Portrayal of Violence in Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’ Poetry
The theme of violence is commonly identified within both Plath’s and Hughes’ poetry; however, the way in which it is incorporated by the two very different poets contrasts one another, from the use of techniques, the different tones throughout – even down to the subjects and content of the poems. Hughes, as a poet, was considered more ‘popular’ at the time as he was at his peak, as his poetry was viewed as more traditional to the era, because he wrote ingenious poetry about average topics, whereas Plath’s revolutionary ‘confessional’ poetry was less widely read by the oppressed society of the mid-20th century. This is because her poetry was seen as complex, as she wrote about suppressed and sensitive topics such as childbirth, the immense difficulties and struggles of motherhood and her lifelong depression, which the society would have been shocked to read and perhaps made uncomfortable. This results from the conditioning of the society into classifying these topics as ‘taboo’ since childhood, meaning Plath’s poetry was not given nearly as much recognition as she is now, after her death, in our modern and contemporary society.
One poem by Plath in which I will be writing about – ‘Cut’ – explores violence in an almost self-destructive manner which, although is graphic in terms of the imagery created and language used, not as explicit as Hughes’ poetry in the way that he writes about violence in a blunt and inescapable way. The poem, overall, is about Plath in the domesticated setting of a kitchen, inferably making dinner alone, when she suddenly cuts her thumb with the knife she is using, but her follow-up response suggests psychological tensions running deeper than any ordinary one to a kitchen accident. It is arguable that the ‘cut’ she writes about refers not only to her physical one, but perhaps an emotional one that could foreshadow her future suicide.
Plath opens the poem by saying ‘what a thrill’ in description of her feeling towards this injury. It is inferred that she is indulging in self-harm here; and the rest of the poem supports this also, as there is no evidence suggesting that this was actually an injury, as she opens the poem not by stating the injury, but in fact the thrill that she has felt as a result of it. There is a parallel to this suggesting tone of self-harm in her novel ‘The Bell Jar’, which describes the character’s thoughts on self-harm in which the protagonist Esther calls her experience a ‘small, deep thrill’. She also briefly mentions the Klu Klux Klan in a simile comparing them to the medical gauze she uses to cover her cut, which is an American right wing organization which Plath heavily disapproved of. The image of their white uniforms being stained by her blood here is symbolic of the blood of their violent attacks on black people. The inclusion of the colour red prevailing over white here reinforces the theme of violence. White, as a colour, has positive connotations of purity, innocence and virginity whereas red can be interpreted as a negative representative for anger, danger and violence. The theme of violence against others and herself is clear here and also extends to many of her other poems.
However, Hughes incorporates the theme of violence in a much more explicit manner in comparison to his wife Plath. For example in his poem ‘Pike’; which describes the nature of the fish as well as his experience with it. In the first stanza, he describes Pike as being ‘Killers from the egg’. Firstly, his odd use of capitalizing the noun ‘Killer’ suggests an admiration toward the fish’s ability to do so without question or judgement, which explores the theme of violence in an extremely plain and obvious way, and creates a sense of immediate discomfort within the reader, almost giving the effect of victimizing the reader as the Pike’s prey. In addition, he describes their role of being a ‘Killer’ as being pre-determined ‘from the egg’. This implies that the Pike’s job isn’t a choice, but almost its inescapable fate. This simplistic statement is arguably almost like Hughes’ is justifying their taboo acts, as if he possibly relates to them, which is disturbing in its own manner.
He then begins stanza four with a sudden change in focus, and begins to describe his memory of owning three Pike’s in his youth; ‘Three we kept behind glass’. This separation by glass objectifies the Pike and reinforced human power over the Pikes, but could also suggest that the only way we can protect ourselves from the wrath of this creature is by putting it in a tank. He then writes; ‘-Suddenly there were two. Finally one. With a sag belly and a grin…’, which obviously suggests that the Pike have devoured each other in their tank as an act of cannibalism. The hyphen followed by ‘Suddenly’ creates a pause, emphasising the shock of the act and reinforces the unpredictable nature of the Pike and what it can do. The inclusion of full-stops also gives a ‘matter-of-fact’ tone to the poem and creates a statement out of the fact which suggests the undeniable truth of the violent nature of the Pike. The remaining Pike is also described as having a sag belly and ‘a grin’ after killing its peers which the reader can infer as being the absence of any remorse or guilt, creating a disturbing atmosphere.
In contrast, another poem by Plath; ‘Daddy’ also shows themes of violence, but again reflects her pattern of indirect and suggestive violence. The subject of the poem itself is violent – an attack on her dead father (when she was 9) and as a result of her lack of closure, she blames him for ‘leaving’ her when she was so young and therefore couldn’t grasp understanding of the event. She writes; ‘My tongue stuck in my jaw. It stuck in a barb wire snare’ which represents her feeling of inability to express herself around her father, however she uses extremely violent imagery to imply this with her tongue stuck in barbed wire, which has connotations of being a way of physical constriction through inflicting pain on a passersby. The oxymoronic sounds of ‘tongue stuck’ contrast against each other, the soft sound of ‘tongue’ against the harsh consonants in ‘stuck’ which symbolizes her inner conflicting feelings about her father.
She also compares her father to Hitler by describing him with a ‘neat mustache’ and even more references to the Nazis by saying ‘every German was you’ . This use of extreme metaphoric comparison puts emphasis on how negatively she views her father, by referring to him as the ultimate villain and therefore making herself the ultimate victim. A feeling of sympathy is evoked within the reader as it is inferred that she is calling for attention, which has obviously been previously absent in her life.
Hughes again explores violence explicitly in yet another poem of his, following his common theme of animals. However, ‘View of a Pig’ incorporates violence in a different way to his other poems about animals, with less of an admirative tone, but a negative and objectifying one. Overall, the poem is about Hughes looking upon a dead pig which is just lying there. In his opening line, Hughes describes the pig as simply lying ‘dead’. The immediate image of violence created is shocking to the reader in its starkness and brutality and emphasizes how the truth of its death is so inescapable and ‘in-your-face’. He also describes the dead pig as ‘it was like a stack of wheat’, and this simile immediately commodifies the pig, and puts it as less than a life and only as food – just something to be bought and sold.
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The theme of violence is commonly identified within both Plath’s and Hughes’ poetry; however, the way in which it is incorporated by the two very different poets contrasts one another, […]