Reading: The drowned woman by Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes (1930-1998). British giant of poetry. Married twice with ladies who committed suicide, then a third time to live a quiet rural life until his death from cancer. Very prolific. Today I want to read this poem about a drowned woman, published 1957, six years before Plath’s suicide at age thirty, which charges it with eerie premonition.

The drowned woman
Millionly-whored, without womb,
Her heart already rubbish,
Watching the garret death come,
This thirty year old miss

Walked in park pastoral
With bird and bee but no man
Where children were catching armsful
Of the untouched sun.

With plastic handbag, with mink fur,
A face sleep-haggard and sleep-puffed
Fresh-floured and daubed “whore,”
This puppet was stuffed

With rags of beds and strangers’
Cast-offs, one cracked cup, a cough
That smoked and malingered.
But put a coin in her slot

This worn public lady
Would fountain a monologue,
Would statuesque and goddess a body,
Ladder Jacob a leg.

She plucked men’s eyes from happy homes;
Hands grew in the empty dark
And hung like jewellery on her limbs,
Yet she came to this park

Not for the sun’s forgetful look
Nor children running here and there;
On the mud bed of the lake
She found her comforter.

The imagery is brilliant and strong, baked with a crisp, just the way I like it. So, Hughes and Plath were married in 1956. This appears in 1957. That’s some messed-up couple right there. Using ‘whored’ as a passive verb for your wife is already grotesque, and millionly? No to fertility, a stale garret, that is death.

The ‘park pastoral’ is rendered in splendid fashion. I see the children running around, their innocence set in the image of an untouched sun.

Follows the insane description of her both poor (plastic bag) and rich (mink fur); both haggard and fluffy. She is a puppet who is freshly ‘floured and daubed’, like a bread-puppet I think. The expression is ‘wattle and daub’, but I associate ‘daubed’ with baptized because that’s how that sounds in my native Dutch but maybe Ted thought about the German ‘Taufe’. Anyway, this puppet gets filled with bed sheets, cast-offs and coughs – metonyms for her customers.

Next, he says how his whore mesmerized him. How she is spouting language and is ‘godessing’ (again the use of verbification) her body. And to “ladder Jacob a leg”, brilliant, ain’t it? Jacob’s ladder is the connection between heaven and earth that Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, dreams about in Genesis. Break a leg! we hear. No: ladder a leg. Between heaven and earth, between holy and whorely. This is some funky line, Ted.

Okay, she wasn’t very nice luring men away from their ‘happy homes’, we know. What else? The final stanza: She found her comforter on the mud bed of the lake? Huh, Hughes? On the bottom? In death? In thinking about death while strolling through the park? Between you and me, I think that Ladder Jacob a leg would have been a great ending. We know already.


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