Magically Prophetic Words: The Prescience of Sylvia Plath in “The Manor Garden”

The first poets who made any sort of impact on me, primarily because the dark sensibilities which informed their deliciously dark writing resonated with my increasingly rampant gothic outlook, were Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. I cannot recall if  my English teacher chose the two poets for us to study, I was fortunate that my A Level English Literature studies predated the prescribed curriculums which are today imposed on both teachers and students, or whether I came across them whilst reading around the subject; how they came to enter my sphere of awareness is irrelevant, their texts opened before me and I was totally enthralled by both writing and writer. I will be discussing Emily Dickinson’s writing in a future post, for now let us concentrate on the incredibly prescient “Manor Garden” by Sylvia Plath. 

Yaddo and Fountain: ©Brian Vanden Brink

In her first poetry collection The Colossus, Sylvia Plath, the American poet widely accepted as being one of the leading poets of the twentieth century, presented a seemingly straightforward poem addressed to her unborn first child entitled “The Manor Garden.” Composed during a stay at the Yaddo Artists’ Colony, Saratoga Springs, New York from September to November 1959 with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, its production owed much to Hughes’s influence. Plath recorded in her journal for October 19th:

“I tried Ted’s “exercise”: deep-breathing, concentration on stream-of-conscious objects, these last days, and wrote two poems that pleased me. One a poem to Nicholas, and one the old father-worship subject.”

As the notes to the journal make clear, Sylvia was pregnant with Frieda not Nicholas, but this “naming” of the unborn/unsexed child to whom the poem was addressed is significant. The deep-breathing element of the “exercise” may well owe something to the deep trance techniques associated with Tibetan Buddhism. During his time at Yaddo Hughes was working on a libretto for a proposed opera based on the Bardo Thodol, (The Tibetan Book Of The Dead). Much is made in critical and biographical writing of the perceived influence Hughes had on Plath – I think this does Plath a disservice, she was too much her own woman, both in her writing and in life, to allow anyone, even “a man in black with a Meinkampf look” as she obliquely  refers to Hughes in her poem “Daddy”, to dominate her.

Excerpt from the Bardo Thodol: Tibetan Book of the Dead

The critic Al Alvarez commented on the  “The Manor Garden” in his Observer column where he praised the poem for  its “no-nonsense air”, and a language that was “bare but vivid and precise, with a concentration that implies a great deal of disturbance with proportionately little fuss.” Erica Wagner felt that the poem “blends a shadowy depiction of the landscape with intimations of her pregnancy,” while Anne Stevenson, echoing the thoughts of Edward Butscher, highlights the dual function of the term “difficult borning”, which for her relates to the birth of Plath’s child and of her poetry, and was “her old death-into-birth theme delicately structured to suggest the end of one era cradling the beginning of another.” [The borning room was a feature of colonial New England houses, used to accommodate those in the bookending stages of life.]

But something altogether darker and more ominous is acknowledged by Jo Gill:

Here, as in ‘The Colossus’, ‘The Stones’, ‘Departure’ and many other poems of this period, there is a sense of unspecified menace. In ‘The Manor Garden’ it is the speaker’s own creative powers which are under threat. Like a character in some perverse version of a fairy tale – Sleeping Beauty, perhaps – she is able to bequeath the child, or endow the poem, with nothing but a litany of obscure and symbolically confused objects: ‘white heather’ (traditionally bringing luck), ‘two suicides, the family wolves’ (suggesting trouble) and ‘blackness’ (conveying despair and annihilation). ‘The Manor Garden’ echoes the title poem in its final appeal to the unpromising ‘hard stars’ for inspiration, yet what it finds is that support and succour come only from the small and apparently meagre; from the ‘worms’ and ‘birds’ which, in the final line, ‘bring gifts to a difficult borning’. The word ‘borning’ is itself both ‘difficult’ (‘birth’ would have been a simpler choice) and entirely coherent. It maintains the archaic diction of, say, stanza three and it completes the ‘ing’ rhymes of the preceding two stanzas. Most importantly, it connotes the little-used term ‘borning room’. This was a room, familiar in seventeenth-century architecture, built solely for giving birth and – crucially in the context of the persistent ambivalence of this poem – for caring for the dying.

Gill is aware of the importance (if not what I feel is the significance) of the “two suicides, the family wolves, the hours of blankness,” labelling them as “obscure and symbolically confused objects.” Butscher similarly finds the allusions puzzling and makes a tentative connection with Plath’s attempted suicides, “the unconscious one when she was a child crawling towards the sea and the deliberate attempt in the crawl space under her house.” He touches on the magic which “dominates the universe of the poem” before settling on Plath’s “pregnancy as a central drama in a universal theatre.”

