‘The Minotaur’ #
I. Context & Subject Matter - ‘The Minotaur’ #
Title: Minotaur – a monster from Greek mythology, a half man-half bull that fed on flesh. Its destructive behavior terrorised the island of Crete.
Minos was born from the union of Zeus and the Phoenician princess Europa, whom Zeus had kidnapped while disguised as a white bull and brought to Crete. (Minos was therefore himself the son of a bull of quite heavenly nature.) At one point, Minos prayed to Poseidon to be sent a bull from the sea in order to make a sacrifice in honor of the god. Minos, however, liked the animal so much that he kept it, disregarding his promise (Also Bulls were sacred to the Cretans). Poseidon, then, sent a punishment that, again, involved an unnatural love. He made Pasiphae, Minos’s wife, fall passionately in love with the bull. The outcome of this union was the Minotaur, half man, half bull, whom Theseus ultimately killed with the aid of Ariadne, Minos’s daughter.
The Minotaur grew up to be quite the man-eater (literally), and so King Minos tricked Daedalus into coming to Crete to build this elaborate labyrinth (maze) to contain the beast.
When completed Daedalus was refused permission to leave so he designed feathers for him and his son Icarus to escape by flying over the sea. Icarus ignored his father’s advice, flying too close to the sun causing the wax on his feathers to melt and he plunged into the sea.
The story goes that King Minos, the ruler of Crete, lost his son Androgeus, when the boy was murdered in Athens. Accounts vary, but one version tells that the prince was murdered because the Athenians were jealous of his many victories at the recent Panathenaic Games in Athens.
King Minos would subsequently wage war on the Athenians, eventually finding victory. As penance for the murder of Androgeus, every year the Athenians were forced to send seven young men and seven maidens to the island of Crete, where they would be released into the labyrinth and systematically hunted and devoured by the Minotaur.
It is at this time that Theseus, the hero of Athens, volunteers to be sent to Crete as a sacrifice to the monster. Upon arriving Theseus is aided by Ariadne (who falls for the hero), the daughter of King Minos. Before the Athenians can be trapped within the labyrinth, Ariadne releases Theseus from his holding cell and brings him to the entrance of the great maze. Theseus navigates the labyrinth and discovers the Minotaur sleeping in the center of the vast dungeon. Ariadne gives Theseus a large ball of wool to unravel to find his way out of the labyrinth.
Using the element of surprise, Theseus attacks the Minotaur and dispenses the monster with ease. The hero and the other Athenians, along with princess Ariadne, escape Minos’ palace and make a hasty retreat to Athens under the cover of night.
King Minos represents an exemplar of responsible leadership; his priority is protecting his people from a monstrous beast threatening civil society.
The comparison lacks subtlety as Hughes demonstrates Plath’s destructive temper tantrums and angry rages (like a bull in a china shop?) which needed to be controlled, though other interpretations have the Minotaur representing her father, Otto Plath.
The Minotaur #
The mahogany table-top you smashed
Had been the broad plank top
Of my mother’s heirloom sideboard-
Mapped with the scars of my whole life.
That came under the hammer.
That high stool you swung that day
Demented by my being
Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.
‘Marvellous!’ I shouted, ‘Go on,
Smash it into kindling.
That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!'
And later, considered and calmer,
‘Get that shoulder under your stanzas
And we’ll be away.’ Deep in the cave of your ear
The goblin snapped his fingers.
So what had I given him?
The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth.
Left your mother a dead-end,
Brought you to the horned, bellowing
Grave of your risen father
And your own corpse in it.
II. Sound Effects - ‘The Minotaur’ #
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.
Noisy onomatopoeic words like “smash” and “snapped” provide a vivid dramatic edge to the short anecdotal poem of a domestic incident in their marriage. The violence creates a tension that is reinforced by the defensive self justification of the persona and the accusatory language directed at the “you” of the poem.
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns - ‘The Minotaur’ #
The poem explores the psychological motivations behind human nature and how we are constructed through parenting. It uses reciprocal narratives, with resonances and dissonances of their shared trauma. In co-opting her pain is he competing in self-victimisation.
