Hughes, Plath and Shakespeare: A Twinned Tale of the Mythic Feminine




In the photo on the left, we can see that Ted Hughes was a right-handed poet; yet, in the second photo, his arms are folded across his chest with the left hand up. Possible mixed dominance, along with early trauma, may explain his penchant for poetry and the paranormal. Looking at his childhood, we find a distant mother; a silent father, traumatized by his experiences in war; a favored older brother, Gerald. A fear of female engulfment with a need for ever-renewed female collaboration mark Hughes's entire creative life. This conflict could be traced back to attachment issues.
   
Furthermore, Hughes’s mother was considered a psychic and he believed that he had inherited her abilities. Whereas she had premonitory visions and angelic visitations, he had what he deemed prophetic dreams. Early on, Ted claimed the image of the bloody hand of a fox on a paper he was writing at Cambridge convinced him to read archeology and anthropology, rather than English literature. In another dream, an angel had shown him a small square of satin, which he later came to believe was the same material that lay under his dead wife’s head in her casket. [I have no aversion to the notion of answers and warnings in dreams, as I have received them myself (cf. Hearing the Voice Getting it Right)
   
Hughes also cultivated the paranormal through hypnosis, trance, and meditative exercises. He fancied himself a shaman and believed a poet’s future self could dictate to him in the present. [If we accept the latter, a notion that I find very appealing, even if not scientifically provable,* it could be one way of explaining a dissociative sense of dictation.]

As a young man, Hughes was in thrall to poet and classicist Robert Graves’s notion of the White Goddess, the mythic female who inspires poets, yet demands their sacrifice in return for immortality. He was taken in enough to write an entire book called Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being, a long, complex attempt to order the bard's entire opus based on how the mythic feminine is portrayed in his plays
   
The wild boar goring Adonis on the cover represents the mortal wound inflicted on the Hero. Hughes believed, in line with this mythic scenario, that a major trauma was needed to confer special knowledge on the poet. According to Hughes, Shakespeare's personal trauma was the “tragic error” of abandoning his wife in Stratford while he went off to London, compounded at the societal level by the suppression of the Catholic tradition in England. Both devalued the Feminine. Shakespeare’s visionary poetry, then, erupted at the confluence of these major crises and was aided by his adherence to a mystical school of thought (Hermetic Occult Neoplatonism) that used ritual magic to glean wisdom and clairvoyance from hallucinatory figures. [Think Jung.]

Hughes uses a hemispheric model to explain the mythic paradigm in Shakespeare’s entire corpus. The old Goddess myth stands on the right—archaic, matriarchal, emotional, and body-based—while the Goddess-destroying myth leans left—new, patriarchal, rational, and idealized. The Female of the right is “inseparable from the womb memory, infant memory, nervous system and the chemistry of the physical body, possessed by all the senses and limitless”; the Female of the left is “Puritan . . . idealized, moralized and chaste.” 

What happens next is madness: the Hero murders his own beloved, supplanting the old “King must die” mentality of ancient Goddess religion with “the beloved Female must die” instead. The Hero splits the Female into two diametrically opposed aspects: Sacred Bride/Divine Mother versus Queen of Hell.

Hughes asserts that there is a basic biological truth underlying the new patriarchal formula. First, the Hero is driven mad by the terrifying fact that all of life is doomed. Second, the growing boy needs to overthrow the “possessive control of the Female,” that is, his mother, in order to become a man. Likewise, the mythic hero must overthrow the Mother Goddess because of her “magical, terrifying, reproductive powers”; “the occult power of her paralysing love”; and unleash the “uncontrollable new sexual energy which is searching for union with the unknown Female.” In other words, the conquering god appropriates the Mother Goddess’s power while assuring female subservience and his own sexual liberty. This phase was not to last. Hughes sees a great shift in Shakespeare’s plays coinciding with his mother's death in 1608: from this point onwards, saving, rather than killing off, the Female becomes his credo. Restoration of the Divine Female heals the crime against her, so that it cannot occur again.

In fixating on Shakespeare’s oeuvre, ferreting out the underlying myths that spelled out his doom and resuscitation, Hughes had found a twinning of his own sad tale. Shakespeare’s “flight from his wife, and his prolonged separation from her, is one of the dominant unsettled questions of his solitary existence,” Hughes proclaimed. Likewise, his flight from Sylvia Plath and her subsequent suicide, was only the first in a series of deaths that would encompass a man’s most intimate female relations: a wife; a lover, Assia Wevill; their daughter, Shura; and his own mother. Female corpses of Shakespearean proportion piled up at the feet of a broken, depressed poet. 

Hughes says that Shakespeare “examines” and “corrects” his life by resuscitating the fallen female with “atonement, redemption and reconsecration in a sacred marriage of  ‘new-born’ souls.”  Likewise, Hughes will attain the status of one of the great poets of the twentieth century and Poet Laureate of England. The Female-affirming final sequence of Shakespeare’s oeuvre represents for Hughes a “crowning illumination” because it attempts to cure the bard’s personal wound as well as the religious rift in his society. Perhaps Hughes's Remains of Elmet and Birthday Letters had a similar effect on him, restoring the beloved mother and wife to him, without the curse of Medusa’s snare. Mother and wife take on their separate posthumous lives, extolled and molded by the poet’s imagination, freeing him, at last, from their mythic hold on him. 


