It was Rudyard Kipling, that fervent chronicler of the British Empire and rapt celebrant of the depths and mysteries of England and Englishness, who first initiated Ted Hughes into the magic of poetry. During Hughes’s third year at Mexborough Grammar School in Yorkshire his English teacher read the class a series of episodes from The Jungle Book; the fourteen-year-old Hughes so enjoyed these that on his next trip to the Mexborough town library he took out Kipling’s Selected Poems. “I fell completely under the spell of his rhythms,” he recalls in one of the many extraordinarily detailed and informative letters with which he responded to inquiries about his work from graduate students. As an illustration of his aping of Kipling’s “pounding rhythms and rhymes” he quotes a typical line of his teen verses: “And the curling lips of the five gouged rips in the bark of the pine were the mark of the bear.” His early verse stories, he relates, were all set in regions exotic to a boy growing up in Yorkshire in the 1940s—the American Northwest or Far West, the Brazilian jungle, or Africa.
Bears and other wild beasts rip regularly through the exotic dream wildernesses of Hughes’s poems, emerging from the Brazilian jungle of his subconscious to leave their gouged marks on the bark both of his mind and of the collective one of his vast readership. Hughes may not have outsold Kipling—who, bizarrely, never became poet laureate, though in many ways eminently suited to the role—but his poetry permeated the national consciousness in a manner rivaled in the latter half of the twentieth century only by that of Philip Larkin, who, needless to say, came up with a cutting mot when he realized that his own refusal of the laureateship on the death of John Betjeman left the field open for Hughes: “I like Ted,” he’d quip, “but in a just society he wouldn’t be the Poet Laureate, he’d be the village idiot.”
The laureateship fuses poetry and sovereignty in a weird, rather unsettling way, but Hughes, as many letters make clear, was an ardent supporter of the monarchy, and got on well with the Queen, the Queen Mother, and Prince Charles; indeed his fawning thank-you notes to the last two rather set the teeth on edge, or at least they brought out the republican in me. “My sense of the honour,” he writes in 1989 to the Queen Mum after a weekend at the Royal Lodge in Windsor,
which does overawe me rather as we drive in through the gates, was swallowed up again, just as before, in that intense pleasure. Though I do feel that we guests glow, also, in Your Majesty’s enjoyment of every moment.
With Charles he bonds in 1993 over the occult significance of foxes and fox-sightings, and optimistically suggests that a family outing to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest must have “laid a magic finger on His Royal Highness Prince William. It cannot have failed.”
Schoolchildren in Britain no longer come across Kipling in class, but Hughes remains a staple of the English teacher hoping to infuse a love of poetry into his or her charges. In his introduction to a short selection of Hughes’s poetry, the wonderfully gifted poet Simon Armitage—also a Yorkshireman—remembers the catalytic effect of being given Hughes to read in school:
My own experience as an uninspired and uninspiring secondary school student is one shared by many of the same age group, in the way that Hughes’s poems were the first captivating moments in English literature, and were read and described by teachers who could not hide their enthusiasm for the work or their eagerness to share it. Poems like “Wind,” “The Bull Moses,” “The Horses” and of course “Hawk Roosting” are not only fastened in the imagination of a whole generation, but for some, like myself, were a kind of Rosetta Stone—the means by which the surrounding world could suddenly be translated, understood, and experienced. It is a particular virtue of Hughes’s poetry, and one that he shares with only the very best poets, that clarity and complexity can exist simultaneously, like clear, still water, into which a person can see to a ponderous depth. No one could ever accuse Hughes of simplicity or superficiality, and yet his poems have an immediacy that students, even of a young age, find alluring and true. They draw the reader in, like black holes, whose event-horizons are instant, but whose intensities are infinite and utterly absorbing.
Armitage’s final metaphor here surely derives, perhaps unconsciously, from the most famous—and probably most often taught—of all Hughes’s early poems, “Pike,” which climaxes in a mystic vision of an ancient monastery pond. In its depths lurk fish who embody some occluded, primal, ferocious, specifically English, but now quiescent power:
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them—
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
If Kipling connected with the national psyche by hymning the heroic exploits of real soldiers willing to risk their lives in order to take up the white man’s burden, and so extend the pacific realm of the benign old Widow at Windsor with her “hairy gold crown on ‘er ‘ead,” a poem like “Pike” dreamily translates a similar awareness of national violence into the realms of nostalgia and myth. The ideal of depth is almost a leitmotif in Hughes’s letters, stories, and poems; action tends not to be lateral and expansive but inward and downward, like the spring of the thought-fox in the poem of that name—“with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/It enters the dark hole of the head.”
