Poetic Arson and Sylvia Plath's `Burning the Letters'

from: Contemporary Literature - Fall 1998

by Lynda K. Bundtzen, Williams College

Only they have nothing to say to anybody.
I have seen to that.
-Sylvia Plath, "Burning the Letters"
What was in those manuscripts, the one destroyed like a Jew
in Nazi Germany, the other lost like a desaparecido?
-Steven Gould Axelrod, "The Second Destruction of Sylvia Plath"

Sticks and stones may break your bones, But words can never harm you. In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes confessed to destroying one of Sylvia Plath's "maroon-backed ledgers" and losing another. They "continued the record from late '59 to within three days of her death. The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). The other disappeared" (xiii). As Steven Gould Axelrod's comparison of Plath's missing journals to a Jewish victim of the Holocaust shows, many critics regard Hughes as committing an act of desecration worse than Hitler's burning of the books. Indeed, Hughes's handling of Plath's work has aroused endless critical fury, and he has responded in myriad ways-at times with scorn, defensively, at others with cool detachment, as if he were only her editor.[1] In a piece titled "Sylvia Plath and Her Journals," Hughes refers to himself as "her husband" when he describes the destruction and disappearance of the final two journals and even says, "Looking over this curtailed journal, one cannot help wondering whether the lost entries for her last three years were not the more important section of it. Those years, after all, produced the work that made her name. And we certainly have lost a valuable appendix to all that later writing" (177-78). Hughes the editor criticizes Hughes the husband for an unnecessary appendectomy on Plath's corpus.

Acts of textual violence or abuse, if so they might be called, were, as it turns out, habitual in the Plath-Hughes marriage, although Plath was customarily the perpetrator. Plath's biographers describe more than one incident in which Plath destroyed her husband's work, and Plath's "Burning the Letters" is about one of those times, when she pillaged and burned the contents of Hughes's study. A more covert form of sabotage and vandalism is apparent only when one views Plath's manuscripts at Smith College's Mortimer Rare Book Room. Smith paid for one corpus when it bought Plath's manuscripts but received tattered remnants of another body of work-that of Ted Hughes. Many of her final poems are written on his backside, so to speak: Plath recycles old manuscripts and typescripts by Hughes, and often she seems to be back talking, having the last word in argument. The friction between these two bodies is palpable at times, as text clashes with text, and one intuits Plath's purposeful coercion and filleting of Hughes's poems and plays as she composes. Even some of Plath's phrases--"The tongue stuck in my jaw. // It stuck in a barb wire snare" ("Daddy," Collected Poems 223) and her obsession with "hooks" ("The air is a mill of hooks" ["Mystic," Collected Poems 268])--may well allude to Hughes's sometimes indecipherable handwriting, clotted with a thicket of curlicues, hooks, flourishes, and, like barbed wire, backward, snarelike strokes. These allusions often suggest how a tongue, a feminine voice, finds itself stuttering to express itself in the presence of a stronger masculine one: "Ich, ich, ich, ich" ("Daddy").

If Plath's "rare" body is skillfully remembered for public viewing and scholarly dissection, Hughes's seems at times hopelessly dismembered, scattered, and disordered. Her words are on top and one peeks at the other side, often finding her ink has bled through, indelibly splotching and staining Hughes's work. One cannot help but interpret Hughes's book cover for Winter Pollen, his 1994 collection of critical essays (some of them on Plath), in light of this practice by his wife. His photograph on the cover is defaced on one side with Plath's manuscript for "Sheep in Fog," covering him from pate to cheek to chin--an acknowledgment of how thoroughly he has been "overwritten" (humbly "effaced") by his wife? how hopelessly his own immortal body of work is inscribed/entombed with that of his wife?

