Ted Hughes' 'Birthday Letters' makes it clear, once and for all, whom his silence has been protecting all these years -- his children.
Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy.
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
She cannot even remember you. And we sold them.
It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them.
On the dust jacket of Ted Hughes’ “Birthday Letters” is a photographic detail of the floral embroidery on a shawl made in northern India. The product of a long tradition of needlework by men, the shawls of Kashmir are made of fine wool stitched with intricately detailed paisley or floral patterns in deep colors — reds, blues, greens, pinks, golds. If you turn one over, you’ll see on its underside the messy, knotted shadow of the finished work. Turn it over to its right side and the shawl is precisely and minutely embroidered over its entire surface, embellished by a graceful design of curving lines, leaves and flowers.
Even more richly patterned than a Kashmir shawl — made by a man, an adornment for a woman — the “Birthday Letters” is a collection of poems into which Ted Hughes has stitched words, phrases and images from Sylvia Plath’s poetry and from the complexity that was their marriage. Hughes’ decision to break his long silence about Plath by creating a poetic counterpoint to Plath’s work and experience makes it easy to draw two possible conclusions about the book. One is that Hughes’ new work is, simply, a valentine to his dead wife, who, swamped by “the unthinkable old despair and the new agony” (“Visit”), ended her own life 35 years ago this month. The second conclusion, crass and ultimately ludicrous but the one likely to be drawn by the people who have for three decades called him a murderer, is that Hughes has finally “silenced” Sylvia Plath by folding her words into his own. Yet “Birthday Letters” has a far more profound purpose than either of those offered by a clean side/messy side polarity, which Hughes makes clear on the book’s dedication page. The poems in “Birthday Letters” are for Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, the two children Plath left behind.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Your son’s eyes, which had unsettled us …
Became wet jewels,
The hardest substance of the purest pain
As I fed him in his high white chair.
Great hands of grief were wringing and wringing
His wet cloth of face.
(“Life After Death”)
Hughes’ careful control of Plath’s literary estate has become legendary among the Plath cultifiers. He is notorious for refusing interviews, charged with self-serving edits of unflattering material and even for deleting poems critical of him from Plath’s published work. Biographers, Plath scholars and feminists — perhaps the most vicious Hughes vilifiers of them all — have ascribed to him the basest of motivations while maintaining their own stainless purposes: “It’s not that I’m trying to push myself forward or trying to climb to fame on the back of the poor dead girl,” claimed one memoirist who had been Plath’s neighbor for a single year. Another biographer, Paul Alexander, offered this despicable rationale for his “sensitive” portrait of Plath’s life: “The particular ways one person is cruel to another are always interesting to no end.” Few of these people have bothered themselves to acknowledge the quite pointed statements Hughes made that revealed in no uncertain terms his primary concern: his children, and his responsibility to shield them from information that they deserved to be shielded from, whatever the cost to his own reputation and comfort.
Common knowledge to anyone familiar with Plath and Hughes is that they had separated painfully just months before Plath’s death on Feb. 11, 1963; there was another woman involved. When their mother died, Nicholas Hughes had just passed his first birthday; Frieda was not quite 3. Plath’s suicide note was found pinned to their perambulator. In addition to the sickening ricochet of emotions anyone in his position would have felt, Hughes was left in a seemingly untenable predicament: He would have to serve masters with dramatically opposing needs — Plath’s literary estate, his vulnerable children and, as he put it years later in a letter to Plath biographer Anne Stevenson, “my simple wish to recapture for myself, if I can, the privacy of my own feelings and conclusions about Sylvia, and to remove them from contamination by anybody else’s.” Somehow it was decided among the Plath deifiers that Hughes had forfeited his right to privacy from the moment his marriage to Plath crumbled; about his children they concerned themselves not at all.
If I had paid,
If I had paid that pound and turned back
To you, with that armful of fox –
If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage –
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.
Among Plath’s papers at the time of her death were a variety of unpublished manuscripts, including the poems that became “Ariel” — the electrifying work that eventually placed Plath firmly in the canon of 20th century poetry. They were produced in a literal fever of creativity during the last six months of her life; several of these poems were scorching accusations of betrayal directed at Hughes. In addition, there were Plath’s journals: guidebooks to her imagination, but also filled with sometimes heedlessly vituperative commentary on friends and relatives. There was also the matter of American publication of “The Bell Jar,” which had only been published in England — pseudonymously, to protect her mother and other fictionalized models from the condemnations found within the thinly disguised autobiography of the novel.
Hughes’ decisions regarding the controlled publication of Plath’s work are stripped of mystery — despite the fantasies of the rabid Plathophiles who have dogged him for 35 years — when put in the context of his children’s lives and ages. “Ariel” appeared, minus “some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962,” Hughes freely admitted, in 1965, just two years after Plath’s death; all of the “Ariel” poems appear in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Collected Poems,” published in 1981, when Frieda and Nicholas were young adults. The American edition of “The Bell Jar” appeared, bearing Plath’s name and after consultation with Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, in 1971.
“The Journals of Sylvia Plath” were published in 1982. In his foreword, Hughes wrote that, in addition to the journals housed in the Neilson Library at Smith College, there had been two additional notebooks “continuing the record from late ’59 to within three days of her death. The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). The other disappeared.” Plath scholars were enraged — the destroyed notebook presumably contained journal entries from the “Ariel” period, perhaps key to the understanding of Plath’s greatest poems. Feminists were triumphant — Hughes had, they were convinced, admitted to destroying the most succulent evidence of his cruelty to Plath, and in so doing had justified their hatred. Biographers were, of course, simply frustrated. No one gave Hughes any credit for putting his children’s needs first. Nor did they seem to understand that by admitting to the destruction of the journal Hughes showed himself to be an honorable man; he could have easily destroyed the journals and never admitted to their existence — who would have been the wiser?
