Mental Issues and Poetry – Ted Hughes


Few would argue that Sylvia Plath did not have a severe mental condition. This was probably manic depression which came to be known as bi-polar.

Her mental issues are evident in some of her poetry. Some might say that the greatness of her words might not have been so had she not been so afflicted. Many years later, after her suicide in 1963, ‘Birthday Letters’ was published by Ted Hughes at great acclaim. Ted Hughes had a brilliance with words and this is clearly evident in these poems when dealing with the strong bi-polar induced behaviours associated in living with Sylvia before the breakup of their marriage.


Here are two examples from ‘Birthday Letters’ of such expression …


From The Rabbit Catcher

It was May. How had it started? What
Had bared our edges? What quirky twist
Of the moon’s blade had set us, so early in the day,
Bleeding each other? What had I done? I had
Somehow misunderstood. Inaccessible
In your dybbuk fury, babies
Hurled into the car, you drove. We surely
Had been intending a day’s outing,
Somewhere on the coast, an exploration—
So you started driving.

What I remember
Is thinking: She’ll do something crazy …


and from … Suttee
perhaps the most disturbing of all the poems in ‘Birthday Letters‘.

Suttee = a former practice in India whereby a widow threw herself on to her husband’s funeral pyre.

Looking at the opening lines of the first stanza …

In the myth of your first death our deity
was yourself resurrected.
Yourself reborn. The holy one.
Day in day out that was our worship -
tending the white birth-bed of your re-birth,
the unforthcoming delivery, the all but born,
the ought-by-now-to-be-reborn.


An understanding of the life of SP is warranted to put these lines in context. SP tried to commit suicide when she was twenty by taking an overdose in a cellar. She was found after three days and recovered. She also had a mental fixation associated with the death of her father when she was 8 years old.

You might regard it farfetched that a suttee type connection involved her suicide attempt in relation to her father. However there could be an implication in the words of TH.

Of more importance the resurrection to a new life, and a new birth. This was their marriage God that never did quite happen. But something that both SP and TH worshiped in their on-going daily life.

And the concluding lines to the poem illustrate that outcome in dramatic fashion …


Both of us consumed
By the old child in the new birth …
Babe of dark flames and screams
That sucked the oxygen out of both of us.

Of course Lady Lazarus herself has a very strong poetic response, looking at the last stanza of that poem …

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


A link to information on ‘Birthday Letters’ – Birthday Letters – Wikipedia

A link to Ted Hughes on Wikipedia – Ted Hughes – Wikipedia

We are going – Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) Comments

We Are Going

They came in to the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent
All that remained of their tribe.
They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of the estate agent reads: 'Rubbish May Be Tipped Here'.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
'We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires.
We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.

 Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 - 1993)

bora ring – Bora is an initiation ceremony of the Aboriginal people of Eastern Australia. The word “bora” also refers to the site on which the initiation is performed. At such a site, boys, having reached puberty, achieve the status of men. The ring refers to the structure of the site.

corroboree – a generic word for a meeting of Australian Aboriginal peoples. It may be a sacred ceremony, a festive celebration, or of a warlike character. A word coined by the first British settlers in the Sydney area from a word in the local Dharug language, it usually includes dance, music, costume and often body decoration.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly known as Kath Walker, was an Aboriginal Australian poet . She was a leader in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in Australia. The poem is a political activist statement on the impact of the British conquest on Aboriginal Australians. And on their way of life, and the natural world. It demonstrates in no uncertain way how the existing culture was brutally over run by the British colonization of Australia. This is powerfully paralleled by the beauty of Aboriginal culture and identity.

Today we have the sensitivity to try to redeem the situation and honor and respect the culture still evident within the country. This is not an easy task when trying to integrate the benefits of education and health from the Western way of life. However, many sacred sites have now been protected from development.

The Australian National Museum flags recognition of Aboriginal culture.

‘We Are Going’ was published in Noonuccal’s 1964 collection of the same name, the first book of poetry to be published by an Aboriginal Australian poet.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal / Kath Walker on Wikipedia

The Bridge – Ruth Pitter – Comments

The Bridge
Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow?
I am sure myself that sorrow is not the truth.
These lovely shapes of sorrow are empty vessels
Waiting for wine: they wait to be informed.
Men make the vessels on either side of the river;
On this the hither side the artists make them,
And there over the river the workmen make them:
These frail with a peacock gaze, the others heavy,
Simple as doom, made to endure the furnace.
War shatters the peacock-jars: let us go over.