One of the more striking moments of simultaneous entanglement of textual bodies and of marital violence occurred in Plath's composition of "Burning the Letters." According to The Collected Poems, it was the only poem written during the month of August 1962, when marital discord was moving toward the Plath-Hughes decision to separate. At Smith, there are six heavily reworked drafts of the poem before a final typed copy dated August 13.[2] Then, more than a month passed before Plath composed "For a Fatherless Son" (its title speaks for itself), dated September 26, 1962, the poem that initiated a phenomenal outpouring of creativity. By the end of October, Plath would have composed twenty-seven poems, among them some of her most famous: "Ariel," "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," the bee poems. Against this later achievement in October, "Burning the Letters" appears paltry, both as an odd blip on the flat line of poetic activity for August, and because it seems so thoroughly embedded in biographical circumstance, unlike the poems she was about to write, where personal grievance is raised to the level of myth. Unlike these October poems, too, Plath did not intend to include "Burning the Letters" in her version of Ariel, and although she sent it off to The New Yorker and The Hudson Review, it was not published until 1973 in the collection of poems titled Pursuit, a limited edition of one hundred copies by the Rainbow Press.[3]

"Burning the Letters" is halting in its rhythms, enervated in its tone, and misshapen on the page, its unwieldy verse paragraphs alternating very long lines--"They would flutter off, black and glittering, they would be coal angels"--with short, blunt assertions-"They console me" (Collected Poems 204). Though it certainly fits Ted Hughes's category of "personally aggressive" poems, it also sounds weary and flat, as in its opening line of explanation, "I made a fire; being tired," repeated a few lines later as an excuse: "Love, love, and well, I was tired."[4] Instead of the incendiary rage that fuels a poem like "Lady Lazarus," here Plath is just fed up with feeling stupid, like a "Dumb fish" mocked by

the white fists of old
Letters and their death rattle
When I came too close to the wastebasket.
What did they know that I didn't?

"Burning the Letters" is, I believe, important precisely because of its crudities, its poetic awkwardness, and, further, because these deficiencies constitute an attack on her poet-husband Ted Hughes's aesthetic principles. It is, to my mind, a "slash and burn" poem, clearing the poetic playing field to make room for the type of poems she would compose for Ariel.

What is, perhaps, surprising is that all of the biographies and memoirs describe the incident commemorated in "Burning the Letters" more vividly than the poem itself, which has a deliberative, even plodding quality. In early July, while Ted Hughes was away from the Court Green home in Devonshire he shared with Plath and their two children, she invaded his attic study, gathered assorted papers and "stuff," and burned them. According to Susan Van Dyne, as Plath describes the act in her first draft, it is motivated by a desire to overcome "feelings of isolation or helplessness with claims of control and authority. For example, in the first draft the speaker complains, 'There was nobody for me to know or go to. / So I burned the letters & the dust puffs & the old hair'" (37). The tone is one of exasperation and vicarious control, as if to say, "Even if you are not around, I can take possession of your things." The most vivid account available is Clarissa Roche's, in her memoir, "Sylvia Plath: Vignettes from England." Roche was not a witness but Plath's confidante in November, after Plath and Hughes had separated and he had left her and the children in Court Green. Roche retells the incident as she remembers hearing it from Plath: "when the moon was at a certain stage, she had skimmed from his desk 'Ted's scum,' microscopic bits of fingernail parings, dandruff, dead skin, hair, and then, with a random handful of papers collected from the desk and wastebasket, she had made a sort of pyre in the garden and around this she drew a circle. She stepped back to a prescribed point, lit the fire with a long stick of a torch and paced around, incanting some hocus-pocus or another. Flames shot up toward the moon, and smoke sketched weird shapes in the mist. Then fragments of letters and manuscripts fluttered like moths, hovered and, after the heat abated, floated to the ground. One charred piece settled at Sylvia's feet. It had been reduced to an ash save for a corner. She picked it up and by the light of the moon read 'A -----,' the name of a friend. Sylvia now knew the woman with whom Ted was having an affair." (85)

Here, the incident sounds like Plath meant to cast a spell, to exorcise a demon. Whether Plath embellished what happened in order to entrance Roche, who also describes Plath as a witty raconteur, or whether Roche is the source of these spellbinding details, we still have the poem, and "Burning the Letters" has none of this quality of a witch's ritual being performed. In fact, many of Plath's revisions have the effect of taming the potential melodrama in the incident.

