What is ‘freedom’? Reading Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to find out

Poets are a hypersensitive bunch.

If someone were to conduct a study on the sensitivity of people among different professions, writers and poets would probably rank top. 

This trait, while a welcome companion to creativity, isn’t often the best for relationships. 

A case in point is Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ marriage – arguably one the most infamous unions of hypersensitive, poetic minds in literary history. 

Happier times – Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

Their doomed matrimony ended in Plath’s suicide, which was a sensationally macabre affair. Troubled by long-standing depression, domestic violence, and Hughes’ philandering antics, Plath ended her life at the age of 30 by sticking her head in the oven while her children were asleep (her son, Nicholas, would also commit suicide later in adulthood). 

Thereafter, Hughes became a subject of controversy within the literary circuit, and a target of vitriolic hatred among feminist intellectuals

Regardless of whether Hughes should be blamed for Plath’s short, tragic life, however (and there is strong evidence to argue that he was at least partly responsible), it is perhaps best that we separate our judgment of ‘Hughes the husband’ from ‘Hughes the poet’. 

So, while we cast a critical eye on his nuptial conduct, we should try to keep a disinterested remove when evaluating the merits of his work. 

Better still, it would be rewarding for us to read Plath and Hughes’ poems vis-à-vis each other, which should give us some insights into the unspoken, but poeticised, power dynamics in their  turbulent relationship. 

Dont Be So Dramatic Kim Kardashian GIF

 

The relationship between freedom and power: ‘Hawk Roosting’ (1960) by Ted Hughes

In ‘Hawk Roosting’, the speaker is either a personified hawk, or a person imagining himself as a hawk. 

It is perched atop the canopy, while looking below at “the earth’s face” with its literal bird’s-eye-view. 

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.

(Stanzas 1 and 2)

Animal or human, the speaker’s vantage is one of absolute freedom, and as such, also of absolute power. 

The causality that Hughes bridges between freedom and power is worth emphasising here – it is the speaker’s sense of being unshackled, buoyed up above the earth, elevated to a place where he’s on even keel with “the sun’s ray”, that allows the creature to feel endowed with an overwhelming sense of authority. 

ted-van-den-bergh-9dR-HC9MLzA-unsplash

As the poem continues, we realise that this authority he feels reeks of autocracy, and his self-perception is one that swells to Napoleonic proportions – 

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot 

(Stanza 3)

While the speaker acknowledges that he began as a child of ‘Creation’ (a metonymy for God or a greater deistic force), he “now… hold[s] Creation in my foot”, implying that he’s superseded the power that had once sired his existence.

The tone is both hubristic and delusional, but if we pay attention to the syntactical composition of this stanza, we’ll see a more tempered, less arrogant view that the speaker holds towards the relationship between the ‘Creator’ and the ‘Created’. 

The clue lies in the chiasmic positioning of the words “Creation” and “foot” – 

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Notice the zig-zag placement of the two “Creation” crossed from right to left, and the three “feet/foot” from left to right.

Verbally, the message is one of subverted hierarchy, wherein the Son rises above and supplants the Father; structurally, on the other hand, the impression is one of cyclical interdependence, where Father spawns forth the Son to leave behind a living mark of his ‘Creational’ hand. 

It appears, then, that the haughtiness the speaker conveys is less so a genuine sentiment than a momentary fantasy.

Subconsciously, his hawkish desire isn’t really to dominate over the land, but simply to indulge in the freedom of imagining boundless domination. 

This interpretation is reinforced when we reach the final stanza of the poem, where stasis, not chaos, restores the order of the day. Even after such statements of cold brutality – 

I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –


The allotment of death.
[…]

(Stanzas 4 and 5)

We wake up, as it were, to the final, bathetic reassurance that “Nothing has changed since I began”, because at the end – 

My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this. 

(Stanza 6, last two lines of the poem)

Of course, it’s ambiguous as to whether the speaker imagines or recalls the violence in stanzas four and five, but this isn’t the main point.

Instead, there are two questions that this poem invites us to think about:

First, is the freedom of imagining what goes beyond social conventions nonetheless a freedom that deserves to exist and be exercised?

If not, then should freedom in any society only ever come with curtailing footnotes, the rationale being that too much freedom – even the sort that exists only in the mind – could give rise to too much power for some, leading to too much danger for others, especially when said power is exercised by the more anarchically- or tyrannically-inclined? 

