“The Rabbit Catcher” for Tommy

by Jess Paps
One of my favorite poems, a favorite of Tommy’s too, is “The Rabbit Catcher” by Sylvia Plath.  The poem symbolically marks the end of her marriage to Ted Hughes and the beginning of a new poetic voice and style. The following passage is entirely from a book I’m reading called Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook, in which the author is fascinated by the dialogue that occured between the two poets in their work. They often borrowed and altered images from each other’s work to communicate in highly personal puzzles- The Rabbit Catcher is one example. Enjoy!

The Rabbit Catcher

It was a place of force—
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.

There was only one place to get to.
Simmering, perfumed,
The paths narrowed into the hollow.
And the snares almost effaced themselves—
Zeros, shutting on nothing,

Set close, like birth pangs.
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.
The glassy light was a clear wall,
The thickets quiet.

I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands round a tea mug, dull, blunt,
Ringing the white china.
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.

And we, too, had a relationship—
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.


“During the weeks following the Wevills’ visit, [Assia Wevill was an artist who would soon become Ted Hughe’s lover- he would leave Plath for her, and later she would commit suicide with their young daughter by gas oven fumes, as Plath had]  Plath was writing poems that give off stark signals of distress: “The Rabbit Catcher,” “Event,” “Appreshensiors,” and “The Other.” These were not poems about Hughes’s infidelity; they were poems about feeling the tightly meshed gears of their relationship began to disengage. In retrospect, that deterioration appears subtle and psychologically comlex, and potentially terminal.

Plath’s poem is like a short story. A woman is walking on a hot day in the countryside when she spots a line of snares set by a rabbit catcher. She imagines the man who set them as waiting in his own kitchen in a state akin to sexual arousal, and envisions her husband as this man, herself as his prey.

“hands round a tea mug, blunt…

How they awaited him, those littel deaths!…

And we, too, had a relationship–”

Plath’s “The Rabbit Catcher” is unmistakably a response to “Rabbit Snared in the Night by D.H. Lawrence which Hughes put into her hands.  (Her own gamekeeper. Had a relationship) Plath’s retort to the private message she found in Hughes’s work, the rabbit/hare has aquired exchange value: they were playing an obsessive game of tag with each other’s images.

By May 1962, when Plath wrote this poem, her art had begun moving out from under Hughes’s influence, and out from under Lawrence’s influence too. April and May 1962 are the dates in Plath’s Complete Poems in which arises the sudden, unaccountable concision of her late style…what I think we can agree to call Plath’s genius: the extreme, clenched, assertion of metaphorical thought traveling in short stanza-bursts, each line a snare closing on emotional quarry.  Had a relationship.  The Rabbit Catcher is an elegy for everything that had to be outgrown in her femininity to aquire such clarity, such mastery within the medium of the distinctive poetic method and subject matter that would make her name.

Hughes also writes a poem he titles “Rabbit Catcher”– written much later and published in Birthday Letter (1998)- is in dialogue with this very aspect of Plath’s poem: its resistence to him, and where it was coming from. It is not an acknowledgement of guilt or a plea to be forgiven. Instead it registers  his retrospective recognition that he and Plath had reached, simultaneously, the end of their apprenticeships as poets. In actual life their romance had ended; the presence of two children had reorganized the emotional dynamics of their household. The consequence for each of them, as a married couple and as artists, would be a separation.

In “Rabbit Catcher,” he recalls watching Plath rip the snares from the ground.

“In those snares

…Had you caught something in me,

Nocturnal and unknown to me?”

In this poem, he has question; in this poem, he experiences his own strangeness, through empathy with her fear and despair… he knows he is being looked at.

What had she seen? There is no evidence that Hughes had been unfaithful to Plath before this time; but falling in love with Assia Wevill inagurated a practive that he pursued for the rest of his life: the creation alongside his marriage, a kind of inner game preserve. Hughe’s “Rabbit Catcher” suggests that he thought Plath had been clairvoyant about this turn his life was going to take. Not just that he would enter into an adulterous affair with Wevill, but that his life as an artist henceforth would require his wife’s acceptance of the sexual practices to which his deepest inspiration was attached.

About a month after Plath wrote “The Rabbit Catcher,” Hughes had his first assignation with Assia Wevill.” And, no less than a year later, Plath would be dead.

-Diane Middlebrook, Her Husband


One Response to “The Rabbit Catcher” for Tommy

  1. Bernadette says:

    an awesome poem kindling the passion of all women readers!!

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