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on 20 July 2017
pages missing and out of order
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Given Hughes' notorious reluctance to speak about his volatile marriage to Sylvia Plath, this collection came as a shock when it appeared. Comprising poems written since Plath's suicide in 1963 this is both intimate and a public dialogue, a way of speaking back to Plath, her poems, and also the world which sometimes turned Hughes into a patriarchal monster of a husband.

The best of the poems draw on Plath's own works, re-using her texts, titles, imagery and language to offer Hughes' side of the story: Setebos, and Night-ride on Ariel are both particularly vindicatory, blaming everyone else from Plath's mother, to her college patron and even her psychiatrists for her ultimate fate - notably all female. And Freedom of Speech is a macabre and bitter vision of Plath's 60th birthday party.

These feel more cathartic than anything else and the deliberate comparisons they draw with Plath's own work, especially the Ariel collection, serve to highlight the brilliance of Plath even at her most vitriolic and self-destructive. So these may not be the best of Hughes' poetry, but as one side of a contentious and ongoing poetic and personal dialogue these are indispensable.
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on 14 April 1999
ANSWER: Everything. This book is tremendous. Not just because it is an excellent piece of literature, but because Hughes manages to do something of the impossible. He takes in it two iconic figures and reduces them to what they really were: ordinary people having ordinary problems. Before you read this book you can only see these two people as oversized monumental, almost untouchable, figures. When you have finished reading the collection you see them as a young couple who are afraid of bears attacking them in their tent. It is such an evocative personal account of two young ambitious souls as they bootleg around Europe and America searching for writers that exists in, and embrace, their poetic minds. You see the relationship as it blooms and dwindles so fast. The ecstatic beginnings, the honey-moon period, and then melancholic home coming and the realties of having to find places to live and work to do. Eventually the demise, lazy, sad, excepting the end rather than fighting it. Acutely poignant. A must read.
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on 7 January 2007
Originally a fan of Sylvia Plath I decided to purhase this to get Hughes' own perspective of their marriage. I was not disappointed. A beautiful and touching read each poem maps out a different scene from their lives together and really brings it to life. It clearly shows the beautiful and deep love Hughes truly held for his wife and how much he still felt about her right up until his own death many years later. It is clear from his poignant poetry why he was given the title of Poet Laureate and this work is a credit to his name. I would recommend this to anyone.
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on 3 August 2011
" There you met it-the mystery of hatred.
After billions of years of anonymous matter
That was where you were found-promptly hated".

from " God Help the Wolf After Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark".

There are many ways to approach the poems in this collection. For example you could experience them as I often I do, as stand alone poems. On other occasions a narrative which needs to be taken in all at once. Or you can read it like a novel or even a film script as there is something very filmic about this collection which represent a seamless unfolding of Hughes' relationship with Plath. From inauspicious and "kitchen-sink" type meeting:

"Which of them I might meet.
I remember the thought. Not
Your face. No doubt I scanned particularly
The girls. Maybe I noticed you.
Maybe I weighed you up, feelingly unlikely.
Noted your long hair, loose waves-
Your Veronica Lake bang. Not what it hid.
It would appear blond. And your grin"

from "Fulbright Scholars"

To the bitter, some would say furious anger of their last years where Hughes portrays Sylvia Plath as an emotional invalid:

"You were the jailer of your murderer-
Which imprisoned you
And since I was your nurse and your protector
Your sentence was mine to"

from "The Blackbird".

As with all Hughes work there are many powerful animal metaphors to some up emotional situations, but the imagery as with the "The Blackbird" becomes bleaker and darker as the poems progress. It is in my mind one long narrative poem punctuated in chapters, written in verse. And frightening making one feel almost as a voyeur witnessing a very personal and uncompromising autobiography.
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on 2 March 2010
This is a book about love and loss, it's searing and wonderful. The burly Yorkshireman left us in his prime. Recommended.
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on 4 January 2016
A wonderful book of poetry that finally broke the silence on Hughes' sense of loss in Plath's early passing by suicide. I think it is in the beat and rhythm of truth and confession, both his words on behalf of Plath herself, and his own misgivings and feelings towards her, which makes this so utterly compelling and tragically sad. You can feel the remorse wrapped up in every verse, and yet instead of the subject being overly morbid and dark, Hughes manages to suffuse his words in a way that remembers Plath in her best light, while illuminating her darkness to us all. Overall this is a tremendously moving love letter to his wife, and a deep meditation on self, and the way we all individually experience the world, alone.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 September 2011
For many people, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are famous only because she gave up her life and he was blamed. For others, they are two great poets whose body of works is first in their minds. Ted Hughes (1930-1998) is "a brooding presence in the landscape of 20th Century poetry"; Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), a writer of short-stories and journals was a poet of great power and her later "confessional" poems were "a real find" and "exhilarating to read", full of "clean, easy verse" (Peter Dickinson at "Punch") and Bernard Bergonzi at the "Manchester Guardian" said "The Colossus" was an "outstanding technical accomplishment" with a "virtuoso' quality".

