Death Of The Author: Sylvia Plath & Sir Thomas Wyatt

Is Knowledge of both writing and reading contexts important to our understanding of texts?

In answering the question as to whether or not the knowledge of both reading and writing contexts is important to the understanding of texts, I have chosen to use the texts ‘The Hind’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt[1] and ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath[2]. In order to understand why both reading and writing contexts are important to the understanding of the text we must compare and contrast the differences and similarities within these two pieces of writing. In my essay I will also refer to the essay by Roland Barthes, “the Death of the Author”[3] as his insight into the re-contextualizing of texts is important in answering the question.

When looking at a text we must consider the context it was written in, the historical, cultural, social and intellectual surroundings of the time. When reading a text synchronically we are virtually reading it at the same time it had been written and thus understand its context, but when we read a text diachronically the surrounding context impacts the meaning that future readers will derive from it[4]. This relationship between text and context is highly dynamic and therefore the readers all bring their own individual interpretation which then re-contextualizes it.
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet ‘The Hind’ was written in the sixteenth century, being read in sixteenth century context the sonnet is about his feelings for Anne Boleyn, which he refers to as the deer, and the fact that she is betrothed to Henry VIII, who he refers to as “Caesar”. In the writing context, the metaphor of the hind, the hunt and Caesar is important as at the time Wyatt could not write about King Henry VIII. The poem conveys his frustration and exhaustion in this grand chase, clearly it is more than the hunt of a female dear and in the last four lines his vocabulary turns more literal and honest:

“… And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
and wild for to hold, though I seem tame… “[5]

She wears a necklace with diamonds spelling out the last couplet of the poem, a phrase from the Latin Vulgate: ‘touch me not’, for I belong to Caesar, a warning against interfering or against touching her, this is also a reference to when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, and asked her not to touch him, this also has a biblical reference.

When reading this text diachronically it is evident that the meanings and ideologies based around this poem are not the same, for example the theoretical ideas by Bennett and Royle, in the chapter Sexual differences[6], argue that this sonnet is about gender stereotyping and the metaphor used is about dominance and submission, “ [the] Man is the hunter, [and the] Woman is the hunted”[7], she is even referred to as a hind, not a woman but a female dear, ready to be hunted by a man. The man is the subject and the woman, the object. Bennet and Royle introduce the idea of essentialism[8], the idea that there is essentially one deference between male and female, boys and girls, women and men, this notion consists of biological (men have a penis and women do not) and anatomical differences, this idea that men are strong active and rational and the female is weak, passive and irrational.

Also the form the text is written in, it is written in sonnet form a technique used in that period, not so much today this also shows evidence of the context it was written in as it would have been written differently in 2010.

Bennett and Royle explain in the chapter 14 “History”,[9] that “literary texts belong to no particular time; they are universal and transcend history” throughout time a text gains different types of discourse (biblical, classical, colonial, philosophical, scientific and military) in this respect we can consider the idea that a series of overlapping discourses and codes re-contextualise the meaning.

In Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”,[10] Plath shows her intense emotions towards her father and husband, the structure of this poem seems to be written throughout her entire lifetime as it starts at the beginning when she loses her father, her emotions at that stage were still naïve, then replaces her father with a man who parallels him in personality and habit. Throughout the poem she begins to wizen up to the men in her life and begin illustrating her aggression and hatred. The use of strong metaphors and the references to the holocaust, and Nazism show that this poem was written with the intentions of referring to the Nazi War, another aspect of written context.

Sylvia Plath uses many symbols to draw the readers attention to the cultural and historical problems of the time that this poem was written in, such as; the swastika and Meinkampf, the reference to Hitler (historical) and the Devil (biblical), Plath is making it very clear the this poem is about her hatred for Nazism and her dead father. Throughout the poem we see Plath begin to grow, from the voice of a child, to the voice of a strong woman. In the last three stanzas she says “So daddy, I’m finally through”[11] and reinforces this epiphany with, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”[12] and after this the beat has changed, Plath has finally come to terms with her issues and has finally let it out.
This poem is clearly refers to the war and the way in which it has affected her, this is important as it provides evidence that the space around the author is pulled into the text i.e. Nazism and biblical references.

In the chapter the author by Bennett and Royle,[13] they examine the ideas by Barthes’s essay “the Death of the Author” he explains that the author is not god and that the author is not the end of the meaning to the text. Barthes ends his essay with the proposal that with the death of the author gain the birth of the reader, this quote from the essay explains in depth;
“We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and crash”.[14]

This extract of the essay is relevant to answering this question, as it explains that there are multiple layers of meaning given to the text by the author and then again by the reader who interprets and adds their own meaning, therefore also giving a reason as to why reading a text diachronically and synchronically is very different.

In the sonnet the Hind by Sir Thomas Wyatt, it is evident that both reading and writing contexts are important to the understanding of the text; we can see that when reading the sonnet in today’s world we understand that it is about gender-stereotyping, but when we learn what it is really about (Anne Boleyn) we can see it through the eyes of Thomas Wyatt, the author. When we read the poem by Sylvia Plath we can see how the world around the author affects the writing and meaning, through symbols and imagery Plath manages to suck us into her world of Nazi’s and bad fathers, even though we are reading it in today’s time. It is clearly evident that the knowledge of both the reading and writing contexts are important to our understanding of the text, as with the “Death of the Author”, we gain the “Birth of the reader”[15].

Referenced Material

[1] Sir Thomas Wyatt. “The Hind”, the Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse. Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 1932. (Reader pg 34)
[2] Sylvia Plath. “Daddy”. Ariel, Faber and Faber, London 1968 ( Reader pg 98-99)
[3] Bennett and Royle, An introduction to literature, criticism and theory. Chapter 3, the Author, Pg 23.
[4] Lecture notes, Week 2, vUWS website, English Text and Writing, 2010.
[5] Sir Thomas Wyatt. “The Hind”, the Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse. Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 1932. (Reader pg 34)

[6] Bennett and Royle, An introduction to literature, criticism and theory. Chapter 20, Sexual Differences, Pg 179-187.
[7] Bennett and Royle, An introduction to literature, criticism and theory. Chapter 20, Sexual Differences, Pg 181.
[8] Ibid
[9] Bennett and Royle, An introduction to literature, criticism and theory. Chapter 14, History, Pg 117-127.
[10] Sylvia Plath. “Daddy”. Ariel, Faber and Faber, London 1968 ( Reader pg 98-99)

[11] Sylvia Plath. “Daddy”. Ariel, Faber and Faber, London 1968 ( Reader pg 98-99)

[12] Ibid
[13] Bennett and Royle, An introduction to literature, criticism and theory. Chapter 3, the Author, Pg 23.

[14] Ibid
[15] Bennett and Royle, An introduction to literature, criticism and theory. Chapter 3, the Author, Pg 23.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s