Your Paris Hughes

‘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…”

Your Paris #

Your Paris, I thought, was American.
I wanted to humour you.
When you stepped, in a shatter of exclamations,
Out of the Hotel des Deux Continents
Through frame after frame,
Street after street, of Impressionist paintings,
Under the chestnut shades of Hemingway,
Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein.
I kept my Paris from you. My Paris
Was only just not German. The capital
Of the Occupation and old nightmare.
I read each bullet scar in the Quai stonework
With an eerie familiar feeling,
And stared at the stricken, sunny exposure of pavement Beneath it. I had rehearsed
Carefully, over and over, just those moments –
Most of my life, it seemed. While you
Called me Aristide Bruant and wanted
To draw les toits, and your ecstasies ricocheted
Off the walls patched and scabbed with posters –
I heard the contrabasso counterpoint
In my dog-nosed pondering analysis
Of café chairs where the SS mannequins
Had performed their tableaux vivants
So recently the coffee was still bitter
As acorns, and the waiters’ eyes
Clogged with dregs of betrayal, reprisal, hatred.
I was not much ravished by the view of the roofs.
My Paris was a post-war utility survivor,
The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes,
Collaborateurs barely out of their twenties,
Every other face closed by the Camps
Or the Maquis . I was a ghostwatcher.
My perspectives were veiled by what rose
Like methane from the reopened
Mass grave of Verdun. For you all that
Was the anecdotal aesthetic touch
On Picasso’s portrait
Of Apollinaire , with its proleptic
Marker for the bullet. And wherever
Your eye lit, your immaculate palette,
The thesaurus of your cries,
Touched in its tints and textures. Your lingo
Always like an emergency burn-off
To protect you from spontaneous combustion
Protected you
And your Paris. It was diesel aflame
To the dog in me. It scorched up
Every scent and sensor. And it sealed
The underground, your hide-out,
That chamber, where you still hung waiting
For your torturer
To remember his amusement. Those walls,
Raggy with posters, were your own flayed skin –
Stretched on your stone god.
What walked beside me was a flayed,
One walking wound that the air
Coming against kept in a fever, wincing
To agonies. Your practiced lips
Translated the spasms to what you excused
As your gushy burblings – which I decoded
Into a language, utterly new to me
With conjectural, hopelessly wrong meanings –
You gave me no hint how, at every corner,
My fingers linked in yours, you expected
The final fate-to-face revelation
To grab your whole body. Your Paris
Was a desk in a pension
Where your letters
Waited for him unopened. Was a labyrinth
Where you still hurtled, scattering tears.
Was a dream where you could not
Wake or find the exit or
The minotaur to put a blessed end
To the torment. What searching miles
Did you drag your pain
That were for me plain paving, albeit
Pecked by the odd, stray, historic bullet.
The mere dog in me, happy to protect you
From your agitation and your stone hours,
Like a guide dog, loyal to correct your stumblings,
Yawned and dozed and watched you calm yourself
With your anaesthetic – your drawing, as by touch,
Roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, me.

II. Sound Effects Your Paris #

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 Your Paris #

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,”

IV. TECHNIQUE Your Paris #

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 20^(th) 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:

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.

V. LANGUAGE: Your Paris #

*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.

Her romantic exuberance is depicted in Hughes descriptions of her over the top language:

a shatter of exclamations, ..

your ecstasies ricocheted

Off the walls,

The thesaurus of your cries,

Touched in its tints and textures.

Your lingo

Always like an emergency burn-off

To protect you from spontaneous combustion

Your practiced lips

Translated the spasms to what you excused

As your gushy burblings

Contrasted with his contrabasso counterpoint

In my dog-nosed pondering

He presents his observations as much more considered and grounded in the reality of the collaborators Paris.

VI. Evaluation: Your Paris #

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.