ARIEL'S GIFT. By Erica Wagner. Faber & Faber, Pounds 8.99. ISBN 0 571 20526 7. Pounds 7.99 (0870 160 8080).
Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, the collection of poetry that he published in 1998, the final year of his life, was, as Erica Wagner, The Times' literary editor, writes in this well-informed commentary on the poems, "a book no one ever expected to see".
Their subject is Hughes's marriage to Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide shortly after the couple's separation, having just written the extraordinary poems posthumously published as Ariel. Hughes had spent a wounded lifetime refusing to talk about his seven-year marriage to Plath. As Andrew Motion, his successor as Poet Laureate, put it, Hughes maintained "a bristling badger-silence which seemed dignified to some, reprehensible to others, and fascinating to everyone". In view of Hughes's reputation as "the silent man", the raw intimacy and confused confessions in Birthday Letters are astonishing.
Shortly before his death, Hughes revealed that the book began as a way of making a "direct, private inner contact" with Plath. Reading them, and helped by Wagner's signposting, you feel that you are making this contact with Hughes himself.
He presents himself as a miserably baffled young man, imbued with what Wagner calls "a fatal helplessness" towards his tormented wife. With hindsight, he sees Plath's death as inevitable. Her fragile hold on life had been weakened by the creative methods that he, ignorant of their effects, taught her: strategies which relied on horoscopes and hypnotism and released Plath's inner demons. The poems hum desperately with Hughes's fearful sense of being in over his head.
Wagner's book presents the most fully fleshed view of Plath that we are likely to get: the dark-souled author of the journals, the jaunty letter writer and Hughes's own glistening portrait of his first wife. It is a drawing together of biography, literary criticism and a sensible analysis of the lives and works of two poets.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2001
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