Other evidence for what happened is slight. Aurelia Plath, visiting her daughter from June 21 to August 4, leaves no account of the incident immortalized by the poem. Nor do the letters of Plath to her mother after she concluded her visit refer to this episode. Biographers have supplied other details, the sources for which seem vague. In her 1987 biography, Linda Wagner-Martin places the incident on July 10, following Plath's interception of "a mysterious phone call for Ted" and another act of violence: "and when Ted's conversation was over, she tore the telephone wires from the wall. She turned her rage inward as she stoically, blankly, dressed Nick and carried him to the car. Leaving Frieda with Aurelia, she drove the twenty-five miles to [her friends'] the Comptons'. When she arrived, both Elizabeth and David were worried about her behavior; distraught, she wept and held on to Elizabeth's hands, begging 'Help me, help me.' ... Sylvia fed Nick and the two of them spent the night in the Comptons' living room." (208)[5]

The following day, Plath is described as returning home, and in the evening, she made a pyre of Hughes's "letters, drafts of work, and papers, and the manuscript of what was to have been her second novel, the book about her great love for Ted" (208). Biographers Ronald Hayman and Paul Alexander agree with this order of incidents, although Alexander claims there were at least three bonfires that summer: one destroying a novel conceived as "the sequel to The Bell Jar," a second where she burned all of Aurelia's letters to her ("upwards of a thousand"), and then the third, the burning of papers from Hughes's attic study (286).[6] Anne Stevenson oddly reverses the chronology, claiming that the phone incident occurred after the burning of the letters, and also refutes the notion that Plath burned anything of her own: "There is ... no documentary evidence that such a novel existed" (251n). What provoked Plath to burn Hughes's papers is left so murky in Stevenson's narrative that it makes no sense at all:

On July 9 she and her mother drove to Exeter for a day's shopping. On the way home Sylvia exulted, "I have everything in life I've ever wanted: a wonderful husband, two adorable children, a lovely home, and my writing."

Days later, while Ted was in London, she invaded his attic study, hauled down what papers she could find--mostly letters--and made a bonfire in the vegetable garden. The mother watched, appalled... (250)

The phone incident then occurs "Soon after the bonfire" (251). To this, Ronald Hayman adds that Aurelia "was holding Nick and trying to keep Frieda inside the house" and "did her best to stop Sylvia from starting a bonfire" (161).

Perhaps the best evidence for when Plath knew for certain who her rival was comes in a poem earlier than "Burning the Letters": "Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone," composed on July 11, 1962. One line reads, "Now the room is ahiss," suggesting the whispered intimacies between Hughes and the "other woman," but also Assia's name. The words in this poem are clearly feces: "They are plopping like mud" from "the bowel-pulse" of conversation, and the phone is itself a "muck funnel" (Collected Poems 202-3). In the first draft for "Burning the Letters," words are set on fire--"lit"-and become a vehicle for revenge and purgation, and while "letters" in Plath's title refers directly to Hughes's personal correspondence, her delight in destruction extends to words and letters--to writing itself.

The first draft of "Burning the Letters" begins on a page topped by three crossed-out lines from an early version of "Stings," a poem about an incident in June when Plath's bees began attacking--"zinging"--Hughes. On the back is the typescript for Hughes's poem "Toll of Air Raids," which may well have been chosen for its analogy to the air attack of the bees. Plath's last line for this version of "Stings" warns her "love" that he is trapped in the bees' aerial assault as if he were in a "cat's cradle." Cat's cradle is a little girl's game, and the sense here is of girls' flying fingers happily weaving and "zinging" back and forth like stinging bees, with Hughes caught in the middle, tangled in knots of string.[7] Better than a "cat's cradle" stinging her unfaithful husband will be the revenge of Plath's poetic suttee in the poem she is about to compose. Both Hughes's papers and letters from Assia will fuel this fire.

After a false start of two lines she crosses out, Plath arrives at her title, "Burning the Letters." Though discarded, these lines show that her inspiration comes directly from the distinctive character of Hughes's handwriting and its predilection for deceptions and mockery, evidence that he is a liar. Eventually, these lines will evolve into a final form: "And here is an end to the writing, / The spry hooks that bend and cringe, and the smiles, the smiles" (Collected Poems 204). Hughes's handwriting, which I described earlier in similar terms, is here conceived as a series of springlike hooks, with bending and cringing backward strokes. More important, though, than its physical appearance is the sense of smirking duplicity attributed to Hughes's writing. Coupled with the substitution of Hughes's textual body for his actual body in the vengeance she imposes, this makes Plath less the witchy voodoo queen of Roche's memoir than a vulgar harridan who has decided to invade the writing garret of her brilliant poet-husband. She has had enough of his linguistic sophistry, and enough of the high culture it represents. The reverse of the third page of Draft 1 is a typescript for Hughes's poem "A Fable," and the first line reads, "A man brought to his knees in the desert"--what Plath would probably like to do to Hughes.

