The Brevity of Life The repetition of the word “daffodils” in “Perfect Light” is more than a technique of style to make the poem cohesive. It is also evidence of the dominant theme that runs through many of the poems in Birthday Letters: life is preciously short, and even shorter for those who take their own life. The word appears five times in this poem. Three times the word “daffodils” is used with the word “like” to make a direct comparison between the subject, Plath, and the daffodils. Hughes presents such a powerful, recurrent connection between them that the flowers become his ill-fated wife as she becomes them. The basis of this relationship and the glue that holds it together is the brevity of life, both that of the daffodils and Plath’s. In a poem called “Daffodils” from this collection, Hughes writes that “We knew we’d live for ever. We had not learned / What a fleeting glance of the everlasting / Daffodils are. . . . the rarest ephemera— / Our own days!” What a fleeting glance and rare ephemera Plath’s life turned out to be. As “Perfect Light” declares, she had but one spring to live among her daffodils, and though the flowers would return the following year, Plath would not.
A theme purporting the shortness of human life may seem too obvious to be of much value, but it is made more complex here because the brevity is helped along by suicide. A poem about the death of an elderly person or someone who is killed or succumbs to disease is certainly worthwhile and not unexpected. But in “Perfect Light,” the grim reality of a woman’s death by gassing herself in the kitchen oven is remarkably contrasted by the personification of her in tender spring flowers. Hughes had the advantage of writing this poem some years after Plath died; had he written it the same day the photograph was taken, he may have concentrated on the beauty of the daffodils and the serenity of the countryside, comparing only those items to his wife and children. As it was, however, the flowers came to represent something more pressing, something darker in their lives, and Hughes makes that clear through the repetition of one word.
Innocence versus Knowledge Another compelling theme in this poem is the tension between innocence and knowledge, between the perfect light of blameless simplicity and the perfect light into which knowledge fades, leaving one blind to it. Throughout the entire first stanza, which is nearly twice as long as the second, Hughes stresses over and over again the innocent physical appearance and emotional demeanor of his wife, their children, and the overall setting of the photograph that inspired the work. If the poem ended after line 14, the theme would be only innocence and would conclude with an intriguing yet still expected outcome. But the second stanza presents an about-face, taking place inside the speaker’s mind instead of within the setting of the photograph and exploring the effect of knowledge on the naiveté of both the speaker and the woman in the picture.
Knowledge is ironic here; it is both horrible and unattainable. It is horrible for the speaker because he can never know what words of wisdom, or simple, loving platitudes his wife spoke to their daughter as the picture was snapped. Just as sadly, it is unattainable for the woman because she is completely unaware of what her next moment will bring. If there must be a victor in the struggle between innocence and knowledge, Hughes awards the title to the latter, as...
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he expresses by the end of the poem.
The word “innocence” is nowhere to be found in the second stanza. Something quite the opposite now dominates the scene, along with the concept of failure and inability. Neither knowledge nor time can make its destination, and both would-be recipients suffer for it—Plath with her life and Hughes with a lifetime of haunting memories and unanswered questions. The sudden shift from daffodils and teddy bears to an infantryman and no-man’s land gives testament to the tormented emotions with which the poet was left after his first wife’s suicide. It was also the knowledge that remained, a knowledge that came to dominate so much of Hughes’s work, though he managed to conceal its direct source until the publication of Birthday Letters.