05 July 2012

Sylvia Plath's Secret & Lawrence Durrell's Quartet

The following is a guest blog post by Julia Gordon-Bramer, whom you all know for her work on Sylvia Plath, Qabalah, and the tarot. If you do not know her work, visit Plath Profiles' website and see the last few issues: it is worth your while.

At the 2012 Lawrence Durrell Centenary in London, England, I gave a presentation at Goodenough College on one of Sylvia Plath's most inscrutable poems, "A Secret," and how it corresponds with Durrell's most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet. Through these twelve stanzas of "A Secret," I demonstrate how Plath tours through the highlights (and low-lights) of these four stories--through infidelities, changing wives, blindness, smallpox, dead babies in drawers, and all. Special emphasis is placed upon the first Durrell book of the Quartet, Justine.

Author Lawrence Durrell was a critically-acclaimed poet, artist, and novelist during and after Plath’s time. The first books of The Alexandria Quartet had come out in the late 1950s, and Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Lawrence Durrell had all shared the same London publisher, Faber and Faber. The three also appeared together in a February 1962 edition of The London Magazine. Additionally, Durrell edited a 1963 edition of New Poems 1963: A PEN Anthology of Contemporary Poetry that included both Plath ("Candles") and Hughes' ("Her Husband" p. 66 and "Wodwo" p. 67. ) work.

As some of you may know, I have spent the last five years reinterpreting the work of Plath as its meanings come clear through tarot and the Qabalah. I affirm that each of Plath’s forty Ariel poems have at least six clear and different meanings within the same set of words, addressing Tarot and Qabalah, Alchemy, Mythology, History and the World, Astrology and Astronomy, and Humanities and the Arts. In addition, I contend that Plath was intentionally mirroring the six-sided Qabalah Tree of Life. I claim that viewing the poems through the lens of a mystical framework, Plath’s work has been mostly misread for fifty years, and that her real genius is only just beginning to be recognized.

This PowerPoint presentation gives a high-level overview of the first five facets of "A Secret," and how they relate to and support the sixth facet of the poem---Plath's Humanities and the Arts tribute to Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet.

About Julia:
Julia Gordon-Bramer is at work on two Plath-related books: The Magician’s Girl, a biography of the alchemical marriage between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; and Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Sylvia Plath’s Qabalah Code. Julia Gordon-Bramer’s memoir, Night Times, will be published in 2015 by Walrus Publishing. An award-winning poet and short story writer herself, Gordon-Bramer teaches Humanities and Creative Writing at Lindenwood University, St. Louis.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thanks, Peter. It's been a lot of fun reading over Plath Profiles 5, and seeing how some of your other contributors support my work with their identification of Greek myth, historical reference, Jewish Kabbalah, witchy bonfires, and more!

Laura Cherau said...

I would have you look to Canto VI of the Paradiso in Dante’s Divine Comedy for the real interpretation - the intended interpretation - of Sylvia Plath’s “A Secret.” On it’s surface - a literal reading would suggest that the “secret” is this “illegitimate baby” Plath speaks of.
In Dante, we have Justinian - the lawgiver, speaking (a policeman). Justinian explains (in laymen’s terms) on one hand you have laws which are meant to keep people safe and happy and on the other hand they may damage a few things here and there and sacrifices will have to be made. He speaks of the “law of contradictories” which if A is true and B is false, A and B cannot both be true or both false in the same sense at the same time.
Likewise, in Plath we see “A Secret” which if it is written about, or spoken of, is no longer a secret. In Justinian’s exposition, “we note that the key of self-sacrifice is at once struck in the name of Pallas, the Etruscan-Greek volunteer who died for the Trojan cause and is maintained till it leads up to the great struggles with Carthage and the East, and against internal factiousness…” Keyword: SELF SACRIFICE. Pallas (not Pallas Athena) the son of Evander who was killed by Turnus - but Aeneas avenged this death. Then follows another example of the North Africans, or Arabs as Dante calls them…(Moroccan hippopotamus) So, why all this sacrifice? Why do people behave this way? This action all takes place, for Dante in the Paradiso on the planet Mercury where the souls of those “whose virtuous deeds had in them some taint of worldly ambition or anxiety for good repute, who are now free from all envious desire to have a greater reward,” what better words could describe a birthmother’s decision to relinquish her firstborn? Especially in 1953, when I believe Plath gave birth to a child that nobody seems to know or care about - or want to talk about. How important that feeling of living up to societies standards must have been! And the canto ends saying that even Romeo is here - (not Shakespeare’s) and Justinian says that if the world had known Romeo’s true heart, they would have appreciated him more. It’s time for people to know Plath’s true heart. As for the tarot, I am not suggesting that you are wrong about the cards and how they relate to Plath. I am not saying that Durrell didn’t play a part in this poem, either. I am saying - it’s time to really understand Plath.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you Julia for the guest post & comment, and to you, too Laura, for the Dantean approach to Sylvia Plath's wonderful poem "A Secret."

