The Man in Black

by Dianne M. Hunter

March 28, 2004


The male muse in the psychic territory Adrienne Rich called in 1971 "The Man" represents sexualized death and phallic mourning, a concept of masculinity marked by the legacy of the twentieth-century's two world wars. In the context of representations of "The Man" in North American white women writers coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Adrienne Rich, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood), Sylvia Plath's journal account of the Saint Botolph's Review party where she met her husband and its fictional transformation in her 1957 short story "Stone Boy with Dolphin" demonstrate Plath's examination of Bostonian Puritan heritage and the psychic aftermath of World War II. Plath's constructions of heterosexual romance as participating in the history of Fascism and her concept of writing as sexy violence coincide culturally with Lacan's theory of phallic signification. Plath racial imaginary is part of her poetics of heterosexual romance as a death trip.



"Writing breaks open the vaults of the dead."

    --Sylvia Plath, Journals, 17 July, 1957 

English literature's most well-known man in black is probably the witty, melancholic, suicidal, inky-cloaked Hamlet.

"The Man in Black" as a title appears in the Citizen of the World letters of Oliver Goldsmith in 1760. Goldsmith's man in black is a humorous hypocrite divided between a need to appear frugal and prudent and an inability to keep his compassion and generosity under control. In the late-twentieth century, "The Man in Black" in revised form appears in the poems of Sylvia Plath with a new emphasis placed on the word "man" that connects with the political concept of "The Man" as omnipotent.

Plath's "man in black" appears as a rector in her late Bee poems (Plath [1962], ed. Hughes, 1992: 211), as a professor and a Nazi in "Daddy" (Plath [1962], ed. Hughes, 1992: 222-224), and as black marks in seascape surroundings in "Man in Black (Plath [1959], ed. Hughes, 1992: 119-120). The poem "Daddy" presents her most famous version of the man in black: 

    You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

    In the picture I have of you,

    A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

    But no less a devil for that, no not

    Any less the black man who 

    Bit my pretty red heart in two.

    I was ten when they buried you.

    At twenty I tried to die

    And get back, back, back to you.

    I thought even the bones would do 

    But they pulled me out of the sack

    And they stuck me together with glue.

    And then I knew what to do.

    I made a model of you,

    A man in black with a Meinkampf look 

    And a love of the rack and the screw.

    And I said I do, I do (Plath [1962], ed. Hughes, 1993: 223-224). 

In the context of male muse representations in North American white women writers coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938), and Margaret Atwood (b. 1939), Sylvia Plath's imagination of demonic masculinity in her journal account of the party where she first met her husband stands out for its examination of white, puritanical attitudes and its sense of psychic complicity in World War II. Plath (1932-1963) conceived of her personal history as participating in the political history of German Fascism. She examined the implications of that history for heterosexual romance and for writing as a white woman. If Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath can be regarded as the Romeo and Juliet of the twentieth century, it is remarkable that Sylvia described the first sexual consummation of her desire for Ted as battering and associated the night with the Holocaust.  

Adrienne Rich's 1971 essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision" observes that "at this moment," there is "for women writers in particular," a "new psychic geography to be explored" (Rich, [1971], 1979: 35). Quoting Jane Harrison's question to Gilbert Murray, "Why is Woman a dream and a terror to man and not the other way around?," Rich names two twentieth-century American women poets for whom The Man is, "if not a dream, a fascination and a terror." In the work of Diane Wakoski and Sylvia Plath, says Rich, the source of fascination and terror "is, simply, Man's power--to dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject the woman. The charisma of Man seems to come purely from ... his control of the world by force, not from anything fertile or life-giving in him." In the poetry of both Plath and Wakoski, says Rich, the woman's sense of herself as embattled and possessed gives the work "its dynamic charge, its rhythms of struggle, need, will and female energy" (Rich [1971], 1979: 36). Wakoski's glamorous male figure appears in Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (Wakoski, 1971): bumblebee man in a black-leather jacket with petrol grease under his fingernails who buzzes away on his motorcycle, a sonic expression of testosterone. Plath's dominant male figure includes the male addressee in her austere poem titled "Man in Black": "you, across those white/ Stones, strode out in your dead/ Black coat, black shoes, and . . . hair," a "Fixed vortex" "riveting stones, air, /All of it together" (Plath [1959], ed. Hughes, 1992: 119-120). The black-haired man in black coat and black shoes pictured at land's end pulls the stony seascape together as Plath's terse black marks on the white paper tick out the finale of the poem from its bleak surroundings. The man in black is phallic in the symbolic sense articulated by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in the late 1950s, around the same time that Plath was discovering her man in black.

The phallus, claimed Jacques Lacan, derives its cultural centrality and power from its capacity to symbolize the transmission of life between generations and therefore the capacity to leave a trace, including a legacy of words. The Lacanian phallus as a signifier represents the power of not only biological transmission of life but patriarchal cultural transmissions: "It can be said that this signifier is chosen because it is the most tangible element in the real of sexual copulation, and also the most symbolic in the literal (typographical) sense of the term, since it is equivalent there to the (logical) copula. It might be said that, by virtue of its turgidity, it is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation. The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of logos is joined with the advent of desire" (Lacan [1958], trans. Sheridan, 1977: 287).

