Ariel and Birthday Letters – Study Guide

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Introduction

In their own rights, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were some of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. Both continue to be widely regarded as the best writers of their generation, even after decades have passed since their works have been published.  However, part of the fascination and interest in Plath and Hughes was derived not just from their talent, but from their ‘explosive’ marriage to one another, which was heavily covered in the media. Plath famously committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1963, an even that many speculated Hughes was at least partially responsible for – speculations that Hughes would refute until his death in 1998. In undertaking a comparative study of their respective poem collections, Ariel and Birthday Letters, audiences gain an understanding of themes such as relationships, mental health, powerlessness and truth, how the two composers ‘converse’ with each other through their poems and, more broadly, the power of manipulating language.

Prescribed poems

The prescribed poems from each text are as follows:

  • Ariel (2001) by Sylvia Plath
    • ‘Daddy’
    • ‘Nick and the Candlestick’
    • ‘A Birthday Present’
    • ‘Lady Lazarus’
    • ‘Fever 103°’
    • ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’
  • Birthday Letters (1999) by Ted Hughes
    • ‘Fulbright Scholars’
    • ‘The Shot’
    • ‘A Picture of Otto’
    • ‘Fever’
    • ‘Red’
    • ‘The Bee God’

The composers’ contexts

Unlike most other Module A prescribed texts, both Plath and Hughes were writing from the same contextual period. The sexual politics of mid-20th century United States was particularly relevant. Plath especially felt stifled by the expectations of the feminine ideal – the quiet, subdued and obedient housewife whose husband was the breadwinner of the family – that all women were subjected to at the time. Being the talented writer that she was, Plath was unable and suffered trying to into this stereotype, which feminist critics argue was at least partially the cause of Hughes’ resentment and mistreatment towards her.

Another relevant contextual feature on the poems is the lasting impact of World War II into the Cold War. Both Plath and Hughes emulate the Nihilism of the time through the often bleak and dark imagery of their poems, with Plath being one of the most famous confessional poets (a personal, diary-like writing style that emerged during this era). Whilst analysing their poems, you will come across the austere tone experienced by many people of Plath and Hughes’ time, whether through the themes, imagery or voice.

Plath and Hughes’ personal contexts are also of much relevance. Plath was born in Boston in 1932, and she very early set herself on the course of a professional writer, writing successful poems and articles from a young age. Her first national publication came just after high school, attended Smith College and even won a guest editorship position at Mademoiselle magazine. However, at the same time, Plath began to be stalked by depression. This was caused at least partially by her father’s early death when she was 8, as well as their already troubled relationship. In order to treat her clinical depression, she underwent electroshock therapy in the early 1950s. This drove her to her first suicide attempt in 1953. When she recovered from her first attempt, Plath met Ted Hughes at Cambridge University, although she was already familiar with his writings. Only months after that first meeting, they married in 1956. The late 1950s found the couple living in Boston, where Plath worked as a receptionist in the psychiatric wing of Massachusetts General Hospital and, it often seems, feeling estranged from the artistic inspirations steadily growing and complicating inside her. During this time and their eventual move to England in 1959, private letters written by Plath to her psychiatrist claimed that Hughes physically and emotionally abused her. While one cannot say for sure, many feminist critics believed Hughes’ treatment and continued suppression of Plath led to her commit suicide at the age of 30 – carbon monoxide poisoning with her head in the oven.

Meanwhile, Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire in August of 1930. His parents, William Henry and Edith Hughes, raised him among the farms of the Calder Valley and surrounding moorland. Hughes attended Mexborough Grammar school, where his teacher encouraged his natural writing ability. He was introduced to poets such as T.S. Eliot and George Hopkins, who would go on influence his writing. Whilst not necessarily academically successful, Hughes showed immense talent in poetry and had works published in various publications even from a young age. When Hughes met Plath for the first time, he was unsuspecting of the whirlwind marriage that they would have with one another, especially since their first few years together were full of elation and contentment. Hughes claimed to be devastated by her suicide, writing that his life was effectively over. He oversaw the publication of Ariel, a fact which bothered some critics and advocates for women’s rights. It is thought that he destroyed one of Plath’s later journals detailing their final days together. Hughes married again in 1970. The new couple remained together until his fatal heart attack in October of 1998.

In discussing the personal contexts of the poets, you must be able to draw a connection between the poems’ themes and messages to the motivations and experiences of their composers.

