In A New Light Open To Scholars At Last, Emory Archives Are Painting A Fuller Picture Of Late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, Long Cast As A Villain Over The Suicide Of His Wife, Revered Poet Sylvia Plath

from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - March 19, 1999

by Bo Emerson

Though Ted Hughes, Britain's poet laureate, has been dead five months, interest in his work has never been livelier.

His last book of verse, "Birthday Letters," just won the prestigious Whitbread Prize; scholarship on his work is brisk; and he seems, at last, to be emerging from the shadow of his first wife, the late Sylvia Plath.

The opening of the Hughes archive at Atlanta's Emory University is helping to spark this re-evaluation of the British poet. Acquired two years ago for an undisclosed sum, the 2.5-ton collection of manuscripts, letters, journals and unpublished works is finally being made available to scholars.

(The archive is not open to the public.) Their early verdict: Hughes is a different man and a different poet than we knew.

"The letters were all of a piece with the poems," said Carolyne Wright, a visiting poet at the University of Miami who has seen the archive. "It's a consistent voice, the voice of a man who is deeply, deeply marked by this violent death of this women he loved so much."

That image is at odds with the Hughes of conventional wisdom: the unfaithful husband blamed for Plath's suicide in 1963, the controlling literary executor who burned one of her journals and limited access to her work.

Of course, it is Hughes who saw most of his late wife's work into print. He edited her autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," and the collection of poems, "Ariel," that won Plath a Pulitzer Prize almost 20 years after her death. But Hughes was scorned by Plath's sympathizers, who shouted down his poetry readings and even chiseled his name off his dead wife's gravestone. While Plath's legacy bloomed, Hughes' reputation, at least in America, remained sullied.

Through it all, Hughes refused to explain himself or to be interviewed about Plath. When he died in October at age 68 of prostate cancer, most obituaries gave as much print to her as to him.

"Birthday Letters," was, in a way, the interview that Hughes never gave, a bleak, intimate and honest account of his marriage to the American poet and his despair after her death. Though he married twice after Plath (his second wife, Assia Wevill, also committed suicide, after killing their 2-year-old daughter; he was married to Carol Hughes at the time of his death), the poems reveal a broken man, looking back from the end of his life over a relationship that would haunt him always.

In "Visit" he writes: "I look up --- as if to meet your voice / With all its urgent future / that has burst in on me. Then look back / At the book of the printed words. / You are ten years dead. It is only a story. / Your story. My story."

The Times of London was quick to offer Hughes in a new light: "Anyone who thought Hughes's reticence was proof of his hard heart will immediately see how stony they have been themselves," wrote Times reviewer Andrew Motion. That openness is reflected in the wealth of personal material that Hughes gave (for a price) to Emory. Stephen Enniss, Emory's curator of literary collections, says the archive lays the poet's life bare. "For all the contentiousness of that literary history, for all of that, Ted has made himself readily available, largely without restriction." "He's going to be vividly more accessible as a poet, because of the letters he wrote about his practices and his goals," adds Diane Middlebrook, a professor of English at Stanford University who is studying the archive for a book about Hughes. "Now he will be written about with a fuller attention to his own explanation of himself."

Emory acquired the collection at least partly because the school, enriched with a $1 billion gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, could offer a good price. Even among Emory's rapidly growing literary collections, which include manuscripts by William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney, the Hughes collection is significant. "It dwarfs the others in terms of research interest," said Enniss.

Jonathan Bate, professor of literature at the University of Liverpool in England, said, "It's an amazingly full collection, which will keep critics and future biographers occupied for years."

And Emory continues to add to it. Just this month, the university received the only copy of what is thought to be Hughes' earliest known poem, an ode to summer, written when he was at Mexborough Grammar School in the 1940s.

Hughes' letters include many to his best college friend, Lucas Myers, such as one from 1956 urging Myers to bring a young American named Sylvia Plath to London so he could meet her. ("Get her somehow," Hughes writes.) In 1984, nearly a lifetime later, he writes to Myers of the creative paralysis caused by the tragedies of Plath's and Wevill's suicides. Hughes was, he wrote, anesthetized by grief, adding, "(m)aybe life isn't long enough to wake up."

In May, England will offer its fallen poet laureate one final honor: A stone memorializing ing Hughes will be placed in Westminster Abbey. There he will join the company of William Wordsworth, John Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson, a group that may forgive his earthly shortcomings in light of his lasting verse. ON THE WEB: For more about Ted Hughes, see angl/hughes.htm

Caption: Ted Hughes Photo : Years after his wife committed suicide in 1963, Ted Hughes wrote 'Perfect Light' about this 1962 photograph showing Sylvia Plath Hughes with their two children, Nicholas and Frieda. / SIV ARB / Courtesy Woodruff Library, Emory University Photo : Ted Hughes remained publicly silent about Sylvia Plath until he published "Birthday Letters" last year. Now, his voluminous private papers, housed at Emory, are giving insight into his life. / Special Collections, Emory University

Graphic : 'Perfect Light' There you are, in all your innocence, Sitting among your daffodils, as in a picture Posed as for the title: 'Innocence.' Perfect light in your face lights it up Like a daffodil. Like any one of those daffodils It was to be your only April on earth Among your daffodils. In your arms, Like a teddy bear, your new son. Only a few weeks into his innocence. Mother and infant, as in the Holy portrait. And beside you, laughing up at you, Your daughter, barely two. Like a daffodil You turn your face down to her, saying something Your words were lost in the camera. And the knowledge Inside the hill on which you are sitting, A moated fort hill, bigger than your house, Failed to reach the picture. While your next moment, Coming towards you like an infantryman Returning slowly out of no-man's-land, Bowed under something, never reached you --- Simply melted into the perfect light. --- From "Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Graphic : EARLY VERSE Emory's Ted Hughes collection continues to grow. Just this month the school received the poet's earliest known verse, an untitled ode to summer written when he was a teenager in the 1940s: Summer she goes Out, with her riches goes; Now turn from Winter, lie Her new-springing heart around Til she, strong to the full year round And strong to that most bitter cry With all her riches goes, Summer she goes.

Copyright 1999 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.

»Return to Articles & Criticism