Bitter fame

Ted Hughes' long silence about his life with Sylvia Plath was considered by many as a sign that he did not care. But in "Birthday Letters," his book of brilliant, evocative poems about their life together, one begins to understand, for the first time, the nature of their love, and its tragic dimensions.

Topics: Poetry, Janet Malcolm,

It all began with a picture of incoming Fulbright Scholars. It was 1956. England was still recovering from the war, and good food was rare, houses were cold and money was hard to get. Ted Hughes, a brilliant and talented undergraduate at Cambridge University, saw a photograph of the latest crop of scholars from America in the newspaper: “Were you among them?” he asks. He is referring, of course, to Sylvia Plath, the poet who became his wife and later committed suicide, thus passing into legend. Hughes writes:

I was waking

Sore-footed, under hot sun, hot pavements.
Was it then I bought a peach? That’s as I remember.
From a stall near Charing Cross Station.
It was the first fresh peach I had ever tasted.
I could hardly believe how delicious.

At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh

By my ignorance of the simplest things.

This stunningly fresh and original poem, written in a diarylike style, gives way to poem after poem about the young couple — their first meeting and falling love, their life together as students, as young poets, as newlyweds, as burgeoning literary figures in America (Plath was from Massachusetts, where they lived briefly in the Amherst area), as struggling husband and wife, as parents. Hughes tells the whole story of their love and its harrowing aftermath from the inside in a book of 88 poems as beautiful, fierce and vivid as any to have appeared on either side of the Atlantic since Robert Lowell’s “Life Studies” rocked the world of letters in 1959. A major new book of poems by an unquestionably major poet is always good news, but it is rarely “real” news — the stuff of newspaper columns. Nevertheless, “Birthday Letters” has made waves on both sides of the Atlantic. On Jan. 19, the New York Times published a Page 1 story about the book. The New Yorker ran full-page photographs of Hughes and Plath in their heyday. In England, the book was the subject of headlines and lead editorials (including one in the Times). When was the last time a volume of poetry attracted so much attention?

The reasons for the attention are, of course, extra-literary. When Plath committed suicide in her little flat in London on a cold February morning in 1963, with her children nearby, the legend was born. There would, indeed, have been no legend without the poems that Plath wrote about her decline into mental illness: poems collected in “Ariel.” This posthumous volume was followed by “The Bell Jar,” a searing autobiographical novel. It was widely assumed that Hughes was a demon who drove his young wife to suicide by ignoring her, then running off with another woman, Assia Wevill — who bizarrely committed suicide in exactly the same way five years later. The Plath-Hughes story fed the imagination of biographers and would-be biographers. The feminist movement also co-opted the story, turning Plath into a victim, Hughes into a monster. I can recall a reading that Hughes gave at Oxford University some years ago where women held up placards in the hall that denounced him as a misogynist and wife-killer. The ins and outs of the Plath story reached a kind of crescendo a few years ago when Anne Stevenson, an American poet who knew Plath and has lived in England for several decades, published (with the cooperation of Hughes) a biography of Plath called “Bitter Fame.” Stevenson’s admirable book was judicial, and fair to both Plath and Hughes, giving the poetry center stage. But Janet Malcolm (in the New Yorker) and others attacked Stevenson mercilessly as a pawn of the Hughes camp.

For 35 years, Ted Hughes has kept his own counsel, refusing to talk to journalists or scholars or biographers (he did speak to Stevenson, but revealed little). This silence on his part was considered arrogant by some, noble by others. It was certainly taken by many as a sign that he did not care what people thought. Now, with the publication of “Birthday Letters,” we see that indeed he did care, a great deal. He has been quietly, secretly, writing these poems since her death. He has shaped the story into a coherent, brilliant, evocative sequence of poems — his best work since “Crow,” that gnarled, difficult volume that took the poetry world by storm in the ’70s.

Hughes made his mark early, publishing “The Hawk in the Rain” in 1957. That volume was selected for publication in a contest judged by W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Marianne Moore. The poems were marked by a raw, almost feral, intelligence and a powerful alliterative style that harked back to the Anglo-Saxon poets. Hughes wrote famously about animals: hawks, otters, foxes, horses. He was, after all, a Yorkshireman, a country boy; he knew a lot about the animal kingdom and the workings of nature, as was obvious from this work. But the animals in his poems were more than animals; they were embodiments of the spirit. They become creatures in a complex mythmaking.

Plath stunned Hughes with her intelligence and beauty, her freshness, her bite. She was, he writes, “a new world. My new world” — made all the more appealing by her Americanness, by her poetic sensibility. “I saw my world again through your eyes,” he writes to her in “The Owl.” Through her eyes, the world became “foreign./Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens./A mystery of peculiar lore and doings.” From the beginning of their marriage, it was obvious to him that she had access to another, terrifying level of consciousness: “You were never/More than a step from Paradise,” he writes in “Child’s Park.” “You had instant access, your analyst told you,/To the core of your Inferno –/The pit of the hairy flower.”

Hughes evokes the academic world of Cambridge with the ring of perfect recollection. Exactly how he viewed Plath is seen, for instance, in “St. Botolph’s,” where he writes of their initial meeting:

First sight. First snapshot isolated

Unalterable, stilled in the camera’s glare.

Than ever you were again. Swaying so slender
It seemed your long, perfect, American legs

Simply went on up. That flaring hand,

Those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers.
And the face — a tight ball of joy.

In subsequent poems, Hughes traces the heady pilgrimage of himself and Plath from Cambridge to Spain (on their honeymoon) to America to Devon. Landscapes become dreamscapes. In America, where several fine poems are set, the Grand Canyon is evoked with peculiar resonance, pictured as “America’s Delphi,” a place where Sylvia “wanted a sign.” Similarly, the Badlands are summoned eerily as a “landscape/Staked out in the sun and left to die.” Hughes’ own visionary poetry is concentrated here, focused by all the light of his strong imagination to a white-hot point of fire.

