When Ted Met Sylvia
The first meeting between the two poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in February 1956 was, by her account, a rather dramatic event. “and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off……..and my favorite silver earrings:………And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”
Hughes’ rather less graphic account of the evening came more than forty years later in a poem called St. Botolph’s - the venue of the party in Cambridge where they met and the name of a literary magazine of which Hughes was the editor.
Plath-Hughes First Meeting
8.30 p.m. GMT (0) , 25 February 1956
Cambridge UK, 52N13, 000E08’
Falcon Yard, Cambridge, where Hughes and Plath first met at a party held in the Women’s Union.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath married in June 1956 and ended with Sylvia Plath’s suicide on 11 February 1963 in the middle of the “Big Freeze” - one of England’s worst winters ever recorded.
Their mutual interest in astrology is reflected in Hughes’s poem which contains various astrological references but were these accurate or did they allow for a certain amount of poetic licence?
To answer this question we need three charts - natal charts for Plath and Hughes and the chart for their first meeting.
Although we don’t have the exact time they first met I have used 8.30 p.m. which places the ascendant of 8 Libra conjunct Sylvia Plath’s Moon. I have taken a time of exactly 1 a.m. for Hughes’ birth (for which there seem to be two family sources including a letter from Hughes himself)
rather than the widely used rectified time of 1.12 a.m.
I prefer the 1 a.m. chart with the ascendant in late Gemini which seems more appropriate for such an eminent wordsmith as Hughes rather than the early Cancer ascendant of the 1.12 a.m. chart.
Here is the first section of St. Botolphs, which contains all the astrological references:
“Our magazine was merely an overture
To the night and the party. I had predicted
Disastrous expense: a planetary
Certainty, according to Prospero’s book.
Jupiter and the full moon conjunct
Opposed Venus. Disastrous expense
According to that book. Especially for me.
The conjunction combust my natal Sun.
Venus pinned exact on my mid-heaven.
For a wait-and-see astrologer- so what?
Touch of a bat’s wing easily exorcised.
Our Chaucer would have stayed at home with his Dante.
Locating the planets more precisely,
He would have pondered it deeper. What else? I left it
For serious astrologers to worry
That conjunction, conjunct my Sun, conjunct
With your natal ruling Mars. And Chaucer
Would have pointed to that day’s Sun in the Fish
Conjunct your Ascendant exactly
Opposite my Neptune and fixed
In my tenth House of good and evil fame.
Our Chaucer, I think, would have sighed.
He would have assured us, shaking his sorrowful head,
That day the solar system married usWhether we knew it or not.”
Now let’s look at the accuracy of each of those astrological references in turn:
1. “Jupiter and the Full Moon conjunct”
The Moon is at 3 18’ Virgo and the Sun at 6 14’ Pisces - the full moon is three degrees away and occurred just over five hours after this chart is set at 1.42 a.m. on 26 February. Jupiter is at 25 17’ Leo, almost exactly eight degrees away from the Moon so the conjunction exists.
2. “Jupiter and the Moon opposed to Venus”
If these two planets were opposed to Venus they would certainly
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on their honeymoon in June 1956.
suggest “disastrous expense” - it is an aspect of excess. Venus, however, is at 17 13’ Aries forming a loose trine with Jupiter rather than an opposition and making no major aspect to the Sun or Moon.
3. “Disastrous expense according to that book. Especially for me.”
A Jupiter-Venus trine especially with Jupiter in extravagant Leo and Venus in detriment in Aries - might indicate a touch of overspending but it isn’t the aspect which Hughes cites. – Although an opposition between Jupiter and Venus is a stronger indicator of extravagance it did not exist on the night of 25 February 1956.
The use of the word “disastrous” (twice) looks deliberate as its root meaning is from the French “désastreux” (ill-starred or unlucky) and the Latin “dis” and “astro” (separated from the stars and therefore not being helped by them.
1.12 a.m. BST (-1), 17 August 1930
Mytholmroyd, UK, 53N44, 001W59
4. “The conjunction combust my natal sun”
Ted Hughes’ natal sun was at 23 22’ Leo so Jupiter was just a couple of degrees away from his sun at the time of the meeting and therefore conjunct.
Combustion occurs when a planet is in the same sign as the Sun and between 0 17’ and 8 30’ away from it. The term combustion is important in traditional astrological techniques but was not so widely known when Hughes wrote the poem in the mid 1990s before the resurgence of traditional astrological techniques. Its mention in the poem suggests
Hughes’ astrological knowledge was quite detailed.
5. “Venus pinned exact on my mid-heaven”
This reference does not appear to make sense if we use the rectified birth time for Hughes of 1.12 a.m. when the mid-heaven was 23 20’ Aquarius - nearly 60 degrees away from Venus which was at 17 12’ Aries on the night of his first meeting with Sylvia Plath. Although there has been some dispute about the exact time of Hughes’s birth the discussion is only around the area of 1 a.m. For Venus to be conjunct Hughes’s natal Midheaven on the night of 25 February 1956 he would have had to be born around 4.30 a.m.
