Pictured: H-bomb on Nagasaki


This presentation was given by Julia Gordon-Bramer on Friday, October 26th at the 2012 Sylvia Plath Symposium, held at Indiana University-Bloomington.



I have been working the last 6 years on the book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Sylvia Plath’s Qabalah Code, which reinterprets her work through the lens of Tarot and Mysticism. Additionally, I am working on The Magician’s Girl, a biography of Plath and Hughes’ lives and marriage in the context of the history, personalities, and mysticism around them.



First, a quick overview:



For more on the facets and other interpretations of Plath’s work, please see my publications online in Plath Profiles, issues 3, 4 and 5.


When I first realized that Plath’s poetry collection, Ariel, was structured on Tarot and the Qabalah, new, clear interpretations to Sylvia Plath’s poems were revealed.


In my work, some of which has been excerpted and published in past Plath Profiles and elsewhere, I have determined that each Plath poem has six facets, corresponding with the order of the Tarot and the Qabalah Tree of Life, on which the Tarot is based. The ordering of Plath’s poems in Ariel corresponds with Tarot and Qabalah order, revealing the poems’ meanings.


Due to time constraints, today we are going to briefly gloss over four of the facets and focus primarily on the Astrology & Astronomy facet, as well as the History & the World facet of the poem “Ariel.”



Plath’s “Ariel” has many fits with the Temperance card’s picture and meaning.



“Ariel” is the 15th poem, but the Qabalah and Tarot count from zero, so the number 14 corresponds.

The meaning of the Temperance Tarot card is to temper passions or strength; to bring about a balanced, adaptable influence, repentance and baptism, equality and equilibrium. The card also foretells of health and a safe journey. Reversed, however, these passions are set free—and even out of control. Shown is an angel at the beginning of the path to the great mystical journey brought on by its predecessor, the Death card.



Qabalah is rooted in ancient Jewish mysticism, explaining Plath’s references to Judaism in other poems.  The Hebrew word ARYH, for Leo or Lion, is designated as feminine because it ends with an H.

Auriel, derived from this root word, means “Lion of God,” “Hero,” and “Hearth of God”—reflecting God’s fiery energy.


Plath herself wrote on a typescript draft of the poem her intention of “Lioness of God” in Hebrew.

This merging is echoed throughout the poem, from: “God’s lioness, / How one we grow  to “at one with the drive.”


There is a Hebrew art called Gematria, a Qabalistic numerology, which equates “Lioness of God” with “magnum opus”, and “Sylvia Plath” with “Flame of the Sun.”


Considering the Temperance card is one of balance and equilibrium, Plath clearly took advantage of every possible way to echo this idea.



Alchemy assigns the color blue to Sagittarius (Regardie) (“the substanceless blue”).


There is no evidence that Plath was racist, and she was certainly educated enough not to use the slang word “nigger,” even in the early 1960s. Sylvia Plath had a definite, intentional reason for choosing this word.  A close friend in Cambridge was the black poet Nathaniel LaMar (Journals).



All four of these goddesses are essentially the same. The focus is on a slightly out of control, passionately fierce feminine power. 


The goddess of love, Aphrodite, was said to have risen from the foam of the sea; and, “Foam to wheat” may also be meant to suggest a metaphor for female sexual passion, as wheat is symbolic of procreation in the Tarot and Qabalah.



“Thighs, hair” are symbolically Sagittarian physical features, and “the arrow” refers to the Sagittarian archer.


Viewing “Ariel” through its astrological lens, this is a poem about the end of an old Age, and the beginning of the new, represented on the Mayan calendar as December 21, 2012. The Mayan prophesy is one of awakening and moving away from Pisces’ age of greed and materialism and into an Aquarian phase of love.


The first stanza of the poem “Ariel” is an accurate depiction of the skies, as seen from the Earth.

The Milky Way has its infamous “dark rift” (“The furrow”) that “splits and passes.” This has been considered since ancient times to be the entrance to the underworld, and a haven for evil. It is through this same rift that the sun will align on December 21, 2012. The colors of the Milky Way also appear to have a “brown arc” and its swirl, with the dark center, becomes the “Nigger-eye.” The Mayans echoed this astrological design in their Pyramid of the Sun. The closest neighboring constellation to the Milky Way is –surprise!—Sagittarius.



The arrow of the constellation points toward the star of Antares, known as the “heart of the scorpion” (Ridpath) and is symbolic for a union with God.  Plath would have seen this as a metaphor for destruction of her physical and ego self, born under the sign of Scorpio, as she moves into the new Age. Remember that Ted Hughes was an avid astrologer.