Sylvia Plath's suicide and the circumstances surrounding it changed everything and overshadowed Hughes's life; he became the "bette noir" to Plath's fans and the enemy of feminists who blamed him for her death; his name (in lead letters) was removed from her gravestone three times. Hughes did not respond for thirty-five years; as her literary executer, he edited her collected works and "Ariel" anthology, although many did not agree with how these had been done and the choices he made. Opinions are still strong on both sides today, a mark of their stature as writers and the fascination with which their lives are still viewed; there is a biographical publishing industry surrounding their lives and works. We have only these biographies and their works to guide us into the shadows of the past.

"Birthday Letters",remembering his first wife and their life together, was published thirty-five years after her death and a short time before his, eighty-eight poems written in letter form which reveal their romance and marriage. It was an instant success and won many prizes. Its popularity may have been the potent and/or prurient fascination with their lives, their marriage and her suicide. Whatever the reason for the interest, its insight into their lives was deeper and more intimate than many people expected, providing a picture of two married human beings first (albeit forcefully talented and driven human beings, poets and icons second.

I met Hughes on a number of occasions and he was a shy man who rarely gave much away about his life. Even reading with his close friend, Seamus Heaney, he said little as introduction, unlike Heaney who was always willing to introduce a poem at length. "Birthday Letters" takes us behind this reticent man to look deeply into his life.

Recommended (although the poems' style may not be to everyone's taste and many critics did not think the personal style suited Hughes whose other work is much starker, the world and nature "red in tooth and claw").

Reflections of Sylvia Plath from "The City" by Ted Hughes:

