‘Fever’ is a self-defending free verse composed by Ted Hughes as a response to his wife, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Fever 103⁰.’ The poet dwells on his struggle to keep up with Plath’s unstable condition coupled with her high temperature. By positioning himself as a caring husband attending to all the needs of his wife, Hughes attempts to rule out all the accusatory claims. He provides an alternate picture to his readers to highlight the exaggerated reaction of his wife to a bug fever.
The emphasis on Plath’s mental health as a major cause of concern than her fever distinguishes this poem from Plath’s composition where the focus lied on her physical sin. The poem traces the journey of the couple amid the crisis that eventually leads them to the stage of estrangement, devoid of love and affection. In any case, a truly heart-breaking marriage that ended in tragic event of Plath’s suicide, this poem is quite revealing in terms of its real-life context.
Fever | Summary and Analysis
Fever | Analysis, Lines 1-9
“You had a fever. You had a real ailment.
You had eaten a baddie.
You lay helpless and a little bit crazy
With the fever. You cried for America
And its medicine cupboard. You tossed
On the immovable Spanish galleon of a bed
In the shuttered Spanish house
That the sunstruck outside glare peered into
As into a tomb. ‘Help me,’ you whispered, ‘help me.’”
Hughe’s assertion of Plath’s mental illness in guise of a fever marks the first few lines of the poem. The use of a second person pronoun in contrast to the first person in Plath’s poem ‘Fever 103’ gives an impression of an underlying accusation that the poet is attributing to his wife, in response to her penned verse. He is projecting an alternate scenario to the readers of the days when Plath was suffering physically and mentally.
The first line of the poem sheds light on Plath’s deteriorating condition which was more than a fever caused by her low immunity in a foreign land. Fever is common to humankind. But Hughe’s insistence on her “real ailment” that left his wife “a little bit crazy” directs us to her battle with depression and hysteria. Since the couple was staying in Spain according to the poem, his wife’s longing for America and the “medicine cupboard” symbolises comfort associated with a home and her undergoing therapy. The correlation between America and medicine also subtly hints to the medical advancement in the States as opposed to other parts of the world.
There is an interesting juxtaposition between Plath’s ‘tossing’ on the “immovable” bed that adds to her frenzied and uncontrollable cries as she is trapped in a prison symbolised by the bed. The Spanish house occupied by the couple is no more colourful and lively as it should have been. It is compared to a tomb where the sun is personified to be peeping and witnessing the cries of help.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 10-18
“You rambled. You dreamed you were clambering
Into the well-hatch and, waking, you wanted
To clamber into the well-hatch – the all-clear
Short cut to the cool of the water,
The cool of the dark shaft, the best place
To find oblivion from your burning tangle,
And the foreign bug. You cried for certain
You were going to die.
I bustled about.”
The poem continues with an outright description of Plath’s antics in her disordered mindset with a repetition of the words “clamber” and “well-hatch”. The burning sensation of her body compels her to dream about coolness of the water that would provide her respite from her physical endurance. Her cry for the fear of dying foreshadows her death in subsequent years.
It can also be observed that Plath’s dream about cool waters aims at a momentary escape from her misery. Though she will be able to forget about her fever, she wouldn’t let the world forget about her suffering (both physical and emotional) through her compositions.
As an act of bustling by the speaker, this poem can be interpreted as a quick self-defence on the part of Hughes.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 19-26
“I was nursemaid. I fancied myself at that.
I liked the crisis of the vital role.
I felt things had become real. Suddenly mother,
As a familiar voice, woke in me.
She arrived with the certain knowledge. I made a huge soup.
Carrots, tomatoes, peppers and onions,
A rainbow stir of steaming elixir. You
Had to become a sluice, a conduit”
These lines centralise Hughes as a doting husband who feels substantial in this time of crisis. As a general principle that operates in patriarchy, a man is the protector of the house and he is responsible for the well being of everyone in his family. While the duty of a nurse maid usually burdens a woman of the house, the gender role is reversed in this scenario.
With a wide accessibility to Plath’s works and biographical details, it is a common knowledge that she experienced the lack of an affectionate father-figure in her life. Her husband’s remedial service through preparation of soups and steaming concoctions to hydrate Plath’s body temporarily fills that gap.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 27-37
“Of pure vitamin C. I promised you,
This had saved Voltaire from the plague.
