For decades, Ted Hughes was known more for what others said about him than for what he said himself. He was cast as the cold, silent villain in the Sylvia Plath tragedy, the man who stifled the writer in life and censored her in death, the man who destroyed journals, restricted letters, refused interviews.
Until the last year of his life, the British poet laureate rarely said anything in public about his marriage to Plath, who gassed herself in her kitchen in 1963. But privately, he agonized and wrote. In early 1998, only months before he died of cancer, he published "Birthday Letters," a passionate, mournful and often bitter collection about their relationship.
Now, in boxes and boxes of archives acquired and still being organized by Emory University, the poet's private thoughts are revealed even further.
Letters, journals and other materials cover, in unprecedented detail, everything from Plath's posthumous rise as a feminist martyr to Hughes' inability to get over her loss, long after she was gone. "The most remarkable thing is that someone who was so private and whose life was so contentious would make his work and life so accessible. You're able to read materials that cut close to the bone," said Steve Enniss, curator of literary collections in Emory's Special Collections Department. "We hear Ted speaking in a prose voice in letters and other notes, and speaking very directly, not in a creative form. He's trying to recover the factual record. The archives add a documentary element to the `Birthday Letters.' "
When she died, Plath had just one book published under her name. decade later, she was the mourned and beloved author of the "Ariel" poems and the novel "The Bell Jar." Beyond that, she was a cult figure, the rare literary writer with the morbid sex appeal of a dead movie star. Hughes called it "Plathiana." Poetry. Fiction. Letters. Journals.
Biographies. Even in abridged form, it seemed any Plath phrase, any thought, could be turned into books, books for a public anxious both for her work and for gossip about her marriage to Hughes.
For a long time, it was hard to know what Hughes thought of it all. In introductions he wrote for some of her works, he could appear oddly detached, as if he were simply reviewing a gifted writer. In one introduction, he dryly revealed that he had destroyed journals Plath kept near the end of her life, an act similar to telling Beatles fans that tapes of unreleased music had been erased.
But in private, Hughes both admired her work and expressed grief and guilt over her suicide. He was also enraged and horrified by the cult that developed in the 1970s and '80s, what he referred to as the "increasingly infernal and stupid business surrounding Sylvia."
"I'm needing all my philosophy now to tolerate the sentence which has, I see, been passed on me and which several generations of U.S. students accept as history," Hughes wrote to a friend in a 1988 letter. "I think by suppressing or trying to suppress for the children's sake all accounts etc. of Sylvia's more difficult side, I have done everybody an ill-service. Myself especially, perhaps." Hughes' archives suggest an old-fashioned man of letters, a believer in privacy and propriety. Asked often to reveal details of his marriage to Plath, he insisted in one letter, "I don't owe a complete portrait of her to anybody."
Ironically, the Hughes materials will probably open a new season of Plathiana. Because Hughes never collaborated with any Plath biographers, the papers at Emory almost certainly will lead to new Plath biographies, revised Plath biographies and Hughes biographies.
"I think his image will change entirely," said author Diane Wood Middlebrook, working on a book about Hughes' post-Plath career. "Hughes has been a screen on which people projected fantasies, partly because he didn't wish to assume the public role as his own defender."
What became one of the great cottage industries of the publishing and academic world began as a romance. Hughes and Plath were in their 20s when they met at Cambridge University in England, in the winter of 1956. She was an American student and writer living abroad, he a young British poet trying to establish a literary magazine, St. Botolph's Review. Their first encounter is among the most famous, and bizarre, in literary history. At a party celebrating the magazine's debut (and, it turns out, final) issue, Plath and Hughes were obviously attracted to each other, especially after she recited to him a poem of his that had appeared in St. Botolph's. That both were involved with others didn't matter. Hughes and Plath left the party for a while and when they returned, blood was running down Hughes' face. As both later confirmed, he had kissed her on the neck and she had bitten him on the cheek.
"And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself, crashing, fighting, to you," Plath wrote in her journal the next day. They married the same year on June 16, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce's "Ulysses" unfolds. They settled first in England, but soon moved to Plath's native Massachusetts, where she taught at Smith College and Hughes at the University of Massachusetts.
The early letters in the Hughes collection, including some from Plath, confirm their one-time image as an idealistic and stimulating couple. is serious, observant and literary. Plath is playful and dramatic, and worshipful of her husband.
"(W)ait till Ted's book hits the stands!" she wrote to their friend, Lucas Myers, referring to what would be Hughes' acclaimed "Hawk in the Rain" collection. The poems, Plath was convinced, would inspire the public
to stare awestruck, read in wild reverence and build a great rock altar... ...in the middle of wild islands.