Sylvia Plath with Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, her children with Ted Hughes, in 1962

There is magic in the poem, or rather revealed by the poem. It is a magic which finds form in Plath’s poetic utterance and it seems to transform the poetic into the prophetic as Plath, who is ostensibly communicating with her unborn child, converses with Hughes, albeit unwittingly. But she is conversing with the Hughes who will survive her, and so her words not only make as if to cross the years, but also contain the years, contain the facts, the emotions, the words which symbolize those years. The poem begins with a superimposing of life upon death, and then the blue mist descends, “dragging the lake” and obscuring vision, creating uncertainty in both form and meaning. As we progress through a reading of the poem, two possibilities lie open to us. We can skim across the surface, fairly sure in the interpretation of Plath’s words as a connection with her unborn. Or we can descend into further depths, perhaps ushered there by the seeming accidental misdirection of the name “Nicholas” (more about this later), for which I propose that we substitute, not Frieda, the child that Sylvia was carrying when she wrote the poem, but Ted. The reason for taking this hermeneutic liberty will be clarified shortly, not least by the reading which results from such an experiment. If we substitute Ted’s name for Nicholas’s – in effect replacing one ‘naming accident’ with another – then the poem would point to a remarkable prescience in Plath’s choice of words and allusions. In the “era of fishes” can be seen  a reference to Hughes’s poem “Pike”,

Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast                         

combined with the pike dream of Assia Wevill,Hughes’ mistress and Hughes’s passion for fly fishing. And in the “smug centuries of the pig” we can see a correspondence between Plath’s poem “Sow”,

[...] one dusk our questions commended us to a tour
 Through his lantern-lit
 Maze of barns to the lintel of the sunk sty door

 To gape at it: [...]

What a vision of ancient hoghood

and Hughes’s “View of a Pig” –

One feels guilty insulting the dead,
Walking on graves. But this pig
Did not seem able to accuse.

The “crow who settles her garments” connects with Hughes’ most famous creation and collection, Crow; and the “bee’s wing” creates a convergence of Plath’s father, Plath and Hughes and their beekeeping activities. But it is when we reach the fourth stanza that Plath’s possible prescience becomes most chilling.

You inherit white heather, a bee’s wing,
Two suicides, the family wolves,
Hours of blackness.

In a poem addressed to “Nicholas/Frieda”, the “two suicides” can be interpreted as their inheritance of Plath’s suicide attempts, but in a poem addressed to Ted, they can only speak of Plath’s own successful suicide followed by that of Wevill; the “hours of blackness” which following her death were experienced by Hughes are offset by the memories of “the family of wolves” which were first drawn together in “A Modest Proposal” where Hughes refers to himself and Plath:

There is no better way to know us
Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.
Now neither’s able to sleep – even at a distance
Distracted by the soft competing pulse
Of the other;

but as time passed they would eventually be reduced to their sound, the sound of desolation,

The Howling of Wolves
Is without world

What are they dragging up and out on their long leashes of sound
That dissolve in the mid-air silence? 

By this stage Plath leaves Hughes to the “blankness” and withdraws into herself where she finds that the “hard stars” which “already yellow the heavens” of the fourth stanza are mirrored in the dark water of one of her final poems, “Words”, where “from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ govern a life.” She will soon be “Crossing the Water” of the “black lake” in a “black boat” reminiscent of Lawrence’s “little ship of death,” filled with “the spirit of blackness” and surrounded by “the silence of astounded souls.”

The influence of Sylvia Plath on my own writing and life has been profound. I adapted this post from an earlier piece of writing, a short excerpt from my doctoral thesis which focused on the influence of Plath and Hughes on each other’s writing, and I ended up teaching Plath’s poetry in the very school where I had first experienced it. When I wrote my thesis, the connection Plath was making with Hughes seemed, to me – having immersed myself in their lives and writing for three years – fairly obvious. However, one tragic event that occurred between my original writing and now, casts a different, and even darker light, on Plath’s prescience: the suicide on the 16th March 2009 of her son, Nicholas Farrar Hughes.

As I mentioned earlier, Plath recorded in her journal that the poem was addressed to Nicholas, her unborn child. However, when Sylvia gave birth on the 1/4/1960 the child was a girl, which she named Frieda. Two years later she gave birth to a boy, Nicholas, the addressee of the poem. It has been assumed in retrospect that Plath had written the poem to the child she was carrying, which she felt, or hoped, was a boy which she would call Nicholas. But what if the poem was always meant to be for Nicholas? What if it was his inheritance, and not that of his father, about which she so presciently wrote. And what if the “hours of blankness” were his and he never really came “clear of the shadow”?

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