Hughes’ reference to his mother and “the scars of my whole life” is a rare confessional insight into his past. Could his sense of loss and lack of a strong mother figure be a rationalisation of his womanising or philandering?
He then turns his attention to Plath’s psychological issues; a mother she cannot connect to and a father who died too early and who keeps reappearing in her sub-conscious seducing her to join him in his grave. Plath’s destructive temper tantrums and angry rages (like a bull in a china shop?) needed to be controlled or channelled into expression in her poetry.
The poet then suggests the cyclical nature of abuse; her children too will be scarred by haunting images of her temper tantrums.
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth
Yet there is little evidence that the persona takes any responsibility for being late. It is possible her extreme reaction could be stimulated by suspicion of infidelity which could justify her manic destructive behaviour.
IV. TECHNIQUE - ‘The Minotaur’ #
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 is very much an episodic flash back concerning a domestic dispute meant to illustrate Plath’s manic volatile temperament and uncontrollable destructive rage.
The poet uses a number of multi-dimension metaphors and symbols with multiple possibilities - open to a variety of interpretations.
The extended analogy to the minotaur, (The title) the skein used by Theseus to find his way out of the labyrinth (maze) help to sustain the metaphor.
The bloody end of the skein
That ended your marriage
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth
Minotaur: Is the minotaur Sylvia Plath or 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 and so when she gets to the end of her tether (skein), it destroys her marriage.
Technically it should be a maze: A labyrinth has a single through-route with twists and turns but without branches. A maze is a confusing pathway that has many branches, choices of path and dead-ends.
Cave: A recurring image in Plath’s poetry, the cave can be seen as a shelter from harm or as an entrapment. Something he said triggered the “goblin” for her self - destructive over reaction. Alternatingly, the fact that the cave is in her ear, implies that it echoing - it is a haunting sound tormenting her.
The mahoghany table with the scars of his whole life is a rare reference to his inner life. It is full of nuances and open to individual interpretation. His encouraging her to turn it into kindling, could suggest she is destroying his life.
V. LANGUAGE: - ‘The Minotaur’ #
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.
There is observation through the dramatic recreation of an incident with dialogue and action together with supposition and conclusion.
The language is accusatory, blaming Plath for destroying “her” marriage
- not theirs. The insistent, repetitive second person pronoun “you”, you’re and “your” accentuates this.
You smashed/stool you swung/stuff you’re keeping out../your stanzas/your ear/your marriage/your children/your mother/brought you/your risen father/your own corpse.*
The poet’s participation is illustrated by first person pronouns “my, I,” and the collective “we’ll” suggesting a subjective and personal involvement – perhaps acknowledgement of some responsibility?
My mother’s heirloom/scars of my whole life/my being ..late/I shouted/what had I given him?/ we’ll be away. *
Anger has words, but rage does not. When we become violent, we have moved into this wordless territory that so often becomes confused with simple anger. Unless rage is assuaged it becomes destructive. When it finishes destroying others, it can turn on itself. Rage is usually accompanied by inexpressible grief and feelings of abandonment.
John Milton wrote “Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.”
Thomas Moore warned, “Those who plot the destruction of others often perish in the attempt”.
When language is inadequate we resort to violence. When destructive people have nothing else to destroy, they become self-destructive.
Perhaps the most contentious words are “baby minding”. It was enough to send several feminists into a fury. Their claim is that a baby minder is someone outside the family you pay to take care of your children. Hughes unfortunate choice of this phrase indicates the shirking of his duties as a father, so parenting duties might have had fewer controversial connotations.
VI. Evaluation of ‘The Minotaur’ #
This poem reveals the power Hughes has over language. It is sure footed, presenting forceful arguments for his case. However there seems to be a lot of self-justifying going on in this poem. He seems to be pointing the finger of blame squarely on his audience presumed to be Sylvia Plath.
Is there any sense of responsibility Hughes feels for Plath? Is there any indication of remorse, regret or culpability?
To what extent is this a reliable version of the event. It is personal, one sided and therefore subjective. It does little to indicate the reasons for her extreme reaction to his role in the marriage. Is it merely a self-justification?