In 1971, a decade before the publication of “The Journals,” Hughes wrote a letter to literary critic A. Alvarez, making explicit his reasons for suppressing private information about Plath, especially regarding her suicide. Alvarez had published a memoir of his friendship with Plath, “the first account to give details of Plath’s death,” according to Janet Malcolm, one of the more candidly parasitic of Hughes pursuers and the author of “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.” Hughes’ reaction, as published in Malcolm’s book, was fierce:
“For your readers, it’s five interesting minutes, but for us it is permanent dynamite … for F. and N. [Frieda and Nicholas, then 11 and 9], she is the absolute centerpin — they have made her very important, the more so because of her obvious absence. Throughout the mess I’ve been making of replacing her these last years, their image of her — of what she did and was — is going to decide their lives … Before your details, it was vague, it was a mystery. But now you have defined the whole thing, and handed it to the public. In a real way, you have robbed them of her death, of any natural way of dealing with her death. This will add up through every year they live.”
It’s not necessary to argue that children, especially children made more vulnerable by the loss of a parent, need to be sheltered from information too frightening for them to process. So why is it that Hughes’ unbudging concern for his children — his refusal to put anyone or anything before them — has been so ignored, or worse, misrepresented?
The answer is simple and ugly, as Hughes reveals in “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” one of the two poems in “Birthday Letters” not addressed to Plath. The factions of Plath cultists (the demanding literary keepers-of-the-flame who “Jerk their tail-stumps, bristle and vomit/Over their symposia”; the “libbers,” as Ted’s sister Olwyn Hughes calls them, who “Bite the face off her gravestone”; and the prurient ersatz biographers, who “Pulling her remains, with their lips/Lifted like dog’s lips/Into new positions”) have appropriated Sylvia Plath, and consideration for her survivors, no matter how young, was and is inconvenient. They do not care.
But Hughes cares, and the poems in “Birthday Letters” spill out his love and compassion and grief — for his children, for his haunted wife and her “huge/Mortgage of hope,” for his lost young self, for the time when “Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck,” and for the time when their luck ran dry. They are poems vivid with tenderness and sincerity, appreciation, incredulity, humility and courage, and like tea left steeping too long, tannic with sorrow. Here are the truths that his children needed to grow into, the truths that, revealed too soon, may have flooded their fragile boat as it was carried out on the riptide of their mother’s death.
I woke up on the empty stage with the props,
The paltry painted masks. And the script
Ripped up and scattered, its code scrambled,
Like the blades and slivers
Of a shattered mirror.
Frieda and Nicholas Hughes are now deep in their 30s. For much of their lives, they have been robbed of much more than their chance to deal with their mother’s death. But Hughes’ patient integrity, his refusal to allow his family to be defined by the lurid story concocted by “peanut-crunchers,” has finally been rewarded. For years he stood tall in the ancient doorway of his house, banging on pots and pans, while the dogs kept coming back, dragging away the bones of his family’s life, stealing every story, assuming ownership of each detail: the St. Botolph’s party where the two poets met, the rainy Bloomsday wedding, the furiously broken table, the yard filled with daffodils, the red corduroy curtains. What the dogs didn’t know is that all the time they were sniffing around the house, the father of Frieda and Nicholas was stealing the stories back, keeping them safely hidden, and now they belong, as they should, to his children.
The poems collected in “Birthday Letters,” written privately over many years and perhaps without an understanding of what he could or would do with them eventually, were, in their writing, an act of parenthood like any other: Trusting in time, you remain the safe harbor, shielding and teaching and suggesting and gently steering, saving some information for more appropriate moments, hoping that at least a majority of the choices you’ve made have been the right ones, and eventually your children glide past you, armed with your accreted guidance, to live the lives of their own making. “My father saw it as his mission to protect his children from all that,” said Frieda Hughes in a unique 1997 interview, referring to the public’s obsessive interest in the private details of her mother’s life. Appearing with the interview was a poem by Frieda Hughes — now an internationally known painter and children’s book author — in which she searingly focuses her anger on the people who appropriated her mother, the ones who “fingered through her mental underwear.” Her poem ends “They called her theirs./All this time I had thought/She belonged to me most.”
His children had lost their mother. With the poems in “Birthday Letters,” Hughes took the black shroud of their mourning and adorned it, as you would cover a shawl with vines and petals, as you would take flowers to a cemetery, as he and his children once “arranged/Sea-shells and big veined pebbles/Carried from Appledore/As if we were herself” on a grave — giving back to them their brilliant, flawed young parents, their father’s love for their absent mother, their mother’s fruitfulness and her ferocity, the awful pain and the joy that made them. Now, when they are ready, he has given their story to his son and daughter. Sylvia’s children are nothing but lucky to have such a father.
A fragile cutting, tamped into earth,
You took root, you flourished only
In becoming fruitful — in getting pregnant,
In the oceanic submissions
Of giving birth. That was the you
You loved and wanted to live with.
The kernel of the shells — each prettily painted –
Of the doll from the Russian corridor,
The inmost, smiling, solid one …
I was there, I saw it.
Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco. More Kate Moses.
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