Many readers interpret this poem’s horse imagery to be about Plath’s literal horse, missing the idea of the Sagittarian centaur’s half-horse body. “Foam to wheat” is a literal picture of a horse feeding, contributing to the idea of the Sagittarian centaur.


Plath’s arrow fits into the astrological interpretation, as well as the Temperance card’s interpretation. And the starry sky itself easily fits the description “a glitter of seas.”



You see why I wanted to present on “Ariel” in 2012.


This date has been widely believed to also represent the end of the world or the apocalypse.



Let it be noted that I’m being playful when I say “A Qabalistic Equation.” There is no hard and fast equation I am using here.



Sylvia Plath was well aware of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even as a little girl. She wrote of the event in her journal (available for view at the Lilly Library archives, University of Indiana-Bloomington).




About the Ban-The-Bomb march in London,  Sylvia Plath wrote:


“I found myself weeping to see the tan, dusty marchers … I felt proud that the baby’s first real adventure should be as a protest against the insanity of world-annihilation. Already a certain percentage of unborn children are doomed by fallout and no one knows the cumulative effects of what is already poisoning the air and sea”.


Around this time, Plath had also written in response to an article called, “Juggernaut, The Warfare State,” published in The Nation, “The issues of our time which preoccupy me at the moment are the incalculable genetic effects of fallout and the documentary article on the terrifying, mad, omnipotent marriage of big business and the military in America”.



Al Alvarez believed that this 1959 film greatly influenced both Plath’s poems “Fever 103°” and “Elm.”


The film maintains an explicit stance against nuclear war, and war in general, specifically focusing on women’s identity and experience of war.


The film dwells on post-bombing hair loss, 103° fevers, melted, peeling and flaking skin, useless “dead hands,” and more.



73% of Japan is mountainous, the meaning of “tor.”



Pictured: Japanese Shinto lion. Its curls of hair might be compared to the explosion at Hiroshima, right.


Certainly the roar of nuclear power could be compared to “God’s lioness” as it grows into its great mushroom cloud (“How one we grow”).


There was no doubt the “Pivot of heels and knees!” as the citizens of Japan ran for cover to “The furrow[s].



Plath’s artistic eye would have noticed that.




The following black and white pictures were famously and widely published during Plath’s time and it is likely she saw them.



“Berries cast dark / Hooks---” are the mortar, shells and shrapnel of war…


Even berry-like.




This is a famous picture of the shadows of two men vaporized by the atom bomb in Hiroshima. The horror of the initial blast is through the fourth and fifth stanzas.



“Something else” introduces us to the shock waves of radiation and the blast winds that follow the initial explosion.


The blast winds are said to be many times greater than the strongest hurricane (“Hauls me through the air---”).



Burns, peeling skin and hair loss were common post-bombing symptoms.



Thus, there is a great and terrible power to this “White Godiva,” the mushroom cloud, the angry goddess.


The name “Godiva” means “gift of God,” a sarcastic joke on Plath’s part, as well as a likening to the legend of the woman who rode naked through the streets of Coventry in order to gain her people freedom from the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband. It is a desperate measure.




With the mushroom cloud’s subsequent radiation, “I unpeel” is now understood to mean human skin.



With its “Dead hands, dead stringencies,” every horrible and gory detail of the bombings is somehow beautifully rendered within this poem.



By 1962, Japan had made a remarkable recovery, all things considered. “I” might be seen as “eye”—the red eye flag of Japan




Skin famously “melted” on the victims.  “Melts in the wall” also means that this terrible time is over.




“The dew that flies” references Gwen Dew (b. 1903), one of the first 25 American women to get her pilot’s license, an accomplished writer and photographer.


Dew was exactly the type of historic female Plath might have admired. She served as a war correspondent in World War II. She wrote popular books and many newspaper and magazine articles about her time as a P.O.W. in Japan. Dew was the first female foreign correspondent permitted into Japan after the bombings.  (Pictured, right, with Hirohito)


“If I had any hatred for the Japanese, it disappeared when we pulled into Yokohama," Dew said. "Seeing the nearly total devastation, you could only feel sorry for them.” Regarding Hiroshima, “Never could you imagine such death, such fearful death. I saw it and I literally could not speak for days”.



These war stories were all over the news in Plath’s childhood.



The flag of Japan is a red circle. Eyes were reddened and blinded from radiation as above, if not completely melted.



Certainly, Japan was a “cauldron” of fire on those two terrible “morning[s]” in 1945. This was a time when the United States would use no Temperance in ending the war.