Sylvia Plath's man in black can be read as a Lacanian phallus in mourning. This phallic man has a capacity for violence that generates creativity in words. Plath's placement of her male figure facing the Atlantic on a northeastern landspit of the United States in "Man in Black" makes him a gateway figure of Plath's European future and ancestry, as well as a unifying symbol of the integration of Plath's childhood scenes in the working class town of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and her adult role as poet and wife of the man in black.  

The male muse in the psychic territory Rich calls "The Man" suggests the force Freud called "Thanatos" or the death drive. This muse represents sexualized death as well as masculinity in mourning. The Lacanian phallus in Plath's work represents a concept of masculinity marked by the legacy of the twentieth-century's two World Wars. The man in black appears as a resented and desired muse figure in Wakoski, who had not read Plath. An avatar of the man in black appears as well in the demonic Arnold Friend of mesmerizing voice and Pied-Piper irresistibility in Joyce Carol Oates's 1966 short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," made into the film Smooth Talk (1985, directed by Joyce Chopra), with Treat Williams as the seductive, appalling, threatening Friend. Comparable though marginally more benign male friends appear as seducers, lovers, and muses in Margaret Atwood's 1976 novel Lady Oracle, which presents the story of the development of a literary artist as a young woman. The woman writer-protagonist in this novel models her emerging vocation and public image in part on Sylvia Plath and on Tennyson's doomed "Lady of Shalott," an artist figure. The novel presents a series of male figures formative to the young woman writer: a man with daffodils who lurks in a dreadful gully waiting to exhibit his genitals to schoolgirls; a recessive father, now a surgeon, with a hidden history of killing suspected traitors within the French Resistance during World War II; and a right-wing Polish aristocrat who lives in postwar exile in London, keeps a secret gun, and makes money by churning out trashy romances. All these artistically-formative male figures boil down in a novel within the novel to an alluring romance villain, Atwood's version of Plath's man in black.  

Quoting the back cover of a British-compiled book of photographs showing SS costumes and insignia, Susan Sontag's 1974 essay "Fascinating Fascism," discusses the aesthetic and erotic appeal of Nazi SS regalia: 

    The uniform was black, a colour which had important overtones in Germany. On that, the SS wore a vast variety of decorations, symbols, badges to distinguish rank, from the collar runes to the death's-head. The appearance was both dramatic and menacing (Sontag [1974], 1983: 322, quoting SS Regalia).  

Sontag observes that SS uniforms were stylish and well cut. They were "tight, heavy and stiff," including "gloves to confine the hands and boots that made legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging their wearer to stand up straight" (Sontag [1974], 1983: 322). Like all military uniforms, the SS style was supposed to intimidate the enemy, project power and inspire respect and fear.

The SS Regalia book cover blurb does not specify what the "important overtones" of black were in Germany, but one may imagine their co-determination in convergence of least three strands of significance:

1) The grief symbolized by black clothing ritually worn as a sign of respect for the dead; 2) The spirit of people mourned in their absence, to be avenged in the Nazi bid to reclaim Germany from its defeat in World War I; 3) Death itself owned as a power to be feared and therefore commanded. 

Thanks to Sylvia Plath's numerous biographers (Edward Butscher, 1976; Linda W. Wagner-Martin, 1987; Anne Stevenson with Olwyn Hughes, 1989; Paul Alexander, 1991; Ronald Hayman, 1991); plus the determination with which Plath recorded her personal life in journals, letters, fiction, and poetry; and the vehemence and persuasiveness with which her husband finally wrote back, publishing his version of their life together in Difficulties of a Bridegroom (Hughes, 1995) and Birthday Letters (Hughes, 1998), Plath's "man in black" can be identified at least in part with Ted Hughes. Indeed, Hughes complained that commentators on Plath's work were writing about him (Rose, 2003: 56, 60). In "Black Coat," published in the 1990s in The New Yorker, the man in black writes back to Plath:

Me and the sea one big tabula rasa,... 

I had no idea I had stepped

Into the telescopic sights

Of the paparazzo sniper

Nested in your brown iris. 


No idea

How that double image,

Your eye's inbuilt double exposure

Which was the projection

Of your two-way heart's diplopic error,

The body of the ghost and me the blurred see-through

Came into single focus,

Sharp-edged, stark as a target,

Set up like a decoy

Against that freezing sea

From which your dead father had just crawled. 

I did not feel

How, as your lenses tightened,

He slid into me (Hughes, 1998: 102-103).  

Since Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes put their personal life on paper as literature, and a public has read the intricacies of its sexual politics, it is difficult if not impossible to avoid biographical elements when analyzing Plath's man in black.

But beyond these biographical and autobiographical concerns, one must ask why this particular version of masculinity recurs in the work of North American women writers who came of age after World War II, and why it is discernible as well in such popular entertainment representations during this era as the character Johnny, played by Marlon Brando, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club in The Wild One (1953, directed by Laslo Benedek), widely recognized as a landmark film of 1950s youthful rebellion. In the late-1960s, the American country singer and popular icon Johnny Cash, who often wore black clothes on stage, wrote "Man in Black" and explained he was lamenting the poor and mourning Vietnam War dead. The man in black is an artist and a future celebrity.