Initial considerations

Some significant aspects of the texts that one should always consider whilst formulating a Textual Conversations thesis include:

  • The importance of perspective and what is the ‘truth’
    • How similar themes or events are portrayed in drastically different ways by Plath and Hughes
  • What Plath and Hughes indirectly say to or about one another through their poems
  • The impact of the composers’ context and public image
    • The historical context in which their relationship took place, namely mid-20th century United States
  • Textual integrity
    • It is important to consider each of the poems not as standalone texts, but as part of the broader collection of poems (i.e. Ariel and Birthday Letters). Not only should you be making connections between the two collections of poems, but you need to show that you understand that each of the poems within the texts have thematic and structural/stylistic connections
  • The power of poetry to serve as a medium to express oneself, or to shift the way in which a narrative is told

Textual Conversations between Ariel and Birthday Letters

As with any prescribed (and related) text, we must first look to the Textual Conversations rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric, so it is imperative that we study the links between Ariel and Birthday Letters and the major points in the Textual Conversations rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric, as well as theme-specific!). Then, we will deconstruct the ways you could explore this the two texts as the basis of your thesis.

Resonances and dissonances in texts

  • Potential question: By performing a comparative study between Plath and Hughes’ poetry, one’s understanding of the thematic resonances and dissonances between texts is enhanced. To what extent is this true?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘In this module, students explore the ways in which the comparative study of texts can reveal resonances and dissonances between and within texts.’

Essentially, this rubric statement is asking you to consider the similarities (resonances) and differences (dissonances) between the two texts. Ariel and Birthday letters, being texts that feature different perspectives of the same relationship, inevitably means there are many parallels. In identifying these similarities and differences, you must also explain why Plath and Hughes have chosen to change something or keep it the same.

For example, one glaring difference between the texts is their representation of why the poets’ marriage failed and, ultimately, why Plath committed suicide. After all, Hughes published his poems largely in response to increasing criticism that his alleged abuse and suppression of Plath’s autonomy was what drove her to such extreme measures of escape. As such, while Plath portrays herself as a tortured soul and a victim, Hughes defends his public image by stating that he was ‘a whole myth too late to replace’ Plath’s father, Otto Plath. That is, instead of being the perpetrator, he claims to be just as much a victim, if not more, as Plath was. Furthermore, the diction of this statement suggests that Plath’s representation of their relationship and its downfall is a ‘myth’ and not reflective of the truth of the situation. It is also worth considering the differences in their writing styles. While Plath’s use of imagery is known to be incredibly commanding and intricate, Hughes tends to evoke less imagery but focus more on simple, yet effective, metaphors.

However, many the central themes, images and concerns of two texts remain intact. For instance, the exploration of mental health, the parent-child relationship, even the titles of the poems (e.g. ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’/‘The Bee God’ and ‘Fever 103°’/‘Fever’) bind the two poets together. This provides the audience with a more complex and in-depth view of their relationship, as well as the varying perspectives that encapsulated this era of history. The fact that Plath and Hughes’ poems concern themselves with similar themes also illuminates the universal nature of these concepts. Perhaps, it is even suggestive of what Plath and Hughes’ relationship was like in their earlier years – a happier time where two esteemed authors believed they had found their intellectual match in one another.

Reimagining and reframing texts

  • Potential question: In what ways have Plath and Hughes’ poems mirrored, aligned or collided with one another?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students consider the ways that a reimagining or reframing of an aspect of a text might mirror, align or collide with the details of another text.’

As stated, the concepts explored in both poems are little more than reimaginations of one another. Plath and Hughes almost ‘talk’ back and forth with each other through the ways in which the texts ‘mirror, align and collide.’ For instance, while the poems are ‘aligned’ with regards to the bleakness and hopelessness about their relationship, Plath and Hughes ‘collide’ on why this feeling has permeated their lives. More specifically, both poets feel victimised by the actions of those around them, rather than taking much personal responsibility. In this sense, both texts are reimaginations of each other. Even the final publication of Ariel may have been reframed by Hughes, who famously omitted and edited parts of the original text before its publication, although exactly what he changed will likely forever be a secret to the public.

When considering this rubric element, you should also incorporate knowledge of the contextual period. After all, Plath’s experiences as a woman in the highly conservative culture of mid-20th century America undoubtedly differs to that of Hughes, who was expected to be an intellectual and driven individual. As such, you may ‘reframe’ the narrative of both texts yourself by applying a feminist lens.

Issues, values, assumptions and perspectives

  • Potential question: How are issues regarding perspective and truth illuminated by a comparison of the poetry by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘In their textual studies, they also explore common or disparate issues, values, assumptions or perspectives and how these are depicted.’

One of the most compelling aspects about Plath and Hughes’ poetry is the fact that the two poets are perfect examples of the different perspectives people can have on different values and issues. In turn, likely unbeknownst to them, they offer a poignant insight into the fallibility of ‘truth.’ After all, we will never truly know what happened between Plath and Hughes or who is to blame. Perhaps, there is no such thing as truth – the poets experiences, whilst conflicting and paradoxical, are both equally valid. You must be able to express this understanding of the texts’ complexity in your essay.

