Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
by Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 198 pp. $20.00
The latest book of poems by Ted Hughes arrives with a high degree of trans-Atlantic fanfare, but not on account of its author’s stature as England’s poet laureate. Birthday Letters breaks Hughes’s long silence about his former wife, Sylvia Plath, and their torrid life together as lovers and fellow poets. Married in 1956, they had two children and separated in 1962 (Hughes was unfaithful). All but two of the poems in this book, which were written over the last 25 years, are addressed to Plath, who in 1963, at the age of thirty, committed suicide by putting her head in an oven.
Plath and Hughes met at a party when she was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge. Three months later, they were married. She was a New England beauty with a fierce ambition to make herself a writer. He was a young man from Yorkshire, a “big, dark, hunky boy,” as Plath put it in her journal, who knew “all about the habits of animals.” Already a poet, Hughes would become her mentor. “He has a health and hugeness,” Plath wrote to her mother; “the more poems he writes, the more poems he writes.” Then as now—he has published more than twenty books—Hughes’s strength as a poet was his brutal treatment of brutal nature. He was earth to Plath’s incipient fire.
Before her death, Plath had published one collection of poems, The Colossus. The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a young woman who attempts suicide (as Plath had done in 1953), appeared in England under a pseudonym the month before she died. But her reputation soared with Ariel (1965), a posthumously published collection of poetry that had been composed in the last years of her life, and with violent, prolific intensity in her final months, after the break-up of her marriage. (“The muse has come to live here, now Ted has gone,” Plath wrote to her mother.) In now-famous poems such as “Daddy,” “Fever 103°,” and “Lady Lazarus,” focusing on death, motherhood, her husband, and the father who had died when she was eight and haunted her the rest of her life, Plath unleashed a coruscating, self-lacerating hatred. Robert Lowell, who described Plath’s last work as an “irresistible blaze,” also concluded soberly about these poems: “they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it.”
The story of Plath’s short “blaze” has occasioned much vexation among biographical and literary investigators, in part because Hughes, Plath’s literary executor, destroyed one of her three journals—to protect the children, he said—and lost (he said) another. Up until now, moreover, although he has collected, annotated, and written brief introductions for much of Plath’s writings, he has been silent about her and his life with her. As for critical opinion, that has all along been of two camps: one (composed mainly of Plath cultists and feminists) out to get him as a faithless cad and to promote her as a major talent and a sweet and mistreated (if intensely emotional) woman; another (led by Hughes’s sister Olwyn) out to get her as truculent and abusive and to promote him as a nurturing martyr.
So what is at stake in Birthday Letters is reputation: his and hers, private, public, and literary. Reviewers have already probed the book for answers to the old questions, and have lined up pretty much according to established dichotomies. But precisely because Hughes’s silence has ended not with a tell-all memoir but with a book of poems, Birthday Letters also asks to be judged by other criteria than “he said, she said.”
The poems—88 in all—begin at the beginning and take us through to Plath’s gruesome end. There are good lines in some of them, but readers hungry for great verse are as likely to be disappointed as those eager for new facts. The poems are perhaps most interesting for what they reveal not about Plath but about Hughes.
“Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young/ We loved each other and were ignorant,” wrote W.B. Yeats. Hughes echoes these lines in “Fulbright Scholars,” the first poem of Birthday Letters: “At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh/ By my ignorance of the simplest things.” But in this poem, as in the collection as a whole, what looks like self-examination often turns out to be more like self-adulation. Hughes’s raffishness—“No doubt I scanned particularly/ The girls. Maybe I noticed you”—has a way of compromising what it intends to humanize. Portraying himself as the puppy-nurse, Hughes does not, it is true, inadvertently show us the faithless jailer whom Plath denounced; but he does in some measure expose him.
The middle of the volume is a stretch of unspectacular poems with another failing: they turn grand moments into flat and wholly private experiences whose meaning is often impenetrable. In “Epiphany,” for example, a fox cub elicits an inchoate half-thought about marriage:
If I had grasped that whatever
comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and
proves it a marriage—
I would not have failed the
test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had
The “epiphany” here is insufficient, not because the reader may be in search of prurient facts but because Hughes has failed first to tangle, then to untangle, the emotional knots. By keeping an eerie distance from both Plath’s suffering and his own, he has succeeded only in making many of the experiences he relates unreal.
There are exceptions. One of them occurs in “Robbing Myself,” a poem that with candor, immediacy, and lyricism shows Hughes creeping naively through his doomed marriage as through a “house made newly precious to me”:
I peered awhile, as through the
Into my darkened, hushed, safe
From which (I did not know)
I had already lost the treasure.
On the whole, however, Birthday Letters is a failure. Both individually and as a collection, the poems are at once excessively narrative and excessively allusive, full of repetition, generality, and an enervating vagueness. There are too many banal metaphors, too many rambling descriptions of events into which Hughes cannot infuse the sense of decisiveness and permanence they clearly hold for him. The intensity of his purpose affects the quality of his writing for the worse, and one tires of the iterated plot: Plath was fated to die; her father (whom she notoriously likened to a Nazi “with a Meinkampf look”) killed her; Hughes has been wrongly blamed.
These are, in short, egotistical poems that lack the power of a truly unshakable ego. Instead of providing answers of any kind, they only make the drama more opaque, and less interesting. Unlike Ariel, Birthday Letters does not even lead us to ask whether the suffering was worth it.