Van Dyne argues that Plath oscillates between representing herself as Hughes's victim and his victimizer in "Burning the Letters," that she "fails to resolve whether the burning words in her 'little crematorium' are more dead than alive or whether she murders or is herself ghoulishly tormented by 'letters spidering on a skin of white'" (37). My own sense of Plath's phrasing in the earlier drafts for "Burning the Letters" is that she conceives of his writing as a body on which she inflicts pain, and that her poem is itself a crematorium from which there is no escape. He desperately tries to wriggle free--"by hands & hooks" or "hand over hand" to crawl out of the way of the fire. But the butt of her rake stirs the fire and unfists the crumpled papers so that everything will burn in "my little crematorium." While Hughes is out of reach physically, and Plath can neither subjugate nor humiliate him in person, then, she does have access to his poetic body and may wound it.

On the reverse of the second page of Plath's first draft of "Burning the Letters" is what Van Dyne describes as "one of [Ted Hughes's] most famous statements of his own poetics, 'The Thought-Fox'" (9). "Burning the Letters" is similarly inhabited by a fox, but one that must be read as an anti-thought-fox. Plath's fox helps to make her case for the poetic efficacy of shrieks--the animal's death cry as immortal utterance:

The dogs are tearing a fox. This is what it is like--
A red burst and a cry
That splits from its ripped bag and does not stop
With the dead eye
And the stuffed expression, but goes on
Dyeing the air,
Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water
What immortality is. That it is immortal.
(Collected Poems 205) 

While this immortal "music" is not exactly, indeed, exactly not the "full-throated ease" of Keats's nightingale, Plath is making a similar if cruelly perverse claim for the fox's cry as transcendent expression, superseding the efficacy of the printed word. She is turning a purposely deaf ear to poetic lyricism in favor of something crude and sensational.

Plath's immortal fox challenges what she derides as Hughes's poetic taxidermy--"the dead eye / And the stuffed expression" of his "The Thought-Fox." Her ink bleeds through onto his poem, "dyeing" it with her fox's agony, spilling onto his page and sullying its silent beauty. More attuned to literary convention, Hughes's poem contrarily invokes solitude and silence as the moment of poetic inspiration. He opens:

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
(Hawk 14) 

Plath's handwriting also mars Hughes's "neat prints into the snow" and thereby defies her husband's poetic authority. Her mockery of his "thought-fox" is evident in "stuffed expression," nastily implying that Hughes's poem, his creation of a fox, is a stuffy and bombastic little piece with about as much life as one of Norman Bates's birds. Her own fox is immortal because of its pain, and, by extension, Plath makes a case for private anguish as the basis for her new poems. She stakes the immortality of her verse on the sincerity, the authenticity of its feeling, on the impact of a cri de coeur. One discarded line from her first draft baldly exclaims her sense of being abandoned by him, left completely "loveless."

The aesthetic alternative in Hughes's poem is that the poet reveals nothing about himself except as a poet. "The Thought-Fox," to the extent that it has a content, is about all those elements prized by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or W. H. Auden, Hughes's own poetic mentors: the impersonal voice, the crafting of sensuous images, the cultivated representation of the poet as a mind that creates and not a man who suffers. "The Thought-Fox" is one of those tricky little self-reflexive pieces about the process of creating the poem's writing of itself. The title suggests its cerebral origin, and when we come to the final stanza--

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

--we suddenly realize that the whole poem celebrates the imagination's ability to evoke an animal's presence in language. All of the animal's foxy grace redounds to the brilliance and concentration of the poet who created it--even, perhaps most of all, its "sudden sharp hot stink." The fox's "neat prints into the snow" magically become the poet's writing on the blank whiteness of the page at the end. Voila! A poem has been made. In her first draft for "Burning the Letters," Plath responds in kind, with a writerly gesture: the cry of the fox is merely a splash of red ink in clear water. By Draft 3, however, the cry is independent of ink and paper, standing apart as simply a "red burst," and now it is the poet's blood, not ink, that implicitly stains the white page. The youthful Hughes leaves himself open to the charge of smugness in the way he boasts about "The Thought-Fox." Indeed, one cannot help but speculate that Plath chose to attack this poem precisely because of the way Hughes invested it with claims to poetic immortality. On October 6, 1961, a year earlier, in the first of a series of BBC broadcasts designed for schoolchildren on how to write poetry, Hughes read the poem as part of a lesson titled "Capturing Animals." While he begins with childhood memories of trapping animals, as Hughes warms to his subject, we know he will end with the idea of "capturing" as an artist captures the essence of animals, the essence of fox, as it were, to use a "stuffed expression." He highly prizes his achievement in this poem: "If I had not caught the real fox there in the words I would never have saved the poem. I would have thrown it into the wastepaper basket as I have thrown so many other hunts that did not get what I was after. As it is, every time I read the poem the fox comes up again out of the darkness and steps into my head. And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out in the darkness and come walking towards them. So, you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words." (Poetry in the Making 20-21)