In 1959, Plath confided to her journal, "It is as if Ted were my representative in the world of men" (ed., Kukil 2000: 466-467). As described in Burnt Diaries (1999) and Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (2001), by his contemporaries Emma Tennant and Elaine Feinstein respectively, Hughes was an articulate Teddy Boy, known as "Ted Huge" because of his height, and "Heathcliff" because of his Yorkshire accent and outsider status at Cambridge University, where, as an undergraduate in the 1950s, he rarely bathed and went about in smelly black corduroys. For an overcoat Hughes wore an uncle's World War I army-issue hand-me-down, representing not only his relative poverty and the drab world of post World War II England, but also Ted's role as bearer of the legacy of two World Wars. In a fictionalized account of their first meeting, written in 1957, "Stone Boy with Dolphin," Plath dresses the Ted Hughes figure in an out-at-the-elbows black sweater with a green shirt underneath it, suggesting a renewing, vegetal green man poking through wearing-out, ritual black. This character is named Leonard, suggesting an association to Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, a writer Plath saw ambivalently as a trailblazer for her own literary ambitions. Woolf's novels, Plath said, made her own possible (20 July 1957, Journals, ed. Kukil 2000: 289).

Like the masculine ideal we still hear about, the actual Ted Hughes was tall, dark, and handsome. As his life unfolded, the "dark" about him became less his black hair and clothes than his depression, rooted in the legacy of his father's traumatic participation in the Gallipoli battle of 1915. Hughes's poem "Out," from the mid1960s, suggests that European wars have left a woeful weight on the survivor family of England, which should close its wounds within its sea boundaries as an island. The mortified, possessed speaker in this poem, now a man, has encrypted within, like an anchor holding his "juvenile neck bowed," cast iron grief, the internalized weight of his father's psychic mutilation in World War I (Hughes, 2003: 166).

Plath's "man in black," the poem "Daddy"'s panzer-man [a man in a World War II tank moving on treads, stealthy and relentless as a panther] and Daddy at the blackboard with a cleft in his chin instead of his foot, but "no less a devil for that," appear to be forms of the fascinating, fearful figure Rich has in mind when she mentions Plath's work. But insofar as Ted Hughes became Sylvia's muse, and the "Man in Black" in her early poem with that title represents black marks on white paper, the marks that pull a scene together, it isn't quite true to say that the charisma of Plath's Man comes not from fertility but from forceful control of the world. Hughes's fascination for Plath was rooted in his literariness. Plath's masculine muse has imaginative, creative power, a power to dream and evoke, and the power to draw and withdraw inspiration; he is a teacher and role model as well as a lover and husband. Though as a poet he represents mastery for Plath, she writes of Hughes and his dark, poetic friends after first actually meeting them in person: "Well, they are hardly white, even though they are men" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 214). Describing in her journal how Ted had "banged a black grinning look" into her eyes, Plath says, "I would like to try just this once, my force against his." Examining her intrapsychic splits, she notes that "the blonde one, pure and smug and favored, looks, is it with projected pity and disgust?" at the side of herself that is "this drunken amorphic slut" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 212). The racially self-conscious aftermath of Plath first teenage kiss, from the Estonian refugee Ilo Pill, who spoke English in what Plath heard as a "thick German accent" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 8), provoked this account: "I stumbled blindly downstairs, past Maybelle and Robert, the little colored children, who called my name in the corrupted way kids have of pronouncing things. Past Mary Lou, their mother, who stood there, a silent, dark presence" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 11).

Rich's 1971 artistic credo brings to mind various entries in Plath's journals; her poems "Pursuit," "Man in Black, "Colossus," and "Daddy;" as well as the short story "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," where Johnny Panic "injects a poetic element" (Plath [1959], 1980: 157). Abandoned by her husband, Plath wrote her most famous poem "Daddy" on October 12, 1962, the day she learned Ted Hughes had agreed to a divorce, and an anniversary of her father Otto Plath's leg amputation in 1940. "Daddy" describes the speaker's ambivalently exorcised husband as a "man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw," and as a vampire who said he was Daddy and drank her blood for a year. By invoking in "Daddy" the title of Hitler's (1925-27) autobiography and manifesto Meinkampf (German for "my struggle"), Plath identifies the man in black as a Fascist. The speaker says she had to kill Daddy; but she adds sardonically, he died before she had time. The dead Fascist Daddy is "black shoe" organizational man, a "ghastly"/ghostly statue spanning the American continent from San Francisco to Nauset inlet on Cape Cod, an engine chuffing the speaker, "like a Jew," to World War II concentration camps, a panzer-man, a black swastika, a devil, a Professor standing at a "blackboard," a "black man" who bit his daughter's heart in two, and finally a vampire with a stake in his heart, danced and stamped on by villagers. If one imagines the speaker joining in the stamping dance, which suggests a childish tantrum, she has by the end of her poem herself powerful, joyful, destructive feet, a transformation not only of the poor white foot of stanza one but the adored "boot in the face" of stanza ten. These feet are poetic and metrical as well as corporeal and militant. They have the sexual rhythm of Plath's line "Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You."

