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The Use of Own Memories in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

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Explore one way Plath and Hughes use memory in their poetry.

Plath and Hughes are both very emotive, passionate poets that tend to use their own memories as a focus point within their poems. However, each poet has similarities and differences in the way that they portray their memories in their writing. For example, Plath tends to write about her personal memories regarding herself or her family, whereas Hughes tends to write more about his interests, such as nature and the earth.

A poem in which Hughes clearly displays a form of memory is Thistles, as he personifies the plants (thistles) by using the metaphor of Vikings and the remembrance of something which once existed which is stated when he says, “from the underground stain of a decayed Viking”. This line is referring to the corpses of the Vikings who lay beneath our feet within the ground as they no longer exist. The fact he used to word ‘stain’ to describe them strongly links to the idea of memory, as it gives the reader the impression that the Vikings, despite no longer being around, will always remain as something we remember in history, represented by the word ‘stain’ as something which will never vanish. Hughes also wrote lines such as “a revengeful burst”, “splintered weapons”, “Icelandic frost” and “plume of blood” which all strongly refer to the idea and history of Vikings during their time. For example, Vikings originated from Iceland and were renowned for their advanced sailing skills; allowing them to travel in order to raid and fight, which is clearly referenced in this poem. In addition, within the third stanza there is a line that reads “They are like pale hair” which was also a common stereotype of Scandinavian people, which Vikings were known as. Within the last stanza, Hughes writes that the thistles “grow grey, like men” which is a symbol of ageing and time proceeding. This refers to the fact that all living things get old and eventually will die, however they will remain as part of our memories for the rest of our lives. Towards of the end of this poem, it says “Their sons appear, Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground” which is referring to the history of these Vikings and how, despite having died, their sons will grow up to continue on with their father’s doing, allowing them to live on in peoples’ memories. Hughes may have seen the idea of Vikings as a significant focus point for a poem as it highlights just one small area of history that is still remembered to this day. However, some critics have argued that Hughes was focussing on the nature side of this poem and wanted to emphasise on the power of these plants that grow on our earth, as oppose to the meaningful history behind what might lie beneath them. For example, one critic stated that Ted Hughes’ intentions with this poem was to represent the plant in a negative way, as they are hard to get rid of (like memories) and he also argues that Hughes uses them to represent the cycle and memory of human life and war due to the way he gives them human features when he describes them with “a grasped fistful of splintered weapons”. The same critic argues that the alliteration of the phrase “blue-black” implies the imagery of a bruise caused by physical contact which I strongly agree with, as it gives the reader the impression of war and the idea of wounded flesh of the Vikings who fought.

Another poem of Hughes which represents memories in the form of nature is ‘The Horses’, in which he describes the sight of a still herd of horses as dull, lifeless and boring until they possessed some form of energy. At the beginning of the poem, the setting that Hughes memorises is described in great detail; such as ‘evil air’ and a ‘frost-making stillness’ due to the cold, lifelessness of winter. This gives the reader the impression of a serene, peaceful, yet chillingly haunting, forest which breaks the stereotypical wildlife filled idea most people might have of these types of areas within nature. He says how there is ‘not a leaf, not a bird’ implying the complete silence in the woods, which is emphasised here by the use of repetition. The idea of a frozen stillness is further represented by the punctuation within ‘A world cast in frost.’ As it comes across as dead and icy.

However, further on in to the poem when the sun begins to come up the mood within the poem seems to change as we see personification within ‘valleys were draining the darkness’ which implies some sense of movement, as well as the mention of ‘the horses’ which creates an unspoken sense of power. They are the first sign of life mentioned, however they are still described as ‘grey’ and ‘Megalith-still’ as if they are just boulders. This gives the reader the impression that the horses might even appear frozen, due to the fact that they had ‘tilted-hind hooves’ and ‘not one snorted or jerked its head’ which is very unlike these animals that are known for their energy and power. However, we begin to see the energy within the poem build up as Hughes says ‘stumbling in the fever of a dream’ which indicates movement and heat.

Eventually, we see the horses described as ‘steaming and glistening’ representing warmth and radiance, contrasting the ‘dense grey’ that they were earlier described as. Despite the change in atmosphere, ‘they still made no sound’ which makes for an anti-climax as the reader was lead to believe that something other might have happened. Hughes then says hoe he may ‘still meet my memory in so lonely a place’, suggesting that he appreciated the serenity and tranquillity of these horses in their natural habitat, hoping that he could feel the same feeling if he were to go back there again. All in all it is clear that Hughes intended on showing his true appreciation for nature by zooming in to a small, lifeless memory and creating a gradual, energy building poem that releases warmth and colour towards the end in a positive way, almost as if it were an escape.

Plath, on the other hand, likes to write about memories with the desire to find something for herself; such as drama. This can be clearly seen in the poem ‘Daddy’, in which she presents herself as a poor victim of her father, whom is presented in multiple negative ways. From the start of the poem, we see her father represented as an authoritive figure; even the title suggests that Plath is always underneath him in the sense that she is nothing but a little girl to him, hence the idea of ‘Daddy’ which can be seen as very childlike. The first line ‘You do not do, you do not do’ has the tone of a nursery rhyme, giving the reader the impression that Plath is belittling herself because of her father and possibly the way he seems to overrule her. This is further emphasised by the use of repetition as it sounds like a parent scolding a child, which could represent the fear and nervousness she feels around her father when she says she can’t speak due to ‘the tongue stuck in my jaw’ which represents a nervous stutter as she wants to impress this powerful figure. Plath also refers to her father as ‘Marble-heavy’ and as a ‘Ghastly statue’ which both give the reader the impression of a cold, heavy yet empty person, which is how Plath seems to see her father. The idea of him being statue-like also points towards how Plath used to look up to her father as an idol, as if her were always on a pedestal, which is further shown by his ‘Aryan eye’, which was typically seen as Hitler’s “perfect” race.