It is hard not to read the final lines of Plath's "Burning the Letters" as throwing down the gauntlet, as spattering the blood/ink of her fox, the hunted and truly captured animal, onto Hughes's rigorously artificed fox and thereby defying his intellectual and, yes, "high" culture version of literary immortality with something literal, real, and downright low. Her emphatic "This is what it is like," followed by the extended trope of the fox torn by hounds, and then the repetitive "What immortality is. That it is immortal," is flat-out. assertion, insistently stomping on Hughes's subtlety, his cleverness, his literary sophistication. Unlike Hughes, she does not mean to dazzle with her brilliance, nor to condescend as to a child. As she explains earlier in the poem, "I am not subtle" (204).

"Burning the Letters" was initially interpreted either as supersubtle in its meaning or as a grossly literal representation of an actual incident. It was either extraordinarily encoded with allusions to "moment[s] of breakthrough or enlightenment" in Zen Buddhism (Kroll 276n37) or simply negligible in the context of the literary value of Plath's later Ariel poems.[8] I would argue that its subtlety--or perhaps "cunning" is a better word--paradoxically depends on its literal-mindedness, its insistence that textual and real bodies are the same: "I open the pages, white wads that would save themselves. / Spirit after spirit gives itself up!" (Draft 1, p. 2), and later, "I flake up papers that breathe like people" (Collected Poems 204). Plath knew, I believe, that her fox was not the product of sophisticated thinking about what constitutes poetic immortality. She means to be both coarse and low in her fury, and not a poet so much as a woman scorned, invading the man's study, destroying his "property," burning her husband's letters: "So I poke at the carbon birds in my housedress." Violating all sense of propriety, she is consoled with having snuffed out both his words and the words of others' writings to him: "they have nothing to say to anybody. / I have seen to that" (Collected Poems 204). The detail of the housedress makes her the "little woman," not the rival poet-wife, and the So there! implicit in her satisfied assertions is meant as a retort to the condescensions she has suffered. She is cleaning house, and it's about time:

And at least it will be a good place now, the attic.
At least I won't be strung just under the surface,
Dumb fish
With one tin eye,
Watching for glints,
Riding my Arctic
Between this wish and that wish.
(Collected Poems 204)

Even the self-demeaning metaphor here seems appropriate, as if a housewife were trying to challenge her poet-husband with less than perfectly realized artistic form. To paraphrase, "At least now I won't be treated like some dumb fish waiting, even hoping, to be caught, looking for a lure, a sign, from you, upstairs in the attic, while I live in cold uncertainty down here." In Draft 1, the arctic imagery was explicitly linked to Hughes's inattentiveness as a husband and elaborated to demonstrate his cold estrangement from her--Plath's sense of being taken for granted. The metaphor in this poetic and marital situation also suggests his "higher" state of being, his clear atmosphere, his warm and ambient space, while she lives beneath his feet, a subhuman fish in a state of arctic suspension.

One can only speculate as to why Plath chose not to include this poem in her version of Ariel. My own suspicion is that she knew it was too low and too antiliterary in many ways. Of all the late poems, the body of this poem is the one most dependent for its meanings on knowledge of others' bodies. It is, as Freud might say, anaclitic in the way it leans on the writing-body of Hughes and Assia Wevill's embodiment as burning paper. The frustrated desire in pyromania is also apparent in Plath's urge to play with the fire and to reach in and touch these paper bodies:

My fingers would enter although
They melt and sag, they are told
Do not touch.
(Collected Poems 204)

The lines describing Assia confound her sexual and textual bodies, the sound of her voice and name with its signature:

And a name with black edges
Wilts at my foot,
Sinuous orchis
In a nest of root-hairs and boredom--
Pale eyes, patent-leather gutturals!
(Collected Poems 205)

In the image of the hairy orchid, Assia's crumpled and burning letter (invaginated folds of paper) resembles female genitals, and the hissing is both her name and the sound of the fire. In Draft 1, p. 3, Plath misspells "gutturals" as "gutterals" (a Freudian slip?), alluding to Assia's German accent and also suggesting that it belongs to a guttersnipe. As for Hughes, the poem celebrates an act of poetic arson and scorns Hughes's writing at every level--from its physical appearance to its poetic pretensions--as dissembling, pompous, and useful only as recycled scrap for her own poetic process.