His narratives unfold not in the boys’ own locales of his early verse stories or the writings of such as Kipling or Conrad—whose novels he used to read to Sylvia Plath each evening in Devon, while she worked ferociously on her rag-rug—but either in the “dark hole” of his head or in the equally “dark hole” of poverty-stricken, post-empire, postwar, utility England, where all, as Plath liked to point out, was the color of dinge. “England/Was so poor!” he recalls her exclaiming in a corrosive diatribe in “The Beach,” included in Birthday Letters ; is everything black, she demands, because black paint is cheaper? The whole country seems to her one long
funeral of colour and light and life!
London a morgue of dinge—English dinge.
Our sole indigenous art-form—depressionist!
And why were everybody’s
Garments so deliberately begrimed?
Grubby-looking, like a camouflage? “Alas!
We have never recovered,” I said, “from our fox-holes,
Our trenches, our fatigues and our bomb-shelters.”
That “Alas!” neatly catches the perverse, pompous pride Hughes allows himself to take in defending the honorable poverty into which his country had fallen after its depleting triumphs over Germany and the forces of evil. He might have done better to embark on a discussion of the bankrupting effects on Britain of postwar US foreign policy, but it was always his way to mollify rather than confront Plath when she took off on a jag, and, despite the inclement weather of a dreary November day, he decides to whisk her off to one of the region’s many “magnificent beaches,” Woolacombe Sands. Again alas!—after a tedious journey—the waters off Woolacombe Sands prove as unlike the waters off beautiful Nauset, which “pour green bean over blue” (“Daddy”), as it’s possible to get:
I walked to the water’s edge. A dull wave
Managed to lift and flop. Then a weak hiss
Rolled black oil-balls and pushed at obscure spewage.
Resolutely nurturing her fury, Plath refuses even to get out of the car.
This enthralling selection of Hughes’s letters doesn’t of course include the birthday ones he published in the last year of his life, which won just about every British literary prize going and ended up atop the UK best-seller list. It covers over fifty years, opening with a delightful spoof-literary love letter, and ending with a rapturous description of the ceremony at which he receives the Order of Merit (“the one everybody wants”) from the Queen, accompanied by a proud scale drawing of the medal itself, which he calls a “very beautiful, intense object.”
Inevitably it is the letters written between his first meeting Plath at a party in Cambridge, during which she bit him on the cheek (“the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks,” he broods in Birthday Letters, “was to brand my face for the next month./The me beneath it for good”), and her suicide seven years later, which will come under most scrutiny, and be seized on by the legions still obsessed with the unending case of Plath vs. Hughes. It is, after all, the story “we all grew up on,” as Michael Hofmann put it in a review of Hughes’s Collected Poems published in Poetry a few years back, though that “all” should probably be a little qualified: when an action brought by a psychiatrist, who believed a character in a film of The Bell Jar was identifiably based on her, came to court in 1987, Hughes and his codefendants had to select from a panel of sixteen Boston jurors; not one of the sixteen had ever even heard of Sylvia Plath—“or so,” Hughes mutters darkly, “they said.”
And for Hughes it wasn’t a “story” at all, but his life, and that of his children: hence the tone of searing, almost disbelieving outrage in which he upbraids his former friend Al Alvarez for relating details of Plath’s last days in Fitzroy Road in his study of suicide, The Savage God, published in 1971. Extracts of this memoir were serialized ahead of book publication in the Sunday newspaper The Observer, and Hughes found intolerable the thought of his wife’s death being served up as an item of “higher entertainment” for the “peanut-crunching crowd” that Plath had already eerily imagined unwrapping her in a “big strip tease” in “Lady Lazarus.” “Nothing,” Hughes writes to Alvarez after the first extract appeared, “can excuse the swinish mindlessness with which you are exploiting this,” and he insisted, in no uncertain terms, that the second extract be withdrawn.
In fact the memoir was written with tact and delicacy, as Alvarez fruitlessly tried to point out to Hughes, even venturing to suggest that the piece might dispel the “cloud of vague and malicious rumours” that had gathered around the couple’s separation and her death. Hughes, however, was having none of it; to parade before the public the details of her last night and morning, and then to interpret her death drive according to Alvarez’s particular psychoanalytical and cultural schema, was equivalent to “sticking electrodes in her children’s brains”:
In a real way, you have robbed them of her death, of any natural way of dealing with her death. This will add up through every year they live.
