1 Digul

Ted Hughes Your Paris Essay

‘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“  indicatesthat 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.

[Go Back A Page] [Top Of Page]

“Your Paris” by Ted Hughes

Hughes and Plath visited Paris soon after their 16 June 1956 marriage. This poem alludes to the fact that Paris was a city in recovery from the carnage of WWII. The German army had occupied Paris and the French Resistance had attempted to fight against this. There were also French collaborators (with the Nazis) against whom the French Resistance battled.

The title immediately alerts us to the fact that this is Hughes’s perspective of Plath’s perspective! This is made evident through the use of the word “Your” in the title and our knowledge that this poem is written by him. The poem makes dominant use of contrasting personal pronouns, “you”, “your”, “I” and “my”. These pronouns, when not used, are often implied.

Like the other poems in Birthday Letters, “Your Paris” is written with the benefit of hindsight as well as the advantage of an intimate knowledge of Plath’s Ariel anthology.

The two perspectives presented here are of their differing appreciations of Paris. This is evident in the opening lines, “Your Paris, I thought, was American”. The words “I thought” are another way of saying “in my opinion” or “from my perspective”. In this line he belittles or discredits Plath’s appreciation of Paris. This idea is sharply contrasted with the line, “I kept my Paris from you”. It is implied within the poem that his Paris was much more valid than hers. In short, we see that his appreciation of Paris was definitely vastly different from hers- thus conflicting perspectives.

The speaker describes Plath’s view of Paris as being confined to its iconic image as the centre of art and culture- a romantic view of café life and social entertainment. In lines 3-4 Hughes describes Plath as stepping out of the “Hotel des Deux” in a shatter of exclamations. This is a mockingly sarcastic reference to an implied manic state or ‘highs’ that Plath may have exhibited. Hughes sees these as being a ruse to conceal her melancholy. The symbolic use of the Hotel of Two Continents perhaps hints at the duality of Plath’s personality or the idea that Hughes and Plath were experiencing separate realities.

Hughes describes his Paris as being characterised by the scars of World War II, which for him, were visible not only through the damaged buildings but also through the eyes of people who still ‘wore’ the impact of the devastation on their faces, “ I was a “ghostwatcher”. There is a contrast between the war graves that dominated his conscious appreciation of Paris and the ‘grave’ of her father which dominated her subconscious.

Hughes makes use of extended metaphors and alliteration to establish the tone of the poem. He sets up the contrast of their perspectives through the alliteration in the lines “With an eerie familiar feeling” and “stared at the stricken sunny exposure of pavement”. He argues that his view of Paris was characterised by its obvious post-war character while hers reduced it all to “anecdotal aesthetic”.

Plath is described as speaking in a ‘lingo’ that was personal to her, which he didn’t fully understand. This implies that she used this ‘lingo’ to conceal her true self and her demons, “to protect you from spontaneous combustion”. This suggests that she was volatile and feigned bliss prevented her from completely self-destructing. Hughes stated that her Paris infuriated him ‘diesel aflame / To the dog in me”. In this poem Hughes uses the symbol of a dog to construct an image of himself as loyal and true to her.

The latter part of the poem changes its focus to her father, “your torturer”. He describes Plath as not being complete, using the word ‘flayed’. In a literal sense this means ‘without skin’. This idea is repeated in the poem where earlier she is described as ‘what walked beside me was flayed”. This not only reduces her to an inanimate object (what rather than who) and but she was also skinless. This is a rather grotesque image in a literal sense and is reinforced by “one walking wound that the air/ Coming against kept in a fever”. She is described as ghostly and ghastly all at once. This is all attributed to the impact that her father’s ever-present memory has had on her.

Plath is describes as having intentionally deceived him in the lines, “Your practised lips/Translated the spasm to what you excused/ As your gushy burblings…You gave me no hint”. Again we see the idea that she confused him in that her manner of communication was indecipherable to him. He paints a picture of himself as a victim in these lines, through the use of the word “hopelessly”.

The latter part of the poem paints a picture of two people who are physically together, “My fingers linked in yours” but emotionally distant, “Was a dream where you still hurtled…”. Plath is represented as being emotionally trapped in a nightmare where she still searches for her father, “The Minotaur”.

There is a tonal shift in the last ten lines of the poem. A reflective tone is established through the use of a rhetorical question, “What searching miles / Did you grad your pain”. This is the first reference to the idea that Plath was indeed struggling through, rather than enjoying her mental state. The words “drag your pain” convey the idea of dificulty in contrast to the earlier representation of her in “shatter of exclamations” and “thesaurus of your cries”.

Once again Hughes constructs the image of himself as a loyal dog “happy to protect you”. He compounds this idea with the simile “like a guide dog”. This positions him a s a positive force in her otherwise negative life. The use of the word “stumblings” is more kind that the earlier descriptions of her inadequacies. The poem therefore concludes on a note of peace and calm with Plath being described as capable of calming herself through her pursuit of drawing.

Like this:



This entry was posted in English Advanced and tagged Birthday Letters, Module C, Ted Hughes. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *