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‘Your Paris’

Context & Subject Matter

 Shortly after their marriage in 1957, Ted and Sylvia visited Europe for their honeymoon.  It is recorded that her mother accompanied them; however this is not evident in any of Hughes poems. 

Hughes immediately sets out to create their diametrically opposing perspectives on Paris; hers an America idealised, romanticised one based on the writings of expatriate American writers with their bohemian life styles on the left bank in the inter war years, while Hughes has a more realistic recent perspective of Nazi    occupied France where many had no choice but to collaborate and submit to the German occupiers or join the underground resistance.

It becomes clear that already rifts are beginning to appear as their cultural conditioning creates conflicting perspectives.  The reference to the “Hotel Deux Continents” symbolises their opposing backgrounds. As a macho male he appears patronising;  “I wanted to humour you”, and then uncommunicative “I kept my Paris from you.”.

 From Hughes’s point of view even here Plath already exhibited her manic depressive tendencies where her confected exuberance: “shatter of exclamations”  “ecstasies ricocheted” , “your immaculate palette, thesaurus of your cries”, “ your lingo… an emergency burn-off/to protect you from spontaneous combustion”,   “your gushy burblings” are “contrabasso” counterpointed by her underlying deep seated pain – “The underground, your hide-out,/That chamber, where you still hung waiting/For your torturer”…. A labyrinth/Where you still hurtled… Where you could not/Wake or find the exit or The Minotaur to put an end/To the torment.  “Did you drag your pain…” 

II. Sound Effects


Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

 There is a counterbalancing or swinging of moods in this poem as the pendulum swings from her exhilaration, to his more sombre recollections of Nazi occupied Paris, back to her romantic visions and back to her underlying unmitigated psychic disturbance.  While there is a hint of smugness in Hughes’s more realistic perceptions of Paris, there is also a strong presence of empathy with Plath’s bi-polar condition.

 Her exuberance is displayed in the onomatopoeic; “shatter of exclamations”  “ecstasies ricocheted”, while his is introduced by the alliterativecontrabasso” counterpoint of historical realism.

The voice is that of a confident male addressing an absent non responder.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns

Marriage  brings together people of disparate backgrounds, but international marriages often need to bridge cultural chasms. Assumptions, values, aspirations conflict and it requires compromise, patience and understanding to conciliate these differences.  Hughes contrasts the superficial exuberance of  Americans with the uptight restrained British aloofness with the contrasting reactions he demonstrates as the reference to “the Hotel Deux Continents” suggests.

The rich ambiguity of Hughes’s poems mask a number of issues he raises.  His continued references to “the dog in me“  indicates that we are closely related to the animal world.  Rather than lament this, Hughes recognises our links to the animal kingdom; acknowledging the instinctive primal sensual energy of the natural animal in us all.  His sustained canine motif conveys multiple roles: his curiosity, “my dog-nosed pondering”. He is desensitised by her superficial “lingo” that “scorched up every scent and sensor”, the loyal protective dog, “happy to protect you” and the guide dog imagery; “loyal to correct your stumblings”.  This could be interpreted as paternalistic and patronising but may be justified if she were as disturbed as he portrays her.

The self preservation instinct is evident in Wartime Paris. The judgemental attitude (“I was a ghostwatcher”) of the persona toward the “Collaborateurs”  whose guilt and fear “are still hanging in the wardrobes” prevails. Their craven submission haunts them now and Hughes attempts to hold them to account.  Plath seems oblivious to all the evidence of war time Paris and is wrapt by an idealised romantic vision of pre-war France.

A recurring theme in Birthday Letters is the power of Art to heal, to exorcise  or ameliorate our demons.  Plath is so enraptured by Paris that motivates her to express it artistically in the many references to painting:  “frame after frame”, Impressionist paintings, wanted to draw les toits (roofs),  “aesthetic touch on Picasso’s portrait”,  immaculate palette”, “your lingo…an emergency burn-off”,  your letters waited unopened”  and finally “watched you calm yourself/With your anaesthetic – your drawing,”


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

This appears a straight forward linear recount of his reflections of a trip to Paris counterpointing their impressions.  It uses a lot of images and contrast, some that we have already seen in other poems.   

