Ted Hughes (1930–1998) was a prolific writer, but in his last ten years he published a torrent of work—Tales from Ovid; translations of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Wedekind’s Spring Awakening; Rain-Charm for the Duchy, which contains the verse he wrote as poet laureate; his immense critical book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being; his selected short stories; his occasional prose; thematic editions of his earlier poetry; a large anthology, The School Bag, compiled with Seamus Heaney; a selection from Coleridge; and much else besides. The book which drew by far the most attention, though, was Birthday Letters, Hughes’s poems to and about Sylvia Plath and their life together.
That life was a matter on which, despite numerous provocations, he had been almost silent since Plath’s suicide in 1963. In the intervening years he weathered storms of criticism, abuse, and accusation which would have finished off a less resilient (or less well loved) man much sooner. But Hughes’s death was accompanied by the British press’s intense scrutiny of Birthday Letters and by a tide of critical praise which certainly had as much to do with the fact that the dying Hughes had revealed his feelings at last as with the quality of the work itself. For on the whole, these “last poems” (written over a quarter of a century) were not among his best. They did not, for example, bear comparison with Thomas Hardy’s poems about his first wife (1912–1913), or with Douglas Dunn’s Elegies (1985), also written in memory of his first wife. They were interesting, moving, at times alarming—but only in brief passages did Hughes attain the concentrated authority of his best work. This is a pity, but it’s not surprising, given the emotional complexity of the subject matter. Nor is it surprising that the artistic limitations of Birthday Letters—their rhythmic inertia and the repeated sense that diary material had not been fully transformed into poetry—were widely ignored. Biography, as tends to be the case nowadays, had sidelined art.
For readers wanting to come fresh to Hughes’s poems, Selected Poems, 1957– 1994, first published in Britain in 1995 and now in the US, is a valuable corrective to the inevitable emphasis on Last Things. It takes us back to the beginning of his work, before the accumulation of myths and suppositions about his behavior, before the taking of sides. It shows us why Hughes’s early poems created such excitement, and goes on to reveal the risks to which he subjected his poetic gift in his pursuit of a mythology which could encompass both the vast processes of external nature and inner human torment.
“The Scream,” from 1975’s Cave Birds, is not one of Hughes’s better poems, but it can usefully be read as a recantation of what Hughes in mid-career had come to view as his early poetic arrogance, and as a summary of the way his work …