Indeed we have no choice but to go over.

There is always away for those that must go over:
Always a bridge from the known to the unknown.
When from the known the mind revolts and despairs
There lies the way and there we must go over.

O truth, is it death over the river,
Or is it life, new life in a land of summer?
The mind is an empty vessel, a shape of sorrow,
Fill it with life or death, for it is hollow,
Dark wine, or bright, fill it, let us go over.

Let me find my truth, over the river.
Ruth Pitter (1897 – 1992)

This is a poem all about courage. Ruth Pitter was living in London during the World War Two Blitz and had to cross the Battersea Bridge every day from the safer side of Chelsea to work in a factory creating shell cases for bombs. There is great contrast between the artistic creations on one side of the Thames and the shell cases on the other side.

She had no choice but to go over the Bridge. She had to face what she had to do and go into the unknown. This is a metaphoric statement on the demands of life – there lies the way and there we must go over.

At the same time as she was working on the shells C. S. Lewis was broadcasting his discussions on Christianity on the radio. These broadcasts, later to be incorporated into his book ‘Mere Christianity’, profoundly influenced her as she struggled for the truth and meaning to life.

O truth, is it death over the river,
Or is it life, new life in a land of summer?

She became a Christian. And in a metaphoric way accepted the new life in a land of summer presented by the Christian thought of eternal life. The final lines consider the mind as a vessel. Dark wine, or bright, fill it, let us go over. It is up to the reader to fill the mind with dark or bright wine.

Each day, when walking over the Bridge and working in the factory, could have been her last day. She actually lived into her nineties.

Ruth Pitter was a Commander of the British Empire, media commentator, and first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

She is cited as being neglected in recognition as in the following from the Internet …

In the “Introduction” to Pitter’s Collected Poems (1990), Elizabeth Jennings praises Pitter’s “acute sensibility and deep integrity”; Jennings claims that her poems “are informed with a sweetness which is also bracing, and a generosity which is blind to nothing, neither the sufferings in this world nor the quirky behavior of human beings” . Philip Larkin, who edited the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, included four of Pitter’s poems, writing to a friend that her poetry was “rather good” (Letter to Judy Egerton,” March 16, 1969), high praise coming from one of the most respected twentieth-century English poets. As I have tried to illustrate in this study of her religious verse, Ruth Pitter deserves a wider reading and a more judicious critical appraisal. If she “enjoyed the highest reputation of any living English woman poet of her century” it is time that both her life and her art be given the exposure and recognition they so richly deserve

Reference

And here is a link to a discussion on the religious poetry of Ruth Pitter

Ruth Pitter on Wikipedia.

Mrs Lazarus – Carol Ann Duffy – Analysis

Mrs Lazarus

I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.

Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man's shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck,

gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,

going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.

Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher-the shock
of a man's strength under the sleeve of his coat-
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.

So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,

behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith's face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.

He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother's crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave's slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955 -

This is a poem from her book – The World’s Wife.

It is all about grief and CAD is not short in using powerful words in expressing deep grief at the death of a husband. Her words clearly show that the extent of grief is overwhelming. Not to the extent of a suttee. In that case the return to life would be a really dramatic tragedy – if that was a possibility after the burning!

It is obviously based on the Lazzarus account in the Bible but it is a very different Lazarus in her poem in that the return to life is after quite a considerable time period and not the four days of the Bible.

Looking at some of the ways the grief is expressed …

S1 … clawed at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched his name … self-harm is an indication of strong grief, unfortunately in the past in some societies it has been expected of the wife … and the stones parallel the biblical event

S2 … shuffled in a dead man’s shoes, noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck … using the clothes of the parted in relation to grief concentrates the emotional tie and there is the suggestion of suicide.

S3 … the icon of my face in each bleak frame … she reduces herself to an icon = an object of uncritical devotion … and herself just a bleak object – framed

S4 … vanishing to the small zero held by the gold of my ring … this is a very original way to state the finalisation of fading grief … the wedding ring becoming a zero

S5 … Then he is gone in the sense that all that mammoth grieving state has been exhausted and he is gone. Her grieving over. And she was faithful for as long as it took.

