Portrait of a Literary Marriage

from: Biblio - August 1998

by Kelley Blewster

Abstract: Ted Hughes gives us insights about wife Sylvia Plath in Birthday Letters without reflecting on his role in the complications of their relationship. He targets her as the victim of herself, lost and struggling with the multiple personalities. He is criticized by some for leaving her when she was at her weakest, however as her emotional caretaker, perhaps he could do no more.

What does Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters reveal about his relationship with Sylvia Plath?

Ted Hughes once wrote, "A real self, as we know, is a rare thing.... Most of us are never more than bundles of contradictory and complementary selves." When writing about his first wife, fellow poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, Hughes is full of such insightful, dead-on darts -- the kind you recognize in your gut as true before the meaning of the words has even settled in your brain. In the same essay, his 1982 foreword to Plath's diary, he wrote, "Sylvia Plath was a person of many masks, both in her personal life and in her writings. Some were camouflage cliche facades, defensive mechanisms, involuntary. And some were deliberate poses, attempts to find the keys to one style or another. These were the visible faces of her lesser selves, her false or provisional selves, the minor roles of her inner drama." The British poet laureate's latest collection of poems, Birthday Letters (Farrar Straus Giroux), published early this year, is a hair-raising memoir of his struggles with Plath's various "selves."

Reviewers have already made much of the fact that Hughes himself is largely absent from Birthday Letters. The poems contain no detailed examination of his part in the complications of their relationship, no self-dissection of the sort Plath as a poet made so famous, no digging into himself with the same trenchant probe that he wields so acutely -- and so incessantly -- in poetizing Plath's psychology. Instead, he is by turns "helpless," a "tabula rasa," a "puppet," bemusedly culpable. Their happiness falls victim to the undecipherable and unknowable -- "goblins," for example, or news from the Ouija board. In "The Shot," an early entry in Birthday Letters and a near-perfect poem in its devastating clarity and concreteness, Hughes writes to Plath:

Your worship needed a god. Where it lacked one, it found one. 
Ordinary jocks became gods -- Deified by your infatuation 
That seemed to have been designed at birth for a god. 
It was a god-seeker. A god-finder. 
Your Daddy had been aiming you at God When his death touched the trigger. . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . [Y]our real target Hid behind me.
Your Daddy, The god with the smoking gun. 
For a long time Vague as mist, I did not even know I had been hit, 
Or that you had gone clean through me -- 
To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god. 
In my position, the right witchdoctor 
Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands, 
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other, Godless, happy, quieted.
I managed A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.

It is indeed remarkable to contemplate how someone so deft with the implements and the language of poignant analysis seems so incapable of turning the microscope on himself. But in his very lack of self-scrutiny, Hughes actually does provide us with a portrait of himself -- or at least of his marriage to Plath and how he operated in it. In Birthday Letters Hughes emerges as caretaker -- tragically, a failed one, as the poems' narrator sees it -- to an unstable Plath. "Each night/I hypnotized calm into you,/Courage, understanding and calm./Did it help? Each night you descended again/Into the temple-crypt,/That private, primal cave/Under the public dome of father-worship." When hiss wife's troubled nature fails to respond to his ministrations, Hughes' "I" if left confused and, one senses, purposeless: "I sat baffled./I was a fly outside on the window-pane/Of my own domestic drama."

The fact that the primary focus of all but a couple of the poems is "you" -- Plath -- rather than the confessional "I" reveals something important: Full-time caretakers can't afford the luxury of self-diagnosis, for their lives revolve around providing endless support for the "sick one." Hughes' relationship to Plath as limned in Birthday Letters is mostly defined in reaction to her. Plath would have found that ironic, for as she recorded over and over in her journals and her poems throughout her adolescence and her brief adulthood, she nursed a great fear that she would fail to achieve a life outside the shadows cast by the spotlight on the man in her life.

Critics over the last thirty-five years have heaped harsh blame upon Hughes for leaving Plath and their two young children in the worst way possible -- for another woman -- in her direst period. But caretakers are human and rarely hold up indefinitely. In particular, the role of spouse-as-caretaker -- especially to the emotionally troubled -- almost never works for long. Many husband or wives who find themselves in that situation eventually have affairs, succumb to drink, or simply leave, actually or in spirit.

Ted Hughes himself must know this best, for to borrow his persuasive argument, such roles are just that: scripted, rather rigid interactions between the players' false selves. He couldn't play Prospero to Plath's Ariel forever. The actualized self, the "real self" that Hughes writes about so eloquently, recognizes that in marriages there are no heroes and no victims -- only people doing the best they can and, with luck, healing more often than they wound.

»Return to Articles & Criticism