His silence, elegant or monstrous, depending upon your point of view, has lasted for 35 years, carrying with it all the makings of myth as well as its attendant burdens. The meteoric, anguished marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath ended with her suicide on the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, when she sealed off the doors of that infamous London flat, left out milk and bread for her sleeping children, then turned on the gas. Hughes had quit her months earlier for another woman; she had returned with her infant son and daughter from Devon to London, where she descended into a radiant hell of poetry and despair. "I am writing the best poems of my life," she wrote to her mother in October. "They will make my name."
It might have been one of the golden partnerships of literary history, with Plath playing the bright young American poet -- all innocence and guts -- to Hughes's high-minded raconteur, the two of them together ascending stairs where Lowell and Berryman and Dylan Thomas had gone before. When they met in 1956, she was a Smith girl turned Fulbright scholar studying at Cambridge; he, a brilliant, rowdy Englishman whom she described in her journal as "that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me." Not huge enough, as it turned out. The next seven years seem to have been a portrait of dreams embattled: the exalted vision of a poetic union, eventually eclipsed by rage, infidelity, and the savage depressions that Plath had battled for years. She was buried in Heptonstall, near the Hughes family home, and her tombstone took its inscription from the Bhagavad-Gita: "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.
In the decades since, Plath has become fixed in the poetic firmament, while Hughes's transit, subject to the laws of the living, has been less celestial: scattershot accusations of adulterous (even murderous) cruelty, charges of literary censorship as Plath's executor, another relationship that ended, horrifyingly, with another suicide by gas. No amount of his own contributions -- his poetry or classical translations, his elevation to poet laureate of England in 1984 -- could blur or diminish those earlier memories, nor would they give a hint of his psychic life on the other side of such oceanic tragedy. Sylvia Plath was 30 years old when she killed herself, having enshrined her descent with the great, ravaged poems (most of them in "Ariel") she wrote in her last few months. Frozen into legend and consecrated with the permanence of art, her death by now has lasted longer than her life.
This month's publication of Hughes's "Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) illuminates and refracts the myth but will hardly dispel it. Offering a quieter descant to the desolate hymns of Plath's work, these 88 poems, written over the course of three decades, construct a dialogue between two lost lovers: his answers to her death howls, his querulous and haunted memories of the runaway life they shared. "Your huge / Mortgage of hope," he writes, before it all went bad. He remembers her the night they met, "Taller / Than you ever were again," and, on the day of their marriage, "the spellbound future" that would contain them. He couldn't have known it then, on that Bloomsday of 1956, but it was an infinite present tense where Hughes would continue to live; the eternal moment of her last act, endlessly resurrected by art and celebrity both. ". . . I am stilled / Permanently now, permanently / Bending so briefly at your open coffin."
The poems in "Birthday Letters" are tender, puzzled, stirringly sympathetic -- most of them written to the "you" of Plath who so clearly inhabits his consciousness. Hughes seems only briefly (and uselessly) self-serving, as when, in "A Dream," he lays claim to one of Plath's most famous lines: "Not dreams, I had said, but fixed stars / Govern a life." His remorse is far larger: "Alone/ Either of us might have met with a life," he writes about their year in Cambridge, and later, in the bitter, heartbroken poem "The Table": "I did not / Know I had made and fitted a door / Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave."
For Otto Plath, the formidable and adored father who died when Sylvia was 8, was the first man in his daughter's life, and he would be the last -- we know that now from the death-sick, beckoning poems written just before she died, most notably "Daddy." Hughes knew it too, and never forgot it. His "Picture of Otto," a poem to Plath's father, confronts that apparition, understanding now that "I was a whole myth too late to replace you." But doom is the center-stage ghost of "Birthday Letters," its determinist, luminous clutches stronger and more persistent than any love or rage that existed between Plath and Hughes: "The little god roared at night in the orchard, / His roar half a laugh. . . . / Your dreams had burst their coffin." Even had Hughes been the demon in their marriage that some critics suggest, he was hardly a match for the reaches of despair that claimed her in the end.