S6 … Mrs Lazarus is now at peace with herself … in a field absorbed by the beauty of nature – healed, able to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky – … but not for long!

S7 … she knows intuitively what is behind the raucous crowd as it comes before her … the introduction to the dramatic conclusion of the last stanza.

S8 … his mother would certainly be crazy if alive herself – a second birth of ghastly sight – I heard his mother’s crazy song … the implication being that Mrs Lazarus has equivalent feelings.   That dramatic last line defines his newfound status – croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time. It is up to the reader to explore the implication – I wonder if family would relish the return of property for example for the will has been read.

But this poem presents serious consideration on situations when a partner dies or becomes dead in the sense that they leave the relationship never to return. But sometimes there are situations when they do return with dramatic effect. For example consider ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ in the Thomas Hardy story.

Till death do us part is a statement of relational adherence. But I think it mainly concerns the way two people are engaged in life in their transactions. There is that personal question of how long to wait before, and if ever, in developing another relationship especially a sexual one. And because of the religious parallel how much does religion play a part in the decision making.

Well the relationship between Mr and Mrs Lazarus might have been very taught although the text seems otherwise from the Mrs Lazarus point of view. But I doubt if Mr Lazarus would consider Till death do us part in a literal sense. After all the chances of finding another partner look exceedingly bleak for he is bereft of all his possessions and didn’t quite look that attractive!

There is a little bit of humour evident in the poem albeit of a black nature. You must admire the colourful way CAD uses her poetic skills in the build up to the last two stanzas.

Carol Ann Duffy relinquished her role as UK Poet Laureate in May 2019 when Simon Armitage took over.

Carol Ann Duffy on Wikipedia

This is my letter to the world – Emily Dickinson – Analysis

This is my letter to the world
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen
Judge tenderly — of Me
Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886)

S1 … ‘The World’ never actually sent ED a letter. But, of course, ED created many letters in her lifetime especially in the form of poems. Her letter, and indeed all her letters including this poem, is her personal response to ‘The World’ based on being part of Nature. If you like it is her communicative response to the gift of Nature. It is the simple News that Nature told.

And Nature told her, or communicated, with tender Majesty. So, in a poetic way Nature did in fact send her a letter if you regard Nature and The World as being a letter from the creator. I do like that upper case letter on Majesty for it gives a sense of authority.

S2 … The message that ED sends to ‘The World and Nature’, or to the creator, is of course to Hands she cannot see. And indeed, every letter written by all poets suffers the same fate.

But ED would like you to know that she loved sweet ‘Nature and The World’. Please judge ED tenderly in all her letters! She asks the world to show respect. And to be tender like the creator when looking at her legacy, her work, her ‘letter’ to the world.

And in equal fashion my sentiments are the same in all my letters.

Emily Dickinson on Wikipedia.

‘1. Peace’ – Rupert Brooke – Analysis

I. Peace
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915)

The 25th of April is ANZAC Day in Australia. It is a very special day of commemoration associated with Australian and New Zealand troops involved in the Gallipoli landings of WW1. And last week it was announced by Biden that the US would be withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan by 9/11 this year. The end of twenty years of involvement against terrorism in that country.

So here is a war poem involving peace in war. It is the first of a sequence of five war sonnets. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two other well respected WW1 poets, eventually wrote works extremely critical of the conflict. But Brooke’s poems reflect the early idealism. The war captured the adventurous spirit of the youth fuelled by the recruitment of the day. And Brooke’s poem reflects the attitudes of many young men during the first years of hostilities. Brooke never experienced the horror side of trench warfare. He served in the Royal Navy and died from an infection caused by a mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli.

Considering the context of this poem and the notion of muscular Christianity. From the Literary Criticism by Robert Means

Begun and practiced at Rugby where Brooke was born and raised, “muscular Christianity” was a late-Victorian public-school notion of cleansing and test of manhood afforded by getting out of doors and getting in the game.

Brooke was a product of “muscular Christianity”; a pre- war poet, expressing the pre-war sentiment of cleansing just as poets as diverse as Robert Graves and Isaac Rosenberg wrote poetry in the early days of the war that celebrated this image of the “Happy Warrior.” Even Siegfried Sassoon’s early poems display this idea of spiritual cleansing afforded by the war, for example his aptly titled ‘Absolution’:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise, 
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free. 

