Magnificent Obsession

from: Atlanta - April 2000

by Candice Dyer

Was Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath's tormentor or co-dependent? The secrets held in a trove of the poets papers at Emory University recasts one of literature's great love affairs.

"In time everything will be quite clear, whatever has been hidden will lie in the open." Ted Hughes wrote in a weary-sounding letter to his mother-in-law. "Too many people are too interested, now, for anything to escape record."

His six-year marriage to fellow poet Sylvia Plath, about which he was writing, forged some of the century's most enduring literature and one of its most controversial love stories.

In 1963, a despairing Plath lay her head in an oven to die at 30. She would become a feminist icon in the U.S. He died in 1998, a hoary-haired poet laureate of England. Their relationship served as a flashpoint for the women's movement. Hughes -- reviled as the caddish, black-caped every-husband who oppressed his talented American wife to death --frustrated the lit-major crowd by staying mum on the subject. Their marriage, he wrote, hit an underwater rock, and "the geology of that rock is nobody's business."

Now Hughes' "whatever has been hidden" prediction is proving prescient with the help of an Atlanta university that the English man of letters never visited. His definitive, deeply personal archive -- a lifetime's accumulation of more than two tons of papers -- opens with global fanfare this month in the special collections room at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University.

The works, purchased in 1996 for an undisclosed sum, include original drafts of nearly every major poem by Hughes since the late 1950s; hundreds of unpublished poems by him and Plath; candid letters; scrapbooks; photographs; bawdy greeting cards and other mementos that document the grandeur and grind of genius. The fragile documents were shipped in 1997 in 86 boxes that had been used for champagne and birdseed at Hughes' thatched-roof cottage in Devon, England. Until this month, only a handful of researchers have peeked at the papers, which are sure to rivet the literary establishment.

"The letters expose critics' failure to grasp the complexity of a marriage of two writers, both young [Hughes was 25 and Plath was 23 when they married] and having been shaped by different environments and cultures," says Deborah Ayer, an Emory literature professor. "These were formative years. They were still changing and had not yet found their poetic voices. They seemed to use each other to grow on."

Hughes' tortured alliance with Plath had all of the elements to kindle a cultish obsession among college students: good looks, poetry, brilliance, bohemian expatriate life, infidelity, fits of arson, mental illness and suicide. The 1960s youth culture that latched on to the Hughes-Plath marriage as the next generation's F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda went so far as to refer to him as a "murderer" who forced his wife into domestic drudgery, devastated her with an affair and repressed her work after her death. By the time the '90s crop of young romantics read Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, Hughes had become the archetype of the swinish guy who just doesn't Get It. The fact that the woman, Assia Wevill, with whom he was traveling when Plath committed suicide, would later take her own life and that of her 2-year-old daughter with Hughes did not help his standing with this crowd.

But the biographies and dissertations that will emerge with the opening of the Emory archive are expected to humanize his image with a more informed -- and ruefully mature -- assessment. The long-maligned poet, who used birds as metaphors throughout his stanzas, appears ready to rise with sure-winged dignity like a Phoenix from his ashes.

Whatever your interest -- be it scholarly, ideological or voyeuristic --you will feel guilty scouring Hughes' personal effects because they feel warm with the fingerprints of sensitive souls whose intimate motives have been dissected by so many critics. And because you know the tragic ending of the story they tell. But you won't be able to stop. It is a paper trail that leads -- Dante-like -- into hell and back, and illustrates, in spiky, hard-to-decipher handwriting, the destructive and redemptive powers of art.

In a fading 1956 letter, Hughes urges college chum Luke Myers (who is expected to attend the archive's opening) to introduce him to an American poet named Sylvia Plath. "Get her somehow, free lodgings for her as for you," Hughes writes. Get her, in turn, Hughes did. She went to England on a Fulbright scholarship and eventually married the robust Cambridge lad who was struggling to publish his verse, described as "bangingly virile" by a besotted Plath. Photos from the early months of their marriage -- snapshots from a trip around the U.S. and a nervous "meet the in-laws" portrait -- feature earnestly handsome newlyweds grinning with promise and mutual adoration. Hughes had the reputation of a dreamer, restless with wanderlust. As a student, he was publishing in obscure magazines under the name "Edward J. Hughes." He teamed with Plath, who brought to their work an American-bred marketing ethic. She started sending his work to bigger publications and keeping a detailed log of which poem had been sent where, so that a previously rejected poem would not be inadvertently resubmitted to Harper's Magazine, for example. She helped launch Hughes' career by submitting some of his poems -- under the catchier "Ted" -- to a contest that awarded him the Guinness Poetry Award. T.S. Eliot took notice, and The Hawk in the Rain, Hughes' first book of poetry, was published by Faber & Faber in 1957. He was anointed an up-and-coming literary lion. Hath captioned a photo of Hughes taking his place among Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, at a 1960 Faber & Faber party: "A pride of poets." She documented each success, pasting acceptance letters, payment stubs, magazine covers (from his first poem published in The New Yorker) and congratulatory telegrams into a tidy scrapbook, now yellow with age. The album, so happy and homespun, belongs on a book-cluttered fee table; it seems awkwardly of place in a library file. Like so much else here, it is painful to examine because its sunny auspiciousness presages, like the plot of a Greek tragedy, such a dark spiral. "You see how lovingly she pasted in even the smallest details and wrote the captions," says Ron Schuchard, a professor of modern English and Irish literature at Emory. "She was a very prideful companion to him in the poetic process."