She also represents her father’s absence in her life within this poem due to his early death and time spent in the military, which could potentially be linked to the idea of war in Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’. She says how her father ‘died before I had time’ and how ‘I have had to kill you’, referring to the fact that she had to bury her father at the age of 8 after he died. The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic, devastating events within a person’s life and it is made clear in this poem that Plath had been heavily affected by her father’s death, causing her to feel like a victim as she lost her idol. She further presents her memories of her father when she speaks about ‘the waters off beautiful Nauset’, which is where she used to go on holiday with her family; showing obvious links to the memories of her father. She then uses repetition once again when she says ‘wars, wars, wars’ which emphasises the length of time that World War 1 and 2 caused her to lose with her father, and the time they went on for. She then refers to how ‘I could never tell where you Put your foot, your root’ suggesting that she was never able to find out about her father’s background or his personality, leaving her feeling lost, purposeless and empty inside.

On the other hand, Plath also used this poem to describe her father in a deep, dark way by repeatedly comparing him to the colour black which is often seen as vindictive, moody and even used to represent the unknown. This is seen throughout the poem, such as when she refers to the ‘black man’, suggesting a mysterious or unknown figure and the ‘black telephone’ which suggests the communication that she was never able to have with her father. Alongside the colour black, Plath continues to use morbid metaphors to describe her relationship with her father, for example, when she uses the relationship between a Jew and a Nazi to describe herself and her father. This is shown when she says, ‘I thought every German was you’ and also when she says ‘Chuffing me off like a Jew’ which she uses to suggest her abandonment by her father.

As the poem continues, we begin to see Plath reflecting on her father in an increasingly negative way, such as when she speaks about her ‘gipsy ancestress’, implying an impure heritage which she is indefinitely blaming on her father. The way she uses ‘Panzer-man’ to describe him gives the reader the impression that he is tank-like; impossible to damage or penetrate. She also refers to her father as devil-like by saying ‘but no less a devil for that’, suggesting that he is evil and careless to who he harms. Altogether, it is clear that Plath has taken her personal experience and memories of her father to represent her pain and longing for a paternal figure, however some critics have argued that ‘Daddy’ was Plath’s way of representing her negative experiences with males throughout her life, including her husband by the way she talks about her ‘pretty red heart in two’, however I feel that there is more evidence that she is trying to truly represent the extent of her pain and suffering due to her father’s absence, unlike Hughes’ style of writing in which he seems to write about much less personal memories.

An additional poem in which Plath displays a personal memory of her father is Full Fathom five, in which she creates a mythological story using the god of the sea, Poseidon which is showed by the phrase ‘The old myth of origins’, in order to present her father as a strong, god-like figure that has played a largely negative effect on her life, which is implied straight from the title that can mean sunken in to despair. The first line addresses her father as ‘Old man’, which straight away is seen as a derogatory term, suggesting distance between her and this masculine character. She then uses the word ‘dragnet’ as a metaphor for her own memory, implying that her mind and memory are constantly fluctuating and thinking about this man. She says how he is to be ‘steered clear off’ which suggests that she cant escape the memory of her father and the phrase ‘not fathomed’ suggests that he is a myth to her, as if his absence was with out any understanding. She continues to speak about how ‘your form suffers some strange injury’, which implies the constant reminder of loss whenever she thinks about him, suggesting a sense of vulnerability on her part due to this memory. This links to the word ‘whirlpools’ used in the tenth stanza which gives the reader the image of an endless, spinning cycle that Plath is clearly trapped in.

Towards the end of the poem there is a much more desperate feel as Plath states how ‘I walk dry on your kingdom’s border’ despite the fact that the kingdoms border, in this case, is water. This suggest that she can’t get close enough to him and she feels lonely and banished. The phrase ‘Father, this thick air is murderous’ is the first time that she directly addresses her father and it also seems as if she is pleading for help due to the sense of loss and her longing to be with her father. Some critics have even argued that Plath was attempting to represent the loss of her childhood as well as the loss of her father, by disguising the poem with a mythical, fantasy-based story. All in all, it seems that Plath tends to use twisted, morbid imagery to represent the pain and suffering behind her memories whereas Hughes uses memory to fully appreciate and value the beauty and meaning behind history and nature.

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GradesFixer. (2018, October, 18) The Use of Own Memories in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Retrived February 24, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-own-memories-in-the-poems-of-sylvia-plath-and-ted-hughes/
"The Use of Own Memories in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes." GradesFixer, 18 Oct. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-own-memories-in-the-poems-of-sylvia-plath-and-ted-hughes/. Accessed 24 February 2020.
GradesFixer. 2018. The Use of Own Memories in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes., viewed 24 February 2020, <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-own-memories-in-the-poems-of-sylvia-plath-and-ted-hughes/>
GradesFixer. The Use of Own Memories in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. [Internet]. October 2018. [Accessed February 24, 2020]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-own-memories-in-the-poems-of-sylvia-plath-and-ted-hughes/
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