Plath says, “God is speaking through me” in Hughes’s poem “The God.” The Divine "Other" filled the vacuum left by her husband,  who had replaced her father. In his Birthday Letters, Hughes neatly lays his wife’s soul to rest, on that little square of dream satin, producing some of his finest poetry along with the myth of his own innocence.


*See http://dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf, in which Daryl J. Bem presents new scientific evidence on precognition and premonition. Next week, I will be attending the 2012 Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, Arizona, where this Cornell University professor will be speaking, along with Deepak Chopra and many others researchers and practitioners, at the interface of science and spirituality.


10 comments:

José Angel García Landa said...

It sounds like Hughes was orchestrating a last-ditch attempt to exonerate himself from Plath's death, presenting it as a foregone conclusion... Well, it's not that anyone can be held responsible for another person's suicide, but this sure sounds like some kind of self-justification.

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

So well put, José! I couldn't agree more.

Julio J. Hernández said...

I just knew a criticism of the Bem's article in
http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/back_from_the_future

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

Julio, Thanks so much for showing me this article. There is certainly compelling evidence in it against Bem's research. I supplied this link because it is the newest thing out there that has been accepted by the scientific establishment. Frankly, I don't give much credence to these kinds of experiments. I don't see what random number generators or erotic pictures have to do with telepathy or precognition. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer reports from others who experienced psi themselves, and I consider myself one of them. It's just that science doesn't accept this, no matter how compelling it seems to be. I'll be going to the conference this week, where many researchers will be presenting on these kinds of issues. I'll make a report when I get back.

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

P.S. Julio, Here is a link to my own article which sums up my research into telepathic communication in close couplings (like Sylvia and Ted) or a therapeutic dyad:

http://www.carolebrooksplatt.com/Publications_files/The%20Medium%20and%20the%20Matrix.pdf

Julio J. Hernández said...

Thanks Carole, I agree with you. A feature of psi phenomena is the difficulty in so repeating; therefore they escape to usual scientific experimentation and require another method and another philosophical background.

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

Julio, be sure to read my new blog post on Daryl Bem, who spoke at the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference I just attended in Tucson.

Brendan said...

Excellent post, Carol, on one of my favorite poets. So many things to reflect on. First, your underlying assertion that the deepest wells of poetry are opened under specific conditions (left-handedness, bilateralism, childhood trauma) -- I do believe that each life repeats the history of the species, so that childhood pars up somehow with the end of the bicameral era and the awakening of the self-reflexive poet ... "White Goddess" by Graves was such an essential book in my awakening after I sobered up at 30, and its so evident to see how the ancient matriarchal matrix would so affect Hughes' thought and loves ... His poetry (especially his first two or three books) is closest, I think to the language of the oldest Celtic/Saxon/matriarchal poetry, in-your-face primal howls ("Crow") that come from oldest sources ... Hughes' love of Shakespeare I think makes him an excellent reader of the bard -- he truly had digested so much of Shakespeare's work (I have a book by Hughes of his favorite passages by the Bard); and there's more than a little affinity between Hughes and Hamlet's conflicted relationship with his mother, Ophelia and Sylvia Plath, and, later, Prospero's usurpation of the Isle of Sycorax. And finally, Birthday Letters to me repeat what Jaynes pointed out about bicameral societies where the dead "lived on" for some time -- thus the person dies but not the relationship. Having read Birthday Letters, I think I found the model I needed for writing letters to a dead shaman way down at the bottom of my brainstem, and later to my brother after he died. I love this stuff, Carol. Keep it up. - Brendan

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for your always astute comments, Brendan, giving me new leads to follow. I was thinking we may be the only two people in the world whose mental machinery is oiled by Jaynes and Graves. I wonder if Hughes read Jaynes. He seemed to know all about the right hemisphere's relation to poetry and where would he have gotten that back then, if not from Jaynes. Where we differ, you and I, is that you live the poetic paradigm; I'm just a neuroasethetic analyst caught in the maw of a myth I cannot and do not wish to escape. I'll follow Ariadne's thread to whatever length it takes to get it right.

Brendan said...

Thanks Carole, though I'm not sure we differ all that much. "Poet" is just one mask or tool for voicing myth, though it's a handle I've always been at odds with. I think the greatest artists are so cast in their stone that they're like savants: they can't help but open their mouths wide and let 'er rip (or use whatever appendages necessary for shaping). It comes out complete, with all the vigor of Lascaux. I am far, far more dilettantish and myopic and garbled in that work, so much so that I can't call myself a poet. Being "caught in the maw of a myth" is a tough night sea journey, but it does seem that those of us trapped in similar narratives are doing all we can to explicate the guts before getting vomited out on the coming shore. Reading back is the only way of reading forward. (Right now I'm reading George Bataille on Lascaux and Marshall McLuhan on Laws of Media; the fate of the New Year King is divined from the smoking entrails of the eviscerated Old Year King, if I read Graves correctly. Cheers, Brendan