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A Family Romance

Birthday Letters

by Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 198 pp., $20.00

That the myth of Sylvia Plath retains its strength may be seen in some of the responses to Ted Hughes’s publication of the present sequence of poems about her. This is from Katharine Viner in the London Guardian:

Even if she had not committed suicide on February 11, 1963—abandoned by her husband, weeks away from divorce, a single parent at the peak of her literary powers—Sylvia Plath would have been a feminist heroine. She wrote about love and death, passion and babies, placentas and wounds and anger; she articulated female experience and achieved fame in her own lifetime in a way few women had done before.

Of course, this last assertion is quite untrue. Plath received only modest recognition in her lifetime, and her claim to fame as a poet lies largely with her posthumous work. But the facts cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a writer (Viner) eager to blame Hughes for desertion: “The reason Ted Hughes has come to be seen as a villain is not just because he left her to look after two children when she could barely look after herself.” Hughes’s status as “feminist enemy” is also due to his “abuse of the Plath estate” and to his thirty-five years of silence about his former wife, who “died for her art.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, in a friendlier response, and without any of Viner’s vicious self-righteousness, tells us in The New York Times that Hughes’s “refusal to be interviewed about Plath has for decades angered the female public in much the way Queen Elizabeth’s silence after Diana’s death provoked outrage.” Now, however, the poems in Birthday Letters “offer a peculiar affirmation of the power of Plath’s art, for they record his slow awakening to the inner life of a woman as talented as himself…. Ted Hughes now endows Plath’s literary achievement with the laurel of prestigious understanding. It is a big concession.”

The idea that Hughes has only just come around to recognizing Plath’s talents is to an extreme degree improbable. The notion that such a recognition would represent concession is hard to derive either from these poems or from what Hughes has told us in prose about Plath’s creative outpouring toward the end of her life. But the Plath myth is a story that insists on being told (with all its variants) whether it fits the facts or not. Two poets, a man and a woman, get married. The marriage fails. The woman commits suicide. The myth demands that the man killed the woman, or failed her, or tried to kill her posthumously, or was in some way the inevitable enemy of her talent. Hughes’s silence over the years must be in some way sinister. It cannot be attributed to grief, to a legitimate desire for privacy, to a wish to protect his children from a painful exposure to the past. Hughes has no right to silence. It “angers the female public.”

It is worth recalling briefly that it was Hughes himself who authorized and organized the publication of Ariel and all subsequent volumes of Plath’s poetry, and that it was he who gave the public access to all the writings on the basis of which he is now held a “villain.” He is also the source for the information that he destroyed one volume of Plath’s journals, so that her children would never have to read it. Many curious readers, in the early years of Plath’s fame, wished that her estate would release her works a little faster, rather than in dribs and drabs. But it is extremely unlikely that this would have been beneficial to her reputation. Hughes released the best of Plath (Ariel) first, the rest at judicious intervals. The Journals have not yet been issued in Britain because Hughes couldn’t bear to go through the same attacks as had occurred on their publication in the States. One can sympathize with this reluctance.

Hughes’s real sin is not that he has been a misguided or hostile executor of the estate. His real sin is that of being the Keeper of the Flame, when so many strangers have been lining up for the job. His real sin is that of having been, and continuing to be, parent to Sylvia’s children. “Plath lovers”—this is Viner again—“will never forgive Hughes for failing to ensure that the blood jet [of her poetry] continued to flow.” No. “Plath lovers” will never forgive Hughes for having been Plath’s lover—a role which in their fantasies they would much better fill. Possessiveness is their problem. Viner reads Birthday Letters and detects much tenderness—but she calls this “a clear indication of the passion Hughes feels, retrospectively, for his ex-wife.” Impertinence and insensitivity she could hardly improve on.

Hughes has not been as silent as has been widely claimed, although the scope and size of the new collection, Birthday Letters, came as a surprise to all but a group of friends. Eight of the eighty-eight poems appeared in his New Selected Poems of 1994, and one of these dates back to the Selected of 1981.

Hughes has also published an essay on Plath’s manuscripts for the poem “Sheep in Fog” and an extremely interesting account of the composition of The Bell Jar and Ariel. In this he explains how Plath was drawn at first by an ambition to write in a tradition derived from Joyce, Woolf, and James, but how her heart pulled in the opposite direction, that of Lawrence and Dostoevsky. He believes that the story “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” was “the divining work that located and opened the blocked spring.”

With the composition of The Bell Jar he tells us that

Her long-nursed ambition to write an objective novel about “life” was swept aside by a more urgent need. Fully aware of what she was doing, she modelled the sequence of episodes, and the various characters, into a ritual scenario for the heroine’s symbolic death and rebirth. To her, this became the crucial aspect of the work. That mythic schema of violent initiation, in which the old self dies and the new self is born or the false dies and the true is born, or the child dies and the adult is born, or the base animal dies and the spiritual self is born, which is fundamental to the major works of Lawrence and Dostoyevski, as well as to Christianity, can be said to have preoccupied her…. Her novel had to work as both the ritual of the mythic event and the liturgy, so to speak, of her own salvation.

Hughes distinguishes between the “upper level” at which this ritual was able to work, “where her shaping will is the control, where the ritual magic is choreographed according to plan, and the rebirth is hopeful,” and a lower level where Plath’s material remained “inaccessible to manipulation.” The upper level is purposive and positive. The lower is negative and tragic. At the upper level,

Her bid to refashion these materials ritually, to recreate her history and remake herself, is brilliant with a kind of desperation, lit with the dazzling powers of an all-out emergency. Everything depended on her bringing about a genuine alchemical change in that uranium. And for a time, the triumph seemed real—it enabled her to write Ariel. But it proved to be temporary.

