‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’: A Yin and Yang of Poetics | Matthew Clegg

Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes are key poems in each poet’s oeuvre, and poems that rank amongst my own favourites.  I’m tempted to read them as fulfilling a role somewhere between poet’s talisman and credo.  If ‘Ariel’ presides over Plath’s legacy more visibly than ‘Wodwo’ presides over Hughes’, that’s possibly something to do with the very different shapes of their literary careers.  Let’s imagine Plath’s literary career trajectory as a climb followed by an explosion (and ‘Ariel’ was part of that explosion), and Hughes’ as a fall, followed by a slow recovery. ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ seem related: if not directly conversant, then bound up with each other; indirectly corrective of each other’s poetics.  It puts me in mind of John Carey’s notion, in What Good are the Arts, that ‘literature is a field of comparisons and contrasts, spreading indefinitely outwards, so that whatever we read constantly modifies, adapts, questions or abrogates whatever we have read before’.  If ‘Ariel’ generates the energies Plath needed to break free from Hughes’ literary shadow, I’m tempted to read ‘Wodwo’ as a poem wherein Hughes indirectly questions both Plath and himself, before correcting his own trajectory.

ArielPlathSo what do we know about ‘Ariel’, the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s final volume?  We know Ariel is a character, or entity, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Ariel was a spirit imprisoned in a tree by the witch Sycorax, and released from that tree by the wizard Prospero.  Ariel is a magical air elemental, capable of affecting the weather, and creating illusions, and ‘he’ cooperates with Prospero partly because Prospero has agreed to free him from service after a number of tasks.  All that is in the public realm; in Shakespeare’s well-known play.  What, then, might we not know about Plath’s ‘Ariel’?  Well, unless we’ve read ‘Sam’, in Hughes’ Birthday Letters, we might not know about Plath’s near-fatal ride on a runaway horse, and not knowing this could make it hard to access key levels of ‘Ariel’.  The poem ‘Ariel’ is no doubt about Plath’s relationship to creativity itself: lyric poetry as a ride on a runaway horse.  Her conclusion is as exciting as it is dangerous; the ride is a kamikaze ‘flight’ into the sun.  The voice of the poem declares that she is ‘at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.’  At one with ‘the drive’, then, not the ‘red eye’.  The only way of being at one with the ‘red eye’, presumably, is to be incinerated.  Plath’s version of lyric, here and elsewhere in her volume, is a kind of magnesium flare: intense, brilliant, but quickly burnt out.  Each strike of the match is as unique and unrepeatable as it is unsustainable.

WodwoTed Hughes published ‘Wodwo‘ (the poem) in 1961, before the trauma of Plath’s suicide, and before he was called upon to edit Ariel.  Wodwo (the volume) wasn’t published until 1967, and the title poem is published last in the volume, giving the impression that it was written after his ‘fall’.  It is interesting, then, that this title poem is also the name of a ‘mythical’ being. A wodwo is a forest creature, a wild man or troll, alluded to, if only in passing, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  This creature and its name has passed out of common language, and it only really exists (until Hughes) within the twilight world of the great Middle English poem.  It occurs to me, though, that a wodwo seems to share characteristics with another character from The Tempest: with Caliban, the bestial offspring of the witch Sycorax.  The symbolic architecture of the play depends on a certain symmetry existing between Ariel and Caliban.  Both are ‘enslaved’ to Prospero – one willingly, and the other resentfully.  One is of air, the other of earth. One is refined, the other base.  They are high and low personified: one creates magic, and the other is enchanted, even duped by it.  In Gawain, of course, we have a symmetry existing between the civilised world of castle and court, and the green and feral world that exists outside and beyond it. The ‘magic’ of the Green Knight taps into the ‘otherness’ of that feral world.  It tests Gawain, and, arguably, regenerates him.  It seems to exist on a different moral and metaphysical ‘level’ to Prospero’s – one more challenging to us, perhaps, as moderns.  The two kinds of magic, and the two creatures, are yin and yang; and ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ might symbolize a yin and yang of poetics.

What are we to make of ‘Wodwo’, then?  Hughes’s technique in presenting him is different to Plath’s in ‘Ariel’.  Where Plath is intense, Hughes is prosaic.  Where Plath uses the lyric ‘I’, Hughes adopts a dramatic stream-of-consciousness.  This is not the stream-of-consciousness we find in Woolf or Joyce.  Wodwo is too primitive.  He is emerging self-consciousness before self-knowledge.  He doesn’t know his own name, or what shape he is, and many of his assumptions are errors.  Although he is immersed in his element, he is also aware that he is separate: there are ‘walls’ between him and it.  His ‘freedom’ is a violent inspection.  He cannot enter water, even, without ‘split[ting] its grain’.  What are his virtues, then, if he has any?  Well, his busy curiosity ‘go[es] on looking.’  This earth elemental is a creature of the provisional.  He comes to the wrong conclusions, and some of these conclusions are destructive, but because he can go on looking, he can correct and revise them.  He is a creature of absorption, not conclusion.  Wodwo’s ‘looking’ is less brilliant than the runaway ride on Ariel, but it is a sustainable process.

Both poems seem to exist as signposts, even prophesies, unlocking the modus operandi of their respective poets.  It’s as crass as it is tempting to claim Plath’s fate was predicted by ‘Ariel’; but ‘Wodwo’ certainly points to the way Hughes went on ‘picking bits of bark’.  After a lifetime of absorbing if uneven sequences, he died feeling there was still work left to be done.  For me, it is ‘Wodwo’ that reveals the enduring poetics of his literary ‘recovery’.

‘Wodwo’ appears in the collection of the same name (Faber, 1967) and in Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems (Faber, 2003). You can read the poem here. ‘Ariel’ appears in Ariel (Faber, 1965) and in Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (Faber, 1981). You can read the poem here and listen to Plath reading ‘Ariel’ and other poems here.

Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. A new West North East podcast (recorded in Crossgates, East Leeds, on 2 May 2014) appears below (click on the orange ‘Play’ button to listen):

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