I think addressing anything literary as a "real interpretation" is a true subject of debate. What I think you both have offered is unique approaches to the poem, but you must admit (ok, maybe you don't have to, but you should consider admitting) there is not a real or right way to interpret anything creative. That's the way I feel. So long as the interpretation is well stated and argued and supported (etc.) then it's right. I was a terrible student in English classes, as you can imagine.

What we also see in these two approaches is that the standard, traditional "confessional" or autobiographical approach is limiting. That there is really an excess of riches in terms of reading Plath's poems (and her prose, since I think you both have argued that her prose, too, can be shown to fall under a Dantean and/or a Tarot/Kabbalah structure!



Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

This presentation was exclusively for the Lawrence Durrell Centenary and created to highlight that perspective.

And the beautiful thing about Laura's work is that Dante has been widely written of as having used a Kabbala/Cabala structure--so this supports my work entirely.

Rehan Qayoom said...

Plath profiles 5 has occupied quite a large chunk of my time these last few days in a good way.

Laura: Your essay was a pleasure to read but I sense it was perhaps over-enthusiastic. A Dantean perspective to Plath is a Dantean approach - "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". I don't believe any single theme can be hammered as the real Plath as Peter has pointed out. It would be problematic from the academic point of view where the terms 'suggested' 'argued' are used. Having said that too much of what we make of reality is unreal. The unrealistic is devoid of spirit-soul, mere Achilles' heels of the Words like lies like robbery like war like murder. Not only does mankind possess wisdom more than any other living creature but also greed, avarice, Mammon-worship, and love of power. Reality consists of that which is sensed, 'felt upon the pulse and carried alive into the heart by passion'.

As such, I also fear that the Word falls upon deaf ears except to those who open doors for ladies, wear dark glasses, affect a black cassock. They are those who are the chosen initiates because they choose to commit themselves to the price we have, in the final instance, to pay.

Rehan Qayoom said...

PS: It has, for example, been argued fairly coherently that Dante's Commedia was ripped straight out of ibn 'Arabi's Futûhât al-Makkiyya [The Meccan Revelations] chapter on Muhammad's Night-Journey through the universe.

ibn 'Arabi is known as al-Shaykhul Akbar and as Doctor Maximus in the West. Thomas Edison is known to have said that 'I found my way to electricity in Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya of ibn Arabi.

However, ibn 'Arabi, in turn, was steeped in Alchemy, Kabbala and mysticism and was arguably one of the greatest mystics of Islam.

Laura Cherau said...

Julia - Most of what has been written about The Divine Comedy is in regards to Catholicism and not Kabbala. In short, I think you are going to have to do more than just mention Dante’s name to make a connection between your work with Dante and my work with Dante. If you did that, I think the constellations might line up properly.

Already you have me convinced that this poem is the Justice card, but would it also be the Justice card in Dante? I am curious! (you don’t have to answer that question) Is there any real evidence that supports Dante as having studied the Kabbala? I don’t believe there is. I know lots of people have written on the subject persuasively, but as for real evidence…I don’t think there is any. That doesn’t mean I don’t or can’t see that it’s there - in Plath or even in Dante.

Are there many available interpretations of Plath? Of course. As many interpretations as there are people! Is there also an intended interpretation that the poet desires even after the writing process is finished ? I think so. That is what I’m after. Intended. Not “real” as in only, but “real” as in what was intended by Plath.

Rehan - perhaps Dante read Ibn Arabi, but is there evidence of it actually happening? And I should remind you that the way Dante conceives of his universe - is unique to him, but certainly lots of others before him and since have created their own divisions re: the Great Chain of Being, etc. It is much easier for us to surmise that Plath at least read books on the Tarot and Dante because these things were found to be in her possession and still exist. In the case of Plath’s copy of Dante, heavily underlined and annotated.

Peter K Steinberg said...

This is all very interesting!

How can one dare to presume the Plath's - or any poet's - real intention? We have some of Plath's authorial comments on some of the Ariel poems that she prepared in 1962. We have her brief introduction to "Tulips" as recorded during the Poetry at the Mermaid Festival on 17 July 1961: "The poem I'm going to read tonight is called 'Tulips' and it was occasioned quite simply by receiving a bouquet of red, spectacular tulips while convalescing in hospital."

I feel unless we have something written or spoken by her telling us what something is about, then one is simply ascribing words, thoughts, etc. that could possibly have never entered Plath's mind in the moment or moments of composition; which says more about the person doing the interpreting, than it does Plath.

Plath is more or less proven herself to have been highly retentive in her readings and academics: so her influences are deeply varied. To be able to see what you - Laura, Julia, and others - see in her works is simply astounding. I think it keeps Plath scholarship vibrant to have so many different ways of looking both at her oeuvre and the individual components that make up that oeuvre.


suki said...

Hi Julia,
all this is interesting
Have you read Ann Skea's work on Ted Hughes and the Kabala too?

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Yes, indeed. Skea, as well as Faas and Sagar, have covered Hughes' mystical territory extremely well. In fact, I think once one reads their stuff, and then considers how Sylvia worshiped Ted in those early years, doing his exercises, meditations, breathing, hypnosis, etc., it virtually seals the deal on explaining my work.

Thanks for reading, Suki!

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.