English poet Ted Hughes and American poet/novelist Sylvia Plath were married in 1956. It was a cross-cultured betrothal that seemed to be compatible not only linguistically and intellectually, but also literarily. These were artists on the rise, and both would eventually make their mark as truly great poets of their generation.
But within this wellspring of literary excellence the couple lived a dark and tumultuous existence. There is no way to know what really drove Plath, at the height of her genius (some even argue that it was greater than that of Hughes, who is now the poet laureate of England) to turn on the gas stove and close the kitchen doors in February 1963. Thus far, all has been speculation.
The sheer eeriness of Plath's death has pervaded almost everything Hughes has written since.
It has been suggested that Plath's troubles stemmed from her overbearing, tyrannical father, who haunted her even after his death. Probably her most well-known, and powerful, writing is contained in the poem "Daddy," in which she confronts her memories, the internalized torture, of having never heard her father express love for her. Hughes maintained that it was, in all those trying years he spent with Plath, his wife's memory of her father that he most had to contend with. This led to (again, according to speculation) Hughes much-discussed extramarital relationships, which left Plath distraught. After her death, Hughes took complete control over all of his late wife's writings, and edited them into collections and anthologies, which he later published.
And now, on the 35th anniversary of Plath's death, Hughes has published an astonishing, revelatory collection of his own poems about their relationship, written over the full span of those years. On their first meeting (from "Fulbright Scholars"):
Where was it, in the Strand?/ A display/ Of new items, in photographs/ For some reason I noticed it./ A picture of that year's intake/ Of Fulbright Scholars./ Just arriving./ Were you among them?/ I studied it,/ Not too minutely, wondering/ Which of them I might meet./ I remembered that thought./ Not/ Your face On
When they were married (from "A Pink Wool Knitted Dress"):
In your pink wool knitted dress/ Before anything had smudged anything/ You stood at the altar./ Bloomsday/ My family/ Who had heard nothing about it./ I had invited only their ancestors./ I had not even confided my theft of you/ To a closest friend./ For Best Man--my squire/ To hold the meanwhile rings--/ We requisitioned the sexton./ Twist of the outrage:/ He was packing children into a bus,/ Taking them to the Zoo--in that downpour!/ All the prison animals had to be patient/ While we were married
On her death (from "Life After Death"):
What can I tell you that you do not know Of life after death?/ By night I lay awake in my body/ The/ Hanged/ Man/ My neck-nerve uprooted and the tendon/ Which fastened the base of my skull/ To my left shoulder/ Torn from its shoulder-root and cramped into knots/ I fancied the pain could be explained/ If I were hanging in the spirit/ From a hook under my neck-muscle/ As my body sank into the folk-tale/ Where the wolves are singing in the forest/ For two babes, who have turned, in their sleep,/ Into orphans/ Beside the corpse of their mother.
These are haunted poems, poetic remembrances, but what is surprising is that they are not more confessional. Hughes has put the onus on his dead wife and has said little about his own participation in the events of which he writes. There is little of his own guilt revealed here, but much of his innocence as a bystander. This has been the criticism of this collection, and it is a real one at that. But it doesn't take away from the experience of reading these impressive poems. Hughes indeed has the gift and if anything, one can appreciate that whatever occurred in their relationship--and whatever the cause of her death--he was profoundly affected by it. Copyright 1998 The Daily Yomiuri
Copyright(C) 1998 THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/DAILY YOMIURI
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