According to Anne Stevenson, this was not the first time Plath systematically went about destroying her husband's poetic property. In a fit of jealous rage, she vandalized Hughes's work as an act of "preemptive revenge" (206) for a liaison that never materialized except in her fantasy. Stevenson reports that Hughes was interviewed for "a series of children's programs" early in 1961 (ironically, the same ones described above and including "Capturing Animals") by a woman producer with "a lilting Irish voice, which Sylvia instantly associated with flaming red hair and lascivious intentions" (206). When Hughes was late returning, and based only on the sound of the producer's telephone voice, Plath created "a scene of carnage. All of his work in progress, his play, poems, notebooks, even his precious edition of Shakespeare, had been torn into small pieces, some 'reduced to "fluff"'" (206).[9] The Shakespeare is described as "his most treasured book," and Stevenson goes on to claim that "Ted could neither forget nor forgive this desecration" (206). The language suggests that Plath's crime was not directed only at her husband, but at culture--a "desecration" of an artist's work in progress, of a rare book, of Shakespeare. As in "Burning the Letters," Plath insists on venting her fury on textual bodies, literalizing poetry as a substitute victim for her husband, whom she would probably like to tear into, reduce to fluff.

This incident not only haunts "Burning the Letters" but also seems to haunt Hughes. Writing to Anne Stevenson about this episode in Bitter Fame, Hughes expresses regret for not asking her to delete "one phrase in particular":

When Sylvia's destruction of my papers etc. has been described, it is said "this could never be forgotten or forgiven," or words to that effect. ...

"The truth is that I didn't hold that action against [Sylvia]--then or at any other time. I was rather shattered by it, and saw it was a crazy thing for her to have done. But perhaps I have something missing. She never did anything that I held against her. The only thing that I found hard to understand was her sudden discovery of our bad moments ("Event," "Rabbit Catcher") as subjects for poems. But to say I could not forgive her for ripping up those bits of paper is to misunderstand utterly the stuff of my relationship to her. It is factually untrue, in other words. So in future, in any new edition or translation, I would like to have that phrase cut out. Let the episode speak for itself. All those fierce reactions against her--which she provoked so fiercely--from people who thought, perhaps, sometimes, that they were defending me--were from my point of view simply disasters from which I had to protect her. It was like trying to protect a fox from my own hounds while the fox bit me. With a real fox in that situation, you would never have any doubt why it was biting you." (qtd. in Malcolm 143)

Hughes's reluctance to understand Plath's "sudden discovery of our bad moments" as poetic ore to be mined reflects his later editorial choices when he put Ariel together, deleting virtually all of the poems from Plath's own version of Ariel that were explicitly about their bad moments. Yet Hughes also appears to be acknowledging Plath's fox in "Burning the Letters" here--conceding to its eloquence as poetic statement and its immortality over that of his own thought-fox. Perhaps this is a belated apology for the earlier hubris in the boast that he has "captured" the fox by giving it the permanence of art in his poem. In his 1961 BBC talk, Hughes says, "An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive [after capturing it] is the fox" (19). This is prelude, of course, to the claim he will then make that poetry is the better strategy for "keeping alive." A real fox, however, defies poetic sophistry. It desperately wants to escape and, in the frenzy of its capture, will not abide its own survival, its own salvation, especially not at the hands of its captor. Its desperation and ferocity speak for themselves--as do Sylvia Plath's.[10]

While Ted Hughes has steadfastly refused interviews by biographers of Plath, he has not been entirely silent. In a 1995 poem published in The New Yorker, "The Error," he provides chilling evidence that Plath's fire of July 1962 continued to burn and to inflict pain. The overall conceit of the poem is that Plath's "grave opened its ugly mouth" (156) and spoke to Assia, but that she made an "error in translation" (157):

You must have misheard a sentence.
You were always mishearing
Into Hebrew or German
What was muttered in English.