I had to saturate you and flush you
With this simmer of essences.
I spooned it
Into your helpless, baby-bird gape, gently,
Masterfully, patiently, hour by hour.
I wiped your tear-ruined face, your exhausted face,
All loose with woe and abandon.
I spooned more and you gulped it like life,
Sobbing ‘I’m going to die.’”
Hughes claims his remedies to be effective by drawing on a literary reference of the prolific French writer Voltaire. Notice how the “pure vitamin C” here stands in contrast to the “pure acetylene” in Plath’s poem. The necessary intake of the vitamin is indicative of her weak body whereas acetylene exemplified her inflammable power.
These lines are also emblematic of the child-like treatment meted out to Plath with the employment of words such as “spooned”, “helpless”, “baby-bird”, “wiped” and “sobbing”. The stress on the words “masterfully” and “patiently” convey the non-irritability Hughes maintained while nursing his wife.
He also fixates us on her face in the line “I wiped…exhausted face,” with the use of epiphora. Plath’s condition was all consuming and the expression of “gulped it like life” reveal the gradual change in feelings of Hughes towards his wife’s condition which was consuming their marriage as well.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 38-47
“As I paused
Between your mouthfuls, I stared at the readings
On your dials. Your cry jammed so hard
Over into the red of catastrophe
Left no space for worse. And I thought
How sick is she? Is she exaggerating?
And I recoiled, just a little,
Just for balance, just for symmetry,
Into sceptical patience, a little.
If it can be borne, why make so much of it?”
The readings on Plath’s medical dial sows the seed of suspicion in Hughes’ mind regarding her overt display of agony which is an attitude common to men. So he chooses to be silent and ponder over it to understand the situation remarked by the anaphoric use of the word “just”.
The last line is a rhetorical question about the ability of a woman’s body to bear pain and suffering. As a scathing remark, Hughes presents himself as a misogynist who is exhausted by constant lamentation of his wife’s condition.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 48-56
“‘Come on, now,’ I soothed. ‘Don’t be so scared.
It’s only a bug, don’t let it run away with you.’
What I was really saying was: ‘Stop crying wolf.’
Other thoughts, chilly, familiar thoughts,
Came across the tightrope: ‘Stop crying wolf,
Or else I shall not know, I shall not hear
When things get really bad.’
It seemed easy
Watching such thoughts come up in such good time.”
But as a husband, he had to calm her down when on the inside he was beginning to feel frustrated. He regarded her cries for help as pretentious and vain because he wanted Plath to be practical and save such strong emotions for worse times ahead. A bad bug is not worth her wailing. Apparently.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 57-68
“Plenty of time to think: ‘She is crying
As if the most impossible of all
Horrible things had happened –
Had already happened, was going on
Still happening, with the whole world
Too late to help.’ Then the blank thought
Of the anaesthesia that helps creatures
Under the polar ice, and the callous
That eases overwhelmed doctors. A twisting thought
Of the overload of dilemma, the white-out,
That brings baffled planarian worms to a standstill
Where they curl up and die.”
Hughes’ denial of Plath’s fever as something monumental is astounding as he dedicates an entire poem to her miserable condition. He indirectly also suggests his wife’s heightened reaction to her feverish body as equivalent to her possible knowledge about his extra-marital affair. Everyone knows what shall be considered as the worst case amongst the two.
Realising the futility of his pacification, he conjures up an unimaginable solution i.e. to anesthetize his wife that would silence her. This preoccupation with death is also highlighted in Plath’s poem ‘Fever 103’ and Hughes’ striking confession of the concerned thought evidences the claims raised by Plath in her autobiographical letters.
Fever | Analysis, Lines 69-71
“You were overloaded. I said nothing.
I said nothing. The stone man made soup.
The burning woman drank it.”
The last set of lines reflects the estrangement that the couple harboured during their last years of marriage. The accentuation of Hughes’ silence when he writes “I said nothing” leaves an impression of his self- defensive position. Their identities have been reduced to a heartless man (stone) and feverish woman (burning) now following only the social relationship between a patient and a nurse.