The Rabbit Catcher

'The Rabbit Catcher' was included in Plath's own 'Ariel' collection but not in the published Ariel. It was presumably excluded as one of the 'more openly vicious' poems, as Hughes puts it (Hughes, 1994, p. 166). The poem's 'viciousness' resides in its comparison between traps set for rabbits and the 'constriction' of a sexual relationship. The shape of the 'snares' - zeros, which shut on nothing - mimics the 'hole in the hot day', which is the speaker's refusal to hear the shrieks of death; the same shape appears as the 'tea mug' around which dull, blunt murderous fingers circle - fingers which might equally circle the speaker's throat (Perloff, 1990, p. 186) or wear the kind of ring that both signifies marriage and 'Slid[es] shut on some quick thing, / The constriction killing me also'. This link between traps and marriage is reinforced by the description of the victims - who are not identified in the poem itself as rabbits:

How they awaited him, those little deaths! They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.

Describing the creatures as 'little deaths' instead of naming them suggests that the poem is not really about the rabbits, despite the fact that it is apparently based on an actual incident (see Rose's discussion of its biographical treatment in Rose, 1991, pp. 136—7), but that they represent dark episodes, perhaps sexual ones, in the speaker's relationship with the 'catcher'. Their relationship is described as if its components were as material and as deadly as the construction of the traps:

Tight wires between us,

Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring.

Ted Hughes published a poem of the same title in his 1998 collection Birthday Letters, which is a lyric narrative about his life with and loss of Plath. Reviewers of the collection almost without exception saw it as a reply to the widely held view of his relations with Plath — the 'stone man' and 'the burning woman', as Hughes puts it in 'Fever' — but were undecided as to whether it constituted the imposition of a final word (Viner, 1998) or the opening up of a dialogue (LeStage, 1998, p. 93; Maguire, 1998, p. 11). Once again Hughes takes up what looks like a biographical approach. Janet Malcolm quotes from a letter in which he says, 'The only thing I found hard to understand was her sudden discovery of our bad moments ("Event", "Rabbit Catcher") as subjects for poems' (Malcolm, 1994, p. 143; see also Malcolm's account of Hughes's response to Rose's analysis (Rose, 1991, pp. 136—40), of a submerged fantasy of lesbian sex in the opening lines of 'The Rabbit Catcher', Malcolm, 1994, pp. 178ff.). The speaker in his 'The Rabbit Catcher' offers an alternative view of the scene from Plath's poem, but his poem is so different from Plath's in narrative, mode and tone that it does not function as a 'reply'. The poem's speaker has an almost self-consciously bewildered male persona, describing his female partner's inaccessible anger as a moon-directed menstrual and mythical dybbuk fury. The speaker is not only detached but excluded from this female drama:

I simply

Trod accompaniment, carried babies.

The reviewer Ruth Padel says pithily of these lines, 'Despite the mental illness, there's enough archetypal confrontation here for all men to identify with that "I simply" stuff, and for all women to recognize that male bafflement which always seems a cop-out' (Padel, 1998, p. 7).

The description in Hughes's poem of the man's discovery of a snare — 'Copper-wire gleam, brown cord, human contrivance' — returns the rabbit-trap to the quotidian from its symbolic weight in Plath's poem. Indeed, the battle for meaning over the snares is represented as simultaneously a battle between poetic styles and one over opposing cultural heritages. His impulse is to read the snares as part of a pagan and proletarian history of the British countryside. He sees desecrated the hard-won concessions

From the hangings and transportations

To live off the land.

He claims that her view of the snares is ahistorical, visceral and feminine, the culmination of her disgust at England's grubby coastal and psychic edges:

You saw blunt fingers, blood in the cuticles . . .

You saw baby-eyed

Strangled innocents.

Hence her poem; and hence his.

Hughes's 'The Rabbit Catcher' is full of backshadowing; the woman's fury precedes any knowledge of the snares, and the male speaker predicts an end which only seems inevitable from the vantage-point of the present: he remembers thinking that she will do something crazy, and he speculates that the thing the woman saw caught in the snares might have been her doomed self, her tortured, crying and suffocating self. In the concluding lines the speaker turns around the image of the murderous disc or circle from Plath's poem. Instead of the blunt fingers around a white mug the speaker describes how her verse encircled the incident with terrible, hypersensitive fingers and felt it alive. In an even more ironic reversal, it is she who is responsible for the death of a living creature:

The poems, like smoking entrails, Came soft into your hands.