The fire which yields up the name of Assia Wevill to Plath--"The name of the girl flies out, black-edged, like a death card" (Draft 1, p. 3)--eventually swallows up the woman herself, described as having "selflessly incinerated yourself / In the shrine of [Plath's] death" (156). He "watched [Assia] feeding the flames," and once again, her life is as crumpled paper:

Six full calendar years--
Every tarred and brimstone
Day torn carefully off,
One at a time, not one wasted, patient
As if you were feeding a child.

Six years after Plath's suicide, Assia Wevill killed herself and her daughter by Hughes, Shura, in a similar way to Plath, by gas and carbon monoxide asphyxiation. A discarded line from "Burning the Letters" personifies the earth as savoring "the taste of ashes," and following as it does "a name with black edges" that "Wilts at my foot" (Collected Poems 205), one cannot help but hear--or mishear-the pun on Assia in "ashes." As Plath goes on to boast, she is salting the red earth with these ashes.

1. In a 1971 letter to the Observer addressing A. Alvarez's criticism of how Plath's poems were published, Hughes defended himself by attacking Plath's audience. He claimed to "feel no obligations whatsoever" to either academics or Plath's fans, whom he regards scornfully as sensation seekers: "The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died. The scholars may well inherit what they want, some day, and there are journalists supplying the other audience right now. But neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything" ("Publishing Sylvia Plath" 164).

2. The first draft with a date on it is the third, dated August 12. Drafts 1 and 2 might have been started earlier, closer to the date of the incident described, which biographers place in July.

3. Plath's own collection of poems for her version of Ariel is at Smith's Mortimer Rare Book Room with a title page and table of contents. With the publication of The Collected Poems in 1981, editor Ted Hughes made this earlier, "authorized" version of Ariel known in his notes (Collected Poems 295). For an analysis of Plath's Ariel versus the volume collected by Ted Hughes and published in 1965 in Great Britain and 1966 in the United States, see Perloff.
"Burning the Letters" appears in a collection designed for the Rainbow Press by Leonard Baskin. The Rainbow Press was run by Olwyn Hughes, sister to Ted Hughes. Pursuit is a rather peculiar collection, including juvenilia composed before 1956, but also poems of 1962 originally intended by Plath for her version of Ariel: "Dark Wood, Dark Water" (1959); "Resolve" (1956); "Temper of Time" (juvenilia); "The Shrike" (1956); "Faun" (1956); "The Lady and the Earthenware Head" (1957); "Pursuit" (1956); "Doomsday" (juvenilia); "Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone" (July 11,1962); "Stings [2]" (July or August 1962); "Spider" (1956); "The Fearful" (November 16, 1962); "The Rival [2]" (July 1961); "A Secret" (October 10, 1962); and "Burning the Letters" (August 13, 1962). The title poem was written shortly after Plath met Hughes and is about her sexual attraction to him. "Words Heard, by Accident, Over the Phone," "Stings [2]," "A Secret," and "Burning the Letters" are also about Hughes, his infidelity, and their marital problems, making Pursuit a volume that documents the history of their relationship. "A Secret" is the only poem originally intended by Plath to be in her version of Ariel.

4. As Hughes describes "[t]he Ariel eventually published in 1965," it "was a somewhat different volume from the one she had planned. ... It omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962, and might have omitted one or two more if she had not already published them herself in magazines--so that by 1965 they were widely known" ("Collecting Sylvia Plath" 172-73). Most of the "personally aggressive" poems Plath planned to include were directed at Hughes: "The Rabbit Catcher," "A Secret," "The Jailer," "The Detective," "The Other," "The Courage of Shutting-Up," "Purdah," and "Amnesiac."

5. For a more detailed account of this conversation with the Comptons, see Sigmund 104.

6. Alexander cites an interview with Clarissa Roche as contradicting her earlier statement that Assia's name was revealed in the fire: "Plath told Roche that the name 'Dido' was written on the charred scrap of paper, not 'A -----,' as appeared in Roche's memoir. ... According to Roche, Butscher changed the name ... to make the scene more dramatic" (378-79). If so, then Plath did as well in "Burning the Letters," because "patent leather gutturals" alludes to Assia Wevill's German accent, and "Sinuous orchis" fairly hisses out her name.