The poem, however, doesn’t offer any answers.

So by circling back to the status quo, Hughes leaves us with the interpretative room to reflect, and as such, reveals a poetic touch that is less authoritarian than the grip he had allegedly held in his marriage to Plath. 

Ted Hughes Hawk Roosting quote

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should: ‘Pheasant’ (1962) by Sylvia Plath 

There are lots of discussions on what the poem ‘Pheasant’ ‘means’, and whether it’s really a poetic plea from Plath to Hughes about not throwing in the marital towel.

Given the confessional nature of Plath’s poetry, that’s a highly possible reading. 

But if we think about this poem alongside Hughes’ ‘Hawk Roosting’, we could also understand ‘Pheasant’ as a reflection on freedom – and its limits. 

jack-seeds-u4_1HuVll5Q-unsplash

At its most basic level, the poem is an eloquent testament to the ‘live and let live’ ethos. The opening lines are the best illustration of this – 

You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it.  

Despite clearly having the power to kill, the addressee also has the power to refrain from killing, which is, in fact, more difficult to do.

For some, the discipline to not exercise power when the opportunity presents itself can be hard on the ego. 

But when faced with the option of asserting primal authority, are we able to heed the voices of our better angels? 

Can we relinquish the victory in the instant to enable the living of another in the distance? 

And the motivation for letting something live doesn’t have to be lofty. Indeed, the speaker says – 

I am not mystical: it isn’t
As if I thought it [the pheasant] had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.
That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The trail-track, on the snow in our court 

Simply put, because the pheasant exists, it has a right to continue existing.

Its existence has already carved out a place of its own, and any external effort to destroy this existence would be a disruption to the natural order, an attempt to crater the face of Creation – a brutal act of violence. 

birds GIF by Darius Rucker

But the speaker exposes an irony at the heart of this ‘live and let live’ dynamic:

Sometimes, we kill off one thing to make room for a dozen more.

While there seems to be the logic of bargain behind this, Plath very subtly implies that quantity doesn’t always trump quality –  

But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing! 

Somewhat coincidentally, what’s structurally enacted in Hughes’ poem – the chiasmic crossing of “Creation” and “foot”, is imagistically described in Plath’s – “crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!”

In ‘Pheasant’, however, this ‘X’ crossing pattern doesn’t convey the idea of organic fusing, but instead, of hypnotic seduction. 

The possibility of owning “a hundred” pheasants may seem like “a fine thing” from a blurry distance, but instead of entertaining the mental spectacle of plenty, perhaps it is more rewarding to appreciate the concrete singular – the one thing – which we already have in our grasp – 

It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It’s a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a lead, and loud,

Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be. 

The image of “it” – one, specific pheasant – as “a little cornucopia” is oxymoronic. An abundance of goodness doesn’t have to take the form of many separate bodies; it can reside in just one.

This fits well with the ‘marriage’ interpretation of the poem, especially in the light of Hughes’ infidelity with Assia Wevill, his mistress.

Ted Hughes' ‘love interest’ Assia Wevill (pictured) who Plath called ‘this Weavy Asshole’ in one of her letters
Assia Wevill (PC: Guardian)

Why pine after more women, when the one you already have willingly stays put and offers – “unclaps” – herself? 

Is the freedom to pursue what we can – and kill what we want – always an urge we should act on? 

The ending of her poem, it seems, suggests otherwise.

To “trespass” is silly; instead, “let be, let be”. 

There’s a sense of moral urgency in this poem, which pushes us to reconsider if humans, for all the power we seem to have over our surroundings, really would benefit from exercising our authority to its maximal limits, or if a certain degree of humility would serve us better in the long run. 

Sylvia Plath Pheasant quote

 


Despite the literary couple’s doomed relationship, their works often show an uncanny urge to echo, pre-empt and respond to each other. Some of it was conscious, others not, but for all their differences in love and life, Plath and Hughes seemed to share a rare common ground in poetry.

Their poems show a respect for the readers’ ability to make their own judgments about morality and existence, and to do so based on the vivid, humane portrayals that they bring to life with words. 

What are your views on ‘Hawk Roosting’ and ‘Pheasant’? Do you like Hughes and/or Plath’s poetry?

Comment below with your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you! 

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