Hughes referred less often to Plath's work, but he seemed equally taken. In a letter written in December 1959, he reported to Myers that "Sylvia suddenly produced a bunch of about 12 remarkable poems a complete new stage."
"They're incomprehensible," he wrote, "rather, they don't progress by reasonable narrative or argumentative stages as all her previous poetry did. They're all monologues. I've already stolen several things from them." But Hughes hated academic life and was tired of living in the United States "a spiritless time" is how he remembered their years there and by 1960 he and Plath had returned to England.
"It's much better that she lives in England," Hughes wrote to Myers, adding that he was relieved to be away from "that dreadful competitive spotlight to which Sylvia is so susceptible . . ."
They had two children, Frieda, born in 1960, and Nicholas, who arrived two years later. But a letter to Myers suggests tension. "There is something intensely surprising about seeing it appear," Hughes wrote of Frieda's birth. "Also something infinitely disastrous and shocking about it . . . "
By the end of 1962, Hughes and Plath were no longer together. He was seeing another woman, Assia Wevill, and an increasingly unhappy Plath had moved with the children from their country house to a London flat, where she killed herself a few months later.
"She doesn't seem to have had an idea of her own beyond plain simple outrage and indignation, until it was too late and she was emotionally exhausted and devastated by those last tranquilizers," Hughes later wrote to Plath's mother, Aurelia.
For decades, much of the public heard a different version. In 1965, "Ariel," poems written in the last weeks of Plath's life, was an enormous posthumous success. This was her fiercest, most focused work and in some poems Hughes was the presumed subject. In "Daddy," he was the "vampire" who "drank my blood." In "The Jailer," a poem written around the same time but published later, he was the man she wanted "dead or away." Plath became a major commercial and critical artist. In 1966, "The Bell Jar," a novel published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas when the author was alive, was reissued under her name and eventually sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Her collected poems later won the Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, Plath fans were harassing Hughes at readings and hacking his name off Plath's tombstone, which had been inscribed: "Sylvia Plath Hughes."
"I remember giving a reading in the 1970s of Plath's work," said author Erica Jong, who became friendly with Hughes in the early '70s. "And there were radical feminists picketing me outside because they said I was not blaming Ted Hughes for murdering her and that I was therefore a sell-out to the male cause."
Hughes' feelings at the time are revealed in two letters from the mid-1970s, both dealing with the then-upcoming publication of "Letters Home." A compilation of correspondence from Plath to her family, the project was initiated by Plath's mother, Aurelia, and was issued by Harper & Row.
One letter is to Fran McCullough, the book's editor. Urging McCullough to "set aside your devotion to this book as a best seller," Hughes, who had control of the Plath literary estate, that letters about him and their marriage not be included. (Many references to Hughes were indeed deleted).
Aurelia Plath, meanwhile, was thinking about her own reputation. In a letter to Hughes, she wrote that readers mistook her for the "cold, aphorism-spouting, cut-and-dried mother" of "The Bell Jar," which Plath based on an earlier suicide attempt. Aurelia Plath believed the often-upbeat letters would change that, even though Hughes believed them "inane" and "a front."
Hughes suggested that Aurelia Plath should restrict the letters to the early to mid-1950s, the period of time on which the events were based. He worried that some letters from the last year of her life would reinforce what he already believed was a distorted view of their marriage. "In these last letters Sylvia made many wild and exaggerated remarks," Hughes wrote. "Her wildest statements suddenly took on the look of fearless revelation and inspired insight." He lamented that "her death, together with her poetic genius, seemed to validate everything she did." Although married to his second wife, Carol, for the last 28 years of his life, he apparently never got over Plath's death. A journal entry from the late 1960s notes a dream in which Plath had been brought back to life, only to die again.
"The sharpness of her presence after so much death," he wrote. "The dramatic mood that she was back only for that day."
In a letter to Myers, dated 1984, he referred to the suicides of Plath and Wevill, who killed herself in 1969, as "giant steel doors shutting down over great parts of myself leaving me that much less . . . to live on." Last year, along with "Birthday Letters," Hughes published the collection "Howls & Whispers." It came out in a limited edition, with only 110 copies printed and most of them ending up in private collections and in research libraries such as Emory's.
In the poem "The Difference," Hughes re-imagined the death of Plath, who had stuck her head in an oven and gassed herself. He pictured her collapsing to the kitchen floor, and, "screaming," falling through:
...and beneath her The stranger, huge-eyed, his arms wide, Grasp her as she landed on top of him, And the floor close forever over both.
GRAPHIC PRESS (CAPTION) Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath are shown in 1959 in Concord, Mass. After Plath's suicide in 1963, Hughes said little in public about his marriage to her, but many of his private thoughts about Plath are revealed in papers now being organized by Emory University.
»Return to Articles & Criticism