“You saw,” he continues,
little enough of us. Both of us regarded you as a friend, not a Daily Mirror T.V. key-hole rat-hole journalist snoop guaranteed to distort every observation and plaster us with his know-all pseudo-psychological theories, as if we were relics dug up from 10,000 BC. Of our marriage you know nothing—but you can’t even give us the benefit of your ignorance. You have to rack us with your mechanical blasé theories.
It is infuriating to me to see my private experience & feelings reinvented for me, in that crude, bland unanswerable way, and interpreted & published as official history—as if I were a picture on a wall, or some prisoner in Siberia. And to see her used in the same way.
You are false to the facts and you shame yourself in the way you insult the privacy & confidences of two people who regarded you as a friend.
Hughes was, it should be said, a master of the jeremiad, and his excoriation of Alvarez is so intense it’s painful to read. In an interview with Janet Malcolm quoted in The Silent Woman, an account of the furor caused by the publication in 1989 of Anne Stevenson’s semisanctioned biography of Plath, Alvarez confessed that he only “skimmed” these letters before sending them on to the British Library; his assumption was that Hughes had “gone kind of barmy”:
And I suspect what was driving him crazy was the realization that, however tactfully handled, this was public-domain stuff. The death had kind of put her into public domain, do you see what I mean?
Hughes’s heroic, morally persuasive, dignified, but always doomed war against this argument consumes inordinate amounts of time and energy over the decades. This book contains letter after letter in which he corrects false facts, repudiates absurd speculations, and rails against the “fantasia” of the “Plath cultists.” His most horrifyingly vivid expression of the despair and humiliation these battles occasioned comes in “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,” one of the last poems in Birthday Letters ; it is addressed not to Plath but to their children, Frieda and Nick. In it the Plath brigade are figured as ravening dogs and hyenas battening off the cornucopia of her dead body. Resistance is useless: “Let them/Jerk their tail-stumps, bristle and vomit/Over their symposia,” he bitterly counsels.
Given our knowledge of what fate holds in store for Hughes, there is an especially poignant sense of possibility in the pre-Plath letters. “I am teaching myself perfect freedom,” he declares in one to his brother and sister-in-law, who settled in Australia, whither he seriously considered emigrating himself; “I do what I want just xactly when I want…. When I feel hungry I eat, when sleepy I sleep—anywhere—just stretch out and sleep.”
It’s an oft-made comparison, but he really does come across as the archetypal young Lawrentian hero, vigorous, superbly confident of his rights and views and authenticity, eager for life, scornful of class, instinctively alert to nature, curious, uninhibited, and determined at all costs to avoid “the nagging harness of conforming.” He’d read all of Lawrence—then at the height of his popularity—bar the still-proscribed Lady Chatterley’s Lover—by the time he left school, and he knew much of Shakespeare and all of Yeats by heart. During the years after university he is forever dreaming up implausible get-rich-quick schemes that will enable him to devote the rest of his life to poetry—running a mink farm, setting up as a rentier in Oxford or Cambridge, selling plots for plays to American TV networks. A solitary trip to Paris made in 1954 is movingly captured in the opening paragraph of a very late poem, in which the aging writer ironically watches his young self revel in his sense of the world being all before him:
he’s sipping the first claret he ever tasted, I know that,
And chewing his first Gruyère. He will spend the rest of his life
Trying to recapture the marvel—
Separately or combined—
Of that wine that cheese and this moment.
So new to his unlived life, so ready for anything,
He could never imagine, and can’t hear
The scream that approaches him.
Alas again! This scream will “lock him up in a labyrinth/Made of ordinary streets/As if he were the Minotaur.” It is shaped like a panther
That will find his soul and tear it from him,
And eat it, and take its place
Lying like the gatekeeper of Hell
Between him and the Creator,
Watching him with eyes that never sleep,
Opening its mouth only to scream.
Indeed, unknown to the delighted wine- and cheese-tasting young man, this Munchian, Eumenidean scream is already seeking him out “in the likeness of a girl,” and it will deceive him by sounding “like laughter and hope—/ Sounding like all happiness, all hope.”
