The Minotaur – Ted Hughes

The Minotaur

The mythical allusion of the title sets the poem, the multi-syllable description adds value and significance. The significant positioning of responsibility  through the dictation choice “smashed” and “demented”. the Pronund : my/ you are separate participants – emphasis on the argument and conflict. The Minotaur is a classical story, half man and half bull, in my own imagination when I think of Plath in her violent swings I think of a bull in a China Shop. But the Minotaur is actually Plaths father- only a little unflattering right? This Minotaur ate seven boys and seven girls. It is important to remember that the representation of Plath is not Plath.


In this poem the tone is specifically blame, as this one sided conversation is directed at specifically Plath. His criticism ironically becomes the basis for encouragement, with him as her mentor, a nother topic open for discussion by each of the poets “followers”. The first stanza is giving us some history.

The mahogany table top you smashed

Of my mother’s heirloom sideboard-
Mapped with the scars of my whole life.

Hughes addresses Plath directly, as she is the ‘you’ who destroyed his mothers sideboard, something we assume was somewhat important to him. “Scars of my whole life” symbolize indignation.

…That day
Demented by my being
Twenty minutes late for baby minding,

The second stanza, “That day” – a factual recount, is filled with emotion, of her rage, the use of the word “demented” is extremely strong. He belittles the source/ cause for this anger by pointing out a trivial thing “By my being twenty minutes late”, this can be seen as an example of her aggression from something so small, it is even as if her rage knows no bounds.  He is setting the audience up to understand from his side how hard it could be to deal with her. This also emphasizes her abnormal behavior – witnessed by their children.

‘Marvellous!’ I shouted, ‘Go on,
Smash it into kindling.
That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!’

The third stanza brings a new tone, one of encouragement, to a reader it sounds almost sarcastic when read aloud. He has set himself up as her mentor, encouraging the rage to flow through her poems, and if you have ever read Daddy then you know exactly what I am taking about. “The stuff” that Hughes believes Plath is keeping out of her poems alludes to her misrepresenting herself  in her poetry.

The fourth stanza in my opinion is where it starts to get interesting and catching, Hughes uses encouragement such as “And we’ll be away” as a good  natured apology, “considered and calmer,” The sarcasm and anger are response to her violence before he recovers.

The goblin snapped his fingers
So what had I given him?

The demonic image is placed in our mind, it can be seen as a change in Plath, her rage, mischief maker, nasty, evil or passion. The non-human influences of Plath in reality. The rhetorical question is him asking if he is responsible for the path she took, was he responsible for Arial? Was he the topic? Was it his contribution to her poetry what destroyed her? This rhetorical question can also be a scape goat, he unintentionally did this without knowing or understanding gave advice which worked against her mental health.
For Hughes it can be seen as a moment of clarity, illumination for an internal aspect in Plath, “deep in the cave of your ear” – his consolidation that it may have been him who woke the goblin inside her which caused her destruction.

The fifth stanza is the direct relation to the minataur, the “skein” to which he is refering is the thread used to get out of the labyrinth in the old tales, Hughes has a vast knowledge of myths in his other poems, so it is not surprising that he has used one to liken her to a tale like this. The second line of this stanza is in second person, he is isolating himself from the blame of the breakdown of his marriage to her.

Left your children echoing

To us this may just be related to a separation of parents or a divorce but he is making direct reference to her suicide in which she did something unusual, he made her children a snack, sealed them off from the rest of her house before she killed herself. They can be seen as a sacrifice, she is no longer alive in the labyrinth. This is guilt for Plath, her effect on others was to leave them isolated, vulnerable and frightened.

Hughes also uses the word left to symbolise the consequences of her death, not only on her children but on her mother also. The responsibility  she had left.

Left your mother a dead-end

Plaths father is a regular occurrence as a theme for things related to Plath, look at The Shot, Her father is represented by both very defiantly, sometimes as a god and other times as a devil. In this poem her father is the horror at the centre of the labyrinth of her life “Horned, Bellowing”, a reversal of the Christ figure though risen – in the original they are free, but in this, Hughes makes her confined forever- dead. The tone is lost and diminished, emptiness.

And your own corpse in it

A final chilling image – as if Plath wanted to join him in her own lonely end but no reunion was made.

The rhythm of the final line – the single syllables produces an empathic and conclusive feel. Choice is the crucial point in the poem, Hughes directs blame, she owns her actions  “your mariage” – he is freeing himself from responsibility as if it was doomed from the beginning rather than the liberating tale.

The mahogany table-top you smashed 
Had been the broad plank top
Of my mother’s heirloom sideboard-
Mapped with the scars of my whole life.

That came under the hammer.
That high stool you swung that day
Demented by my being
Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.

‘Marvellous!’ I shouted, ‘Go on,
Smash it into kindling.
That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!’
And later, considered and calmer,

‘Get that shoulder under your stanzas
And we’ll be away.’ Deep in the cave of your ear
The goblin snapped his fingers.
So what had I given him?

The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth.

Left your mother a dead-end,
Brought you to the horned, bellowing
Grave of your risen father
And your own corpse in it.


2 thoughts on “The Minotaur – Ted Hughes

  1. He doesnt “blame” or “free himself from responsibility.” Throughout ‘Birthday Letters’ he allows readers to come to thier own conclusion, and utilises the poems in a way to show that he too, does not have all the answers to the destruction of thier marriage. But in some of the poems, he describes the events that lead up to that, and doesn’t directly point “blame” at Plath.

    • Hi Sienna,
      I’m glad to hear another persons opinion on this. I think Hughes is constantly giving us little signs of how Plath was over time. I think after rereading the poem for like hundredth time maybe rather than pointing the finger, it can be seen as him giving justification. Obviously we all interpret the collection differently, and this was just my take on it.

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