The story of the seven-year marriage between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is one of the tragic narratives of our time. The two young poets met -- collided -- in February 1956 as students at Cambridge University. From their marriage, in June of that year, through their two-year residence in the States, the birth of two children back in England, until their separation in September 1962, they were hardly apart for a day. In those years they mutually drowned in poetry. Plath thought Hughes the heir-apparent of English poetry and imagined herself his American consort. Throughout her life she paid tribute to his genius and welcomed his help -- when she was not beset by furies and flashes of horror.
In the 35 years since Plath's suicide (on Feb. 11, 1963), Hughes has increasingly been treated as a shuttlecock in the Plath legend. For three decades he has given himself to his own work in poetry, prose, children's books, and translation. He has been Britain's poet laureate since 1984. Over the decades he has kept silence about his first marriage except for correcting errors, refuting insult, and editing and introducing the posthumous collections of Plath's work.
The poems in "Birthday Letters" are the long-garnered result of his seven years with Plath and his 35 years without her. Anyone who knew Plath had to be aware of the preternatural intensity of her repressed joy and repressed pain, of the demons that beset her, all testified to not only in her own poetry but in the five biographies and the hundreds of critical and biographical works that have festooned the oak of her oeuvre like patristic mistletoe. Till now, however, no more than two-thirds of her story had come to light, while the more monocular among feminist critics persisted in assessing Plath as though no male -- except the father who died when she was a child -- made any mark or gave any benefit.
"Birthday Letters" at last remedies the distorting absence of testimony from Plath's spouse by addressing nearly every poem in its pages to Plath herself, in the second person. Its 88 poems (one for every key of the piano) tell a painful -- even a cursed -- story of love and doom, beginning from the day Hughes first caught sight of Plath's picture. It proceeds to the party where they first met and he aggressively kissed her and she drunkenly bit him on the cheek, through their marriage in an empty London church on Bloomsday, 1956, and their years together in Northampton and Boston -- poem by poem, anecdote by anecdote, insight by insight.
For the first time anywhere this book fills in, in spectacular and subjective detail, the eventful journey that Hughes and a newly pregnant Plath took together by car from Boston to San Francisco and back again in summer 1958 before settling into their productive final US weeks at Yaddo. Back in London, their first child was born. ("A fragile cutting, tamped into earth, / You took root, you flourished only / In becoming fruitful -- in getting pregnant, / In the oceanic submissions / Of giving birth. That was the you / You loved and wanted to live with.") In England, the depression that would eventually undercut their marriage did not gather full gloom until spring 1962, after the birth of their second child. Then the death of her father from diabetic gangrene, when Sylvia was 8, began to obsess her in retrospect.
Hughes -- like Plath's biographers but with more personal insight -- marks the decline as steepening when, having moved from London to Devon, he fashioned his wife a writing table from an elm plank -- and she sat at it to write, in "Elm":
I am inhabited by a cry. Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing That sleeps in me.
Hughes's comment, in "The Table," is:
I did not Know I had made and fitted a door Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave. . . . It did not take you long To divine in the elm, following your pen, The words that would open it. Incredulous I saw rise through it, in broad daylight, Your Daddy resurrected...
Here, as later, Hughes's poems speak up in horrified commentary on and rebuttal to poems by Plath, now and then even adopting the same title, as he reveals his own dark fantasies, doubts, dreams, and obsessions.
On May 18, 1962, Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes would one day leave Plath, came to visit the Hugheses with her husband. Only two men know what happened that evening, but Hughes now writes, in "Dreamers":
I saw The dreamer in her Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it. That moment the dreamer in me Fell in love with her, and I knew it.
The day after the Wevills left Devon, the marriage seems to have suffered its fatal blow. The crux is revealed in Hughes's poem "The Rabbit Catcher," in which he expands on the events encapsulated in Plath's short fatal lyric of the same title -- a poem as fiercely fought over by the critics as Achilles' armor. Plath's poem begins:
It was a place of force -- The wind gagging my mouth with my blown hair, Tearing off my voice, and the sea blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead unreeling in it, spreading like oil.
Whatever happened that day remains unclear, but Hughes's poem, also titled "The Rabbit Catcher," is elusive, suggestive, and powerful. It ends:
In those snares You'd caught something. Had you caught something in me, Nocturnal and unknown to me? Or was it Your doomed self, your tortured, crying, Suffocating self? Whichever, Those terrible, hypersensitive Fingers of your verse closed round it and Felt it alive. The poems, like smoking entrails, Came soft into your hands.
These two frightening utterances have different aims: the first a helpless cry of fury, the second, an appallingly resigned recovery. Each is terrible enough.
The furious fancies of the summer months of 1962 culminated in a separation in September, after which Plath wrote 30 of her most ferocious poems -- e.g., "The Arrival of the Bee Box," "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," "Death & Co." -- familiar to nearly all contemporary readers of poetry. In December, on the verge of leaving Devon to take up what would be her last residence in London, she wrote one of the first in her final phase of abstracted, dispassionate, disembodied poems. Plath's "Brasilia" seems mystical and unoccasioned:
In the lane I meet sheep and wagons, Red earth, motherly blood. Oh you who eat People like light rays, leave This one Mirror safe, unredeemed By the dove's annihilation, The glory, The power, the glory.
Hughes's "Brasilia" seems to be referring to Plath's insistence on divorce:
You returned In your steel helm. Helpless We were dragged into court, your arena, Gagged in the hush. . . . Only the most horrible crime Could have brought down The blade of lightning That descended then.
Enough. This narrative is not merely a narrative. Though "Birthday Letters" illuminates the life of Sylvia Plath, it is a book of poems by Ted Hughes, not a shadow biography. Who touches this touches a man. "Birthday Letters" reveals, with some humility, how husband and wife shared the dissonance. Hughes does Plath the honor of respecting her demons as profoundly as she did herself -- and of evoking his own demons with unsparing consistency. He has dedicated "Birthday Letters" to Frieda and Nicholas, the children of the Hughes-Plath marriage. The poems are not a psalter of self-justification; Hughes must tell the story his way, if his children are ever going to understand it. Though it constitutes a private legacy to them, it yearns across the ocean that divided (and still divides) the family, furnishing a sort of gazetteer to landmarks in its life as far apart as Heppenstall in Yorkshire (Hughes's family home), Paradise Pond at Smith College (where Plath was first a student and then a teacher), and the Brooks Range in Alaska (where Nicholas Hughes has lived). It will serve also as a legacy to readers of both poets' work, for the story of "Ted" and "Sylvia" has become something of a legend in our time. As poetry, this volume embodies more tenderness than has characterized much of Hughes's sometimes rollicking, sometimes brutal verse. His poems have till now largely kept mum about the marriage, and that lack has scarred the poetry as it has scarred Plath's memory. "Birthday Letters" brings powerful, intimate, and courageous redress to both.
Memo: Peter Davison, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of "The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960."
Copyright (c) 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
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