Red was your colour.
If not red, then white. But red
Was what you wrapped around you.
Blood-red. Was it blood?
Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?
Haematite to make immortal
The precious heirloom bones, the family bones.
When you had your way finally
Our room was red. A judgement chamber.
Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood
Patterned with darkenings, congealments.
The curtains — ruby corduroy blood,
Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.
The cushions the same. The same
Raw carmine along the window-seat.
A throbbing cell. Aztec altar — temple.
Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.
And outside the window
Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail
As the skin on blood,
Salvias, that your father named you after,
Like blood lobbing from the gash,
And roses, the heart’s last gouts,
Catastrophic, arterial, doomed.
Your velvet long full skirt, a swathe of blood,
A lavish burgandy.
Your lips a dipped, deep crimson.
You revelled in red.
I felt it raw — like crisp gauze edges
Of a stiffening wound. I could touch
The open vein in it, the crusted gleam.
Everything you painted you painted white
Then splashed it with roses, defeated it,
Leaned over it, dripping roses,
Weeping roses, and more roses,
Then sometimes, among them, a little blue
Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.
Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco
Folded your pregnancy
In crucible caresses.
Blue was your kindly spirit — not a ghoul
But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.
In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.
But the jewel you lost was blue.
© Ted Hughes. All Rights Reserved.
From the very first line; ‘Red was your colour. / If not red then white’, we can infer that the core conflict presented to the reader in this poem revolves around the contrasting facets of its subject which is believed to be his first wife – Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ adoption of colours as being symbolic of emotion is rather Plath-esque in itself, and as the poem’s subject so happens to be Plath herself, the technique seems even more fitting. In Plath’s poetry, the colour red is often versatile in its interpretations, ranging from being the pinnacle of vitality and life or alternatively blood as a sign of death in her 1962 poem ‘Cut.’ White (as another focus for Hughes in ‘Red’) also poses a weighty significance to Plath, as it consistently epitomizes death and demise. If we apply the same magnitude to the connotations of these colours in Plath’s work (considering that Hughes’ poem itself it about her), in that Hughes directly accuses the subject of being consumed by these ‘colours’ as emotions, we can determine that ‘Red’ serves as an exploration of Plath’s mental endeavors as she walked the line between life and vitality in red, and death and demise in white. Hughes claims that ‘red / was what you wrapped around you’, thus suggesting that Plath as the subject made the conscious effort to wrap herself in the vigor of life, concentrating of surrounding herself with it through ‘the carpet of blood’ and her ‘skirt, a swathe of blood.’ The intense emphasis that Hughes bears on blood in the poem further enhances his subject obsession with the clout of her existence, forcing herself to recognize life’s many spectacles.
However, no matter what the subject of the poem does, the connotations of white will always follow as her own personal phantom. Hughes describes how ‘everything you painted, you painted white / then splashed it with roses.’ This morbid obsession to cover the world in ‘whiteness’ in death and then to drastically ‘defeat it’ may be a reflection of Plath’s macabre fixation with her dead father which she herself explores consistently across her own work, most notably in her poems ‘Daddy’ and Full Fathom Five’ in which she contemplates with disdain the irrevocable opportunity for a relationship with him and concludes that her only method to reach reconciliation would be to ‘breathe water’ and die. With this in mind, our reading of Ted Hughes’ ‘Red’ is abundantly personalized, we can find empathy with Hughes in his struggle to comprehend the complexities of Plath’s internal suffering.
What makes this poem ultimately heartbreaking is the final broken stanza in which Hughes discusses another facet of Plath’s nature in life – the blue that ‘was better for you.’ Now, if we continue to follow suit and refer back to Plath’s own work to decipher the connotations of blue we can find it in such poems as ‘Nick and the Candlestick.’ This poem by Plath draws out its subject very similarly to that of ‘Morning Song’ (of which I have spoken about before). It depicts a mother (which we assume to be Plath) awaking in the night to watch her sleeping child – Plath’s second child Nicholas. Plath opens this poem by setting the scene as being bathed in ‘the light [that] burns blue.’ If we link this back to Red, we can instantly identify that Hughes has chosen to adopt the colour blue in the same way as Plath. He claims that blue ‘folded your pregnancy’, thus clearly referring to her role as a mother, and that ‘blue was wings’ and her ‘kindly spirit.’ As readers, we get the impression that Plath’s ‘blueness’ was the very thing that enthralled Hughes will love and enabled him to endure her bleak spurts of red and whiteness for a time. Red is written with the virtue of hindsight as a part of The Birthday Letters collection, thus enabling Hughes to portray a full reflection of his time with Plath before their divorce and her suicide and in the final stanza we see the only positive language to offset the negativity that red and white brings. In signing off, Hughes depicts blue as a jewel, precious with the right to be treasured, with disastrous consequences should it be lost. But as we know, and as Hughes reminds us with lament; ‘the jewel [Plath] lost was blue’ and she ultimately allowed herself to be consumed by those demons who are inconspicuously shrouded in the colours red and white.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married and had two children between 1956 and 1963.