His images are darker, more ominous:  SS mannequins, coffee… bitter as acorns,  waiter’s eyes clogged with dregs of betrayal, the stink of fear, faces closed,  methane from reopened/Mass grave of Verdun,  diesel aflame,  your own flayed skin, 

Her images are more aesthetic; artistic literary and painters - Impressionist paintings, wanted to draw les toits (roofs),  “aesthetic touch on Picasso’s portrait”,  immaculate palette”.  She has anaesthetised herself from the realistic historical wartime Paris and appropriated its nostalgic bohemian pre-war period.

The sustained canine motif conveys multiple roles: his curiosity, “my dog-nosed pondering”. He is desensitised by her superficial “lingo” that “scorched up every scent and sensor”, the loyal protective dog, “happy to protect you” and the guide dog imagery; “loyal to correct your stumblings”.

Many of the same recurring comparisons or analogies that appear in other poems crop up:

Minotaur:  her father, Otto Plath? 

Labyrinth:  A symbol of the situation Sylvia; her psyche is so messed up she can’t seem to escape her psychological predicament, ”where she hurtled”  and so she” can’t find the exit or/The minotaur …to end the torment”

Cave:   A recurring image in Plath’s poetry, the cave can be seen as a shelter from harm or as an entrapment.  “And it sealed/The underground, your hide-out/That Chamber where you still hung waiting/For your torturer,”

Allusions:  Refer mainly to early 20th century French identities.

Aristide Bruant (6 May 1851 – 10 February 1925) was a French cabaret singer, comedian, and nightclub owner. He is best known as the man in the red scarf and black cape featured on certain famous posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  Lautrec wrote:"I paint things as they are. I don't comment."    Links:   Artsy’s Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec page   or: https://www.artsy.net/post/editorial-la-belle-epoque-descends-on-new-york

tableau vivant   French : tableau, picture + vivant, living

A scene presented on stage by costumed actors who remain silent and motionless as if in a picture. The Free Dictionary

The Maquis were the predominantly rural guerrilla bands of the French underground Resistance.    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 Picasso’s portrait of Apollinaire – Picasso a famous Spanish painter whose portrait of an Italian/Polish writer, who coined the term surrealism was admired by Plath. 

Sylvia could be suffering from the Paris Syndrome, a surreal phenomenon whereby Japanese tourists in particular arrive in Paris and seem to undergo some sort of mental collapse, experiencing raised anxiety, delusions, irrational feelings of persecution and hostility, even hallucinations, or vomiting. The main theories as to what’s happening here is that Japanese tourists have an incredibly romanticised belief in what Paris is like thanks to countless media and film portrayals. The reality of it being, you know, mostly a normal city, coupled with the tangible differences in behaviour and manners between Japanese and Parisian culture, induces an intense and debilitating form of culture shock.


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

The language is forceful with strong verbs, adjectives and collective nouns.

“shatter of exclamations, eerie familiar feelings, ecstasies ricocheted, Clogged with dregs,  ravished,  scorched,  flayed skin,  wincing/To agonies,  Spasms, gushy burblings,  hurtled,  torment, agitation, stone hours, stumblings…..

Some of the language is obscure or esoteric:

Proleptic – to foretell or anticipate the future.

Pension - what we call a Bed and Breakfast.

The lack of rhetorical questions indicates a more assertive confident attitude.

VI. Evaluation:

This account is one sided; we get Hughes’s impressions of Paris and his impressions of her impressions.  We have little to counter balance this view.

Does it lead us any closer to the truth?  From this poem it appears that early cracks erupted in their relationship and her demons cropped up continually.  While there is some indication or his judgemental, derisive and condescending attitudes, it is redeemed by his empathetic understanding of her underlying psychic condition.  She idolises him and he is aware and appreciates this.

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