The range of epithets identifying the Father as a Nazi, colossus, ghost, panzer-man, brute, boot in the face, vampire has led commentators to identify Daddy with patriarchal phallic power, and the male literary tradition that makes it difficult for a woman poet to breathe or sneeze, much less speak (Axelrod, 1990: 227). The opening stanza: "You do not do, you do not do/ Any more, black shoe/ In which I have lived like a foot/ For thirty years, poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo" recalls the nursery rhyme "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she didn't know what to do," and "moocow" and "baby tuckoo" in the opening sentence of James Joyce's 1912 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A poetic narrative of female psychological maturation, Plath's "Daddy" yokes together baby talk: "Daddy," "Achoo," "chuffing," and "gobbledygoo," with adult allusions to "Tyrol," "Dachau,""Auschwitz," "Belsen," "Luftwaffe, "swastika," "Fascist" and "panzer-man." The maturing speaker reports difficulty in learning to talk: "The tongue stuck in my jaw. /It stuck in a barb wire snare." As if stuttering, the speaker says, "Ich, ich, ich, ich/ I could hardly speak/...I began to talk like a Jew." 

Plath's poetic, imaginative terrain is racially marked by her heritage as a German American. As Rose indicates, the politics of the poem ask what the legacy is "after the Second World War of a German-speaking father for an American girl?" (Rose, 2003: 53). Plath so hated studying the German language that she stabbed what look to be ice-pick holes in her German textbook, now preserved in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, William Allan Neilson Library, at Smith College, Plath's undergraduate Alma Mater. In The Bell Jar (Plath, 1962), Plath's autobiographical protagonist describes Gothic German script looking like barbed wire, suggesting that the language perhaps marks a battle zone or forms the perimeter of a World War II prison camp.

By identifying the speaker of "Daddy" as "like a Jew," and someone who thinks she may "well be a Jew" whose Daddy is a black man, Plath goes to the heart, writes Renée Curry, of what constitutes whiteness. To the Aryan imagination concerned with racial purity, the German, along with the Anglo-Saxon and the Scandinavian, says Richard Dyer, evokes the "apex of whiteness" (Quoted by Curry, 2000:163). Plath's contemplation of Germany involved images from films she had seen of the opening of concentration camps after World War II and memories of Otto Plath, who, she writes, "heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 430). Since Aurelia Plath describes her husband as a pacifist (1975, Introduction), Plath may be referring to Otto as a domestic tyrant, a Teutonic-style patriarch whose family revolved around his needs. Plath's poetry written in the aftermath of Ted Hughes's departure from their home suggests that her situation of perceived abandonment triggered a reliving/revision of the 1940 death of her father when she was 8 years of age and the first news of Nazi victories in Europe was being broadcast to America.  

Sylvia's eroticized, hateful construction of Otto Plath in her poetry can be analogized to the traumatic realization of war guilt Bernard Schlink sets out in his 1995 novel, translated into English as The Reader. A fifteen-year-old German boy living in Germany in the 1950s, Schlink's protagonist Michael falls in love with Frau Hanna Schmitz, a woman of the previous generation who lives in a formerly-grand apartment building now in decline, smelling of cabbage, and subject to "the scream of saws" (Schlink [1995], 1997: 11) from a carpenter's shop in its courtyard. Michael keeps their sexual relationship a secret from his friends and family. Though he feels obscurely guilty, Michael at the outset of the novel remains unconscious of his own and his parents' survivor guilt; he only gradually comes to know about World War II as any German child would have who was born after the war. Michael's relationship with the middle-aged Hanna can be analogized to growing up German after the war, loving your parents and then discovering what their generation had done. After the mysterious Hanna Schmitz leaves his city suddenly and without explanation or farewell, Michael goes numb, adopting "a posture of arrogant superiority," as if nothing could touch him (Schlink [1995], 1997: 88). He fails to have a good relationship with any woman because none of them is Hanna, on whom he remains physiologically fixated.

When Michael gets to law school, he takes a seminar on the Nazi past and the related trials. This brings him into a courtroom, where he is surprised to see Hanna again for the first time after many years. On trial for war crimes, she turns out to have been guilty of more than seducing a boy.

For me, the psychic impact generated in this book stems from Michael's having felt pain for the loss of a woman later found to be guilty of war crimes. The crimes happened before his time; but having loved Hanna implicates Michael in her acts. This is an after shock because at the time the relationship started, Michael did not know who Hanna was. If she had just been lost to him, the significance and emotional impact of the book would be smaller. What generates the book's powerful effect, as I understand it, is Michael's ex post facto recognition of having loved a person who participated in Nazi crimes.  

