27 August 2012

Guest Post: Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and The Hanging Man

The following is a Guest Blog post by Julia Gordon-Bramer:

In 1961, Plath and Hughes' friend, poet Robert Lowell, was readying his next work, Imitations, which would be published that year and is a book catalogued in Plath's personal library. Lowell, like Plath, had to endure electric-shock treatment for depression at McLean Hospital. Robert Lowell was a direct descendant to the astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of the famous Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, which chalks up among its discoveries the now ex-planet Pluto, and measuring the brightness of Uranus and Neptune.

When Plath wrote her poem "The Hanging Man" in early 1960, the Lowell Observatory was deep in the beginnings of the space race with the Soviets, busy with astronaut training, instrument testing, and moon mapping. Given Plath and Hughes’ frequent dinners together with the Lowell's, as well as Plath's attendance of Lowell's Boston workshop, it seems apparent that Plath had an early look at Lowell's manuscript. Plath's "The Hanging Man," unites the image of Lowell's ECT with the Lowell telescope in the desert, presenting it as a giant, unblinking eye in the shade-less socket. Lowell's poetry is famous for the idea of boredom that infuses it; Plath's "vulturous boredom" and the idea of waiting is a central meaning of the Hanged Man tarot card (depending upon the deck, it is called either "Hanged" or "Hanging") itself, as he suffers for enlightenment. The corresponding tarot card pictures a man in a blue tunic, hanging upside-down from a tree. His longish hair falls straight from its roots, echoing Plath's first line, and the tarot meaning of his enlightenment shows in the electric-charged halo around his head. In the introduction to Imitations, Robert Lowell explained that his translations should be thought of as "imitations," taking liberties with classical European writers' works, and trying to "do what authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America." Plath's last line of "The Hanging Man," "If he were I, he would do what I did," is thus clarified.

If you have an interesting approach or angle to something Sylvia Plath wrote - or really on anything Plath related - and want to go a Guest Blog post, please contact me (email on the "About Sylvia Plath Info..." tab toward the top of the page).


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Yeah, The Hanged/Hanging Man comes up fairly often, as he's one of the tarot's major arcana cards. Depending on how he falls, he represents decision, indecision and waiting; emptying of the ego and humanity to go toward the spiritual; as well as being the scapegoat or martyr for something. Plath's "The Night Dances" corresponds to this card in Ariel.

Rehan Qayoom said...

There is also an incredible piece on Hanged Man iconology in Hughes Winter Pollen called 'The Hanged Man & the Dragonfly'.

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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.