The implication is that the woman was so keen to see some meaning in the countryside snares, like a soothsayer looking into 'smoking entrails' for a sign, that she killed the creature — or the moment, or the relationship itself — to search it out. Hughes's poem cleverly, and vengefully, turns around Plath's meaning and accuses the female figure in the poem of being the true rabbit catcher. In this sense his poem is actually about biographical readings of Plath's work, despite the incomprehension at her poetic method expressed in the letter Malcolm quotes. Hughes's 'The Rabbit Catcher' presents the reader with the story of how a nightmarish family outing became the kernel of a poem about something rather different — gender difference, sexual trouble, and, as Jon Rosenblatt puts it, 'the ironic interplay of birth and death' (Rosenblatt, 1979, p. 44). Thus Hughes's poem is not so much a response to or refutation of Plath's 'The Rabbit Catcher', but a poem about the earlier one. It makes Plath's 'The Rabbit Catcher' into both a signifier and a signified.

Plath toyed with various different titles for the collection she finally named Ariel, including Daddy and The Rival. It is clear what a difference such titles would have made to our reading of this work: one emphasizes the shadow of patriarchy, the other the split, sometimes internally warring, feminine subject. Ariel's title poem is about riding a horse, although, as in 'The Rabbit Catcher', the animal is not identified within the poem. The rider invokes deathly, self-transcending motifs: the landscape, like life itself, shoots past in a blur of image and sensation. Yet the 'unpeeling' of the self, its shedding 'Dead hands' and 'child's cry' alike, does not have a negative con clusion. Like the dew, the speaking subject may melt away in the glare of the sun, but is united with something of great power, creativity and rebirth: 'the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning'. The spiky, uncomfortable images of 'Lady Lazarus' reappear in a more accepting form here. Such a view of this poem might be extended to Ariel as a whole, particularly if we avoid the lure of a death-oriented biographical reading.


Thanks to Helen Blakeman for help with the bibliography.


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Friedan, Betty (1963). The Feminine Mystique, New York: Norton.

Gilbert, Sandra (1979). 'A Fine, White Flying Myth: The Life/Work of Sylvia Plath', Shakespeare's Sister: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Blooming-ton: Indiana University Press.

Hardy, Barbara (1985). 'Enlargement or Derangement?', in Paul Alexander (ed.) Ariel Ascending, New York: Harper & Row.

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LeStage, Gregory (1998). 'Keeping Hungry: Al Alvarez in Conversation with Gregory LeStage', Poetry Review (88) 1, pp. 88-94.

Maguire, Sarah (1998). 'An Old Fresh Grief', Guardian 23 January, p. 11.

Malcolm, Janet (1994). The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, London: Picador.

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Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Plath, Sylvia (1965). Ariel, London: Faber.

Plath, Sylvia (1966). The Bell Jar, London: Faber.

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Roberts, Neil (1999). Narrative and Voice in Postwar Poetry, London: Longman.

Rose, Jacqueline (1991). The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, London: Virago.

Rosenblatt, Jon (1979). Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, Stan (1982). 'Waist-Deep in History: Sylvia Plath', Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Steiner, George (1979) [1965]. 'Dying is an Art', Language and Silence: Essays 1958—1966, Har-mondsworth: Penguin.

Stilwell, Robert L. (1984) [1968]. Review of Ariel, in Linda W. Wagner, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, New York: G. K. Hall.

Strangeways, Al (1996). ' "The Boot in the Face": The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath', Contemporary Literature 37 (3), pp. 370-90.

Uroff, Margaret Dickie (1979). Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Urbana, Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press.

Viner, Katherine (1998). 'The Blood of Poetry', Guardian 20 January, p. 2.

Wagner, Linda W. (1984). Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, New York: G. K. Hall.

Zipes, Jack (ed.) (1991). The Operated Jew: Two Tales of Anti-Semitism, London and New York: Routledge.

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  • boyd
    How to do rabbit catcher?
    3 years ago
  • jarkko paasilinna
    How they awaited him those little deaths?
    2 years ago

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