Further issues, values, assumptions and perspectives that are relevant to these texts include:

  • The issue of mental health and how this was handled in mid-century America
  • Feminist issues surrounding gender roles and patriarchal societal norms
    • How do Plath and Hughes adhere or challenge these roles?
    • How do the experiences of the authors differ on this topic and why?
  • Values
    • Liberty and freedom
    • Identity and self-expression
    • The value of literature as a whole
      • How can reading these poems provide us with valuable insight of the historical period?
    • Our current perspectives
      • How does being in the contemporary, 21st century world impact our interpretation of the poems?

Intertextuality

  • Potential question: How does undertaking a comparative study between Plath and Hughes’ poetry enhance your understanding of how texts are influenced by other texts?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘By comparing two texts students understand how composers (authors, poets, playwrights, directors, designers and so on) are influenced by other texts, contexts and values, and how this shapes meaning.’

Intertextuality can be defined as the ‘relationships between texts that help to shape a text’s meaning or the echoes of other texts within a text.’ NSW English Textual Concepts explains the significance of intertextuality as ‘it leads to a much richer reading experience which invites new interpretations as it brings another context, idea, story into the text at hand. As new layers of meaning are introduced, there is pleasure in the sense of connection and the continuity of texts and of cultures. These connections mean that a responder is engaging with a broader literary heritage than just a discrete text. Intertextuality also invites us to revisit the earlier text, often with new insights into its meaning for our time.’

Ultimately, what one should gain from this is the insight that the two suites of poems are inherently linked to one another. Without a solid understanding of how the poems are responding to each other, as well as how their work is a reflection of the literary movements and other esteemed authors, the texts lose much of their meaning to the audience. Being able to reflect on this in a meaningful way in an essay is of utmost importance. You must show the marker that you realise the significance of the relationship between texts, and just how much meaning intertextual references can provide to a single text.

Text and context

  • Potential question: To what extent is Plath and Hughes’ poetry influenced by both their historical and personal contexts?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘As students engage with the texts they consider how their understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of both texts has been enhanced through the comparative study and how the personal, social, cultural and historical contextual knowledge that they bring to the texts influences their perspectives and shapes their own compositions.’

Just as a text cannot exist in isolation from other texts, both Ariel and Birthday Letters are little more than products of the context in which they were produced in. Incorporating ideas about contextual influences into your comparative study of the poems will help your essay become more well-rounded and comprehensive.

Relevant contextual features include:

  • Post-WWII America
    • Nihilism and bleakness in Plath and Hughes’ poetry
      • Hughes speaks of the ‘dark adit/ where I have come looking for your daughter,’ where the the dark and ominous atmosphere echoes images of hell
    • Anxiety associated with the emerging Cold War
    • War allusions within the texts, providing an evocative backdrop
      • ‘I think I may well be a Jew,’ says Plath in ‘Daddy’
    • Fatalism as a result of the broader conflicts
      • Hughes absolves himself of culpability for Plath’s fate by implying that he could have never saved her and that she ended her life as broken as he found her
    • Religion
      • Loss of faith in religion at the time led both Plath and Hughes to make dark and pessimistic biblical allusions
    • Second-wave feminism
      • Accusations of Hughes from feminist critics, who claimed that his control and silencing of Plath was what drove her to her suicide
    • Personal contexts
      • Plath’s battle with mental health and eventual suicide
      • Plath and Hughes’ turbulent and emotionally charged relationship
      • Hughes’ public image throughout and in the aftermath of Plath’s death

What we can draw from this relationship between texts and their contexts is that, whilst many issues are relevant to a universal audience, these ‘textual conversations’ allow us to reinvent specifically what they mean to us.

Prominent themes

Relationships

At the core of these two texts is undoubtedly the theme of relationships, specifically that between the poets. Neither Plath nor Hughes shied away from divulging in very personal details about their deteriorating relationship. Notably, in ‘Fever,’ speaks of a time when Plath was sick with a fever and, as much as he seemingly tries to care for her, he cannot help but feel as though she is exaggerating and they are simply going through the motions of love and care. However, it is important to note that Plath and Hughes’ relationship was not entirely negative, although most will claim that it was toxic and that they were destined to fail. Their attraction to each other was, at some point, electric and exciting. Critic Janette Ayachi writes, ‘It is easy to find faults in the relationship between Plath and Hughes considering how tragically it cupped into closure, but Plath truly believed that she couldn’t live without him – they were astrologically fated, a rare conjunction of talent and focus.’ This is clearly reflected in the poems. For example, in ‘Fulbright Scholars,’ Hughes concludes the poem with a musing, ‘I could hardly believe how delicious. / At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh / By my ignorance of the simplest things.’ In referring to the recurring motif of the peach, which symbolises his sexual and romantic relationship with Plath, Hughes suggests that the earlier stages of their relationship were simultaneously idyllic and electrifying.

