‘The Shot’ #
I. Context & Subject Matter #
For this and most of the poems in Birthday Letters, it is important to be familiar with some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, especially Daddy, Lady Lazarus and Ariel.
Her father, Otto, a biologist specialising in bees, was domineering, authoritarian and anti-social, dying of diabetes when she was eight. His early death traumatised her as she worshipped him. She prayed to God to save his life but when her mother told her he had died, she pulled the blankets over her head and swore never to talk to God again.
Psychologists recognise that people sub consciously look for their parents in their search for life long partners and are generally severely disappointed when their catch fails to make the grade.
*Sylvia Plath was doomed by the eight-year-old girl inside her who failed to grieve a father who died too soon; that her whole project (“trajectory perfect as if through ether”) was to get back to that father in his grave. *Nadeem Azam
This poem appears to be a self-rationalisation by Hughes, justifying his inability to help Sylvia overcome her psychological problems.
* Your worship needed a god.*
* Where it lacked one, it found one.*
* Ordinary jocks became gods –*
* Deified by your infatuation*
* That seemed to have been designed at birth for a god.*
* It was a god-seeker. A god-finder.*
* Your Daddy had been aiming you at God*
* When his death touched the trigger.*
* In that flash*
* You saw your whole life. You richocheted*
* The length of your Alpha career*
* With the fury*
* Of a high-velocity bullet*
* That cannot shed one foot-pound*
* Of kinetic energy. The elect*
* More or less died on impact –*
* They were too mortal to take it. They were mind-stuff,*
* Provisional, speculative, mere auras.*
* Sound-barrier events along your flightpath.*
* But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex*
* And your Saturday night panics,*
* Under your hair done this way and that way,*
* Behind what looked like rebounds*
* And the cascade of cries diminuendo,*
* You were undeflected.*
* You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,*
* Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect*
* As through ether. Even the cheek-scar,*
* Where you seemed to have side-swiped concrete,*
* Served as a rifling groove*
* To keep you true.*
* Till your real target*
* Hid behind me. Your Daddy,*
* The god with the smoking gun. For a long time*
* Vague as mist, I did not even know*
* I had been hit,*
* Or that you had gone clean through me –*
* To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.*
* In my position, the right witchdoctor*
* Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,*
* Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,*
* Godless, happy, quieted.*
* I managed *
* A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.*
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.
The tone is decidedly accusatory in a reflective flashback of Plath’s life and painting himself as an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire sheeting the blame for their failed relationship on her obsession with her father’s high expectations. At the same time he concedes her consistency in the phrase: “To keep you true” - a back handed compliment? Further evidence of intimacy and affection are the keepsakes he souvenirs at the end: “wisp of hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown”.
The juxtaposition of assonants, * jocks and gods * has a sneering tone to it as does the play of a changed collocation god-seeker when we were expecting “gold seeker”
Its atmosphere of violence is reinforced throughout by the force of its language, imagery and the racy pace. The onomatopoeic *“ricocheted” *helps to sustain the metaphoric ballistic imagery.
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #
All our adult problems can be traced to our childhood experiences. The first seven years of our lives are our impressionable and formative ones that determine our fundamental character, values and aspirations.
Hughes asserts that many of Plath’s psychological problems stem from the high expectations her father inculcated in her and this single-minded, high achievement driven ambition resulted in catastrophe.
He suggests that with the right psychoanalytical help (“witchdoctor”) she might have been cured. While he was incapable of “catching” (helping) her – all he salvaged were the superficial mementos: “wisp of hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown”.
IV. TECHNIQUE #
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
As the title suggests, this poem uses the consistent ballistic images of the trajectory of a bullet, aimed at her father, but passing through him first as collateral damage. While it uses flashbacks its main effect is the sustained imagery of a bullet “gold jacketed, solid silver, Nickel-tipped”. As in Ariel or Sam, the fast relentless pace of the poem ending with the dramatic demise of their relationship is a calamity.
The sustained guided missile imagery of a trajectory being fired, honing onto its target, destroying anything in its path is an apt one.
Other images are rich in meaning:
God and gods – her tendency to reach above her grasp.
Jocks - Transitory sporting heroes.
Alpha career - Her academic success and vocation
The elect - irony; those chosen were generally destroyed
***Sob-sodden Kleenex ***– private anxieties misgivings.
Hair done this way, and done that way –vain inconsequential concerns.
Cheek-scar - reference to her second suicide attempt in a car?
To keep you true – consistent/ single minded or full of integrity?
***“god with the smoking gun” ***Ambiguity of who is firing the gun; her father’s influence has made her into a trajectory that has destroyed a lot of people in its path.
***“witchdoctor” *** a psychiatrist or some supernatural shaman?
***“Godless, happy, quieted” *** Sometimes we **** set our sights too high/ would we be better without religion?
***“hair, ring, watch, nightgown” *** These could be either:
souvenirs, keepsakes or mementos of their time together, Relics of a martyr,or Spoils of the holocaust – a recurring allusion in Plath’s poetry.
V. LANGUAGE: #
*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. *
Poetry conveys meaning by suggestiveness and ambiguity. Much of the intrigue of this poem is based on interpretation of the choice of diction and imagery here.