Sylvia Plath writing about her father as a Nazi shows deferred affect comparable to Michael's. She was 8 when he died. She later discovered German guilt by seeing films of the opening of death camps after the end of the war. In 1959, during her year living with Ted in Boston, Plath reconstructed in psychotherapy with Ruth Beuscher memories of Otto Plath Heil Hitlering at home--perhaps expressing Nazi sympathies in private (though Aurelia Plath denies this), perhaps acting like a Fascist patriarch, or perhaps both. At that time, Daddy became Plath's subject. Her psychotherapeutic work with Dr. Beuscher, which Plath wanted to use "to the hilt" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 476), moved Plath to visit Otto Plath's grave. This visit found its way into the "black coat" in Plath's poem "Man in Black," written during the time Ted and Sylvia were living in Boston, and provoking a reply in Hughes's "Black Coat" decades later. 

Sylvia Plath's cognitive style tended to divide the world into sharp oppositions (Axelrod, 1990: 219), so, if Daddy is a "black shoe," she is "poor and white." In wishing to break out of her constriction by Daddy's shoe, not only a German shoe but a Nazi boot, Plath as a poor white foot must "blacken the father" (Curry, 2000: 163) and remove herself from his blackness. She thus becomes a Jew to his Nazi. Attempting to separate herself psychically from her father, whose power she associates with blackness and Nazism, she imagines taking on the role of persecuted and executed Jew.

Analyzing Plath's racial imaginary, Renée Curry cites Richard Dyer on the racial indeterminacy of Jews. In Aryan ideology during World War II, Jews and gypsies were not regarded as white. Like the Irish or the Mexicans however, in different places and in different eras, "Jews have been both included and excluded" from racial whiteness; and their indeterminacy "has been used as a 'buffer' between the white and the black or indigenous" (Quoted by Curry, 2000: 163). A "buffer" is a shock absorber. Thus, the imaginary Jew the speaker becomes in "Daddy" is a shock absorber permitting, writes Curry, "multiple associations with and protections from whiteness. As a Jewish victim of Nazis, she is non-Aryan. As a Jewish victim of Otto Plath, whom she describes as black in the poem, she is white. As a white woman claiming identification with Jews, she proclaims separation from the domineering whiteness" of Nazis (Curry, 2000: 163-164).

These multiple identifications provide the poet with openings for moving between varying psychic positions. Jacqueline Rose explains how Plath's mobility from one position to another in "Daddy" forces its readers to enter into a set of fantasies they are often unwilling to consider except on "condition of seeing it as something in which, psychically no less than historically," they play "absolutely no part"(Rose, 1991: 236). But there is a problem when stanza ten declares, "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you." Here the speaker appears to exchange her affinity with the victimized Jew for adoration of the Fascist, and claims this adoration emerges "from her womanliness rather than from her Jewishness" (Curry, 2000: 164). Rose thinks these lines pose the question of women's implication in Nazi ideology, a reading that works if the speaker is imagined to be a masochist, or a vicarious sadist observing a man kicking in someone else's face and taking pleasure in his display of violence. Perhaps the speaker joins mob violence, for the final stanza disperses the agency of violence among the avenging villagers who come to dance and stamp on the staked vampire Daddy.  

Rose says that her own excitement in working on Plath was in seeing how the poet "seemed to articulate together in the space of her writing--in a single text, a poem, a line of a poem--on the one hand a strong, articulate protest against" the very social institutions

with which the poet was pleasurably involved. At the same time that Plath is voicing women's protest, she is also "acknowledging women's complex and sometimes self-defeatingly pleasurable engagement in the very structures against which they protest. The ability of Plath to hold these two things together in such a way that they didn't cancel each other out, but if anything strengthened both, was, I'm sure, one of the reasons for my continuing fascination in and commitment to her. Plath allows us to think about political language in which recognition of the 'perverseness' of the fantasmatic and the assertion of political protest and identity could be articulated simultaneously" (Rose, 1993: 238).

The perverse fantasy of simultaneous protest and erotic arousal shows in the way the poem "Daddy" iterates caressing, cooing sounds in its rhymes "do," "shoe," "Achoo," "you," "du," "Jew," "gobbledygoo," "who," "glue," "screw," "two," "true, "knew" and "through." The cooing incantation of the marriage vow "I do, I do" recalls the witch in Macbeth who chants, "I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do." These "oo" rhymes reverberate with Plath's married name "Hughes." The poem declares, "If I've killed one man, I've killed two--/The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for year/ Seven years if you want to know." This vampire "man in black" is the husband the speaker has made a "model" of Daddy.

Plath's images of deadly feet in this poem suggest the 1948 British film The Red Shoes (directed by Michael Powell), which Plath saw in the 1950s (Kukil, ed. 2000: 30). In this film a foot fetishist modeled on the impresario Sergei Diaghilev struggles with a young composer for the creative loyalty and life force of a ballerina, for whom the composer writes music based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of a pair of red shoes that dance their wearer to death. The ballerina's commitment to dancing, which she values more than living, finds an analogue in Sylvia Plath's commitment to the perfection of her art at the expense of her life. The struggle between the impresario and the husband for the creative force of the ballerina finds an analogue in Ted Hughes account in Birthday Letters (1998) of losing his first wife to her preoccupation with Prince Otto [Plath] of the underworld, a Minotaur demanding sacrifice. 

Like the iterated cooing sounds rhyming with "you" and "du" in "Daddy," incantatory internal rhymes on the name "Hughes" inform Plath's poem "Pursuit," dedicated to Ted Hughes in her journal, and written shortly after the two poets met at the 25 February, 1956 party celebrating the launch of the short-lived Saint Botolph's Review.

In the midst of her love affair with Richard Sassoon, Plath wrote, "I only want the moon that sounds in a name and the son of man that bears that name. you realize that the name sassoon is the most beautiful name in the world. it has lots of seas of grass en masse and persian moon alone in rococo lagoon of woodbine tune where passes the ebony monsoon" ([Plath, November 22, 1955], Kukil, ed., 2000: 192). Here Plath is fancying herself as "Sylvia Sassoon." Plath's preoccupation with the poetics of her married name is represented in the 2003 film Sylvia in the scene in which the Plath character, in her Whitstead, Newnam College room, bounces a tennis ball off the wall, repeating "Sylvia Plath Hughes" in rhythm with the bouncing ball. Discussing the title of her poem "The Earthenware Head," Plath writes, "I discover, with my crazy eye for anagrams that the initials spell T-E-H- which is simply "to Edward Hughes," or Ted, which is, of course, my dedication" ([Plath, February 18, 1958], Kukil, ed., 2000: 332).

"Pursuit," written in response to her first encounter with Hughes, shows a similar determination to inscribe his name in her work. His initials TH appear twice in the first line, once in the second, and six more times before the end of the first stanza. The ambiguous, ironically prophetic first two lines declare, "There is a panther stalks me down:/ One day I'll have my death of him" (my italics). The title word "Pursuit" contains an internal rhyme on the letter "u," as in "Hughes." A sexualized transformation of William Blake's (1794) famous "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night," Plath's panther-man of "yellow gaze" is a radiant "black marauder, hauled by love/ on fluent haunches." His "taut thighs" are "hungry." The "h" in "hauled," "hungry" and "haunches," the "u" in "fluent," and the "gh" in "thighs," along with the "TH" (Ted Hughes) embedded between the words "fluent haunches," and at the beginning of the word "thighs," and in the second syllable of the word "panther"--all suggest that Plath is saying "Ted Hughes," calling him to come to her and appropriating William Blake at the same time. She says, "Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:/ The panther's tread is on the stairs," suggesting she can hear the excitement in her blood, Ted is coming up the stairs. This excitement is part erotic and part literary; the sexual partner is both a devouring predator and a "voice" that "spells a trance" (Plath, ed. Hughes, 1992: 23-23). This treading panther-man transforms in the love-hate poem "Daddy" (1962) into "panzer man" (World War II tank): "Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--/ Not God but a swastika/ So black no sky could squeak through." The thrusting repetition in the line "Panzer-man, panzer man, O You--" suggests erotic pleasure in being dominated, rolled over by a hated invader.

Having bought a copy of the first (and only) issue of the Saint Botolph's Review from her Cambridge friend the American student Bert Wyatt-Brown (now a Professor of History at the University of Florida), Plath immediately memorized its poems by Hughes and by the American poet Lucas (Luke) Myers. She knew Hughes as a poet on paper before meeting him as a flesh and blood man. To celebrate the Review's launch, its literary contributors organized a party to which Plath arranged to go. That evening, Plath approached Lucas Myers at what she called the "Bohemian" party in Falcon Yard, Cambridge. The party took place above a fish market, the party space permeated with the smell of it. Plath writes in her journal that she "began talking about how Luke was satanic." Lucas Myers was very drunk, reports Plath, who, before arriving at Falcon Yard, had herself gotten fairly drunk in a pub with the Canadian student Hamish Stewart, her escort that evening. Plath describes Lucas wearing "dark sideburns" and a "stupid satanic smile on his pale face." She moves on to another poet published in the Saint Botolph's Review, an unfriendly reviewer of poetry Sylvia had published in Cambridge magazines. Cruising through the poets in the room, she next comes to Than Minton and Daniel Weissbort, both Saint Botolph's contributors; and finally to the "dark and immaculate" poet and editor David Ross, whose father had financed the Saint Botolph's Review. Plath sums up this crew: "They were all dark." The jazz, she writes, "was beginning to get under [her] skin." Lucas Myers appears to smile with "that far-off look of a cretin satan." Plath remarks, "I suppose if you can write sestinas which bam crash through lines and rules after having raped them to the purpose, then you can be satanic and smile like a cretin beelzebub."

"Then" writes Plath, "that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I had come into the room...came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes. I started yelling again about his poems and quoting...and he yelled back, colossal, in a voice that should have come from a Pole... . We shouted as if in a high wind about the review ...I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off...and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face" (Plath [1956], ed. Kukil, 2000: 211-212)

Hughes himself later understood the bloody bite as Plath's branding him (Hughes, 1998: 15). If she branded Ted as her possession, her bite also connects to her Cambridge journal view of herself as a vampire filled with "old, primal hate" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 200). Reporting the blood running down Ted's face, Plath writes, "His poem, 'I did it, I,'" quoting Ted's Saint Botolph's Review poem, based on "Cock Robin," about a man who murders another man out of mysterious, instinctual mutual hatred. "Such violence," writes Plath, "and I can see how women lie down for artists. The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders. And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 212).

