Exploring Sylvia Plath’s Mindscape through Ted Hughes’s “Red”

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(Image Source: http://culture.affinitymagazine.us/sylvia-plath-claims-abuse-by-ted-hughes-in-soon-to-be-published-unseen-letters/)

Ted Hughes’s poetry often embodies the raw state of violence in the natural world. Most of his poems revolve around nature and are concerned with the struggle for survival in an animalistic world. For instance in his poem Pike, violence is not thrust upon the reader but is subtly suggested in a way that it appears natural. The descriptions slowly mount to a point where “One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet” (“Ted Hughes – Pike”). The scenes are described in an unemotional manner, vastly different from the way a Romantic poet would perceive it. The matter of fact tone and the vivid visual descriptions produce a powerful set of images. Hughes implements this vivacity in description in his poem Red which appears in his collection Birthday Letters. The poem was addressed to Sylvia Plath and Hughes embodied her style of using colours as symbols to denote moods. Hughes abundantly makes use of visual imagery pertaining to the natural world as well as the domestic sphere. This essay will attempt to critically analyse Hughes’s use of objects and symbols in painting a portrait of Plath’s mindscape.

Allison Wilkins writes in Through the Beautiful Red”: The Use of the Color Red as the Triple-Goddess in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel that “The color red appears in nineteen of the Ariel poems”. (Wilkins). Some of the poems in which the colour red appears are Lady Lazarus, Tulips, The Jailor, and Cut. Plath writes in Cut;

Dead white.
Then that red plush. (“Sylvia Plath Reading ‘Cut'”)

Wilkins notes how Plath connects the colours to the body parts of a woman and is mildly emulated in Hughes’s poem Red where the speaker describers;

lips a dipped, deep crimson. (“Red By Ted Hughes”)

Hughes hints at what was possibly the broken relationship. He uses the image of blood, often a symbol of passion, but also violence and danger. The speaker says;

The carpet of blood

Patterned with darkenings, congealments. (“Red By Ted Hughes”)

He is speaking about the congealed state of blood, something that has hardened and stagnated. The imagery is thus not only pertinent to Plath, but also to the relationship between the two poets. There is also a mention of “heirloom bones” (“Red By Ted Hughes”), possibly a reference to Plath’s family, which is construed as unstable. Hughes probably believed that Plath’s psychological instability was hereditary. “A throbbing cell” (“Red By Ted Hughes”) reminds one of Plath’s poem The Jailor, where there is a feeling of imprisonment and powerlessness. The cell referred to here could be a reference to the mind, which is throbbing with insecurities and instability. It also reminds one of Tulips, in which the speaker is confined to the white walls of the hospital, intoxicated and unable to think straight.

The speaker further dedicates a stanza to describing plants with intoxicating properties, which furthers the image of a troubled and unsure mind. The rose is another such natural image associated with love, but in this case it embodies a tragedy, and the heart is paralleled with it. The image of the gout is predominant, as it suggests a sickness and inflammation, and also redness. The image of the gout brings into the picture ideas of excess and physical wounds/disease.

Hughes elaborates on the idea of the wound with words like “gash”, “stiffening wound”, and “open vein” (“Red By Ted Hughes”), which evokes a sordid mood. He extends his descriptions from the natural world of hallucinogenic plants to a domestic, homely environment, which is not homely owing to the “carpet of blood”, and the “Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.” (“Red By Ted Hughes”). The only place free of the overwhelming redness are the bookshelves which “escaped into whiteness.” (“Red By Ted Hughes”). This is possibly hinting at the disturbed state of mind that might have possessed Hughes himself during his relationship with Plath. The bookshelves could refer to Hughes seeking solace in books from Plath’s perennial outbreaks of self-injury and harm.

The excessive emphasis on images pertaining to wounds are possible references to the self-inflicted wounds that Plath often dealt to herself. The speaker even notes how Plath “revelled in red”. (“Red By Ted Hughes”). Amidst the intoxicating red imagery, the speaker introduces blue, which comes as a soothing substitute to the over used red. Blue is yet another colour that Plath uses in her poems such as Ariel and Blue Moles. Blue appears as a positive colour in the poem. The idea of the jewel comes in as a positive memory of Plath’s life, which is ultimately lost. The red carpets and curtains are replaced by the “Kingfisher blue silks”. (“Red By Ted Hughes”). The domestic objects are still intact which enables Hughes to establish the change in mood using colours to describe similar objects.

Plath’s self-destructive nature is highlighted in the lines;

But red

Was what you wrapped around you. (“Red By Ted Hughes”)

It refers to Plath’s suicide. The colours embody domestic objects and clothing, also stones. Through the course of the poem, the speaker refers to stones, such as haematite, ruby, jewel and gems. While rubies are red, and hematite is a dark reddish-black, the others have variations in colour, and the jewel is referred to as blue. Hughes includes a variety of objects in the poem as seen above, including plants such as salvia, poppies and roses. He also includes parts of the human body such as the heart, lips and bones. The excessive visual images stir a sense of heaviness in the poem, which concurs with Plath’s state of mind. It can be argued that the poem relates to Plath’s mindscape to which Hughes had first hand access when they were together.

To conclude, the poem brings out not only the violent state of mind that Plath possessed, but also brings to light the impact her bouts of madness had on Hughes. The poem was written a few decades after Plath’s death, and Hughes faced plenty of criticism before the poem was published. The poem brought in a new perspective to Plath’s suicide. Hughes’s mastery lies in adapting Plath’s style of using colours to write a poem about her. As seen in his nature poems, the violence is not depicted in a bombastic manner, but in a way that slowly seeps into the reader’s consciousness.

WORKS CITED:

  1. Wilkins, Allison. “”Through The Beautiful Red”: The Use Of The Color Red As The Triple-Goddess In Sylvia Plath’s Ariel”. Scholarworks.Iu.Edu, 2019, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/plath/article/view/4675.
  2. “Red By Ted Hughes”. Pluck That Poem, 2014, https://pluckthatpoem.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/red-by-ted-hughes/. Accessed 28 May 2019.
  3. “Ted Hughes – Pike”. Genius, https://genius.com/Ted-hughes-pike-annotated.
  4. “Sylvia Plath Reading ‘Cut'”. Youtube, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2RDiB4pb84.

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