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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