Happiness and hope are the dominant emotions of his correspondence in the months that follow Plath’s eruption into his life in February 1956. Professional to the core, she quickly set about dispatching his poems to “various immensely paying American Mags,” as he put it in a letter to his sister Olwyn, where they found ready acceptance. Further, she typed up the manuscript of his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain, and entered it for the Poetry Center’s 1957 First Publication Prize, judged that year by W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Stephen Spender, which it won. Under her guidance the aimless, penniless, contented, poetry-writing drifter, uncertain whether to try his luck in Hungary, Australia, or Spain, metamorphosed into the country’s most famous young poet, published by Harper and Row in the US and taken on by T.S. Eliot for Faber and Faber in England. Only six months into his marriage he is writing to his mother-in-law as if he and his go-getting bride were a pair of eager entrepreneurs carefully expanding their recently formed company, sure of the strength of both business plan and product:
We’re just breaking open one or two possible new markets here. A chance with the B.B.C. which is quite a strong one I think, and strong too in profits and reputation. Today Sylvia has written a sonnet on the subject “Mayflower”—set by one of the Oxford Colleges, for a 15£ prize. Her sonnet is strong and good….
Hughes’s burgeoning reputation meant that he could easily have landed himself a creative writing post on some American campus, as his fellow Cambridge graduate Thom Gunn ended up doing, but while Gunn found sexual freedom and poetic—and chemical—inspiration in unbuttoned San Francisco, Hughes repeatedly complains of the “cellophaned” dreariness of Massachusetts, where he and Plath sojourned from the middle of 1957 to late 1959. “Another year in America,” he writes to a friend as his exile nears its conclusion, “would have worked a permanent petrifaction on my glands.”
There are of course no letters to Plath after they began living together in November of 1956, since they were never out of each other’s company for more than two or three hours. He tends to be guarded in his comments about her in missives to family and friends. There are occasional apologies for her behavior to such as Olwyn; in the wake of the first of a series of flare-ups between sister and sister-in-law, who just didn’t get on, he assures her that while Plath is “no angel,” “there’s a balance to her worst side.” After her death, however, he had no choice but to reflect on the nature of their relationship. This is from the first letter he wrote to Aurelia Plath after her daughter’s suicide:
The particular conditions of our marriage, the marriage of two people so openly under the control of deep psychic abnormalities as both of us were, meant that we finally reduced each other to a state where our actions and normal states of mind were like madness. My attempt to correct that marriage is madness from start to finish. The way she reacted to my actions also has all the appearance of a kind of madness—her insistence on a divorce, the one thing in the world she did not want, the proud hostility and hatred, the malevolent acts, that she showed to me, when all she wanted to say simply was that if I didn’t go back to her she could not live….
We were utterly blind, we were both desperate, stupid, and proud—and the pride made us oblique, she especially so. I know Sylvia was so made that she had to mete out terrible punishment to the people she most loved, but everybody is a little bit like that, and it needed only intelligence on my part to deal with it….
I don’t want ever to be forgiven. I don’t mean that I shall become a public shrine of mourning and remorse, I would sooner become the opposite. But if there is an eternity, I am damned in it.
The flood of memoirs and accusatory biographies, the serial publication of her poetry, prose, letters, and journals, rifts between himself and Aurelia over what should and shouldn’t remain private, the renown of poems like “Daddy” in which he is caricatured as “A man in black with a Meinkampf look/And a love of the rack and the screw,” all conspired to make Plath’s “terrible punishment” of her unfaithful husband into a vendetta that lasted his whole life, one possibly worse than even she had imagined. What is perhaps his most revealing analysis of what went wrong between them emerges in a letter of 1987 to his old friend Lucas Myers, who had just submitted for inspection his reminiscences of the couple he had introduced to each other over thirty years earlier, and which became Appendix 1 of Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame :
Poor old Sylvia! If only I hadn’t humoured her, & nursed her like a patient, & coddled her like a child—if only I’d had the guts to carry on just as I was, instead of wrapping my life up in a cupboard, while I tended her. Then maybe she’d have emerged in better shape. And me too.
“Today,” declares the vulture to its victim in the 1973 sequence “Prometheus on His Crag,”
is a fresh start
Torn up by its roots
As I tear the liver from your body.
And the first lyric in the epilogue to the utterly bizarre but peculiarly compelling Gaudete of 1977, in which a changeling duplicate of an Anglican clergyman sets about impregnating all the women in his flock, believing he is to father the next Messiah, demands:
What will you make of half a man
Half a face
A ripped edge
His one-eyed waking
Is the shorn sleep of aftermath
The bone-deformity of consequences
The deprivations of escape
How will you correct
The veteran of negatives
And the survivor of cease?