Plath, too, was writing prolifically and ambitiously throughout their marriage. The two poets, who were seldom apart, shared supplies. She often scribbled on one side of a piece of paper, and he marked up the other. They covered their ripped envelopes, newspaper wrappers and other scraps with poetry in the way that others doodle. The archive features a typewritten page, with notes in blue ink, from The Bell Jar, Plath's semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during college. It would become a feminist bible, of sorts, establishing its place on every socially conscious undergraduate's bookshelf. On the back of the page, which has been torn up and pasted back together, is "Digging," a poem in Hughes' penmanship. The sort of nature poem about a bird that would typify his themes, it describes the animal "singing long after good cause," a phrase that could sum up his poetry career, which remained vital and productive despite his personal tragedies.

"That's a poignant, tangible reminder of how collaborative their literary lives were," says Steve Enniss, Emory's curator of literary collections, who helped negotiate the archive's purchase with Hughes in Devon in 1997. "He on one side, she on the other. It's a literal metaphor for the joint enterprise they were engaged in, and it shows how intertwined their strong individual talents were."

When Hughes agreed to sell his reliquary, he evidently was engaged in some existential squaring up. Not long after he struck the deal with Emory, he startled readers with the unannounced publication of Birthday Letters, a volume of his poems that span 25 years, starting in the late '60s. All of the 88 pieces are addressed to Plath. Achingly loving, the poems were deemed the "interview he never gave," and the book crested bestseller lists and stirred ripples of merciful revisionism for Hughes. That many of the poems in Birthday Letters refer to the archive's photos ("There you are, in all your innocence, sitting among your daffodils, as in a picture/Posed for the title: 'Innocence' ") suggests he studied his memorabilia with ruminative intensity throughout his life. The tenderness invested so skillfully in those lines ratcheted up the interest in his archive and prompted a head-scratching reassessment of his battered literary reputation. Emory clearly had garnered a treasure of increasing value.

Hughes was aware that his children, Frieda and Nicholas, who control Plath's literary estate, set in motion the publication of their mother's remaining journals. In one of those synchronicities that suggest some cosmic rhyme and reason, Faber & Faber, the London company that "discovered" Hughes in the '50s, will publish Plath's diaries this month, around the same time Emory's archive opens. Hughes had planned to attend his collection's opening ceremony and give some readings around Atlanta, but he died of prostate cancer just months after the publication of Birthday Letters.

"He must have known he was dying," said Ruth Looper, a literature professor who has given classes on the Hughes-Plath union and its poetry at Young Harris College. "These papers are a wonderful gesture of completely opening himself up and becoming vulnerable and available while assuming absolute control. It's as if he's saying 'This will tell my story; end of story,' knowing that he won't have to engage in any dialogue because he's facing the ultimate silence of death. He put out the buffet and then left the restaurant."

"Each of us was the stake impaling the other," Hughes writes of Plath in Birthday Letters. "We struggled quietly through the streets, affirming each other. Dream-maimed and dream-blind." Those wounds still are tangibly felt in the archive. Plath reportedly was working on a novel titled Falcon Yard when she learned of Hughes' infidelity. She responded to the news by burning her manuscript, along with many of Hughes' papers. She had never shown the novel to anyone, and it remained a matter of speculation until a student sorting the archive recently found two pages of notes on characters ("Peregrine: Heroine, kinetic, voyager, no Penelope") and three random pages from the book that suggest Plath had finished a first draft. It was to be, the notes say, a "fable of faithfulness."

The couple separated in 1962. While Hughes traveled with Wevill, Plath left milk and snacks on her children's nightstands, sealed their room from the fumes, and killed herself in her oven, that symbol of Eisenhower-era homemaking. It was not the first suicide attempt for this poet with a history of mental illness.