In her Boston Globe review of Plath's Journals, Diane Middlebrook notes that the forcefulness of the diction here: "bam," "crash, "bang," "smash," "blasting" conveys the idea that "sexy is violent, writing is sexy, writing is violent." Striving for authority, Plath's journal-writing exercises are efforts to find the diary of a novel that will represent her vision: "'The modern woman: demands as much experience as the modern man.'" The force of Plath's morning-after account of the night of the Saint Botolph's party where she met the "one man" who could "blast" her previous lover Richard Sassoon provides momentum, says Middlebrook, for the decision to write what became "the definitive scene in The Bell Jar" (Middlebrook, 2000: E2). Plath writes, "I shall write a detailed description of shock treatment, tight, blasting short descriptions with not one smudge of coy sentimentality, and ... I shall send them to David Ross" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 212). The word "blast" describes what Ted could do in her mind to Richard. Ted's poems are "blasting like a high wind." Ted said her name "in a blasting wind which shot off in the desert behind" her eyes. Plath will write "blasting" descriptions of shock treatment. Eventually this impulse finds its way not only into the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1962), but also the short story "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" (1958), and the pivotal high voltage psychic rebirth via shock treatment in the "Stones" section of "Poem for a Birthday," written at Yaddo in 1959.  

Having worn her red shoes, a red bandeau, bright red lipstick, and a flashy outfit to the party, the diary-writing Sylvia the next day describes herself "demure and tired in brown, slightly sick at heart." Though she would like to try her force against Ted, she thinks he won't look for her and she "could never sleep with him anyway" because, "with all his friends and his close relation to them," she "should be the world's whore, as well as Roget's strumpet." Here sex is imagined to be like writing: sleeping with a man whose friends will know is like using a thesaurus to write. (Plath inherited her father's thesaurus when he died, and she used it to encircle words with which to build her poems). 

Plath's journal describes the rest of her remarkable Saint Botolph's Review evening. Having told Sylvia that Ted Hughes was "the biggest seducer in Cambridge," Hamish invites her to his own room in Queen's College, which will require them to climb over the spikes on the locked gate. As she goes over the fence, Sylvia, wearing a tight skirt, pierces her skirt as well as her hands, thinking she might lie on a bed of spikes and feel nothing, or be crucified near an anthill like Celia Copplestone, the adulterous young woman who becomes a religious martyr in T.S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party. Of her hands, Plath remarks, "The stigmata." Inside Hamish's room, they lie down on the floor by a fire and Plath begs Hamish to "scold" her. Slow on the uptake, Hamish tells her she isn't a "whore or a slut" but "only a very silly girl." Suddenly, writes Plath, it was two-thirty and she "couldn't imagine being illegal," so they sneak back out, Sylvia apparently disappointed by Hamish's failure to play Richard Sassoon's role as sexual disciplinarian.

In the fictional account of this episode published as "Stone Boy with Dolphin," when Hamish kisses the Plath protagonist Dody Ventura, "Nothing stirred." When tiptoeing down the staircase of her escape route, Dody's hand sliding down the rail feels a splinter enter her index finger, but she keeps "her hand sliding down along the rail, right on into it." We read: "Unwincing. Here. Strike home. The splinter broke off, embedded in her finger with a small nagging twinge." The couple crash through a rough-thicket of briars that scratch and scrape the woman's legs. The splinter, the briars, and the metal spikes on the gate prove more penetrating than Hamish.

Back at last alone in her own college room, Dody Ventura opens her window: "The cold took her body like death." Going to sleep after "the first cock crowed" (readably an allusion to masturbation), Dody does not fathom the sun blooming "virginal in the steel-rimmed eyeglasses" of the woman working downstairs in the kitchen whose "widowed bosom" fountains clear light, "giving back the day its purity" (Plath [1957/1958], 1980: 191-192, 195). In this story, the woman without a man restores purity, but the woman who seeks a man gets hurt and stigmatized, and remains unsatisfied.

Saint Botolph's Review was named for the Church rectory where Lucas Myers found lodgings in a disused chicken coop after difficulties living at Downing College. A remarkable convergence of cartography, psychic geography, and history can read in this title, for the Church of Saint Botolph memorializes a seventh-century martyr who founded a monastery destroyed by the Danes near the present town of Boston (from "Botolph's Stone") in East Anglia, from where Puritans under John Cotton, a Vicar of Saint Botolph, sailed in 1633 to Massachusetts Bay colony and founded Boston, Massachusetts. Plath's concept of purity frames her journal account of the "Bohemian" Saint Botolph's Review evening: "A small note after a large orgy. It is morning, gray, almost sober, with cold white puritanical eyes; looking at me" (Kukil, ed., 2000: 210, my italics). 