Or, it might be said, for the art to which she bowed at the other altar in the room. In spite of his unquestionable eminence, Hughes has never achieved the incendiary poetic splendor that belonged to his wife, and "Birthday Letters," despite its grace, reminds one of that final irony. Searching but sometimes even halting, the poems exhibit neither the technical exactitude nor the emotional impact of Plath's best work. Certainly they lack the gorgeous horrors of what drove her in those final weeks, her "black sweet blood mouthfuls" and her "hood of bone," those starless heavens promising the comforts of the grave. And that was a dark victory where the only winner left standing was Art.
Sylvia Plath's suicide was the centerpiece of her oeuvre: It is impossible to perceive the visionary strength of the late poems without their real-life counterpart, where their author would punctuate her final stanzas with the blank whiteness of her death. Even the glowing pictures of the young American -- her strong shoulders and red headband, her demure and innocent smiles -- seem perverse veils of misdirection, belying as they do the force of what lay within and ahead. But the myth that now surrounds the poet (and in some ways has appropriated her work), as with most myths, took its sweet time in getting here. Robert Lowell, remembering the "giggly, gracious" girl who visited his Boston University poetry seminar in 1959, wrote in an odd 1966 introduction to "Ariel" that what he noted about her poems was their structural expertise. "I sensed her abashment and distinction," he writes, "and never guessed her later appalling and triumphant fulfillment."
I, on the other hand -- one of history's witnesses from another angle -- remember the pulpy allure of "The Bell Jar": remember its sodden young heroine, Esther Greenwood, who after a while refused to bathe; her electroshock therapy (paralleling the executions of the Rosenbergs); her failed suicide attempt that landed her in a psychiatric hospital (McLean). Published in England under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas the month before she died, Plath's intensely autobiographical (and only) novel appeared here in 1971; my battered copy, bought used for $1.75, has the requisite dogeared pages of an earnest young reader who longed, like everybody else, to grasp adolescent despair. I see now that I marked what may be the only poetic line in the novel, where Plath describes a winter midday sun: "an insentient pivot without which the world would not exist."
It's a particularly lame bit of poetry, that, and it speaks both to Plath's limitations as a novelist and mine as an unsentimental judge of fiction: Like most young women of my generation, I swooned before the shadowy pop of "The Bell Jar." Esther Greenwood was our mass-culture emblem of female teen tragedy, another Natalie Wood from "Splendor in the Grass," both of them inhabiting a world where the guy would always fail you and where madness and art slept entwined. That the woman who had written this prosaically accessible novel turned out be a suicide -- well, such biographical certitude only proved the point. That she was also a poet whose work was possessed by diabolical genius seemed important, but harder to grasp. With "The Bell Jar" as your sullen introduction to Sylvia Plath, you didn't need to understand (or maybe even read) the death poems of "Ariel." It seemed enough that she had written them, then gone on to consecrate their final scene.
I realize this now with the rue that can accompany hindsight, because my own trajectory of "knowing" Plath (the artistic appreciation came later, with revisionist maturity) mirrored the makings of the myth. In the decade after her death, Plath rose as a self-immolating star in the realm of confessional poetry; by the 1970s, she had come to represent the searing rage of a woman artist gagged by the patriarchal culture that imprisoned her. "It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk," she had written about wifely demeanor in "The Applicant"; then she told us, in "Lesbos," what that Ozzie 'n' Harriet lifestyle was really all about: "Meanwhile there's a stink of fat and baby crap. / I'm doped and thick from my last sleeping pill." If the feminist discourses of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan told us how to walk away from the kitchen, Plath had left instructions for how to set it on fire.
This infernal intent was part of Plath's brilliance, but without her poetic gifts -- her stunning structural precision, her mythic imagery -- the content would have been mere polemic. The political reading of Plath's work probably reached its apex in 1982, with the appearance of her journals. In a foreword to "The Journals of Sylvia Plath," Hughes (who, as literary executor, had been in charge of the publication of his wife's work) bombed his own village in order to save it. Explaining the precipitant end of the edited version in May of 1962, just before he would meet the other woman (and nine months before Plath's death), Hughes writes: "The last of these [notebooks] contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)."
What revelation in those parentheses! Hughes has been attacked unrelentingly for his laconic confession, accused of censorial attempts to control his wife (and bury her side of the story) even after her death. Plath's grave, in a village churchyard, has been defaced by Plath avengers trying to remove the "Hughes" from her headstone. Less vandalous but equally indignant have been the warring camps of biography that have emerged over the years, with one extreme heralding Plath as the ultimate victim, the other casting Hughes and his family as long-suffering audience to his wife's unseemly and destructive passions. To gain any access to the facts beyond the legend, all players have had to negotiate the formidable shoals of the Plath estate -- those territories having been guarded for decades by Hughes and his sister, Olwyn.