By this time Hughes was a “veteran of negatives” and a “survivor of cease” twice over; his separation from Plath had been precipitated by the affair he embarked upon with Assia Wevill in the summer of 1962. In 1965 they had a child called Shura, but four years later Assia too lay down and turned on the gas in her kitchen stove, having half-drugged herself and her daughter with sleeping pills. This time it was the suicide’s sister Hughes had to write to:
Our life together was so complicated with old ghosts, and dozens of near-separations over the years, but we belonged together so completely and so deeply, that her repeatedly testing me, saying that we’d better separate for good, were just like a bad habit, part of our old difficulties, and so when she repeated it on that last day over the phone, it was nothing new, nothing we hadn’t gone over dozens of times before….
Usually, one of us could pull the other out of it, but on that day we were both exhausted—and then she acted so quickly. If only she’d gone away for a week, anywhere, she’d have jerked me out of my apathy & confusion. Little Shura was the most wonderful little girl, full of fire. And really beautiful….
Assia was my true wife [they never married] and the best friend I ever had, it’s with me every minute of the day and night.
A number of the poems prompted by Assia’s death were collected in a limited-edition volume (of only fifty copies) called Capriccio published in 1990. The most brilliant and disturbing of them imagines a ghastly, seesawing, unending battle for possession between an unnamed you and an unnamed she:
She had too much so with a smile you took some.
Of everything she had you had
Absolutely nothing, so you took some.
At first, just a little.
Inevitably the poem’s last lines present the taker slowly turning into the taken from:
Now that you had all she had ever had
You had much too much.
Saw her smile, as she took some.
At first, just a little.
The poem reads like a translation into the language of the novel of manners of the elemental struggle fought by the two enormous pike that Hughes finds locked in a death embrace in his early poem—“One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet.”
Assia and Shura’s deaths put an abrupt stop to the composition of Hughes’s Crow sequence, a sardonic, black-humorous reworking of the Creation myth in which power resides not in God, and still less in man, but in the mocking, shape-changing, endlessly resourceful trickster figure of Crow. These bleak, unlovely mini-parables insistently reflect the influence of East European poets such as Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert, whose work Hughes played a significant part in promoting in the West through the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation (co-founded in 1965 with Danny Weissbort), which had an enormous effect on British poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Crow poems themselves, however, have not worn well; though they may, as Hughes felt, have taken him “right to the bottom of the inferno,” too many seem relentless and overdetermined, lacking the poise, the rhythmic variety, and the intent curiosity of his best poetry.
Could Crow be published, he inquired of his editor at Faber, on October 1, 1970, an astrologically propitious day it would be foolish not to exploit? A running theme of these letters is Hughes’s careful reading of the stars and unwavering belief in various branches of the occult. He even drew up for Philip Larkin, who prided himself on being the least deceived of skeptics, a detailed astrological diagram based on the reclusive bard of Hull’s date and time of birth: it wasn’t his Mum and Dad who fucked him up, Hughes seems to be suggesting, but the “remarkable map of the heavens you’ve been carrying around all this time, in spite of the weight.” More grimly, when Larkin was diagnosed with throat cancer, Hughes wrote urging him to consult a healer in Okehampton called Ted Cornish, whose miraculous cures he relates in detail; even doctors, he writes to the dying poet—who did not, it goes without saying, act on Hughes’s advice—“come to Cornish and are healed.”
Hughes blamed his own development of cancer of the colon in 1997 on writing too much prose—specifically his vast, idiosyncratic, much derided, White Goddess– style attempt to relate Shakespeare’s plays to various ancient Greek and Egyptian myths. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being was in fact based on a series of letters (not included in this book) sent to the Swedish theater director Donya Feuer, who contacted Hughes out of the blue asking for his views on Measure for Measure, and must have been astonished to receive back an intense and detailed fifteen-page analysis of the play, relating it to the Rosicrucian mysteries and Hermetic magic circles, in which Hughes believed Shakespeare was involved. From beginning to end Hughes skinned his own skunk, to borrow his own favorite aphorism—that much at least even his many antagonists and doubters, from the Plath cultists to Cambridge English faculty types such as Christopher Ricks and Eric Griffiths (who both receive stinging rebukes here), must grant him.
“Letters,” Janet Malcolm reflects while perusing the correspondence of Anne Stevenson and Olwyn Hughes in The Silent Woman, “are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared.” The letters that Ted Hughes wrote could, its editor Christopher Reid tells us in his introduction to this beautifully prepared selection, fill three or four volumes equally long without losing interest. Perhaps they’ll follow. This substantial sampling certainly reveals with distinctive eloquence and force what Ted Hughes cared about, and how and why.