of human nature through animals is common in Hughes’ extensive number of poems. “The Jaguar,” “Hawk Roosting,” and the Crow series are exemplary works of anthropomorphism (Hughes, NSP, 4, 29; 89-119). “The Jaguar” seems void of any biographical material in its literary indications but it is inspired by the period when he used to live near a zoo. Compared to Plath, who revels in the conflict between life and death or some sort of polarity, Hughes often extends it to a metaphor. Perhaps, through the concealment of apparent human presence, he is able to overcome the immediate danger and fear.
Nietzsche’s interest in genealogy and philology provided the elements to philosophically examine aesthetics of Greek tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy:
Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art-deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world there existed a sharp opposition, in origin and aims, between the Apollonian art of sculpture, and the non-plastic, Dionysian, art of music. These two distinct tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term “Art” (Nietzsche, BT, 1).
The Apollonian force is the appearance of the inner world of fantasy. It is the dream-like nature where beauty in appearance and illusion is constructed to reveal its counterpart – the nature of the Dionysian. The foundation of the Apollonian realm is the unshaken faith of principium individuationis, or individuation. It shields us from the full truth of human suffering. On the other hand, the Dionysian state or art can be described as ecstatic revelry in reality. There is a sense of immediacy in Dionysian realm for it is the frenzied participation of the suffering of human life. Unlike the Apollonian’s individuation principle, the Dionysian is the involvement in the Primordial Unity, or to gain access to the undercurrent of the world. Together these two forces construct the two polar elements of Nietzschean concept of aesthetics, which amalgamated to find the ideal balance in Greek tragedies.
The antithetical relationship between these two artistic forces can be used as a framework to discuss various artworks, including Plath and Hughes’ poetry. It can be extended beyond the boundaries of ancient artwork to discuss these two poets’ works individually and collectively. The use of myth in Hughes’ poetry can be understood as the Apollonian illusion that is constructed to clarify and justify the Dionysian suffering. His myth, then, transforms into comprehensible images to safely observe the tragedy of human world. The refinement and interpretation processes are strictly Apollonian. Birthday Letters by Hughes is aimed towards understanding the past experiences. It re-members and re-constructs the past as it progresses. Without a doubt, the collection embodies principium individuationis. The memories of the past, or dream-like illusions, guide the speaker who invokes the myths of Orpheus. Hughes infuses his individual memories of particular events with poetic endeavors as exemplified in “Fulbright Scholars.” In the poem, he tries to put the image together, but goes only as far as his illusions take him (Hughes, BL, 3). The sudden shift in topic, from remembering Plath to the first peach he tasted, emulates the Genesis. It may be that Hughes retreats into myth in order to make the suffering tangible. Perhaps, in failing to confront the painful memories, Hughes resorts to re-construction. Therefore, a number of the poems included in Birthday Letter rely on recalling the impressions or events discussed by Plath, such as “Black Coat” and “Epiphany.” These ask the question, ‘what was I thinking then?’ rather than ‘this is me as it was then.’ The reflective style is likely to be intentional to fix on a single vision. There is logical harmony and unity in many of his poems. He has published series of poems with a clear theme that underlines them: Crow, Flowers and Insects, River, and of course, Birthday Letters. The essence of Apollonian art “beholds the transfigured world of the stage and nevertheless denies it […] [it] comprehends the action in the minutest detail, and yet loves to flee into the incomprehensible” (Nietzsche, BT, 81). Once again, returning to Hughes’ poem, “Eclipse,” it seems to support the view of Hughes as an Apollonian poet (Hughes, NSP, 228-232). The attention to detail in the poem is remarkable. It transcends from the vision, which the speaker observes the two spiders having a sexual intercourse, to the moment of reconciliation between life and death. Appropriately, the poet ‘denies’ its tragic nature by veiling the reality with anthropomorphic approach. The spiders, in return, are revealed as illusions to conceal human sexuality.