Ted Hughes’ Capriccio and the Kabbalah

  Notes found in Ted Hughes’ loose leaf notebook in the British Library summarise the story of a Jewish Talmudist, Rabbah bar Hannah, who set down  his life story of perilous adventures,etching them onto a rock. Kabbalah (Hebrew קַבָּלָה‎)  literally mens “receiving/tradition”. It is an ancient series of spiritual teachings originating in the twelfth century BC, in the town of Safed in […]

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Assia and Shibboleth

Why did Ted Hughes call one of his poems in the Capriccio sequence ‘Shibboleth’? Perhaps the title is a comment on Assia’s upper-crust British accent, which failed to gain her acceptance Into London’s society. A shibboleth, in biblical times, was a linguistic marker to distinguish the outsider. The last line of Hughes’ poem ‘Shibboleth’ reads ‘lick of the tar brush?’ In my chapter ‘Shibboleth’ Assia’s German  accent (Hochdeutch) betrays her origins, leading to an anti-Semitic attack on her by the innkeeper’s wife. In another chapter, Assia muses ‘my differences will never go away’. Image of Assia Wevill from www. Pinterest..com

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The meaning of Shibboleth

A shibboleth is a linguistic marker that is characteristic of members of a group, which is used by another group to identify members of the first group. Such identification typically has bad consequences for the members thus identified. The story behind the word is recorded in the biblical Book of Judges. The word shibboleth in ancient Hebrew dialects meant ‘ear of grain’ (or, some say, ‘stream’). Some groups pronounced it with a sh sound, but speakers of related dialects pronounced it with an s. In the story, two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, have a great battle. The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered. Adapted from: Words in English public website Ling/Engl 215 course information Rice University Prof. S. Kemmer  

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SHIBBOLETH: an excerpt from ‘Capriccio:a novel’

Note: This chapter comes half way through the novel. Assia has returned from a clandestine trip to Spain with her lover, Ted Hughes. She and her husband are on a holiday in Germany, when Assia discovers she’s pregnant. Chapter 13. SHIBBOLETH Germany, October 1962 The countryside in autumn was beautiful; in the forest, russet and gold leaves quivered on the great pine trees, standing tall and straight like sentinels. After picnicking in the shaded woods on dark pumpernickel bread, and cream cheese with paprika, their walk had slowed. It was getting dark, and both of them were weary. Towards nightfall they reached a pretty little township, straight out of Hansel and Gretel. Assia felt at home in this rural village, as if she’d returned to the enchanted life of her early childhood, when she was protected by her mother, adored by her father, and cossetted by her German grandparents. She felt faint, and in spite of her fears, protective of the tiny life that might be growing inside her. Her body craved rest. She imagined sinking into clean white sheets under an eiderdown filled with soft goose feathers. ‘Let’s stay here tonight, darling. I’m worn out, and that little gasthaus we passed just now looks so welcoming. Not nearly as dilapidated as some of the houses here. I remember those little inns, like our bed-and-breakfast cottages in England. Vati and Mutti used to take me and Cissy to little gasthausen […]

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