Your poems are like a dark city centre.
Your novel, your stories, your journals, your letters, are suburbs
Of this big city.
The hotels are lit like office blocks all night
With scholars, priests, pilgrims. It's at night
Sometimes I drive through. I just find
Myself driving through, going slow, simply
Roaming in my own darkness, pondering
What you did. Nearly always
I glimpse you - at some crossing,
Staring upwards, lost, sixty year old.
...
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on 29 April 2016
The first thing to say about this book is that it comprises predominantly a series of poems addressed to Sylvia Plath. Consequently it assumes complete knowledge of the biographical details of the two main protagonists and of Sylvia’s parents. Reading the poems, I was forced to resort to Wikipedia more than once and even then, when I had finished, I went back to check I had not missed anything by consulting Erica Wagner’s excellent guide, Ariel’s Gift (Faber, 2000).
It is probably best also to read Plath’s late poems in her Collected Poems published by Hughes in 1981. This allows the reader to compare directly Hughes’s and Plath’s versions of the same events – for example Hughes’s The Bee God and Plath’s Stings. Ted deliberately borrows the titles of several of his poems from those of his wife, almost daring the reader to read them side by side. And he references images, phrases and symbols taken from her poems throughout (“…crackling and dragging their blacks”). No-one was as intimate with Plath’s poems as her literary executor and editor.
Plath’s prose and poetry is notoriously autobiographical; Hughes’s less so, apart from this work. Not only are the poems here autobiographical, but they are ordered chronologically, so they are deliberately designed to tell a story – the ballad of Ted and Sylvia. There are no chapters, but it is easy to divide the poems into the stages of the relationship: expectancy of meeting; courting, marriage and honeymoon; settling down together; gradual unravelling; catastrophe; and aftermath.
Plath’s later poetry gives the impression of being written straight from the Id, although I am sure it was much more considered than it may at first appear. The poems in The Birthday Letters, written with the benefit of hindsight, are much more reflective and controlled. He reveals little of his own feelings at the time, although these are hinted at by means of tone and choice of metaphor. His feelings towards Sylvia are mostly hidden, although he clearly admired her cleverness and he does make sure the reader knows that she looked good in a bikini.
Princess Diana famously said, “”There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” According to Ted, the Hughes marriage seems to have had a similar problem. Long before Assia Wevil arrived on the scene, there was Otto, Sylvia’s father, who died when she was ten. Over and over Otto pops up in the poems – the man in the black coat, the lodger, a figure in Sylvia’s dreams, a German cuckoo in the marriage bed and a wraith under the desk on which she composed Ariel. Is Hughes implying that his wife, the author of Daddy, had a father fixation and that this was the cause of the failure of his marriage? Or is blameless Otto merely a symbol of death and the suicidal thoughts that haunted Sylvia?
Otto aside, Hughes does not hide the fissures appearing in the marriage, almost from the very beginning. They honey moon in Paris. Sylvia has a Romantic view of the city, looking for Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein, while he can see only the ghosts of the SS lording it over the city. They go to Spain and it is similar. He unsympathetically recalls her hypochondria. The poem Fever presumably references her poem Fever 103˚, rather cruelly setting up the reader to compare her self-pitying response to a local tummy bug to her later vision of herself as an acetylene virgin.
Hughes has a surprise encounter with fox cub in a London street. The fox is an important Hughesian symbol. On seeing the cub he has an epiphany; the marriage is over, at least from the point of view of hindsighted Ted. Then the anger attacks begin. Sylvia smashes a mahogany table-top and tears up Ted’s copy of Shakespeare. He tells her to channel this anger into her poems. There’s another existential stand-off over rabbit traps and then a catastrophic trip to the beach, but by then Assia is about to appear.
The poems work well as biography because, rather than giving every event in every day as seems to be the trend in the over-researched literary biographies that weigh down our shelves, critical moments like those above are singled out and analysed for their deeper meaning. They also work because Hughes has such a strong sense sense of time and place. His pictures of the bright young things in Cambridge, of fifties Paris still scarred by the war, of the dinginess of his London digs, of the homes he and Sylvia set up together in Cambridge, Boston, London and Devon, and of the greyness of Woolacombe Sands in the November rain feel so real. I particularly liked the atmospherics of Robbing Myself, where, close to the end, Ted drives down to the now empty house in Devon. It is the height of the endless 1963 snows and the empty, cold building, now closed and locked up, stands for the marriage. Ted rummages for apples and potatoes; he does not know that the gladioli bulbs are dying of cold.
The poems are good enough be read over and over. With each reading new meanings reveal themselves. After my first reading, I was impatient with Ted; his lingering on Sylvia’s physical characteristics (“your long, perfect, American legs”) and focus on her fixation with Otto, seemingly attempting to absolve Ted from responsibility for the failure of the marriage. In subsequent readings I found more respect for Sylvia’s other attributes and more regret for his inability to preserve their relationship.
The last poem, Red, is a little odd. Colour is important in Plath’s poems. Ted adopts her flags for the poem. Sylvia wore red, painted the walls of her houses red, and she liked poppies and red roses. Red was her colour and, in her poems, it symbolised blood, anger and rebirth, keeping her from the white, which represented the moon, bone and death.
Ted asserts that blue should have been her colour – calmer, maternal and jewel like. For Ted it recalled her blue headscarf that he kept from their first meeting in Cambridge. Except that Sylvia recalls that the headscarf was red (“Ah, yes, I remember it well.”) Then, chillingly, Ted links blue to “electrified”. Surely he cannot be referring the electro-shock treatment that relieved her depression following her suicide attempt at her mother’s house when she was twenty?
I do not think that this is Hughes’s greatest work; that would be Crow. It is a poignant memoir of a failed marriage and ensuing personal tragedy, written by a poet of great ability and subtlety. It seems sincere, but is of its very nature a one-sided view. As poetry, several of the poems stand above the psychodrama. As autobiography, it is unique.
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on 14 August 2010
These - unusually confessional poems for Ted Hughes, are concerned mostly with his perceptions of Plath's psychological state, and also provide a record of their life together, while referring constantly to Plaths's own writing.

Plath is very much the subject of these poems, rather than Hughes's own inner life; but they are fascinating and enjoyable to read, and provide an invaluable insight into Hughes and Plath's relationship.
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