7. The visual image is similar to one in "Gulliver" (Collected Poems 251): "The spidermen have caught you, // Winding and twining their petty fetters, / Their bribes-- / So many silks."

8. See Judith Kroll's elaborate reading of the fox's immortality in Chapters in a Mythology as reflecting that Plath "was more than superficially acquainted with Hinduism and Buddhism. (Her familiarity with these literatures was confirmed by Ted Hughes, in conversation)" (275-77n37). My reading directly contradicts Kroll's in the sense that Kroll chooses to elevate what I describe as the literal-mindedness of the poem to an extraordinary symbolic height. I am also skeptical of the way in which Hughes authorizes her reading of the poem, which may be seen as his defensive strategy for obscuring the wounds Plath inflicts on his "The Thought-Fox." Jon Rosenblatt's dismissive commentary appears in Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation (107).

9. According to a note in Bitter Fame, "This account is from Dido Merwin, to whom Hughes confided it in the autumn of 1962, after his breakup with Sylvia" (206).

10. One of the stranger essays in Hughes's collection Winter Pollen is "The Burnt Fox" (1993), an account of a dream Hughes claims to have had as a student reading English at Cambridge in the early 1950s. While trying to write one of his weekly critical essays, he falls asleep and is visited by a figure that was at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs. It was a fox, but the size of a wolf. As it approached and came into the light I saw that its body and limbs had just now stepped out of a furnace. Every inch was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding. Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain. It came up until it stood beside me. Then it spread its hand--a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him--flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said: "Stop this--you are destroying us." Then as it lifted its hand away I saw the blood-print, like a palmist's specimen, with all the lines and creases, in wet, glistening blood on the page. (9) One senses allegory at work, the medieval scholar-dreamer visited by a figure representing the English canon and warning him that his critical pedantries are "destroying" literature. The anti-critical sentiment echoes Hughes's scorn for "the hundred thousand Eng Lit Profs and graduates who ... feel very little in this case [about Plath's life and death] beyond curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, popular bloodsport kind, no matter how they robe their attentions in Lit Crit Theology and ethical sanctity" (see letter to Stevenson in Malcolm 141). The same "bloodsport" is rending the body of Hughes's fox-man. In addition, though, one is tempted to read this as yet another self-derisive allusion to "The Thought-Fox," an animal that also comes at night, leaving not its bloody handprint behind on the blank page but the neat prints of the poem's writing. The self-derision may also extend to a comparison once again with Plath's bleeding fox in "Burning the Letters," making its appearance in the charred ruins of her husband's letters.


Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1991.
Axelrod, Steven Gould. "The Second Destruction of Sylvia Plath." American Poetry Review 14.2 (Mar.-Apr. 1985): 17-18.
Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury, 1976.
Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann, 1991.
Hughes, Ted. "The Burnt Fox." Winter Pollen 8-9.
-----. "Capturing Animals." Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from Listening and Writing. 1969. London: Faber, 1982. 15-21.
-----. "Collecting Sylvia Plath." Winter Pollen 170-76.
-----. "The Error." New Yorker 26 June and 3 July 1995: 156-57.
-----. Foreword. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Dial, 1982. xi-xiii.
-----. The Hawk in the Rain. 1957. London: Faber, 1964.
-----. "Publishing Sylvia Plath." Winter Pollen 163-69.
-----. "Sylvia Plath and Her Journals." Winter Pollen 177-90.
-----. Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. Ed. William Scammell. New York: Picador, 1994.
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Perloff, Marjorie. "The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon." American Poetry Review 13.6 (Nov.-Dec. 1984): 10-18.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel and Other Poems. vs. Sylvia Plath Collection. The Neilson Library, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
-----. "Burning the Letters." Drafts 1-6, ms. and ts., and Typed Copy 1, Ariel poems. Includes reverse typescripts of "The Toll of Air Raids," "The Thought-Fox," and "A Fable," by Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath Collection. The Neilson Library, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
-----. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper, 1981.
-----. Pursuit. London: Rainbow, 1973.
Roche, Clarissa. "Sylvia Plath: Vignettes from England." Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. Ed. Edward Butscher. New York: Dodd, 1977. 81-96.
Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979.
Sigmund, Elizabeth. "Sylvia in Devon: 1962." Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. Ed. Edward Butscher. New York: Dodd, 1977. 100-107.
Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton, 1989.
Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" Poems. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

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