My guess is that readers who do not normally find poetry a genre that attracts them will find something worthwhile in “Birthday Letters.” The dense thickets of language and oblique myth and metaphor that have marked this poet’s earlier work give way, in this volume, to poetry of unusual — even breezy — readability. The poems are all relatively short — few of them extend to more than three pages — and each one is constructed as a further installment in an overarching story, which has something of the narrative feel of fiction. Readers who know nothing about Plath and Hughes will still find it compelling, but those familiar with the story and with Plath’s poems will find extraordinary riches here. (Hughes covertly and overtly refers to many of Plath’s poems here, sometimes — as in “The Rabbit Catcher” — offering his own version of an anecdote already written about by Plath.)

The poems about their courtship comprise my favorite part of the
collection. And these include a vivid poem about indefidelity, aptly
named “Fidelity”:

She and I slept in each other’s arms.

Naked and easy as lovers, a month of nights. Yet never once made love. A holy law

Had invented itself, somehow, for me.

But she too served it, like a priestess, Tender, kind and stark naked beside me.

The self-justifications for this act of infidelity are the stuff of
ordinary irrationality: “A holy law/had invented itself, somehow, for
me.” Somehow, Hughes’ self-consciousness about this infidelity only makes
the affair with Plath all the more vexed and poignant.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -


Several of the finer poems center on Plath’s obsessive relationship with her powerful father, Otto, who died when she was 8. In “The Shot,” Hughes writes: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at God/When his death touched the trigger.” Otto is called “The god with the smoking gun.” “The Minotaur,” another high point in the sequence, pinpoints the problem. It tells of a rage that Plath flew into when Hughes came home “Twenty minutes late for baby-minding” and found her smashing a mahogany tabletop that had been his mother’s “heirloom sideboard –/Mapped with the scars of my whole life.” Hughes cried: “Go on,/Smash it into kindling./That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!”

This is amazing stuff. Hughes portrays himself as his wife’s poetic mentor here; but he also pictures himself as the one who begins to unravel the skein that led to Plath’s undoing:

The bloody end of the skein

That unravelled your marriage,

Left your children echoing

Like tunnels in a labyrinth,

Left your mother a dead-end,

Brought you to the horned, bellowing

Grave of your risen father –

And your own corpse in it.

Otto becomes the Minotaur lying at the base of the labyrinth, ready to devour his daughter. And he does.

Another astounding poem is “The Table,” which opens: “I wanted to make you a solid writing-table/That would last a lifetime.” Hughes explains how he fashioned this table from a “broad elm plank two inches thick/The wild bark surfing along one edge of it/Rough-cut for coffin timber.” Plath was delighted, even euphoric, as she sat there with her cup of Nescafé each morning, settling down to write. But always, it was Daddy who hovered, who beckoned from the nether world as his daughter wrote. “It did not take you long/To divine in the elm, following your pen,/The words that would open it,” writes Hughes. “Incredulous/I saw rise through it, in broad daylight,/Your Daddy resurrected,/Blue-eyed, that German cuckoo/Still calling the hour/Impersonating your whole memory.”

Hughes gets inside of Plath’s hauntings as only he could, discerning “the terror’s goblins” in “Apprehensions,” those fears that would surface and eventually confiscate everything that the young poet held dear: “Your wedding presents, your dreams, your husband.” Plath’s downward spiral into madness is traced meticulously, eerily, as in “The Bee God,” where Daddy once again emerges to plague his bedeviled daughter. We also learn from many of these poems, as in “Being Christlike,” that Plath did not relish the role of martyr:

You did not want to be Christlike. Though your father

Was your God and there was no other, you did not

Want to be Christlike.

Plath is ensnared by madness, wrestling with demons every day as she struggles to write. In “The Beach,” another stunning poem, she is compared to “a migrant eel in November,” someone who “lashed for release” and “needed the sea.” The poem recounts one of many breakdowns that made life with Plath unbearable in the end for Hughes, who, despite his love, found himself helpless in the face of her misery.

The sequence culminates in a poem called, ironically, “Fairy Tale,” a terrifying tour de force. “You went off, a flare of hair and a plunge/Into the abyss,” writes Hughes. In a dazzling finale, which includes such terror-suffused poems as “Night-Ride on Ariel,” “Telos” and “The Ventriloquist,” Hughes summons the specter of Death repeatedly, facing it down, evading it, coddling it, scorning it. One has not seen such ferocity in the face of extinction since Plath herself wrote the great death poems of “Ariel.” Hughes is, undoubtedly, siphoning off some of Plath’s creative fluids here. His tone, the kinds of imagery he evokes, even the diction, will seem familiar to readers of Plath. This was, perhaps, inevitable. But it seems justified in these circumstances. Hughes was there, and he shared the terror of her last years as she teetered on the edge of oblivion. His tenderness for her — most explicit in “Robbing Myself,” a gorgeous elegy — is evident on every page. One begins to understand, for the first time, the nature of their love, and its tragic dimensions.

When the news value of “Birthday Letters” has run its course, and the volume takes its place on the library shelf, grateful readers will return, will linger in its pages. Poetry cannot be understood in one fell swoop, and this seems especially true of this complex, moving and unbearably painful sequence. It will take years to assimilate it properly. In the meanwhile, Ted Hughes has given us a huge gift here, one that has cost him dearly. We should rejoice.

Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. His novels include "The Last Station" and "Benjamin's Crossing." He has written a life of John Steinbeck and is just completing a life of Robert Frost.

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