Plath and Hughes

Ted Hughes' early poetry epitomizes the Hemingway-influenced male literary voice of the twentieth century. The muscularity of the rhythm, the violence of the imagery, the portrayal of "nature red in tooth and claw" - all combine to create a form of poetry which is jagged and brutal and entirely antithetical to traditional concepts of femininity. By writing of war (in "Bayonet Charge") or the metaphorical war between man and nature, Hughes creates a world in which women are unnecessary. He even reclaims the feminine world of birth, describing the birth of a dead lamb in visceral, alien terms, using the boy-scout male image of the tent rope to describe its intestines: "Its insides, the various jellies and crimsons and transparencies / And threads and tissues pulled out." Hughes thus subverts the female world of birth through killing the lamb before it is born.

In 'Lady Lazarus', Sylvia Plath presents the struggle of a woman writer as part of the struggle of all subjugated people. She identifies herself with the Jews of the Holocaust, but takes power from her male victimizers, using the ovens of "Herr Doktor" to allow herself to rise phoenix-like from the flames. She then warns the masculine "Herr God, Herr Lucifer" that she will subvert their power through defying their control over her - death. This forms a reversal of the masculine power which Graves' White Goddess argues destroyed the female moon goddess of prehistory, when "Greek philosophers and Hebrew prophets" reinforced their patriarchal rule by creating a masculine God. Thus Plath subverts traditional gender stereotyping, portraying herself as a female Jesus who "eats men like air".

It is noteworthy that only after Plath's death, when he himself was dying, did a certain female voice begin to intrude on Hughes' poetry. It is as if Plath, like Lady Lazarus, has risen to reclaim language, demonstrating to Hughes that his gory masculine voice could not house the depth of emotion needed to dissect a relationship as complex as that portrayed in Birthday Letters. The final lines of "Red" have a Plath-like simplicity and different significance which would never have been found in the immediacy of the Crow poems: "In the pit of red / You hid from the bone- clinic whiteness. / But the jewel you lost was blue." Hughes literally enacts the "pen=penis" metaphor in "Apprehensions" when he shows Plath writing with her "Shaeffer pen", and blaming the pen for the "swelling terror" which she feared would take away "Your husband, your children, your body, your life. / You could see it, there, in your pen."

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