Ted Hughes: The male lead dressed in veteran RAF black asserting his voice over the dead
Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes in 1956 at a student party in Cambridge. Overcome by some libidinous caprice Plath bit Hughes on the cheek, an incident which Hughes immortalised in St Botolph’s by recollecting “the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks/That was to brand my face for the next month/The me beneath it for good”. For her part, recording the evening in her Journal, Plath described him as the only man there “huge enough for me…the one man in the room who was as big as his poems”. Later, she wrote to her mother in a distinctly mythologising vein describing Hughes “as the strongest man in the world…a large, hulking, healthy, Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God – a singer, storyteller, lion and word-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.” She was right, at least in part; he never did stop not until death got the better of him. I read the Crow a number of years ago and found the satanic folktale impenetrable. This bias, however, did not affect my decision in buying Birthday Letters. The collection of 88 poems was published in 1998 and documents Hughes’ professional and personal relationship with Plath in a startlingly and markedly confessional tone, a tone which Hughes had previously eschewed from his work.
I never really thought of Ted Hughes as a poet, but rather the handsome yet slatternly scholar dressed in “veteran RAF black” playing the inconsonant husband to Plath’s staunch wife. The two met at University, she a Fullbright scholar and the daughter of New England intellectuals, he a working class boy from Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire; marriage, mortgage, children followed and later infidelity, despair, abandonment and Plath’s suicide. The plateau of their connubial life was firmly protected by Hughes’ silence thus Birthday Letters came as a momentous turn – apparently propelled by Hughes’ need for “inner liberation”. Writing at the time to his friend Kathleen Raine, Hughes said: “Those letters do release the story that everything I have written since the early 1960s has been evading. It was in a kind of desperation that I finally did published them – I had always thought them unpublishibly raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable. But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer…If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a much freer psychological life.” And later defending his decision he said the grief had “gagged my whole life, arrested me, essentially, right back there at that point. Like those First World War survivors who never climbed out entirely out of the trench.”
The collection is marked by a mixture of humility, self-aggrandizement, self-liberation and love and gives a profound insight into the crippling sense of guilt, anger, sadness and chastisement Hughes’ experienced after Plath’s death. It paints an intimate portrait of their torturous relationship from that initial encounter, when he was still oblivious of “being auditioned for the male lead” in her drama. The poems are characterised by long, un-rhyming lines, few stanza breaks and little distance between the speaker and the poet offering the most emotionally palpable work of Hughes’ career. Candid, tensile, accusing, vulnerable they recapitulate all the major preoccupations that characterised Plath’s own writing – death, survival, love, loss, the self – revealing the extent of her influence on Hughes and his work. And yet his voice, is never submerged, looming over poems such as Fullbright Scholars (The picture: The Fullbright Scholars…/Maybe I weighted you up, feeling unlikely/Noted your long hair/loose waves/Your Veronica Lake bang…/Your exaggerated American/Grin for the cameras), Portraits (What happened to Howard’s portrait of you? I wanted that painting…/Molten, luminous, looking at us/From that window of Howard’s vision of you), Perfect Light (There you are in all you innocence…/Perfect light in your face lights it up…/Among your daffodils. In your arms/ Like a teddy bear, your new son) and Drawing (Drawing calmed you…/I drank from your concentrated quiet/In this contemplative calm/Now I drink from your stillness that neither/Of us can disturb or escape) where Plath is nothing more than a memory, a static image, as Hughes asserts his living voice over the dead.
Hughes’ authority, however, is transient. He shifts it toward Plath by naming her as the dominant party in their relationship, at first covertly in A Pink Wool Knitted Dress when he describes the contrasting reactions to their wedding day, saying: “You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth/Brimming with God/You said you saw the heavens open/And show riches, ready to drop upon us/Levitated beside you, I stood subjected/To a strange tense: the spellbound future.” This characterisation becomes more overt in Trophies when he describes Plath as a “big cat” and himself in a “shock attack of a big predator”. In 18 Rugby Street Hughes emphasises Plath’s role as the hunter, saying: “I can hear you/Climbing the bare stairs/Alive and close…/That was your artillery; to confuse me/Before coming over the top in your panoply/You wanted me to hear you panting.” And again, in The Shot, when he engages in a proverbial combative struggle with his wife, comparing her to a hit: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at god/When his death touched the trigger/In that flash/You saw your whole life. You ricocheted/The length of your Alpha career/With the fury of a high velocity bullet/Till your real target/Hid behind me. Your Daddy/The god with the smoking gun/For a long time/Vague as mist /I did not even know/I had been hit/Or that you had gone clean through me/To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.”
A lot of the poems ruminate over Plath’s lifelong preoccupations with her father and death, and the fibrous roots of one in the other. Occasionally, Hughes intimates that she used her writing as a weapon to not only to hurt herself but also her family. Her poetic achievements, which a traditional elegy would commend, are muted and tinged with her husband’s regret. In Moonwalk Hughes says: “You carried it all, like shards and moults on a tray/To be reassembled/In a poem to be written so prettily/And to be worn like a fiesta mask/By the daemon that gazed through it/As through empty sockets – that still gazes/Through it at me”. Later he laments the destructive potency of her work by saying her poems followed her with their “blood-sticky feet” and in Apprehensions he relays Plath’s own worries: “Your writing was also your fear/At times it was your terror, that all/Your wedding presents, your dreams, your husband/Would be taken from you/By the terror’s goblins.” The tentative bridge between fact and self-contained symbolic image, between Plath’s exploration of the relationship with her dead father and death itself, becomes a world. And even when she “had stripped the death-dress off/Burned it on Daddy’s grave,” it’s never for long. Hughes observes in Dream Life that despite it all: “You descended in each night’s sleep/In to your father’s grave/Your sleep was a bloody shrine it seemed,” and in Being Christlike he says almost accusingly: “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.”
The poetic terrain of Birthday Letters is multifaceted, revelatory and contains a magnificent fusion of private and universal motifs giving a voice to Hughes’ piercing impression of the life he shared with Plath. Between the poems of guilt, accusation and blame, and the poems of life and death, are poems of love; tender, lachrymose, retrospective, sad. Hughes recollects their first meeting in St Botolph’s, for example, with great tenderness, saying: “Taller/Than ever you were again, swaying so slender/It seemed your long, perfect, American legs/Simply went on. That flaring hand/Those long balletic monkey-elegant fingers/And the face – a tight ball of joy/I see you there clearer, more real/Than in any of the years in its shadow/As if I saw you that once, then never again”. And in 18 Rugby Street he surmises that Plath was “a new world. My new world/So this is America, I marvelled/Beautiful, beautiful America!” Hughes never really explores the breakdown of their marriage or their mutual literary influence on one another’s work, preferring to concentrate on Plath’s inner issues and his feelings of subverted rejection. But perhaps he felt no need to state the obvious, because in Birthday Letters Hughes’ voice is undeniably intermingled with his wife’s to the point where these two individual poets become inseparably one.