Given her ambition, one can't help assuming Plath would dislike being cast as sacrificial martyr. Still, it is far simpler (and less frightening) to target a husband for cruel indifference than it is to blame the greater ravages of suicidal despair, which are, after all, inhuman in every sense of the word. Throughout years of such controversy, Hughes has mostly kept his own counsel, preferring the projective netherlands of silence to what he once called the "popular bloodsport" of most academic curiosity. Until now, it has been all but impossible to penetrate the innermost cloister of the Hughes-Plath relationship or the grief that most surely followed her death. Imperious adulterer or heartsick widower, the man who burned his wife's last journals had to have been a shellshocked survivor, in those first few months, of one of the worst things that can happen to a marriage.
All of which makes "Birthday Letters" a final chapter in what may be the longest he-said/she-said story in literary history. And yet biography, too, must have its limits: What one gleans from the details of an artistic life is never the same as the art itself. Sylvia Plath didn't leave us a logbook of her marriage in her poetry; she left an exaltation, carved from the mundanities of daily existence -- she could take a kitchen accident or a beehive and turn it into a universe of terror. Not only is it misguided (even willfully naive) to read either Plath or Hughes too literally; it also diminishes the work itself.
Nowhere is this great divide between art and biography more vast than in Hughes's allusive "The Rabbit Catcher," his poetic answer to Plath's famous poem by the same name. Hers delivers the suffocating moments between prey and executioner, the one trapped in the snare of the other; Hughes, remembering the same May walk on the English coast that offered such raw material, uses his poem to capture the gulf between his palpable country world and his wife's poetic furies. Taken together, the two versions of the same incident present a chill-inducing view of two colliding consciousnesses -- a dark and abiding conversation we may witness and even marvel at, but can never really know.
My own separation of Plath the poet from Plath the icon happened not long ago, when Janet Malcolm's resonant study of Plath and Hughes, "The Silent Woman" (1994), sent me back to the poetry itself -- to the death-wish liturgy of "Tulips" and the resolute completion of "Edge," probably the last poem Plath wrote. No longer was I in the thrall of the mad depressive genius who had hurled "The Bell Jar" and "Ariel" into pop culture's sacrificial bonfires -- who had spilled the guts and secrets of a generation of women, then climbed onto its funeral pyre. Instead, for a moment, poetry won out: I stood before the awful gaze of Plath's vision, saw the terrible riches of a great mind, heard the black-hearted voices that must have driven her at the end. In the eternal remake of the story of Sylvia Plath, surely that ought to do.
Edge The woman is perfected. Her dead Body wears the smile of accomplishment, The illusion of a Greek necessity Flows in the scrolls of her toga, Her bare Feet seem to be saying: We have come so far, it is over. Each dead child coiled, a white serpent, One at each little Pitcher of milk, now empty. She has folded Them back into her body as petals Of a rose close when the garden Stiffens and odours bleed From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower. The moon has nothing to be sad about, Staring from her hood of bone. She is used to this sort of thing. Her blacks crackle and drag. -Sylvia Plath (from "Ariel") Apprehensions Your writing was also your fear, At times it was your terror, that all Your wedding presents, your dreams, your husband Would be taken from you By the terror's goblins. Your typewriter Would be taken. Your sewing-machine. Your children. All would be taken. This fear was the colour of your desk-top, You almost knew its features. That grain was like its skin, you could stroke it. You could taste it in your milky coffee. It made a noise like your typewriter. It hid in its own jujus -- Your mantelpiece mermaid of terracotta. Your coppery fondue pan. Your linen. Your curtains. You stared at these. You knew it was there. It hid in your Schaeffer pen -- That was its favourite place. Whenever you wrote You would stop, mid-word, To look at it more closely, black, fat, Between your fingers -- The swelling terror that would any moment Suddenly burst out and take from you Your husband, your children, your body, your life. You could see it, there, in your pen. Somebody took that too. -Ted Hughes (from "Birthday Letters")
Copyright (c) 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
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