For Hughes, in the end “this equivocal simultaneity of the two levels is what makes the novel, the poems, and the author herself truly tragic.”

Hughes’s further explanation of Plath’s creativity is astrological—he recounts how one burst of writing fell between the dark phase and the first full day of the Full Moon (April 2-19, 1961). He tells us how the actual yew tree mentioned in the poems stood in her sunset, due west of her house, while the elm stood due east, filling her sunrise. When she confronts the yew, it is “exactly as if she had entered her father’s coffin.” Then, Hughes writes, she travels underground, “just like Osiris in his sun-boat being transported from his death in the West to his rebirth as a divine child…in the East.” The elm stands for the physical continuity of the writer, while “the Moon, as always, corresponds to the nucleus of the artificial ego in its matriarchal regime.”

The astrological theme is continued in the Birthday Letters, where to my taste it disfigures the poetry:

…I left it
For serious astrologers to worry
That conjunction, conjunct my Sun, conjunct
With your natal ruling Mars. And Chaucer
Would have pointed to that day’s Sun in the Fish
Conjunct your Ascendant exactly
Opposite my Neptune and fixed
In my tenth House of good and evil fame.

But there is not too much of this kind of obscurantism. For the most part, the poems are straightforwardly expressed, with a plangency that occasionally puts one in mind of Lowell, and with that sense of violent nature which Hughes shares with Lawrence.

Your worship needed a god.
Where it lacked one, it found one.
Ordinary jocks became gods—
Deified by your infatuation
That seemed to have been designed at birth for a god.
It was a god-seeker. A god-finder.
Your Daddy had been aiming you at God
When his death touched the trigger.

And in Hughes’s view it was his lot (not misfortune—he is not self-pitying) to get between Plath and her father, “the god with the smoking gun.”

A hostile reading might find it convenient that this pushes the blame for Plath’s unhappiness back to her childhood, and therefore a safe distance away from Hughes. But if one reads Plath’s “Daddy” as an autobiographical poem (and that kind of reading is the source of Hughes’s misfortunes) then Hughes’s view of Plath is not far from Plath’s of herself. In “Being Christlike” (one of the poems previously published in his 1994 Selected) Hughes begins:

You did not want to be Christlike. Though your father
Was your God and there was no other, you did not
Want to be Christlike. Though you walked
In the love of your father. Though you stared
At the stranger your mother.
What had she to do with you
But tempt you from your father?

The poem concludes:

…And a god
That was not your father
Was a false god. But you did not
Want to be Christlike.

In other words Hughes himself seems to feel that he was indeed an impostor (Plath’s “vampire who said he was you”) who got in the way of Plath’s desire to be with her father “In wherever he was.”

Only Hughes would describe his young girlfriend’s body as being fishlike, and mean it as a high compliment. Only Hughes would date the failure of his subsequent marriage (in the poem “Epiphany”) to his failure to buy a foxcub for a pet. He sees the cub for sale in the street, and he wonders how his wife would take to it. He can buy the cub for a pound, but he passes up the chance.

…If I had paid,
If I had paid that pound and turned back
To you, with that armful of fox—

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 failed.

This announcement of the failure of the marriage comes just over halfway through the sequence. But the sense that Plath is a doomed figure is present from very early on. She is passionate, and passionately ambitious (a quality Hughes does not disparage). The poem called “Ouija” recounts a session with the spirits in which Hughes asks the question, “Shall we be famous?” Plath becomes very upset:

‘And give yourself to the glare?
Is that what you want?
Why should you want to be famous?
Don’t you see—fame will ruin everything.’

Hughes confesses himself stunned by this outburst. He feels that he has become ambitious chiefly in order to please Plath and her mother—that they are all associated in ambition together. In retrospect he wonders:

Maybe you’d picked up a whisper that I could not,
Before our glass could stir, some still small voice:
‘Fame will come. Fame especially for you.
Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes
You will have paid for it with your happiness,
Your husband and your life.’

Time and again Hughes depicts himself as baffled by his wife, nowhere more significantly than in the poem “Fever,” in which he describes himself nursing her through an illness in Spain, and suddenly wondering how sick she is and whether she might not be exaggerating. He attempts to soothe her, but something in him recoils from her, just a little:

What I was really saying was: ‘Stop crying wolf.’
Other thoughts, chilly, familiar thoughts,
Came across the tightrope: ‘Stop crying wolf,
Or else I shall not know, I shall not hear
When things get really bad.’

To the hostile ear this will sound like a carefully placed piece of self-justification: Plath was self- dramatizing, so it was impossible to guess just how bad her state of mind was at any given time. My own feeling about this poem and the whole sequence is that the view given is perfectly plausible. As for the question of self-justification, it is, it must be, a legitimate aim of poetry. At the very least, the urge to justify ourselves may provide the first impulse for a poem. “Saints will not mind from what angle they are viewed,/Having nothing to hide,” Auden wrote. But the rest of us do mind. Indeed we should mind. How could we go through life with utter indifference to the angle from which we are viewed? What would such indifference imply?

“What happens in the heart simply happens.” There’s a bleak enough thought to be going on with. But this sequence of poems (faltering occasionally as poetry but nevertheless best read as a sequence) is not all bleak. What saves it from bleakness is the fascination Hughes has for his subject, a subject he once thought it better to try to forget, but which still clearly holds him in its grip. Maybe it is awful in some ways to say so, but this is a fascinating book.