In the fictional reworking of this account, Dody, wasting her time with Hamish, appears to have missed a sort of poets' Kristallnacht. In Falcon Yard, says the story, before dawn, "panes of the diamond-paned windows" fall in "jagged shards to the street below. Crash. Bang. Jing-jangle. Booted feet kicked the venerable panes through before dawning" (Plath, [1957/1958], 1980: 194). When Plath in her journal records actually consummating her attraction with Hughes, she describes a "holocaust night with Ted in London," which left her "battered" and "wounded" (Plath [26 March, 1956], Kukil, ed. 2000: 552). She writes, "Re Ted: Consider yourself lucky to have been stabbed by him" (Plath [16 April 1956], ed. Kukil, 2000: 570). If the Plath-Hughes gothic and failed marriage tale may be described as the postmodern Romeo and Juliet, a love story of the late-twentieth century, their story is a kind of last tango, a dead end of romantic love with sardonic literary inspiration finding roots in violence, in keeping with a notion that became popular in the 1960s: violence generates a sexual thrill. Though Ted Hughes played the role of an archetypal demon lover for Plath, for whom he darkly represented sexual and verbal power, Plath's peculiar combination of resistance, acquiescence, irony, and desire contributes sardonic luster to this fixation, a fixation she shares with Wakoski, Oates, Rich, and Atwood.  

Sylvia Plath's poems "Daddy" and "Pursuit" can be read as portraits of the artist as a young woman in love with a bad news muse named "Hughes." This muse occupies the psychic territory Rich calls "The Man," and represents sexualized death and the Lacanian phallus in mourning, a concept of masculinity marked by the legacy of the twentieth-century's two world wars.

In the context of representations of "The Man" in North American white women writers coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Plath's journal account of the Saint Botolph's Review party where she met her husband and its fictional transformation in her 1957 short story "Stone Boy with Dolphin" demonstrate Plath's examination of Bostonian Puritan heritage in the psychic aftermath of World War II. These accounts, and the transmutation of the "You" figure from sexy predator in "Pursuit" (1956) to a vampire in "Daddy" (1962) show the maturing Plath persona enacting her notion that sensuality is "annihilation" (Plath [15 May 1952], ed. Kukil 2000: 105). For Plath, whiteness is purity on a death trip. 

Works Cited 

Axelrod, Steven Gould (1990) Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press). 

Curry, Renée (2000) White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness (Westport: Greenwood Press). 

Middlebrook, Diane (5 November 2000) review of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (New York: Anchor [Random House], 2000), The Boston Globe: E2-3. 

Hughes, Ted (1998) Birthday Letters (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux). 

Hughes, Ted (2003) Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).  

Hughes, Ted, ed. (1992) The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper & Row). 

Kukil, Karen V., ed. (2000) The Journals of Sylvia Plath (London: Faber and Faber). 

Lacan, Jacques ([1958, 1966], 1977) "The Signification of the Phallus," Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock).

Plath, Sylvia ([1957/1958, 1959], 1980) "Stone Boy with Dolphin," ³The Fifty-ninth Bear,² Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (New York: Harper & Row).  

Rich, Adrienne ([1971], 1972,1979) "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision" [1971], 1972,1979, College English, XXXIV, 1: 18-25; reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: Norton). 

Rose, J. (2003) On Not Being Able to Sleep (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press). 

Rose, J. (1991) The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). 

Rose, J. (1993) Why War? Psychoanalysis, Politics, and the Return to Melanie Klein (Oxford, UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell). 

Ross, David, ed. (1956) Saint Botolph's Review (Cambridge, UK). 

Schlink, B. (1995, 1997) [Der Vorleser, Zurich: Diogenes Verlag, 1995] The Reader, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (New York: Random House). 

Sontag, S. ([1974], 1983) "Fascinating Fascism," New York Review of Books, reprinted in A Susan Sontag Reader, (New York: Random House). 

Additional Bibliography 

Alexander, P. ([1991], 1999) Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (New York: Da Capo Press).  

Atwood, Margaret (1976) Lady Oracle (New York: Simon and Schuster). 

Butscher, Edward (1976) Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (New York: Seabury).  

Feinstein, Elaine (2001) Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (New York: Norton). 

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Citizen of the World, Letter 26, 1760. 

Hayman, Ronald (1991) The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (New York: Birch Lane Press). 

Hughes, Ted. "The Head"([1978, 1995), Difficulties of a Bridegroom (New York: Picator). 

Oates, Joyce Carol ([1966, 1970] 1993) "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" [Epoch, Fall 1966], collected in The Wheel of Love And Other Stories, (New York: Vanguard, 1970), reprinted in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (Princeton: Ontario Review Press).  

Plath, Aurelia Schober (1975) Introduction, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (New York, HarperPerennial). 

Stevenson, Anne ([1989], 1998) Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin). 

Tennant, Emma (1999) Burnt Diaries (Edinburgh: Cannongate). 

Wagner-Martin, Linda (1987) Sylvia Plath: A Biography (New York: St. Martin's Press). 

Wakoski, Diane (1971) The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster). 


Benedek, Laslo, director (1953) The Wild One (Columbia Pictures).

Chopra, Joyce, director (1985) Smooth Talk (Goldcrest Films; American Playhouse; Nepenthe Productions). 

Jeffs, Christine, director (2003) Sylvia (UK: Ariel, Focus).

Powell, Michael, director (1948) The Red Shoes (UK: Archers). 

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Dianne M. Hunter "The Man in Black". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2004, Published: March 28, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Dianne M. Hunter