In 1970, someone broke into Hughes' home in England and set piles of his papers ablaze in an apparent act of retribution. As a result, some pieces of the archive show damage by fire and smoke. In the introduction to The Journals of Sylvia Plath in 1982, Hughes reports that he misplaced one of Plath's journals and destroyed another written in the final months of her life, to spare her children from that record of their mother's anguish. The admission further inflamed his critics, who accused him of censoring her in death after stifling her voice in life. For a time, vandals repeatedly chipped the name "Hughes" off her gravestone, which also bears the Sanskrit phrase Hughes often invoked to cheer Plath: "Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted."

A 1984 letter to his college friend Myers speaks of his grief: "Maybe life isn't long enough to wake up."

But a few of the suffragettes (as feminists still are called in England) who attended his readings to hiss and heckle, reportedly lowered their placards upon hearing a few lines of his poetry, listening with weak-kneed awe. That sea-change reaction to Hughes is typical, says Schuchard.

"At least a couple of scholars have entered the archive with a negative idea of Hughes and then changed their opinion after immersing themselves in it," he says.

Ayer says she thought of Hughes as a villain until she spent a steamy Atlanta July poring over his correspondence. "What I found was a pretty decent man -- an environmentalist, astrologer, anthropologist and disciplined writer" who delighted in Plath's poetic breakthroughs and exulted in fatherhood, she says.

Ayer discovered that Hughes apparently handled much of the child care and housework to allow writing time for Plath. And he took the 3'-by-3' hallway for his study while his wife used the living room and bedroom for hers. He also built a writing desk for Plath.

Instead of rampant misogyny, the "correspondence suggests some role reversal with the marriage," Ayer says. "In some ways Sylvia took a more conventionally masculine approach and Ted a more conventionally feminine one. Before Sylvia proposed to him, he had planned to sail around the world, writing and adventuring. He seems less goal-driven than Sylvia, more connected to the earth and to stars as well as more nurturing."

Hughes writes in a letter to Plath's mother in the early '70s: "The main talk and business of our days was how Sylvia should get to the point of at last writing what she wanted to write. We did nothing that wasn't meant to promote that. We assumed that my writing would carry on anyhow, somehow."

The 1970s correspondence between Hughes and his mother-in-law about the posthumous publication of Plath's Letters Home reveals a rare moment of Hughes' self-defense. He was responding to some charges in the soon-to-be-published collection of letters, which includes raging missives Plath sent during their separation, and the exchange reads like the usual tit-for-tat acrimony of divorce. How could he leave Plath "penniless" when they had little money to begin with from their poets' incomes? he asks. "She didn't sacrifice anything to me any more than I sacrificed anything to her. We just sacrificed everything to writing, and then later fitted in the children," Hughes writes. "So when she says she 'sacrificed everything' for me, what does she mean? It's just a phrase that jumps up in marriage disputes."

Browsing the archive, you might wonder about the rush to take sides in a welter of such grievances. Time usually mellows these domestic rows. But fame, art and the zeitgeist conspired to preserve, as if in amber, this marriage in its messiest moments. "Big, distorted emotions cannot be explained by little plain facts, so the facts have to alter," he writes. For most of his life, Hughes was on the losing end of biography.

Looper says, "His work shows that he was very much in love with her, but being the caretaker of someone who is mentally ill is a very debilitating and mysterious thing, especially when genius is flowering in it. Their marriage is finally getting a more complicated and fairer understanding that takes into account youth, human folly and mental illness. They both were victims of each other."

However, while their personal lives ached with mutually inflicted hurts, they helped establish, in turn, each other's artistic immortality. The archive shows that, while Hath was providing clerical support, Hughes was reciprocating by trumpeting her to editors. And he continued to do so after her death. Plath had published one volume of poetry and The Bell Jar. Two years after her suicide, Hughes arranged for the publication of Ariel, poems written in the final months of her life and marked with invective toward him. The collection introduced Plath as the Angry Young Woman of letters and earned her a place in the canon. For years he continued to publish her work and offer scholarly commentary on it in several other volumes, including Collected Poems, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Hath in 1982.

"In the same way that Plath helped launch Hughes' career with The Hawk in the Rain, Hughes published the books that would establish Plath's literary reputation," Enniss says. "The acts serve as book-ends to their tragic lives."

In a relatively recent publicity shot for his publisher, Hughes looks very much the eminence grise. His arresting, leonine face turns serenely into the camera, as if to say he has nothing else to prove. Now that the rehabilitation of Hughes' image has begun, many of the already-converted hope that researchers will use the Emory archive to broaden their knowledge of his multifaceted, post-Plath career.

