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A Poem by Sylvia Plath


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
March 15, 1998

The appearance of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters has gotten so much attention in the press that even my local baker asked me about it the other morning when I stopped for coffee. "What's the deal?" he asked. My impulse was to lend him the book. I said that Ted Hughes was the English poet laureate, a Yorkshireman, that he wrote poems about the natural world in something like the spirit of D.H. Lawrence and a mythic book, called Crow, about the darkness of just about everything, and that 30 years ago he'd been married to a brilliant American poet, that it was a difficult marriage, that they were in the country in Dorset on the west coast of England when the marriage blew up, that when he left her for another woman they had a five-month-old baby and a toddler about three, that she moved to London and in the middle of the coldest winter of the century, feeling abandoned and enraged, she shut herself in the kitchen, taped the doors, and just before the babysitter was to arrive stuck her head in a gas oven and killed herself, that there had been earlier suicide attempts, that she'd written a novel about one of them, that her poems appeared after her death edited by her husband and made her famous, and that he was now years later supposedly telling his side of the story.

I felt like I was summarizing a soap opera, not sure which details were the relevant ones, the ones that would answer his question. So I found myself tailing off and said, "You know, what you should do first is read her poems," and the next morning I dropped off a copy of Sylvia Plath's Ariel.

Here is a poem from Ariel, from that time. It was written in October 1962, after Hughes had left and before she had moved from the cottage in Dorset. The person in the poem is imagined to be speaking to a baby, trying to put a baby to sleep. They are in candlelight and the brass candlestick has a figure on it of Atlas who seems to be lifting up the candle, and as she speaks the figure of Atlas becomes the figure, maybe, for the absent father, or maybe a figure for the woman herself, or the effort of art. Atlas is holding up all the light there is. It's not like a soap opera; things stand for more than one thing, stand for opposite things at once. We're in the territory of poetry:

By Candlelight

This is winter, this is night, small love —
A sort of black horsehair,
A rough, dumb country stuff
Steeled with the sheen
Of what green stars can make it to our gate.
I hold you on my arm.
It is very late.
The dull bells tongue the hour.
The mirror floats us at one candle power.

This is the fluid in which we meet each other,
This haloey radiance that seems to breathe
And lets our shadows wither
Only to blow
Them huge again, violent giants on the wall.
One match scratch makes you real.

At first the candle will not bloom at all —
It snuffs its bud
To almost nothing, to a dull blue dud.

I hold my breath until you creak to life,
Balled hedgehog,
Small and cross. The yellow knife
Grows tall. You clutch your bars.
My singing makes you roar.
I rock you like a boat
Across the Indian carpet, the cold floor,
While the brass man
Kneels, back bent, as best he can

Hefting his white pillar with the light
That keeps the sky at bay,
The sack of black! It is everywhere, tight, tight!
He is yours, the little brassy Atlas —
Poor heirloom, all you have,
At his heels a pile of five brass cannonballs,
No child, no wife.
Five balls! Five bright brass balls!
To juggle with, my love, when the sky falls.

This version comes from Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, published by HarperPerennial. The line I find myself thinking about is "One match scratch makes you real." Literally, it's about becoming visible in the mirror when the candle is lit. It's also probably a metaphor for conception, for the flare of sex. And the famous line of Shakespeare's Macbeth must hover around it: "Out, out, brief candle."

Next week Ted Hughes.

("By Candlelight" from Collected Poems, by Sylvia Plath. Copyright 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection Sun Under Wood.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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