Pursuit is probably the most erotic poem from Sylvia Plath. It was written almost immediately after the great poetess met her handsome husband-to-be, the poet, Ted Hughes. The poem presents the image of the persona (Plath) as being the prey of this powerful, irresistible, and ultimately destructive panther (Hughes).
To see herself as a type of prey to the biggest seducer of Cambridge (1), and to acknowledge the possibility of destruction under the hands (paws?) of this powerful predator is very telling of the gut-pull, the incredible attraction between two of the world’s greatest Literary minds. Plath knows the danger of this attraction, which is why the persona in this piece attempts to run, to bolt each door behind her—all the while knowing that running is futile.
There is also that fear of becoming one of the ‘charred and ravened women,’ which she describes in the poem. But despite this knowledge, this fear, she too is drawn to the panther. Her blood ‘quickens, gonging in (her) ears.’ That, perhaps, shows how the magnetic pull between them is beyond the persona’s control.
And of course, there is that telling second line: “One day I’ll have my death of him.” Self-fulfilling prophecy? That is still debatable. The way I read it, it is Plath’s acknowledgement of the depths of her emotions for Hughes.
By Sylvia Plath
Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.
Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.
Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?
Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.
Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.
In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.
Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.
Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.
His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?
I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.
His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.
Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:
The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
Note: ‘Biggest seducer in Cambridge’ came from the book, ‘Her Husband’ by Diane Middlebrook.