So, the octet stresses the hope that going to war would provide something of a cleanliness akin to diving into a swimming pool. Brooke’s personal life had come to something of a hiatus and he was looking for an alternative to the life he had been leading. He had been associated with the Bloomsbury Set and you can clearly see from the last lines of the octet that he hits out against their reluctance to get involved – ‘Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move’.

As Robert Means comments the sextet is all about ‘Peace’ as a declaration of self- realization and self-determination. It is the soldier’s lot to die but it is an acceptable cost and death the worst friend.

Somewhat of an irony in that Brooke finds peace by going to war. I guess it is not easy to find ‘personal peace’ given the job of a soldier.

Rupert Brooke on Wikipedia

Frost at Midnight – Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Analysis

Frost at Midnight
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
                      But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
         Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

S1 – The scene is Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey in Somerset. The infant is his son Hartley when aged 17 months. He finds time to himself as other members of the household are in bed. But instead of devoting time to composition he is caught in appreciating the stillness and the dying state of the fire and this becomes his centre of attention and detracts from other considerations. He shares these thoughts in conversation with the reader. The busyness of the village is asleep and is an inaudible background like a dream.

The film is a piece of soot fluttering on the bar of the grate. The only thing that is alive. Coleridge noted that ‘In all parts of the Kingdom these films are called strangers and are supposed to portent the arrival of some absent friend’

S2 – The fluttering sound of the film is the only life around him in the stillness. It becomes his companion and a toy for his thoughts.

S3 – The film now represents the absent friend of his birthplace. Coleridge was born at Ottery St Mary, Devonshire but went to school at the age of nine in London after the death of his father. So, he now recalls the times when a child. In particular, he liked the music of the church bells – the poor mans only music. The ‘stern preceptor’ was the teacher Rev. James Boyer at Christ’s Hospital, London where Coleridge went to school. And when at school in London he would think back to his childhood in the village. He fondly recalled family and play mates at times when he should have been concentrating on school work. His sister and himself were both clothed alike.

S4 – Coleridge now spends his thoughts on appreciating the beauty of his baby son. And he hopes he will have the chance to spend much time with nature; lamenting the fact that he had a city life. This was not entirely true as his first nine years were in the country. And this might have had a profound endearing effect on this dissertation on his love of nature and the hope that his son will come to similar appreciation. And he identifies a strong spiritual link – Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters. A nice way to put it that nature is the language of God. And the stanza ends with recognition of the connection of God in the development of the human soul – Great universal Teacher! he shall mould / Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.


S5 – If his son has this understanding of nature therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee. He then identifies aspects of each season. He gives particular emphasis to winter and I do like the image of  the night-thatch / Smokes in the sun-thaw. And like the opening there is that word – ministry again.

Very appropriate given the emphasis on the spiritual link with nature.

For a thorough guide to this poem see the following Site.  – in the Poetry Foundation – Poem Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Wikipedia.

‘Since the majority of me’ – Philip Larkin – Comments

‘Since the majority of me’
Since the majority of me
Rejects the majority of you,
Debating ends forthwith, and we
Divide. And sure of what to do

We disinfect new blocks of days
For our majorities to rent
With unshared friends and unwalked ways,
But silence too is eloquent:

A silence of minorities
That, unopposed at last, return
Each night with cancelled promises
They want renewed. They never learn.
Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

S1 – First sentence …
This is clearly about separation. When a relationship comes to that stage that the majority of one person rejects the majority of another. A time to stop the discussion and divide. The implication is is that one plus one no longer equals two and that a couple is involved in the split. And if a strong relationship was part of the past then it is obviously a little painful.

S2 – Strong words to disinfect the future so that the new path is not contaminated with the past. New friends and new ways signal a change in personal life.

S3 – But what happens in the silences, when the past memories infiltrate the mind. The cancelled promises that ache to be renewed. The mention of promises gives the idea that marriage breakup may be involved. But renewal is impossible, these broken promises will never learn they will always be a part of the life experience of the person.

We carry the past with us both disappointments and joy into our being through human experience. But how to prevent the past festering into on-going life is another matter. A wonderful Larking poem that clearly defines the human condition without providing answers. At the same time acknowledging the fact that the past can continually hook into our life from time to time.

Philip Larkin on Wikipedia – Philip Larkin – Wikipedia