The relationship between Plath and her father is also a prominent idea in both Ariel and Birthday Letters. Both Plath and Hughes seem to agree that Otto played a major role in Plath’s life and mental health struggles, having had a rocky relationship with her even before his death. When he did pass, the paradoxical yearning for Otto’s love as well as resenting her father encapsulated many of Plath’s poems, such as ‘Daddy’ and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box.’ Even Hughes felt as though his life and his relationship with Sylvia was forever attached to Otto’s influence, despite the fact that they never met.  In ‘A Picture of Otto,’ ‘The Shot’ and ‘The Bee God,’ Hughes suggests that he was as much a victim in the marriage as Plath was. That is, he portrays Otto as an ever-present figure in their lives, controlling and condemning Plath to misery and trauma, thereby absolving himself from any responsibility in his wife’s eventual suicide. Even Plath says to her father in ‘Daddy,’ ‘I made a model of you,’ likely referring to how she filled the hole in her life with Hughes’ presence. Whatever you personally believe, it is important that your essay shows how both poets manipulate this theme to represent their relationship to each other – as well as to the world at large – in different ways.

Mental health

Mental health is another obvious theme that plagues the two texts as much as it plagued both poets’ lives. Specifically, Plath’s clinical depression and ultimate suicide garnered much public attention, which is addressed in Ariel and Birthday Letters. The dark and bleak imagery used throughout Plath’s poetry provides a detailed insight into her troubled mind, notably in ‘Lady Lazarus,’ in which she compares her attempted suicides to the biblical story of Lazarus. In her exploration of mental health, Plath also suggests that she felt isolated, as though no one could help her. It is important to keep in mind that, in Plath’s time, the conversation around mental health was not nearly as open as it is today. Her sense of alienation from the world around her, especially as she essentially became a single mother towards the end of her short life, was well-founded. Hence, even if Hughes self-victimising claims have some truth to them, many critics continue to question his negligence throughout this tumultuous period of her life.

Powerlessness

In tandem with the theme of mental health, Plath and Hughes’ poetry is permeated with a sense of powerlessness, futility and hopelessness. For the former, part of her depression arose from the unforgiving and oppressive gender roles that women had to abide by in the mid-20th century. In ‘A Birthday Present,’ this is alluded to in the infamous line, ‘Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, / Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.’ The repetition of ‘rules,’ alongside the metaphor of the domestic, traditionally female work of baking, strongly suggests that she felt a sense of entrapment in her gender. Moreover, Plath felt powerless in the face of her mental health struggles as well as in regards to her borderline obsessive trauma surrounding her father’s life and death.

Plath is not the only poet who is shown to experience powerlessness. Much of Hughes’ work centres around his feelings of futility and inability to change what he believes to be fate. Most clearly, this is reflected in his exploration of his relationship to Plath, as well as her relationship to Otto. As stated, Hughes portrays himself as a husband that did as much as he could to care for his troubled wife, but ultimately could not save her because of events that occurred long before the two poets had ever met. In other words, Hughes’ poetry demonstrates how little control we often have over other people no matter how hard we try.

However, it is important to consider the agency that Hughes had as opposed to Plath. As a successful and esteemed writer, never expected to be a prominent presence in his children’s lives, Hughes likely did not experience the same form of oppression and lack of autonomy that Plath endured. It is also worth noting that Hughes had full control over the final publication of Ariel. So, ask yourself again – how much power did he have over her work?

Truth

As explored in section 2.3, the concept of truth should be central to your analysis and comparison of the two texts. Questions to consider include:

  • Who gets to define what the ‘truth’ is?
    • What does that say about the power that certain people (e.g. husbands) have over others?
  • How might competing versions of truth reconcile with one another?
  • Why do Plath and Hughes have such vastly different recounts of their relationship?
  • How do the poems combat and respond to each other’s’ versions of truth?
  • What does our inherent inability to decide on a ‘truth’ say about human nature?

Conclusion

Both Ariel and Birthday Letters are engaging texts in their own right. Their mastery of imagery, symbolism and storytelling continue to be hailed as unmatched by any other 20th century poets. However, it is only through studying their inherent relationship with each other that they come to life. After all, both sets of poems dealt with incredibly personal details about their highly publicised relationship, often bouncing off one another and reframing the way in which they have portrayed each other. It is, in every respect of the phrase, a textual conversation that Plath and Hughes actively engaged in, and one that you must continue to speak on.

Final tips

  • Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text
  • Ensure that you are referencing both texts in each paragraph, even if you focus on each poet individually. You need to be able to connect the two texts instead of analysing them in isolation from one another
  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay
  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the poems could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between texts
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