A possible solution is that one word was missed out or that an astrological idea was implied - Venus is at 17 13’ Aries and in Hughes’s natal chart Uranus is at 15 06’ Aries, Uranus being the modern ruler of Aquarius.
Insert the word “ruler” into the above line so that it reads “Venus pinned exact on my Midheaven ruler” and astrological sense is restored. Alternatively, if “ruler” is omitted then the idea might simply be implied rather than explicit.
6. “That conjunction conjunct my sun”
Using wide orbs, on the date they met, Jupiter at 25 17’ Leo conjunct the full Moon at 3 18’ Virgo were conjunct Hughes’s Sun at 23 22’ Leo as well as his Neptune at 2 56’ Virgo;
7. “Conjunct with your natal ruling Mars”
A planet which rules the sign in which the sun is placed is sometimes referred to as the “ruling planet” of the chart. In this case, Mars is at 21 14’ Leo in Plath’s chart so Jupiter on the night of the meeting is certainly conjunct her Mars as it is only four degrees away. The Moon at 3 18’ Virgo is thirteen degrees away from Plath’s Mars which is too big a gap for an aspect to count. However, because the Moon is conjunct Jupiter which is conjunct Mars the Moon is counted as being conjunct Mars by virtue of its connection through Jupiter.
2.10 p.m. EST (+5), 27 October 1932
Boston MA, USA, 42N21, 071W03
8. “that day's Sun in the Fish.”
The Sun was at 6 14’ Pisces on 25 February 1956 and Pisces is signified by two fishes.
9. “Conjunct your Ascendant exactly.”
The sun is not quite “conjunct [Plath’s] ascendant exactly” but 6 52’ away from it - within a generally accepted orb.
10. “Opposite my Neptune”
The sun forms a close opposition to Hughes’s Neptune at 2 56’ Virgo.
11. “fixed In my tenth House”
This is correct if we use a birth time of either 1.00 a.m. or 1.12 a.m. for Hughes. The Sun at 6 14’ Pisces falls right slap in the middle of Hughes’ tenth house and tallies with a birth time around 1 a.m. rather than the 4.30 a.m. needed to have “Venus pinned exact on my mid-heaven.”
12. “That day the solar system married us whether we knew it or not”
These are perhaps the most powerful lines of the poem. Apart from the connections which Hughes makes between the charts the following major aspects existed on 25 February 1956:
Ted Hughes’s progressed Moon was conjunct his North Node
Ted Hughes’s progressed Venus was conjunct Sylvia Plath’s natal Sun
Sylvia Plath’s Directed Solar Arc South Node was exactly conjunct Ted Hughes’s natal Venus.
Sylvia Plath’s Directed Solar Arc Venus was exactly inconjunct Hughes’s natal Moon
As Hughes says elsewhere in the poem:
“Our Chaucer would have stayed at home…….locating the planets more precisely.”
Neither Hughes not Plath were probably aware of these last aspects but they are an extremely powerful cocktail indicating a fated relationship - what the parties did with those circumstances was in the gift of their freewill.
In summary we can say that the majority of Ted Hughes’s astrological references in St. Botolph’s were accurate although there are one or two which require a bit of a stretch and a couple which make no apparent sense or which are wrong.
Reading the poem as a poem rather than as an astrological textbook is perhaps a better way to enjoy the poetry in a literary sense. However, for those who are versed in astrology the threading of astrological imagery through this poem provides an additional source of beauty not available to the ordinary reader.
This may be the first poem to have utilised astrological imagery to such an extent since Chaucer was writing in the fourteenth century or Shakespeare nearly two hundred years later which is one indication of the extent to which the connection with planetary mythology was lost – “disastrous!”
1. See re. date of first meeting. Note that the date of 26 February is the date of Sylvia Plath’s journal entry which describes the meeting the previous evening.
2. See for details of Ted Hughes's birth data "Sy Scholfield thus speculates that 1 a.m. was the time given to him by family (giving 28 Gemini rising) and 1:12am was a later rectification……In a letter to Olwyn (dated Late Summer 1962), Hughes writes, ‘by progression I now have Leo in the Ascendant instead of Cancer, which just about expressed the change I feel’ (p. 205).’ Now at about age 32, if he was progressing his chart using a simple degree-for-a-year system then his ascendant would have moved 32 degrees from about 28 Gemini to 00 Leo. This also suggests a birth time of 1am with 28 Gemini rising in the natal chart.”
On 31 May 2015 Susan Carmichael writes: "Brother Gerald Hughes' "Ted and I: A Brother's Memoir" on page 15 reports 1:00 a.m."
3. This refers to Prospero’s book of spells in The Tempest by William Shakespeare which Hughes imagines contains astrological information although the contents of the book is not actually revealed in Shakespeare’s play.
4. p. 14 Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, Faber, 1999.
© Jonathon Clark 2015 - 2021