Hughes' poetry draws on themes of myth, shamanism, the occult and the feral beauty of animal life. It earned him the British poet laureate's post in 1984.

"I was attracted to his work early on because, as Hughes described it, it celebrates the warriors on either side in the war between vitality and death," says Schuchard, who has championed Hughes-related acquisitions at Emory for 30 years.

In Hughes' energetic poetry, animals are neither cuddly nor anthropomorphic. His writing suggests that people can draw strength from the urgent rhythms of animals such as stalking sharks, swooping birds of prey and pacing jaguars. Hughes, who must have found solace in nature, was known for his environmental activism, including a campaign to clean up the streams of Devon.

He also wrote several whimsical and affecting children's stories, one of which was made into the movie The Iron Giant last year, and a book on how to memorize a poem using images instead of the rote method. Hughes was known for his prodigious memory as well as his love for astrology (he did charts for his friends) and his support of poets repressed by totalitarian governments. His letters demonstrate that he eschewed the usual writerly rivalries and instead energized his associates with magnanimous encouragement. Among the archive's prizes is his voluminous correspondence with Ireland's Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Hughes' influence is credited with expanding Heaney's work beyond its nationalistic themes.

"In years to come, we expect that correspondence to be as important as the letters between Wordsworth and Coleridge," Schuchard says. "Hughes' rootedness in the English soil was strong, but his consciousness was worldwide and attuned to the great intellectual traditions of mind, memory and especially imagination."

Hughes still is leaving something to the imagination he cherished by not yet revealing everything. One trunk in this sprawling archive must remain sealed for 25 years. Schuchard speculated that it could contain the Plath papers allegedly burned by Hughes.

"He didn't want his children to see the notebooks, but I doubt he would have destroyed them because of their literary value," he says. "It wouldn't surprise me if they surface when we have the distance to use them in an objective way, to look at them with disinterest, which is not the same as uninterest. To be disinterested means to be interested but without emotional attachment."

Then Schuchard scratches his professorial beard. "We are not yet disinterested in Plath and Hughes."


Inset Article: Hughes Opens Up

In an April 8 ceremony drawing the global literary establishment's attention to Emory's Woodruff Library special collections, Ted Hughes' archive will open to researchers who have yearned for decades for a glimpse into his private world. England's poet laureate, one of the most gossiped-about writers of the century, had planned to speak at the grand opening of his personal and professional papers, but Hughes died in 1998, not long after selling his reliquary for an undisclosed sum.

Friends and family of the poet, including his widow, Carol Orchard, will attend the ceremony. Frieda Hughes, his daughter with former wife, American poet Sylvia Plath, whose appearance and poetry invite comparisons to her famous mother, will exhibit her paintings at Emory. The laureate's friend, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, will speak at the ceremony; and Lucas Myers, the college buddy who introduced Hughes and Plath, plans to take part in the unveiling of the papers, which include a lifetime of his correspondence.

While Hughes could have placed his two-and-a-half-ton archive in any institution in the world, he chose Emory, a campus he had never visited in a city far from his hometown of Mytholmroyd, England. Commonly vilified in U.S. academic circles, Hughes' work had been largely shunned. But Emory demonstrated an interest in his vigorous nature-themed writing, teaching his poems and buying his books and manuscripts over three decades. Hughes, who felt a poet's affinity for Ireland, was familiar with the university's cache of post-1950 papers from Irish writers, including Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate who collaborated with Hughes on two volumes. -- C.D.

PHOTO (COLOR): TRAGIC TROVE: Poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married in June, 1956. Hughes' papers -- including his unpublished poem, "Digging," handwritten on the flip side of Plath's typed Bell Jar manuscript page are making their debut this month in Emory's special collections.

PHOTO (COLOR): METICULOUS DEVOTION: Hughes submitted his poetry to American publishers at Plath's encouragement. When "Bawdry Embraced" was published in Poetry Magazine in 1956, Plath created a scrapbook, left, painstakingly assembling his query and acceptance letters. The poets photographed each other, below left, on a cross-country camping trip in 1959. And just a year before her suicide, Plath, right, holds her son, Nicholas, sitting next to her daughter, Frieda.

PHOTO (COLOR): GONE FISHING: Hughes displays a day's work away from writing in the 1970s.

PHOTO (COLOR): HISTORICAL RECORD: A nervous Hughes is pictured below with, from left: Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot and Louis Macneice, in a photograph Plath captioned, "A pride of poets." Folders of literary treasures -- such as part of Plath's destroyed novel, Falcon Yard, and Hughes' unpublished four-part play in verse, Bardol Thodol -- now reside in Emory's special collections.


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